Sunday’s sermon: We Can Do Hard Things

hard things

Texts used – 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Luke 9:51-62

  • Friends, did you know that technically, there are 11 – yes, eleven – Disney princesses? Eleven official princesses … and at least 10 other characters that aren’t technically princesses by title but are often considered in the same category: all women whose stories teach us time and time again about the “happily ever after” of life. Sometimes their happily-ever-afters are fairly passive – think Snow White and Sleeping Beauty who literally slept their way through the conflict in their stories to the happy ending – while some are more active in bringing about their own happily-ever-after like Mulan and Belle from Beauty and the Beast. “And they all lived happily ever after” … *sigh* Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Especially in the midst of current headlines:
    • Deadly and devastating weather phenomena – Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut and the tornados that made their way through this area just a few days ago
    • More Chinese sanctions and backlash that may come from them
    • Yet more stories coming out about clergy sexual abuse
    • Yet more stories coming out about women who have been abused and assaulted and long silenced
    • Deadlock in Washington over … well … basically everything
    • Reports of attacks and acts of violence in countries around the world
    • And of course, let’s not forget all of those lovely political ads that we are bombarded with every time we turn on our TV or radio or open our internet browser. And those are just the things happening on the grand scale – the things garnering enough attention to make the headlines. What about all of those things happening in our own lives and the lives of those we know and love that are causing us to worry and fear and question and struggle? Bottom line: the world around us looks a lot less like “happily ever after” than we’d like it to, doesn’t it?
      • Scripture readings this morning address the flipside of “happily ever after” – what happens when the “ever after” is less starry, less shiny, less perfect than we’d like it to be
  • Let’s look at our gospel story this morning first.
    • Starts out on a difficult foot right from the very first verse – text: When the day drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.[1] → As after-the-fact readers, we know what this means. Unlike the disciples who were traveling with Jesus at the time. For them, they’d been crisscrossing the countryside with Jesus for a while now, and changing direction yet again probably didn’t even register. Or perhaps they just thought that they were headed in the direction of the holy city to celebrate the Passover like thousands of other Jews did every year. But we know what is coming. And Jesus knew what was coming. You can just hear the weightiness and the portent of this passage.
      • Gr. “set” = more determination and purpose than just turning your head and looking in the direction of something → connotations of strength and establishment and being firm
        • Abraham Lincoln regarding the Civil War and abolishing slavery: “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.” → feels like Jesus’ frame of mind as he makes this deliberate turn
          • Strong
          • Deliberate
          • Unwavering
        • Lets us know that what is to come is significant → 3 significant if not unsettling occurrences in this short passage
  • FIRST: He sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them.[2]
    • James and John … poor, misguided James and John.
      • Brothers → “sons of Zebedee”
      • Dubbed “sons of thunder” by Jesus in Mark’s gospel[3] → And here, we can certainly see why! Now, in their defense, hospitality was and continues to be a deeply held and cherished tradition in that region of the world, so the fact that this village turned Jesus and his disciples away instead of welcoming them is bad enough. The fact that the village is Samaritan – those whom the Jews thought of as unclean and unworthy – made it even worse. And here we have James and John: wholly devoted to Jesus – his teachings, his message, his cause. And suddenly, their beloved Rabbi has been turned out and dismissed by the likes of the lowliest, least-worthy people they can think of. It is an insult to be sure. So James and John sort of go off the rails a little bit. “Should we call down fire to burn this place to the ground, Jesus?”
        • Stark reaction
        • Startling reaction
        • But can we say that we wouldn’t have had a similar one? When we go into protective mode – whether it’s protection of our children, our friends, our careers, or anything else dear to us that we feel might be under threat – don’t we go a little savage, too? At least in our minds.
          • “Mama bear culture”[4] (according to urban dictionary) = a mom who can be cuddly and lovable but also has a ferocious side when it’s necessary to protect her cubs – can be biological mom, or the head of a group
          • Brings to mind all the bickering and mudslinging that goes on in our political climate today – cause the damage before damage can be done to you
    • But instead of going in on their plan, Jesus rebukes them. Jesus quashes their self-righteous anger and excessive desire for retribution. Because that is not what faith is about – paybacks and reprisals. Faith is Jesus knowing what’s coming and still setting his face to Jerusalem step by deliberate and dangerous step.
  • SECOND unsettling occurrence: Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”[5] → difficult on a lot of levels
    • Difficult to decipher: This is about as cryptic as Jesus gets. Usually, when he speaks in metaphors and parables and obscure language, Jesus will decode himself for the disciples later, but we don’t get that with today’s passage. We have to go on inference and implication.
