Mark 7:24-30

As our series of messages continues about the excuses we can offer God, today’s excuse is hits to the heart of what we really think about ourselves. We say that God can’t use us or do anything meaningful with our lives because in some way we think we’re defective.

We reject the callings of God upon our lives because we simple think we’re not fit for the task. We look around us and see countless others of us who seem to jump farther, run faster, or fly higher with their gifts or talents than we could ever dream of being. We compare ourselves to those who appear to have their life in order with what our culture deems as praiseworthy accomplishments. We focus our thoughts on what we can’t do a lot more often than on what we can.

Our excuse goes back to the heart of believing that something is wrong with us. God doesn’t love us much as the rest.

I met a woman a few years ago. She sat in my office in tears. It looked as if she’d gathered up all the strength and energy she could muster up just to come and talk to me. I have something to tell you, she said, as she blurred out, “I’m gay. I wish I weren’t. I prayed and prayed, pastor that God would take way this part of me, but nothing has changed. I wish I could just be like everyone else in my family—meet man to marry, grow up and have grandbabies to make my mom happy, but I can’t. Why did God make me a defect?”

As I handed this sobbing woman Kleenex and sought to be as kind of presence as possible to hear the rest of the story and the mounds of spiritual, emotional and even physical pain she brought to my couch, I couldn’t help but wonder how her life might change if she left behind the “God doesn’t love me because I’m a defect” label.  How was this one excuse keeping her from the abundant life that God had already prepared for her?

It’s a tough road in life, isn’t it when you think that God doesn’t love you because you are defective?

In our gospel lesson for this morning, we meet a woman whom many in her day and time would have called defective.

She could have given every excuse imaginable and had every reason to think in God’s eyes something was wrong with her. But, instead, scripture tells us that she charted a life course of not letting anything stop her from seeking out the Lord. Even when Jesus was rude to her . . . but I’m getting to ahead of myself here. Let’s stick to finding out what we know about the woman first.

Mark’s Gospel does not tell us her name. All we know about “this woman” is that she hails from the region of Tyre, a region outside of Galilee (where Jesus spent most of his ministry), an urban center, a coastal town. It was not a place where many in the Jewish community were known to live.  It was Gentile country for sure.

And so besides the woman not being the typical type of person that Jesus had previously hung around in Mark’s gospel, we also know about her that she’s a mother.  She may or may not have been married. If she wasn’t married, life would have been one economic hardship after another for her. Why? Because not just any mother, but a mother with a daughter who suffered with a demon . . . When our modern ears read this, we might be immediately alarmed—a demon?  Possessed by a demon, what’s that? Well, considering that in ancient times, any sort of unexplained mental health issues or unexplained seizures, for example, would be automatically label the person as demonic and most certainly defective. This girl would not have had friends. She would not have had anyone to play with her. She probably would not have attended school. And, as a mother with a daughter with a “demon” she was an outcast herself.  How could she make anything of her life either with this suffering child and a stigma placed over her home?

And to this prominent Gentile town which was known to have issues with the politics of Jerusalem for centuries, Jesus, encountered this woman alone. No mention is made of the disciples accompanying him on this trip— a trip which many Biblical scholars feel was an attempt on Jesus’ part of some vacation rest. But as was typical with Jesus’ three year ministry—he didn’t get a lot of rest. The crowds followed him wherever he went, even if he said: “Don’t tell anyone where I am.” The neediest always seemed to find him.

This woman approaches Jesus. The woman hears that Jesus is in town and drops all of her plans to come and see him. All excuses of “I’m defective, my family is defective” were put aside. She was the original pushy momma, without any shame of asking for what most wanted. And she sensed Jesus had just what she was looking for—healing.

And this was her request. Look with me at verse 26, “She begged [Jesus] to cast the demon out of her daughter.” Plain a simple right? It wasn’t like Jesus had never been asked to do this before. Remember the man he encountered early on in his hometown—the man possessed by the demon who he healed, to the sending the demons into the herd of pigs?

But Jesus was on vacation. He was tired. He wanted a break. He needed to regain mental focus. And someone else needs his help. Sigh.

Jesus’ response might have shocked you as it did me in verse 27, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

What?? Jesus just compared this woman’s child to a dog? This is not the sweet and loving Jesus that you and I know and love. What exactly might he mean?

Of course, such has been a topic of Biblical scholarships for the ages. Did Jesus really mean “a dog” or was he simply saying something much sweeter like a “puppy?” Did Jesus plan on healing her all along and just say such a harsh remark to see how she responded? Or did Jesus have his mind changed by a persistent woman?

We’d have a lot of studying together to explore each option but for now, this is where I want to take our conversation:  Jesus didn’t intend on healing her, but his mind was changed.

Though it might cause us to shake a little in our pews this morning, I have to think that this was a moment when Jesus grew up just a little more, was forced to reconsider some of his ideas about God’s mission for this life, and God revealed through Jesus that life in the kingdom of God was truly more than it first seemed.

