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

Nicodemus and Sidewalk Chalk – Sermon on John 3.1-17

John 3.1-17

Now there was a pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I had told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

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For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

There was a pharisee named Nicodemus and he came to visit Jesus at night. As a leader of the Jews it was probably best to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness, and when they met together Nicodemus began to ask Jesus about all he had seen and heard. “Teacher, it is clear to us that you have come from God because no one can perform the signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” “You’re absolutely right,” Jesus replied, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

“Now wait a minute Jesus, how can anyone be born after having grown old? Can someone re-enter their mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus calmly answered, “Listen Nicodemus, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be surprised that I told you that you had to be born from above. You know very well that the wind blows where it chooses, you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

“But Jesus how can these things be?!” “Nicodemus, are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? If I had told you about earthly things you would’ve believed,  but now I talk to you about heavenly things and you do not believe. No one has ascended into heaven expect the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Nicodemus_Jesus

Last week we looked at one of the most well known stories from the Old Testament: Adam and Eve in the Garden. Today I could not help myself from proclaiming one of the most well known New Testament scriptures: John 3:16. In the entire biblical canon, both the Old and New Testaments, there must be few, if any, scriptures that have been so remarkably loved by so many as this text. It is simple and to the point. It opens up endless possibilities. It embodies the hope of all Christians. It is beautiful and appealing. It begins with the beginning and stretches into the far reaches of eternity. It proclaims that which is most fundamental to our faith: that God loves us. 

But the scripture today is about so much more than just that one isolated verse. I am thrilled that so many of us have memorized John 3:16, but we cannot forget about the inquisitive soon-to-be disciple named Nicodemus.

What do you make of this pharisee who came to see Jesus in the middle of the night?

 

On Tuesday morning, after gathering with the UMW, I made my way outside onto our back parking lot. After months of cold weather, with mounds of snow continually piling up, the Pre-School was finally able to play outside again. Now, let me be clear: I am just like those children. Having been cooped up in this church all winter I was just as, if not more, excited to run around and play outside. The children all had their plastic cars and bikes, some were running around in circles, others were using the fake gas pump to fill up the cars, (capitalism at its finest) when I saw a box of sidewalk chalk.

sidewalk-chalk

I silently made my way to the middle of the black top with the biggest piece of chalk that I could find and I began to draw. Without saying a word, or drawing attention to myself, the children began to congregate around me in a large circle. “Pastor Taylor, what are you drawing?” I heard one them mutter behind me, and I replied, “You’ll see in a moment.” As I stepped back the children moved with me, and there on the blacktop was a giant head with a wide open mouth. Why? I have no idea, but its what I drew. And without really understanding what I was doing I told the children that I was going to jump in the mouth of this mystery person made out of chalk. If I had said that to any of you, you would have thought that I lost my marbles. But with the children, they believed me, they looked into my soul, and some of them even begged me not to do it. But there I stood crouched with my hands at my side, and I jumped in. Of course I acted as if I was falling in and some of the children laughed, and when I was done, I encouraged some of them to jump in. There was a moment when the first girl stepped forward to the edge of the face. As I saw her prepare to jump in I realized she was unsure of what would happen to her. While rocking her hands back and forth I could see the sense of wonder and imagination brewing within her as she jumped right in.

Thats what Nicodemus was like. Jesus is known for having said that whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. Nicodemus had a childlike and inquisitive faith. When confronted with the man of many wonders, Nicodemus wanted to jump right in to learn more about this new kingdom. While his contemporaries scoffed at the new teaching, Nicodemus’ imagination allowed him to see deeply into the truth of Jesus.

The other leaders of the synagogues were already muttering with irritated resentment regarding this so-called teacher who was beginning to develop a following. They disagreed with his strange ways, his strange teaching, and his strange disregard for authority. Nicodemus, however, felt there was indeed something strange about Jesus, but it could not be dismissed so easily. To Nicodemus, God was still speaking through people, and to his ears there was something in this new proclamation worth considering.

So, under the cover of night, Nicodemus went to learn more. He wanted to see for himself, he desired to hear from the man himself, to question and to learn. Instead of giving into the rumors, Nicodemus wanted to base his understanding on first hand experience. He could not settle for hearing about the man, but instead needed to jump straight into the abyss of the Son of Man.

In his willingness to question Christ we discover that Nicodemus was a great man who possessed enviable qualities. While suffocated by the surrounding culture and religions assumptions and expectations, he somehow managed to exhibit an open-mindedness that broke the chains of religious limitation. 

Moreover, Nicodemus is one of the best examples of discipleship. By the end of the gospel account Peter will have denied Jesus in a shameful panic, the rest of the disciples will have scattered or run off into hiding. For all practical purposes, the story had come to a close. But Nicodemus, this strange pharisee from our story today, openly stood forth as one of Jesus’ only remaining friends. Nicodemus dared to risk the punishment of superiors, the resentment of his peers, by paying the last loving rites to the dead body of Jesus that would have been treated as trash by anyone else.

Nicodemus is an understatedly important figure in the Gospel for us in the life of the church. He is so familiar to us, because he is just like us. He asked the kind of questions that many of us would have asked, had we been there with our Lord.

If you take a step back from the account, what Jesus was talking about sounds impossible. How can someone be born anew? Jesus simply responds to our misunderstanding and confusion; its not about being physically reborn as a child, but about being born anew in such a way that you can reorient your life. We must be born anew. Our prayer and our hope should be rooted in the desire to be recreated. Make me another kind of being from what I am. Renew a steadfast spirit within me. Create in me a clean heart. Do all this, O God, so that I can lead a different life. 

The whole point of the gospel is that God can achieve the impossible. Just as God can raise Jesus from the dead, God can achieve the impossible with you and me. And he does it! We see it happening in other peoples lives, our wayward friends who reorient their lives for the better. We have experienced it on some measure in our own lives however small or large. How does God change us? Ah, says Jesus, that is part of the great mystery. The wind comes who knows how, cleansing, refreshing, and then before we know it, its gone.

For God all things are possible. We can be born anew. We can find a new orientation for our lives no matter how young or old we may be. But even greater than this, is the promise of eternal life.

Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus with the, now famous, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Martin Luther, the great protestant reformer once said, “If I were as our Lord God, and these vile people were as disobedient as they are now, I would knock the whole world to pieces!” We consistently make a mockery of God’s love by continually disobeying his commands, and by ceasing to love others as we love ourselves. How can God love us when we ruin everything he created including ourselves?

God loves us, because God is love. God loves the world; his foolish, blundering, wayward, and sin sick world. This love utterly breaks through our foolish conceptions of what love means and is; God’s love runs out to lengths that sounds incredible to our human ears because we could never return that same love.

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God is like that remarkable parent who continues to love a child through all the wrong decisions and failures. Picking them up from the police station, driving them back to rehab, sitting with them night after night helping with homework, loaning them money when they fall on hard times. The only difference being that when our love for our children fails, his love for us remains steadfast.

God proves his love toward us by doing all that God can do, and giving all that God can give to help us; stretching himself even to sacrifice his only Son, and hold back nothing.

Thats what Nicodemus learned from his time with Jesus. That in the impossible mystery of God’s created order, God’s love knows no bounds, was made manifest in Christ’s death on the cross for you and for me and for the whole world.

Let us all strive to live like Nicodemus. Let our faith be inquisitive and exciting. Let us all prepare to jump into the unknown, to fearlessly step into a relationship with the triune God, and above all remember that great scripture: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. To God be the Glory.

Amen.