Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18B] - September 6, 2009 (Mark 7:24-37)

If there is one thing I have learned about living in my new city, Richmond, it is that crossing the James River is a big deal. Nevermind that the River has been traversable since the Mayo Bridge on 14th street was completed in the late 1700’s, or that both sides of the city are virtually the same in just about every way. Nevermind that the beloved Ukrops can be found both north and south of the River. To lifelong Richmonders and newcomers alike, such a big deal is made about going to the other side it is as if they are venturing into Indian territory, the untamed wastes of the land “over yonder.”

Conveniently, this attitude is familiar to me, for Pittsburgh, the city from which we relocated, is divided by three rivers, forming three regions that are, in many ways, psychologically cut off from one another. When Melinda tried to order our wedding cake from her favorite bakery in our little borough of Pittsburgh, the baker immediately ripped up the order in front of her once Melinda told her that it would be delivered to the reception site downtown. “Ma’am, I’m sorry to say that Mr. Barkus, the bakery owner, doesn’t let his cakes cross rivers,” the bakery attendant announced matter-of-factly, and then shrugged. No reason was given, and, rather disappointed, Melinda left the store to look for a bakery on the other side of the rivers.

Oh, we laugh, but we are very good at drawing boundaries, aren’t we? It’s one thing when we joke about people on the other side of the river in our own town but really stops being funny when we think people should stay there, on the “other side of the tracks,” or in that below-standard school district, or behind that concrete and barbwire fence. Our playful ribbing about people from another neck of the woods can turn hurtful quickly, and the river—or the language barrier, or the social boundary—becomes a border we’ll never cross.

Well, if there’s one thing we learn about Jesus in the gospel lesson this morning, it’s that he’s not afraid to cross the river! Jesus has left his familiar territory in Galilee and ventured out to the untamed wastes of Gentile territory. Being extraordinarily specific, Mark, the gospel writer, places him in the region of Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis. Normally, to the modern reader, such geographical descriptions might seem like superfluous detail, but for the ancient reader, this was newsworthy. If you try to map out Jesus’ route in the seventh chapter of Mark, you will notice two things. First of all, Jesus is not in Israel anymore. He is delivering his cake far beyond any region that has ever been Israel, or even marginally so.

Secondly, Jesus’ itinerary really doesn’t make much sense. To return from Tyre “by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis” hardly makes any geographical sense. It’s like saying you’ll return from Norfolk by way of the Outer Banks towards the Chesapeake Bay in the region of the Valley. I mean, I suppose it could be done, but it sure wouldn’t be a direct route. Scholars have long argued that Mark got something wrong, that he was altogether unfamiliar with the topography of ancient Israel and its neighbors. But I think the point doesn’t matter, and the peculiar, meandering nature of Jesus’ travels proves Mark’s point: Jesus has crossed the river. He has left his comfort zone. Or, to put it differently, he is showing us that his comfort zone is larger than we think it is.

That’s the deeper story of what’s going on here in these texts, both in his testy exchange with the Syrophoenician woman, and with the deaf-mute in the Decapolis. Neither of them is from Jesus’ Jewish homeland—the woman is explicitly named as a “Gentile,” and it is entirely likely that the deaf-mute and the deaf-mute’s companions are not Jewish, as well. In both cases, we see example of people who would have little reason to look to Jesus for healing become exemplars of faith. In fact, some translations of this text have the Syrophoenician woman address Jesus as “Lord,” rather than as “sir,” something that would have clearly sounded strange to the ears of Jesus’ fellow travelers who are probably just thrilled that he started delivering his cakes to the unclean folk on the other side of the river. After ignoring Jesus’ initial rebuke of her, she responds with faith and humility, confident that he is the Savior in whom she may trust.

Perhaps even more surprising than this conversation between Jesus and the Gentile woman is the miracle of the healing of the deaf-mute. As can be heard from our prophet Isaiah this morning, the arrival of God’s kingdom will be marked by the “eyes of the blind being opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, and “the tongue of the speechless singing for joy.” The people of ancient Israel had long been looking for these specific signs to mark the arrival of God’s kingdom: the granting of sight to the blind and, especially, the granting of speech to the dumb. It was the ultimate turnaround, you see: those who could not otherwise be understood by anyone could finally respond in praise to the Creator, the highest form of speech around. Therefore, in the healing of the deaf-mute, we have the most profound illustration of God’s in-breaking kingdom to date occurring outside of God’s earthly kingdom of Israel.

