September 2018

Who's Your Friend?: The Indifferent

Luke 16:19-31 and 1 Timothy 6:6-19
© Stacey Steck

Before we begin this morning’s look at your friend, the indifferent, I want to share one more thing about your friend, the saint, that I discovered recently. It seems that there is a new movement afoot to begin an organized atheist church. It’s called the Sunday Assembly Everywhere (SAE) denomination, and contrary to what you might think, it is not simply an escape from all things church. In fact, it is surprisingly very much like church. The founders of this group promise, in their own words now, that the Assembly “will solace worries, provoke kindness, and inject a touch of transcendence into the everyday. Life can be tough,” they note, “Sometimes bad things happen to good people, we have moments of weakness or life just isn’t fair. We want The Sunday Assembly to be a house of love and compassion, where, no matter what your situation, you are welcomed, accepted and loved.” And the movement attracts people who feel like this: “I don't think religion should have a monopoly on community. I like the idea of a secular temple, where atheists can enjoy the benefits of an idealized, traditional church — a sense of community, a thought-provoking sermon, a scheduled period of respite, easy access to community service opportunities, group singing, an ethos of self-improvement, free food — without the stinging imposition of God Almighty.” “A community with the benefits of a traditional church, but without the stinging imposition of the God Almighty.” That’s a curious way to think about church. I’d like to think we are such a community, even though we believe in God.

There is some crossover between those I have described as “saints” and those I will describe this morning as “indifferent,” and you can see some of this crossover in the somewhat contradictory data of religious preference surveys. According to the infamous report of the Pew Research Center, “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion, the so-called ‘nones,’ continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%). This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.” Of course, this data is describing only the United States, and, as it has also been well documented, the numbers in Europe are even more startling.

“However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor. With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

“Of course,” says the Apostle Paul to young Timothy, “Of course there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” How is it that the religion of Jesus, who would no doubt agree with what Paul wrote, how is it that Christianity has become perceived as being “too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics?” Well, probably because it is, and often has been, even as far back as Timothy’s time, and thus, the reason it was included in this letter.

On the surface, our passage from First Timothy is addressing the perils of wealth and a preoccupation with money. And while that is true, and worth talking about in its own right, I think that this issue of money is but one symptom among many of a greater malady, one you could call the disease of indifference. Whether it is money or power or politics, things we generally consider corruptible, or whether it is a concern for the environment, or for animal rights, or for art and beauty, or for family and friends, things we generally consider uplifting, there will always be something calling out to the human heart, beckoning it away from the Creator of all those good things, seeking to supplant the one Paul describe to Timothy as “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” As the old saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind,” and that seems to apply so easily to the God “whom no one has ever seen or can see!” If there is no plain evidence of God, and there is so much competition for our human affections, how can we expect people to be anything less than indifferent toward God and toward church?

Whether we like it or not, much of the responsibility of the disease of indifference must fall on us, those who claim not to be indifferent. Theologians throughout the ages have tried to come up with reasons why some are attracted to the faith and some are not, why some respond to the invitation and why some do not. A significant thrust of our own tradition, the Reformed tradition of John Calvin and John Knox and all their followers trickling down to us, suggests that God has somehow decided in advance who will be interested and who will be indifferent, a quite convenient solution that would seem to take us off the hook. And while that perspective might be designed to help us avoid a sense of guilt or anguish about those who don’t choose for God – after all, it’s between them and God – it isn’t exactly great motivation for us to help people to see why choosing godliness with contentment is worth their while. Others have viewed the disease of indifference through the lens of free will, denying what the atheist church member described as “the stinging imposition of the God Almighty,” by saying that God presents us with the option of faith or faithlessness, godliness or godlessness, and human beings are free to choose without any decision preordained by God. That’s fair enough. I’ll buy the idea of a God who doesn’t force faith on us. But where exactly will people learn of the options, if not through the church?

One blogger’s take on the rise of the nones is this: “What if part of the reason the ‘Nones’ are so underwhelmed by organized religion isn't because they don't find Jesus interesting, but because it appears to them that Christians don't find him sufficiently interesting enough to take seriously?” and, as he describes in the blog, live out his teachings authentically. In other words, what if it is the church’s indifference that gives rise to the public’s indifference? What if it is the competition you face, and I face, that turns us away from God and other people, and leaves them without one of the options? What if you and I have not embraced godliness with contentment, but rather the temptations of wealth? What if we have pinned our hopes on the uncertainty of riches rather than on “God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment?” Is there any hope for us? Is there any hope for your friend, the indifferent, the none?

Well, of course there is. There is always hope with God. The future is God’s horizon of hope. But we have to walk toward that horizon. It doesn’t come toward us. And so Paul tells Timothy, and tells us, in which direction is that horizon. “As for those who in the present age are rich,” and we can add to that, distracted by any of the symptoms of the disease of indifference, “command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches [or anything else], but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” You see, the good news for your friend, the indifferent, and for you, is that although all of us may be indifferent about God, God is not indifferent toward us. God’s horizon of hope is that “life that really is life,” the one which transforms the restlessness of indifference into that godliness with contentment.

