Touched by the Spirit!

Meditation on Numbers 11 (Selected verses)

Pastor Karen Crawford

The Presbyterian Church, 142 N. 4th St., Coshocton, OH

Sept. 26, 2021

Link to our Live-Stream Service, including my messages for children and adults, as well as the baptism:

https://fb.watch/8gpyRlpd2R/

Bulletin:

    Anybody here love fall in Ohio? It’s my favorite season.  On Friday, Jim and I had our fall foliage tour. We drove to Wooster on SR 83.

If you’re from around here, you know that scenic, country road over rolling hills is windy and narrow. At first, it frightened me with the large trucks moving so fast with their heavy loads and farm machinery moving so slow. And then there are the Amish buggies  and bicycles that suddenly appear in the road. And the deer.  One was crossing as we turned a corner and went down a hill.

    But It was a beautiful, early fall day. Blue sky throughout the entire drive. The only thing that would have made it better, I told Jim, was if I were sipping a pumpkin latte.  

    I was having a craving for pumpkin.  When we stopped for lunch, I wanted a pumpkin muffin, but they were sold out. So, I bought canned pumpkin at the grocery store.

    That afternoon, I made two pumpkin pies.  They would have been better with vanilla bean ice cream, Jim said. That’s the way we like them! But we had to make do with Cool Whip.

     Making my pies and craving pumpkin, I thought about the Israelites wandering in the wilderness having a craving for MEAT. Who knows how long it had been since they left their homes and former lives in Egypt to follow Moses? I can imagine their misery, as they were city dwellers—not farmers, hunters, or trappers.

   Exodus 1:13-14 tells us about their backbreaking, oppressive labor, building supply cities for Pharoah.  He feared that the Hebrews were becoming too numerous and powerful. He worried they would rise up and side with his enemies; he wanted them to die. He set cruel taskmasters over the Hebrew slaves, making their lives “bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.” He commanded the midwives to kill the male infants when they were born.

   The Israelites forget all the suffering and oppression of the past with the days, weeks, months and years of wilderness wanderings. They lose faith that God is going to keep His promises, even though here in Numbers 11 we read how God is feeding them every day with bread from heaven that falls like dew in the night.

      It’s an emotional thing for the Israelites—their desire for meat and the foods they used to eat. Manna satisfies their hunger and nourishes their bodies, but doesn’t satisfy the longings for the old life they were forced to leave behind. Egged on by certain negative folk Exodus calls the “rabble,” everyone begins to cry. The miracle of God’s daily bread that is keeping them alive becomes the thing that they despise!

     The foods they recall in this passage stir some scholars to question if these former slaves have selective memory and are viewing the past with rose-colored glasses. This would have been a rich diet for those held in captivity.

     “If only we had meat to eat!” the rabble cry. We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

    How do the Lord and Moses react? God becomes angry, and Moses is “displeased.” He complains to God, asking essentially, “Why me? Why are you treating your servant so badly? Why did you lay the burden of YOUR people on me?” Somewhere in the middle of his tirade, he demands, “Where am I to get meat to give to all these people?”

    What’s surprising to me is that Moses thinks, after all this time in the wilderness, that he is expected to provide food for the Israelites, without God’s help. He hasn’t up to now!  God has provided water from a rock and  bread from heaven. Is there anything too difficult for the Lord, who split the Red Sea so the Israelites could cross on dry land and the Egyptian forces riding in chariots would drown?

   We do that sometimes. We forget all that God has already done for us and we can lose our gratitude, particularly if we are stressed and feeling emotional—grieving what we no longer have, fearful for the future. The Israelites are worried about the future. Is this what it’s always going to be? Manna every single day forever? Wandering in the wilderness forever?

   This is what I hear God speaking to us through this passage today.

   First, look at what happens to the Israelites. The Lord in His grace and mercy continues to provide for the Israelites, even when they are ungrateful. He doesn’t take away the manna from heaven nourishing them daily. But because of the condition of their hearts and the way they demand meat and complain about the manna, the Lord will give them all the quail they can eat as a punishment. They fall ill and some will die.  Friends, sometimes the things we are craving aren’t good for us! Rather than always asking God to give us what we want, let us pray, instead, that God will lead us in His will.  When we ask for God’s will to be done, our hearts are changed.

