Nevertheless, She Persisted

Text Mark 6:31-34 & Mark 7:24-30

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  • 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.

__

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

Desperately Seeking Community

Desperately Seeking Community
Photo from http://www.etsy.com/listing/119259733/vintage-bicentennial-1976-1977-missouri
A Missouri license plate, circa 1976. Photo from http://www.etsy.com/listing/119259733/vintage-bicentennial-1976-1977-missouri

I had to work on the bicentennial of our country. Along with two others who lived the same 40 miles away from the Six Flags over Mid-America, I car pooled to work. A chivalrous seventeen-year-old, I squeezed into the backseat of a Chevy Vega on July 4, 1976. (Those of a certain age will know that this was no small task for a two-year-old let alone a teenage boy.)

I was discouraged that day; I spent it selling watered-down orange juice in cheap plastic orange shaped containers when I really wanted to be celebrating my country’s two-hundredth birthday. Instead I spent it earning $1.90 an hour (less than minimum wage) because I was a seasonal worker.

Nonetheless, I still believed in my country and was glad to have a summer job. Growing up during Vietnam and the Watergate era, I wasn’t naive but I believed in the progression of the dream. Deep down, people are good, all people. (I still perceive this deep within my essence.)

I am not as idealistic as I was three plus decades later. I’ve witnessed things I thought would never happen.This is true both on a personal and national level. I‘ve had to explain unjust war to my children more than once. My trust in the electoral process  — with some caveats — was shattered by the 2000 debacle. 

I’ve seen improvement in race relations only to see a significant and sometimes racially-motivated backlash to the election of a bi-racial president. I’ve seen a minority of people so afraid of our rapidly changing world they draw their circles of inclusion tighter and tighter. This has been true in politics and within the faith I claim.

A Condon Fourth (2013). Photo by Tim Graves
A Condon Fourth (2013). Photo by Tim Graves See more photos on Flickr.

I began pastoring a small United Church of Christ in an eastern Oregon town of less than 700 this year. I quickly began to hear murmurings in town about the big Fourth of July celebration. A little cynical and not much of a flag-waver, I was curious about what this big day would hold. There was an all-community breakfast and dinner in the newly-restored town park. The parade was followed by a soap box derby and tricycle races on Main Street.

Though there were plenty of flags and some of the outfits my congregants wore blinded me with their stars and stripes, this was not about waving the flag. The Fourth was not about blind-obedience to a particular political perspective or even to the United States. No one denied we have our differences in our small town.

Despite those differences, we share something. We share the place we live. We are dependent on one another in our isolated community. We smile at one another (and sometime sneer or are cold to one another) but we all crave community. We need each other. While I lack my exuberant patriotism of 1976, I’ll wave a flag for a town that comes together for a red, white, and blue spectacle each July. I’ll wave a flag for those who in this era of division and vitriol, seek to be a community.

May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. Genesis 28:3 NRSV (Read in context.)

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Philippians 2:4 NRSV (Read in context.)

Imitation & Transformation

I preached on Philippians 3:17-4:1 at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on Sunday, February 24, 2013. Listen to it via this player or read the text below.

It was time. The scripture read, the congregation looked expectantly at the girl, a young woman really. She stood up, all 5 feet of her. Her long ginger hair flowed from her head and framed her young, fresh face.

As she made her way to the pulpit on this Sunday in which the youth led worship, the congregation smiled at her. They expected great things out of this girl. You see they’d been here on the Sunday when her parents and godparents came forward and she was baptized in the name of the Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Spirit swirled among them on that day. They remembered the smiles of joy as the congregation promised to support parents and child in a journey of faith.

As she made her way to the pulpit on this Sunday in which the youth led worship, the congregation remembered how when she was but three-years old she wrote a poem following her great-grandmother’s death. They remembered the funeral. They remembered how she stood next to her dad in this very sanctuary as he read the words she’d recited as mantra after her Great Granny died,

Flowers bloom in the springtime, 

Sometimes you die, 

Flowers bloom in the springtime.

Yes, they expected great things out of the now fifteen-year-old who was so wise at  three.

As she made her way to the pulpit on this Sunday in which the youth led worship, the congregation wondered what warm and fuzzy thing she would say. They expected great things out of this girl. You see they’d been here on the Sunday when she, wearing her white robe, read her confirmation vows. If they’d been a little more Pentecostal, they’d have sworn that they saw the Holy Spirit descend upon her that day.

Reaching the pulpit, she stepped up onto the stool, so she could be seen. She was a short fifteen-year-old. Expecting much from this remarkable young woman, the room became silent, every face looked toward her with expectation.  And the red-headed prophet spoke these words to the people who had raised her up to follow Jesus the Christ…

The fresh-faced prophet spoke these words to men with grey hair, to women with a few wrinkles, and to the smattering of young mothers and fathers with their children sitting beside them…

The prophet spoke these words, and I quote, “The church sucks!” The prophet’s parents looked at one another. This was not the sermon they’d heard at home before church. Holding hands with one another in the pew, they wondered if they would have a church home after their fifteen-year-old daughter was done.

