Devotional – Hebrews 1.1-2

Devotional:

Hebrews 1.1-2

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

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When I was growing up in the church I loved to ask questions. I thought the beauty of what we were doing as Christians was the fact that it was never a one-sided conversation; the moments following worship or bible studies when I had the freedom to wonder are still some of my fondest memories. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.”

I remember in particular one meeting in a youth room filled with old soft couches that just consumed those who sat on/in them. We were going around the room sharing our experiences of prayer and what we got out of it. One of my friends made a comment about how important it was for his family to pray before every meal remembering that God had really blessed them. Another friend shyly admitted that the only time she ever prayed was at church or in youth group because she didn’t know how to pray by herself. But one of my friends sat on his own couch with his arms crossed around his chest in frustration. When it came time for him to share he said, “I don’t understand prayer. We’re told to ask God to help us, but I never hear God say anything back. We learn about all these stories in the bible when God speaks to the people, so why doesn’t God speak to us like that anymore?”

All the eyes in the room immediately darted to our leader in anticipation of his answer. He calmly smiled and said, “God spoke his truest and best Word in Jesus. If we are waiting to hear God speak in our lives, all we have to do is open our bibles because God is still speaking to us through Jesus.”

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That memory has stuck with me over the years because of how profound it actually was. Many of us expect prayer to be like a phone conversation with one of our friends, and then become immediately disappointed when God does not speak back. However, that leader was right: God spoke God’s fullest Word in Jesus Christ (as the incarnate Word). God can still speak to us today through our friends, or even in the still small silence, but God decisively speaks in our world through the stories of Jesus in scripture.

So, instead of reading scripture like a collection of stories from long ago, can you imagine how life giving it could be if we read it like Jesus was speaking to us here and now? The beauty of the bible takes on a whole new dimension when we stop limiting Jesus to the past, and start hearing him speak in the present.

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When Should We Pray? – Sermon on James 5.13-20

James 5.13-20

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

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Sunday morning: 11am. The gathered community of faith was sitting patiently in the pews waiting for the worship service to begin. Week after week the people sat in the same pews with the same expressions on their faces. Year after year they listened to preachers come and go telling the same stories about Jesus from different perspectives.

It was just like every other Sunday morning. Mr. Smith sat all the way up on the right hand side in the front pew with his notebook and pen in hand ready to take notes on whatever he heard. Jimmy, John, and Josh were midway back on the left quietly giggling while drawing stick figure battles all over the bulletin. And Miss Ethel, old and frail, was still slowly making her way up the center aisle while the first hymn was being played.

Worship is repetitive; for nearly two millennia Christians have gathered once a week to say the same prayers, hear the same stories, and sing the same songs. Worship is just like any good habit, and the longer you have it, the more fruitful it will become.

The congregation sat attentively while the pastor preached on the power of prayer. The seasoned Christians had heard sermons like this one before; they could almost imagine how the preacher would tie it together before he even spoke the words. The newer Christians were getting a little tired of hearing about prayer week after week, they wondered about when the pastor would call for them to lead a revolution to turn the world upside-down, they wanted to hear about power, not about prayer. And the youth, bless their hearts, if you had called their names from the pulpit in the middle of the service they would have looked up with bug-eyed expressions as if their teacher had singled them out in the middle of class.

The preacher was getting to what he imagined was the pinnacle of his proclamation, the words were flowing accordingly, and he no longer needed to look at his notes to drive the point home. As he stood up in the pulpit, gazing out over his gathered flock, he lifted up his fist for the final paragraph and froze in mid-sentence when he saw Miss Ethel slowly slump over in her pew having taken her final breath on earth.

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When are we supposed to pray? James would have us pray all the time. Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.

No matter what is going on in life, whether we’re on a mountaintop of joy, or in the bottom of a valley of sorrow, we should pray. We pray in celebration and in defeat, we pray during the mundane, and we pray during the extraordinary.

The end of James’ letter is a favorite among preachers because it explains itself. There’s no need to go digging through the grammar to exegete a strange or divergent meaning. James means what he says:

We should pray all the time.

