The following is the script for the message given at St. Paul’s UCC in Eureka, SD on Sept. 6, 2015. It may not be exactly what was said, but it is close. The scriptures used were: Psalm 146, Isaiah 35:4-7a, James 2:1-17 and Mark 7:24-37. It was titled as the title above.
There is a saying: “The Devil is in the details.” I am not sure why the term is Devil in that saying, but it means that the importance or the significance is in the details. This is very true as you are planning a big event like a reunion, such as you had here this summer. It would certainly be true in planning a wedding or a family gathering. The details are what make us remember those things. Details are even important in how we enjoy a stay at a nice hotel or with a family member who is an extra gracious host. Details, the little things, the extra niceties make a trip, a vacation, a reunion or even a work conference something worth attending.
I remember back a few years when my mother was still catering. She agreed to do a meal for a reunion on a farm near Linton. The entire reunion was out on the original family homestead. My sister and I had a little lunch-wagon there. We were one of two food places set up for that weekend, and my mother served the Saturday night meal. The details at that reunion were quite extensive. For starters when you drove into the yard, the driveway was lined with flags from each state and Canadian province of those registered. The field beside the road was divided out for row after row of campers, and the gathering tent was set up to switch easily from dance floor to church service as needed. Even the porta-potties had hand cleaners in them. They were all about the details, the little things that made their reunion successful.
Today, though, I don’t want to talk only about the details of our scripture. Today, on this Labor Day weekend when we can see the end of summer pretty close around the corner, I want us to step back from the details, step away from those little extravagant points and put a wider angle on our camera lens. Today I want us to turn a 180 and take some time to look at the big picture. Looking past the specifics is not always easy; it is not always something we remember to do. Sometimes looking at the big picture is hard to grasp. What is the meaning in the grand scheme of things? What is the purpose or the wider scope of what is going on in this lesson, in the gospel of Mark?
Today’s story is more than Jesus healing two people, one a young girl with a demon and the other a man deaf from birth. If we stop and look at the place these stories fit into the gospel of Mark we find them at the end of a series of stories sandwiched so to speak between two feeding miracles. But let’s back up just a bit further to the beginning of chapter 6.
Not so long ago we talked about how Jesus rejected in Nazareth in his home town. Some of the experts want to argue that Jesus came to earth to bring salvation to his people, the Jewish people, the nation of Israel, but because he was rejected by them, he expanded his mission and shared his salvation with everyone. I can’t buy that narrow focus. I can’t believe in a God who is that selfish. Maybe I am wrong, it wouldn’t be the first time, but I just can’t believe that God sent Jesus only to the Israelites.
Our Epistle lesson in the book of James talks about not showing favoritism to the wealthy. This was a teaching in the early church and one we are to hold to even today, if we are not to show favoritism in areas of wealth and social status, how are we to think that God holds favoritism based on nationality? In many of our churches today, the lectionary and the focus is on those who labor, especially in jobs of service and manual work. In a farming community, we know about manual labor and hard work. Just because we work in the soil shouldn’t make us any less in God’s kingdom, and just because we hold the deeds to that soil shouldn’t make us any more in that kingdom.
But I am getting off track, back to the big picture: in chapter 6 Jesus was rejected in his hometown then he sends his disciples out in pairs to proclaim the good news, there is the story of the death of John the Baptist, and finally the feeding of the 5,000. From the miracle feeding story Mark moves to the passage we had last week. That was when we talked about the disciples eating without performing the traditional washing of their hands, and Jesus told them that it isn’t what goes into the mouth, but what comes out that matters. First he fed everyone on the hillside then he said that the rituals of the Jewish leaders regarding eating were not that important. Eating something or more, not eating something wasn’t the way to salvation.
So here we are today with the details of two little stories of how Jesus when he tries to get away from it all, ends up being bothered to heal someone. Those of us who read these stories alone, out of the context of the bigger story, don’t really realize what “next step” this is in the entire story. Jesus has left Nazareth and gone north to the area of Tyre which is populated mostly by Gentiles. Presumably he is going away for some time to rest, time away from his own people who are clamoring for his teaching and his healing. But he isn’t able to escape those in need of his help.
The first person who comes to him for help is a woman, a Syrophoenician. She comes not for herself but for her daughter. We already know how bad this request is. This woman, a gentile woman no less is asking for help from a Jewish man. Although there is some thought that she is a wealthy woman, and perhaps a widow. This idea comes from the statement about the child being in a bed. However the case, she shouldn’t be out and about talking to a man that is not a relative when there is no man with her, at least none that the story mentions. Also she is asking for help for a daughter, a son we might understand, but a daughter.
When Jesus mentioned the children’s food thrown to the dogs, this is likely a reference to the fact that she is Gentile (often referred to as dogs) and not a child of God, the Israelites should be healed and cared for first. But she comes back at him. The belief among Biblical scholars is that Jesus was questioning her to see how strong her faith was, how great her belief was, and she proves her belief when she says that even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table. She would take what she could get, and Jesus healed her child as they spoke.
Jesus gave healing to the female child of a pagan Gentile woman. He spoke with and helped a woman who came and bowed at his feet, perhaps in a proximity very unacceptable to a Jewish man. Her she was calling him Sir in a sign of respect for his status as a teacher of something greater. Mark does not record anyone else as addressing Jesus in this way, especially not anyone of his own people. She was an outsider, a woman, and he not only spoke to her, but granted her request.
The next story is about how Jesus healed a deaf man who was unable to speak well because of his inability to hear. Jesus takes a more tactile approach to healing this man. He puts his fingers into the ears, spits on them, touches his tongue and looks to heaven before saying, “Be opened.” Certainly he could have healed this man without all of the touching and such, like he did for the woman’s daughter. Yet, he takes the time to heal this man/face to face then tell him to keep this to himself. Be opened.
What is opened in this miracle is more than the man’s ears. The minds of the disciples and those who are witnesses to this miracle are opened. “They were astounded beyond measure.” How could they possibly not witness to what they saw? How could anyone keep this to themselves? It wasn’t possible. And in keeping with my idea of looking at this story in context, the very next chapter begins with a story about how Jesus fed the 4,000 in the very region where he performed these miracles, the area of the Gentiles. His witness is for all, his healing is for all; his salvation is for all.
According to what we read in Mark, Jesus looks to heaven and asks that the deaf man’s ears be opened. Yet, maybe the request is for far more than that. Maybe the request is that our ears, our lives to be open to what is being offered to us. Jesus came not just for the people, the nation that he was born into as a human. Jesus came for all of us. As Christians we need to remember that we have not replaced the nation of Israel, the Jewish leaders as the “keepers of the law.” The non Christians, or those who don’t sit beside us on Sunday mornings, or look like us in our methods of worship, those are not the new Gentiles, the new unclean. We are not “above” the rest because we profess to be Christian, or even because we are the “right” sort of Christian.
James is very careful to let us know there is no right to favoritism in Christianity. He writes of partiality in terms of status and looks, and we know all too well what our own partialities might be. They are everything from skin color to gender to age to occupations to size of bank accounts. Jesus was not partial when he healed someone, or when he fed the multitudes, and he certainly wasn’t partial when he died for humanity.
James reminds us that when we accept that fact, when we really believe and accept Jesus as our salvation, when we have that faith, we are to share it with those around us in more than words. Real faith, real belief in Jesus means that we will act our faith. We will be open to sharing the love of Christ with those around us in real ways. When I was hungry you fed me, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was thirsty you gave me a drink, and real faith isn’t worried about how the person looks that you are reaching out to help. Let’s go out this week and do that with the people we meet. Amen!