Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Year B, RCL
September 9, 2018
North Fork Ministries
Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go-- the demon has left your daughter." So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Even today, the action of the Syrophoenician woman would be viewed as audacious. She appeared alone, at a house full of strange, foreign men, brushes aside the disciples’ efforts to keep her away, kneels at Jesus’ feet and asks him for help. In the context of the time and culture, for a Gentile woman to come to the home of a Jewish man, would have been unheard of. It was, perhaps, no wonder that she was so strongly rebuked by Jesus, who in the harshest language, compared her and her people to dogs, dogs undeserving of a place in God’s kingdom. Only her clever retort, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” - convinced Jesus to comply with her request that he cast out her daughter’s demons.
The visit of the Syrophoenician woman to the home where Jesus was taking refuge was not an isolated incident. As it appears in the Gospel of Mark, it is an integral part of a sequence of events that constitute an important subplot in the gospel. Jesus had earlier fed 5000 Jews in the desert, walked on water, healed those who came to him, argued with Pharisees about eating food with defiled hands, and taught his disciples that no food is unclean. Then he goes to the Gentile territory of Tyre where he encounters the woman of Syrophoenician origin and heals her daughter. He then, still in Gentile land, heals the deaf and tongue-tied man. Then Jesus feeds 4000 Gentiles in the desert. The encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is a pivotal moment in this sequence of events. It is the critical turning point in Jesus’ realization that his mission on earth was not solely meant for the Jews. Jesus, apparently, still had a lot to learn.
One of the things he had to learn was that he had better start listening to women. The larger lesson, however, concerned how his ministry was going to take shape. You see, Jesus was under the mistaken impression that his message of love and forgiveness and compassion was meant only for his people - people like him. He hadn’t yet realized that the healing requested by the Syrophoenician woman was meant for all humankind - even the Gentiles, even the cursed Canaanites. This pleading woman, in her effort to heal her own daughter, stepped out of the boundaries of culture and convention, and was able to reveal to Jesus a picture of the shape of things to come. No wonder she wasn’t welcome in the midst of the disciples. The future is often unsettling for those comfortable with the status quo. Yet, because she loved her daughter, this woman was willing to violate the boundaries of culture, class, and prejudice.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing a few Syrophoenician women. Among them was a woman I encountered while serving as the seminarian at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. St. James’ was a historically black congregation, and remained almost entirely African American, until perhaps 25 years ago, when white people began to notice that the Holy Spirit was operating there in a way that demanded attention. It started with music. The people at St. James’ decided that should celebrate their rich musical heritage with the community at large by devising a Jazz Mass that eventually evolved into a weekend of music and worship and praise called Jazz at St. James’. The event got the attention of white people who visited St. James’, who looked around and thought “there is something cool going on here.” So more and more white people came and stayed. Later members of the gay and lesbian community were attracted to the artfulness, the inclusiveness, the accepting atmosphere that could be felt there. People are so welcoming there that sometimes the passing of the peace can last longer than the sermon. The development of a culture of acceptance in a truly diverse community didn’t happen by accident. It happened under the careful tutelage of people like Ora Houston. Ora is the church’s matriarch, she has a commanding presence, the voice of a quick-witted angel, and dark knowing eyes that look straight into your soul. Prominent in the larger church - active in the Union of Black Episcopalians, on the standing committee of the Diocese of Texas, with a career of political activism - she was a force to be reckoned with. Not always a welcome presence among certain legislators in the halls of the state capitol, she nonetheless was a frequent visitor, making certain that the voice of the people was heard.
Ora explained to me why she sometimes raised her hands to the heavens when she sang. I had come from a tradition in which if you raised your hands during church it is likely that an usher will ask if you need directions to the restroom. And once, when I launched into a rant about the evils of big box retailers, Ora firmly reminded me how the existence of “everyday low prices” provided for many, the slim margin between being poor and going to bed hungry. Ora taught me that a readiness to laugh and a willingness to cry, that a spontaneous expression of emotion, was an almost foolproof sign that the Holy Spirit was working her magic in our midst.
For about a year and a half, before taking my first post as a priest, I lived and worked in Los Angeles. Most of the time I lived in East LA and the neighborhood church that welcomed me was the Church of the Epiphany. One of the oldest churches in the diocese of Los Angeles, Epiphany, is long past its days of prominence as a prosperous parish in an upper middle class white neighborhood. It is also well past its days of glory in the 60’s and the 70’s when it was a center of Chicano social and political activism - the kind of place where Cesar Chavez spoke regularly and gathered support for the rights of farm workers to make a decent living.
I met another kind of Syrophoenician woman there. Maria attended church every Sunday, pushed in her wheelchair, to her usual place on the third row from the front, by her attentive 12-year-old son. I got to know the family when we marched together one spring through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, protesting a bill that was then pending in the House of Representatives that, if implemented, would force her to choose between raising her American born children in the United States, or taking them with her, on a return trip to the future-less village in Mexico where she and her husband were citizens. It was a march that inspired millions of people across the country and, at the same time, provoked the fear and anger of millions more. From the vantage point of her wheelchair she simply pled for the wellbeing of her children.
Another morning, in another kind of procession, (you know we Episcopalians love processions), I again walked beside Maria. It was the festival of La Virgen de Guadalupe, The virgin of Guadalupe is revered throughout Mexico, and among Mexican-American communities as well. In Episcopal churches like Epiphany, there is an altar and a picture of La Virgen, so that devotees can kneel, and pray, and light candles as indication of their love for the Virgin and for God. It’s a practice that seems strange to some Anglicans and was largely incomprehensible to me ... until I gathered with Maria and her fellow parishioners on that festival day. The congregation collected on a street corner, a few blocks from the church. It was a cool morning, still dark, with a hint of the sun’s appearance in an eastern sky framed by palm trees and the lights of the city of angels. A mariachi band began to play a soulful homage to the Virgin, as the procession assembled in the parking lot of a shabby convenience store. There was the cross, the band, the vested clergy, about a dozen faithful parishioners, the wheelchair bound Syrophoenician woman and walking in front of her, was her slight, 10-year-old daughter, chin held her high, holding above her head, an ornately framed picture of La Virgin de Guadalupe. As we marched through the neighborhood, people heard the trumpets and accordions, emerged sleepy-eyed from their houses, and joined the procession. By the time we arrived at the church the dozen had grown to 200 and we sang and prayed and learned to love each other and the Virgin.
The Syrophoenician women among us seldom know their place. Women who, while they may be loved within their families, are brave enough to step out of the place where they are most comfortable and move into places where they are not wanted. The Syrophoenician women among us are the catalysts of spiritual illumination - those who recognize early that all God’s children deserve a place at the table. If Jesus can listen - and be transformed by these feminine voices, voices that speak from the edges of places society doesn’t really want to hear from - perhaps we too can listen.