Exorcisms, the Pope, and Radically Inclusive Healing Love. A sermon on Mark 9:38-50

Mark 9:38-50

38 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 44 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. , 46 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

I have to confess that never during my years as an ordained pastor, nor in any time before ordination, have I been present for an exorcism. No one has invited me to one, and I haven’t stumbled upon one, either. Now, I’m sure our advances in scientific understanding have contributed to the infrequency of demons getting cast out of people in our culture. I expect the Church’s tendency to let others, perhaps to a fault, take the lead in healing work has as well. But in any case, I have to believe that if I saw something so powerful taking place, I would not get in the way of it. I can’t imagine that I would say, “Stop all of this great work of healing and wholeness!”

So as hard as it is for me to intellectually grasp the possibility of an exorcism, the reaction of the disciples in this passage is even more unbelievable. How did it go? One day John and some other followers of Jesus happened to notice a crowd of villagers celebrating around one of their neighbors who had been restored to health miraculously. They came closer and discovered another man at the center whom everyone held responsible for the healing, though he himself gave all credit to Jesus. Then the disciples, who were just coming off a failed exorcism attempt of their own, it should be noted, instinctually shut it down. Apparently they were successful at this, stopping the man. They got the outsider to quit healing people, to quit setting people free from evil powers before they reported back to Jesus, bragging about what they had done. And they expected Jesus to commend them? That’s what sounds so impossible to me.

We have heard Jesus teach quite clearly the past few weeks—so I assume they heard it, too—that winning is not the real goal. You gain your life by losing, Jesus said. Serving others is what true greatness looks like. Don’t hope for fame and glory for yourself. Take as your role model in life a little child instead, for in welcoming such a child you are living out your true purpose. But right after hearing all of this, they came back to Jesus and seemed to say, “Thanks for all the nice things you’ve been saying about self-emptying discipleship, but aren’t you proud of us for stopping this other guy who isn’t on our team?”

Flannery O’Connor once insightfully commented that in the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures. So if this Gospel passage seems to make a caricature out of John and the other disciples, maybe that’s because we ourselves have such a hard time seeing. No, I’ve personally never prevented a successful exorcism and I doubt you have either, but I know there have been times when I have defined too narrowly where and through whom God might perform healing work. For instance, do I rejoice as much with the person who found healing in a Buddhist meditation as the one who discovered similar peace in Christian centering prayer? Maybe, but maybe not. Or, to use another example, am I quite as ready to celebrate with the Baptists in what they have been doing to put an end to harmful payday lending practices as I am with our own efforts and the efforts of the coalition we have worked so hard to form. It’s different somehow, isn’t it? But if healing is the goal, then why does it matter who performs it? If liberation is what we seek, why would it matter who the liberator is?

Today Jesus reminds John and any of his followers who might get overly excited about themselves that he isn’t interested in gathering the best disciples into his tribe like a player trying to draft the best fantasy football team. This is not a competition with other healers and other servants of the common good. Quite the contrary, the Bible reminds us that God’s imagination for what the world can be like is typically much more inclusive than the imagination of God’s people. As one theologian put it, “Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside God’s vision and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line! Jesus is always with the outsiders!”

The first task of a disciple is to be where Jesus is, so prepare to be surprised.

This week we’ve seen Jesus in Washington, which might be surprising enough. Now I’m not suggesting that Pope Francis is any kind of Messiah. You and I might have significant differences of opinion with him on a whole number of issues. But how can we as followers of the Jesus described in Mark’s Gospel not respond with enthusiastic prayers of thanksgiving when we hear his clear call to welcome the immigrant, to seek economic justice, to protect and nurture the earth, to put an end to war and militarism, to show mercy to all who are hurting. These are the kinds of issues Christians should be known for at least as much as, say, salt is known for making your popcorn taste better. The work of service, healing, liberation, and justice—all of that is just the church being church. It is who we are. Those few dramatic verses at the end of the Gospel passage today are not to be taken literally but are a hyperbolic way of telling us to get serious about our priorities. We know that preserving our body’s wholeness is important to us; wholeness of a community that serves everyone, including the most vulnerable, should also be so crucial.

