Sunday, September 6, 2009

Open up!

Lord, open our lives to your goodness.
Open our eyes to your presence.
Open our ears to your call.
Open our hearts to your love.
Open our lips to your praises.
Open us to your glory. Amen.*

Three weeks ago, on a Sunday night, I was standing in the middle of a river in northern Wisconsin, knee-deep in the center of the stream. I was there to say good-bye and thanks, the night before we left. It was beautiful that evening.

The river moved toward me, around me, and past me, and it went on. It went on as it has for millennia, as it will until the next Ice Age. It will go on flowing whether I am there or not. It does not change because I am there. It is indifferent to me. It flows. On.

Life may seem to be like that sometimes but our God is not like that. Our God is not indifferent. The God who ultimately reveals himself in the living person of Jesus Christ is not indifferent.

God has sent his Son to us, to stand with us in the middle of the stream, in the middle of life. The living Word, the Lord Jesus, is with us. And he listens to us and responds.

So it was for Jesus. Like Elijah he was inspired by the Spirit of God to travel beyond the borders of Israel, his own country, and beyond the boundaries of what he knew. He went into a far country, a land of Gentiles. He kind of tried to hide out there, maybe – like Elijah in the cave— but it didn’t work.

A woman of that country sought him out. With great respect, even deference, she implored him, heal my daughter: cast out the demon that is within her. No — he said. But she persisted in faith — she persisted in believing in him — that he could do and would do what she asked — and she told him what she wanted.

Like Jacob wrestling with the angel on the bank of the river she would not let go until she had received the blessing she knew, knew, that God could give her through this person, this man standing before her. He was truly God and he was truly human. And he changed.

She told him what she wanted. Your God is my God: she seemed to say. Wherever you go, God is with you, active in you, active through you. You can give me this blessing. And he did.

Jesus — truly divine — was also truly human. He learned, and grew, as a human being. He responded, and he changed, in answer to her petition — her prayer.

Jesus taught that it is not by what goes into you that makes you unclean or impure, but by what comes out of your heart — your words and deeds. That is what he was just teaching the disciples, before this incident. Now the lesson continues.

It is not who you are or where you are from — Israelite or Syrophoenician or Canaanite — it is what you do by placing your faith in the hands of the living God. That is what makes you whole.

I was not alone in the river always, not even alone with God and the fishes. No, sometimes, there were others in the water with me — people, young and old. And sometimes there was a dog.

Hound Dog got knee-deep in the river too—lapping up that country water. Then he got hungry. So when the dinner bell rang and the ham was carved he was Houndie on the spot. He looked up at me with those big brown eyes — hoping for a scrap…

Is there a veterinarian in the house?
- No? Okay, just a little bit. Catch!
- There is? Ahem. NO, Hound Dog, it is not on your diet! Not kosher…

It’s kind of like Jesus’ before picture, before the woman responded. But really – what would Jesus do? (Probably what was best for the dog’s health)? For all his importunity Hound Dog was not like the woman of Tyre, the woman with the afflicted daughter. He was not asking the Lord to heal somebody or to include them in the Kingdom. He’s just a dog, trying to beg a living. (He got fed – his food.)

Let me tell you another story. The mystery is the same – the mystery of God’s loving provision for us. But this is a story we usually tell at Christmas-time. Let me tell you a little early — about a character from Swedish folklore called the Tomten.

The Tomten is a mischievous little gnomic fellow, who shows up in response to Christmas wishes. He’s a bit brusque about it, and mysterious. He gives you what you need, all right, but not how you expect.

A man had a broken door on his barn. What was his Christmas wish? That it be fixed. The Tomten came! The door of the farmhouse banged open, the wind swished the fire flames. In through the door flew some boards and some rope. Bang! The door shut. And there it was — everything he needed, needed, to have a newly mended barn door. All it needed was a little faith — and a little sweat equity.

Jesus was, I believe, more abundant and (in the case of the woman) eventually more gracious, in how he gave. Go, he said: for what you have said, go — your daughter is well. She is free. She has been restored to health and wholeness. Peace be on your home.

Then, after that, Jesus went, too; up the coast to Sidon then around and back south through the towns on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Ten Towns of the Decapolis. Greek towns. He is in Gentile territory there, too. And the people of that country have a request as well. They bring him someone to heal, a deaf man with a speech impediment. He did not hesitate this time, but got ahold of the man, and set him free. Ephphatha! (Be opened.) Open up!

Strange — having made someone able to speak, he then says, Tell no one! And yet the more he protests, the more eagerly they proclaim the good news: They were astounded! He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.

Jesus went out of his way, away from the children of Israel, the people who knew about the promise, to the people of the nations around them, people who had never heard of God this God before. There his mission was expanded. Certainly our understanding of his mission is expanded. God comes to all with his healing touch.