Consider this, when Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs,” what he was referring to, I believe, was the relationship between Israel and the rest of the known world at the time—those who weren’t Jewish. Previous to the encounter Jesus had with this woman; his ministry had primarily focused on the mission to call out those within Israel to understand their relationship with God in a different way. But, now, was Jesus in Tyre—and someone whom was not a person included in that group was asking for his help.

So the question before Jesus was what was he going to do about it?

We know the woman fires back to Jesus’ comment by saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” which is another way of saying, “I know I’m a Gentile. I know my city is not known to love your people. But I believe you can help me. I’ll take even a crumb of your help because I believe.”

Do you hear any sense of “I’m defective” in her words?

I don’t. She reasons with Jesus with the words in which he spoke to her first—and helps him understand that she believes she is worthy of his help and will take nothing but what he can offer.

And what is the response? Jesus tells the woman to go home and find her daughter healed.  The ill daughter is ill no more and Jesus sees before his eyes the movement of the kingdom of God on earth through him. Sooner than he imagined—the witness of his ministry becomes an inclusive statement of God’s love for all people. Jews and Gentiles alike. Men and women alike. The well and the sick alike. The children. The old people. The in between people. All people.

But, I dare say, we’ve wouldn’t have known or seen any of this if it weren’t for the courage of the woman who was bold enough to make her request known, who was courageous enough to be fully herself, even if others laughed. And, most of all was willing to pled with the Lord to consider her and have mercy on her beloved daughter.

If you watched the Olympics like I did weeks ago—you might have found yourself mesmerized by the unlikely track and field competitor, Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius, an athlete representing South Africa— had every reason to not be there. He had every reason to think he was defective.

Oscar, was born with congenital absence of the fibula in both legs. When he was 11 months old, his legs were amputated halfway between his knees and ankles.Thus before Oscar even had the opportunity to learn to walk, like his peers, this opportunity was taken from him by the sheer bad luck of genetics.

However, being a natural athlete, loving to play and be outdoors, Oscar first learned to do what the other kids could naturally do, adapting, even without legs. He began playing water polo in grade school. After later being fitted with prosthetic legs, he took up other sports like tennis and rugby too.  Eventually when he was fitted with even more advanced prosthetics, he took up track as well.

But, Oscar’s dreams were bigger than just being on the field. He set his sights on the greatest athletic scene in the world—the Olympic Games as a runner. Oscar took part in the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens and came third overall  100-meter event. Despite falling in the preliminary round for the 200 meters, he qualified for the final. He went on to win the final with a world record time of beating American runners with a single amputation (remember he had two!). And Oscar continued to have success like this—blowing away the competition at future Paralympic events.  So much so that when wanted to take it one step even farther. Oscar set his mind on competing against completely able-bodied athletes.

Everyone told him he was crazy. He should stay competing with those most like him. But, Oscar did not think was as defective as others labeled him. He was not disabled. He was abled.

And even though his attempts to apply for and enter the 2008 Olympic Games failed as the controversy over his prosthetic legs ensued, Oscar kept going. He was persistent.  Just a month ago, Oscar became the first amputee runner to compete in the Olympics truly fulfilling his nickname,“the fastest man without legs.” He was chosen to carry the South African flag at the closing ceremonies.

Excuses, excuses, you and I have a lot of them throughout our lives about why God can’t use us, why God doesn’t love us. But if we take our cues from courageous ones like the woman with the sick daughter and stories of those like Oscar Pistorius, we remember that our excuses are just that—excuses. They don’t get us anywhere. They don’t get us anything. They don’t amount to much. Because if we are persistent, because if we are bold, and because if we keep talking to our Creator about what we need, there’s always hope.

There’s always hope because in the kingdom of God, just as Jesus’ ministry began to show at this juncture—no one is left out. No one is called defective. And no one gets to sit on the sidelines thinking this experience called living abundant life is not for them.

There’s an old hymn that I bet many of you have sung before—“Just as I am” made famous by how much Billy Graham like to have its verses played over and over and over and over again at his evangelistic crusades. It’s a hymn I personally associate with the practice of emotional manipulation, which I despise by pastors. I don't usually like to sing it in church anymore.

But nonetheless, this hymn was written by a woman by the name of Charlotte Elliot, who too knew the pain of feeling like a defect. The story goes that the composed the words of this hymn after waking up in the middle of the night with a dreadful dream. She was in charge of a bizarre at her church the next day and the anxiety of her dysfunction came over her like a ton of bricks. She said to herself, why do I even try to serve? It’s useless. I’m no good for God. But the Spirit came to her, encouraged her and reminded her of her relationship with God and salvation.

"Just as I Am" became her testimony of no matter how wretched she felt about herself, Jesus felt otherwise. For God loved her, just as she was. She didn't have to be afraid anymore. Her life had great hope!

Today, I give you a God who says the same thing to you. You are loved. You are treasured. You are not defective. So let the excuses cease. Come home just as you are as together we sing, just as we are.

AMEN