Archive for September, 2015

Some Sunday School Scenario!

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2015 by timtrue

Mark 9:30-37

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,

Look upon a little child;

Pity my simplicity,

Suffer me to come to Thee.


Fain I would to Thee be brought,

Dearest God, forbid it not;

Give me, dearest God, a place

In the kingdom of Thy grace


Lamb of God, I look to Thee;

Thou shalt my Example be;

Thou art gentle, meek, and mild;

Thou wast once a little child.  Etc.

Nothing against Charles Wesley, who penned the words of this hymn; but these words demonstrate well my starting point today: we like to think of Jesus as meek and mild.

On his way to Capernaum, Jesus notices some of the disciples arguing among themselves.  So, rather than pointing out their pettiness, in his meek and mild way Jesus waits until they’ve reached their destination.

There, really knowing what the argument was about all along—because he’s Jesus, after all—rather than sternly rebuking these disciples openly, Jesus calls a little child to himself, for an object lesson.  And we all say, “Aw!”

Aw! because, well, there’s a child involved; and aren’t children just so precious!  And Aw! because Jesus is just so meek and mild and wise precisely because he does not rebuke his disciples openly but instead chooses to teach them through subtlety and persuasion.  And oh! don’t we all want to be just like him now?

But let’s look at this passage afresh. Is Jesus being meek and mild here?  Is this the Sunday-school Jesus here we’ve come to know and love, the Jesus who takes time to notice the small joys of life that others take for granted?  Is this the Jesus here who exercises wisdom through gentle persuasion and compassion?

Not to discount any of those traits!  Jesus is, at times, meek, mild, and gentle.  He does take time to notice the small joys in life.  He does exercise wisdom through persuasion.  He does all this—but elsewhere!  Not here!

Notice that the disciples are actually afraid of him.  Yeah, afraid!  Along the road Jesus teaches his disciples that he must be betrayed and killed; but that he will rise again.  Then v. 32 tells us, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

A little later, after Jesus asks them what they were arguing about amongst themselves on the road to Capernaum, they do not answer him but remain silent.  This time we’re not told directly that they are afraid, but the silence strongly suggests it.


Of Jesus!

Who then calls over a little child!

And we’re thinking, “Aw!”

Shame on us!

This isn’t some saccharine-sweet Sunday school scenario.  There’s raw emotion here.  Jesus isn’t being meek and mild with the disciples.  Rather, he’s challenging them and their views—their selfish, egocentric, pushy views—about who among them is the greatest.

Now, let’s step out of Jesus’ world for a moment and think about the world we know: our world. Who in our world is the greatest?

Just to clarify, I’m not asking the same question as the disciples: I’m not asking us to consider who among us, the parishioners of St. Paul’s in Yuma, is the greatest.  Rather, it’s a question in general.  In our modern-day, independence-valuing American culture, what kind of person gets ahead?  Who rises to the top positions in leadership?  Who wins?

Isn’t it—at least all too often—the pushiest, most self-promoting person?  We all want the underdog to win; it seems almost inherent to our nature.  And there are exceptions to the rule.  But the fact is that most people in positions of leadership get there by being a fighter.  We thrive on competition.  Vying for the top job means competing against others—sometimes hundreds of others—in order to get there.  This requires a certain amount of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and relentlessness.  Even my former seminary dean—one of the meekest, mildest, and humblest men I’ve ever known—admitted to having to do these things in order to become the dean.  It’s how we rise through the ranks in our culture.

Well, guess what.  It was no different in Jesus’ day.

We all know stories, of course, of Caesars who were egocentric megalomaniacs.  But a common Roman citizen might zealously desire to become a member of the equites, or even a senator.  And the way to get there—you guessed it—was through shameless self-promotion and otherwise fighting one’s way to the top.  It was about being the greatest.

But all this relentless pursuit to become something or somebody, to amass more wealth, to acquire more clients, to increase in status, to become more well-known and respected—does a mere child concern itself with these things?  (By the way, did you notice?  Our English translation captures the impersonalized pronoun for the child: it.  This child, It, no doubt, was at the very bottom of the bottom rung of the Roman social ladder.)

The relentless pursuit of self was miles from this child’s point of view.  So, here, today, Jesus is not some syrupy Sunday school caricature.  Quite the contrary, today Jesus is stern.  He’s turning the selfish pursuit for self-promotion head over heels.  He welcomes this child into his arms, and thereby sternly rebukes his disciples for arguing among themselves about who is the greatest; and likewise challenges the dominant values of society.

Leadership in Christ’s kingdom is not the same as leadership in the world.  Leadership in Christ’s kingdom is not about fighting your way to the top.  Leadership in Christ’s kingdom is about being the servant of all.

Which leaves me with just one application for today.

We have a turnover approaching in the leadership here at St. Paul’s.  The term of four vestry members will conclude in January; four new vestry members will be elected.

