Friday, September 7, 2012

On Not Taking "No" for an Answer

Bethesda Lutheran Church, Moorhead, MN
September 9, 2012
Mark 7:24-37

How good are you at taking “no” for an answer?

Whether you’re selling a product or issuing an invitation….whether you’re locked in an argument or simply trying to “make your case”….how do you respond when the other person shakes her head and says:  “You have not persuaded me.”

Do you try again, dig in deeper….or do you shrug your shoulders and mutter:  “Oh well, you win some and you lose some?”

This Syrophoenician woman in our gospel story was absolutely no good at taking “no” for an answer.

This woman, a non-Jew from a people who had never been very good neighbors to the Jews, seeks out a visiting Jew named Jesus who appears to have come to her seashore city, simply wanting to “get away from it all.”   Why else would Jesus be holed up in that area, “the region of Tyre” where the local citizens were not of his kind, and thus all-too-happy to leave him alone?

But somehow this woman found Jesus.  Breaking all sorts of gender taboos and social conventions about Jews keeping their distance from Gentiles…..this woman located Jesus because she had one laser focus, one single-minded purpose:   to get help for her deranged daughter.

And for her trouble, this woman receives a unique response from Jesus, the normally compassionate healer and savior.    Hers is the only request for help uttered in the four gospels to which Jesus responded, “No—nothing doing.”

That alone might have defeated other petitioners, but not this woman.   A “no” from Jesus should have put an end to the matter, but not with this woman, who persisted in hounding Jesus to give her daughter aid.   

Isn’t that just like a parent of a very sick child, though?

But the response she received isn’t “just like Jesus.”   It shocks us with its apparent rudeness.   In the face of woman’s repeated pleading Jesus dismisses her, rather crudely:   "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

Translation:  “Let the children of my people Israel be fed first, for it is not fair to take the chosen Jewish children’s food and throw it to the unclean Gentile dogs.”

Ouch.  That had to sting!  Whatever got into Jesus?

But Mark, the teller of this story, doesn’t even pause to ponder that question.   Mark, rather keeps the spotlight on this Gentile woman, who—rather than allowing herself to be rebuffed—simply barrels on  ahead, coming back at Jesus, using his own words to gain her advantage.

“"Sir,” she shot back at Jesus, “even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

Now I wonder if Jesus was expecting THAT!

I wonder if Jesus suspected how this woman was “on to him.”

It is as if this woman, whatever research she had done on Jesus, knew and believed in the center of her being two things about him:   that Jesus came into the world to help people…..and that Jesus did this out of the overflowing abundance of God.   

She trusted that Jesus’s capacity to heal was so potent that all the woman needed was just a little bit of it…simply the ”crumbs” from the table of this Master would get the job done, bring healing to her tormented daughter.

For saying this, for articulating this persuasive logic (logos), for making this compelling case, Jesus gave the woman what she was seeking:  "For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter."

More than another tale of a wondrous healing, this gospel story holds up for us a picture of faith in which faith is something more robust and muscular than we often imagine it to be.

Faith, we Lutherans are wont to say, is the means whereby we receive the good gifts of God---forgiveness, freedom and a future without end in Jesus Christ.

God gives us those things, unconditionally, for Jesus’s sake….and we receive those things by faith.   Faith in this way of describing it, is often viewed as a wholly passive thing, a mere receiving.

But what if faith has more to it than that?   What if faith is like your heart muscle—a pump in your chest that’s so powerful and persistent that it will beat continuously from the moment you come alive until you draw your final breath?

What if faith is like this Syrophoenician woman’s fierce determination not to accept “no” for an answer—even if the “no” seems to be coming straight from God?    What if faith is like a muscle to be toned and pounded by a lifetime of rigorous reflection and rugged resistance against everything and anything that would challenge such faith?

I am captivated by that question, especially on this Rally Day for so many of our churches….when our focus turns again toward another program year of faith formation, especially for those in the first third of life.

What quality or character of faith does God seek to form in each one of us?  A passive, receiving-only sort of faith?  Or a more adventuresome, daunting faith that boldly sails out of safe harbors, straight into stormy seas….fearlessly, recklessly trusting that God’s abundance, God’s overflowing, overpowering grace will meet us wherever we look?

Recently a retired pastor friend told me about an amazing adult Bible study group that meets right here in Moorhead every Friday morning.   This is not just a chance for Lutherans to quietly sip coffee together and dip gingerly into the scriptures.   When this group met for the first time, the tone was set by one of the participants who told my friend:  "I assume that you're going to draft questions for us, and when you do, make them as hard as possible." 

Not surprisingly, this Bible study is still going full-tilt after 4 ½ years.  And what gives it such zip and crackling energy is the constant expectation that dwelling in God’s Word should be a  hold-on-to-your cap, energetic endeavor that challenges participants to the max.

“We…discover that during virtually all of our discussions the risen Jesus shows up,” my pastor-friend went on to tell me.  “We find ourselves on a fantastic journey with [the risen Jesus] in the context of the gospel, and in the context of our individual lives between sessions.  Indeed, when we [come]together, we…share life experiences (without betraying confidences), which [serve] to further illumine our understanding of the gospel.”

So what if, as Bethesda begins another program year of Christian growth and learning and service, you cultivated among yourselves such an expectation that dwelling in God’s Word will be one of the most graciously-unsettling exercises for disciples of all ages?

What if cultivating the questions—the hardest questions you can pose to God and God’s people—what if treasuring lively, difficult questions became the heart of all your endeavors to grow together in God’s grace?   What if your children developed within them a constant expectancy that God is so huge and wide and full of mercy that we can throw anything at this God, and God can more than handle it all?

What a sea change that might bring about in the church!

Two years ago Kenda Creasy Dean of the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary wrote a book entitled  Almost Christian:  What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.  In this book she unpacked the critical findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) that was conducted in 2005.

A central conclusion of this nationwide survey of American youth is that most of them adhere to something Dr. Dean calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.   That is to say:   “Religion helps you to be nice (it's moralistic) and feel good (it's therapeutic), but otherwise God stays out of the way except in emergencies (it's Deist).  That's what most teenagers think.  The ways they described God in the study were revealing; God was either the cosmic butler (staying out of the way until called upon to meet my needs) or the divine therapist (God's main goal is to help me feel good about myself).”[1]

And where did our young people learn such a vanilla, pale-imitation shadow of robust Christian faith?

They learned it from us, not because we intended to teach this, but because this is how Christian faith has come off to too many of the next generation—a tepid, harmless version of the Real Thing.

If we think there is a better way, a more compelling vision to share with our children….let us take our cues from this nameless Syrophoenician woman in Mark, chapter 7. 

Let us “catch” if we can, even a small measure of her reckless, damn-the-torpedoes faith that will not take “no” for an answer, because it is a faith that comes straight from our reckless God who never takes “no” for an answer, either!

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

[1] “Almost Christian: Q&A with Kenda Creasy Dean” by Terrace Crawford.   Accessed on August 28, 2011 at  

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