But a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.’ – Mark 7:25-29
When the syrophoenician woman caught [Jesus] with his compassion down, she witnessed to Jesus about the need to broaden his ministry of hospitality to those outside the house of Israel. – Letty M. Russell in Church in the Round
We boldly proclaim in the UCC that we believe in an extravagant welcome as compared to a carefully measured one. And over the last 10 years we haven’t just talked about an extravagant welcome, we have developed resources – held workshops – made videos – paid for TV ads (remember the bouncers?) – hung banners over our front doors. And if that is not enough, we have also made available, for $255, a door mat with “Extravagant Welcome” printed on it. You can put it in front of your door for all your guests to step on as they make their way into your welcoming arms.
Amongst those welcoming resources you will find a sign (printed in black and red of course) boldly proclaiming “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” Which brings me to the story of the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus didn’t turn people away? Well it does seem as if Jesus did try to turn people away – at least one unnamed Syrophoenician woman. In the story, Letty Russell says, Jesus is caught with his compassion down. He rejects the woman’s appeal in very harsh, no uncertain terms. Comparing her to a dog! What’s with that!? Where in the world was the smiling Jesus with open arms? But this “uppity woman”, as Letty describes her, by her persistence changes Jesus mind – causing him to welcome a whole new vision about who can eat at the table.
While I haven’t bought the door mat, I do like its message of practicing extravagant welcome. But I believe that if we are going to truly practice what we put on door mats and banners, then we need to be extravagant in welcoming new ideas – new visions – new understandings of what it means to be a people of God. We need to be attentive to today’s Syrophoenician women – the outsiders – the strangers – the aliens – the enemies who are challenging our common understandings and long held assumptions.
We are proud of the UCC firsts that can be found on the web. Those events and victories are really a harvest made possible by faithful people. People who were willing to extravagantly welcome such radical ideas as the ordination of women, gays, lesbians, transgendered and bisexuals. This kind of extravagant welcome isn’t easy. Our individual and collective minds can be pretty tightly closed – resistance can be stiff.
But hey, if Jesus could change his mind, why can’t we? In fact if we are going to follow Jesus, do we have any choice?
by Peter Wells
Consultant – Center for Progressive Renewal