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Grit and Grace

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A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 9, 2012.

Mark 7:24-37

24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander wrote the words to a hymn titled “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”  The opening words of that hymn are also its refrain.  All things bright and beautiful, all things great and small, all things wise and wonderful; our Father made them all.  The idea that all things come from a common Creator runs through every religious belief system that we know, along with a related idea:  all people come from a common Creator.

But one of the lessons we encounter from Mark’s Gospel today brings us face to face with something else.  There are people we find it convenient, if not advantageous, to ignore.  Even if we don’t actively mistreat them, there are people we find it easy to disregard.  They, like us, come from a common Creator.  But we often are not found extending them the blessings of God’s grace.

The lesson is based on an encounter Jesus had in the region of Tyre in what was then the Roman province of Syria.  Tyre is now one of the largest cities in Lebanon.  The region of Tyre was along the Mediterranean coastline so the area was a major commercial trading and shipping point.  This was a wealthy place. 

Aside from the fact that Tyre was a Gentile-dominated place, the place and its people were part of an unpleasant history for Jews.  Jezebel, the notoriously cruel and powerful wife of King Ahab, was from that region.  Ezekiel’s prophecy contains a harsh condemnation of the people of Tyre in Chapters 26, 27, and 28, perhaps because the people of Tyre gloated over the conquest of Judah and the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem. During the time of Jesus’ ministry, relations between the more prosperous Tyrian population and its less wealthy Jewish minority appear to have been strained, if not bitter. 

Despite these realities, Jesus left the Galilee region and went to Tyre.  He left his home base to visit a place and people whose very mention often triggered a hostile reaction among Jews. 

Mark’s Gospel states that Jesus went to Tyre and “entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice, …” (Mk. 7:24-25).   A Gentile woman, of Syro-Phoenician ancestry, somehow learned his location and made her way into his presence and begged him to heal her troubled little girl.  

Surely she knew about the long animosity between her Gentile ancestry and the Jewish ancestry of Jesus. But somehow she pushed beyond all that history of resentment to make her way into what was probably a Jewish residence and beg a Jewish man to heal her daughter.

Jesus didn’t give her what one might consider a gracious first response when 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.”

Jesus may have been testing her faith by that statement.  He may have been simply expressing his belief that the primary target for his ministry was his own Jewish community. He may have been doing something else.  But his comment is painful to read and probably was more painful for the woman to hear.  She came to Jesus begging for help.  His comment suggested that the help she sought was reserved for others and that she and her daughter were like dogs, unfit to receive what was reserved for members of the Jewish community. 

No person should be considered unfit to receive help based on their ancestry.  The woman and her daughter were Gentiles by birth.  Their ancestry didn’t make them less needy of God’s mercy. 

But the Syro-Phoenician woman refused to take offense or back down.  Instead, she pushed back by telling Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” That prompted the following announcement by Jesus, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” Her faith did not falter when it met an unpleasant or adverse situation. That persistent faith joined divine grace to result in healing for her daughter. 

Gritty faith makes a saving difference. Life is full of unpleasant realities.  Many people allow those unpleasant realities to define their sense of God’s power and purpose.  The woman could have allowed the history of ethnic animosity between her people and those of Jesus to define her faith in what was possible. She could have taken offense at the unpleasant statement by Jesus and allowed her pain to crush her faith in God’s love, power, and purpose.  But she had gritty faith that was tougher than the unpleasant realities. Her gritty faith made the saving difference for her suffering daughter.

Gritty faith in divine justice made the saving difference for the people who fought for years to abolish slavery, allow women voting rights, and improve working conditions and pay for laborers.

Gritty faith in divine mercy makes the difference every day for people suffering with illness, grief, and despair.

Gritty faith in divine love makes the difference for people struggling to overcome past mistakes, live beyond addiction, and act with strength in the face of prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination. 

In a world full of unpleasant realities, we need people with gritty faith like that of the Syro-Phoenician mother.  We need people who won’t back down when facing unpleasant realities.  We need people who will continue praying and pushing, pleading and planning, agitating as well as meditating.  Gritty faith does make a saving difference.

