Schooling Jesus

(sermon 9/9/18)

Jesus and Samaritan woman with pussyhat

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 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.”

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A little more than a week ago, Rev. Robert Wood died. He was 95. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him; I hadn’t either until I saw stories about his passing. It turns out that Rev. Wood holds an important distinction in church history – he was the first member of the clergy to write a book calling for the full welcome and acceptance of LGBTQ people in the church, and the church’s performing of same-sex marriages. He wrote his book in 1960. And he was the first member of the clergy to participate in a march calling for full civil rights for LGBTQ folk. That was in 1965. The church owes a debt of gratitude to Rev. Wood.

After reading his obituary, I was curious about his book – I’d never heard of it before – so I started to look for it, and it turns out that the entire thing is available online as a pdf file. So I downloaded it and was reading through it, and the obituaries were right – his ideas about church welcome and marriage were forty or fifty years ahead of where the rest of the church was. But I have to admit, a lot of what I was reading in the book was just… bad. It was peppered with all sorts of misguided negative prejudices, assumptions, and so-called conventional wisdom that the culture of 1960 just *knew* to be true, but which advances in biology, psychology, and other disciplines have now proven to be completely false. The great irony in this is that Rev. Wood was a gay man himself, and even he couldn’t escape internalizing all that negativity that you’d think he’d know  wasn’t really true. In the decades that followed the book’s publication, Rev. Wood’s knowledge and understanding grew, evolved, and truth be told, I’m sure that in the decades that followed, he probably felt pretty silly about some of the things he’d written in 1960.

Today’s gospel text deals with this same idea of the continual growth of understanding over time. In this case, it’s Jesus whose level of understanding evolves. In this story, Jesus is going from place to place, proclaiming God’s good news for the people – but up until this point, that message has really been aimed at Jewish listeners. In this story, though, Jesus is approached by a non-Jew – a Syrophoenician, an unclean Gentile; a religious and ethnic outsider, someone to be scorned and dismissed, and a woman on top of all that. In short, this woman had three strikes against her before she’d even opened her mouth, and when she actually does, Jesus shuts her down by dismissing her with the terribly insulting ethnic slur of calling her a dog. Stop bothering me, he tells her; I’ve got more important things to do than to waste my time with the likes of you.

Of course, we heard her answer – very pointedly telling Jesus I may be a dog, but if your God’s so great, surely, you’d think that God would give the dogs of the world the table scraps.

We don’t really know anything about this woman beyond what we can get out of her words here. Maybe Jesus’ insult hurt her deeply. Maybe she thought Jesus was being an arrogant jerk. Frankly, that’s what I’d have thought, if I were in her shoes. On the other hand, maybe she’d internalized all the negative messages that the culture had dumped on her, like Rev. Wood apparently had, and she didn’t think any better of herself than Jesus apparently thought of her. Maybe she thought that Jesus was right, she wasn’t worthy of Jesus’ time – but at very least, she believed that her daughter was. The preacher David Lose once wrote that she was convinced – she had faith – in the truth that her precious, innocent daughter was absolutely worthy and deserving of Jesus’ attention, and she was willing to do whatever it took to help her – even if it meant going toe-to-toe with this supposed great teacher and healer; even if it meant putting up with his verbal abuse.

Based on the story, it seems that Jesus got her point. It seems that on this particular day, Jesus had gotten himself schooled, and by a most unlikely teacher – an outsider among outsiders. He learned, just as Rev. Wood had, that even he had to gradually learn to get rid of his prejudices, his religious and cultural biases and assumptions, in order to have a fuller, more complete understanding of the fullness, the breadth of the kingdom of God. This gospel text goes on to talk about Jesus healing a deaf man, but as he talked with the Syrophoenician woman, it was his own ears that were opened. And this shouldn’t shock us, or sound like blasphemy. We know that three days after Jesus was born, he wasn’t tying his own shoes, or solving quadratic equations. That isn’t how the incarnation worked. We know that the scriptures say that Jesus grew in stature and wisdom; it didn’t happen instantaneously, so it shouldn’t bother us to imagine that he had to learn this lesson from someone.

