A friend reminded me recently that the object of the game of baseball is to make it home. When runners are left on base at the end of an inning, we call them stranded. Home. Stranded. Telling words. Now, I know it’s football season, but we have another month or so of baseball, so bear with me here.
I wonder if baseball is our pastime because it’s all about making it home to a place where you belong, back to the dugout side-by-side with your teammates. We’re not meant to be stranded by ourselves. We’re made for home.
Today, in our Gospel reading, we witness two runners stranded on base, two souls in need of Jesus’ invitation to come home to God.
The first is a mother whose daughter is possessed by demons. The second is a deaf and mute man. We’re going to focus our attention on the mother, but we can imagine that both individuals are cut-off from the people around them, shoved to the margins of society because of their maladies.
In our reading, Jesus himself is stranded on base, far from home. He, a Jewish man, is in a non-Jewish region. Remember that Jesus said of his own mission: “I have come to save the lost sheep of Israel.”
Meaning: it’s not my job to save these Gentiles. I’m here to bring my fellow Jews back home to God. I’m in this Gentile area to get away for a while, to take a break in a place where nobody knows me.
Mark tells us that Jesus enters a house and didn’t want anybody to know that he was there. Jesus is tired from preaching and teaching and healing and caring for his people, so he’s up in Gentile territory for a little vacation.
My favorite line in today’s story: we’re told that try as he might to get away from the crowds, “yet he could not escape notice.” There is something about Jesus that commands our attention, whether we’re in first-century Palestine or 21st-century Florida. In our world of endless busyness and distractions, there is still something about Jesus that makes us wonder.
The Gentile mother in our story is wondering if this wandering rabbi can help her daughter. She boldly comes and bows down at Jesus’ feet. In this time, women would not just come up and talk with a strange man—what she’s doing is scandalous.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus isn’t so nice to this woman. I’m sure you noticed that Jesus seems kind of grumpy today. After the woman implores him to come and heal her daughter, Jesus responds with an old folk saying about not giving the children’s food to the dogs.
Translation: Helping you isn’t part of my job description. God has called me to bring my own people home. If I helped you, that wouldn’t be fair to the people of Israel.
But this mother is persistent. She won’t take no for an answer. She fiercely loves her daughter and will do or say whatever it takes to heal her child.
She answers Jesus: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” This mother has faith that just a few words from Jesus, little crumbs of his compassion, will make her daughter well. And she’s right.
Jesus tells her that for saying that—for not giving up and showing persistence—her daughter has been made well.
It’s the next part of the story that I’d really like for us focus on. As the scholar Matt Skinner points out, this mother had to walk all the way home not knowing if her daughter had actually been healed.
Stay with me for a moment in this scene. Put yourself in the mother’s shoes. You have come to Jesus for help, leaving your daughter behind at home. You’re at the end of your rope.
At first, it doesn’t seem like Jesus really wants to help you, but you persist, and he gives in, telling you that your daughter is now well.
Yet, you still have that long walk home. You’re not sure if Jesus told you the truth or just wanted to get rid of you. You want to believe that your daughter is well, but what if you get home and she is no better than when you left?
All of this is to say that the mother we meet today in our reading had to have faith that Jesus was telling her the truth. We could say that she traveled home on a different road than the one on which she came, the road of faith.
She came to Jesus out of curiosity, out of desperation, out of fierce love for her daughter. But she left with her heart filled with faith.
Faith that Jesus has indeed restored her daughter’s life. Faith that her families’ suffering has now come to an end. Faith that Jesus has invited them to come home to God.
This mother goes home by another road. If that phrase sounds familiar it’s because it comes to us from the Bible, from the Christmas story to be exact. Recall the magi who come from afar to visit the Holy Family. The magi, like the mother we meet today, are Gentiles.
They, too, are stranded on base. Far from home, they follow the stars first to Jerusalem, where they meet with King Herod, who instructs them to go to Bethlehem, find Jesus and then report back to him with the infant’s whereabouts.
Herod tells them that he wants to come and pay homage to the child himself, but we know that this isn’t true. The leader is threatened by Jesus and wants to kill the one whom he perceives is a threat to his authority.
In Bethlehem, the magi find Jesus and offer him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Later, they sleep and in a dream, they’re warned by God not to go back to Herod, but to return home by another road.
Like the Gentile mother who bows down at Jesus’ feet, they come to Jesus out of curiosity. When they leave, their hearts are filled with faith that Jesus is the One who can bring all people home to God.
We all come to this church today having tried to get home by the way of Herod. We thought that power, wealth, knowledge, and human effort could save us and bring us home. But we discovered that when we bow down and pay homage to Herod and what Herod represents, we destroy life and ourselves.
We strand each other on base and yearn for home, a place where we can belong and experience abundant life, a haven where we can live fully with purpose and meaning.
The good news is that we get little glimpses of that home even while we are here on this earth, both inside and outside the church.
Perhaps you heard the story this week about Julie and Michael Lisi, who raised their family in Willoughby, Ohio. They are now retired and living a 1,000 miles away in Jupiter, FL.
They enjoy shopping in local thrift stores. Recently, they were browsing in a shop when Mrs. Lisi looked up and saw something that didn’t quite register. The item stopped her in her tracks. She took it down from the shelf and held it in her hands as her eyes filled with tears.
Mr. Lisi found her shaking in the middle of the aisle holding a baseball mitt. He looked at his wife, and then he looked down at the mitt, which, clear as day, had his son, Christopher’s, name on it, in black Sharpie marker.
The mitt and the name were weathered with time, but there it was, their son’s baseball mitt, 1,000 miles and 40 years from Willoughby. It turns out that Christopher still lives in Willoughby, where he teaches math and coaches football.
He lost the mitt back in 1978, when his Little League team won the championship, a game during which Christopher hit two home runs. After the game, his teammates ran out of the dugout and mobbed him. He never saw the mitt again. He lost it in the confusion.
In the thrift store, Mrs. Lisi took a photo of the mitt with her phone and sent it to her son, who replied: “Buy it and bring it home!” She bought back their own mitt for $1.79.
Mrs. Lisi was emotional because that mitt reminded her of home, of looking out the window and seeing her husband and son having a catch in the yard. It wasn’t just a mitt; it was holy, an object that made real the love that brought her family together over time and distance.
It could seem at times, with her family living all over the country, that they were all stranded on base, living separate lives. But as she held that mitt, she was home.
That’s what church is all about. It can seem sometimes, when we’re traveling on Herod’s road, that we’re not all on the same team, that we’ve all been left stranded on base, that we’re in a land far away from God and each other.
That’s why we come to this place where we can discover God’s dream for us. We listen to God’s Word that reassures us that we are part of God’s story. We receive the Sacrament that is a foretaste of the banquet to come in our eternal home.
We look into each other’s eyes and see Jesus, not strangers. With faith in Jesus, we walk home with him and each other by another road.
A sermon preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on September 9, 2018.