            Prayers of deep faith will bring about salvation on earth.

The Lord will raise us up.

            Through prayer, any sin can be forgiven.

            We should confess our sins to other people, and pray for others to be healed.

            Righteous prayers are powerful and effective.

            Elijah was just like us, and he prayed for a drought for three years and it did not rain, and as soon as he prayed for the rain to fall, it did.

            If anyone begins to wander away from faithful life, we do well to reach out and bring them back out of love.

            That’s it.

So, then why is prayer such a last resort for many of us?

James clearly outlines that if Christians do anything, they should pray. As individuals and as a community we are defined by the fact that we believe in relying on something bigger than ourselves being active in the world. Yet, more often than not, Christianity has been compartmentalized into just having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (something you can do without the church). But having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, though wonderful, is not what Jesus wants from us. Instead, we are called to be people of prayer who live like Jesus in community with our brothers and sisters in faith.

James clearly outlines what prayer can accomplish: it keeps us humble when life is full of success, and it keeps us hopeful when life is full of disappointment; it encourages us to open our eyes to the ways God is moving in the world, and it encourages us to be active participants in God’s kingdom here on earth.

Prayer is about relationship; it’s about connecting with God through the people around us.

The pastor stood in the pulpit and did not know what to do. He was trying desperately to string the final thoughts of his sermon together when Ms. Ethel fell over in her pew and died. He could feel all the eyes in the sanctuary look from her pew, to him in the pulpit, expecting him to do something. But he panicked and froze.

This was not something they covered in seminary, there was no class on ministering to the dead in the middle of a worship service, so the pastor stood in the pulpit and stared back at the church.

One of the ushers immediately called the rescue squad, but the rest of the church slowly stood up from their pews and began to gather around Ms. Ethel’s pew. No directions were offered, no specific pages of the hymnal were referenced, but as if God’s was orchestrating the entire thing, the congregation gathered around her lifeless body and began to pray and sing.

The words of faith came pouring from their mouths, thanksgivings were uttered, and intercessions were demanded. The great songs like Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art were sung and hummed by the church. And by the time the ambulance had taken Ms. Ethel away, the pastor and the entire church were holding each other in tears of pain and joy, recognizing the loss of life while acknowledging the hope of the resurrection.

When asked later about the moment of prayer, the parishioners simply explained that in the midst of something so profound, the only thing they could do was pray.

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Prayer can be beautiful, but it can also be uncomfortable. We don’t like having to wrestle with our finitude, we don’t like having to admit that one day we will die, that’s why weddings are much more crowded than funerals. But prayer, done rightly, is the most faithful thing we can ever do as Christians.

If James had it his way, we would spend more of our time confessing our sins to our fellow Christians. Talk about uncomfortable. When I encouraged all of you to take time to walk up to the pulpit and proclaim your sins, I did so in jest, but it would make us a more faithful community.

Look around the room: you all are beautiful. On the surface you’ve got the right outfits and dispositions. But on the inside, everyone is facing a battle that they rarely share with anyone else. It is a mistake to assume that we are eager to surrender our privacy to the church, but imagine (if you can) what it would be like if we trusted each other enough to do so.

If we could find just one person to confess to, we would make ourselves vulnerable and ready for healing. Confession is the beginning of transformation.

How are we, as a church, shaped by prayer?

Worship is structured around prayer. We pray for God’s presence to be made known to us in this place on Sunday mornings. We pray collectively for the world toward the beginning of the service. We pray silently from our pews lifting up our own joys and concerns. We pray for the offering that is collected by the ushers. We pray through the hymns we sing and the creeds we confess. The best sermons we hear are the ones less about our lives and more like prayers offered to and about God. And we end worship with a prayer.

In addition to worship we pray before our bible studies and youth meetings. We pray before every committee and before the church council. We are a people of prayer… but are we being shaped by prayer?

We are now going to try something that will probably make us uncomfortable.

