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Pentecost 16B Sermon
Mark 7: 24-37
September
9, 2018

 

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Mark 7:24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.

Our gospel reading this morning begins with these words, “Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.” Okay – sounds like a lovely destination for a walk, doesn’t it? Like walking up High street to Worthington to visit friends or stop at a restaurant. But if you were to look for Tyre on a map, you would not find it anywhere close to Bethlehem, Capernaum or Bethany; in fact, you would not find it close to any of the places with which Jesus is familiar because of his lineage, religion or cultural background. This place is far away in many aspects: geographically, it took quite a while to journey there (especially by foot); and culturally/religiously, these people were considered outsiders for a reason: they had some strange customs.

Tyre was Gentile territory, and there were all sorts of people, customs and gods around. It seems strange to us that Jesus would have felt like the outsider, but he appears to be so intimidated that at first it doesn’t even look like he wants to do ministry there with these “other” people. If you are like most Christians, you have read this interaction between Jesus and this Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin and have been a bit puzzled. Jesus comes off very rude – after all, she begs him to do something that he has already done in his ministry – to cast a demon out of her daughter. We don’t know how, but for some reason this faraway foreigner knows that he has these kinds of powers or at least has done these kinds of things already in his life. It is Jesus’ response that causes us some grief: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Even if you can excuse his argument by saying that at least he isn’t shooing her away forever, and that it isn’t quite time for his ministry to the Gentiles to commence – he still refers to her as a dog, and that just isn’t very characteristic of Jesus.

Some have asked if Jesus is testing this woman, saying these things to her in a sort of, “tongue-in-cheek” way to see if she will persist in her request. That really isn’t Jesus’ style either and would be about the only place in scripture that he does this. Jesus is pretty up front with his folks – he lays it out there like it is, and rarely if ever says something just to provoke them and see how they will react.
Some Biblical scholars say that it is a legitimate argument that he is having with her. After all, he does call Peter, “Satan” when he disputes Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death; and he does call Herod a fox. Maybe Jesus is making a point when he likens her to a dog that begs for scraps at a table. If this is so, what is the point?

Jesus is, I think, very uncomfortable here with this conversation with this woman. She is not like him, and she is not like the people that he is used to being around. One might say that she intimidates him by her appearance and customs. Certainly Jesus is God’s son, but he is human as well with human emotions like grief and anger and happiness. He reacts with words and deeds like most of us would if we were in a strange place approached by a strange person who persistently asks us for something. He is in a foreign land, confronted by someone who is “other” than he is. Not only that, she is tenaciously persistent in her request; she won’t let him alone! She just keeps on begging him to heal her daughter.
As pastor here on North High Street, I am often confronted by people who are, “other” than I am. I can confess to you that I am made uncomfortable when someone comes here asking, sometimes begging, for something. It also reminds me of our second lesson from James when he talks about giving preferential treatment in church gatherings to the rich. “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there” or “sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” I am convicted by these words, just as I would guess you are as well!
Many times because of where our church building is located, we have visitors to our worship services. Sometimes they are dressed well, showered, clean and come in to join the worship. When I see them, I wonder what their background is, but it is always because I anticipate talking with them about their church life and the possibility of joining us more often for worship and other activities. But because of the glass wall that divides our sanctuary from the gathering area, I also see many people come off the streets during worship. Usually they do not want to come into the sanctuary because they are self-conscious or for some other reason. When I see them, I always wonder what it is that they are going to ask for. They are like the Syrophoenician woman was to Jesus – different in so many ways, often persistent in what they ask for. And yet – as Jesus himself was reminded – it is as much their time to receive our time and attention as anyone who might feel comfortable enough to come in and join us for worship.

As Christian people, we have heard God’s word to welcome people who are different from us, but often that is such an abstract idea that when that person steps into our presence, we forget that call immediately. In this Gospel reading, I see how evident it is that God works through those who are different from us to change us – to make us grow as people of faith. James claimed that God chose the poor in the world to be rich in faith, and we certainly need faith-rich people to influence our lives!
Last October I found myself in a very different place when I traveled to Brazil with the group from our synod. For most of the trip I was with a large group, but the day of my departure the rest of them had an earlier flight than I did. I was by myself for about 6 hours before I had to head to the airport. Fortunately with the help of Google translate on my phone and some very friendly folks in Vittoria, Brazil, I was able to change some money, walk to a mall, do some shopping, make it back and catch an Uber to the airport … then I was able to navigate the airport, which was probably the most difficult part of it!!
We have all been in the situation where we felt like a foreigner – maybe it was going to a new school or with a new job; maybe on a blind date or meeting new friends. Maybe moving to a new city, or just travelling somewhere with a different language and culture. Or maybe it was when you ventured into a church to ask for help, or to join them in worship. Putting ourselves into the shoes of other people is tough to do – it was even uncomfortable to Jesus to do! But our call is to share the same care, concern and love for those who may be different from us as we do for our very own families – biological, church or whatever kinds of families we belong to. May we all share the same love with those who we would want to love us if we were in their shoes. Amen!