      • Scholar: Implicitly, [this] saying works on the assumption that the follower will be like the one who is followed: If the Son of Man has no place to lay his head, then neither will those who follow him. Does the would-be follower realize what he has promised?[6]
    • Difficult to accept
      • Jesus’ words imply discomfort
      • Jesus’ words imply an inherent unbelonging
      • Jesus’ words imply an unwelcome-ness that I think we can safely say is not a goal any of us aspire to
      • As human beings, we inherently seek out shelter and safety and community – people and places that make us feel comfortable and comforted in our times of greatest need. And yet Jesus, who has just been turned out of even a Samaritan village, is saying he has none of those things and neither will those who follow him.
  • But it gets even more unsettling than that – THIRD: To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”[7] → All kinds of difficult, right? All kinds of hard stuff in there that Jesus is exacting of those who would follow him. There’s no mincing words. There’s no taking the edge off of this, folks. This is Jesus, raw and real. He’s saying that discipleship is was not, is not, will not be an easy road to walk. If we truly desire to grab hold of this Savior and follow with our whole selves, we’re going to have to let some things go. We’re going to have to let some people go. We’re going to have to leave some of the more accepted, more expected ways behind for something completely new and different and challenging and strange.
    • E.g. – Jesus saying “Let the dead bury their own dead” → scholar: Times of loss can be marked by bewilderment. As familial roles are redefined, a person’s identity may be shaken in the process. … Jesus speaks to the man’s disorientation when he tells him to let the dead bury the dead. … Jesus is letting the man know that his response to Jesus’ invitation is central to God’s purpose for his life and future identity. Heard in this way, Jesus’ words can comfort and assure him that things with his family will be sorted out; yet the words also confront him with the need to act on what is most important.[8]
      • It’s this idea that brought our Old Testament passage to mind for me this morning. → another e.g. of loss and discipleship
        • Prolific prophet Elijah with his devoted apprentice, Elisha → Elijah knows his time has come → time and time again throughout the day, Elijah tries to get Elisha to leave him so Elisha won’t have to see him taken up into heaven, but Elisha refuses → Elijah finally capitulates and lets Elisha stay → Elijah is eventually whisked up into heaven by the horses and chariot of fire in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.[9] → The rending of garments has been a powerful expression of grief for millennia and continues even in Jewish tradition today.[10]
          • Tearing = vent of pent-up anguish (“religiously sanctioned destruction”)
          • Fulfills Jewish dictate to “expose the heart” in morning → torn clothing without = torn heart within
          • That is the strength of Elisha’s grief, and yet he rises up, takes up the cloak that Elijah has left behind for him, and continues on with the service to God that was laid out before him.
    • Similar to the call that Jesus makes at the end of our NT passage this morning: even when it is hard – hard to do, hard to understand, hard to accept, hard to explain – FOLLOW
      • Scholar: To journey with the Messiah of God is to be formed in the white-hot crucible of kingdom values: self-sacrifice, self-giving, self-forgetfulness. The way of the cross is ever costly and demanding. The three brief encounters of Jesus with would-be followers establish the rigorous nature of being a true disciple.[11]
  • But in the face of all of this challenge, friends – challenge to our innermost selves and challenge to the world around us – we continue to hear the good news of the gospel ring true: Jesus indeed came for us. Jesus indeed died for us. Jesus indeed rose from the dead for us. Can we really say that it gets any harder than that? I don’t think so.
    • Glennon Doyle/Glennon Doyle Melton
      • Motivational speaker, philanthropist, contributing writer, blogger
      • Founder of wildly popular online community Momastery → all about the challenges and craziness and crushing joy of parenting in all its forms
      • Made liberal use of the phrase “We can do hard things”
        • Didn’t come up with it (couldn’t find the actual origin)
        • Speaks of it being on the wall of a friend’s classroom and on a plague on her own wall at home
        • From Love Warrior[12]: We can handle it. We can do hard things. Because we are warriors.
      • Quote: Years ago, my hopeful, faithful, joyful minister surprised our congregation by saying: Life is pain, and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something. I squirmed in my seat and thought … Jeez. How negative. But now I’m older, and I think … How true. Life is hard and terrifying and unfair and overwhelming. Life is the cross. … Life is brutal, but it’s also beautiful. Life is Brutiful. So I look hard for the beauty. I try to drown out my fear voice, which wants me to run away from the pain, and listen instead to my love voice, whom I call God, and who is asking me to run toward To allow my heart to be broken open, because a broken heart is a badge of honor and the most powerful tool on earth. That love voice – she’ll help you find treasure. But she’ll guide you right into the minefields first. … I am grateful for the treasure hunt through the minefield of life. Dangerous or not, I don’t want out of the minefield. Because truth, beauty, and God are there.[13] → Friends, let yourself be broken open for the gospel. Let yourself be led into the dangerous minefields of life for the gospel. Let yourself not only see but hunker down into the brutiful world around you for the gospel. Because as hard as it is, God is there. And indeed, we can do hard things. Amen.