And so you may be wondering how you might invite your indifferent friend to church on October 14, the one who says, “So what?,” “Meh,” or “Yeah, whatever,” the one who may be an atheist or an agnostic, or maybe even believes in God, prays every day, and thinks the church is a benefit to society. I think the best way, once again, as with the sinner and the saint, is with your honesty and humility, both owning your own indifference, and the pain or loss it has caused you, but also testifying to the difference God has made in your life, how with God’s help, you have taken hold of “the life that really is life.” If the surveys are true, more often than not, your invitation to come to church at a certain time and a certain place, will open up a conversation about things that really matter. And that’s because people want to believe in God, and they want to believe in hope, because as distracted and indifferent as they may be, they really do want godliness with contentment. And when they see your belief in the unseen God, when they see your journey toward that horizon of hope, when they see the richness of your life in your generosity and good works rather than in your bank account, they are seeing you make “the good confession,” as Paul calls it, the good confession that Christ made, the one that showed us that God is not indifferent toward us, but rather calls us to eternal life, the riches of grace, and love, and compassion we experience when we are no longer trapped in indifference, but indeed made different. May God give us courage to share the difference Christ has made in our lives, that all might “take hold of the life that really is life.” Amen.

Who's Your Friend?: The Saint

1 Timothy 2:1-7
© Stacey Steck

So, have you been thinking about your friends? Trying to decide which of the three categories they fall into? Sinner, saint, or indifferent? Last Sunday we considered that group of people who might decline an invitation to come to church because they feel somehow unworthy, like they couldn’t be holy or righteous enough to join us, or couldn’t measure up to what they believe the standards to be. Next week, we’ll take a look at those of your friends who simply can’t be bothered with church or religion, the so-called category of the “nones,” that’s n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s, those who fill in the blank “none” on surveys of religious preference. But for this morning, we’ll see what we can learn about those who consider Christianity, or at least the church, to be beneath them. We’ll call them the saints.

Surely you know some of these people. Surely you’ve heard their laments that the church has not done a good job living out the values it espouses, values they generally share, mind you. Surely you have watched them observe the church’s failures over the years, like clergy sex and child abuse scandals, and not opposing slavery, and the Inquisition, and the Crusades, and all the rest. Surely you have heard their stories of churches that excluded people rather than included them, that spent more on their own luxuries than on the needs of their communities, that did not reflect the diversity of their own neighborhoods. Yes, the unchurched saints in your circle of friends are not uninterested in church, they just may not want to sully their reputations by hanging out in one. It is not that they are self-righteous. It’s just that they aren’t blind.

You see, they are not altogether wrong about the church. We’ve got our problems. In fact, we would do well to take their complaints with great seriousness, not simply in an effort to try to satisfy them and show them that we can do better, but because, by and large, the things they are critiquing are things we ought not to be doing in the first place. Why should they come to a church that acts like a country club, when the country club down the street has a golf course too? Why should they bring their kids to a church that only has white people, when their kids’ elementary school is completely multi-racial? I could go on and on, but you probably get the idea. Just like the sinners we talked about last week, who aren’t really that different from those of us who already here, the saints are after the same things as we are, and they want to see the church succeed, but they just can’t yet see themselves in the pews.

One last thought in describing these saints before moving on. They are ready. They want to be convinced. These are the types that are all of a sudden finding the Pope relevant now that he is finally speaking with a new tone in his voice. I’ve heard people who hadn’t darkened the door of a church in years say that they started going back to church since Pope Francis’ election because they perceive he will change the direction of the church, and bring it in line with what it says it wants to be. And they are responding to that message. So now we know who they are. Short of becoming the Pope, how can we speak to them? Let me suggest that the book of First Timothy might have something to offer.

From the earliest days of Christianity, the new faith was considered a religion of the poor and outcast, like the majority of those who had followed Jesus. Already an odd form of faith because it collected the wretched discards of society, it then added the indignity of its founder’s socially-frowned upon form of death, crucifixion, which was reserved for criminals and enemies of the state. Add in the fact that outsiders looking in on the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper saw a bunch of cannibals, and you may wonder how Christianity survived long enough to be coopted by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, and made the fixture of the collection of world religions that it still is today.

Indeed, here in 1 Timothy, we see something of the distance between the upper class from the church. Paul doesn’t write to Timothy, “Go talk to our friend So-and-So who can pull some strings and help us live a peaceable life.” Rather, he has to say, “Pray for kings and all who are in high positions so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.” There was no one to help them out. They had no real allies. All they had were people who could, for the most part, afford to give them no mind, to allow them to be the marginal religion of wretched sinners, while they dedicated themselves to the loftier or lustier goals they might have been pursuing. But either way, they certainly must have thought, “We are better than the Christians, if the best their leader could do was round up some derelicts before getting executed.” They may not have thought they were better in God’s eyes, but they knew they were better in their own eyes.