Of course, that lesson that Jesus learned is just a short hop, skip, and jump to what we can get out of the story. I think there are two takeaways that we can get from this story. First, we learn these same lessons – that God’s love is for everyone; and that we can gain new insights into God’s love and about the kingdom of God – insights that we might be blind to from our vantage point, from the outsiders of our own time and place, whether we’re considering the church, or society in general. We can be taught, and have our faith deepened, when we hear the voices of those outsiders – whether we’re talking about people from other races, other ethnicities, other nationalities, whatever classifications might make someone an “outsider” to what we’re accustomed to.

I think that in general, Springdale has done a pretty good job at being open to hearing, and learning from, a broad range of people. We’ve probably been better at that than many, if not most, congregations. We’ve been open to, and accepting of, a broad range of people, and we’ll continue to do that even more, and even better, in the future.

There is another important point about this story that I want to point out. Jesus had to learn something in this story, to get a better understanding of the good news that God had called him to proclaim. But we don’t hold it against him that he had to learn this lesson. We don’t hold it against him that he didn’t know the truth of the expansiveness of the kingdom of God before the woman showed him that God’s good news was intended for her, too.

In the same way, we can acknowledge, just as one example, that the Presbyterian Church engaged in terrible abuse of Native Americans, especially Native American children – taking them from their homes and putting them in special schools that tried to strip them of their culture. We eventually grew in our understanding, and saw the great sin that we were engaging in, we repented of it, and we don’t have to hate the Presbyterian Church for its past mistakes. And similarly, Rev. Robert Wood held some really appalling beliefs about gay people, but he eventually grew in his understanding, and we can still consider him a great trailblazer in church history.

My point in all that is that each of us has grown in our own journeys of faith. I suspect that each of us, in some way or another, used to believe something as a part of our faith that we no longer do – that we look back on, and realize we were really mistaken about. Maybe it’s something that we feel a little silly about for having once believed it. Or maybe it’s something that has hurt people. Or whatever – the fact is, we’re all going to have something like that in our experience if we’re living out our faith in an ongoing journey of faith development.

And if we do, maybe it’s something that we aren’t proud of. Maybe that old belief is something that we feel guilt over. Maybe it caused a big falling out within the family, or with friends, or coworkers, or a similar setting. Maybe we’re carrying a bunch of baggage because at some point in time, we’d messed up with our way of understanding our faith, and what God is all about.

Well if that’s happened, this story shows we’re in good company. Jesus got it wrong in this passage. And the good news for us is that God didn’t beat Jesus up over having to learn this lesson the hard way, and neither will God beat us up when we have to go through the same thing. God knows that we call it a faith journey for a reason; that we’re engaged in a faith-building process. So in faith, and with God’s help, let’s be open to hearing what God wants to teach us, and from whatever teacher God may use to teach it. Let’s learn the lessons we need to learn. And let’s turn the rest over to God, and trust in God’s love, and not beat ourselves up over the reality that we aren’t perfect and never will be. God knew we weren’t perfect long before reaching out to us, and letting us know that we’re loved and accepted.

Thanks be to God.

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Fooling Around (sermon 3/8/15)

“…For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  - 1 Corinthians 1:25

(In order to understand one reference in this sermon, you need to know that part of the Children’s Message earlier in the service included dancing and wearing foam rubber clown noses)

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For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

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The character of The Fool is a time-honored tradition in plays and other theatrical presentations. It goes way back, to biblical times and earlier, and it continues even now into our own time. The Fool is always a person who doesn’t quite fit into the rest of the crowd, they’re a bit of an outsider, who can make discomforting observations that everyone else seems to have missed, or who can make criticisms or poke holes in the puffed-up egos of their superiors, that no one else could get away with. A prince or a bishop could criticize the king and lose his head for it; the Fool could make the exact same point, just in a more crafty way, and all he’d have to do is smile as he said it, and the king would let it slide. Today, the Fool might be the quirky sidekick to the main character in a movie or TV show, but whether you find them at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival or the Auburn Movie Plex, their role is basically the same – to bring laser-sharp wisdom in ways that everyone else considers foolish, and to wield power from what others would consider a position of weakness.

