Rest Well, Be Opened - Message from September 5, 2021
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Message: Rest Well, Be Opened
Scripture: Mark 7:24-37
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
II want to begin this morning’s message with a question. Some might find it even confessional! But don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to raise your hand if this has happened to you, though you can if you want. You can also just respond silently, and given that we are ALL masked, no one will even see your expression. Ok. Here’s my question. How many of you have ever partially or completely slept through a sermon? Well, I know I have. At least partially. And while that may be a common experience to many of us, now I’m going to do something that is maybe not so common: From here on out, you have my affirmation to sleep during the message if that is what you need to do!
Surprised? New research done at UC Berkeley about the importance of sleep shows that adequate sleep may be even more important than diet and exercise in maintaining health. Fully two-thirds of persons living in the “developed” world are chronically sleep deprived. I’m recalling how the Iron Lady, Britain’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was famous for saying she had trained her body to need only four hours of sleep. Science now tells us that except in a very small percentage of people who have what is known as the “short sleep gene,” adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night and teens need 8-10! So if you find yourself dozing, it could be a sign not that the sermon has failed to intrigue you, but that you are sleep deprived. And sleep is what you need. It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said, “Even a soul submerged in sleep is hard at work and helps make something of the world.”
So nap if you must. I know there are times in life when sleep is just in short supply—I remember as a new parent I craved sleep more than anything. But I actually hope that, if possible, adequate sleep will join your priorities if it’s not already there. Because there is also something fascinating happening in our brains and bodies when we are awake and present to sermons, meditation, prayer and other forms of spiritual engagement like the liturgies and rituals that happen in worship.
The research of Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg focuses on what he calls “God circuits” in our brains. Among other things, these “God circuits” mean that “intense, long-term contemplation of God and a focus on other spiritual values appears to permanently change the structure of those parts of the brain that control our moods, give rise to our conscious notions of self, and shape our sensory perceptions of the world.” [Rewiring Your Preaching, 26.] The fundamental wellness offered by sleep is furthered and enhanced when we interact with ideas and experiences that offer hope, care, meaning, and transcendence. If you don’t believe me and you wear any sort of fitness tracker, notice how your heart and stress rate decrease significantly during worship! When we are fully present to God in worship, God has the opportunity to enhance and bring about our wellness.
Our scripture today from the gospel of Mark offers us two stories of healing and wellness. The first is the story of the Syrophoenician woman who asks that Jesus heal her daughter of a demon. It is one of the more problematic verses in the account of Jesus’ life and ministry. As you heard read this morning, the woman learns that Jesus has come near to the area where she is living. She goes to him, falls on her knees and begs for the healing of her daughter. Then Jesus doesn’t respond as we would expect. In fact, he does something shocking and disturbing. He responds to her, “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” In this statement, it would have been understood at that time that “the children” refers to the people of Israel, while the “dogs” refer to those who are thought to be “unclean” and considered beneath the Jews of that time. He’s calling this woman a dog. We can imagine the mother is in deep pain at seeing her child suffer. She does not know what to do. What parent or person among us cannot identify with this feeling of painful, fearful helplessness when we are unable to stop the suffering of the ones we love? And yet Jesus does not respond with compassion as we expect him to. Instead, he responds with derision, brittleness, potentially doing even further harm.
Yet, the Syrophoenician woman is not deterred. She comes back at Jesus with, “Yes, sir, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And then the Jesus we know and love shows up and says to her, “For such a reply, you may go, your daughter has been made well.”
Scholars have struggled with this passage, and feminist scholars have offered that this is an example of how even God can change as we see Jesus make this shift from unconscious and biased to acknowledging and healing. Some have posited that it shows the moral rightness of the oppressed insisting on honor, respect and wellness. I accept these interpretations and find them important for our understanding of who God is in Jesus and who we are in relationship to God.
But there is something else here. Did you notice that the passage begins, “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…”? It seems to me that Jesus is tired. Exhausted even. He knows he needs rest and solitude, probably sleep, so he goes out by himself and tries to hide. He’s seeking rest and renewal. But he doesn’t get it. Instead, word spreads that he’s there and the same kinds of requests that he’s trying to get a break from are again right in front of him. No escape.
