"Be Opened"
Scripture – Mark 7:24-37
Sermon Preached by Randall T. Clayton
Sunday, September 6, 2015

One hot afternoon recently I was heading out of town on Pennsylvania Avenue during rush hour. Traffic was heavy, my car's air conditioner was cranking out the cold air, and I was listening to a favorite CD as I navigated traffic. Despite the traffic, the car was comfortable, I wasn't in a hurry, and the music was nice company. While I was sitting at a traffic light, a car quickly pulled up behind me, which was not a surprise given the time of day and number of cars on the road. As it came to a stop, the music from the other car's radio overtook the soothing sounds of my CD. The volume on the radio in that car was so loud that my little Prius literally began to rock due to the vibrations from the music and my ears couldn't distinguish the words that were being sung on the song, and I couldn't even hear myself think. Needless to say, I was relieved when that car turned off at the next street and the noise level in my own car retreated to normal. I was relieved that once again I could hear my own music; and once again hear my own thoughts.

The man in the second healing story in today's Gospel text, however, couldn't hear any kind of noise – good or bad. It wouldn't have mattered if it was the sound of a flute, or a steel drum band, or mighty pipe organ coming out of his car's speaker system...he couldn't hear any of it. Further complicating his life, as a result of his inability to hear, he was not able to speak clearly and people couldn't understand him. And literally adding insult to injury, he was treated by most as an outcast. Since his community assumed that physical problems were the direct result of sinful actions, they would have considered him an outcast because of whatever he had done that made him different than the majority. He was, in their eyes, less than others; on some level seen as a threat to them and their way of life because of their prejudices.

Despite the reality that most of the community shunned him, apparently he did have some good friends; friends who had heard that Jesus was in town. Even though Jesus wasn't one of them – he was Jewish after all and they were Gentiles – and even though Jesus was from out of town and had different customs and beliefs than they, they had already heard a lot of talk about what this man Jesus was capable of doing. And so the deaf man's friends bundled him up and took him to Jesus, asking Jesus for a cure.

Jesus responded to the request. He responded by putting his fingers in the deaf man's ears, touching one that the community refused to touch; he spit on the man's tongue; he looked up to heaven, and groaned. He groaned perhaps because he hated to see people hurt; he groaned perhaps because of the prejudices of the world which resulted in this man being treated as an outcast solely he couldn't hear and speak clearly; he groaned. And as he did he said, "Ephathra". Be open.

Immediately the man could hear. Yes, suddenly, the man could hear Jesus' voice, as well as the voices of his friends too. He could hear the dog barking outside the house next door, and the sound of a carpenter across the street putting up a shed. He could hear. And not only that, but now that he could hear, miraculously almost, he could speak so clearly those around could understand what he was saying. Able to hear and speak, this man and his friends praised God for what God had done through Jesus, and shared the news of what Jesus was capable of doing with all those around.

We hear the timer go off on the stove and we know the food is done so then we go to the stove and turn the pot off. We hear the doorbell ring, and react by going to the front door to see who is there. We hear the train whistle and so we stop before we cross the tracks and wait. We hear the one we love tell us their deepest desire and we do our best to make it come true.

Hearing, we then respond. And that being the case, then it seems to me that hearing is more than just processing of sounds; it's more than making sense of vibrations in the ear. Hearing actually informs, directs, or changes our actions.

This then leads me to the other story in today's Gospel text. Jesus has traveled to foreign territory. Mark goes to great lengths, in fact, to make sure his readers realize this. Jesus has left the familiar confines of his own homeland and his own faith community to seek a bit of a respite in Gentile territory. Although he was hoping for a bit of R & R, or for a time to perhaps focus anew on his calling and his mission, a needy woman dares to interrupt him.

As a woman she had no right to interrupt a great male teacher. But she wasn't just a woman, she was a Gentile woman. And she was not just a garden-variety Gentile either. No, she was a Gentile of Gentiles, a Syrophoenecian. To upstanding, law abiding Jews of the day, you didn't get much worse than a Syrophoenecian. But she had the audacity (or should I say the faith) to interrupt Jesus, begging Jesus to heal her very sick child.

Jesus initially responds to her in a way that doesn't seem very Jesus-like. Jesus refuses her request, and not only that, but the words he used seem to have been informed by the cultural and religious prejudices and assumptions of his community. He said, "No, let the children first be fed. It is not right to give children's food to the dogs." In essence, he was saying, "My mission is to the Jewish people, not to you and your kind, Syrophoenecian woman. So it's not right for me to spend my time, my energy on you."

Although most of us who love dogs think of them and treat them as part of our family, and pamper them to no end, in Jesus' day dogs weren't viewed with such high esteem. So, when Jesus compared the Gentiles to dogs, this woman would have heard an insult. Perhaps Jesus didn't mean it that way, but the reality of it is that she could have only heard his response as off-putting; as a response that betrayed the prejudices and assumptions made by Jesus' community about those who were different, about those deemed sinners...the Gentiles.

