Rev. Ed Searcy
University Hill United Church : Sun, September 10, 2006
Jesus leaves the scene of the controversy of the dirty hands at the dinner table. In Mark’s gospel Jesus is always on the move. Always. “From there he set out and went away.” He goes away. He goes a long way, away. He goes to the region of Tyre. In Lebanon. Where Syrophoenician’s live. And when he returns from Tyre he goes by a route that Mapquest or BCAA would never ever advise for travellers. Mark says he leaves Tyre, and goes by the way of Sidon towards Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis - the ten towns. If you get out your maps of the ancient near east and try to trace Jesus’ itinerary you will find that it makes no sense. Well, that’s not quite true. It makes no sense in terms of getting from Tyre to the Decapolis. It makes perfect sense if it is Mark’s way of letting geography speak theologically. The thing is - all of these locations have one thing in common. They are out of bounds. The ten towns, like Sidon and Tyre are beyond the border of Jesus’ clan. Jesus speaks Aramaic. It is an ancient language, akin to Arabic. The places he visits are Greek speaking neighbourhoods. Jesus leaves the controversy of impurity behind, only to travel to the regions populated by the impure, the unclean, the heathen living on the heath. To be with Jesus today, to hear him and see him, we will need to be looking and listening in the places where we do not expect him to be and where we do not want him to be. We would rather keep him bounded, inside familiar territory, on holy ground. As it turns out, Jesus is not at all eager to be seen when he is ‘away’. He enters a house in Tyre “and does not want anyone to know he is there.” Later, in the region of the ten towns, he moves the drama inside, “in private, away from the crowd.” We might imagine that it would be otherwise, that Jesus’ advance team has already been on the ground with press releases distributed and tour dates lined up. But there is no advance team. There is no mention of the disciples either preparing the way or following along to assist, to watch and to learn. Jesus is traveling incognito, on his own, away from his people. He hopes that no one will tell. But his travels are interrupted. There are intrusions on his privacy. As Mark writes, “he could not escape notice.” A woman whose little one has an unclean spirit hears about him immediately. The moment he arrives the word spreads. When Jesus shows up silently, incognito, beyond the borders of our ordered lives - in the chaos regions where demons run wild and take control - when Jesus shows up in these places he cannot escape notice. He cannot simply be on vacation. He must have come to this unclean place for a reason. To judge, perhaps ... or maybe, to heal. The woman is sure that he has come to heal. So she comes to him and kneels and begs. She begs for her daughter. She begs him to exorcize the demon that possesses her. She drives the story forward. Without her insistence nothing happens. Yes, she is insistent. After all, Jesus’ initial response is not encouraging. His voice has the ring of a 1st century rabbi. He alludes to his people as children - God’s children - and to her people - Gentile people - as dogs. He says the food - the healing, the saving - is for the children, not the dogs. It’s a scandal. Some would have us ignore it all, sure that Jesus cannot have said such a thing. But it is not surprising in Mark’s gospel that Jesus is also discovering God’s new creation, God’s new work. He first gets an inkling of it at his baptism in the Jordan. Now he is confronted by this woman from beyond the border who will not be denied. She persists. She will get a healing. She points to the crumbs that the children drop from the table, crumbs that the dogs devour. She only wants a crumb from his banquet table of healing. Jesus knows that in her persistence God is already at work. He tells her to go and to see what God has done. Her daring determination is a sign that God is chasing the demon. Is it a demon that tells the girl she is of no worth? Is it a demon that has filled her with a proud arrogance? Is it a demonic addiction or a depression or ... or? It is all those things and more. It is the demon that is loose beyond the boundaries of the Temple and the covenant and the sacred soil. It is the demon that wants to possess the souls of little ones and the souls of nations. It is the same story later, in the province of the ten towns. A crowd brings a man who cannot hear and who can hardly talk. They, too, beg Jesus to do something. Without these neighbours becoming involved Jesus will be left alone. Without these intercessors begging for his attention the demon that silences