Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well, welcome back! Rally Sunday is traditionally the day that children come back to church in droves, and they bring their parents and grandparents with them. We’re glad you’re here, and hope that every Sunday, children and adults will worship together, and learn together, and leave this place feeling more encouraged than they did when they walked in.
That is not to say that Sunday School is foolproof; not everything is fully understood by the students or the teachers. The pastor was walking through the Sunday School wing one week and stopped in to the 4th grade class. While he was there, he decided to see what the kids were grasping. “Joey” he said, “who knocked down the walls of Jericho?” Joey said “Don’t look at me, pastor, I didn’t do it!” The pastor looked at the teacher for an explanation. “Well pastor, if Joey said he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it.” The pastor brought that story to the Church Board and when they heard it, the congregational president say “Pastor, let’s just fix the walls and take it out of the property budget.”
Well, things may not be that chaotic in our Sunday School, but this much we can promise you: Every child will be safe and feel loved every week, and every week they will hear about a Jesus who thinks they are a unique and precious daughter or son of God. Guaranteed!
I wish the same could be said for children in our neighborhoods, or the adults in our cities, or the employees of large corporations, or the refugees in third-world countries, or the minority populations in any culture, but the fact is, safety is in short supply today, and love and acceptance is unknown to many people in our world. But this is not new, you see; this uncertainty about our value and our worth has been present for countless generations. And the gospel lesson that is ours today offers a glimpse into two peoples’ lives and circumstances.
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The first marginalized person is a mother who approaches Jesus with a rather innocent request; “Master, my daughter has an unclean spirit, would it be too much to ask you to come to my house and heal her?” We would expect Jesus to say yes. Immediately, say yes. The Jesus we know stands ready to touch the life of anyone in need, but especially a small child. So when the woman makes her need known to him, we assume he’s going to follow her home.
But that’s not what Jesus does; not even close. You see, the woman was a Syrophoenician; she was a non-Jew who came from the area that is now present-day Lebanon. Do you see the problem? In light of current events of the past summer, we see the problem quite clearly; the people of Israel and the people of Lebanon have been at odds all these centuries. She was an outsider, this woman. She came from a region that was notorious for its sinfulness. In fact, the ethnic slur that the Jews held for the Lebanese was “dogs.” They referred to those people as dogs.
So what would Jesus do? He does something that seems at first, out of character for him. He says to this woman “”Let the children be fed first; it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Curious, don’t you think? Even harsh. But perhaps Jesus was just testing her, in fact, playfully testing her to see her response. Some scholars say that the term Jesus used here is “puppies.” It’s not right to take the ministry meant for the Jews and give it to the puppies.
Whatever the reason, the woman did not slink away. She continued to press Jesus for a miracle. “But sir, even the dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” The woman is saying two things; first, that she understands the way things are. The Jews are God’s chosen ones. They sit at the table. They receive God’s rich blessing. The woman understood all this. But she also says that just the leftover blessings were enough to heal her daughter. Her faith was such that even the crumbs of Jesus’ grace were sufficient. And Jesus was so moved by the woman’s faith that he didn’t even have to follow her home. “Woman, for saying that, you can go home because your daughter has already been healed.”
I think there are two distinct groups of people in our midst today. There are the members of this congregation, some who have been here for 40 or 50 years. Every time they drive by this place, they’re proud to say “That’s my church!” They share their skills and abilities here, they give their offerings here. This is very much their extended family.
But a second group present today are the visitors, the first-time worshipers, the friends of the congregation who have been here for awhile but have never joined. You wonder if you are really welcome here, you wonder if your kids can actually be a part of our Sunday School, or if your teenagers can participate in confirmation, or if you can sing in the choir. I had someone call this week to have their child baptized and she qualified the request by saying “I know we’re not members, but to you think our daughter might be baptized in your church?” Like the Syrophoenician woman, each of you is asking if you could at least get some crumbs that fall from our table. The answer is, you can have the whole loaf! You don’t have to be a member here to worship or sing or serve or pray with us. The Gospel is free to everyone. Next Sunday, when we serve Holy Communion, there is enough grace for everyone. When have a potluck dinner, you’re invited to that, too.
Christians ought to always be drawing the circle large enough to include as many as possible, instead of small enough to exclude some. It was St. Augustine who once said that the Church is the only organization in the world that exists for people who haven’t yet joined. May you never feel like you don’t belong here. May you never feel like the outsider, looking in. You are members of our family that we haven’t met yet, and we welcome you.
But the gospel text today features another man who had been marginalized by society. He was deaf, and he had a speech impediment as well, which might suggest that he had been deaf from birth. But the man had friends, and they brought him before Jesus and asked Jesus for a healing. Again, Jesus does a curious thing; something we would never think to do. He placed his fingers in the man’s ears, then he put some spittle on his finger and touched the man’s tongue, and shouted out “Ephphatha!” Be opened! And immediately, the man was able to speak and to hear. Jesus did not say “speak and hear” but rather, “be opened.” Jesus knew that the man had stuff locked up inside him that needed to find a way out. And because of his deafness, there were things that were locked out that needed to find their way in. Be opened, Jesus said, to speak and to listen, to give and to receive, to learn as well as to teach.
And I would suggest to you that this is God’s expectation of Christian community as well: to be opened. To be willing to consider new things. To be willing to listen even though we may disagree. To risk sharing our thoughts and feelings, even though others may reject us. To make ourselves vulnerable so that we can know and be known by the members of this church.
And yet, the church is often filled with deaf mutes; people who are unwilling to risk sharing who they are and what they believe. To you…to all of us…Jesus is calling out “Ephphatha! Be opened!” It’s safe here; people will not ignore you, or reject you, or condemn you, and if they do, it is only because they themselves are still locked up in their silent, muted world.
The surprise in the gospel is that we always get more than we asked for. The woman whose daughter was sick was simply asking for crumbs but she received the Bread of Life. The deaf mute simply wanted noise, but instead, he was given a voice and a purpose and a life. How will God surprise us and we gather in the coming weeks and months? With salt and light? With sermons about prayer or anger? By bringing in new friends; by calling old friends to their eternal home? We don’t know…but what we do know it this: we are family, all of us are family, and God has a future for us. We commit the coming days to Him. Thanks be to God. Amen.