“Trust God and Persist in Prayer”
A sermon from guest preacher, Ginnie Glassman
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
There are several extraordinary things about today’s Gospel. The most surprising thing was that the Syrophoenician woman approached Jesus and asked for a favor. There were many strict cultural rules around the interaction between Jewish men and women. Jewish women were not allowed to approach a Jewish man. They could only speak to a Jewish man when he spoke to them first, and Jewish men were not permitted to speak to any Jewish woman. There were also rules around which women they could speak to: foreign, Gentile women were completely off limits. So it was unheard of that a Gentile woman would approach a Jewish man, speak to him first, and ask for his help. Not only did Jesus break the rules and take the time to answer her, he then proceeded to have a theological discussion with her.
The woman had arrived agitated and breathless. Throwing herself at Jesus feet, she begs “Jesus, please help me. My daughter is in a catatonic state. She can’t eat. She can’t sleep. She just sits and stares. She is in terrible shape and is slowly slipping away from me. Please, I beg you. I know you can help her to recover.”
At first, Jesus doesn’t even answer her. And the disciples keep complaining that she is bothering them and making too much noise. They want Jesus to send her away.
Jesus stops and ponders.
Finally, knowing the law but disregarding it, he answers “Why should I help you? You are Greek. My mission is to help the Israelites first. Why should I let someone like you, who isn’t even Jewish, distract me from my work? Jesus shows that he did not accept the law or the way she was viewed by her culture as God’s way of living.
But the woman persists, “I need you to help save my daughter’s life. It can’t wait. If you could spend a few minutes with her now, you can heal her. The Israelites will still have you but there is no reason we Gentiles can’t benefit from your presence among us too. ”
Jesus sees that she understands his purpose and his power and says “That is an insightful and faithful answer. Go back home to your daughter. You will find her healed and resting comfortably.”
By her courage and fighting for her daughter, she won the theological argument with Jesus! She is the only one in the Gospels to win this kind of discussion with Jesus. Perhaps she even awakened an awareness in Jesus that his mission was to everyone, Gentiles included.
My sister in law is Jewish, yet when she hears that someone is recovering from an illness, she often responds with “Thank you, Jesus!” I have heard this response from people many times, but I was puzzled that someone who is Jewish would say it. I wondered where she was coming from. Was she just mimicking this response she had heard from others? Was she mouthing words that her Catholic best friend often said? Was she just “playing both sides”? Or did she sincerely believe that Jesus had intervened for a successful outcome?
When the Syrophoenician woman spoke to Jesus, I wonder if these same questions crossed his mind? “Is she just mimicking what she had heard?” “Is she just causing a commotion?” “Has she heard that I have done miracles for others and just wants “a piece of the action”?” “Does she truly have faith that I can heal her daughter?”
Having grown up hearing the Gospels every Sunday, I find it hard to believe that Jesus did not intend to help this woman. He always had mercy and compassion for the people he met. He always helped those who approached him in faith and even those he saw who needed his help. Luke tells us he even stopped a funeral procession going by in Nain to bring back to life the only son of a widow. So why did Jesus argue with this unnamed woman in today’s story?
Jesus was getting tired and discouraged with his mission to reform Jewish life. He was constantly met with resistance, arguments and unbelief. Feeling that he had a full time job just working with the Israelites, the thought of dealing with the Gentiles too may have been wearying. After all, the passage begins with Jesus wanting to stay in a house and not be known … but he could not stay hidden. This woman knew who he was and sought him out. She had faith that he could help her and her daughter.
Maybe Jesus was trying to figure out the urgency of her need and if she was willing to fight for her request. She was committed to getting the help her daughter needed. Would this woman have been so determined and feisty if she were asking for herself? We don’t know but we do know how much effort we will make to protect and care for our children.
