Minister's Sermon - Sunday 9th September 2018
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSunday 9th September 2018

Isaiah 35:4-7a

Mark 7.24-37

What I want to say today is “Effatha.”  Be opened. Open up. The word in the Gospel reading echoes the words of our readings from the Hebrew scriptures. From the prophet Isaiah we hear that, “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” And if we’d read the psalm, we’d have heard the Psalmist praising God who gives justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, and “opens the eyes of the blind.” (146.8) That “be opened” is why I choose the song we sang before the children went out and the hymn will sing after the sermon. The surprising thing in today’s readings, is that it also applies to Jesus, whose mind and heart and eyes had to be opened and his ears unstopped before he could heal the man they brought to him in the region of the Ten Towns, also called the Decapolis. And this happens in his encounter with woman from the region of Phoenicia in Syria. As through it, Jesus is invited to face his own blind spot and prejudice, and allow himself to “be opened” to the full, yet uncomfortable implications of the gospel.

Jesus wanted to be on his own. He “went away to the region of Tyre. He… did not want anyone to know he was there.” We can sympathise with him. He’d tried to escape up a mountain and the crowds had followed him, and the same happens here, when he desperately needs rest and peace and quiet. But the woman isn’t giving up. His reputation precedes him. And she believes he can heal her daughter. So, she falls at his feet, and begs him to drive the demon out. His response is shocking. “Let us first feed the children. It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This isn’t how we expect him to respond, so, we try to justify it. There are many possibilities, but here, are three of them. One, is that he’s simply describing what he believes, that the healing he offers is for the children of Israel first.  Another, is that he’s commenting on the economic relationship between the Jews living in the outlying regions of Galilee, and the Gentiles living in the coastal cities. Food grown by the Jews in the outlying areas was exported through the cities on the coast, and when there was a shortage they often went hungry, while the Syrophoenicians – the Syrian Phoenicians - living on the coast were fed. So, when he says it’s not fair to “take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he could be talking about unjust economics. But even if this is the case, it doesn’t explain his hostility, or his rudeness. So, a third possibility is that his abusive comment was in fact, a term of endearment. Some argue that the word he uses for “dog” is a diminutive and means “puppy” or “pet dog.” Diminutives can be used to express affection. In Swiss German it’s common. Verena, becomes Vreni and Michelle (one of Daniel’s granddaughters) is known as Migeli. And some women experience it as a put down. But here, the Greek word Jesus uses isn’t a diminutive. There’s no getting around it. He insults her. If we dismiss these possibilities we’re left with a possibility that will seem impossible to some. That the woman won the argument, and recognising that she had, Jesus graciously heals her daughter. But I think there’s more to it than this. Much more. And that more goes something like this.

This woman, a woman at the end of end of her tether with a sick child, refuses to accept the way Jesus sees here. Her refusal challenges him about his deafness and his blind spot. And teaches him something new. Her response to Jesus’ insult is clever. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s leftovers.” But it’s more than clever, because it cuts to the heart of what Debie Thomas calls “Jesus’ boundary-breaking, taboo-busting, division-destroying ministry of table fellowship.” He is, after all, the Rabbi who eats with tax collectors and prostitutes, who breaks bread with sinners, whose disciples earn the Pharisees’ contempt for eating with unwashed hands.  It’s through table fellowship that Jesus has shown who God is. It’s how he’s challenged the religious authorities and their traditions and welcomed outsiders. So, now this woman calls him out, asking “Where’s my place at the table?  If you are, who you say you are, how can you allow anyone to go hungry near your table?  … Expand the circle.  Dissolve the boundaries.  Widen the table.” Include me in. Include my daughter in. Include us in. When Jesus speaks he says that this woman, a Gentile, an outsider, outcast, the “other,” has taught him about his Gospel. The Greek says, “Because of your “logos”, your “word” the demon has gone out of your daughter.” In the eyes of the religious authorities, as a woman, a Gentile and a mother of a sick child, she’s unclean. As a person who comes from the richer coastal region she’s rich and well fed. But when she points out that his ears have been blocked, and that he has a blind spot, he listens and changes his mind. And having had his ears unblocked, his eyes opened and his heart and mind changed, he does something he hadn’t done before. When he meets a deaf, Gentile man with a speech impediment, he heals him as well. He has been changed. “He allows himself to be humbled, rearranged, and remade.” (1) Barbara Brown Taylor describes the moment like this. “You can almost hear the huge wheel of history turning as Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what he has been called to do.”  The Syrophoenician woman’s faith and persistence teach him that God’s purpose for him “is bigger than he had imagined, that there is enough of him to go around.” (2)

