Old Testament: Isaiah (35:4-7a)
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.
The Response: Psalm 146
Praise the Lord, O my soul! *
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
2 Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.
3 When they breathe their last, they return to earth, *
and in that day their thoughts perish.
4 Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! *
whose hope is in the Lord their God;
5 Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;
6 Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
7 The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; *
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
8 The Lord loves the righteous;
the Lord cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
9 The Lord shall reign for ever, *
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.
The Epistle: James (2:1-10, 14-17 )
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
The Gospel: Mark (7:24-37)
Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He 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 and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Today, we begin the 81st “program year” in the life of this church community. It has been nearly eight decades since what had been known as “The Harries Chapel” was rededicated as the first gathering-place for St. Mark’s Church, 80 years of serving the world around us in God’s name. After 80 years, you’d think we’d have all our work down by now, and everything would be in a set routine; but that’s not the way that life works. We are still and always will be on a journey.
That journey motif is one that carries through the gospels — and through the entire bible, for that matter. And a journey necessarily implies moving and learning and change.
If we need any reminder of that, all we need to do is to look at Jesus’ experience in the gospel according to Mark. Up to this point, Jesus’ ministry had been limited almost exclusively to his fellow Jews. In fact, Jesus had confined his journeys mostly to the largely Jewish territory of Galilee. But in the reading that we just heard, Jesus ventured beyond those places and people with whom he was familiar and comfortable to enter into pagan territory. There he encountered people who were different from him and from those closest to him. And there, in the region of Tyre, one of them virtually forced him into a new way of looking at himself and at the work that God had given him to do.
With a really offensive comment, Jesus at first rejected the appeal of the Syrophoenician woman. But this stranger, this outsider, stood her ground; and Jesus was compelled to reexamine his assumption about the people to whom God had sent him, and to reexamine the scope of his entire ministry.
It might have been that learning-experience, that conversion-experience, that then led him to travel to another pagan region, the Decapolis, where he encountered a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. In that incident, Jesus took another significant step. In the case of the woman, Jesus healed her daughter at a distance: never talking with her or even seeing her. But now, Jesus dared even to touch this man in order to heal him. Those non-Jews, those pagans, from whom he earlier kept his distance, were now people whom he met face-to-face, whom he came to know, and whom, at least in this case, he even touched. Something significant had changed.
But Jesus may well have had another learning experience here also, one that we can easily miss. In today’s first reading, Isaiah portrays the coming of the God and of the reign of God in all its fullness. As part of that vision, he describes God loosening the tongue of the speechless: that is what the Hebrew says. But most people in Jesus’ time seem to have known the Old Testament better in its Greek version. And the Greek version describes God healing, not the speechless, but those with a speech impediment. That change is significant because the particular Greek word used there for his impediment is one that is rarely used; but it is the exact same word that is used to describe the man in today’s gospel reading. And those are the only two places in the entire Greek bible, Old Testament and New, where that word appears. This obviously was no coincidence. Jesus, who was thoroughly attuned to the message of the scriptures including Isaiah, would most probably have seen this act of healing as indicating that Isaiah’s vision of the coming of the reign of God had been fulfilled. Now was the time for the arrival God’s kingdom, and he was an integral part of its arrival.
That new insight, that conversion, that transformed vision that these two encounters gave Jesus changed his understanding of his mission. And the inclusion of these stories at this point in the gospel according to Mark helped to transform the church’s understanding of its mission as well. That change came about when Jesus and the church went out from the places where they were comfortable in order to encounter and touch the lives of people and of groups of people whom they had not known.
As we begin our celebration of “St. Mark’s at 80,” this gospel reading calls us to ask where are the places and who are the people with whom we are familiar and comfortable? And who are the people who symbolically live in the region of Tyre and in the Decapolis today – those whom we really do not know, those with whom we really are not familiar or comfortable, those to whom God might well be sending us in our time?
Much has changed in the life of this parish and in the life of our society over the past eight decades. And one very significant change is the inclusion, within the full life of the church, of people and groups of people who had once been excluded. Back in 1938, full membership in and especially leadership in the life of what was then “St. Mark’s Mission” would probably not have included people of color, women, people who were LGBTQ, or people recovering from alcoholism or other addictions. All that has changed; but that change has not been easy.
And I feel safe in saying that God has other significant changes waiting for us in the future as we continue our journey toward the kingdom. Like Jesus in our gospel reading, we find ourselves not only making minor changes or adjustments to our way of life, but actually being led to embark on a changed journey, heading to places and experiences that, at one time, we could never have imagined ourselves going.
Essentially, what we have done and what God continues us to call us to do is to undergo a continuing conversion. And over the years, that conversion takes us in different directions as we journey with God. New Testament scholar Joel Green (Conversion in Luke-Acts, pp. 67-8) expresses it this way: conversion means that “a change is required, and this change is not simply from one state to another, but from one kind of journey to another. That is, conversion signifies a continued journey in the right direction down a road under reconstruction.”
As we set out today on the 81st part of our journey with God and with one another, we do so knowing that the road we are traveling is and always will be under reconstruction. It’s like so many of our highways and local streets; there are orange barrels everywhere. Only in this case, we are the construction crew, with God leading us and calling us forward in new ways and in new directions on our journey to the kingdom.