Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Kindness of Christ

Sheepscott Community Church September 6, 2009

Isaiah 35: 4-7a

James 2: 1-10; 14-17

Mark 7: 24-37

The Kindness of Christ

I will start with a few words about kindness from the novelist Henry James, speaking to his namesake nephew Henry, son of William James. “Three things in human life are important, Henry,” he said. “The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

I relate this wisdom to today’s gospel, in the verses about the deaf man who was healed. What struck me most about the story was Jesus’ thoughtfulness toward the man, when he took him aside from the crowd all by himself. It was such a tender and kind thing to do, given the man’s situation, such a human thing to do, where we can understand from Christ’s example how God an come among us in the simplest ways. The man was deaf and had a speech impediment, which often goes with the deafness because the person cannot hear himself speak. Deafness can be embarrassing for those who suffer it, not because of the sense deficit itself, but because of others’ reactions to it. Some in the crowd might have been shouting at the man who was deaf, trying to make him hear, as if that made a difference. I don’t doubt that that would have made him anxious, nervous.

So, Jesus quietly took him aside, put his fingers into the man’s ears, spit and touched his tongue. What was that about, you might wonder. For one thing, in those days, people thought that spittle or saliva had curative powers. For another, Jesus was acting out what was happening. It is interesting to note that Jesus did not always heal in the same manner. His repertoire included everything from this unusual but understandable dumb-show approach of today’s gospel, to speaking the word of authority to a paralytic, as in, “Get up, take your mat, and walk,” and the paralytic did what he was told much to the chagrin of the pharisees; to simply touching a man with leprosy and thereby healing him. Jesus was simply in the moment in the Spirit of God, with whom he was filled and who directed his surrendered life. His looking up to heaven when he spoke the the word “Ephphatha”––Be thou opened.––is a reminder of that: the One he considered his source.

In this morning’s gospel we encounter Jesus first in Tyre, in Gentile territory a long way from home. What was he doing there? If you look at a map, you’ll see that Tyre and Sidon are both in Phoenicia, and we probably all remember from elementary school that the Phoenicians were great sailors, their cities built along the Mediterranean Sea as they were. It was the Phoenicians who first figured out how to sail by the stars at night. Until that time, all boats would have to moor at night and wait for the guidance of familiar landmarks visible during the day.

Anyway, what was Jesus doing so far from home? How far? Tyre, which means The Rock, so-called because of two great rocks offshore that were joined by a 3000-foot ridge creating a natural harbor and fortress, Tyre was about 40 miles northwest of Capernaum, where Jesus lived. Sidon was 26 miles further north of Tyre and 60 miles from Capernaum. So, what brought Jesus up from Capernaum? Practically speaking, he may well have been seeking a temporary retreat from the attacks he was under at home from all sides. The Pharisees, as we heard last week, called him a sinner because he broke their rules and regulations, specific to last week’s gospel, he didn’t encourage the disciples to wash their hands before they ate. Thereby they were considered unclean in the sight of God, according to the Law. Herod considered him a menace, and in his own home town of Nazareth, they thought he was just too big for his britches.

Who cared about him were the poor and disenfranchised, who had little other hope. Do you think that speaks well of him? Can we take him seriously knowing that? If you answer the question honestly, you might get an insight into your deeper thoughts about these matters. There’s an echo of that in the epistle of James when he says, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of he world to be rich in faith and inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”

These poor, these are Jesus’ chosen people, and they included the Gentiles, who inhabited Phoenicia, which is part of Syria. When he went there, he went into a house and did not want anyone to know he was there because he needed some R & R. But he was found out, as he always was. So much for the retreat from attention and human need and its demands. Notably this first incident in this morning’s gospel is an interaction with a person unclean on two counts: that she was a woman, and a Gentile. A good Jew would speak to neither in this setting, but she challenged Jesus with clever repartee––she being a Greek and Greeks being notorious for their gift for repartee––and he rewarded her with the healing or deliverance of her daughter from a spirit that had been troubling her.

