One of the most astounding visits I had with a hospital patient occurred during my pastoral training. The patient wanted to see the pastor, but I had been told that they were not a church supporter, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Their condition was fragile, leaving the patient very week, and it took several tries before they were able to talk with me. I guess you could say that I had some anxiety and nervousness build up as I anticipated our conversation. When I came up to their bedside, the intensity in their eyes focused on me, and they said words which I have never forgotten.
They said “I have to tell you that God is way bigger than the church allows God to be!”
God is much bigger.
I think that might be the pitfall we have with the scripture passage this morning: the account of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman leaves us confused, and I think that is because we put God in the small box of being like us and not knowing what to do. Often this text is interpreted as giving us permission to tell God what to do. – I’m sure you’ve heard people say that prayers will be answered if you pray hard enough, and the explanation of not getting the specific outcome you asked for means that you, poor loser, didn’t pray hard enough!
Isn’t that a bit absurd!
God is not in that small box. God is much bigger than we can possibly imagine.
How could we possibly know better than God? Do we think God really needs our input? It’s laughable really, but entire religions are founded on the principal that if you make yourself good and worthy, you will be rewarded because you’ve shown God that you deserve it! God is certainly not in that small box
My dear friends – you are already worthy, because God has created you and cherishes you – just as you are. Prayer is a conversation with God, and way to awaken us to God’s constant presence.
So where does that leave us with this text of Jesus arguing with the woman who is begging for healing?
First of all we need to believe that every moment of our life is an encounter that brings us closer to God. This is true for you and me, and also for the disciples with Jesus that day. This is not our doing – it is God’s doing.
As the disciples and Jesus entered into ‘Gentile territory’ that day, Jesus and the disciples encountered a non-Jewish woman who, strangely, believed in Jesus. We can appreciate her desperation because her dear child, the light and joy of her life was in terrible torment. I expect that the pain of the mother was probably as great as the pain the child endured. She was desperate.
Now, Jesus had just taught the disciples that anything evil is not outside, but comes from within ourselves. Would the disciples remember that lesson and bring forth love toward this woman of this foreign land? I believe Jesus knew that he would heal the daughter, maybe she had already been healed… and he rebuffed the woman – testing not her faith, but testing the disciples. In any case, this was the time for the disciples to speak up and defended her as a child of God,
But they didn’t.
And that is the downfall of humanity through the generations. We fail to speak up; we build barriers, divide land into mini kingdoms of human construction, we separate into classes and divide into race and religion. We lift up unworthy people and put vulnerable people down, doing it in the name of privilege. We have all kinds of systems to judge who is in and who is out. The disciples crossed a man-made border, making them think their differences with the desperate woman were greater than their similarities.
Where do we set boundaries for who is in and who is out?
Where do we miss seeing that God is great; and not small like human understanding?
Many years ago, I attended a synodical gathering in Winnipeg. The opening worship service was in a grand old church in the heart of the city.
We walked from the hotel to the church, and along the way we passed the many polar bear statues of Winnipeg, and of course we passed street people including a particularly large group sitting on the sidewalk in front of the church, dirty, sniffling, or sleeping.
Being city smart, my friends and I did not make eye contact with these rough looking people and we managed to pass by without incident. “whew”
So you can imagine our surprise ….. and humiliation … as these very same people were the ones who brought the offering plates up to the altar in our service. There were not very many dry eyes in the sanctuary at that moment, I have to say. Many of us had decided that the people on the street were outsiders. How wrong we were.
In deciding who is in and who is out, we also decide whose voice is worth listening to, and whose voice is not important.
In a predominantly patriarchal world, many voices go unheard. That is sad because those voices are included in the voices that teach according to the love of God. They are part of the voice that helps us see that God is alive in our heart in a large way and not enclosed in a box too small – a box that we can understand.
The voices that teach and the moments which are encounters with God come from surprising places –
I mentioned last week about the summer project the confirmation class has been working on. I will talk about that a bit more because it has been such a blessing to hear the voice of youth in our presence. They each chose a short novel to read over the summer and have recently submitted their reports.
The young people shared these insights and I invite you to listen to their voices: – “We have differences and similarities but by listening to each other we can get along;”
“I admire the strength of the person telling this difficult truth” – “if you are nervous, keep at it anyway and you will gain confidence;”
“I appreciate the heritage of my family and am sorry others had their heritage taken away from them;”
“We need to listen to each other, be accepting and respect each other and the earth;”
And perhaps my favorite: “if you are shy, find a trusted friend; and if you are nasty shape up and be a better person”
We are blessed by these teaching voices of youth. I you seek a fresh perspective, listen to the children. We are blessed by the words of scripture and the teaching voice of Jesus as he crosses boundaries and opens doors for us to respond in loving ways.
We are blessed by every encounter –including patients in hospital, street people with whom we need to make eye contact so we can learn, and we are blessed in this sacred Sunday gathering as we learn together.
This opens our eyes to experience the prophecy of Isaiah –the joy and leaping and singing and breaking forth of all good things in the wilderness. Praises be sung that God is way bigger than we imagine!