For Just Such a Time (sermon 9/27/15)

mcdonalds-employee-paraplegic

Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.

Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.”

When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him. 

    – Esther 4:5-17

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You’d think that after several years of seminary, I‘d know where the Book of Esther is in the Bible. But I don’t. Any time I need to find it, I have to use the Table of Contents – not that I need to look for it very often; this Sunday is the only time Esther shows up in the three-year Lectionary cycle. Obviously, what we heard this morning was just an exceprt from an ongoing story – a great story; if you aren’t familiar with it and how it all plays out, you should read it; it isn’t very long. But here’s a basic, super-condensed version of what’s happened up to this point of the story. Esther was a woman in ancient Persia who becomes the queen while hiding the fact that she’s Jewish. At the same time, Haman, one of the king’s must trusted and powerful advisors, gets disrespected by Mordecai, who Haman doesn’t realize is actually Esther’s cousin. In order to show Mordecai who’s boss, Haman manages to convince the king to issue a decree to destroy not just Mordecai, but all the Jews living within the kingdom. When this happens, Mordecai tells Esther that she’s got to intervene with the king. But Esther knows that the king has a hair-trigger temper, to put it mildly, and she’d truly be risking her life if she entered his presence without his having summoned her. But Mordecai pointed out that she wouldn’t escape harm just because she was in a position of privilege – that one way or another, physically or otherwise, she’d suffer the consequences of this decree along with the commoners it was aimed at. He told her that whether she liked it or not, she may very well have arrived at the moment she was born for – that maybe her entire life, with all its twists and turns, had been leading up to just such a time as this.

Have you ever wondered whether your own life had a specific purpose? Whether you’re alive, right now, in this time and place, for some specific goal that God has in mind for you? I suspect that all of us have wondered about that, and if we think that’s true, we wonder just what that purpose might be. Is it something big and bold, and maybe something risky, like Esther’s dilemma? Or is it something hidden, something we’ll never even know, but something that we set in motion with our actions – a chance comment to the person in front of us in the checkout line. Turning left instead of right at the intersection. Not being able to find your wallet, or your keys, and getting on the freeway ten minutes later than you would have otherwise. Something that ends up having a ripple effect that leads to something important happening, or not happening, that we’re never even aware of.

By definition, we can’t know, and don’t have any control over, that second kind of thing. But we have a lot of control over the first. In our tradition, we believe that God equips everyone, and calls everyone, to some particular thing, some vocation, and whatever it is, that’s our actual ministry in this life. God provides us with the intellectual and physical abilities, the passions, the desires, the financial resources for our service – our ministry in the Kingdom of God – and each of us need to discern what that is, and to do it. It may be one thing for our entire life, or it might change, and be a number of different things over the course of our life. It might be what we do for a living, or we might be blessed with making a living in a way that enables us to do what our actual ministry is, for just such a time as this.

And just what kind of time is it? It’s a time when overall economic disparity, the gap between rich and poor, continues to increase, and it isn’t just a disparity in dollars but it’s a disparity of opportunity, a disparity of hope itself. It’s a time when political divisiveness and polarization is at an all-time high. When the discrimination of racial, ethnic, and other minority groups continues to tear at our society. Where we have the highest incarceration rate of any developed nation in the world, and a justice system that disproportionately imprisons people of color, and a society that then criticizes them for having so many broken homes and distressed families. Where hunger – real hunger – can be found not just on the other side of the world, but within a block of where we’re sitting. There are people suffering and in need of our help in this world, in need of the help that God has entrusted to us to help them with. And we can’t escape being caught up in their troubles, any more than Esther could. When one of them suffers, we suffer, we’re diminished, right along with them.

What purpose does God have in mind for you in this world? Which problem is tugging at your heart? Which one do you hear God whispering in your ear to take up? That thing, the good thing, the right thing, that no one else seems able or willing to do? Whatever it is, once you discern what it is that God wants you to be doing, at least right now, and you follow that path – it’s very possible, if not probable, that you’re going to face some consequences for following it.

Standing together in solidarity with the marginalized, the abused, the unpopular in our society will pretty likely cause you to be unpopular with some people, too – especially with those who may be doing the marginalizing. Following God’s plan for you may cost you some friendships or relationships. It’s likely that some people will think you’ve lost your perspective, your sense of balance. I mean, a little bit of religion is a good thing, but only in moderation – you can’t let it shape your whole life or let it change your priorities. You can’t let it turn you into some kind of bleeding-heart. The only problem with that is that Jesus himself was literally a bleeding heart, and he’s called us to be one, too.

