September 2009 Sermons:
Did you know there was a story like this in the Bible? The first time I read it, I was shocked at what Jesus said to this woman. Did you think Jesus was kind to everyone He met? I thought so. But, apparently, He wasn’t.
In today’s gospel reading, a woman from the other side of the tracks begs Jesus to heal her daughter. This conversation shocks me. At first, He’s downright rude to the woman. He even calls her a dog. Imagine Jesus, insulting somebody that way! We hope He’s kidding—but of course, we can’t see Him or hear His voice.
Jewish people from the time of Jesus would have understood this conversation. Jesus is living up to His role as the traditional rabbi. What He says is politically correct, for that time and place. It’s the kind of thing He’s been taught to say. The Syrophoenician woman isn’t one of God’s chosen people—according to the Old Testament. The Israelites of Jesus’ time believed that Jews were children of God, and Gentiles like this woman were no better than dogs. That’s why He calls her a dog! In this story, when Jesus and the woman talk about the bread crumbs, and they’re talking about a symbol of the grace of God. And clearly He means that she and her kind will get God’s leftovers.
Let’s look at this troubling passage from Jesus’ point-of-view. He is out of town on vacation at a friend’s house. He’s not even out in public. Jesus is trying to hide, away from Galilee, so He can get some rest. This woman has marched up to Him and asked for a favor. And, with a rabbi, that was never done! One doesn’t just drop in on religious leaders when they are on vacation. A woman, visiting Him alone—that’s even more daring. Like a homeless person breaking into the Oval Office.
The woman is from the country north of Israel, where Lebanon is today. If you, yourself, are from Israel, a person from Lebanon is your enemy. That was true then, just as it’s true now. And it’s not so much that He looks down on her people. Jesus just has no time for the likes of her. He knows His lifetime in ministry will be short. He has to focus on His Jewish brothers and sisters, while He is still around. Jesus is supposed to be letting the Jews know that their deliverance is at hand—not converting the whole world to His beliefs.
Not only is this Syrophoenician woman a pagan, but she also seems to have a daughter with an unclean spirit. Jesus’s people believed that a person tormented by demons was being punished by God. The woman is pushy--and a loser, in every way. If it were up to the disciples, they would tell her to go away, and have done with it. But she persists in asking Jesus for help. And He listens to her.
The real surprise in this story is that Jesus takes a second look at the Syrophoenician woman. He can see, and hear, how much she cares about her daughter. He admires her spirit, and He seems to like her witty answer to His insult. She says to Him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs!” She doesn’t even mind being called a dog, if it gets her child some help. He sees that she wants, in the worst way, for her child to be healed. Then, Jesus changes His mind. He takes action in a way no Pharisee would even dream of doing. He grants the wish of the Syrophoenician woman and heals her daughter. And she responds to Him with faith.
In this story, Jesus shows He wants to learn. Learning is not only part of our lifelong journey, but it’s also part of God’s journey in relationship with us. In our lifetimes, we should never stop learning. Do you remember when you were a new parent? You hadn’t yet learned how to be an effective parent. You have to learn as you go. My mom said every child was a little easier, because she and my dad had learned so much from parenting the first two.
This gospel story shows Jesus learning to care for ALL people. As a rabbi, He’s been caught up in the traditions of the Old Testament. He is entitled to change those traditions –after all, He’s the Son of God. How did the King of the Jews learn He could save the whole world? By talking with people like the Syrophoenician woman, and hearing what they had to say.
Was Jesus ready to be the Son of God as He lay in the manger in Bethlehem? I doubt it. Did you ever realize that it might have taken Him some time to learn be the Christ? He had to learn His job, just like we all do. It has taken me almost ten years to learn to be a pastor, maybe even forty or fifty years of my life. It takes a lifetime for all of us to learn to be good Christians.
This woman is so different from Jesus. But He can’t help admiring her persistence. He sees her need, and He reaches out in compassion. Jesus stops trying to justify Himself. And, by giving in to her demand, He gets good practice in loving his neighbor as Himself.
