Outside the box

Good morning, Friends! Thank you all for coming to worship this morning. It just seems like the month of February flew by. At least we get one extra day this month – next Thursday is February 29th. It only happens once every four years. Think of doing something to live it up!

We’ve been looking all month at stories of how different people met Jesus. And they’re all really interesting. Every one of these people would say that they were saved. But there’s no one-size-fits-all kind of salvation.

Each person met Jesus in a different way. Not one of them met Jesus in church. Not one of them met Jesus at a revival meeting.

One met Jesus on a bed, where he’d been paralyzed for years. One met Jesus by the side of the road, and was blinded for three days by the experience. One was a leper. One was a tax collector.

And one, the woman we’re going to read about today, wasn’t even a Jew. She was a foreigner.

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret.

In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

“First let the children eat all they want,” Jesus told her, “for it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Mark 7:24-30

This story really ought to be much better known than it is. It was shocking at the time. This was a story that, in some people’s opinion, should never have happened.

But it’s also really exciting, because this is one of several stories that shows Jesus going outside the box. In a way, if this story never happened, none of us would be here today.

Jesus had been spending some time in his old home town of Capernaum. Capernaum is on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.

It was Jesus’ home after he grew up. It was where he met Peter, Andrew, James and John, and invited them to be his first disciples. In last week’s story, it was also where Jesus called Levi, the tax collector, to come and follow him.

Capernaum was a border town. It was on the border between where Jewish people lived, and where pagan people lived.

Jesus and the people he knew and lived with spoke Aramaic, a version of Hebrew. If Aramaic was like today’s English, Hebrew was kind of like Shakespeare. People didn’t use it.

But across the border, people spoke a whole different language. They worshiped other gods. They didn’t keep the Jewish sabbath. They ate food which Jews considered unclean. Jews wouldn’t have anything to do with their neighbors across the border.

In fact, their neighbors had gone to war with Jews, many times. The Romans now occupied both countries. But Jews considered their neighbors to the north to be their ancient, ancestral enemies.

What was Jesus doing up there, anyway?

He was trying to get away from the crowds. So many people had heard about his healings, that Jesus couldn’t even leave his own house any more.

When he walked along the road, huge crowds came running. When he got down to the lake shore, people were pushing and shoving so much that Jesus got into a boat, pushed off from shore a ways, and used the boat as a pulpit.

When Jesus went out into the country, five thousand people came and followed him. They were so excited, they didn’t even bring along anything to eat, and Jesus had to feed them himself.

If Jesus wanted time to pray, he had to sneak out at night, and go off by himself where nobody could see him.

This all probably happened so fast, even Jesus didn’t see it coming. People were desperate to get close to Jesus so he would heal them. People were starving to hear his message.

Just before today’s story, at the start of this same chapter, it says that a special delegation of religious leaders came all the way from Jerusalem, to see this new rabbi everyone was talking about.

Jesus needed a break. So he went across the border, to a place where Jews didn’t live. It wasn’t exactly friendly territory, but he had to get away from the crowds.

It says he went into a house, and he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. But he couldn’t keep his presence hidden.

A woman came to the house, and begged for Jesus to come and heal her little daughter. And here’s where the story gets interesting.

She wasn’t Jewish. She was part Greek. Her ancestors had been soldiers, who invaded Palestine hundreds of years before. Then along came Greek merchants and traders, government officials and carpet baggers, following after the army.

They forced their language and the culture on the whole area. They brought Greek gods and pagan worship with them.

They conquered Israel, too, but at least the Jews managed to keep their language and their own religion. Sort of.

She was part Greek, and part Phoenician. The Phoenicians were also ancient enemies of the Jewish people. The Phoenicians were called “the people of the sea”. Their home was along the coast of Palestine. But they had colonies all around the coast of the Mediterranean, all the way to North Africa.

The Phoenicians worshiped many gods – Ba’al and Astarte, and many others. They built huge temples to their gods, which no Jew would ever set foot inside.

So, this woman was not someone who Jesus would normally have spoken to. She was a foreigner, an enemy and a pagan. Plus she was a woman. Plus her daughter was possessed by an impure spirit.

People back then were terrified of spirits. Evil spirits could make you mentally or physically ill. They could cause convulsions. They could make you commit suicide. It doesn’t say what this woman’s daughter’s problem was. But something was wrong.

I wish we could have seen Jesus’ face in this story, or heard his tone of voice.

She came to Jesus, and begged for help. And he said, “First let the children eat all they want. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

What did that mean? Most Bible scholars think Jesus meant, “My message and my healing, are for the children of Israel.”

Most Jews, at that time, saw all pagans and all foreigners as dogs. Dogs weren’t pets in Jesus’ time. They were wild dogs, scavengers who lived off garbage heaps. Calling someone a dog was an insult. So, was Jesus insulting this woman? Certainly, many Jews in Jesus’ time would have insulted her.

