MAKING SPACE // Sara Wolbrecht // September 6, 2015 // Mark 7:31-37
Last Saturday, Jason and I had our new neighbors over for dinner. I want to share with you about it – because as we say here at Salt House, we believe good and sacred things happen when we eat together. And it was good and felt kind of sacred! So our neighbors are a married couple about our age with a 15 mo girl, moved in back in May, and we’d been meaning to connect all summer. And finally we did and we invited them over for dinner – and the power was out (as a part of that huge windstorm last weekend), but thank you Jesus for gas stoves.
So we’re sitting at dinner, with our two little kids and our 5yo is there, too. A little bit of chaos, but we’re eating some good Indian food.
And Shauna, our neighbor, says: “So – you guys don’t think we’re heathens, right?” And I thought, Did she really just say heathens? And I said – No of course not! What do you mean by that? And she went on… “I mean, because we don’t go to church but we’re still good people.”
No – we actually like hanging out with people who are not a part of our church. And we especially want to hang out with you guys, because we’re neighbors, we’re going to raise our kids here together on this street.
So we kept talking and I soon realized that Shauna is one of those people who speaks fabulously unfiltered. You know folks like this – some people do it and have no sense of social graces, but Shauna does it in a refreshingly honest way. She just says whatever thing she wants to say. And then Chad is often tempering the things she says – not apologetically, I think they’re a great match.
So after the heathen question, conversation really got going, and we got into a number of perceptions, assumptions and questions they had about God and about Jesus and about Christianity.
And I want to share some of the things that came up because I think we can all identify with these things on many levels. For example, they said things like: Well, it’s not that we have a problem with Christianity, but we just also really like the other world religions, and we feel like they bring a lot of great perspective, too. And who are we to say there’s only one way to have faith. And Christianity tends to really say that it is only ONE WAY…
And Chad said: When my parents stopped taking us to church when I was 8 years old, they said, you know, God still sees us when we’re not at church and we can still be good people even when we’re not there. We don’t really NEED to go to church…And Chad said that he really came to agree with that – especially because he then got to watch Sunday morning cartoons. Right?
And Chad said: We look around and see the suffering in the world – the horrible things that happen and I think, How can God let that happen? There must not be a God.
So, that is just some of our conversation – but isn’t that something? Can you shout out: what kinds of reactions do you have to hearing those pieces of our conversation?
My reactions were: First, I am so grateful that they just went there with us – they know I’m a pastor and we both give our lives to this place and to God. And they were still so open with us and I just thought that was awesome – and a great sign that we can continue to be friends who talk about stuff.
Second, I feel so aware of how really, I was right there with them. I have asked those same questions, I have wrestled with those things, too – I still do. (But their assumption was that I felt differently than they did).
Third, after they left I turned to Jason and I said, Man, this is how most people we know who aren’t in the church feel about Christianity. And that just sucks. That grieves my heart.
Because underneath those comments are certain common assumptions about Christianity and faith, that go something like this:
· Christianity is exclusive and close-minded.
· You don’t really need community to have faith.
· Suffering in the world must mean that God is not real or doesn’t intervene or doesn’t care.
That was underneath what our neighbors said. Does this ever grieve your heart, too? That the amazing, inclusive, beautiful, redemptive life of Jesus and work of God in the world is heard as anything but good news. This week in the news, if you were listening, messages like these were bubbling up out of the headlines. You may have heard the name Kim Davis. Who is she? The county clerk from Rowan County Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples due to her Christian conviction and in what she felt was exercising her freedom of religion. Yet it is a government job, and she is now in jail, held in contempt of court for not doing her government job of fulfilling the law that same sex couples can be married.
There is a lot of conversation to have about this – but one of the things I grieve most this week in the news around this issue, is that this has become yet another instance where the loud, Christian voice is one of hate and exclusivity and closed-mindedness. And I grieve that the chatter and attention and this hateful “Christian” message is happening while at the same time, refugees are being denied access to shelter and safety, and even dying as they flee from Syria. The war is Syria has been happening for four years, FOUR YEARS, but the urgency of the need is finally reaching around the world because a picture. You may have seen or heard of this picture. The three year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, his body washed ashore in Turkey, after he drowned while fleeing with his family from Syria. I am undone by that.
Can you feel the weight of the world, do you grieve with me in these things? With all of this, the complexity of these issues, the perceptions out there of what Christianity is about, this we hold as our backdrop, as we continue reading from Mark 7 – two weeks ago we read verse 1-23, which finishes with this list of scandalous behaviors that pollute us – lying, sexual immorality, infidelity, envy. We got to name how God is concerned with the state of our hearts – and yes there are red flags (like this list) to pay attention to, that are not to shame us, but when we see those behaviors in ourselves to see them as invitations to go deeper into the source in our hearts, of why we’re doing what we’re doing – and to do that hard, gritty work with the love and support of others as we continue to be made new. A great word of grace.
