9/9/2012 sermon: Wrestling with Jesus

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Mark 7:24-37
Proper 18, Year B

Wrestling with Jesus

A week or so ago, a friend and colleague invited me to an Episcopal prayer service. The goal was to gather together to pray for a mutual friend, a young mother and new Episcopal priest, who had just been diagnosed with a serious illness. I was excited. I had never been to an Episcopal prayer service before, and the experience turned out to be very fulfilling. The prayer service reminded me of similar prayer meetings in the Wesleyan Methodist Church in which I was raised.

The Methodists had regularly-scheduled prayer meetings each week. And when someone was gravely ill, the whole community would pray for them at prayer meeting, wrestling with Jesus for their healing.

I’ve heard that some Baptists take the concept a step further. If one of these Baptists gets ill or injured, all of them drop whatever they are doing—leaving work and school if necessary—to gather at the church to wrestle with Jesus for healing.

The overwhelming memory I have of those Methodist prayer services is of wrestling with Jesus. I didn’t always believe in healing prayer, as I do now, but I knew that if I got badly hurt or received a serious diagnosis, I’d want those kind of prayers made on my behalf.

For example, I actually heard this prayer once for a man who had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. “Lord,” the prayer went, “this man drinks so much we don’t wonder that he has this particular illness. But life is hard, as you yourself know from your time with us. And we are here to ask for you to heal this man, to make his liver clean. He needs more time here on earth to come to know you. And while you are at it, Lord, give him a new heart, too, because if you heal the one without healing the other, we’re just going to have to be back here again on behalf of this drunk—who you tell us is as precious as we are in your sight.”

THAT, my friends, is how someone wrestles with Jesus.

We Episcopalians don’t have as much experience in wrestling with Jesus. We’re too rational, too scientific, relying on scripted prayers, relying too much on the diagnosis rather than on the possibility of miraculous healing. We pray for things like: comfort for the one who is sick, we pray for solace for their family members, we pray for wisdom for our doctors and compassion for our nurses. Almost as an afterthought, we use the word “healing,” as in “if it be your will, send a drug, Lord, a drug that can heal our friend…”

Now God does work through doctors and nurses and drugs. But if I get badly injured or receive a serious diagnosis, I want you to wrestle with Jesus and demand that God heal me. I promise that is how I’ll be praying for you; this is how I am now learning to pray.

I call this kind of prayer “Syro-Phoenician” prayer. In our gospel lesson today a mother, a Syro-Phoenician woman, came to Jesus and asked him to heal her gravely ill daughter. And Jesus told her “No.”

In the first place, Jesus was on vacation. He had gone to the east of his home, along the top of the Sea of Galilee, trying to find some quiet time, some “down time” with his disciples. But Jesus had become so famous that even the Gentiles in the region of Tyre recognized him. And when this Syro-Phoenician woman heard that Jesus was there, she went to him, within the house he was staying, and began begging, pleading, entreating—our scripture says she “kept asking”—Jesus to heal her daughter. And Jesus told her “No.”

In the second place, not only was Jesus on vacation, he had perceived that his ministry was to be ONLY for the Jews. This woman wasn’t a Jew; she was Syro-Phoenician, Mark says—most likely a Greek—although Matthew calls her a Caananite. Whatever her nationality, she was NOT a Jew, and Jesus told her “No.”

Well, Jesus actually didn’t use the word “No,” did he? What he actually said was:

Let the children be fed first,
for it is not fair to take the children’s food
and throw it to the dogs.

There are a couple of curious things about Jesus’ answer; one is real easy to spot, but the other is more subtle. There is nothing at all subtle about Jesus calling the woman a “dog.” This is not a compliment, no matter how we try to explain it. This is harsh and difficult to understand. We know that, in Jesus’ time, we ourselves would be “the dogs” to whom Jesus refers. So, we conjecture, perhaps Jesus was merely quoting a popular saying of his day. Perhaps he was merely saying the early Palestinian equivalent of “No way, José,” not meaning to slight any particular people.

The problem is that scholars can’t find any such saying. Then, too, there is the subtle part of Jesus’ answer. Did you hear the word “first” in what Jesus said?

Let the children be fed first,
for it is not fair to take the children’s food
and throw it to the dogs.

When Matthew tells the story, his version doesn’t include the word “first.” Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish, and he quotes Jesus’ “no” to the woman this way:

It is not right to take the children’s bread
and toss it to their dogs.

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus was telling this woman that he was here for the Jews, and that people who were not Jewish need not apply. When Mark tells this same story to his Gentile audience, he includes the word “first” to reassure them that Jesus had intended all along to include the Gentiles in the Kingdom of God.

In either gospel Jesus didn’t leave the Gentiles out entirely. They—WE—just weren’t part of the A-Team in his original plan. And then, along came the Syro-Phoenician woman, who dared to approach Jesus and to wrestle with him on the subject. She said:

Yes, Lord,
but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.

We don’t know the tone of voice that this woman used, but her response was so brilliant, so full of faith, that Jesus was overcome by what she had said. This woman persuaded Jesus that ALL must be given food, that NONE can be treated like dogs. Jesus changed his mind, grew in his understanding of his mission—if not outright repented of his original answer. I think that God, the Father, with whom Christ Jesus is one, sent that woman, and gave her that answer, to remind Jesus that God is a merciful God, one to whom ALL of his children are precious.

Now this woman could approach Jesus, physically—in person. But for us, today, prayer is how WE can approach Jesus. And this Syro-Phoenician woman shows us HOW to approach Jesus. We all need to pray like this Syro-Phoenician woman spoke to Jesus.

We can start practicing now.

  • As we wrestle with Jesus about our Church of the Resurrection, we can enumerate our criteria for our new rector and “keep asking” for the future we envision for our parish.
  • As we pray for each other, we don’t have to wait until they are injured or ill; we can wrestle with Jesus on their behalf. (For example, I wrestled with Jesus to keep Milford Jr. with us here at Resurrection, but Jesus said “No, you’ve had him his whole life and now I have something else for him to do.” So today is his last day with us. But we can still wrestle with Jesus for him in his new home in Georgia, even as we give thanks for his ministry here with us.)
  • As we pray for ourselves, we can wrestle with Jesus for our continued growth in our knowledge and love of God.

We can ask in the name of Jesus, who taught us how to pray, and in thanksgiving for the Syro-Phoenician woman, who showed us how to wrestle with God for what we need.

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