Minister's Blog

Reflections from habitat uniting church's minister, Rev Joan Wright Howie.

The power of saying NO

Tuesday, September 04, 2018
Jesus said No!

No I won’t be dropping everything to come and help you.

He’s gone off to a place where he did not want to be recognised – the northern most place he travels to in Mark’s gospel. He wanted to get away from things back home and crossed the boarder into a foreign country – perhaps to have a bit of R&R.

He’d developed a reputation as a bit of a pop-star - travelling healer and speaker. The paparazzi would be after him if he were around today. Jesus had gone into a house where he hoped for a break.

Then a woman, a foreign women gets wind of him being in town. She comes in … starts demanding help …

& Jesus says NO!

Jesus was a Jew… Jews didn’t like Gentiles and they certainly didn’t like foreigners - because they were all probably Pagans. Syrophenicians were the butt of Jewish jokes and ridicule. If we look at modern day Israel and the terrible racial violence and abuse, it seems that not much has changed. Some Jews still seem to hate Palestinians and anyone who gets in their way.

Did you watch the re-run of the SBS program ‘go back to where you came from’? Racisim is part of our culture now just as powerfully as ever; and it is from these kinds of tensions that abusive names seem to develop. All Asylum seekers are terrorists …And in Jesus day: all Gentiles are dogs!
Perhaps Jesus made this trip across the Syrian boarder to withdraw for a time of reflection. But as usual his attempt at solitude fails. “he could not escape notice” This time a syrophanenican woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit heard about him, went to him and bowed down before him begging him to cast out the demon from her daughter. This woman dared to invade the privacy of a man and ask something of him. Mark’s original audience would have been shocked by her actions and expected Jesus to brush her off: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!!”

The Children are of course the children of Israel, the Jews, and the dogs are the Gentiles.

Jesus’ initial response to this woman is not one of compassion and care, the kind of response that would fit more comfortably with my image of Jesus.

Instead, Jesus responds with the harsh words of a racist. He calls her a dog! So, here in this story Mark is telling us about the social, political and cultural hostility between Jews and their Gentile neighbours. Jesus was a human being and was caught up in the culture of his day.

The idea that Jesus could speak so harshly to this woman can come as a bit of a shock to us and biblical scholars try to make sense of what is going on – Is Jesus just trying to teach everyone around him by saying one thing and engaging her in a dialogue as a teaching tool. Or is, as the feminist and other scholars suggest, something happens in this story that changes Jesus.

The woman does not sulk off into the background and leave Jesus in peace, not, she argues back at Jesus. She uses the language that he used and risks everything: “ Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”. Now she is speaking to defend the rights of her people. She is arguing that the liberating power of Jesus exorcism ministry is for all people, not just the Jews.

What would Mark’s original audience be thinking? This pagan woman’s behaviour is utterly shameful.

“For saying that” Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go”.

Is Jesus changing his opinion at this point, is Jesus changed by her words. “For saying that, the demon has left your daughter”.

Or, is it possible that Jesus said NO because the woman needed to hear the words NO.

The other night a man came knocking on the manse door at 12:30 am – the house was dark and we were all asleep… I was asleep … he rang several times and I got up. I knew him and that he has some mental health issues and has been back several times. He is known to other minsters in the area and wanted money to buy food. He wanted me, on behalf of the church to help him with a hand out.

Well, I said NO

I could have said yes here is some cash to get him off the door step.
I could have given him something out of my own kitchen
Instead I said NO!

I said ‘you can’t knock on people’s doors in the middle of the night’

I was asleep – my family is asleep. 

I said ‘No’.

I heard him say ‘Oh dam’ as I closed the door.

Then I went back to bed and lay there awake thinking a whole lot of thoughts – is that what Jesus would have done? Surely I should have helped him with something – what if he comes back angry – are we safe?

I thought of him walking out into the cold night and getting the last tram home hungry.

And yet we hear of Jesus saying no to a woman coming begging for crumbs.

Oh God this is confronting.

As the week has unfolded, encounters with people have pointed me again and again to reflect on the power and importance of saying NO.

I met a woman who has a demon. She’s an alcoholic and the alcoholism is controlling her life. For seven years she stopped drinking and was fighting, but then the demon returned and threatened to consume her. Alcoholics Anonymous teaches people to surrender to the higher power. No person has the ability to fight this demon on their own. This woman was is in the wilderness, in the darkness, in a place of despair where life is not worth living and the demon was dragging her further and further from the light.

