Encounter

A Sermon for 9 September 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 7:24-37.  And to put this reading in context, it’s important to know that Jesus just had come from a pretty rocky confrontation with some Pharisees and scribes who traveled from Jerusalem to Galilee.  Likely they were there to check out what was going on around one gaining fame.  For everywhere Jesus went, he was being begged by the people to be healed.  Certainly, rumors had reached Jerusalem of the one in Galilee who was gathering followers, healing outcasts, and sharing his mission by sending out those learning from him.  When curious Pharisees and scribes find Jesus, they are not at all happy that the disciples of Jesus blatantly disregard the traditions of the elders.  The wise ones of Judaism had declared that food from the market must be washed.  Hands too.  But Jesus’ disciples were eating out in the open – without washing their hands.  The concerned leaders from Jerusalem had to think that if this sacred tradition was so easily being disregarded, what other ways might Jesus and his gang go on to the rock the boat?  Incensed, Jesus lets these Pharisees and scribes have it!  Quoting Isaiah against them, Jesus proclaims them hypocrites.  He charges that they stick to human traditions while abandoning the commands of God (Mark 7:6-8).  Jesus turns to the crowd, likely with these Pharisees and scribes still standing there offended.  He tells them that it is that which comes from the inside out that defiles – not the other way around.  Explaining to his followers in private he says:  “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come . . . and they (are what) defile a person” (Mark 7:23).  Whether Jesus intentionally leaves that place with his disciples to give them a concrete lesson, or if he just has to get away for a bit for a break; next we hear this.  Listen for God’s word to us in a reading of Mark 7:24-37.

“From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.  26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.  She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.  31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.  32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.  33 Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and 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.  36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.  37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

In the book The Word Before the Powers:  An Ethic of Preaching, homiletics professor Dr. Charles Campbell writes this chilling challenge:  “The church is called intentionally and habitually to move out of the places of security and comfort into those ‘unclean’ places where Jesus suffers ‘outside the gate of the sacred compounds,’ whether those compounds are shaped by religion or class or race or culture.”  Campbell continues, “Through such dislocation, privileged Christians cross the boundaries that keep the privileged and oppressed apart and take a first step toward solidarity with the poor, which, in a consumer culture, is one way of radically contesting the Domination System” (pp. 153-154).  . . .  So, in 2005 while I was doing specialized ministry with children and their families in a large, upper-class congregation that was 99.8% filled with white-skinned people; I decided to test Campbell’s theory.  We created a ministry opportunity for fifth and sixth graders called the Practice of Encounter:  Kids Connected in Christ.  I might have mentioned this before.  We explained to parents and children what they were getting themselves into – a qualitative research project for a Doctor of Ministry degree in Gospel and Culture.  The gist of it was that once a month for a full school year, the children of the church where I was serving would go across the river to a church near the Martha O’Bryan Center – which, at the time of the Practice of Encounter in 2005 (just four years after 9/11), was in the center of Nashville’s largest, most economically disadvantaged housing project, the James A. Cayce Homes.  One Thursday afternoon a month, a small group from a Green Hills congregation and a small group from a Cayce Homes congregation simply came together.  As children do:  we played games, talked about school, and got to know one another.  This continued once a month – fifth and sixth graders from different sides of our city – merely encountering one another to see what we might find.

For what do we find when we truly encounter one another?  Especially when the ones we encounter are perceived others?  . . .  After a year of the children encountering each other and keeping a journal to write about their experiences, here’s what Practice of Encounter participants said they learned about encountering others.  One pre-teen of the church near the Cayce Homes said:  “even though we are different, we still can have fun together!”  Another said that “everybody has more things in common than people think.”  One child from the Green Hills congregation proclaimed:  “I understand now (after the Practice of Encounter) that we can’t survive without each other.”  At the close of the year in a formal group interview held to discover what the children learned, another from the Green Hills church reported that before the Practice of Encounter, I thought that “neighbors were people next to me; now everyone is my neighbor.”  This was the same child that wrote in a Sunday School class that when she was on the other side of the city with the children there, she “felt really connected to God” (Jule M. Nyhuis in Nurturing Faith in a Bifurcated Generation:  A Practice of Dislocation for Children to Resist the Forces of the Domination System; 2007; p. 31.  Copy available at Columbia Theological Seminary Library; Decatur, GA).