Who are our Gentiles?  Who are the people we find it convenient to ignore?  Who are the people we consider unworthy of God’s mercy, justice, and peace?  This lesson exposes the painful truth that religious people can adopt the prejudices and practices of culture.  We can view and treat some people as “Gentiles.”  When that happens, we become agents of deprivation rather than liberation.

Our “Gentiles” are the people we force to pass through hoops before they receive the blessings of grace they deserve.  They are the people with whom we have “issues.”  They are the people we hope to avoid and may actively shun.  They are the “Syro-Phoenicians” of our time and place, the people we somehow view and treat as unworthy of God’s grace. 

And like the Syro-Phoenician woman, they are the people whose gritty faith can often intrude on our desire for uninterrupted living.  “Gentiles” make us uncomfortable.  Here are some examples.

  • “Gentiles” include people we consider “different” due to their social status but who insist on receiving equality.  People who are poor, immigrant, homosexual, or otherwise “different” are considered “pushy” and intrusive when they demand equality.
  • Palestinians are considered “different” as they demand justice in the face of racial segregation and brutal treatment at the hands of the government of Israel.  Meanwhile, Jewish people who associate with and support their claims for freedom and equality also are targets of mistreatment and hostility.
  • People who have formerly been incarcerated are considered “different” because of their previous convictions.  They are often denied equal access to public services such as housing and education.

The encounter Jesus had with the Syro-Phoenician woman teaches that “Gentiles” will press their claims for divine justice on us. They cannot afford to wait until we find it convenient to be agents of divine love and truth in their experiences.  Those with gritty faith push, prod, and agitate because they somehow believe that God’s love is bigger and more real than human prejudice and resentment. They have more faith in God’s grace than in human hate and pain.

The woman is an example of the personal courage required of people who need help.  She did not allow her despised gender, social status, and ancestry to block her path to Jesus or her faith in God’s love.  She wasn’t too proud to ask a Jewish man for help.  The woman would not give up on Jesus. 

Like that woman, we must not give up on God.  Like the woman, our faith must be tougher than the culture of prejudice and unbelief of our time. Like the woman, we must believe that God’s love extends to everyone, regardless of religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, ability, personal history, and everything else.  Like the woman, we who are considered “Gentiles” must continue pressing, pushing, and agitating in gritty faith with God and with those who have the power to make a difference only divine grace and truth can make.

And how are we who are followers of Jesus to live out this lesson? 

Like Jesus, we will often find ourselves “inconvenienced” by calls for help.  But light cannot hide in a world of darkness.  As people of divine grace and truth, we cannot hide from people living with pain.  We cannot conceal ourselves from others who cry for help.  We are morally and ethically obligated to hear those cries and respond in God’s name.

Jesus is our example on how to respond with divine grace to the “gritty faith” calls for mercy we encounter from suffering people living with the label of “otherness.”   Their pleas for mercy must appeal to the sense of prophetic mission within us. If we understand that we are on a mission from God as Jesus did, we must not allow pride and prejudice to stand between our suffering brothers and sisters and the help they need and we can give them.

You and I are, like Jesus, instruments of God’s grace to people who are treated as “Gentiles.”  They are drawn into our lives at every turn.  Will we, like Jesus, respond with divine mercy to their gritty faith?  Will we allow their “otherness” to limit our willingness to extend the blessings of God’s grace to them?  Will we allow the traditions and customs of our cultures, nationalities, politics, and social status to become barriers to mercy for people based on their “otherness”?

May the Spirit of God that empowered Jesus work in and on us so that the “Gentiles” of our time and place experience the healing, liberating, and powerful love of God.  May we be known as people who put ourselves in the way to become useful instruments of God’s liberating, healing, and powerful love.  May we live so closely to the heart of God that we see with God’s loving eyes, feel with God’s loving heart, and act in God’s loving tenderness so that people and a world living in pain can, with gritty faith in God’s love for all, experience divine mercy and healing. 

All things bright and beautiful, all things great and small, all things wise and wonderful; our Father made them all.  May we live and love in the power of that gritty faith.  Amen.