September 6, 2015

Gospel: Mark 7:24-37

In Mark’s gospel, encounters with women usually signify turning points in Jesus’ ministry. Here, a conversation with a Syrophoenician woman marks the beginning of his mission to the Gentiles.

24 [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,25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 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. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

—–

Grace and peace to you, people of God, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

This week, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, has called on ELCA churches to rally, answering the open call of the African Methodist Episcopal church body. You may only know of one congregation in the AME church, in Charleston, SC, which experienced the greatest act of racism many of us have seen in years. And, in other news around the country, we’ve had several instances of overt, systemic racism. I’m not here to make judgments on people, but the reality is that this problem exists. In this light, let me tell you of a profound experience I had earlier this year.

As some of you may know or remember, I was gone for a few weeks in January for a class. I went on a trip to Namibia – a place I’d never been, hardly ever heard of, and which would change my mindset in a very drastic way. It would change the very way I read scripture, especially scripture like this, and challenge many of my perceptions that I carried about myself. Until then, I tended to see myself as a fairly average guy from a family with average income and having had average opportunities. I faced some hardships, but basically the same ones as everybody else I knew, so I felt average there, too. When I read stories like the ones from our gospel lesson for today, I usually identified with the disciples – people who had been following Jesus for a while who got to see some pretty cool stuff. When I read about situations like the one we read in James (James 2.1-17), I thought I was probably the poor man, or maybe the guy who was throwing the party. After spending a few days in Namibia, though, I began to realize who I really am in stories like these. I am the rich man who, for whatever reason, finds myself being invited to the front of the banquet hall, AND I am the Syrophoenecian woman begging for healing all at the same time.

Confession time: I have always felt a little uneasy about the first part of our gospel text for today. It always feels so callous of Jesus to turn someone away because of their race. He was essentially saying that he didn’t come to serve or save her. He was saving his miracles and healing for the Jewish people. It seems, for lack of a better term, extremely racist, separating those who are good enough from those who aren’t, those who have the right heritage and those who don’t. Of course, as we read, Jesus did heal her daughter, but only after her answers either proved to Jesus that her faith in him was real or she opened his eyes somehow to what his mission truly was. I can’t say, for certain, either way, but I can say it’s made me uncomfortable and I’m thankful that Jesus did, in the end, heal her daughter. It shows that even the most unlikely ones, even people who we might separate ourselves from, are under the healing presence of God.

But I have to wonder about the disciples during this conversation. Nobody confronted Jesus about the way he talked to the woman. Nobody stood up for this lady – they were a silent crowd. If any of them did think it was wrong, we don’t know about it. Were they intrigued, waiting to see what Jesus would do? Were they surprised at the woman’s audacious question or surprised by Jesus’ final answer? Were they afraid to interrupt and contradict Jesus when they felt the knot in the pit of their stomach that told them “this isn’t right?” I suppose we can’t blame them for not confronting Jesus. I don’t know that I would be willing to confront Jesus about that, even if I didn’t think it was right. And this non-confrontation of issues such as racism, sexism, ageism, and oppression based on any other factors continues to be a problem. It’s so easy to offend people in our hyper-connected, hyper-vigilant world that there are many moments when the people whom God loves, the ones Jesus came to save, are neglected.

So who, exactly, did Jesus come to save? Jesus came to save people who are oppressed and have no way out. Jesus came to save people who have been broken by the toils of life and history and cannot put themselves back together. Jesus came to save those fall short and cannot, by any power in themselves, find a way to make it right. Jesus came to find the lost, bring sight to the blind, make the deaf hear, and let justice flow like streams into the desert. And that means everybody – not just a select people who do things the right way or a group that we approve of. Sometimes, we are all blind to the injustices around us – racism, sexism, and oppression of every kind. Sometimes, we are all deaf to the cries of brothers, sisters, neighbors, and strangers who need someone to help. And sometimes we are all dry like a desert, dry from trying to do it on our own, dry from constantly facing pressures we feel powerless to oppose, and we need the streams of living water to come into us and refresh us.

Jesus, whether he realized it or not, started something big when he stopped calling the Syrophoenician woman a “dog” and started seeing her as a scared, helpless mother who just wanted her daughter to be well. What began as a small movement in rural Galilee began to grow branches into the surrounding area. The next story we hear is Jesus in Sidon, another Gentile region, and healing a man who was deaf and blind. Here, he doesn’t just send him away healed – he touches him and does some kinda weird stuff. I mean, he puts his fingers in his ears and spits on his tongue. How exactly do you get someone to stick out their tongue when they can’t hear you? You stick your tongue out at them! When the bubble of Judaism was popped, Jesus began pouring blessing on anyone who needed it. And, the best news of all, is that includes us.

That includes us, with all our faults – our passive silence and active oppression, our inward brokenness and our outward failing. Whether we consciously or unconsciously harbor resentment, fear, or hatred, I think we need reminders of just how far Jesus’ love goes. It isn’t limited to a select race, language, gender, or history. It isn’t limited to people who say the right things at the right time and wear the right clothes at the right church. Jesus’ death and resurrection knows no boundaries and nothing can stop the flood. In the Psalm (Psalm 146) and in Isaiah (Isaiah 35.4-7a) we hear of God promising water in the dessert, bringing sight to the blind, and catching those who have fallen. I don’t know that I can think of better news that this – that God can even use us, where we are, to speak out against racism, sexism, and all oppression in the world.

Perhaps the best way to describe what I learned in Namibia is that there is no time to be a silent majority. Nothing good can come from us seeing injustice and not addressing it. Not saying anything only passively approves injustice because we are too afraid of offending the oppressors. But God doesn’t call us to live a life marked by fear, but by love. Through God’s love, we are saved and through God’s love we can speak out for those who cannot save themselves. Through God’s love, we have the boldness to address issues like racism, sexism, and all other oppressions.

We meet here, each and every week, and proclaim that God is a God of love and that God’s love is for all people. We know that to be true – God’s love for you and all humanity drove Jesus to the cross to pay our debt of sin and pay our wages. Whether you believe it or not, you being who you are can be a huge gift to those who are only being told who they are not. As people of God, let us go into the world in love, using our gifts, our skills, our voices, and our very selves as instruments of God’s saving work for all people. Light dawns on a weary world – weary of separation and oppression – and that light is the saving grace of Jesus Christ for all people. All people. Amen.

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