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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Upside Down - Acts 17:1-9

After Paul and Silas has passed through Amphipolis and Appolonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.

When I was growing up, one of my favorite afternoon cartoons was Animaniacs. Who here remembers Animaniacs? It’s a cartoon about the Warner brothers and their sister, Dot. They live in the water tower at Warner Brothers studios, and just for run they run around the Warner movie lot. Every episode included a sort of “guest segment” that would rotate with each show, sort of like on Saturday Night Live you may intermittently see a spot featuring “Debbie Downer.”

On Animaniacs, my favorite recurring spot was “Pinkie and the Brain.” This was a spot about two laboratory mice who had been experimented on to the point that they were capable of some interesting thinking. Pinky, the one mouse, was quite goofy and seemed just a bit out-of-sorts. The other mouse, called “Brain,” turned out to be a global mastermind. There was one thing they were bent on doing each and every night, and this sole sense of purpose was captured in a dialogue that was part of the opening of every episode.

“Gee, Brain – what do you want to do tonight?” “Same thing we do every night, Pinkie, try to take over the world.” That dialogue sets up for us very clearly what these two lab mice were going to attempt to do in every episode. No questioning, no debating, just a single, unified vision. I wonder what it would look like for the Church to have that sort of clarity about its purpose. May we pray.

By this time, Paul and Silas had developed quite a reputation for themselves. These traveling preachers had worn out their welcome in just about every city they came to. Their pattern was always the same: show up in town. Preach Jesus in the synagogue. Get kicked out. Preach Jesus to the non-Jews. Convert some. Get run out of town. Sometimes the details of the story are a little different – sometimes there’s prison, sometimes there are new characters introduced, sometimes they’re run out after one week, or two or three – but this is their pattern.

It actually sort of reminds me of what used to happen to John Wesley and the early Methodist preachers. John Wesley was a priest in the Church of England his entire life. He never intended for the Methodist movement to break away from the Church of England, but hoped it would serve as a vehicle for renewal within the established Church. Even so, John Wesley’s brand of Christianity was a little too radical for some within the establishment. He records several instances in his journal of delivering a sermon in a particular congregation of the Church of England, and then being “uninvited” to preach there ever again.

Paul and Silas were also uninvited to preach in the Jewish synagogues, and this passage tells us exactly why. They were accused of turning the world upside down. Now, a side note here. Have you ever been wrongly accused of something? Or, has someone wrongly assumed they knew the motivation behind your actions? That’s incredibly frustrating. I think that’s what happened to Paul and Silas, at least in some regard.

Paul and Silas made the religious establishment nervous. A sort of “us-them” mentality always developed between the leaders of the establishment and Paul and Silas. It was seen as a power struggle between those who were already there – the guards of the old game, if you will – and these new up-and-coming disrespectful traveling preachers.

What’s interesting here, however, is Paul was one of their own. Paul was a Jew’s Jew – someone with the pedigree, education, and credentials to be a prominent rabbi, a prominent leader in the religious establishment, a guardian of the old ways of doing things. When it came to an impressive religious resume, Paul had it. He went to the right school, he knew his Bible inside and out, he knew all the rules (even the ones that contradicted all the other rules). In other words, when it came to being a Jew, Paul was all that and a can of Pringles.

But for Paul, there was more to it than that. Paul had also had a blinding encounter with the life-giving God. What’s interesting here is that Paul’s encounter with God did not erase his training, his education, his appreciation for his heritage or anything else on his religious resume. Paul, instead, saw all these factors pointing to the very truth that God revealed – that Jesus – the same Jesus whose followers Paul had been persecuting relentlessly, was the long-awaited Messiah who would reconcile the world back to God.

So when Paul and Silas showed up in a city, they had no intention of turning the world upside down simply for the sake of grins and giggles. They were there with a holy boldness to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, as God’s anointed, as the one who could heal their broken relationship with God. They went to the synagogue to share the good news that the long-awaited Messiah had actually come, and they wanted to give everyone there an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus just as they had. Just as John Wesley was trying to help the people of his day become better Christians by returning to their own heritage while moving into a new life-giving future with God, so Paul was trying to help the Jews of his day become better Jews by living into God’s new life-giving future that was based in the Scriptures and traditions they had so come to love.

