Be opened


The following is the script for an enacted sermon that was proclaimed in worship in the place of a traditional sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost. This dramatic reenactment of the gospel story uses a strategy of interrupted narrative, wherein the gospel story is retold - using the actual words of the gospel narrative (indicated by the quotations in the script)- but within the story much more detail is inserted, including notes about the context, imagined thought processes of the characters, and interpretive reflections. This interpretive approach attempts to draw us into the story as an embodied experience that calls on our lives in the ways that all powerful stories do, because we find ourselves in the challenges and emotions of the narrative.

A sermon on Mark 7: 24-37

The Gospel according to St. Mark (and the worship leaders of Abiding Peace Lutheran Church), the seventh chapter.

Congregation: Glory to you, O Lord

Narrator: “From there, Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.”

This introduction requires a little back story about the “there” to which the reading refers. Jesus is leaving the Jewish area of Galilee to go into Gentile Tyre, but he is also leaving a particular interaction. Today’s story follows immediately after Jesus’s argument with the Pharisees and scribes about what it is that makes a person unclean. In that confrontation (as we heard last week), Jesus taught that it is not the outward things that make a person unclean, but rather the things that come from within the person.

We pick-up our story as Jesus is setting out to go away to the region of Tyre. Tyre is a Phoenician city, occupied by Rome just as Israel is, but it’s a Gentile city.

We can only guess what drew Jesus to the area, but considering that Mark has told us several times that Jesus keeps trying to get away from the miracle-seeking crowds to rest, it’s fair to assume that he was trying to do that again. Plus, the scripture tells us that when Jesus arrived in the area, “he entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”

Jesus: (walks in from the side, dragging his feet, clearly tired; he enters the altar area and plops down on the top step; sighs deeply, then speaks to congregation).

I am so tired. I never imagined that I could feel so drained. The constant call for healings on one side, and hostile challenges to my authority on the other. There is never any space to be renewed – to just commune with the Spirit – to reconnect with the reason I am here… the message of the kingdom that I came to proclaim.

Maybe now I can rest. Away from the crowds… (he leans back and closes his eyes)

Narrator: Unfortunately, Jesus’s plans for anonymous rest were not to be. Mark tells us that “he could not escape notice.”

Word somehow got out, even in this Gentile town where an itinerant Jewish miracle-worker would be a foreigner and an outsider. Those kinds of things don’t matter to a mother who is desperate for a healing. So, a “woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.”

Woman (enters from the opposite side from Jesus, comes to the front of the altar and turns to face the congregation; her face is anxious, and her hands move fretfully)

I’m almost afraid to hope that what I’ve heard about this man could be true… that he is a real miracle worker. That he heals everyone he touches. People with fevers, skin diseases, a man who was paralyzed… even those with demons.

If it’s true, then he could heal my baby… my precious little girl. He could free her from her torture. (raising her hands and face to the sky) O God – whoever you are – let it be true. Please let him heal her. (She turns, enters the altar, and kneels at Jesus’s feet).

Narrator: “Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.”

Jesus: (he react to the woman falling at his feet by pulling back, away from her, looking irritated; he faces toward congregation to speak his thoughts.)

What is she doing here? This is supposed to be my time away! I came to a Gentile city to be left alone. I know that in Galilee the crowds follow constantly and seek my words and my miracles. But here… I am an outsider… a foreigner. Let her go to her own people for whatever she wants. I came here to rest.

Narrator: “The woman begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.”

Woman: (leaning forward and pleading)

Sir, I have heard who you are – that you have the power to heal – to command evil spirits and they MUST flee. Please, have mercy on my little daughter and heal her from her torment. She is possessed by a demon.

Jesus: (Rolls his eyes and turn away from her, still addressing the congregation.)

Of course! She wants something. She’s heard stories of demons cast out, so she wants her own miracle.

She doesn’t care that I came to teach – to call people to a new way of life. She won’t stick around once she gets the healing she seeks. She won’t repent and believe; she won’t practice a life of faith… She’s a Gentile! She doesn’t even worship the Living God, so why should she feel the right to claim a miracle through God’s power?

Narrator: "He said to her."

Jesus: (dismissively)

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Woman: (pulling back, as though she was slapped; both fear and anger show on her face; she speaks to the congregation.)

A dog? That’s all my daughter is to him? A mangy scavenger? Less than a child? Undeserving even of food?

How could one with the power to heal, the one who embodies mercy, be so… dehumanizing?

Narrator:

It’s a valid question, isn’t it?

I have to admit, that question has always made this story pretty uncomfortable for me. I’ve tried to explain it away… tried to convince myself that Jesus was just “testing her faith”; or maybe he was intentionally setting up the surprise switch to teach… I don’t know… someone (I guess, future readers of this story?) that we should NOT reject or dismiss those who are unlike us …

But I can’t get away from his actual words. He called a suffering child a dog! He used a not-so-subtle racial slur. Whatever happens next… he has slapped this mother in the face with his words…

And this just after he has lectured the Pharisees that “Nothing outside of a person can contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather the things that come out of a person contaminate the person” (Mark 7:16).

It sounds like Jesus could stand to have someone teach him that lesson!

And the amazing thing is, that’s exactly what happens. The next words spoken are the lynchpin of the whole story. They are what generate the resolution… and Jesus isn’t the one to speak them. The woman is. The Gentile woman who has been dehumanized and rejected by the one to whom she brought her pain, and fear, and need.

