September 2018

Miraculous Listening

Mark 7:24-37
© Stacey Steck

Sometimes a conversation changes your life. Then it changes someone else’s.

Once upon a time, there were two outcasts, separated by many miles, but joined in their suffering. The one, a mere child in the north country, spent every day as the object of her mother’s unwavering attention and commitment, afflicted as she was with things in her mind she could not understand, impulses that made her behave in ways she could not control. The other, in an eastern province, spent every day watching other people go about their daily business but really only knowing half the story of their lives because he could not hear what they were saying. Likely the object of derision, or at least pity, he tried to make his desires and intentions known, but people only looked at him strangely when he did. The lives of both of these outcasts were characterized by the inability of others to understand them, and probably their own inability to understand themselves. They lived in similar worlds of desperation, one with too many voices in her head, and the other with too few.

Something similar may be said about the other two characters in the story, a faith healer who is surrounded by too many voices of desperation, and a woman hearing too few voices of hope. If the first two characters in this story are separated by a physical distance but joined together by suffering, these last two are separated by a gulf of culture and gender, but linked by being exhausted caregivers. The one is looking for a little rest and renewal after being needed by so many, while the other is looking for release from being needed so completely by a single person. Each would wish they need not have an encounter with the other, if all were right with the world, but when they do meet, their faith and their wits are evenly matched, and a conversation which changed them, changed others as well. Sometimes a conversation changes your life. Then it changes someone else’s.

It is not mere coincidence that these two stories, the healings of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and the deaf mute man are paired together. At first glance, we might think they are put together simply because they are stories of healing that demonstrate Jesus’ power over the things which ail us human beings, over unclean spirits and bodies the parts of which don’t always work the way God intended. At second glance, we might see that both of those healed were Gentiles, non-Jews, the first time in the Gospel of Mark such a thing has happened. But while these are true, I think there is more at work here, more that we are meant to hear when reading these stories together. As with most of the miracle stories in the New Testament, for me, the miracle is not the supernatural occurence, but the grace revealed in the encounter, grace which transforms and impacts the lives of the participants far more profoundly than simply being cured of their infirmities or delivered from their bondage. That is particularly true in these two stories, for the encounter of grace in one leads to the encounter of grace in the other.

I want to suggest to you this morning that Jesus’ conversation with the woman in the region of Tyre, Gentile territory, is the catalyst for the deaf mute man’s healing in one of the cities of the Decopolis, another part of Gentile territory, and that in a sense, her words are the Gospel in his newly opened ears. And if her words of faith have such power to transform even the Son of God, how much more power can and should our words of faith have to transform the world. In this story, we see how one conversation changed not only the lives of its own participants, but the lives of people far removed from the time and place of that conversation. The secret to unlocking this relationship between all these characters is found, I think, in the way the story uses the themes of listening, speaking, and hearing, all in the context of faith and compassion.

Presumably, by saying, “Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there,” Mark means to tell us that Jesus has sought a place where he can have a little down time, a little while to reflect, to be silent, to not talk to people. Yet this is impossible, because of his fame, and he is discovered by a woman desperate for conversation, desperate to tell her story. And while Jesus’ response to her is rightly interpreted as a commentary on Jewish/Gentile relations, for the two mixed like water and oil, kept apart like purebreds and mutts, when he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” it’s hard to deny that he’s being a little mean-spirited, that he has let his emotions get the best of his tongue. He wants to be alone, and she is disturbing him. If Jesus was human, Jesus was grouchy. This mental picture of a grouchy and acerbic Jesus may not jive too well with that venerable vision of a gentle and sinless savior, but if Jesus’ humanity is an essential element in our understanding God, we should embrace this flub of Jesus, rather than seek to explain it away. Jesus may indeed be sinless in the eyes of the law of Moses, but apparently he wasn’t above demonstrating some of his culture’s prejudice and ethnocentrism, which interestingly, are things we label sin these days. Be that as it may, what’s important to remember is that even though Jesus may have been in the wrong, he’s not above making it right. Indeed, how can Jesus expect us to be open to changing our ways, our perceptions, if he is not willing to change his own? And so though he may have wounded with a slip of the tongue, for an insult is an insult, he was willing to stand corrected in the face of the truth, even truth revealed from an unlikely and unclean source. He may not have been looking for a conversation, but the one that found him changed him and changed others.