But even with all that social distance and being looked down upon, Paul knows that God doesn’t reject these folks for being the rich and un-wretched, and so he can’t either. And so he moves on from simply seeking for the church to be left free from interference to reminding Timothy that God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” saints and sinners alike. One way to read this passage is to understand that Paul is seeking a quiet and peaceable life for the church so that it can have the time and the space to reach everyone with the knowledge of the truth, “everyone” being the types of people the church generally attracted. But the other way to read it is to understand that Paul is drawing larger the circle of those whom God seeks, to include even those kings and leaders whom he has just mentioned, that it is not enough that they should just leave us alone, but in fact, they ought to join us because God desires everyone to be saved.

Well, the church succeeded in bringing all kinds of people, including the rich and un-wretched, into its midst, and in the fourth century became the official religion of the Roman Empire. And so, for a very long time, Christianity became the religion of the wealthy and powerful, at least in name only. You weren’t going to get very far in politics or commerce by neglecting the church, and so it was in your best interest to see the church succeed, for it to have the quiet and peaceable life Paul described. You wouldn’t find too many people in those days who thought there was a better option than the church for them to pursue their goals for society. There weren’t really people looking down on the church, or thinking that they didn’t need a church that wasn’t living up to the standards it professed. There were some of those people, but they tended to just leave the church rather than reform it, like the earliest monastic communities. But for the most part, until just a few centuries ago, you didn’t see the dynamic I described earlier, of people who weren’t hostile to the church, but thought there was a better way out there somewhere.

But along came capitalism and the gap widened once again between those who couldn’t afford to leave the church behind, and those who could, between the old wretched class who saw their need for God, and a new class of kings and leaders who did not have to depend on the church for its blessing. There are many historians who have noted the growing similarity between our own times and those of the Roman Empire into which Paul was bringing the Gospel, and this is one of those points of contact: that there is once again a group of people who find, at least in their own minds, that they do not need the church, and often because they believe that they are at least morally equal to, if not ethically superior to, those who claim the religion of Jesus Christ.

And so we can return to Paul’s letter to Timothy for a way to speak these old words to a new situation, and for a way to invite your saintly friends to this party of sinners we call the church. If there is one word to summarize all the words in this passage, that word must be humility. You see, even if the word humility doesn’t actually appear here, what else can Paul be talking about when he says, “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all?” Paul is clear that Jesus Christ, who is in the exalted position of being able to mediate between God and us, to be the conduit for revelation and power and spirit, this same Jesus Christ humbled himself for us, gave himself up to die in that undignified way, to be buried in an afterthought of a tomb, the very opposite of what a regular king would do or demand. Yes, Jesus Christ humbled himself, and if that is the way he accomplished God’s goal, it must be the way we accomplish our goal, of being the same kind of herald of the truth Paul says he is, so that all may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.

It seems to me appropriate then, when speaking to our saintly, and well-meaning friends, to own the failures of the church in a way similar to how I suggested last week we own our own histories of sin. Yes, we are sometimes hypocrites. Yes, we’ve failed in the past, and we’ll continue to fail even while doing our best, but at the same time, we recognize something about that mysterious phrase, “the knowledge of the truth.” You see, what we know about the truth is that Christ gave himself a ransom for us whether we succeed or not, whether we live up to his standards or not, whether we humble ourselves sufficiently or not, whether we love as fully as we ought to or not. What we know about the truth is that we can and must find our strength in God, and not ourselves, or in someone else, or even in church. The church will always be only a means to know the truth; it is not and cannot be the truth itself. But the church is the place where we can come to begin to learn our knowledge of the truth, the truth that sets us free, to live, to love, to serve, to overcome our failures.

My hunch is that your friends the saints are as frustrated with every other human institution as they are with the church, and that is because in the end, just like the church, they are human institutions, and our human institutions will never live up to our highest hopes and dreams. My hunch is that you too are sometimes frustrated with the church, whether by church you mean Thyatira or the church with a capital C. But despite those frustrations, you are here. You have found something of the knowledge of the truth in this gathering of underachieving and frustrating, but hopefully humble and changeable people, and your best way to connect with those saints who express their reservations about coming to church is to share why you still come even though you may be frustrated once in a while. Of course, it is not companionship in frustration for which Christ died, but so that everyone might be saved and come to know the knowledge of the truth. But when we are honest and humble, we open the door to a new way of seeing what God is up to in our lives and in our church, and whatever frustration we may have entered with will give way to the joy of companionship on the journey to that “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” for which Paul asked Timothy, and us, to pray. But it all starts with an invitation, an invitation that you offer from that humble place in your heart, that was created when Christ humbled himself for you. May we share our humility, our faith, and our hope that God will bring us together to do together what we cannot do alone. Amen.

