“A Grumpy Jesus” Mark 7:24-37

             Can we dare to imagine a grumpy Jesus?   That is certainly the way he sounds in this most embarrassing of all Gospel lessons today!

            Today we meet a Jesus who just wants to get away from it all.  Throughout Mark’s Gospel we are told that Jesus sought out lonely places to pray and to renew himself in the task of ministry.  He urged the same for his disciples.  “Come away to a lonely place…” 

But that lonely place has been harder and harder for Jesus to find as the word about his ministry spreads far and wide.   Today he has retreated to the Gentile territory above the Sea of Galilee, to the area around the cities of Tyre and Sidon.    He has left behind the crowds, the questioning Pharisees, and the demands of his own people back in Galilee.  He’s on vacation, if you will from the lost sheep, from those “children of Israel” that he has come for.   He is far away from anyone who should ask anything of him.   But even here, word of him has spread, and so this gentile woman, this outsider to the children of Israel comes with her great need, and her request.  

There is absolutely nothing unreasonable about her.  She kneels in Jesus presence, she begs him humbly not for herself, but for the sake of her daughter.  There is really nothing in this story to prepare us for the outburst from Jesus that she receives. 

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs….”

He so much as calls her a dog, an ultimate insult in that time and that culture!

We are almost embarrassed by Jesus here!  What would possess our gentle savior to lash out with such an unkind remark as that?

Dare we believe that this is one mark of Jesus true humanity?  Jesus did come to be as one of us, to live as one of us, and to experience what it is to be human, and we humans can get cranky. We can get short and impatient, particularly when requests are made of us when we are trying to get away from things.

It seems to happen to me every time we get ready to leave on vacation.  The car is packed, the tickets are in hand, the arrangements all made, and just as I’m about to my start vacation, something intrudes.  

A call from the office, and now I have to re-adjust my mind and handle the details I had hoped to be escaping.

You have been here.  You have known this kind of frustration.  Is this what Jesus is experiencing today?   A demand upon his time from an outsider no less, when all he really wanted to do was get away for a while?

That does not explain his terse remarks, but it does help us perhaps understand them, and that is important because we also have to understand what comes next.

The woman, instead of slinking away, stands her ground.  “Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I’m not asking for that much Jesus, just the crumbs, that’s all my daughter needs.

Her response pulls Jesus up short, and he is visibly moved.    His demeanor changes; “For saying this, you may go, the demon has left your daughter.”

  You can sense the shift in Jesus’ voice.  He is moved by her trust and faith, and shifts from the terse response, to an act of compassion.

What are we to take from this Gospel lesson?  What does it mean for us?

Well first of all, this Gospel lesson seems to be about Jesus himself learning about the true nature of his mission and ministry.  He thought he could get away from it by going outside his home territory.

What Jesus discovers is that there is need here too, and recognition of his power, and that here too, God’s grace is to be extended.

We need to be thankful for this woman, because you see, she is coming to Jesus on our behalf.  

You and I, we are not of the children of Abraham in the strictest sense.  

I am not of Middle Eastern descent.   I have no familial connections to the tribes of Israel.  We could not trace our families back to anyone who wandered in the Wilderness with Moses or who lived in Galilee.  We are of the West, and Gentiles, like this woman.  When she comes begging for crumbs, she’s begging for us.  “Jesus, isn’t there something in what you’ve come to do for my family?”

Jesus discovers that he cannot escape his mission.  It comes to find him.  It comes in the form of a Gentile woman.  It comes in the form of a deaf and mute man in the Gentile region of the Decapolis.  Jesus cannot escape his mission.

Neither can you or I.   It will come to find us. 

And how will we know our mission?  Here too, Jesus seems to show us how we will recognize it.  

Compassion toward what angers you will reveal your mission.  

It is perfectly clear to you and to me that Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon so that he can meet this woman, have compassion, and heal her daughter. 

It if perfectly clear to you and to me why Jesus wanders into the Decapolis, he is there so that he can restore the speech and hearing of that man.

