Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - September 10, 2006

As the church, are we called to proclaim and repeat old truths, or do we say that sometimes, something new is to be drawn and proclaimed from the ancient texts of the Bible?  That was, is and I suppose always will be a big question among churches and individual believers.  If you think about it it’s at the heart of all the controversy that surrounds the hot button social issues churches get involved in.  Is the Bible the inspired, infallible and inerrant word of God for all times and situations or is it inspired, the word of God, but subject to new interpretations in light of a changing world?   

Today’s text from Mark would indicate that there are times when the Bible has something new to say.  It’s really quite a remarkable text as Mark uses this story of the Syrophoenician woman to proclaim a change in what they believed and understood about God which is a pretty radical, risky and challenging thing to do.

Mark began his gospel by stating exactly who he believed Jesus to be; “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  So Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.  He is the Son of God.  From there, it’s a matter of explaining what he meant by that and to start with Mark stays in pretty safe territory as he describes Jesus in the ways that make us comfortable; Jesus does all those things we want God to do; he heals the sick, casts out demons, feeds multitudes of people; he teaches with authority and speaks words of forgiveness.  So Mark in his portrayal of Jesus as the Son of God does so safely within the prophetic tradition of prophets like Isaiah who we heard a little bit from today, “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped;” things like that.   

The normal pattern in the healings Jesus does is that someone expresses their need or the need of someone else and Jesus acts on their behalf.  That’s what we come to expect.  Not so though, with the Syrophoenician woman.  With her come words of dismissal and prejudice from Jesus, words that just don’t fit with what we expect of him, words that don’t fit with the way Jesus has been portrayed by Mark up until now.  “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says.

Many have tried to explain this away; but it says what it says.  He essentially dismisses this woman and her child as dogs unworthy of his attention hence the tendency for preachers and interpreters to become press secretaries for Jesus explaining what he really meant to say.  The usual explanation for those who don’t try to explain it away is to say that it reveals the full humanity of Jesus.  In other words he didn’t just seem human, he was human, subject to human emotions that aren’t always very pleasant.

I don’t disagree with that; this text certainly can be used in support of Jesus’ full humanity which is accepted Christian doctrine.  But I think another thing going on here is that Mark also says something about Jesus full divinity.  There are ways that we come to expect Jesus to respond…with compassion and kindness and forgiveness…and usually he does; that’s the core of what we believe. 

But there’s also that divine freedom of Jesus, that unpredictability that can’t necessarily be explained, only lived with.  Maybe we want to think that’s Old Testament stuff, but if Jesus is the revelation of God, the Son of God Mark claims him to be, he too has that dimension.  So in a sense, as much as we might be bothered by this, Mark is still portraying Jesus within the context of what people already understood about God; as much as we might like him to always operate in predictable ways, he doesn’t…and life tells us that it’s true.

But Mark isn’t done with this story.  The woman doesn’t shrink back into the crowd at Jesus’ rebuke.  She challenges him and…he changes his mind; he changes his mind in a way that does portray him as being outside the core tradition of Israel, because he becomes the Son of God for everybody, not just the insiders of Israel. 

This is a profound theological statement on the part of Mark!  What he does here is to challenge his audience to think differently about God and their traditional beliefs.  Could the traditional understanding of scripture be wrong, tradition which placed this woman outside the boundaries?  Could that be wrong?  Oh, there are passages in the Old Testament that hint at something different, wider inclusion, there’s images of a parade of nations streaming toward Jerusalem, things like that.  But the bulk of the testimony said no; the people of Israel were special, chosen.  They and they alone were God’s people.

But Mark, in this story, says that those softer voices of inclusion are what ultimately carry the day, ultimately reveal the will of God.  But Mark goes even further.  He places this conflict within the very person of Jesus who remember he has already announced is the Son of God.  So the way Mark tells this, it’s more than just a reinterpretation of the text, which would be radical enough; it’s a change in the actual being of God.  It’s a description of divine freedom and unpredictability which comes down on the side of grace, divine freedom and unpredictability which become tremendously life giving to the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter, and also tremendously life giving to us, because we too move inside the boundaries of inclusion with this woman.

That’s good news, or at least it ought to be.  The problem with inclusion though, is once we’re included, the tendency is often to resettle the tradition and God in ways that are different, but still exclusionary, except now we make the decisions.  We wind up repeating old truths that we call new, not willing, not wanting to imagine that our tradition could have it wrong or that God could be acting in new, unpredictable ways.

I think Mark knew he was proclaiming something quite new and radical in this story of the Syrophoenician woman.  You notice that he quickly moves on to the second half of today’s text which is a more typical healing story, one where Jesus behaves more like we like him to.  So it’s like Mark knew the shock value of the first story and wanted to quickly cover it with something more in keeping with what people wanted to hear.

The challenge that Mark throws out there, the challenge to think differently about God persists though.  It persists largely because the person of Jesus challenges thinking about God, in particular, the cross and crucifixion of Jesus challenges thinking about God.  That’s why Christianity didn’t make sense to a lot of people.  Calling this crucified man God’s son just didn’t fit.  A crucified God after all is not almighty, all powerful, omnipotent, at least not all the time and that poses a challenge to our thinking. 

We all have those times we’d prefer to skip over this challenge and move on to more palatable texts, kind of like how Mark quickly moves on in his gospel.  But as much as pastors and theologians and individual believers try to settle all the questions, with a full reading of the Bible there always has to be a degree of unsettledness, an openness to consider that the Bible might be interpreted in new ways.  There has to be an openness to imagine that God could be acting in new, unpredictable ways, opening doors that we may have thought couldn’t be opened, like the door was opened to the Syrophoenician woman.

One of the phases that has recurred in some of Bishop Hanson’s recent statements is that the ELCA is the church of the ongoing reformation.  I haven’t seen this expanded on much, but from the context of what he says I think he means that all the questions aren’t settled.  The early church didn’t settle everything and Martin Luther’s reformation didn’t settle everything.  Each succeeding generation has to wrestle again with what the Bible is saying, what God is doing, respecting the tradition, but always open to the possibility of something new. 

As I begin my fourth year as your pastor, that’s a church I’m happy to be part of, and I hope you are too.  If you want more certain, settled, absolute answers, there are churches that will give you that.  On the other hand, if you’re willing to be challenged by the living God, revealed in Jesus Christ, God still active and at work, you and I are in the right place.  I don’t want to just repeat old truths.  I know I will never understand everything about God and his ways, but I love the challenge of trying to understand and sharing it with you, and I take on that challenge with faith and confidence, because the one thing I know, with certainty, is that, as Mark says, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and in him God has revealed his ultimate essence and will; and that will is for good, for grace, for forgivness, for life, for me and for you.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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