Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 9, 2012

2012.09.09 “What They Can’t Stop Talking About” – Mark 7: 24 – 37

Central United Methodist Church

What They Can’t Stop Talking About

Pastor David L. Haley

Mark 7: 24 – 37

September 9, 2012


          “From there Jesus set out for the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house there where he didn’t think he would be found, but he couldn’t escape notice. He was barely inside when a woman who had a disturbed daughter heard where he was. She came and knelt at his feet, begging for help. The woman was Greek, Syro-Phoenician by birth. She asked him to cure her daughter.

He said, “Stand in line and take your turn. The children get fed first. If there’s any left over, the dogs get it.”

          She said, “Of course, Master. But don’t dogs under the table get scraps dropped by the children?”

Jesus was impressed. “You’re right! On your way! Your daughter is no longer disturbed. The demonic affliction is gone.” She went home and found her daughter relaxed on the bed, the torment gone for good.

          Then he left the region of Tyre, went through Sidon back to Galilee Lake and over to the district of the Ten Towns. Some people brought a man who could neither hear nor speak and asked Jesus to lay a healing hand on him. He took the man off by himself, put his fingers in the man’s ears and some spit on the man’s tongue. Then Jesus looked up in prayer, groaned mightily, and commanded, “Ephphatha! — Open up!” And it happened. The man’s hearing was clear and his speech plain — just like that.

Jesus urged them to keep it quiet, but they talked it up all the more, beside themselves with excitement. “He’s done it all and done it well. He gives hearing to the deaf, speech to the speechless.” – Mark 7: 24 – 37, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson. 


Welcome to Rally Sunday! Practically – if not meteorologically – Rally serves as the first Sunday of fall for us, at least in church.  Are you – like me – a little sad to see Labor Day – and with it, summer – receding into the rear view mirror? Or with the advent of cooler air, are you energized, anticipatory, ready to head into all that fall brings?

For those of us with school-age children, the beginning of fall can be daunting, as we try to coordinate not only households and jobs and school, but all the extracurricular activities that go along with school: music, sports, open houses, concerts, and conferences, in addition to necessary practices and homework. Perhaps at your house – like my house – this question is asked almost daily: “What’s happening tonight?”

Because of this, returning to church – just because it’s Rally Day – may not be on the radar for some families, especially if church becomes just another thing “to do.”  On the other hand, if church– as we seek it to be – is an energizing, sacred time that keeps us centered amidst all that we do, (and thus our motto “Keeping God Central”) then church can be something to look forward to.  And let me be clear about this: the point is not “What you can do for church?, the point is “What can church do for you, and for your family, for your faith and for your life?”  That’s what’s most important, and what we always need to keep sight of.

For others of us, without school-age children, fall can be a good time to get away. As those of us with or without children know, with the beginning of school, airfares begin to drop, as do the costs and the crowds. So, while fall brings some back to church, it takes others away. This is why church is always a passing parade; as some come, others go. Days like today, when most of us are here, are rare and wonderful occasions.

So do we find ourselves heading into fall with anxiety or anticipation? Our answer may depend on whether we have had – or will soon have – an opportunity to get away, to go wherever we need to go and do whatever we need to do, to feel renewed, energized, and ready for fall.

I tried to do that this week, for several reasons.

(1) 5,000 miles later, my August vacation seemed to be mostly behind the wheel, without much time to read and reflect.

(2) Today is the anniversary and beginning of my sixth year as your pastor, always a good time not only to look back, but to look ahead.

(3) Given the decline of the mainline church, including United Methodism, there is a lot of pressure on us pastors to produce: numbers, people, and dollars. When in fact, due to the changes in church and society, very few churches or pastors know exactly how to do this anymore; simply doing what we’ve always done in the way we’ve always done it, doesn’t work anymore. As Indiana Jones once said in one of the Raider of the Lost Ark movies, when asked what the plan is, and says: “Plan? Pal, I’m making this up as I go along.” That’s what most pastors and churches are doing these days.

