Over the past two months many of us have taken time for vacation – a week or two, a couple of days here or there. Maybe your vacation was weekend trips to the beach or campground or gathering with family for a reunion.
Maybe just having a slower or more relaxed schedule for the summer was refreshing and restorative for you – giving you time to spend with friends, go fishing, work in your garden, sit on the deck on warm evenings and enjoy the beauty of the night.
We who live in New Jersey know enough to savor good weather, and enjoy it while we have it, tuck the warmth and the sunshine of the summer away so that we can be cheered by its remembrance in the cold rains of November or the ice storms of February.
So we’ve been away, but now we’re back – to work, to school, to a regular schedule (I hear some parents cheering about that), and back to the full program-year here at Church.
Sometimes in churches you hear: We’ll, you may go on vacation, but God never does. That’s true, God doesn’t take a vacation; God doesn’t need to.
But during Jesus’ life and ministry amongst us there were often times when Jesus needed a break, a nap, a time apart, a little holiday. And we hear right at the start of this morning’s Gospel about Jesus going away to the region of Tyre; it’s a city on the coast of the Mediterranean, about thirty miles north of Capernaum, were Jesus based his ministry.
We don’t know why Jesus went to Tyre; Mark tells us “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Maybe he was taking a break, having a seaside retreat, a little vacation. “Yet he could not escape notice” the Gospel says.
Word got out that Jesus was there, and a very desperate woman with a sick daughter came to see him and prostrated herself before him. She was a Syrophonecian, a Gentile, someone outside the scope of accepted Jewish social relations – and she had a child who was possessed by an unclean spirit.
That is every parent’s nightmare – that a son or daughter will be taken seriously ill, suffer a traumatic injury, wander away emotionally or spiritually and take up with the wrong crowd, seeming to leave a stranger in their place. When these things occur, they very much seem like an unclean spirit.
No wonder the woman was so insistent that Jesus heal her daughter – any one of us would do the same.
But Jesus says something very strange to her: He said, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." To call someone a dog in the ancient Near East was an insult. This is not at all what we would expect Jesus to say, at least not if we think of Jesus as being endlessly available to all people at all times; his words bring us up short – what was he thinking?!
Listen to the rest of the conversation: 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."
In the Old Testament – starting all the way back with Abraham – it was understood that God had chosen a people for himself (the Jews) who were to be blessed by God so that they in turn would be a blessing to the world on God’s behalf. And then, in the fullness of time, God would expand that blessing and that relationship to all people, to the Gentiles – that is, the great majority of us sitting here this morning.
Jesus’ mission and ministry, his teaching and healing and proclamation and mighty acts, were all about announcing the arrival of God’s Kingdom – first to the Jews, and then to the Gentiles.
So Jesus was saying to this Syrophonecian woman, that it wasn’t time yet for the Gentiles to be brought into the fullness of God’s Kingdom.
Well, she was desperate; you would be, too. She didn’t argue Jesus’ point – if the Jews were considered the children in Jesus’ figure of speech, and God’s blessing was the bread, then even the dogs could share in the abundance, the crumbs that fell from the table, the scraps, the leftovers – and that would be enough.
Somehow, this Syrophonecian mother was able to glimpse the power and the overwhelming goodness and generosity of God, and trust that even a scrap of that power would be enough to heal her daughter. And she was right - and Jesus knew she was right.
On the way to fulfilling his mission, announcing and inaugurating the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, there would be extra, overflow, leftovers that fall from the table, like the twelve baskets of leftover pieces of bread at the Feeding of the 5000.
It may not have been fully time for the Gentiles to be brought into the blessing of God’s Kingdom – that would happen after the Resurrection – but it was getting pretty close, just like being able to smell the sea air before you actually arrive at the beach, and the Gentile woman knew that there would be enough to heal her daughter.
Now there are many more things we might like to say about this passage, to puzzle over, to ponder about – and I hope you will do so.
I hope you will take the lectionary insert home with you, tuck it in your pocket, stick it in your purse, post it on your refrigerator – and read it over during the week. Daydream over it, pray over it, meditate on it and be open to whatever the Holy Spirit might reveal to you about the meaning and importance of this passage for your own life, your own faith, for your work, your neighbors. No one of us can ever have the whole story or the last word when we are talking about Scripture and the way God speaks to us through it.
But for now, for this morning, it is enough to know that the power and the grace and the love of God is abundant and overflowing – is there for all of us…maybe not in the ways we might wish or expect, but it is there, no matter what.
And God longs to give us the good gifts of grace and wholeness and joy and hope. And we, in turn, can share those gifts with others, can offer the abundance of kindness and generosity and faith and courage and steadfastness with those who need it most.
Listen for who might be the Syrophonecian woman in your life, in your world, asking for help, for healing, for blessing, and offer what you have.
Take what God offers, take what you need, and then pass it along to someone else who needs it also, knowing that God is at work in whatever you share.
Let us pray.
God of your goodness,
give me yourself,
for you are enough for me…
and if I ask for anything les
I shall ever be in want,
for only in you have I all. Amen.
~ adapted from a prayer of Dame Julian of Norwich, 14th century
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2012