September 9, 2018 Sermon

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ Proper 18, September 9, 2018 Lectionary B


The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector                                              Scripture: Mark 7:24-37


Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30   


Two Healings


Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to teach and encourage us to pray in the name of Jesus who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.  


    So, how was your week?  Was it restful, stressful, enjoyable, or dull and boring?  Did Labor Day afford you any rest? It did not for me. What about this weekend?  Has it allowed you to decompress from the week or have you filled it up with various chores and too much recreation?      

      Needless to say, we all know what it is like to be tired.  Some of us might feel that way right now, wishing we had stayed home to get a little more sleep; at least that would be the intention.  It is no fun being tired. I was so tired on Wednesday from lack of sleep that by late morning I could hardly keep my eyes open while seated at my desk.              

       I am reminded of the time Emily and I flew back from Israel.  We had to get up at 12:30 in the morning to catch a flight out of Tel Aviv, which left around 4 AM or so.  By the time we got to New York (I never seem to be able to sleep on planes) we were so tired that if we sat down, we immediately nodded off.  It was no fun being that tired—almost painful. Of course, when we get very tired we become something less than our usual selves—irritable, impatient, and not very kind.   We all know the feeling. The last thing that we want is for anyone to ask anything of us. We are just too pooped to give any more of ourselves. Anybody here not know what I am talking about—probably not?  

    In this morning’s gospel from St. Mark this is the kind of shape in which we find Jesus.  He is pooped and seriously needs a break. He is so pooped that in order to escape for a time of rest from the heavy demands of His ministry, He decides to slip away into enemy territory.  Why? Presumably, there no one would ask anything of Him. The citizens of the region of Tyre, referred to in the reading, had long been enemies of the Jews. As we heard, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”  It would seem that not even Jesus’ disciples were with Him; at least they are not mentioned.  He needed a break from everyone.       

      Despite Jesus’ attempt to avoid being bothered (He had even turned off His cell phone), apparently, He could not escape being noticed.  A Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin heard that He was there. She was a desperate parent; desperate because her daughter had an unclean spirit.  We might not relate to a daughter with an unclean spirit. We might, though, relate to one who has an unclean room. That can be plenty frustrating, but not a cause for desperation, usually.  This woman, though, was desperate. We can imagine that the daughter, under the influence of the demonic spirit, had manifested behaviours that were terribly frightening, destructive, obscene, abusive, self-abusive, and even suicidal.         

    Of course, those behaviours were not unique to the young people during Jesus’ time on earth.  We see them manifested today. Has some demonic, unclean spirit caused a young person to commit suicide or take up a gun and shoot fellow students?   Might the devil be held accountable just as he was during the time of Jesus?                       

      Yes, this mother was desperate, looking for some way to help her daughter.  She had been to any number of doctors (such as they were) and tried any number of treatments—all to no avail.  She was now so desperate that she was willing to try anything, even go to her enemy, a Jew, named Jesus.                                       

      At the time of her arrival, Jesus had been stretched out for a much needed nap when this half-crazed mother suddenly burst into His oasis of peace and quiet.  Still a bit dazed from His interrupted slumber, Jesus jumped to His feet when suddenly the woman threw herself at His feet, begging. (Understand there would have been a certain impropriety to her being in the house at all.)  We can hear her shrill, pleading voice. “Please, please help me,” she screamed.” My daughter has a demon. (Mark, I suspect, has downplayed the emotional drama here.) Jesus is tired, right. He is pooped and irritable. “Please, not another person wanting something from me,” He may have thought.  “She is not even my people.” Did He want to say to her, “For heaven’s sake, just leave me alone?”                           

      That’s not what He said, but it was close to it.  What He said to her was even more disparaging. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Can we believe our ears?  Sweet, loving Jesus has called this poor desperate, helpless mother of a demon-possessed daughter a dog.  In today’s vernacular He might have used the “B” word, for a female dog. What an offense, right ladies? Come to think of it, what woman in today’s western culture would dare grovel at the feet of some backwoods looking man with long hair and beard?                                            

      How are we to explain Jesus’ rough behavior toward this woman? What is His problem?  Was it just a matter of Him having gotten up on the wrong side of the bed or had His fatigue gotten the better of Him?    This woman was Syrophoenician, a gentile.  Was Jesus prejudiced against gentiles? Was He a racist?  That doesn’t sound right, does it?                