Who's Your Friend?: The Sinner

1 Timothy 1:12-17
© Stacey Steck

You have three kinds of friends: sinners, saints, and indifferents. Well, at least you have the three kinds of friends I am going to talk about over the next three weeks as you prepare to summon your nerve and invite some of your friends from those three categories to church on October 7. Last year on the first Sunday of October, you did such an outstanding job overcoming your fears and inviting people to church that many people urged me to make sure we did it again, and so we shall, and may we have to print more bulletins at the last minute when we reach our goal of having more visitors than regulars.

For some people with the gift, inviting people to church is quite easy, but for the vast majority of us, doing so is, at best, an uncomfortable experience, and at worst, a paralyzing one. We are fearful and worried. We are worried we might be rejected, that we might lose that friend. We are worried that the nature of our circle of friends might change if word gets out that we are stalking them for church. We are worried that our pastor will embarrass us and say something we told our friend he would never say. I could go on, but you know what your fears are, rational or otherwise. I don’t need to tell you. But let me assure you of one thing, that the old saying about spiders and stray dogs is even truer about your friends: that they are more afraid of you, than you are of them. You see, you already know what to expect here. You already know more than one person here. You already know when to sit down and stand up, and that we use the word debts instead of trespasses in the Lord’s Prayer, and that when we sing “Jesus Loves Me” everyone is supposed to sit down while the kids come forward. But those you might invite, those you will invite, are in the dark on our customs and our traditions, and all they have to go on are their imaginations, and the hints they get from you. And so I hope to offer you the means of preparing yourself for the humbling but important task of inviting to church those who are more afraid you will ask than you are of asking.

This morning, I want to take a look at our passage form First Timothy to see what we can learn about inviting sinners to church. Of course, the word sinners conjures up all kinds of great images in your minds, right, and of course, you don’t have any of those kinds of friends. After all, you are an upstanding member of the community, and you go to church, and you wouldn’t be caught dead with “those kinds of people.” Sorry, you’re not off the hook. I’m not talking about “those kind of people.” I’m talking about you. Or at least people very much like you. You see, the sinners to whom I am referring this morning are not those whom we might naturally want to put in that category, whatever the characteristics of “sinners” may be, but rather, I want to talk about those people who so much perceive themselves as sinners, that they wouldn’t dare darken the door of a church for fear of being struck down on the spot. Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but there is a group of your friends who feel like they are not worthy enough to join you on Sunday, that they have done something so awful in their lives that has filled them with shame, which they just can’t confront, and worry that it will be revealed, that they will decline your kind invitation, and go on feeling guilty and sorrowful, instead of joyful and liberated. They are not likely to tell you what that sin or shame is, but it will be lurking there in the background – a marital affair, an abortion, an addiction, a broken relationship, being the victim of abuse, or maybe even just feeling that because they haven’t “succeeded” in life, they don’t measure up somehow at church, that they have been away from church for so long that they will look ignorant. I once had a man confess to me that he had raped a woman as a young man, and I am pretty sure that although he was one of the more biblically literate people I had ever met, his guilt was the reason he didn’t go to church. I knew a couple once, both very faithful people, the husband even a candidate once for the priesthood, who didn’t go forward for communion because they used birth control, a position their church opposed. And as much as they claimed to refrain from the table out of respect for their tradition, I could never feel convinced it wasn’t for feeling they had betrayed their tradition. I have known many people who did not go to church out of a simple, yet vague, sense of unworthiness, as if the sum total of their sin and shame to date had disqualified them from participating; there was just too much to overcome, and at so late an hour of their lives. Yes, your friends come in all shapes and sizes, with sins real and imagined.

As much as your friends come with sins real and imagined, they come with fears real and imagined: the fear of rejection, the fear of discomfort, even the fear of disappointment that the church won’t actually be able to deliver what they are hoping for. Some will come with the fear that if they come to church, they will be outed as sinners and made to confess in front of everyone, with a scarlet letter pinned upon their chests. These are people who fear that something dramatic might happen to them as they arrive at Thyatira, as dramatic as what happened to a certain gentleman in the movie “The Apostle,” when he came uninvited to church with his bulldozer to knock down the interracial church of which he was afraid: (Watch clip from “The Apostle”).

You may have figured out by now that that is not exactly my style. And so you can tell your friends who might be a little nervous, that it is very unlikely it will happen that way, although I’ll be happy to cry with them. If you’ve never seen this movie called “The Apostle,” you simply must. It is one of the great movies of all time about the nature of God’s grace and forgiveness. In fact, before you invite your friends to church, you might want to sit down and watch this movie and learn a few things. What you may not know is that the preacher in this clip, the Apostle as he now calls himself, is on the run from the law for murder, and has hidden himself in a small town in Louisiana and while he is coming to terms with himself and God, he starts a small church there in which he collects a variety of people who might fall into one or more of our categories of sinners.