She was a Gentile. In last week’s gospel, we heard Jesus doing away with the distinction between clean and unclean foods. “Nothing that enters a man makes him unclean,” he said, “but it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean.” He was speaking about the designs that are in a person’s heart. Is it any accident that this incident follows chronologically in the gospel readings? Can Jesus be symbolically wiping out the difference between clean and unclean people? As I mentioned above, just as an observant Jew would never eat taboo foods, neither would he have contact with an unclean Gentile. Symbolically the Syro-Phoenician woman can stand for the whole Gentile world, which eagerly seized on the bread of heaven, which the Jews rejected and threw aside. That rejection became the opportunity for the Gentiles.

If as Gentiles we can all identify with the Syro-Phoenician woman, notice that she didn’t come on with “You owe me.” Rather, she argued for the crumbs that dropped from the table, not claiming to be anything other than a dog, who in that capacity could have at least those crumbs. I should note that in spite of Jesus’ seeming sharp words, because of the word he used for dog, there was probably an affectionate tone and smile between him and the woman. The word he used implied a much-loved and petted lap dog, not the more commonly used word for dog, whose meaning was closer to that of the word we use for a female dog nowadays, and which I really don’t want to say in church. We, through the mercy of God and in the boldness of the woman’s expression, do not have to settle for the crumbs. Look. We have the whole loaf, which we in our several beliefs will share as communion this orning, remembering the Christ. We out-of-towners, we less-than-ners, we Gentile believers grafted on to the root of Jesse, we can have the whole loaf.

One scholar thinks that this long journey, on foot through Syro-Phoenicia took up to eight months. It is a time of long communion between Jesus and his disciples before the storm breaks over the end of his life. It is the peace before that storm. After he left Tyre, he went further north to Sidon, and thence south to the area of the Decapolis, where he cured the man who was deaf whom we earlier heard about. That story shows us clearly that Jesus did not consider the man a “case.” No, he considered him an individual, a man with a special need and a special problem. Jesus dealt with him in a way that spared his feelings, in a way that he––the man––could understand. As Mark Twain said, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” The closer we draw to God in Jesus, by our choice, the more we can partake of his holiness, which is marked by this great kindness and sensitivity.

But Jesus isn’t going to do all the work in this department. We have to resist the real temptation to for example send someone up for laughs to the amusement of others. Have you ever been unkind in that way? It doesn’t feel good, does it? Not really. But it’s so easy. More difficult is to hold the tongue back from speaking the sarcastic, rueful word that will make you the toast of the group for some minutes at someone else’s expense. I have the feeling––and it is a feeling; it doesn’t rise or sink to the level of full-blown theology ––that when we do choose to rein in our tongues, when we do choose kindness rather than passing popularity, Someone notices, and there is a turning toward us, and a looking at us, that if we were able to fully look back, would probably frighten us to death with its beauty.

Other, perhaps easier acts of Christlike kindness can be as simple as smiling at a stranger, offering a compliment, opening a door, letting someone out into traffic, offering to help an overwrought young mother in the grocery store. What does any of this cost us except a moment of saying yes to someone else? I wonder if when we do these things, we become like the deaf man whom Jesus healed, who then hears as he has not heard before, or like the man born blind who sees. Acting out Christ, we may be healed in the process in unexpected ways.

After Jesus healed the deaf man, the people who gathered around were filled with amazement and said, “He has done everything well,” which was the same thing that scripture says of God in Genesis 1: 31: “God saw all that he had made and it was very good.” This is God’s verdict on his own creation in the beginning. It had been good, and then sin spoiled it. Came Jesus with healing in his wings, and creation began all over again. It was righted, and we are invited to continue the righting of this new creation. Insofar as we accept the invitation and respond, we will be acting with Christ and in his stead with kindness, always kindness, patience, gentleness, forbearance. We are enabled in this task by the food and drink we will share this morning––Christ himself in the sacrament he has left us, not so much to contemplate but more to activate, to carry into the world that is dying for a taste of his life through us. Amen.

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