Did you ever know Jesus to lose an argument? He does, in this passage—and what a gracious loser He is! At the same time, Jesus wins because He learns how to lose. Whoever we are, human or divine, or, as in the case of Jesus, both-- we need to learn and grow. We can’t afford to be narrow-minded in what we believe.
The church year begins in September, in a way, when everyone comes back from their summer vacations—even though the liturgical calendar officially begins with Advent, and the budget year in this church begins in January. What do you hope to learn this year? How will you try to grow?
Learning isn’t only for Sunday School children. Lifelong learning is part of the adventure of being alive. We have some lifelong learners in our congregation. Just to name a couple of them -- Dr. John Wheeler is taking an ornithology class for credit at Muhlenberg. Ornithology is the study of birds. My husband is taking a course in art history at Kutztown. They may be the oldest students on their respective campuses. The things we need, to learn, or our “learning edges,” are sometimes the places where we can most easily find God with us. If we were already perfect, there’d be nothing new to learn!
As we gather here for the Lord’s Supper, who are we missing from the table? After all, this is the Lord’s Table. It’s for all God’s people. Jesus means for us to know that everybody is welcome at the table of God.
LET US PRAY. God of love and grace, we aren’t yet all that we can be, or all that we are meant to be. Use these autumn days to raise our spirits, so that we move along in the journey. May we receive the lesson you are trying to teach us today and become more whole. Amen.
Lectern Resource, September 10, 2006, 36.
Douglas A.R. Hare, Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 1996, 86.
M. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 139.
Jesus Meister,” Homiletics, September 2006, 17.
Peter is the first disciple to figure it out. He says to Jesus, "Now I know who you are. You are the Messiah!" He’s right, of course. But Jesus is wise, and He already had figured Peter out.
Peter likes important people. We all do. Do you have a story about how you once met a famous person in an elevator? Do you have photos or letters from celebrities? We treasure those things. My parents sat next to Eleanor Roosevelt in a movie theater on their honeymoon. I will never hear the end of that story.
In Peter’s mind, “Messiah” is the name for the true King of Israel—the one who will be coming to rebuild the Temple and restore the Jews to glory. Jesus knows that Peter won’t want to be the best friend of a criminal. Peter likes to win. In the early part of Jesus’ ministry, Peter has enjoyed the glory, the crowds, and the miracles. Now the fun of being the follower of Galilee’s greatest celebrity is over. It’s time to head for Jerusalem, where the hardships will begin. The time is here, for Jesus to tell Peter and the other disciples what’s going to happen to their Messiah. Jesus decides He had better do it swiftly and secretly.
And so Jesus tells them. That’s when Peter rebels. He says to Jesus, "Look, I recognize you as the One from God. But I’m not going to stand here and listen to you talk about being killed. That’s no way for our Messiah to talk." Jesus has to tell His friend that He, not Peter, is the best judge of the way the Messiah should talk and act.
Jesus knows about temptation. During His forty days in the wilderness, Jesus had been tempted. He had said “no” to the Devil’s brand of power—an offer to be King of the world in exchange for turning away from God. In the same way, Jesus says “no” to Peter now. Because Peter’s words remind Him of His own earlier temptation, Jesus says to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus is not talking to Peter when He says this. He’s challenging the spirit of evil in the world. But, still--imagine Peter’s shock when He is rebuked—he, the leader and the bravest of the twelve, and Jesus’ best friend. Poor Peter. He had thought He had it all figured out.
Jesus explains to the disciples that they will be walking into danger as they head south. As their leader, He will face certain death. "If you really want to be my followers, you’re going to have to deny yourself the pleasure of avoiding pain. You’re going to have to take up your own cross and follow me,” Jesus says.
Because we are familiar with the cross and we know how the story turns out, we have a BIG advantage over Peter. We have heard about the cost of discipleship—you have to risk being a loser, in eyes of the world, in order to win. Jesus gave up His life as a gift of love to us. And that’s what taking up a cross is. It’s not diabetes. It’s not being laid off from your job. It’s not a difficult mother-in-law. People look at the hard things in their lives and say, "It’s just my cross to bear, I guess." Those things may be hard to deal with, but they’re not crosses.
