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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

God's Redemption Busts Through Blindspots - 09/05/2021

This can be an uncomfortable story. I think it should be. The fact that Jesus basically calls this Gentile woman a dog and says the Jewish people he was born into are the ones who deserve the grace and healing presence of God more is often glossed over or rationalized. This is Jesus, after all, Holy Man – Son of God.

You might hear people say, “Oh, Jesus wasn’t using the word ‘dog’ in a derogatory way, but in an endearing way as though he were referring to a cute little house pet.”

Sorry. That doesn’t fit. A dog in this time and place was considered a scavenger and unclean – more like a rat to us.

If we were to place this story in our context today and it was an encounter between Jesus and someone who might be considered an outsider in our time – a brown or black mother struggling to raise her kids in a world than wants to keep all of them under its proverbial thumb, someone dealing with uncomfortable brain health issues, a parent from a same-sex couple, a Honduran family seeking asylum, food and safety, a father working two or three jobs to make ends meet with literally no time to come to church – well, I think we all know how far that argument for calling someone a dog would fly.

And I can tell you as a mother who has lost sleep and earned more than a few gray hairs worrying about my own children, a quaint little nuance between a mangy cur and a cute little designer lap dog would have been lost on me. Jesus’ response would have upset me, I am fairly sure of that.

We must face it – this is an unflattering portrait of our beloved Lord.

And I think that’s okay to see it like that. As I’ve probably said to many of you about expressing what we think of as negative emotions or feelings to God, go ahead. God can take it and God continues to love us no matter how we are feeling.

Also, as we often try to remind ourselves, our scriptures are not meant to be treated as history books.

These books are full of truths. Have no doubt. Christ is risen, we are freed to abundant life in the risen Christ already.

Still, being a student of these books isn’t like being a historian of the Korean War, like my uncle was. It is not like being in a classroom and learning the significance of July 4, 1776, August 18, 1920, or June 26, 2015.1

Being a student of these books and the stories within is to be someone seeking to see God right here and now … of learning where we can expect to see God at work and how we spot the unexpected ways and places of that Divine activity.

We read these stories and look for parallels in our own lives, our communities.

I spotted a strong parallel to this story one time, when I preached it at the memorial service for a man who is very important to me. His name is Bill.

I saw a similarity between the Syrophoenician woman and Bill. They both seemed to serve as reminders that we are at times called to question disparity between word and action in our leaders, in our institutions, in ourselves, even in our Holy Man.

The Syrophoenician woman and Bill are examples of what it can look like to be courageous enough to stand a bit apart from the rest of the crowd and call it like you saw it when love for one another and justice becomes narrow and exclusive instead of wide and inclusive.

And God worked through them both powerfully. Here’s a little about Bill from his 2013 obituary:

“(Bill) served in the U.S. Army, including a tour in Kyoto, Japan, where he worked as a switchboard operator during the occupation following World War II. Bill loved to travel and visited many places on this planet. He was employed by the Department of Labor as a supervisor in employment development. … He took pride in the work he did to help people identify vocations, (and) the education and experience (they) needed to excel. … He was an ardent believer in civil and human rights for all people, even those with whom he vehemently disagreed. He was disgusted with the state of civil discourse in the country for which he was so honored to serve.”

In my humble opinion, he changed the world, one person at a time, in his questioning, call-it-like-it-is kind of way. He changed the course of people’s lives, just like the Syrophoenician woman changed the course of Jesus’ ministry, of what we can learn of God and God’s intent for us through this story.

I think we can relate to Jesus in a very basic way here. We all have cultural blind spots – perspectives, opinions, preferences we are raised with, that operate behind the scenes all the time. They are kind of invisible. They often assist us in being part of a community, in fitting in and knowing boundaries and how to relate to one another. And they can also help bring about biases, prejudices and assumptions about others and other communities. And so, I think we can all relate to our very human Jesus here because none of us can avoid being shaped by our culture any more than we can stop breathing oxygen.

So, there’s that insight from this story. Jesus also struggled through the limitations of individual human perspective and cultural influences.

I think this story tells us about something even more incredible than God’s willingness to take on even this aspect of humanity – and that is how God uses the Syrophoenician woman and her questioning, call-it-like-it-is kind of way to open Jesus – and therefore us – to the wideness and inclusiveness God intends for all of God’s people.

Consider the trajectory of today’s part of the story.

Jesus is also learning to deal with these mounting crowds. He tries to escape them, even if it’s just for a little while. He enters non-Israelite territory looking for a break. And it does not happen. His reputation has spread beyond just his cultural siblings. And so, the tired and overwhelmed Jesus has this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, and through it his humanity is expanded. Mind blown, as if to say – “Oh! Hey, God. I see what you are up to!”

There’s something else mounting behind the scenes with Jesus in this story too. Something Jesus is quite aware of, something he can see clearly and broadly. He is getting closer and closer to Jerusalem and the cross.

Only now, because of the Syrophoenician woman, his path to Jerusalem and the cross has changed – it has grown – it has embraced the entire world as he knew it – the Jews and everyone else too.

And notice, Jesus is no longer looking for a break. It’s like his passion and stamina has returned, stronger even than before, as he begins what feels like an impromptu and unlikely ministry tour through a lot more non-Israelite land. So, now in those places too, he feeds the hungry, preaches the Good News, heals the sick and casts out demons.

Them too – on his way to Jerusalem and the cross, so that even the deaf and tongue-tied man of Decapolis can hear Jesus plainly and speak clearly to others what we students of these books and stories still find today … that God will and does bust through our blind spots and boundaries with the liberating presence of Jesus Christ, Holy Man and Son of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

I think perhaps this story about Jesus and the Syrophonencian woman gets glossed over because in it, Jesus, the one who we profess to be fully human, but without sin, dances perilously close to that line. It can make us uncomfortable. But we can learn so much here.

1. Full list: July 4, 1776, June 19, 1865, August 18, 1920, January 22, 1973, September 11, 2001, or June 26, 2015.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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