It is, of course, the Apostle’s own awareness of his sin which makes him so empathetic, and so able to connect with others, in a way which calls to mind the Apostle Paul when he says in this morning’s Scripture passage, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” The violence to which Paul refers is found in the book of Acts, where the story of his zeal for snuffing out the church of Jesus Christ reached murderous proportions. Saul, as he was known in those days, Saul by his own account was a perfectly religious man, so zealous for his faith that he headed up the goon squad that rounded up Christians to imprison, or to even kill them, as was the case with the apostle Stephen, over whose death by stoning Paul presided personally. And yet here is the new man, Paul, giving thanks to the Christ he formerly persecuted, and recognizing the infinite mercy of God who could take, as he called himself, the “foremost” of sinners and through Jesus Christ make him “an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life.”

Paul’s understanding of what God has done in his own life has something to offer us as we suck up the courage to invite others to church. You see, God takes imperfect people and does wonders with them. We may think of Paul as the perfect disciple, but that is not how he saw himself. No, he saw himself as the flawed person he was, but he had also come to know that God saw him differently, that God could take even a sinner as great as he and call him to something completely opposite. And so, as you get ready to invite people to church, let me encourage you to think about what God has done already in your own life, to offer a word of thanksgiving for the ways in which God has already looked past your sin or shame, and invited you to participate in your own life, how you have been qualified by Jesus Christ when you might be inclined to disqualify yourself. As counterintuitive as it may seem, it’s actually important to own the unpleasant parts of your past, the ones you’d really rather forget, as I’m sure even the Apostle Paul would, the ones you really don’t want anyone to know, the ones that make you cringe to think you ever did that. It’s good to own them because it gives you some perspective, and in a sense some credibility when you talk about how God transforms people. It is all well and good to point to the Apostle Paul and to say, wow, look at what God did with that murderer, that blasphemer, all those years ago. But for those friends of yours who haven’t committed murder lately, your own testimony of how and from where God has brought you to church will mean a lot more. I’m not suggesting you confess all your secrets and past deeds to your friends, but a little empathy, a little authenticity, can go a long way. Indeed, the best way to express it is as Paul does, giving thanks and glory to God for overcoming what he could not overcome on his own, no matter how righteous he may have thought he was.

I want to end on a humorous, but honest note. Some of our “sinner” friends might perceive us as we tend to perceive the Apostle Paul: as the perfect Christians, impossible to emulate. And when they have that image of us, it makes it all the harder for them to imagine fitting in. If only they knew the truth: that sometimes just getting here on time takes all the energy we can muster. (Watch clip of “Nobody Has It All Together”)

May we be honest enough with ourselves and our friends to let God make a difference in the world through us, as flawed as we may be, or as imperfect as we think we are. Amen.

Miraculous Listening

Mark 7:24-37
© Stacey Steck

Sometimes a conversation changes your life. Then it changes someone else’s.

Once upon a time, there were two outcasts, separated by many miles, but joined in their suffering. The one, a mere child in the north country, spent every day as the object of her mother’s unwavering attention and commitment, afflicted as she was with things in her mind she could not understand, impulses that made her behave in ways she could not control. The other, in an eastern province, spent every day watching other people go about their daily business but really only knowing half the story of their lives because he could not hear what they were saying. Likely the object of derision, or at least pity, he tried to make his desires and intentions known, but people only looked at him strangely when he did. The lives of both of these outcasts were characterized by the inability of others to understand them, and probably their own inability to understand themselves. They lived in similar worlds of desperation, one with too many voices in her head, and the other with too few.

Something similar may be said about the other two characters in the story, a faith healer who is surrounded by too many voices of desperation, and a woman hearing too few voices of hope. If the first two characters in this story are separated by a physical distance but joined together by suffering, these last two are separated by a gulf of culture and gender, but linked by being exhausted caregivers. The one is looking for a little rest and renewal after being needed by so many, while the other is looking for release from being needed so completely by a single person. Each would wish they need not have an encounter with the other, if all were right with the world, but when they do meet, their faith and their wits are evenly matched, and a conversation which changed them, changed others as well. Sometimes a conversation changes your life. Then it changes someone else’s.

It is not mere coincidence that these two stories, the healings of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and the deaf mute man are paired together. At first glance, we might think they are put together simply because they are stories of healing that demonstrate Jesus’ power over the things which ail us human beings, over unclean spirits and bodies the parts of which don’t always work the way God intended. At second glance, we might see that both of those healed were Gentiles, non-Jews, the first time in the Gospel of Mark such a thing has happened. But while these are true, I think there is more at work here, more that we are meant to hear when reading these stories together. As with most of the miracle stories in the New Testament, for me, the miracle is not the supernatural occurence, but the grace revealed in the encounter, grace which transforms and impacts the lives of the participants far more profoundly than simply being cured of their infirmities or delivered from their bondage. That is particularly true in these two stories, for the encounter of grace in one leads to the encounter of grace in the other.

