Texts: Mark 7:24-30; James 2:1-10, 14-18
I took my seat in one of the brown metal chairs carefully placed on the back row under the big white tent. Before I noticed anything else, I noticed that I was the only woman under the tent wearing pants of any kind, and certainly the only one wearing white bucks. The other twenty-five people at the Holy Ghost Tent Revival in Boone, North Carolina noticed also. From the moment I stepped under the big tent, it was obvious that I was the stranger, the outsider, the one who looked different.
I arrived at my first tent revival a bit late but still in time for the pre-music warm up and the personal testimonies, all following the theme of the saving grace of Jesus. For those of you who have known me for some time, you know my love of gospel music. And while I didn’t know the hymns being sung, that didn’t stop me from quickly falling into that place of familiarity and comfort that gospel music takes me to. Nor was I particularly put off or uncomfortable with the personal testimonies. In the church I grew up in, it was not uncommon to hear personal testimonies at our Sunday night church service. I guess I can’t even say that I was that unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the raised hands and the shouts of “Amen!” that came from the worshipers as the woman testifying spoke of how Jesus’ death on the cross saved her from sin. I have been in enough ecumenical and interfaith services to be familiar with such expressions of praise and worship.
It really wasn’t until the warm-up preacher began shouting and stomping and running back and forth across the platform and speaking in tongues that I got a bit concerned. I could feel it happening – that blanket of emotional frenzy being draped around me. The lull of the soft music in the background, the rhythm and cadence of the preacher’s voice, the emotion in the bodies of those who stood to their feet with hands raised high, eyes closed and heads tilted back – it was powerful. In that moment, I sat still and quiet, checking my own breathing trying to stay in the moment as honestly and authentically as I could. And then, as quickly as the frenzy began, it stopped. The warm-up preacher returned to his seat and the familiarity of another gospel song slowed the pace of my racing heart. I closed my eyes for a moment to calm myself.
Upon opening my eyes, I saw the warm-up preacher moving throughout the worshipers laying on hands and speaking words I could not discern. As he moved from chair to chair, the featured preacher, the Reverend Cecil Hamsby, stood up and began, “Tonight someone’s life is going to change. Yes, tonight, someone’s life is going to be changed.” In that moment, I was conflicted. I was still drawn to what was happening, curious about the message, and open to experiencing the cool, summer mountain night with others seeking God and exercising their faith. But I was aware that at my core I was not comfortable with the particular intimacy required of the laying on of hands and the one-on-one prayer with the man who would soon approach me in the back row. I left before he reached my place in the tent; but the experience, and Reverend Hamsby’s words, have stayed with me, “Tonight, someone’s life is going to change.”
With his words as the backdrop, in recent weeks I have reflected on my own life-changing moments. Those moments when some truth stared me in the face and required that I do or say something different; or the awareness of some wrong committed that demanded that I change my mind or my way of seeing or interacting with those around me. I have reflected on those times in my life (many of them) when, in some unexpected way, from some unexpected person, I have had to acknowledge that I have been wrong about an idea or person or long-held assumption. Maybe, just maybe, there was something I needed to hear and learn under that big white tent from the Reverend Cecil B. Hamsby.
I wonder if the story of the Syrophoenician woman was such a moment for Jesus – that moment when truth stared Jesus in the face and he had to decide how he would respond; that moment when each of us must decide whether or not we have the courage to be wrong. I will admit before making any further remarks on this text that there is a danger in both oversimplifying this story and overcomplicating it. By trying to understand why, under any circumstance, Jesus would say such harsh words to anyone – much less a hurting mother – is mind-boggling. And yet, there is no question that the most debated portion of this story is Jesus’ use of the word “dog.” “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The debate centers on the question of how to translate the word dog; a question on which biblical scholars do not agree and one that we will not solve this morning. But just to give you a flavor of the debate, some believe that the word should be translated as “puppy” or suggest that “dog” carries an endearing quality. Others have suggested that maybe the word “dog” is referencing followers of a certain philosophy of the day. Still others simply state that Jesus’ use of this term was a common insult to Gentiles – equivalent in our day to a racial slur. Whatever can be said about this text – contextually, linguistically, theologically, and otherwise – this story is multi-layered, complex, and complicated.
As for Jesus’ response to the woman, it is hard, if not impossible, to find a satisfying answer to why Jesus called her a dog. Other than acknowledging that Jesus, when encountering the Syrophoenician woman, had a very real human moment of grave insensitivity, there is no real explanation that holds, at least in my mind, any integrity. Jesus made a mistake and a fairly significant one. With that explanation, however, I must admit that I do like the idea that in Jesus somehow humanity and God co-exist with one another; that in Jesus we see not only God but also the fullness of what it is to be human. And a very real part of being human is to make mistakes and to learn from them.
I think it is fair to say that Jesus captures our attention in this text because his response to the Syrophoenician woman feels so uncharacteristic to us. But in reality, the fact that Jesus can be offensive, impatient, off-putting, should not surprise us. The Gospel writers do not shrink to show us Jesus as angry, sharp-tongued, and demanding. Indeed, although it is always tempting to tame the character of Jesus, or to sentimentalize him, the Christian tradition by-and-large embraces the fact that the Jesus of the Gospels is a powerful and complex figure, who presents us with the same array of challenges, and the same passion, that the Bible teaches us to expect from any prophet.
With that said about Jesus, maybe more worthy of our attention in this story is the Syrophoenician woman herself, not Jesus. After all, she is the one who had the courage to speak truth to power. She was the outcast, the damned, the disinherited, the marginalized, the oppressed who boldly, and with integrity, dared to point out to Jesus his own prejudice and privilege. She is the one who reminds Jesus that God shows up in the places we often turn our eyes away from – in a mother begging for her child; in a woman not welcome at the table; in the outsider and the stranger; with the young man sitting in a prison cell or the woman sleeping under the bridge. It is the Syrophoenician woman who reminds Jesus that God shows up begging for mercy and outside of our expectations.
I think there are two big take-aways from this story that speak to who God needs for us to be in this moment in history. The first is that we need to be people of courage who are willing to stand up and speak truth to power and privilege – to the dominant culture that insists on keeping some people down. The Syrophoenician woman reminded me of a passage I read some years ago by Marianne Williamson, spiritual activist, author, and founder of The Peace Alliance. It begins…
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
The Syrophoenician woman, in having the courage to be right – to speak truth to power for the sake of those damned – liberates us to follow her example and risk speaking truth to the oppressive powers of our day.
Equally important, though, is our willingness to follow the example of Jesus: we must be willing to be wrong. It is imperative for all of us, especially those of us who are in places of power and privilege (probably everyone in this room in some way or another), “to risk our power and privilege on behalf of the powerless, learning to embrace not only the possibility, but the very distinct probability that we have been wrong about a great many things that have seemed so central to our faith” and our way of living in the world (Geography of Grace by Rocke and Van Dyke). The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman invites us to reclaim the Bible’s liberating Word for the world and risk being wrong about unexamined assumptions and long-held beliefs that in reality do great harm in the name of being “right.”
I learned something important at the Holy Ghost Tent Revival in Boone, North Carolina. I’m not so different from the Reverend Cecil Hamsby. Pentecostal or Pullen liberal, there is something that we can learn from one another if we have the courage to be right and wrong – to speak truth to power; and embrace not only the possibility, but the very distinct probability that we have been wrong about a great many things that have seemed so central to our faith and way of living in the world.
In our courage to be right for the sake of the damned and the outcast, and in our courage to be wrong about our long-held beliefs and assumptions, we are powerful beyond measure.