You see, Jesus wanted a break from hearing the voices calling out for him. He wanted silence. But hearing is an auditory phenomenon, simply the physical sensation of sound waves breaking into the ears of the receiver. Listening, however, is another matter. Listening involves hearing, yes, but listening means giving attention to what you are hearing, transforming it from noise and science to communication and relationship. Miraculously, Jesus listened to the Word of God spoken by a Gentile woman, and the sounds, the noise, the hearing he wanted to escape, were transformed into an experience of grace that healed not only a girl afflicted by unclean spirits, but another man far away who had no choice but to avoid hearing, and who had no opportunity to listen or be listened to.

It is often said that to be a good writer, one needs to be a good reader, that is, one needs to read material that teaches good and proper use of language, that expands the vocabulary, that opens the imagination, etc. Monkey see, monkey do, right? The same thing is true of speech. Why do you suppose we have such a human thing as accents? Because people learn to speak as they are spoken to. Our own speech is informed by our hearing, and our relationships are formed by our listening. The man in the story was unable to speak clearly because he had never heard clearly. Very likely he was challenged to have authentic and meaningful relationships because he could not listen or be listened to. This is not to say that persons with disabilities cannot communicate or have meaningful relationships, but it is to say that life and social interaction are made more challenging being different, and even more so in a culture which generally viewed persons with disabilities as not worthy of celebrating in their own right, but as social liabilities to be at best tolerated, and at worst, scorned. It was not only for every day practicality that this man wanted his ears to work, to experience the noise and science of hearing, but also that he might experience more fully communication and relationship with those in his life, and to be no longer considered useless in the eyes of his community.

Perhaps you can see where this is going. When Jesus stops to listen to the woman, a veritable prophet bringing him the Word of God, his thinking about God’s relationship with the Gentiles is transformed. They are no longer to be avoided and insulted, but to be welcomed into the fold as fellow citizens in the kingdom of God, brothers and sisters in the household of the Divine. It is equipped with this new understanding, or at least a reminder of the prophet Isaiah’s ancient words that Israel is called to be a light to the nations, that Jesus finds himself once again in Gentile territory confronted with a man in need, in need, ironically of having his ears opened, just as Jesus had his opened. And so when Jesus says, “Ephphatha! Be opened!,” it is not just in reference to the deaf man’s ears, but to himself, in that he has just had himself opened up to a new way of thinking. And for Mark, with these words, he wants his readers to be opened up to what Jesus is teaching through the story, to listen and be transformed, not merely to hear the words and letting them fall to the ground. Maybe this is what James is getting at in our epistle lesson from last week, that being doers of the Word means that we have listened to the Word, and been transformed by it, rather than simply hearing it and moving on with our lives.

To see the depths of Jesus’ own transformation, and the transformation to which we are called, we need only look at the difference in the way Jesus treated these two Gentiles. With the woman, he calls her a dog, and dismisses her like one dismisses a dog begging for scraps. But with the deaf mute man, Jesus takes him aside, away from being a spectacle, away from being the subject of humiliation. Although Mark does not comment on Jesus’ motivation for taking the man to a private place, I think it was an act of extraordinary compassion that Jesus addresses the man’s issues in private, giving his tongue its own space, so to speak, to loosen up without having to risk being laughed at. And all this is on top of the fact that perhaps if not for his earlier conversation with the woman in Tyre, he might never have dealt with this man, this Gentile who he once might have considered a dog too.

And so we have one story about listening, and another about hearing. Jesus heard a word of truth, and then the man did. In a very real sense, the woman’s wit/faith makes the other man’s healing possible. He will learn to do what she did; to cry out to God for mercy, for a chance, for grace. The truth she spoke will be the truth he proclaims, because Jesus chose to listen, chose to participate in a conversation discouraged by custom, in the midst of the seeking of silence. The circle is completed when the man hears the Word, and speaks “plainly,” the way the woman in Tyre spoke plainly. But it doesn’t end there; the story concludes with more and more people speaking the truth, as it says, “the more he ordered them to tell no one, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” A ministry to the chosen people becomes a ministry of choosing all people when Jesus listens.