[1] Lk 9:51.

[2] Lk 9:52-55.

[3] Mk 3:17.


[5] Lk 9:56-58.

[6] R. Alan Culpepper. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 217.

[7] Lk 9:59-62.

[8] Carol Howard Merritt. “Luke 9:51-62 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke – vol. 1, chs. 1-11. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 280, 282.

[9] 2 Kgs 2:11-12.


[11] Mitties McDonald DeChamplain. “Luke 9:51-62 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospel: Luke – vol. 1, chs. 1-11. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 281.

[12] Glennon Doyle. Love Warrior: A Memoir. (New York, NY: Flatiron Books), 2016.

[13] Glennon Doyle Melton. Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life. (New York, NY: Scribner Publishing, 2013), 227, 228.

Sunday’s sermon: The Wrong Right Answer

faith action

Texts used – Psalm 19; Mark 8:27-38

  • “[Ron] had just raised his wand when the compartment door slid open again. The toadless boy was back, but this time he had a girl with him. She was already wearing her new Hogwarts robes. ‘Has anyone seen a toad? Neville’s lost one,’ she said. She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth. … ‘Are you sure that’s a real spell?’ said the girl. ‘Well, it’s not very good, is it? I’ve tried a few simple spells just for practice and it’s all worked for me. Nobody in my family’s magic at all, it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course, I mean, it’s the very best school of witchcraft there is, I’ve heard – I’ve learned all our course books by heart, of course, I just hope it will be enough.’”[1] → And so prolifically imaginative author J.K. Rowling introduces us to arguably one of the greatest female literary characters of all time: Hermione Granger.
    • Always has her nose buried in a book
    • Always working exceptionally hard to be the best and brightest, smartest, top of the class in everything she does
      • Constantly the first to raise her hand in class
      • Always the first one to get things right – potions, spells, etc.
      • Loves to study and do homework and take tests
      • Hermione is the one that her friends always go to for the “right” answer because they know without a doubt that she will know it. → reminds me a lot of Peter in our Scripture reading this morning – story of right answers … and not-so-right answers
  • Gospel reading, pt. 1 → all about the right answer
    • Text: Jesus and his disciples went into the villages near Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They told him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.” He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him.[2] → “Who do people say that I am?” = interesting question for Jesus to ask along the road
      • Gets a couple of “kinda-sorta” answers from some of the disciples – maybe John the Baptist (who has been killed by Herod at this point), maybe Elijah (prophet who was whisked into heaven by God before he could even die), maybe “one of the prophets” (really … does it get any more vague than that??)
      • But it’s Peter who comes up with the zinger: “You are the Christ.” Ta da! Ding ding ding ding ding! I kind of picture Jeaopardy in my head on this one. – moment in the show when there’s one contestant who obviously has the answer but just can’t get buzzed in soon enough so while the people around him are buzzing in and giving the wrong answer, that contestant is standing there just mashing on his buzzer button as fast as he can → That’s how I picture Peter in this moment. He’s got the answer. He knows he does. And he can’t wait to share it.
    • And you’d think Jesus would be excited about this answer. In fact, you’d think he’d be doing cartwheels because finally, at least one of the disciples gets it!! → over and over again, throughout Mark, disciples are portrayed as not understanding
      • Not understanding who Jesus is
      • Not understanding what he’s doing to the point of being a hinerance (esp. turning away people seeking healing)
      • Not understanding what Jesus is trying to tell them, both through parables and in “plain speech”
    • But finally, in our story this morning, Peter gives Jesus the right answer … and yet, Jesus responds with another theme in Mark – one that is challenging and frankly a bit baffling → what scholars call the Messianic Secret in Mark – text: He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him.[3]
      • Time and time again throughout Mark’s gospel – whenever Jesus does anything miraculous or anything worth noting – he instructs those involved not to tell anyone what he’s done.
        • Happens with healings
        • Happens with casting out demons
        • Happens with resurrections
        • It doesn’t matter whether he’s talking to a demon that’s been cast out, a regular person, or the disciples. The instruction is always the same: Tell no one. Keep it quiet. Of course, people rarely listen to Jesus when he tells them this. More often than not, they run back to their villages, to their families, even to the Pharisees bursting with the news of this incredible thing that Jesus has just done for them. But the fact remains that Jesus insists on silence. Even in the face of this Ultimate Right Answer that Peter has given, Jesus’ response is, “Don’t tell anyone.”
      • Scholars posit multiple reasons for this → could be that Jesus knows it isn’t quite the right time for his death and resurrection yet → He has more to do before his time comes, and if people spread the word too quickly, it’ll bring his ministry to a close too soon.
  • Because as we see in the next part of our reading, Jesus knows exactly what’s coming. → first of 3 predictions about his impending death that Jesus makes in Mk – text: Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.”[4]
    • Peter’s reaction to this = certainly a gut reaction (probably like the reaction we all would have in the same situation): He said this to them plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”[5] → Poor Peter’s entire story of discipleship is a roller coaster of highs and lows. He’s just given Jesus The Perfect Answer – “You are the Christ” – and then, when Jesus tells them about the suffering that is to come – Peter tries to get Jesus to stop. He takes hold of him. He scolds him, corrects him, rebukes and warns him. In Peter’s mind, Jesus’ words cannot be the right answer, so he’s got to stop.
