Extended Reach

Isaiah 35: 4-7a  Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Mark 7: 24-37  September 6, 2015

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

“And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue released, and he spoke plainly.”

Prayer:  O Holy One, you who act with love and justice, mercyand forgiveness, please let the living spirit of Christ sink deeply into our hearts, that we may see others from your point of view and reach out to them so that they may share in your power and strength.  Amen.

As with anything in life, in pastoral ministry, some of the things you learn from other people stick with you, and you end up practicing or saing the same thing later on.  Lots of times, that’s good.  Other times, not so much.  I was in my second year in ministry at Holladay UCC, in Salt Lake City, Utah.  My friend and colleague Pastor Harvey was the Lead Pastor, and I was the Associate Pastor.  It was that time of year when the Nominating Committee was searching for Church Council members, and Harvey asked me, “Who do you think we might be able to ask to serve on Council?”  I suggested one of the newer members of the church who joined about six months earlier.  But, Harvey said, and I’ll never forget this… “No, she hasn’t paid her dues yet.”  In retrospect, I believe what he meant by “She hasn’t paid her dues” was that she hadn’t been a member for very long and there likely were other members church members with more longevity who may feel slighted if they weren’t asked first.  Who was I to argue with that?  I was only in my second year! ‘She hasn’t paid her dues’ sounded reasonable to me.

Fast forward to about five or six years later.  I was serving as the pastor at Community UCC in Reading.  And I had been preaching on the inclusivity of the church, on extending extravagant hospitality and welcome to all people, about people using their gifts in ministry, and so forth.  Well, it came time for the Nominating Committee to find a church member who would serve as an elder on Consistory.  And, I was talking with Sam, the President of Consistory, who was sort of doubling as a person on the Nominating Committee.  Sam suggested a woman who had joined the church about a year earlier, and I said… [you know what I said, right?]  “Ah, well maybe not… she hasn’t paid her dues yet.”  And Sam looked at me with a crossed eyebrow… and he said, “I’m really surprised to hear you say that.  That doesn’t sound like you.  You’ve been preaching inclusivity, hospitality, people using their gifts.  You welcome people.  But, paying their dues?  It sounds really odd to hear that coming from you.”

Sam’s words stopped me in my tracks.  He pointed out my glaring inconsistency, not only in my practice of ministry, but more importantly, in my fundamental thinking about inclusivity.  Sometimes, old embedded ideas and practices die hard, don’t they?  But, deep down, I knew Sam was right.  I had to grow.  I had to move away from an old concept and develop a deeper understanding of ministry.  I needed to extend myreach toward a more profound level of inclusivity both in thinking and in practice.

All of us learn from moments like that, don’t we?  No matter what we might be doing in life.  Sometimes we get caught up in the way things always have been, or we hang onto an old idea, and then something happens that makes us realize that some broadening may need to occur.  Maybe God uses familiarsituations to teach us something new.

Our Jesus for today story has some of those characteristics.  In fact, I find this story remarkable, mostly because I think it shows the human side of Jesus.  It shows how he was growing… how his understanding of who he was and who he came for was shifting.

Jesus had already started to shift toward this inclusivity, but, sometimes old embedded ideas die hard and pop up just when you least expect it.  For example, remember when he touched and healed other non-Jewish lepers?  That was inclusive.  Or, when he had diner with “sinners” and tax collectors?  That was an extended reach.  How about when he claimed that his real family werenot his mothers, or his brothers, but the sick and needy gathered around him in search of God’s healing power?  Even from last Sunday’s reading, remember how Jesus extended the reach and meaning of scripture as he defended the disciples eating food

without washing their hands?

So, it’s really surprising to hear Jesus say to the Syrophoenician woman “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”  Dogs were considered unclean, street scavengers.  So, his apparent meaning is that non-Jewish Gentiles were considered unclean, too, and Jesus has not come for them first, but first only for the children of God, the Jewish people.