    Then, let us learn from what happens with Moses. Moses never holds anything back from the Lord. He shares his anger, disappointments, doubts and fears. He’s always honest and authentic. But also notice that God’s chosen prophet is far from perfect! That makes me feel good—that even Moses made mistakes! And how does the Lord respond?  He answers his cry for help, without hesitation.

     God doesn’t expect perfection of us, either. But the Lord does want us to ask God for help when we are overwhelmed. God wants us to ask before we are overwhelmed!

    I believe God can’t wait to bless Moses and the 70 other leaders, who will be touched by the same prophetic Spirit that empowered Moses.  Do we have elders in worship today? Isn’t it a blessing to be an elder? The burden of leadership needs to be shared—as it is in the Church of Jesus Christ today.

      Maybe the most important lesson of the passage is at the end. The Holy Spirit isn’t limited to the people who gather in the holy tent of meeting. It can’t be controlled by human beings or contained in holy spaces. Medad and Eldad are touched by the Spirit and blessed with prophetic gifts, without coming to the tent of meeting! When they begin to prophecy in camp, Joshua wants Moses to stop them! And Moses says to the one who will lead God’s people after his death, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

      Friends, today, we celebrate the growth of the Church by the sacrament of Baptism!  Baby Catie  and Chandler, her father, were touched by the Spirit!

Christ has claimed them in their Baptism, just as Christ has claimed all of us and made us one in Him. Like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, we leave our former selves and lives behind in the waters of baptism.  We are given a new identity. We are new Creations in Jesus Christ!  The old has passed away! Only God knows what we will become in this lifelong process of transformation…  when Christ has completed a good work in us.

On this day, I also remember my ordination 10 years ago in a little church in Renville, Minnesota.  I feel so grateful!  

 They took a chance on me! It seems like only yesterday when I saw the Minnesota prairie planted with corn, soybean and sugar beet. I can still see the faces of my beloved first congregation, though some of them have already gone ahead of us and joined the Great Cloud of Witnesses, cheering us on. The world has changed in these 10 years.  We have changed. The shape of ministry has changed, especially in these last 18 months. One thing that encourages me every day of ministry is that no matter how the world changes around us, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.  No matter what happens, we can count on the One to whom we belong to be faithful to lead us home!

    The Lord never gives up on us, my friends, and never stops responding to our cries for help! The Lord who loved us long before we loved Him continues to draw new followers to Himself and raise up new leaders in our midst, touched by the Spirit!

Let us pray. Holy One, Thank you for the work of your Spirit, filling us in our baptisms and continuing to empower the Church. Thank you for Catie and Chandler’s baptism today and for the faith of the family. We are so grateful that you chose each one of us to believe the good news. Thank you for never giving up on us—for hearing us when we cry, for wanting to help us and not desiring us to be overwhelmed with the responsibilities of our lives. Lord, you ask us to leave our old identities behind and become a new Creation in your Son. But we hold onto the past and have longings for a way of life that used to be, like the ancient Israelites. We don’t always feel comfortable with changes in our world, our church, in us. Forgive us, Lord. Touch us with your Holy Spirit, once again. Show us your will and teach us how to walk in your loving ways, and be faithful to share our hope with the world. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Wisdom from Above

Meditation on James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

The Presbyterian Church, 142 N. 4th St., Coshocton, OH 43812

Pastor Karen Crawford

Sept. 19, 2021 Worship in the Chapel

Link to live streamed service, with message: https://fb.watch/87sobBAa_7/

Bulletin:

     Did you see the story on the front page of The Beacon yesterday? A man named Jon Kissner started a new volunteer group in Coshocton.  One Flower Bed at a Time helps elderly residents or those with health issues with yardwork they can no longer do for themselves. He got the idea when he saw people on Facebook complaining about their neighbors not cleaning up their yards. “I said we need to help people in those situations, and then the light bulb came on about starting a group.”

     One Flower Bed at a Time has 30 members already. They have done work around a number of houses, including Pam Clark’s. Pam has had double hip replacements and has trouble getting around. Here’s what her flower bed looked like before the crew started work.

Here’s the crew hard at work. 