      • Peter’s response according to Matthew’s version of this story: Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.”[6] → words and actions that Peter surely thought were right in his own head – no one wants to listen to their mentor speak such words of pain and suffering about himself – so again, Peter tries to give the “right” answer … but this time, he is oh, so wrong
    • Instead of Jesus listening to him – maybe even praising him for his devotion and protective impulses – Jesus comes back at Peter with another hard-to-swallow response: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
      • In Peter’s defense: must remember that Peter was a Jew – “Messiah/Christ/Anointed One” that the Jews were waiting for was a kingly warrior figure who would liberate them from the oppression of the Romans at the tip of a sword → So for Peter to hear that this Messiah who was supposed to be their Mighty Liberator was actually planning on suffering and dying at the hands of their enemies was surely jarring, to say the least.
        • Scholar: Imagine the disciples’ shock on hearing that the restored and anointed one should suffer in the same way Israel has. If the Messiah suffers in this same way, how can the Messiah restore Israel? … After we come to claim Jesus as the Messiah promised to the Jews, we are forced to accept the radical and strange meaning of Jesus as this Messiah. Regardless of the possibility that years of Sunday school have properly indoctrinated us into the “right” answer about who Jesus is and the meaning of his life, the radical new meaning of being the Messiah found in this text is not what we inherently wish for or expect at a fundamental level as human beings.[7] → And yet, not only did Peter get a harsh response from Jesus, the Messiah went on to talk about how those who truly wanted to follow him must actually lost their lives as well!
          • Not the answer Peter expected
          • Almost certainly not the answer he wanted to hear
  • So let’s return to our initial illustration for a moment – Hermione Granger. If you’re not familiar with the magical wizarding world of Harry Potter created by J.K. Rowling, let me give you a very quick primer this morning.
    • Hogwarts = boarding school for young witches and wizards to learn how to use magic → 4 “houses”/student communities within Hogwarts: Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin, and Gryffindor → each house has its own personality (Hufflepuff = kind, Slytherin = conniving, Ravenclaw = studious, Gryffindor = brave) → upon embarking on their educational journey within the walls of Hogwarts, each student is magically sorted into a house that best fits their personality and character → Knowing what you already know about Hermione, you would expect that she would be sorted into Ravenclaw – the house for those who thirst for knowledge above all else. And yet, when it comes to her turn to be sorted, Hermione is sent to Gryffindor – the house of bravery.
      • Many who knew her would’ve thought it was a mistake
      • But time and time again throughout the entire Harry Potter saga, Hermione proves that, while she’s certainly full of book smarts – very often having exactly the right answer in the midst of a sticky situation – she also possess the ability and the assurance to act – for the good of her friends, for the good of those weaker than herself, and for the greater good. When the Sorting Hat put Hermione in Gryffindor instead of Ravenclaw, it was a testimony to the importance of having the courage to act over having the “right” answer.
    • Scholar: Peter’s exclamation that Jesus is the Messiah appears to give us hope that the disciples are starting to understand who Jesus is. Unfortunately it is a false hope. Peter’s “correct confession” is deceptive. It points out an important reality: we can have what appears to be everything in order – words, actions, and so on – and still have it very wrong.[8]
      • Ps 19 speaks to that this morning
        • Speaks of all the wonder and beauty and magnificence that is God’s work
        • Speaks of how God’s word and God’s instructions are perfect and righteous
        • Speaks of how crucial it is to keep God’s word
        • And yet – text: But can anyone know what they’ve accidentally done wrong? Clear me of my unknown sin and save your servant from willful sins. Don’t let them rule me. Then I’ll be completely blameless; I’ll be innocent of great wrongdoing. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer.[9]
  • Very often, we seem to think that “discipleship” means having the right answers at the right times. But in our Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus reminds us that that’s not what discipleship is about at all. It’s not about having the right answer, the wrong answer, or any answer. It’s about actions. – text: After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of the good news will save them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”[10]
    • Scholar: Jesus’ words to Peter suggest that he can and must gain another perspective, that he can set his mind on “divine things.” In our relationship with Jesus, there is the promise and the hope that somehow the divine perspective on who we are and what we are about breaks through. In him God enables us to find a way that is different from the way of the world, enables us to discern how life is fulfilled as God intends, enables us to live by values that are not embodied in the normal course of human affairs.[11] → It is a call to follow – a stark, startling, strange and summoning call to follow Jesus, not with all the quick and easy answers – not even with the complex but comforting answers – but to simply follow. It is indeed a stark, startling, and strange call. But let us follow all the same. Amen.