It was not perfectly clear to Jesus why he was in those places.  He was just trying to get away from it all, and got a little hot when he found out he couldn’t get away.  But now that he has done this, now that he has compassion on these outsiders, he sees his mission in a new way, a broader way.  He understands the will of his Father in heaven a little better, and we see it as well.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting “the pancake man.”  

We were traveling through Rapid City on a youth trip here from St. James.    We happened to stay at a KOA campground that had an all you can eat pancake breakfast for $1.00.  This was a “no-brainer.”   We had over a dozen mouths to feed and you can’t do it for less than that, so we went to the campground pancake breakfast. 

The man behind the griddle was doing his work, with joy, flourish and flair.   He started pumping out pancakes, and was doing so with an artist’s eye.  He would take a squeeze bottle of batter, make a design on the griddle, let it cook for a few seconds and then fill in the spaces, and when he flipped the pancake over, there was a picture.  Spider man’s masked face, a daschaund that was wandering under the tables.  He copied designs off of the kids t-shirts, made pictures of their faces, of all the while engaging in conversation and encouraging the kids to be the best they could be. 

We struck up a conversation, and got his story. 

He was an alcoholic, and about 10 years ago he had been suicidal, ready to end it all.   He was angry at the world, and mostly angry with kids.  They used to make his life miserable at the school where he had worked as a janitor.  

At his lowest point, he’d lost his job and blamed it on the kids at the school who were mean to him.  In the midst of treatment, he had revelation.  The kids had been mean to him, because he had been mean to them.

 He resolved to change all that, and decided he would start doing something that would lift up and inspire kids.   He would make up for all the time he had spent tearing them down.

“I didn’t have much that I could do very well, but I could make pancakes.”  He said.  And so, he started working at the KOA in the summer, and making pancakes that made kids laugh and smile.    That was the beginning. 

It was compassion toward what had previously angered him that revealed to him his mission.    Now he not only makes pancakes at the KOA, but he travels the school circuit during the year with a positive message of how you can make a difference in this world by doing what you do well.

It is compassion toward what angers you that reveals your mission. 

What is it that moves you?

What is it that angers you, or that makes you want to run, or makes you want to fight?

It could be that your mission is being revealed to you in that moment.  You might even snap at it at first, but if is your mission that God is revealing to you, it will be as persistent as the woman, and as clear as the opened ears.

 You can’t escape your mission.  It will find you.  And the good news this day is that even when you’re cranky and even when it isn’t all that clear, God is present and working to reveal your mission to you.

Be opened, this day.  Prepare for what God may have in mind for us, for what God has in mind for us all, is mission in his name.  Amen.

“That Which Defiles”

I was at a Pastors conference a few years ago when the speaker got up and delivered a shocker. He stood up and boldly asserted that the church really ought to quit talking about sin!

            After a collective gasp from his audience, he went on to explain just what he meant. 

            In the pluralistic world in which we live in today traditions have been mixed and matched, teachings shared back and forth.   If you talk about “sin” from the Pulpit, you can no longer assume that people will know exactly what you are talking about.  They will hear you from the perspective that they bring to the subject.

 Few people get up in the morning look in the mirror and say, “I’m really worried about my sin today.”  

They do however wake up worried about their relationships, about their jobs, about their future, their broken promises and their shattered dreams.  

Or, they wake up not worried about anything because everything is going just fine for them right now.  

You shouldn’t talk about “sin,” the speaker said, unless you’re willing to lay the groundwork for everyone to be on the same page with you.

In Mark 7, the Pharisees have been observant again.  They see that Jesus’ disciples did not do the ritual washing required before the meal.  Now, they are not concerned about contaminating food items here the way that we might think so in our germophobic society.

  No, the real issue has to do with defiling something sacred.  It is a matter of relationship with God.  How dare these disciples of Jesus come into God’s presence and offer thanks at a meal with ritually unclean hands!  Meal time is sacred time, how dare you presume to invite God to your table with unclean hands!

It is at this point that Jesus begins to break down the issue and make clear that everyone is on the same page.  He couches it in terms of relationship. 

Lesson # 1 about sin.  This much the Pharisees have right.  Sin is always has something to do with our relationship to God.  They are absolutely right, one should not dare to come into God’s presence without cleaning up first.