And here’s what her yard looked like after they were finished.

Here is Pam with some of the members of One Flower Bed at a Time.

      Pam saw Jon’s group on Facebook and asked him about it. She was ready to pay for their help!  “But he said that is not what we are about,” she said “They are neighbors helping neighbors. I even offered to feed them, but they wouldn’t take that either.”

     Jon’s comment about people complaining about their neighbors’ yards on Facebook, and his response, “We need to help people in those situations,” made me think of today’s reading in James.  We can be like the people on FB and other social networks who complain about things without doing anything about it, or we can seek “wisdom from above” —and reap a harvest of righteousness—and sow peace.

     The passage starts with a question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” If you raise your hand his question, he responds, “show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” This word translated “gentleness” is also translated “humility” or “considerateness.”

      While we don’t know for sure, the epistle of James may have been written by a brother of Jesus.

After Jesus ascended into heaven, James is chosen to be the leader of the church in Jerusalem. When Paul and Barnabas come before the apostles and elders in Jerusalem in Acts 15 to defend their unorthodox mission to the Gentiles, the Church is in a real crisis! For the first Christians are Jewish followers of Christ, and they aren’t sure that the message of the gospel is for everyone. Or, if they agree with expanding the mission to the world, many think that Gentiles should become Jews, first—learning and following all the rules of the faith—the dietary and purity laws and circumcision, among other requirements.

      James is a peacemaker. He passionately speaks up for the truth and fights for the unity and growth of the Church. He is the one who intervenes in the crisis in the Early Church in Acts and finds a peaceful way for the mission to continue and grow. Theologian, speaker and writer Barbara Brown Taylor says, “When Paul’s ministry continued to provoke believers in Jerusalem, James was among those who came up with a way for Paul to demonstrate his regard for Torah (Acts 21:17-26).”

       Barbara, writing more than a decade before the pandemic, says , “If the preacher of today’s passage faces warring church factions, James faces more. … He is sick and tired of hearing what people think about faith in God.  He is unimpressed by wisdom and understanding, at least the kind that people use to pound one another.  The only wisdom that interests James is the wisdom from above, which has nothing to do with good ideas and everything to do with living good lives.”

   This begs the question, “How we can tell the difference between earthly wisdom and wisdom from above?” Sounding something like the apostle Paul writing about love in 1 Cor. 13 (Love is patient, love is kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude), James tells us in verse 17 how we can recognize wisdom from above: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

     Where do the disputes and conflicts come from, according to James? Not from something outside of us.  “Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” James asks. “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.  And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”

     That phrase, “so you commit murder,” catches my attention. This is no mere quarrel in the congregation. The disputes and conflicts in the Church of James’ time stir violence. This is a big problem for the church and its witness to the wider community!

      As for blaming the devil or anyone else for our sins, James says, “No way.”  The devil has no power over those Christ has claimed as his own! That battle has already been won!  “Resist the devil,”  James writes, “and he will flee from you.”

      So, you ask now, “how do we get this wisdom from above?”

     I think of Solomon. As a teenager, he ascends the throne to rule as king after the death of his father, David. He has a vision of God on the throne, asking him for whatever he wants. Solomon, speaking humbly, in right relationship with the Lord, asks God not for riches but for wisdom so that he may rule God’s people well. The Lord was pleased with Solomon’s request.

    So, if we follow Solomon’s example, we seek divine wisdom in prayer when we have a personal relationship with God, when we humble ourselves before God—and we ask for wisdom so that we might accomplish God’s will for us.

    You know, friends, looking around this room, I see so many gifted people! Remember, God’s gifts to us never run out.  The more we use God’s gifts, the more God gives to us to serve Him more.

     Now, I want to point out that our lectionary reading today skips a number of verses. I encourage you to read the entire chapter, when you get a chance. The missing verses emphasize our making a choice—is it friendship with the world or the Lord? We can’t have both. The congregation in James’ time is struggling with the same temptations with which we struggle—and James is pretty upset about their choices.

 “Adulterers!” he says. “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”

Brothers and sisters, the epistle reading—as does the entire wisdom book of James—challenges us to show our faith by living good lives, with God’s help. We need God’s help! Our Creator longs to give wisdom to all who ask, to all who want to serve and know the Lord more.

