Thursday, October 01, 2009

Syrophoenecian Woman Sermon

**Preached at the Abbey not too long ago. Again, if you use it or any part of it, please just let me know. =) And I'm always happy for feedback.

Mark 7:24-37
From there he 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 Syrophoenecian 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.

MAY THE WORDS OF MY MOUTH AND THE MEDITATIONS OF ALL OUR HEARTS BE ACCEPTABLE IN YOUR SIGHT, O LORD, OUR STRENGTH AND OUR REDEEMER. AMEN
We all know tiredness, times when physically we are exhausted, times when mentally or emotionally we feel as though we cannot take one more thing, times when we would like to hide from the world, rest and recover. It’s part of being human that our energies are limited, and part of living with others that sometimes the demand on our energies exceeds (sometimes far exceeds) our reserves.

It seems Jesus felt it, too. All throughout Mark, Jesus is trying to get away, trying to keep his miracles quiet. I’ve always been puzzled by that one – what good is it saying to a blind man, “don’t tell anyone that you can see” or a leper, “you are healed of your sores, but don’t let any of your friends know”? But Jesus does it. Those he heals he tells to be quiet about the source of their healing. And several times he tries to go away to pray and be by himself and he cannot – he sails across the Sea of Galilee hoping to lose the crowd, only to find that people have gotten to the other side ahead of him. The demands on his time and energy are enormous, at times larger than his reserves. His humanity seems to show in his tiredness. He needs a vacation.

So he goes away to Tyre. This is the farthest away from his hometown he is recorded to have gone so far in Mark. And his reason for going is not obvious. We know, though, that he entered a house not wanting anyone to know he was there. Maybe he had booked a room in a B&B or maybe a room in a rebuilt abbey. And maybe he sighed in relief when he put his bags down in the entrance hall and looked around him.

And what about the woman? We don’t know her name, but we do know that she was a local (Tyre was a town in the Syria / Phoenecia area). And we know she was a gentile who had a sick daughter. We can surmise a few other things: For her to have come to Jesus, she probably either knew and believed Jesus’ reputation as a healer, or she was at her wit’s end and reaching for a last piece of desperate hope. Also, if her daughter had been sick, possessed by a demon, she was probably tired, herself – the physical and emotional tiredness of the caretaker, the mental tiredness of the protective woman who cannot make her loved-one well.

Can you identify with either of these situations? Both of them? I have to say that at different times in my life I have identified more strongly with one or the other, but I can remember clearly a time when I identified with Jesus. I used to work in a therapeutic community for adults with mental illnesses like bipolar, depression, schizophrenia. I was essentially a house parent, so I spent evenings and mornings with these amazing, creative, compassionate, and often struggling folk. And because we were a community where everyone lived in the same neighborhood, lines between work and play often blurred (as they often do here). I remember one work shift in which I had split up two different arguments, fixed a toilet that was leaking through the ceiling, listened to a young man who was contemplating running away, and been awakened three times in the night by a woman who was having nightmares. I was tired anyway and after breakfast I was relieved to be going home for the day. And you know the walk… perhaps you’ve done it yourself… head straight forward, not making eye contact with anyone lest someone ask something of me, thinking “just gotta get home, just gotta get home”. I was nearly out of the parking lot when I heard the sound of a frame (walker for those of us American folk) rolling towards me and heard our oldest guest, Georgia's honeysuckle voice calling my name. “Laura”. I’m ashamed to say, I kept walking, hoping I had misheard her and knowing I hadn’t. She was persistent and got louder the second time. She needed my attention.

This, I imagine, is something like Jesus’ situation when faced with the woman at his door. In Matthew’s version of the story, he does almost the same thing I did, even keeping walking as the woman follows him. She is persistent and he turns to hear her. “My daughter is ill.” Mark’s version says she begs. What Jesus said next is a matter of much discussion. Was it an insult? Some say it was. Some say it was simply an image. I wonder if it was somewhere in between. Regardless, what he says is “let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” I wonder if what he is trying to say, perhaps in unfortunate, I’m-too-tired-to-be-tactful imagery, is “My resources are limited. The time and energy I can offer to this world is restricted by my human form. And my purpose here is to serve the Israelites. I have people to minister to and because there are always more people to be healed than time and energy to heal, I need to be careful whom I give food to.” Or, in my story, “Georgia, please not now. I don’t have the energy, and you’re not on my case list, and what energy I have needs to go to the people I’m supposed to be serving.”

And yet the woman is persistent. She does not challenge Jesus’ sense of mission. She uses the imagery of the scarce food in her own reply, perhaps even in that acknowledging Jesus’ need for rest. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” “Yes,” she says. “I get what you’re saying. But all I’m asking of you is something that is easy for you. I’m not asking for a feast, I’m just asking for crumbs. You’re not supposed to be serving me. I’m not part of your mission statement or long-range planning goals. But I’m here in front of you. And that’s important.”

Jesus responds by healing her daughter. He does not change what he does thereafter in his ministry. His mission is still primarily to the Israelites, his biggest target for rants is still the Jewish leaders, his travels are still primarily in the area of the Sea of Galilee and Judaeah. But he has set aside his mission for this one moment to minister to the person who is right in front of him.

And here’s the advice I hear in this story at this time: Be driven. Have a sense of purpose and mission and ministry. Let that guide you. And when you are tired, for heaven’s sake, take time out. Go away, maybe even far away, and maybe even hidden away, if you need to. But never forget that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. Never forget that sometimes the interruptions, the unlikely connections, the inconvenient demands and ill-timed requests are actually urgently important parts of your ministry.

And further, I hear this acknowledgment, in the form of a quote from a wise friend of mine:
“I see the story as a story about sticky life that I can relate to, which isn’t tied up in ideals or platitudes – it’s a story to say to me: it’s okay, we are all trying our best. Maybe it’s not about being right all the time, but about persisting in the journey, figuring out how to balance all these different forces, continuing to try, doing the best we can muster in that moment, having the grace to know that our efforts are enough, and eventually, at the end of it all, getting some sleep.

I did talk to Georgia that morning, not so much because I wanted to as because I didn’t think she would let me go until I had talked to her. She wanted to ask a question about music, and after we sat at her tiny keyboard and I told her my answer, we laughed together about stories of her childhood and sang songs together, and generally had a really good time. At the end of our conversation, I was very glad she had stopped me, even if I was still tired and in need of a good nap.

We each have come here to Iona for different purposes, for different lengths of time, and from different places (perhaps this is even the farthest away from home we have been). Some may be badly in need of rest and renewal, as Jesus. Some may be seeking healing, as the woman in the story. Some may be working here or elsewhere and finding their own resources to be limited and needing focus, as Jesus. Or maybe you identify with a different part of this story. Whatever your circumstance, there is good news for you in this story. We are reminded to rest and enjoy time away. We are reminded that God heals and that persistence is rewarded. We are reminded that limitations are okay and that life is messy but still beautiful. We are reminded that even when people are tired and less-than-tactful, grace and connection are possible. And most of all, beloved of God, we are reminded that, though it is good to focus our energies and our ministries, real living often happens in the interruptions. Sometimes the most important ministry happens when we aren’t looking for it and happens in ways and with people we hadn’t intended. May we be open to the needs of the people around us this day, this week, and always, and may we find the nourishment we need to keep living and giving in the fullness God intends.

IN THE NAME OF CREATOR, REDEEMER, AND SUSTAINER, AMEN.

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