I met with my Bishop last night, not to seek his approval for my decision to support my daughter in her desire to live a normal life, but rather to advocate for her physical and spiritual well-being. I had always been taught that Christ's gospel and it's leaders are blessed with the power of discernment and the gift of revelation. I had received personal revelation on the matter, in the form of profound answers to prayer, and approached the meeting with a cautious optimism that maybe - perhaps - there was some small chance that the same would be revealed in a joint session with my religious counsellor. The night was long... the meeting drug on for about four and a half hours, well into the night. We invited the spirit of the Lord to join us. We began by kneeling together in prayer and ended on our knees in prayer... the in-between was spent engaged in a discussion about a variety of religious concepts that Cameron's case brought into focus. There were moments where we cried together, moments where we laughed together, and I'm sure it won't come as the slightest surprise to those of you who know me... there were plenty of moments when we argued different approaches to the same topic. I received an answer to prayer this morning as I pondered some of the thoughts shared by my Bishop. One part of our discussion weighed on my mind. At one point, he used a scripture reference to illustrate that even Christ, himself, refused healing to a gentile woman who - with great faith - sought the unconditional love of the Savior and a miracle for her daughter. The implication was clear... not all children of God will be accepted into the fold. This bothered me, in large part because I couldn't recall the scripture, and moreover because - at that moment - I was that mother, seeking the Savior's perfect love on behalf of my child. I tossed and turned over it for the majority of the night. First thing this morning I began to research the scripture. I went to the church website and found nothing so I typed "Christ refuses to heal woman" into the search engine on the computer. Immediately an article popped up by Rev. Dr. Bruce Larson entitled "Breaking Down Barriers"...
MAN BITES DOG! There’s an old saying in the newspaper business: When a dog bites a man, that’s not news – it happens all the time. But when a man bites a dog, that’s news! Today’s gospel reading gives us just that kind of news – man bites dog! Things turn topsy-turvy! Let’s look at the story to see how this happens. The setting is the district of Tyre and Sidon, a district on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where Lebanon is today.
Tyre was an ancient Phoenician city, famous for centuries as an attractive port for ships from all over the Mediterranean. In the time of Christ, Tyre was a large, cosmopolitan city where a diverse array of peoples and cultures, religions and philosophies interacted. Tyre and Israel were bitter enemies. Many of the great Jewish prophets condemned it harshly, and with reason. Tyre participated in the slave trade and its merchants worked on the sabbath in order to make more money. So, by being in this area, Jesus went to a very difficult place – culturally dominated by gentiles, religiously diverse, and potentially hostile.
So, why would Jesus go there? Ministry among his own people was hard enough. Why go to an area full of your people’s enemies? Put simply, so he could rest. It was an ingenious plan, really. No self-respecting Jew would be caught dead in the region around Tyre. He was tired, dead tired, from the crowds and from the scribes and Pharisees who constantly hounded him. So Jesus went to an enemy area to get away for some muchneeded “r and r.”
As clever as his plan was, though, it didn’t work. No sooner had Jesus entered this region than a woman from there came out and started shouting at him about her deathly-ill daughter. Then she bows down before Jesus and begs him to heal her daughter. And what do we expect? “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, healer and lover of all” – of course he would heal the kid. That’s what Jesus was all about, right? Wrong. He told the woman to get lost: “Let the children be fed first,” he says, "for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus’ refusal comes like an allegory. “The children” who should be “fed first” are the Jews, to whom Jesus first ministers because they are his people and because, as he and his people believed, the Jews were God’s covenant people. Believing in the special status of the Jews, then, Jesus thinks it would be unfair to take his ministry and give it to the dogs – that is, to the gentiles. For Jews, the dog was a common and – despite all us dog-lovers here – a highly offensive metaphor for gentiles. So here, Jesus refuses to heal the woman’s daughter because he would be squandering his ministry on gentiles. The Jews have priority. So, instead of granting the woman’s request, Jesus insults her, calling her a dog.
