Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 7:24–7:37
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 8-9, 2012
This past week, it was back to school for thousands of students in Fairfax County as classes began the day after Labor Day. As challenging as it might be just to get back into the academic swing of things after summer vacation, what’s it like to be the new kid at school? If you’re the new kid, those butterflies in your stomach on the first day of school are magnified about a hundred times. Many of you know what that’s like from first-hand experience, especially those of you from military backgrounds: lots of moves to new homes, new neighborhoods, and new schools. It’s all about trying to fit in, make new friends, figure things out and learn your way around. All of those same feelings hold true for adults as well when we move to a new location, get transferred, or start a new job. Being an outsider can be pretty challenging, at least at first. In the midst of feeling uncertain and anxious when you’re the new kid, the outsider, it is a huge thing when someone notices that you’re new, strikes up a conversation, making you feel welcome. And with that, things start to look a whole lot better. Today’s Gospel lesson tells us about two outsiders and how Jesus ministered to them, and so the message for today is entitled “Outsiders.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word, for Jesus’ sake.
On this Rally Sunday, at the start of a new year of Christian education for our congregation, I brought some items with me here: a pillow, a hardhat, a newspaper, soccer ball, and a shopping cart. All of these represent reasons (excuses would be a better word) I’ve heard people give for not being in worship, Sunday School, or Bible class. “I like to sleep in on Sunday morning” (pillow). “The roof on the church will fall in if I show up” (hardhat). “I like to read the newspaper on Sunday morning” (newspaper). “My kids are in sports” (soccer ball). “It’s my only time to go grocery shopping” (shopping cart). Now we all need our rest, and we all need to know what’s going on in the world around us, and we all have to go to the store and buy groceries. But hear me when I say: if we are too busy to be in God’s Word with God’s people in God’s house, then we are too busy. As we begin this new year of Christian education in the life of our congregation, this is an ideal time to plug in. We are called as disciples of the Lord Jesus to be life-long learners. We’re not finished with learning once Sunday School is over, or when we’ve been through Confirmation, or after we’ve graduated from high school, or once the kids are out of the house. This side of heaven, we’re never finished learning and growing in our faith. There are some fantastic learning opportunities here at St. John’s that are now beginning. Will you be part of them? I urge you to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18), and I promise you that the church roof won’t fall in if you show up.
The accounts of Jesus’ healing in today’s Gospel take place outside the borders of Judea and Galilee in the land of the Gentiles. Jesus interacts and ministers to people who are not part of Israel, who are viewed as outsiders by those within Israel, who are considered outside the pale of salvation. Such people were frequently referred to as “dogs.” In interacting and ministering to these individuals, Jesus breaks down false barriers for the sake of mission. He breaks down geographical barriers by moving outside Israel into Gentile lands. He breaks down ethnic barriers by moving outside his own people and deals with a Syrophoenician woman. He breaks down gender barriers by publicly interacting with a woman. This may not seem like a big deal for us today, but it was a radical thing for Jesus to encounter a woman the way he does in this story. God is loose in the world in Jesus Christ breaking down all kinds of barriers and reaching out with healing and hope to those considered outsiders.
So, what are the barriers around us today that distinguish “us” from “them”? What are the fences, the barricades, the walls that are around us that shut out God’s light and love? The apostle James in today’s Epistle lesson (James 2:1-10) reminds us that favoritism and partiality within the fellowship of believers can be one such barrier. Whether of our own making or through the making of others, those barriers are there. In truth, we may not even be aware of these; they may be invisible to us. Having just concluded both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, we have witnessed a whole lot of “us” and “them.” In a nation that is so polarized, who will be the bridge over that great chasm? But our barriers run much deeper than political affiliation. These are all only a manifestation of the sin that separates us not only from one another, but from God himself. God’s original plan and purpose that humanity live in harmony with God and with one another has been broken, warped, twisted, and perverted. The barriers, the blockades, the obstructions affect not only our relationships on the horizontal plane as we interact with one another, they also affect our relationship with God on the vertical plane. It is there – where those two planes intersect – that the bridge for healing and new life is found. When those two planes come together, a cross is formed.
The healing of that Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, and the healing of the man who was deaf, point us to the One who is healing, wholeness, and salvation. This is Jesus, who fulfilled the words of Isaiah heard in today’s Old Testament lesson (Isaiah 35:4-7a) through his earthly life and ministry: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” This is Jesus, who on the tree of the cross reached out his arms to give forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to all who turn to him. This is Jesus, who alone has the power to break down our barriers and abolish the dividing wall of hostility between God and us, and us and others. This is Jesus who helps us live out what we sing of in that beloved Advent hymn: “O come, Desire of nations, bind In one the hearts of all mankind; Bid Thou our sad divisions cease, And be Thyself our King of Peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel! (Lutheran Service Book #357, stanza 7). This is Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God-with-us. This is Jesus, in whom there are no outsiders.
May this new year of learning that begins today strengthen and equip us all to be the hands, and feet, and mouth of Jesus in the world. And may our learning of Jesus enable us to live like Jesus, seeing the world and the people in it through his eyes of love until there are no outsiders. Amen.