But she didn’t give up. She tried to turn it around. She said, “But Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She meant, even the little crumbs of Jesus’ healing power were all she wanted.

I wish we could have seen Jesus’ face in that moment. He was tired. He was exhausted. He just wanted to get away for a while, where no one could bother him. We’re seeing Jesus in his human weakness here.

He’s about to lay down his head, exhausted on the table. And here comes this foreigner, this annoying woman, and she’s asking for help. Was he really going to turn her away? Or was he just testing her? We’ll never know.

But through her tears, she made a joke. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And she started to cry again.

And even though Jesus was so tired, he smiled. He got the joke. He saw her faith. He saw how much she hoped for. And he said, “Go home. Your daughter is well.”

There is so much going on here. Jesus didn’t leave the house. He didn’t even lay his hand on the little girl. This is one of several stories, where Jesus healed someone he never saw.

He healed a little girl. I know a lot of people say the Bible is sexist, but girls matter just as much as boys. And truthfully, women matter just as much as men.

The Bible says that back in the beginning, God made us male and female, and that both are made in the image of God. All that inequality isn’t something God made. Inequality is human doing, and it’s wrong.

The apostle Paul gets a bad rap for being sexist – he supposedly said that women can’t preach. I always wonder if someone put those words into Paul’s mouth. Because Paul also said some of the most magnificent words in the whole Bible.

He said: “All of you are God’s children because of your faith in Christ Jesus. When you were became Christians, it was as though you had put on Christ in the same way you put on new clothes. Faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of you equal with each other, whether you are a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a man or a woman. So, if you belong to Christ, you are now part of Abraham’s family, and you will be given what God has promised.” (Galatians 3:23-29)

Jesus didn’t see a foreigner. He didn’t see an ancient enemy. He saw a mother, who was desperate to help her child.

When we just look at people, labels don’t matter. Jesus saw a sister, a child of God. The border didn’t matter. All that mattered, was a suffering child. She wasn’t an enemy. She wasn’t a stranger. She was someone who was begging Jesus for help. And he didn’t send her away.

I said at the beginning today, that we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for this story. Because we aren’t Jews, either. We’re adopted into the family of Christ. But that doesn’t matter.

I said that this story is where Jesus goes outside the box. And that’s a great thing! Because if Jesus never went outside the box, we wouldn’t be here. Not one of us. The new church, the church we belong to, starts right here.

If you read on from today’s story in chapter 7 – and I hope you will! – Jesus did it again. It says he walked home through a different country, through Syria. People didn’t speak Jesus’ language there, either.

They brought a deaf man to Jesus. He must have been deaf from childhood, because it says he couldn’t speak intelligibly. Jesus took him aside, away from the crowd. He touched his ears and his tongue. He prayed, “Be opened!” and the man could hear and speak.

Another foreigner. Another time Jesus crossed the border and went outside the box.

Where would we be, if people didn’t take these steps of faith? Would the church have ever grown? I don’t think so. Let me push this just a little bit farther, and tell you the stories of three people from our own meeting who went outside the box.

How many of you remember Laura Davis from our meeting? Where did she go? She spent seven years as a teacher in Palestine. She taught Palestinian children – both Christian and Muslim children — at the Friends School in Ramallah.

Laura Davis had a wonderful career as a teacher here in North Carolina. She graduated at the top of her class at Guilford College. She had a degree in biology, and she taught in high schools in Jamestown, Pleasant Garden, and Trinity. She also taught high school in Arapahoe, a poor community down on the coast, near New Berne.

Then she decided that wasn’t enough. And she applied to teach at Ramallah, on the West Bank in Palestine. She planned to go there for just three years. But the Second World War started, and it wasn’t safe for her to come home. So Laura Davis stayed for seven years, before she came back to Springfield. I’m glad many of you remember her.

Almost nobody here at Springfield remembers Anna Jones. Another missionary. Her father was a famous North Carolina Quaker minister, James Jones. Anna taught school, too. She taught for years out in Waynesville, where she taught Cherokee students. Then she taught for a few years at the state School for the Blind.

But again, that wasn’t enough. She went to Africa, to Kenya, with the first group of Quaker missionaries. She taught school, to children who’d never been to school before. She learned their language. And she helped translate the Bible. She created Sunday School lessons in their language.

She came back briefly to the U.S., and then went back to Kenya. Anna Jones died there, and she’s buried in Africa, among the children she loved so much. I wish people at Springfield remembered her.

I wish people at Springfield also remembered Nancy Lee, too.

Nancy Lee was born here in North Carolina, in 1851. She went to Guilford, and taught school here for a while. When she was 38 years old, she felt called to go to Mexico, where she was taught and was the head of two girls schools for 41 years.

She’s buried out under the big oak tree, here in our cemetery.

These are people from our own meeting, who went outside the box in their own day. Think about the thousands of children they affected. Children who were strangers and foreigners.

But it all started with Jesus. All of the good, all of the amazing stories, begin with the story we read this morning.

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