I think what we are seeing here is, in part, a cautionary tale for us about the harm that we can do when we try to push past the tank being on empty. Let us not forget that even in his divinity Jesus was fully human. If we do not rest or find renewal when we are depleted, we are in danger of doing harm. But the woman’s honest and accepting response, neither recanting her need nor discounting his depletion, brought about wellness. “You may go,” Jesus says, “the demon has left your daughter.”
It’s significant that Jesus does not actually do anything to bring about the daughter’s healing. He doesn’t touch her, pray over her, or even see her. He says, “For saying that…the demon has left your daughter.” So it is the woman’s words, not Jesus’s actions that were the key in healing.
What did she do that made the difference? She acknowledged her need, her daughter’s need, and even turned Jesus back toward himself, to look at his own need, by taking up his disparaging and dehumanizing characterization of her. It’s as if she is saying, “You call me a dog, but see, I am actually a human in need, just like you.” What is so amazing and life giving in this passage is that we see the dynamic interplay of the full humanity in the incarnate God AND the imago dei, the image of God, the divine spark that resides in humans. Healing came for not just the daughter, but for the woman and Jesus also through the mutual engagement of need and care in this interaction.
This story of healing is immediately followed by another one. In the second one, Jesus has left the region of Tyre, and is on the move again. In the stories immediately preceding the story of the Syrophoenician woman and now here after it, Jesus is moving through many villages in the upper Galilee, and his main activity is healing. In fact, the majority of the miracles performed by Jesus…are healings. It’s as if the gospels are saying, “If you understand nothing only one thing from the life of Jesus on earth, let it be this: God wills your wellness. God is moving among you actively seeking your wholeness. God’s healing power is available to you—seek it out.”
In this second story, a man who could not hear comes to Jesus and asks for healing. Jesus then sticks his fingers in the man’s ears and says, “Be opened.” And the man is able to hear.
In our context that prizes youthfulness, affluence and physical power, we have been conditioned to understand “healing” as embodying those things. And when prayers for healing do not achieve those things, we can be tempted to say that God has ignored our prayers for healing. I have members of my own family and those whom I love who live with diagnoses that have taken away the ability to walk, that have taken away the ability to remember. These are painful and difficult things. They do not seem fair. Many times I have cried to God, “Why don’t you heal her?” “Why don’t you let him walk?” “Why don’t you do like Jesus did with the man who could not hear, touching his ears and say, “be opened!”
But Jesus’ words of healing here are for me, too. Jesus’ words to the man who could not hear are for all of us. Be opened. Be opened to the ways that healing may be manifest right now. Maybe healing is not coming in body, but in a new way of being that brings peace. Or in the letting go of an unhealthy attachment. Or in a relationship reconciled. Or in being open to the humanity of one who had been previously overlooked, discounted, or disparaged. We are all in need of healing in so many ways.
On this Labor Day weekend, I hope you will find ways to sleep, to rest and to renew your spirit. I hope that your well will be replenished. And I pray that you will feel the presence of God moving among you, toward you and with you offering healing miracles to each of us. Be opened. Turn towards God, be opened, and be well. Amen.
Order of Service
The Community Gathers...
Rev. Jerry Asheim
Introit: "Oh How We Love You"
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Opening Music: "We Shall Not Be Moved"
To Hear the Word...
Scripture Reading: Mark 7: 24-37
*Passing the Peace
You are invited to turn to the people around you and bow to each other as a sign of graceful greetings this day.
Anthem: "Hold on Strong to Each Other"
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
To Respond and Renew Commitment...
*Hymn of Response: "Sure on This Shining Night"
Prayers of the People:
Leader: Loving God, People: We lift our prayers to you.
If you have a prayer request or are interested in longer-term spiritual accompaniment from a Stephen Minister, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, or send a text message with the word "Prayer" to: +1-510-588-5055.
The Prayer Jesus Taught (The Lord's Prayer )
Our Creator (Father/Mother), who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom (kin-dom) come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom (kin-dom), and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
Offering Our Resources and our Energy
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Service of Holy Communion
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Prayer of Dedication
To Go Forth with Love and Compassion
*Closing Hymn: "One Bread, One Body"
***Special Thanks To:
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Worship Leaders: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Annette Cayot, Diane Downs, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege
Ushers: Connie Adachi & Jeff Bruno
Audio engineer: Lloyd Elliott
Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Credits: Prayers ©2021 enfleshed. Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.