Mark 7: 24-37
This is tough stuff this morning. Neither Proverbs or James pull any punches. And in the Gospel Jesus speaks into our day a powerful message, although as often with him it comes at us in an indirect way. Let me get at that with an insight from an Irish play called “Translation.” It’s the story about what happens to a people when a foreign culture is imposed on them. That was the case in Jesus’ day and it may in fact be the case in our day as well.
The Irish play opens with a hedge school teacher coaxing and encouraging a young woman to overcome her speech impediment; and at least learn to say he own name. You might wonder what a hedge school teacher was – so a bit of explanation – hedge school teachers in old Ireland were the people who used to grab the children and hide them in hedges and teach them their heritage because the British forbade them to teach their language and culture. The young girl in the play is finally successful and is transformed, she has a new dignity, and at last she can publicly profess her identity and who she is.
In the last act of the play there is a bullying military officer who has gathered these people, the young girl included, to interrogate them because an officer has been killed and he suspects that they are harboring the offender. The young girl is so frightened and intimidated by his bullying that once more she loses the ability to speak. And it becomes clear, as you watch the play, that the girl is not only the girl, but she represents the people of Ireland, who were being rendered dumb by the violation of their culture. And not only that, but those who accept for safety’s sake the alien culture become deaf to their own people’s need.
The play is really a parable of what happens to a group of people who are oppressed and used by another group that is more powerful. And this, of course, is where Mark’s gospel comes in because that was exactly the world in which Jesus lived. The Roman empire was all powerful, foreign rule, an imposed language and belief system all came along with being a Roman state. An oppressed people, Jesus’ contemporaries, were loosing the memory of who they were, to survive was to accept the meaning that the oppressors gave them, as simple, ignorant outcasts. They could no longer speak their own story as the people of God.
And American writer, Alice Walker, tells a similar story of her people. She wrote a short story titled “ Meridian.” A little black girl down in the South is playing the yard, and she finds this piece of metal. She recognizes that this piece of metal is a bar of gold, and she digs up this incredible, heavy bar of gold. She rushes home to her mother, who is sitting on the porch, shelling peas. She says, “ I found some gold.” And she places the large, heavy gold bar on her mother’s lap. Her mother says, “ Move that thing out of the way.” Don’t you see I’m trying to get supper ready?” “ But it’s gold,” she insists. “ Feel how heavy it is. Look how yellow it is. It’s gold. It could make us rich.” But her mother was not impressed and her father was not impressed; and her brothers and sisters where not impressed; and the neighbours were unmoved. So she is rejected, and no one is interested in sharing her joy. So she takes her bar of gold, and she puts it in a shoebox and she buries it under the magnolia tree in the backyard; and once a week she digs it up and holds the bar of gold in her lap. Then, less and less. It’s once a month, until finally she forgets to dig it up at all. And she acted like everyone else, not as someone possessing a bar of gold.
And that story to is a parable. You see, this morning, it is you and I that are being presented to Jesus to be healed. We live in a culture that doesn’t tell our story any more. John Paul II, who was an outspoken critic of our culture of consumption wrote that the Church is in our time confronted by a culture of death and that we can no longer entertain the distinction between faith and morality. The separation of faith from morality in our age has led many people, even many Christians, to live as if God does not exist. In John Paul’s view it is urgent that Christians rediscover that the Christian faith is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted by the intellect; but is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out. Like the child, in the story, we’ve been given an incredibly valuable gift, but we’re caught in a culture that increasingly refuses to see much if any value in the ‘ bar of gold’ that we know is our faith.
We’re caught in a time and place in which we’re loosing our voice. Many of our neighbours have forgotten their faith stories. They no longer sing sacred songs; they’ve become deaf to their heritage and are living their lives by the labels of our culture of consumption.
We know those labels, we’re bombarded with them at every turn. You’re fat and ugly. You have the wrong clothes. You live in the wrong neighborhood. You smell bad. You drink the wrong beer, cooler, or pop and you’re not driving this years “in” car. And on and on goes the list. It’s the lie our culture tells us every day – you’re not good enough – unless you buy something.
But Mark’s gospel comes along and says that Jesus Christ is like the hedge-teacher, coaxing and encouraging all of us to say who we really are. To speak once more the ancient language of our faith, “ That I am made in the image and likeness of God; that I count; and that someone, someone truly loves me unconditionally – no strings attached. Doesn’t look at my house, my car or my clothes; just looks me in the heart and soul and loves me.”
That we live by more than bread alone; that there is love to share. That there are hungry to be fed; that it is by dying to self that we truly live. That there is meaning to life – and it is found in loving God and neighbour. That there is value in worship, That Jesus lives in the breaking of bread, and that love overcomes all things, even death. That there’s a whole language and song beyond what the culture offers us.
This morning’s Gospel like the Irish play and the American story is really a parable. Jesus heals a man to be sure, but the man is really a symbol of us all. For Mark the man was Israel, made deaf and dumb by an alien culture which had impressed its labels and values upon them. And Jesus came and said, “ Be opened.”
And so what are we to do ? One of this present era’s most forceful critics is the theologian Stanley Hauerwas. He wrote a book titled, “ With the Grain of the Universe” which is his attempt to wake us up to live as witnesses to God’s life among us. He concludes it with these words;
“ Christians believe that God has given us all the time we need to address one challenge, one argument at a time. We can take our time to make our arguments because we know that our lives are not our own; thus it is possible for us to live without our living, being no more than a hedge against death, that is, it is possible for us to live as witnesses. Sometimes witnesses are all Christians have to offer, and sometimes witnesses are enough; for what could be more powerful than the rediscovery that human beings have been made part of God’s care of creation through the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.”
You and I have been made part of that great story by virtue of our baptism, we have been called to be faithful to that story and it’s opinion of our ultimate worth. The miracle of our faith may be the realization that God has chosen not to be without us, and that God has chosen not to redeem the world without us. And so the Lordship of Christ over our identity, over who we think we are, is the vision that will save us from all that would define you and I as anything less. This is the truth the Gospel would open us to, this is the truth we’re called to be and witnesses to in our world.
Desmond Tutu may have said it best, “ All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend His kingdom of shalom – peace and wholeness – of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation. God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us. What can separate us from the love of God ? Absolutely nothing. And as we share God’s love with our brothers and sisters, God’s other children, there is no tyrant who can resist us, no oppression that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned to love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled.”
Jesus, through the Gospel, this morning invites us to be opened to this vision, this truth, of who we are, and of what our purpose in this life time really is.