Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sermon from September 9, 2012

Jesus’ Disturbing Presence
Mark 7:24-37
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, VA
September 9, 2012
 Just when we think we have Jesus figured out, he says something that puzzles us, making us realize that his disconcerting presence is what shakes us from complacency and leads us to salvation!
I read a good book on preaching awhile back entitled The Four Pages of a Sermon by Scott Wilson.  He argues that a sermon should have four major movements as it deals with a biblical text so that a sermon has theological substance and integrity.  He says that the first page or movement of a sermon is to identify what he terms “trouble in the Bible.”  Every text he says, has some kind of conflict, problem, or difficulty within it and the first task of interpreting a passage is to identify that.  As you read this passage from Mark 7, it’s a bit overwhelming—like many of our lives the trouble implied here operates in multiple ways and at multiple levels.  There’s almost too much trouble, too many problems, too many difficulties in this passage.
For instance, there is a woman who has a little daughter with an unclean spirit who comes seeking Jesus’ help.  There’s trouble enough for one sermon right there—a child whose behavior is so difficult to control, manage, or understand, a child who suffers from some mental, emotional, or spiritual difficulty so profound, that the poor mother is so desperate for help that she takes off on her own, leaving the daughter behind, presumably in the care of another, to try to find help from this Jesus she’s heard about.  Who among us cannot feel her sorrow, disappointment, her anxiety and worry as she strikes out to get help.  Who among us cannot sympathize with her in her attempt to do all in her power, regardless of how taxing or humiliating, to get help for her daughter.  It would not be fruitful to speculate very much as to what kind of affliction troubled her child.  It is not easy to translate neatly the category of demon possession into a 21st century scientific mindset.  But you can sense her desperation.  You know how parents suffer when a child is not well, not whole.  Someone has wisely said that parents are  only as happy as their saddest child.
But that is not all the trouble in this text.  She is not a Jew like Jesus and those who first follow him.  She is aware—very aware, as the writer of Mark’s gospel must have been—of the chasm between Jew and Gentile.  We often look at that gap from the standpoint of Jews who thought of Gentiles as unclean or inferior.  So, she may have rightly assumed that Jesus, a Jew, a leader of this exciting new Jewish religious movement, would not want to get too close to her, a Gentile woman, a Syro-Phoenician woman as Mark describes her, or her problem.    After all, Mark does note that she approaches Jesus, not as an equal, but comes and bows down at his feet.   It’s as if she assumed her inferiority to Jesus.
And if that is the case, Jesus response to her seems to verify her assumption.  Bowing and begging before the Jewish teacher, this Gentile woman pleads for Jesus to make her daughter well, to cast out the demon that troubles her and robs the whole family of life and joy.  Jesus’ response sounds like a taunt of a winner to a loser in some contest, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 
How’s that for a religious leader trying to attract followers—calling someone seeking his help a dog.  It is not a euphemism, but an insult.  Not only do you have a child with profound problems, you all are dogs.
It’s like being reminded that you wouldn’t be poor if you’d just get a job after you’ve pounded the pavement for weeks looking for one.
What are we to make of Jesus as God’s representative?  Another layer of trouble added to the woman’s real problems.  Jesus’ troublesome response is exacerbated when we remember the gospel reading from last week that had Jesus criticizing the Pharisees for focusing on the external aspects of the law, like washing your hands in the right way at the right time while neglecting the love of God and love of neighbor.  How could that person be the same as the one in this passage—the person who seemed willing to stretch if not break the bounds of Jewish law to show compassion to all people now apparently calling someone of a different racial and ethnic background—with huge problems weighing her down on top of that—a dog? 
Well, there are several creative ways of trying to explain this confusing response offered.  One, that I  like, and have probably offered to you before is that Jesus himself was just wrong.  Being fully human, he, like some of us at times, was not always consistent with his professed beliefs, ideals, and convictions.  Jesus still had some blind-spots, some residual attitudes of prejudice and bigotry from his upbringing.  The problem here, of course, is that the church has not only taught Jesus’ full humanity but his full divinity.  The church has held that Jesus was like us in every respect except one—he was without sin of any kind.  Attributing to Jesus any kind of imperfection or need for further growth in understanding or grace seems to nullify this notion of his divine perfection. 
On this reading, then, the Syro-Phoenician woman, a Gentile, one assumed by Jews to be inferior in status and spiritual understanding, becomes Jesus’ teacher.  She is determined to do all in her power to gain her daughter’s health, “Sir,” even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Jesus got her point.  Jesus relented and told her to go home to her daughter—the demon would be gone!  The best you can say about Jesus on this reading is that he was teachable, open to learning and correction, and a gracious loser when he realized that someone had gotten the better of him in a religious debate. 
Another, even newer approach to Jesus’ disturbing response is that in fact, the relationship between the Syro-Phoenicians and the Jews was more complex than condescension from Jew to Gentile.  Indeed, in this particular instance, the tables might be reversed.  Some commentators have noted that the Syro-phoenicans who lived in the larger cities depended on the rural, outlying areas farmed by many Jews for their supply of food, and when times were tough, like a drought, the Jews suffered while the Gentiles in the cities bought up their food.  And so, on that interpretation, the Syro-phoenician woman is seen by Jesus as a woman of privilege who can run down a miracle worker whenever she needs one and demand that he do what she commands. Thus, Jesus is expressing in his seemingly sarcastic response the bitterness of his people toward those more well off who think they can have whatever they want whenever they want.