[1] J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (New York, NY: Scholastic Books, 1997), 106-107.

[2] Mk 8:27-30.

[3] Mk 8:29-30 (emphasis added).

[4] Mk 8:31.

[5] Mk 8:32-33.

[6] Mt 16:22.

[7] Nathan G. Jennings. “Proper 19 (Sunday between September 11 and September 17 inclusive) – Mark 8:27-38 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 69, 71.

[8] Andrê Resner. “Mark 8:27-30 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 239.

[9] Ps 19:12-14.

[10] Mk 8:34-38.

[11] Harry B. Adams. “Proper 19 (Sunday between September 11 and September 17 inclusive) – Mark 8:27-38 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 72.

Sunday’s sermon: Claiming the Crumbs


Texts used – Mark 7:24-37; James 2:1-9, 13-17

  • Superheroes seem to be taking over the world nowadays.
    • Movies
    • Books
    • Clothing
    • School supplies
    • Action figures
    • The marketing possibilities surely seem to be endless. Even my 5-yr-old boys could spend hours telling you all about Captain America, the Flash, the Hulk, Ironman, and so on … and they’ve never even seen the movies!
    • One all-time favorite superhero seemingly forgotten in the shuffle
      • Made his animated debut in 1964
      • Series ran new episodes for 3 yrs., then ran syndicated reruns for another few decades
      • This beloved but largely forgotten superhero is … Underdog![1]
        • One of the more humble superheroes out there
          • Didn’t wear a tight costume that showed off his non-existent muscles but instead wore a baggy shirt tucked poofily into his pants
          • Frequently messed up the finer points of his rescues in one way or another – crashing into buildings or causing collateral damage of some kind or another – but he always managed to save Sweet Polly Purebred just the same
          • Tag line: “There’s no need to fear! Underdog is here!”
    • Okay … so in reality, Underdog was a bit of a goofy superhero. But he was fun because in truth, very often, we like to root for the underdog, don’t we?
      • Cartoons aren’t your thing? → sports illustration: If I turn on a football game (and it’s someone other than the Packers or the Vikings playing), I have a tendency to root for whoever’s losing. I like to root for the underdog.
        • Same goes for college basketball during March Madness → I’ve long since given up on filling out March Madness brackets. Mine always end up busted in the first round because I always pick the underdog … the long-shot … the Cinderella story.
      • Innate tendency to want to throw our hats in with those who need help – to boost up the little guy
  • This morning’s gospel reading is an underdog story – a David-versus-Goliath kind of story … but it’s probably not the underdog story that we expect.
    • Lots of stories throughout the gospels in which Jesus and his disciples play the part of the underdog
      • Jesus going head-to-head with the Pharisees
      • Jesus confronted by an angry and misunderstanding mob in his hometown
      • Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness
      • Jesus’ arrest and trial before both Pilate and Herod
      • We’re used to the deck being stacked against Jesus. We’re used to feeling like we need to cheer Jesus on in the midst of the hurdles that he faces throughout his ministry – healing on the Sabbath, being cornered by the tricky questions thrown at him by the legal experts, catching flack time and time again for traveling and eating and praying with and generally being around the wrong kind of people (tax collectors … sinners … unclean people … women). We’re used to all of this. We’re used to Jesus as the underdog.
    • Today’s gospel story, though, turns everything on its head – text: Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”[2] → Okay … we need to unpack this all a little bit.
      • Approached by this woman who wants Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter → Let’s talk about this woman for a minute.
        • Scholar points out that in fact this is only one of two times in the whole of Mk’s gospel when women actually speak[3]
          • Once at the tomb after Jesus’ crucifixion
          • Other time = today
          • So strike one: she’s a woman. She doesn’t even warrant Mark recording her name or anything about her other than she’s Greek, Syrophoenician by birth … and that’s strike two. She’s a woman and she’s a local – a Gentile.
            • “Syrophoenician” = a woman from the territory of Phoenicia in the province of Syria → roughly the area on the border between current-day Israel and Lebanon to the north on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea
      • Context/placement wise in the grand arch of Mk’s gospel → comes directly after Jesus rebukes Pharisees for being hypocrites – talking about what defiles a person as being what comes out, not what goes in
        • Speaking of food at the time
        • But his words will hit a little closer to home than he might like in our story this morning because of what Jesus says – what comes out of his mouth – when he responds to this Syrophoenician woman: “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” → Gr. “dogs” = far from a good or pleasant term
          • Jesus isn’t referring to the cute and adorable puppies we keep in our homes as pets today à Dogs in Jesus’ day were mongrels and scavengers – creatures to be chased away from your flocks, your children, and your village. No one needed them. No one wanted them. So by calling the Syrophoenician woman a dog, Jesus is being dismissive at best, and insulting at worst.
    • Underdog in this story is not Jesus but is, in fact, the woman begging Jesus for help
      • She is the David → Jesus is the Goliath
