The Lesson Jesus Learned — Sermon for Pentecost 15B

Mark 7:24-37

If Jesus is the Son of God, then he must know everything. After all, he lived in perfect communion with God and  had access to sources only Commander Data might have available. If that’s true, then when he was a child he wouldn’t have to study before a test. He probably knew the answers before the questions were created! Or did he?  What did he know? And when did he know it?
As we return to the Gospel of Mark, it’s good to remember that Mark’s Jesus appears out of nowhere at the Jordan River where he’s baptized and then receives his commission from God. Mark doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ upbringing, but Luke does offer us a peak into Jesus’ childhood. Remember how Jesus took a trip to Jerusalem with his family at the age of twelve and ended up talking theology with the religious leaders in the Temple. Luke’s Jesus is a bit precocious and perhaps even something of a handful, but after the family returned home, it’s written that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:22-39). Perhaps Jesus still had lessons to learn. Maybe he even had to overcome a natural ethnocentrism that seems to afflict us all.

This morning we’ve heard two healing stories, both of which take place in Gentile regions, and it seems that Jesus needed to learn a lesson that would help define his ministry and ours. While I believe that Jesus’ message was one of grace, love, and inclusion, perhaps even Jesus needed to learn to value people who didn’t share his religious and ethnic background.
There is an old adage that came to define modern church growth theory:  “birds of a feather flock together.” The homogeneous principle describes our seemingly natural desire to gather with people who are just like us. The Gospel, however, challenges that vision, and this Gospel imperative begins to take shape in Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman in the ancient Phoenician seaport of Tyre. While we don’t know why Jesus would have traveled to Tyre, perhaps he was trying to find a hiding place, a place where his usual followers wouldn’t be looking for him.  What better place to go than a Gentile city, but despite his best efforts a woman heard he was in the neighborhood and went looking for him.
This unnamed Gentile woman of Syrophoenician background came to the house where Jesus was staying and bowing at his feet she pleaded with him to relieve her daughter of a demonic affliction. Unfortunately for her, Jesus doesn’t seem to be in the mood to help her. In fact, he comes off as rather mean-spirited. This isn’t the Jesus I’ve come to know and love!
   When the woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, he responds by insulting her. He contrasts his own people with her people. While his people were God’s children, her people were like dogs, and it isn’t fair to give the children’s food to the dogs. Yes, the children need to eat first.
Just a word to all the dog lovers in the room, back then dogs didn’t have the same status we give them today. People didn’t consider dogs to be their best friends.
Jesus tried to push the woman away, but she didn’t back down.  Jesus was her last hope, and so she not only endured his abuse, but taught Jesus a lesson! She told him that even dogs eat the scraps from the table.
When I read this part of the story, I can’t help but think of that scene in How the Grinch Stole Christmas when his heart grew several times, changing him from the inside out. That day, it seems that her persistence helped Jesus’ heart open up to people he might have previously pushed away. Jesus learned a lesson and Mark passes it on to us.
The fruit of this encounter is seen in the next story, when Jesus travels from Tyre to the Decapolis, which was another predominantly Gentile region. Mark doesn’t say why he went there, but when he arrived he was confronted by a group of people, probably Gentiles, who wanted him to heal their friend who was deaf and mute. This time, Jesus doesn’t push back. He simply takes the man aside and heals him using some interesting symbolic gestures.
What do you think about these gestures?  First Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears, and then he spits and touches the man’s tongue. After that, Jesus commands the ears and the tongue to “be opened.” With that the man can hear and he can speak clearly. The people are astounded. Even though Jesus tells them to keep things quiet, which is a common theme in the Gospel of Mark, they can’t help but “zealously” shout the news: “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
When something good happens to you, don’t you want to tell somebody? Maybe you make a phone call, write a letter, or in this age post a note to Facebook. Yes, just think of what would have happened to Jesus’ ministry in the age of Facebook!
While we love to share happy events with our friends, when it comes to matters of faith Mainline Protestants tend to keep the news close to the vest. We’ve embraced the modern idea that religion is a private matter, best kept within the confines of the home or the church building. Many have fallen in love with a phrase often attributed to St. Francis: “preach the Gospel always, use words if necessary.”  While deeds must come before words, St. Francis was known not only for his deeds, but also for his preaching of the Gospel. He apparently believed that words were necessary.
The lesson Jesus learned from the Syrophoenician woman helped Jesus reframe his ministry and ours as well. Would he have healed the deaf-mute man in the Decapolis if she hadn’t opened his eyes? From that moment on the message of healing and wholeness goes to a much larger audience.
I believe that God heals bodies and minds, but I think we need a broader definition of healing. While God restores bodies to health, as in the case of the man living in the Decapolis, and restores hearts and minds, as Jesus did in the story of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus’ work of healing goes much deeper, touching the world itself with God’s grace and love. Our message of healing is a broad one, for as members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we are called to be  a “movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.”
Earlier this week I watched videos of sermons by my friend Brett Younger, who is a professor at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. He was talking about the church being the place where people go to give up. It is the place people go seeking grace and wholeness. We don’t come to church because of our similarities, but as Brett said, we come because of God’s grace. When we experience grace, then we become  agents of healing in a broken and fragmented world.
We are God’s agents as we pray for those who are sick, injured, anxious, and dying. We are God’s agents of grace when we stop to listen with gentle hearts as our neighbors share their deepest concerns. We do so by helping rebuild Detroit’s neighborhoods. We’re agents of wholeness when we stand with those living on the margins or who find themselves pushed to the side.
We live in an age of anxiety. People are concerned about their future. They’re not sure that their lives have meaning. And one of the major themes of the Gospel of Mark is that people then were are afraid, but Jesus offers a word of grace and welcome so that we can be made whole by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The Spirit opens hearts and heals lives.
We’re singing hymns this morning that speak of God’s healing presence, reminding us that Jesus was a healing evangelist who brought hope and blessing to those who sought him out. So, we sing this morning “heal me hands of Jesus, and search out all my pain; restore my hope, remove my fear, and bring me peace again” [Michael Perry, Chalice Hymnal, 504.]
Yes, our calling as the people of God, especially we who call ourselves Disciples, is to be agents of wholeness in a fragmented world, who as “part of the body of Christ . . . welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” Yes, the Table of the Lord is a place to meet the one who makes all things whole! Therefore, in the Spirit of Jesus, the Table we’re about to approach is a place of healing grace open to all.
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
September 6, 2015
15th Sunday after Pentecost