From his human frame of reference, Jesus had every reason to refuse her. She was a woman, a second-class citizen in Jewish culture. Add to this, her child was also female. Then these females, the woman and her daughter, were gentiles – doubly second-class in Jewish eyes. And they lived in enemy territory – triply second-class. From the perspective of his time and culture, Jesus had every reason to ignore the woman’s request.
This being said, if you are still protesting that Jesus is way out of character here, you are absolutely right. In all the gospels, this is the only place where Jesus flatly refuses someone who comes to him with a request. The only place. But look what happens. This woman doesn’t just slink away. No, she takes Jesus on. And she wins! “Sir,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat their master’s crumbs.” This woman creatively uses Jesus’ own words to get what she needs for her daughter.
Just as Jesus’ initial response is unique in the gospels for its harshness, the response of the woman is the only place in all the gospels where Jesus is out-argued, "bested” in verbal repartee. The woman’s response puts Jesus on his heels. He gives in, and heals her daughter. This is a rare moment where we see Jesus in all his fallible humanity, a moment that most certainly would have been left out by a gospel writer who wanted only to build Jesus’ reputation as a divine savior.
So then, if the story makes Jesus look bad, why did Matthew include it? Here is the “man bites dog.” Matthew included it so that we could hear from the woman! The focus here is not on Jesus, but on the woman and what she teaches us through her unexpected response. She took all the supposedly “good” reasons Jesus could muster to refuse her and turned them on their head. In this unique gospel story, then, it’s not Jesus but the woman who plays the role of God. Imagining a woman playing the role of God can be disconcerting for us. But there’s more. Consider the woman’s challenge about who is acceptable to receive the blessing of God.
We like to believe that, as our motto says, we “welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.” This is a wonderful statement and reminder to be a welcoming community of faith. In new member orientation sessions, I always ask: “What attracted you to this church?” Many have remarked, “Somebody talked to me the first time I came.” Just think of it. A simple conversation is sometimes all it takes. May we continue to do this! But we are also fallible human beings, and so, even without intending to, we sometimes set boundaries about who is in and who is out. Our habitual practices as a congregation can function as boundary markers, serving to exclude as much as they include. We want to be welcoming, but our human tendency is to follow what’s comfortable for us, to relate only with those we know. So, to help counter this human tendency, during worship services, we pass the peace of Christ with those whom we know and with those whom we don’t. We pray for those whom we know, and for those whom we don’t. And we pray the Lord’s Prayer in a version that most reflects our heart even if it isn’t the same for all.
These and similar habitual practices are good, but we must not assume that they alone are enough. Just like habitual practices of Jesus – focusing on his own people, expecting little from women, and so on – were turned on their head by this Canaanite woman, this enemy speaking with the voice of God, so too must we look on a regular basis to our own habitual practices and ask ourselves what are we assuming? What are we doing – really doing? We need to ask ourselves these questions beyond our church, too. In our community, and in our city, and in our society as a whole, we need to ask ourselves what we are really doing. For example, what are we really doing when we spend billions to build barriers along the order with Mexico while bridges in this country are falling down? What is it that we are so afraid of?
While viewing the opening ceremony of the Olympics the other night –- weren’t they something? -- I was especially struck by one bit of symbolism. The Great Wall of China appeared in all its foreboding presence, a testimony to one nation’s attempt to keep enemies out, the symbol of our human tendency to exclude. And then, unexpectedly, the image of the Great Wall began, ever so slowly, to change. Bit by bit, it changed from stones and mortar to living things – to beautiful flowers! What a transformation! The greatest barrier ever built by human beings, built out of fear to keep people apart, changed before our eyes into an image of beauty and wonder.
In our own lives, to experience a similar transformation, to move beyond a fear that paralyzes, let us take as our model the faith of the Canaanite woman. Through her, we see a God who takes everything we believe about who is acceptable, and turns it on its head. Through her, we see a God who takes everything we believe about where God speaks to us, and turns it on its head. Through her, we see a God who takes everything we believe about our habits and customs, and turns them on their head.