Last week, a small group of Holy Trinity members got together to begin dreaming about the future of our children, youth, and family ministries here. There’s a lot of excitement around recent growth in this area. Sue Megrund from Interserve Youth Ministries has been working with us in this dreaming, and she asked us in that meeting last week to name some important values that we share in this congregation. What are our priorities? Ministry with young people should arise out of the overall ministry of this place, so what’s important to us? People named inclusivity, justice, community, hospitality, tradition, creativity, learning, and activism. There may be others, but you probably would name some of those, too. They are important values of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and they are values that should consistently guide our decisions as a congregation on everything from committee projects to building renovation, as we’ll discuss later today. But there was another part to this conversation last week. A couple of people said that while service and social justice have long been important values of this congregation, they sense some nuance to that recently. That is, they believe the congregation has begun to recognize in a new way that we are called both to serve and to be served. We have much to give others, and we have much to receive from others. We have much to teach, and we have much to learn. We can offer a cup of water, but we will need such hospitality offered to us, as well. In other words, many of us are recognizing more and more the reality of our shared vulnerability as human beings in this world, and I believe Christ is powerfully present in our acknowledging it. We are all in need of healing of some sort or another, which is why God chooses to include all of us in a ministry of healing. We are bound up with one another, and any attempts to build walls between us just diminishes God’s liberating work.

At the Youth Gathering in Detroit last summer, one of the speakers we heard from in Ford Field stadium was Rozella White, the ELCA Director for Young Adult Ministry. She is a talented leader who speaks and writes powerfully about Christian faith and a number of social issues. She describes herself as a 33year-old, divorced, Black, Puerto Rican, 3rd generation Lutheran. She said to the Gathering that she also lives with depression and anxiety. She takes 40 milligrams of Prozac, .25 milligrams of Xanax, and Vitamin D supplements daily, medications which are for her non-negotiable. She said if she doesn’t get 8 hours of sleep a night, things start to unravel. If she does not see her therapist regularly, her mind goes to dark places.

As she told her story, she also described her participation in Redeemer Lutheran Church in Atlanta, Georgia. “This church,” she said, “is responsible for loving me back to life. They cared for me in my deepest and darkest hours.”

During her talk that night, Rozella White broke the chains of stigma that so often surround mental illness and can therefore prevent healing. She said, “I still have difficult days. I still have moments of despair. I still wonder if my life is worth living. But I am actively in the process of seeking healing and wholeness, and I am committed to make sure that everyone I encounter knows that they are loved and that they are worthy and that they are enough.”

Hearing her describe her life and ministry was for me a powerful reminder not only of the multiple sources of healing but also of how someone can at once be getting healed and a healer. You can’t make clear lines of distinction. In fact, given the urgency of the needs in our world, we don’t have time for squabbling about who is who, who’s in and who’s not, who’s the doer and who’s the receiver. Christ meets us in the fullness of who we are, each of us, so that all may be made whole. Would that all people were prophets of God’s healing love.

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The one about Arnold Schwarzenegger and all our fragile pieces.

Pastor Ingrid C.A. Rasmussen’s sermon from September 20, 2015

Listen along here.

The gospel according to Mark, the ninth chapter:

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

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It was 2010, and I was completing three years of hard work at Emory University’s theology school in Atlanta, Georgia. The student body was preparing to gather on the lush campus green for graduation. We all knew there would be lots of bagpipes; there always were. We knew the heat would intensify during the outdoor ceremony; it always did. We were just waiting to hear who would be chosen to address the over 20,000 people expected to attend. Whoever it was would find him or herself in good company; former speakers had included the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, and Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop who worked tirelessly against apartheid in South Africa.

The email announcement came. Imagine our surprise when we opened it and read: “Emory University is pleased to announce that Arnold Schwarzenegger will be delivering the commencement address.” Deliver it he did, beginning with what he knew people wanted to hear—that is, his most famous movie lines, beginning with “I’ll Be Back” and closing with “Hasta La Vista, Baby.” Thereafter, he gave a highlights tour through his self-made body-building career. And he closed strong with a discussion of his advantageous relationship with the Kennedys. And, then, just like that, the twenty minute lesson in personal greatness was over, and Arnold’s big, burly bodyguards cleared a path for him through the sun kissed crowd, and he drove off in his shiny, black SUV.

