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“Be Opened”: Sermon 9/9/2018

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Pastor Debbie Spangler

Sermon Text: Mark 7: 24-37

I opened last week’s sermon with quotations and I’m going to do the same this week as well:
• “If you don’t go through life with an open mind, you will find a lot of closed doors.”
• “It’s a new day: Be open enough to see opportunities, Be wise enough to be grateful, Be courageous enough to be happy.”
• “I believe if you keep your faith, you keep your trust, you keep the right attitude, if you’re grateful, you’ll see God open up new doors.”  Joel Osteen
• “Each day holds a surprise. But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us. Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy it will open a new place  in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.”  Henri Nouwen
Keeping in mind our theme of “being opened”, let’s look at these two stories about Jesus---with an open mind.

In the first story, Jesus has traveled to the regions of Tyre to get away from the crowds. Why, we are not told. He might want to teach his disciples in private---but they do not appear in this scene. He might want to retreat from opponents of his ministry or he might simply want to rest. One thing is certain-- Jesus’ presence can no longer remain secret for long as his fame has preceded him everywhere, even into this predominately Gentile region.
Now when word leaks out that he is in the vicinity, a woman whose daughter is a victim of an unclean spirit immediately begins to hunt for him to ask his help. The woman is a Greek and a Syrophoenician. Commentaries describe this to mean that she was a Gentile pagan. She comes from a city that the Old Testament deemed to be a wealthy and godless oppressor of Israel. Most Jews in the first century shared the prejudice that Gentiles defiled simply by their touch. Gentiles were impure simply because they were Gentiles.

The resulting dialogue between Jesus and his Gentile petitioner offers many surprises. First, Jesus dismisses her appeal with a sharp insult: “First let the children eat all they want…” The word “first” does imply that Gentiles have some ray of hope, but for the time being, this woman must wait her turn. Jesus asserts the same priority of Israel that Paul did when Paul said: “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” in Romans 1 and 2.

The second surprise is that the woman is not willing to be put-off by this less-than-genial response to her request. She accepts the premise that the children are to be fed first before the dogs get anything. She responds quickly: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table will eat the children’s crumbs.” This woman is quite intelligent. She has understood Jesus’ riddle. She knows that the “children” represent Israel and the “dogs” represent the Gentiles. Israel understood itself to be the “children of God.” The implied insult does not deter her. She accepts the role of “dog” and comes begging for food. She disputes the stress on “first” in the riddle. She reasons that the dogs’ master does not snatch food from the children’s mouth to feed the dogs some food. The little crumbs fall from the table as the children messily eat their food. She is not asking for a meal, only for the crumbs that fall. She understands more about the “bread” than even Jesus’ disciples do. The disciples have witnessed Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 and soon will witness Jesus feeding the 4,000, but still they do not understand. This woman, having witnessed neither feeding miracle, begs to be fed the bread crumbs that fall from the diner’s laps. She is willing to humble herself, become as a dog, to save her little child with just a crumb---and her child is set free from demons.

This willingness to humble oneself is a key requirement for discipleship and something the disciples of Jesus have trouble learning. They have trouble receiving the kingdom of God as “little children”. She has no qualms receiving the kingdom as a dog. She will gobble down whatever crumbs are given. When Jesus tells her that her daughter is demon-free, she does not insist that he return with her to her home to be “double-sure”. Instead she goes home in faith just as she came in faith that Jesus could help her.

Commentators speculate that prejudice was at work in this passage. Prejudice against others is a form of egoism. The woman shows great humility when she begs for a few crumbs from the bread sent to the Jews. She does not become bitter about the privilege of others. She accepts her place and comes, as everyone should, as a sinner, poor and needy. Dwight Moody is reported to have said that Jesus turned no one away empty except those who were full of themselves. She may have been a Gentile idolater but she did not suffer from I-dolatry.

Bernard of Clairvaux said: “It is only when humility warrants it that great grace can be obtained…and so when you perceive that you are being humiliated, look on it as the sign of a sure guarantee that grace is on the way. Just as the heart is puffed up with pride before its destruction, so it is humiliated before being honored. It is the possession of a joyful and genuine humility that alone enables us to receive grace.”

This humble woman does not abase herself so that she becomes a doormat. She aggressively seeks out help and will not turn away. She is like the men who dig through the roof to lower their friend to Jesus. She is like the woman who relentlessly pushes her way through the crowd to touch his garment. She is like the widow who knew no shame and screamed out daily in the court of the wicked judge for justice. She will not be put off. Pride stiffens the knees so that they will not bow down and muzzles our voice so that we do not call out in humble supplication. 

Ah, have we had our eyes and ears and hearts opened yet this morning? Next, the Gentile crowd brings a deaf and mute man to Jesus to place his hand on him. Jesus does not want his healing activity to become a spectator sport and ushers the man away from the crowd.

In healing the deaf man, Jesus uses a series of actions: he puts his fingers in the man’s ears (symbolic of opening them). Next he spits and touches his tongue (symbolic of loosening his tongue). Then he looks up to heaven---the source of his power (we have heard of this before---before feeding the 5,000/before breaking of the bread in Emmaus and at the Last Supper) and sighs deeply (a gesture of prayer). He says: “Ephphatha” meaning “be opened”. Immediately, the man’s ears are opened and his tongue is loosened.

Today, people might find Jesus’ method of healing bizarre and hard to explain. Healing in the ancient world was a “hands-on” activity. In our day, we anticipate that doctors will follow certain procedures and use certain devices. When doctors deviate from our expectations, we become suspicious and question whether our visit was worth the time and the money. We would not be so “put-off” if Jesus had used an otoscope and a tongue depressor, things we are accustomed to seeing a doctor use. Jesus cannot speak to the man because he cannot hear, so he acts out what he intends to do for the man.

There is also the healing of the blind man recorded in Mark 8 and there are similarities between the two healings: people bring the afflicted person to Jesus for healing, Jesus does the healing apart from the crowd, and Jesus uses his spittle. Both miracles occur in stages:  with the deaf and mute man—first the ears and then the tongue; with the blind man---first partial sight and then full vision. The crowd is excited by the physical healings.

But spiritual healing is more difficult and more needed. Like the mute man, the disciples’ tongues are tied through fear, or when they are loosened, they say all the wrong things. Jesus has taught the people many things and he constantly exhorts them to “hear”. But the disciples have failed to hear without understanding. First he will open their ears to hear what God is saying. Then he will loosen their tongues so that they can speak what God would have them say.

This is where we are today. Sometimes, in order to hear we need to listen. Sometimes, in order to speak we need to think first. Look at what is happening in your own household---where do you need to listen and when do you need to speak?  The same thing applies to your workplace, your church, your community and country. We are bombarded by speech and sound all day long. Do we speak to make ourselves heard or do we listen to make the other feel loved? Are we silent when we should be speaking up? Are there things happening in the community or world today that should be addressed through the wise use of the tongue? Are we listening to the current news with ears sharpened to hear God’s Word not the world’s word. Are our eyes opened to perceive God’s truth? May our minds be opened this day, O Lord!