“These people have been turning the world upside down!” That was the complaint. That was their reputation. Paul and Silas were known for one thing – turning the world upside down. Sure, that’s how it seemed to the leaders of the religious institution of Paul and Silas’ day. It seems to happen everywhere, in every society, throughout history. Movements spring up that are new, fresh, radical, and dynamic. But somewhere along the way, movements become institutions, and more time is spent maintaining that institution than remembering what it was designed to do in the first place.

I think what made the religious institution uncomfortable was the fact that Paul dared to suggest that God’s work was bigger then they were. The institution had come to view itself as the guardian of truth and dispenser of revelation, and Paul said, “Wait a minute – this thing that God is doing is bigger than me or you or any of us!” Because he knew his own history, Paul knew that his religious tradition had started as something much broader and grander than what it had become. He remembered back thousands of years, to a covenant made between God and Abraham. Over time, the Jews had come to understand and interpret this covenant as securing some sort of a privileged place among all people. But they had forgotten just what those privileges entailed. God had promised to make their name great and to make them a great nation – that much was true. But God also promised that through them all peoples on earth would be blessed. In other words, God was blessing them in order that they might bless others; their privilege carried with it great responsibility.

They were turning the world upside down all right, but the world needed to be turned upside down. And really, they were turning it right side up, but it had been backward for so long, it seemed strange and foreign to those who liked the world off-center.

Friends, when the world has been upside down for so long that it seems up is down, down is up, left is right, right is wrong, the world needs to be turned upside down yet again. But here’s the thing – if you read this passage carefully, you’ll notice it wasn’t the world as we commonly think of it that was being turned upside down.

In fact, the powers of the world were fairly uninterested in the whole thing. The government and civil authorities were really uninvolved until the religious leaders stirred things up. Look at this – it wasn’t even Paul and Silas who stirred things up! Things were going fairly well until the religious leaders went and found “marketplace ruffians” who stirred up a riot in the city, and then they took Paul and Silas to the government officials and said they were stirring things up, when in fact the religious leaders were the ones who got the riot going!

They were turning the world upside down all right, but it was the world of the religious establishment that was most threatened. It was a world that needed to be turned over.

Friends, if you’re a follower of Jesus, you’d better be ready to turn some worlds over. That’s what we’re here for. In every generation, a revival is called for as we remember once again with freshness and boldness what we’re here to do. There are a whole lot of other things that churches can and do get involved in – many of them good, worthwhile, fun things. But if we’re not careful, those things can become more and more important and take more and more time away from what we’re here for in the first place. The Church can be known for a lot of things, but if we’re going to be known for anything, it better be because we’re transforming the world.

People will sometimes comment to me that they wish the Church would do this or that. My comment back is usually, “And what are you personally willing to do about it?” Sometimes we speak about the Church as if it were some nameless, faceless institution. But the Church is made up of people, it’s made up of you and me, and whatever I do, the Church does, and whatever you do, the Church does.

If you want the Church to transform the world – if you want the Church to turn the world upside down – allow me to make this suggestion: go ahead and transform the world and turn it upside down. Please don’t wait for permission. Please don’t wait for a comprehensive master plan to be unrolled. If God has placed something within you to do, just go ahead and do it.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is someone who turned the world upside down. As he sowed the seeds for what became the civil rights movement, many in the religious establishment begged him to slow down. A group of church leaders in Alabama asked him for more time to get people used to the ideas he was proposing, to adjust slowly. It’s not that they disagreed with him, at least not openly. They wanted more time and a more gradual transition. But Dr. King simply said, “The time is always ripe to do what is right.”

You know that John Mayer song, “Waiting on the World to Change?” That song is the exact opposite message from the one we followers of Jesus should be listening to. In too many churches in too many places, too many people are simply sitting there waiting for the world to change. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of waiting. Life is too short. I only have, at best, 60 more years to live on this earth. I’m 29 years old and almost dead, I don’t have time to wait for the world to change. I want to be part of changing the world, not sitting around waiting for the world to change. Like Paul and Silas, if people are going to accuse me of anything, I want them to accuse me of turning the world upside down.