What might God be calling you do? To work for justice and equity for discriminated-against people? To create a way of collecting the food that restaurants would throw away at the end of the night and getting it to the local hungry and poor? To enter the ordained ministry? To get arrested and thrown in jail at a peaceful protest against some social ill? What kind of good are you willing to stick your neck out for, in service to Christ? What kind of trouble are you willing to get into for God?

There are big things that God has purposed us for. But there are other things, too, things that are in front of our eyes every day if we just allow ourselves to see them.

He was scrambling, just trying to keep up with the rush of people that were standing in line at the fast food restaurant in the lunch rush. People yelling back at the cooks looking for a missing burger, French fries just out of the fryer sizzling and cooling off before getting packed up, an overflow at the soda fountain that needed to be cleaned up, a drive-through order that took some time to prepare and that had to be walked out to the waiting car parked along the curb. As he looked across the stainless steel counter, he saw the next customer was in a motorized wheelchair. It was obvious that the man had very little mobility, he could barely move his hands enough to bump the little joystick that controlled the chair. It was only with great difficulty that he could even understand the man’s order, but he eventually understood it. When it was placed in front of him on the counter, the man said something else. He leaned over and struggled to hear him, and he finally understood that the man was saying, “Help me.”

He looked at the line of others waiting to order. He knew that to help this man would slow down the ordering, and could possibly even get himself in trouble. But he thought for a moment, then looked at the man and said “One minute.” He walked back into the kitchen and washed his hands. Then he came back, shut his register off, came around the counter and led the man back to an open seat. He realized the man needed help cutting his food up. So he did that, and then he sat next to the man and helped to feed him. And he continued to help him until he was done. It was a holy moment in the midst of the noise and the chaos all around them. It was the body of Christ with fries, the blood of Christ with a straw. It was the communion of saints under the golden arches.

It was very possible that he was going to get in trouble with his manager for stepping off the line in order to do what he did. But it didn’t matter. He’d been born for that time, and that place. He’d been born for just such a time as this. And so are we.

Thanks be to God.

* The fast-food story above, and the picture accompanying this sermon, is based on the news story from this past week, which can be found on many news websites, including here:

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mcdonalds-employee-helps-handicapped-customer-eat-meal-in-viral-photo/

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Fear Factor (sermon 9/20/15)

ahmed mohamed

Watch video of this sermon here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qgm-y2NOG0I&feature=youtu.be

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”   – Mark 9:30-27

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I’m sure you’ve all seen the story about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year old Muslim-American high school student from Irving, Texas, who used his expertise and passion for electronics to make a digital clock, and took it to school to show his teacher – who completely freaked out and turned him into the school administration saying the clock looked like a bomb. Then the police were called and they handcuffed and arrested him for supposedly making a “hoax bomb.” And even though the police eventually dropped the charges due to the huge public outcry, never once in this whole ridiculous story has the school or the police ever apologized for their overreaction – causing thinking people all around the world to just scratch their heads and wonder if Irving, or Texas, or America, is full of crazy people.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist – which, ironically enough, Ahmed may actually become – to understand that this crazy overreaction was the result of irrational fear, arising out of Ahmed’s name, religion, and the color of his skin. Fear is one of our most basic, reptilian-brain reactions. It’s at the root of virtually every negative thing we do, and every good thing we leave undone. And it’s got a lot to do with what’s going on in today’s gospel text.

We’ve all heard this story many times. We’ve heard the “last shall be first” and “welcome the little children” messages in any number of sermons. But while they can stand on their own as independent thoughts, Jesus is using them here with a very specific purpose. As we heard last week, Jesus had been predicting his arrest and execution, and it wasn’t sitting well with the disciples. It meant that this whole movement they were part of was about to change dramatically. Jesus, the founder and leader of this movement, was soon to be out of the picture, and that caused uncertainty, anxiety, and fear in their hearts. At first, the fear paralyzed them into inaction – they couldn’t bring themselves to ask Jesus for details of what he was talking about. But then that same fear led them to get into a power struggle, arguing about who was the greatest among them – who was the heir-apparent in the movement, who’d take over when Jesus was gone and who’d have power and authority not just in the by-and-by, and also the here-and-now. Their fear, their anxiety, over this looming power vacuum was causing them to think they could resolve things by being the position of power and control, so they could call the shots.