But this woman stands her ground. She didn't let go of her dream, her hope, or even her belief that Jesus could and would change things for her child. "Yes, Jesus," she said, "but even the dogs under the table eat the crumbs the children drop beneath it."

Somehow in this conversation, Jesus changed, or as has been suggested by some commentators, in this conversation Jesus had a conversion. So, instead of turning away from her, or disregarding her need, or acting as if her life didn't matter, Jesus praised her for her faith and healed the sick child.

I don't really know what changed Jesus, but I wonder if it was mostly getting to know this woman. Hearing her individual voice, hearing her deepest desires, hearing her hopes, hearing her love for her daughter, how could Jesus not be changed? As he related to her, and heard her voice, perhaps he also began to grasp that his ministry was far bigger and included far more people than he and his companions ever dreamed to be the case.

Hearing this individual mother from Syrophoenecia voice her need, he was changed. It is, I think, amazing what can happen when our ears are opened up and we really hear. Yes, when we really hear God, who knows where we might find ourselves going, or what we might find ourselves doing. And when we really hear the voices of those who are pushed out, knocked down, beaten down by our prejudices and assumptions, who knows what might happen. The possibilities for justice, wholeness, healing and life are limitless, I think.

Not long ago I stumbled on a blog post entitled "Stop Thinking About Racism!" The title caught me up short. Stop thinking about racism? Isn't it something we must think about these days? But the writer made a lot of sense. [Tina Lifford, "Stop Thinking About Racism" Huffington Post, August 6, 2015]

The writer pointed out that when it comes to racism, we can't change it by thinking about it in the same old ways; we can't change it by getting caught up in intellectual debates, or by discussing justice, or assigning blame or even trying desperately to prove that certainly we aren't racist. Rather, she reminds us that we need to start deconstructing racism not by attacking it in the world, but by becoming aware of our own individual and often unconscious behaviors that keep racism alive. We must, she suggests, accept that racism is intricately woven into the human experience and into American culture and change our behavior. "It's easy," she writes, "to see racism when it shows up as it did in South Carolina, Auschwitz, or as Japanese-American Internment. It's not easy to see the subtle practice of racism that is represented by the surprise that a black person is articulate, a Latin person drives a nice car, an Asian person struggles with common emotional issues; a white person uses food stamps."

The starting place, she says, is to stop collectively lumping people into general categories. And that, it seems to me requires that we begin to form relationships with those who are different, with those the world pushes out, or knocks down so that we can hear their stories, their joys, their struggles, their dreams. Truly, if we really hear the voices of those who are hurting, we will find a way to ease their suffering. If we really hear the voices of those who are treated as if their lives don't matter, we will be moved to insure that their lives are valued. If we really hear the cries of those who are searching, those despairing, those who are struggling, perhaps we in turn will give voice to the Good News of the Gospel and our tongues will indeed begin to sing of God's grace and God's love.

Let our ears be open so that our hearts might become wide.

Let us hear and be changed!

Prayers of the People ~ Gregory Knox Jones

Eternal energy of the universe, and lover of your creation, you work tirelessly bringing order out of chaos and good out of evil. On this Labor Day weekend, we pause to give thanks for the work you call each of us to do. We give thanks for the blessings of meaningful work, steady employment, supportive coworkers, just labor laws, positive work environments and well-earned retirements. We are grateful for healthy bodies and good minds that enable us to labor so that we can provide ourselves with the necessities of life and share with those who lack what they need.

Loving God, in addition to giving thanks for the ability and the opportunity to work, we also remember those for whom work is a struggle.

We pray for those who are eager to work but are unemployed or underemployed.
We pray for those who have been the victims of downsizing and cannot find suitable work.
We pray for those who must work under grim conditions and abusive bosses.
We pray for those who care for children without receiving adequate support.
We pray for those who miss their childhood because they must begin work at an early age.
We pray for those in low income jobs who are not respected for the work they perform.
We pray for those who face discrimination or unfair treatment in the work place.
We pray for those who are forced to work in slave labor.

Mighty God, we pray that all who are without work and all who are working in difficult situations may find in you: strength to persevere, guidance to know what steps to take and hope for a better tomorrow. We pray that wrongs may be righted, that justice may prevail and opportunities will open to enable them to thrive.

God, we know that when we follow the path of Christ, our lives become rich and full. We pray that all of us will commit ourselves to the work you call us to do regardless of our jobs: extending hospitality, healing wounds, reconciling broken relationships, striving for justice and pursuing peace.

Gracious God, as we prepare to eat this bread and drink this cup, we pray that our souls will be nourished by remembering your never-ending love for us and by the ties that bind us with people of faith throughout our world.

Now, hear us as we pray the prayer Jesus taught us to pray together, saying, "Our Father..."