If there is even a grain of truth in that reading, it serves to remind us that all human relationships are more complex than they appear on the surface—issues of power, equality, respect, and problems with prejudice and bigotry are never far from us—any of us-- whenever we relate to one another.  Whenever we think that the time in which we live is uniquely complex because of the multicultural reality of our city or nation, we just need to remember this awkward conversation between a Jewish man and Gentile woman, each of whom trying to figure the other out,  had certain preconceptions about the other as they talked, to realize that life in the first century was no less complicated than working relationships among rich and poor, black and white and Hispanic and Asian, straight and gay, in Richmond Virginia. 
Trouble in many forms and with many layers here in the Bible.
The second half of the passage I’ll address more briefly.  A deaf man with an impediment in his speech is presented to Jesus.  This interaction is more straightforward, more dignified, really.  Refusing to turn his ministry to this man into a religious spectacle, Jesus pulls him aside and privately puts his fingers in his ears and spat and touched his tongue—an intimate encounter—a touch from one human being to another.  He said, “Be opened,” and immediately his ears were opened and his tongue released.  Though Jesus instructed the people to be silent lest others misunderstand and draw the wrong conclusions, those who knew what had happened could not help themselves.  They were astounded beyond measure, Mark reports, and went about saying to any who would listen, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
As I think about these two incidents and all the trouble faced by the people we read about—the girl possessed by the demon and her anxious, worried,  mother and Jesus’ apparent unwillingness at first to her plea,  and the man who was deaf and had difficulty speaking, what is it that makes the difference?  What is it that turns these situations around so that Jesus is willing to heal a Gentile mother’s little girl, and is willing to cure the deaf man? 
It seems to me that the common thread that turns all this trouble into something beautiful is Jesus.  Jesus is finally the one who makes both people whole again.  But I think there’s another thread that is just as important as that obvious one—and it is that in both cases those who were afflicted had somebody who loved them enough to do all in their power to connect them to Jesus.
The little girl’s greatest asset was a mother who loved her so much that she would seek out Jesus, humble herself publicly by falling at his feet, and beg him to heal her.  And when he didn’t seem interested, when it seemed he was more interested in trading insults, she was ready to argue with the great teacher in public—respectfully mind you—until she was blue in the face if that is what it would take, to help her little girl.
We don’t know the names of the people who loved the deaf man.  Mark simply says, “They brought him to Jesus…”
They loved their friend enough to go to the trouble to take him physically to the presence of Jesus—the one they believed could make all the difference in the life of their friend.
Now, it would be natural for me to move from that claim to admonish and encourage each of us to be like that mother, like those friends, and love other people enough to do all in our power to help them to connect to the love and power of God we have come to know in Jesus Christ.  And that would be a valid and worthy admonition all of us need to hear.
But I want to move in another direction and ask you, “Who was it who helped you connect with God when you needed God’s help the most?  Who was it who stood up for you when others might have given up on you?  Who was it who refused to lay back until you were smart or wise or strong enough to seek help for yourself and took you by the hand or the knap of your head and said, “We’re going together to the one who will make a difference in this situation, in your life?”
Think about with me a moment—all of us who have been touched, healed, and transformed by God’s grace have had someone, or many someones, who have helped us find and experience the love of God.  Most of us have had someone help us through some crisis or time of trouble.  Most of us have had someone who stood by us when we made some huge mistake.
Moses had a mother who loved him so much she was willing to part with him in hope that he would be raised a free person by someone else.  Can you imagine how she felt when she made that little basket, put him in the river, and watched anxiously as Pharaoh’s daughter found her baby.  Moses had a father-in-law, Jethro, who helped him figure out how to organize the people of Israel more efficiently so he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by trying to resolve everyone’s complaints and problems on his own.
Ruth found a sturdy, life-transforming faith from the example of her mother-in-law Naomi that changed her life and evoked such loyalty and love that after both their husbands had died, Ruth told Naomi wherever she went, she would never leave her side.  Ruth, the great grandmother of King David. 
Who has helped you when you were down and discouraged?  Who stood by you when you struggled with some problem?  Who helped you to trust that God’s grace and love was not just for all humanity, but for you?
Saint Augustine is certainly one of the most influential theologians in the history of the church for both Catholics and Protestants.  He was steeped in pagan learning, a master rhetorician.  But he looked for happiness in all sorts of places.  He fathered a child out of wedlock.  He tried different religious sects—the Manichaens, for instance.  All along the way, though, his mother, Monica worried over him, loved him, and never quit praying for him until he heard a voice in a garden one day tell him to pick up a Bible and read and he became a Christian.  We would not have those great theological works that unpack the meaning of history, the understanding of God as trinity, and the way grace operates in the human heart had it not been for a mother who loved her son and stood by her.
We’re here today because of a movement John Wesley began in England in the 1700’s.  Our very name as a congregation derives from the 100th celebration of the beginning of the Methodist movement in England.  But Wesley also had other folks who helped him when he was down.  Oh, like many people in the early years there was his mother Susanna who taught him the faith, but after he failed as a missionary in Georgia and felt washed up as a missionary and was struggling with his own doubts, Moravians like Peter Boehler encouraged him to seek a personal faith that gave him the assurance in his soul that he was a child of God.
Who was it that helped you?  Who loved you, believed in you, stood by you and helped you grasp the good news that God loves you, t hat God would never give up on you, that God has a purpose and a plan for you?
Sociologist Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University has explored how it is that people make everyday ethical decisions. Many people, he found, perform deeds of compassion, service, and mercy because at some point in their past someone acted with compassion toward them. He wrote, "The caring we receive may touch us so deeply that we feel especially gratified when we are able to pass it on to someone else."

