September 9, 2018

Mark 7:24-37

“Still Learning”

A friend of mine is working as a teaching assistant in a Montessori school in Ontario this year. When she shared some pictures of her classroom last week, it brought back good memories of my own experience attending a Montessori school forty years ago. It was a lovely big room with an open concept and all the different learning centres for the children to work and explore various subjects and gain skills. And she included a close-up of the mathematics area, with beautiful strings of beads for learning to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

I felt thankful for the opportunity I had to attend a wonderful school as a young child, to continue through the Public School System, and go on to higher education as well. What a privilege it was to live in this country, to have education freely available to both boys and girls. And I know that I was doubly blessed because my parents could afford and chose to send us to a Montessori school when we were young. I believe that the teaching methods in that school equipped me well for continuing education, and work, and ministry.

We are blessed in our society to have access to basic education for all people and post-secondary programs as well. Not that our education systems are without their challenges… There are still deficiencies in funding for schools on reserves, and the programs in rural areas may pale in comparison to what is available in larger centres. And there are challenges for our teachers too, who may often feel under-appreciated and underpaid for the work that they do.

That’s part of the reason that we are having “Celebrating Teachers Sunday” next week – to show our appreciation for the teachers in our community and the difficult but so very important work that they do with our children and youth. Please do invite your friends who are teachers to worship next Sunday. Even if they cannot attend, let them know that you appreciate them and that you are praying for them.

But today is more about the students than the teachers. We blessed their backpacks and prayed for them this morning. And when they put on those backpacks each morning, we hope that they will remember that God is with them – God has “got their backs!”

Not many of you adults brought a backpack today to be blessed. But I do want you to remember that you also are a student. Certainly, I would encourage you to do some kind of continuing education. Go back to school and retrain for the vocation you are really longing to take on. Take a course at the U of R just for interest. Check out the programs at the Lifelong Learning Centre. Go to a public lecture. Make use of the Public Library and READ. Take part in a Bible study or discussion group, or go to a church conference.

But the learning I want to encourage is not just about gaining information or considering new ideas. The learning that our Scripture texts point to today is an integrative kind of learning. It is a learning in which our assumptions are challenged as we consider other perspectives. Then we adjust not only our thinking, but also our acting, and something in our lives and relationships is transformed by our learning.

The Bible includes lots of examples of people engaging in that kind of transformative learning. You might think of the would-be disciples listening to Jesus’ stories and watching his miracles before turning their lives upside down to follow him on the Way.

You might think of Saul encountering the Risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus. “Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus asked him. And Saul’s thinking and acting was so radically transformed that even his name was changed to Paul. He became one of Jesus’ most committed and influential supporters. Interestingly, though, this morning’s Gospel has Jesus engaging in transformative learning too. One commentator recounts the story like this:

Jesus is exhausted. Seeking restorative solitude, he quietly retreats to a house in Tyre – but soon enough, word gets out. A Syrophoenician woman, desperate because her young daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit, hears about where Jesus is, and comes to see him.

But please note: she does not knock. She does not wait and plead her case from outside on the street. She enters the house on her own – and throws herself at Jesus’ feet. Her sheer audacity… is nothing short of scandalous in its first-century context.

Neither kin to Jesus or even known to him, she enters the house and boldly makes her plea. What’s more, she thereby traverses barriers set not only by patriarchy and other cultural norms, but also by religion, ethnicity, and longstanding enmity between peoples. For she is a Syrophoenician (a Gentile), and he is a Jew.

Jesus’ initial reaction is in keeping with this old enmity. He responds, “Let the children [that is, the children of Israel] be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Come again? Did Jesus just call this woman – a dog?

The commentator explains, There are at least two ways of interpreting this passage. One is that Jesus articulates this proverbial animosity not in order to endorse it, but rather in order to dramatize it, to bring it centre stage precisely so it can be conspicuously sed aside.

It’s like Jesus is presenting an object lesson for his disciples’ benefit and for ours. He knows that God loves the Gentiles too, and that they are not second-class citizens after the Jewish people. But he wants to teach this lesson dramatically, and so he makes use of this Gentile woman’s request as a learning opportunity for his friends and those looking on.

Jesus knows that the woman will audaciously, insightfully push beyond the conventional view, and he cues her up to do just that by expressing the prejudice in its popular, folk-wisdom form, perhaps with a satirical gleam in his eye. “But isn’t it true that we shouldn’t give the children’s food to the dogs? Isn’t that what everyone says? What do you say?”

