#SyrophoenicianLivesMatter: A Sermon on Race + Mark 7:24-37

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace + peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

When I was in high school, I had a friend named Paul. Paul was one of the only black kids in our school. Growing up in Fargo, diversity wasn’t exactly a strong suit. You had Norwegians, Swedes, and a couple German families who moved to town to stir things up a bit, but that was about it. Then you had Paul. One afternoon our school had a basketball game about an hour away, so a bunch of us non-basketball types made the drive to watch. In the middle of the second quarter, the student’s section across from ours started chanting something. We couldn’t figure out what they were saying at first. But whenever Paul was out on the floor, whole sections of the bleachers, were chanting, “Go pick cot-ton. *clap-clap -clapclapclap”

It was one of those feelings that just made your stomach sink. It was like something out of a movie. I’ll never forget that feeling. It was equal parts shock, disappointment, and confusion. How could this still be a thing that people cheered?

As I’ve watched all of the news stories unfold over the last year, and heard more names added to list of victims – Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland – that same sinking feeling comes up more and more often. Not only have we not learned lessons from centuries of racism, but we’re not even open to listening and conversation in the same way we perhaps once were. When we cut ourselves off from listening to people who are different from us, we also cut off our ability to feel compassion and empathy.

But we are not nearly the first to experience these things.

In Mark 7, Jesus goes away to the region of Tyre, which is far, far away from Jewish territory. Jesus is firmly in Gentile land now. He wants to lay low. But there’s a woman who notices. She has a daughter who is in need of healing and she begs Jesus to heal her. And the way Jesus responds leaves him almost unrecognizable to us. He says, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

You can imagine the scene when Jesus says that. The record screeches to a halt and everyone stands back in astonishment. Did Jesus really say that? Dogs back then were not kept as pets. Dogs were feral scavengers back then. This is a pretty major insult.

But notice how the Syrophoenician woman responds.

She doesn’t puff up preparing to attack. But she doesn’t shrink away either. She stands on her holy ground and says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Notice what happens here. Jesus doesn’t puff up. And he doesn’t shrink. He listens. He considers. And he repents. Remember repenting simply means turning to go in a new direction. Jesus repents here. Initially he dismisses her outright, but after listening to her, he heals her daughter, and blesses her on her way.

Mark then pairs this story with Jesus healing a deaf man. He takes the man in private, makes some combination of touching and spitting and commands his ears to “Ephphatha!” — which means “be opened.” And he can hear. Now why is it important that these two stories are paired together?

Because they are both fundamentally about Jesus giving us a model for how to listen and respond when someone is in need, and then he shows his power to open that which once was closed and free that which once was bound.

This morning, all across the country, congregations from all faith traditions are wrestling with the reality of racism in our world. Racism is that which closes us off to each other and binds us from loving our neighbor in the way Jesus calls us. And it affects everyone. No one is immune. BUT that doesn’t mean we stop working to help better understand our prejudices and find ways to bring justice and peace to this world so divided.

This is the work of the church in our time. When we affirmed our baptism we made a promise to “strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” When each of us made those promises there were different issues of justice and peace in all the earth toward which we strove. But today, gathered here as the church, this is our reality.

It’s some of the hardest work we can do, because it means leaning into the discomfort of recognizing our privilege. And the easy thing to do is snap back to the status quo. But in this case, as in many, the easy thing to do is not the right thing to do. The right and just thing to do is to listen our brothers and sisters who are being oppressed. To follow the example of Jesus and, rather than simply shut down the next time we hear “black lives matter”, take the next step toward listening and understanding another person in their struggles.

So, as we do this work together, may we be blessed in the same way that the deaf man was. Hear Jesus speak the word of “Ephphatha!” to you. Be opened to the ways in which the Holy Spirit is living, working, and moving in your heart. Be opened to a spirit of repentance following the example of Jesus. And be opened to a God who calls you to strive for justice in peace in all the earth. Because it is in this openness that we will truly see the coming kingdom of God.



  1. Mark Halvorson says:

    Hey Eric, I didn’t make it to church yesterday so appreciated your sermon all the more. What a marvelous and timely theme you pulled from the text. Keep the sermons coming. I will try the check them out regularly.


    PS I am getting settled in Durango. Still some remodeling to do during the next month. Love the cool mountain air. Would love to have all of you visit if you are coming this way on vacation. I plan on being here from May through October.


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