Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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 Syrophoenician 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.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’
No Other Story Quite Like This
I have been thinking a lot about displaced people these last couple of weeks. Last weekend was the 10th anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that devastated the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi. New Orleans, in particular, was nearly destroyed when the levees broke, a crisis that many had predicted would happen if a large storm hit the city. One and a half million people had to flee the Gulf Coast. Some of them ended up in Knoxville, Tennessee, at the hospital where I had just begun my chaplaincy training. On the morning of my first on-call as a chaplain resident, I received word that evacuees from New Orleans would be arriving that day. When the hospital administration first told the staff that people were coming, they weren't sure how many. What they did know was that they would be spread through several hospitals in the area and would be housed in a church in the next city over. The chaplain, on top of our normal role of providing spiritual and emotional care for the people who walked through our doors, was to help make sure people had food, clean clothes if they needed them, and to pay for their transportation to the shelter.
I spent the better part of the rest of the day with about two dozen people who had just watched their homes wash away into the Gulf of Mexico. Several of the folks there were related. Some people were by themselves. Some people had very serious health problems and needed to be hospitalized. Others were doing pretty well, and, after a shower, change of clothes, and a bite to eat, could head on over to the church. As the day wore on, everyone who was in good health had been transported to the shelter except for two teenagers and their mom. Two elderly relatives of theirs had been admitted to the hospital. Their mother was making sure that the sick family members were being tended to properly and it was taking quite a while. The staff who had been assigned to help the evacuees was ready to get back to their regular assignments. When the woman, who had been upstairs with her ill family members came back downstairs to where her children were waiting, I asked if she was ready to go to the shelter. I had already asked a few other times.
She explained that she had her own money and really wanted to stay with her elderly family to get them settled. This is a totally reasonable request. However, those of us who had been working with the evacuees had a timeline in our minds about how we would help them. We had a plan and knew what resources we had to offer. We weren't sure what to do with this woman who had her own priorities in mind. We tried to explain that it wasn't a great idea for her teenagers to have to stick around a hospital waiting room. And we also pointed out that it was really no telling how long it would take to get her loved ones admitted upstairs. These things can take a long time. Did she really want, or need, to stay the whole time. She hadn't showered in who knows how long and hardly had more than the clothes on her back with her. But, she wanted to make sure the folks she loved were ok. She went upstairs one more time. When she came back downstairs, she came to me and said, in a defeated tone, "Fine. Let's go." I called transportation and she and her two teenagers were off to the next town.
I think of that day often. Of everything that happened during that busy day, what I remember most is my encounter with this woman. I remember thinking, "Here. I have this way to help you. Why won't you take it?" I remember my colleagues feeling thoroughly disgruntled about the fact that this family wasn't following the timeline that we had in our heads for how we were going to get all of the evacuees in and out of the hospital in an orderly fashion. I remember her saying, "I have my own money. I need to see about my family." When I remember her, I realize that she taught me something that day, something I didn't actually figure out for a while later. She taught me that when someone needs help and I can help them, I need to actually listen to them when they say what kind of help they need. Because, undoubtedly, they know their own needs better than I do. Our relationship shouldn't have just been about what I could give... clean shirt, free ride... but what she needed... assurances that her family was being tended to, a safe place for her teenagers to wait. She taught me a lesson that has helped me be a better minister.
As I read the Gospel story this week, I wonder if Jesus felt the same way about the Syro-phoenician woman that he met in Tyre. I wonder if he talked to his disciples or to God or to his mom, and said, "Wow. I'm glad she said what she said. She taught me something new today." Jesus had a lot going on, too, when he met his unexpected teacher. He had just left rural Galilee where he'd been arguing with Pharisees about handwashing and holiness. Remember, Jesus said not to let attention to detail in religious rituals distract you from the generosity and compassion that God demands. We talked about that last week with the hand sanitizer. After that encounter, he seemed to need some rest and went to hide out in a house in Gentile territory. It was very hard for him to escape notice, with all the healings and wise teachings and everything. Eventually this strange woman with a sick child found him and asked for his help. In Mark, she is described as being Syro-phoenician. The naming of her ethnicity seems intentional. These residents of what is now known as Syria weren't known to be great neighbors to Israel. Local Tyrians had even oppressed local Jews. In naming her ethnicity, the author of Mark is making sure that we know that she is probably an enemy.
