First Congregational Church
September 5, 2021
15th Sunday after Pentecost, Labor Day Weekend
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
If the name Johnny Depp doesn’t ring a bell for you, I would guess that you might know him by sight, if not by name. He’s the main character in all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, with either the tri-hat or wide, red, dirty bandana, long pieces of jewelry hanging from his hair, mustache and black eye-liner all around. What’s amazing about Johnny Depp is that he gets so immersed in his characters that I can never tell if its him or not...I guess i have really bad Depp perception.
Depth perception jokes are always near misses. It's like I never see the punchline until it is too late.
And jokes about perception are tricky, because so many of them lean toward subject matters that are best not addressed in the presence of young ears or tender hearts. But those aren’t reasons to avoid the topic of perceptions.
Over the last weeks, Sunday messages have spent a fair bit of time in the gospel of John, particularly the first quarter of the book. For whatever reason, the lectionary gospel changes to Mark this week. So a little scene setting may be helpful.
The writer of Mark fills in a couple small details, that before Jesus and the disciples were with the 5,000 men, plus women, children, a couple fish and a little bread, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist had been killed. Any one of us that has had someone near and dear die, knows how exhausting that can be. So Jesus was looking for a little R&R. Instead, he had the 5,000 plus.
So after dinner, Jesus told the disciples to get back in their boat to go back to Bethsaida, while he went up into the hills by himself. As he was there, he saw the oncoming storm and knew that the sea-seasoned fishermen were struggling, so he walked out to calm them and the storm. Instead of Bethsaida, they ended up in Gennesaret, where the people recognized him and inundated him for healing of the sick and lame. Mark 6 ends by saying that all who touched Jesus were healed. When one woman touched him, Jesus noticed. Imagine dozens and dozens touching him, and the drain it would have had on him - mentally, physically and emotionally. Various movie stars have mentioned how touching by strangers is exhausting.
After that, in the first part of Mark 7, Jesus entered into a debate with the Pharisees and teachers of religion about what makes a person clean - from hand washing to ingesting food to behavior. Such debates, even for the Son of God, are not without cost to body, heart and mind.
Jesus Honors a Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith
24 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre.[a] He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus Heals a Deaf and Mute Man
31 Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.[b] 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.
33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.
36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Thank you, Jennifer. Chelsey Harmon from Calvin Theological Seminary wrote that “Discomfort serves like a funnel in the Scripture: we aren’t meant to escape it but go through it, and slowly.” There is no doubt, there is some discomfort in these two sections.
In a rare moment of recollection, I remembered that a famous, retired pastor, Rev. Dr. Bill Hirschfeld, said something about the last time this scripture passage came up, that something that came out of my mouth made some sense or brought a different understanding or truth. Naturally, wanting to remind myself - and perhaps all of us - of such wisdom, I did something I never do: I went back to that sermon.
I don’t know exactly what it might have been that made such an impression back then, but it was a little interesting, as there was mention of how gross ear willies and spitting in another person’s mouth were. My, how time and a little virus can change the perception of words that we once took for granted!
And the woman, not Jewish, not male, not educated, dares to disrupt Jesus in his exhaustion, to ask for healing. I don’t know about anyone else, but I hear little echoes of Personal Protection Equipment shortages and medical staff burn-out and fatigue here, too. If we didn’t know about Jesus’ fatigue factor, and we heard only these two cases, without context, I think a good many of us might have different takes on them.
A woman called on Friday, wondering if we could help her with some propane. In previous years, those sorts of calls usually come with $200-$500 price tags. When I asked her how much she was looking for, she said $50. If she’d have come in Friday, I might have given her the funds and gone back to whatever deadline was pressing at that hour. When she came in Saturday morning, when I was more rested, I asked more about her, and found out that she lives in a camping trailer in Thompsonville, as that is the only place she can find to rent. As we chatted, you could tell that she wasn’t one to make up stories, but was rather forthright.
