Sunday, September 5, 2021

15th Pentecost, 2021-B: Be opened

 Lectionary: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Video of my sermon

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

I am SO glad to be here with you! I have to say, I’m still a little surprised that I live in MO and now own a home here! This was never on my radar. Steve and I have two grandsons in GA and we were planning to buy a house in the GA mountains to be near them. 

Then God intervened.

I had been a rector for 10 years and loved it, but when I took my sabbatical in 2016, I discerned a call to Interim Ministry, so I got myself trained and began serving as an Interim Rector – a ministry I completely loved.

Interim ministry is what brought me to serve at Calvary in Columbia. Canon Doris, who was my seminary classmate and remains a dear friend, contacted me in NC and asked me to come to MO and serve as an Interim at one of two churches. I didn’t hesitate to tell Doris, no. I have two grandsons in GA and am not interested in moving farther away from them.

Doris called back three months later and said these magic words: just pray about it. I did pray and clearly heard God’s call to me to open to an option beyond my plans.

I arrived at Calvary 8 days before the pandemic shutdown and loved every minute of my ministry there – as strange, different, and challenging as it all was during COVID-tide. God was right – again.

As my ministry at Calvary began to come to a close, Doris called again asking me to discern a call to serve here. No, I said (again). I want to get back to GA and my babies. Ok, she said, just pray about it.

There were those magic words again. Well, not magic as much as wisdom.

When we enter into prayer we give God the priority, trusting in God’s love and mercy. Like the woman in our gospel story whose child needed healing. A non-believer, this woman knew that she was in the presence of love when she was with Jesus, and she knew in the depths of her soul that his love could heal her child, so when Jesus refused her request for healing, she persisted.

Every time I read Jesus’ initial response to the Syrian woman, I ache over the meanness of his words. Why would he deny her request so offhandedly? And why would he call her a “dog”- a common racist slur against her people?

It’s an uncomfortable reality, but if we believe, as our Presiding Bishops often says, that if it isn’t about love it isn’t about God, and if we believe that Jesus is the full revelation of the character and nature of God, then we must enter the discomfort and stay in it until we discover the revelation of love Jesus is offering.

People disagree about why Jesus made that horrible response, so let’s pause for a moment, zoom out and look at this gospel from a wider lens. We’ll get back to this, I promise. 

There are two very different healing stories presented to us today, but both take place in Gentile territory. In the first story, a Syrian woman from the Phoenician seaboard violated all kinds of protocols by approaching Jesus, a man who is not her family and speaking to him. What she asked for, however, was not for herself but for her child.

This woman was motivated by love for her child and that, along with her faith in the love she perceived in Jesus, wouldn’t let her give up. It’s also the only time the Scripture records Jesus losing an argument – and it was to Gentile, who was a woman!

Jesus didn’t perform any healing ritual or prayer in this story. He just told the woman to go home, that her daughter was well. The faith that led her to beg Jesus for healing in the first place also carried her home with no proof that he had done what he said – but he had.

The second healing story of the deaf man is radically different. It’s important to note that his deafness would have been considered punishment for a sin. Remember when, in John’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (Jn 9:2)

In this story, friends of the man born deaf brought him to Jesus and begged for his healing. Jesus takes the man away from the crowd and performs a very specific healing ritual. Clearly, Jesus could have healed this man in the same way he had healed the Syrian woman’s daughter, with a word, but he chose a different course. Touching the man’s ears and tongue, then raising his eyes and his prayer to heaven, Jesus sighed - a signal of physical release and an embodied symbol of the breath of God which breathes life into the world.

“Be opened,” Jesus said, and he wasn’t talking to the ears, but to the man. Whatever may hinder you from your wholeness, whether it’s yours or someone else’s belief in your unworthiness, or the idea that God loves some whom God created more than others, be opened now. Come into the presence of love. Be opened and receive the grace God is offering.

In my experience with healing prayer, I’ve found that people often assume God won’t work a miracle for them because a) God doesn’t do that anymore, or b) even if God did do that, surely God wouldn’t choose them.

To these I say those magic, wise words: “just pray about it.” Give God the priority, trusting in God’s love and mercy. I am a witness to many truly miraculous healings of bodies, minds, souls, and churches.

Jesus says to the body of Christ today the same thing he said to the deaf man: “Be opened” for, as Jesus’ mother once said, “nothing shall be impossible with God.” (Lk 1:37) Everything is possible and will probably include options beyond our plans.

In our Scripture story the deaf man did open and was made whole. Mark tells us that he spoke plainly, but like most of the healing stories, the transformation that resulted from Jesus’ healing reached beyond the man into his community where folks were “astounded beyond measure” by what they witnessed.

And what they witnessed wasn’t just the healing of a deaf man, but the truth that God acts in the world to heal and reconcile. That is our witness too. God is still acting in the world to heal us and make us whole.

So then, why does the gospel present such different accounts? I think it’s because Mark is showing us that God meets us where we are. For the deaf man, who was probably Jewish, ritual had meaning and would help him “be opened” to the healing. For the Gentile woman, ritual might have been strange and a stumbling block to her being opened.

Now we can return to the racist slur Jesus used. I think he used it to break down entrenched barriers between the Gentile and Jewish communities of his time. In order to break down entrenched barriers we must first notice they exist. Jesus’ startling statement worked like a charm – then and now.

The Jewish hearers of Jesus’ slur would have been in full agreement. Syrians are dogs; they don’t deserve what belongs to us. The Syrians listening would have heard the old, familiar discrimination. It was the way of their world: the Jewish people hate, exclude, and deny the Canaanites.

Jesus’ words and actions tore down entrenched, divisive barriers of culture, race, gender, and age. His healing demonstrated that a Gentile girl and a deaf man were as worthy of God’s love and mercy as anyone else.

Jesus met each one in our gospel story where they were, just as he does for us now.

As we begin our life of faith and service together, let’s “be opened” and let God’s healing love and mercy set us free from all that binds us, all we’re blind to, and all that separates or divides us. Let’s be “astounded beyond measure” by what God is ready to do in and among us and through us in the community God has placed us here to serve.

Let us pray…

Fill us, most merciful God, with the power of your Holy Spirit, and free us from any bonds that continue to restrict our freedom to fully love you, one another, and our neighbors. Enter our hearts today and our dreams tonight and show us your will for us as your disciples in this time and place. Loosen our tongues to speak your truth. Strengthen our hearts to birth your love into reality no matter the cost; and make each of us to shine with the celestial light that is the mark of your saints in heaven and on earth; for the love of your Son, our savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

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