Sermon 09/09/2012: Who Do You Love Best?

Rev. Stacy Swain

Scripture: Mark 7:24-37, James 2: 1-10, 14-17

Any parent of more than one child knows — that when it comes to peace at home — and healthy sibling relations, impartiality on the part of the parent is critical. It is critical in the household dynamic to eliminate whatever could possibly be misconstrued or erroneously perceived as favoritism. So when the question from the children comes “who do you love best?” We as parents are poised to reply with honesty and practiced impartiality “Neither, I love you all the same.”

But for any of us who indeed have been faced with this question, we know it does not stop there, does it? When my son was 3, 4, and 5 years old and faced with an increasingly adorable younger sister, he often asked me that question and even though each time I would answer “Neither sweetie, I love you both the same” the look of skepticism on his face told me how highly improbably he found my answer to be. I could almost hear his little mind churning “how can mom love us the same when we are not — the same.”

But before we go any further, let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Our parents of faith, the founders of this church well they also knew the importance of impartiality. Favoritism they knew does not have a place in a healthy, safe, secure and life giving church home. They wanted to create a place where not a certain type of person would be welcomed and valued but where all people would be welcomed and valued. And that is who we are, that is what this community is all about.

We are a church where we are welcomed not because we are a particular people that believe in a particular way or live in a particular style. All of that categorizing and sorting and social ordering may go on out there, but when we come through those doors into this house, when we slide into these pews and gather with each other around this table all of that falls away. Here in this house, we are assured that we are loved the same. And here’s the rub, being loved the same frees us from trying to be the same. It frees us instead to be our truest most authentic selves.

But that’s not the end of the story. No it is just the beginning. Being loved the same, having this church community is not just about feeling good about being here, feeling good about ourselves, feeling good about each other. As important as that is it is not the endpoint of why we gather but just the starting point. The story from the gospel this morning, this remarkable story that appears both in Mark and Matthew’s gospel is window into what can happen once we claim the truth that we are loved the same.

Let’s turn to that story now. Up until this point in his ministry, Jesus has been quite clear with himself that his mission is to bring the good news of God’s abundant love — to the Jewish people. Jesus was not an evangelizer, he was a reformer. He was about putting faith into action within the Jewish community to help that community grow in new and life giving ways. Up until this point he believed that his message, God’s message that was enlivened through him, was meant for a particular people, who believed a particular way, and lived in a particular style.

The reason he is up in Tyre this morning, underscores this. As this story opens Jesus has taken a side trip into the land of the Gentiles. He has taken a side trip and gone out of the area where the Jews lived and into a region populated by Greeks and Romans. He has gone here because he is tired and needs a break from his ministry. He goes into the land of the Gentiles to seek rest because there he knows he can be off duty there. He knows can be nothing that is required of him there.

But the woman who was a Gentile of Syrophoneician origin changes that landscape for him, changes how he sees himself, changed how he sees his ministry in the world.

Think about this please for a moment, if you would. It is the one who is perceived to be the outsider, the undervalued, the one who is perceived by Jesus and the disciples to be somehow outside the embrace God’s grace and outside the chosen community that ends up transforming the entire scope and work of Jesus and of his community.

Let me reiterate that. For all of us who may feel on the edge, who feel that our imperfections relegates us to second best; that our doubts and questions render us irrelevant; that our place really ought to be on the margins, let us remember that it is precisely that person in this story that teaches not just the disciples but Jesus himself something new, something new about God’s grace and abundant love.

So what is it about this woman enables her to live so courageously? To insist on having a place at the table? To step from the margin to front and center? Well I think it starts with the love that this mother has for her child and for the enormity of need that she feels for the healing of her girl, the urgency of that is bigger and more pressing than her insecurities about her worthiness.