Before I continue with the story, I want to go back to Jesus’ initial response, to her. When she arrived, he’d withdrawn into a house, hidden. He didn’t want anyone to know he was there because he was tired. Tiredness is often accompanied by fear. By the fear of scarcity. Of having too few resources to cope with other people. When we’re tired, our natural response is to draw in to ourselves, to avoid engaging with people. We do it because we’re afraid that other people’s demands will overwhelm us. After an operation in 2013, I was left with chronic fatigue, and struggled with it for some years. I manage it well now, but know that tiredness brings a sense of scarcity, and doesn’t only affect what we can do. It confines. It limits. And it affects the way we think about and see others. I found this frightening at first. Ministers are supposed to be open and available. And I wondered if it was possible to continue, but with the support of Occupational and Physio therapists, I learnt that it is a normal response. Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures reinforces what they taught me. Different translations offer us different beginnings. The Good News translation says “Tell everyone who is discouraged…” While the New Revised Standard Version’s is “Say to those who are of a fearful heart…” A more literal translation of the Hebrew, is, tell the “ones whose hearts are racing.” When our hearts race, adrenaline rushes through the bloodstream, stimulating our muscles and blood-flow. It causes our senses to close in and our field of vision to narrow. Our bodies are designed to respond to stress in this way. ‘Though our individual responses will be different and vary according to the circumstances. Sometimes we stay and fight. Sometimes we run. Sometimes we’re frozen to the spot like a rabbit in headlights. But our bodies only have these limited ways for dealing with racing hearts. And a response that in extreme danger may help save our lives, translate in our very different 21st century circumstances, to antagonism, avoidance, or exhaustion. Then, there is a very real risk, that our fear will harden into prejudice. As it could have done, had Jesus not been prepared to learn, from the Syrophoenician woman.

Earlier this week Reuters news Agency reported that two journalists – Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo - have been sentenced to seven years in prison. They were arrested in December as they investigated the deaths of ten Rohingya Muslims at the hands of soldiers and Buddhist villagers in Inn Din. This comes after the damning UN report condemning Myanmar’s army for its treatment of the Rohingya, which it says, amounted to ethnic cleansing and led to more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh. Gross human rights abuses have been committed. I believe that Myanmar is affected by a deadly combination of prejudice and fear. On Sunday though, dozens of journalists and activists marched in Yangon, in support of the men. And as Wa Lone was led away in handcuffs he said, “I have no fear. I have not done anything wrong … I believe in justice, democracy and freedom.”

This week Nike launched, what they say will be their first, “Just do it” ad. It’s narrated by Colin Kaepernick. A controversial choice, because he led the protest against racial inequality and police brutality, in which players knelt during the national anthem rather than stand at National Football League games. The protest attracted widespread condemnation, and after the President waded in, team owners insisted on players standing and refused to sign Kaepernick. This new advert features a black and white close-up of his face overlaid with the caption: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” It’s reignited the controversy and there have been a variety of responses. Nike’s share price has fallen, and hash tags JustBurnIt and BoycottNike, have encouraged people to burn their trainers. While John Brennan, a former CIA director, tweeted his support, calling Kaepernick a successful social justice campaigner. He “drew our collective attention to the problem of continued racial injustice in America. He did so not to disrespect our flag but to give meaning to the words of the preamble of our constitution – ‘in order to form a more perfect union’. Well done, Colin.” (3)

An opportunity to practice what he’d learnt, presented itself to Jesus, almost immediately. “When he left the neighbourhood of Tyre, he went through Sidon to Lake Galilee, going by way of the territory of the Ten Towns.” The territory of the Decapolis is also Gentile territory. And when some people brought him a man who was deaf, whose speech was affected by his lack of hearing, he heals him. Jesus uses the word “Ephphatha,” “be opened,” echoing what his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman achieved in him. An encounter that seems to have imbued something new, something crazy, in him. For it’s almost as if the Nike advert was written for her. “If people say our dreams are crazy. If they laugh at what you think you can do. Good, because calling a dream crazy isn’t an insult, it’s a complement… Don’t become the best… Be bigger… Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything… So, don’t ask if your dreams are crazy, ask if they’re crazy enough.” (4) The Syrophoenician woman’s request was crazy. She was asking a Jew to step out of his religious tradition, break down a boundary, and ignore his people’s prejudice about her people. For us, it’s strange to think he wouldn’t, but for him it meant sacrificing his understanding of who he’d come for. Jesus’ initial response to her, might remind us how our own inclinations, can restrict God’s intention that all should experience fullness of life. And in his resistance to her pleas for her daughter’s life, we might see our own reluctance to go as far as God is willing to go so that all have life. In her weekly lectionary blog, Karoline Lewis says that today’s Gospel is, “a rare moment when we glimpse how much beyond our comprehension God really is and how much beyond our imagination God’s love extends. And in that same moment, we perceive how easy it is to give in to this world’s estimations of God, this world’s propensity to limit what God can do. How quickly we retreat from zealous proclamation and settle for lukewarm confession. How often we shrink in fear from the bold belief, ‘Here is your God.’”

Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo and Colin Kaepernick get it. The crazy dream that the Rohingya Muslims and black people in the US deserve justice led them to sacrifice their freedom and their jobs. But what about us? What is the crazy dream that energises us? How will we respond when our hearts are racing, when we’re afraid, when we’re discouraged? Will we be tempted to close in on ourselves, restricting our sight, and limiting our hearing? To turn our backs on the things that concern other people, other communities, other nations? To confine our resources – our energy, money, buildings, people, time – to people like us? To limit our imagination to what we know? To disregard other people’s crazy dreams and visions? To refuse the generosity that God has shown us? I don’t yet know you, this church or circuit well enough yet, to know where your blind spots and blocked up ears are. And you don’t know me well enough to know mine. But we’ll have them. We all do. And all of have moments when our fear, particularly our fear of scarcity, turns into prejudice against others – particularly outsiders. But we do not need to fear. We do not need to be discouraged. God saves us from our fear. And gives us the courage shown by the Syrophoenician woman, and by Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo and Colin Kaepernick. All we need do is be open. Be opened. “Effatha.”  Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

Quoted in Debie Thomas’ lectionary essay

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