Fr. Ron Feister: Mission Impossible

Sermon delivered on Trinity 14B, Sunday, September 6, 2015 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125.1-5; James 2.1-17; Mark 7.24-37.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Proverbs are the quick, good advice phrases gathered by the authors of the Scriptures which contained a good deal of practical advice. Some of this advice is directed to a particular time or culture, but many of the Proverbs speak of universal truths. Today’s Proverb reading is one of those. It speaks to the  reader of the importance of a “good name” that is of having a good reputation.

A good reputation is valuable more valuable than material wealth.  We can look  around at the people that we respect and its is not the people of wealth that we look up to but the people whose character is beyond reproach. Such people  are listened to and their advice treasured. When that “good name,” that reputation is lessened or destroyed, all of the good that the  person has otherwise  accomplished is held in contempt. It did not take till the coming of Jesus for God’s people to be reminded that all of us are God’s children, that rich and poor alike are treasured by God and that God blesses those who are generous in sharing with the poor.  We are warned that if we involve ourselves in injustice and especially if we take advantage of the poor—and by poor we mean both those lacking financial resources and those lacking the means of prospering, for example those lacking adequate education—that we will experience God’s  displeasure either in this time or in eternity.

Some of this same theme is picked in the Epistle from James in which he builds upon the reading we had last week. James is applying some of the principles to a church which has lost sight of these values. Clearly at least some in the church have gone so far as to discriminate against other members based upon wealth or status or appearance. He has to remind them that those less fortunate often have a stronger faith than those with much. James also would emphasize that Jesus himself did not show partiality in that he did not cater to the rich and powerful. James is calling for a church that lives its faith, a church that lives under the law of mercy, showing that mercy may abound for all. James is again calling for a church that  is rich in works because its members are rich in faith. We can all take these admonitions to heart because from one time to another we are all tempted to show preferences. We are all from one time to another desire to what we believe is justice over showing mercy. We all forget that the grace of God is not really real until it is lived out. As Father Kevin reflected last week, this is one of those churches in which faith and good works both abound. It is a church that does care for those who less fortunate and has many a mission of service. Speaking of missions, we come to our Gospel.

Growing up I used to watch a television show called Mission Impossible and in recent times there have been a number of movies based on the same premises that a small group could overcome overwhelming odds to pull off missions that were impossible. They would do this by their skill and by use of tricks and technology. The missions were really not impossible but merely very risky and difficult. There is however one person, Jesus Christ, who is capable of  the mission impossible. Several weeks ago, we heard in John’s Gospel about the feeding of the five thousand. In that story Jesus asks his disciples to solve the problem of feeding the multitude. Jesus knows what he is going to do, but first he tests his closest followers. He does this not to embarrass them or to cause them pain but so that they might look at their own resources and limitations. Challenged as they were, they did come up with five loaves and two fish but feeding the multitude with so little was truly a mission impossible. Yet it was just this bread and fish that Jesus blessed in the hands of his disciples that the multitude were fed and so much was remaining that there were seven baskets of leftovers. Mission was accomplished.

Well, that is a fine lesson for that weeks readings, but what does that have to do with today’s. In some manner or another, all of our readings put before us a seemingly impossible mission. In today’s Gospel from Mark we have several such impossibilities. We have Jesus approached by a gentile woman, a Syrophoenician who asks Jesus to heal her daughter.  Women in the time of Jesus would not under almost any circumstance begin a conversation with a man. It was something that just was not possible. Yet driven by the love she held for her tormented daughter, she did the impossible. Jesus in what must have sounded like harsh terms responds that the, “Children (that is the Jews, the Chosen People, be fed first for it was not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (the non-believers). There are at least two theories as to why Jesus said what he did and the way he did. One theory is that Jesus saw his ministry, up to this time, as one only to the Jews and it was through this encounter that the Father revealed to Jesus that his mission was to the whole world. To me this is doubtful, for he had worked healings for other non-Jews before. Further, this occurred in the region of Tyre which was not Jewish territory. This was the land of the Gentiles. Yet Jesus had deliberately chosen to be there.

The other theory is that he was testing the woman just like he tested his Disciples over the feeding of the five thousand. He is asking her what are you willing to give of yourself? What are you willing to do or contribute? In doing this within that culture, Jesus may have been actually honoring the woman, rather than disrespecting her as the words seem to imply in our translation. The woman gives only that which she can. She has her persistence and acknowledges that she is not worthy but pleads for mercy. This is all she has. This is enough. The demon is driven from her daughter; her agony is ended. Now Jesus knew right from the start what he was going to do. He had worked many healings and delivered many a poor soul from such torture but here he treats a woman and a non-Jew like he treated his disciples. There is a need. They ask Jesus to meet that need, he asks them what they bring of themselves to meet the need, then Jesus takes whatever they bring and does what for them was impossible. In this process there is the opportunity for spiritual growth.

The second story we have in the Gospel of Mark is the healing of a deaf man. Jesus has not yet left Gentile territory when someone brings the man to Jesus. Some person or persons cared enough to make the effort to bring Jesus and this man together and someone had the faith, or at least the hope, that Jesus would heal. Again there is a need, the testing we do not see but is implied. The only things that the man has is the support, faith, and hope of those who brought him. This too is all that it takes. Jesus heals. Jesus cautions those with the man not to tell anyone, but they cannot stop. The more Jesus asks them either out of  humility or perhaps because he does not yet feel the time has come to reveal his mission to the whole world, the Gentile people included, to not speak of it, the more they are compelled to proclaim it. Restoring the hearing and speech to one profoundly deaf in the time of Jesus was understood as an impossible mission but one that Jesus made possible. This Gospel reminds us that through Jesus Christ our spiritual ears may be opened that we can speak clearly the Word of God’s love and compassion.

These are but two stories of impossible missions made possible. There are many more but to name a few. There is the joyful miracle of Cana when the Lord turns water into wine, reminding us that God wants us to be a joy filled people. There is the calming of the sea which assures us that ourLord is with us in whatever “boat” we may find ourselves and that he has the power to calm the storms whether they be outside or within us. There is the restoration of the blind Bartimaeus which remind us that through Jesus that we can see the world around us as it is in all of limitations but also in all of its beauty. There is the raising of Lazarus from the dead that assures us that we also have new life. And the greatest mission impossible was the restoration of humanity’s relationship with its God through the sacrifice of the cross.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.