If you’ve come to worship this morning looking for a clear and definitive word from our scriptures, I may leave you disappointed.
Oh, it’s not that God’s love for us doesn’t speak through every word and between every line of scripture. It’s not that I couldn’t have decided that a certain interpretation of this passage is the correct one and preach only that.
Nor is it that I don’t dislike uncertainty as much as the next person, as much as pretty much all of us who thought things would be back to so-called normal by now and, instead, find ourselves, our schools, our plans, and even our church once again mired down in the dispiriting fog of not knowing if Covid levels will continue to rise, by how much, and what that will mean.
It’s just that many things, most people, and much of scripture are complex—and how we view them depends a lot on our current context and circumstances. When we fail to recognize life’s complexity, it can create in us a misplaced certainty, a black-and-white, cut-and-dried, plain-and-simple, this-is-how-it-is way of looking at the world.
I confess to applying such thinking in times past—to any number of people and things, including the story of Jesus and the desperate Syrophenician—that is Syrian, that is Gentile, that is to say not Jewish—mother. It is so easy to be shocked by Jesus’ racist name-calling, so easy to point fingers and assess blame, so easy to believe the woman’s courage and witty retort opened Jesus up and enabled him to see things differently.
And it may well be that that is exactly what happened.
Jesus was fully human, after all, and most of us know that the human condition—particularly our inclination to think there’s never enough of what we want and to try to keep some people on the outside—can include some measure of hard-heartedness and closed-mindedness. And Jesus was Jewish, after all, as well as male, and in his day Jewish men did not look kindly on non-Jews or women.
And . . . God is still speaking.
And this morning I want to suggest that one of the ways God continues to speak to us is through our changing circumstances and perspectives. At one time in our lives we might believe scripture to be saying one thing or the life of faith to look a certain way, while at another time we see things differently.
And so it is with me and the first part of our gospel reading today.
You see, after 18 months of what is starting to feel like a never-ending pandemic, after a year and a half of endless separation, adaptation, weighty responsibilities, work-arounds, shifting standards, and just-under-the-surface anxiety, I felt the first couple of sentences of this passage jump out at me like never before.
Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he was there . . .
In other words, Jesus was tired, maybe even exhausted, maybe even on the verge of burnout. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus had been healing and teaching and feeding, confronting various powers and violating countless traditions, and taking all kinds of grief virtually non-stop. Shortly before he escaped into Gentile territory he had received word that Herod had beheaded his soulmate John the Baptist.
By then, the prophet and savior who was forever stealing away to pray needed some serious downtime. He had barely plopped down in someone’s house and was just starting to drift off to sleep when a local woman waltzed in and began haranguing him. No wonder he was rude!
In my experience, no one is at their best when they are exhausted. No one thinks clearly or compassionately when they are “hangry.” Very few people are at the the top of their game when they feel discouraged, dissatisfied, and disgusted.
And on this 541st day of pandemic restrictions, I’m going to hazard a guess that almost all of us resemble at least one of these descriptions.
Am I wrong?
I was in the church office last Monday afternoon, which was not where I wanted to be as I usually work from home on Mondays, and on that day had a lot of particular things I wanted to get done. But I was at the church office waiting for the Comcast repair guy to show up because, as some of you remember all too clearly, last Sunday we had no Internet whatsoever and were thus unable to livestream our service. Waiting for a repair guy is not exactly in the pastor’s job description, but there I was.
And the phone rang. It was, and I am not making this up, a mother calling, an agitated mother of twin boys, a mother who was a member of a different UCC church. She was calling, she said, because her pastor had had the nerve to tell her he was not planning to offer a confirmation class this fall, and she was trying to find a church that would offer her boys what she believed they deserved.
So I listened to her complaints. I listened to her go on at some length about how unhappy she was with her pastor’s decision and how unreasonable he was being.
Finally I said, as gently as I could, “You know, these past 18 months have been very hard on us all, and that includes pastors. It may just be that he is tired and feeling overwhelmed from it all. He may even be on the verge of burnout.”
“Oh, yes,” she replied. “He said he was.”
Now I want to be very clear here: I am not on the verge of burnout. Like everyone else here who has been pushed to the breaking point and also amazed by grace over the past 18 months, I am fine. Disappointed at where we are with Covid, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the non-stop natural disasters and human injustices, and a little concerned about not knowing exactly who we are as a church at this point—but otherwise fine and even grateful.
Fine and—like many of us—these days: Not always my best self.
Fine and—like the mother on the phone ready to charge out of her long-time church because her burned-out pastor had disappointed her—sometimes anxious and scared and reactive and maybe unconsciously looking for someone to blame.
Can anyone here relate?
I thought as much.
When we’re more aware of all we and everyone else is dealing with, when we’re able to cut one another and ourselves some slack, when we’re able to be gentle and loving and concerned about others instead of self-centered and demanding of what we think we deserve, we might be tempted to turn our pointing fingers toward the Syrophenician woman.
But I don’t want to go there, either. Just as the woman’s daughter was in dire straights and desperately needed the healing power of Jesus, so the injustices and disasters keep coming at us, keep requiring of us and one another more than we think we are able to give.
But it’s a funny thing how human need and connection have a way of jump-starting our hearts and bringing us back to our best selves. I wonder if that is not what happened with Jesus and the Gentile mother. Her love for her daughter, and her strong sense of self even in the face of Jesus’s rejection, snapped Jesus back to the blessed reality of who he was and how he was called to bring all God’s children into the blessed realm of God.
I wonder if—just as people sometimes need us to just leave them alone—sometimes they need us to ask them for something. They need us to confront them with our need, the church’s need, or the world’s need so that they might snap out of their dispirited stupor and remember who they are. So that they might reconnect with their call, their essence, their very best self.
The Syrophenician woman’s love for her daughter was a stubborn love. Hers was a determined faith. Hers was a grounded understanding of herself as beloved of God. So when she did not go away, when she got what she came for—her daughter’s healing—Jesus got something, too: the breaking open of his heart by the merciful, barrier-crossing, barrier-destroying, ever-widening, all-inclusive love of God as spoken through the other, the outsider, the oppressed.
I can’t help but think that this is also how our hearts are opened, how we are healed, and how our lives and the life of the church are transformed: by the all-inclusive, wide mercy of God as manifested in the so-called “wrong” people showing up at what looks like the wrong time.
After this—which is to say, after he had affirmed the woman and healed her daughter—Jesus, perhaps renewed, went even deeper into Gentile territory, and did still more healing. He more fully became who he was created to be—God’s love and justice with skin on, taking the liberating and empowering love of God to all people, especially those on the margins. Maybe it was just coincidence but after this, in at least one case, Jesus spoke the same healing words to others that the Syrophenician woman, in her own way, had spoken to him: “Open up!” Let your heart, your mind, your eyes, your ears, your very soul be fully opened to the life-changing, world-turning power of love.
To love God, our neighbors, our enemies, and ourselves into healing and wholeness is a delicate dance that requires much discernment: knowing when to give one another space, learning how to honor another’s hurts while also inviting them into healing, knowing when and how to confront and challenge.
May we, even in our weariness and testiness, love one another so well that we bring out the best in each other. Let us fully open up to Love!