When I was a little girl, I loved to play with frogs. It didn't matter that I heard they gave you warts...I found them fascinating. I would look a frog square in the eye and wonder, "What do you think about this world, Mr. Frog?" Now, I don't think a frog thinks much of this world. Because, did you know, when a frog looks at the world, its eyes can only perceive four differents types of phenomena? Frogs can see clear lines of contrast, sudden changes in light, outlines in motion and the outlines of small, dark objects. That’s it. A frog doesn’t see the sweet face of a little girl as she peers at it inquisitively. A frog can’t see the bright colors of an Oklahoma sunset. It only sees what needs to be seen for survival: tasty bugs or the quick movement of a bird looking for dinner. Poor frog - he’s sure missing out. Thank goodness that WE can see all of the beauty of the world! Well, we THINK we can see everything - until we learn that bees can see patterns written in ultraviolet light on flowers and owls can see with precision in the dark. Actually, as human beings, our perception is limited. We only perceive the sensations our brains are programmed to comprehend; we only recognize the things for which we have mental maps or categories. Our mental maps help us make sense of the world.
I know this all sounds rather weird, and it’s about to get even weirder. But, hopefully, you’ll hang with me and we can tie it all together in the end. I'd like for you to take a look at the nine dot puzzle below because we are going to use this puzzle to help us understand how our brains use mental maps to make sense of the world. Here are your instructions: Join all nine dots with four straight lines, without taking pencil from paper.
Can you do it? How about a hint? First, let me ask you: what shape do you see when you look at the dots? A square. The human mind automatically creates a mental map and sorts data into a category to help us perceive the information - and your brain classifies those dots as a square. A box. Now, what if I told you that the square does not actually exist? Your mind constructed it and I never said you had to stay within it. You actually are free to use the whole sheet of paper to solve the puzzle. Now can can you solve it? What if you added a dot to the top of the left column and a dot to the bottom right of the last column? If you can't figure it out, take a look at the image here:
When we give ourselves permission to think beyond the box, we open our minds to new possibilities. When we create a different frame for the data, new possibilities appear!
If you think about it - all of our perceptions about the world are invented in one way or another. Our stereotypes and bias about other people, our institutional structures, our politics, and even our religions are constructs. They act as maps that help us make sense of the world. But what might happen if we began to notice what could be outside of the box? What might happen if we were to break through the barriers that constructs create for us and for others? When we can imagine and dream about what could happen in the space outside of the nine dots, new ideas and actions can come alive. With a different frame, new possibilities appear.
Could it be that this is what is happening in our gospel lesson for today? Could Jesus be having a change of heart, an ah-ha moment? Could it be that Jesus is being opened up to new possibilities and discoveries about his own mission in the world? You might be asking yourself - “What does Jesus have to ah-ha about? Didn’t Jesus already know everything?” Honestly, it depends on whose Jesus we are talking about - Matthew’s, Mark’s, Luke’s or John’s. A careful reading of the texts tell us - yes, John’s Jesus clearly knows everything. But Mark’s Jesus - well, he is still figuring things out. And with the help of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus is opened to the possibility that his mission is even bigger than he thought.
In each of these stories, Jesus is in Gentile territory. The region of Tyre and the region of the Decapolis are both places of Gentiles. The text tells us Jesus goes there to get away. But that doesn’t happen does it? He enters a house, not wanting anyone to know he is there, and a Gentile woman who has a daughter with an unclean spirit, wants his help. And he says: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This statement takes us a back a little, doesn’t it? We’re not often offended by Jesus, but this seems pretty harsh. We can take the discomfort of Jesus’ words and do several things with them. We could say that Jesus was just testing the woman. Or We could say that these words weren’t as offensive during the time of Jesus and that this was more of a familiar proverb like “charity begins at home.” Or we could say that this little bit about the dogs is a redaction, added in later for affect, and Jesus didn’t really say it. Okay...those are all possible interpretations.