How about you? If you’re a follower of Jesus, you’d better be ready to turn some worlds over. We’re sometimes reluctant, and I’m not sure why that is. Maybe we’re waiting for permission. Maybe we think our hands are tied by institutional structures. Maybe we think it’s not our problem. Maybe we don’t want to be accused of turning the world upside-down. But I’m telling you, whatever it is that God has put within you to do, please just go ahead and do it. We don’t have to wait. We have the Holy Spirit on our side, empowering us, enabling us, leading us to turn the world upside down, or really, right side up, for Jesus.

This morning, we baptized little Rowan. In her baptism, she is claimed as a child of God in the Christian family. In her baptism, the grace of God is poured out into her life. In her baptism, she is commissioned for ministry in the world. She is commissioned to turn the world upside down. Today we have said that she will be one who turns the world right side up for God. Today, we have all renewed our commitment to turn it right side up. In her baptism, she is commissioned for a life of radical service in the world. Our baptism is not about some spiritual cosmetic or a cute reminder of God’s presence in our lives. Baptism is something that changes our lives forever – in it, God says “This one belongs to me, and this one is going to be part of my plan to turn the world upside down.” In baptism, God has declared this truth about Rowan. In baptism, God has declared it about each of us, as well.

Being a follower of Jesus isn’t about being polite or following the rules. It’s not about wearing the right clothes or following some arbitrary ethical standard of behavior. It’s not about believing the right thing or knowing the right secret handshake. It’s not about committee meetings or institutional structures or preserving the ways of days gone by. It’s not about excluding others to feel better about ourselves. It’s not about the building, it’s not about the budget, it’s not about the programs – it’s not about any of our own random stuff we so often try to make it about. It’s about doing everything in our ability and beyond our ability to turn the world upside down – to turn it right side up for God. It’s not some after I die, pie in the sky, sweet by-and-by sorta thing. Every week, we people of Christian faith pray for God’s kingdom to come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Right here, right now. It’s time to start doing what we’ve been praying all along.

The Spirit doesn’t wait. The time is always ripe to do what is right. The world is just waiting to be turned upside down. It has often been said that when Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God, he pointed to an upside down kingdom. The values of God’s kingdom are exactly the opposite of what had come to be expected as normal.

This is the kingdom of God! The ministry of Jesus is about righting every wrong, about letting the oppressed go free, about proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, about declaring people who have been shut out by the kingdoms of the world to be embraced at the exact center of God’s kingdom, about turning the values of the world completely on their head, about spinning things so far that what seems to be turning things upside down is really turning them right side up. The will of God, the ministry of Jesus, is about restoring everything has ever been marred – most importantly, the relationship between God and humankind, and our relationships with each other. It’s the ministry of Jesus, and it’s the ministry of all those who claim to be his followers.

And just where are you supposed to transform the world? That’s a good question. There is so much to be done – where on earth do you start? Theologian Frederick Buechner says your calling in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need. In other words, find the intersection between what you love to do and what the world needs most.

We all need to stir up that calling from God that has been placed within each of us. We all need to find our purpose, and then be empowered to live out that purpose with holy boldness.

On your sermon notes, you might want to write the beginning of two sentences. The first is “My joy is . . .” The second is “The world needs . . .” Think and pray about these sentences and figure out your own answers to them.

We all have a ministry and calling, and we will find it where our greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.

Friends, if we’re going to be followers of Jesus, we need to be about the ministry of Jesus, a ministry that literally turned the world upside down. We don’t need to wait for permission, we don’t need to wait for gradual change, we don’t need to wait for the institutions to change. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of waiting. Life is too short. I’m 29 years old and almost dead; I don’t have time to wait for the world to change. I want to be part of changing the world, not sitting around waiting for the world to change. If people are going to accuse us of anything, I want them to accuse us of something that matters. I want us to be accused of turning the world upside down.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Beyond Bailouts - Mark 8:27-38

27Jesus 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?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31Then 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.”
34He 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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.”

I know that many of you have looked at the title of today’s sermon, and are wondering if there are politically-charged ramifications to my sermon today. If the politics of this congregation are like most United Methodist Churches, depending on what I would say with a political tone, about half of you would be very pleased with what I say, and about half of you would be very displeased.

