Sunday, September 5, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 15:10; sermon starts around 22:50)
On Tuesday afternoons, almost every week, I drive to Fremont to meet up with other clergy folks from around the area for text study (as I’ve mentioned many times before). And for me, it’s become a bit of a habit after text study to hit up one of the many drive-thrus in Fremont and bring home something for supper. It’s just nice to get home and have supper ready and not have to cook.
My go-to is usually Raising Cane’s, but this last Tuesday I was in more of a taco kind of mood, so I decided to head to Taco Bell instead. I pulled into the parking lot of Taco Bell and was about to get into the drive-thru lane when I noticed something odd. A couple of other cars had pulled into the lot ahead of me, driving toward the drive-thru, but at the last minute, they veered away and drove out the other side of the parking lot. I got closer and realized that there was one lone Taco Bell employee out sweating in the sun, standing at the end of the drive thru lane and waving cars away.
Now, I know that eating at Taco Bell is not the best or healthiest choice a person could make, but you don’t typically expect a Taco Bell employee (especially one who’s on the clock!) to be the one telling you not to eat at Taco Bell. So I pulled up and rolled down my window to see what the deal was. It turns out they were having some technical issues in the kitchen, and the guy told me it was going to be at least another half an hour before they could take orders and start serving again.
I noticed that one of the cars ahead of me had actually pulled off into a parking spot to wait – but I definitely wasn’t gonna do that. I thanked the guy and drove off. I really didn’t need a chalupa that badly (plus Taco Bell serves Pepsi, which is just gross). I was hungry and I felt like eating tacos – but there are restaurants literally all up and down 23rd St. in Fremont. Not only are there plenty of other drive-thru places; there are even other drive-thru taco places. It didn’t have to be Taco Bell. I knew I could easily get what I needed someplace else.
That is decidedly not the attitude that the Syrophoenician woman has in our gospel reading for this morning. She has pulled her car up to the Jesus drive-thru, and she will not be deterred when the disciples and even Jesus himself tries to wave her off. She has come for a chalupa, darnit, and she’s not leaving until she gets it!
Now, obviously, this woman who comes to Jesus has needs that are much more serious than a craving for fast food tacos. Her little daughter is seriously ill, with a sickness that seems to be more than just a physical illness. The story doesn’t tell us how long this has been going on or what else she may have tried first, without success. But this woman has clearly heard about Jesus. And through faith, she has come to know and believe in her heart of hearts that the only person who can save her daughter is Jesus – she needs help that only he can give and she’s not leaving without it.
Even when Jesus is cranky and straight up rude to her, the Syrophoenician woman is not put off. Jesus clearly needs a nap – he has been trying for several chapters to get away and take a break – he even went up into Gentile territory hoping that no one would recognize him there! So he’s not very happy about it when this woman barges in, demanding his help. He makes it clear to her that his mission is mainly to the people of Israel; he says 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 without missing a beat, the Syrophoenician woman responds, “Yes. But even the dogs under the table get to eat the children’s crumbs.” She stays and fights for even the least little bit of what Jesus offers – because she knows that even a teaspoon of Jesus is better than a thousand gallons of anything else.
And that’s because what Jesus can give her daughter – and what Jesus can give us – goes beyond just physical healing of the body. Jesus has the power to truly make us whole – to heal us and restore us to our true selves; to restore us to our God.
To be clear, when I say that Jesus alone brings us true healing, I’m absolutely not saying we only need Jesus and not healthcare. Modern medicine has given us many miracles – like vaccines, for example – miracles which are absolutely God’s work being done by human hands. And it’s important that we all do everything we can to care for ourselves and for each other.
Yet, in the end, even the advances of medicine – amazing as they are – can only ever delay the inevitable. No power or resource or knowledge on earth can keep us from dying; nor can it bring us back to life again. But Jesus is stronger than death. With Jesus there is true life that breaks the power of death itself. Jesus has the power to bring us healing and wholeness in this life and in the next.
The Syrophoenician woman clings to Jesus because she gets this – in fact, she might understand this even better than the twelve do. One of my colleagues at text study this week made the comment that, in the Syrophoenician woman’s eyes, she may be a dog – but if she is a dog, she is Jesus’ dog and no one else’s. Her conversation with Jesus actually reminds me of Peter’s conversation with Jesus from a couple of weeks ago. Jesus asks the disciples if they still want to follow him after so many other people have fallen away, and Peter responds: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The disciples throw in their lot with Jesus because they also recognize that Jesus is offering them something no one else can give them.
But the Syrophoenician woman’s declaration of faith goes further – because it’s more than just words. She comes and seeks Jesus out and she refuses to leave when even Jesus himself basically tells her to go away. She lives out her faith with actions as well as words, and this is what impresses Jesus. She could call him Lord and say she believes that he’s the Messiah until she’s blue in the face – but it’s in her actions that she shows the true strength of her faith.
This is what James is getting at in our second reading when he writes that faith without works is dead. He’s not denying that we are saved by grace through faith. But he is saying that if our faith is only words and has nothing to do with how we live or with the state of our hearts, then what good is it? Faith at its best is living and transformative and life-changing.
The Syrophoenician woman’s life is transformed by Jesus’ power – but it’s also transformed simply by her choice to act on her faith and to seek Jesus above all else. All of our lives are shaped by what we choose and by what we love and by what we decide to give our time to. I mean, heck – going back to my silly story from earlier – even if I had chosen to wait at that Taco Bell, bound and determined to get some chalupas, at the very least it would have impacted my day; it would probably also have changed how much I valued that food and how mindfully I ate it, and also how I felt about myself and the ways I chose to spend my time. Our priorities not only show us for who we really are; they also actively shape us into who we are.
This is why Christ wants to be our top priority. He wants us to choose him first so that everything else in our lives will fall into its proper place. And Christ invites us to allow ourselves to be transformed – to be transformed by his healing power, and to be transformed by living our faith out in action, by actively seeking Christ in everything that we do.
So I encourage you to be persistent, like the Syrophoenician woman. Don’t let yourself be put off seeking out the life that Christ offers you – even if you get distracted by other priorities – even if the guy waving you off at the end of the drive-thru lane is Christ himself having a bad day. Don’t drive away. Jesus has the stuff that you need – and it’s worth waiting for.