When Jesus talked about crosses, he was talking about love. He was talking about carrying the burdens of others, out of love. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others who have made the supreme sacrifice for love of their people, come to mind. Few of us are likely to die for a noble cause, with the exception of those of you who serve in the armed forces. We were reminded, a few days ago, of the men and women who gave their lives on September 11, eight years ago—at the World Trade Center, and over Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I’m speaking of the brave people who risked everything to save others. That, in my mind, comes pretty close to bearing the cross.
Because Jesus died as a common criminal, many regarded Him as a failure of the worst kind. According to the Roman officials, He was a loser, but not according to God. A life of unshakeable faith—this was Jesus’ idea of the life of a winner.
We’ve all met a few people with unshakeable faith. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, met a whole congregation of them. When Wesley was sailing from England to Georgia in 1735, his ship ran into a storm. In those days, ships were small and wooden, and very fragile. It’s a miracle that some of them made it across the Atlantic. As Wesley records in his journal, during the storm, the sea broke over the ship, and it split the sail. You can imagine how frightened the passengers were. All the English people aboard the ship were screaming. But Wesley noticed that the German Moravian passengers didn’t panic. They seemed ready to die, if it was God’s will. Every single one of them remained calm as they faced death.
Wesley was impressed. He asked them how they managed to demonstrate their faith in God so well. Their leader answered, "If you act like you have faith, and behave like you have faith, in time you will have faith." What the Moravians were saying, was that faith is not just something that people have; instead, faith is something people DO. We need to model faith for the people around us. When we have enough faith to show courage under fire, we move closer to God. By the way, all those Moravians survived and made it to America.
How do we measure success? Jesus preached a measure of winning that had nothing to do with money or power or prestige. Instead of promising his followers they would always be "winners," he insisted they must learn to live with being seen as "losers." He asked each of them, "What can you give in return for your life?"
Was Jesus a winner? He lived in a small town, and His message was confined to a small group of people. His disciples were slow to learn. When He was arrested, they abandoned Him and ran for cover. He so angered the religious and political powers of Jerusalem that He was executed. Is this a success story?
Yes. Jesus was a success. His mind and heart were faithful to God’s plan. That plan called for Jesus to obey God, in order to save us. Jesus made a personal sacrifice for the sake of the whole world. He didn’t care if He looked like the biggest loser on earth.
Here’s what Fred Craddock, a famous Presbyterian preacher, thinks it means to lose your life, in order to save it: "I think it means to be willing to empty your pockets for somebody else’s children. I think it means to treat, as father and mother, those who are not really your mother and father. I think it means to claim, as brother and sister, people to whom you are not kin. I think it means to reach out and touch untouchable people. I think it means to sit at table with people who live far outside the social circle of some of our friends. It means to witness to Jesus Christ when evangelism is being laughed at everywhere. It means...to speak the gospel as though something were at stake."
LET US PRAY. Teach us, O Lord, the meaning of the cross and resurrection. Give us the courage to be your disciples by offering ourselves to you. We pray this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. AMEN
Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 108.
Paraphrase of Mark 8:34.
Caleb Thomas Winchester, The Life of John Wesley (London: Macmillan, 1906), 43.
Fred Craddock, “The Last Temptation of the Church,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin (November 1989), 198.
After you’re gone from this earth, how do you want to be remembered? Would you like a stained glass window in our church with your name on it? Maybe you would like your obituary to appear in the New York Times. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you. And maybe you don’t want to think about it at all. God doesn’t measure our success by how famous we are--but by how far we will go, to serve others in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ. That’s the lesson of Mark’s gospel.
Not many library desk supervisors will go down in history. My friend Myrtle, with whom I worked in the nineteen seventies, retired more than thirty years ago. She was a little younger than my mother, so she’d be in her nineties now. She’s remembered in the New Jersey library community for a blessing she received, out of the blue.
