Nevertheless, She Persisted

Text Mark 6:31-34 & Mark 7:24-30

screenshot-2017-02-14-06-38-05

  • I love my dog.
    • under covers
    • kiss his head
  • Dogs were not pets
    • “Dogs, a highly insulting name, dogs were regarded as shameless and unclean” (Jewish Annotated NT)
    • rats?
  • Region of Tyre
    • Gentile area bordering Judea
    • “potentially hostile”

Nevertheless, he persisted.

  • Meets Syrophoenician woman
    • Gentile?
    • approaching a man?
    • her daughter is sick

Nevertheless, she persisted.

The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter.  27  He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Mark 7:26-27 CEB

  • Jesus says heal the Jews.
    • says in derogatory way
  • Possible interpretations of Jesus’ actions
    • ignore context and think of our own pets
    • misogynist
    • xenophobe “Make Judea Great Again”
    • testing her
      • hostile?
      • worthy?
  • seizing a teachable moment
    • use of “dogs” plays into Jews’ biases
    • good news is for all

He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Mark 7:27 CEB

We need to take care of Americans first. It isn’t right to take the bread and toss it to the refugees and immigrants.

  • Jesus has laid his trap.
    • On to him,
      • Nevertheless, she persisted.

“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Mark 7:28 CEB

  • Story has turned
  • Jesus reveals his point
    • Jesus heals her daughter
      • when she persists
      • tho she’s not Jewish
      • tho she’s a she
    • The kingdom of God is for everyone

and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. 31  The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31 CEB

***

  • Condon UCC criticized
    • too inclusive
      • LGBT
      • women
      • black lives
      • immigrants
    • too loving
    • not Christian

Nevertheless, you persisted.

  • Your faith is palpable
    • resist an inward focus
      • But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness… Matthew 6:33 NRSV
    • be active in your faith
      • My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? 
      • Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? James 2:14 CEB
  • You have big decisions & challenges
    • Nevertheless, you will persist.

I leave you with the words of the apostle Paul writing to the Philippian church,

I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now.  I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:3-6 CEB

Amen.

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This was my final sermon at the Condon United Church of Christ, delivered Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017.

A Prayer for Today

Sacred Wholeness: 

Inspire our hearts, feet, & hands to be your expansive love in the face of hostility and hatred and fear. Help us to retain your essence of compassion and favor for those on the margins. May we embrace your calling of love and justice in “just such a time as this.” Amen. 

###

Related Scripture Readings
Luke 12:22, 25, & 31
Micah 6:8
Mark 12:30-31
Esther 4:14

How Long, O Lord? A Sermon in a Rural County Following the Election

Isaiah 6

We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. –Karl Barth

Election numbers

  • County 2/3
  • State 40%
  • National slightly less than 50%

Protests across cities

Fringe Trump supporters overtly threatening

We are a deeply divided people

Our hope that we would somehow magically come back together after Tuesday was naive.

***

Result of election of one who was openly

  • Racist
  • Misogynistic
  • Blamed immigrants and Muslims

Stories from circle re fear

Text: ”Half of this country just threw my life under the bus”

Election served as a trigger for sexual assault victims

Hateful “go home” notes left in people’s work mailboxes

Synagogues hiring security

Screamed at on way to work: “Trump! N****r!”

I spent much of Wednesday counseling, listening 

***

Others celebrate shock to polarized system

Needs have been ignored

Voting for him doesn’t mean you did so because racist

Some of you voted for him despite these things

***

View the world through the Bible,  faith, love

love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength…The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31 CEB

As followers of Jesus we are obliged to stand with those the powerful have attacked.

I sat down to write the scripture email late Wednesday. I came up with something not quite reflection.

I share some of that with you now:

***

“How long, O Lord?” asks Isaiah. “How long, O Lord?” must I fruitlessly prophesy to your people.

And God tells him that he must prophesy until the cities lay in ruins and the land lay devastated.

And, still, Isaiah goes where God sends him.

This is a discouraging story. 

