Monday, September 7, 2015

Shhh... It's a Secret

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Mark 7:24-37:

The Spork is a model of American ingenuity, or perhaps we should say of American cheapness.  Patented in 1970 by the Van Brode Milling Company of Clinton, Massachusetts, it also one of the most worthless of tools.  The version of the spork with which most of us are so familiar is the one we get at fast food restaurants, where the plastic tongues snap off if you ever actually had to try and use it as a fork, for which it was designed, and yet it’s worthless as a spoon as well, because the liquid wants to exit through the slits that represent the sporks tines.  While it’s been said that you cannot be “kind of” or “sort of” pregnant, that you are either pregnant or not, the spork truly represents the kind of or sort of aspects of our life, neither quite one nor the other, neither quite spoon nor fork.  In their ode to the spork at (and yes there is such a site, although it says it hasn’t been updated since 1996) the writers claim “the spork is a perfect metaphor for human existence.  It tries to function as both a spoon and a fork, and because of this dual nature, it fails miserably at both.  You cannot have soup with a spork; it is far too shallow.  You cannot eat meat with a fork; the prongs are too small.”  I don’t know what really got me thinking about the spork, but it occurred to me on Friday morning as I was thinking about how I was going to start today’s message, that perhaps the spork also represents how some of us try and live out our Christian life, especially when it comes to the dreaded “e” word, evangelism.

In today’s passage, Jesus is out wandering around in gentile, that is non-Jewish areas.  It’s not exactly clear where Jesus actually is because we are told that he was coming from the region of Tyre, which is north of the Sea of Galilee on the coast in modern day Lebanon.  That much is clear and in the beginning of the passage that was assigned for today, which you will find in your scripture insert, but which we didn’t read, Jesus encounters a woman who is described as being syrophonecian, which makes total sense because Tyre was part of the area known as Phoenicia, but was part of the roman province of Syria.  So we know where he was when he started, but then we are told that he makes his way back to the Sea of Galilee by way of Sidon, which is twelve miles to the north of the city of Tyre, sort of like saying we went from Albuquerque to Las Cruces by way of Bernalillo, and then to confuse even more, it says in the region of the Decapolis, which was a region made up of ten cities on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, sort of across from the area known as Galilee.  But somewhere in there, a group of people bring to Jesus a man who is deaf and has an impediment in his speech and they beg Jesus to lay hands on the man and heal him.

In the ancient world, and during the time of Jesus, if you had a physical ailment or disease of any sort, it was believed that you only received this because you were being punished for your sin.  That you had brought this on yourself.  In the gospel of John, Jesus is even asked at one point whether a man born blind was being punished for his own sins or for the sins of his parents.  Jesus says neither.  Now that might not be how we would look at things today, and perhaps we think it’s a silly to even think that way, but we still do the same thing today, just in different ways.  Listen to the rhetoric we so often hear about those who are poor.  While we don’t necessarily use the word sin, we do talk about personal characteristics of people and say “that’s why this has happened to them,” that it’s a punishment of some sort being laid down on them, and therefore we don’t have to do anything to help.  But as we heard in the passage from Proverbs, God has something to say about that, just as Jesus did through his healings, because he was most often healing the outcast of society, and his healings didn’t just bring them health, but also brought them back into community with others.

Jesus does many different types of healings, and the healings happen for different reasons.  Jesus heals from afar, which is what happens in the story of the syrophenician woman as she requests healing for her daughter, who is not with her, but Jesus heals her at a distance, which happens in other instances.  He heals people close by, or rather he often says their faith has healed them.  One woman is healed simply by touching the hem of Jesus garment.  And then there are a couple of times when Jesus does something demonstrable to show the healing taking place, which is what happens here.  Jesus puts his fingers into the man’s ears, sort of cleans them out and as they say, you shouldn’t put anything smaller than your finger into your ear.  Then he spits and touches the man’s tongue.  In most other healing stories, that’s enough, but here Jesus does one other thing, and that is to utter a phrase, ephphatha, meaning “be opened.”  And as soon as Jesus says the words, the man’s ears are opened and his tongue is freed and he is able to speak plainly.  But what does Jesus then order him to do?  To be silent, not to tell anyone.

Jesus ordering people not to say anything is a common theme found in Mark, that is also picked up to a lesser extent in the gospel of Matthew, and is called the Messianic secret.  The idea that Jesus is trying to keep his messiahship, or his ability to do these miraculous things, a secret comes from the work of a German theologian by the name of William Wrede, who wrote about it in 1901, claiming that it explained why the early followers of Christ could claim that Jesus was the Messiah when in the synoptic gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke, it’s not really language that Jesus used himself.  This idea of the Messianic secret dominated Biblical scholarship and interpretation for a long time, and is still found being used a lot today.  I’ve heard several sermons make reference of it, and most of you probably have as well, although they might not have used the specific term Messianic secret.  But in my research this week I was glad to read that this idea is falling out of favor for many different reasons.  I’m not a fan of the idea because I think it misses the point of Mark’s gospel, of why Mark is writing the story and telling us the message that he does.