But what if Jesus means the words exactly as we hear them? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” What if Jesus was responding to the woman out of the social constructs of his day? After all, she was a Syrophoenician, meaning she was from Syria and a Gentile. These are as much religious labels as they are racial labels. She was a foreigner and an outsider. She was also a woman, with no status, and she should never be talking to this man, let alone this rabbi, in the first place. And her daughter had a demon - perhaps a mental illness - either way, it was thought to be caused by sin. This woman is the worst of the worst. And Jesus is tired. He wants to rest. He’s been feeding and healing and teaching. If you remember from last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus had just laid into the Pharisees for being hypocritical in abandoning the commandments of God and clinging to religious customs instead. Wait...isn’t that exactly what Jesus is doing? Except here, social conventions are dictating who is worthy of God’s healing love and mercy. Is it possible that Mark is describing a conversion moment for Jesus, a moment where Jesus faces his own hypocrisy and struggles with his own mental maps of humanity? If so, the Syrophoenician woman prophetically calls Jesus to a mission of infinite compassion and mercy. Jesus immediately acknowledges and affirms his mission by healing her daughter because of her boldness.
The eyes of Jesus are opened just like the ears of the deaf man unable to speak in the very next story. Ephphatha - Jesus speaks this one word to the man and his ears are opened and is tongue is released.
You and I, we construct boxes and barriers around people each and every day. We decide who is in and who is out, who is worthy and who is not, who is deserving of dignity and respect and who is not. We may not go around calling people dogs, but our words and our actions illuminate our boxes more than we’d like to admit. Our church has been helping a woman who is recently situationally homeless. When Jayme first began to tell me pieces of her story she said that out on the streets she felt like nothing more than a dog. No one cared whether she lived or died and no one treated her with any dignity or respect. “I used to be a human,” she said, “but out there you’re just a dog.” And the words of today’s gospel rang in my ears.
These stories of Jesus reveal that a worthless Gentile girl with mental illness, a good for nothing deaf man who cannot clearly speak, and a woman without the security of a home are indeed children of God. They are to be embraced and valued - they are worthy of dignity and respect and healing. For every box and barrier we create, God insists over and over again that they do not exist: not race, class, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation or physical condition. When we imagine the possibilities of the world as God would have it be, we see there would be no such barriers between human beings. Political leaders wouldn’t mock journalists with disabilities, women wouldn’t be groped by bishops at funerals, and we wouldn’t be arguing about whether or not to burn our Nikes. Instead, we would be listening to the life experiences of others. We would respect their dignity as fellow human beings and listen, not to respond, but to understand their pain and situation in the world. We would recognize injustice for what it is and we would call it out. We would work together until our nation was an equitable and safe place for all people.
When we begin to notice the space outside our boxes and imagine new possibilities, I believe we can begin to solve what puzzles us and transformation can truly happen. This is true for us as individuals and it is true for us as a church. We cling to our traditions and our constructs of the way it has always been and we forget that in all actuality it is really all invented. The church is bigger than these walls. Worship is bigger than our liturgy. The Divine Source is bigger than our denominations and our religions. The mission given to us by Jesus - to love God and love others - is so wide and expansive that the possibilities for living it out are endless. Yet, our boxes often confine us because outside of them, the world can seem scary and unknown. Yet, that’s exactly where the transformative power of God’s work through the Holy Spirit happens.
Jesus shows us that God’s work is bigger than our boxes because our boxes are invisible to God. God does not need mental maps or constructs to make sense of the world. God’s perception is better than frogs, better than owls, and better than that of mere humans. God sees the whole picture, all the space, and reminds us again and again that the possibilities are endless. God says to us: Ephphatha - be opened - as individual people, to see the worth of all of creation. Ephphatha - be opened - as a church to see our mission in a new way. Ephphatha - be opened to change and new possibilities. Ephphatha - be opened to God working in the world in ways we never thought possible and open our hands to participate. It’s God’s work - we just have to open our hands to the endless possibilities.