The descriptions of the people turning away from living in accordance with God’s requirements,

their obstinate refusal to listen to the prophet warning of the pitfalls of their chosen path,

and, still the voice of Isaiah calling to them, is reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie. Love of neighbor be damned!

I have seen some horrible things as an educator and as a pastor.

I’ve been privy to some of the worst of what humanity has to offer.

I’ve often felt like following God’s requirements “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB) is futile.

Too often I’ve felt beaten down by shortsighted bureaucrats or politicians more concerned with bombing and killing others than feeding our own children!

My words of “you are God’s beloved” seem too little when the church — THE CHURCH! — spews hatred and rejects children of God.

In the face of an incoming president who has made fun of a disabled reporter, bragged about sexual assault, who has a racist history,

and who blames and threatens to discriminate against all Muslims — our sibling Abrahamic religion — all while claiming the Christian faith, I am discouraged. 

Does our faith even matter?  On the morning following the election I was counseling multiple people who are terrified that their rights are at stake now.

One young woman said to me, “I am scared for my personal safety!”

An individual one step removed from me was the victim of someone yelling, “Trump! N****r!” as he journeyed to work.

I imagine Isaiah saw some of the same underbelly of humanity happening all around him.

God does not seek prophets when humanity is loving neighbor and caring for the least of these (Matthew 25:44-45).

God saw the state of the world all too clearly in the time around King Uzziah’s death, in Isaiah’s time.

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.” Isaiah 6:8 CEB

Isaiah volunteered to take God’s message to the people!

His response reminded me of a little girl who, as Hitler was spreading through Europe, wrote in her diary:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank).

Just as Isaiah responded to God’s call to a seemingly fruitless task, we must not give up on God’s call to be the realm of God in the world.

If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must stand on the margins of society as Jesus did.

We must strive to manifest the extravagant love of Christ.

We must protect the vulnerable even when others empower hatred.

[Isaiah] said, “How long, Lord?” And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.”  (Isaiah 6:11 CEB)

And I suppose there is the Good News:

Even when we don’t deserve it, even when the only thing that remains is a holy seed, God does not give up.

Amen.

How Long, O Lord?

“How long, O Lord?” asks Isaiah. “How long, O Lord?” must I fruitlessly prophesy to your people. And God tells him that he must prophesy until the cities lay in ruins and the land lay devastated. And, still, Isaiah goes where God sends him. (Read Isaiah 6 here.)

This is a discouraging story. The descriptions of the people turning away from living in accordance with God’s requirements, their obstinate refusal to listen to the prophet warning of the pitfalls of their chosen path, and, still the voice of Isaiah calling to them, is reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie. Love of neighbor (Mark 12:29-31) be damned!

I have seen some horrible things as an educator and as a pastor. I’ve been privy to some of the worst of what humanity has to offer. I’ve often felt like following God’s requirements “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB) is futile. Too often I felt beaten down by shortsighted bureaucrats or politicians more concerned with bombing and killing others than feeding our own children! My words of “you are God’s beloved” seem too little when the church — THE CHURCH! — spews hatred and rejects children of God.

In the face of an incoming president who has made fun of a disabled reporter, bragged about sexual assault, who has a racist history, and who blames and threatens to discriminate against all Muslims — our sibling Abrahamic religion — while claiming the Christian faith, I am discouraged. Does our faith even matter?  On the morning following the election I was counseling multiple people who are terrified that their rights and personal safety are at stake now. One young woman said to me, “I am scared for my personal safety!” An individual one step removed from me was the victim of someone yelling, “Trump! N****r!” as he journeyed to work on public transit.

I imagine Isaiah saw some of the same underbelly of humanity happening all around him. God does not seek prophets when humanity is loving neighbor and caring for the least of these (Matthew 25:44-45). God saw the state of the world all too clearly in the time around King Uzziah’s death, in Isaiah’s time.

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.” Isaiah 6:8 CEB

Isaiah volunteered to take God’s message to the people! His response reminded me of a little girl who, as Hitler was spreading through Europe, wrote in her diary:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank).

