Sunday, September 5, 2021
If you grew up in the Lutheran church, perhaps you remember from catechism classes that Martin Luther loved to ask the question, “What does this mean?” This September, we’re going to be asking this question in conversation with our gospel readings each week. Today, we’re asking, “What does it mean to heal and be healed?” as we hear about Jesus healing two different people in different ways this morning. Recently, healing and health has been more on our minds, for some of us because of our age, for others because of this ongoing global pandemic and all that we see and hear about in the daily news. It’s easy to focus on Jesus miraculously healing physical illness and being disappointed when we don’t have answered prayer in the form of a cure for cancer or COVID or other illnesses we may be battling. And unfortunately, some Christians have been arguing recently against vaccines because we should “have enough faith in Jesus” to heal us rather than put our faith in modern medicine. Rather, I’d like to encourage us today to realize that we don’t have to abandon modern medicine OR our faith in Christ’s healing power – we can do both and be faithful Christians. As we listen to the words from Jesus today in gospel, I hope we can understand that healing can take many forms, and the healing that Jesus offers us is broader a cure for what physically ails us. And when we aren’t cured in the way we had hoped or prayed for, I want to be clear that this is not because of a lack of faith on our part. In fact, we’ll see in a little bit that in these examples of healing in Mark 7, Jesus dispels a common cultural understanding of his time that people were being punished by God with chronic illness.
But before we turn to Mark, a short story. My home congregation has a missionary named Bob. He went to Tanzania in 2004 for a short-term medical mission that we all thought would be for about six weeks. He was sent by a Lutheran-affiliated hospital to help strengthen Tanzania’s medical infrastructure, working with the fast-growing Lutheran church in Tanzania. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Bob has been living in Tanzania ever since. First, he said, Ok, I’ll extend my stay for six months. And then for a year, and another year, and so on. The thing about Bob is, I remember him as Michael’s dad as a kid. Michael was in my Sunday School and then confirmation class. He and his brother were usually dropped off and picked up by their dad – we only saw Bob at Christmas and Easter if we were lucky. No one would’ve looked at Bob when he told our congregation he was going to Tanzania and said, “Oh yeah, you’re going to be a missionary for the rest of your career. He’s a hospital administrator – not a pastor. That is his role as a missionary in Tanzania still today. Even the last time I saw Bob two years ago, he approaches his faith in a pretty scientific, rational way, but I know the faith of the Tanzanians and his fellow coworkers has changed him. So helping create a system that trains local doctors and nurses, that helps build infrastructure for modern medical equipment and so on to underserved, poverty-stricken areas of Tanzania has become not only Bob’s work to transform Tanzanians for the better, but also has clearly transformed Bob. Christ’s healing is broad, and Christ’s healing is wide, branching out to more than one person.
In our gospel for this morning, Jesus heals the deaf man by saying, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened.” When we ask what it means to heal and be healed, I’d like us to think about healing as an opening up to new possibilities because of our faith in Christ. Release from physical pain and ailments, but also opening us up to spiritual healing and transformation. You may have been a bit shocked with our first story of Jesus casting a demon out of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, because Jesus calls these women dogs. And yes, it is as bad as it sounds – the connotation is similar to how we would understand it today. Mark is known for focusing on Jesus’ human side. Here, we see Jesus as human as he gets – whether he is testing the Syrophoenician woman, tired and responding irritably or parroting back a prejudiced saying he has learned from growing up in a Jewish household, this encounter with someone very different from himself – a woman of a different ethnicity and religion – alters the course of Jesus’ ministry. Before this, he has understood his ministry of healing, preaching, and teaching to be focused primarily on the people of Israel. From this moment forward, he continues to minister to all people, regardless of ethnicity, class, religion, gender, and so on.
Like Bob being transformed spiritually by his efforts to improve healthcare in Tanzania, we see pretty powerfully here how God the Father opens Jesus up to a much broader mission of healing for the world. It seems that God has been directing Jesus to grow in understanding this mission even before he encounters the woman and her daughter. After all, why would Jesus be in Tyre in the first place? Tyre and Sidon are in Lebanon, no longer in the territory of Israel/Palestine. Of course, Jesus will encounter foreigners/Gentiles/non-Jews in this area. And let’s also remember, while Jesus frees the girl from her demons, whatever those might be (physical or mental or spiritual illness), Jesus has also declared the woman and her child to no longer be “dogs” but human beings in society’s eyes. Being healed by Jesus can be as simple and yet as profound as Jesus opening our eyes to see the God-given worth and humanity of others who are different from ourselves. Christ’s healing can include racial reconciliation, gender justice, and healthy interfaith dialogue, which does not mean agreement, but a deeper understanding of our differences so that we can work together for the common good.
Jesus opens our eyes to love others. Jesus opens our hearts to have faith and trust more deeply in him. And in the second healing story for today, we see how Jesus opens our ears and mouths. It’s kind of gross especially in our current COVID-cautious context to hear about how Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears and then spits and touches his tongue. Eew. But in these very physical, messy actions we see how Jesus is not afraid to get messy with us. Jesus is not afraid to touch and heal our pain, wherever it is. Jesus enters the mess of our lives, whatever we’re going through, to offer us healing. It’s important to recognize that people with disabilities like blindness, deafness or speech impediments were considered to be cursed by God—punished by God for some kind of sin. So again, Jesus not only helps this man to hear and to speak, he heals him spiritually to hear and trust in God’s unconditional love for him. Jesus restores him back into the community, whole and well. How does Jesus open us up to hear more clearly God’s unconditional love for us, too?
The story ends not only with the man being able to hear and speak plainly, but with more and more people opening their mouths to share the good news of what Jesus is doing. They can’t help but talk about the healing they’ve witnessed to their friends and neighbors, even when Jesus orders them not to tell anyone. Jesus opens our mouths to share the good news of how Jesus has healed our lives, in whatever ways we’ve experienced it. It’s important when we experience healing of any kind that we open our mouths to give thanks to God and share these powerful experiences with others! God’s healing power is still at work in the world!
Let’s hear these words from Jesus again this morning, “Be opened!” May Christ’s healing open our hearts, our eyes, our ears, and our mouths so that we can continue to grow in faith and trust of God’s unfailing love for us and to show that love to others, in Jesus’ name. Amen.