The text is Mark 7:1-8; 24-30. Jesus’ challenging the Pharisees & scribes and his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. You can read a bit more in depth about the story I refer to in my sermon – a true story – here. It’s a good one!
So, what did you expect when you showed up to worship this morning? Are you hoping to learn something about God and Jesus, maybe gain a deeper understanding of faith or theology? Or perhaps you came, expecting a good hour of Lutheran worship, celebrated in word and sacrament. Or maybe you came, expecting to see familiar faces, friends…..your church “family?”
Last summer, Willie Lyle, a United Methodist pastor in Clarksville, Tennessee had, in his words, “a visit from God” in a dream in which God told him to live as a homeless man for a week. The Willie wrestled with the dream for awhile – he just started serving as pastor to the congregation, and was unsure of how this would come across – but he came to the conclusion that he had to follow through with it. And so, starting on a Monday, he had his wife drop him off downtown and he lived as a homeless person for 4 days. He described the experience as “uncomfortable.” The realities of trying to find both food and shelter was difficult and challenging.
But Pastor Willie found something even more “uncomfortable” in his experience of being homeless. “Generally speaking, people are not kind to the homeless.”
Friday, his wife picked him up from downtown – unclean and scraggly looking – like a homeless man. But it’s what happened on Sunday….was unexpected.
Pastor Lyle got to church extra early that Sunday morning….and he went and laid next to a big tree in the front yard of the church, and covered himself up with a big coat. Of the couple hundred people who come to worship each week, only about 20 came and spoke to him or offered any assistance. During worship, completely unexpected to all but 4 people who he informed beforehand, Pastor Willie delivered a sermon, still scraggly and dirty. While he preached, his daughter-in-law cut off his beard. He took off his “homeless” clothes….revealing underneath his “Sunday clothes.” He put on his suit and tie, and there he stood – the new pastor of this congregation. He said, “Too many of us only want to serve God one hour a week. That doesn’t cut it. That’s not God’s plan.”
Needless to say, this unexpected twist got the attention of the congregation. And it made some uncomfortable.
Today’s text is an interesting one. It’s interesting because in the first part of the text, Jesus debates with the scribes and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites, because their actions didn’t match what was really in their hearts. Jesus calls them out…because their insistence on following the laws and traditions had less to do with loving God and neighbor and more about their own self-righteousness.
But then, this Syrophonenician woman, a Gentile, comes to Jesus…and the scripture says, “she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” And Jesus’ response? He calls her a dog, and initially, rejects her request. And while he eventually fulfills her request and heals her daughter, his final response is less than caring or compassionate – “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
Not “Go, your faith has saved your daughter.” Not “You have answered rightly…..your faith has saved your daughter.” Jesus dismisses her and rewards her for her response – sort of how you might treat your dog if you’re trying to teach it obedience.
In Mark’s gospel, more than any other, we see a very HUMAN Jesus. A Jesus who suffers, who is anxious, who doesn’t seem to know that the cross is in his future. And here we see a Jesus who is all for engaging in debates about the law and theology, but when it comes right down to responding to this woman’s need, her begging – when it comes to ministering compassionately to this woman – there’s a lot of room for improvement.
That brings me back to the question of expectation. I identify with Pastor Lyle, and I identify with both Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in this story today. It’s been about 6 months with you all, and I’ve learned a lot and seen a lot in the way you understand what it means to be church.
And I feel like Pastor Lyle because there are things about your notions that make me uncomfortable. I think about this gospel of Jesus Christ and God’s call to love God and love and serve our neighbor and in some ways, I’m uncomfortable with some of the attitudes and ways that’s it is and is not being lived out in our congregation. When I see folks in the neighborhoods around our churches, I think…..we could do better. We need to do better. And as uncomfortable as it is, I feel I need to push you on that.
And I feel like Jesus, because I question my expectations for you all – do they come out of a sense of pushing you past your comfort zones to live more fully into this call to be church, or am I doing it out of my own expectations for what I think you should be? Like Jesus, am I the hypocrite? Am I serving the congregation but with little compassion for your needs?
And I feel like this Gentile, Syrophoenician woman too. I’ve come to you as a new pastor and I’ve heard what matters to you about being church, why this church matters TO YOU, and I’ve listened to your dreams and opinions on what this church should be. I’ve come to you as pastor….because I come seeking for Jesus myself. I come expecting to encounter the crucified and risen Christ who transforms lives AMONG YOU.
But I also feel like a dog as well…..and I have to be honest with you: those things, those dreams and opinions of what you want….they are not always going to come in the ways you expect. You want younger families and newcomers….but they’re not going to be engaged in the church in the ways you did. You hope for your congregation to be vibrant like you remember it….it will likely be vibrant in ways that seem completely outside the realm of your possibility. You long to feel good about coming to this church….but that feeling is going to come out of ministry to the world that requires us to sacrifice and be uncomfortable.
I’m feeling like a dog, because I guess….begging you to be the church – to be an extension of Jesus who shares God’s love and grace with the world in his ministry of healing and compassion, in his death, and in his resurrection. Maybe I’m just as annoying as this woman in my insistence of that. Maybe I’m just as uncaring and hypocritical as Jesus in challenging you to do that.
But maybe like Pastor Lyle, I’m doing it because I have my own vision….a vision of what you could be as a congregation. I can see you being so much more than just a church that meets once a week on Sundays and occasionally during the week. I see you partnering with another church that goes beyond doing a couple fellowship events or Wednesday worships. I see you as more than just a group of people who meet in a building that’s been around for 50, 50-plus years.
I see you being the church – the Body of Christ witnesses to God’s deep love for the world, his presence in it, and his desire to completely change our lives. I see you as a group of people who experience that so fully and deeply that you faithfully invite others to experience it with you just as fully and deeply. And I see you as a “family” with a great desire to be that church…..but open to the unexpected, new ways that God might bring that to reality.
And as we think about this today, together, all of us – part Pastor Lyle, part Jesus, and part this Syrophoenician woman…….let us not just trust each other, but first and foremost trust in Jesus Christ, the one who breaks through all our expectations, and opens us to something completely and utterly and wonderfully new….and better than we could ever expect or imagine. Amen.