Is he a racist, or is he the redeemer? Did Jesus come to reinforce ethnic and religious boundaries, or to transcend them? We have just heard a story from the gospel according to Mark, in which Jesus calls a Syro-Phoenician woman a dog. She pushes back; and he praises her faith and heals her daughter. Whether he was a racist who changed his outlook in response to her sharp wit, or whether he was feeding her a line to show up the racism of his disciples, we’ll never really know. But we do know this: The story lies between two other stories, two occasions when Jesus heals and feeds thousands of people.
The first of these takes place in Jewish territory, and there are twelve baskets of leftovers. We think of the twelve tribes of Israel, and we realise that, when we gather around Jesus, there is more than enough healing and sustenance for the whole of Israel. The second episode takes place in Gentile territory; and this time, the disciples gather up seven baskets of leftovers. We recall the seven days of creation, and we realise that, when we gather around Jesus, there is more than enough healing and sustenance, not just for Israel, but for the whole of creation! And the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman sits between these two events. So it’s a turning point. It shifts the focus from a movement for Jewish people to a movement for all people; and it has something to say to us.
You will remember that, in Jesus’ day, Jewish people would not eat with, and often not even talk with, non-Jewish people. And you had to be Jewish, and physically perfect, and free from mental illnesses or demons, and able to maintain religious purity, in order to fully participate in religious life.
Most of that seems a bit strange to us: yet churches and religious organisations still use boundaries to exclude. They’re just different boundaries. Some religious groups don’t allow outsiders to attend events; they require people to commit to the organisation if they want to participate at all. Some religious groups exclude people for what they describe as ‘moral failings,’ though this rarely includes things which made Jesus furious, like hypocrisy or lack of charity. Other religious groups permit visitors, but they may not fully participate unless they meet certain requirements. Perhaps they need to sign a statement of faith if they want to be taken seriously. Perhaps they have to be baptised before eating at Jesus’ table. Perhaps they need to be members if they want to attend church meetings. Or perhaps they turn up and they can participate, but nobody actually talks with them, and nobody asks them home for a meal, and nobody seeks to integrate them into the common life. Religious groups exclude people all the time.
But tonight’s story, and many other stories, show us that following Jesus is not about shoring up boundaries and minimising our engagement outside the walls of the church. Instead, following Jesus means encountering and serving all sorts of people. “I came to call sinners,” he said, “not just the righteous,” and so we’ll very often find him eating and drinking and telling stories with people outside our religious group.
What, then, are we doing tonight? For we are about to commit to journeying into God’s future together for the next twelve months. Are we closing the circle, or are we doing something else?
Well, the re-formation of this congregation is not, I hope, about naming and enforcing boundaries. Instead, it’s about pausing for a moment to look around at each other, clarifying who is with us as we seek to live into and bring about God’s culture of generosity, hospitality and acceptance wherever we live, work and play. In other words, it’s not about boundaries, but about the centre.
For here’s the paradox: to go into God’s world and to love as extravagantly as Jesus loves, we need other people. The waves are too rough, the voices are too seductive, the forces are too powerful, for any of us to go it alone. Instead, like the first disciples, and like all disciples, we need regular feeding. And we are fed when we gather in Jesus’ name and hear stories of faith, and witness to their power in our lives. We are fed when we break bread and drink wine together. We are fed and we are woven into the body of Christ as we pray together and are filled by God’s Holy Spirit.
But it does not stop here. For this is the same body and the same Spirit which send us out every week, encouraging us, exhorting us, and egging us on as we dare to go further and further into people’s lives, bringing Christ with us and seeking Christ always, wherever we go. For we are fed in order to love and serve all people in God’s world: not just the people in our little group.
In a moment, then, we will stand and sing the Apostles Creed as a reminder that we belong to and are commissioned by the church universal. After the creed, I will invite those who are willing to commit to this local expression of the church to remain standing. Then, we will re-form as the body of Christ and as a sign of God’s culture in this time and place, committing to another year of sharing in Scripture and silence, singing and soup, and another year of seeking justice, reconciliation, wholeness, and peace not just for ourselves, but for our neighbourhoods, our workplaces, our region, our nation, and the whole of creation, as we love and serve this beautiful crazy mixed-up world which is God’s passion, and God’s delight. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Mark 7:24-30, given to Sanctuary at its annual re-formation of the congregation, 9 September 2018 (BP18; Year B Proper 18) © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image shows a detail from Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. The Canaanite woman asks for healing for her daughter, found here. Congregational commitment here.