    We may never really be able to understand Jesus’ harsh treatment of the woman.  The Jewish people at the time of Jesus were being oppressed by gentiles; that is the Romans.  Jesus first duty was to His own people, the nation of Israel, though it was no nation then.        

    Regardless, this gentile woman was not put off by Jesus’ insult.  No mother, caring for her child, would be. She was quick witted. Unfazed, she uses Jesus own demeaning words to stand her ground.  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she retorts. Surprisingly, it would appear that Jesus is impressed with her witty come back.  He replies, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.”  When the mother returned home that is exactly what she discovered: “. . . the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.”  So, what have we learned from this disturbing and confusing episode in Jesus’ ministry? What is going on?                                         

       I would suggest that what we are actually talking about here is prayer, going to Jesus in prayer, asking Him to address some need.  In this case the need is the little girl with an unclean spirit, a demon. The mother of the child went to Jesus to ask Him to cast out the demon, but was she justified in asking?  It is a question we ourselves might have asked in respect prayer. “Do I have the right to ask for whatever—a healing, finances, some kind of help?” Some people wrongly believe that they should not pray for themselves.  We have every right to pray for ourselves. We might also ask whether we are qualified to pray.                    

    Jesus seems to suggest that the gentile woman in today’s gospel is not only unjustified, but unqualified, another dimension to calling her a dog.  Have we not wondered whether we are qualified? “I’ve been bad. Why should God listen to me?” Jesus came to save sinners, not ignore them. Maybe, it is a matter of presentation. “Oh, I’m no good at praying.”  So we say, “You do it.” I’ll tell you what. If you can order a hamburger at McDonald’s, you are qualified to pray.

    We heard Jesus commending the mother for her quick wit, but is there more to it than that?  After He called her a dog, she might just as well have turned and run away with her tail (continuing with the canine imagery) tucked between her legs.  In other words, she was not put off by what appeared to be resistance to her prayer. Have we ever felt something, someone was resisting our prayers? Remember in Luke 18:1-8 Jesus’ parable about the importance of persisting in prayer.  The unrighteous judge finally gives into the widow’s request, so that she will leave him alone. Persistence in prayer is important.

    What about the mother coming to Jesus in the first place?  Was that not an act of faith? She came to Jesus having faith that He could help her little girl. Having faith, as small as a mustard seed, is all we need when we pray. Lastly, Jesus did not have to be with the little girl in order to heal her.  Wherever Jesus is, no matter how far, He hears our prayers and can answer them. If for no other reason this curious episode of Jesus’ apparent ill treatment of the gentile mother teaches us much about praying.        

    In the second half of this morning gospel from St. Mark we are introduced to yet another healing.  Jesus returns towards the Sea of Galilee to be challenged again. “They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.”  Again, we are talking about a prayer need.  A man who cannot hear and who has a speech impediment is brought to Jesus for Him to heal.  That is the need and the prayer. Jesus, please heal this man.      

      We know the man is deaf and we know that he has a speech impediment.  We are not told whether the man has been deaf from birth or as a result of some later injury or sickness.  In other words, has he ever been able to hear human speech. He also has a speech impediment. If the man has never heard human speech, then we might wonder how he could speak at all, never mind with an impediment.                         

    You may remember Helen Keller. Born physically normal in Tuscumbia, Alabama, she lost her sight and hearing at the age of nineteen months to an illness now believed to have been scarlet fever. Five years later, on the advice of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, her parents applied to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston for a teacher, and from that school hired Anne Mansfield Sullivan. Through Sullivan’s extraordinary instruction, the little girl learned to understand and communicate with the world around her. She went on to acquire an excellent education and to become an important influence on the treatment of the blind and deaf.                                         

       Keller learned from Sullivan to read and write in Braille and to use the hand signal of the deaf-mute, which she could understand only by touch. Her later efforts to learn to speak were less successful, and in her public appearances she required the assistance of an interpreter to make herself understood. Nevertheless, her impact as educator, organizer, and fund-raiser was enormous, and she was responsible for many advances in public services to the handicapped” (                         

    So, we have this man who is deaf with a speech impediment, which may mean that he cannot speak at all, even poorly.  The last verse of this morning’s reading does say, “. . . he (Jesus) even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak,” suggesting that the man may not have been able to speak, period.  Regardless, we are given two points of departure for trying to understand the depth of the healing which Jesus has accomplished for this man.           

