A sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 9, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
Looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”
The Gospel of Mark begins in Judea, at the Jordan where John the Baptist baptizes Jesus. Then Jesus appears in his home province of Galilee, where he heals and teaches. Up until today’s lesson, all the action of the Gospel takes place in Galilee, mostly traveling around and across the large lake on its eastern side that is known as the Sea of Galilee.
Today’s lesson is the first time when Jesus is outside of predominantly Jewish territory. He had been having a controversy with other religious leaders, the one we heard about last week. He went northwest to the coast, to an area that is now Lebanon, to a gentile city named Tyre. It says that Jesus didn’t want anyone to notice he was there. None of his friends or disciples are mentioned on this journey, so Jesus is alone in a foreign culture. It says, “he could not escape notice.”
I imagine him there, trying to blend in and look like everyone else in the area. That’s kind of hard to do when you’re out of place, among foreigners. But he WAS noticed. And it’s kind of odd. He had been getting quite a bit of attention in Galilee, among the Jews, but the issues there were of concern to the Jews, not the gentiles over on the coast. He was there, taking time for quiet, a breather, letting things cool down. And the person who noticed him didn’t notice his unusual clothing, or his accent. Nothing outward. She was desperate to have her daughter healed from a distressing condition—she came to Jesus to have the demon cast out. How did she know that Jesus was an exorcist and a healer? We don’t know. She saw him, she knew him, she begged him for the sake of her daughter to cast out the demon.
Jesus’ response surprises and puzzles us: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He’s focusing on his people, the Jews, whose country he has just left to take a break from controversy. When you’re in the middle of a a serious controversy you remain focused on what’s involved with that. Jesus loved his people, sought healing for them, honesty in how they lived their lives, devotion to God that was not self-serving. This was not abstract philosophy, but really touching people and healing them, and feeding people with real bread. And his context was the Jewish people of Galilee—and he was being attacked for it, among those he loved and healed.
So here he is away from that, getting rest, getting clarity. He’s gone outside the situation to get some perspective, and a gentile woman, who is not involved in the controversy with Jesus’ own people comes to him. Jesus responds, “First take care of the children”—surely, they still needed a lot of attention and healing. His work with them was not finished yet.
The woman, however, was focused on something else, her daughter, so she didn’t give up, she responded, bravely, directly, extending Jesus’ metaphor: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus listened. This also was practical healing, what was asked was not about Jesus’ preoccupation with the controversies in Galilee over the people he loved there— “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
Then Jesus leaves Tyre. The route that is described is circuitous. He goes north through Sidon and then loops back into the country on the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee than his own country, the Decapolis or “Ten Towns” which were a primarily gentile area. There he encounters a man who is deaf and can’t speak clearly. Once again, Jesus doesn’t want to be noticed, he takes the man aside in private. He reaches out, touches the man’s ears, his tongue and says, “Ephphatha.” The Gospel explains this word, because it is Aramaic, not the Greek of the Gospel. Aramaic was the language of the whole region of greater Syria. It was spoken among the Jews of Galilee, but it was also the language of the gentiles of this area. To this gentile man, he said, “Be opened.”
We take the healing of this deaf man and the exorcism of the girl with a demon as literal healings, and we should. But notice, in this journey Jesus is bringing healing to people outside his home country and people, even though he is not drawing attention either to himself or to these healings. Jesus is heading home, yet these people out in the world beg him for healing, and he heals. When he says to the man, “be opened,” it is not just that the man can hear; the man speaks clearly; he opens up and starts to tell about what Jesus has done. Though Jesus tried to get them to stay quiet, the man and his friends kept announcing the good news. Jesus compassion and his healing power were spreading into the world in spite of any effort to limit it.
The church is a community of healing. It has been created by the outpouring of Jesus’ compassion and his healing power. But that healing power is not something we own, and living in Jesus’ love isn’t something that is contained within the bounds of the community. We gather together to tell about Jesus’ healing—how he casts out demons of fear, delusion, rage and distrust; how he makes us able to hear, to really hear and not be deluded by the noise of our desires that distorts and blocks our ability to listen to the simple truth of God’s love.
We gather on this Rally Sunday, to start a journey of a new program year, a new school year. We will learn together and share fellowship together and pray and be healed together. But the real point of doing this is beyond this gathering—where we encounter those in the world who may be suffering, in need of healing, acceptance or in need of the clear voice of unaffected love. We are gathered to follow Jesus’ call, to be his love in this world, to listen to those outside. It is we who should trust in God, trust God to be healing, without our telling God or others how to do it. It is God that heals, and God uses our ears to listen and our presence to show his compassion.
From our lesson from Proverbs:
The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all. Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.