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Sermon: Class, Chapel, Lunch

3rd Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria, VA on Homecoming Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012.

14th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16); Year B (RCL): proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9. 22-23; Ps. 125; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37


            I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Happy Homecoming, Immanuel! It’s good to have everyone back!

            The new Church program year is gearing up once again!  Everyone is returning from territories far away and beyond.  Our young people have been flocking home from trips and camps.  The mission and ministries in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as known and realized through Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill are once again organizing, planning and getting back at it!

            And up the street and across the road, Virginia Theological Seminary is once again a thriving beehive of people, activities and worship.  Chrissie is back at school now as a part-time student and what seems more like a full-time Hebrew tutor.  So VTS is back at it, also!

            The mantra at VTS is “Class, Chapel, Lunch.”  Students are expected to participate in classes, regular worship to ground their education and formation, and table fellowship where they engage with the ‘other.’  Our mantra here at Immanuel could also be “Class, Chapel, and Lunch.” 

Last night, there was that wonderful gift of music and performance offered by an awful lot of “classy” people, this morning we have gathered in Zabriskie Chapel for worship and thanksgiving, and not long from now, we’ll settle down for a sumptuous potluck lunch.  Fellowship abounds over there on The Holy Hill and I am learning most certainly here also in this holy place.   

            There is something comforting about coming home, in returning to the familiar, to lie in the coziness of knowing where things can be found and who people are.  Yes, it is good to be back home!


But in today’s Gospel from Mark, Jesus has set out and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  We have no real explanation for this excursion.  But I think the region Tyre is possibly a word play for us; at least in English.  Reading between the lines, I think Jesus is tired, and he wants to get away from it all.  He could be fleeing the countless interruptions he encounters every step of His Way.  Another explanation could be Jesus may have smartly decided to withdraw after denouncing the Pharisees as hypocrites and sinners.  In any regard, he has gone out, way out there!  This is no homecoming for Jesus. 

            Mark gives us two healing stories during this excursion/adventure.  And it’s easy to focus on one or the other, but both have merit.  The first involves the Syro-Phoenician Woman.  It is followed by the Healing of the Deaf Mute. 

            First, Phoenicians were of Canaanite descent, and this place, which is 50 miles north of Capernaum, was most definitely outside of Jewish territory, in a region of the Gentiles.  Jesus is the “outsider” here. 

A local woman finds him and pleads that he heal her daughter.  Jesus tells her to go away in rather strong terms.  I don’t want to dwell too long on that detail today.  Some preachers try to apologize for the way that Jesus treats this woman, or at least to explain the words of Jesus in a way that seems less offensive. I’m conscious that the Gospel writer didn’t see any need to do that.  Jesus still sees Jews coming first, but not to the exclusion of Gentiles.

I don’t believe Jesus meant to suggest she was a “dog.”  Perhaps Mark’s first hearers of this Gospel would have expected a Jewish man to treat a Gentile woman like that!  Maybe?  However we understand it: whether we assume Jesus wasn’t actually being offensive, or we think he was testing her, or we think it was an exhausted Jesus, pleading for some peace, we know the rest of the story.  The important part of this story is that she pushes open the door to healing and salvation with her retort.  Her persistence, humility and faith won her request, and her daughter was healed.

In the second healing account, Jesus has returned from his temporary respite from publicity.  He was back now in the region where a few weeks prior, the people had tried to make him King.  Jesus restored the hearing of the deaf man after sticking his fingers in the man’s ears and Jesus unleashed the man’s voice after placing spit on his once-mute tongue. 

Jesus tries to caution the healed man to keep quiet, to avoid further publicity, maybe because he remembered what they did earlier.  This is sometimes referred to as the Messianic Secret.  Jesus is trying to keep the lid on his work by stifling any PR, but that is a different sermon altogether!

And yet the people cry out, “He has done everything well.  He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”  As crowds rally around this man of compassion, love and healing power, Jesus becomes the talk of the town yet again, and the hope of any genuine respite for him vanishes.