In a few moments I will ask us to find someone else in church and ask for their prayers. We tried this on Wednesday night at The Circle meeting and it was a challenge. I asked for the youth to give me just one thing that I could pray for regarding their lives. Immediately I heard about friends or family members that needed prayer, but that wasn’t what I was talking about. I asked, “How can I pray for you right now?” and I want each of us to ask that same question right now.

So, as your able, I encourage you to find someone else in the church, you don’t have to wander too far, but find someone that is not in your immediate family. Once we’ve paired up, I want both people to take an opportunity to share something they need prayers for. This doesn’t have to be an ultimate confessional moment, maybe the thing you need is more patience with your children, perhaps you feel confused about decision and you could use some discernment, or maybe you’re unsure about what God is doing in your life.

Whatever that thing is I want you to share it, and the person who hears it will pray about it. The prayer can be as simple as “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” Or it can be filled with other words. The point is, I want everyone in this church to have the opportunity to share a need they have, and have someone in this church pray for them right away.

I know this is uncomfortable, but sometimes the most faithful things we do as disciples are born out of discomfort. So, let’s give it a try….

In the words of James: Are any of us suffering? We should pray. Are any of us filled with joy? We should sing songs of praise. Are any of us sick? We should call for our brothers and sisters in Christ to come and pray over us. We should confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that we may be healed and transformed. Amen.

Devotional – Mark 9.47

Devotional:

Mark 9.47

And if your eye cause you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.
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I was sitting in a classroom at James Madison University when one of my peers raised her hand to ask a question. The lecture had been focused on the reliability of the New Testament writers/witnesses and a debate had erupted over whether or not to take the bible literally. I sat patiently near the front of the class watching the comments fling back and forth like a ping pong match between the students and our professor when the girl finally raised her hand.

She said, “I just want everyone to know that I take the bible literally because Jesus is my savior.” The rest of us stared at her and then slowly turned to watch our professor’s rebuttal. “Really? You take the entire bible literally all the time?” he asked rhetorically. The silence was palpable. He continued, “Well then, let me ask you this: Are you a sinner?”

With an obvious look on her face, she said, “Of course I am, but Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins.” The professor responded, “Yes yes, but do you sin, even though Jesus died for the world?” “Duh,” she said, “everyone sins, and that why we need to let Jesus into our hearts.”

The professor then sighed and brought the point home, “So you say you’re a sinner, but I notice that you have two hands, two legs, and two eyes… Jesus told his disciples that if their hands or feet cause them to sin, they should cut one of them off, and if their eyes cause them to sin they should pluck one out. So you see, I’m having a hard time understanding how you take the bible literally, affirm that you’re a sinner, and still have both your hands, both your feet, and both your eyes all at the same time.”

I don’t remember the girl’s name, but I will never forget the way she looked as she slumped back down into her chair thinking about what our professor had said.

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The bible is full of different literary forms that give it life. There are epic poems that retell the great story of the past in order to teach a lesson to the present. There are long genealogies that connect different characters throughout the centuries. There are parables of everyday situations that are meant to leave us scratching our heads in wonder. There are metaphors used (just like we do) to convey meaning in a way that is memorable and effective. There are proverbs, psalms, and poems that contain wisdom beyond their literal words.

The bible is not a historical narrative to be analyzed and redacted like a modern textbook. It is not a perfect collection of rules to live life. The bible is not a text to be read literally all the time in every situation; otherwise we would all be stumbling around with missing appendages.

The great beauty of scripture is that it opens up the strange new world of what it means to be in relationship with God and with our fellow human beings. The greatest moments in our lives cannot be conveyed in simple words to be taken literally, but are in fact so profound that we must use differing literary forms to even begin conveying what our experience was like. The bible is full of wonder and that’s why we keep coming back to it every day and every week to learn more about who we are, and whose we are.

This week, let us open up our bibles to discover the strange new world of God’s kingdom, and start letting it become incarnate in the way we live.

Devotional – Mark 9.37

Devotional:

Mark 9.37

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

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I just finished welcoming all of the preschoolers into St. John’s for the first day of school. Many of the students and their parents were eagerly waiting in the parking lot holding their cameras in anticipation of some precious photographs. When I finally opened the door, tears immediately began to fall (though mostly from the adults) as everyone approached the building.

