In today’s Gospel, Jesus seems very human. While each of the Gospels portray Jesus as both God and human, Jesus is the most “earthy” in the Gospel of Mark. Today’s reading is a good example.
Jesus wanted to get away. And who could blame him!? He has been interacting with fussy, needy people and religious leaders who question his and his disciples every move. He wants a break – so they travel… “up North.”
Sound familiar? A number of us want to go “up North” for a little quiet, perhaps a little fishing, and relaxing… but certainly a little bit of a get-away from the busyness of life.
But for Jesus, “up North” isn’t Eli or the North shore. It’s the Gentile –not Jewish-- town of Tyre. It’s a place where no one would expect a Jewish rabbi. He goes into a house where he thinks that he is anonymous and can rest but no sooner does he sit down than he is greeted by yet another request for healing – this time from a gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin.
She was the ultimate outsider in Jesus’ world. She was gentile – that is, not part of Israel, the people of God. She descended from the Syrophoenicians – Israel’s arch-enemies. Seeing her would have been like Bin Laden’s mother showing up at the White House asking for asylum. This woman was the last person that anyone would have wanted in their house. Not only is she a woman, acting on her own – which made her less respectable, but her daughter had a demon – which probably made her act in disruptive and crazy, socially unacceptable ways. It’s hard to imagine how she got in to that room. And yet… there she was. And she was down on her knees, begging Jesus to heal her daughter.
Confession here: I’ve never liked Jesus’s initial response. "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." He calls her a dog. Technically a little dog. But that’s not any better. This is probably the most offensive thing that Jesus says in any Gospel. So what do we make of this?
Some scholars think that Jesus was just testing her faith. Others give him a pass because Jesus is human after all and after healing, preaching and teaching and walking the distance to Duluth – which would be about what he had just done…he’s tired. Others think that these words were simply a common folk saying of the day – something that sounds more offensive to 21st Century ears than it would have to people in his day. After all, the people of Israel were the children of God – set apart - and God promised them that Messiah would come – for them. It’s not hard to see how they interpreted this as meaning ONLY for them or at least for them FIRST. But, even remembering that Jesus is pretty “earthy” in Mark, these are still hard words to hear from JESUS - then and now. If you’ve ever been called a dog – or any other slur—you know it’s not easy to just let these words slide off like water on a duck’s back. Words can hurt.
Words are remembered. Indeed, these words have been used against Jesus. Elizabeth Johnson - a pastor/ theologian friend of mine who is serving in Cameroon -- writes that this verse is used to dissuade people in Africa from becoming Christian. People from other faiths in her neighborhood say – “see, Jesus is not for us. He came only for the Jewish people.” But Pr. Elizabeth reminds them – and us – look at the whole story. Don’t take that verse – or any verse – out of context. Read the rest of the story.
Somehow the Holy Spirit gave this desperate mother the courage to respond to these hurtful words with humility and grace: She countered: "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." And after she said that….it was as if a light went on for Jesus. Suddenly… Jesus was opened up to sharing God’s love and grace and healing power with ALL people. And he does.
Jesus travels back south on the Gentile side and when people bring him a man who is both deaf and has a speech impediment, Jesus doesn’t hesitate. He puts his fingers into the man’s ears, spits and touches his tongue and says “Ephphatha.” “Be opened.” And suddenly, the man can hear and speak plainly. And while Jesus tells the people to be silent – their tongues have been opened too and they cannot help but tell the Good News of what God has done.
“Ephphatha." "Be opened." That is what the Holy Spirit is calling us to be too: “Be opened.” Be open to hearing new ways that we can bring the light of Christ, the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit into our community, your family, your friends, the people you see at the water fountain, the grocery store or at the bar. The Holy Spirit has no bounds. Ephphatha. Be Opened.
But what and how are we to be opened? That’s what we are going to be exploring this fall. Even as we celebrate and reflect upon the ways that God has worked in this Congregation over the last 75 years, we are going to be open to the ways that God is calling us to live into the mission of God today and tomorrow. God expands Jesus’ mission – and ours.
The Gospel lessons for this Fall come from the Gospel of Mark and they are all about discipleship. Discipleship is a “churchy” word but it means living your life faithfully, following Jesus and being the person that God made you to be. It means being open to listen to and open to hear God’s Word, open to letting God work through you. Despite the challenges in our lives, Jesus calls us to be open to the Spirit’s expansive and healing power. But… here’s a warning: it might not be in the way that we expect.
Looking at these two stories, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that if you just pray hard enough, if you just beg Jesus, then you or someone you love can be healed. Don’t misunderstand me, I highly recommend prayer. I believe that prayer works – both for the person that you are praying for – and for the person praying. However… I have also learned that the Holy Spirit is not predictable and cannot be controlled or manipulated or and cannot be directed. Prayers are answered. BUT…not everyone is healed in the way that we ask.
For example, this past week Pastor Stephanie from Edina Community Lutheran went to the doctor for a routine treatment. The next day she ended up fainting. She went back to the doctor – they discovered bleeding in her brain and erratic heartbeat. The church leaders sent out prayer requests and we prayed. The family shared the story on caring bridge – and more people prayed. There was an army of faithful prayers praying for this mother of three young children, this faithful pastor, this beautiful child of God. The doctors did emergency surgery on Friday – successfully. We all gave thanks – and went to bed. The next morning… we got the news: Complications arose - and Stephanie died. What?! Just like that?! The people of her church, family, friends, pastors and colleagues are all heart broken. Why didn’t God answer our prayers in the way that we wanted? Did we not pray – or beg -- hard enough?
We all know people who – in our minds – died too soon. We have prayers that were not answered in the way that we wanted. But that does not mean that the Holy Spirit wasn’t listening. That doesn’t mean that God is not working in the world. Quite the opposite.
It reminds us that, first of all, God’s ways are not known to us – we get glimpses – but we only see in part what God sees fully. Secondly, despite the challenges in our lives, Jesus calls us to be open to the Spirit’s expansive and healing power. We don’t always know where the Holy Spirit will lead us. But God gives us faith – and the courage to follow --- and to believe that in the end, God’s grace, love and mercy always prevails. God’s grace, love and mercy always triumphs.
So what does this mean for you and me? Jesus is calling YOU.. to follow...and to be open to the unexpected ways that God is at work in our world …despite the challenges and the heartaches that we encounter. Jesus is calling YOU to share the love of God not only with your family, friends, and neighbors but also with the other, the stranger, the person who doesn’t look like you, talk like you or even vote like you. Jesus is calling us to be open to the Holy Spirit and dare to follow. In Jesus’ name. Amen.