Pick up right there after Jesus says that, and Jesus is off and running – he actually tries to go and hide. He runs into Gentile, non-Jewish territory – thinking he can be in a place where people don’t know who he is and they’ll leave him alone. But EH, sorry Jesus, they still come to find you. First in Tyre where a Greek woman, an outsider, seeks him out desiring healing for her daughter, then this passage we’ll read of another healing.
So we engage our ears, our heart, our imagination as we listen to this passage, we also ask God to make this more than just words on a page or a screen, but to be words that speak deeply to us.
Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.
After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.
Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
This is a beautiful and somewhat strange encounter of Jesus responding as a group of friends brings their friend to be healed. And there are curious details we could dive into, but the direction we’re going to take is actually looking around and noticing the significance of where Jesus is, and what beautifully says about the gospel. I wonder if your ears perked up when you heard that they were in the region of the Decapolis? (Ok, I know probably not…). Because: we have previously read of Jesus visiting the Decapolis in Mark’s gospel. Previously in Mark’s Gospel… He got there by boat with his disciples, and do you remember, who did he encountered?
It was this guy: the Gerasene Demoniac. The Decapolis is a group of 10 (deca) villages on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. Gerasene is the specific village they were in when the met this man. This guy was awesome. Totally crazy – possessed by many demons, who lived in a graveyard, who was strong enough to rip free from the chains people tried to place on him. He was naked, screaming and would cut himself with stones.
When Jesus shows up (back in Mark 5), this man kneels before Jesus, Jesus sends the many demons into a herd of 2000 pigs nearby who then hurled themselves off the cliff and drown. The people there were not happy about it – they told Jesus to leave the region. And the man was able to get dressed, he was in his right mind, and said, Jesus, take me with you! Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” Mark 5:19
Were you here that week? Do you remember? (If not – isn’t that fabulous?). This is a fascinating moment for many reason. One of them is what Jesus says here – in Mark’s gospel what does Jesus usually tell someone after a healing? We see it in this text we read today – He usually says, Shhh! Don’t tell anyone! And then of course everyone goes and tells anyway. And Jesus tries to keep things quiet because he is going against the systems of power in their culture as he’s demonstrating what the Kingdom of God is like – and he knows this will get him killed – so keep quiet! It’s not time yet!
But in this instance, back with the Gerasene Demoniac, Jesus says to this man who has been saved from spiritual, emotional, and physical isolation, and he tells this man, to go, and to tell of how much God has done for him and specifically, Jesus says, and tell people about God’s mercy on you. To stay and speak. This is the only moment in Mark’s gospel when that happens. Fascinating. Why with this man, at that time, at that place, was it different?
Well. I don’t know. But I want to notice what happens now. I do know that here we are with what we’ve just read today of the mute and deaf man. And we’re back. We’re back in that region of the Decapolis again, in the same place where the Gerasene Demoniac has been. And things have changed. When Jesus left there, what were the crowds saying to him? Get out of here! Not interested. They were not fans of Jesus. Scared of what he might do next.
But things have changed since the last time. Jesus arrives, and do the crowds show up ready to brawl or kick him out? No. A group of friends bring in their friend who has not been able to speak or hear and they BEG Jesus, beg him, to lay his hands on their friend.
Why has the response to Jesus changed from kick him out to, oh that you would heal this one we love? Could it be that the Gerasene Demoniac has done exactly what Jesus asked? “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” That he went to his people and for them to see the transformation, for them to hear that this is what happens when you encounter God’s mercy. And in doing so he made the space for people to be opened up to the wild possibility that God is different than they had heard or imagined, that God is actually in the business of restoration.
So now, as Jesus returns to this place – hoping to lay low and rest, but he can’t because the people know who he is. They have heard of God’s mercy, so yes, they come and see for themselves and get their friend the help he needs.
Isn’t that fascinating. To see the affect that one man had on a community of villages. We see here, that our stories matter. Our stories matter to those who are close to us. Perceptions can change when the messy, real stories of life and God and the sacred are told by someone close to you. And as perceptions change, space is made for lives to be changed. The Gerasene Demoniac told his stories of God’s mercy – and it changed them. It opened them up to possibilities of God because conversation happened in relationship with an actual person.
Space is made for that change through conversation with people. So, I don’t know Kim Davis or her story, but I would guess that she’s probably never had much real, meaningful conversation and interaction with LGBT people. I would guess that she knows where she stands on an “issue”, and she knows the verses to recite, but she may not have ever really known the actual human beings that comprise that issue. She may not have seen that they are brothers, sisters, children, friends, mothers, co-workers; that they have gone to school and built careers and fallen in love and started families and endured suffering and laughed and celebrated and grieved—she probably cannot see them for all that they are. Because, unless we’re close to people in any conversation we can all forget that, that there are very real human people behind an “issue.”