From my vantage point I had the privilege of witnessing some profoundly beautiful moments as children reached up to their mothers and fathers for a final hug and kiss before the day began. I saw all the new and perfectly coordinated outfits that you would expect for the first day. I experienced God’s holiness in the children reconnecting with their friends as they walked down the hallway toward their classrooms.

As much as I enjoyed watching the children and their parents this morning, what I really enjoyed was watching the preschool teachers. From the moment they arrived early this morning, they had permanent smiles stretched across their faces in anticipation of the new school year. They expressed a deep and profound love for all the children returning, and they welcomed them with open and joyful arms.

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From my office I can hear all the students laughing and playing in the preschool and I know they are going to have another incredible year. Yet, I can’t help but ponder about this beautiful morning in connection with the way we all interact with one another. Jesus once said “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” When I saw the preschool teachers welcoming their students, I experienced God’s presence and love in the preschool.

Why is this feeling so unique and rare? Why do we only feel this kind of excitement and love on the first day of school? If we can experience God’s love by welcoming the people in our lives like the way we welcome children, then why don’t we do that all the time?

This week, as we continue to wrestle with what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ, let us strive to welcome all people in our lives the way the preschool teachers welcomed their students. Let us reject our false assumptions about those who are different from us. And let us remember that when we rejoice in love, we are making God’s kingdom incarnate here on earth.

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O To Be Wise – Sermon on Proverbs 1.20-33

Proverbs 1.20-33

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity come like a whirlwind, when distress and anger come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, there they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

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Wisdom is standing on the street corner shouting at anyone within distance. In all the town squares she is that preacher standing on a box yelling at the crowds to repent from their ways. At the entrance of the largest cities she is the one holding up the signs about our idiocy and the power of God’s wrath. She is all the preachers, prophets, and teachers that weep in sadness that their words are no longer heeded. Wisdom is frightening and demanding.

How long, all you simple minded people in this congregation, how long will you love to remain being so simple in your thoughts and reflections? How long will you enjoy scoffing at the events in your life and hate the knowledge that is given to you in scripture and in church?

Listen to Wisdom right now, because she is pouring out all her thoughts to you and making all of her words known in this place.

Yet, she has called and called, she has screamed and screamed, and none of us have listened. We ignored her words and demands, and now she laughs at our suffering and at us. She will relish in the calamities that come like a whirlwind, she will delight in our frustration and anger. She knows that when we are at the end of our ropes, when we have nowhere else to turn, that we will turn back to her, but it will be too late.

Because we have so consistently hated knowledge and did not fear the Lord, we will eat the fruit of our way, and be sated with our own devices.

Wisdom cries out from the streets, yells at us in our cars and in our pews: “Waywardness kills the simple, and our complacency as fools will be our undoing. But whoever listens to Wisdom will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Are you feeling uncomfortable yet? When you heard me rambling up here about Wisdom’s disposition, did you squirm in your pews? This is one tough scripture precisely because Wisdom does not mince her words and comes with a clear and stern warning. We can continue in our stupidity that leads to suffering, or we can listen to Wisdom and live in peace.

For a long time, the book of Proverbs has been marginalized and forgotten in contemporary American Christianity. Similarly the church might confess that our wisdom has suffered a similar fate in culture. Many of us no longer read our bibles, we no longer know what it means to pray, and we live in fear rather than in hope.

But are we really at fault? The church has not done the best job of equipping Christians for the work of discipleship, and the world is full of other options for Wisdom. We are constantly overwhelmed with choices and advice. For instance: The front of our church right now is filled with most of the books that I was assigned to read in seminary. You can read about what it means to do church, you can read books about preaching and teaching, you can read about suffering and temptation, but none of those books taught me the true wisdom of what it means to be a pastor.

Any of us can read about the importance of praying for our enemies in scripture, but the words cannot possibly prepare us for the moment when someone grabs us by the hands and actually asks us to pray for them.