I think about that year-long Practice of Encounter every time we bump into the story of Jesus’ intentional dislocation to Tyre.  All sorts of strangers reside in Tyre.  Certainly, Jesus knew that.  Tyre is a city of Gentiles on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea – filled with Greeks and Romans of the Empire, who in the days of Jesus were despised as outsiders.  Others.  Those most good, God-fearing Jews would steer clear of, as the inherited human traditions had taught.  It kinda makes you wonder if Jesus had some concrete learning lessons in mind as he and his disciples traveled to encounter others.  As if tongue-in-cheek, Jesus calls the woman he would meet in Tyre a dog just to see the reaction he’d get from his disciples—like to see if they got what he really was about?  Maybe wondering if those who already have read the first six chapters of the gospel of Mark would take as much offense to Jesus’ outright refusal of the pleas of that scared Syrophoenician momma, as the Jewish keepers of the law took offense to being called hypocrites by some itinerant Galilean healer who was willing to hold up a mirror to their souls.

So much has been written of these stories taking place outside the sacred compound – beyond the borders of ancient Palestine.  Tyre being in modern-day Lebanon and the ten cities of the Decapolis, north and east of the Sea of Galilee lying mainly in modern-day Syria and Jordan.  Even one way up in the Golan Heights where to this day, day and night, Israeli tanks are aimed across the border to ensure their neighboring nations stay out!  Commentators have wondered if this text shows Jesus’ own cultural biases of Jews sticking to their own tribe for purity and protection sake.  Some feminist biblical scholars decry the Jesus pictured in the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman as a man bested verbally by a woman – her hutzpah as a momma-bear-kind-of-woman fearlessly backing down from no one.  Not even God in human flesh.  Those who need to cling to a high view of Christ’s divinity have trouble with the story of an encounter that seems to broaden Jesus’ understanding of just who he is and how wide is the inclusive welcome of the God he embodies in flesh.  While others see in this story the divinity of Christ as something the human Jesus discovered along the way, like an evolving process – an understanding strongly supported according to the earliest written gospel, which is Mark.  The gospel where a man named Jesus from Nazareth shows up to be baptized, hears his name as the Beloved of God, and is driven into the wilderness to wrestle until he emerges with a call to proclaim the good news of God.  The gospel of Mark putting on Jesus’ lips the words:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).  . . .  The more I listen to Jesus’ encounter with the mother, the more I hear a wisdom exchange.  Almost as if Jesus is a wise sage speaking a mysterious riddle to the woman.  Who calmer than one trained for the non-violent protests of the lunch counter sit-ins, simply stands in her truth unflappable.  To remind the wise old teacher that the table of grace is large enough, and potent enough, and enough for those, who some consider dogs – fit only to be under the table, to find also all that they need.  Honestly, I don’t know the best way to navigate what some consider to be one of the most difficult stories about Jesus.

But the text makes clear this:  Jesus intentionally takes a route out of Galilee – away from the ground he’d daily been covering.  He dis-locates himself and his followers to encounter others.  And what he finds there is faith.  Deep faith.  A mother willing to take just a crumb if it means her own child could be healed.  A woman who understands she’s dealing with a God of enough.  A “dog” so absolutely centered in her worthiness so that no other words will crack her trust in the One who can heal – the One who binds us all.  For that’s what happens in encounter.  We learn a bit more of what God’s up to in the lives of others.  The little boxes of the truth we’ve come to know from our lives get opened up bigger – perhaps obliterated all together so that at last we stand in humility before the One who will not be contained.  We bow before the Mystery which is Love itself.  Knowing at last that we all need each other to survive – to thrive!

However we make sense of the story of Jesus’ encounters outside; what’s left to decide is:  will we, the church of Jesus Christ today, intentionally and habitually move out of our places of security – outside the gates of our sacred compounds – open to encounter.  Ready to be humbled by all we will find.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

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