Handicapped people, foreigners, Gentiles, people with diseases, women, sinners were all “removed” from society at that time. They were considered worthless, invisible, and unworthy of the leaders’ time. Jesus, however, saw the world differently and welcomed them. Did this woman recognize this in him? And is that why she approached him? She knew, no matter how he responded to her initially, that he did not follow the cultural norms of the day. She believed. She had faith that Jesus was different.
Do we approach God in faith? Do we sincerely believe that Jesus can heal our needs and troubles? What is our reaction when our prayers are not immediately answered? Do we turn away and give up, assuming God didn’t hear us or doesn’t care? Do we persist and even argue with him? Are we more determined when the prayer is for someone other than ourselves? Do we insist on the answer we want or do we believe that God will answer us in the way and time that is best for us?
Our parish prayer group has been meeting virtually, every week, since the pandemic began. We have seen the power of prayer and persistence.
– We prayed for one woman who was diagnosed with cancer. Her family was distressed as she went through chemo and surgery. But she is recovering now and doing well.
- We prayed for a young man who has had multiple surgeries over many years for a persistent condition; his most recent surgery has given him and his family hope that he can live a more normal life again.
- Another woman suffered a devastating miscarriage but is now the mother of a healthy baby.
- There are many others that we were happy to pray for and we saw God’s hand at work.
We persisted in these prayers week after week, through the ups and downs of illnesses, diseases, troubles and life. Some weeks we were sad, some elated, most weeks hopeful. We trusted that God heard our prayers and was working on the answers. We were delighted to hear when he had answered the prayers.
Maybe we did not change God’s mind with our prayers, maybe it was just what he intended to do but like a good father, he loves to see his children care for one another and pray on their behalf, trusting that he hears our prayers and answers them with love and care. Prayer brings spiritual power to bear on physical situations.
Like the Syrophoenician woman, he wants us to persist in our prayers. Yes, he knows our needs but he wants us to remain aware of his power in our lives. We cannot do it alone. By persistent prayer, we become more aware of our need for God in our lives. We are more likely to trust the way that he answers our prayers and his timing. We can then celebrate with thanksgiving that God has helped us and intervened for us when he does answer.
Prayer is also reassuring for us. There is no need to depend only on our selves when God has invited us to share our concerns, tears and joys with him. He has a broader vision of the world and of our lives and will care for us in the best way. He just asks that we trust him and seek him out at times of trouble…and joy.
This week, I invite you to spend some time reading and meditating on the Psalms. These are not “polite” prayers that sound good but don’t express true feelings. The emotions expressed are real, often raw and argumentative. One psalm begins:
“Listen to my prayer, O Lord and hear my cry for help!
When I am in trouble, don’t turn away from me!
Listen to me and answer me quickly when I call!” (Psalm 102:1-2)
“Wake up, Lord! Why are you asleep?
Rouse yourself! Don’t reject us forever!
Why are you hiding from us?
Don’t forget our suffering and trouble!” (Psalm 44:23)
And another questions:
“Lord, I call to you for help; every morning I pray to you.
Why do you reject me, Lord? Why do you turn away from me?”
Jesus never said we could not argue with God. Many people in Scripture do. I am thinking of Abraham, Moses, Job, Jonah and others. Arguing with God clarifies our needs, makes us hear ourselves and allows God to answer our needs. His timing is not our timing but he does hear and will answer. So persist in those prayers that feel unheard, argue with God if you feel like he is not hearing or responding, let him know your true feelings. He would rather we be honest than polite. Even when we don’t have words for our feelings, the Holy Spirit will intercede for us with “groans too deep for words”. Trust him and continue to persist in prayer.
As one preacher expressed it: “We all come with our shortcomings and brokenness, we all share disappointments and failures, but when we stand before the throne we are all made new in God’s love.”
Collect: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
Praise the Lord, O my soul! *
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
2 Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.
3 When they breathe their last, they return to earth, *
and in that day their thoughts perish.
4 Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! *
whose hope is in the Lord their God;
5 Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;
6 Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
7 The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; *
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
8 The Lord loves the righteous;
the Lord cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
9 The Lord shall reign for ever, *
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.
James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
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.”