There was a scruffy, unshaven man who came into our library every morning. Each weekday, Myrtle came in an hour early, so she could stamp the date due cards at the front desk and empty the book drop. She would let him in a half hour early, so he could be the first person to read the Wall Street Journal. At nine a.m., when the doors opened officially, he would always leave. The man wore a shabby red lumber jacket, even in warm weather. He never borrowed any books, so the library staff didn’t know who he was or where he came from. We thought he was homeless.
After awhile, the man stopped coming in and nobody ever saw him again. But that’s not the end of the story! A year or so later, Myrtle got a letter addressed to her at the library. The man in the red lumber jacket had died suddenly. He had left Myrtle a very large inheritance, in gratitude for her kindness to him. Myrtle was able to buy a condo and retire to Florida with the fortune he had passed on to her. Myrtle helped people because it was her job. She was as helpful to the scruffy man as she was to the mayor and the library trustees. She never expected a reward.
In Mark’s gospel story for today, Jesus has caught the disciples arguing about who is the greatest. How does Jesus respond? He has NO interest in ranking His followers—even though the disciples are pressuring Him to do that. It’s human nature to set up pecking orders. It’s easy and fun to make lists of the best, and it seems to sell magazines and newspapers too. We want to know the “top ten” dentists, hospitals, vacuum cleaners, bestselling books, colleges, restaurants for this year.
In the gospels Jesus cares nothing for status. And yet, He doesn’t scold the disciples for being ambitious. Instead, He takes advantage of this teaching moment, as they walk to Jerusalem. He tells them, "If you want to be first, then you must be last of all and servant of all." Imagine the expression on the disciples’ faces when Jesus says this. They have used up so much energy, competing with each other. They must feel embarrassed.
Do you remember the Smothers Brothers’ comedy routine from the sixties? Tom and Dick Smothers made a joke of sibling rivalry. We laughed at them because they acted like us, in our most selfish moments. Tom would interrupt Dick to complain, “Mom always liked you best.” Tom was funny, but he acted pretty childishly for an adult. Dick was the straight man and acted annoyed. And somehow they always got through every folk song they sang.
In our story for today, Jesus shows the disciples what Christian leadership looks like. He picks up a little child and puts her on His lap. Why do you think he chooses a child? To stand for the people who had no power! Children in Jesus’ time were socially invisible. They were treated quite differently from children of our time. Children had to depend on adults to take care of them, because they had no legal rights. Only slaves were lower than children in the social hierarchy of the ancient Near East. This was true, even of long-awaited first-born sons, who carried the family inheritance. A child was a child, and that means he or she was nobody.
Jesus tells His disciples to welcome children. He doesn’t say to merely tolerate them, or to give them what they need. He tells His followers to serve the powerless of the world, as if they are welcoming Him and God His Father. And that includes children.
Whenever we apply the "winning ethic" of our society so we can feel superior to other people, we look as silly as Tommy Smothers in his worst moments. People who compete with others for status, end up disappointed and estranged from people they love. Jesus advocates a new kind of "winning ethic.” Mark describes this ethic with the Greek word, diakonos. It means, "servant." The church’s word for the ordained office for caring, “deacon,” comes from diakonos. It’s not hard to imagine that Mark was seeing people in his early Roman church jockeying for prestige.
I heard a story recently that came out of the Special Olympics. It’s about a caring community of competitors. It seems that one of the runners in a race tripped. The other contestants didn’t ignore him and go running on. They stopped and went back. Two of them picked up the competitor who had fallen. Then all of them ran together to the finish. Everyone made it across. That’s teamwork. And teamwork was all that mattered to any of them.
Jesus tells His followers that everyone has worth—a child, a leper, a beggar, a homeless person. Each one is a child of God! To be persons of faith, to accept Christ, means to accept others who haven’t achieved the level of greatness that we’ve achieved.
Jesus turns our understanding of winning upside down. "To be first, is to be last." Life isn’t a contest. It’s a journey. It isn’t about coming out on top. It’s about love. The "winning ethic" of Jesus calls for teamwork. Everyone has a voice, and everyone has value and worth. That’s what a Christian family, church and society should look like.