      • Not the role that we’re used to seeing Jesus in → But that is exactly why this is such a powerful story from the gospel. Very often, we focus on the more divine aspects of Jesus – matching wits and prevailing against the devil in the wilderness, miraculous healings, Jesus as God’s Son … God Incarnate … Emmanuel God-With-Us. And I think that in focusing on these important elements of who Jesus was, we forget that he was fully divine, yes, but also fully human. Today’s Scripture reading offers us a glimpse of that more human side of Jesus.
        • Side that gets frustrated, that gets tired, that in this moment gets so blinded by his desire to help his people – the people of Israel – that he dismisses this woman and her request … this woman who is the wrong sort
  • And it is in the woman’s comeback that we see incredible learning and grace and faith, both on her part and on Jesus’ part.
    • Text: [Jesus] responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.[4] → This woman – this unnamed, Gentile woman – witnesses to Jesus. Turning his own insult back on him, she makes it clear that even the smallest kernel – the most seemingly-insignificant crumb of faith can move mountains … or demons, as the case may be. She opens Jesus’ eyes and heart to new possibilities. She boldly and faithfully claims even the crumbs – the castoff mercy and grace that Jesus may still be willing to give.
      • Critical turning point in Jesus’ ministry → almost everything before it happens in Jewish territory to Jewish people BUT after this encounter, Jesus’ message of grace is open to all – Jews and Gentiles alike
        • Scholar addresses both the shocking nature of Jesus’ insult and the shocking nature of the woman’s response: She accepts his priority of ministering first to the people of Israel, yet she is not satisfied with this. Her faith calls forth a larger vision of God’s mission to the Gentiles. Jesus immediately recognizes the God-given wisdom of her words, changes his mind, and commends her outspokenness. In light of her words, Jesus does not simply have second thoughts: his vision and vocation are radically reoriented. … However unsettling this exchange may be, its resolution reveals that God is not unchanging or unresponsive but compassionate and merciful.[5]
      • Harkens to the words from Jas that we read this morning – text: My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothing, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges? … You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker.[6]
    • So often, we read in Scripture that Jesus is asking us to change our hearts and our ways – to let go of previous assumptions and expectations and be open to the Spirit. And we say, “Yeah, Jesus, we know … but change is hard.” And in this gospel story, we see Jesus struggling with this as well. But the rest of the gospel reading illustrates that change in Jesus.
      • Jesus goes on to heal man born both deaf and blind → Jesus’ word choice in this healing is the key – text: Jesus took [the man] away from the crowd by himself and put his fingers in the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. Looking into heaven, Jesus sighed deeply and said, “Ephphatha,” which means “Open up.” At once, his ears opened, his twisted tongue was released, and he began to speak clearly.[7]
        • Jesus doesn’t say, “Be healed” or “Be well” as he does on many other occasions. He doesn’t command the man, “Hear!” or “Speak!” as he does when he heals a few people who cannot walk. Jesus says, “Be opened!” And before he does so, he looks up to heaven and sighs deeply. Is the sigh for the man … or is the sigh for himself? For his own journey? For his own growth and change and the expansion of his own ministry?
          • Scholar: For Mark the woman is more than simply rhetorically gifted: she is prophetic. She is an embodiment of Isaiah, there to rebuke Jesus, straightening him out and opening him up. The story of the deaf mute that follows would then serve as an example of how being opened up empowers one to open up others.
  • Friends, I know we want to see ourselves in the Syrophoenician woman in this story. We want to be the one bringing the light and the understanding. We want to be the one pointing out the place of growth. We want to be the one doing the opening because it’s a lot more comfortable than being the one who needs to be opened – the one who needs a bit of a reality check, the one who needs to change. And maybe sometimes we are. But think about the world around us today.
    • Ways that we separate ourselves from one another
      • By education level
      • By career path
      • By zip code
      • By income level
      • By political affiliation
      • By so many means and in so many ways. Time and time again, we think we have the right to choose who gets to sit at the table – who gets to enjoy the feast – and who gets relegated to the place of dishonor and destitution, begging for whatever crumbs we think we can spare. We are human. We are imperfect. So yes, it’s going to happen. But we are also followers of a Savior who showed us that it’s okay to recognize when we’ve been wrong … when we’ve been stingy … when we need to be opened … when we need to change. We follow a Savior who shows us that it’s possible, and that it’s okay to not only be the one claiming the crumbs, but to also be the one who sees that sometimes, instead of simply doling out those crumbs, we need to move over and make more room at the table. Amen.


[2] Mk 7:24-27.

[3] Barbara K. Lundblad. “Proper 18 [23] – Mark 7:24-37” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 382.

[4] Mk 7:27-30.

[5] Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm. “Proper 18 (Sunday between September 4 and September 10 inclusive) – Mark 7:24-37, Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 49.