Not to worry. While I certainly have political opinions, I will never air them from the sacred space of this pulpit, nor in my role as your pastor, because last time I checked, the will of God is still greater than the will of any political party, any government, or any human institution.

But if you want politics, you still don’t have to look any further than what was going on in today’s text. In the 8th Chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, things around Jesus have gotten very political indeed. By the time we meet up with him in this reading, things have gotten interesting. He’s been healing people of their diseases left and right, miraculously feeding thousands of people out of one very special Long John Silver’s combo meal, teaching with such great authority that a great revival is breaking out through the land, and accumulating a very large following.

Right in the middle of the excitement, the disciples are riding high. They are, after all, part of the inner circle. When the band pulls into town, they are in the penthouse suite hanging out with everyone who is anyone. Jesus has become quite the celebrity, and with him, the disciples are feeling pretty great, too. Before they get too comfortable, however, Jesus is going to give greatness a whole new definition. May we pray.

Do you remember what you were going to be when you grew up? Back when you still had an imagination, when you still believed anything was possible, before the sobering reality of maturity sunk around you and made you deal in the world of probable instead of possible?

We were all going to be great. Every time we played baseball with four people in our front yard and hit the grand slam that got all our ghost runners home, we imagined rounding third place and heading for home in front of great cheering crowds at Fenway or Camden Yards or Turner Field. We were all going to be heroes – brave firefighters, skilled surgeons, wise judges.

I was going to be president. I announced my candidacy in Miss Stelianou’s second grade classroom. No sooner had I started my candidacy than all my friends came to me seeking important cabinet positions in my new administration. I found myself creating brand new government agencies just so I would have something for everyone to do, and everyone seemed happy to be in the presence of one so great. Now that I look back on it, we were all a bunch of dorks.

Yet, something within us wants to be associated with greatness. If we can clearly establish a link with someone who is perceived to be great by others, then perhaps they’ll think that we’re great, too, which brings us back to Jesus and his disciples.
Jesus was at the top of his game. It was the week before primaries, and Jesus had just taken a sharp lead in the polls. The tide of public opinion was firmly behind him, and success followed him like a lost puppy. In the middle of it, the disciples were there, answering questions, talking with the media, meeting the girls, pouring the champagne, planning the party.

It was the day the poll numbers had come out, and Jesus and his disciples were gathered together at dinner. He looked around the table and asked a question: “Who do you say that I am?” It was low-hanging fruit. The disciples knew he just wanted someone to say what they were all thinking.

One by one around the table, they began to name some of the great leaders of history. “Some say you are Elijah.” “Others say you’re Moses.” “Some think you’re John the Baptist.” But Peter remained silent. Peter, ever the wise politician, ever thinking of what he could do to come just a little closer into Jesus’ favor, held his answer for a brief pause from the others. “You are the Messiah. The Christ. The Anointed One of God. You are one who redeem your people. You are already the next leader.”

A hush fell around the table. They had all thought the things Peter had spoken, but he had dared to give voice to them. They looked at Jesus, waiting for a response. He never corrected Peter. He never said that Peter was wrong. He simply ordered them not to tell anyone.

We all know the danger in calling an election too soon. Many of us can remember election night of 2000, when late into the night we still didn’t know who the president was. We remember the confusion caused when competing news outlets began to give conflicting reports about which candidate seemed to have won the election. Scott Ferebee and I have been hearing different mayoral candidates speak at our Rotary club, and this week John Lassiter was careful to talk about the challenges that face “the next mayor of Charlotte,” never presuming himself to be that person, always talking about what he would do “if” he’s elected mayor, not “when.”

But in Jesus’ bid for Messiah, it’s not like it was even a close race. No one else was even running. There had been false prophets before, but they all knew Jesus was the real deal. There was going to be no campaign finance scandal – the guy didn’t even own a house! It’s not like anyone was going to call for his resignation because of inappropriate travel – the guy walked everywhere he went!

Jesus still doesn’t correct Peter. Clearly, he really does believe he’s the Messiah. But he lets the air out of the balloons about as quickly as they fall from the ceiling. He begins to teach that the Messiah will go through great suffering, rejection from all the religious leaders, be killed, and raised up again. Even at his own party, Jesus turns out to be a wet blanket who suffocates the expectations of everyone at the table.

