Sunday, September 09, 2012

"Jesus sighed": A sermon for ministers

A sermon for Trinity 14.
Isaiah 35.4-7a; Mark 7. 24-37

"Looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the deaf man "Ephphatha", that is 'Be opened'."

I got the call one day.  'There's someone at the Parish Office who would like to speak to a priest.'  Making a mental note to find out who had broken the rules and sent someone across from church to the office, I duly arrived and sat down with a young man.  "D'you know how to deal with a vortex?"  he began, straight to the point.  Well, the truth was I didn't.  "Sorry, what do you mean by that?"  "You know, a vortex!" he said, this time with extra emphasis.  "It's, like, how the demons get across the dimensions".  It transpired that the vortex was in his flat.  "How about I come and visit you and we can pray together there and take things from there?"  Well, that wasn't good enough.  The guy left and I never saw him again.  Discussing it with colleagues, I diagnosed an overdose of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Privately, I wondered what I could have done differently.

I tell you this story because it is a story of bafflement and failure.  I didn't help him.  I didn't even get to find out what the vortex was all about.  That encounter was one of a number I had in the estate by the church, and I visited a number of flats on the estate, praying with and for people who felt there was a presence in their flats.  Being honest, I never felt any kind of a presence, but I prayed and followed up and mostly it was appreciated.  It was a part of my ministry that I was happy to do, but not one that ever I felt I was in control of.

Looking at this morning's Gospel reading, and looking for great insights into ministry that I could draw your attention to, I confess to a certain amount of bafflement again.  This passage contains lots of unexpected features.  It contains healing stories that don't do what we expect.  First up is the Syro-Phoenecian woman who asks for the unclean spirit to be cast out of her daughter.  There is a curious reluctance on Jesus' part to do what is asked of him here.   There's no welcome, no "tell me about your daughter", no "take me to see her".  Instead there is that frankly racist exchange between Jesus the Jewish healer and Messiah and the Gentile bitch who is begging food from the children.  And then we have the healing of the deaf man, when Jesus takes him aside and takes an unusually medicinal approach to healing by touching all the relevant parts and spitting on his tongue, before uttering that tongue-twister of a word, Ephphatha.  And then finally, in the course of the healing he sighs.  Is it a sigh of tiredness, a sigh of frustration, a sigh of exasperation?  We don't and won't know.

These two stories, two healings, stand between the argument over the food laws and the feeding of the four thousand, which is as Mark later tells us the feeding of the Gentiles.  In the Syro-phoenecian woman, they show us Jesus dealing with whoever comes his way.  Scholars and readers of the Gospel will argue forever about whether the debate that Jesus has with this woman shows us Jesus learning to overcome his prejudices against the Gentiles, or Jesus testing the woman or quite what.  But what is not arguable is that Jesus heals her daughter.  The Gospels do not record Jesus turning anyone away.  They record people leaving him unhappy because they find his teaching difficult.  They record Jesus not going in the expected way or withdrawing from people, but no one in the Gospels who comes to Jesus is simply sent away.  Jesus' ministry, Jesus' mission is open.  Our ministry, our mission shares in that open ministry of Jesus to anyone who comes.

There is a huge difference between the two healings.  The daughter of the Syro-phoenecian woman is healed in an instant.  This is remote control healing, a click of the fingers, a promise that it will happen and then it's done.  By contrast the deaf man is healed only after an elaborate pantomime.  A private consultation room, fingers in ears, spitting and touching the tongue, a glance to heaven and then the magic word.  Two healings, but two very different modes of operation.  

And I wish I had some profound insight into the Gospel to tell you why this is so, what deep and meaningful reason, what theological point is being made here.  But I don't.  I only share that I notice  a very different approach here.  And then I look around the chapel and see a bunch of very different people working in different ways in different places with different callings and different ministries.  And all of you share in Christ's ministry. Perhaps those radical differences in the two stories are a reflection of the differences in the way in which we all authentically share in Jesus' ministry, and are all very different.

Open to all who comes, very different in the way it happens.  That seems to be what our Gospel reading tells us of Jesus' ministry.  And then we come to another baffling thing.  Jesus sighs.  Mark tells us that "looking up to heaved, he sighed and said to the man Ephphatha".  I don't know why he does it or why Mark records it.  A chapter further on, Jesus sighs again.  Some Pharisees come and ask him for a sign from heaven, and Mark records that Jesus "sighed deeply in his spirit" (Mark 8.12) before delivering a rebuke.  But here, it could be weariness, it could be exasperation.  To my knowledge, there's not commentary that speaks authoritatively on this, and anyway I didn't bring them with me this weekend.  But here's my best guess.  Jesus sighs as he completes the healing and cures the man's speech impediment. (That's a very modern phrase to translate the Gospel text, but anyway.)  He goes on to charge the man and his friends to tell no one.  But, Mark tells us, "the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it" (7.36).  This is a level of obedience reserved in our society for the Archbishop of Canterbury!  Jesus is not daft, he knows what's going to happen.  It's been happening throughout the Gospel to this point.  He tells people not to broadcast what's happened and they do.  I think that what we see in this story is a sigh of resignation.  He knows what's coming and isn't going to withhold healing because of it.  The healed man will immediately disobey Jesus, Jesus knows this and heals him anyway.  Jesus does not have control over those he has ministered to and what they go on to do with the fruits of his ministry.  Nor do we.  We will minister to those who will continue to oppose our plans for moving the church on.  We will minister to those whose behaviour we disapprove of.  We will minister to those we simply don't like.  But we will minister.

We have no control over those who receive our ministry.  We minister in a host of different ways.  We minister to all who come to us.  We do so, not because it is a clever thing or even the right thing to do. We do so because that is the ministry of Jesus that we see in the Gospels, and our ministry is nothing more than sharing in his ministry.  May Christ, our pattern and our servant, fill our lives and draw us ever closer to him.  Amen.

Given to Diocese of Derby IME 4-7 Group, Launde Abbey 9.9.12

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