Rev. Teri Peterson
In Her Place
10 April 2011, Lent 5A (off lectionary—Choices On The Way)
From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
She was just a woman. She was just a woman, a Gentile woman, a woman who should know better, who should never have been seen and certainly not heard, a foreigner, with the wrong skin color and the wrong religious beliefs and the wrong accent.
She was a woman who needed to be put in her place.
I mean, we all know how the world works. We all know that there are systems and norms and rules, and we know how to play the game. We know that our position of privilege—whether privilege of education or status or gender or color or wealth or being the most chosen of the chosen people—gives us certain…opportunities. Among those is the opportunity to remind people where they belong.
She was just a desperate woman, looking for help anywhere she could find it. She was willing to break the rules because—well—when you’re desperate, rules don’t matter.
And suddenly, against all the odds, we hear it.
We hear a voice calling out to us, a voice that is simultaneously familiar and discordant, a voice we half recognize though it comes from a body that can’t possibly contain it.
We know, of course, how God works. We know that God plays by the rules, always uses the best people available to do the job, always lays out the map and gives us fences to mark the path…and to keep the wrong kind of people out. Sure, there were a few aberrations with that murderer who led us out of Egypt, and that adulterer who was our greatest king ever, and those women of questionable morals and questionable breeding in the family tree. But overall, we get it. We know where we chosen people stand, and where others stand, and we know what to do when the wrong kind of people try to get in, when the wrong kind of people answer the call, when the wrong kind of people start calling out to us for the same kind of love and care we give our own.
So when we hear the voice, and we see the body it comes from, we know that something is up. This does not follow the rules—though we try. We were brought up to believe that she was bad, an outsider, not to be trusted let alone touched or conversed with. Our whole society, our whole religious system, our whole identity, our whole understanding of who God is and what God calls us to do, tells us the proper response: to put her in her place.
And we tried, we really did. We tried the racist slurs, the sarcastic tone, the condescending glare, the cold shoulder. We looked down on her—on her choices, her upbringing, her ethnicity and her religion. We used the most derogatory words we could call to mind, and we spat them out at her, hoping she would understand that we play by the rules and so would slink away, tail between her legs, to go back to wherever she belongs.
But then that voice…clear as a bell, both as desperate as our psalmist crying out to God from the depths of despair and as sassy as wisdom calling out to us from the street corner. The container doesn’t match, but we would know that voice anywhere—that’s the voice of the Spirit, hovering over the waters, breathing new life into dry bones, calling light out of darkness and love out of hate.
So we have to make a choice—to answer the Spirit’s call, though it breaks all the rules we think we know, or to close our ears and avert our eyes.
This is the moment when our divine nature tries to assert itself, when the image of God tries to break forth through our human ways. And we realize—this is what it means to be fully human, fully divine. This is what it means to live as God calls us to live. This is what it means to hear and obey. This is what it means to follow God’s will, to suddenly the systems of sin in which we are oh-so-humanly caught and turn into a new kingdom of hope. This is what it means to break open our hardened shells and let God’s light stream into the world.
And so we turn to this woman, this child of God, this vessel of the Spirit, and let love flow out from us, out past the walls we’ve built, out past the cage we’ve kept ourselves in, erasing our lines in the sand and growing the circle ever wider. Instead of putting her in the place we think she deserves, we step aside, make room for the Spirit to move among and within us and others, and allow her to take the place God has prepared for her, at the table of sassy saints. And then we turn again, following God’s call into the unknown, toward Jerusalem. For that is where this journey of obedient love will take us.
May God guide us on our way. Amen.