Peter gets upset. Without even thinking, he yells out, “You lie!” It’s poor etiquette, but do you see Peter’s point? From the time of King David, a Messiah has been promised. And for about as long, the people of Israel have undergone great suffering. They have endured war, captivity, and economic embargo. They are the laughing stock of all the neighboring countries, and they have spent more time under occupation by outsiders than they have as independent. Finally, the Messiah – the great hope, the liberator, the new king – is here, and it’s about time. Peter and the rest of the disciples couldn’t be happier. Israel has drawn the short straw enough times, it’s been on the bottom too many times, now it’s time for Israel to be on top. Now it’s time for Israel to turn the tables and get some just desserts and do to everyone what’s been done to them. And how could they not succeed? The guy’s biggest backer is God.

To this vision of Jesus’ proposed kingdom, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” In other words, stop and consider for a moment that you have just described the way the kingdoms of the world operate. But Jesus’ kingdom is not like the kingdoms of the world. Jesus’ kingdom does not have the same values or priorities, and the rules that govern it couldn’t be any different than what Peter hopes for. Jesus represents a kingdom that’s a brand new thing, a brand new people marked by a brand new way. Peter’s hope for a militant Messiah misses the mark because the kingdom of God is bigger and broader than the kingdoms of the world. With a whole new kind of kingdom come a whole new set of priorities. Jesus’ kingdom comes with a whole new way of doing things, and he reminds us that if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re gonna keep getting what you’ve always got. This is how the world tends to solve its problems. War got us into this mess, so more war will get us out. Greed got us into this problem, so let’s throw more money at the situation and hope that makes things better. Policies of hate and fear got us here, let’s be increasingly hateful and fearful others and hope that it goes away. From either side of the aisle, across the spectrum from left to right, top to bottom, and front to back, there is enough blame to go around.

Peter was looking for a bailout. He was looking for a one-time magic wand to be swept over the situation and erase all the bad stuff that had ever happened.
But Jesus provides a solution that is well beyond bailouts. Jesus is forming a whole new people, with a whole new set of values, and who turn the definition of greatness on its head. In the middle of that strategic planning meeting, Jesus yells out, “Do you want to be great?” The disciples shouted, “Yes!” He asked, “Do you want to follow me?” “Yes!” “Here’s how: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”

I'm with Peter. Should not religious faith protect us from suffering, make us acceptable, give us victory over what threatens us? This is no way to win the world and gain followers! Promised suffering, bearing crosses, losing one's life ~ that will not sell. Only the emotionally warped masochists could find such an invitation appealing. Isolation from suffering, avoiding the cross, that is what we want and expect from God, is it not?

Why would anyone follow a Christ who is to be crucified? We have enough suffering and rejection without this! Peter's objection is as contemporary and personal as our own instinct for self-preservation, our own longing for security and prominence and health and life.

Mark knows, however, that only those who follow Jesus all the way to the cross will really know who he is. If we stop before Calvary, we will misunderstand him. We will assume that he is just another miracle worker, or another exorcist, or a wise and compelling teacher. If Peter and the other disciples proclaim him Messiah based on what they have seen thus far, they will have proclaimed a false Messiah. His identity can only truly be known at the cross. There, even an unenlightened Roman soldier will be able to recognize him: "Truly this is the son of God."

Why follow a crucified Christ? Because only a crucified Messiah reveals God as a suffering, vulnerable God.

Such an image of God is as objectionable and foreign to us as it was to Peter. We want an invincible God, a Super God, who shields us from our own vulnerability. That is the God we imitate and worship ~ invincible, self-sufficient, controlling, an all powerful one who shares divine power with us. "Immortal, invincible, God only wise" that is the God we consider worthy of worship, “A Mighty Fortress,” that is a God worthy of emulation. One who promises “Your Best Life Now” is a God worth praising. But strength in weakness, gaining by losing, the power of the cross ~ that still seems foolishness to those who measure strength by Gross National Product and megaton bombs, those devoted to finishing first and those who thrive on power as prominence.

