Playing Favorites

A sermon on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost / First Lutheran Church / 9-6-15 / John Stiles

Mark 7:24-37
From there he 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, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
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. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Crayon and Crayon Drawing --- Image by © Simon Jarratt/Corbis

Crayon and Crayon Drawing — Image by © Simon Jarratt/Corbis

Children’s Time: Show a box of crayons – “Do you have a favorite?” I want you to close your eyes and just pick one and we’ll read their names. What if you didn’t get your favorite color? Is that okay? Today’s lessons are about playing favorites. Jesus was taught that God’s favorite people – were his people: the Jews. He never thought maybe God cared about others just as much. When we only notice people who are pretty and rich and famous and have nice clothes and lots of money… then we’re missing something very important, says Jesus. We’re playing favorites and missing one of our own brothers or sisters. As you go back to school, I want you to be looking for people who others might not notice – I want you to see them as a brother or sister and give them a smile and just let them know they matter to you. You might just make someone’s day! You can keep the crayon if you like.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God, our First Love, in Christ Jesus – let all who hear say Come. Amen.

Have you ever had one of those days where you simply felt deaf, blind & dumb?  I went kayaking this week for the first time in months – my wife Sandy (who is recovering from knee surgery) pretty much kicked me out of the house: “I’m fine! Get out there and go kayaking, for goodness sake!” So I did, and it was the perfect night for being out on the water. Just beautiful. As the sun was going down, we headed back for the landing, then had planned to go to Hassie’s for a burger. And that’s when it happened – I flipped my kayak. You know how things happen so fast sometimes? The first thing you think of is: “I’m upside down with my feet wedged into this contraption – I gotta get outta here!” So I kicked my way free and gulped for some fresh air – coughing out the lake water I’d snorted up my nose. Then it was all about finding my hat, my paddle, but where are my car keys and cell phone! You see, I’d had them safely tucked into a ziplock baggie, stuffed into my swimsuit pocket… It must’ve popped out when I kicked my way free. So, there I was – stranded without a car and no way to phone home, soaked to the bone – like a hapless puppy who’d stumbled into the deep end – needing to be rescued. And the folks in the club were wonderful – some paddled out to see if they could find the phone, while others called my number from the shore – I swam out, peering through the weeds for that faint blue glow. No luck. We looked for15 minutes and finally I said, “Well, I was due for an upgrade anyway.” One club member offered to drive me home to get the spare car key and we were able to activate an older phone with my number to keep me connected over the Labor Day weekend. But still, I wonder, had I been just some sopping wet Syrophoenician, walking along the road – would I have been helped? Had I not belonged to “the club” how might I have fared?

Today’s lessons are all about noticing the people that everyone else has forgotten or ignored. This is incredibly timely, as we watch news stories of the unfolding refugee crisis in Europe. Thousands of Syrians and Iraqi refugees are fleeing the country after years of drought and warfare have forced them out of their homeland. The images that are most troubling are those of drowned children, washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Having been turned away in Europe, many take their chances at sea, often with tragic consequences.

These images are hard for us to see – especially when they challenge us in our own country and community – to declare that “Black Lives Matter.” Or, there is that image from my high school text book of a black man, during the civil rights movement, wearing a sandwich board sign that simply read: “I AM A MAN.” Why should anyone have to wear such a sign? Well, only if one has been treated as less than human, I suppose.” Jesus had to deal with this in his own time, as the Gentiles were seen as outsiders – lost to the world. Like ISIS, these folks were ruthless, godless heathens to be scorned and shunned at all costs. But there is Jesus, taking his day off in the region of Tyre – smack dab in Gentile territory.

He didn’t want anyone to know he was there. But someone noticed. A Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter was sick threw herself at Jesus’ feet, begging for help. It says that her daughter had an unclean spirit (which could mean a lot of different things). Makes no difference. His reputation has preceded him and there was no escape.

Jesus’ reply is cold and harsh: “Let the children be fed first, for it’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But the woman’s comeback is even better: “Sir, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” So, for saying that, he heals her daughter.

And then, on his way back to town, he gets ambushed again. This time it’s a guy’s friends who come begging for help. He’s deaf & couldn’t ask for help if he wanted to. Can you help him? I remember having to preach on this lesson for one of my first sermons ever and it drove me crazy! I couldn’t decide what to say. Okay, so Jesus heals this deaf guy. He stuck his fingers in his ears, spit & touched the guy’s tongue and says some weird things in Greek: Ephphatha (which means be opened). And he can hear again and speak. Yay for him! …But what’s the point? We’re all supposed to “be opened?”

