When I look back on my Sunday School education as a kid – aside from warnings that my apple juice might be laced with LSD (which I talked about this summer) the overwhelming sentiment I got out the experience was “God is nice. So, you be nice too.”
I don’t know if any of you received a similar message at some point. But part of growing up and moving forward into adult spirituality, involves confronting whether the statement, “God is nice,” really captures the full picture of the God of the universe, the God of the Bible, the God of our hearts, the God who calls us to action.
We live a not-always-nice existence, in a not-always-nice world, full of not-always-nice people. I’m not talking about total depravity here. I’m just saying even I am not always nice. Sometimes we’re selfish, which isn’t very nice. And sometimes we’re indifferent to others, which isn’t very nice. And sometimes we find ourselves in situations where there is no nice option, no easy answer, where the mantra “God is nice, so I’ll be nice, and everything will be nice for everyone” falls down the stairs with a THUD so loud that all we can hear afterwards is Silence.
Sometimes we realize that the best or the most moral outcome we can hope for requires us to be not-so-nice. We’re going to have to be loud. We’re going to have to be demanding. We’re going to have to set and hold boundaries. We’re going to have to challenge someone, pressure them, push them, overthrow them for the good of everybody. And while it might be for the best, it ain’t gonna be nice.
In our Scripture reading this evening nice-nice Jesus isn’t very nice. I mean, Beloved, it’s more than just a little nasty. An unnamed Gentile woman – meaning she wasn’t of Jewish origin like Jesus and the disciples – asks for healing for her little daughter and Jesus tells her that it isn’t right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs. Which is an awful thing to say to a woman lying at your feet begging for your help to heal her little girl.
This summer many of us have been coming to terms with the reality of what we did to migrant families at our southern border. We saw little children taken from their parents and caged like dogs in a kennel out in the desert somewhere. We heard desperate parents begging for information about the whereabouts of their kids. We heard those kids crying, “Mama! Mama!” with no one to comfort them. I’m sure many of you prayed for refugee and migrant children everywhere on dangerous journeys. Well, what if God gave you a response like Jesus’? What if God answered you this way when it was your own child you were praying for? “Sorry, no dogs allowed.”
It’s more than just a little nasty because Jesus’ words aren’t accurately translated here. The word translated into English as “dogs” in the Greek is a diminutive form of the word dogs. It’s similar in form to the word used to describe the woman’s daughter which is translated in our reading as “little daughter.” So, Jesus isn’t just calling Gentiles in general a bunch of dogs. He’s specifically calling this woman’s little daughter a little dog who does not deserve the bread reserved for the real children of God.
Not only is it nasty, it’s also confusing. I mean this is the same Jesus who has been preaching about all those seeds. Remember them? The Kindom of God is like a sower throwing seed, he said. The sower THROWS THE SEEDS ALL OVER THE PLACE. They land where they will land - scattered indiscriminately! And if they find fertile ground, the seeds will grow! The Kindom of God is the ALWAYS-POTENTIAL. But Jesus, the indiscriminate scatterer, is now suddenly getting choosy about where he throws his bread. It seems like Jesus’ own parable has outstripped him. Maybe it has?
A pastor acquaintance of mine thought to teach his Sunday School about this parable of the sower. Jesus said in that parable that as the sower throws the seed around some of the seed will fall on the path, some on rocky ground, some in thorns, and some in good soil. So, led by their pastor the Sunday School kids scattered wildflower seeds on the path, on rocks, in the bushes, and in the garden. A few weeks later, despite having told the kids that the seeds would only grow in the good soil, the only seeds that hadn’t grown were the ones scattered in the church garden. They were growing on the path, they were growing on the rocks, they were growing in the bushes!
The unexpected lesson? Your discriminating mind should not be trusted to guess where the good soil is. The good soil will identify herself not by what she looks like or where she lives but by how she acts, by the courage she shows in growing the seeds and enacting the Kindom of God. As Jesus says elsewhere, “Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” Perhaps he learned this lesson from the Syrophoenician woman.
But we’re not quite ready to go there yet. When Jesus – when God – isn’t very nice, it worries us. We don’t want to have to change God’s mind. We want God to change our minds. We don’t want to have to work for the Kindom. We want the Kindom to rescue us. We want a different story here. We want a story about some bozo who refuses to treat people equally, and Jesus floats over to him and says, “God is nice, so you be nice too.” But that’s not what we get. Instead, Jesus travels for days without explanation to Tyre, a Gentile city, and hides out in a house wanting no one to know he’s there. The sower puts his bag of seeds away, locks the door, puts on a not-nice face, and waits. For what?
