Expanding the Mission

+ A sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 23B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on September 5, 2021 +

Text: James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37


If you were here last week, you heard Jesus spar with the Pharisees and religious authorities in our gospel reading—calling them hypocrites for distorting human customs and true religion.
Then you heard me preach a sermon about how true religion is meant to be expansive, proclaiming the abundant love of God even to those on the margins of society who often find themselves outside of the human customs of church.
So perhaps it’s more than a little jarring to hear the gospel reading this week—to hear Jesus fall into that age old human custom of exclusion.
To hear Jesus be a hypocrite.

Today we hear Jesus go on a trip.
After feeding 5,000 people, after debating religion with the experts, after so many healings, he is ready for a little vacation.
So, he travels to a foreign land, a Gentile land mind you, for some time away on the Mediterranean coast.
Even though Jesus is hoping to remain incognito, he is somehow quickly recognized and before long, people are coming up to him asking for help.
And…it doesn’t go well.

We hear of a specific encounter this morning.
The author of Mark makes it very clear who this person is: a woman, a Greek, a Syrophoenician.
Three categories that should make this meeting all but impossible.
In a patriarchal society, women should not be approaching strange men on the streets.
In a world divided by religious tradition, Greeks and Jews should not be interacting in this way.
In a region whose history was shaped by ancient struggles between tribes and nations, including the Syrophoenician and Israelite people, Jesus and this woman are enemies.
These two people should not be talking.
But this woman is also a mother, desperate for someone to help her suffering daughter.
So she takes bold action, she boldly crosses patriarchal, religious, and ethnically engrained boundaries and approaches Jesus.
She desperately begs him to help her.
And shockingly, Jesus refuses. “Wait your turn, you dog,” he tells her.

You know, every time we confess our faith using the words of the Nicene Creed, we proclaim that we believe that Jesus, “true God from true God” also “became truly human.”
But sometimes, when that truly human part is thrown in our face, it’s a little uncomfortable, right?
We have this image of Jesus being perfect, God but in human skin.
But we profess this divine mystery that he was also truly human.
Truly…like us.
With all our human flaws and failings and even our prejudices.
Because did you just hear him call this woman and her suffering daughter dogs?
And believe me, no amount of wrangling with the original Greek text can really lessen this blow.
I’ve tried year after year to find a way around this uncomfortable truth: Jesus is an absolute jerk to this desperate mother.
He has fallen into those ancient human traps that we heard him decry just last week: that God’s love is only for people who fit certain categories, that religion is meant to exclude, that some people are in and some people are out.

But somehow, this remarkable woman is undeterred.
She takes that insult that Jesus just laid on her and turns it around on him.
“Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
She challenges his human prejudice, reclaims her own humanity and dignity, and manages to change Jesus’ mind.
It’s as if through her insistence, she reveals to Jesus the full implications of his own teachings.
Because even this man who has been preaching good news to the poor, who has spent time with sinners, who has been crossing every social boundary imaginable is apparently unable to fully grasp the immensity of the gospel he has been proclaiming.
That until this interaction, even Jesus didn’t fully understand what this new kingdom of God really looked like, a new reign where divisions are removed, where there is abundance enough for all, where all people—all people—are equally loved by God.

Remember that up until this point, Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel had been almost exclusively among his own Jewish people in his own homeland.
Nearly everyone he healed, everyone he taught, everyone he fed looked like him, thought like him, worshiped like him.
Now, because of this Syrophoenician woman, all that would change.
Now, after this interaction with this triple outsider, Jesus’ understanding of his mission was suddenly clearer.
Because not only did he heal this woman’s daughter, he made his way home, Mark tells us, “by way of Sidon” and into the Decapolis.
Now, I wish I had a Bible map to show you this, but that’s not how you go back to Galilee from Tyre.
It’s far from the most direct route—going north when he should have gone south, around to the far side of the Sea of Galilee rather than right back to its shores.
Jesus is intentionally making a circuitous route here traveling through as much Gentile territory as possible as his understanding of his mission is expanded.
As he realizes that God’s love is truly for all, that God’s abundance is meant for all, that God’s commonwealth includes us all.
He goes to preach this new, expansive vision.
He goes to heal, like the man we hear about in the Decapolis.
And he goes to feed, because while we have just recently heard the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people, Jewish people, with a few loaves of bread and some fish, the story after this one today is how Jesus feeds 4,000 Gentile people with a few loaves of bread and some fish.
Because in the new commonwealth Jesus is proclaiming, even the crumbs from the table of God’s love are a source of abundance beyond our wildest imagination.

