Be Opened!

+ A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) / Proper 18B / Ordinary 23B at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on September 9, 2018 +

Texts: Isaiah 35:4-7, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In 1945, the territorial legislature in Alaska was considering a controversial bill.
At the time, it was not uncommon for businesses and public facilities to ban people from entering based on their race.
Similar to the Jim Crow Laws of the American South, discrimination against Alaska Native peoples was completely legal.
Some businesses even put up signs that said, “No Dogs or Natives Allowed.”
A Tlingit Native woman named Elizabeth Peratrovich petitioned the governor and the legislature to ban this segregation, and she was told to wait.
The time wasn’t right.

Eventually, a few years later, the non-discrimination bill passed the House of Representatives.
But when it came to the Senate, a bitter debate ensued.
Territorial Senator Allen Shattuck rose in opposition and declared, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?”
Peratrovich listened to the debate and was given the opportunity to be the final person to testify on the bill prior to the vote.

“We Can Do It!” by Apayo Moore

She stood before the entirely male, mostly white Senate, and confidently said, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them, of our Bill of Rights.”
After she finished her speech, she sat down, and the Senate quickly passed the bill and Alaska established the country’s first ever anti-discrimination law nearly 20 years before the national Civil Rights Act of 1964.

During my schooling in Alaska, I remember learning about Elizabeth Peratrovich, learning about her courage, her commitment to equality, and how instrumental she was in opening up equal rights under the law for her fellow Natives and for all Alaskans.

In some ways, I see echoes between this and today’s gospel reading.
But, if I’m honest, I’m always uncomfortable to see how this version plays out.
You see, I want Jesus to be on the forefront of openness.
I want him to show us how much more we can experience, how much more vast God’s love is, how it’s beyond our own limits or comprehension.
I mean, look at his ministry to this point – he’s walked around with fishermen, eaten with tax collectors and sinners, healed people who were sick and suffering, challenged the oppressors in power, and embraced people of all walks of life who were outcast from society and living on the margins.
Jesus’ entire life has been about expanding the boundaries of who was accepted.
It’s been about opening the minds of his disciples, the religious elites, and even our minds about who is part of God’s perfect reign of life and love.

And then we hear today’s gospel – and I feel uncomfortable again.
Because no matter how I look at it, no matter how I parse the verses, no matter how I wrestle with the Greek or with countless commentaries, it’s clear that Jesus is not the example of inclusive love in today’s reading with the Syro-Phonecian woman.
I mean did you hear what he called her?
He basically held up a sign that said, “No Dogs or Syro-Phonecians Allowed.”
It sure seems like Jesus has fallen into the ancient animosities that existed between the Jewish people and the people of Tyre.
Because scripture is clear – these peoples did not get along at all.

And so when this woman, this foreigner, this non-believer, this complete outsider comes to him, desperately seeking healing for her daughter, trying what may have been her last resort, I am astounded when Jesus turns her away.
He is so closed off to her – maybe because of her religion, maybe because of her race, maybe because of her sex.
But he calls her a dog and says, ‘Wait your turn. It’s not your time yet.’

“Wait your turn.”
It’s the same thing that marginalized groups have been told over and over again.
It’s what Elizabeth Peratrovich was told.
It’s what Rosa Parks was told.
It’s what Martha P. Johnson wad told.
And it’s what this unnamed Syro-Phoenecian woman was told.

It’s times like these ones where we have to wrestle with a Jesus that does not fully fit our understanding of him.
One that is flawed.
One that is…human.
We confess a mystery of the incarnation that Jesus was both fully God and fully human – fully divine and fully…like us.
It’s a paradox that baffles theologians and makes us uncomfortable when we see the human side come out.
And Mark’s depiction of Jesus is particularly human, gritty even.
And we see this woman, standing before him, challenging his prejudices, claiming her humanity, and remarkably, opening his mind.
Helping him see the expansiveness that he has been preaching.
Helping him to see the full impact of his teaching.
Because even this man who has been preaching good news to the poor, who has spent time with sinners, who has been crossing every social boundary imaginable is apparently unable to grasp the immensity of the gospel he has been proclaiming.