Last night, as I was putting finishing touches on my message—Jim shared a new photo with me of our two granddaughters.  I was surprised to see that they are wearing the dresses made by a kind friend in Florida years ago—and now they fit perfectly.

Shirley made these dresses along with many other dresses for young girls in Africa in need of clothing. Shirley, like many other Christians whom I know, is someone who possesses wisdom from above; she is “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.” She is humble and has no idea what a blessing she is to SO many people! And she loves the Lord.

My friend, Shirley.

 Today, we have a choice to be like the world and complain about everything without doing anything about it. Or we can commit to being a friend to God and look for ways to make our community a better place and grow the Kingdom of God, one loving act at a time.

     And may we reap a harvest of righteousness, sown in peace.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, we draw near to you now, with the promise that you will draw near to us. We want to be your friend and not the friend of the world so that we lose ourselves, our integrity, our faith. We love you and praise you for all you have done in our lives—and the good lives you have planned for each of us. Lord, we need your wisdom from above. Fill us with this gift so that we, too, may “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.” Stir us to use all of your gifts to us for your glory and for building up your Kingdom. May we never grow weary of doing good. In the name of our Triune God, we pray with thanksgiving. Amen.

Healing Words

Meditation on James 3:1-12

Pastor Karen Crawford

Sept. 12, 2021

It was Sheila Moody’s first day of work at the Pentagon—Sept. 11, 2001. It was a beautiful, early fall day—blue skies, sunny and clear. Jim and I listened to Sheila’s story this week, along with others captured in the MSNBC documentary, “Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11.”  

      Artist Ruth Sergel built the simple plywood box slide right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to provide a medium for the stories of ordinary people to be shared—and not forgotten.

The participants would share their stories twice—first in the days and months immediately following the attacks and then again in 2021, when they would also share what it was like speaking in the Memory Box the first time and what has happened to them since then.

     Certain details stood out to each of them in their stories. Sheila Moody remembered that she brought a few personal items on that first day of work at the Pentagon: her Palm Pilot, a novel to read at her lunch hour, and a Bible. She sat down behind her desk in her cubicle that morning and began her accounting job. Then, at 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 carrying 59 passengers and 5 al-Qaeda hijackers crashed into the west side of the Pentagon.

That day, nearly 3,000 people died and 25,000 others injured in 3 attacks, hijacked planes crashing into The World Trade Center,

in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania,

and into the the iconic, five-sided building that is the headquarters for the Department of Defense.

     Sheila would eventually overcome her fears of another terrorist attack and return to her job at the Pentagon.

She told ABC News in March 2002 that she was sitting at her desk when she heard slide “a whistling, like a whistling sound and then a rumble, and then just a big whoosh… It felt like air at first but then I realized it was fire, just a big ball of fire. It felt like it came in through the window and just engulfed us.” She was only one of 3 workers to survive from the 34-person Pentagon accounting office.  

     When burning debris fell from the ceiling onto her hands, she shook them and cried out to the Lord for help. She shared in her Memory Box video in 2001 that she thought she was going to die. At the same time Sheila prayed for help, Staff Sgt. Christopher Braman prayed that God would give him strength to go back into the burning building and rescue those trapped inside.

Chris, a cook at the Pentagon and former Airborne Ranger, heard Sheila’s cries and answered, but he couldn’t see her. Sheila said that “he reached through the smoldering darkness as she clapped her hands to guide him, unable to call out again because she was choking.” ( Orange County Register, 9/5/21) “He would plunge inside toxic, smoldering ruins again and again over three days, helping to recover and bag the remains of 63 (people) among the 184 victims” who would perish that day as a result of the Pentagon attack. (Orange County Register 9/5/21)

     “Our prayers must have met somewhere,” slide Sheila told the Orange County Register last week. “I thank Jesus Christ as my savior, but I thank Sgt. Christopher Braman as my rescuer. God called him to order and put him into action.”

Chris picked up his cross and followed the Savior!

Sheila spent weeks at Walter Reed Army Hospital slide recovering from severe smoke inhalation and third-degree burns.

