Stop right here.
Did we just hear Jesus calling a woman a “dog”?
Well, yes, we did.
Go back and look at this story from the Gospel of Mark. The story this morning is not easy to hear.
This woman was of a different tribe, a Gentile – a non-Jew – from Syrophoenicia, which is now modern Syria. Her people were idol worshippers.
The Hebrew Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament – are filled with admonitions against associating with idol worshippers and foreign women.
Jewish men like Jesus would never associate with a woman like her.
But her daughter is sick, and she is desperate. She has heard about Jesus and so she comes hoping he will help.
She doesn’t care about his religion, or his tribe, or his nationality. None of that. All she cares about is her daughter.
But Jesus rebuffs her, telling her that he has come only for the children of Israel, his own tribe:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he tells her.
She could have turned away, angry, hurt. But she hangs in there and gives him this amazing reply:
Even the dogs get a few crumbs.
Jesus is stopped in his tracks. He can do only one thing:
Heal her daughter.
There are several ways of hearing this story. One way is to hear this as a demonstration of faith by the courageous Syrophoenician woman in her most desperate moment, and that is true enough.
But there is another way of way of hearing this story too:
We can hear it as a hinge point in the life of Jesus. The story represents the moment when he discovers his mission on earth is not to a single group, or to a single tribe, but to all people.
And Jesus is perhaps at his most human in this moment.
He makes mistakes, just like us; says things he regrets, just like us. He learns from his mistakes, just like us.
And here is the central wonder of this story:
In this moment of his deepest humanity, he discovers the depths of his divinity.
In classic theology, we say that Christ is fully human and fully divine. I think this story tells us what that means. He really is shown to be fully human and fully divine in this moment.
It is a great turning point because he learns that the healing grace he brings is meant for everyone – even people outside his tribe and religion.
His healing grace includes even us.
There is nothing more central to our faith than the concept of healing.
The Hebrew word for healing is Sha-lahv. The Latin word that comes from Sha-lahv is “salvus,” meaning “safe, healthy, uninjured.”
The word “salve,” or “soothing ointment,” comes from this salvus.
And “salvus” is the root of the word “salvation.”
The words “save” and “savior” also come from salvus.
This kind of healing is not just about a cure to an ailment, but the wholeness of body, mind and soul in our deepest selves. It is the healing that can only be described as divine.
I would like to tell you of two encounters I’ve had with this kind of healing.
During my training to be a priest, I worked at Sutter General Hospital in Sacramento, undergoing the rite-of-passage known as “clinical pastoral education,” or CPE.
I was assigned for the summer to the Intensive Care Unit, a place aptly named because it is a place of intense medical crisis for patients and intense anguish for the families of patients.
As I worked in the ICU, two patients, very different from each other, touched my life deeply.
What I am about to tell you about these two people I mentioned at their memorial services with their respective permissions, so I am not violating any confidences.
One was a drug addict. She was about 40ish, and she was, as they so indelicately put it in the hospital, “livering out.” Her name was Cathy.
The other was a 92-year-old man, and he was wearing out after a long and amazing life. His name was Ben.
Both, as I found out, had been Episcopalians, and both had become alienated from the church of their upbringing. Neither had darkened a church door in years.
For Cathy, it was about feeling judged by the chorus of condemnation for how she had lived her life. She was dying an early death because of how she led her life. She didn’t need anyone to tell her that.
For Ben, his alienation was different. As a young man, Ben had become an Episcopal priest.
As I came to find out, he had been a Navy chaplain at the Battle of Guadalcanal.
The horror was more than he could stand. When the war was over, he quit being priest.
That summer I saw Ben and Cathy nearly every day, and I continued to see them after my chaplaincy was officially done at the hospital.
Each found a measure of reconciliation – healing – with their past. Their bodies gave out but they began to find healing.
Each left me a gift. Ben left me his Bible, the same Bible he had used at Guadalcanal.
Cathy left me with a less tangible but at least as important a gift:
She gave me a new understanding of the meaning of grace, and who is included in grace.
For me, she was the Syrophoenician woman.
Ben and Cathy died quietly in their sleep, and I am convinced each was fully healed beyond the horizon from where we can see now.
I am also convinced that this kind of healing comes only from God’s grace, and brings with it the ultimate forgiveness that each of us need.
Yes, we go through trials and pain in life – that is part of what it means to be human.
Jesus goes through the worst imaginable pain a human being can have by going to the Cross, and by so doing shares with us in our humanity, and by so doing shows us the meaning of his divinity.
I end by returning to the extraordinary gospel of Mark. The passage this morning is embedded in stories about food and feeding.
The story is reminder that God is especially present with those who are wounded and starving. Healing is about being fed in our bodies and in our souls.
Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi once said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
All of us deserve to be fed, and all of us can bring the bread of healing to each other and the world around us.
God truly gives us everything we need to be healers in this world, and healers for each other. It really does take all of us.
Let us find this well of grace within each of us, and go forth from this Holy place with love, hope and courage – and be the agents of healing God would have us be. AMEN