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.
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.