Doctors took skin from her legs to graft on her hands and face. Her physical scars have healed, but the mental scars were something she, like all the other survivors, would have to deal with on a daily basis.

     Sheila, in her many interviews since 911, is aware of the power of words, how they may affect others. She chooses her words carefully as she describes her journey to physical, mental, and spiritual health—being able to forgive those who tried to murder her that day.

     She uses healing words. How could she withhold forgiveness, slide she asks, when our suffering Lord, who died for our sins, offers unconditional love?

We have the joy of reading passages from James throughout the month of September. James is special in that it is considered the only wisdom book of the New Testament—much like Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon in the Old Testament.

Martin Luther didn’t think James was spiritual enough. He called it an “epistle of straw.”

He hated the part in chapter 2 about “faith without works is dead” and that pure and undefiled religion is caring for widows and orphans, who were the neediest people of his time. But we have to consider the audience for James; the epistle is written for people who are already Christians and want to be more faithful Christians, bearing the fruit of their spiritual transformation and witnessing to the self-giving, unconditional love of Jesus Christ.

 Today’s passage in chapter 3 on taming the tongue, being perfect in our speech, follows James’ urging believers to be “doers of the word and not hearers only.”  Therefore, the taming the tongue is an example of how to be a doer of the word—and live out our faith.

This passage haunted me this week as I failed miserably and repeatedly to tame my tongue. Miserably and repeatedly. Did I say that I failed to tame my tongue this week? The one verse that brought me comfort was verse 2. “For all of us make many mistakes.” Even James is admitting to not speaking perfectly, all the time. But he emphasizes that we should make it our goal.

For if we have a problem with our speech, the problem isn’t just with our tongue.

The problem is with our hearts.

Jesus says in Luke 6:45, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

On this day, in a world so needing to see and experience the unconditional love of Jesus Christ through us, our hearts and our words matter more than ever.

We witness to our faith and Christ’s love and grace when we speak healing words. Words that bring us together—and don’t divide. Words that make us whole.

***

     Sheila Moody is retired now after two decades of working at the Pentagon. She is a grandmother.

She welcomed to her family her son’s fiancé and now wife, a young woman from Egypt who was raised a Muslim. They are expecting their first child. “How amazing is that?” she asks, and laughs.

    Chris Braman, who prayed for strength to enter a burning building and saved Sheila’s life on Sept. 11, 2001, is a retired Army Sgt. First Class.

He turned 53 in August. He emerged from the tragedy a reluctant hero, a strong speaker, and a teacher who is ready to share his faith. He travels the country to talk about and give instructions on terrorism awareness. “He’s a cheerleader of sorts to hospitalized children, cancer patients, wounded veterans, and others in need of a boost.” ( Orange County Register 9/5/21).

     Though he retired from the Army in 2010 on a medical disability, he wears his dress blue uniform for such engagements. The charred uniform he wore while searching for people inside the Pentagon after the attack was sent to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum at Fort Lee, Va.

     He suffers from chronic asthma and has lungs like a coal miner, “severely and permanently damaged by breathing in jet fuel, smoke, asbestos, chemical fumes and human matter. The heat and chemicals seared his nasal cavity through to his esophagus…And then there’s the post-traumatic stress he’s learned to deal with through yoga, meditation and prayer.” (Orange Co. Register)

     In Chris’ modest home, mementos and awards from his Army career are displayed in a glass-top table in his living room. A cabinet displays the Olympic torch he carried on Dec. 21, 2001, inscribed with “light the fire within.”

     But where is the Purple Heart and Soldier’s Medal he was awarded for bravery on 9/11? Stored away somewhere, Chris says. He insists that they are honors he didn’t deserve.

     “It was all God’s intervention,” Chris says. “It had nothing to do with me.”

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for your word to us today. Help us to be doers of your word and be perfect in our speech, with your help. Teach us to tame the tongue so that we allow you to speak through us healing words and with our lives bear witness to your unconditional love. And Lord, bless the first responders and all the volunteers and survivors of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Continue to comfort and bring peace to the families who lost loved ones 20 years ago. Make us one as a country, dear Lord, as you did in the wake of those terrible attacks. Let us be united and remember our love for all of America, with all its diversity, all of us your children. Heal us and make us whole. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.