Some would call her a dog! A no-hoper and a bludger.

I met her in the midst of this struggle for life and she taught me about what it means to be begging for the crumbs. She knew that she needs healing. She prayed that she might be able to and surrender herself to God. Out of her desperation she begged God for healing – take this demon away! In the course of our conversation she realised that expecting God to fix things kept her feeling like a victim. She has to find the power and strength of God in herself and has to use her own voice say NO to her demon.

When the woman came to Jesus, she begged him to cast the demon out of her little daughter. He said to her, NO ‘let the children eat first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

What a terrible thing for Jesus to say to her. We want a Jesus who comes in and says YES I will take away your demon and heal you. You are free, here’s the food, here are your material needs all met, here you body is restored to perfect health!

But he does not do that, instead he says NO.

I went to a local town hall to support friends from Uganda who were becoming Australian citizens. They stood amidst a group of 100 people from all around the world who have arrived by different means in this country and have been granted citizenship. I looked at them all and knowing the story of hardship and struggle our friends have been through I wondered about all those stories. I wondered how many times those people have had to hear the words NO – before they came to this affirmation of YES that night. In some ways all those NO’s have strengthened their conviction to find their own way to create a new life.

I have prayed with this story and listened to the people who have crossed my path, the thing that struck me is that there are times when saying NO holds the key to healing. That syrophenician woman was intruding on Jesus who has on retreat and needed some space to restore himself for his work. She interrupted him in a very demanding way.

It reminds me of people who are so used to living on welfare that they can grow dependent on the system to support them and loose a sense of their own self worth and self determination. The man who knocked on our door in the middle of the night has those characteristics. It might sound cruel, and I know he is living on a tiny pension in supported housing and his life is very challenging.

There have been many other times when I have been involved with supporting people in need and saying Yes to their requests for help. But this situation is a bit different. What happens to his sense of self when knocking on a door in the middle of the night expecting someone else to solve your problem for you with a hand-out? He needs boundaries and support to budget his money not a band-aid.

Jesus said No I’m not going to drop everything to come out do a home visit with your daughter.

But then the amazing bit of this story comes, the moment of the healing. The point in the story then the woman stands up in her own power and strength and finds her voice as she answered him ‘Sir even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’

She finds her voice and speaks out loud and stands up tall and says “there is an injustice here” – She says “I am worthy” and she is healed.

As you reflect on this story and wonder where God is in the narrative, you may prefer the interpretation that Jesus is teaching by starting an argument with the woman. Or you might prefer the proposal that the woman changes Jesus when she challenges his racism.

I offer you this different interpretation on the story that came as I brought into dialogue the experience of my week with the gospel narrative.

I wonder, if God’s presence isn’t in Jesus saying NO and the opportunity that his confronting challenge opened up in her as she found her voice, as she was empowered by God’s Spirit living in her to claim her own self worth ‘even dogs get crumbs!’ Jesus says to her ‘for saying that, you may go, the demon has left your daughter. So she went home and found her daughter lying on the bed and the demon was gone’.

What to you make of the Cross?

Sunday, September 02, 2018
Suspended mid air at the heart of our worship space, we have a cross.

It’s a cross made for the refurbished worship space to echo the old timber and the bronzed metal frames which are new features in our old building. When we refurbished the church our architect redesign the space around the six key Christian symbols:
People, Water, Light, Word, Bread and Wine at table, and the Cross.

The Cross hangs here in our protestant church tradition empty – the symbol of death and torture not encumbered by the crucified Jesus, but empty reminding us of the resurrection into new life and freedom. We celebrate the risen Christ, the one in whom we are healed and connected and find new life.

The Cross as a symbol is an ancient and complex one. It’s use predates Christianity as it represents the inverted tree of life. Like the tree of life, the cross stands for the world’s axis. Placed at the mystic center of the cosmos, it becomes the bridge or ladder by means for which souls may reach God. The cross represents the relationship between the two worlds of the celestial and the earthly intersecting and creating a conjunction of opposites, welding together the spiritual (vertical) and the world of phenomena (horizontal). The two arms have also been associated with the two sticks early people used to rub together to make fire – Jung described these as the masculine and the feminine and the cross that point conjunction that brings forth passion, fire and new life. The words for cross have a common etymologic base with the words for fire.

There are hundreds of different shapes of the cross with the connecting point of two lines – here there is a cross road, the coming together of difference at the intersection of possibility and impossibility, construction and destruction, time and space.