Mark’s gospel to me, and to many others, is about what it means to be a disciple and what proper discipleship looks like.  And part of that is shown in how we respond to what we see or hear of Jesus and what Jesus does for us, and it is about this idea of secrecy.  Because what happens in Mark, is that Jesus tells lots of different people not to tell anything to anyone, but as a result two things happen.  He tells the disciples not to say anything, and what do they do?  They don’t say anything.  The disciples, and Peter in particular, become foils in Mark’s narrative, as they are contrasted against others, like this man and his friends, who are told to remain silent, but can’t be quiet.  They start telling everyone.  Indeed, in today’s passage we are told that “the more [Jesus] ordered them [to be silent], the more zealously they proclaimed it.”

This sounds sort of contradictory, that we are supposed to do what Jesus tells us not to do, but I believe the writer of Mark is making a point about what discipleship means.  If you have been transformed by Christ, if you have been healed, if you have been forgiven, if you have been loved, how could you possibly hold that in?  Don’t you have to go out and tell the world?  That’s really the point.  Now that the man has been given the ability to speak, how could he possibly remain quiet?  How can he possibly follow Jesus’ injunction not to tell anyone?  He can finally speak, so even just speaking in and of itself is to tell the world that he has been changed.  If you couldn’t hear or speak and suddenly you could, would you put your fingers back in your ears and remain silent to maintain the status quo?  No, you would go out into the world to experience the world and to shout from the mountain tops what has happened to you.

When we lived in Massachusetts, the youngest daughter of some friends of ours didn’t really begin talking when she was supposed to.  She would occasionally say some things, but not really much.  Her parents began getting concerned and raised it with their pediatrician who said that it wasn’t unusual for younger children to start talking later because their older siblings would often do things for them, and seemed to understand what was going on, that they did the talking for them, and so they should just wait and see what developed.  But as she got older, she still wasn’t speaking and so they were sent to see a specialist, and it was discovered that the frenum, which is the little piece of skin under the tongue that holds it to the floor of your mouth was too big, it went too far forward, and so she was literally tongue tied.  That’s where the phrase comes from.  Because her tongue was not able to move freely, she couldn’t talk, and so she had surgery in which they clipped it back, and suddenly her tongue was freed and she was able to talk all she wanted.  So much so that there were probably some days her parents wished they had never had the procedure done.  Her tongue was freed, and nothing they could do could keep her from talking any more.

Be opened, Jesus says, and therefore he cannot follow it up by saying, be closed.  What does it mean to be opened?  What does it mean to us to be opened?  Just because we have hearing does not mean that we actually hear, just because we have sight does not mean that we actually see.  Jesus himself is changed in the encounter with the syrophonecian woman, he is opened, and then he opens up the man, and so the order to remain silent cannot be taken seriously because it’s an impossibility.  Just like if I tell you don’t think of an elephant, what are you going to do?  Think of an elephant.

Jesus also says to us, be opened.  Open yourselves up to me, open yourselves up to new realities, open yourselves up to new ideas, open yourselves up to the radicalness of the kingdom of God, a kingdom in which we gather together not for a huge feast, but where we all, every one of us, everyone in the world, is invited to take the bread and take the cup, given to us freely and without cost.  Christ calls us to be transformed and opened up to new possibilities in our lives, to be opened up and to welcome in Christ himself, and when that happens we can’t help but spread the good news, the gospel message to the world, to say see what’s happened to me, come and see what God has to offer for you.  That also means that we have to show and live and talk about a faith that people say “I want to be a part of that” or “I want what they have.”  Because all too often the version of faith that people see, especially those who are unchurched or don’t know Christ, it’s a faith that they don’t want to have anything to with.

We want to say that religion is a private thing, I can’t tell anyone else, or I don’t want to tell anyone else, unless I really have to.  We want to be the spork to try and have it both ways, to be both a Christian and to be silent, but we can’t.  We can’t say about our faith, shhh… it’s a secret.  We are called to go forth with tongues of fire to make new disciples, to spread the message to the end of the world.  I think that one of the reasons Jesus’ embodies this healing, does physical things to make it happen, is because we too are called to embody our faith, to do our faith.   But for that to happen, we must first allow ourselves to come before Christ and to respond when he calls for us to be opened, and when that happens, there is nothing which can stop us from telling the world.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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