Immersed in a sea of sweetness

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“A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile…”

The message from last Sunday, September 9, 2018, based on the assigned Gospel reading. The other readings on Sunday were Isaiah 35:3-7a, Psalm 146, and James 2:1-17.

Mark 7:24-37: Jesus 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, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He 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.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

The texts for this morning are filled with a remarkable sweetness. The proclamation we heard from Isaiah to “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees,” begins a few verses earlier with the words:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
….the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
….and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
….the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
….the majesty of our God.

I suppose you can listen to the prophet this morning and hear only a backdrop for today’s Gospel. We read that Jesus opened the ears of a man who could not hear, so we look around and clip out a portion of the Old Testament that speaks about ears being opened. But the Old Testament isn’t just a setup for the Gospel. The story contained in the first three quarters of our Bibles doesn’t just set the stage for Jesus. It is, itself, the living word of God. It is full of the same divine voice we encounter in Jesus. It proclaims a God who fashions a good and beautiful world only to see it broken by humanity’s choices. It proclaims a God who remains faithful to the world, seeking to rescue and redeem it despite humanity’s persistent rebellion. It proclaims a God who again and again delivers from bondage and shows us the path of mercy and faithfulness. It proclaims a God who suffers the sorrows of the world and comes to it again and again with mercy and love. And, in words like those of the prophet this morning, it sings a profound song of salvation full of the sweetness of God’s redemptive work.

There is a challenge to us in the Gospel reading for today – because we are still talking about clean and unclean and the wretched way we treat one another – but that challenge is immersed in a sea of sweetness. And there is challenge for us in the second reading when James rebukes the community for giving special privilege and respect to the wealthy while treating the poor like the world always treats the poor. Such is not the “royal law”, James says, and asks that piercing question: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

Yet even this challenge is immersed in a sea of sweetness for it sees a community transformed from the way of the world we see around us to become a community that embodies the love of God. It sees a community that lives not in the world as it is, with all its bitter words and deeds, but with its feet planted in the world where the desert blooms and frail knees dance in joy, where every heart is healed, where all creation is radiant with grace and life.

Our texts are immersed in a sea of sweetness. Our psalm sings of a God – the living, active, power and presence and love at the heart of all existence – who “executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry,” who “sets the prisoners free,” and “opens the eyes of the blind,” who “lifts up those who are bowed down,” who “watches over the strangers,” who “upholds the orphan and the widow.”

This is no small thing we say. We are living in a world where there is great violence, intimidation and deceit, but our claim – the Biblical claim – is that the divine power at the center of all things, the heartbeat that courses through all existence, is life and healing, redemption and release. It is care for the vulnerable and deliverance of the oppressed. It is justice and compassion and fidelity and love. It is not greed and pride and selfishness that carries the world towards its destiny, but generosity, humility and the care of others.

It’s very easy to say that God loves us. The words have become almost trite in their familiarity. But think what these words mean! Ultimate reality is focused beyond itself. The heartbeat of the universe beats for others. The foundations of the universe are compassion and kindness. The power and presence at the beginning and end of time is not detached and mechanical, but passionate for others.

We say this so freely that God is love, but ponder what a profound declaration this is: the source of all life is turned outward; it looks beyond itself. This is a radical thought. The gods of the ancient world were great and fickle powers preoccupied with their own passions and desires. Zeus had children by his daughter, Persephone. The beautiful Leto catches the eye of Zeus and he gets her pregnant. His wife (and sister) Hera, enraged, tries to kill the twins to be born of that union. Zeus turns himself into a swan to seduce and impregnate the beautiful Leda on her wedding night to the King of Sparta (the child of that union is Helen of Troy).

Zeus appoints the mortal, Paris, to judge which of the goddesses is the most beautiful and Aphrodite bribes Paris with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world. So Paris picks Aphrodite, enraging Athena and Hera. Of course, the most beautiful woman in the world is Helen of Troy. Paris kidnaps her as his prize and starts the Trojan War.

The stories are mythic and complex, but throughout the gods are petty and selfish. The God of the scriptures is neither petty nor vain but bends towards the world in love. The God of the scriptures suffers for the world. The God of the scriptures is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

The gods of the modern world are also great and fickle powers. Wealth and power can lift us up and, in a moment, turn on us and cast us down. They do not suffer. They do not show compassion. They do not love.

The God of the scriptures loves.

And the God of the scriptures does not stop loving his troubled world.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.”  We are swimming in a sea of sweetness – if we will dare to see it, if we will dare to open ourselves to it, if we will have the courage to live it.

5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
….whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
….who keeps faith forever;
7who executes justice for the oppressed;
….who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
….8the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
….the Lord loves the righteous.
9The Lord watches over the strangers;
….he upholds the orphan and the widow,
….but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10The Lord will reign forever.

