"WHOLENESS" - Psalm 124; Mark 7: 24-37

A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Texts: Psalm 124; Mark 7:24-37


            Contemporary writer, speaker, and preacher, Rob Bell reminds us about the best question we should ask when reading the Bible. What is the best question to ask when reading the Bible? It is this: “Why did people find this important to write down and preserve?”

            Think about that question as I read this story from Mark 7. This is probably not a lesson you remember from Sunday School:

24From there he (Jesus) 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, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He 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.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he (Jesus) returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

            This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            There are several things to note about this passage.

            First, the passage wakes us up to the geography of the region. When we have a sense of the places and movement of this passage, the people and the regions, the message sinks in much deeper. The passage says “Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.” That sounds like Jesus is just on the move again, but this is major trip! We mostly have stories of Jesus teaching and healing around Galilee – staying within a few miles of the large lake in the northern part of Israel. But Tyre is on the Mediterranean Sea – more than 30 miles from Galilee, and he does not have a car, or a chariot, or UBER. J

Moreover, Tyre was a Greek city, and the Greeks called it “Phoenicia,” from their word for “purple.” Along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea around Tyre, was a shellfish, from which purple dye was extracted, which became a precious commodity shipped by the Greeks all around the world.

Jesus goes to Tyre, this port city – “Phoenicia” - basically to a foreign country; and Jesus encounters a Syrophoenician woman. The woman is a Gentile, not Jewish. It is kind of superfluous, redundant, to even mention this – any woman in Tyre would be Syrophoenician.

Staying with geography for a moment, it says Jesus returned from the region of Tyre, to Galilee by way of Sidon. Sidon is also on the coast, 20 miles further north. If you are going to Galilee, by way of Sidon, it is like going to New Jersey in order to get to North Carolina. Some truckers might go that way in order to drop off a load (they get paid by miles!), but most of us would not go to Sidon in order to get back to Galilee. There is something going on here – Jesus is broadening his reach, expanding his circle. There is a subtle message here: God is at work beyond the local, beyond the Jews, beyond the familiar. Hold that thought.

Second, this is not just about geography; there are some troubling happenings in this passage. A sincere Syrophoenician woman seeks help from Jesus. At first Jesus ignores her. He has come to the region to get away, it seems, from the crowds. Yet he could not escape notice. Even Syrophoenician women have learned about Jesus and his amazing ways. This particular one pursues Jesus in the house as he seeks rest.

The dialogue between Jesus and this Syrophoenician woman creates some of the most eye-brow-raising scenes that we may have. Is Jesus even sensitive? Is Jesus a racist? Is the Savoir of the world really talking with such disdain and condescension? This seems troubling, especially in the face of the woman’s suffering. Troubling.

Maybe it is similar to the recent news of Colin Kaepernick and NIKE. Kaepernick, you probably know, has become the face of those in the NFL kneeling during the national anthem. In fact, Kaepernick – once a Super Bowl quarterback – is not even now on any NFL team (that’s another story); but he emerges this week as the face of NIKE in some new advertisements. Is it troubling? . . . Or is there a larger message?

Here is the truth – like the passage – when it looks troubling, something important IS going on: we know we have to pay attention. And we might be careful and cautious before jumping to conclusions.

            Let’s look more closely at the dialogue in this passage from Mark.

            The Syrophoenician woman comes to Jesus and bows down at Jesus’ feet. That is not to be missed. She does not force herself on Jesus, she submits to Jesus. She does not just cry out in desperation, she bows at Jesus’ feet. Then she begs him to cast out the demon from her daughter.

            She is a woman. Jesus is a man. Even today in the Middle East, in conservative areas, men and women do not talk to strangers across the gender boundaries. Jesus is also a rabbi – and in public, rabbis did not talk to female members of their own families. Further, the woman is a Gentile seeking a favor from a Jew. Somewhere along the way, the woman has knowledge about Jesus and his healing. She also has enough courage and commitment to reach out to Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, in hopes that his compassion can cross all traditional boundaries and heal her sick daughter.

            Jesus’ response is stunning, maybe jarring. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 

            In one sentence, he relates several things. As a rabbi, he should not be responding to a woman in a public setting; that would be too controversial. As a Jew, he was uncomfortable talking to a Gentile. And with a clear sense of his mission – to the house of Israel, to alert the Jews and lead them toward the reign of God – Jesus had a certain, limited perspective of his calling and his ministry. Then, as a human being, he shows how very easy it is to say things that are hurtful and unnecessary – “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He calls her a “dog.”

            Even the best person in the world can say hurtful and harsh things. That does not give us permission to be condescending and hurtful. It intends to get our attention so we do not miss what follows.

            Would the woman take the hint and go away, especially since all Jesus really wants is some time away in the house in Tyre? Could she be dismissed so easily?

            I am sure there was a pregnant pause in that house that day. . . . “But sir  (she remains so respectful!), . . . even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

            Don’t you wish you could be so quick, . . .  so thoughtful, . . . . so Spirit-filled . . . in responding to certain comments at certain times?!

            Her response is both moving and magnificent. With the sobbing screams of her daughter ringing in her ears, . . . with courage and persistence, . .  she simply reminds Jesus of the larger truth. Even the dogs get the crumbs. Even the Gentiles are in need and receptive of God’s abiding love. Even those in Syrophoenicia and Tyre are seeking WHOLENESS.