This tells me that our listening, even today, maybe especially today, has a lot to do with other people’s healing. That is to say that as we listen to God or listen to those who are not like us, or even to those we already know and love, we open ourselves to new ways of knowing God, which changes how we interact with the world. This is one of the great challenges of our times, to be willing to listen, really listen, to people who are different, and who come from different backgrounds and experiences, who have different stories to tell, who speak with different accents or vocabularies, and who may have been on the receiving end of the same kind of prejudice and ethnocentrism as that Syrophoenician woman. It’s when we not only hear, but really listen, that miraculous things can happen. Just ask the Syrophoenician’s woman’s daughter and the Gentile man who could hear and speak. They’ll tell you, and may God help us listen to them. Amen.

Right Idea, Dubious Application

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
© Stacey Steck

The Pharisees have the right idea. They almost always have the right idea. They even, I would say, have the right intentions. They want a better world and they know that order is a key component. If everyone followed the rules, the world would be a much more orderly place. Indeed, the Pharisees are the people we should hire to clean up our corrupt government. The Pharisees are the people we should put in charge of the financial sectors of our economy. You see, the Pharisees are God’s gift to every soul, every family, every institution that needs a watchdog. They are the ones who make the rules and enforce the rules and grace be damned if it gets in the way. And yes, there are times when the scrupulousness of the Pharisees is just what we need in our lives, because we get sloppy with our spiritual practices, lax with our vigilance of injustice, slothful in the stewardship of the temples that are our bodies. How many times would a Pharisee peering over our shoulder commenting on what we’ve overlooked have helped us to have done the right thing? No, the Pharisees and their good ideas are not all bad.

But on the other, the right idea sometimes misses the point. Maybe you remember the story of the New York City auto service center with a $29.95 oil change special. A guy drops his car off one day, and picks it up that evening. Next morning, he’s back. The service manager notices but decides not to say anything. Third day, same guy, same car. Finally, the service manager takes him aside and says, “Sir, you do realize that you don’t need to change the oil every day, right?” “Of course!” the man replies. “But where else in Manhattan can I park all day for $29.95?” Some people say that is a true story, and I cringe when I think how much perfectly good oil went to waste every day until they shut him down, just so he could save a few bucks. Even if that story is not true, people really have done even crazier stuff where the result has strayed far from a good original idea. I believe you can see real life examples every year at the so-called Darwin Awards, the stated criterion for which is, “In the spirit of Charles Darwin, the Darwin Awards commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives. Darwin Award winners eliminate themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chances of long-term survival.” Like the guy who died trying to create a chimney-cleaning device by welding a hand grenade to a metal pole. True story, unfortunately.

Biblical speaking, we too often have the right idea, or think we do. Truer words than these were never uttered: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” but they are true only if we note that cleanliness is next in order behind godliness, not equivalent to, or ahead of, but in second place, along with every other practice not specifically appointed by Scripture. That phrase is of course not in the Bible, and so, along with others favorites like, “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” and “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” it falls into that category of the traditions of the elders, stuff which sounds like a good idea, sounds like what’s in the Bible, but really isn’t in, or required by, the Bible. It is true that “God works in mysterious ways,” but that phrase is not found in the Bible either, even though it is a saying we rely on heavily, along with “God never gives you more than you can handle.” These are all good ideas, but not the stuff on which we should base our faith, or judge the faith of others.

You may have been wondering what happened to my tie this morning, or my razor, or my washing machine. Yep, traditions of the elders. Nowhere in the Bible does it require pastors, or anyone else, to wear specific clothes to church, or any clothes for that matter. But for the sake of decorum, I figured I’d dress up to some kind of minimum. Standards for attire in church have been changing for a long time now, haven’t they, and this church is definitely not following the traditions of the elders. Look at you people! Where are your suits and ties, your hats and dresses? Your polished shoes? We all have our preferences about church and faith, preferences which become hardened into traditions, even if they began as good ideas. I hope you are feeling a little uncomfortable with the way I look; that’s the point. Because I’m pretty sure you are more focused right now on what I look like on the outside than what is found inside your own hearts as you get ready to approach the Lord’s Table.