(4) Which is even more difficult in a multiethnic, multicultural congregation like ours.  Do we all appreciate what a blessing – and challenge – our congregation is? According to a 1998 National Congregations Survey, only seven percent of American congregations were multiracial, defined as having no more than eighty percent of one racial group. More specifically in the case of Christian congregations, only fifteen percent of Catholic churches, six percent of conservative Protestant churches, and three percent of mainline Protestant churches were multiracial.

We, on the other hand, are a beautiful kaleidoscope of color, for which I thank God for the blessing and privilege of being your pastor every Sunday. But also, what a challenge! Which is why I have to go away and think about it every now and then.

So this week I flew up to one of my favorite retreats, St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. I had a small room there in the retreat house looking out over the lake, which I could use as a base for walks around the lake as well as to attend prayers in their beautiful church with the Benedictine monks, three times a day.

While it was restful and renewing, I discovered my time there was too short to accomplish all I hoped to do, as my weekly responsibilities for service and sermon remain the same, whether I’m here or there. So while it was a nice retreat, I didn’t get as much done as I would have liked, although I did get some answers, which I will share with you shortly.

Did you notice in today’s Gospel, Jesus is having the same problem? He’s trying to get away from the crowds and controversy that accompany him wherever he goes, seriously in need of a little R & R. Now that we’re back in Mark’s Gospel, my guess is that he’s worn out from all that talking he did in John’s Gospel, five weeks about the Bread of Life?  Whew!

So Jesus heads to the region of Tyre, modern day Lebanon, and locates a house where he thinks he won’t be found. If when they entered they pulled down the shades and turned out the lights, it didn’t do any good, because they were barely inside when there was a knock on the door and they were interrupted by a Syro-Phoenician woman seeking help for her demonically disturbed daughter.

I wonder if the mood Jesus was in wasn’t reflected in his calling her a “dog,” which sounds rough to us, but was how Jews of his time sometimes referred to pagans, which this woman was. But whether his slur reflected his mood or not, it was her comeback that caught him off guard: “Of course, Master. But don’t dogs under the table get scraps dropped by the children?”

I heard such a comeback recently. I was coming out of a restaurant and an elderly gentleman with a walker was approaching the door, so I held it open. He said, “I’m glad to see there’s still some gentlemen left.” I said, “Well, at least one.” He shot back, “No, there are two of us.”

This woman’s comeback was like that, it got Jesus’ attention: “Of course, Master. But don’t dogs under the table get scraps dropped by the children?” “Wow,” said Jesus, impressed. “’You’re right! On your way! Your daughter is no longer disturbed. The demonic affliction is gone.’ She went home and found her daughter relaxed on the bed, the torment gone for good.”

You know why I like this story? Because in it, Jesus learns something. We like to think of Jesus as full-blown Messiah from Day One, omnipotent, omniscient, perfect. But what he was, in fact, was fully human, and so he had to learn like we learn, sorting out the good from the bad.  As the Gospel says, “Jesus matured, growing up in both body and spirit, blessed by both God and people.” (Luke 2:52)

What Jesus learned that day – which, who knows, maybe he didn’t know before – was that God’s good news was for everybody, not just Jews, but EVERYBODY.  Maybe what he learned that day changed his view of himself and his work and everyone who came to him.  No one would be scorned or left out.

While there are multiple lessons here, the point for us today is that we, too, are still learning. I have not yet arrived, you have not yet arrived, we have not arrived. I would have to say one of the most important things I learned through my education was that while it is important to go to school and learn and get a degree, it is far more important to learn how to learn, in order that we might be life-long learners.

