A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Mark 7:24-37
A new round of controversy erupted this week centered around Colin Kaepernick. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, Kaepernick was the first NFL player to protest during the national anthem, two years ago. Now, before I go any further I want to state clearly that I will not take a stance in this sermon about the substance of Kaepernick’s protest. I will note that a lot of what he was hoping to accomplish, including his shift from sitting on the bench to kneeling as a form of respect for the flag, a move that was suggested after a 90 minute conversation with a former Green Beret and NFL player who saw the initial protest and wanted to help Kaepernick respect the flag while still marking a moment of protest over the racial injustices that are a systematic evil in our country, a lot of that initial purpose has been lost. And, at great personal sacrifice by Kaepernick. He gave up a career that he loved. He gave up a very sizeable paycheck. He gave up his ability to provide for his family in the only thing he is explicitly trained to do. This sacrifice is now a focal point for a new advertisement campaign by the ubiquitous brand that is Nike. This campaign is centered around one line, a line that I find impactful, meaningful, and relatable: Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.
That is a powerful statement. And, I wonder what it would look like as people of faith, to believe in our faith, believe in the call to follow Christ, so deeply and so passionately, that it meant sacrificing everything?
It might look something like the Syrophoenician woman of today’s gospel.
At first blush, the Syrophoenician woman doesn’t really seem like she even has the status to sacrifice anything. She is a dog. She belongs to a people that the Jewish people refer to derogatorily as dogs. It is so ingrained in the culture in fact that Jesus himself uses this derogatory phrase in reference 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.” Is Jesus being racist here? Perhaps. This term “dog” is so ingrained that it is likely used without thought as to its deeper implications. Words like this are still ingrained in our society today, words and phrases like: “monkeying around,” “hillbilly,” “immigrant.” So, it’s hard to imagine what a person of such low status in a society has to lose, to sacrifice. And yet, this Syrophoenician woman is willing to even sacrifice her dignity by self-identifying as that dog, in order to prove her point. Because, she believes in something.
She believes in the power of Christ. She believes in her right to access the holy. She believes in the right for her child to be healed. She turns Jesus’ dismissal, she turns the societal expectation and labeling of her people as dogs, on its head by owning that label and declaring that “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She has stood up for her belief. She has shown herself willing to sacrifice even the little that she has in order to fight for what she believes. And this has a profound, radical impact on Jesus.
Jesus changes his mind.
This doesn’t happen.
Nowhere else in the gospels do we have an instance where someone actively changes the mind of Christ. It literally doesn’t happen. Except, in this one story. Except, by this one woman. A woman who has no status. A woman that for all intents and purposes has no rights. Her status is as low as a dog, not even that of a human. And yet, she challenges that status because she believes in something. She is willing to sacrifice even her lowly status to fight for what she believes. She is willing to sacrifice her lowly status to fight for her child. She believes in Christ, she believes in the power of the holy, and she believes that her belief should gain her access just like everyone else, even if she isn’t like everyone else.
I think there are two big takeaways from this interaction. The first is clear, believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything. Stand up for what your know is right. Stand up for what you know you deserve. Stand up for yourself, for your family, because no one else is going to do it for you. Be willing to sacrifice everything in order to access the holy, because that access should have no barriers, because that access is available to all who have faith, and even if it means standing up to Jesus Christ himself, we are called as believers to stand up and fight for our faith.
The second big takeaway from this interaction is found in the radical change that happens in Christ. Jesus doesn’t ever change his mind. He is clear in his message and clear in his mission. Except for in this moment. But, even as he throws out a derogatory term, he is willing to listen to someone who has been marginalized. He is willing to listen to someone who has been cast aside. He is willing to listen to someone that no one else is willing to even give the time of day. And in that openness, in that moment of vulnerability from a position of power and privilege (he a male, a jew, a highly regarded teacher and healer), he listens to this cast aside person, this other, this animal, and is changed by her story, changed by her experience of the world, changed by her motivations and belief. Jesus changes his worldview in this moment. This moment opens the door wide open to accessing the power of the holy, for anyone, for everyone, for us, if they, if we, have faith.
I think the first takeaway from this story is easy to grasp. That’s why it makes such a great ad campaign. Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. We can relate to this. We can relate to the Syrophoenician woman. We can relate to the fear she must have for her child who is suffering. A lot of us can relate to being marginalized and pushed aside by those in power and privilege and authority, some of us in much deeper, dangerous, and lasting ways. This woman stands in defiance and we stand in defiance with her. We demand with her that which is right and just in this world. We demand that this world recognize us, see us where we are, and understand that what we are asking for is not the world, but rather to be treated fairly, to be given equal opportunity and access, to be given a fair chance. We demand with her our right to access the holy, and all that it entails. We demand with her to be seen by Christ and known as a beloved child of God. Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.
The second takeaway is a lot harder. It probably shouldn’t be, but in our society and world today, it certainly is. Jesus is willing to listen to someone who is considered an other, someone society has labeled an animal. And, in listening, Jesus is willing to hear that person’s story deeply, personally. Jesus is willing to have his heart moved by that person’s story. When was the last time deeply listening to someone that society has labeled as an other and having your very being changed by that story was celebrated in our culture writ large? This might be an experience you have had. This might be experiences that we hold up as people of faith. But can you name when this was truly held up as a societal approach to conversation? Has it ever?
We have drifted so far apart in our national conversations that even the concept of simply listening to someone who is other, who is doing something that we disagree with, has become a foreign concept. We have taken the first teaching of this story of the Syrophoenician woman to its extreme ends and have forgotten that there is a radical second piece to this story that creates the resolution. Instead, we have pit our strongly held beliefs against each other. We have fought so hard for what we believe that we have forgotten that there are real people behind those beliefs. We have forgotten that real people are impacted by our beliefs, that real people can be harmed just as much as they can be helped by our beliefs. We have forgotten that our beliefs can only exist in community with one another and if we use our beliefs to separate and divide, then we are only perpetuating the status of dogs, rather than lifting and elevating all of us together.
This is a hard task. It’s especially hard as people of faith who see the harmful impact that misguided beliefs of labeling, of othering, can have on real people. We are called to stand against those beliefs that actively cause harm. We are called to stand with the Syrophoenician woman who is not asking for a handout but is instead asking for her right to access as a beloved child of God. We are called as people of faith to believe in something that is bigger than any of us, that is more open and accepting and loving than we can comprehend, that is available to any of us, and to believe in that, to believe in a God of forgiveness and unending love for all, even if it means sacrificing everything, even if it means sacrificing our status, our privilege, our career, our place in society, even if it means sacrificing our life, to claim our access to the holy and to fight for that same access for all.