My application for you today, then, is a kind of homework assignment.  Over the next few months, think about those you know in this congregation who demonstrate the kind of servant leadership Jesus demands.  Then, if someone comes to mind, go and tell that person you’d like to nominate him or her for one of the upcoming vestry vacancies.

And if you’re a person who is approached, well, you have a follow-up assignment.  Pray.  Ask the Holy Spirit to work in your heart and help you discern whether this area of servant leadership is for you.  Then allow your name to be put forward as a nominee; and tell your nominator “okay” and to let me know.

And don’t worry about too many names!  Wouldn’t it be great if ten such nominees were to rise to the surface over the next four months?

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

An Ephphatha Moment

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2015 by timtrue


Mark 7:24-37

What do you really believe about Jesus?

We believe the Creed; or we imply that we do, every Sunday, when we say it together:

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.”

And, a few lines later:

“By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

So the man Jesus, when he was walking on the earth with his disciples two thousand years ago, was fully man; yet he was also fully God.

Fully man and fully God.

Do you believe this?

It’s kind of confusing.

As a man, was Jesus aware that he was God?  Let’s assume so.  In today’s reading, as he healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter from afar; and as he healed the deaf and mute man, let’s assume Jesus knew he was God incarnate.

Well, when did he become aware that he was God?

Was he aware of it last week when he called the Pharisees hypocrites?

Was he aware of it when Herod beheaded John the Baptist?

Was he aware of it when he went to his hometown and wasn’t well received, when he said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house”?

What about when he was in the wilderness, fasting for forty days, tempted by Satan?

Or what about when he was baptized by John in the Jordan River?

As a man, did Jesus possess an awareness of his full divinity?


So, keep backing up.  We don’t have much on Jesus’ childhood.  Except once, when he was twelve, over in Luke we read that Jesus’ parents were on a journey home from Jerusalem and realized that Jesus was not with them.  Frantic, they retraced their steps only to find him three days later hanging out with the teachers at the Temple.  And Jesus asks, “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  Was Jesus aware as a twelve year-old boy that he was fully human and fully divine?

As a boy, presumably learning on-the-job carpentry skills with his father Joseph, was Jesus aware of his divinity then?  None of the New Testament Gospels relates any miracles done by Jesus as a boy; but the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas does.  (And not all of them are good miracles!)

Was Jesus aware of his divinity as a boy?

What about as a baby?  We can’t reasonably assume that Jesus was born walking and talking and otherwise planning out his human life.

I mentioned last week that I spent a couple of years teaching second grade.  We worked on multiplication tables in second grade.  Well, what if Jesus were in my classroom?  Would he have learned his multiplication tables faster than any of the other students?  If he was fully God as a boy, doesn’t that mean that he knew everything already?  Why would he need to go to school at all?

Yet he was also fully human.  Back in Luke, just after his parents found him, we read that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

No doubt he had to learn his multiplication tables, just as every other child his age did.  No doubt he made some mistakes along the way.  No doubt his first exercises in carpentry were crude and rough, just as every other apprentice begins crudely and roughly.

Jesus was fully human.  He therefore went through the normal human processes of increasing in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor—or, said another way, he grew mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially.

And, just as we grow and evolve in these ways throughout our human lives, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus continued to grow in these ways throughout his life.  It’s safe to say that Jesus was probably aware of his divinity to some extent when his parents found him at the Temple.  He was probably more aware when he was baptized in the Jordan River.  He was probably more aware still when he performed the miracles in today’s reading.  And he was probably even more aware when he stood trial before Pontius Pilate.

But, without doubt, he also made mistakes.  Human mistakes.  He increased in wisdom, meaning he had to learn carpentry through trial and error—stress error.  He made mistakes.

Now the real challenge: did Jesus ever sin?

For the record, mistakes aren’t to be confused with sins.  Writing “3×3=6” on a test is a mistake; looking at your neighbor’s test for the answer is a sin.  Coming into my office and confessing, “Pastor, I made a mistake: I just robbed a bank at gunpoint.”  Well, yeah, that’s a mistake, technically.  But more importantly, it’s a sin because it’s morally wrong.

(By the way, no one has ever come into my office to confess this to me; so stop looking around and trying to determine who might have said this!)

Point is, I ask this question—did Jesus ever sin?—because something unsettling happens in today’s Gospel.  It is so unsettling, in fact, that it has caused some people to conclude that Jesus actually did sin.

He’s fully human, they argue.  And sin is a part of human nature.  So why not?  Why shouldn’t Jesus have sinned?  And here’s the proof!  He calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog!  He insults a person and shows exclusive attitudes towards gender, race, and class.  In a moment of weakness, they conclude, St. Mark has captured an episode when Jesus actually sinned.

On top of all this, they rightly point out, the Creed does not deny it.  Yeah!  Pay close attention to the Creed when we say it together in a few minutes.  Nowhere does it state that Jesus never sinned.  And this is true of both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed.