            “For saying that,” Jesus says, “the demon has left your daughter.”

            Can you see why people found this passage meaningful? Can you see why this story is preserved?

            Even Jesus – as fully human – can make racist and condescending comments. Even Jesus needs to be reminded sometimes about the expansive love and WHOLENESS of God. God’s steadfast love, God’s abiding care, are for all people everywhere. We have to always keep this in mind – because all of us – even Jesus – can shrink our hearts and assume that God’s plans only include our region, our kind of people, our country, our heritage, our needs, our timing. God’s plans, God’s love, God’s purposes for healing and WHOLENESS are for everyone and forever.

            Can you see why people found this passage meaningful? The expansive love and plans of God are always bigger, more bountiful that we can ever imagine. Prejudice, barriers, boundaries, insults – this story is remembered because healing, compassion, and WHOLENESS carry the day. And we have to keep learning this.

            We live in a world of continuing prejudice, barriers, boundaries, and insults. What does God expect from us as we seek WHOLENESS? It is compassion, kindness, concern for justice, openness to God – that is the way to WHOLENESS.

            The passage continues with another healing story. This is the last in a sequence of miracle stories concerned with the question of “who is this Jesus.” This second miracle story is more expansive than the first one – there are lots of details about how the miracle happened. People, “they,” a group of people, brought a deaf man to Jesus and laid the man at Jesus’ feet. That is a miracle in itself – people caring so much about one man that they bring him to Jesus for healing. And he is not just deaf, he has a speech impediment – so “deaf-mute” is the term – he cannot hear and he cannot speak. That is pretty bad, as we know.

            In this miracle and healing, there is no debate about who can talk to whom, or who is deserving of healing, or worries about boundaries, or any of that. Jesus takes the man aside and gets quite personal, quite intimate. There are fingers in ears, spitting and touching the tongue with saliva, casting eyes toward heaven, and the shouting of a word – “ephphatha.” All of this heightens the intrigue and the miraculous. The man’s ears are opened and his tongue is released and he spoke plainly! Moreover, the crowd is astonished.

            All of this is another sign that the Kingdom of God has come near. The reign of God – healing and WHOLENESS – hearing and speaking, release from that which holds us captive – through Jesus – is emerging in the world. The people say – “Wow! He has done everything well – the deaf hear, the mute speak!” Jesus is inaugurating the full reign of God.

            These two healing stories – appointed lectionary passages for this Sunday – seem to come at an opportune time for me and for all of us. Our community has been dealing with grief and loss, especially the loss of dynamic and capable women leaders – Dot Hart and Stacey Dendy – who leave a great void in our hearts and lives. Once again, the community has to step up, fill the void. Once again, we look to one another: who will offer fresh love, gifts, and talents as we carry on? Will you? Who?

            Listen to these words from Frederick Buechner: The world floods in on all of us. The world can be kind, and it can be cruel. It can be beautiful, and it can be appalling. It can give us good reason to hope and good reason to give up all hope. It can strengthen our faith in a loving God, and it can decimate our faith. In our lives in the world, the temptation is always to go where the world takes us, to drift with whatever current happens to be running strongest. When good things happen, we rise to heaven; when bad things happen, we descend to hell. When the world strikes out at us, we strike back, and when one way or another the world blesses us, our spirits soar. . . . . .  We are in constant danger of being not actors in the drama of our own lives but reactors. The fragmentary nature of our experience shatters us into fragments. Instead of being whole, most of the time we are in pieces, and we see the world in pieces, full of darkness at one moment and full of light the next.

It is in Jesus, of course, and in the people whose lives have been deeply touched by Jesus, and in ourselves at those moments when we also are deeply touched by him, that we see another way of being human in this world, which is the way of wholeness. . . .And God’s WHOLENESS is for sure and forever. (from Longing for Home)

God’s plans for healing and WHOLENESS are not just for some, for a certain tribe, or a certain kind of people. God’s plans for WHOLENESS are for all of us, and for everyone. We are invited to the kind of persistent and expectant faith, like the Syrophoenician woman, whose courage and conviction reminded Jesus of God’s plan – compassion and WHOLENESS are for all people everywhere. We are invited to have the faith and the courage of those who brought the deaf-mute man to Jesus. So many need the releasing, redemptive love of God to touch and heal their lives.

            Psalm 124 reminds us that the Lord is always on our side. If it had not been for the Lord, enemies would have attacked us, the flood would have swept us away, the raging waters would have covered us. “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.” 

Let us in these days, keep on – toward WHOLENESS – knowing that whether we live of whether we die, we live in God’s realm. We keep on – toward WHOLENESS – knowing that God is with us, calling us to compassion and kindness always. We keep on – toward WHOLENESS – seeking to be God’s people. As the writer Annie Dillard puts it, we cannot manage or control the light – the light that comes from God, the light that heals and gives us strength and shows us the way – we cannot manage that light of God, but we can keep getting ourselves, and getting others, in the beam of light that comes from God.

            Persistent faith – toward WHOLENESS – this is our privilege and our calling! And how much the world needs people who live by faith, who spread compassion and hope, who seek to embody the light, love, peace, courage, convictions of Jesus Christ our Lord. May it be so. AMEN.

Prayer of Commitment: Pour out your Spirit on each of us and all of us, O God, for we seek wholeness. And keep strengthening us for faith, hope, love, and life following Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on September 9, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.


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