Text: Isaiah 35:4-7a; Mark 7:24-37
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Sep. 6, 2015
Have you heard the story about the scorpion in the Sinai desert who asked a duck to carry him across the Red Sea to Egypt? “How foolish do you think I am?” the duck said. ”If I let you climb on my back you will bite me and I will die.” “How foolish do you think I am?” the scorpion responded. “If I bite you and you die, I will drown.” This argument based on self-interest convinced the duck and so he let the scorpion get on his back and off they went. Half way across the scorpion bit the duck. “Why did you do that?” the duck demanded, “now we will both die.” The scorpion shrugged and said “You forget, this is the Middle East.”
Who is the scorpion and who is the duck? Most of us cannot remember a time when the Middle East was much different. The animosities on both sides are so old and so deep, the betrayal and sabotage so violent, the rage so unforgiving that each side sees itself as the duck.
What is true of the Middle East is all too often true of disputes closer to home. Have any of you men ever quarreled with your wife? In the heat of argument I feel I’m completely in the right and can’t imagine why Bonnie doesn’t see things from my point of view. Later when I cool down, and replay in my mind what she has said, I begin to realize things were not so one-sided after all.
I. A Different Vision
Alongside the bitter and destructive history of the Middle East, we heard Isaiah’s visions read in today’s Old Testament lesson. It is a wonderful poem filled with confident hope. Let me read part of the passage to you again:
Say to those who are of a fearful heart. “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sands shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water.
When Isaiah wrote these words, Assyria was the emerging world power. They occupied the region to the north and east of Israel. It covered much of what is now Syria and Iraq. Israel paid them a hefty tribute to keep them from invading. However, there were many indications that this would happen anyway. Unlike other nations when threatened, Israel did not believe that their Golden age lay in a far distant past. Rather they felt that their best days were in the future. Convinced of this and despite their current situation Isaiah brought a message filled with hope.
And so he wrote that a barren land would one day burst forth in agricultural abundance. A land that would flow with milk and honey. One that will blossom as a rose. He envisioned a time when his people’s safety and security were assured. It would be a day when profound joy replaced fear and dread.
II. A Vision that has Already Come
When we turn to the Gospel, we discover that Mark proclaims that Isaiah’s vision has been fulfilled in the person of Jesus. He writes of Jesus opening the eyes of the blind and of commanding the paralytic to take up his mat and walk home. In today’s Gospel reading it is a deaf mute whose hearing is restored and his tongue unloosed.
Mark uses the Greek word “mogilalos” which is translated “impediment in his speech.” This word is used only one other time in the Bible. It occurs the Septuagint version of today’s reading from Isaiah. Our English version translated this word as “the tongue of the speechless” shall sing for joy. A literal translation is “to speak with great difficulty. It is no coincidence that Mark chose this unique word. He knew the Greek translation of Isaiah, and he is telling us by the use of this word, Jesus has fulfilled Isaiah’s vision! He is proclaiming to his readers that the Golden Age has arrived. And we, who have accepted Jesus as our Messiah, have inherited this vision. Our church’s namesake, St. Paul, assures us that we are the New Israel of God.
III. A Vision Realized Already but Not Yet
Was Mark naïve? Was he wrong? If the golden age has arrived in Jesus, why is there still so much evil in the world? Far from resolving its problems, the Middle East is more chaotic than ever. This treaty we are about to sign with Iran might help, but not even President Obama thinks that it will bring forth an era when “the lion shall lay down with the lamb.” Closer to home, as we follow he stock market’s volatility the last few weeks, we may well be wondering if we will have enough left in our 401K’s to get us through retirement. Several of us may be living in our golden years, but living in a golden age? Hardly.
I contend, however that Mark was not wrong in asserting that in Jesus, Isaiah’s vision was fulfilled. While he did not heal everyone he encountered, the signs that he had established God’s kingdom were everywhere – and they have continued throughout the church age. Has the kingdom come in its fullness? Of course not – we still look forward to that day. St. Paul declares that we have received “the first fruits” of the kingdom, and the “down payment of our inheritance.” It is one of those remarkable paradoxes. We have experienced the reality and power of God’s kingdom in our midst even though it has not yet come in its fullness.
When we look at Mark’s gospel as a whole we see that our Lord gives a spiritual application to the many miracles and healings he performed. Over and over again after he restores sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, Jesus tells his audience “whoever has ears to hear and eyes to see must do the will of my father.” To have our spiritual eyes and ears open means that we are able to see where God is at work in our world today, to be attentive to it and to participate in it.