That fear at the root of their actions was what Jesus was speaking to when he said what he did to his disciples. Fear had paralyzed them from doing good, and was goading them to do wrong. Jesus pointed out to them that the solution to their fears didn’t lie in power or position or control. He was telling them that their fear was causing them to miss what God wanted them to focus on. They were missing out on living the abundant, loving, just, compassionate life that God had designed them for and called them to. Instead of focusing on fear, Jesus called on them to focus on faith.

A lot of times, we think that the opposite of faith is doubt. I don’t think that’s really true. Doubt is actually a necessary component of faith; otherwise it wouldn’t be faith at all, it would be certainty. The opposite of faith actually seems to be fear. And faith isn’t just intellectual assent of something. It isn’t just belief. As the preacher David Lose once pointed out, faith is actually movement. Faith is taking a step, even a small step forward to living more like Christ, in the face of doubt and fear. Dr. King meant the same thing when he famously said “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” Faith is movement in the face of feelings that would keep you from moving. Faith is deepened and fear is overcome, in the doing.

Pretty much whatever sin or shortcoming you can think of, fear, in some way or another, is at the root of it. Fear within each of us keeps us imprisoned in a mentality of anxiety and scarcity. It keeps us from living that abundant life that Christ opens the door to for us. So today, when we think about the fear of those disciples and Jesus’ words that spoke to those fears – What are your fears? Are they related to health, family, work, finances?

I fear what the future might bring for me. I fear insecurity and instability in my life, and I fear whether I’ll ever be able to set roots down again and restart a normal life. I fear for the future of my parents as they’re getting older, and I fear for my own health as I age. I fear for my daughters, that they might have to endure some of the terrible things I’ve had to go through in my own life. I fear that some day when I least expect it, someone’s going to come up behind me in a restaurant and sucker-punch me, or worse, just because I happened to be holding George’s hand. I fear over whether I’ll be able to have some financial security in my retirement. Those are some of my fears. Some of the things that make me wake up in a cold sweat and feeling like a steel band is tightening across my chest. That keep me from experiencing and living and enjoying that life that God wants for me.

I share those fears with you because here, in this is the place if nowhere else, we need to be open and honest with each other as God’s people. We need to speak the truth, and hear in truth. And I share those fears with you because it wouldn’t be fair of me to ask you to name your fears, even if only to yourselves, in your own minds, if I didn’t do the same thing. So now I ask you to think about exactly that: What, exactly, are the fears in your life? What’s holding you back? What’s leading you down the wrong path? What is it that wakes you up in the middle of the night?

Seriously think about that, and actually put those fears into words, to yourself, because one of the odd things about fear is that just giving it a name, and putting it in concrete words and acknowledging it, automatically takes a lot of its power away. Here’s another little exercise that I stole from David Lose. I’ve done this same sort of thing in other settings, too, and now I guess it’s your turn. When you came in today, you got a 3×5 index card. Take that card, and maybe right now, or maybe some time later today, write down on one side a fear in your life. And then, on the other side, write down some small step of faith that you can make this week – it might be something very small, and it doesn’t even have to be directly related to the particular fear you wrote down. Then carry that card with you, in your pocket, your wallet, your purse. Commit to doing that one step of faith this week. If you get it done, great! Then think of another one and write it down, and keep carrying the card until you get it done, too. The point behind the exercise is that by starting small, taking small steps, we can strengthen our faith to the point where our faith can overcome our fears. It doesn’t mean that the fear disappears, but we’ll have faithful ways to deal with it, to respond to it, to overcome its negative power and control over our lives. Eventually, by repeating that same process of facing our fears, naming them, and taking more and more steps of faith, we’ll be able to overcome even the really big fears and anxieties in our lives. We’ll be able to deal with times of uncertainty or anxiety. We’ll discover that that abundant, peaceful, joyful life that we want, and that God wants for us, is really right here in front of us. And with God’s help, each of us will be able to step out in faith, even if it’s just a little one at first, and grow and strengthen over time as we take more and more steps up the staircase.

We can do that. We can do it! It really isn’t rocket science. Really, we have to do it. Because if we don’t – if we allow our fear and anxiety to overpower us, to take control over our thoughts and actions, then we’ll all just be a problem waiting to happen. We’ll always be just one moment of anxiety away from doing something wrong or hurtful or stupid, taking us further away from the direction God is leading us. In our own lives, in our churches, in our society in general, that’s the ticking time bomb we should really be worried about.

Thanks be to God.