And, yet, with all this history of bad blood, she still came to Jesus and begged at his feet for him to save her daughter. Now, like me and my co-workers, Jesus must have had already had a plan for his day. He wasn't just hanging around in Tyre for no reason. Or, maybe he was just exhausted. Whatever was going on, he got caught, as one scholar describes it, with his compassion down. He called this woman and her daughter dogs and told her that he had other work to tend to first before he would help someone the likes of her. And, yet, even though he called her a dog, she didn't let his petty insult stop her. Her daughter was in great need and she knew that Jesus could help her. She knew that Jesus had more grace at hand that very moment than even he was able to imagine. He had so much grace that it could even spill over onto people he's been taught to ignore and despise. So, she called him on it. She said, "Fine, whatever, Jesus. We're dogs. But, we're dogs who are smart enough to know that you will drop something delicious off of this table at any moment. So, why don't we cut to the chase and you do what you know that you can do to save my child." And, quite suddenly, he realized that he couldn't argue with her. He offered the grace he had and, she went home to find her little girl healthy and happy.
This little girl wasn't the only one healed in this encounter. Jesus seems have been changed, too. It turns out that this woman was the first Gentile to come to him to ask to be healed. At this point in his ministry, he seemed to think that it was not the time to be healing people beyond the bounds of his own religious and ethnic community. All of that changed after he met this woman. The very next story shows him healing another man in a Gentile community. And, the next story after that is the story of Jesus feeding 4,000 people. That, too, was in another predominantly Gentile region. I cannot help but wonder if that man would have been healed or those 4,000 people would have been fed if Jesus hadn't first met this Syro-Phoencian woman. I cannot help but think this woman changed Jesus' ministry for the better. I hope that he was grateful for it. I hope that we modern-day followers of Jesus are grateful for this Syrian voice, too.
Over the last several weeks, even as I remember the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, another tragedy, this time a war, is displacing millions of people. According to Global Ministries, the UCC and Disciples of Christ international missions organization, over 7 million Syrians have been displaced in the last 33 months, 2 million of whom have had to seek refuge in neighboring countries. To put that in perspective, almost 7 Katrinas-worth of people have had to leave their homes, with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs and the people they love by their sides. And, while we have far too many stories of people turning them away like dogs, we are beginning to here more and more stories of people being like Jesus... being willing to be changed by the persistent, inventive, direct, and compelling faith of the Syrian people who trust that their neighbors will receive them with grace and hospitality as they escape the devastating civil war in their homeland.
On the Greek island of Kos, a main entry point into Europe for refugees, a physics teacher has started an organization of 50 volunteers to help provide food, clothes, hygiene supplies, and safe places to sleep and bathe to refugees. In Berlin, a couple have set up a website to help refugees find German citizens who are willing to host them. So far, 122 refugees have found a safe place to stay through their efforts. In Iceland, when the government said that they could only take 50 refugees, 10,000 Icelandic citizens stepped up and offered to open up their homes to people who needed it. This generosity shows that people across Europe have learned, like Jesus once learned, that they can share their bounty much more widely than they had first imagined. We can help here in the US, too. We can donate to Global Ministries. I'll have information for you after church if you'd like to do that. We can also welcome any refugees who are moving into our own community. Given that about a thousand Syrian refugees have already been settled here in the US, it is not hard to imagine that some may make their way here to Maine, just as the Somali refugees have over the last several years. Right now, Refugee and Immigration Services needs volunteers to help mentor new arrivals to Maine. And, they can always use refugee welcome kits, kits that are a lot like the ones we prepare for Church World Service and the Domestic Violence Shelter.
The Syrian voice that we're hearing today isn't just one woman trying to help her child. It is millions of people who need the hospitality that we can provide. We have the opportunity to be a little more like Jesus, the one who heard the Syrian woman and helped her, and in so doing, helped an entire Gentil community. His ministry was improved by this act of compassion. I think our ministry can be, too. But, only if we listen and are willing to act in the best interest of our neighbors. So, church, let's be willing to be like Jesus. Let's be willing to spread out our grace just a little farther than we could have first imagined.
*Do you want to help people who have been displaced from their homes?
- You can donate to Global Ministries: http://www.globalministries.org/relief_for_displaced_syrians
- You can also support refugee services here in Maine by collecting donations for for people new to Maine: http://www.ccmaine.org/refugee-immigration-services/support/other-ways-to-help
- Refugee and Immigrant Services also needs volunteers:
Resources that Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
David Henson's Commentary:
Matt Skinner's Commentary: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1382
Karoline Lewis' "God Said Yes to Me": http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3679
"3 Views on a Tragedy: Reporters Recall First Days After Katrina":
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
"Iceland Caps Syrian Refugees at 50; MOre than 10,000 Respond with Support for Syrian Refugees": http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/08/31/_10_000_icelanders_offer_to_house_syrian_refugees.html
"Migrant Crisis: The Volunteers Stepping in to Help": http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34130639
"Of 4 Million Syrian Refugees, the US has taken in Few than 1000":
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.