Mark 7:24-37, Proper 18, by Rev. Kristin Philipson
I used to visit a certain hair stylist and I don’t remember every appointment I had at her salon but I can recall this particular one pretty well because of what it taught me. I went in for the appointment and this stylist was so excited to talk about her new fitness regime. She said she was seeing great results and she was feeling better because of the classes she was taking. Now because she was a woman and a hair stylist and an esthetician and because she wore nice clothes and full make up and her hair was done up at all times, I figured I already knew what classes she must be taking. “Let me guess,” I said, “You’re taking a dance class? Or aerobics?” I said. “Have you tried Zumba?” “No,” she said, “I’ve been learning how to box; I joined a boxing gym.”
That conversation with my hair stylist was pretty innocuous, but it made me think: here she was learning how to box and I’d already put her into one based entirely on how she looked. Of course, when I thought about it I’d probably also been influenced by stories from my childhood and from several decades-worth of media consumption that had their own narratives about women and what they generally do and don’t do. A preconceived opinion has to be among the most powerful forces in our world. A preconceived opinion can determine a whole destiny; it can frame expectations. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a preconceived notion can paralyze a person, locking them into certain fixed parameters and permutations. It can act as the most corrupt judge; convicting and sentencing based on the flimsiest evidence. And a preconceived opinion can be just as destructive to the person who holds it as to its victim; it acts as an impediment, a barrier builds up around them, where every narrative heard in one’s family of origin or the media are like bricks added to an ever-growing wall, hindering any real interaction. A preconceived opinion – otherwise known as a prejudice – is debilitating for everyone, which is exactly the reason it is so powerful.
So what happens when prejudice – this powerful, and debilitating force – shows up in scripture? And not only that, but in the words of Jesus? It’s one of our central claims as Christians that in Jesus we experience the presence of God; that Jesus reveals God; that Jesus shows us God’s will and God’s way. If we stand by this claim then the story we heard from Mark’s gospel, about Jesus’ exchange with a Syrophoenician woman, should give us pause. For how many of you was this story about Jesus familiar? How many were absolutely shocked by his rudeness?
I think it’s safe to say that this is surprising behaviour for Jesus; that prejudice is unusual for him. Jesus is known as a healer and in every single story that comes ahead of this one in Mark’s gospel no one who approaches Jesus for healing is refused help. He heals his disciple, Simon’s, mother-in-law and when a man suffering from leprosy says to him, “if you choose you can make me clean,” Jesus says, “I do choose.” When he visits the town of Capernaum so many crowded into the house where he was staying that, when a paralyzed man couldn’t be carried through the crowd to get to Jesus, the man’s friends opened a hole in the roof of the house and lowered him down on his mat. Jesus heals a man with a withered hand and another so tormented by demons that he lives outside the city near the tombs. He brings a dying girl back to life and a woman who has suffered with heavy bleeding for upwards of a dozen years has only to touch the hem of his garment to be made well.
But when a Syrophoenician woman bows down at his feet, desperate to get help for her little daughter, Jesus dismisses her. “Let the children be fed first,” he says, meaning the children of Israel, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He is so rude! Is it that the woman interrupted his vacation with her request? We’re told that he’d gone “away to the region of Tyre” and that he “entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” But then, that other time when Jesus and his disciples went away to a deserted place to rest a while, and they arrived to find a crowd of five thousand waiting for them, Jesus had compassion and fed them all with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Is he rude because this story takes place in the first century and things were different at that time, between men and women? No; all four gospels offer plenty of evidence that Jesus was unconcerned with social norms. Mark tells us that the woman is Greek (a Gentile), and that she’s not from Judea; she is a Syrophoenician. And so this is what we’re left to conclude, that Jesus refuses to help the woman and to heal her child because he is prejudiced against her race; he holds a preconceived opinion – that God is the God of Israel alone, and that God’s grace extends only to those considered to be a part of God’s people, God’s family. Because she is Greek and not a Hebrew, Jesus is not able to see the woman as a child of God. In Jesus’ mind then there are clear boundaries to his ministry; it’s like there’s this wall in his mind and, because of her background, the Syrophoenician woman finds herself on the other side of it.
Jacques Lacan was a famous psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who, in observing stages of human development, described what he called the “mirror stage.” His theory was that human beings learn about who and what they are by coming to understand who and what they are not. The baby recognizes itself in the mirror and it understands itself as different and separate from its parents and siblings. One might say that, according to Lacan, comparison is the basis of self-understanding. If there is an “us,” then there must be a “them,” he might say. The trouble is that it’s often prejudiced notions that inform our distinctions – women are this way and men are like that; liberals think one way and conservatives another; white people are like this and people of colour are like that. In the United Church of Canada we like to say we’re inclusive and beyond using labels to describe people. We like to say that everyone is welcome at the table in this place, but there is a great gulf between our words and our reality.