Just as Isaiah responded to God’s call to a seemingly fruitless task, we must not give up on God’s call to be the realm of God in the world. If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must stand on the margins of society as Jesus did. We must strive to manifest extravagant love. We must protect the vulnerable now and especially if our president-elect continues to empower hatred.

Isaiah said, “How long, Lord?” And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.”  Isaiah 6:11 CEB

And I suppose that’s the Good News, even when we don’t deserve it, even when the only thing that remains is a holy seed, God does not give up. As faithful people we must not give up either.

My Trip to a Gay Bar (#OrlandoShooting)

Friends,

A couple of my high school friends were visiting me at college. They asked my not-yet-wife and I to go with them to the local gay bar. Though I don’t recall a lot of details I have memories of discomfort and vulnerability.

13413757_10209876016319664_3928409912324737014_nI had never before seen men openly showing affection to one another.

Yes, I knew my visiting friends were gay. My best friend, who would later be the best man at my wedding, had already come out to me. My faith built upon the teachings of Jesus who tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31), had already allowed me to affirm a relationship that was kept closeted in the broader culture.

The biblical witness taught me that love is the core of the Christian faith. The Holy Spirit had already moved me to see that love might very well cross traditional cultural boundaries. Still, it took awhile for my gut emotions to catch up.

I suspect that is how it is with some even today, nearly four decades later. It is how I suspect it is for those who vehemently spew hatred toward so many of my friends, my clergy colleagues, and even my own firstborn child. It can be hard for emotions to catch up when you’ve been raised and taught in traditional ways of thinking.

The trouble with emotion-powered rhetoric regarding our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer kindred is that it can lead us to miss seeing the image of God in others. It can lead to violence toward others as it has too many times and in the early morning hours of June 12, it led to the massacre at an Orlando nightclub.

In my initial numbness, my spontaneous sobs, my deep desire to hold my children close, even my anger over this heinous act, I’ve thought about that night at a midwestern club. I went to that club because I knew it was important to my friends whom I loved. Looking back I see the Divine guiding me to overcome my discomfort and fear to be be present with my friends whose God-created sexuality was disdained by mainstream culture.

I did not yet know that the bars and clubs functioned as sanctuaries. I did not yet know that as one of my clergy colleagues wrote, “When churches would not let us cross their thresholds, the bars were where we held our memorial services and our weddings.” This shooting violated sacred ground as surely as the shooting at the AME church in Charleston did last year!

The arc of the Bible reflects a continuously widening circle of inclusive love. The narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah — despite what you may have been taught — is a parable about how important welcoming others is to God. Jesus regularly crossed the boundaries of ancient life, loving and eating with those his culture told him to despise. God still moves us to widen the circle of love.

In this era of alienation from the divine and one another, when politicians stir up hatred for their own ends, when violence seems impossible to stop, when even our own have too often turned to self-violence, we can make a difference.

We can open our hearts and minds, listening to other ways of thinking. We can choose to speak and act in loving and respectful ways about those in far off places and those we greet on Main Street. It really is that simple to change the world and be the people God created each of us to be.

Rev. Tim Graves
Pastor, Condon United Church of Christ

__

I sent this letter to my congregation and to the small town local newspaper.

An Open Letter to My Community

We’ve gone from the horror of the images out of Paris to a week of anti-refugee talk from media and politicians that is not only distasteful but contrary to the teachings of the biblical witness.

Sadly, we’ve been down this road before. Our immigrant-founded nation is filled with historical periods of fear and disdain of the newcomer. From fear of the Irish to the rejection of Jewish immigrants in the 1930s we too often reject our neighbors in need.

Giving in to fear has also created a context in which we blame Syrian refugees, victims of the same terrorist group as those in Paris. At a time when Syrian refugees need us the most, instead of loving our neighbor, we choose to fear them.

Our human inclination to be fearful is not new. There is a reason “do not be afraid” is such a common phrase in both testaments of the Bible. Like our ancient forebears, we need to be reminded to live into the people God dreams we can be.