You giggle. My classmates and I did, too. The commencement address was a blatant display of wealth and beauty and esteem and accomplishment and recognition and pride and rightness. It was easy for the divinity students to write Arnold’s speech off—to joke that’s what the university’s Board of Trustees got for refusing to pay their commencement speakers. But, tucked in-between our laughter and overpriced robes and sense of superiority, we quietly knew that we were witnessing something as true as it was silly: in a world that admires the strong, the conversation of greatness is never far away.

Some gospel stories surprise us; Mark 9 is not one of them. Jesus and his eager apprentices are just getting started—just getting into their itinerant grooves, so to speak. For having virtually no experience in the Son of God enterprise, they’re doing pretty well: They’re busily feeding the thousands. They’re healing any sickness they can get their hands on. They’re bringing the dead back to life. They’re taking mountaintop transfigurations in stride. They may not know exactly what they’re doing; they do know they’re Jesus’ great insiders.

You and I are well-qualified to do some Midrash here—to fill in the gaps left by the gospel of Mark’s restrained writer. The conversation about greatness probably began quietly. For these dudes, it wasn’t about celebrity, fortune, or biceps. No, no, they were far more nuanced than that. They quietly wondered about the current direction of Jesus’ favor. They relished in their professional victories. They may have slipped in comments about their children’s accomplishments. And they dreamed of promotions [though we might note that in a company of thirteen with no middle management, there wasn’t a whole lot of room for upward mobility]. It was all relatively innocent—that is, until Jesus reminds them that their destination isn’t success; it’s death. And death doesn’t tolerate the veneers of put-togetherness and greatness that we so carefully tend.

I usually write funeral sermons in my living room. Seated in my favorite spot on the couch, I begin by spreading my notes around me like a fan. Yellow legal paper, scraps of white paper, and an occasional napkin scrawled with words legible only to me. Each of these treasures represents a fragment of the deceased life—her elementary school kickball prowess, her cookie jar collection, her prayer hanging above the kitchen table, her epic failures at forgiveness, her final words to those she loved most; one of my jobs, as the preacher, is to stitch the pieces together into someone we recognize.

I love the days when I am able to do this—not because I relish in loss or am hungry for grief—but because I am reminded that what shows up time and again in the paper trail of someone’s life isn’t magnificence or wealth or greatness. What shows up in death are the familiar fragments—smiles and tenderness, quirks and wrinkles. It’s on these sermon-writing days, cradled in the cushion’s divot created by years of faithful use, that I see clearly that our lives are made up of many fragments—projects and sentences left unfinished. I see that our lives are less like Michelangelo’s David and more like a mosaic in a Rain Garden. The beauty is found in the fragile pieces that come together imperfectly.

Had there been a sick or dying person around during Jesus’ object lesson, I like to imagine that Jesus would have used her and let the child keep playing. But he and his crew had healed everyone already, so he had no other choice than to take the child, and asked his disciples: “Can you love this little boy? Can you accept his fragility? Embrace the beautiful pieces that make him who he is? Can you hold him, though he won’t advance your place in the world? Good, because the truth is that he’ll slow you down. The life we’re leading isn’t about retirement savings and beauty and esteem and accomplishments and rightness and Facebook likes. This gospel has no time for greatness. Are you still with me?”

Of course, it didn’t need to be a child at the center of that circle. It could have been you. It could have been me.

And after the initial embarrassment at being outed by their mentor and the initial disappointment that they weren’t fast-tracking it to success, Jesus’s words must have felt like freedom—the kind of gospel freedom that Nadia Bolz-Weber says “sets ordinary, screwed up people free to be who we are: beloved children of God filled to the brim with inconsistencies.”

It’s one of the marvelous gifts of intimate relationships, of marriage—that is, to trust someone enough to share the fragile pieces of one’s life, and to be entrusted with the fragile pieces of another.

When I first met Anne and Cori, then had just moved into the neighborhood. Their apartment windows overlook the church building. When they looked out the window and saw Holy Trinity, Anne says that she remarked, “We get the hint, God.” They’ve gone from no formal relationship with a faith community to active involvement here in a matter of months. Cori’s been instrumental in the mosaic, she is part of the writer’s group, and she comes in twice a month to send handwritten notes to all of our homebound members. Anne volunteers in the office each week and sings her little alto heart out in the choir. They’re both poets.

