Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

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Open to a Better Story

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."

Allow me to begin with a series of disappointing stories:

The other day my wife and I decided to go out to eat at one of the trendy new restaurants in Indianapolis that we had heard a lot about. We looked it up online and saw that it was closed.  So, we didn’t go.

I bought a book last year that I was really excited to read. I placed it on the top of my “to read” pile in my office. To this day I have not cracked it open. 

Some people were once presented with an idea that challenged them; so they did not even try to understand the idea, nor understand the person who posited the idea. These people successfully avoided having their minds changed and were able to go about business as usual. 

An archaeologist discovered a long-lost ancient Egyptian vault said to contain treasures of unparalleled value. The archaeologist never opened the vault to explore it and he never told anyone else about it. 

A new family moved into a community. The parents and the children all found it difficult to make friends in this new place because it seemed like everyone they met already had enough friends. The new family continues to feel sad and alone.

A child unwrapped a gift from under the Christmas tree and found the one present she wanted most. Unfortunately, it was one of those clam shell packages encased with thick plastic that is heat-sealed all the way around and nearly impossible to open by any mere mortal. So the present remained firmly encased in molded plastic until the family could figure out how to open the package. 

These are all pretty disappointing stories. I could unpack each one, add more details, and flesh out the characters, but it wouldn’t change the fact that these are not stories that resonate with us. They are uninteresting and fail to speak to the heart of the human condition because these are stories about things being closed. Restaurants, books, minds, discoveries, groups, presents – these are all things that are only worthwhile when they are open.

We love things that are open. When I say the phrase, “open it up,” it likely brings a smile to your face as you think about an experience of flooring the accelerator of a car or perhaps holding a wrapped gift. The only reason your friends are your friends is because you were all open; they took a risk in inviting you into their hearts, you took a risk in being vulnerable and reaching out. One of the appeals about buying things online is that the store is always open. And I venture a guess that your favorite book is one that you have actually opened and read.

Today’s gospel is ultimately about openness. However, to get there we first have to endure the disappointing story of Jesus NOT being open.

The Syrophoenician woman in the first half of today’s gospel has a daughter with an unclean spirit. The woman seeks out the notorious miracle-worker named Jesus. This is a radical decision because Jesus is a Hebrew man and she is neither of those things. She is a Gentile (that is, not Hebrew) and a woman, which means she has no religious or cultural right to ask a rabbi to heal her daughter. Jesus is well within his religious and cultural rights of his time to say no to her. And boy does he say no!

Did you catch that from the story? The woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter and Jesus doesn’t just say “No!”; he actually calls the woman and her daughter dogs, which is an unmistakable racial slur.  

This is a story about closed-minded Jesus, and it’s disappointing. This is a picture of the Son of God looking a suffering woman in the face and saying, “Sorry, but you’re not worth my time, my compassion, or my miracles because you are not the right type of person.”

The woman remains steadfast, however, and refuses to take no for an answer.  With some quick thinking, she turns Jesus’ prejudice on its head and points out an insight that fills her with strength and hope – the truth that God’s kingdom is more expansive than even Jesus had yet come to believe.

This desperate woman pushes Jesus, stretches his vision of God's grace, and makes clear to him that there is room in God's kingdom for all, for Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, insider and outsider, even so-called dogs like her and her daughter. Jesus’ mind and heart is open because of the woman’s bravery.

She persisted and her hopeful insight changes the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Recall that from there, Jesus then goes to the Decapolis, which is a Gentile area, and continues his ministry of teaching and healing among both Jews and Gentiles.  

Which brings us to the second part of today’s gospel, where Jesus restores the hearing and speech of a man who is deaf. He does so by putting his fingers in the man’s ears, then spitting (why, or on what, we do not know), touching the man’s tongue, sighing, and saying “Ephphatha” (Aramaic for “Be opened”). 

Sighing and saying “Be opened.” People, this is beautiful. A man who, just a couple verse ago, was hurling verbal dismissive close-minded insults at a Gentile woman is now in a Gentile land healing people by commanding them to “be open.” 

Fair warning to any of us who would be inspired to follow in Jesus’ footsteps: this openness takes a toll on Jesus. He’s still trying to figure out this new open version of himself. We see this in how he takes the man away from the crowd where no one can see. We see this in the way that he sighs before healing the man, which could mean Jesus is still a little hesitant. And we see this in his request that the account of the healing be kept silent. 

Another fair warning to any of us who would be inspired to follow in his footsteps: once Jesus starts down this path, he doesn’t stop. And this path leads to his conquering the power of death on behalf of all people, be they Hebrew, Gentile, man, woman, rich, poor, dark skinned or light skinned, old, young, master or slave. 

Throughout this next week, as you follow the footsteps of Jesus in your daily life, I encourage you to reflect on what it means that the Son of God moved from closed-mindedness to open-mindedness. I encourage you to adopt a spiritual posture of openness to new possibilities, new people, and new ideas. And I encourage you to be open to a better story.


Humble Passion

Mark 2:23–3:6

One sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then [Jesus] said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

The message for today is about humility; and for once, Jesus is not the hero of the story. In fact, he is the example of what not to do.

Today’s gospel story comes in two parts, both dealing with Jesus’s confrontation with other religious people around the topic of the Sabbath.

