Boasting of God’s Mercy

Etching by Pietro del PoThe Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman asks Christ to cure, ca. 1650.

This sermon is from Sunday, September 5, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. The lessons were Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-17, and Mark 7:24-37.

From the ages of 9-17, I attended a Christian summer camp called “Summer’s Best Two Weeks” in Boswell, Pennsylvania. Like most Christian summer camps, the focus of the experience was on following Jesus couched in a plethora of outdoor activities, team events, sporting contests, and bonfires. 

It was at SB2W that I learned the “I’m Third Rule,”: God first, others second, and self third. It’s where I learned that we play for an audience of One. It’s where I learned this phrase: Attitude Check: Jesus is the Lord; Gratitude Check: Glory goes to God. 

It’s also where I repelled down a rock wall.

There was a small rocking climbing wall at a 45-degree incline for the littler kids. There was a much larger, flat-faced wall for the older kids, but the purest form of heroism was reserved for those who would ascend the stairs to the top of the climbing wall and repel down the other side. This wall was 50 feet tall, but it felt like Everest.

Imagine me, a scrawny and short 10-year old climbing to the top of this rock climbing tower. The camp counselor is telling me how to repel down the wall while tying my harness to the rope which will hopefully hold me steady. My knees are shaking, my palms are sweating, I am utterly terrified as he marches me, backward toward the edge of the precipice and begins to slowly tilt me back over the edge. 

Seeing that I’m nervous, the counselor asks: do you trust me?

Now, I know this was supposed to instill confidence in me, but I didn’t know this counselor. I didn’t know his track record of successfully belaying adolescents and pre-adolescents down the wall without dropping them to their bone-crushing doom. I believed that the harness was properly attached, I hoped that the rope would hold, and I wanted-to-believe that the counselor would do everything in his power to keep me safe.

I didn’t trust, though. 

The trip down, once I stepped off the edge, was one of my favorite memories that summer. All fear forgotten in the blink of an eye.

Trust is an interesting concept, isn’t it. It’s something that is hard to gain and easy to lose. Our money says, “In God We Trust”; some of us remember the slogan used for Jimmy Carter’s and Walter Mondale’s failed re-election bid: “A Tested and Trustworthy Team.” 

But do we truly understand what trust is?

Our Collect this morning takes this abstract question and makes it an essential grappling point for us. The Collect begins: O God, to trust in you with all our hearts.  I would like to offer you a new working definition of trust as it pertains to God. Trust is firmly believing that God is who he says he is and that he will do what he has promised to do.

Noah trusted YHWH and he built an ark; Abram trusted YHWH and he left the land of his father and made a covenant with this monotheistic God; Moses trusted YHWH and he delivered God’s people from Egypt; David trusted YHWH and he was a man after God’s own heart; Mary trusted YHWH and said, “May it be unto me.” Time and time again, YHWH reveals himself to his people by telling them who he is: I am who I am, I am the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I will be your God and you will be my people. Then he tells them what he will do: I will redeem you; I will rescue you; I will make a covenant with you; I will establish your throne forever; I will write my covenant on your hearts; I will be your God.

The Old Testament has been marching slowly and intentionally toward the day when God’s chosen one, his anointed Messiah, the faithful Israelite would come to redeem God’s people once and for all. For generations and centuries Israel walked by faith, not by sight because she trusted that God was who he said he was and that he would do all that he said he would do. The obvious caveat here is that Israel’s covenant fidelity waxed and waned like the moon, but she did still trust in YHWH even amid her sins.

So we enter the fray of Mark’s Gospel once more, this time beginning with Mark 7:24. Last Sunday we read about Jesus taking the religious leaders of Israel to task for their codes and laws of purity, and we now find ourselves immersed in a story that has long been a stumbling block for preachers. At first glance, the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenecian woman about dogs and scraps feels discordant with the gospel, and yet, once you understand it, it is the absolute most logical follow up to last week’s lesson. 

Jesus leaves the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem who have attempted to ambush him and he ends up in the region of Tyre. Here’s what you need to know about Tyre: Tyreans were not Jewish, they were Gentiles. Worse than that, Josephus describes the Tyreans as some of the Jews “bitterest enemies.” Jesus is once again behind enemy lines.

Jesus is trying to fly under the radar because the more publicity he gets the more the “powers that be” want to get rid of him. Quick recap: who are the powers that be who are upset with Jesus’ ministry?

Evil spirits, demons, and the satan
Pharisees, Scribes, Chief Priests

Jesus enters a Gentile house which would have made him unclean. A woman approaches him; she is a Gentile and therefore ritually unclean. Lastly, her daughter has an unclean spirit. 

Just so we’re clear: an unclean Gentile with an unclean daughter comes to Jesus in an unclean Gentile house. Triple whammy (that’s a theological term).

There is absolutely no reason that Jesus should be talking to this Gentile…if you’re a Pharisee.

Remember, we have just heard about all of the codes, rules, commandments, and ordinances pertaining to ritual purity and Jesus has just broken a bunch of those rules by even being in a Tyrean house with a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit.

Spoiler alert: that’s part of the beauty of this story!

The Syrophoenecian woman comes and bows down at his feet. Mark doesn’t give us her name but that’s not to make her less important to the story, it is done in order to highlight how much of an outsider she is presumably to the family of God. She prostrates herself before Jesus and while we could interpret this as an act of desperation, it is strikingly similar to the woman with bleeding whom Jesus healed earlier: this woman trusts who Jesus is based on the miracles he has already performed among the Jews and the Gentiles. And she trusts that he can do it again for her daughter.

Why else would she bow down at his feet? 

