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Proper 18 2009

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Theme: Changing hostility to mercy

Let us pray.

Most holy, Lord God, your son was met with hostility in many of the places he went and even became hostile himself at times, but in those times he transformed hostility to peace, prodding people to mercy; may we model acts of mercy in all our dealings, with the help and strength of Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we pray. Amen.

Last June, a man went into a convenience store on Long Island with the intent of robbing it. It was just before midnight and store owner, Mohammad Sohail, was getting ready to lock up. Sohail is originally from Pakistan. A man carrying a bat and wearing a mask entered the store. The man wanted all of Sohail’s money.

Sohail tried to stall the man. Then Sohail grabbed a rifle from under the counter and aimed it at the man. He ordered the man to drop his bat. He dropped the bat and begged Sohail for forgiveness. He was in tears. Sohail said, “This was a grown man, crying like a baby.”

The man said he was out of work and was trying to feed his family. Sohail said, “I felt bad for him. I mean, this wasn't some kid.” So Sohail threw $40 at him. Then he gave him a loaf of bread. The man was very grateful and so moved that he inquired about converting to Islam. Sohail made him promise to never rob again. But it doesn’t sound like his robbing got off to a good start.

Sohail told the man to wait while he went back to get the man a gallon of milk. When Sohail returned, the man was gone. Sohail called the police. The whole thing was caught on a security camera. Because the man wore a mask, the police say it unlikely that he will be caught. If he is caught, Sohail will not press charges.

This is a story of two people changing their actions and intentions based on compassion. We can’t know if the man sobbed because a gun was pointing at him or he just felt the weight of his problems and his desperate act come down on him all at once. In any case, they seemed to part as friends. It could have turned out much worse.

Today we heard another story of compassion as a result of a change in intentions. Jesus was preaching, teaching, and arguing at Gennesaret. Where our gospel reading begins, Jesus leaves Gennesaret and travels to an area around Tyre. Tyre was on the coast in gentile territory, in what is today Lebanon. It was a cosmopolitan city and a great deal of trade in the Roman Empire occurred there.

Of course, we are not told what Jesus’ motivation was to go to Tyre. Perhaps he was tired (wink, wink) of arguing and reproving the Jewish religious authorities (which he was doing in Gennesaret) and needed a break or he saw Tyre as an evangelical opportunity, telling the gentiles of Tyre about the one, true God. Or perhaps both reasons were behind Jesus’ reasons. All we know is that he went there.

At Tyre, he goes into a house, and he attempts to keep his identity a secret. Jesus is looking for seclusion. Jesus is looking for sabbath in a place that, ironically, does not keep sabbath. Jesus wants a sabbatical. I can identify with that.

Yet even in a Gentile place, they not only have heard of Jesus, but apparently they know what he looks like, without the benefit of a web site or Facebook or TV. Jesus must have been on the Nightly News. I say recognize him, because how else would a gentile woman from Tyre, even if she knew about Jesus, would have ever been able to recognize Jesus? Unless a member of Jesus’ entourage was bragging at the local pub about whom he was traveling with. Maybe it was part of a bar bet.

This woman from Tyre enters the home and flings herself down at Jesus’ feet. This Greek woman from Phoenicia (or Lebanon) has few inhibitions. Her daughter had an unclean spirit.

We read about or hear of unclean spirits who encounter Jesus in a variety of forms. But what did it mean to the gospel writers as to what an unclean spirit is? First, we may assume that there must be clean spirits in order to distinguish them from unclean spirits. We don’t hear about clean spirits in the Bible, probably because they are not enemies of health and wholeness for people.

People possessed by unclean spirits are not well. It seems that unclean spirits are those who want to drive their hosts to either bizarre behavior or unhealthy or inappropriate behavior. People with an unclean spirit are typically a danger to themselves or others. Today, we lock them up in a psychiatric unit.

Patients I encountered at Napa State Hospital seemed more prone to believe in the supernatural than the general population. Of course, reality is distorted in their brains. Are the mentally ill more prone to the spiritual because they see and hear things that are not real and are more apt to not discount the supernatural or is the spiritual part of their brains seeking healing through God’s help?

What we do know is that the relatives and friends of people possessed by unclean spirits believed that Jesus could cure them. We could write off these stories as people with epilepsy (because epileptic symptoms fit some of the stories) or mental illness (because the symptoms fit mental disorders), but Jesus must have done something. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have these persistent stories. We can speculate all we want on the diagnosis of these possessed people, but Jesus cured them. And this non-Jewish woman knows Jesus the Jew can cure her daughter.

She doesn’t ask Jesus. She begs Jesus to remove the demon. Jesus dismisses her with an insult. Jesus doesn’t want to deal with this Greek, gentile woman or her daughter. “The children must be fed first. It’s not right to give the children’s food and feed it to puppies.” The woman is quick and sharp. She refutes Jesus. She stands up to Jesus, for the sake of her daughter. “Even the mutts eat the children’s crumbs. Please throw me a crumb.”

Jesus didn’t get angry at the rebuke. Instead, he must have been impressed and, perhaps, moved. He told her that her daughter is well. The woman returned home and her daughter was well.

Jesus hits the road again. He takes a curious route. He goes to the other side of the Galilee region to the Decapolis, another gentile territory. Jesus is well known in this gentile region, also.

So some people who heard about Jesus bring a man who could not have heard about Jesus, a deaf mute. They wanted Jesus to touch him – convinced that only a touch was necessary to heal the man.

Now picture what Jesus does. It looks strange. Jesus sticks his fingers in the man’s ears. Then he puts spit on the man’s tongue. I’ll bet you will never see an EMT put his or her spit on anyone’s tongue. Jesus then prays, “Ephphatha,” Aramaic for “open up.” At once, the man could hear and speak plainly.

Jesus asked them to keep this on the QT. It is human nature that the bigger the secret and the more we’re told to keep quiet, then the more we will talk about the secret. They didn’t listen to Jesus. Jesus’ reputation grows. They proclaimed how amazing Jesus’ healings are. The deaf and dumb guy proclaims the gospel.

It should be noted that in both of these healing stories in gentile territory that no one acknowledges Jesus in religious terms. They know Jesus’ reputation as a healer and apparently that’s all they care about. There is no conversion of hearts or minds here – only meeting human need. Jesus wants to throw them a few crumbs. We could say that the Greek woman converts Jesus. Once opened up by her words, Jesus opens up a gentile man. Each of these healings happened through the requests of others. These stories illustrate the power of intercessory prayer.

Compassion is more than empathy. Compassion is acting on empathy. Compassion is reaching out to someone you would never guess you would reach out to. Compassion is a mark of the kingdom of God.

We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, give us the gift of compassion, through which we may show, by example, the marks of your kingdom, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[The Associated Press contributed to this sermon.]

Text: Mark 7:24-37 (NRSV)
24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.g He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir,h even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesusi ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”



g  Other ancient authorities add and Sidon

h  Or Lord; other ancient authorities prefix Yes

i  Gk he

[1]  The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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