Jesus speak to his friends about the cross when he is preparing to go into Jerusalem and bring his non-violent protest movement right into the heart of political and religious power.

“The Holy one of God must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Luke 9:22- 24

How do you respond to these words?

What does Jesus mean by calling us to take up our cross daily?

It’s a bit hard for us to understand what Jesus meant from contemporary Melbourne 2000 years later.

The people of Jesus’ day they saw the cross as an equivalent to our ‘Electric Chair’ a method of execution for criminals. Historically, the only time a man was seen carrying his cross, was on his way to die! The Romans required the criminal to carry the cross-beam to a place of execution. The route chosen was always through the most populated part of the city, in order to make the people aware of who was being punished. It was a public witness that this person was forced to make, identifying him with the crime he had committed. Jesus call to take up our cross is a difficult one.

The cross you voluntarily take up, is to walk in the ‘Public Market Place’ of life, openly identifying yourself as one who is following Jesus’ way and stand up for what you believe to be right. Even to the point of suffering. Jesus didn’t just die. He was executed by the powers that ruled his world – a combination of Roman imperial authority and collaboration by high-ranking temple authorities. Together, they were the domination system of the time. They killed him because, in the name of the Kingdom of God, he challenged how they had put the world together – and he was beginning to attract a following.

His mode of execution is unambiguous testimony to that: crucifixion was a Roman form of capital punishment reserved for those who systematically defied imperial authority. Jesus did not advocate violent revolt, he emphasized non-violent resistance to the domination system of his time. So it killed him.

Within this historical framework, his death was the domination system’s “No” to Jesus and what he was passionate about. That is the political meaning of the cross. His resurrection is God’s “Yes” to Jesus and what Jesus was passionate about – the Kingdom of God – and God’s “No” to the powers of domination that killed Jesus. The cross has a political meaning.

Death and resurrection are an archetypal metaphor of transformation. “Archetypal” means something so deeply imprinted in the human psyche that it seems to be from the beginning. Dying and rising is one of those archetypes, found in perhaps every religion and culture that we know about. Paul describes this dying and rising when he says: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2.19b-20a). The old Paul had died; a new Paul had been born whose life was now “in Christ”. Paul speaks of dying and rising with Christ as the foundation of Christian identity and life (Romans 6).

In early Christianity, the cross of Jesus was utterly central. Central as revelation of God’s passion and Jesus’s passion for the transformation of this world; and as revelation of the way, the path, of personal transformation.

The question becomes for us this morning is, “What does it actually mean to follow Jesus, especially in these modern times, what's our life going to look like? Why would anyone what to take up a cross if it leads to suffering?

If you were to offer me a life of suffering and problems versus a life free from these things, I'd go for the problem free life myself.  For who would welcome the idea of suffering if there were other options available?

Yet this is where we must suddenly get very honest about the Christian life. Christianity is not about solving problems and making life easier. If anything, following Jesus is going to complicate our lives, and unmistakably so.

In the last paragraph of his great book entitled Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis has these important lines.  “The principle runs through all life, from top to bottom,” he says. “Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose life and it will be saved.  Submit to death—the death of ambitions and secret wishes.  Keep nothing back.  Nothing in us that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.  Look for Christ,” says C.S. Lewis, “and you will find him, and with him, everything else thrown in.” “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”   If you want to have a worthwhile life, you and I are going to have to look for ways to give that life away.  

If we want to save our life, we're going to have to hand over those petty obsessions and those mistaken priorities.  We're going to have to think more of loving than of being loved, more of understanding than of being understood, more of forgiving than of being forgiven. We’re going to have to change our priorities from growing our own security to securing the safety of every person. We’re going to have to shift our allegiance from protecting the system that protects us, to seeking protection for the unprotected. We are called to lose our grip on controlling our lives for the sake of all life on our planet. A change of focus, a shift in priorities and we gather in the worship space around the core symbols of the Christian faith.

We are the people whom God calls beloved. Through the waters of Baptism we let go of our separateness and are born into new life in whom the light of Christ shines. We are fed by the Word and at the table and participate in community where we remember that we, though many, are one body, called to take up the cross and follow in the way of transformation.


Habitat Uniting Church Office
2 Minona Street, Hawthorn VIC
phone 9819 2844

St David's Centre
cnr Burke & Mont Albert Rds
Canterbury VIC

Habitat Spirituality Centre
@ Augustine

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Kew Uniting Church
23 Highbury Grove