Jesus’ reaction, however, is surprising. Instead of saying yes immediately, he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This is an odd response, right? We need to substitute some words then it will make more sense. “Children” refers to Israel; “food” or “bread” refers to the gospel; “dogs” refers to the Gentiles. Jesus is saying, “Israel needs to be fed first, it isn’t fair to take Israel’s gospel and give it to the Gentiles.” This seems harsh. It seems out of character. It even feels a little bit racist to think of these words in Jesus’ mouth. 

There are a wide variety of interpretations to the meaning of this passage: some say that Jesus was being sarcastic, that he is giving her the old “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” routine as he says this. But nothing in the text references such body language. Others say that Jesus was in fact intending to NOT heal her daughter based on her lack of being Jewish but that she convinced him. This doesn’t sit well because Jesus has already been performing miracles in Gentile territory in Mark’s gospel. The most obvious answer, according to a theologian with whom I agree, Rebecca Taylor, is that Jesus isn’t being sarcastic or racist, he’s acting like a good rabbi, inviting the woman to participate in a dialogue. It’s as though Jesus is egging her on, encouraging her toward the right answer, the one he knows she already has. Further up and further in, as Lewis would say.

Think about it: Jesus shouldn’t even be talking to her let alone being in the same space as her and yet he responds to her request and to her rebuttal. Jesus is treating this Gentile woman the same way that he has treated his male disciples, the woman at the well, and the woman who was bleeding.

His opening remark isn’t a barrier but an invitation. It is an invitation to explore faith and God.

This is one of those times the NRSV gets it wrong–can’t win them all–they start her response with “Sir,” but it is actually, “Lord.” This Gentile woman knows who Jesus is and she has the faith and trust to persist until he heals her daughter. The woman retorts that even the dogs get the crumbs under the table. As in, the food may have been intended for the Jews but the Gentiles are still eating it. This is consistent with salvation history–YHWH told Abram the nations of the world would be blessed through Israel; the Gentiles are always intended recipients of the Gospel.

You know how Jesus is constantly telling people, “Your faith has made you well”? The Syrophoenecian woman’s faith made her daughter well. It is the intersection of her faith and God’s mercy. Jesus is merciful to this unclean foreigner by engaging her, by elevating her, by treating her as an equal, and by responding to her faith with healing. This healing story of the Syrophoenecian’s daughter expands the reach of the Gospel very clearly into the Gentile world. All of our passages today expand the reach of the gospel because they expand the definition of neighbor

James addresses this question in his epistle when he writes, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Apparently they were elevating the rich and further marginalizing the poor. They were judging people based on their wallets. Surely that doesn’t happen any more? Proverbs talks about the poor and how the LORD pleads their case

James goes further: when we break one part of the law we break the whole law. And this is the hard saying for us this morning: do we love our neighbors as ourselves? And I don’t mean the ones who vote the same way, who spend money the same way, who read the same books, who take the same paper, who support the same teams…I mean the ones who are entirely different from us: the ones who voted for our candidate’s opponent, the ones who aren’t from America, the ones who have no money, the ones who have different skin color, the ones who don’t wear masks, the ones who do wear masks, the ones who believe there is no God. Do we love them? Because if we don’t then we are guilty of breaking one of the two great commandments.

Let’s hop back to Mark with the second part of the Collect in mind: so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy. Jesus moves on from Tyre into the region of the Decapolis. This is not the first time we have heard of this place. Meaning “ten cities,” it was mentioned earlier in Mark 5 when Jesus casts the legion of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac. The man, now healed, wants to follow Jesus but Jesus tells him instead to go. Jesus says, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” Where does this man go? To the Decapolis, Gentile territory, proclaiming the good news, boasting of God’s mercy.

We should not be surprised that Jesus heals a deaf man. Everyone knows of this Jesus by this point! Despite Jesus’ attempts to stay secret, his miracles and mighty acts cannot be silenced, hidden, or ignored. Of course the actual healing is important, but it is the man’s response that is truly significant for us…

Jesus tells the observers to be quiet “but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’” They are boasting of God’s mercy.

Do you know what I did every day at camp after I successfully repelled down the wall with life and limb intact? I told every camper who would listen about the counselor who kept me safe. I was boasting about his talent.

Let me ask you some simple questions: 

How has God been present and merciful in your life?
When have you experienced God’s love? His protection? His provision?
When have you seen God act?
How has God revealed himself to you in  your life?

I know you are sifting through your life as you sit here and you are beginning to formulate thoughts about events and experiences of your life that cannot be described apart from God’s presence. Perhaps it was healing, perhaps it was comfort in the face of grief, perhaps it was provision and protection. Whatever it was…you know what I’m talking about.

Our invitation from Jesus this morning is the same one he issued to the Gerasene after healing him: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Those who have experienced God’s mercy are encouraged to tell others about it. It’s one thing to say, “The Bible says,” but it’s entirely different to say, “This is how God has shown up in my life.” In AA we would call that sharing our experience, strength, and hope.

Think of the chain of events: Jesus heals the demoniac in Mark 5. He sends him on his way to the Decapolis to boast of God’s mercy. In Mark 7 we come back to the Decapolis where Jesus is now known, he heals again, and again they go out boasting of God’s mercy. This is how the Kingdom of God grows: God uses ordinary men and women, like you and me, who experience God’s mercy, to then enact God’s mercy and announce God’s mercy.

Friends, if we are going to get serious about sharing our faith, about inviting others to join us on God’s mission, then we need to enact and announce God’s mercy in action and in proclamation.

My prayer for St. David’s is this: That we would become a place where people meet Jesus. That St. David’s would be known as a holy ground where men and women encounter the Living God in the midst of their lives. That we would become a holy people who boast in God’s mercy by telling others what God has done for us. That we would be anointed and empowered by the Holy Spirit to show others who Jesus is.

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