Any of us can turn on the news, or search online to hear about the refugee/migrant crisis happening in Europe right now, but all we hear and learn means very little unless we ourselves are forced to flee our home in hopes that someone else will welcome us in.

So it’s not so much that we have not been given the chance to learn and become wise, but because there are so many options out there, we run the risk of feeling like we just walked into at an all-you-can-eat-buffet prepared for people who ate before they arrived.

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Books and television shows and lecture halls can point us in the right direction, but lady Wisdom will more often show up in the places where we live our lives. She shows up in the busy streets, in the public squares, and at the bustling intersections. Wisdom appears in our simple experiences, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it advice from an acquaintance, and in the quick responses of our children.

On Wednesday night St. John’s hosted the first meeting of “The Circle.” It was designed as a space where the youth of the church can feel comfortable sharing reflections on their own discipleship and partake in communion with one another. Our first meeting went pretty well, the conversation flowed naturally, and I was incredibly impressed by the youth’s ability to convey how Jesus is real for them.

But toward the end of the meeting, I saw the youth really come alive. We were sitting around the table with our bibles opened to Proverbs 1.20-33. We read together about Wisdom yelling out from the streets and then I asked them to share pieces of advice they wished they could tell their parents without fear of getting in trouble.

Up to that point I thought all the youth were really enjoying The Circle, but with one question about advice for their parents, they all became animated and had more advice than I could possibly write down. We went back and forth for at least fifteen minutes before we were able to agree on a solid list that everyone agreed on and, in the true spirit of Wisdom, I am now going to share the list with all of you.

Disclaimer: Parents, your children were vulnerably honest about their responses and they knew I would be sharing them in church. I will not tell you who said what, but listen carefully, because the advice might be for you…

I wish my parents knew that nobody is perfect.

            I wish my parents knew that is not worth it to takes things so seriously all the time.

            I wish my parents knew that they could trust me; after all, I trust them.

           I wish my parents knew how much it hurts when they interrupt me.

            I wish my parents knew that patience is still a virtue, even when you’re old.

            I wish my parents knew that I am smarter than they think I am.

            I wish my parents knew that if they tell me “not to have an attitude,” I am DEFINITELY going to have an attitude.

            I wish my parents knew that I love them, but sometimes I don’t love their cooking.

Wisdom is a tough pill to swallow. But even as difficult as it is to hear Wisdom speak to us this way, whether it be the dreadful warnings in scripture or the advice from our children, it is difficult to argue with her warnings. The advice the youth offered was so profound that it not only applies to parents but to all people. We could read about how we are supposed to behave as rational human beings, but having a youth tells us that patience is a virtue, and to remember that nobody is perfect actually affects us in all the right ways.

It shocks us to hear something so right from someone we least expect. It bewilders us to hear Wisdom crying out in the streets when we would otherwise like to ignore her.

To walk in the way of Wisdom is incredibly demanding. We cannot claim to be wise by reading a lot of books and watching a lot of television, true wisdom requires us to act and move in the world.

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When Wisdom cries out, when we hear about what our children wish they could say to us, it hurts (or at least cuts deep), but it makes sense. When we forget about who we are and whose we are, when we forget about the ways of God built on love, we often get ourselves in terrible predicaments. We say things without thinking, we act without conscience, and we believe we are smarter than the people around us.

I regularly discover wisdom in the people from this church who listen for the still small voice of God while the world is screaming and spinning. I will be in my office after a difficult phone call, or standing outside shaking hands following worship, or walking through the grocery store, when one of you will come up to me and say something that just reorients my entire being. Something like: “Remember God loves you too

Wisdom is all around us, particularly in the people in the pews next to us, calling to us to start behaving like God wants us to. Because Wisdom is finally approachable and possible as we participate in the practices of God, who is Wisdom. We start to see and hear the Wisdom around us as we search for ways to love like God, listen like God, and even laugh like God, in the complicated and ordinary places of life.

I experienced the depth of Wisdom this week when our youth spoke far beyond their ages and dropped some important knowledge on me. In them I experienced a power greater than my own, and realized that if I gave up my false assumption that I was greater than, or wiser than, those youth, I would start to recognize the true wisdom around me and actually listen.

