It feels wonderful, it is wonderful, to be back together -- still
with two weeks of summer left -- returning to the fall schedule, the
regular worship time, and the ministry of education and mission that
characterize this place. I am excited to be here, and I am very pleased
to see all of you. And I rejoice in God's presence this day.
If you are returning to this place, we celebrate that. If you are
passing through this place, you have an oasis of rest and restoration
here. If you are visiting and looking for a new place to find God's
love, we pledge that we can build that here. Whoever you are, wherever
you have been, welcome back.
A few years ago I took a seminar on conflict resolution at Hartford
Seminary. There was a great woman in the class, perhaps ten years my
senior, who is a business executive and ultra-active in the Episcopal
Church. In the middle of the week when we were wrestling with some of
the basics of the topic, like communication and identification of
priorities, she said, "you know what amazes me about this stuff?
It's not the new things that I need to learn or even the ones that I
will never learn. It is the old things that I need to re-learn over and
over and over again." And we all nodded because in every arena,
even as we move forward, we must continually rediscover our basics.
The life of a church does move forward, and a life of faith does
evolve and grow, but a great deal of what we do every season is
remember, recall, and repeat lessons that we have inherited. Part of
the reason that I keep coming back year after year is to be reminded of
God's lessons and love because I forget them on a regular basis by
myself. So this day, when we re-repeat our covenant with each other, we
also hear a familiar reading from Mark, and I am going to explore it in
a well-known way. I don't have anything particularly new to say this
morning. I have something old but something that applies enormously
well to today and to tomorrow.
I love this story we've just heard, and it is perhaps a perfect
place to start a church year. I love it, even though it is not pretty,
does not necessarily show Jesus at his best, and represents the only
time in the Gospel of Mark when
any character gets the best of him. But look at what it reflects.
In Mark, Jesus is often a healer. And by the time of today's account
he has preached about going beyond traditional religious boundaries and
he has already healed a foreign man. But in this chapter of Mark, Jesus
leaves his familiar area for a foreign region and confronts not only a
religious but a social boundary when he is confronted by a
Syro-phoenician woman and her call for healing.
She asks Jesus to help her sick daughter. He implies that she is a
dog, which is not pretty. She stays respectful and calls him
"Lord," still begging for her needs. She wins, and Jesus
somehow heals her daughter.
Now some of the things we might not know about this story come from
its background. For example, this woman comes to him in a house, which
means she is a person of repute, not addressing him on the street. Yet,
and you could guess this, women were not supposed to speak on behalf of
the needs of their families. Any male relative would have been more
appropriate. And she is a foreigner. Here is something else you only
know if you read the Greek or look it up: Jesus doesn't suggest that
she is a dog but actually a little dog. "A doggy," one
interpreter says. So she responds by saying, "Sir, even doggies
get crumbies," which must have been a bit amusing at the time.
Throughout the ages interpreters have tried to soften Jesus'
derogatory speech with explanations, but the truth is that national,
ethnic, and racial differences were very much part of the early church
(though not only), and it is quite conceivable that Jesus said just
this. Some ask if maybe he wasn't toying with his listeners, his
disciples, to see if they would jump to her aid before he did. And
that's possible, too. Others note that this woman pushed Jesus further
than he might have expected until he had to put his beliefs into action
even in ways that he hadn't foreseen, and I have no problem with that,
thinking that Jesus did evolve and grow if he was fully human.
But amidst varying perspectives, one group of themes appears
consistently regarding this passage: we are called to love beyond
familiar boundaries. We are called beyond convention in our conviction.
Or as one pastor writes, we are called to be ceaselessly, shamelessly
inclusive. This pastor, John Ortberg, asks, "Is God better than
our theology? Yes," he says. That's what we learn here. And
one thing more, writes Mary Ann Tolbert: sometimes we have to be
unconventional to pursue God's way. We have to be bold and clever, like
the Syro-phoenician woman. We have to be lively, creative, humble,
respectful, and tenacious. On behalf of those we
love, on behalf of the world we love, we can't give up.
Those aren't new interpretations, and those aren't new lessons.
They're old ones. But it does my spirit good to be reminded of them.
- In a world which is dangerously suspicious of foreign people, or
foreign looking people (whatever that means), the Christian call is
to expand our embrace.
- In a culture where comfort is virtually a full time pursuit if not
industry for some people, Christianity calls us beyond the limits of
our comfort zone.
- In a time when surface-level conversations, appearances, and first
impressions are nearly the coin of the realm, Christianity calls us
to go to the depths.
- In a life where frustration and anguish and anxiety can become
justification for anger and where all too glibly unto our lips comes
the word hate, Christianity calls us to love.
The first story for our saga this year is an account of a person of
good faith, Jesus, going further, deeper, and to the place of
ceaseless, shameless inclusiveness.
The first story for our celebration this season is of a person of
great need, this unnamed woman, who is humble, clever, tenacious, and
won't let go of love.
The best story for our covenant is of a person on a journey, you,
who discovers that the past does not trap you nor the future inhibit
you when you embody this faith and this need, this inclusiveness, and
Whoever you are, wherever you have been, God is reaching out to you.
And you, with God's Spirit, are called to reach out to others. It's not
always easy. It's not always obvious how to do it. But that's why we
keep coming back. And why we welcome everyone for this journey. This is
going to be a great year. Amen.
Copyright © 2003 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by