We are swimming in a sea of sweetness. And if we are swimming in a sea of sweetness, what does it mean for the way we live in a broken world? Do we yield to the world’s brokenness or walk in the way of sweetness? Do we embrace bitterness and revenge or compassion and grace?   Do we hide in the bushes of denial and deceit or answer the call to come forth into the divine presence? Do we turn and blame or stand and acknowledge? Do we hoard like the rich man building new barns or live with open hands? Is the woman of Tyre unclean or a fellow traveler in the sea of sweetness?

The ideas about clean and unclean that we spoke about last week continue in our Gospel this Sunday, only now it is not clean hands that are at stake – or the unclean Judeans among those who follow Jesus. Now it is about those outside the community of Israel: a woman of Tyre and a man in the region of the Decapolis. The woman is clearly identified as a Greek. An evil spirit holds her daughter, which the text names specifically as an “unclean” spirit.

Jesus has gone intentionally to the region of Tyre. It’s important we see this in the text. Jesus doesn’t just end up there; he chooses to go to the region of Tyre. From there Jesus goes to the region of Sidon, then to the region of the Decapolis. Tyre and Sidon are ancient Phoenician cities.   With the ten towns of the Decapolis they enjoy special privilege as free cities of the empire. Their allegiance to Greek culture and Roman rule is ancient and strong. They were ancient seaports and wealthy trading centers – and there was a long history with Israel. It was the King of Tyre who had the cedar and skills to build King David a palace and King Solomon a temple. It was a daughter of Sidon, Jezebel, who sought to kill the prophets of the Lord and make Baal the national god of Israel. She taught Ahab the ways of true power, arranging for the murder of Naboth when he refused to sell the king his vineyard. The prophet Ezekiel would name Tyre’s pride when he declares God’s coming judgment: “you have said, ‘I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas’, yet you are but a mortal, and no god.”

These are not the people who deserve God’s favors.

Nor are those in the region of the Decapolis. Mark’s community lives in the throes of the Roman armies marching against Jerusalem’s rebellion, when the cities of the Decapolis showed their allegiance to Rome by murdering their Judean residents or driving them from their midst.

But Jesus has gone to these places on purpose.

There are people bound there, bound by demons and disease. There is grace to be shown, healing to be done. It is to be expected that Jesus would not be left alone there, that people would come for help. There are wounded everywhere.

And so this woman, this foreigner, this outsider, this enemy, comes begging for deliverance for her daughter. And Jesus says what is likely to be in the heart of every one of his followers: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” God’s gifts belong to God’s people. They are for us, not for those people. Those people are unclean.

The Pharisaic interpretation of Israel’s law saw every outsider as unclean. It makes perfect sense, of course, because they do not have the rules that define a holy people. They do not keep the law. They do not possess the rites of purification. They eat unclean foods. They wear unclean fabrics. They walk unclean streets. Their houses are unclean. God owes these people nothing. We owe these people nothing.

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

And we should keep in mind that dogs are not kept as cute pets with nice collars and beds and inscribed bowls for their food. Dogs are mangy animals that roam the streets eating all manner of filth.

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

But the woman says simply, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She insists that the gifts of God should come to all.

Are the followers of Jesus getting it? Do they understand that those we call dogs without thought or shame are also those for whom God cares? Do they understand there is faith to be found there, bold and daring faith? Do they understand that the gifts of God are for all people? Do they understand it is for the world that Christ has come? Do they understand that there are no limits to the mercy of God? Do they understand that all people are their sisters and brothers?

Probably not. But Jesus keeps trying. So now he is passing through Sidon and on to the Decapolis. And once again there is a person in need, a person in these cities whose evils are so fresh in the minds of Mark’s hearers. These cities whose allegiance to Rome is so fixed and sure. These cities filled with those who are unclean. One of these cities was built over a burial ground and distributed to retired Roman soldiers; everything in it is unclean. The possessed man who lived among the tombs was from one of these cities. That’s why there was a herd of pigs nearby into which his demons fled. These are not holy people. This is not holy land. But when Jesus comes, the people bring to Jesus a man in need. They bring to Jesus a man who can neither hear nor speak and Jesus is willing to touch and heal him.

Do the followers of Jesus yet understand? Do they see that we are the ones who cannot hear and whose speech is troubled?

Do they not understand that it is the work of God to open every ear and free every tongue – that our tongues can be used rightly in prayer and praise and care of neighbor rather than for hate and gossip and words that sting?

The crowd cries out in wonder that Jesus does all things well. He does all that is good. He does good to all. Even out here in the Decapolis. Even in Tyre and Sidon. Even in our own hearts.

The crowd cries out in wonder, for they see that we are surrounded in a sea of sweetness.

