Sunday, September 9, 2018

Digging In and Reaching Out (Sermon)

“Digging In and Reaching Out”
Mark 7:24-37
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

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

         According to Mark, immediately after Jesus says that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out, we hear words come out of Jesus that dismiss and belittle a woman asking for help. He implies that she and her kindare Gentile “dogs.”
Matthew, the gospel to the Jews, includes this story. Luke, the gospel to the Gentiles, does not. And neither does John.
To me, Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman creates the most disturbing moment anywhere in the gospels. It’s much less difficult for me to hear Jesus say take up a cross and follow him than to hear him label a whole group of people dogs. Yes, Jesus helps the woman, but he never retracts the dog analogy. So, some will use this passage to justify exploitation and abuse of people who were born into a particular cultural heritage or skin color. When disembodied from the wider context of the Gospel, this is a dangerous story.
         I’m not alone in my queasiness with this passage. Over the centuries, commentators have rushed in to protect Jesus saying that he said this on purpose to “test” the woman. William Barclay even sugar coats it saying that Jesus had to havehad a wry smile on his face knowing that the woman would have her snappy comeback ready.
But what if Jesus isn’t just joking? What if he’s not manipulating this conversation in order to create a teachable moment for us to romanticize or dodge? What if Jesus is so thoroughly tired, so thoroughly frustrated, so thoroughly humanin this moment that he says something for which he gets a bit of a tweak? Could this story represent a moment when, by the same grace that called him out of eternity with the Father into the messy reality of the physical moment, Jesus receives a reminder that as God Incarnate, as Son of God/Son of Man, as the Messiah, he carries with him, at all times, in all places, not just the gift of Divine Presence and Love but the responsibility of sharing it with all the world?
While it may sound threatening even to ask that question, given the details and language of the story, how can we not ask it?
Before you gather the tar and the feathers, step into the shoes of this Gentile woman. You are utterly dependent and vulnerable in that moment. Your voice counts for virtually nothing, unless you do something wrong. Then you get attention. Very focused attention. The attention of stone-wielding Jewish men for whom killing you as an act of piety will be great sport.
In fact, when you ask Jesus for help, and he says that it’s “not fair to [throw the children’s food] to the dogs,” and you counter with, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” that could be the disrespect that gets you stoned. And you know it. But hang the consequences. Your daughteris sick, and that’s Jesusin front of you. So, like the persistent widow, you keep knocking.
Being Love Incarnate, Jesus is deeply moved and, apparently, renewed by your love and your bold faith. From where he sits, exhausted from being hounded by one selfish request after another, Jesus sends you home with the promise of wholeness. And you go home ready to celebrate the gift that you know awaits you.
Remember, Jesus is a Jewish rabbi, through-and-through. He’s committed to his spiritual tradition. Because of that, he belongs, wholly and ultimately to the God who demands justice, kindness, and humble faithfulness. Yahweh does not honor the walls erected by human pride, prejudice, and fear. And because we are Christians, we belong, wholly and ultimately, to Jesus who is our one and only Lord and Savior. And Jesus, who “did not count equality with God as something to be exploited,” (Philippians 2:6) models for us the truth that the road of faithfulness requires our entire being all the time.
Back in the Decapolis, Jesus finds himself being hounded again. Another group of people bring to Jesus a man who can’t hear or speak. Unable to communicate, the man can’t truly participate in community. This time Jesus asks no questions about motive or cultural identity. He recognizes a call to restore wholeness to an individual and to an entire community. Jesus takes the man “aside…away from the crowd.” He will do this, but he’ll do it privately.
The scene gets awkward – fingers in the ears, spitting, and tongue-touching. But to me, the most interesting thing Jesus does is to heave a sigh before saying “Ephphatha,” be opened. In that sigh, I hear Paul’s wordless Spirit-prayer. A prayer not just for the healing of one human being but for all humanity. A prayer that says, God, help the people who will see and hear about this to know that I’m not a contestant on Israel’s Got Talent. I am your Christ, and I am here for all of them!
It’s significant that immediately after these two covert healings, Mark shows Jesus doing something very public and very memorable: He feeds four thousand people, and he does so without worrying a whit about who are Jews and who are Gentiles. “I have compassion for the crowd,” he says, because they’re hungry.
Christian mission follows a similar progression. We move from the narrow confines of those who feel familiar, safe, and deserving outward to all people simply because we’re all human beings. And throughout that process, there’s a lot of deep and wordless sighing. Like Jesus, we don’t get to decide who walks up to us and into our lives. We can only sigh through the questions and the discomfort that come with reaching beyond ourselves to share the gospel with all whom God loves.
By the time that Jesus feeds those four thousand folks, he’s as vulnerable in the presence of the religious and political authorities as the Syrophoenician woman was vulnerable in Jesus’ presence just a short time before. After feeding the multitude, Jesus meets resistance. The Pharisees demand that Jesus give them a sign that he has the authority to do such signs – as if the signs themselves are insufficient to declare his authority.
You’re not going to get any more signs that you’ve already gotten,says Jesus. The question is not about Jesus’ authority versus the authority of the people in power. It’s about God calling all of us to respond to, engage with, and share the renewing power of holy love.
The signs are alreadypresent. Indeed, they’re on the table this morning. For centuries, the Church has said of this table, No Syrophoenicians Allowed, and any leftovers we’ll throw outside to the birds, the ants, and foraging dogs.
No more of that, though. If you’re in this sanctuary, you’re one of the thousands in that Palestinian field. Jesus sees your hunger, and our compassionate Lord wants you to eat. He is the host – not me and not this congregation. So, all of you are invited to this table of proclamation. You’re invited to receive these signs of God’s presence and love.
And you’re challenged not only to let them heal you of all brokenness, deafness, and fear, but to go out, renewed, proclaiming and sharing God’s boundless grace.
So come, and be fed.