Where do you hear Wisdom? Do you hear her in the scriptures you read? Do you find her in the worship services at St. John’s? Have you seen her shouting through a parent or a spouse or a child? Does she make you uncomfortable when she shows up?

Wisdom speaks to us all the time; we only need the patience to hear her, and the strength to respond. Amen.

Devotional – James 3.5

 

Devotional:

James 3.5

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

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On Sunday morning, during the Sunday school hour, I asked the group if they could remember a mean comment someone had made in the past. I was trying to prepare us for a discussion on the fact that in Mark 7 Jesus basically calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog and what it means to wrestle with the text. I myself can remember of number of negative comments from my childhood, moments when I was made fun of by fellow students, or a harsh criticism from a former Scout Master. But one of the women from the Sunday school class shared that, out of all the experiences she had as a teacher, she will never forget the one boy who waited till the end of the year to tell her that she was mean.

What is it about words that make them so powerful? How strange is it that one of the greatest tools of humanity can both give life and destroy life? The expression “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is a worthy thing to teach young children so as to not let comments destroy us, but the expression isn’t really true; names can hurt, and they can stay with us for years and years.

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Just ask a preacher about the power a comment can make right before or after a worship service. Just ask a teacher about the power a comment can make on an end of the year evaluation. Just ask a student about the power a comment can make during the first few weeks of a new school year. Just reflect on your own life and soon enough you will surely remember a time when the power of words was almost unbearable.

The tongue is a small thing, yet it has great power. James reminds us that even the greatest fires were started with a tiny spark. In all of our actions as Christians, the many ways we demonstrate Christ’s love in the world, the way we use our words might be the most powerful.

This week, let us reflect on the times that we have experienced the harsh reality of the power of words. How have we continued to carry those comments around, and how have we let them reshape our lives? Similarly, let us pray for God to give us the strength to use our words wisely toward others so that we might build people up, rather than break them down.

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Crumbly Faith – Sermon on Mark 7.24-37

Mark 7.24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying in the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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Brandy had high expectations for Staunton, Virginia. When she moved here with her adult son Verney, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, she knew that one of the best ways she could get connected with the community was finding a church home so she went looking. Each Sunday she would get herself ready with just the right outfit, she would put Verney in his wheel chair, and they would worship with a different church. The days between Sundays were spent in prayer about whether or not it was the right fit.

At some point she felt that she had found her church home and she approached the pastor about whether she could join. The conversation was great, she immediately felt loved and welcomed, she learned about Sunday school options, and different opportunities to serve in the church. But before the meeting was over she asked another quick question. “When do you think you could baptize my son Verney, and when will he be able to start taking communion?” The pastor stared back at her with a puzzled look on his face. “Ma’am,” he began, “I will not baptize your son, nor will I offer him communion. He can’t understand what they mean. And honestly, there would be no point.”

Jesus entered the house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet, word about him had spread so quickly that he could not escape notice. A woman, whose daughter had an unclean spirit, heard that Jesus had entered the town and she went to bow at his feet.

Up to this point Jesus, as a Jew, had been ministering to the Jews. He had read to them from the Torah, he had proclaimed God’s reign like one of the prophets from old, and he lived according to the law. This woman who came to beg at Jesus’ feet was not Jewish, she was a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin.

The woman was prostrate on the floor begging the Lord to cast out the demon from her daughter. And Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Imagine a homeless person banging on your door to ask for a favor, or a mother with a handicapped son asking for her son to be given communion, and you can get a sense of what was taking place in front of Jesus.

The unnamed Syrophoenician woman was driven by something more than proper etiquette and expectation; she was so desperately afraid for her daughter’s life that she was willing to beg at the feet of Jesus, a man from a completely different culture and way of life. Yet, Jesus’ response to the woman is one that many of us would rather overlook. We don’t hear Jesus immediately proclaim the grand scope of God’s kingdom; Jesus doesn’t reach out with his hands for a blessing. Instead he calls the woman a dog, and tells her that his mission is for the Jews alone.