The question that bubbles up in me and that convicts me in regards to all of this: How much time do we spend in conversations ABOUT certain people rather than actually having conversations WITH them? And I know this is something that I don’t have figured out – it can be hard to get close to people who are different than us. And so the conversations are so hard to have.
And yet – Jesus is someone who made space for those conversations to happen. Right? This is what we’ve seen in Mark’s gospel. Jesus touching the untouchable people in the culture, the outsiders, and bringing them in. Most of the time, gathering them to a table, with bread and food and making space for the conversations to happen.
Kim Davis denied marriage licenses on what she said were religious grounds, her faith and conviction that came from Jesus. Even if none of that could have played out differently, what if it hadn’t stopped there, and Kim Davis did the very Jesus-like thing and extended radical, sacred hospitality to those couples, inviting them to a table with bread and food and made space for the conversations to happen. Can you imagine what that message would speak to those who have been watching this week?
I imagine, too, that after Jesus left the Gerasene Demoniac – we never know his actual name, maybe it was Bob - that Bob did something like this, he extended the same sacred hospitality he had received from Jesus to those he spoke with in the Decapolis. He told his story of God’s mercy. And they were changed from a people who wanted to push Jesus out, to those who were ready to step into this mercy. Conversations with actual people – that is was changes us, opens us, makes space in us.
And so it was for Jason and me last Saturday night, in our dining room, we had a chance to be with our neighbors in their different perceptions and assumptions – again, in space that didn’t feel easy, but it did feel good and sacred. And we didn’t have all the answers, we didn’t try to convince them of anything, but we did have a chance to say a little bit about God’s mercy, and how we’ve lived into some of those questions, too. And how we continue to do that. And at the end of it, Shauna kept saying – Ok, you guys are the cool kind of Christians. And it’s not about being cool – but what I hear in that is that our conversation, together, can continue, as they’ll have the chance to hear more about God’s mercy. We made space together.
So friends – from my dinner table, to the Gerasene Demoniac (Bob) in the Decapolis, to the mute and deaf man in the Decapolis, to Kim Davis, to the suffering in Syria - how do we make space for conversations to happen with actual people, and especially with people who may think or act or look or are different than us in some way? I want to suggest three things that point us in the right direction…
Live into our own questions. The question of suffering that Chad brought up is a question everybody has to live through – and even as Jesus-followers we keep living into new answers to the question of suffering. Trying to make sense of it and frame it through the cross and Jesus’ suffering. And it keeps evolving, because we experience more and more suffering in our lives the longer we live. How you answer that is different after someone near you dies, or when you are trying to get pregnant and you can’t, it’s different when you are fighting cancer. But I also know that the people in my life who have suffered the most have also experienced the presence and love and grace of God in the most profound, beautiful, tangible, loving ways. And I needed to live the questions with them to see that. Living the questions like this one help us enter into the conversation when folks outside of the faith ask those same questions, too. Not that we have the answers, but we can share how we’re living with it: Well, I wonder, too, and right now this is how I’m sorting it out… We make space by being in touch with our own questions.
We also make space when we Know our own stories. What does Jesus tell the Demoniac (Bob)? It is not to memorize scripture or have the right answers, but to tell his own story of God’s mercy. Our world is hungry for real and messy stories of God and the sacred and transformation. Hungry for us to be ourselves and know ourselves.
We took time last week to practice this, to speak of God’s mercy, here, in the lives of two of our folks. Dani and Sean both got up, on the microphone and spoke vulnerably and brilliantly about the signs of life, the signs of God’s mercy and grace and work in them. And they really were brilliant, yes? And it opened us up in fresh ways to the possibilities of God’s mercy for us. Space is made when we tell the stories of God’s mercy. That’s what happened in the Decapolis, that’s what happens today.
And finally, Make space at the table. Space is made in a particularly sacred way when we invite people to eat with us. Who do you invite to your table? Jason and I had people over last weekend but we’re not always good about making the space for that in our lives. We could be so much better about that. Maybe you could, too. We all have excuses, we’re all busy. Maybe you live with your parents, or you don’t like having people over, or your table is always covered in stuff, or you don’t like to cook. It doesn’t matter. Get over it, get Papa Murphy’s, or meet at a Starbuck’s or a picnic table. Jesus shows us again and again that conversations at the table are good and sacred.
Live the questions, know your story, make space at the table. That’s a good place to start, as we then let our curiosity and compassion draw us into the lives of those who are different than us, and out into the world to action and live lives that change the story of God’s people and the suffering in the world.
And you know what? We get to start practicing this together, in just a moment at dinner. To transition us and give us a moment to breathe and listen and be present, we’ll sing for a moment. Let me pray.