Sabbath Day Thoughts — Mark 7:24-37
Every day we encounter them, folks who are outsiders to the Christian community.
Melissa has never been a church member. Although her parents were both raised in mainline congregations, they never got involved with the church as adults. They never had Melissa or her brothers baptized or confirmed. Melissa has good memories of attending church as a child on special occasions with her grandparents, especially those wonderful Christmas Eve services. Sometimes, Melissa thinks she could really use that beauty and belonging in her life, but she doesn’t know how that would happen. Her grandparents have been gone for years. Sunday morning services feel like a foreign language, and the one time she did go, she sat by herself in the back. It feels a whole lot safer to stay home and have a second cup of coffee.
Ben and Mary haven’t attended church since their youngest son aged up and out of the Youth Group. They had felt it was important for their children to experience the moral and ethical teachings of Christianity, and so for years they had made the effort to come to church. They sat in the sanctuary while the kids trooped off after the Children’s Time to Sunday School. Ben and Mary never truly intended to drop out of church. Each week they promised one another that this would be the Sunday they would be back. A week turned into a month. Then, it was a year. Then, it just got too embarrassing because they had been gone for so long. Now they think of church as something that had been part of their lives “back then.” It’s just too much bother to reconnect.
Betty attended church weekly for decades. Every week, she sat in the same pew, used the same hymnal, and passed the peace with the same people. All that tradition had to change when Betty sold her house, which had gotten to be too much to manage after her husband died. Betty’s new home is a fifteen-minute drive from church. After she had a series of fender benders, the kids persuaded her to give up the car. As a result, Betty’s Sunday morning trips to church came to an end. Betty likes the online services, but it’s not the same. She misses worship; she misses her church family.
Every day we encounter them, those folks who, for whatever reasons, are now outside the Christian community. We exchange awkward “Hellos.” We make small talk about the weather. We share superficial news of family. Then, we go our way, feeling relieved it’s over but also a little sad.
Our reading from Mark’s gospel told two stories of outsiders to the covenant community. It began with that woman and her demon-possessed daughter. The Bible scholars like to tell us all the reasons why this woman and her child would not be welcomed by Jesus and his friends. First of all, she was a Gentile of the worst sort: a Syrophoenician who worshipped the storm god Baal. These were not lost sheep of Israel. These were foreign Jezebels. This woman didn’t have the courtesy to follow the traditional practice of sending a male family member to make the request for healing help. A first-century rabbi would never accept a private audience with a woman who was not a family member, especially a Gentile Syrophoenician one.
All Jesus wanted was a little peace and quiet after his dust up with the Pharisees and scribes, but as soon as this woman heard that Jesus was in the neighborhood, she was knocking on the door with her inappropriate request. We know that Jesus didn’t like it because he called the woman and her child dogs—ask any woman and she will tell you that there is absolutely nothing nice about being called a dog, no matter who says it. Most of us would tuck our tails and walk away, but that tenacious woman refused to give up. Her witty repartee about even dogs deserving a few crumbs—and her bold faith that Jesus could heal her daughter, if he only would—stopped Jesus as he began to shut the door. “Hmm,” he thought. “Maybe it isn’t just about the lost sheep of Israel. Maybe God’s love can be bigger than that. Maybe even outsiders like the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter could have a place within the new covenant community that is taking shape around me”. One thing is for certain, Jesus changed his mind. The demon was gone and the girl was cured, sight unseen.
The second healing story serves as an exclamation point to this notion of a bigger mission. Jesus was again in Gentile territory, again facing inappropriate demands to heal someone who was beyond the literal and spiritual borders of Israel. This time, there was no harsh refusal, no need for witty repartee. On the contrary, Jesus worked hard for the man’s healing: laying on hands, applying spittle, touching his tongue, and praying, “Ephphatha!” Be opened! Jesus’ healing work was so thorough that the no longer impaired man and his friends couldn’t stop sharing the good news of what Jesus had done, despite Jesus’ request that they keep it on the down low. The news of this new openness must have spread like wildfire throughout the Gentile cities of the Decapolis.
These beautiful stories of healing and the command to “Be opened” speak to us. Often when we hear them preached, we are reminded that Jesus invites us to reach beyond traditional boundaries. We are meant to share God’s love, healing, and mercy with folks who are stereotypically outsiders to the mainstream of society—or at least to mainline churches. Be opened! Minister to those who are incarcerated. Reach out to the refugee and the migrant. Welcome neighbors whose lifestyles or loves have been made to feel like they don’t belong amid the assembly of the faithful. Indeed, I believe that Jesus calls us to that radical openness which we affirm every Sunday when I share our statement of mission and state that, “All are welcome here.” God’s love is always larger and more inclusive than we can begin to imagine. Jesus expects that those who follow him will “Be opened” even when that is not easy or comfortable.
This time through the lectionary cycle, I have also been thinking about those other outsiders, the ones we encounter every day. They may be spiritually hungry seekers, like Melissa. They have never known what it is like to have a church family. They don’t know that Jesus loves them. The very thought of attending a church on their own feels risky and lonely, like being a stranger in a strange land.
Those everyday outsiders may have once had a place in the assembly of the faithful. But then an empty nest, or a big promotion, or retirement got them out of the church habit. They have slipped away from our Sunday mornings and our potlucks. For a number of years, they made an obligatory appearance on Christmas Eve. One day, we sadly realized that they aren’t church people any more.
Those everyday outsiders may even have once been insiders like Betty. Then, a big move, a growing disability, the death of a spouse, or the onset of dementia brought an end to their deep engagement with the congregation. We miss them, but we don’t always do anything about that. We trust that the deacons and the pastor will handle it.
There are everyday outsiders everywhere, and the advent of the pandemic has made it that much easier to allow folks to continue to be outsiders. We tell ourselves that if people really want to worship, they can now do so online. We don’t even consider inviting them to church because who wants to worship in the Great Hall anyway? It becomes awfully easy to hide behind our masks in the grocery store. We may encounter those everyday outsiders everywhere, but those awkward moments of encounter pass. We shrug it off, at least until the next time.
“Ephphatha!” Be opened, Jesus says to us this morning. It’s a prayer. It’s a plea. It’s a calling to take personal responsibility. Those everyday outsiders, their mothers aren’t going to come knocking at the church door, demanding an audience with Jesus. Those everyday outsiders, their neighbors aren’t going to intercede for them. It’s up to us to care, to reach out, to speak, to make a way for connection, to be the love of Christ for those who feel that, somehow, they are on the outside.
Jesus, put your fingers in our ears. Jesus, give us a little of that holy spittle. Jesus, touch our tongues. Open our hearts to those who are on the outside looking in, lonely, alienated, and uncertain about what they are truly looking for. In a world that is desperate for God’s mercy, healing, and love, the gap between insider and outsider is ours to bridge.
Howe, Amy C. “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 7:24-37” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.
Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni. “Homiletical Perspective on Mark 7:24-37” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.