Amen

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© David K Bonde, 2018. All rights reserved.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:H%C3%B6lzel-ChristusUndDieKanan%C3%A4erin.jpg By Adolf Hölzel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Watching for the Morning of September 9, 2018

Year B

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The ideas about clean and unclean continue in our Gospel this Sunday, only now it is not clean hands that are at stake – and the unclean Judeans among those who follow Jesus. Now it is about those outside the community of Israel: a woman of Tyre and a man in the region of the Decapolis. The woman is clearly identified as a Greek. An evil spirit holds her daughter – an “unclean” spirit. The man is unable to hear or speak; he cannot hear the word or speak God’s praise.

Jesus has gone intentionally to the region of Tyre. From there to the region of Sidon then to the region of the Decapolis. Tyre and Sidon are ancient Phoenician cities.   With the ten towns of the Decapolis they enjoy special privilege as free cities of the empire. Their allegiance to Greek culture and Roman rule is ancient and strong. Tyre and Sidon are ancient seaports and wealthy trading centers. It was the King of Tyre who had the cedar and skills to build King David a palace, and Solomon a temple. It was a daughter of Sidon, Jezebel, who sought to kill the prophets and make Baal the god of Israel. She taught Ahab the ways of true power, arranging for the murder of Naboth to gain his vineyard. Of Tyre the prophet Ezekiel would declare, you have said, ‘I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods,” as he announces God’s coming judgment.

These are not the people who deserve God’s favors.

Nor are those in the region of the Decapolis. Mark’s community lives in the throes of the Roman armies marching against Jerusalem’s rebellion, when the cities of the Decapolis would show their allegiance to Rome by expelling or killing their Judean residents.

But Jesus has gone to these places on purpose. He has gone to these “unclean” people on purpose.

Our readings on Sunday will accent the theme of deliverance and healing. And that is what we find in the Gospel account. Isaiah will speak hope to the exiles declaring that “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped,” and “the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” as God leads them out from bondage. The psalmist will sing that, “The LORD sets the prisoners free,” and lifts up those who are bowed down.” But the anointing and prayer for healing that we might expect from James awaits another day. James will speak to our favoritism, the special treatment accorded to some (the wealthy) while marginalizing others. And this will bring us closer to the heart of the Gospel. For the narrative in Mark describes more than healing, it describes Jesus healing those outside the community of Israel. Jesus brings the gifts of God to those Israel regarded as unclean. Jesus even compares the woman of Tyre with the dogs of the street.

The gifts of God are for all. As we heard last Sunday, the things that render us unclean are not external things but what comes from the heart, the things we say and do that betray mercy and faithfulness. We will hear this again and again in the New Testament – especially in the book of Acts when God says to Peter, What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” There are no ‘unclean’. The gifts of God are for all.

The Prayer for September 9, 2018

Father of all,
whose ears are open to the cries of every people:
drive out every power of evil,
and open every ear to hear and abide in your Word of life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 9, 2018

First Reading: Isaiah 35:3-7a (appointed: 4-7a)
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” – The prophet announces God’s impending deliverance of the nation from their exile in Babylon and their joyful journey home.

Psalmody: Psalm 146
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down…The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.”
– The poet praises the LORD, a God who comes to the aid of those in need.

Second Reading: James 2:1-17
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
– The author challenges the community not to show favoritism towards the wealthy but to “fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Gospel: Mark 7:24-37
“A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” – Following his teaching about what does and doesn’t render a person “unclean”, Jesus travels in foreign territory and heals two who are “unclean” (outside the covenant of Israel): the daughter of a Syrophoenician and a man from the Gentile region of the Decapolis.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cristo_e_la_cananea_di_Alessandro_Allori_detail.jpg Alessandro Allori [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The strange and wondrous truth of God

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Afghan day laborers filling sandbags outside Forward Operating Base Geronimo, Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 14, 2010

Watching for the Morning of September 24, 2017

Year A

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Sunday we are jumping ahead to chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel. We are skipping the Pharisees’ challenge about the legality of divorce and the strange saying about being eunuchs for the kingdom. We are skipping past the disciples’ harsh words to those who would bring their children to receive a blessing from Jesus – and Jesus’ welcome of those children. We are skipping past the words of Jesus to the young man seeking the life of the age to come, telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and past the disciples’ astonishment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”   All of which leads us once again to the truth that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” The reign of God is a profound reversal of the way of the world.

And so, Sunday, we come to the story of a landowner hiring day laborers for his vineyard and the remarkable choice to pay even those who worked but one hour a full day’s wage. It is not the act of an accountant; it is the act of a patron taking care of those who depend upon him. Except these day workers are not his people. He has no long and established relationship with them. He is not their patron. But he chooses to be.

