Monday, June 17, 2013

Sermon, "How to Pack for Summer Vacation: Travelling Abroad," Mark 7:24-37

Sermon 6/16/13
Mark 7:24-37

How to Pack for Summer Vacation: Travelling Abroad


            This Sunday we’re continuing with our theme that Pastor Aaron started us out on last Sunday, our series titled, “How to Pack for Summer Vacation.” I don’t know about you, but I have a list of places that I’d eventually like to get to see. This summer, I’ll be driving through some states I haven’t been to yet. Ireland is on my list of places I’d just love to visit, along with New Zealand and the Holy Land. What’s on your list? Most of us, I suspect, imagine going places where we suspect we’ll have a good time, right? We imagine travelling to places that we will find relaxing or exciting. We might want to accomplish some particular task – hiking up a certain mountain, or sailing a certain body of water, something that is challenging.
            But I wonder, how often do you intentionally visit places where you plan on feeling uncomfortable and out of place? How often do your travels take you out of your comfort zone? I remember when I was serving in East Syracuse – I started out living in Fayetteville, but after a year, I had the opportunity to rent a vacant parsonage that was much bigger than my apartment while also being much cheaper! I couldn’t pass up the good deal. But when I shared with my congregation that I would be living in the city of Syracuse, several folks responded with a degree of alarm. They hated having to go into the city, and they were sure I wouldn’t like living there. East Syracuse might be minutes from Syracuse, but some of the folks never really crossed that line. We started then, as a congregation, volunteering at the Syracuse Rescue Mission. I took a long time, building up from one or two willing companions volunteering in the mailroom to getting a big group to go serve at the soup kitchen. It took a lot, but finally some folks were willing to go out of their comfort zones.
            I’ve shared with you my introverted nature. I’m pretty shy, and I often feel like I’m outside of my comfort zone, anytime I’m visiting a place where I don’t know many people, or I’m a newcomer. These days many seminaries require a cross-cultural immersion experience as part of your degree program, and so I travelled to Ghana, in West Africa, for a few weeks after my first year of seminary. We stayed with host families for one week of our trip, and without the comforting present of my professors and classmates, I felt very much out of my comfort zone, despite the incredible hospitality of my host family. As a white American, I rarely have to experience what many people of color experience every single day – being visibly different than almost everyone around them. It was a new experience to know that every person who saw me was noticing the color of my skin, and making assumptions about me because of what I looked like and where I was from. I learned a lot from my experience, and at the same time felt like I was just hitting the tip of the iceberg, thinking about how people are included and excluded, who’s in and who is out, how we define what is normal and what doesn’t fit. How often do you travel outside your comfort zones? How often do you cross boundaries into places where you no longer get to represent the normal, the typical?
Jesus is on the move in our text today too, crossing boundaries, as usual. We find that Jesus has set out for the region of Tyre. Tyre was a region that was primarily inhabited by Gentiles – by non-Jews. We’re told that he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. But, as usual, “he could not escape notice,” and a woman comes to him with a “little” daughter who has an unclean spirit. She comes to him because, we read, she “immediately” heard about him when he came into town. She falls on her knees before Jesus and begs him to heal her child. Jesus’ response? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says. Meaning has changed somewhat over time, but calling a woman a dog – even, in this situation, something like a ‘puppy-dog’, wasn’t exactly a compliment either. Jesus seems to be saying that she doesn’t count as one of the children he’s trying to feed, but is like a puppy begging for human food at the table. But the woman has her own snappy comeback for Jesus – “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” This somehow suits what Jesus was looking for apparently, because he says to her, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” After this healing, Jesus takes an awkward route by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee. Here, a man who is deaf and who has a speech impediment is brought to Jesus. Jesus heals with a command – “Ephphatha – be opened.” Jesus tries to keep the healing quiet, but of course the news spreads quickly. People say of him, “he has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
What to make of this text? Why does Jesus speak the way he does to this woman? What does it mean? When I’m confused about the meaning of passages in the Bible, it often helps me to check the immediate context – what happens right before and right after this passage. Knowing where the story falls in the overall scheme of things can help point us to what the story means, instead of trying to take a passage out of context as a stand-alone teaching. In context, we can ask: Why is the story here? Does it illustrate a point made in an earlier scene? Is it setting the stage for what comes next? If we look at the ‘before’ to today’s passage, we find that Jesus was teaching the scribes and Pharisees, the disciples and crowds, about what is clean and unclean. Jesus reminds them that it is what is inside a person that can make them clean or unclean, not what is outside, external, what goes in. It is not the superficial that makes us unclean or clean, but the contents of our hearts. Jesus then reprimands the religious leaders for holding onto human traditions so tightly that they miss the point of the commandments of God to love.
So, it is just after this that we see Jesus interacting with a woman who was, well, a woman, and a foreign woman, a Gentile woman, a woman of a different race, a woman with an unclean, demon-possessed daughter, a woman begging on her knees, strike after strike against her, according to ritual, custom, tradition, practice – where is this story leading us? If Jesus had been teaching about what really defiles a person, and how people weren’t unclean for the superficial reasons the Pharisees insisted on, and then he went from there directly to a region where the majority of people were foreigners, unclean under purity laws, for no apparent reason, what can we suspect about Jesus’ intentions with the woman? Despite appearance to the contrary, it seems Jesus must have gone to Tyre on purpose to interact with non-Jews. He must have at least anticipated a non-Jew coming to him for healing. And though his first words to her are at first confusing or hard to hear, what strongly held belief against healing her could be so easily overthrown after a one sentence exchange? I must believe, given the positioning of these two passages, that Jesus’ trip to Tyre is an illustration, a demonstration of his point about what – who – is clean and unclean, unaccepted and accepted in God’s terms over human terms.
What, then, is the point for us? What do take away? Sure, we can conclude: Jesus has declared everyone to be clean, to belong, to be worth his time. So we aren’t supposed to think of anyone as unclean either. But I think it is more than that. I think Jesus calls us to be intentional about crossing boundaries, breaking out of our own comfort zones, forging relationships that communicate more than our words to about what we believe about who’s in God’s circle. What makes us clean or unclean? Are we Christians missing out if the only people we spend time with are other Christians? If we only spend time with people who share the same believes and practices we do? In safe places? With people who are polite and behaved and proper? With people who look just like us, live in homes like us, work in jobs like us, watch the same TV shows, listen to the same music? Or does keeping to our safe, clean comfort zones result in us missing out on God’s adventure?

Over and over, Jesus raises the hackles of the religious folk of his day because they don’t like where he’s spending his time, who he is spending time with. They’re pretty sure who is clean and who is not. But Jesus seems pretty sure too. And he’s travelling abroad. Crossing the false boundaries we set up all over the place. Stepping out of our comfort zones, and beckoning for us to follow. Where are you going for summer vacation? Jesus’ plans are clear. He’s boundary crossing. He’s telling us: Be opened – let your heart be opened. He has done everything well. So let us go and do likewise. Amen.     
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