This is God! Only those who follow all the way to the cross know the depth of this God's love, the expanse of this God's presence, the power of this God's purpose! The message is profound. There is One who has moved into our vulnerability, our guilt, our alienation, our suffering, our death. God has claimed our weakness as a resource for divine power. God has claimed our wounds as potential means of healing.
By following a crucified Christ, we can come clean with our own vulnerability. No longer do we have to hide behind a mask of stoic control nor wear the protective armor of vulnerability. We can face our weaknesses, and even share with Paul the assurance that "when I am weak then I am strong." We can take up a cross with the full assurance that One has gone before us and now shares its weight and pain.

We follow, however, as people of hope. We live on the other side of the cross from Peter. The Crucified One is the Risen One. We know who won! The future belongs to the one who went to the cross and left it empty. Those who follow him all the way know the future does not belong to the triumph of suffering, sin and death. It belongs to the reign of Christ over all creation. A new heaven and a new earth are on the way to completion.

When it looks as though sin and suffering and death have the last word, those who follow a crucified Christ know better. They were there on that terrible day when darkness covered the earth. All the evil within us was there. Greed was there. Envy was there. Hate was there. Violence was there. Political expediency was there. Religious bigotry and arrogance was there. Can't you just hear them say as the one without sin bowed his head in death, "Now we got him. We have won." Those who stick around and listen carefully hear another message. "He is risen. He is not here.”
Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

When faced with overwhelming odds -- or just with our own limitations, those who take up their cross and follow Jesus do not lose heart -- because we know that there is a power beyond our limitations, our helplessness our weakness.

It is the power of God to bring life from death, to bring healing from disease, to bring wholeness from our brokenness.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Sassy Savior - 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.”

The story is told of a Quaker minister who was involved in a traffic accident. The other driver was quite angry, and jumped out of his car yelling every obscenity he could think of and calling the Quaker minister every name in the book. He stood there silently as the other driver said things that will not be repeated here. Finally, the man finished, exasperated, perspiring, and worn out. The Quaker minister looked at him for a moment and said, “Sir, I cannot speak to thee as thou hast spoken to me. But I sincerely hope when you arrive home this evening, that your mother runs out from under the porch and bites you.”

There is an art to delivering an insult. My grandfather used to deliver these one-liners and I found myself fascinated by his delivery. Most of his insults had to do with the perceived intelligence of those around him. About a co-worker, he once remarked that the gentleman in question didn’t have enough sense to pound sand down a gopher hole. Or about a particular neighbor, that he wasn’t smart enough to pour water out of a boot with the instructions written on the heel. Or to a claims adjustor from his insurance company, “Sir, I wish to engage you in a battle of wits, but you appear to be unarmed.” The only pity was that most of these people were, in fact, too dim to realize they’d been insulted.

Not so with the woman in today’s text. In the 7th Chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus insults a woman after he tells her he has no time for her. She understands that she has been insulted, but rather than firing one back, she presses on with her original goal still plainly in view. Even in the midst of an insult, something amazing happens. May we pray.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the picture we get of Jesus in this morning’s text. This is not the Jesus I got to know in Sunday School. This Jesus is just a little too earthy for many of our tastes. Whether we know it or not, we have been conditioned to view Jesus in certain ways. On one hand, we know that he was fully human and fully divine. However, we often think of him as being fully human on the outside, and fully divine on the inside. Some sort of divine spark placed into a human body, an everlasting piece of immortality placed into flesh. When we think of Jesus, we think of some inner radiance that seems to always beam out of him like light through stained glass. Jesus never smiles, but always looks sort of ethereal and distant, as if his mind is on great heavenly things for which we mere mortals have no comprehension. And just so we know there’s a divine being living inside that normal-looking body, we always have to put a halo on him. In short, the picture of Jesus that most of us prefer looks a lot like . . . well, this particular window.

One of my favorite cereals to this day remains Frosted Mini Wheats. I love them so much that Kellogg’s should probably send me an endorsement check. On weekday afternoons, I would watch TV (when I was supposed to be doing my homework) with an open box of Frosted Mini Wheats, slowly and deliberately eating the frosting off each delicious little square, carefully laying each square aside, and putting them back in the box when I was finished. The best part was that my sister was always up a bit earlier than I was, and she would have a bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats the next morning. Incidentally, my sister never liked that particular cereal all that well, but could never figure out why.

