Shaped by Challenges

A woman enters the room, she has a shawl around her shoulders, she looks around and begins to speak:

Jesus tried to have some privacy when he was in my hometown… But, you know what it is like when a famous person comes to town… even back then without Facebook and Twitter, we knew when someone famous was around… in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if our grapevine was every bit as effective as all your modern methods of communication!

And Jesus was famous… or infamous, depending on with whom you spoke… He had been preaching & teaching about the God’s love for all of us and healing people with all sorts of ailments… How on earth could someone like that expect to have some privacy, no matter how far from home he was?

And so, he came to my hometown… and I found out where he was staying… Some of you might be mystified as to how I got into the house if it wasn’t my own. You have to understand that houses were not as private then as they are now… For one thing, houses held multiple generations… along with servants and slaves…Often the building itself was built around a central courtyard, with multiple entrances… one for trades people, one for family, one for servants and so on. And… the tradition of hospitality was at the heart of Middle East practice… there were no hotels and so often there would strangers staying in a household as well. All these things worked to my advantage in my quest to speak to Jesus.

I am usually a humble, quiet woman… I don’t like to make waves and I don’t usually do anything unexpected. But… but… my daughter was beset by an unclean spirit… It was as if she were in a trance… she spoke nonsense… didn’t want to eat or drink… We, my husband and I were afraid for her life… and we loved her dearly…So, desperation gave me courage and boldness!

I walked up to the gate of that household as if I belonged there, said, ‘Good Evening’ to the gatekeeper, who replied with a nod and I walked into the outer courtyard! There were many people coming and going… it was the time of the evening meal and with Jesus and his disciples there, there was even more commotion than is usual in a large household. I continued into the inner courtyard, where the guests had gathered… my head held high…But then, in the presence of Jesus, with all his disciples, all my boldness disappeared. I fell to my knees and said, “Please, please help me Jesus, I have heard that you are a great healer… my daughter is overcome by an unclean spirit and I fear for her life.”

Do you know what he said? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” What kind of response was that? He was comparing my child to a dog! I know I was not Jewish, and he understood that he had been called to preach to the Jewish people, but that preaching was about how God’s love was for all of us. And this was his response??? Well, just like that, my boldness returned and I rose, stood straight and tall, looked him straight in the eye and replied, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs!”

My reply seemed to break down something in Jesus… for it seemed as if his eyes were opened and he suddenly saw me for who I was… a woman with a daughter to be healed… not just an interruption of his meal and rest… but a human being… a desperate mother… a child of God… And with a new gentleness on his face and in his voice he said, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

I bowed my head in thanks and left him… and sure enough, when I arrived back at my home, my daughter was well. I heard in the market place that Jesus later healed a man who was deaf and dumb… That he touched the man’s ears and his tongue and looked up to God and said: Ephphatha, which means, ‘be opened.’

I like to think that I opened Jesus’ eyes that day I met him… opened his eyes to see that even though I was not a Jew, I was still a child of God… I was bold that day… bolder than I had ever been in my life… bolder than I ever was again… I thank God for my boldness… and I encourage you to be bold as well! Bold in your calls for justice and peace for all!

Woman takes off shawl and goes to the pulpit.

Our gospel reading this week shows Jesus in very human terms… for whatever reason, not at his best. Picture it… he is in Gentile territory… in effect, away from all the demands and expectations of the Jewish people. Is he on vacation? Scholars don’t agree on why he is in gentile territory… What is evident in scripture is that he doesn’t want people to know he is there. And when confronted with a non-Jewish woman he treats her with less than respect and kindness.

Most of us grew up with an image of Jesus as gentle, loving and kind. So this picture of Jesus, who is rude, abrupt and racist, doesn’t easily mesh with our concept of him. If you think the word racist is too strong, listen again to what Mark wrote was Jesus’ response to the foreign woman’s plea: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.:

The reference to children being fed first means the people of Israel. It means that Jesus originally saw his mission as to them and only them… but this woman, with her persistence and boldness, persuaded Jesus to be open to a broader vision… one of justice and healing for all. Is that not what we proclaim? Justice and healing for all?