Maybe Jesus is trying to make a point. Maybe Jesus was preaching by the Sea of Galilee and he told the disciples the one about the mustard seed again (a farmer planted a mustard seed, the smallest seed, in his field and it became the biggest bush and the birds built nests in its branches – this is what the Kindom of God is like, he said). And maybe one of the disciples said, “That’s a nice story, Jesus.” And Jesus thought, “You think a story about a seed that only a fool would plant in their field, a tiny seed that takes over the field you thought belonged to you with great bushy weeds and gives your field away to the birds – the pests – who build nests in its branches is a “nice” story?” And maybe Jesus decides to enact a demonstration.
Arriving in Tyre, Jesus tries to hide. But the Syrophoenician woman finds him. Jesus insults her, refuses her, turns her away. He is not nice. But she is not nice either. The power within her that told her to seek Jesus out now stands in opposition to him, challenges him, won’t take NO for an answer.
One way of reading the Syrophoenician woman’s response to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” is to see it as a sort of consent, “Sure, sure, we’re dogs, the kid’s a little dog, now will you heal her?” But I think there is a fundamental Kindom of God, good soil, not-at-all-nice, faith-with-works, pushy-field-of-weeds challenge in her words. Jesus says that the one true God, the only true God, the omnipotent, all-powerful God favors his people to her exclusion. An astute theologian, the Syrophoenician woman challenges the logical flaw in this belief.
If your God is truly so powerful, she says, and there is not so much as a little crumb of mercy left over for my little daughter, then your faith in your God is foolish. If you think you have bread, but you have no crumbs for me, I do not believe that you really have the bread you claim to have. The Kindom of God that I have felt growing inside of me, she says, cannot be contained - it scatters and spills and is thrown down in the places you would least expect it. Send me away with nothing, and you will have nothing and will have wasted the Kindom potential here in this moment.
The Kindom of God, the foremost spiritual, social, and political goal of those who seek to follow Jesus looks in part like this: A woman, a Gentile (a non-Jew), a Syrophoenician Greek living in TYRE (Tyre, of all places, that despised city, that seat of Roman imperial economic and military power, that beachhead of colonialism and oppression - TYRE!), a person who because of her nationality should never have heard the Good News, a person who because of her religion should never have known of such Grace and such healing, a person who because of her gender should not have spoken that way to this man. To this unnamed woman belongs the Kindom of God because she has heard the Good News that God is with us so powerfully and grown the seeds so fully that she is empowered to stand up to challenge Jesus, the sower himself, God with us himself – to challenge him to recognize her place at the table. She has heard and she will not be still. She will not be deterred. She will not be quiet. She will not be nice. Because God and God’s Kindom are good, but not always “nice.” And it is in her action - standing up to Jesus - that the Kindom of God is more fully demonstrated, extraverted, and realized.
Furthermore, the Syrophoenician woman demonstrates to us more about what James means when he says, “Don’t discriminate! Faith without works is DEAD.” She shows us that while the seed of faith may be on the inside, in order for our faith to truly live, we must learn to compliment the inner seed of faith with the outer seed, or the fruit, of works – action. We must compliment the personal with the universal, and the Self with the Other.
Being a Christian is not about being nice or feeling nice or believing that God is nice. Being a Christian means taking the Gospel or the salvation or the love or whatever you call that seed growing like a weed inside of you and translating it into action. And in order to translate the very nice feeling of love that we feel inside of us into love on the outside of us, may require us to have a goal, and a vision to reach that goal, and the training to live out that vision. And that is challenging. And when God challenges us, is God being nice?
This fall here at Broadway UCC is the fall of Leadership Development. We’re going to have lots of opportunities to sign up for committees and volunteer positions that will allow us to put our faith into action and we will have training to figure out what we need to do to turn the seeds on the inside into fruits on the outside.
We’re starting with Greeter Training in two weeks. If we want to grow as a church, if we want to welcome in new people who maybe know nothing about church, if we want to show people who walk in the door an immediate glimpse of what we have discovered on our insides, the most important thing we can do is train ourselves in a few basic principles of working the door and offering welcome. This training is for veteran and newbie greeters and will be held on Sunday, September 23 at 3 PM.
Even if you decide that being a greeter is not for you, there will be a benefit to understanding who we want to be as a community of Christ in that initial moment of contact – when the seed hits the soil – and all the potential we can put into action in that special moment. I hope to see you there.