Cross Yourself (sermon 9/13/15)

kim davis

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”   – Mark 8:27-36

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There’s a very deep history within the Christian faith, and in the Jewish faith before the birth of Christianity, of people who have boldly stood up for the faith as they understood it and believed it, in the face of opposition. People who have stood up against powerful voices and forces opposing them, and who have often faced negative, even terrible consequences for their determination. People who have been persecuted and even killed in their defense of their understanding of God’s truths. There are lots of examples from the Hebrew Bible of prophets and others who refused to offer their loyalty to kings or other powers who demanded loyalty to them, or to their gods, over loyalty to the God of the Hebrews. There are a number of stories in the gospels where people are asking Jesus what kind of loyalty, if any, they could offer to the Roman Empire, and to Caesar, who himself claimed to be the Son of God, and still be true to their faith in God. Obviously, Jesus himself was killed by the Romans for what they perceived as treason – Jesus’ claims that the people owed their highest allegiance to God, not the Romans. And the history of the faith since then is full of stories of martyrs who suffered, sometimes excruciating punishment and torture, for standing firm in their understanding of the faith over against those in positions of power.

Today’s gospel text is an important part of this tradition. The passage starts with Peter’s confession that he believed Jesus was the Messiah specially sent by God – the first time in the gospels that anyone professes this belief. And immediately after that, Jesus starts to spell out some hard truths, some disturbing and unsettling truths about his impending crucifixion. Peter doesn’t like it, and he pulls Jesus aside and basically tells him that the message has bad optics for Jesus’ existing followers, and is likely to turn off any potential new people joining them. And of course, we heard Jesus’ response to Peter. As part of that reply, he tells Peter that if a person would be his follower, they were going to have to be willing to say and do things that will sometimes sound unpopular or run against the established grain. In order to stand up for and to follow the message of God’s good news, we’ll have to take stands that will sometimes cause us to endure discomfort or even persecution. Jesus said that from time to time, we’ll all have to take up our own cross, in the name of our faith and serving God in accordance with our consciences.

Of course, this has been a very hot topic lately. You know that Kim Davis, the County Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, began to refuse issuing marriage certificates to applicants in that county, because she claimed that to issue licenses to same-sex couples applying for them would be contrary to her “sincerely held religious beliefs.” And of course, when she did, all the usual talking heads lined up in their predictable camps either supporting or opposing her decision. And once she was found in contempt of court for refusing orders from the court to begin issuing licenses and went to jail, the debate got even louder and even crazier. A couple of conservative presidential candidates all but got into a fist fight clamoring to get on the stage to get their picture with her. She was painted as a martyr in some supposed War on Christianity, someone in the same category as Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela. On the other side of things, liberal voices attacked her as just a backwoods hillbilly, and denigrated her just for having any religious faith at all. They pointed to her own spotty personal record of marriage, and even criticized her just on the basis of the plainness of her hair and clothing.

In the midst of it all, it seems to me that not many people have zeroed in on the reality of her situation. The essential problem isn’t a religious one, but rather, that Kim Davis has a woefully ignorant understanding of her own job description, and what the meaning of the Clerk’s signature on filed documents represents. The County Clerk is not tasked with conveying official moral sanction to the legal matters being described in the documents that need to be processed by her office. Her sole job is to make sure the legal i’s are dotted and t’s crossed on all those documents. That’s it – nothing more, nothing less. For a marriage license, all the office is tasked to do is to certify that the paperwork is filled out properly, the legal requirements have been met, and that the fees have been paid. The Clerk has no authority to refuse issuing a license that has been properly filed and that meets all the legal requirements. Kim Davis’ situation is not, as the courts have repeatedly instructed her, that her First Amendment religious freedom rights are being abridged; the problem is that she’s illegally and unethically using her position of power to impose her own personal religious beliefs – whether a person agrees with those beliefs or not – on others and to deny them their own rights. That’s a lot more mundane, a less sexy argument than the religious persecution and martyr angle. But really, that’s what this whole matter boils down to.