When asked, “what is the greatest commandment?”, Jesus replied, “…you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:29b-31 CEB)

Jesus named these two because loving God and neighbor are foundational. We show our love for God in our love for others. When we share items with our local Food Pantry, we show love for God. Similarly when we show compassion for Syrian refugees we show love for God.

Our stories of faith are brimming with commands to be hospitable to our neighbors. Immigrants, strangers, and aliens are frequently named as those who are worthy of our loving embrace. Whether we approach the Bible literally, as some do, or critically, as I do, hospitality for strangers is an expectation of the divine.

The most disturbing aspect of the hateful rhetoric spewed toward Muslims, Syrian refugees, and others is that too many of the speakers claim Christianity as their faith. It can be argued, given our history, that hospitality for the stranger is not an American value. However, claiming the Christian faith and not welcoming the stranger takes mental and spiritual gymnastics that are inconsistent with the biblical narrative.

The best of Condon is about compassion and love for our neighbors in need. As we move into Thanksgiving week and the Advent season that precedes Christmas, the writer of Deuteronomy reminds the faithful, God “…loves immigrants… That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:16-19 CEB)

Let us love our neighbors as ourselves by opening hearts to Syrian refugees. In so doing we will share our love of God.

Cookies of Fear

Cookies of Fear
Source: Church World Service
Source: Church World Service

When distressed, we tend to use whatever tools we have to try to alleviate our condition. For example, if I have a headache I will take two tylenol. That is unless all I have in the cupboard is ibuprofen, in which case I’ll take ibuprofen.

We tend to use the things we have at our disposal to solve problems. Toddlers, for example, will sometimes resort to hitting or biting when feeling threatened by another. They use these strategies because they do not yet have the social skills necessary to remedy the situation.

I have multiple tools to cope with personal stress. The healthiest are getting rest and exercise. A good vigorous walk or run does miraculous things to my ability to cope with challenges. Regular sleep results in a more rational and loving me.

Though I know this, too often I turn to the cookie in the cupboard to deal with stress. Briefly, the cookie makes me feel better. Soon, however, it actually makes things worse. I feel bloated. The sugar disrupts my mood.

The suggestion that our nation refuse to accept Syrian refugees or accept only Christian refugees, as some have suggested, is a cookie. Rufusing our sisters and brothers may make us feel safer for a short time but it only breeds more hostility and bigotry.

Rather than gorging on cookies baked in the oven of bigotry and fear by opportunistic politicians, this is a time to slip on our running shoes and exercise our social skills, our hearts, and our faith. We need to look inside ourselves for the divine love with which we have each been created and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-30).

The Risk of Hard Work

The Risk of Hard Work
Beside Still Waters (variant). Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/
Beside Still Waters (variant). Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

“Some people don’t need to rest but I do,” she said. In the rhythm of the conversation, it wasn’t the time to contradict her assumption that some do not need rest. I just nodded, “Yeah, me too.”

The great American myth is that we can accomplish more if we muscle through without rest. The great American sin is failing to take care of ourselves and, in the process, failing to trust God that the world will keep spinning without us. It is an arrogance. It is an idolatry to worship work at the expense of rest and self-care.

Besides our arrogance and failure to trust the divine spirit that flows through creation, when we neglect self-care and regular sabbath we abuse ourselves.

Threaded through the biblical witness from Genesis (e.g.; Gen. 2:3) to Jesus (e.g.; Mark 2:27) is an emphasis on the importance of self-care and rest.  Living into the image of God in which all of us are created, we need regular sabbath. Despite the church’s traditional (self-serving?) teaching that sabbath is primarily about going to church, the reality is that most references to sabbath in the Bible are about abstention from work, rest, and self-care.

Created in the image of the divine, maltreating ourselves through overwork is abusing God.

When we forsake physical and emotional rest, we are more likely to mistreat others and break the Golden Rule (Matthew 22:34-40). When we fail to care for ourselves we are less kind, less patient, and, in my case, quicker to become angry and short over minuscule slights. Harming the God in me, harms the God in you.

Without regular sabbath, we cease to be the people we were created to be.