So this is our challenge today. Think about the one person in your life whom you think most unlikely to be an agent of God’s grace, and look for God to speak to you through that person. Or think about that group of people, labeled by our society as misfits or outsiders or even enemies, people whom you think most unlikely to be agents of God’s grace, and look for God to speak to you through them. And how can we do this? We do this the only way we can – through faith. Through faith, we can open ourselves to God’s unexpected ways. Through faith, we can listen for God’s voice from unexpected people and learn from God through unexpected experiences. Through faith, we can respond to God in word and deed. And then – then, in “man bites dog” fashion – we will throw all we are and all we have to God, the creator, lover, and sustainer of us all. Amen.
I have no doubt that my bishop - an amazing man... a good man who, by his own admission, was unsure how to guide me with the challenges we are facing in our family at this time - was inspired to share this scripture with me. Although neither of us could foresee, or remotely comprehend, the answers the Lord would provide as I turned to faith in search of understanding. The spirit is a powerful blessing... and manifest that power as I received peace through this account in Matthew, of a day... long ago... in the city of Tyre.
This has been my greatest struggle... the division that once existed in my heart - between the mainstream, publicly accepted Christian traditions and the testimony I have received by reverently listening to - and learning from - my child. Commonly accepted Christian beliefs assert that Cameron cannot be true to herself and be free of condemnation from the Lord. As the agent assigned to her care during this temporal journey... the responsibility to guide her in truth and righteousness falls on my shoulders. The painstaking challenge to reconcile all of this in my heart has been the greatest spiritual, emotional, and psychological journey of my life... a journey to understanding.
Cameron doesn't fit into the "pink box" or the "blue box" that has been created, mandated, and maintained by men. The testimony that I have gained, through the power of the spirit, has helped me to understand that there is one "box" where she belongs... it's a box delicately crafted for all of us by a loving Father in Heaven. My greatest obstacle, the division that I have felt for so long, does not come from God. Much like the Canaanite woman, I refuse to accept that the Savior and Redeemer of the world would walk past me during my greatest challenge or dismiss my child in the midst of her darkest hour. So, I am left with a responsibility to understand what Christ was trying to teach, through his actions that day, long ago... on the coast at Tyre.
Christ was perfect... he taught through parables, through scripture, and - most importantly - through his actions. Are we to believe that the Savior and Redeemer of the world suffered a momentary lapse of perfection... that the love and tender mercy that he feels for the children of men suddenly evaded him? Did he want us to believe that he had a brief, fleeting moment of temporary insanity??? No... I testify to you that the Savior, in his perfection, knew that there was a profound lesson that needed to be taught... perhaps the Lord didn't travel to Tyre to rest... perhaps he went to Tyre to "set the stage" for this moral principle... to seek out the Canaanite woman. Through her faith, he teaches the principle of acceptance. Remember, Christ was perfect and didn't require the cleansing waters of baptism... yet he was baptised to set the example for all of us. Christ is the son of God, and inasmuch, is perfect... yet he "passed judgement" on the Canaanite woman. With a similar exemplary focus, the Savior illustrated the actions that we all should take, by demonstrating that God speaks to us through those whom we believe are most unlikely to receive his grace. It's our responsibility to follow the example of the Savior, to open our hearts, and to listen...
25. Then came she and worshipped him saying, "Lord, help me."
26. But he answered and said, "It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs."
27. And she said, "Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table."
28. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, "O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt." And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
This truly is our challenge, it falls on my shoulders... it falls on yours...
"Think about the one person in your life whom you think most unlikely to be an agent of God’s grace, and look for God to speak to you through that person. Or think about that group of people, labeled by our society as misfits or outsiders or even enemies, people whom you think most unlikely to be agents of God’s grace, and look for God to speak to you through them. And how can we do this? We do this the only way we can – through faith. Through faith, we can open ourselves to God’s unexpected ways. Through faith, we can listen for God’s voice from unexpected people and learn from God through unexpected experiences. Through faith, we can respond to God in word and deed. And then – then, in “man bites dog” fashion – we will throw all we are and all we have to God, the creator, lover, and sustainer of us all. Amen."