Author Barbara Brown Taylor describes the moment this way: “You can almost hear the huge wheel of history turning as Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what he has been called to do.” This woman teaches him that the gospel “is bigger than he had imagined, that there is enough of him to go around.”

Syro-Phoenician Woman
Icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM (

And really, we have to thank this woman.
Because she tells Jesus that it’s her time, her daughter’s time, and our time.
Up to this point, nearly everyone that Jesus healed was Jewish.
Everyone he preached to, everyone he taught, everyone he spent time with was Jewish.
And it make sense – everyone was inside his community.
But now she opens Jesus up to seeing that Gentiles, that we, are also part of God’s commonwealth.
She becomes a prophet for Jesus as she opens his eyes to see that the gospel is for us too.

She becomes our foremother in faith, because through her reasoning, through her persistence, through her faith she opens Jesus’ mind to see her as worthy of God’s love, to how the expansiveness of this love includes her, includes us.
And this is a rare moment in the gospels.
We can see Jesus change his mind, see his understanding transformed.
We see this woman teach Jesus about God’s love – teach him a larger vision of the commonwealth of God.

And immediately, Jesus goes into action.
He heals this woman’s daughter and goes deeper into Gentile territory and expands his ministry.
He goes to Sidon and into the Decapolis – Gentile cities – and heals this blind man with the speech impediment.
ephphatha-e1441292040949And he uses that beautiful Aramaic word, Ephphatha – be opened.
Be opened to this expansiveness.
Be opened to where God is leading us beyond our comfort zones, beyond our self-imposed limits, beyond our prejudices to see where God’s love already is preexisting.
Be opened to the immensity of God’s love.

And then, just after these stories, Jesus feeds 4,000 people – he had just fed 5,000 people before this, Jewish people, his people, but now he feeds 4,000 Gentiles with another multiplication of bread – because even the crumbs from the table of God’s love are a source of abundance beyond our wildest imagination.

I know that this can be a lot to grapple with, a lot to struggle with hearing Jesus say things like he does today as we wonder how it changes our picture of him.
But I think it’s important to remember that he does not let these harsh words to this woman define him or his ministry, but he is opened by his conversation with her to see just how large God’s love really is.
He expands his ministry to new levels of inclusion.
He brings the gospel beyond the human barriers that he maybe didn’t even recognize he was living in.
He comes to a larger understanding of how this is God’s good news of life and love for all nations.
How, as James reminds us, the gospel does not show partiality or favoritism, but is a free and equal gift for every single person.

And just as this woman teaches Jesus, I think she has a lot to teach us, too.
In a country where women still seek equality in healthcare, in compensation, and in representation.
In a country where people of color demand an end to systems of racism and segregation that persist to this day.
In a country where LGBTQ people still call for an end to discrimination and hatred.
In a country where immigrants must still claim their humanity and equality of opportunity.
What can we still learn from her witness?
How can our minds be opened, like Jesus’ was, and how can we expand our witness to the gospel?

And here, at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, how is this woman speaking to us?
How is she challenging us to open our eyes to a larger view of the gospel?
How can we broaden our work to demonstrate again the expansiveness of God’s love?
If we want to be an open and affirming congregation, if we want to say all are welcome in this place, how will we truly welcome people into this community?
Will we expect them to conform to our norms, our traditions, our understandings of faith?
Or will we allow them to teach us, to transform us, and yes, to open our eyes to the wideness of God’s love?

My friends, the love of God is wider than we can ever imagine.
The love of God surpasses all the limits we may try to put on it.
The love of God confounds our expectations and includes those whom we would exclude.
This woman reminds us again today that no matter how big we think our understanding of God’s love is, it is always bigger.
It breaks forth like water in the desert and fills the entirety of creation until every nook and cranny is filled with God’s love.
It spreads beyond us throughout the universe encompassing planets and galaxies beyond our comprehension.
It fills you and me and a pleading mother from Syro-Phoenicia.

unnamed (1)So this morning I invite you to be opened.
Be opened to see the expansiveness of God’s love.
Be opened to where God is leading us to live out the gospel.
Be opened to proclaim God’s love to the world.
Because no matter how big you think it may be, God’s love will always be bigger.

Be opened!


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