We never Think Big Enough

Mark 7:24-37

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 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.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

The problem with geography is that I don’t think we humans are very good at it. It’s just that we never think big enough. Personally, I blame cars. Cars make travel too easy, they make distance trivial, they make our world feel like a small place. If you have ever tried to walk somewhere, or God forbid, bike somewhere, then you know what I mean.

A few years ago now, I took a bike trip along the coast of New England, from the New York border all the way up to the border with Canada in Maine. One of the things I learned from my bike trip was a deep appreciation for geography. As I biked from town to town up the coast, I began to understand the human scale of our world, the very real barriers formed by hill and mountain, river and ocean. Insulated in our cars, hills become invisible to us. Distance becomes merely a matter of time, and not effort. Bridges that stretch across impassible walls of water, barely catch our notice, and then mostly for the traffic and tolls we associate with them, rarely for their immensity.

In New England, every town and village likes to think of itself as a small community. A quaint little hamlet. But they are not. They are very big.

At the end of my bike trip, as Matt drove up to the far end of Maine, to a place where Canada was only a bridge crossing away, I must admit feeling a sense of dismay. It was disheartening that he was able to traverse in a single day what had taken me twenty days to travel.

We are not very good at geography. We never think big enough. Take, for example, Jesus’ story this morning. Where we left off last week, Jesus was having a heated sparring match with the Pharisees over cleanliness laws. Our reading this morning picks up immediately after that encounter. Jesus has gone away to a house in Tyre to be by himself. We might imagine it a bit like being exhausted after a long day at work and wanting nothing more than to return to our home and solitude to decompress.

The problem is that Tyre is not Kerrisdale; Tyre is not just down the road. Tyre was fifty-five kilometers away, a city of the Phoenicians, a people who were not particularly friendly towards the Jews. The problem with geography is that it is so easy to think small and miss that Jesus walked 2-3 days in order to be by himself in a place that would have been openly hostile to him. Jesus wasn’t just weary after his encounter with the Pharisees, he was really upset.

We never think big enough. But it is not just geography where we run into this problem. We struggle with it in matters of faith too.

Who is God for? Up here in our minds, we might say that God is for everyone. But our actions and our hearts betray something entirely different. Who is God for? In practice, God is for the people we think God is for. God is for our family and friends, the people whom we care about. God is for our neighborhoods and communities, and God is for our country. God is for our favorite sports teams, and God is for our military personnel. Most of all, God is for people who are like us; God is for God’s People.

Jesus heard the door open as he sat brooding in the darkened room by himself. He did not know the woman who entered, but he did know that she was not a part of God’s People. Jesus didn’t know this woman, and he felt irritated as she began begging him for help. He was already struggling with God’s people, struggling to get them to understand what he was about, how could he begin to get this woman to understand? He could barely help God’s People, how could she expect him to help her?

As the woman’s eyes adjusted to the dim room, she spotted the man. He was a foreigner, he did not belong in this land. He did not belong in this house. Yet, she could see God at work within him and she knew he was the one she was seeking. Though the man tried to drive her away, nonetheless, she persisted, for she could see that God was in her midst.

This is the first miracle in our reading. It is the miracle that this woman, who did not worship Yahweh and should not have known who Jesus was, could still recognize God. It is the miracle that God is not just for God’s People; that God is not just for people who are like us: our families, friends, neighbors, sports teams, and country. It is the miracle that people who are not like us: our rivals, our enemies, people who speak different languages, who bear different appearances, who worship in different religions—God is for them too. It is the miracle that God’s table is always bigger.

But we never think big enough. And it is not just about who God is for, we never think big enough about what it is that God can do. Jesus, hearing the woman’s words, shakes his head. The children must be fed first, before the dogs are fed. God’s own must be cared for first, and then whatever is left can be shared with everyone else. God’s own must come first lest there not be enough to go around.

It sounds ridiculous, even as I say it, yet so often it is the way we act. We are cautious not to ask God for too much. We are quick to judge the actions of ourselves and others as being beyond God’s capacity for forgiveness—beyond God’s capacity for redemption. We forget to watch for the miraculous in the world around us because we don’t expect to find God there. We treat God as a scarce resource, as if the one who created all that has been, all that is, and all that will ever be, might somehow run out.

Even Jesus fell victim to this way of thinking. But the woman did not relent. She challenged Jesus, claiming, “God is bigger! There is enough of God for everyone.” This is the second miracle in our reading, that God’s grace is so abundant that as it is poured out upon God’s people, it overflows with the same abundance upon all people, indeed upon all of creation.

It is troubling to hear Jesus speak to this woman in such an abrupt and callous way, and I can make no excuse for him, nor offer an apology on his behalf. And it is a remarkably human reaction, because we never think big enough. We can’t. It is a failure of our imaginations. We who are finite and broken cannot imagine God who is infinite and whole. We who always think of ours and our own first cannot wrap our minds around one to whom all of creation belongs and is precious.

Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, yet we always forget that. We cannot think big enough to understand God, so we do the next best thing. We make God smaller. We make God like ourselves. We imagine that God is for the people that we would be for. We consistently try to limit God because we don’t believe that God is enough.

The voice of the woman reached Jesus in his darkened place. “God is enough,” she spoke to him. And Jesus was changed. In this encounter, Jesus grows into a new understanding of his work, a new understanding of his ministry. Jesus began to think bigger.

Jesus thought bigger and he healed the woman’s daughter. Jesus thought bigger, and instead of returning to his own people, he goes deeper into the land of the Phoenicians before traveling on to the gentile territory of the Decapolis. Jesus thought bigger and healed a deaf man, another Gentile, on this new journey. Jesus thought bigger and the crowds began to gather around him in great numbers. Jesus thought bigger, and as he looked out upon the four thousand Gentiles who pressed in on him, he felt only compassion. In the story that continues immediately after the end of our reading, in a sign of God’s abundance, Jesus fed all of them with only seven loaves and a few fish, and when they had eaten their fill, what was left over filled seven baskets full. But that is another story for another time.

My friends, we never think big enough. But what if we let the woman’s words reach us the way they reached Jesus. What would it be like if we were to think bigger about what God is doing in our own lives, in the lives of the person sitting next to us in the pew, and in the lives of our neighbors and community members? What if we were to think bigger about who God is for, no longer ascribing to God the boundaries and borders, distinctions and creeds with which we shackle ourselves? What if we were to think bigger and look out into our world and see not scarcity and limitation, but the continuing expression of God’s inexhaustible capacity for grace and redemption?

Oh, my friends, we can never think big enough. And the woman’s words still call to us. God is enough. Think bigger.