I want to suggest to you this morning that Jesus’ conversation with the woman in the region of Tyre, Gentile territory, is the catalyst for the deaf mute man’s healing in one of the cities of the Decopolis, another part of Gentile territory, and that in a sense, her words are the Gospel in his newly opened ears. And if her words of faith have such power to transform even the Son of God, how much more power can and should our words of faith have to transform the world. In this story, we see how one conversation changed not only the lives of its own participants, but the lives of people far removed from the time and place of that conversation. The secret to unlocking this relationship between all these characters is found, I think, in the way the story uses the themes of listening, speaking, and hearing, all in the context of faith and compassion.

Presumably, by saying, “Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there,” Mark means to tell us that Jesus has sought a place where he can have a little down time, a little while to reflect, to be silent, to not talk to people. Yet this is impossible, because of his fame, and he is discovered by a woman desperate for conversation, desperate to tell her story. And while Jesus’ response to her is rightly interpreted as a commentary on Jewish/Gentile relations, for the two mixed like water and oil, kept apart like purebreds and mutts, when he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” it’s hard to deny that he’s being a little mean-spirited, that he has let his emotions get the best of his tongue. He wants to be alone, and she is disturbing him. If Jesus was human, Jesus was grouchy. This mental picture of a grouchy and acerbic Jesus may not jive too well with that venerable vision of a gentle and sinless savior, but if Jesus’ humanity is an essential element in our understanding God, we should embrace this flub of Jesus, rather than seek to explain it away. Jesus may indeed be sinless in the eyes of the law of Moses, but apparently he wasn’t above demonstrating some of his culture’s prejudice and ethnocentrism, which interestingly, are things we label sin these days. Be that as it may, what’s important to remember is that even though Jesus may have been in the wrong, he’s not above making it right. Indeed, how can Jesus expect us to be open to changing our ways, our perceptions, if he is not willing to change his own? And so though he may have wounded with a slip of the tongue, for an insult is an insult, he was willing to stand corrected in the face of the truth, even truth revealed from an unlikely and unclean source. He may not have been looking for a conversation, but the one that found him changed him and changed others.

You see, Jesus wanted a break from hearing the voices calling out for him. He wanted silence. But hearing is an auditory phenomenon, simply the physical sensation of sound waves breaking into the ears of the receiver. Listening, however, is another matter. Listening involves hearing, yes, but listening means giving attention to what you are hearing, transforming it from noise and science to communication and relationship. Miraculously, Jesus listened to the Word of God spoken by a Gentile woman, and the sounds, the noise, the hearing he wanted to escape, were transformed into an experience of grace that healed not only a girl afflicted by unclean spirits, but another man far away who had no choice but to avoid hearing, and who had no opportunity to listen or be listened to.

It is often said that to be a good writer, one needs to be a good reader, that is, one needs to read material that teaches good and proper use of language, that expands the vocabulary, that opens the imagination, etc. Monkey see, monkey do, right? The same thing is true of speech. Why do you suppose we have such a human thing as accents? Because people learn to speak as they are spoken to. Our own speech is informed by our hearing, and our relationships are formed by our listening. The man in the story was unable to speak clearly because he had never heard clearly. Very likely he was challenged to have authentic and meaningful relationships because he could not listen or be listened to. This is not to say that persons with disabilities cannot communicate or have meaningful relationships, but it is to say that life and social interaction are made more challenging being different, and even more so in a culture which generally viewed persons with disabilities as not worthy of celebrating in their own right, but as social liabilities to be at best tolerated, and at worst, scorned. It was not only for every day practicality that this man wanted his ears to work, to experience the noise and science of hearing, but also that he might experience more fully communication and relationship with those in his life, and to be no longer considered useless in the eyes of his community.

Perhaps you can see where this is going. When Jesus stops to listen to the woman, a veritable prophet bringing him the Word of God, his thinking about God’s relationship with the Gentiles is transformed. They are no longer to be avoided and insulted, but to be welcomed into the fold as fellow citizens in the kingdom of God, brothers and sisters in the household of the Divine. It is equipped with this new understanding, or at least a reminder of the prophet Isaiah’s ancient words that Israel is called to be a light to the nations, that Jesus finds himself once again in Gentile territory confronted with a man in need, in need, ironically of having his ears opened, just as Jesus had his opened. And so when Jesus says, “Ephphatha! Be opened!,” it is not just in reference to the deaf man’s ears, but to himself, in that he has just had himself opened up to a new way of thinking. And for Mark, with these words, he wants his readers to be opened up to what Jesus is teaching through the story, to listen and be transformed, not merely to hear the words and letting them fall to the ground. Maybe this is what James is getting at in our epistle lesson from last week, that being doers of the Word means that we have listened to the Word, and been transformed by it, rather than simply hearing it and moving on with our lives.