But, uh—Jesus?  That doesn’t sound like you.  You’ve been healing people inclusively, you’ve shown hospitality to non-Jews and sinners, you’ve welcomed sick and unclean people saying they were your true family.  But, taking the children’s food and giving it to the dogs?  It sounds really odd and even insulting to hear that coming from you.

But, the woman refuses to get bent out of shape because of Jesus’ words.  She responds quickly out of concern and love for her daughter—saying in effect, “I may be an unclean, scavenger dog to you, but even the scavenger dogs know what’s good.  So, even the smallest crumb of the healing God offers for the children still has the same value for my daughter.”

Bam! Here comes the stunning reversal!   Because of the Syrophoenician woman’s comment, Jesus changes his mind!  The old embedded concept that his mission was primarilyto the children of Israel had now solidly moved to an inclusive concept that the mercies and power of God are made available to the non-Jews (as in the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter) and the Jews (as in the man who was both deaf and mute).  Because of the woman’s quick and intelligent remark, Jesus is amazed and re-orients himself, extending the reach of his mission now using a deeper concept of inclusivity.

As followers of Jesus, and as practitioners of the Christian faith, and a member of Christ’s Church, in the church, I think it’s vital that we continue to discern ways to extend the reach of God’s love and influence with inclusivity.  In a world that is seemingly becoming evermore divided, perhaps inclusive pluralism, inter-faith efforts are the instruments God is usingto help bridge the divides.

On June 17th, a Catholic Church called Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Israel was attacked by an arsonist.  The church is so called because it is built on the traditional site where Jesus miraculously multiplied the loaves and fish to feed 5000 people.  Two people were injured as the fire damaged the church and the adjoining monastery.  Graffiti declaring in Hebrew “False idols will be smashed” was scrawled on one of the walls.  It was an act of hate and terror.

Beautifully, in a wonderful spirit of pluralism and inter-religious solidarity, two American Jewish organizations are among those donating funds to help the church recover.  The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee not only donated large sums of money, but they also declared full support with this Catholic church.  There were various other religious organizations assisting as well (Chabin, Michelle, “U.S. Jewish groups donate to help church in Israel recover after arson,” RNS, The Christian Century, August 19, 2015, p. 16).

In my opinion, that shows the extended reach of God’s power, when people can extend beyond religious and cultural norms and respond to immediate needs.  Why not extend the reach when the need is not present, too?  Why not express that religions could be bridges of cooperation instead of barriers that divide?  In fact, that Catholic church, as part of its ministry before the fire, ran a program for disabled Palestinians and Israelis. That alone extends the reach of God’s power and love, doesn’t it?

I believe God is working in the hearts and minds of people around the world as they extend their reach beyond cultural norms and religious doctrine and sentiments.  That’s why I affirm the countries that are accepting these thousands of migrants coming to them from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, and South Sudan.  The migrants are fleeing the ravages of ISIS, civil wars, military drafts, deplorable conditions as well as the threats against their lives if they don’t stay and fight with ISIS (http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/05/europe/europe-migrant-crisis/index.html, retrieved September 5, 2015).

Friends, I encourage us to pray for the people who are suffering under those kinds of atrocities and oppressive regimes around the world.   Let’s

pray also for those people who are developing a new spirit of justice and tolerance for each other, a new spirit of accountability to one another extending the reach of God’s realm.  Let’s pray that God might use situations and circumstances to teach and lead those who advocate such injustice, such intolerance, such hatred, such narrow-minded viewpoints, to broader perspectives that fit God’s will.  Not my will.  Not their wills.  Not even my idea of what God’s will is… but God’s will.  Thy will be done.

Let’s pray for our children around the world, that they may be educated to respect other faiths, other religions, that they may extend the reach of God’s realm.  Nothing will change unless that happens, unless our kids are taught this early on.  I hope and pray the old, embedded ideas die out so that God’s realm may enjoy an extended reach.  Amen.