There’s a true story I like, about a child and his mother. It’s a teaching moment Jesus might have appreciated. A ten-year-old boy came home one day from school and asked his mom for some cans from the pantry in the kitchen. His class was collecting canned goods to put in a food bank. She encouraged him to take as many cans of food as he wanted. He grabbed the cans of spinach and beets and sauerkraut and put them in the bag. Guess why? Those were the vegetables he didn’t like to eat. His mother caught on to what he was doing. She didn’t scold him, but she added Spaghetti-O’s to the pile. He was not pleased! He LIKED Spaghetti-O’s and wanted to keep them in the pantry. His mother patiently explained to him that servants of God sacrifice treasures they want, not just things they don’t want.
We are baptizing a very young disciple today. Landon Jurgen Brungard’s parents and sponsors promise to teach their little boy the way to live as a Christian. Our church family promises to help Ashley and Tony and Gary and Taylor to teach this little boy to be a winner— in the way of Jesus, not in the way of our society.
In the modern world, we think that if we are successful and famous, we will be supremely happy. But Jesus tells us, in the Gospel of Mark, that God’s heavenly kingdom belongs to every little child. We welcome you to the kingdom of God, Landon.
LET US PRAY. Almighty God, show us your way. Lift our vision up to eternity. Help us to see your purposes being worked out among us. Help us to set aside our own importance, and live lives that are to your glory. Not to our glory, but to your glory. AMEN
M. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 149.
“Tall Tales,” Homiletics, September 2006, 32.
Stephany Jackson, “Called to Be Servants,” Presbyterians Today, April 2009, 17-19.
David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit, Year B (Lima, OH: CSS, 2007), 235.
"Tall Tales,” Homiletics, September 2006, 33.
Once upon a time, there was a king. He ruled the world from India to East Africa. The king decided he wanted a queen. So he ordered hundreds of beautiful women to come to the palace. He wanted the most beautiful woman in the kingdom to be his wife. He chose Esther to be queen.
Esther was a Jewish orphan. The King didn’t know this. She and her uncle Mordecai lived in the Persian Empire as exiles. Their ancestors had been banished from Jerusalem hundreds of years before. Persia was the most powerful empire in the Middle East, in the fourth century B.C. When the King announced he had chosen Esther, Mordecai told his niece to accept the King’s marriage proposal. Esther had no choice. She said yes.
Now we come to the villain of our story. Haman was the chief advisor to the king. This wicked man wanted to kill all the Jews in Persia. He had no idea that his new queen was Jewish. Haman slithered up to the king and said, “Dear King, I have discovered that a certain ethnic group thinks it is above your laws. Allow me to help you. Give me permission to wipe them out.” The King obligingly told Haman to kill the Jews.
The Jews were horrified. The queen’s uncle had been the first to hear rumors about what was going to happen to their people. He begged Esther to help. Esther reminded her uncle that she would be taking a risk in challenging the King’s order. The evil Haman was powerful at court. The King had never asked for the queen’s opinion. After all, Esther was just a woman! But Mordecai insisted that she plead the cause of the Jews at court. “Who knows?” he asked Esther. “Maybe you have been put in the palace for such a time as this?”
Esther lay awake, worrying, for three nights. She was only a teenager, and had never faced danger before. Finally she agreed to risk her life to beg the King for mercy. But first, she reached out to the Jews to help her. The young queen asked all of them to pray and fast for three days, so that she might find the courage to plead for her people.
Esther entered the throne room, uninvited. “Dear King,” she asked, “please grant me one favor.” “Name it!” the King answered. Apparently, she had caught him in a good mood. “Would you and your trusted advisor, Haman, do me the honor of attending a private dinner which I will prepare for you?”
Haman happened to be standing beside the King. He was so proud to be included in the royal couple’s dinner plans! Esther spent the whole next day, wondering how she was going to bring up the subject of Haman’s plot. Somehow, it just never came up. The meal ended being just that—a dinner, and no confrontation. Esther was simply too afraid to broach the subject of Haman’s plot against the Jews with the King.