this man’s world will be left alone. But they are involved. Without a mother who begs for her daughter, without a crowd who beg for their neighbour Jesus may not know, may not stop, may not heal. We have imagined that evangelism is some kind of church growth strategy, to bring people in for our sake. We have thought of prayer as some kind of self-help technique, to benefit us. We have forgotten that the gospel story always involves bringing others to the One who has the power to break the forces whose grip distorts God’s good and beautiful creation. The gospel call is not a means to a successful church or a happy life. It is a response to the pain we witness in our neighbour and the power of God to make all things new - a power that we have long proclaimed but do not always believe. Now we choose to believe it. We choose to believe that when Jesus shows up in the nether regions he has the power to break the silence, to open a deafened church so that it can once again hear. That is who I imagine this deaf man with the stammering speech to be. He is the congregation that lives out beyond the Holy Land. He is the people who know how to speak, who have learned the language but whose voice is not clear. This is an ancient problem. Isaiah, that gospel proclaimer, knew it well. Even as he promised hearing to the deaf and sight to the blind, he noticed that the people called to announce God’s healing were themselves blind and deaf: “Who is blind but my servant, or deaf like my messenger whom I send? Who is blind like my dedicated one, or blind like the servant of the LORD? He sees many things, but does not observe them; his eyes are open, but he does not hear” (Is. 42:19-20). This is how I imagine casting this scripture today. I imagine that the crowd that gathers is made up of this very congregation ... all of us here, now. And then I imagine that when Jesus takes the deaf man with the garbled speech aside, in private, away from the crowd the audience who watch realize that the man is himself the people, the congregation, the church itself. The crowd is bringing its life together to Jesus and begging him to give ears to hear - ears to hear his calling and their neighbours pain. And the crowd longs for a voice to speak - a voice to speak the truth about the pain of neighbour and the call of God. Then Jesus takes his church aside in private, away from the stares and scrutiny of others, into a safe place - perhaps this very sanctuary. Just Jesus. Just our deafness and stammering. It is a moment of intimacy. His fingers in the church’s ears. His spittle, his touch on the tongue. Then he looks to heaven and he sighs. Jesus sighs. Is it because overcoming this disability is so difficult for him? Is it because it is not the first - or the last - healing of God’s deaf and garbled people? The text just says “he sighed”. Then Jesus says: “Ephphatha” - “Be opened”. We have been closed. Shut. Blocked off from God and neighbour. When Jesus arrives we are opened up - to hear and to speak. “And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” I don’t know what to say about this. I want it to be the truth. I wonder how immediate it can possibly be. It must be like the “immediately” of the resurrection. When the raising from death occurs, it occurs immediately. But in the meantime - in the long journey through Good Friday’s awful tragedy and the impatient patience of the long waiting game on Holy Saturday there is rarely a sense of immediacy. When Easter arrives, when God’s resurrection power is revealed, it arrives suddenly and surprisingly. Even those who have long been waiting for the day when God will answer their prayers are stunned on Easter. It is never so predictable as lilies in the Spring. It is always a shock. After such a long season of silence it is almost impossible that Jesus can be heard clearly. After so much mumbo-jumbo theology it is incredible that the church now speaks with humility and courage, with truth and power. That is how the scene ends. Jesus demands that we keep it hush-hush. It is too soon to speak about him. After today we only know his curing power. We will not know his deep suffering until the scene that follows (Mark 8:27-38). But the crowd is “astounded beyond measure”. I think that means that it is really, really, really astounded. Could that be this congregation when it is witness to Jesus opening ears and hearts and minds to God and neighbour? Then the more Jesus says to quiet down, the more the church will spread the news: “he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak”. We will sing that there is no telling what Jesus can do. How is this possible? God only knows. Is this possible? Be opened ... to listen. Be opened ... to speak.