Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost — September 5, 2021

Texts: Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-10[11-13] 14-17, Mark 7:24-37
It’s all about miracles today. Like God giving the Edomites their due recompense for oppressing the Israelites, and God’s leading of Israel out of captivity in Babylon. As Isaiah proclaims, there’s nothing quite like the power of God for making things happen. Blind people see, deaf people hear, lame people leap, mute people sing out, and waters rise in dry places. Same thing for the Gospel: there goes Jesus, healing the child of a Gentile woman; healing a deaf mute man.
Only, I have some misgivings. Who were the Edomites and what did they do that was so terrible that they deserved God’s vengeance and terrible recompense? Other biblical accounts say that the Israelites never even had a great homecoming from Babylon. Yes, they came home, but considerably less triumphantly than Isaiah predicted. Besides that, Genesis 36:6 says “Esau is Edom” therefore the Edomites are reckoned to be descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau. The Edomites then were certainly children of Abraham, even if not the chosen ones of Israel.
The Edomites lived at the southern end of the Middle East just above the Gulf of Aqaba. Their fortunes rose and fell over the years. They were rarely troublesome to Israel on any grand scale. Perhaps the worst charge you could make against them was that they loudly rejoiced when the Babylonians sent the Israelites into exile in 587 BC. Oddly enough, they were themselves already under Babylonian rule, having been vanquished back in 604 BC. So, it wasn’t like the Edomites had much reason for rejoicing themselves. The antipathy between Israel and Edom could be best described as sibling rivalry. So why consider this a miracle of deliverance when God was choosing one group of Abraham’s descendants over another?
I have some hesitation about the gospel too. The Syrophoenician mother has to argue with the all-loving, compassionate Son of God to help her daughter. How do we explain away this apparent reluctance of Jesus to heal the child? And why did Jesus do the healing of the deaf mute man in private, refusing to let even those who brought him there see the miracle happen. Jesus even cautioned them afterwards to keep their mouths shut about the whole affair. It almost seems that Jesus was tired and wanted to discourage the crowd that followed him constantly begging for help. These are miracles with an edge.
There are several ways to come to terms with this difficulty. One is to question God’s perspective on things. The other is to question our own. I think we can, and should, argue with God when we have doubts and fears. Because God, particularly through Jesus, invites us to be in a relationship that involves mutual engagement. But looking at the stories of Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark I’m inclined to say that we should question our own perspective, examining more closely where we locate miracles.
Now, this assumes that we are open to miracles to begin with. The story is told about King Louis the XV of France who had a problem with the St. Medard Cemetary in Paris where several miracles were alleged to have occurred. In 1732 the king had a sign placed on the locked gates. “By order of the King, God is hereby forbidden to work miracles in this place.” The story of King Louis XV is at first humorous, but ultimately sad. Because for a miracle to be experienced at all, we must begin with the notion that God’s power is absolutely unlike human power both in its nature and in its magnitude. I doubt that Louis XV ever saw a miracle again, not because they didn’t happen in his sight, but because he could not comprehend or admit to any power greater than his own. I know people like him, and for them I have great pity.
Presuming that we are receptive to miracles, we can affirm that the miracles described in Isaiah and Mark did occur. But let me suggest to you a different location for each one. In the case of the Israelites, the miracle is NOT that they believed in God and were released from exile in Babylon. The miracle is: that they languished in Babylon, doubted God’s presence frequently, returned slowly to Israel, despaired over the rebuilding of their kingdom, and STILL continued to trust and believe in the God of Abraham and Sarah; a faith that persists even after the horrors of the Holocaust. That such faith should exist, is truly a miracle.
In the case of Jesus what if the miracle is NOT the healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman? Perhaps it was that Jesus, Son of the most high God, let a lowly woman, and a Gentile one at that change his mind. Which in turn caused him to proclaim as his own mother did at his conception, God’s favor for all people Jew and Gentile alike forevermore. A proclamation of salvation that otherwise would not have included the likes of you and me.
As for the deaf mute man who was healed, what if the miracle is NOT the simple matter of his healing, but what followed that event, when the people were moved to proclaim “He has done everything well…” That’s language straight from Genesis, when God saw that everything created was well and good in God’s sight. The miracle was the people’s spontaneous announcement of God’s new kingdom on earth present and active in the person of Jesus Christ.
And there is another miracle we should not overlook. It is in the letter of James. The miracle is that James was not discouraged by chronic apathy in his faith community. He persisted in calling for justice and action by the community of Christians who were convinced that having made a public statement of faith, their work was done. James reminded them that because faith is a living thing it must by nature be productive.
Faith which produces nothing is lifeless. Another way to say it is that Christians should resemble a fruit tree more than a Christmas tree. The holiday tree gives pleasure in its beautiful adornment but soon fades and dries up. It is cut off from its source of life. A fruit tree is beautiful in its fruitfulness and gives hope and pleasure by its continuous gift of life to the world.
Here’s one more miracle story, from the Jewish storyteller Martin Buber. “My grandfather was lame. Once he was asked to tell a story about his teacher and he told how the Baal Shem Tov used to jump about and dance when he was praying. My grandfather stood up while he was telling the story and the story carried him away so much that he had to jump and dance to show how the master had done it. From that moment on he was healed.”
God’s greatest miracle is Jesus and his life-giving story. All that is good, refreshing, life-changing, and lively comes from him. May the story of Jesus Christ so be at work in you that all your lameness be healed, whether it is in body or spirit. May the miracle of God that is Jesus Christ move you to both see and do miracles for the sake of his good kingdom which is at hand.

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