He tells the story of Jack Casey, who was employed as an emergency worker on an ambulance rescue squad. When Jack was a child, he had oral surgery. Five teeth were to be pulled under general anesthetic, and Jack was fearful. What he remembers most, though, was the operating room nurse who, sensing the boy's terror, said, "Don't worry, I'll be right here beside you no matter what happens." When Jack woke up after the surgery, she was true to her word, standing right there with him.

Nearly 20 years later, Jack's ambulance team is called to the scene of a highway accident. A truck has overturned, the driver is pinned in the cab and power tools are necessary to get him out. However, gasoline is dripping onto the driver's clothes, and one spark from the tools could have spelled disaster. The driver is terrified, crying out that he is scared of dying. So, Jack crawls into the cab next to him and says, "Look, don't worry, I'm right here with you; I'm not going anywhere." And Jack was true to his word; he stayed with the man until he was safely removed from the wreckage.

Later the truck driver told Jack, "You were an idiot; you know that the whole thing could have exploded, and we'd have both been burned up!" Jack told him that he felt that he just couldn't leave him.[1]

Many years before, Jack had been treated compassionately by the nurse, and because of that experience, he could now show that same compassion to another. Receiving grace enabled him to give grace.


I know there are tragic cases of people who never seem to be offered that grace and compassion by anyone.  They are abused and mistreated from birth and some of them survive and overcome and some are so wounded and scarred that they cannot function in healthy ways, and in some rare instances those people inflict the cruelty they have received on others.  If you are a stranger to the compassion of Christ, I have an invitation to you this morning—let this church family show you that compassion.  Let this community of faith be the place where you find healing, mercy, and strength.  Because the truth is, all of us need  God’s mercy.  Every one of us needs someone to come our way and help us find that mercy.  And when that happens, then a beautiful process is set in motion whereby a broken world is healed as the mercy and healing of Christ flows from one person to another.  May that happen for you, for me, for all of us here today!  Amen. 

        [1] Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue, The Christian Century (March 7, 2006), 17.

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