Sunday, September 9, 2018
Prayer of the Day
Gracious God, throughout the ages you transform sickness into health and death into life. Open us to the power of your presence, and make us a people ready to proclaim your promises to the whole world, through Jesus Christ, our healer and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 35:4-7a Like streams in the desert, God comes with healing
James 2:1-17 Faith without works is dead
Mark 7:24-37 Christ healing a little girl and a deaf man
Title: Testing Jesus
In the high point of the disturbing and seemingly never-ending revelations of the metoo movement, as we watch prominent men, one by one be held accountable for offensive and inappropriate behavior towards women, especially in the work place, I heard from a number of people statements like: “If Lester Holt goes down, that’s it.” Or “Please don’t let Tom Hanks be accused of such behavior.” There were a number of men who were seen as solidly good, that in the midst of so many allegations, so much guilt, we had to hold on in hope that at least some knew how to behavior, knew how to treat women with respect.
After hearing this morning’s gospel reading, maybe you are left saying “Not Jesus, too.” There he is treating a woman who comes to him for help, quite badly. He calls her a dog. While it sickens us to hear such talk come out of certain elected officials and other men drunk with power, we certainly don’t want to think that Jesus has sunken to such a level. Tell us he is above that. Right? Right? #youtoo, Jesus? What’s left? Who’s left?
Thanks to social media, I can count on every three years, a deluge of face book posts filled with outrage when this reading comes up again and my friends and colleagues are preparing to preach on this story. It is a tough one. But often times the tough ones, the ones we have to wrestle with, the ones the demand that we answer the hard questions, are the stories and the words that end up being the ones that have the most to offer.
First of all, the people who post outrage on line are not Biblical literalists. Neither are we. My colleagues, and we, know that the Bible, and those speaking in and through it, use metaphor, poetry, symbolism to point us to a deeper truth than mere fact reporting could offer. So why do so many suddenly become literalist when facing a story like this?
Next, as taught to me through his writings, theologian Marcus Borg is eager to point out that the writer of Mark’s gospel loves to connect stories that comment on one another. Sometimes they are sandwiched so that one story begins, another one interrupts it, and then the first story is completed and the two end up commenting on one another. We saw this way back at the beginning of July when we heard the reading in which the story of Jarius’ sick daughter begins, then the hemorrhaging women interrupts with her pleas for help, after she is healed, Jesus continues to Jarius’ even though he has received word that the girl has died. The sandwiched stories end with the young girl being raised back to life. There are many examples of this in Mark, and I believe we have one right here.
Anyone remember what we read last week? (Don’t worry this is not a quiz.) It was the passage right before this. In it, Jesus told the law obsessed Pharisees that it is not what goes into someone that defiles them, rather it is what comes out, that defiles. Now, right after that dispute, Jesus encounters this woman who is a Gentile. A non-Jew. She is outside the law. She certainly is not keeping kosher. By those who judge according to the law, she is unclean and an untouchable. So, if Jesus just got finished telling others not to judge in this way, not pronounce someone unclean and defiled just because of what they eat or how they eat, how could he possibly be turning around and display exactly the same behavior that he just berated others for? I’m thinking it is a test, not of the women, but of the disciples and those who are supposedly listening to his teaching, those who are seeking to walk in the way that he is living, teaching, and leading.
As a teacher, I know how valuable those teachable moments are. I jump on one when I see it blossoming before me. (Sometimes to the chagrin of spouse and others when we are not in a classroom situation.) Teachers just can’t waste a good teachable moment. And Jesus is the ideal of teachers. In Matthew’s version of this story, the disciples really fail the test and encourage Jesus to send the Gentile away. Here, in Mark’s telling, the disciples are wrong in the silence they keep. There is no one saying , “hey Jesus, what about what you just said? You just redefined clean and unclean, and what defiles. And now this insult of his woman?” But Jesus is going to move forward with the lesson even if he seems to have lost the class in confusion.
And this woman provides a most beautiful affirmation of what Jesus is trying to teach. What comes out of the woman is a grace-filled testimony of humility and persistent faith. The Holy Spirit is certainly at work in this one that the law-abiders would judge unclean. Not only is this woman proclaimed clean by Jesus, her faith celebrated, but her daughter is freed from an unclean spirit.
And just to make sure that the teachable moment is mined for all it is worth, let us finish examining this sandwich that is the 7th chapter of Mark. We have gone from, (1) it’s what comes out of a person that is important, to (2) a declaration of faith coming out of a most unlikely person, and then, in the final scene, (3) ears are made to be opened with a loud shout “Ephphatha!” as if to be saying to all of us – “open your ears, and hear what I am teaching you.” Jesus is teaching us, healing us, pronouncing us clean so that our tongues might be released and we can tell the world that everything is new. We can warn that what humans and the law judge as unclean, Jesus makes clean. There is no need to fear, no need to judge, no need to build walls that separate, no need to create division.
We are healed so that we might tell the world of the healer.
We are made clean so that we might be free from shame.
We are raised up so that we might live a new life.
We are taught so that we might journey on in holy wisdom.
We are welcomed so that we might welcome.
We are restored so that we might be renewed in hope.
Be opened to all that Jesus is teaching us. Even when the lessons are hard.
The Rev. Mark Erson,