A Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2018
Two priests walk into a bar this past Thursday evening in downtown Reno, hitting up a late happy hour before grabbing something to eat. And I’ll be honest with you, considering where I was in my work week, I only wanted to converse with my friend and my friend alone that night. Yet my clergy colleague, Mikayla (who was preaching here a month ago), decided to be more (shall we say) extroverted than myself in that moment and introduced herself to the woman sitting next to us at bar. Mikayla opened herself up to the possibility of what this person would bring, when I was rather more than unwilling.
But then came that awkward occasion when our acquaintance Cat asked us the question: “What do you ladies do?” Ok, mind you, clergy are typically hesitant to answer this inquiry. Yet our new friend Cat was surprisingly enthused upon discovering we were both Episcopal priests. She began to share with us her story as a writer, as a nomad, as someone in search of a life lived in vulnerability and authenticity. And in that moment at happy hour at the Jungle in downtown Reno, Cat declared that our chance encounter was divinely inspired. She then asked each of us, “As priests, if you could tell the world one thing what would it be?” My friend Mikyala answered instantaneously, “Our God of love desires us to be open, not closed: open to other people; open to new possibilities; open to our potential of whom God has created us to be.” As Cat scurrily wrote down this beautiful insight on a couple of cocktail napkins, it felt like the Holy Spirit had led us to this moment. I was grateful Mikayla was open that evening and made the first step in our inspiring meeting.
If we examine Jesus in today’s Gospel passage, he looks a lot more like me than Mikayla, in this past Thursday’s encounter. Jesus is in need of some quiet time, some solo time, some time alone with his friends. Verse 24 of today’s lesson states, “From there he 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…” Jesus was not in the mood to talk to anyone, to socialize with anyone, let alone heal anyone. Perhaps he just wanted to sit down at the end of a long work week and have a cocktail and dinner with his friends. But then a random woman, a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician woman decides to disrupt Jesus’ quiet time. So Jesus then closes himself off to possibility, to potential, to this desperate person in need of God’s healing embrace.
As the Syrophoenician woman begged Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter, h answered her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Yet the Syrophoenician woman does not sulk off, instead she boldly declares, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” It is like all of a sudden, Jesus sees her for the first time. His eyes are opened. His ears are opened. His heart is opened to this woman. Actually this amazing woman opened Jesus up to new people, new possibilities, new potential (perhaps far greater than his humanness ever could imagine). For this point in Mark’s Gospel is a transition for Jesus’ mission and ministry. For up until this point in the narrative, Jesus’ miracles have been contained within the Jewish community. Yet this bold and brazen Syrophoenician woman is now a trigger for Jesus to open his eyes, ears, and heart to the Gentile society; to offer God’s expansive love to the ends of the earth, to the whole world—no exceptions, no exclusions, no reservations.
Once Jesus’ heart is open to this crazy new mission and ministry, it is as though the love continues to flow forth, gushing from him, and Jesus cannot help but open others as he has been open. It is no accident that in the next miracle recounted in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus then heals a deaf man with a speech impediment. The Scripture states: “Then looking up to heaven, [Jesus] sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”
And my friends, I truly believe that God wants the same healing in our lives. Instead of us closing ourselves off, judging others, distancing from our neighbor, isolating from one another, God desires that our eyes, our ears, our hearts be open to new people, new possibilities, new potential. What would it look like if we invited God’s healing love into our lives? What would it look like to not be closed off to one another but open to each other? What would it look like if we introduced ourselves to the person beside us at the bar, or in line at the grocery store, or on the sidelines of our child’s soccer game?
When we allow God to enter in and open up our hearts to somewhat frightening yet also exciting possibilities, who knows what could happen! We might finally join Conversation Cafe: a Thursday night small group that supports learning English as a second language. And from there we might make a friend from across town. And from there we might decide to finally learn Spanish. And from there we might cultivate a Latino community here at St. Patrick’s. And from there we might culminate in a Spanish-speaking worship service on Sunday mornings. If we are open, with God there are infinite possibilities.
Or we might find ourselves reaching out in the middle of our sorrow and enrolling in our community Grief Companions Group, seeking support and solace from new friends and faces. And from there we might decide we want to invite someone outside of our church who is also grieving the loss of a loved one. And from there we might take a leadership role in the group itself. And from there we might offer a grief retreat for those further afield. And from there we might return every quarter for we discover that in our broken and isolated world we have created, the need is so great for love and connection within the darkest corners of our lives. If we are open, with God there are infinite possibilities.
Or we might find ourselves deciding enough is enough with our current political discourse, and instead we actually sit down and listen to all people, no matter their party. And from there we build bridges within our local community, healing the divide between Republican and Democrat. And from there we decide to offer our discoveries on civil discourse. And from there we are encouraged to take on leadership at the local, or the state, or perhaps the federal level. If we are open, with God there are infinite possibilities.
My friends, if we are open, with God’s healing love each and every one of us has more potential than we could ever ask or imagine. If we are open, who knows who might be waiting for us at our next chance encounter out walking our dog, or picnicking on the beach, or perhaps just grabbing a drink at the bar. Praise God, the possibilities are endless.