Where’s the good news in that? And what’s with all the begging? When people resort to begging it’s usually because they’ve tried everything else. What could be more humiliating than begging? More un-American? Instead of telling her, “Get a job, lady! There ain’t no free lunch” Jesus comes up with something much more diplomatic. “Why throw the children’s food to the dogs!”

Incredible! Nowhere else in the Bible does Jesus refuse to heal someone. So, why does he insult this woman and her child? Karoline Lewis, from Luther Seminary, reminds us that this woman already had faith before she came to see Jesus. She had already heard a “Yes” from God. She writes: “The Syrophoenician woman tells Jesus, ‘Guess, what? Jesus. God said yes to me. God said yes to me when God tore open the heavens. God said yes to me when God decided to show up in the wilderness rather than in the temple. God said yes to me when you came here instead of spending all your time in Jerusalem. It’s okay to be me, so get over yourself, Jesus.’”

And with the deaf guy – and all my worrying about what to say in that first sermon 22 years ago… I guarantee you, he was not at a loss for words!

And then it dawned on me how different my life is from these people, living on the outside. If one of my kids were sick and some traveling preacher from Nazareth was passing through, I would probably just go the Essentia Health clinic. This church provides great health insurance for my family. I don’t know what it’s like to have that safety net yanked out from under me because of illness, job loss, or foreclosure – to have to make the decision between paying rent or buying food or medicine.

This is where I need to be healed of my blindness and my deafness each day. Because I often don’t see this woman – even today – even as a pastor – my eyes can become clouded by sin and by showing partiality. It was Langston Hughes who once said, “I tire so of hearing people say, ‘Let things take their course. Tomorrow is another day.’ I do not need my freedom when I’m dead. I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.” How will we – today – see in a new way?

Well, it’s also, Labor Day Weekend – a time we remember all the vocations we toil at, day and night, during those 5 or 6 days of the week. In a recent issue of Esquire magazine, college professor, Tom Chiarella, conducted his own experiment of vocations when he decided to wear a different uniform each day and see if he was treated any differently. He dressed as a security guard, an auto mechanic, a priest and a doctor – all with vastly different results. As the security guard, hardly anyone noticed him – but his presence was accepted wherever he happened to be standing (whether it was in the mall or the bus depot). He marveled that he could have literally spent the entire day without anyone saying a word to him as a security guard. As an auto mechanic, it was even worse. It was all he could do just to hail a cab, waving a wrench over his head! As a priest, he noticed how polite people became, offering a smile or a slight bow – and sometimes they even reached out to ask for a blessing. But as a doctor, Chiarella received the most attention and help. As he ducked in and out of bars and coffee shops, trying to look busy, thumbing through some important texts on his iPhone – people made room for him – offered him drinks – or asked if there was anything they could do for him. As Chiarella summed it up in his article:

“They took little bits from the priest, and ignored the security guard, and didn’t bother to see the mechanic, but they gave to the doctor. Ceaselessly and for many city blocks.” –Tom Chiarella (in Esquire) All because of a uniform! (I’m thinking of wearing scrubs on Stewardship Sunday – that’s all I’m sayin’!)

Maybe what we need is to see past the uniforms we wear each day – to acknowledge the human being – the brother or sister inside? How might our lives be changed if we acknowledged our utter dependence on Jesus for our every need? And our dependence on each other to make a good and just society? How might our lives be changed if we saw in the other a fellow child of God, precious in God’s sight?

I once attended a workshop by Craig McNair Wilson, formerly with the Walt Disney Corporation. He claimed that there were 2 words that would forever change your life: “assume brilliance.” What would happen if we assumed brilliance in everyone we met?

This might mean letting go for a moment of our dearly held perceptions of what God is like… so we might see God “in the least of these.” Or, as James said in 2nd lesson: “If you show partiality you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

How hard would it be to look past Jesus’ “No” and find the “Yes” hidden deep down?

Sometimes it takes a rude awakening to cure us of our blindness and deafness.

That’s our theme for this coming fall: AWAKEN YOUR FAITH!  How will we AWAKEN OUR FAITH this coming fall? What will we need to do to get there and show that our faith is not without works?

God has so much in store for each color in your box of crayons – for you and for me – let’s assume brilliance in everyone we meet – let’s keep that hand of faith outstretched toward God, from whom all blessings flow – and let’s cling to God’s YES amidst all the world’s NO’s.

Let us pray: O God, pray for just a crumb of your bread, trusting it will provide all we need for today. Open our eyes to the many ways we fail to see – and help us to get over ourselves, and be about the work of your mission before us – we ask it in the strong name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.

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