At the end of the evening, Esther invited the two men to dinner the next night. Would the King and Haman come? They agreed. The next night at dinner, the King was impatient to find out what she had up her sleeve. He blurted out, “Esther, you are a great queen. Tell me what would make you happy.” It was now or never. Esther got up the courage to tell him. “Dear King, there is an evil man who wants to kill me. Let me and my people live. That’s all I ask!”
The King was horrified. “Tell me who this evil scoundrel is!” he demanded of Esther. And she pointed to Haman, who was sitting there at the dinner table. Haman was the one who had persuaded the King to approve an edict to kill the Jews. The king ordered him to be executed, right then and there. And that’s how the people of Israel were saved.
I chose this story for today, because two Jewish holidays happen in late September—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And, in addition, the Jewish holiday of Purim, in early spring, celebrates Esther’s courage. Esther also happens to be a great story. But you need to know that the name of God is never mentioned in the book. That’s one of the reasons Esther hasn’t made any “top ten” list of Biblical books. In fact, Martin Luther didn’t think Esther should be in the Old Testament at all.
What Esther does in this story isn’t spectacular. She manages to persuade her husband to change his mind. Most of the good deeds God calls us to do in this world are not spectacular. We may just happen to be in the right place at the right time, like Esther was.
Ordinary people are a powerful force for good in this world. People like us can accomplish great things! We may never be in a position like Esther’s, but God still calls us to holiness. Doing good for others is a holy thing.
Esther lived four hundred years before Jesus was born. In her story, we find some of the qualities we later find in Jesus, the man. Jesus was God. But in His short life as a human being, He never set out to be a hero or a martyr. And yet, doing God’s will put Him at grave risk. He put God before the Roman Empire. Willingly, Jesus disobeyed the political and religious powers of His day. We love the sweet stories of Jesus, but today’s passage from Mark is not a nice story.
In today’s Gospel story, the disciples single out a man who isn’t one of them. This man is an exorcist. He is performing miracles in the name of Jesus. The disciples want to get rid of him, but Jesus tells them to leave him alone. Jesus is not gentle, meek or mild in this passage. In fact, He speaks some of the toughest words in the Bible.
Jesus gives the disciples a strong message here. As leaders, they will need to lead in a new and different way after He has left them. Their need to control and their arrogance will have to go. Either they stand on the Rock of God, or they will have to wear it around their necks! Jesus calls us to stand upon that Rock, too.
Jesus tells the disciples that they will be “salted with fire” by God. What does this mean? In ancient times, salt was used to preserve meat and leather. People got paid in salt instead of money. In fact, Roman soldiers were paid in salt rations rather than coins. Being a salty Christian means putting others first—as Esther did, and as Jesus did four hundred years after her. Jesus held his followers to a high standard of accountability. He meant they would have to be a little easier on others who are new to the Christian faith, and a little harder on themselves.
What does “saltiness” mean for us today? Living as a faithful Christian can give a person a salt-like sharpness. Being part of a congregation may require giving up safety or status for the good of others. Saltiness might mean going to soup kitchens or homeless shelters or poor neighborhoods to help people in need. I sometimes forget how hard it is for people to visit nursing homes because I do it often, but it isn’t always easy. And yet the patients in nursing homes and hospitals need to see us. In addition to caring ministry, saltiness might mean better control of our emotions and our words. It might mean speaking the truth to secular power. That’s what Jesus is talking about when He tells His disciples they are the salt of the earth. How will you be salt to the world?
LET US PRAY. Gracious God, make us willing, whatever the risks, to be used by you, for your purpose and your glory. In Jesus’ name we pray. AMEN
Bruce Feiler, When God Was Born (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 331.
Frederic W. Bush, “The Book of Esther: Opus non gratum in the Christian Canon,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 8 (1998): 39-54.
Mark 9: 49.
Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 956.
Sharon H. Ringe, “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 9:38-50,” Feasting on the Word, Vol. 4 Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 121.
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