We’ve been in a series called Back to basics of Discipleship, and at the beginning I compared it to when the kids go back to school in the fall, to review what they already know from the year before to make sure it is solid before they learn new and more things. They start with the basics, the abcs and numbers and so on. And there are ways that this life of faith, this discipleship is a little like that- there are basics to review and then build from- but also at the same time, it really isn’t. I sometimes wish that the life of faith was linear, point a to point b, or clearly marked in stages, but the truth is that it is more circular, cyclical, looping around so that we do keep learning the same things over and over- but as we do we are growing. We often talk about this aspect of our life of faith as being on a journey. One where we don’t really know what’s beyond the next bend, but we recognize in others when they are on the same path, we take the experience we’ve had so far and how we’ve known God has been with us, to trust that God will keep with us and provide us with traveling companions as we go on. Even if it seems we go in circles, it’s the going that unites us, it’s the journey that is being a disciple, not arriving at any certain destination.
And this second way of thinking about it I think is more appropriate for today’s basic of Discipleship- because it is basic, but at the same time it’s not. Today we are talking about how a disciple will be continually be opened in heart and mind toward others who are different.
And this gospel is a hard passage. In it we hear Jesus refer to people outside his own group, as dogs. Maybe he was testing the woman, or testing his disciples, people make those interpretations. But if we don’t put more into this passage than is there, Jesus starts by telling the woman no he will not heal her daughter, but by the end he changes his mind and does heal her. He accepts her challenge and teaching about how big God is, and responds accordingly.
Some people get hung up here, saying Jesus couldn’t say that, he was perfect, he never sinned. But our Christian faith says that Jesus was yes fully divine, fully God, but at the same time FULLY human. He didn’t speak, at that time, 100 languages or fly like Superman. He was encapsulated in one fully human body and spoke Aramaic, not English and walked at a regular human speed and ate and slept and yes Jesus needed to use the restroom, though that was a quite different experience back then. And everything he had been taught about God his entire life said that God was on the side of the people of Israel, maybe God loved everybody but God loved that group of people the most, God’s salvation was for them first. Jesus was born into that people and his disciples were all from that people and the religious teachers Jesus bantered with were all part of that same people. This woman was not of that people. She probably dressed differently, wore her hair differently from the women Jesus had grown up with, spoke in an accent or maybe another language than Jesus’ first tongue. What we know from this passage is that Jesus has gone to a far away region and did not want anyone to know he was there. He is trying again to have some rest time. He wants to ignore her. My people first, is what he says. You are outside of who God is taking care of through me.
But she persists, taking his dismissal as a dog and using it to say, you have more than enough healing power for my daughter. Even the dogs eat the crumbs.
This is the only time in the gospel of Mark that another character, of any gender or ethnicity, wins an argument against Jesus.
What does Jesus do when she speaks to him this way? Does he double down in his first reaction and call her something worse? Does he put up a barricade so she can’t talk to him anymore, put his hands over his ears to not hear her?
No. what he does, he extends the healing she was asking for.
And then he goes on to another region that has a lot of Gentile, not Jewish, people living there. He does another healing of someone who was most likely not a Jewish person.
And then he goes on, in the gospel of Mark to repeat the miracle of feeding a great crowd from just a little bit. I mentioned when it was the feeding of the 5000 that the number of baskets had a cultural significance. 12 referred to the whole people of Israel, the Jewish people, God’s chosen people. To have all 12 meant all of them were included. But 7 was another number of perfection and wholeness, and it was often associated with the world beyond the Jewish people. 7 meant the whole known world. When Jesus does this miracle the second time, he starts with 7 loaves and ends with 7 baskets.
The Syrophoenician woman has opened Jesus’ heart to the full scope of his ministry. He is giving himself away not just for his whole people but for all the world.
If this is a key moment in the journey of our savior, how can we as his disciples behave any differently?
Our natural tendency as humans is to put ourselves in groups and define who belongs by who we already know and see around us every day. But as a disciple of Jesus Christ, we are challenged to be opened beyond just those who we already know. We are challenged to receive and grow because of interacting with people even if we do not understand them at first.
Yesterday I attended the installation of the new bishop of my Lutheran synod, synod is like annual conference, here in San Francisco. You may have heard the news about my new bishop,-Lutheran not Methodist- we still have Minerva Carcanio as our Bishop of Cal -Nevada- it has been in the news in different places because they are transgender. Rev. Dr. Megan Rohrer uses they/them pronouns and does not feel their identity fits entirely within female or male categories, but encompasses both.
I have heard Megan tell the story about when they went to college in South Dakota, at that time they identified as a lesbian, and classmates would try to convert them out of that sexual orientation by singing hymns in the hallways at them. This was a Lutheran college and Lutherans can be kind of weird like that, I guess they were trying to exorcise a gay demon or something by singing religious songs. Megan didn’t know how to respond, so sang harmony along with those singing at them.
Later Megan became a pastor and grew into their identity as transgender. During the elections for our new bishop last May, they expressed the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ clearly. And was elected bishop and now is having all kinds of chances to share this message in mainstream media, because of the novelty of it.
But I think about that singing of harmony along with those using religious hymns to try to exorcise a demon, as a pretty great parallel of how the Syrophoenican woman responded to Jesus- she took his own language and showed him what he was missing, provided the harmony to help him fill out his mission. The message, unspoken, in Megan’s harmony, and this is my interpretation not theirs, is that you need me for the fullness of the song, without me, you are missing out- God’s love is big enough for us all.
I know a lot of us don’t understand gender identities, maybe not even different orientations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be on a journey toward openness. As disciples of Jesus we don’t double down on what we thought at first or put up a barrier to keep that person out or cover our ears with our hands and ignore them, but receive the new expression God has for us in the person we might not understand, or identify as part of our group, at first.
And again this isn’t a simple move from point a to point b. Jesus’ disciples would need to experience dreams and visions and experience in ministry for a long time after his resurrection to really understand God’s acceptance of Gentiles, and not as secondarily but equally accepted and loved by God. But it is about being on that journey, knowing that disciples are continually being worked on by God towards openness to those that are different.
As disciples we are called to take along this journey as well, how God can continue to work on us for openness. And as we go we discover more and more companions for the journey, some very different from us. Thanks be to God that Jesus revealed that openness, that growth is part of what it means to be his follower.