To see the depths of Jesus’ own transformation, and the transformation to which we are called, we need only look at the difference in the way Jesus treated these two Gentiles. With the woman, he calls her a dog, and dismisses her like one dismisses a dog begging for scraps. But with the deaf mute man, Jesus takes him aside, away from being a spectacle, away from being the subject of humiliation. Although Mark does not comment on Jesus’ motivation for taking the man to a private place, I think it was an act of extraordinary compassion that Jesus addresses the man’s issues in private, giving his tongue its own space, so to speak, to loosen up without having to risk being laughed at. And all this is on top of the fact that perhaps if not for his earlier conversation with the woman in Tyre, he might never have dealt with this man, this Gentile who he once might have considered a dog too.

And so we have one story about listening, and another about hearing. Jesus heard a word of truth, and then the man did. In a very real sense, the woman’s wit/faith makes the other man’s healing possible. He will learn to do what she did; to cry out to God for mercy, for a chance, for grace. The truth she spoke will be the truth he proclaims, because Jesus chose to listen, chose to participate in a conversation discouraged by custom, in the midst of the seeking of silence. The circle is completed when the man hears the Word, and speaks “plainly,” the way the woman in Tyre spoke plainly. But it doesn’t end there; the story concludes with more and more people speaking the truth, as it says, “the more he ordered them to tell no one, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” A ministry to the chosen people becomes a ministry of choosing all people when Jesus listens.

This tells me that our listening, even today, maybe especially today, has a lot to do with other people’s healing. That is to say that as we listen to God or listen to those who are not like us, or even to those we already know and love, we open ourselves to new ways of knowing God, which changes how we interact with the world. This is one of the great challenges of our times, to be willing to listen, really listen, to people who are different, and who come from different backgrounds and experiences, who have different stories to tell, who speak with different accents or vocabularies, and who may have been on the receiving end of the same kind of prejudice and ethnocentrism as that Syrophoenician woman. It’s when we not only hear, but really listen, that miraculous things can happen. Just ask the Syrophoenician’s woman’s daughter and the Gentile man who could hear and speak. They’ll tell you, and may God help us listen to them. Amen.

Right Idea, Dubious Application

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
© Stacey Steck

The Pharisees have the right idea. They almost always have the right idea. They even, I would say, have the right intentions. They want a better world and they know that order is a key component. If everyone followed the rules, the world would be a much more orderly place. Indeed, the Pharisees are the people we should hire to clean up our corrupt government. The Pharisees are the people we should put in charge of the financial sectors of our economy. You see, the Pharisees are God’s gift to every soul, every family, every institution that needs a watchdog. They are the ones who make the rules and enforce the rules and grace be damned if it gets in the way. And yes, there are times when the scrupulousness of the Pharisees is just what we need in our lives, because we get sloppy with our spiritual practices, lax with our vigilance of injustice, slothful in the stewardship of the temples that are our bodies. How many times would a Pharisee peering over our shoulder commenting on what we’ve overlooked have helped us to have done the right thing? No, the Pharisees and their good ideas are not all bad.

But on the other, the right idea sometimes misses the point. Maybe you remember the story of the New York City auto service center with a $29.95 oil change special. A guy drops his car off one day, and picks it up that evening. Next morning, he’s back. The service manager notices but decides not to say anything. Third day, same guy, same car. Finally, the service manager takes him aside and says, “Sir, you do realize that you don’t need to change the oil every day, right?” “Of course!” the man replies. “But where else in Manhattan can I park all day for $29.95?” Some people say that is a true story, and I cringe when I think how much perfectly good oil went to waste every day until they shut him down, just so he could save a few bucks. Even if that story is not true, people really have done even crazier stuff where the result has strayed far from a good original idea. I believe you can see real life examples every year at the so-called Darwin Awards, the stated criterion for which is, “In the spirit of Charles Darwin, the Darwin Awards commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives. Darwin Award winners eliminate themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chances of long-term survival.” Like the guy who died trying to create a chimney-cleaning device by welding a hand grenade to a metal pole. True story, unfortunately.

Biblical speaking, we too often have the right idea, or think we do. Truer words than these were never uttered: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” but they are true only if we note that cleanliness is next in order behind godliness, not equivalent to, or ahead of, but in second place, along with every other practice not specifically appointed by Scripture. That phrase is of course not in the Bible, and so, along with others favorites like, “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” and “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” it falls into that category of the traditions of the elders, stuff which sounds like a good idea, sounds like what’s in the Bible, but really isn’t in, or required by, the Bible. It is true that “God works in mysterious ways,” but that phrase is not found in the Bible either, even though it is a saying we rely on heavily, along with “God never gives you more than you can handle.” These are all good ideas, but not the stuff on which we should base our faith, or judge the faith of others.