She is the one who decides that rejection and exclusion will NOT define her story. She answers Jesus:

Woman: (looking at Jesus; chin up; a bit defiant)

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Jesus (reacts as though stunned, then pauses and cocks his head as though thinking it over, speaking to the congregation with a tone of painful realization.)

Crumbs… is that all she’s asking for?

Is that all I’m offering? To a suffering child? To a desperate mother? Don’t I have more to offer than crumbs? Since the beginning of my ministry I have been preaching about the coming of the Kingdom of God … a kingdom that changes hearts and lives and calls us to trust our Creator; a kingdom of abundant, transforming grace.

After all, why can’t it be for her too? "Repent," I’ve been preaching: change your mind. Maybe I need to change my mind, and believe that God’s kingdom really does change everything. Even the divide between Gentiles and Jews.

I have more than crumbs to offer.

(turning to the woman, he smiles and reaches out his hand to touch her shoulder in a sign of blessing)

“For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

Woman: (she gasps and covers her mouth in gratitude and relief, then nods her thanks, stands up and runs back in the direction she entered from, as the narrator speaks)

Narrator:

“So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.”

There’s a happy ending to the scene! And not only because Jesus heals the little girl. It’s also a joy-filled ending because Jesus affirms the mother – he blesses the one who challenged him to hear her out and include her in the kingdom that he was bringing into the world.

Apparently, Jesus learned something from this unlikely teacher. Her defiance pushed him to expand his vision of the Kingdom, to trust in the abundance of the healing he brought. And that lesson carries into the next scene…

Jesus “returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.”

Jesus (stands up and walks down from the altar to the front of the sanctuary)

Narrator:

It’s not the most direct way to return to Galilee. It keeps him in Gentile territory, and as he now knows, that does not guarantee a route that will spare him petitions for help, for:

“(some people of the region) brought to Jesus a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech;”

(Man and Friend enter, the friend guiding the man, pointing to Jesus and miming encouragement.)

“they begged him to lay his hand on him.”

Friend: (reaching out toward Jesus, and motioning to the man)

Teacher, we have heard of your power, that you can heal people, even of problems they have had from birth. Please, Lord, our friend is deaf. Please lay your hand on him. Your touch can heal him!

Narrator:

It’s a scene that has been repeated many times in the region of Galilee. Someone comes for a healing, or their friends bring them. Jesus sees the need and he responds. The details vary but the result does not… the person is healed.

Now, near Sidon, in the region of the Roman Decapolis, Jesus hears again the familiar plea, but from a Gentile petitioner. And I wonder, if it had not been for the Syrophonecian woman, how would he have responded? Perhaps with a slur about dogs… a slur the man wouldn’t have heard with his ears, but would have understood all the same.

But that’s not what happens. Instead Jesus takes time. He shows care.

Jesus: (glancing in the direction that the woman ran away, then nodding and smiling to himself. He extends his arm, places it on the man’s shoulder, and guides him a few steps away. Jesus mines the actions as the narrator describes them.)

Narrator:

“Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed.”

Jesus:

Father, thank you for the power you have given me – to heal and to embrace. To open ears and to open hearts… and to open your kingdom to all who have need.

Narrator: Then “Jesus said to the man:”

Jesus: “Ephphatha,”

Narrator:

That means: “Be opened.” And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

Man: (overwhelmed with wonder)

I can hear! I can speak! Praise be to the God who gives you power, I am healed! (turning to look at his friend, and shout) I am healed!

(The friend runs over and embraces the man)

Narrator: Then, Jesus does something strange. “Jesus ordered them to tell no one;”

Jesus: (speaking to the man and friend)

“You must tell no one that I have done this. Go in peace and keep silent.” (Jesus turns and walks away.)

Man: You can't be serious! I can actually speak, and now you want me to be silent?!

Narrator: but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

(Friend and Man, babbling with excitement, speak to the congregation)

Friend: Did you hear what happened?

Man: (raises hand, eagerly) I did! I heard! I can hear now!

Friend: He can! He has been healed.

Man: That’s right! That man Jesus, the Jewish teacher. He healed me. He told my ears to open and they opened!

(they hug again, and then stand grinning at the front of the sanctuary)

Narrator:

It’s the kind of story that just has to be told, isn’t it? A healing that changes everything! That knows no boundaries. How can you keep this kind of story a secret?

“The people were astounded beyond measure, saying:

Friend & Man: “He has done everything well;”

Friend: “he even makes the deaf to hear”

Man: “and the mute to speak.”

(they exit to down the center aisle, still expressing excited joy).

Narrator: “He has done everything well..."

It’s nothing like where we started, is it? With exhaustion, and exclusion… with limits on Jesus’ energy and boundaries on the healing he offered. With a heart closed to the need in front of him.

But Jesus’ heart was opened just as clearly as the deaf man’s ears. His vision of the kingdom he had come to proclaim was loosed from its bonds like the deaf man’s tongue.

This is a story of opening. Of opening grace to all who seek it, with no limits of nationality, or shared tradition, or even perfect faith. This is a story of such wide-open, powerful grace, that it could never be kept secret.

The gospel of the Lord.

(Congregation: Praise to you, O Christ).

* Special thanks to the members of the Abiding Peace Drama Team who helped to bring this story to life: Robert Bowden, Heather Nilsen, Sue Stirrat, and Maria Jerez-Kerney.

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