Ask for Help

Meditation on Mark 7:24-37

Pastor Karen Crawford

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH 43812

Sept. 5, 2021

Here is a link to our livestreamed worship, including my message:

https://fb.watch/7QGB_OErsT/

It’s been an emotional 4 weeks. The pandemic continues and has affected some members of our congregation. Hurricane Ida caused devastation and loss of life. Violence and chaos continue to reign in Afghanistan after the evacuation of U.S. troops, some of whom lost their lives in the process.

It’s also been a difficult time for me personally. A few weeks into Jim’s recovery from his knee surgery, I experienced my own health crisis. A week ago Thursday, I had surgery to remove my appendix and a mass that was creating a blockage.

I am getting stronger every day and praising God for his healing. But I find myself trying to figure out what the Lord has been saying to me through all these difficulties coming on top of each other. Definitely, that God is always with us in our struggles! And His love never ends.

 But I also know that God is trying to change my heart. He wants me to let go of my anxiety and fear when I encounter trials. James tells us that there are godly reasons for our struggles, Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (1:2-4)

One of the most important lessons I am learning is that it is good to have help from the Body of Christ. That may be a hard lesson for some who feel more comfortable doing for others than having others do for you. Sometimes, we need help and are afraid or embarrassed to ask.

I am so grateful for my faithful brothers and sisters. You have been Christ’s hands and feet!

One of the most amazing gifts I received after my surgery is a little book of wisdom called, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by British illustrator Charlie Mackesy.  I want to share some of it with you. I hope you will be blessed, too!

The mole asks the boy, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Kind,” said the boy.”

 “What do you think success is?” asked the boy. “To love,” said the mole.”

 “What is that over there?” “It’s the wild,” said the mole. “Don’t fear it.”

 “Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid.”

   Then the boy and mole encounter the fox. “I’m not afraid,” said the mole to the fox.

    “If I wasn’t caught in this snare, I’d kill you,” said the fox.

 “If you stay in that snare, you will die,” said the mole.So the mole chewed through the wire with his tiny teeth.

“One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things,” said the mole to the boy.

  And the fox reacts by making a heart in the snow.

Then the boy, the mole and the fox meet a horse. “Hello.”

 “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy.

  “Help,” said the horse.

 “When have you been at your strongest?” asked the boy.

  “When I have dared to show my weakness,” said the horse.

 “Asking for help isn’t giving up,” said the horse. “It’s refusing to give up.”

We run into a few characters in our gospel reading in Mark who refuse to give up—and ask for help and the kind of healing only Jesus can give.  First, the Syro-Phoenician woman who seeks help for her child, and then a group of people who seek healing for a man, their friend presumably, who is deaf, with a speech impediment. Jesus will cure them both, but he doesn’t embrace the opportunity to help the Syro-Phoenician woman’s child, at first.

What’s the problem? Yes, she’s a woman, coming to Jesus alone, which was not culturally acceptable. Some scholars say that the request should have come to Jesus from a male head of the household.  But what’s an even larger problem? She’s not Jewish. She is “Syro-Phoenician.”  She is a Gentile.

“Syria was the name of the Roman province that included parts of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel. Phoenicians were an ancient Semitic people related to the biblical Canaanites, who inhabited city-states throughout the Mediterranean. One of their population centers was Tyre, a coastal city in present-day Lebanon, about twelve miles north of the border with Israel. So, both geographically and ethnically, the Syrophoenician woman represents someone on the borders between Jews and Gentiles.”  Her language and culture are Greek, “which also designates her as a non-Jew.” — Claudia Setzer, Professor of Religious Studies, Manhattan College, Riverdale, NY. 

The Syro-Phoenician woman, unlike the Samaritan woman at the well in John, may actually be a woman of means with some power. Gentiles were often more well off than their Jewish peasant neighbors in the Roman Empire. Some artwork depicts her as fair-skinned, well-fed, and well dressed.  

This painting shows her stroking the head of a dog, which were occasionally pets in the more well-off families, but more often they lived outside as scavengers, eating anything they could find.