The Syrophoenician woman, with no worth or status, does not go quietly into the night. She holds her ground and pushes the point back to Jesus and says: “even dogs eat the crumbs from the table.” When I read this story I imagine a sly smile stretching across Jesus’ face, a smile of recognition that this woman understands the way God’s upside-down kingdom is supposed to work, she believes in God’s goodness, she yearns for the kind of love than goes beyond all borders of culture and race.

So in response to her declaration, Jesus blesses her daughter, and rids her of the demon.

But the story is not over yet.

Jesus continues on his way, and people brought him a deaf man with a speech impediment. The deaf man was brought into a private place away from the crowds and Jesus used the power within him to open the man’s ears and release his tongue. In response Jesus ordered the people to tell no one what he had done, but the more he ordered the more zealously they proclaimed it.

This was radical.

During the first century, the time of Jesus, people who were blind, people who were deaf, and even women had little or no status at all. They were consistently removed from populated areas of life and were largely ignored. In those days people were afraid of anything that was different than the status quo; Jesus embraced it.

The story of the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man are intricately linked because they demonstrate Jesus’ willingness to upset the expectations of the world and welcome all into God’s love.

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After Brandy’s meeting with the pastor, the meeting where he told her there was no point for him to baptize or share communion with her son, she abandoned the church. When I met her for the first time and she told me her story, she couldn’t remember what eventually brought her to St. John’s, but when she got here she was afraid. She was afraid that this church would be like the first. She was afraid that this church would see her son as worthless, invisible, and unworthy of their time.

There is something about our own sinful nature, perhaps our deep insecurity, which pushes us to institute rules that give certain people an elevated status while denigrating others. These divisions can take place over differences in physicality, economics, race, gender, sexual identity, and an assortment of other identifiers. Even today in our modern contemporary world, there is a sense that we are supposed to avoid people who are unlike us, that we are entitled to brush past the people in need in our community and in the global community, and that we have no need to embrace the things that separate us.

Jesus’ actions in the two stories from Mark 7 are worth our careful consideration and emulation. Jesus shows how a worthless unnamed gentile woman and an ignorable deaf man are actually vital and worthy people in the kingdom of God. This story forces us to reopen our eyes and ears to the fact that there are no barriers between God and humankind. Nothing can ever separate us to from God’s love in Jesus Christ, not race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or physical condition. And if there are no barriers between God and God’s people, then there should be no divisions between us.

Brandy was afraid of how this church would respond, but this church knows the stories of Jesus. All those years ago this church community welcomed Brandy and Verney with open arms, he was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and was always reminded that he had a place at God’s table. This church knows that the best kind of faith is crumbly faith; you only need a little taste for the world to change.

When God came in the form of flesh in Jesus Christ the world was turned upside down. Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus time and again demonstrated that all people are worthy of God’s love. His work and words testified to the fact that the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love. Jesus did everything he could to embody how the Lord is good to all, God’s compassion is over all creation. Jesus even went so far as to carry a cross on his back, hike under the ridicule of the world, and die to defeat death.

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We remember and experience how far God was willing to go for our sakes in the bread and in the cup of Communion. When we are invited to this table to feast on the crumbly bread of Jesus’ body and partake in his blood we are like the Syrophoenician woman, we are like the deaf man, and we are like Brandy and Verney. We all come with our shortcomings and brokenness, we all share disappointments and failures, but when we stand before the throne we are all made new in God’s love.

I don’t know what you might be going through in your life right now. Many of us are remarkably reluctant, if not downright afraid, to share where we feel broken in our lives. We don’t want to admit our shortcomings or fears.

But remember the people from God’s word, remember the strong and resilient faith of the Syrophoenician woman who gave voice to God’s power in the world. Remember the deaf man whose life was forever changed as he was welcomed back into the heart of the community. Remember Brandy and Verney who were given hope in the midst of fear. And remember that you are always welcome at Jesus’ table, where the crumbs of eternal life are waiting. Amen