“BACK TO CHURCH SUNDAY”
The famous astronaut Neil Armstrong died on August 25. He immortalized his first step onto the surface of the moon with the words: “That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” Sometimes a step can be momentous. Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church, in his book Just Walk Across the Room, encourages Christians to believe that just by walking across a room, and connecting with another person, we can make an enormous impact, simply by taking a genuine interest in them.
Back to Church Sunday challenges us to step out of our comfort zone and to connect with someone we know about something we believe in – something that is important to us – but taking that step may feel like something much bigger – like stepping off a cliff or out of an airplane.
It’s more difficult to invite someone to your church than to your home. As Jerry Seinfeld said: “That’s a pretty big Matzo ball hanging out there.” Church represents a different dimension of who we are – in some ways it’s more intimate, more revealing, because it provides an insight into a deep and vulnerable aspect of who we are, and what makes us tick.
Back to Church is about going to the edge and beyond – it’s a challenge to go beyond the status quo and connect with those who are out there beyond our doors, outside the usual boundaries, to try to create some new connections and establish relationships, perhaps a lifeline, that works both ways, bringing blessing to us as well as to “them.”
Today’s Gospel provides an insight and illustration about connecting beyond our comfort zone. In today’s Gospel (from Mark 7) we see Jesus stepping well outside the boundaries of the First Century culture and religion in which he was raised.
For some reason (it doesn’t say) he decides to go to “the coast,” into foreign territory, maybe just for a break and a chance to see the ocean; it might have been an escape from danger; it could have been part of an intentional plan to explore a new culture and experience different people. It doesn’t say why (perhaps we are meant to speculate), but it was a considerable journey to make – about a 50–70 km walk through some fairly difficult terrain.
And in that foreign place, the Gospel describes one of the most unusual encounters, in which Jesus seems to get bested in an argument with a woman (which is really not that unusual an experience for a man), but also to be forced to change his mind about the nature of his own mission and purpose.
The woman appeals to Jesus that her daughter needs to be released – rescued – healed. Any mother would do the same. But Jesus appears to be aloof, indifferent, and insensitive. She’s on her knees, begging him, and the best he can come up with is: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In what appears to be a rather glib response, Jesus states what would have been the prevailing wisdom, which was based on the idea that Canaanites were suspect and inferior, and therefore Jesus, as a young spiritual leader, had no responsibility for these people.
“Let the children be fed first, for it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “Dogs” was a term used by Jews when referring to people who were Gentiles or non-Jews. Such a comment, applied today, would immediately be identified as racist, abusive, and way beyond politically incorrect; applied to a suffering child, the comment is incredibly offensive.
For the woman, this isn’t just about rules and regulations – this isn’t an academic and theoretical debate about theology. Her daughter’s life is at stake. She doesn’t care at all about the protocols and red tape that Jesus seems to be talking about. There is a certain economy of text in the Gospels, so you have to speculate a bit about what the entire dialogue might have consisted of, but clearly she broke through the smug self-certainty he appeared to have had at the beginning of the encounter.
She got his attention by saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Even if she is a “dog” (a terrible way to refer to another human being), even if she doesn’t have the exalted place at God’s table that the Jews believe they are entitled to, she makes Jesus aware that even dogs are deserving of some consideration and respect.
It’s as if she says: Are you a man of God, or just another institutional hack spouting the party line? The woman, it is implied, becomes his teacher. We often think of mission and ministry in one way terms, rather condescendingly, with little sense that it is much more of a mutual thing in which both partners are potentially transformed. This woman is portrayed as causing Jesus to see the work of God in much larger terms – to see others as fellow human beings rather than as Jew and Gentile, Us and Them. This is the Way of Christ and even Jesus has to learn it. It’s not good enough to dismiss another person with the justification that they don’t belong to the club, so the woman’s stand, as Mark chooses to convey it, teaches Jesus that God’s work can’t be put in the same category as membership at Costco or something of that nature.
She breaks through the entrenched antagonism and separation and all the justifications that go with it and gets Jesus to hear her and to sympathize, to feel her pain, to see her situation. Like the Arab woman who was weeping as she watched the news, seeing yet another group of women mourning the loss of their children in yet another military conflict, and then realizing that the women she was sympathizing with were Jewish women – not Muslims, as she had assumed. Realizing how similar their circumstances were, and stunned by the fact that she couldn’t distinguish Muslim from Israeli by appearance, her views on the situation were transformed and she now works for peace between the two countries.
So what happens? Jesus puts it out there – he states the prevailing condition – he states the law, which has the authority of scripture and has been upheld for centuries in Judaism, but then he goes ahead and breaks the law – disobeys the clear scriptural sanctions against Canaanites and brings healing to the child. And it seems that Mark is suggesting that somehow this is the key to the healing of the world.
Whether Jesus was humbled into admitting he was wrong, or purposely played the situation out to reveal how hypocritical and narrow the old religious rules were, the upshot was that the prevailing wisdom wasn’t good enough – the usual answers and formulas fell short. A new approach was needed, one which took into account the needs of those outside the usual concept of religious membership and racial affinity.
Each of us arrives at moments in our lives when we realize that our old way of looking at things is just not going to work in this new situation, and we have to be humble enough to acknowledge the limitations in our current perspective, to be able to respect the other, and to expand our vision to be able to create a bigger sense of community.
Today’s Gospel involves the healing of a Canaanite child and a deaf and dumb man. Think about why it was necessary to release from the designation of “demonic” a child of another faith and race. Think about why it was important to hear the voice of another foreigner, another outsider — the deaf and dumb man from Galilee. Too often, we demonize people we know nothing about – too often we refuse to hear voices because we don’t comprehend what they’re saying. From Mark’s point of view, what is implied here is that we tend to close out those realities – those voices – those people – and the Gospel says that we have to see them – we have to hear them – listen to them – and connect with them. We have to include them within the scope of what God is doing in the world.
The Gospel portrays a world expanding beyond the confines of tribal religion and culture, and of Jesus representing the vanguard of God’s care and compassion to the world. Even Jesus appeared reluctant to take that first step, but he was not complete until he took that step outside the usual. Even Jesus kept growing and finding new edges. As the early Church began its process of rapid expansion, that was exactly the attitude they needed to adopt as they left behind the religion and culture in which they were raised.
“Back to church Sunday” for me means not merely to make a token visit to a church building – not merely to return to where you were — but to engage Christianity as a spiritual journey – one that is meant to take you places you have not been – to give yourself permission to go with Christ on that journey that takes us into new territory – into new ways of thinking and relating. It means going back to a meaningful sense of what “church” is about.
For St John’s as a community, we might ask what barriers do we need to break through in order to be a more life-giving and supportive community? How can we be more open and helpful to those coming to us seeking meaning and spiritual direction? What can we do to be coming closer in faith to the pressing issues and questions of our day?
In the awkward scene between Jesus and a desperate woman from another world, we can recognize ourselves as we make contact with people and situations we don’t know or understand and try to find ways to expand our vision so that it might include them.
Whether or not we were successful in inviting someone for “Back to Church Sunday, we are still encouraged to think of the church as more than a special club – to see it as an instrument and expression of God’s compassion for the whole world.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Proverbs 22:1-9 A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.
The clever see danger and hide; but the simple go on, and suffer for it. The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life. Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse; the cautious will keep far from them. Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray. The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. 8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.
Psalm 146 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long. Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!
Acts 2: 42—47 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.44All who believed were together and had all things in common;45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need.46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts,47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
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.”