By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton

September 6, 2009

Read: Mark 7:24-37 and James 2:1-17

The story of the Syrophoenician woman is one of my favorites. I appreciate her “hutzpah,” her courage, in speaking boldly to Jesus. And this story is one that has no easy answers when it comes to interpreting the meaning. It involves assumptions about different cultural experiences, socio-economic experiences, etc. We aren’t sure if this was an instance of Jesus caught without compassion when he rudely calls the woman a dog, or if there may have been a smile on his face and he and the woman knowingly bantered for the sake of opening closed minds. We just don’t know for sure.

But, what is evident is that there is communication between representatives of two very different groups of people. Jesus, a male and a Jew and this Gentile, who was also a woman. You may know that a Gentile woman was not permitted to speak openly to a Jewish man. And so there was a breaking down of boundaries that allowed for healing and wholeness to occur. And the deaf man with a speech impediment, who was not able to communicate in the customary way with Jesus, managed to communicate through other people. This was a breaking down of a boundary.

And did you catch the irony in the fact that Jesus heals the man of speech impediment and then tells him not to talk. But they boldly speak of Jesus’ healing.

This morning I want to focus on the ‘breathing space’ in our story. Jesus is confronted with a woman who is outside of the usual circle he moves in. He listens to what she has to say. There is breathing space in the story which gives time for Jesus to fully understand her perspective, her point of view in life. Jesus changed his mind.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. He was two blocks from the World Trade Center at Trinity Church preparing to record a program on Spirituality when the towers came down. As the awful events of that morning unfolded, the people at Trinity Church found themselves trapped by the choking cloud of dust and debris. Rowan Williams wrote a small book entitled, Writing in the Dust, as a reflection in the days after September 11. He speaks of having some breathing space in our relationships, in our dealings, with other people, other countries, other cultures. We often assume things about others, that may or may not be truth.

And whether we want to admit it or not, our perception of things is what makes them real for us. Some very simple examples:

  • When I got my first pair of glasses, I was sure that everyone was staring at me. No one could change my mind.
  • When we perceive that the room is cold, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says, we believe it’s cold.
  • When I begin to think I’m the only person at home who takes out the garbage, I only notice when I take it out. Even if Ronda takes it out twice as much as I do, what I perceive is the only reality I know.

And, our perceptions define our realities. The problem for many of us, I think, is that we don’t often question our own perceptions. Sometimes the only way we can see things differently is through the eyes of an outsider. An expert, perhaps, who comes from out of town to help us do what we already know how to do. Those “on the outside” can see things we can no longer see. Only a visitor to our church, for instance, can tell us how friendly we are to visitors.

Jesus tries to get away by going to a foreign land. An outsider reminds him of the truth he already knows: no one is outside of God’s love. And once he is reminded, he never forgets. The very next story, in fact, is of another outsider who Jesus sees and hears and heals.

The Syrophoenician woman knew that she had everything she needed to take the next step. Her perspective was a perspective of abundance, not scarcity, and with the courage and fortitude of knowing she had SOMETHING going for her, she stepped out in faith and asked Jesus—insisted to Jesus—that he heal her daughter.

Now back to September 11 and Writing in the Dust with Rowan Williams. On page 59 of his reflection he writes:

“The trauma can offer a breathing space; and in that space there is the possibility of recognizing that we have had an experience that is not just a nightmarish insult to us but a door into the suffering of countless other innocents, a suffering that is more or less routine for them in their less regularly protected environments.

And in the face of extreme dread, we may become conscious, as people often do, of two very fundamental choices. We can cling harder and harder to the rock of our threatened identity—a choice, finally for self-delusion over truth; or we can accept that we shall have no ultimate choice but to let go, and in that letting go, give room to what’s there around us—to the sheer impression of the moment, to the need of the person next to you, to the fear that needs to be looked at, acknowledged and calmed (not denied). If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers near and far. There is a global hospitality possible too in the presence of death.”

“Breathing space: if the cross is what we say it is, it requires that kind of hesitation, that kind of silence.”

And Williams also shares: There is the story of the woman taken in adultery which is preserved in John 8. When the accusation is made, Jesus at first makes no reply but writes with his finger on the ground. So, what on earth is he doing? Commentators have had plenty of suggestions, but there is one meaning that seems to me to be obvious in the light of what I think we learned that morning. He hesitates. He does not draw a line, fix an interpretation, tell the woman who she is and what her fate should be. He allows a moment, a longish moment, in which people are given time to see themselves differently precisely because he refuses to make the sense they want. When he lifts his head, there is both judgment and release.

There is breathing space, time. Time for our demons to walk away.

Thiessen has this to say about the Syrophoenician woman:

There is a miracle in the overcoming of a divisive distance: “ the prejudice-based distance between nations and cultures, in which the divisive prejudices are not simply malicious gossip, but have a real basis in the social, economic, and political relationships between two neighboring peoples. The Syrophoenician woman accomplishes something that for us today seems at least as marvelous as the miracle itself: she takes a cynical image and “restructures” it in such a way that it permits a new view of the situation and breaks through walls that divide people, walls that are strengthened by prejudice. ”

Breathing spaces: if the cross is what we say it is, it requires that kind of hesitation, that kind of silence. Time to breathe, time for our demons to walk away.

Copyright 2008-2012 Episcopal Church of the Trinity.

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