“But wait!” I want to protest (and I hope you do too).  “He was fully God.  The Creed makes this clear!  And how could God ever sin?  Besides, what about the Bible?”

The Creed doesn’t say that Jesus never sinned, true enough.  But a good chunk of it—about half!—makes explicit statements about Jesus’ full divinity.  And, yes, while the Creed does not say that Jesus never sinned, the Bible does!

To quote just a few verses:

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22).

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

“You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).

The Bible is clear: Jesus never sinned.  In fact, let me suggest that the Bible is so clear on this matter that the writers of the Creed felt no need to put it in.  It was already a foundational truth upon which the Creed was built.

So then—phew!—glad to have gotten that off my chest! Still, we have to deal with this sticky question.  Why does Jesus respond to this woman the way he does?  Why does he call her a dog?  What is going on here?

Jesus 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.”

The “children” here are Jews; the “dogs” are Gentiles.  The Syrophoenician woman is a Gentile.  Jesus is calling her a dog.

We can’t soften this.  I tried.  I looked up the Greek for dog, hoping to find some sort of idiom or colloquialism to help me out.  And you know what I found?  The Greek word for dog means dog.

It’s an insulting term, demeaning, and exclusive.  She is a woman; she is not a Jew; and she is probably upper class (Jesus is lower).  We might easily read biases into Jesus’ canine statement—biases against gender, race, and class.

But my theology won’t allow me to believe that Jesus would sin.  So, what do we make of this exchange?

“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.”

My theology won’t allow me to believe that Jesus would sin.  But it does allow room for human mistakes; and room for human growth.

Jesus calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog.  She boldly replies that she wants what he has to offer, that she trusts him, that she believes in him.  St. Matthew relates the story adding these words: “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish’” (Mt. 15:28).

Whatever else we want to make of this story, Jesus clearly turns.  He doesn’t want to help the woman; then he does.

Far from being evidence that Jesus is sinning, I find a strong case here for Jesus experiencing growth and maturity in his adult life—on the fly!

Certainly, as a man, he was influenced by his culture—just as we all are.  We buy into ideologies without even realizing it.  Music, media, family, friends, foes—they all influence us in ways seen and unseen.  Why should it be any different for Jesus?

Jesus was tired.  He’d been working hard.  He’d entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know.  He was needing some alone time.

Nevertheless, his reputation had preceded him.  People—non-Jewish people—knew of him and of his capabilities.

Why shouldn’t he have been a little annoyed, then, when this unknown woman approached him?  What if she were merely wanting to see him perform some magic trick?  Was it a sin to respond the way he did?

But then—since my theology allows for human growth and maturity—why shouldn’t Jesus experience a sort of “aha!” moment, on the fly?  When the woman responds in a way that demonstrates faith, why shouldn’t Jesus be able to realize his mistake, to have sudden sympathy on the woman and her daughter, and to abandon his human biases?

It works for me.  And I hope it works for you.

But, if all this is still not enough, there’s one more bit that compels me: the context.

What was Jesus’ point last week?  Hypocrisy.

We shouldn’t live pretend, hypocritical lives; but lives that are honest, authentic.  What made the Pharisees hypocrites was their preconceived ideas, their biases, about washing hands before meals.  Jesus and his disciples weren’t good Jews, these Pharisees said, since they hadn’t washed their hands before the meal.

Isn’t it curious that today’s episode with the Syrophoenician woman occurs just after this lesson about hypocrisy in Mark’s Gospel?  It’s as if Jesus is remembering his lesson on hypocrisy as his conversation unfolds with the Syrophoenician woman.  It’s as if he checks himself, mid-sequence, realizing he’d better put his very words into practice.  He better not be operating by biases, even if those biases are commonly accepted social norms.  Wrong is wrong, after all.  Better to nip a mistake in the bud than allow it to blossom into sin.

So that’s part of the context.

But also, what happens next?

Next, Jesus heals a deaf and mute man.  Jesus goes to the man, sticks his fingers in his ears, spits, touches the man’s tongue, and looks to heaven and says this strange word: Ephphatha.  And the man’s ears are opened; and he is able to speak clearly.

The man, who could not speak or hear before, has an Ephphatha moment.

Could it be that Jesus, who at first had not seen the Syrophoenician woman’s intentions clearly, also just experienced an “Ephphatha” moment?

What about us?

Do we allow socially acceptable ideas to govern our sense of right and wrong?  Do we possess biases about gender, race, and socioeconomic class because we allow society to influence us along these lines?  And then are we so stubborn in our biases that we refuse to change them once we realize our mistake?

Or are we like Jesus?  Are we cognizant enough in the heat of whatever situation to discern what is truly right from what is truly wrong—and then act on it?  Are we able to experience an Ephphatha moment?

Right is right, after all; and wrong is wrong.  Better to nip a mistake in the bud than allow it to blossom into sin.