[6] Jas 2:1-4, 8-9.

[7] Mk 7:33-35.

Sunday’s sermon: Where We Go From Here

Dark Woods 9 cover

Texts used – Ezekiel 36:24-28; Acts 10 (read throughout sermon)

  • Fitting that today is often thought of as the end of summer → today = the end of our summer-long journey through the Dark Wood[1]
    • Certainly not the end of all our journeys through Dark Woods → find ourselves in the Dark Woods = any time we face challenges/difficulties in our lives
      • Moments of pain, loss, worry, grief, fear, doubt, anger, frustration, lostness
      • Unintended and unexpected part of our journeys → No one plans to pass through the Dark Wood. No one chooses to be in those moments of hurt and ambiguity.
    • Journeys that are complicated and trying, to be sure, but journeys that also reveal unanticipated blessings even in the midst of the struggle
      • Challenge of uncertainty reveals opportunity to trust in God
      • Challenge of being emptied makes room for God in our lives
      • Challenge of being thunderstruck reveals flashes of God’s inspiration and guidance among the ordinariness of our days
      • Challenge of getting lost allows us to be found by a God of immeasurable love
      • Challenge of temptation reveals our truest and most genuine call to God’s work in this world
      • Challenge of disappearing relinquishes all the false labels that restrict us and allows us claim the true name of beloved Child of God
      • Challenge of being a misfit reveals our most authentic and essential community of others traveling through the Dark Wood with us
      • Elnes: People are making their way into the Dark Wood. There they are finding a sense of wholeheartedness that comes when body, soul, and the call of the Spirit converge. Some call this convergence point their place in this world. Others call it the kingdom of God.[2]
    • We’ve spent the summer talking about all of these blessings and the ways that they affect our lives and our faith. So now the question is: Where do we go from here? To answer that question, we’re going to walk through one of our Scripture stories that is a Dark Wood journey in and of itself, and we’re going to see how we come out on the other side. → going to take a mini Dark Wood journey, if you will
  • Scripture story comes from Acts
    • Main character = Peter → perfect Dark Wood character
      • Started this whole Dark Wood journey this summer with Peter → failed attempt to walk on water when Jesus comes to his rescue
      • Fitting that we end this journey with Peter as well
        • Elnes: I have come to realize that Peter’s accomplishments did not happen despite his shortcomings and failures but in and through them. Peter was a Dark Wood wanderer. He was intimately familiar with experiences of emptiness, uncertainty, and temptation that open us up to the Spirit’s guidance and clarify our next steps.[3] → Today’s story is just such an experience.
  • Story begins not with Peter but with someone who will play an important role is Peter’s Dark Wood journey of faith
    • READ Acts 10:1-8
    • Recap of what’s been happening in Acts up to this point
      • Acts = written by same author of Luke’s gospel
      • Very beginning of Acts = Jesus’ ascension followed by story of Pentecost → Peter’s first sermon to the crowd
      • Between then and now in our story, Peter has been sharing the good news only with other Jews – other chosen people, others who are considered worthy … part of the fold … appropriate and acceptable people. But all of that changes with Cornelius because Cornelius is a Gentile.
        • Not circumcised
        • Not kosher
        • Not a Jew → We have to remember that throughout the Old Testament, the people of Israel are told again and again to keep to themselves – not to adopt the cultures of others, not to marry people from other cultures, and so on.
          • About preserving their heritage
          • About preserving their faith
          • Goes back to God’s covenant with Abraham: When Abram was 99 years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk with me and be trustworthy. … I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you.[4] → As a Gentile, Cornelius isn’t part of this covenant. He is outside the faith. And at least at the beginning of the church, Peter was pretty adamant about keeping the good news only for the people of the covenant – the people of Israel – because everyone else was unworthy in his eyes … in his And yet, as our story begins today, it begins with just such an unworthy one as that – with Cornelius the centurion who Scripture tells us is a pious, Gentile God-worshipper.
  • Peter enters the story in a pretty easy-going way – heading up on a rooftop to pray – but things don’t stay easy for Peter for long
    • READ Acts 10:9-23
    • Peter goes up on the roof to pray but finds himself in the midst of the Dark Wood – his encounter with the Holy Spirit one of uncertainty, to say the least.
      • Animals in the vision = all animals that had been forbidden for the people of Israel to eat for centuries
        • Goes back to the book of Leviticus, supposedly recordings of the conversations between God and Moses as the people were wandering in the wilderness → all the “dos and don’ts” for the people of Israel – where, when, how, and why of:
          • Appropriate offerings to make
          • Purpose and timing of festivals
          • Care/generosity for those less fortunate
          • Priestly activities
          • Animals that can and cannot be eaten
          • There are whole chapters – long chapters! – in Leviticus devoted to exactly which animals can and cannot be eaten.
        • And yet here’s Peter’s vision – text: He saw heaven opened up and something like a large linen sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!” Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”[5] → Peter is proud of this. He’s proud that he has remained kosher his entire life. He has remained clean, righteous. It’s a badge of honor for him.