Imagine a County Clerk who refused to file divorce decrees, because they personally believed divorce was a sin. Or someone in the building department refusing to issue a building permit for a restaurant, because the restaurant was going to serve alcohol, and they believed that was sinful. Or a building inspector refusing to inspect construction of a dance studio, because they believed that dancing was the handiwork of the devil. Or a government worker refusing to process a background check for someone trying to buy a firearm because he was a Christian pacifist and believed that issuing that permit would make them complicit in any future violence that the applicant ended up being involved in with the gun. Even though all of these have a religious component, none of them are valid examples of standing up for your religious beliefs, particularly if these public servants expected to keep their jobs while they improperly imposed their personal beliefs on others. None of these are examples of the kind of taking up of your cross that Jesus has called us to do in this gospel lesson. All of them are illegal abuses of the person’s position. Jesus told us that we had to stand up for our beliefs even when doing so came at a cost to us, not that we were supposed to impose that cost on others. Jesus said we were supposed to take up our cross, not beat other people over the head with it.

Well, this is not a sermon about Kim Davis. It’s a sermon about God, and us, and Christ, and how we’re supposed to live as Christ’s followers. The Kim Davis issue only points us to an important aspect in today’s gospel lesson, and in our own lives of faith. There are times when all of us have to wrestle with legitimate questions of when, and where, and how, are we supposed to stand up for our own religious beliefs in the face of opposition. What ditch should we be willing to die in, and when should we go along to get along, and live to fight another day? And most importantly, how do we really know that we’re in the right? How do we know we aren’t just deceiving ourselves?

I think that Jesus himself gives us the answer to that, in a couple of places in the gospels. He said to look at the fruit – the outcome – of a thing to discern whether it was of God or not. If the thing produced good fruit, it was of God; if it produced bad fruit, it wasn’t. Does the thing advance, or obstruct, the whole intent of the realm of God, and the meaning of the scriptures, as summarized by Jesus – to love God with all our strength, and to love others with the same intensity we love ourselves? So, we can look at the position we want to stand up for and ask – does it advance love, increase love, establish or maintain love, in the world? Does it expand justice, mercy, and compassion? If so, then it is of God, and it should be stood up for, and defended, even when doing so comes at real cost to ourselves. But if the thing would restrict, or limit, or diminish love – if it would diminish or exclude; if it would end up hurting other people – then it is not of God, and taking a position to forward something like that is not at all standing up for God, or God’s realm.

It’s something we have to really think about. We can’t avoid standing up for God’s will in difficult situations – in fact, that’s one of the key tasks that God has created the church for. So we have to choose what we stand up for wisely, and consistent with Christ’s teaching. It would be a terrible shame if we chose incorrectly, and some day, when we met Christ, we told him how much we’d suffered for him, how diligently we took up our cross for him, and he just answered, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not sure where you found that cross, but it certainly isn’t mine.”

Thanks be to God.

Scraps (sermon 9/6/15)

giants-1970

Watch video of this sermon here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIvnv-xwH_c

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From there [Jesus] 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 on 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.”

     – Mark 7:24-37

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When I was a kid, from the ages of nine through eleven or twelve, I played on a baseball team. It was kind of like Little League, but this was a separate league started by the people in my home town that was in competition with the local Little League. This was the Little Knights League, and eventually, Little Knights became a bigger thing locally than Little League. One of the few differences between the two leagues was that, unlike Little League, every Little Knights player played at least two innings per game. This was a very good thing for me, because up until the last few games in my playing career when something finally clicked, I might have actually been the worst player in the league. I was a guaranteed strikeout, I was guaranteed to not catch the pop fly that was hit to me, literally out in left field. The only reason I played was because my grandfather was a founder of the league and the manager of one of the teams – the Giants – and every other family member had been a Giant before me, so I had to be a Giant, too. Up until that last year, every game was pure hell for me. And it had to be the same for my parents, who had to be cringing as they sat in the bleachers watching me mess up every single game.

One of the best things, though, about Little Knights was that unlike Little League, Little Knights had a concession stand. For a dime, you could get your choice of a bag of popcorn, or a snow cone, or a bottle of pop, and at the end of each game, every player got their choice of a free snack. For me, it was always a bottle of Orange Nehi, and I’m telling you, at the end of a hot, sweaty evening, there was nothing, then or since, to match the taste of that ice cold, sharply carbonated orange pop going down your throat.

And at the end of the evening, as everyone was heading home and the concession stand was closing up, all the kids who didn’t have the money to buy something would gather around the window, next to where Mrs. McCann would be cleaning out the popcorn machine, and they’d all ask her, “You got any scraps? You got any scraps?” You know, the popcorn scraps. The tough, little, half-popped kernels that you get in every batch of popcorn and that end up on the bottom of the machine, that you’d never really want to eat and you certainly couldn’t sell. But if you didn’t have a dime, it was better than nothing.