I’ve learned a lot about the life of faith from Anne and Cori. Most notably, they are incredibly honest about their fragile pieces, saying that they met on a psychiatric ward, and have accompanied each other through sadness and exhaustion, therapy and hospitalizations these past twenty-three years. They came to Holy Trinity with a level of vulnerability that most of us take years to cultivate. It’s been a gift to be invited into it. And today, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to bear witness to the public promises they make to one another after decades of partnership.

Yes, it must have felt like freedom to the disciples arguing on the way, to hear that God wasn’t interested in their well-tended veneers of greatness. It must have felt like freedom to be forgiven for their vanity. It must have felt like freedom to acknowledge that this life is not grounded in strength and greatness, but, rather, in weakness and grace. It must have felt like freedom to be told that beauty was found in imperfection. It must have felt like freedom for the disciples to hear that God loved them and all their fragile pieces. It must have felt like freedom.

What does it feel like for you?

AMEN.

The Call to Follow and to Leave Behind, Jay’s sermon from September 13

Mark 8:27-38

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

When I was in about first or second grade, I remember gathering around the TV one evening to watch the annual broadcast of the movie, The Wizard of Oz. Someone in my family—I’m not sure who—suggested that we adjust the color and tint settings on the television to make the display a little greener. If you remember the movie, it begins in black and white, but then when Dorothy and Toto are whisked away by a tornado to the Land of Oz, everything changes to Technicolor, and we see the vibrant greens of Oz and especially the Emerald City. For my family, after monkeying with the TV, the greens were even more vibrant.

It wasn’t until just last a couple of weeks ago that I learned that what we had done was actually in keeping with the original story of Wizard of Oz. In that book, which is quite different than the movie, the Emerald City is in fact not any greener than any other city. Rather, in that story, when the Wizard first arrived in Oz from Omaha by way of hot air balloon, the first thing he did in Oz after ascending to power was to require all of the Emerald City’s residents to put on green tinted eye glasses. They were made to wear them all the time, so they eventually came to believe that the city was actually green. Even Dorothy and her friends were made to wear the glasses, so they assumed the pavement was made of blocks of green marble, joined together by rows of shining emeralds. They believed the streets were lined with houses of green marble, which had window panes of green glass. The Wizard changed how they saw that city. In effect, he turned the knob of their color setting.

While there are no wizards or green glasses in our Gospel reading today, I think there was a similar principle at play in that time and place. In Mark 8, Jesus and his disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea, you might guess, comes from the word Caesar, the name of the Roman emperor. Philip was the son of the evil tyrant, Herod, whom the Romans had placed in charge of the area. It is significant, I think, that they were in a place especially devoted to the Roman Empire, where imperial artwork and statues were everywhere around them, and the phrase “Son of God” might very commonly have been heard in describing Caesar, without anyone thinking twice about it. We could say that the Empire had a certain way of adjusting the tint for the people under its control. Their monuments and processions and demonstrations sought to convince the people that there was only one power that mattered and that the pathway to peace and prosperity could only come through military dominance and brutal violence. There was no arguing with Rome. In many ways, the Empire defined life for people—what power was, what good was, what the purpose of living was all about.

So it’s fitting that Jesus chose this region of Caesarea Philippi in which to invite his followers to remove the tinted spectacles of Empire. The disciples were starting to hear interpretations of Jesus from other people, suggesting things about who he was, relative to the powers that be. Peter rightly called him Messiah, but though he got the title right he was wrong in assuming it to mean something similar to the Roman way of dominance, that Jesus would successfully conquer the ruling forces. Instead, Jesus explained, they were on a path of service, vulnerability, and self-giving love. So Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” which, though quite harsh sounding, is another way of saying, “You’ve got blinders on, and you’re trying to cloud my own vision, too.” Perhaps Peter was filled with too much ambition. Perhaps he was blinded by the success Jesus had experienced so far. But in order to follow Jesus on his particular mission for the world, he and the rest of the disciples would need to let go of worldly concerns for self-promotion and competition. Jesus was inviting them into a very different journey of love and service. It was a difficult one, but it was a path toward a truer, more authentic understanding of themselves, the world, and God.