You may have been wondering what happened to my tie this morning, or my razor, or my washing machine. Yep, traditions of the elders. Nowhere in the Bible does it require pastors, or anyone else, to wear specific clothes to church, or any clothes for that matter. But for the sake of decorum, I figured I’d dress up to some kind of minimum. Standards for attire in church have been changing for a long time now, haven’t they, and this church is definitely not following the traditions of the elders. Look at you people! Where are your suits and ties, your hats and dresses? Your polished shoes? We all have our preferences about church and faith, preferences which become hardened into traditions, even if they began as good ideas. I hope you are feeling a little uncomfortable with the way I look; that’s the point. Because I’m pretty sure you are more focused right now on what I look like on the outside than what is found inside your own hearts as you get ready to approach the Lord’s Table.

Handwashing before meals, or after visiting the market, is always a good idea. God only knows what kinds of germs we might be receiving and passing on. But of course, it wasn’t public health the Pharisees were interested in protecting. They didn’t know too much about, or at least weren’t primarily concerned with, preventing disease. But that’s OK. They still had a good idea. Their idea was to preserve their people’s way of life, their religious and cultural distinctiveness in the context of a foreign military and cultural occupation. We wash our hands before eating. Those pagans don’t. We know who we are, and we are not them, and we know this because we have followed the rules which show us that we are set apart. They took their inspiration from the Bible itself, from the purity laws that God commanded, laws which helped define Israel over and against its neighbors in a time when that definition was crucial for its survival. But nowhere in the Torah does it say that everyone, or even anyone, must wash their hands before eating. But, you see, cleanliness is next to godliness, and so if purity is good in God’s eyes, even more purity is better, and so a human tradition arose requiring the handwashing that Jesus’ disciples decide to do without.

It is very easy for us to judge the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. What silly men they were, so caught up in ritual and appearance. But all the while we judge the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, we avoid taking a look at our own human traditions, and what they may be costing us. All the while we concentrate on what other people are doing is time that could be spent concentrating on what we ourselves are doing, the noble endeavor Jesus is recommending to those who will listen. When we stick to looking at our own human traditions, rather than those of others, we might be able to avoid the risk of winning not only the Darwin Award but also the Shaker Award, (a new award I just created) to honor the church that by the practice of its human traditions, eliminates itself for the overall good of the ecclesiastical gene pool. You may remember the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (USBCSA), better known as the Shakers, a movement back in the 18th century. The Shakers were a Christian community characterized by its virtues of simplicity and frugality, not to mention fine furniture and memorable music. Tis a gift to be simple, no? In fact, there were four pillars of belief of this community, all of which good ideas, and even partially based on the Bible. They believed in virgin purity, Christian communism, confession of sin, and separation from the world, all of which made for a distinctive Christian life, but a not very sustainable one. You see, they weren’t allowed to have children, very much a human tradition not found in the Bible. “Be fruitful and multiply,” no? And so they died out, and whatever contribution they could have made to making Christians in other traditions live simpler, more frugal lives filled with fine furniture and memorable music, died along with them.

What seemed never to have occurred to the Pharisees is that the things that Jesus describes at the end of our passage as those which defile a person, all the fornication, the theft, the murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride and folly we do, these are the traditions of the elders that really matter, and that it is far easier to distinguish ourselves from the “pagans” of the world by washing ourselves of these vices, rather than enforcing the rules as we have written them, even if they began as good ideas. All adherence to the rules does for us is make us good at keeping rules, and Jesus was never really too good at that himself.

As we prepare to come to the table this morning, I want to leave you with the invitation to examine the vices in your life that might lead you to judge others, but leave your own human traditions intact. We’ve already confessed our sin, but I want to leave just a little more time for us to be in silence to ask God to wash us clean of all that might defile us, that we might be more able to experience fully the grace offered to us at the table. As a starting point to that time, I’ll end my comments this morning with a poem that captures well the cost both we and the Pharisees would impose on ourselves when we focus on the wrong human traditions, even if they are based on good, and even healthy, ideas.

The young child grew and blossomed
Full of love and joy
Each morning was greeted with a song
And laughter
And a glass of spilled milk
Graciously lapped up
By her best furry friend
Under her chair.
And her days were filled with new adventures
Exploding her horizons
With each new discovery
And a fair sampling of dirt
Smeared from soiled hands
To now soiled clothes.
Until one day
The clouds seemed to cover the sun
Differently
Than they did before
And she learned not to spill her milk
Though she never did figure out
How to feed her furry friend.
And one day
She learned something new about dirt
And where she could not play
And where she could not wipe her hands
She also learned other things
She could not do
Until one day
While sitting there sad
And very still
She learned
She was a good girl

Let us pray in silence. Amen.