Handwashing before meals, or after visiting the market, is always a good idea. God only knows what kinds of germs we might be receiving and passing on. But of course, it wasn’t public health the Pharisees were interested in protecting. They didn’t know too much about, or at least weren’t primarily concerned with, preventing disease. But that’s OK. They still had a good idea. Their idea was to preserve their people’s way of life, their religious and cultural distinctiveness in the context of a foreign military and cultural occupation. We wash our hands before eating. Those pagans don’t. We know who we are, and we are not them, and we know this because we have followed the rules which show us that we are set apart. They took their inspiration from the Bible itself, from the purity laws that God commanded, laws which helped define Israel over and against its neighbors in a time when that definition was crucial for its survival. But nowhere in the Torah does it say that everyone, or even anyone, must wash their hands before eating. But, you see, cleanliness is next to godliness, and so if purity is good in God’s eyes, even more purity is better, and so a human tradition arose requiring the handwashing that Jesus’ disciples decide to do without.

It is very easy for us to judge the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. What silly men they were, so caught up in ritual and appearance. But all the while we judge the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, we avoid taking a look at our own human traditions, and what they may be costing us. All the while we concentrate on what other people are doing is time that could be spent concentrating on what we ourselves are doing, the noble endeavor Jesus is recommending to those who will listen. When we stick to looking at our own human traditions, rather than those of others, we might be able to avoid the risk of winning not only the Darwin Award but also the Shaker Award, (a new award I just created) to honor the church that by the practice of its human traditions, eliminates itself for the overall good of the ecclesiastical gene pool. You may remember the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (USBCSA), better known as the Shakers, a movement back in the 18th century. The Shakers were a Christian community characterized by its virtues of simplicity and frugality, not to mention fine furniture and memorable music. Tis a gift to be simple, no? In fact, there were four pillars of belief of this community, all of which good ideas, and even partially based on the Bible. They believed in virgin purity, Christian communism, confession of sin, and separation from the world, all of which made for a distinctive Christian life, but a not very sustainable one. You see, they weren’t allowed to have children, very much a human tradition not found in the Bible. “Be fruitful and multiply,” no? And so they died out, and whatever contribution they could have made to making Christians in other traditions live simpler, more frugal lives filled with fine furniture and memorable music, died along with them.

What seemed never to have occurred to the Pharisees is that the things that Jesus describes at the end of our passage as those which defile a person, all the fornication, the theft, the murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride and folly we do, these are the traditions of the elders that really matter, and that it is far easier to distinguish ourselves from the “pagans” of the world by washing ourselves of these vices, rather than enforcing the rules as we have written them, even if they began as good ideas. All adherence to the rules does for us is make us good at keeping rules, and Jesus was never really too good at that himself.

As we prepare to come to the table this morning, I want to leave you with the invitation to examine the vices in your life that might lead you to judge others, but leave your own human traditions intact. We’ve already confessed our sin, but I want to leave just a little more time for us to be in silence to ask God to wash us clean of all that might defile us, that we might be more able to experience fully the grace offered to us at the table. As a starting point to that time, I’ll end my comments this morning with a poem that captures well the cost both we and the Pharisees would impose on ourselves when we focus on the wrong human traditions, even if they are based on good, and even healthy, ideas.

The young child grew and blossomed
Full of love and joy
Each morning was greeted with a song
And laughter
And a glass of spilled milk
Graciously lapped up
By her best furry friend
Under her chair.
And her days were filled with new adventures
Exploding her horizons
With each new discovery
And a fair sampling of dirt
Smeared from soiled hands
To now soiled clothes.
Until one day
The clouds seemed to cover the sun
Than they did before
And she learned not to spill her milk
Though she never did figure out
How to feed her furry friend.
And one day
She learned something new about dirt
And where she could not play
And where she could not wipe her hands
She also learned other things
She could not do
Until one day
While sitting there sad
And very still
She learned
She was a good girl

Let us pray in silence. Amen.