Year B, Proper 17: "Be Opened"--Life without Boundary
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
In our gospel reading for today, we find Jesus going beyond his home turf, entering into a foreign land. God is on the move, venturing forth, migrating across human-erected boundaries. In typical Markan fashion, we get a very human portrait of Jesus—he is exhausted, and slightly frazzled from his on-going dispute with the Pharisees. He wants to slip into a house, disappear into the crowd, and just be anonymous. He wants a break. No such luck.! Instead of being able to enjoy a moment of invisibility, Jesus is immediately recognized by a gentile woman, a Syrophoenician, who pleads with him to heal her daughter.
Up until this mutually transformative encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus is under the impression that his mission is primarily to the Jews— “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” Here, “children” clearly refers to the Jews, and “dogs” refers to the Gentiles. In Jesus’ mind, at least before his transformative encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, his job is to feed the Jews first, to pay attention to the people of Israel first, and if there’s time do a little pro bono work on the side for the Hellenistic gentiles.
What happens next is one of the most amazing moments in all of scripture. In the ancient Jewish tradition of “arguing with God,”—of Moses talking God down after the incident of the Golden Calf, of Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom, of Job’s prolonged disputation with God—the Syrophoenician woman challenges Jesus and opens him up to the full scope of his mission. Where once Jesus was deaf to the cries of this foreign Gentile woman (who ignores cultural rules around gender propriety and speaks directly to Jesus), he now sees her as a beloved child of God. Where once she found herself pushed to the margins of Jewish society, a voiceless voice heard by no one, she is now listened to by Jesus, and not just listened to, but heard. Jesus’ ears are in some mysterious way unstopped, his vision somehow mysteriously widened. Who’s healing whom, I wonder?
In a way, this plucky woman’s reply is a moment of profound conversion for Jesus. Where once he saw his mission as primarily concerned with folks like himself—the Jews—Jesus now sees that his call is much bigger than that. It is not just to Israel that he is to conduct his mission to “bring good news to the poor….to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. This moment of playful banter, of gently barbed repartee between Jesus in the Syrophoenician woman actually has the effect of opening Jesus to the starling reality that in his mission there are no “insiders and outsiders,” or “Jews and Gentiles”—the Kingdom of God is an all-inclusive come-as-you-are banquet to which we are all invited: Gentiles, Jews, Children and Dogs—all are welcome at the table of divine love.
In this instant of highly-charged encounter, the walls come down, the scales fall from Jesus’ eyes, and he hears this woman for who she is—a beloved child of God beyond the label, or stereotype. The woman’s child is healed, yes, but might not Jesus himself be changed as well? In communion with the other that takes place in deep seeing and deep listening we drop our agendas, our prejudices, our self-preoccupations, our fears of people different than ourselves and are simply there for and with another. We are, by God’s grace, “opened” and relationship happens. Healing happens. God happens in a crowded, noisy, border town and we get a glimpse of what it might be to live without boundary.
The Epistle of James picks up this theme of radical, boundary-crossing inclusion as well. James reminds the nascent congregation in Alexandria that showing partiality is counter to the example we see enacted in the person and work of Jesus. The recipients of the letter are tempted to give the rich people—with their rings, robes, and finery—the best seats in the house and to make the scruffy-looking poor folks stand in the back.
James implores the congregation to “be opened” as Jesus was opened in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. James’ call is a reminder of the reality of paid pews in Virginia or the little rise we get when we find a visitor is sitting in our traditional Sunday perch. But it’s also a call to “be opened” to blind spots and habits of exclusion of which we might not even be aware. If we trust that God is present and active in our lives at all times, and that God is working in and through us to help see ourselves and others as God sees us, we can actually welcome and celebrate these blind spots coming to light not as attacks against our good name, or something to defend ourselves against, or repress, but as the gentle action of the Holy Spirit opening us, slowly but surely, to the wide, panoramic, all-inclusive love of God.
In the second part of our gospel, we see Jesus engaged in another healing miracle—an encounter with a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech. Jesus utters the Aramaic phrase “Ephphatha” and the man is healed. Coming, as it does, on the heels of his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, this healing makes a powerful statement of what it means to be a healing presence in the lives of others. It is in being opened ourselves, that we become vehicles for the opening of God’s loving presence in those whom we encounter.
It’s interesting to note that according to the strict purity codes in Leviticus, Jesus’ use of saliva to heal was just another in a long line of transgressions. I love the idea that we are healed by Jesus by means of something that is dirty, messy, unclean, and a little dangerous. Jesus’ healing touch saves us from the pristinely barren operating room sterility of our self-enclosure and infects us with openness—openness to God, openness to cries of the world, and openness to those parts of ourselves we’d rather not acknowledge but that God sees and wants to heal—to use as the very vehicles for our transformation. But the little detail of the spittle in this story also reminds us that God works in midst of the most humble and ordinary or circumstances. God’s action is not confined to sun shafts from heaven, but finds its proper place in the hidden nooks and crannies of daily life. Each encounter, however apparently mundane, is an invitation to be opened, to widen the eye of love, and to be that openness for others.
That the word “ephphatha” “be opened” is what Greek scholars call a “Divine passive.” It’s a phrase in the passive voice that attributes the action in a sentence to God. So being opened is not so much our work as it is God’s work in and through us. Or role is simply to consent to God’s presence and action and in our lives with the little mustard seed of our “yes” to God. God does the opening, but never against our will. His love for us is so great that He waits for our consent to do the opening—there is no compulsion in God’s love. Insistence, invitation, luring, wooing—yes. But God never acts unilaterally in this process of being opened.
As we begin the program year here at St. Mark’s, let’s keep in mind that everything we do is in service of this opening, of being opened by God that we might be a place where all people are welcomed and received as beloved children of God created in his image and likeness. Our formation classes, our Wednesday evening bible study, our quiet days and opportunities to serve the least of these through the food bank or by participating in Family Promise are the means by which we give our consent to God’s presence and action in our lives and allow ourselves to be opened.
When our middle child Isabelle was born, she had a little trouble with her liver. She was yellow as a banana with jaundice and looked terrible (precious and cute, of course, but terrible!). But the cure was simple. The docs just told us to lay her in a window in direct sunlight. In a week or two, the jaundice was gone. What a perfect metaphor for the process of what it means to be opened. The light of God gently transforms and transfigures us, purging us of those toxins that hinder the free flow of grace in our lives. All we need “do” is step into the light and let God do his work in us. That’s what church is—a kind of photo-therapy: through worship, daily prayer, dwelling on God’s word in scripture, studying the tradition, enjoying fellowship, serving others and reaching out to the last, the least, the lost, and left behind we expose ourselves to the transfiguring light of God. Slowly, but surely with the inexorable power of stream flowing into the ocean, we find ourselves drawn ever more deeply into the very life of God, where our whole life become a yes to all that is.
My prayer for us at the start of the program year is that this be a year of being opened to the love of God that our tongues might be loosened and our ears unstopped. My prayer is that as we expose ourselves to the transfiguring light of God’s love and find ourselves being opened to healing and transformative power, we might, in some small way be fellow workers with God of this opening in others. My prayer is that in consenting to be opened, in stepping into the light, we might come to see as God sees—that there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. My prayer is that we might be, as the gathered people of God in this place, without boundary, our ears open to cries of the world.