There’s something like this going on in today’s gospel story. Jesus, who has been going all over the Jewish countryside preaching about the realm of God and God’s love for them. But he’s tired and needs to take a mini-vacation away from things to recharge his batteries, so he leaves there and goes to Tyre, which is not part of ancient Israel but is the neighboring Syrophoenician kingdom. The Jewish people looked down their noses at the people of Tyre, just as they did with all Gentiles. They weren’t part of God’s chosen people; they were disrespectable, unclean, even contemptible; good people aren’t even supposed to associate with them, let alone do them any sort of kindness. So Jesus slipping off to Tyre would be kind of like us slipping off to Canada for the weekend, if we hated all the Canadians and thought they were all filthy subhumans worthy of our scorn; but they had a nice beach and the exchange rate was good, so we just put up with them.

And while he’s here, trying to go off the clock for a bit – trying to do some “self-care,” as pastors are instructed to pay attention to today – this strange Gentile woman seeks him out and asks him to heal her daughter. And in one of the most shocking and seemingly atypical stories we have of Jesus in the gospels, Jesus is downright insulting and rude to her. He says that it isn’t right for him to help her – he’s been sent to proclaim good news and to help God’s children, the Jews, not to Gentile “dogs” like her.

This sounds bad enough to us, in English, today. But in ancient Middle Eastern culture – and even in some of those cultures yet today – to call someone a dog is one of the worst insults you could call someone. This was the first-century equivalent of calling a black person the “n-word,” or a gay person the “f-word,” or similar slurs to others. It really isn’t what we’d expect from Jesus. And then, of course, we heard this woman put Jesus in his place. She’d come, desperate for him to help her daughter, and now, when facing the ultimate of insults, she stands up for herself against him as she continues to claim that she’s worthy of at least some attention and compassion from him. She asks him at least for some crumbs off the children’s table. She asks for some scraps.

This seems to have been a turning point in Jesus’ own understanding of his ministry. The scriptures say that, divinity aside, he had to learn things as he grew and matured – he “grew in stature and knowledge;” and here it appears that he learned something from this woman who wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself and her daughter, and the suffering and injustice they were enduring, to ask for his help. And as we heard, Jesus honored her faith, her trust that he could help her, and her tenacity in standing up for it even in the face of the social and cultural deck being stacked against her, and he healed her daughter.

This is an important story for us to remember, especially now when we’re continually seeing the protests and demands from various groups in our own culture today that they be treated in accordance with the promises of our country’s founding documents and our legal system. For too long, these groups were considered the dogs. They didn’t even get the crumbs, the scraps, or our society, and then they eventually got at least that, and now, they’re calling for full equality – demanding to be recognized not as the dogs under the table, but as children equal to all the others in our family. In one way or another, we’ve all been complicit in treating these others like dogs, or at best, less-favored stepchildren, in society, and even in the church. And because we’ve all been complicit in this, whether as individuals or just as members of cultural structures that systemically did it, we have an obligation to take an active role in fixing the problem, and making a place at the table for these children, our long-shunned brothers and sisters. This is true whether we’re looking at society, or the church itself. We all have to learn the lesson that the plucky Syrophoenician woman who maybe figured she just didn’t have anything left to lose, taught Jesus on that day so long ago.

Friends, we have to learn this lesson over and over as we come to see the fullness of the realm of God. Jesus, and then the earliest church, had to learn that God’s message of love and acceptance wasn’t meant only for the Jews, and in every age we come to terms with expanding our understanding of who’s inside that “circle.” We need to keep focused on the incredible, extravagant grace that God has given us, and to understand that God has given us the responsibility to reach out and extend that love, and grace, and justice, and acceptance, to all those around us. That’s the simplest, most essential truth of the gospel – God’s good news. And any time you hear someone talking about the gospel in a way that excludes some group or another, you know they haven’t learned the lesson Jesus learned the hard way in this story. We need to learn, and re-learn, that in God’s eyes, we’re all called to share in the abundance and beauty and wonder, and especially the justice, of this world – not just the scraps, but the whole, big, puffy, white kernels, buttered and salted for all of the flavor of God’s great creation.

Jesus had to learn it. And if we learn it, and if we do everything – everything – that we can to open up room at our table in church and society, and to give everyone – everyone – an equal seat, equal respect, equal dignity, equal consideration – equal justice – then in God’s eyes, we’ll have hit a home run. And in God’s eyes, that will qualify us for something even greater than a free, ice-cold, Orange Nehi.

Thanks be to God.