“Be Opened” Colchester Federated Church, September 9, 2018, (Mark 7:24-37) Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

When I was a kid I played softball, and my team (the Red Sox actually) was the best in our city’s league.  After yet another victory, I ran to the bench to get my water bottle before lining up to shake hands with the other team.  It was a hot summer day and my water bottle had been sweating, so my hands were all wet.  I was the last player in line, shook all the other girls’ hands and then all of a sudden got grabbed by their coach.  She held onto my upper arm as she got in my face and accused me of spitting on my hand.  I tried to point out that my hand was wet from my water bottle, but she wouldn’t believe me.  She accused me of spitting on my hand and being a bad sport.

And then Mama Lorincz comes onto the field, goes right up to that coach, gets in her face and tells her with this icy rage, “Don’t touch my daughter.”  So I was between my Mama Bear and this crazy coach—my arm was hurting, my mom was terrifying, I was only going into fourth grade so I just burst into tears.  The conversation got heated, and my coach came over to intervene saying that I was one of the best sports on the team—she comes from a good family, her father’s the assistant principal at the middle school and her mother here is a teacher, they go to church every Sunday—relax, Lauren didn’t spit on her hand.  The coach finally released me and my mom thankfully didn’t punch her in the face.  I pulled myself together, and learned the valuable lesson of not drinking water until after I shook hands with the opposing team.  We laugh about this story in my family as the perfect example of my mother’s deeply ingrained nature of defending her children no matter what and this is why we jokingly call her Mama Bear when she gets like this.

Now this instinct of defending your children is not unique to my mother.  Because as we turn to the Gospel of Mark, we see two stories of Jesus healing people and how far a mother will go to have her beloved daughter healed.  That mother’s actions will fundamentally change the trajectory of Jesus’ ministry.  Because once the Jesus Movement was fully open to Gentiles (non-Jews) in the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, that openness would in part birth a whole new religion that we’re still practicing today.

As we get into these specific stories, we can remember that healing stories aren’t uncommon in the Gospels.  Jesus was known far and wide as a healer.  People came to him with physical ailments as well as mental and emotional struggles.  Though these stories of healing in Mark Chapter 7 are significant because of who Jesus heals and how he heals them.

Jesus goes to the region of Tyre (a Gentile town) and doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s there.  But he can’t escape notice because his reputation preceded him and a woman comes to him because her little daughter has an unclean spirit.  She bows at his feet and begs for Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter.  Uncharacteristically, Jesus doesn’t respond with compassion at first as this woman begs for his help.  His initial response is one that must make us pause.  Because Jesus looks at this woman begging for the healing of her precious child at his feet and says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”[1]

Some Bible commentators try to make excuses for Jesus and soften the blow here.  Perhaps it’s not as harsh as it sounds, dogs can be beloved pets and part of the family after all.  Who doesn’t love dogs?  Well maybe that’s our attitude now as Americans in 2018.  That wasn’t the attitude back then.  When he calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog—well, it’s showing the human side of Jesus and that some prejudice was there.  That woman would have the feeling that any woman has when a man refers to her as a dog.  This is devastating.  This can feel like a punch in the gut.  A low blow.  Even Jesus said something like that to a desperate woman who’s just looking for his help.  Yes, because Jesus understands his ministry as being for the Jews and not those Gentile dogs in the beginning.  Remember that we’re only in Mark Chapter 7—there’s a whole lot more to the story.

And the story thankfully doesn’t end there.  That woman, that Gentile woman born on the wrong side of town, that woman who has a daughter who is suffering who would do anything to have her healed looks straight at the man who just insulted her and says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”[2]  She doesn’t back down.  She doesn’t slink away feeling less than.  She challenges this man to see her, to truly see her.  “And guess what pal,” she seems to be saying, “God loves us too.”