At age 61, after 38 years in the ministry, I still feel like I am learning how to preach. I want to thank you for your patience and constructive hearing over the last five years, sermon by sermon. I once read a quote by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, who said that if he had to preach to the same congregation for three years, he would soon bore both himself and them to death. (It’s been five and we’re both still alive!) I know not every is a winner, but I pray my sermons will be like the meals you eat; you may not remember every one, but taken all together, they’ve kept you happy and healthy and alive, maybe even hungry for a little more. Toward that end I pledge myself, as your pastor and preacher, to continue to listen and learn and grow.

And, not just preaching alone, but that we continue to learn and grow as a congregation. Once again, I do not think that we have arrived, even after five years.  We’re making it up as we go along, a work in progress, still learning what works and what doesn’t. We especially want to continue to learn and grow in the Five Practices that we learned about last fall: Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-Taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity. Over the next month, you’re going to be hearing more about these, as I invite you to consider joining one of these groups, in order that we might continue to learn and grow as a congregation of diverse people, united in following Christ.

Our goal is that people might come to say about our congregation, what they said about Jesus, in today’s story. Do you remember?

After his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, Jesus tried to retreat a second time, with a change of venue. This time he returned to a familiar place, the Sea of Galilee, perhaps seeking a beach vacation. But that didn’t work either, because as soon as they got their beach blankets spread and their sun tan lotion out, people brought a man who could neither hear nor speak to Jesus, and asked Jesus to lay a healing hand on him. Which he did – not grudgingly nor grumpily – but patiently and compassionately, and the man was healed. Do you remember what people said? “He’s done it all and done it well.” That’s what I hope people will someday say about us, as we continue the work of Jesus here. Because when you do that – did you note it? – people won’t stop talking about it.

Did I get any answers at St. John’s?  Yes, I did.  Here’s what I got, and how I got it.

The most important thing I do when I go to St. John’s is to attend prayer with the Benedictine monks in their beautiful church, three times a day, at 7 am, noon, and 7 pm. The liturgy, which lasts less than 30 minutes, consists of various forms of prayer, primarily through the words of the ancient Psalms, both read responsively and chanted.  A passage of Scripture is read, there is silence for reflection, personal intercessions are offered, and the service concludes with the Benedictus and the Lord’s Prayer.

It is a fifteen-hundred year old spiritual tradition, not counting the age of the Psalms. St. John’s Abbey is particularly is well known, being the largest Benedictine community in the Western Hemisphere, but also thanks to author Kathleen Norris’ 1997 book, Cloister Walk, recounting her time there, which was a NY Times best seller for 23 weeks.

Now you should know that the church, which is out in the middle of rural Minnesota, seats 1,500 people, with the balcony alone seating 500.  The man who drove me to St. Cloud said he and his wife once went there for a Christmas Eve midnight service. He said that even though they got there over an hour early, they wound up sitting in folding chairs in the back of the church, for a service which lasted until 2:30 in the morning.

Guess who else was in the Abbey Guesthouse last week? The new United Methodist Bishop of the Minnesota Conference, Bishop Bruce Ough, and all the Minnesota District Superintendents. (Their previous bishop, by the way, was Bishop Sally Dyck, who is now our Bishop, of our own Northern Illinois Conference.)

I also discovered that their Conference Director of Communications is a friend of mine, a woman who used to live here. I told her where I was serving, and what a wonderful congregation it is.  She regretted that there is not much diversity in the Minnesota Conference; it sounds like we may have more diversity in our congregation than the entire Minnesota Conference.

But here’s the thing: granted that they were there for other purposes, over four days, I never saw any of them at any of the prayers. When I would return from prayers, there they were, meeting, meeting, meeting, wall charts taped to the wall. All I could think was, “Typical Methodists!” (Yes, it takes one to know one.) And we wonder what’s wrong with the church.

So here’s my answer: in changing and unclear times, the very best thing we can do is to return to the core of the church’s tradition: to do in our own way what the Church has always done, which has borne the test of time: to meet the deepest needs of people’s hearts, through the practice of Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-Taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity.

When we do these all and do them well, I am convinced: people won’t be able to stop talking about it. Amen.





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