Their solution however is only half right.  Their solution to a broken relationship with God is to go through a ritual action, as if the actions themselves could make them “clean.”

  Their belief was based on long standing tradition, dating all the way back to the laws of Moses.   This is how one puts oneself right with God, through this ritual washing.

            This is what Jesus reacts against, the notion that washing the right way can clean things up between you and God.  Jesus reacts to the idea that sin is something that you can do something about yourself.

            Lesson #2 about sin we learn from this Gospel story.  There is nothing that YOU can do about it!   Jesus tells the Pharisees that sin goes deeper than their actions, than their hands.  Sin goes to your intent, your very thoughts. Take a closer look, Jesus says, at what really defiles your relationship with God. Is it whether or not you have washed correctly?  Is it just the actions you’ve done, the things on your fingertips?   No!

            That which defiles is found within the human heart!  “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly…?

            From within!  It’s not what sits on the hands that makes you unclean, it’s what comes from within. 

            It’s not the murderous act that is the real problem, it’s the murderous thought, the intent that prompts the hands to act.  That is sin! 

            All the washing in the world cannot deal with the dark intent of the heart. In fact, the more we preoccupy ourselves with self cleansing, the worse it gets!  

            You know what I mean here.  How many of you have really tried to avoid something, whether it is going on a diet or trying to battle an addiction.  We say self righteously, “I’m going to eat healthy, I’m cutting ice cream out of my diet.”

            Notice what happens.  You begin paying attention to every Ice Cream advertisement that comes along, in places you never noticed them before!

            To boost your will power you try to avoid places of temptation.  You catch yourself doing crazy things to avoid Ice Cream altogether.  You won’t go near the freezer section in the store.  You decide drive down North Oak instead of Vivion to avoid “Steak and Shake”, only to discover that Wendy’s is offering discounted Frosty’s.

            Before long, you being to look very much like the Pharisees who knew exactly where people shouldn’t go and what they shouldn’t do because they had ordered their whole lives around avoiding and resisting anything that would cause them to break a rule of the law of Moses!

            Lesson # 3 about sin, it is always binding.  You know sin is at work in the world when you feel the constriction of your freedom.  Even when you think you are conquering it by your actions, it is simply weaving a tighter web around you.   The more I try to keep myself clean by not being anywhere near where Ice Cream is sold, the more I find myself bound and restricted by it!   I can’t go anywhere!

            And that brings us back to the point of contact in the Gospel lesson for today.  The Pharisees you see are so concerned with being clean, of doing the right things, that they miss the chance to share a table with Jesus!

Now that we have a common understanding about sin, that it #1, comes from within, # 2 isn’t something we can tackle on our own, and # 3 we know it’s presence when we feel it constricting us – it’s time to find out what to do about it. 

To do that, we have to do a “Gospel Leap.” We have to move from this lesson to what we’ve learned about Jesus from the rest of the Gospel.  What do you do about this matter of relationship?  

“Come to me, all you who are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” Jesus says.  What Jesus ultimately has to say to all those who are trying so furiously to clean up is to forget about trying to do it yourself!   Come to me.

Come to me, all you who are recognizing the dirt inside yourselves, I will make you clean.

Come to me, all you who are tired of trying to tackle all your woes and troubles on your own, I will bear that burden with you, and we will get through it together.

Come to me, you who are bound like a prisoner, for I have come to set you free.  I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.

There is nothing that we humans can do that will prevail against the powers of sin, but there is something that God can do, and has already done.

The good news of the Gospel this day is found in the person of Jesus, who tells you point blank that the struggles you feel within yourself are the struggles of sin at work in you. 

No one gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and says, “I’m really worried about my sin.”

But nearly everyone has a morning, or daily, moment when they worry, and reflect and wonder what to do with some broken part of their life.

You can’t do anything to beat those thoughts back.

But, God has already done something for you in Jesus. 

The good news of the Gospel this day is found in the person of Jesus, who tells you point blank that the struggles you feel within yourself are the struggles of sin at work in you, and then invites you to sit down at table with him.

Come to him, sit at table with him, clean hands or not, and receive from Jesus the promised cleansing of the heart and the mind and the spirit.