And the crowd goes crazy. Even against Jesus’ commands, the Decapolis by-standers are overly impressed: “He has done everything well. He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak!” Can you hear their sense of awe? “He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” Even here, on the other side of the river. Even here, demons are cast out, tongues are loosed, and Jesus’ lordship is proclaimed to the nations.

The news from Jesus and the news about Jesus are things around which boundaries cannot be drawn. Everyone will hear about it. Everyone will be able to speak about it, even those we may not now understand. And what Jesus sighs to the deaf-mute is what God in Jesus is saying to the whole world: “Ephphatha! Be opened! You, with all your boundaries…be opened!” Be opened to what you can see and learn in Tyre and the Decapolis and from the people at the margins, from people you think are unworthy and unimportant. Be opened to the power of God’s kingdom to transform and renew us in spite of our shortcomings and dumb sinfulness. Be opened to the great life of baptism—where we are made one by Jesus’greatest miracle and where the last great terrifying barrier is crossed for good. Maybe that is what this venture into Tyre and Sidon is—a foreshadowing of Jesus’ journey on the cross, a prophecy, of sorts, that with Jesus as Lord, no part of our existence will be too distant for God’s grace to reign there.

As you’ve heard by now, next Sunday is Rally Day. We will kick off another year of Sunday School and youth ministry and music programs at Epiphany Lutheran Church. Those of you who haven’t taken the chance to see what happens at our Sunday School, both in the adult classes and the children’s classes, are missing the chance to “be opened” to the wideness of God’s reign, because that is what Christy Huffman and Kevin Barger and the dozens of Sunday School teachers and youth group advisors and musicians are doing every Sunday. They, and others, are working hard to “open us up” to the love and healing relationships in Jesus’ name. “Ephphatha,” they say each week, as they open up the Bibles and open up their craft boxes, and open up their instrument cases as they open up our hearts to the surprising ways God works and moves in our world.

When I was in Sunday School as a kid, our classes were grouped according to age (which I suppose is another boundary, but it helps when it comes to teaching). Because we were grouped according to age, however, we had Sophia in our class. Sophia was, technically-speaking, two weeks older than I was, but Sophia was severely mentally retarded, and had been since birth. She actually had the mental ability of a two-or-three year old, and could not speak intelligibly to us, but she was in our class and we learned alongside of each other. Her behavior was erratic and jerky, and we often interpreted her actions as aggressive, although they probably were not meant that way. Our Sunday School teachers consistently helped to mold us, as Jesus would have done, into one class. I often felt very uncomfortable with Sophia, especially in my younger teenage years because, truth be told, I was insecure, and she just seemed too different.

It wasn’t until I was much older when I realized how profoundly formative and rare that experience was. In every other aspect of society, people like Sophia were separated and sequestered from me. My middle school, for example, had separate classes for handicapped and mentally-challenged people, as they called them. They ate at the far tables of the lunchroom—over there in Decapolis and Tyre—so as not to disturb the rest of us. Sophia actually went to that middle school with me. Occasionally I would pass her in the hall, and I doubt she even recognized me. But in church, in Sunday School, we were in the same class. In worship, we ate at the same table, took crumbs from the same hand. In the world, we were often on opposite sides of the river. But in the church, we were together. Jesus himself had grouped us that way in baptism and had given us a Sunday School teacher who was with tender mercy constantly saying, in many and various ways, “Ephphatha! Be opened. “Be opened to the gifts of one another.”

That is what she said…and that is what we hear. And that is what the community of Jesus is supposed to do: proclaiming his power and traipsing wherever he’ll take us in his mission to open the world up…we, the community that crosses rivers.

Thanks be to God!

(image: ruins of Mayo covered Bridge, Richmond, VA )

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