Creation Season 1; 15th Sunday After Pentecost
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37
The Rev'd Cameron Partridge
September 5, 2021
Good morning, St. Aidan’s. And welcome to our parish observation of the season of Creation, an unofficial but increasingly observed time in the Church calendar when we seek ground our worship and practice in thanks for all that God has created. Characteristically for us, we begin worship during this time with a prayer of the directions, seeking to honor and follow the wisdom of the indigenous community—in St. Aidan’s location, the Yelamu tribe of the Ramaytush Ohlone people – who have lived in life-giving relationship with this land for thousands of years. We do this as well to reckon with the history and impact of the actions of white Christian missionaries, and later waves of white settlers in this region, whose domination deeply injured the indigenous communities of this region. We give thanks for the persistence, the wisdom, the witness to resilient agency and irrepressible life that continues to shine forth from these communities now. As we come into today’s readings, my own heart is invited to take in and be energized by that witness. Energized in the manner Walter Brueggemann uses that word in that Prophetic Imagination, giving glory to the God who created us and opens us to life, even when we face hurt or heartache.
As I looked at this morning’s readings, I was first struck by the warnings given to us in the excerpted passage from Proverbs. Do not, we are told, sew injustice, or you will reap calamity (Proverbs 22:8). It was hard, as I read those words, not to think about the reaping of calamity unfolding in our region in the form of megafires. As we increasingly know, the scale of these fires is now way beyond what anyone who has lived in this area even for as little as a decade or so would ever expect. Fire itself is endemic to this land, as the indigenous communities of California and up and down the coast have long known. Indeed, as the pyrogeographer Dan Hankins explained in an article Kateri shared with me this week, that I quoted and linked in the Flame, “Fire is codified in the law of the land, and it has been so since time immemorial; it has always been here and always will be. To live in balance with this land, one must embrace and accept fire’s presence.” Fire is not the issue. Living in balance with the land is. Seeking to mitigate our impact on this land in various everyday ways, from recycling, to being careful with our water usage, to the vehicles we may drive, to much deeper policy change that can have a long-term affect on the damage we have done, to listen deeply to indigenous wisdom such as that of Hankins, rooted in this place. These are some ways we can seek to honor creation rather than take it for granted, to practice our faith with works, in the spirit of the letter of James, lest that faith prove lifeless (James 2:17). That practice, over time, can have the effect of opening us to new life, life that in these difficult days may feel choked by calamity.
That spirit of opening is manifest to us in our gospel reading today, a combination of two successive stories of Jesus as he encounters forms of closure. The first such form is arguably his own. Just prior to our reading, Jesus has been in a back and forth with Pharisees about what it is that counts as defiling – is it what one puts into one’s mouth or what comes out of it? Jesus argues the latter (Mk 7:20-23). If one says something harmful, it reveals what is already inside, what has already breached the barrier of one’s person, breaking down our original wholeness. And then right after this exchange Jesus makes his way into Tyre, a Gentile region, and withdraws into a house not wanting anyone to know he was there. This hiddenness theme, a pattern known as “Messianic Secret” among biblical scholars, is afoot in this statement, as well as Jesus’ later comment not to tell anyone about the healing he had practiced (Mk. 22:36), but I cannot but hear in this detail (about not wanting people to know where he was) a setting of limits, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion. And then, into the house, across this boundary comes a woman, identified as a Gentile of Syro-Phoenecian origin who seeks healing for her daughter. This story has a parallel in Matthew’s gospel (though not Luke’s or John’s). In that version (Matthew 15:21-28), this encounter happens outdoors, in public, surrounded by people, whereas this version takes place in private, in the house. Matthew’s version represents the woman as shouting (and the disciples reacting to that shouting), whereas today’s rendition depicts her putting herself at Jesus’ feet in a posture of humility (Mk 7:25). We do not get a quote of her initial request—only a description that she asked for a demon to be removed from her daughter. She believes that Jesus can do this from a distance, as her daughter is not with her—a significant sign of faith. Yet Jesus seems to snap with words of degradation: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27). Commentators have historically tried to explain away Jesus’ words, as if they could somehow be seen as anything other than cringeworthy. But we should cringe. Jesus has demeaned her, and it is not okay. Then we hear her reply, the first and only quotation we hear from her: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk 7:28). She takes the epithet of “dog” and turns it around.