After her shocking opening words from the pulpit, the prophet continued. She talked about the church’s functional if not outright hatred of gays and lesbians. She told them about her friend who committed suicide because of being bullied for being too effeminate.

That, the teenage prophet said, is not imitating Christ. He ate with the outcast and sinner. He loved all people but called out those who used their power to hurt others. Others like her now dead friend.

She talked about the inconsistency between the country’s war policy and the teachings of Jesus.

That, the teenage prophet said, is not imitating Christ. Why, she asked her faith mentors are you not speaking out for a better way?

She talked about drugs and alcohol. She talked about how she and her friends had easy access to drugs a block away from their school. Why, she asked, is the church silent when her friends overdose?

That, the teenage prophet said, is not imitating Christ. 

She talked about her friend who was sleeping around with boys because she didn’t have the kind of love from her parents that she deserved. Where is the church?

That, the teenage prophet said, is not imitating Christ. 

She challenged those who had raised her in the faith to be consistent. “Open your eyes and hearts,” she said, “you’ve failed too many of my generation.” With a determined look on her face and a tear welling up in her eye, she sat down.

The sanctuary was silent. The sanctuary was silent and though it was not in the church bulletin, the pastor stood up to speak.

“We’ve heard some hard words this morning. We’ve heard some words we’re not used to hearing in church but we need to listen and we need to act.”

Nothing significant changed. Now thirty years old, that teenage prophet is no longer a churchgoer.

***

Hear Paul’s words to the church at Philippi:

Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. Phil. 3:17-18 CEB

Imprisoned, most likely in Rome, Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. From a prison cell in Rome, where he would be awaiting his last appeal, something he was entitled to as a Roman citizen, Paul wrote to his beloved friends, the Philippians. The Philippi United Church of Christ was a church that had supported Paul’s ministry, probably on an ongoing basis. By all accounts they were a “good church” and a “successful church.” They were growing slowly but steadily.

In the middle of the first century, five decades after Jesus, Philippi was not the biggest city in its district. However, it wasn’t just a part of the Roman empire either. It was a Roman colony. This meant that its citizens had “great privileges…enjoy[ing] considerable property and legal rights.” (New Interpreters Bible, p. 470) Because the Philippi UCC was in a colony, its members would’ve been Roman citizens themselves. Their Roman citizenship would have been a point of pride and something of value to protect.

The still-young Philippian church of the mid-first century existed in a time when being a Christian was far from easy, however. The Roman gods and Roman values were dominant among the faithful of the city. Though different religious groups were tolerated by the dominant Roman cult and Christians didn’t have to worry about outright persecution, it didn’t mean all groups received equal respect.

At least one scholar contends the religious culture in Philippi was syncretic, meaning people were accustomed to picking a little of this from one religion and a little of that from another religion to meet their own tastes… And in the process avoiding the hard things that God demands of them in any of the religions.

Imagine striving to grow a church community in a culture of instant gratification, pain avoidance, and anything goes when your church is about loving sacrifice and sharing of resources.

For the Philippians in a Roman colony, there was a constant tension between the values of following Jesus and a culture with contrary, sometimes even hedonistic, values. And many in the church undoubtedly were tempted, as Jesus was in the wilderness, to compromise. To take the easy path.

And so, the apostle Paul writes to affirm and warn the struggling Philippians,

As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. Phil. 3: 18-20 CEB

Imagine striving to educate your young and attract members in a time when the culture teaches values contrary to those of your faith. When the culture is filled with those Paul calls “enemies of the cross.”

***

Can you? Can you imagine striving to educate our young and attract members to the Condon UCC when the culture teaches values contrary to those of Jesus the Christ? When even some other churches teach adherence to dogmas that exclude and lead to hatred of “the least of these”?

It seems to me that though Christianity is still the dominant religion in our time, secularism and capitalism and individualism have far more sway over our children than the church does. Sadly, our culture reflects a faith in acquisition more than in sharing. In winning more than in being community. While we all believe in hard work, some in our culture take that to an extreme anti-biblical position. They suggest the survival of the fittest and rugged individualism when our upside down Savior teaches that the meek shall inherit the earth and that peacemakers are called children of God.

***

The teenaged prophet challenged those who had raised her in the faith to be consistent. “Open your eyes and hearts,” she said, “you’ve failed too many of my generation.” With a determined look on her face and a tear welling up in her eye, she sat down.

The sanctuary was silent. And nothing significant changed. Now thirty years old, that teenage prophet is no longer a churchgoer.

***

What are we to do? We live in an era when fewer and fewer people are members of a church. According to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census released last year, 80% of Americans claim to be Christian but less than 49% are members of any congregation. In Portland only 36% are attached to a religious body be it Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian. Many media outlets called Portland the least religious city in the country, based upon this data.

But what about us? What about Condon? Well, of the people in Gilliam county only 26% are attached to a religious body. Twenty-six percent! That means three-quarter of the people in this county are without a faith community. We live in a time when the church of our youth is but a shadow of what it once was.

And despite prophets that have cried out to us for decades we keep doing the same things. We keep waiting for people to come back through the door. We think theologically shallow music or flashy screens will recreate the crowds of the 1950s. And, while good music and technology can be important tools in doing Christ’s work, they are not the answer in and of themselves.

