16th after Pentecost; September 9, 2018
Preached by Hyuk Cho (Rev. Dr.)
Text: Mark 7, 24-30
24From 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, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He 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.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
I am happy and grateful to be here with you at West Point Grey United this morning. I feel that I have at last arrived at my new home! It is an honour and privilege to begin ministry with you - sharing the Good News of God’s love and justice in this beloved faith community and beyond.
During our ministry together I hope to form long-term and meaningful relationships with you and to grow with you. As I have been coming to know this church I see its potential, opportunities to grow together and build a church where everyone feels welcomed regardless of who we are, what we can do, how old we are, what our sexual orientation is or what our cultural heritage may be.
At every step we have taken into this faith community, we have felt your welcome and received your support. On behalf of our family I would like to express our sincere gratitude for taking this journey with us.
On a snowy day last February when I was searching for online information about churches with the keywords, United Church of Canada and intercultural ministry, West Point Grey United Church appeared on my computer screen. The name of the church was familiar to me, but I didn’t remember why. I soon recalled that my friend, Rev. Marianna Harris, had sent me an e-mail last November that the church would be looking for a new minister and suggesting it would be a good fit for me. I was not then looking for a change in pastoral relations when my search brought me to you and your vision to become an intercultural ministry. I applied right away, at 10 am Toronto time, without thinking that in Vancouver, it was 7 am and that no one could read my email at that time in the morning. In the call process and beyond, as I came to know more about West Point Grey, the church appealed to me more and more. Finally, I’ve arrived home.
How can we build a church we can all call home? To reflect on this quest, let us look at today’s scripture. In the unfolding story of Jesus’ ministry, the gospel recorded in Mark locates Jesus outside Israel in Tyre which we know today as Lebanon. It was probably the same place where so many innocent people were injured and killed in the violence of the recent wars. The story places Jesus among “the heathen.” Earlier in his ministry, Jesus had preached to people who came from there (Mark 3:8). And now, he may have gone there to visit someone he knew. In any small community, gossip would have made its presence known, even though we are told he wanted to keep his visit a secret.
We can assume that Jesus’ host was a Jew, but his neighbours would have included many Gentiles, as was the Syrophoenecian woman who came to him pleading for her daughter to be healed. We don’t know much about her except her nationality. She might look like the women in the Middle East we see almost every day in the newspapers and on television or on the street. The Syrophoenecian woman carried all the negative stereotypes prevalent at the time; she was a pagan, a foreigner, a woman and, to make matters worse by the prejudices of her time, she had a demon-possessed daughter. I fear it is all too similar to the negative stereotypes carried by the label, Muslim, these days.
Just before today’s passage, Jesus is purported to have said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile” (Mark 7:15). It declares clearly that it is people’s hearts that determine their purity in the eyes of religious law, not their outside behaviour or ritual practice. Immediately following this passage, the recorder inserts the story of a Syrophoenecian woman appearing to Jesus with a request.
What Jesus does in response to her request is to quote a proverb common to the Jewish tradition, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It means: let the Jews first be fed, for it is not right to take the Jews’ rightful benefits and throw them to dogs like you. I am sure the woman would have felt offended. Wouldn’t we? How could Jesus say that? But it was the standard Jewish wisdom and convention of his day.
Even though the mother is told that she and her daughter do not deserve the healing gifts of Jesus, she does not give up; her daughter’s need overrules her hurt pride. Instead she calls upon her courage and her wit to turn Jesus’ words into an argument for why he should re-think his rejection. She tactically accepts his characterization of herself and her child as dogs when she responds, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Jesus is shocked by her response. He begins to see this Syrophoenecian woman, not simply as a symbol of all that is unclean to Jewish religious practice, but as the desperate, humble and clever mother of a child in need. Jesus realizes with shock how what he had always taught about the laws of purity excluded many faithful people oppressed by his religious tradition. It is Jesus who has his mind changed. This narrative reveals a particular aspect of Jesus’ humanity: his willingness to be convinced, changed and to learn and grow as he faces challenges, here by a Gentile woman. Owing to being open to and hearing her challenge and also his willingness to accept this radical truth, God’s saving love is extended beyond the covenanted people of Israel.
Then Jesus says to the Syrophoenecian woman,“You may go—the demon has left your daughter.” Now, she is making her trip home, step by step, full of grace, praying something like, “I believe we are all children of God.” As I was coming to Vancouver, I thought about the woman coming home with belief, confidence and full of promise.
Who deserves only crumbs? Does not everyone of God’s people, regardless of their cultural heritage, gender difference, sexual orientation or age, all deserve God’s blessing? We all deserve to build our faith community together regardless of who we are because God is interested in who we are becoming. We are here to build a welcoming community together. We are here humbly to work to build a welcoming home for all people. We are here to open our hearts to all who seek to live God’s justice, peace and love.
As we begin this new season and new ministry, we are invited to God’s table of grace. Come, come to the table of Jesus to experience and to share God’s grace and presence in our midst. Amen.