The Sunday Sermon:  Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 9, 2018

Scripture:  Mark 7:24-30 and 31-37

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Our gathering together, our life together is a series of beginnings. From new church years to new calendar year, from the start of new church seasons to the start of new calendar seasons, from the beginnings of new months to the beginning of a new week, every week, we “begin again” all the time. This morning is another beginning. Our Rally Day on the second Sunday of September has been the official start of a new ministry year for decades. This morning we begin again, again.

That’s the Christian life in a nutshell, really – beginning again. We talk more theologically about these new beginnings as “being born again.” In our most powerful and provocative teaching as a world religion, we speak of these new beginnings as “Resurrection.” Every time we realize that we’ve gotten a bit off track since the last time we “began again”, we have but to “confess,” to acknowledge, to recognize that we’re jumping the rails and to ask for forgiveness, for compassion, from the mystery we call God, but also from others and from ourselves. With that, we can get back on track, and … begin again. We confess and find the compassion we need from God, others, and self, at least once a week when we gather here and begin our worship service. I hope you find these things at others times in your week away from here – acknowledgement, forgiveness and compassion, and return. Because it’s empowering, and ought to be a daily part of our lives, not just a weekly one.

The trick for us is understanding that we do, indeed, get off track; realizing that we have to get back on track; and figuring out what we have to do to return. These aren’t easy things to admit about ourselves. Our Gospel readings this morning share stories that provide us with a blueprint for all of this. First …

Let’s pray … And now listen (again) for the Word of God. Read Mark 7:24-30. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

So let’s continue in this way: Jesus was wrong. This is one of the only, if not the only, place in scripture where we read, hear, and experience, not the shortcomings of Jesus followers, but of Jesus’ himself. I think it’s one of the most fully human moments recorded in our Gospels, right up there with the table-turning after the Palm Sunday procession and the last words on the cross. “Let the children” – the Jews he has committed his life to, not the Gentiles this woman represents – “let the children be fed first” … and then Jesus calls this grieving woman a “dog.”

Many commentaries and interpreters suggest that the word “dog” is not as harsh as it sounds, that Jesus is referring to her as a pet – loved, just not as loved as “the children,” but not such a derogatory term. But, no. The word in the Gospel of Mark is “dog,” and dog is what Jesus means. Here’s what we should recognize right off the bat: Jesus is “off-track.”

In the verses that precede this one in Mark, he’s has been busy. He has been “on-track” in a big way. The healings began right after his temptations and the calling of his first disciples in the Gospel of Mark. Unclean spirits, demons, lepers, paralytics, withered hands, and Beelzebul, himself (herself, itself). He has been teaching and preaching in Galilee through parables and sermons about fasting, the Sabbath, and being the light. He’s been calming storms, feeding thousands, enduring rejection in his own hometown, and handling the death of his friend and mentor, John the Baptist – beheaded by the same King he is challenging.

He has tried to get away for awhile, to the other side of the lake, to rest, but “when they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him” Mk. 6:54 and it all began again: “Wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged him” to help them. Mk. 6:56 And that’s not all, for then, for the first time in Mark’s Gospel, immediately before our first reading, “the Pharisees and some of the scribes” show up! Let your imaginations run away with you here. We are well aware that Jesus’ relationship with these groups didn’t end well. It didn’t begin well, either. “Hypocrites” who have “abandoned the commandment of God” from the very first recorded encounter with them.

It’s “from there,” as our scripture reading begins: “From there,” from this exhaustive and exhausting place, “he set out to the region of Tyre and entered a house, not wanting anyone – anyone – to know he was there.” Yet he could not, even here, no matter how hard he tried, “escape notice.” A Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin intrudes on his solitude again.

And Jesus jumps the track.

I think we have to get this on a very visceral level and not think of this passage, this reading, as a made-up story where Mark portrays our hero as less than sympathetic in order to reveal something about us, but never really meaning to suggest that it happened to Jesus.   No, we have to understand that this is a story in which Jesus, in a very human moment of physical and mental exhaustion, has lost sight of the point of his mission. He’s off the track, off his track.

He doesn’t respond in an aggressive way, like he does when he turns the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. It’s not the passive response, as on the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” It’s, rather, the quintessential passive-aggressive response employed by all of us at one point or another.

“Leave me alone, you … dog.” Jesus has slipped the rails and is heading down the wrong track. One every one of us is all too familiar with.

Human beings, you and I, suffer from a deep insecurity that pushes us to create rules that give status and value to some while denigrating others. Jesus is doing that here, the children versus the “dogs.” In our time, we still separate and denigrate. We continue to think that if people end up homeless, or on drugs, or illegally crossing the border, or all alone, they are weak and at fault. Our world teaches us to shun the dirty, smelly woman ranting on the bus next to us and not to embrace her. Countless children spend empty, abused lives shuttled from one foster home to another, forgotten and unloved by the world. Prisoners of other countries and religions can be blindfolded and humiliated, and whole other countries themselves can be categorized as “repositories of excrement” because they are deemed undeserving of the same rights and privileges as those who can offer money and power. That’s pretty “off-track.”

Jesus isn’t that far off the rails, but it’s beginning. And the Syrophoenician woman calls him back. In the manner of a biblical prophet she is there to rebuke him, to straighten him out and to open him up, to open him back up to God’s mission of infinite compassion and mercy. Jesus’ prejudice in the first part of this passage is very human. But the woman “open him up,” and he instantly recognizes her challenge: God’s love expands beyond all barriers. Take a pause between verses 28 and 29. Let what the woman says to Jesus “sink in” for Jesus. This isn’t a story about the faith of the woman. It is a story about the return of Jesus. Watch Jesus confess, ask for forgiveness, and return in the space between verses, as he, himself, is “opened up.”

The story that follows is infinitely more powerful and meaningful, serving as an example of how being opened up empowers one to open up others.

Listen, again, for the Word of God. Read Mark 7:31-37. The Word of the Lord, again. Thanks be to God.

Ephphatha … we have to believe that Jesus utters this command not to the deaf man’s ears, but to his heart and soul – and to all of ours. We are “back to us,” now. These verses are once again a story about us and they couldn’t be clearer. “Be opened.” Having opened his own heart once again to God’s mission of infinite compassion, Jesus is empowered to open others. So are we …

Where in your life have you closed off? Race, culture, sexuality, poverty, religion, worldly politics?   Who in your life are you closed off to? A family member, a friend, a co-worker, or the stranger you see every day and never acknowledge? We suffer from a deep insecurity that pushes us to create rules that give status and value to some while denigrating others. Into that reality, God speaks: Ephphatha … be opened.

Try it this week. Hear it this week. Don’t wait until next Sunday. As you watch the news; as you pass a homeless person; as you listen to a shouting match; as you hear hate speech; as you experience prejudice yourself, hear it: Ephphatha. And then do it – “be opened.”

Jesus is fully God and fully human for us not in any supernatural way, but in the most natural way of all: He is faithfully open to both at the same time. His willingness to be opened is Human, like us. His readiness to open others is Divine, also like us. Or it can be. Listen …

Ephphatha. Be opened. Amen.

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / September 9, 2018