And sure enough, the woman brilliantly turns the metaphor on its head: even the dogs gather the table’s crumbs. The logic of abundance implies that God’s grace is for all people, right here and right now. And Jesus immediately concedes the point.

Note: This is the only verbal fencing match that Jesus doesn’t win in the Gospels. But by conceding the point, Jesus establishes the woman as an exemplar of faith, a model theologian, an outsider who understands better than the insiders do. And then, as if propelled by this surprising reversal, Jesus goes on to heal another Gentile in Sidon, and then miraculously feed a large crowd of mostly Gentiles.

The Gospel is now officially on the loose, and the Syrophoenician woman is a pivotal hero in the story, the tenacious mother who helps Jesus open up the circle of salvation to the wider world.

Christians have a tendency to assume that Jesus knew everything and was totally perfect because of his divinity. This story must have been a “set-up” Jesus used to demonstrate the point he already wanted to make about the good news going out to welcome and embrace all people.

But a second interpretive possibility is that Jesus is initially blinkered by the conventional thinking of his day, and actually ends up learning from his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. According to this line of thought, Jesus changes his mind.

We see Jesus’ humanity here. And we, as fellow human beings and followers of his Way, are invited to follow his example of being open to learning, to changing our minds and changing our ways. We are invited to let ourselves be open enough, humble enough, and listening to others enough that we can keep on learning and being transformed in our thinking and our acting.

A number of years ago, my congregation was hosting an event as part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s Healing and Reconciliation work. We welcomed a small group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Presbyterians who were travelling across the country sharing about their experiences in the church and the need for healing and reconciliation in our communities.

Following the presentation that evening and the discussion that followed, we all retired to the lower hall of the church for refreshments and fellowship with our visitors. As was usual, one of our Board members locked up the outside doors so that folks from outside wouldn’t wander into the sanctuary while we drank coffee in the basement.

But at the same time, one of our Indigenous guests popped outside for a smoke. I imagine that her sharing with our congregation had been stressful and emotional for her, and she likely needed a quiet moment alone as much as she needed a cigarette. But when she finished and tried to join the group again, she found all the doors locked up tight.

She found and rang the doorbell, and one of the elders went to answer. But to no avail. When he saw her standing there outside the door, he didn’t recognize her as our guest who had just shared so personally from her experience as an Indigenous person in the church.

He just saw an Indian, and assumed she was looking for a hand-out. He told her that there was no one around who could assist her tonight. Sorry, there was an event taking place, so he couldn’t let her in.

When I heard what had happened later, I was devastated. What a terrible way to welcome a guest! I wrote a long letter of apology, hoping that I could reverse the harm done, and she received it graciously.

But the transformative learning that we are called to from an experience like that would not only include apologizing for the fact that he didn’t recognize her as part of the group. It would mean acknowledging that we often don’t see that other person at all, but that we see only the group to which they belong. It would mean examining our prejudices that cause us to write off a whole group of people without giving them the benefit of the doubt.

It would mean admitting that what happened that night was not the result of one racist old man’s actions, but part of a whole culture of discrimination in which we all participate to some extent. And it would mean making a commitment to education, and engagement with Indigenous people, and to changing our underlying assumptions and biases that lead to such treatment.

The Gospel reminds us today that the characteristic mark of God’s mission is that it is always being opened, always surprising us – scandalizing us, even – with its ever-unfolding breadth and generosity.

And this begs the question: Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, whom do we fail to include in our working understandings of God’s grace? To whom are we closed off? Those across the political aisle? Those in another part of town? Those who have done unspeakable wrongs? Those who belong to another religion, or culture, or set of values? Other creatures in God’s creation? In what ways do we, too, need to hear Jesus’ challenging, liberating words, “Be opened”?

I like the idea that Jesus may not have had everything all figured out at the beginning – the idea that he was still learning what God had in mind for him, and for the world, and for the widening breadth of his mission. Because I don’t have it all figured out, and I minister amongst a People who don’t have it all figured out yet either. I’m still learning, along with all of you.

Learning to love more.
Learning to give more.
Learning to welcome more.
Learning to be humble and open to keep on learning.

Let’s put on our backpacks like all the students going back to school this month, and follow Jesus in transformative learning that changes our lives and builds the Kingdom of God in this world.