Sunday, September 6, 2009


Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:10-17; Mark 7:24-37

There are three parts to the book of Isaiah: before the Babylonian exile the prophet warns the people to shape up or t here will be consequences. During the exile, for about 40 years, the prophet offers words of comfort and hope of an eventual return to Jerusalem. And after the return to Jerusalem, Isaiah issues challenges and encouragement to get the city and the temple rebuilt in a manner pleasing to God.

Today’s portion of Isaiah is from the middle section, and the prophet provides an image of hope and a vision of shalom, of healing and wholeness for God’s people. There will be more than peace, there will be justice. Those who have been cruel will be punished, and those who have been fearful will be saved. The blind will see and the deaf will hear. The lame will walk and the mute will sing for joy. There will be water in the wilderness and streams in the desert. In other words, all people will have whatever they need.

It sounds nice, doesn’t it? Just what we’d really like to have. It was an image the Jewish people could hold on to and look forward to, even as they endured years and years of homesickness and misery in service to the Babylonians.

As we turn to the gospel reading, we discover a Jesus we don’t recognize. We tend to imagine a Jesus who is kind and gentle, welcoming children and sinners and foreigners and showing them all God’s love. So, who is this Jesus who at first declines to heal a foreign woman’s daughter? Is this really Jesus who says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

There are several basic interpretations of this text. The first is that Jesus said this with a wink. He was asking the woman to help him teach the disciples a lesson in inclusion. The second is that the woman taught Jesus a lesson and helped him see foreigners in a new way. A third is that Jesus was so tired from months and months of healing and preaching ministry that he was unexpectedly rude – he didn’t fully realize what he had said. There are many variations on these three explanations, of course.

Perhaps it’s best if we leave the reasons as a mystery and focus on the woman. This woman had her own gods, her own priests and preachers, her own local doctors. Her community had its own strong prejudices against the Jews – a long history of hatred and conflict between the two peoples. I find it amazing that she dared approach Jesus. She would have had to fight so hard against her prejudices to ask for healing from this enemy of her people. But her daughter’s life was more important than her pride. Faced with such strong will and such overpowering faith, Jesus relented and healed her daughter without ever seeing or touching her.

The gospel story goes on. Jesus leaves the region of Tyre and enters the region of the Decapolis, ten Roman cities. It’s not clear if the deaf man is Jewish or foreign, but Jesus heals him, this time with some rather intimate contact. Jesus touches the man’s ears and puts his own spit on the man’s tongue. He declares, “Be opened!” and the man is healed. He can both hear and speak.

It always amazes me in these healing stories that the healing includes the ability to use what is healed. The man hears, and understands what he hears. He speaks, and knows what he is saying, and the people around him understood him as well. His body just works. With the lame, there are no weeks of therapy, as the person learns to walk again. The blind know what and who they are seeing. Jesus does more than just cure what is wrong; he brings about healing and wholeness at the same time. Jesus gives shalom.

The shalom Jesus brings demonstrates that the rules about purity and righteousness have been changed. Jesus defines the new rules as a very old and simple one. He quotes scripture, the “shema”: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” With Jesus, it no longer matters where we live, what we eat, what our nationality is, whether we are male or female, young or old, married or single, physically whole or disabled, etc., etc. When we love as Jesus loves, we bring about purity, righteousness, and shalom.

But it’s hard for us to do that, to love all people as Jesus loves them. Just a few years after Jesus died, the believers to whom James wrote had already lost the vision of inclusivity. They were already – or maybe still – playing favorites. The wealthy expected to be treated better than the poor folks, and were given the best seats, the best of everything. Meanwhile, the poor were allowed to sit on the floor or stand in the corners, and went hungry and clothed in rags. James calls this favoritism a sin, just as much a sin as if they had murdered someone or been unfaithful to their spouses.

I read recently that if all the money in the world was distributed evenly, the same amount to every person on earth, we would each have $9,000. Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey would each have $9,000, you and I would each have $9,000, each person living in the woods near Hernando would have $9,000, and so would each person living in Switzerland, England, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan. Some of us would have a lot less, but many of us would have a whole lot more.

An interesting concept, that of sharing all the wealth equally among all people on the earth. But I doubt that it would truly give us a sense of shalom. Sin would very quickly have us trying to get more than our share, scheming to control as much of it as we could.

Perhaps a better image relates to health care. It’s not my job to tell you that President Obama’s plan is great or terrible. It is my job as a pastor to remind you that the healthcare system in America is in need of repair.

One story: Mike had some simple blood tests done recently. We were astounded when we saw the insurance explanation of benefits – which came even before the lab bill. The lab’s charge was around $400. The allowed charge was $40. Because Mike has met his annual deductible, we owed $5. If we didn’t have insurance to bargain with the lab and get us a fair rate, we would have had to pay $400. Mike would have declined to have the test done, and pay the health consequences. In fact, he would not have gone to the doctor in the first place.

I know some of you may have similar concerns, with how much it costs to get health care. But I think it is appalling that in the US there are so many people without any health insurance, and therefore so little health care. We need to urge our representatives in congress to work together to fix this mess, for the sake of all God’s people.

If we commit to working together we can find ways to heal more people, to create a bit of shalom where so many suffer with less than enough. Jesus crossed so many boundaries during his life on earth: he spoke with foreign women, touched the disabled, hugged children, challenged the social and religious rules, and hung out with sinners and common folks. What boundaries do we need to cross to bring some shalom into our corner of the world, into our nation, into the world?

Your challenge this week is to intentionally bring shalom, some peace and wholeness, to someone you encounter. You may decide to simply look a cashier in the eye and give her a smile. You may choose to thank the guys who mow your lawn or treat your bugs. You could start a conversation with a stranger. You might decide to offer an apology to someone you hurt, or to forgive someone who has hurt you.

We can all offer a bit of ourselves, our kindness, our respect, God’s love, and create a bit of shalom, a small amount of hope, a vision of justice. Perhaps it will be contagious.

Please pray with me. Merciful God, you sent Jesus to teach us how to love you and to love one another. But we still find it so hard. Be patient with us, and forgive us. Help us be patient with one another, and to share your love with all we encounter. Amen