Both these stories speak to us about the power of God among us.  They each affirm and promote the church’s need to share God’s gifts of grace, healing and peace. 

Those who were healed were aided by others: a mother pleaded for her daughter; friends brought the deaf mute to Jesus.  These are examples of the active faith of others benefitting the one.  People actively interceded on behalf of the other. They decided to stand in the Gap.  And while there was spiritual and physical healing that evidently took place, think of how all the lives involved in those two stories were transformed by God’s grace.  That is a character of Christian community in action.

            In the mere eight weeks of being with and among you, I have seen and experienced Christian community in action and the hospitality of this Immanuel community.  And I see God at work here in stretching you.  As we hear in the Gospel today, God can work through the other to change us, to stretch us, and to work to complete God’s vision of us, for us.  We are transitioning here through a leadership change in clergy.  We are so blessed to have Mary+ here, to welcome Linda back, and have VTS faculty and friends return among us.  We look forward to the call of a new rector for Immanuel.  In all these things, God is working among us.

            Sometimes we think of hospitality as being patient while others change to be more like us instead of opening ourselves to be changed by the other.  But think about just how we are changing here at Immanuel. We have completed listening sessions where most of you have voiced what you value about this community, what you appreciated most in your experiences with clergy, you identified exciting, energizing and important accomplishments that you hope to witness here at Immanuel in the next three years.

            Who are we now? What will we become?  Who will God bring among us?  What is going to push us in some new way?  When does faith require persistence?

            In the Letter of James today, there must have been a decidedly worldly element in the Judean Church to prompt words such as these.  “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, … have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”  (v. 2-4)  Now James is writing to Jewish Christians, but it sounds so different from the way the Church started.  

Jesus Christ taught that the Glory of His Church would be in its kindness to the poor.  Evidently some congregations were developing into social circles where the poor were given to understand they were not wanted.  But we all know that God loves the poor.  And the call is that the rich should love them too.

Paul’s doctrines of Justification by Faith, and James’ doctrine of Justification by Works, supplement one another; they do not contradict each other.  Neither was opposing the teaching of the other. They were devoted friends and co-workers.  James fully endorsed Paul’s work.

It was Paul who preached Faith as the basis of justification before God, but he insisted it must usher in the right kind of life. James was writing to those who had accepted the doctrine of Justification by Faith, but were not living right, telling them that such Faith was no faith at all.  

What does it look like to be doers of the Word, and not just hearers?  Mark showed us by the Syro-Phoenician woman’s active intervention and by Jesus’ hands-on healing.  These stories illustrate the character of Christian community is to be present for the other and be open to the challenge to stretch and grow. 

We know this well at Immanuel.  Next week, we move to a new service schedule, with Sunday worship at 8, 9 and 11:15 a.m., Sunday education at 10:00 a.m., and a Wednesday evening Eucharist at 6:30.  Quite honestly, with everyone back, we need the additional services to fit in our own, and to be open and available to welcome others.  Changes come and stretching happens.  Mary+, Linda and I, as well as other preachers who come, will need to offer short homilies at 8 and 9 to keep things moving and give space for both worship and formation.  And I would be amiss if I didn’t offer a huge shout-out to Hance Haney for his remarkable work on bringing to fruition a new church website for Immanuel.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to check it out.  By all signs available, whether it is on the internet, or out on Seminary Road in front of Zabriskie, things are happening and Immanuel Church-on-the Hill is back at it once more!

We are being doers of the Word sharing God’s love in Community.  We saw it in the classy Homecoming Show.  We feel it here in common worship.  We will know it at our shared meal.  Class, Chapel, Lunch.

Soon we will be blessing animals and selling pumpkins.  As we continue to promote the mission of being the hands of Jesus to carry Christ’s love into the world, may we also be open to God’s work in our midst, stretching us in new and different ways, to become minds that know, souls that love, and hearts that serve.