The American Trappist Monk Thomas Merton wrote about his own spiritual life as a tension between competing “false selves.” We all have those selves, ideas about who we want to be or ought to be, the conditions we assume would make us happy and more complete. Maybe you’ve been tempted to think that your bank account reflected your identity, or your grades in school, or your family, or the things you have accomplished, or the ways in which you have failed. Maybe you’ve come to wrongly believe at times either that you are more important than others or that you are unworthy of others’ love. All of these things result from false selves and are distractions from the authentic self that God wants us to be, that we are created to be. Our true selves, Merton said, is the way we look through God’s eyes, free of worldly assumptions and personal illusions. Our true selves are found in God. Merton wrote:

Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied. With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.

Jesus invites his disciples on a path to finding their true selves.

It is often the case the communities need to rediscover their true selves as well. I think our own city is doing that in certain ways. While we have generally assumed ourselves to be progressive and “Minnesota nice,” some Minneapolitans have called this city’s attention to the institutional racism that exists and has existed for a long time. I believe our tinted glasses are slowly coming off in this and other cities. It can be a difficult process, but I hope that we are discovering more the kind of community we are meant to be

This congregation is on a journey of self-discovery, too, as every congregation is. For us, we are learning more what it means to build community where all are truly welcome into this congregation’s life and ministry, where we can be vulnerable with one another by admitting that sometimes life is really hard, where we can share our lives in relationship, and share our authentic experiences of faith with each other. We are growing in ministry for children and youth and learning to be ministered to by them as well. We continue to seek justice in our neighborhood and world, but we are opening ourselves even more to listening deeply to our neighbors so that we can build community together. Again, turning our focus from ourselves to others is a path toward authentic and abundant life.

Finding our true selves in this way—as individuals or as communities—can be difficult. It requires change and often traveling against the flow of the culture. While it may not involve literally picking up of a cross, it is a call to suffering. There is a cost. Now, in this country we do not suffer religious persecution as some Christians in other places of the world do, though it seems we’ve been hearing this claim a lot lately. We are in fact afforded privileges daily because of our identification with the Christian religion. But still there are times that following Jesus might cause us to feel that we are stepping out alone into unfamiliar territory, where we are asked to trust even when it feels that everything we have known is getting left behind. We are called to remove the tinted spectacles while everyone around us might seem to be going about life as if their vision is the correct way of seeing. We are not called to suffer for suffering’s sake. It’s just that the transition into living our real, authentic lives can be uncomfortable. That’s understating it. It can feel like death, leaving an old self behind. But on this journey, Christ is present with resurrection love.

And it is a journey. The early Christians were called People of the Way. It wasn’t that they had everything figured out, but they were doing their best to follow and to learn more as they went. That’s why we need a community of followers to help us. At the beginning of our worship, when we say, “Wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here,” we mean it. Because we are all on our journey of following Christ better and of letting go of false assumptions about ourselves, the world, and God. Clarity about this doesn’t snap into focus all at once. The culturally shaped lenses don’t fall immediately from our eyes. It takes practice. False selves take time to get developed, after all, so letting go of them does, too. But we return again and again here in our worship to the place where our journeys begin: the strong promise of God spoken to each one of us clearly and without qualification: “You are my beloved child. What matters to me is not your successes and failures. What matters to me is that I love you and you are mine.”

What could we possibly allow to get in the way of following such love?

The one where the Syrophoenician woman finds a home.

Pastor Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen’s sermon from September 6, 2015

Listen along here.

The gospel according to Mark, the seventh chapter:

24 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, 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 He 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.”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

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I propose that we stay close to the Syrophoenician woman today.

Syrophoenician: It’s a designation that occurs only here in the seventh chapter of Mark. It suggests that the woman is half-Phoenician—that is, Lebanese—and half Syrian. She is an outsider, a Gentile. The gospel writer simply calls her Syrophoenician; that’s what first century men did. But, today, let’s dignify her with a name. Let’s call her Sarah.

I’ve been uncomfortable with this story all of my bible-reading life: An over-worked messiah named Jesus enters the room. Sarah approaches him and drops to her knees. She begs. Some really harsh words are exchanged. Eventually, healing comes, but we get the sense that it comes at great cost.

Sarah’s story is shocking. It appears without warning or context; one minute, it seems, Jesus is generously feeding the five thousand, the next minute he’s being super stingy with Sarah at his feet. And then, just as quickly as the story began, the writer of Mark’s gospel moves on to the next miracle, without offering any explanation of what becomes of Sarah and her healed baby girl.