      • Uncertainty arises – text: The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This happened three times, then the object was suddenly pulled back into heaven. Peter was bewildered about the meaning of this vision. Just then, the messengers sent by Cornelius discovered the whereabouts of Simon’s house and arrived at the gate. → “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” Hmmm. Something tells me this isn’t really about food.
        • Elnes: As he prayed, Peter probably tried to assess where the vision was coming from. Was it the Holy Spirit or his stomach talking? While the book of Acts makes the origin of the vision clear – it is indeed from the Holy Spirit – we must not assume it was so clear to Peter, at least initially.[6]
      • Peter suddenly finds himself in the Dark Wood, and he is struggling.
        • Peter is struggling with uncertainty to be sure. He’s uncertain whether this message is truly from God. He’s uncertain about what it means. He’s uncertain about what he should do. He is uncertain. → voice urges him to trust … but trust is hard
        • Peter is struggling with emptying himself – emptying himself of all his preconceived notions, all his prejudices, all his former ways – to make room for the instructions from the Holy Spirit. → voice urges him to empty himself … but it’s often hard – so very hard! – to get out of our own way
        • Peter is struggling in the dark, hoping for something to illumine the path ahead. Whether consciously or not, he can feel the rumbling thunder of the Holy Spirit deep within him, but he’s waiting for that lighting flash – that thunderstrike – to light up the path more clearly for him. → voice urges him to forge ahead … but it’s hard to walk in the dark
        • I think we could pretty easily apply just about any of our Dark Wood lessons to Peter’s predicament here.
          • Temptation to do the good that he has been taught since birth – remaining ritually clean – instead of following the instructions of the Holy Spirit
          • Need to disappear from the labels of kosher and unkosher, clean and unclean, pure and tainted that he has held his whole life and turn sideways into the light of God’s pureness
          • Need to get lost in the moment – losing track of those rules that he believed were so crucial … need to get lost in God’s command and God’s goodness
          • Need to find community in the midst of those unexpected wanderings – people wandering and wondering and wavering just like him
    • And in the face of that need, enter Cornelius.
      • READ Acts 10:24-48
      • In the midst of that Dark Wood wandering, not only was Peter able to find blessings – blessings of trust and being filled, of guidance and inspiration, of calling and claiming and community. Not only was Peter able to find those blessings for himself, but he was also able to be that blessing for Cornelius and his household.
        • Hearing and validating Cornelius’ witness
        • Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ
        • Baptizing Cornelius and his household, welcoming them into a community that only the day before, Peter himself would have thought closed to them
        • Elnes: In taking a step toward Caesarea, Peter stepped away not only from his house in Joppa but from the figurative boat of his tradition – from nearly a thousand years of faith and practice – and set foot once again on the stormy sea of uncertainty. Only this time he was less afraid than the first. Peter knew it was safe to take a risk – even a large one – if he sensed the Spirit calling him to do so. He had learned firsthand that when you follow your deepest sense of call, you do not step out onto that sea alone. If you lose your nerve and sink when following the Spirit’s call, you need only reach up for help. You will discover yourself grasped by a power that is not ready to let you go.[7]
          • Reassurance of Ezek rings true: I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be cleansed of all your pollution. I will cleanse you of all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it with a living one, and I will give you my spirit so that you may walk according to my regulations and carefully observe by case laws.[8]
        • So as we leave this exploration of the Dark Wood behind, friends, take heart, take courage, and be reassured. In the midst of whatever Dark Wood journey you may be facing in your own life – today, tomorrow, or whenever they come down the road – you do not walk alone.
      • Blessings from Elnes:

May the Spirit of the Living God,
Made known to us most fully within life’s Dark Wood:
Go before you to show you the way;
Go above you to watch over you;
Go behind you to push you into places you may not necessarily go yourself;
Go beneath you to uphold and uplift you;
Go beside you to be your strong and constant companion;
And dwell within you to remind you that you are surely not alone,
And that you are loved – loved beyond your wildest imagination,
And may the fire of God’s blessing burn brightly
Upon you, and within you,
Now and always.

For this final Sunday in our summer-long series going through the Dark Wood with Eric Elnes, we used a KT Tunstall song as our charge and benediction. It’s a song that I was unfamiliar with, but I was working on my sermon last Sunday morning and it came on the Pandora station I was listening to. The minute I heard it, I knew it was perfect to wrap up this particular series. So let the words of British pop artist KT Tunstall close this sermon experience for you:

The lyrics for this beautiful song can be found here.



[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.

[2] Elnes, 168.

[3] Elnes, 171.

[4] Gen 17:1, 7.

[5] Acts 10:

[6] Elnes, 174.

[7] Elnes, 177.

[8] Ezek 36:25-27.