To his credit—she impresses Jesus when she stands up for herself and her daughter.  He can’t help but respond, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”[3]  Jesus’ earlier prejudice shows the human side of him.  He was a Jewish man living early in the First Century in the lands of Israel and Palestine and was part of his peoples’ history and culture.  Jesus came first and foremost to reform Judaism as the Jewish man that he was his entire life.  Though the immediate reversal of his thinking may just show his divine side.  Because in that moment Jesus truly sees this woman for who she is—he sees her as a beloved daughter of God.  In the words of Rev. Amy Howe, “He instantly understands her challenge.  His mission is not restricted to the Jews.  God’s love expands beyond all barriers.”[4]  The woman doesn’t seem to flinch from the insult and instead challenges Jesus to heal her daughter regardless of her ethnicity or race or gender or any other difference present between them.  When the woman goes home she finds her child lying on the bed and the demon that had possessed her is gone.  Jesus is true to his word.

This is a particularly remarkable story in our present divisive times.  As Professor Elizabeth Struthers Malbon relates, “Mark seems to go out of the way to present Jesus learning from a Gentile woman in a Gentile place about the inclusivity of God’s realm.  Maybe others—both inside and outside the narrative—can learn as well.”[5]  When we are outside our comfort zones and encounter someone who is different from us we can learn a great deal.  Though it takes courage to be in unfamiliar territory and even more courage to change because of what we learn from others.

It helps to remember that God’s love is expansive.  God’s love goes beyond the barriers that we may have in our own minds and hearts.  Thankfully God doesn’t operate how we operate.  God isn’t narrow-minded, God is expansive and boundary-breaking.  After all it was writer Anne Lamott who once wrote, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  Whenever we find ourselves feeling resentful or even hating somebody it’s always a reality check to think that God doesn’t hate that person too.  It’s humbling to realize that if we believe that God forgives us, then God forgives that other person.  If God loves us, then God loves that other person.

Sometimes we have disagreements that lead to animosity because it seems that we don’t know how to listen.  We listen to immediately respond and maybe to show that we’re smarter, not to understand where the other person is actually coming from.  Jesus listened and learned from that Gentile woman in that Gentile place about the inclusivity of God’s realm.  That was revolutionary especially during the time in which they were living.  The Jews and the Gentiles just didn’t mix all that well.  And his listening and responding with compassion would fundamentally change Jesus’ ideas about the realm of God.

Because Mark tells us that Jesus returned from the region of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis.  This doesn’t have much meaning for modern Christians because we’re unfamiliar with these places.  Basically Mark tells us that Jesus remains in Gentile territory, but now he’s on the east side of the Sea of Galilee.  This time Jesus heals a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment.  Remember that he’s still in Gentile territory so this man is probably . . . another Gentile!

That encounter with the Syrophoenician woman already has an impact on another person’s life.  Jesus takes the man aside away from the crowd and puts his fingers in his ears, spits and touches his tongue.  Jesus looks up to the heavens and says a command which means “be opened” to our ears.  Immediately the man has his ears opened, his tongue released, and he’s able to speak plainly—maybe for the first time in his life depending on whether or not the man was born deaf and with a speech impediment.  This time Jesus encounters a Gentile man and has zero hesitation in healing him.  By healing the man Jesus restores him to the community as is so often the case with Jesus healing not just the mind or body, but the spirit and bringing wholeness to people.

Be opened is what Jesus says to the heavens.  Yes, he’s speaking about the man’s ears and his tongue.  But this command is a call to all of us here this morning.  Be opened.  Encounter the other.  Don’t be afraid.  Listen to hear and not just respond.  We can allow ourselves to have the courage to be changed by what we learn from people who are different from us.  That mother who wouldn’t take no for an answer and faced down discrimination to save her child for new life changed the course of Jesus’ ministry.  It’s not an exaggeration.  It’s true and awe-inspiring.  Jesus learned about the true inclusivity of the realm of God from a Gentile woman whose name we will never know.  And nothing would ever be the same.  Maybe, just maybe, we also have power to do good in this world if we would just be opened.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 7:27, NRSV.
[2] Mark 7:28.
[3] Mark 7:29.
[4] Pastoral Perspective of Mark 7:24-37 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B, Volume 4, 46.
[5] Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “Gospel of Mark” in Women’s Bible Commentary (Third Edition), Eds. Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, 484-485.