Have we been faithful to our Lord’s command? Looking back on the history of St. Paul’s we find many examples where we have heard and seen God at work. You have headed His call to participate. In her last two sermons, Fr. Tara has pointed to several examples where God has been at work at St. Paul’s during the last ten years. Among the many examples she mentioned were the work of God’s Gardeners, the many ministries of our ECW, the ministry to our larger community through Farmer’s Market, and the joint ministry of our Naples Deanery to the Dominican Republic.
I was both shocked and thrilled when I came to St. Paul’s two years ago to learn that a former student of mine in Kentucky had come to St. Paul’s several years ago. John Lindell found several homeless people living in the woods in the back of our property and decided to do something about it. The people of St. Paul’s caught his vision, a vision which spread beyond our church. As a result St. Matthew’s House was born. Last year one of the youngest members of our congregation was concerned because the school in Immokalee where her mother teaches has an inadequate library. Because Sabine set forth her vision, you responded with sufficient funds and materials to provide over 1,400 books, one for each child attending the school. If you read last week’s Weekly Update, you know that you will be given a similar opportunity this coming season!
Last Saturday night St. Paul’s participated in an ecumenical gathering of East Naples Churches to raise funds for Habitat for Humanity. Those of us who attended not only were recipients of the fabulous musical talent resident in our local churches, we also raised $7,000 on the stormy night Erika was supposed to hit Naples. We also learned that since Habitat came to Collier County 8,000 homes have been built. Ninty-four cents of every dollar given goes into those homes, only six cents is taken for overhead. Only one percent of the 8,000 families who have received these homes have defaulted on their mortgage payments. I know so many of you have given both of your time and money to this ministry of service over the years.
Last Sunday, Eleanor Phelps handed me an article from the local newspaper. It seems that three years ago, a student teacher in Fort Myers asked her principal for permission for the children at her middle school to grow a garden. Thinking in terms of 30’ x 30’ plot he gave permission. What resulted was a garden of 27,000 square feet that contains 70 fruit trees and more than 20 kinds of vegetables. Not only do the students plant, cultivate and harvest this food. They clean, sort, package, and distribute the produce to the needy and also serve some of the food in soup kitchens. Many businesses and churches of Fort Myers have caught the vision and are also now participating. The signs of God’s kingdom breaking in are all around us!
IV. A Vision for Our Time
As I stated earlier, when Isaiah wrote, Israel was under threat. To encourage his people, he reminded them how God had been with them when they were threated in the past. He pointed to the time when God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt and been with them as they took possession of the land God had promised to their father Abraham. He pointed to the time when God had been with them in their days of glory under the leadership of David and Solomon. But he did not stop there. He looked to the future and declared in today’s reading: “our best days are not in the past, they lay ahead!”
When Fr. Tara announced her resignation as our rector a few weeks ago, we have entered a season of transition. Such times are not that unlike the situation Isaiah was facing. We enter the unknown.
Over the years of my ministry I have seen many parishes standing in our situation. Those who responded with uncertainty and fear headed into many years of troubled waters. Those who responded with expectancy and faith headed into their future confidently without missing a beat.
Which course will we take? Through a variety of circumstances we were suddenly faced with five vacancies on our vestry and were without a senior and junior warden. If ever there has been a time when St. Paul could this could easily be it.
However, I am heartened by the early signs I have seen. When a call went forth for members of the parish to offer themselves to fill the vestry’s vacancies, so many qualified persons stepped forward that we had far more candidates than vacancies. This is unpresidented in our parish. For years, arms have had to be twisted for people to agree to stand. Furthermore, from this newly constituted body, a new leadership has emerged. In the few meetings I have witnessed, I am greatly encouraged by their expectancy and faith. Our vestry will provide wise and positive guidance as they lead St. Paul’s through this time of transition and into its future. I am confident that they will soon be setting forth a vision that will provide all of us so many opportunities for ministry that to paraphrase Donald Trump, “it will make your head spin.”
If Isaiah were standing next to me this morning what would he say to you? I think maybe he would speak the words that Robert Kennedy made famous: “There are those who look at things the way they are and ask ‘why. ’ I dream of things that never were and ask ‘why not?’” My brothers and sisters in Christ, I believe St. Paul’s best days are still ahead.