This summer the United Church of Canada met for its 43rd General Council in Oshawa, Ontario and on the final day of the meeting, in its very final hours, the Rev. Paul Douglas Walfall stepped up to the microphone to share his experience as a black man in the United Church of Canada. He had been attending the conference as an “intercultural observer” and his observations brought the proceedings to a halt and led to over an hour of personal witness from other people of colour at the event. Walfall spoke about feeling invisible; here he’d been invited to the table, so to speak, but he felt it was because the hosts had recognized that a seat needed filling, and not because they considered him to be a contributing member of the family. “I am very conscious,” he said, “ that [while] simply being at the table may be good…it is not all that we may crank it up to be.” The real issue, he said, was not whether he, as a racialized person, was invited to the table, but who was he when he was there? His speech got to the heart of the racism that exists in the United Church and in Canadian society in general: white people continue to be blocked – impeded, walled up – when it comes to seeing people of colour as part of the family, and not as permanent outsiders.
I’ve heard stories from people of colour who’ve sat in these pews of white members from this church community who came up to them to ask why they had chosen this particular congregation to be a part of; surely there are other congregations, the white members would say, maybe closer to where they lived in which they might feel more at home? Up to that point the person to whom they were speaking had no reason to believe they weren’t at home; I mean, as far as they were concerned they were just a regular person showing up on a Sunday at church, walking through the front doors with the same goal as everyone else, to hear something sacred that would get them through the next week. But in the United Church of Canada and even in this congregation people of colour are given subtle cues that they don’t belong; that their presence is unexpected, that they stick out, and that, ultimately, they’re not really a part of the family but more of a special guest.
Last year when my family was living in California I sat inside the Rose Bowl Aquatic Centre one evening, waiting to to pick up my daughter from her swim team practice. I was inside sitting inside because, believe it or not, despite the fact of near-constantly sunny days, it can get pretty chilly on winter nights in California. I was sitting on a bench in the aquatic centre foyer and sitting next to me was an African American man. I thought he looked tired and worn out; he had his head resting on his forearms, which were on his knees. I’d been hearing a lot on the news that particular week about cold weather shelters that had been set up to help Los Angeles’ massive homeless population and I thought, “How nice! The aquatic centre is letting this homeless man get warmed up inside their building!” And then the man’s two daughters came running out from swim team practice, right alongside my own. I have to admit I was mortified at my own prejudice; had you asked me if I considered myself impeded by any preconceived opinions I would have said, “absolutely not!” I don’t like to think of myself as prejudiced, but there I was, operating out of an assumption that black people are fundamentally different from me as a white person; that their kids don’t join swim teams; that they’re probably struggling with homelessness; that a black person couldn’t possible be sitting next to me because he and I were doing the same thing, that there must be some other reason for him to be at the aquatic centre and that it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the reason that I was there.
Prejudice is a powerful force when it comes to shaping how we see and what we see in the people around us; it determines and it limits. Prejudice is an impediment; it is a barrier – but here is what I know about barriers: they can be broken. Prejudice is a powerful force, but here, in this place, we believe in a force even more powerful. At church we call it amazing grace; that all-encompassing feeling of love and forgiveness that in a moment of heightened consciousness and perspective and insight would encourage us to change. Grace is the love and forgiveness that belongs to God and so it has no limits and it knows no boundaries. It’s God’s grace that Jesus reveals when he does a sudden reversal in the story, when he changes course and decides to help. “[Y]ou may go,” he says to the woman, “the demon has left your daughter.”
There’s something that happens to Jesus when the Syrophoenician woman confronts him with his own words; I wonder if he isn’t shocked to hear his own prejudice: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” the woman says to him. It’s a potent image, and I think it was so powerful as to crack one of the bricks in the wall that had been built up around him and suddenly there was a fissure he could see through. What did it say in the reading from Proverbs? Everyone has “this in common: [God] is the maker of them all”? The woman’s response reminds Jesus that God is the bread of life and that it’s only human prejudice that would label some and limit access to the table.
One of the reasons people say they come to Rosedale United Church is to learn, to learn about God and what God wants for us and how to follow in God’s way. So what do we learn about God in this story? Perhaps it is this: that God’s redeeming and transformative grace is not just something we get to feel in those moments where we think we’ve got everything right, but what is reserved for us in those moments when we admit we got it wrong. In those moments, God’s grace is the shunt that opens what’s blocking our hearts.
If we believe that in Jesus God comes face to face with humanity, then we believe that God comes face to face with our biases and our assumptions, with our overt and subtle racism, with the stereotypes that dog us and with our struggle to see all people not just as seat fillers at the table but as members of the family. God comes face to face with our surprise when people we think of as fundamentally different sit next to us at church and sign their kids up for the same lessons. God comes face to face with us in Jesus, who, at his baptism saw the Spirit descending like a dove and heard a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”
God comes face to face with us, and God is not overcome – of course not! God is the God of life and death and life beyond death. There are no assumptions, no barriers, no expectations that are beyond God’s power to upend, permeate, uproot and redeem. This is the power and promise of God’s amazing grace, the grace that meets us in our admission of wrong, and this is what Jesus shows us and tells us about in this story. Right after his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus goes on to cure another man with an impediment; he can’t hear. I find it interesting that when he puts his fingers into the man’s ear and spits and touches the man’s tongue he doesn’t say, “Listen,” or “hear this now,” or “be cured,” or “you’re healed.” What he says is “be opened,” because Jesus knows now that this is how one is cured of an impediment. Even the smallest crack in a wall can send the whole thing tumbling.