Aa sermon based on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and Mark 7:24-37 preached on September 6th, 2015
The gospel according to Mark is messy. It’s a whirlwind of a story, moving at lightning speed from beginning to end. Mark must have been the guy who couldn’t sit still in class, the one always wiggling his feet whenever he was forced to stay in one place. Mark’s gospel paints Jesus in the same way. He has Jesus dashing from one place to another—never able, or sometimes not wanting, to rest. If you read Mark’s gospel from beginning to end all in one sitting, his stories about Jesus will leave you breathless in more ways than one.
Mark’s gospel is messy in another way. He paints Jesus as a messy character, angering all the prim and proper folks around him with one social faux pas after another. Jesus always pushes against the boundaries of all that’s normative and socially acceptable.
There’s a 17th century painting by artist Johann Melchior Georg Schmittdner hanging in the Church of St. Peter in Augsburg, Germany called
The Virgin Mary, Untier of Knots. This is real.
In the painting, people are stooping down to her, bringing to her all their knots. Mary stands there in the middle of the painting in flowing robes, her hands busy taking all the knots they hand her and patiently untying them, one by one.
I wonder what you’d hand over to the Virgin Mary, Untier of Knots? There’s knots of every sort: knots of deep hurt inside of families, the absence of peace and joy in the home. There are the knots of substance abuse, sickness, depression, anxiety, unemployment, fear, solitude. Who doesn’t have knots that need untying? We lead messy lives. Imagine what a knot-free life would be like!
The good news is we have a God who not only knows that, but enters into our mess—even jumps into it and gets messy with us!
There’s no way around talking about how rude Jesus is to the woman in the first part of our story today. Jesus is just trying to get away—to get a little bit of a vacation. He walks out of town—out into the region of Tyre, and the poor guy just wants to take off his sandals, dip his feet into the water, and relax a bit. But even out there, folks know who he is, and right away he’s approached by a mother whose daughter needs healing, and then by a man who was both deaf and mute.
We’re gonna look at the second one of these first.
Mom’s all around the world seem to know that saliva has healing properties, don’t they? All of us know this move: <lick thumb, scrub your cheek, wince>
Well, back in Jesus’ day it was thought that saliva did indeed have healing properties, but it was still a little gross.
And here it is: Mark’s messy Jesus doing it again, spitting in his hands, and touching the man’s tongue. But that was only after sticking his fingers in the man’s ears first! What a way to heal anyone! You don’t see that method of healing used much these days. And what about the part where Jesus takes this deaf and mute man away from the crowds and offers him private healing?! These days, all the folks who say they can perform spiritual healings love to do so with 100’s or even millions watching. We’re used to show-boat pastors gloating in their ability to heal, who think that if a healing can’t be done in front of witnesses, it’s not worth doing at all. Jesus takes this man aside—just the two of them—away from the crowds around them. Jesus heals for no other reason than to make others well. Jesus’s emphasis is always on identifying with us, seeing us for who we are, focusing on our uniqueness, and offering us the healing we need.
That strange word in our story is Ephphatha. It’s a command. It means open up or be opened. Jesus plugs this man’s ears with his fingers, and touches his tongue, and commands that his senses be opened, unplugged—that his tongue would be untwisted so that he could speak. Open up means “to make free.” Ephphatha is a deaf-stopping, tongue-loosening word. Jesus is here to unclog everything that stands in the way of us proclaiming the goodness of God, and the goodness of our God-given lives, to others. In short, the word Ephphatha summarizes Christ’s entire mission, back then as well as today: He came so that we may hear and know the voice of God, that we might see him standing right in front of us wherever we go, and that all may recognize him—that we might use our untwisted tongues to give him praise, so that we might let our lives speak, sharing the Good News of all that he has done for us. So that we might use our unstopped ears to listen for his voice, because he still speaks today.
Jesus says to us.
Let’s go back to the first story. Jesus is more than unkind to this grieving woman. He snaps at her, calls her a name, and tries his best to dismiss her. This woman is the only person in any of the gospel accounts to get into an argument with Jesus and win. She comes to Jesus knowing what she needs him to do, and she refuses his refusal. She talks back in the same smart allecky way Jesus talks to her with, and she gains Jesus’ attention and respect. So, you have to wonder who was changed in this first story. Yes, the woman’s daughter was changed—healed from the demon that plagued her, but who else? Wasn’t it Jesus who was also changed here?
We like to think of God as immutable, unchangeable—the same in the present as in the past. Aside from the gospels, pretty much all the rest of the New Testament can be summarized by saying,
God’s love is bigger than we first could even expect or imagine.
From Acts to Paul’s letters, there are Jewish Christians everywhere who realize that God’s promises extend to the gentiles as well as they do to the Jews. Hearts and minds are changed over and over again. What about here? Could it be that Jesus’ encounter with this Syrophoenician woman was the moment when Jesus realized that God’s love was big enough for everyone—that it wasn’t only for Israelites—the children who Jesus says need to be fed first? Could this woman’s quick-witted response have convinced Jesus that God’s banquet table is big enough to feed us all?
The heart that’s changed the most in this story is the one beating in Jesus’ chest, and if we read on in Mark’s gospel, it becomes clear that this encounter gave Jesus a broader mission, and a bigger vision. Jesus was Ephphatha’d here—opened up to see and hear more.
God is not unchanged or unresponsive to us, but is compassionate and merciful. Over and over again in scripture, we see God hearing the prayers of his people and having a change of heart.
Notice the crowd was opened up too. Jesus was still trying to fly under the radar screen, trying to keep is divine identity and power a secret. Jesus asked the crowd to keep it all shut up tight, but it didn’t work. Just as the man’s tongue was untwisted, so too were the tongues of every witness among them. And the more Jesus told them to shut it, the louder it flew out of their mouths. There’s just no keeping quiet all the ways that Jesus comes to make us well. When we experience God’s power in our lives, our hearts unravel—and so do our tongues! How could we ever keep from singing!
So, what among us needs Ephphtha’ing? What in our lives needs opening? Do our doors need to be opened wider so that we might invite in the stranger among us, the Greek Syrophoenicians of our day?
Could we be more patient when we hear stories from those we do not know about what’s going wrong in their lives? Could we stand with them and help them untwist their tongues, and help them gain their voice as they tell us about their lives? How can our space here at church be made more hospitable to folks in our community? How can our lips open up to speak kind words to others? God wants them opened up!
How about our eyes? What does God keep shoving into our line of vision that we would rather not see or deal with?
And our ears? Do we think about our own deafness—all that we close our ears to, to keep from hearing? God wants them opened up!
How can our hearts be Ephphatha’d? Can they be freed enough from fear and suspicion to be extended out to another—pulled apart, loosened and stretched, to share and show God’s grace and mercy in large and small ways? Yes, they can. Jesus is the One who can do that—all of it, a sort of healing.
May we open our lips to speak. May we open our eyes to see. May we open our ears to hear. May we open our hearts to feel. And then, may we open our lips, again, to praise!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!