Jesus learned from this foreign woman… He discovered something new about his mission… His discovery came from a voice from the margins.

I want to highlight three stories of voices from the margins.

Risking Faith & Daring Hope

Logo of General Council 43

One from my experience at General Council this summer, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, General Council is the national gathering of elected United Church people that takes place every three years. People are elected by either their presbyteries or the conference and there is an equal number of ordained and lay people.

The theme of General Council was risking faith and daring hope and that was very apparent on the last day.

Picture this, it’s the last day, the last afternoon, we have spent a week of 12 hour days, mostly sitting and dealing with words, words and more words!


Rev. Paul Walfall – Photo by Rev. Richard Choe

One of the intercultural observers gets up to make his presentation, he is a United Church minister, Rev. Paul Walfall, a black man, who speaks about his experience of being invisible at General Council, that only other black people speak to and with him and he jokingly says, ‘At my size, I am NEVER invisible!”

He goes on to talk about the discrimination and racism that other marginalized people experience in the United Church. A black woman who interviews at a church, only to be told that the congregation is not ready for a woman… (incidentally, this is not legal) only to find they have called a woman a few weeks later

An ordained minister from India, who has fulfilled all the requirements to become a United Church minister, but who can’t get a call… for SEVEN years. This at the same time that over 100 places in a couple of conferences remain vacant… some for as long as 10 years.

Voices from the margins… looking for crumbs of justice… but you know what we did?
When he finished, we applauded and went back to our regularly scheduled business.


Rev. Penny Nelson (Screen grab from UCC video)

A short time later, two young ministers, Rev. Penny Nelson from the Tatamagouche Pastoral Charge and Daniel MacDonald, a student minister from Ontario, went to the mike and said something like, “This is what is wrong with our church, we just heard stories of discrimination and racism and we went right back to business, like their stories didn’t even matter.”

They went on to propose that we offer them an apology, a few men got up to wordsmith what Penny and Daniel has proposed and Rev. Jordan Cantwell, who was the Moderator said, “I invite those who are privileged by their gender or race to allow others to speak.”

Challenging us for crumbs of justice…

Then followed two hours of listening to deeply painful stories from people on the margins… gender, race, orientation, disability… it was all named… there was a holy and uncomfortable silence in the room as we tried to absorb all this pain that has just been waiting for a time and space to be spoken.

Voices from the margins calling on us as United Church people to actually BE inclusive, not just say we are inclusive.

They were that woman challenging Jesus. Speaking their truth to power. Challenging us for crumbs of justice. (You can watch it at

The other example is Colin Kaepernick

nikekaepernickadIn 2016, Kaepernick became a national figure when he ignited a firestorm of controversy by choosing to kneel on one knee rather than stand while the United States national anthem was being played before the start of NFL games. He described his behavior as a protest against racial injustice in the United States. His actions prompted negative and positive responses. The negative responses included suggestions that players who protest should be fired; other people displayed their disapproval of players’ protests by leaving the stadium immediately after the protests or refusing to watch games at all.
Positive responses included similar activity by additional athletes in the NFL and other American sports leagues protesting in various ways during the anthem. In November 2017, Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL and its owners, accusing them of colluding to not hire him. In 2018, Amnesty International awarded Kaepernick with that year’s Ambassador of Conscience award.

Whether you agree or disagree with his actions is immaterial, he risked a lot and has paid a price for what he believes in. Challenging us for crumbs of justice.

Jesus… the foreign woman… the young ministers… the racialized and marginalized in the United Church, the football player… they have all been shaped by challenges…
We are shaped by challenges… we are shaped by voices from everywhere… whose voices are going to be heard?

Let us be like Jesus… open to learning from the most unexpected places…open to God’s realm… healing, peace and justice for all.

Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of following Jesus, amen.

Mark 7: 24-37
September 9, 2018
Elmsdale Cooperative Ministry

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