In this time and place, calling someone a dog was one of the worst insults you could call anybody. When the woman begs for healing for her little daughter, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The children Jesus is talking about? The Jewish people—God’s chosen people. Jesus believes, at this time, that his mission is only for the Jews—the “lost sheep of Israel,” as he says in this same story in Matthew 15:24.

Some scholars say that his answer only reveals his single-minded focus on the mission he believes God has called him to do. Others suspect that this may be a weak moment for Jesus. He has been caught with his “compassion down.” He has left his disciples and gone to Tyre—a Gentile community—hoping he won’t be recognized! He wants to be left alone. But in all fairness, he reveals a common bias against the Syro-Phoenician woman that every Jewish male in his culture would have shared with him at the time. Perhaps this is a test—especially for his original audience who would hear the story and ask, “Why is Jesus even talking with her?”

With Jesus’ response to the woman desperately seeking healing for her young child, we are seeing the human Jesus here—probably tired, wanting a break from his relentless mission, with all its frustrations. Scholars debate whether what Jesus says and does here constitutes a sin—turning away someone in need in such an abrupt, insulting manner. But that’s not the point of the passage—to reveal the weakness of our Messiah, of which the writer of Hebrews says,  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”—Hebrews 4:15.

 God wants to surprise and challenge us to see that this woman, a Gentile outside the covenant of Abraham, is the one who doesn’t take no for an answer. She is bold with her request and is rewarded for her boldness! The outsider stirs Jesus to see the situation in a new light. With her persistence and faith in his power to heal, she leads Jesus to see that his mission is not just to the Jews, but to the entire world that God so loves, as Jesus will tell Nicodemus in the gospel of John. Bowing to him, humbling herself at his feet, she says,  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Jesus models that the Son of God can learn and grow while he seeks to know and be obedient to God’s will, putting aside his own personal preferences, as he teaches his disciples to pray, “Thy will be done.”  He models that there is no shame in admitting when we are wrong, and it’s never too late to do the right thing! He says to the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” She goes home, finds the child lying on the bed. And the demon gone!

This is what I am hearing the Lord teaching us through His Word: Persevere and ask for help—from the Lord and the Body of Christ, when you are in need. And as we pray for one another and serve one another, we see the Lord and come to know Him and reflect him, more and more–His goodness, His glory, His compassion and mercy. Walking in our Savior’s footsteps, we discover the truth of the epistle of James—that real religion is shown by acts of kindness to people in need, even if we are tired out, as Jesus seemed to be, and wanting some time alone, hiding out in Gentile country. If we claim to be religious, without caring for and praying for others, then we have no faith at all.

As for more personal lessons through my struggles…. God has also been dealing with my own unrealistic desire to be perfect and for my life to be perfect. But life is messy. And we are flawed and make mistakes, though always trying to be more faithful and obedient to God’s call.

Says the wise mole in Charlie Mackesy’s book, “The greatest illusion is that life should be perfect.”

The boy sees two beautiful swans swimming serenely in a pond and asks, “How do they look so together and perfect?”

“There’s a lot of frantic paddling going on beneath,” said the horse.

 “We don’t know about tomorrow, “said the horse. “All we need to know is that we love each other.”

 “When the dark clouds come, keep going.”

 “This storm will pass.”

 “Do you have any other advice?” asked the boy. “Don’t measure how valuable you are by the way you are treated,” said the horse.

 “Always remember you matter, you’re important, and you are loved, and you bring to the world things no one else can.”

 “Sometimes, all you hear about is the hate. But there is more love in this world than you could possibly imagine.”

Let us pray.  

Holy One, you invite us to come to you boldly, like the Syro-Phoenician woman, so we come to you in faith with our requests, knowing that you will respond to our cries. You want to hear us. And we long to hear your voice! Thank you, Lord, for your kindness to us, for sending your perfect Son when human beings were a perfect mess and couldn’t fix ourselves, no matter what we tried. Thank you for all your good gifts to us, especially your healing—body, mind, and soul. Help us, Lord, to see the needs around us and respond with wisdom, generosity, patience, and compassion, without prejudice, as your Son models for us. Help us to be gentle and use our words to lift up, never knowing what struggles others are facing. And when we make mistakes, Lord, as we always do, help us to see our wrongs and do our best to make them right—as Jesus did when he healed the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman. In His name we pray. Amen.

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