She’d been looking all over, but there just aren’t places to rent, even if you have a job, which she does. But she hurt her foot and hasn’t been able to work for a few days, and her last weekly check wasn’t anywhere near what she depended on. Because she lives in a camper trailer, heat and cooking and hot water come from those 20 lb., grilling tanks, which cost $20-$25 to refill. And she’s not the only one who has asked for help like this. There’s a young man who calls occasionally to get his grill tank refilled because it’s how his family cooks and eats, just on the outside of town.
As with so many sermons, it can sound like this message is all about me, but it’s not intended that way. It’s about giving all of us a glimpse into people’s lives that change how we see them. That’s part of why this new Faith in Action group is so important, because just talking to other people helps us understand so many things. It happens all the time - in movies and books and television, yes, even the news. But sometimes we need to slow down the exchange of information - to do it face-to-face. And at the same time, like a certain Son of God that we all know, we need those moments where we can re-energize - whether it is with people - for the extroverts - or alone - for the introverts.
So while we have come away from our regular lives for this time, we’ve been given clues into these two individuals - one a mother of a sick child and the other a deaf man. Both were not members of what people considered the upper echelons of society. In fact, they were from the bottom of the barrel in that day. On top of that, Tyre and Sidon were in Gentile land; a place where no self-respecting Jew would be caught walking for any reason, much less interacting with locals.
And maybe Jesus was more tired than what is written, because he called the woman a name that is not used in polite company, referencing a dog. Maybe he was hangry for a Snickers bar, because he tells the ethnically despised, economically challenged, desperate mother to wait her turn. The New Living Translation of the Bible says, “Jesus told her, “First I should feed the children—my own family, the Jews. It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.”
If he wasn’t the Son of God, and I’d been there at that moment, I might have slugged him as a sister is sometimes apt to do to a brother. “Jesus! Golden Rule! Golden Rule!” Though Jesus was without sin, he wasn’t without being human, which can get the better of the best of us. And don’t forget the irony from the discussion right before these two passages, where Jesus was debating the Pharisees and religious leaders about high and mighty living.
What is admirable here is that instead of Jesus ducking his head and turning away, he stands up to who he understood himself to be and healed the child - from a distance. If there’s nothing else any of us get from this passage, it’s the example that we can address our failures as immediately as we are made aware of them and mend them right then and there, rather than allowing them to fester and ruin reputations in far greater ways than a slip from fatigue or any other human state.
We also have the deaf and almost mute man, and he adds to our lesson of perception in that he and the woman were both outsiders. Again, Chelsey Harmon wrote, "How many people are sitting in our communities but still feel like outsiders? How many have refrains of faith going unspoken because they do not fit our comfortable and tidy pictures of God? How many are holding on to the smallest portion of faith in Christ and need to hear that that small seed is enough for now? Where do we need to “be opened” and step into wholehearted living of God’s kingdom values of inclusion? Can we challenge them, as the Syrophoenician woman did? How is God making the deaf to hear and the mute to speak today?” Excellent questions, Ms. Harmon.
Maybe God is helping the deaf hear through media of all sorts. Maybe God is helping the tired hear the pleas of desperation through storms and fires and frustrations and how we adapt to awareness and understanding. Maybe God is challenging our perceptions when we realize that should any given situation be even slightly different, it could have been us - you, me - with friends good enough to take you to the place or the one who can heal you.
Maybe God is tearing down the walls we have created around our hearts, allowing us to crack open, for new ways of healing to come in, to touch that which is broken, to heal that which is sick, to open us to the healing power of Christ.
When we allow the walls of our hearts to come down and we open them to God’s presence, we are changed. Once we understand that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, we begin to perceive life so much more differently than before. And that’s a good thing. So shall we pray.
God of Life and Love and Peace and Perception, thank you for the healing that has happened that has allowed us glimpses into lives that we might not have known or understood before. And thank you for all the ways that you help us see you and all your people as precious and beloved. You well know how human we are, God, and how our humanity can trip us up every now and then. Encourage us and strengthen us to put situations to right as soon as was can, and to understand that mistakes are sometimes simply mistakes. As each of us take a good, deep breath before going back to our regularly scheduled lives, empower us with understanding and insight and perception to truly be able to make the world a better place tomorrow, as each one is given. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.