And what shall we do with this portrait of a God who chooses to treat all people as their patron? What shall we do when our long and historic fidelity to God gains no privilege? What shall we do with a God who shows faithfulness to those who deserve none? The landowners’ final words are painful: “Are you envious because I am generous?” The Greek is literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

We don’t understand mercy. We don’t understand the breadth and depth of the compassion of God. We don’t even truly understand the notion that God is the god of all. We claim to be monotheists, but we are more likely to think that God is our god and he can be your god too, if you become one of us. But the truth is there is no ‘us’ and ‘them; we are all ‘them’. We have no claim on god’s mercy; it is gift given to all. Rich, abundant, overflowing, fidelity to a world as corrupt and violent, greedy and cruel as ours. Yes, we are capable of great kindness and generosity – but we are also fully capable of its opposite. We are not God’s people. Not really. We are strangers to the reign of God. We don’t really understand the language or culture of heaven. Nevertheless, God comes to us. Nevertheless, he speaks. Nevertheless, he shows faithfulness. Steadfast love.

So Sunday we will hear once again that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We will listen as Jonah wrestles angrily with God because God chooses to forgive the cruel and barbarous Ninevites. We will sing with the psalmist in praise of God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We will listen as Paul exhorts us to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And we will once again shift in our seats as Jesus speaks of the just injustice of a landowner who is generous to all, pushing us to see something of the strange and wondrous truth of God.

The Prayer for September 24, 2017

Wondrous God,
whose mercy knows no bounds,
and whose salvation is offered to all:
renew us by your Holy Spirit
that we may walk in the paths of your kindness
and bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 24, 2017

First Reading: Jonah 3:1 – 4:11 (appointed: 3:10 – 4:11)
“When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
– Jonah sought to avoid his mission to the Assyrian capital for fear God would forgive the city that had destroyed Israel. Now, when this has happened, God seeks to help Jonah understand God’s compassion for its people.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:1-8
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.” – Psalm 145 is an acrostic hymn, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, in which the poet sings God’s praise “from A to Z.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
– In prison in Rome, Paul is faced with the possibility of his execution and writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” – As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he tells this story comparing the reign of God with a vineyard owner who chooses to relate to his workers not on the basis of what they deserve, but on the basis of his goodness.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAfghan_day_laborers_help_Marines_fill_sandbags_(5224388587).jpg By Marines from Arlington, VA, United States (Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One came back

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Watching for the Morning of October 9, 2016

Year C

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 23 / Lectionary 28

Healing comes to the fore this Sunday, but much more than healing. Namaan, the Syrian general, enemy of Israel, yet sufferer, is told by a slave girl, captured from Israel, that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him. The story is filled with humor and irony and the radical ways of God who is not impressed with the trappings of wealth and power but simple obedience. A God of grace beyond Israel’s borders, though Namaan himself is still bound by the idea that Israel’s God is like all the others: powerful only on his own specific bits of land.

And the psalmist sings of the mighty works of God – though he, too, doesn’t yet seem to fully understand that God’s mighty works are not just for his people, but for all.

The author of 2 Timothy knows that “the word of God is not chained”, yet his focus is on “the elect” not on the vast sweep of humanity – indeed of the created world, itself.

And so we come to Jesus. Ten sufferers stand far off, crying out from a distance because they are unclean and unworthy to come near to anyone but their fellow sufferers. They cry for mercy and Jesus sends them to the priests who are the ones appointed by God to judge whether anyone is “clean” and may go home. They scamper off, but one returns. One is captured by the grace he has received. One is driven to his knees in gratefulness and praise. And he is a Samaritan, a foreigner, one to whom God is thought to have no obligation or concern.

But Jesus knows this God of the creation and the exodus and the water turned to wine is the God of all: the sinners and the saints, the outcast and the inner circle, the broken and the whole, the lost and the found.

The nine scamper off to resume their lives – and who can blame them? But the one who turned back, the one with his face to the ground, the one with tears in his eyes and a heart bursting, knows that something much more than a village healer has come.

The Prayer for October 9, 2016

God our healer and redeemer,
stretch forth your hand,
touch us with your spirit
that, cleansed and made whole,
we may live lives of gratefulness and praise;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 9, 2016

First Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-19a (appointed, 5:1-3, 7-15)
“Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram… suffered from leprosy.”
– The commander of Israel’s hostile neighbor is told by a captured Israelite maid that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him.

Psalmody: Psalm 111
“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.” – An acrostic hymn singing the praise of God from Aleph to Tau (A to Z).

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” – Written by Paul (or, as some scholars think, in Paul’s name) from prison to his protégé Timothy, the author speaks to the next generation of leadership urging faithfulness to the teaching they have received.

Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
“Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?’” –As Jesus approaches a village he is met by ten people suffering from a dreaded skin affliction that excludes them from their families and community. They are sent on their way healed, but only the Samaritan in the group returns to acknowledge Jesus and give thanks to God.