       First, if the man was deaf from birth, obviously he had never heard a single word.  Think about that. How would the man think without words, much less speak. Can we think without words?  So, Jesus’ healing of the man in this case would have been more than anatomical. The healing would have also required a sudden infusion into the man’s brain, we would assume, of words, grammar, syntax, and comprehension before the man could speak.  Furthermore, there would be the matter of learning to speak or articulate those words. We know from personal experience that when we are presented with a new word that it sometimes takes practice just to say that word.                                            

    So, Jesus’ healing of the man in this case was more than merely fixing some broken or insufficient anatomical part.  Quite frankly, we might wonder if the man knew who he was after Jesus healed him. The core of his being, who he was, had literally been changing in an instant.  He was now a thinking, talking, hearing man. It might have been a frightening experience for him. A moment ago he was so and so. Now, he was someone else. I have wondered sometimes whether this might be an impediment to people being healed.  Who would they then be? When they say my cancer, my illness or my sickness, it almost makes it sound as if the cancer belongs and is a part of who they are. Who would they be without that illness?                

    The second point of departure acknowledges that the man might not have been deaf since birth.  Somehow, like Helen Keller, he lost his hearing when younger. We don’t know if he lost his hearing at an age similar to Helen, nineteen months. Even with all the years of training, Helen’s ability to speak was seriously limited. The same might be expected for this deaf and mute man.  Again, not only would Jesus have to make a significant anatomical correction for the man. He would also have to transmit all the words, grammar, syntax, and understanding into the man’s brain—equally incredible, equally beyond anything modern medicine might to do in a matter of seconds.  Indeed, what we are talking about here sounds more like the virtually instantaneous downloading of a new app to our phones or a new program to our computers.    

    Look again at the approach and speed with which Jesus fixed this deaf and mute man. “[Jesus] 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.”  A virtual snap of the fingers, was it not?  It is a picture of the watchmaker fixing his watch or the mechanic fine tuning a machine. Jesus’ hands on approach to the man, this handling of the man (fingers in the man’s ears, touching his tongue) recall a much earlier time, found in Genesis 2:7. “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”  Hint, hint!  Who is this Jesus?   Notice incidentally the direction in which Jesus turned His gaze, prior to saying, Ephphatha.”  Then looking up to heaven. . .” The power to heal came through Jesus from His heavenly Father.                       

   What more, then, do we learn about prayer from this episode in Jesus’ ministry.  First and obviously, there is no prayer need too difficult or impossible for Jesus to address and to overcome.   We are not to limit our expectations for what He can do for us when we pray. This is not the same thing as saying that our prayer will be answered in the way we wish.  Secondly and most importantly, in both healings from this morning’s gospel the healing (yes, I am calling the exorcism of the unclean spirit a healing as well) they were accomplished how?  They were accomplished through Jesus, through Jesus. This was not some vague prayer to God, but to Jesus. Do you hear what I am saying? God heals through Jesus. This is why we pray in the name of Jesus.  St. Peter declares in Acts 4:12b, “. . . for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.”  The Greek word σοζο for saved also means cured.  

    Last and not least, as shown in the case of the man, who was deaf and dumb, it is appropriate (we know this) that we pray as a group.  So, we heard, “They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.”  They (in the plural) brought.  

    In summary, in today’s gospel from St. Mark we have learned this about prayer.  We are justified in praying and qualified to pray. We are to persist in prayer, having faith that Jesus hears us.  There is no obstacle or prayer need too great for Jesus to overcome or take care of. Most importantly, healing and prayers are accomplished through Jesus and no one else.  And, not unimportantly, it is appropriate that we pray with others.                            

So then, what is left is for us to put into practice what we have learned about prayer.  Pray, pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.