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Based on the Lectionary readings for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 22
Mark 7: 24-37

2003 September 7
Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Welcome Back

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 Back to topwhen 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 Back to topwe 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 this love.

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 permission.

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