Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Terri and I have (all our lives) have loved Dachshunds, that breed of little dogs with long bodies, short legs, and a temperament that is somewhere between a teddy bear and a ferocious lion. A few years ago, our smooth haired red Doxie, Duchess was declining and for the sake of our other younger dog (Duke), we brought a new pup into our family. “Tyson” was different from the other dogs, and in time, he really upset the balance of your home, and it creates many challenges.
Duke and Duchess resisted Tyson’s exuberance, playfulness, and energy. They did not trust the new boy’s toys, his smell, and his actions. The “old timers” had been with us for a long time, and they were not ready to change or accept the newcomer without a growl, chase, or nip that went on for several weeks after he arrived. Today, through many trials and a even a scuffle or two, Tyson has taken his place in our home. He does strut around like he’s the “big dog,” but Duke, the real old man of the house finally has accepted him as an equal.
Church Folk and “House Puppies”
Some church folk can act like these kind of “house puppies.” When new folks enter the life of a church with new ideas about church life, when they bring with them new spiritual gifts, and radical ideas that differ greatly from the established folks in the pews, the “old timers” can become frightened, threatened, and uncertain of our own place in the kennel. As an example, I was guest preacher at one of the churches in the diocese once, and while I was vesting, Terri found a seat in one of the pews. A sweet lady came up to her and said, “Miss, you are in my seat.” Churches can get stuck in our old ways and we struggle to accept, welcome and let new folks to have an impact on the pack.
The story in today’s gospel is an example of how a community of folks can be resistant to newcomers. Jesus left his familiar “own people” and traveled from the West Bank of the Sea of Galilee to Tyre, a distance of 20 miles or one day’s travel. He then walked from there to Sidon and then back to the region of Decapolis, which was another 150 miles or seven days. Jesus was leaving the familiar the “insiders” the “old timers” to test the possible expansion of his ministry and to test its boundaries.
The Syrophoenician Woman
In Tyre, Jesus met a Gentile woman, whose daughter was possessed by an affliction. The woman was desperate and pleaded with the young rabbi for help. His reply has become one of the most puzzling scenes from Our Lord’s ministry. When the Gentile woman asked Jesus’ for help, he said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” What? Did he really call her a dog? The Israelite’s understood that all Gentiles, all people outside the House of Israel were to be scorned, so much that they referred to Gentiles as “dogs,” a derogatory term popular at the time.
People on the outside of the community were cast aside and treated as “less than,” people like lepers, the lame, the blind, and the deaf. These were the people (the outsiders) whom Jesus ironically healed through his radical hospitality, but strangely, that is not what happened in this story. Jesus called her a “dog.” Scholars have been puzzled for centuries because this is not the Jesus we know in scripture. Some scholars say that Jesus was not being mean, but was more gently saying, “my mission right now is this, but in due time the rest will come into the kingdom.” Other scholars soften his words and translate the word “dog” as “house puppies,“ meaning he was saying she was more like a “house puppy” that was allowed to gather food at the food of the dinner table. When we hear Jesus’ cutting words, words we have not heard him utter in any other parts of the gospel, we are utterly shocked, and we are at best uncomfortable that Jesus would have made such an ethnic distinction.
The star of this story is the woman because despite Jesus’ disparaging remark, her faith was strong and she rebuked Jesus saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She made it abundantly clear that she too, even though not in the House of Israel was in God’s house, and needed to be fed by God’s abundant grace. This woman’s whose courage and faith changed Jesus’ mind, and I believe he realized his mistake and responded to her rebuke with, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
No Pecking Order in God’s Kingdom
Jesus was actually inspired by this woman and he confirmed that he had a new vision for his ministry, and it all began when he was led to leave Israel and take the journey to Tyre, Sidon, and the Region of the Decapolis. Jesus turned this encounter around and taught his disciples, and teaches us that there is no “pecking order” in God’s kingdom; all are welcome. Jesus is teaching us that we have to be very clear that our mission is to welcome all people and help them to fully know God’s grace.
My friend and colleague Stephanie Spellers in her book “Radical Welcome” challenges the church to invite people to encounter grace in community beyond merely being socially assimilated. Stephanie says the church is a beautiful tapestry, woven with the diverse threads of people’s lives; people of different ethnicities, orientations, political affiliations, and people with new ideas, and new visions for the church. As these new threads are added to the cloth of the community, the practice of radical hospitality diminishes conformity and thus, enhances the diverse nature of the ever-changing Kingdom of God.
Adapting to Change
We must be willing to adapt when culture changes, especially when new people arrive, because Jesus (like himself) will challenge us to change our minds. Being Christian community today will require us to do more than merely open our doors and do what we have always done before. Pew research in August reported that 29% of the American population no longer participates in Sunday morning church, which is up from 8% only 20 years ago. 12% say religion does more harm than good, and 17% hold no religious beliefs at all. These self-proclaimed “Religious Resisters” are making up a growing sector of our American population. If they do come to our doors, they are going to ask, “Where do I fit , in this God Kingdom you so eloquently preach about?” “Where is my place, my voice, my participation, and my scrap of crumbs of grace from the Master’s table?” We have to adapt like Jesus adapted, and practice the radical welcome and hospitality we heard about in the heart change of Jesus.
Theologian Stephen Fowler in a Christian Century article wrote, “The key to understanding (our response to) the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is to recognize that in this moment of his ministry,” Jesus opened himself up to mission to the whole world, he opened his church to the world. Now we are to open ourselves to the whole world in mission.”(2) We must be at the work of creating a new place for the new pups that are gathering around God’s table for a scrap of grace.
A few years ago, a young, energetic, feisty little dachshund entered our home. We did not know that such a little guy would literally shake the foundations of our lives, and at first, we tried to help Tyson be like the other two dogs. He wanted to be a part of the family, but he refused to become something he was not. In time, we realized that Tyson was bringing to our home something we never knew we wanted or needed, and I could not imagine life without him.
SERMON 9-9-18 Pentecost 16B St. Monica Episcopal Church
The Master of this House
I am sure there are folks here who can be uncomfortable with new the pups that join the pack and make changes to our established ways of doing things. However, I must remind you, even Jesus changed his mind. God’s people must be transformed and welcome the inevitable make over others who join us are going bring to the pack. Like his disciples of the time, Jesus knew his mission was not about being a clubhouse where all the members look, act, and do ministry alike, but his ministry was for all people. The “Master of this House,” Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is calling us to be a lighthouse, where all have a place at the table of grace, and all may bring their differences, quirkiness, and new ideas.
The “Master of this House” is the one who gave himself freely for all, and brought reconciliation and life abundant. The “Master of this House” sits at the head of this table, and all, not just some, are welcome to not only join the feast, but to participate fully in all aspects of the great banquet. The “Master of this House” is the one who through one conversation with a courageous outsider, radically changed his mind, and changed his mission for everyone. We, like Jesus, must be willing to adapt, to let our hearts be changed. We must welcome the new person into our midst, children, young people, people of different cultures, ethnicities, orientations, and traditions. We must welcome everyone, so they too might have a place to receive, like us, the same crumbs of amazing grace that fall so freely from the Master’s table.