Do you remember their ad campaign? An adult would be sitting at the table in professional attire eating a bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats. They would look at the camera and say, “The adult in me loves the whole wheat side,” and then the adult would be replaced by a child wearing the same clothes who would say, “But the kid in me loves the frosted side.”

Right now, you’re wondering what this has to do with Jesus and particularly with today’s text, right? I think the way we often think of Jesus is similar to these Frosted Mini Wheats commercials. The commercials indicate that there’s a little kid inside each of us, and the way we portray Jesus is that there was a divine being inside that body. His mind always on things above and slightly disconnected from things on earth even as his body did the things that normal earthly bodies do. In short, even though we understand Jesus to be fully human and fully divine, our portrayals often make him half human and half divine – human on the outside, and divine on the inside.

In today’s text, I think Jesus is just a little too human, a little too raw, a little too earthy for what we want Jesus to be. The whole passage that was read includes two healing stories, and you’ve got to admit, Jesus is pretty earthy, pretty human, pretty fleshy in both of these healing accounts. In the second part of the text, Jesus is spitting, playing in the dirt, and giving the poor deaf guy with a speech impediment a wet willy.

In the first part of the text, Jesus casually hurls a pretty nasty insult at a woman who was only asking for help. Why? Because she wasn’t one of his chosen people, of course. She is a Gentile. She’s an outsider.

She asks Jesus to heal her daughter, and he casts her aside with a wave of his hand and says over his shoulder as he doesn’t even slow down, “It’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, “you’re not a child; you’re a dog.”

I know that many of you have dogs who are like members of your family. Not faulting anyone for that. In fact, on Saturday October 3, we’ll have a service of blessing the animals where we celebrate and remember what all God’s creatures mean to each of us, and offer an individual blessing for each animal. I know many of you love your dogs as if they’re your own children.

I just need you to understand that such a view of dogs would have been completely foreign in the worldview in which today’s text took place. Dogs were not members of the family. Dogs were not beloved pets. Dogs were not cute and adorable and cuddly animals. In the words of Dog Whisperer, Caesar Millan, “It’s a dog.”

In first century Palestine, it was not uncommon for Jews to call non-Jews dogs. It was meant to be an insult. It was a way of saying, “you people who are different than us are really not quite people. You’re not quite human. You’re just the same as the disease-ridden animals who eat the garbage and drink out of the toilet.”

We find Jesus using this very insult when he speaks to the Gentile woman who asks for healing for her daughter. Ouch. We may welcome Jesus’ depiction of Israel as “the children,” but did he have to call this poor, frantic, desperate mother, along with all her people, “the dogs?” Maybe the Gentiles could have instead been cast as “the neighbor kids.”

Not exactly the picture of Jesus we want to hang onto, is it? Jesus the snob? Jesus the racist?

Really, I think the picture is actually one of Jesus the human. Jesus the human who lived at a particular time, lived among a particular people, and may very well have had some of the prejudices and ways of doing that went along with living at a particular time in a particular place. From time to time, I will speak with people of previous generations who use words that no one of my politically-correct generation would ever use – words with racial, ethnic, homophobic, or elitist overtones. I know that people will sometimes use these words and then claim ignorance on how they’re interpreted today or say, “Well, that’s just how I was taught, but I don’t mean anything by it,” and by the way, I’ve just taught you something different so those are words about other people I never expect anyone here to utter in my presence. But, I also understand that there are a small number of folks who may use such terms completely innocently, who really do intend no harm and the last thing they would want would be to insult anyone.

If we keep digging into the context of this particular story, I think that’s exactly what was going on with Jesus. In the Greek, Jesus doesn’t use the same word for dogs that was considered derogatory. He uses a diminutive version of the word, which describes not the wild, filthy, flea-bitten, mangy dogs of the street. The word he uses describes the rare domesticated dogs of the house, beloved puppies, the pets that many of us treat as if they’re children.

Jesus is making a play on words here. He’s not being insulting; he’s being clever. Jesus is not insulting, the fact that he even poses the question to the woman is, in and of itself, a compliment and an olive branch to elevate her to higher standing than a first century male Palestinian Jew would offer a Greek woman. Back then, much as today, the Greeks loved conversation, mental sparring, friendly debate, and vigorous banter. But even more than that, back then, men did not discuss theological issues with women. Women were regarded as inferior, as mindless, as things to be owned, used, and discarded.