But then there is more, this enormous love and urgent need meets hope. She has heard about Jesus, heard about the God that is at work through him. The intersection of her love and need with this hope is enough to spark trust. A trust that ultimately changes lives, changes her life, changes her daughter’s life, changes Jesus life, changes our lives I dare say even today. Her love, need and hope lead her trust in the abundance of God’s love that like her own love will do all it can so that no son and no daughter is left out to wither, to diminish, or to die.

And so she presses her case. She comes to the table, a woman, a foreigner, a nobody, she comes to the table and when she is rebuked she persists still saying “ “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And in doing so, in speaking these words, she cracks open a fence, bores a hole in a wall, breaches a barrier and releases the outpouring of grace that was waiting, hoping, hungering to be let free in all the world.

Now what I find so compelling about this story is not just the Syrophonecian woman but also what I find compelling in this story is Jesus’ reaction to her. It would have been easy for the writers of the Gospels to have skipped this story for on the surface it does not put Jesus in the best light. Let’s be honest. Jesus is down right crabby and condescending.

But thank heavens, the Gospel writers were not about spin. They were not about putting Jesus in his best light. They were about truth and they saw I believe in Jesus’ response to this remarkable woman a lesson for us all.

Jesus hears her words. He turns to her and embraces her in his ministry. His break was not a time out, but instead it turns out an invitation to extend his ministry in ways he could not have imagined. Jesus is passionate but not rigid. He is committed but not closed.

The Syrophonecian woman leaves Jesus a changed man and the change in him, changes others. When the next person in need he encounters in his ministry is a deaf man, a gentile, a non Jew he does not hesitate for a moment to unstop his ears and release his tongue. No more will Jesus’ ministry just be just for a particular people, who believe in a particular way and live in a particular style. His live giving, world changing message will now be open for anyone and everyone in need, anyone and everyone who loves and anyone and everyone who trusts.

You know. It’s kind of funny. When my kids were small, as I said they never really believed me when I said I loved them the same but as they got older and they became absolutely invested in it. In fact the other day when, I was asked which of our two dogs I like best, I replied without thinking for I was still smarting from the fact that Nala, the puppy has now eaten four pairs of my shoes, I said quite emphatically “oh, I love Lily (our older dog) way more than Nala. No sooner than the words escaped my mouth than my kids pointedly chastised me saying “that was not right!” They told me I was to love the both the same and that I had better go right over to Nala and give her some love!

Knowing and acting out of the truth that in the light of the sacred we are loved all the same is not simply a nicety it is a necessity. In the reading from the book of James, the author is instructing the new church how it is they are to be together – giving them specific instruction for how to interact. But the book of James is in no way about being polite. It is not about maintaining social graces. It is not the Emily Post of the first century teaching the early church to mind its manners as if it is it is secretly “OK” to value one type of person over another but the important thing is just not to let it show.

No the reason James is insisting on loving all the same because he knows the teaching of this story of the Syrophonecian woman. He insists on loving all the same because he know full well that not only does this create a healthy and life giving home but even more importantly it opens this home to previously unseen but holy life changing in-breaking of God’s abundance grace and love. To not love all the same is condemn the community to insecurity and rivalry. It is to rob the community of the possibility and potential — of the life giving and transformational presence of God grace in not only in our individual lives and in our live together but also in impact of how we live our lives out in the wider world.

And so on this gathering Sunday, take a look around. We are not the same but we are loved the same. On this gathering Sunday, let us take the Syrophonecian woman as our inspiration. Let her inspire us to step from the margin, and claim our place at the table. Let her inspire us to let our love, and need and hope spark trust and may that trust lead us to encounter life giving, life changing openings not just for us but for each other and for the world.

And may we take Jesus also as our example. May we be passionate but not stuck. Committed but not closed. And may we always be always be ready to recognize the invitations in front of us and ready and open to turn on a heart beat to receive then. And may the work of God in and through be healing and transforming. Leading us closer to our most authentic, God given selves and leading us closer to the life giving, world changing power of God’s presence in and through us. Amen.