Neither is offering a simplistic faith without obligation. Our faith is a sacrificial faith. It is one in which we are called to joyfully give up the earthly for our citizenship in the realm of God that began to unfold with Jesus.

Hear the words of the apostle Paul,

Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. (Phil. 3:20 CEB)

And, so, when we offer an easy or simplistic faith, we are not offering Christ. We’re offering something else. And why do we do it? Well, I suspect we think expecting little is the way to increase numbers. And, you know, a good number of churches have successfully grown in number with easy answers.

But our calling is not to fill pews. It’s not even to save the institution called Condon United Church of Christ. We’re called to make disciples. We’re called to spread the Good News of the One who breathed in the Divine, and breathed out extravagant love. A love so powerful that it can and does overcome death.

Dietrich Bonhoefer, a theologian writing as the German churches failed to stand up to the Nazis called this kind of faith, “cheap grace.” Writes Bonhoefer,

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (Dietrich Bonhoefer in The Cost of Discipleship)

Our faith is a faith in which we think about the whole community not only ourselves. Following Jesus means self-care and other-care. Remember, our Savior told us to love others AS ourselves not more than ourselves.

Following Jesus means leaving these walls and being Christ’s loving arms, hands of justice, and feet of action in the world as a response to the love that overcomes death.

***

So what do we do? Well, as I’ve said once or twice, we need to pray. We need to pray as individuals every single day. And we need to ask, what God wills us to do in this time and place. We need to prayerfully read our Bibles regularly seeking the still-speaking voice. We need to worship together as community because our faith is not a solitary act. And while I can’t say when you will hear God’s voice or how God’s voice will manifest to you, I know God will respond. Our God is a dependable God.

But what do we do?  For now, as we journey toward Easter we need to get into the habits of daily prayer, of Bible reading, and regular worship as community. Then, sometime after Easter we need to gather as community. We need to gather in retreat. We need to pray together, read scripture together, and plan together with the Holy Spirit.

We need to be open to the transformation promised by our God. If our God’s love is so abundant and so extravagant that it can overcome death  than God certainly will lead us to a transformation in this time and place.

Hear the words of the apostle Paul,

Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord. (Phil. 3: 20-4:1 CEB)

In the Lenten Wilderness

The nagging, oh, the nags that I experience. My internal nag — I call him Nagging Nate — has been lurking in my

psyche for some time now. He won’t shut up.

“You’re getting behind!”

“You need a creative outlet!”

“You’ll lose followers on your blog!”

Nagging Nate didn’t accept my feeble attempts at excuses. Neither my serious sickness or my son’s wedding in January would shut him up. He didn’t accept my February excuses either: a call to a new church and moving. Nope, Nagging Nate is not one to shut up.

And, so, I appealed to a higher authority. I appealed my case to God. Perhaps a bit presumptuous for such a small matter but as the Apostle Paul writes, “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.” (Philippians 4:6 CEB Read in context.)

In prayer and meditation, I was reminded that not only have my creative energies been focused on life transitions, my illness did slow me down. In the metaphor of creation, God did not create everything in a day. Neither am I  expected to create blogs, sermons, newsletter articles, and a home simultaneously.

In the Lenten Wilderness. Photo by Tim Graves
In the Lenten Wilderness. Photo by Tim Graves

I’m also not expected to forego rest. Not only did God rest from God’s work at creation but Sabbath time is considered essential to human and divine well-being throughout the biblical narratives. Sabbath is about trusting God’s abundance. Sabbath is about maintaining a relationship with the One. It is also about self-care and kindness to self.

And so in this Lenten season as we strive to add practices that help us to grow spiritually, I am adding rebuking Nagging Nate to my repertoire with the full realization that he will be back.

After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.

Luke 4:13 CEB Read in context.

Words that Inspire

Actions speak louder than words. True enough. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. Not so true. Words are powerful. Words cut or soothe. Words matter especially to children and others who are vulnerable. And, yes, actions must follow words but words do matter.

Rev. Sara Staton listens intently to a child. Photo by Tim Graves

I spent last week at Junior Camp. Junior Camp is what the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Oregon calls its camp for third, fourth, and fifth graders. I was blessed in many ways. One of the ways that I was blessed was by good leadership.

The Reverend Sara Staton of First Christian Church in Albany, Oregon, served as the camp director. She exuded love and respect. When a child had a question, she stopped and focused completely on the child. She listened. She responded respectfully even when the answer was no. Because her actions were consistent with the best of what it means to follow Jesus, the children trusted her. And, so, the words she spoke to the children on Monday morning had soothing, loving power. They were rightfully believed and set a tone for the week.

In a brief presentation to the children about Philippians 4:4-5, in which Paul implies that Jesus could return at any moment, Sara said,

“The counselors thought and prayed about that and then you all showed up. I think God is already here. We see God in each of you.”

Ever Present One,

Thank you for inspirational and ethical leadership from young women like Sara.

Thank you for those who strive to live as Jesus taught,

   and who welcome the youngest of your people: the children.

Amen