Can Jesus change and grow? Can he learn? Can you? Can you learn to take him in, as your Lord and as your Savior, the source of healing and health, and the one who sends you on a mission — go tell the world: the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

And — Go, show the world: this is what it looks like when you live in the sure faith that God’s kingdom is real, that God keeps his promises, that God is here among us, with us, you and I, standing with us here in the middle of life, ready to heal, powerful to save.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a book about a boy named Kim. Kim lived in British India. When we first see him, he is straddling the great gun Zam-zamma in front of the big official building in the center of Lahore. He approaches a tall man on the street, hand out: “O, Protector of the Poor!” he greets the man, giving him a most noble title. Noble indeed: blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

And who is the protector of the poor, really, but God himself? Blessed are the poor…but how are you part of the blessing? How do you respond to poverty and need? Not to the sturdy beggar or the clever boy, in your face with his demand, as if he were entitled to the contents of your purse, but the quiet one, the hidden one, whose face you cannot see, who cannot ask.

Rich and poor alike, we are made by God. The blessing comes when we share the bread God gives us with the poor.

It comes when we do not take advantage of the vulnerable, nor exploit the needs of the needy. Those who sow injustice reap calamity, those who work for justice sow the seeds of peace. God has indeed expressed what the late John Paul II called a ‘preferential option for the poor’ right here in these Proverbs. God is indeed ‘protector of the poor’.

The psalm reminds us, that the just shall live by faith; the Lord will encircle them with his care as the sheltering hills surround Jerusalem. The society that seeks justice, the Psalmist proclaims, and not the society that seeks gain, is the society that will last.

And James exhorts us: he paints a picture of favoritism, of special treatment, of box seats for the rich and famous, and a cold shoulder for the down and out, right there in church. He sees one person fussed over because they look rich, another shunted aside because they look poor.

The poor treated as of no account: it’s easy to do, who hasn’t done it? Look at the salesman selling a car, talking to the man and ignoring the woman right next to him. Watch the customer with hard-to-fit feet waiting for the shoe clerk to stop ignoring her. Look at the deli counter, where they call on the tall guy first, not the kid in the front.

And you give preference, says James, even to those who oppress you! What good is it, he asks, if you say that you believe but what you do does not show it? What kind of faith is that?

Acts of compassion show faith at work. Faith that does not give does not live.

And Mark, in the Gospel story today, shows Jesus, who has just been teaching that it is what comes out of you, by what you say and what you do, that defiles you; not what you take in. Jesus has been drawing a line between clean and unclean, pure and impure.

And yet here he is sent by the Holy Spirit, like Elijah to the widow, right out of Israel to the Gentile country, the port cities of Tyre and Sidon on the Syrian coast, and the Greek towns east of Galilee.

Mark shows us in these stories Jesus living out and apparently learning the truth that what really matters to God is a clean soul, a pure heart, shone in action. It is not who you are or where you are from, it is what you do in faith, putting your trust in God, and how you act in faith, that shows your true heart, that reveals your true self, that proclaims the mystery of God to others and to you yourself.

So Jesus went, possibly for a break, but his fame followed him, and God was there before him, in a woman’s call for help. At first he put her off, with a rude comment.

The woman responds with courage and dignity and faith – she makes no obsequious plea but gives him a bright and strong reply, as sharp as his own words back to him.

And he relents and the vision expands — for him perhaps, for the disciples certainly, for us — God willing.

The good news, the grace of God, is for all. In these stories Jesus has gone beyond the Pale, outside the boundaries of Israel, and of the religion they knew and practice there.

Our God is beyond all that, loving us, calling us forward, beyond our own boundaries and our self-made walls, into living relationship with a living God, into health, into healing, into gifts we have to give to really receive.

Next time Jesus does not hesitate — he heals. Ephphatha!

Lord, open our lives to your goodness.
Open our eyes to your presence.
Open our ears to your call.
Open our hearts to your love.
Open our lips to your praises.
Open us to your glory. Amen.*

*A prayer by David Adam.


David Adam, Traces of Glory: Prayers for the Church Year, Year B (SPCK, 1999) p. 117.

Fred B. Craddock et al., Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year B (Harrisburg PA: Trinity Press International, 1993) p. 399-406.

Barbara Crafton, "A Jesus Who Grows and Changes", The Almost Daily eMo from, Thursday, September 3, 2009 (

Rudyard Kipling, Kim (London: MacMillan, 1901)

Karoline M. Lewis, “Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost”; David B. Lott, ed., New Proclamation: Year B, 2009, Easter to Christ the King (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2008) p. 189-195.

Thomas Long, "Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary (Sunday, September 6)", The Christian Century, August 25, 2009, p. 21.

Herbert O’Driscoll, The Word Today: Reflections on the Readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, v. 3 (Toronto ON: Anglican Book Centre, 2001) p. 96-100.

Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1988)

Marie Noon Sabin, The Gospel According to Mark: The New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament, v. 2 (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2006)

Scott Gambrill Sinclair, A Study Guide to Mark’s Gospel: Discovering Mark’s Message for His Day and Ours (North Richland Hills TX: BIBAL Press, 1996)

Paul Weston, ed., Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: A Reader (SPCK, 2006) p. 17-28.

Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (SPCK, 2001, 2004)


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