In act one, Jesus and his disciples are walking on a journey and glean some wheat from a field. As this all takes place on the day of Sabbath, anyone who witnesses their actions is right to point out that Jesus and the disciples are in the wrong. The Sabbath day is a day of rest commanded by God. Journeying from one place to another is something that should be done on the other 6 days of the week. If they absolutely had to embark on a journey on a Sabbath day, the very least they could have done was to pack their lunches the day before. That is simply part of what it means to observe the Sabbath.

But here they are breaking long-held religious instructions in plain view.  When confronted by others, they do not apologize or offer an excuse. Instead, Jesus equates himself with David, who  broke Sabbath in order to feed people bread. Then Jesus goes even further by declaring that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. The religious people find this utterly despicable.

If you haven’t picked up on what the big deal is, perhaps it would help to recall that the disciples were teenagers and Jesus was likely in his late-twenties, early-thirties. This is a conflict on many levels, including generational. These young kids burst onto the scene with no respect for religious traditions, customs, or rules; and then have the audacity to say not only are they not sorry, but they are making new rules. 

And so, the scene is set for act 2, in which the Pharisees watch this arrogant rebellious Jesus enter the synagogue on the Sabbath and heal a man with a withered hand. 

If you haven’t found this interesting, even with me having just called Jesus “arrogant,” then maybe you’ll find this next idea compelling. 

Jesus is often made out to the be hero of these stories because he makes the claim that feeding and healing take priority over the religious barriers that would have otherwise prevented them from receiving help. But here’s the catch: this is something the Hebrew people believed already. This was not a new radical approach to Sabbath living.

Scholars cite traditional rabbinic sayings including:“Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.”*

To clarify, by healing the man on the Sabbath Jesus isn’t really even breaking Sabbath rules. Even if it was technically a violation of the Sabbath, there was a precedent for doing exactly what he did. The issue is not the Sabbath nor the responsibility of feeding or healing; rather this is all about a conflict of personality. 

The Pharisees see Jesus as an arrogant usurper and a dangerous youth who would tear apart everything they hold dear. Jesus sees the Pharisees as heart-hardened guardians of a faith that keeps people at arm’s length from full restoration and participation in God’s kingdom.

These are two opposing forces that believe in mostly the same things. For all intents and purposes, they are on the same team, yet they are positioned as enemies. This might take some imagination on your part, but one could equate it with conflict within a team, or a family, or a church…which always seem to be the most painful conflicts, right?

It’s the reason religion and politics are the taboo topics of today. We so closely associate our sense of self with our religious and political persuasions that we cannot entertain any other perspectives. We perceive different perspectives as direct threats to our sense of self. Even when we agree with one another 98% of the time, we fixate on the 2% in the other person that we don’t understand and refuse to take one step towards one another. And, as indicated at the end of today’s gospel, such conflicts are often drawn out to the bitter end, with the destruction one or both parties involved. 

I believe the antidote is humility, and again, I don’t look to the Jesus of today’s gospel passage for inspiration.

Instead, here’s where I saw this idea play out recently.

Throughout May a group of us read and discussed a book by self-described “lunatic libertarian Christian farmer” Joel Salatin. This book is his attempt to explain his theological rationale for his farming methods, which cover topics including free-range livestock, non-GMO crops, farming without pesticides and herbicides, and many more related topics.

Very few people liked the book, to put it mildly. The primary reason was because the author comes across as very judgmental, harsh, rigid, and arrogant. The author believes deeply and passionately that his model of farming can feed the world and restore God’s creation; but he was unable to convince many of us because of his oppositional attitude and his unwillingness to compromise or empathize with the forces he was setting himself up against. 

Knowing that interest in the book was rapidly waning through the weeks, I scheduled a trip to Tyner Pond Farm in Greenfield this past week. This is the farming operation that provides home delivery throughout the Indy-area, as well as the meat and eggs to the Mug restaurants as well as Grigsby’s Station in Greenfield. I wanted to introduce our book group participants to the owners and farmers at Tyner Pond Farm because they were practicing Joel Salatin’s farming techniques in a tangible, accessible, inspiring, and humble way.

As you can imagine, our day at the farm was a completely different experience than anything that had happened in our book discussions at church. Amy Baggot, one of the owners and farmers, spent the entire morning with us, excitedly taking us from farm to farm introducing us to piglets, herds of cattle, and hundreds of chickens. She spoke with passion about her calling to raise animals in a way that honors their unique role in God’s creation. She talked about loving and being inspired by her animals. She embodied the important principles the author was trying to make in his book; but which we found inaccessible due to the author’s arrogance. And even the most skeptical among us were smiling at the glory of their farm. 

Our minds, and consequently our behaviors, are incredibly resistant to new information. Facts do not change our behavior. Other peoples’ insistence and/or arrogance does not change our behavior.

In order for our behavior to change we must be inspired. Typically the ones who inspire us are the ones who are most passionate – ones for whom their passion is presented not from the volume of their voice or insistence they are right, but more from their ability to draw peace and hope from their passion and let it spread across their very way of being in the world.

Today’s gospel is a warning about how easily we can become entrenched in our beliefs and how that entrenchment can lead to needless suffering and destruction. The flip side of this warning is the promise held out of just how easy it is to transform the world when our passions are expressed through expressions of humility, wonder, and grace. 


* Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 33.

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