Year A, Pentecost 11
When I was little and I heard the story of the birth of Jesus, I thought he simply dropped out of heaven. There was no real birth. One minute the manger was full of hay and the next minute there was a baby. I never thought of him growing up, being a toddler, or an adolescent. Part of the reason is that the Bible tells us almost nothing about Jesus before he turned 30. He was a baby. Then he was 12. Then he was 30. Some people believe that there were stories about Jesus as a child, but they did not make it into the Bible because he was a child, doing childish things. For instance according to these stories, when a child spurned him, he retaliated. When he got in trouble for making clay pigeons on the Sabbath, he turned the clay pigeons into living birds, because he could. These stories speak of a child learning how to handle his power. It makes sense. If Jesus was fully human, then he had to learn and grow. He had to change. He was not born in the body of 30 year old, nor was he born with the mind of a 30 year old man.
There were also occasions where other people encouraged him to change. One example is the wedding feast. It’s a familiar story. They ran out of wine. His mother asked Jesus to turn water into wine. He said, no this is not my time. He did not think he was ready. His mother persisted and he agreed. He performed his first public miracle at the request of his mother. Another example is our reading from today. Jesus had left his home turf and was in the region of Sidon. This is important because this is an area that was populated by Gentiles, not Jews. These were people that good Jews did not interact with. The disciples had probably never been in a place like this.
As soon as he got there, a woman came to him, shouting “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by demons.” I am sure that he noticed that she was using the Jewish title for him. “Son of David.” She knew who he was. Despite that, he tried to ignore her. That was the easy thing to do, maybe even the polite thing to do. He did not want to have to tell someone that he could not help her.
Yet this Gentile woman, was relentless. She could not take a hint. She kept coming at him and by now she had everyone’s attention, even the disciples. They wanted him to just get rid of her. He tried. He told her the party line. He was just there for the people of Israel. She could not be deterred. She knelt at his feet…his feet. There was no avoiding her. He said, “It is not fair to take the children’s crumbs and throw it to the dogs.” That was what they called Gentiles. Jews called Gentiles dogs because dogs were dirty. They did not keep the purity laws. The children were the Jewish people, the chosen people. His first duty was to the children—the Jews.
Instead of acting offended or lashing out, this woman chose another tactic. She responded, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She understood and acknowledged what no one else had. That even if he was meant to tend to the Jewish people first, there was more than enough mercy to meet the needs of the rest of the world. Even the crumbs, the tossed off waste of his abundant love was enough….enough for her, her daughter, and the world.
And here is when it gets tricky. Jesus, the all-knowing, all powerful Messiah learned something in that moment. All along, he believed that he was there for the lost sheep of Israel. They were his primary mission. Yet he saw something in this woman. He saw perseverance, courage, faith and knowledge. She understood him and his ministry better than the Pharisees, perhaps even better than the disciples. She knew that his love was so great, so powerful, that there was enough to go around. She helped him see something that he had not yet seen. Because of that he saw not just a woman kneeling at his feet, but a beloved child of God who was ready to hear his message and experience his mercy.
The reason people struggle with the idea of Jesus changing his mind is that implies that he not was right to begin with. It means he was imperfect, that he was not all-knowing. Yet I believe that he was that much more powerful because he was open to change. He was willing to learn, willing to learn from a woman, a Gentile, willing to let go of a belief that one ethnicity was better than another, willing to accept that his love was without limit. There was enough to go around. He did not have to wait for the Jews to accept him before moving on to the next group. He could start his ministry to the Gentiles now.
As a church, we are called to be disciples of Christ, to follow his example. Part of following this example, is being willing to change and to let go of our prejudice and fear. Our world is a scary place. Just this week, ISIS killed 13 people and wounded 100 in an attack on a popular street in Spain. They gave no reason. You don’t need a reason when your heart is full of hate.
Before that we experienced our own terror right here in Virginia. We saw a display of hate that while not unprecedented, was certainly a wake-up call for those who thought that kind of racism was a thing of the past. When I was a on a mission trip in Appalachia several years ago, I was driving alone looking for one of our groups. I was lost because GPS did not work there. I drove down a stranger’s driveway hoping I could get some directions. Instead I ran into a member of the KKK. He was not wearing a white hood, nor was he burning a cross. He just wanted to share that I had wandered onto the property of a clansman. I was terrified, and I am a white Christian. I kept thinking, what would have happened if our African American youth was with me in that car. I told myself that this man was just some crazy guy in the hills of West Virginia.
Yet just last week, we saw it on a college campus. We saw in on our newsfeed, twitter, facebook. Hate was on full display. The root of that hate is the belief that one group is better than the other, that one group is more deserving of God’s love. Two thousand years ago, Jesus started something. He started to dismantle prejudice. He told people that they were loved, no matter what they looked like, or who they were related to. He told people that they were to love their neighbor and their enemy. As his disciples, we are called to continue his work. Much like the woman who was seeking mercy, we cannot relent. We must persist. Like Jesus, we have to look at the prejudices within ourselves. While we cannot produce miracles, we can bring healing to our community and our broken world. The first step in that healing, is acknowledging the brokenness. In our Eucharistic Prayer for today, the priest says, “But we turned against you, and we betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.” Then we break the bread as a symbol of Jesus broken on the cross, as a symbol of our own brokenness. That is not how it ends. The way the prayer ends is that we all come to the altar. We all partake in the love that Jesus shared. We become vessels of his love and grace.
As those vessels, we have a responsibility to carry that love and grace. While God’s love and grace has no limit, each person has a limit to the pain that they can bear. No Jew should have to see someone wield a swastika, a symbol of their intended annihilation. No African American should have to hear racial slurs hurled at them. Sometimes God’s grace looks like us, standing between hate and the recipients of hate.