Whenever we read any part of the Bible, we should always ask ourselves, what does this story teach us? To answer that question for stories about Jesus’ miracles, we should begin by focusing on the surprising details of the story, the parts that seem strange. Most of the time, the distinctive lesson of any particular miracle story is in those details.
In the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, the detail that immediately jumps out at us is his initial refusal to help her.
The fact that he refuses is not itself particularly shocking. Jesus is not obligated to heal the woman’s daughter simply because she asks and because he could. And, after all, Jesus is trying to take a vacation. Jesus went to Tyre specifically to get away from the crowds of people who constantly beg him for help of one sort or another. Even Jesus needed a break sometimes.
Jesus has every right to reject the Syrophoenician woman’s request. We would understand if Jesus said something like, “I am sorry, but I am not healing anybody today.”
But what Jesus in fact says is a little shocking. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It is an insulting, obnoxious, even bigoted answer.
The woman presses Jesus, and he relents. He heals her daughter. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus praises the woman’s faith (15:28). We might say, all is well that ends well.
But what about Jesus’ rude refusal? Why include that in the gospel? What is the gospel writer trying to teach us?
Whatever else it is, this story is a lesson about personal growth. Mark shows Jesus move from calling the Gentile woman a dog to praising and rewarding her faith. That is growth.
And the implication for us is clear. If even Jesus has room to learn and to grow, then surely we do too. If we want to follow Jesus, then like Jesus we have to be prepared to grow. We have to be prepared to let God work on us, to let God transform us, little by little, into the people God created us to be. Over time, our faith should make a difference in our lives, a difference in us.
Of course, all real growth ultimately comes from God. All real transformation and renewal is ultimately by the grace of God.
But we have a role too.
Sometimes we actively oppose the work of God in our lives by stubbornly holding on to “sinful desires that draw us from the love of God” (BCP 302). In those cases, our role is to repent and return to the Lord.
Other times we simply neglect God’s invitation to new life. It is not that we consciously decide against doing the things that we ought to do. We never ask the question, should we do it? In those cases, our role is to ask the question, and answer it as honestly as we can. But it is hard to ask questions that do not even occur to us!
Over the last few weeks, I have been confronted with some of my own areas of blindness. I have entered the discernment process for becoming an Anglican Third Order Franciscan. The main impact this will have on Saint David’s is a few more references to Saint Francis in sermons.
But already, in just a few weeks, the process has been helpful. The centerpiece of living as a Third Order Franciscan is following a personal rule of life. A personal rule of life is a set of commitments you make about how you want to live.
In August, I worked on constructing my rule of life in conversation with a couple of professed Franciscans. They finally approved my rule last week. Now, for the next two and a half years, I will file monthly reports on how I am doing.
I hope the whole process will be good. But I can already say that simply constructing my rule has been valuable.
Every Franciscan rule has nine areas.
A few of them are easy for me. One is to participate in the Eucharist, weekly if possible. I do not have any choice on this one. For my job, I have to participate in the Eucharist twice every Sunday at Saint David’s and once during the week at Saint Andrew’s. I cannot not do this one!
Other areas were more challenging. The Order requires every Franciscan to go on a silent retreat each year and to make a formal confession at least once a year. I have never done either of those things. But they are in my rule, so I will try them.
To my own surprise, the most difficult area for me was “self-denial.” I do not think of myself as particularly self-indulgent. But I had real trouble coming up with something that I might do under the heading of self-denial.
The poor woman working with me eventually sent me a long explanation of what self-denial was supposed to mean.
The point is not to make myself uncomfortable for the sake of being uncomfortable. The point is to reflect on those things in my life that compromise my freedom, that control my will, that keep me from loving other people, that could become idols for me.
As you might guess, sweets immediately came to mind. I committed to eating sweets only on Sundays and special days. Now that I have gone public, you can all hold me accountable!
I share all this because I found the process of constructing a rule of life so helpful for thinking about what I need to be doing to grow in my relationship with God. It helped me see places in my life where I have been blind to God’s invitation to greater intimacy with Him, where I have been making poor choices without even realizing I was making choices.
I commend this process to all of you. Probably few of you will want to construct a formal rule of life. But all of us should ask ourselves the question, every once in a while, am I doing what I need to be doing to get to know God better?
There are lots of areas that you might consider. In the online version of this sermon, I included the link to a website listing the areas required of every Franciscan, in case any of you are interested in looking at them.
But there are four areas that every Christian should consider: worship; prayer; Bible study; and service to others.
I invite you to spend some time this week thinking about those four. Reflect on your participation in worship, on your prayer life, on your encounter with Scripture, and on your service to others. Ask yourself if you are doing what you need to be doing. If you are, give thanks. If you have room for improvement, commit to doing a little better for a defined period of time—a few weeks or a month.
And tell someone about your commitment. Ideally the other person will share a similar commitment with you so that you can hold each other accountable.
If you reflect and commit, you will grow. You will be following the example of Jesus in our gospel reading. You will stretch your heart and your soul a little bit and create a little more space for God to fill.
And that should be the goal of every Christian life.
In the name of Christ, who invites us to ever deeper intimacy with God. Amen.