In today’s Epistle Lectionary text, Paul is writing to the small church in Corinth. It’s a very cosmopolitan, highly commercialized city in ancient Greece, and the Greek love of wisdom and learning, at least their version of it, was a very important thing there. And the Christian message that God shows love for all people, and saves all people, by way of an unschooled Jewish peasant, a nobody, who’s convicted and executed I the most humiliating way imaginable, and who then is supposed to have risen from the dead… well, it was just a ridiculous thought. It didn’t make any sense at all. It was monstrous, and insulting to a person’s intelligence to even think about. It was pure foolishness.

The members of the church in Corinth seem to have been wavering in their faith, starting to worry about whether it stood up to public scrutiny and conventional wisdom and the proper rules of Greek philosophy and rhetoric. They seem to have been worried that staking out a position for the church that the rest of the city considered one of weakness was the wrong path. Maybe they should adopt a strategy, a different mission plan, one that sounded more consistent with the way most of their neighbors understood the world.

But Paul’s point was that God is wise enough to not teach the great truths of the Kingdom of God by way of the supposedly wise, or rich, or powerful. Instead, God makes the point, reveals the truth, offers the real wisdom, in a way no one would expect. It was the greatest of wisdom originally seen as foolishness, the greatest of power originally seen as weakness.

We often face the same kind of concerns. I mean, we want to think of ourselves as rational, intelligent people, and let’s face it, our faith is focused on the life of Jesus, a story that’s quite unusual to say the least. And the whole emphasis that the Christian faith places on meekness, and peacefulness, praying for our enemies and turning the other cheek and not returning violence for violence, it really is a hard pill to swallow sometimes.

But Paul says to stay strong in the faith, because the wisdom and power in the message of Christ crucified is more wise and more powerful than the wisdom and power understood by the world. That strength put into action through love – which was often seen, in ancient Corinth and today as disgusting weakness – is actually the greatest wisdom and strength of all. It’s capable of moving mountains in the effort to make the world more like Christ, more like the kingdom of God.

That was how the church originally spread so rapidly, you know. The one thing that people in the first years of Christianity noted about Jesus-followers was their seemingly unbounded way of peacefulness, forgiveness, and love for others, even their most dangerous enemies and persecutors. Even their enemies said that about them. When the church keeps true to those characteristics, it always grows. When individual Christians are true to those characteristics – put another way, when they play the role of the Fool, as the world would see it – their faith always deepens and they always become powerful forces for the gospel and all good in the world.

This isn’t just how the church grew, either. The exact same principle can be seen in many different times and places throughout the history of the church and the world. The strength and wisdom of Christ crucified was exactly what empowered those people who, fifty years ago yesterday, walked unarmed, peacefully, two-by-two over the narrow sidewalk of the Edmund Pettus Bridge into the face of state and local police armed with guns, and billy clubs, and dogs, and horses, all literally hell-bent on preventing them from advancing any further. These were people who knew what was likely to happen to them. And yet, they still marched over that bridge and into the living rooms of people all over this country and into history. They had been trained to turn the other cheek, to remain peaceful in the face of violence, to not return evil for evil. Many of them paid a heavy price for doing so. But by remaining peaceful, and not returning violence for violence, the images of that horrible, brutal day made a far more indelible impression on millions of people who finally said “enough!” and who began to accept the idea of racial equality. It was utter madness in the eyes of the world. They were Fools. They were, indeed, and thanks be to God for it. The wisdom of their foolishness, grounded in the message of the gospel, changed our country, and the world, forever.

Fifty years later, in addition to the ongoing fight for equal rights for all, there are other battles, other issues, other missions that the church, collectively and as individuals, is being called to take up in the name of Christ, too. And time and again, history has shown us that the greatest strategy to achieving gains in those battles is the way of the cross – taking up, and focusing on, and implementing the wisdom of the cross as opposed to the wisdom of the world. As we continue through Lent, and as we continue to reflect on the full meaning of taking up our own cross as we follow Christ, let’s realize that God is calling each one of us, in some way, to advance God’s will by concretely implementing the wisdom of the cross – by being a Fool for God, as a witness to the world. Let’s take the time to pray, and ask, where it is that God is calling us to speak the wisdom of the Fool into the world around us. And once we know where that is, let’s not be afraid. Be bold. Stand up in whatever way God is calling you. For the sake of Christ and the Kingdom of God, don’t be afraid to dance when the world says not to. Don’t be afraid to be a Fool for God. Foam rubber nose is optional.

Thanks be to God.