So when Jesus asks her this philosophical question, he is actually honoring her. He is engaging her in a style of discourse loved and prized by her culture. He is treating her as being on the same playing field as a worthy mental adversary. He is a man, asking her a theological and philosophical question on her very own turf. The very fact that he engages her on her own turf is proof positive that Jesus was not being insulting.

Skillfully, she rises to the challenge. With great grace she says, “Sir, I concede your point. The children are, indeed, fed first. But even if I am a dog as you playfully assert, what is the reason why I can’t have the crumbs the children throw away under the table?”

She was, in a word, charming. She painted herself out of the corner Jesus had backed her into, handed him the paintbrush and said, “What else ya got?” Jesus grinned, knowing that she had just declared “Checkmate” in this verbal chess game, and you know what? Jesus was impressed. Jesus was impressed by the depth of her conviction, by the strength of her love, and by her willingness to endure a little gentle ribbing if it meant she might get what she needed for her daughter. Jesus laughed and said, “You got me. And by the way, your daughter is well.”

And in that, we see a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Even when we have our prejudices, even when we have our pre-conceived notions of how the world should work, even when we have correctly identified those whom we perceive to be favored by God, God’s grace is still larger.

Even when we play favorites, God is at work in the lives of those we don’t like, those we insult, those we perceive to inferior to be ourselves. This is where the kingdom of God shows itself to a complete reversal of the kingdoms of this world. The kingdoms of this world are built on the concept of scarcity. Think about it. We’ve all been told that there’s only so much of anything and everything, and the result is that we find ourselves in a constant competition with every other person around us. I was starting to search for airline tickets for a trip to Kansas City next month, and the search engine reminded me that there are “only four tickets left at this price!” There are only so many spaces in the entering freshman class. There are only so many good jobs in this field. There are only so many lakefront lots left. There are only so many fish in the sea. There is only so much oil, or so much money, or you get the picture.

The governments of the world love war so much because they have bought into the idea of scarcity. Everyone is trying to look out for their own interests, make sure their own needs are met, “I’m looking out for #1 and I don’t care what happens to the rest of you!” Nations go to war with each other, neighbors feud, students cheat, we hurl insults and slurs about anything we don’t like about another person or group of people, family members stop speaking to each other, and religious groups argue about which one of them is actually the most favored by God because of one thing – we’ve all bought into the lie of scarcity upon which the economies of the world are based.

But there is an alternative, and Jesus gives us a glimpse of it in today’s text. In the economy of God’s kingdom, even the dogs under the table get the table scraps, and it is enough to meet their needs. There is enough. Even those we’ve excluded from the table, even those we’ve treated as dogs, even those we are convinced are less than human, find enough of the bread of God’s grace and love to meet their needs. Even when we show favoritism and bar the door to the banquet hall, even when we are exclusive and narrow-minded and judgmental, God still finds a way to feed the very ones we’ve tried to leave out. If that’s not a definition of grace in the kingdom of God, I don’t know what is.

So my question for us this morning is this: if God is going to take care of everyone anyway, why don’t we just set a few more seats at the table and invite them to the banquet? The kingdom of God is often likened to a great feast, and before us today, a foretaste of the feast has been set. Every time we gather at this table to break this bread and receive from this cup, we participate in a sign of the kingdom of God. We commune with our risen Lord at this table, but we also commune with each other – with God’s people of all times and places, of all races and colors, of all economic backgrounds, of all lifestyles and ways of thinking, believing, and doing, even the ones we think don’t belong at the table in the first place.

When you come today and every time I serve you communion, you’ll receive a big piece of bread, because this is a meal of God’s kingdom. This is a meal of the abundance of God’s kingdom, not a meager meal to remind us of the scarcity the world wants us to believe in. Every time you participate in this meal, whether it is celebrated at this table or somewhere else, you are participating in a countercultural and subversive act. Every time you participate in this meal, you are declaring your conviction that God’s grace is abundant, and that there is more than enough of it to go around.

She only asked for crumbs. Jesus gave her a seat at the banquet instead.