Most professional productions of stage plays do eight performances a week, and because it’s live theatre it’s part of the actor’s job to make each one of those performances alive: spontaneous and fresh. But everybody’s human, and sometimes you can find yourself going through the motions a bit. When that happened, I had a little mental exercise I’d do sometimes. Right before my first entrance – literally when I was about to take my first step on to the stage – I’d say to myself, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Of course I knew my lines, knew the play, had rehearsed and performed it however many times. But if you’re an actor doing the work right, you know that, like every other human being, you’re a little different person than you were yesterday, and than you will be tomorrow: that’s life; and you’re going to live out the words of the play a little differently than you ever have before. It’s just a matter of concentration on the truth: on what’s real.
Today is what around here we call Startup Sunday. Like most churches, during the summer we’re at a lower level of activity, and today we resume our two-service schedule, the choir is back, church school starts again. Back to the normal routine, right?
Well, for a Christian, the normal routine is that there really is no normal routine. There are things we do in church that looks like pretty much the same way every week; we say pretty much the same words, just like in a play. But if we’re doing our faith practice right - if we’re being responsive to the truth, to what’s really going on in our lives - what we’ll be doing in those same words is growing in the knowledge and love of God in Christ: discovering and engaging with the new things God is always doing, all the time.
It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I understood this. I wasn’t a regular churchgoer at all, I just didn’t get it. And then one day, by the grace of God, I just happened to walk into an Episcopal church service on a normal, nondescript Sunday, and I began that the work people do together in here is about their real lives. Let’s just think briefly now of some of the ways we can do this. Who is on your heart today? Who needs help? In your family? Among your friends? People you work with? People out in the world you just know about?
Is there something on your conscience today? Is there something you know you need to own up to? Something you think you might have done differently? Something you were lazy, or thoughtless, about?
What are you thankful for today? What’s in your life right now that’s giving you joy, that you did nothing to deserve, that you can see is a gift of God?
You may have noticed that these questions, these lines of thinking, are all forms of prayer (specifically what we call intercession, confession, and thanksgiving; there are other kinds as well.) We can ask ourselves these questions anywhere. But this is the place where we learn to ask them (and we ask them because we’re waking ourselves up to the truth, we’re not just going through the motions.) And we come here on Sunday mornings to ask them together, which makes it a whole different experience. As we bring all of these things before God here in church – as we let God into our lives, what’s really happening with us right now – God helps us to grow into our true selves, into who God created each of us to be.
In coming weeks we’re going to be talking about our lives as Christians in a way that’s described in four words: Live Deep, Live Wide. To live deep means to take a deep dive into the many practices the church has established over the centuries by which we make room for God in our lives: like prayer, like regular reading of scripture, like observing sabbaths: intentionally taking time away from all the things we think we have to do, and take that time to be silent; to take in the beauty of God’s creation; to be with people we love.
And to live wide means to open our eyes and ears and arms to the people around us, whether we know them or not; to look for where God is alive and at work among them; and to look for where something might be getting in the way, in ourselves as well as in them: anxiety; anger; pride; grief.
Church is a place to grow, and to be transformed, to walk the way of Jesus. And today we actually had an example of transformation from Jesus himself. It’s in the first of the two stories that are paired in today’s reading from the gospel of Mark, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus has gone to a Gentile area, near the city of Tyre – but his growing reputation has followed him there, and a woman comes to ask him for help. Mark tells us that the woman’s daughter has an “unclean spirit”, and that she “begged him to cast the demon out of her….” To which Jesus answers, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” By “children” Jesus is referring to the Jews, the people of Israel: those to whom he presently feels it is his mission to minister, and to preach the gospel. And everybody else - including this woman and her daughter - he refers to as “dogs”.
I’m sure we all react the same way: what’s up with Jesus here? I know of a priest who once preached a sermon series which he titled “Things I Wish Jesus Had Never Said.” I’m sure this was one of them. In that part of the world, to call someone a dog is still today the worst kind of insult, and obviously this seems completely out of keeping with the Jesus we know. Over the years people have made various attempts at talking their way around these: that Jesus was only pretending hostility to test her faith; that the Greek word here translated “dogs” is actually a diminutive that means “little doggies” or “puppies”, so Jesus is actually being playful with the woman, and means to fulfill her request all along. But these seem kind of flimsy; and I think they miss something important that’s really going on here.
I think Jesus was speaking in the awareness of his identity as a Jew: as one of God’s chosen people, who understand that there is one God, that they are in a covenanted relationship with this God, who has commanded them to have no other gods, and to love God with all their heart and soul and mind, and to love their neighbor as themselves; and in that covenant – in this commitment - they are unique among all the people in the world.
And when Jesus brings up this distinction between his people and everybody else - even as harshly as he does here - the Syrophoenician woman does not try to contradict him; but neither does she let it deter her. She presses Jesus: Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. And when we think about living deep, there’s something worth noting here. We should pay attention to this woman: she is teaching us something about how to pray. She is humble and respectful, but persistent, even a little pushy (in many Christian traditions, including our own, when we say the Lord’s prayer we introduce it with the words, “we are bold to say”.) This woman knows where to go, she knows who alone can give her what she wants, she recognizes the one God; she throws herself on Jesus’ mercy in a wholehearted, undefended way out of the power of love, the love that she feels for her daughter; and out of that love, her instinctive knowledge of who God is: we dogs eat the same food as you children, and from God, even crumbs will do. God who doesn’t care about the distinctions we make among ourselves, God who is the God of all humanity.
And when Jesus hears this, something opens up in him. And the power of God – which was alive in Jesus as in no other human – that power flashes through him in a nanosecond, through him to the woman’s daughter, who’s not even there, and she is healed. And Jesus says to the woman, For saying that, you may go; the demon has left your daughter. He sees that this woman is living in the truth: her daughter needs help, and there’s only one place that help’s going to come from. This woman is living deep, more deeply than she ever has; and through her prayer, in communion with her, Jesus is living more widely.
This is church. It’s a startup day for both of them; as, in fact, every day is a startup day, if only we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Let it be so for us. Let us live deep, and live wide. Thanks be to God.