We should remember, too, that not long before this passage Jesus had facilitated the feeding of the five thousand people (Mk 6:34-44). Soon thereafter the feeding of four thousand more would unfold (Mk 8:1-10). Nourishment and sustenance of life is a theme in this part of Mark’s gospel. And the Syrophoenician woman was there to claim it. To his credit, Jesus recognizes the agency, the chutzpah, the faith of this woman who refused to be turned away. I wonder with what tone he said, “for saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter” (Mk 7:29). How did he feel in that moment? We aren’t told. But we can say this: Jesus got out of the way. His own way. His own humanity, we might say. He opened himself, removing the barriers to this woman’s request and to her daughter’s being made whole.
That theme of opening to life continues into the second story we hear from Mark this morning. In it, Jesus, continuing to make his way through various Gentile communities, has a man without hearing or speech who is brought to him (Mk 7:31-37). Taking him aside, he then takes two striking actions to bring about this man’s healing. They may well give us the willies (I find it hard not to think of wet willies as I imagine this scenario): first he sticks his fingers in the man’s ears, and then he puts his own spittle on the man’s tongue. We are meant to have a reaction—spittle was an especially stigmatized bodily fluid in the context in which Jesus took this action. As William Placher notes in his commentary on Mark, “Jesus’ action erases distinctions between clean and unclean.” As he takes these actions of opening, he then says “ephaphtha-- be opened” (Mk 7:34). We too are meant to be opened by hearing this story and the one before it—opened beyond our comfort zones, jolted into an action of healing as opening. We are meant to hear these stories, recalling how Jesus allowed himself to be opened after his own initial reaction of closure toward the Syrophoenician woman, and to ask: how are we being called to be opened?
Whenever I hear this prayerful language of opening, I am always reminded of the bishop who oversaw my ordination process and who ordained me to the diaconate in 2004, Bishop Tom Shaw of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. In 2008 I was asked by my friend the Reverend Dr. Tina Beardsley, to come to England for the Lambeth Conference, the every ten+ year conference of bishops from around the Anglican Communion. Tina was the trans representative to Changing Attitude UK, the LGBTIQ advocacy organization of the Church of England, and she had organized a panel at the fringes of the Lambeth Conference called “Listening to Transgender People.” It was meant to create an opportunity for bishops from around the Anglican Communion to listen to the T in LGBTIQ, a group that was fundamentally not being heard in the Communion’s sexuality debates of that time. My bishop, Tom, came to the panel when I asked him, and he was only one of maybe five bishops who did. After several of us spoke and the panel came to a close, Tina asked Bishop Tom if he might offer a closing prayer. He said yes. He stood up and paused, and then he prayed “Open us, O God. Open us.” I knew it had been challenging for him to be there that day. It had been challenging for me for the other people on the panel. All of us were in various places of discomfort, anxiety, and longing—longing to be seen, to feel whole in the fullness of community. Open us, he prayed. Which makes transformation possible. To be opened is to be brought into a space of being able to embrace the process of transformation. I was so grateful for that prayer that day, and every other time I heard him use it – many times. I seek to pray, to live into that prayer, as I felt and observed him seeking to live into it.
Today, we are invited to live that prayer in a new context, in new ways, in the wake of the many challenges we face in this moment. We know that our region and our world is replete with challenges, with grief, with fear, with anger, with illness. I know that several people in our community have struggle through difficult encounters and experiences just this week, making their way through life here in San Francisco. And so my prayer is open us, open all of us, in the midst of this tense time, that we might be transformed, made whole, healed, made agents of healing. For the life of the world, for creation itself. Together, may we be opened.
 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press, 1978, 2018)  https://baynature.org/article/reading-the-landscape-for-fire/  William C. Placher, Mark (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 107.  www.ssje.org  http://changingattitude.org.uk  I blogged about this panel and Bishop Tom’s prayer at the time for the TransEpiscopal blog: https://www.transepiscopal.org/blog/open-us-god