This is the faith we profess, my friends.
As I said last week, this is what religion can and should be: to build a place where all are truly welcome, where all have equal access to healing, where all have enough to eat, where all can experience the abundance of life God intends for us.
But just we have heard today how difficult it was even for human Jesus to fully grasp, we know how difficult this can be for us humans to fully implement.
And this is nothing new.
The Book of James tells us that this failing plagued the earliest days of the church as well.
That these earliest Christians, bound together by the gospel of Jesus Christ had begun to forget its impact, its true implications.
That they were building up the barriers Christ strove to dismantle by showing preferential treatment for the wealthy among them.
That they were failing to follow Christ’s call to care for their vulnerable neighbors.
That all their beautiful prayers, all their good intentions, all the niceties about church really mean nothing to their neighbors who are hungry and seeking a place at the table.
‘You say you have faith in Christ,’ James is saying, ‘that you trust in the new commonwealth he is ushering in among us, but you need to show that through your actions. Thoughts and prayers aren’t cutting it. Faith without works is dead.’

Ok now, be honest, did our Lutheran ears just bristle a little bit?
“Faith without works is dead”?
I mean, this is works righteousness, isn’t it?
If there is one thing we Lutherans are sure of, it is our hallmark conviction that we are justified by faith apart from works.

But that’s not what James is saying here.
He’s not saying that we are saved by our works, but that our faith should inherently produce good works.
Which is, by the way, how Luther himself would describe the role of faith in our lives.
That our understanding of Jesus and his gospel, our trust that we have a role to play in the reign of God, should by its very nature transform our lives and actions into loving service for our neighbors.
That all our traditions, all our songs, all our buildings and programs, all our ideas of what church looks like mean nothing if they are not inspiring us to welcome people who are outcast, to feed people who are hungry, to expand the commonwealth of God until all people experience full and abundant life.

This is no small task, my friends.
And I know that we have and will continue to fail in fully living it out.
All too often we fail as individuals whenever we pass by someone on the street and ignore their ask for help; whenever we horde for ourselves the gifts and resources that are meant for the life of our community; whenever we give into our preconceived notions and judge someone based human divisions: on their clothes, their income, their ethnicity or race, their religion, or whatever else.
All too often we fail as the Church whenever we refuse to listen to the cries of our neighbors, whenever we shy away from demanding God’s justice for fear of offending those who benefit from the status quo, whenever we cling to the ways that worked in the past rather than opening ourselves to the future God has in store for us.
Yes, we know all too well that we do not always live up to the calling of the gospel.
We humans fail.
Our human institutions fail.
Even our human Lord Jesus failed.
But when we recognize our failures, when we turn to change our ways, to live as God intends as co-creators of God’s perfect commonwealth, we find the mercy of our God who has called us and redeemed us.
We find the open arms of Jesus who is embracing us and inviting us to join us in his journey.

But if our worship is not pushing us to do these things, our faith does not move us into loving service, if our understandings of what church means is holding us back, then perhaps James is calling us to literally tear those things down so we can realize the true implications of trusting in this gospel.
Perhaps our insistent Syrophoenician foremother is challenging us to check our assumptions and expand our visions.
Perhaps Christ himself is calling us to venture with him into the unknown, trusting in God to guide us, so we can take our place, do our part, in the ministry we share.

By now, I hope that we have all seen the letter announcing our special congregational meeting next week.
That, after three years of this iteration of our future planning process, our Council is calling us to make a decision.
I know that in the week ahead there may be a lot of apprehension and uncertainty, perhaps even fear at what the future may hold.
Each of the five proposals laid before us will radically change what this piece of land looks like.
Each will define a major way in which the gospel is proclaimed through word and deed in this place and beyond for years to come.
There is a lot to process and a lot to grapple with.
And we know that we have not taken the most direct route to get here—during the past three years we’ve grumbled, we’ve hit dead ends, we’ve even failed a few times.
But we’ve been on quite a journey together, no matter how circuitous.
We’ve learned, we’ve explored options, and we’ve listened for the Spirit’s voice as she whispers in our ears how we can best follow Jesus in this time and this place.
So, as we prepare for this most consequential meeting, I ask you to spend this week in prayer.
Pray that we have the boldness of that Syrophoenician woman who refuses to be held back so we can witness with her the abundance that can flourish even from the crumbs that we have to offer.
Pray that we have the insight of James to see how our faith is not only inviting us but compelling us to love and serve our neighbors however we can.
Pray that Christ may speak to us, reveal to us the true meaning of his gospel and our role in his ministry.
So that, with Christ, we may use all that we have—all our possessions, all our energy, and all our lives—to truly proclaim in word and deed the love of God for all people.

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