In modern-day publishing, we might say that Sarah’s story verges on voyeurism—you know, the printing of sensational images for profit. Mark’s story makes me uncomfortable in much the same way that the magazines lining the grocery store check-out lane do. I find myself not wanting to look. Like the gospel writer, I, too, want to hurry along to the next story. I want to get my milk and eggs and get out of Tyre, so to speak.

I admit to having similar experiences this week as stories and images came flooding out of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. In the last four years of armed conflict in Syria, more than 200,000 people have died in what began as anti-government protests and later escalated into a full-scale civil war. More than 11 million people have been pushed out of their homes. That’s the largest forced migration since World War II.

The crisis has been largely ignored by American media outlets—that is, until a whole host of images of refugees surfaced this week. You saw them—grandmas crawling under fences, boys supporting their fathers, babies being carried on the long, long journey toward safety.

News organizations were forced to decide which pictures they would publish. One thoughtful journalist, Justin Peters, first took the side that the most devastating pictures should be avoided. He later changed his mind, saying, “There’s a difference between publishing explicit images in order to sell and publishing images to illustrate some broader point. Journalism is the act of uncovering stories that would otherwise remain private and showing them to the world,” he writes. “The best journalism…exposes hidden truths and then convinces people to face them. Syria is an ongoing humanitarian crisis that persists, in part, because the world pays it very little attention. [We], as human beings, ought to know about it.”

I wonder if Mark’s writer asked similar questions as he put pen to paper. Did he wonder if he should write about Sarah’s story or if he should let it find its home in the silent annals of history? Did he, in the end, make the decision to illustrate a broader point, so that his community could face the hidden truth together?

I think Mark is saying something about worth and dignity.

The President of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, David Lose, says that some interpreters have asserted that this woman believed in Jesus, but more importantly believed in her self-worth. He says that “[we] have no idea whether this woman believed herself worthy of God’s attention and Jesus’ time. But [we] do know that she believed her daughter was. That is, she was convinced that her precious, beloved daughter who was being oppressed by this [unwelcome] spirit was absolutely deserving of Jesus’ attention and so she was able to go to great lengths to help her, even to the point of arguing with this famous teacher and healer.”

In this way, Sarah’s not altogether different from other caretakers I know—the ones who react quickly when their children stumble on their way to the communion rail, the ones who keep watch over their child’s hospital bed, the ones who find their way into my office and say they’d do anything to feed their children a decent evening meal…and mean it. Sarah’s confidence lies in the worthiness of her child. We are staying close to the Sarah today because, in her, we see faith exercised on behalf of others. It’s a mama thing.

Or maybe it’s a follower of Jesus thing.

Maybe that’s exactly what we invite little Vincent into today—a belief in the belovedness of all people. Maybe when Pastor Jay dips his hand into that water and touches baby Vincent’s warm head, we’re saying that we are mysteriously being united with him, and that, from this moment on, we will support each other as our hearts are continually broken open in compassion for the sake of the whole world. Maybe when Vincent comes up from the font with wet hair, we see that together we are part of the unending life of Jesus that is poured on creation in abundance and joy. And maybe when Vincent is carried up and down the aisle and peers into our eyes, we are reminded that we are a people who don’t look away from doubt and pain. In fact, we look into it and we may even move toward it, because we know that we’ll find God’s grace, mercy, and healing already at work there—in corners usually reserved for Sarah and people like her. This is the life into which we’re baptized.

Just yesterday, after being turned away at every turn, 7,000 Syrian refugees were allowed to walk across the borders of Germany and Austria. It was reported that “they were met with wholly unexpected hospitality featuring free high-speed trains, seemingly bottomless boxes of supplies, and gauntlets of well-wishers offering trays of candy for everyone and cuddly toys for the tots in mothers’ arms.” Reporters said that “even adults absorbed the scenes of sudden welcome with a look of childlike wonderment as Germans and Austrians made clear that they had reached a land that just might become a home.”

Let’s stick close to Sarah and watch where she goes. I think she’ll lead us toward love. I think she’ll lead us toward home. I think she’ll lead us toward hope in a weary world.

AMEN.