Sermon 05-12-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 5”

The Beatles got up and danced to "a song that was a hit before your mother was born" in this memorable scene from Magical Mystery Tour.
The Beatles danced to “a song that was a hit before your mother was born” in this memorable scene from Magical Mystery Tour.

A church that focuses more on “helping” people than on saving people is a church that has lost its focus. I hate to pit these two tasks—service and evangelism—against one another, but isn’t it easy to see how the United Methodist Church is really good at one and not so good at the other?

Want to help people rebuild after a hurricane? Call the Methodists. Want to get rid of malaria? Call the Methodists. Want to fight for justice in the world? Call the Methodists. Want to tell someone how they can be saved? Hmm… Doesn’t Billy Graham still do that? Or the Baptists? Or maybe the community megachurch down the street? Are the Methodist just supposed to outsource that part of the job?

Like Jesus in today’s scripture, this sermon challenges us to stay focused on what’s most important.

 Sermon Text: Mark 7:24-30

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

When I read today’s scripture, my first thought is, “I have a defective dog.” After all, my dog, Neko, refuses to do the very thing that even JesusGod in the flesh—says that dogs are supposed to do: which is to eat crumbs and scraps that fall from the table—or the couch or the recliner—onto the floor. Jesus knows that’s what dogs are supposed to do; you know it; I know it. It’s like their only job around the house! Cats are responsible for catching mice and bugs and creepy-crawly things that get in the house; dogs are responsible for eating food that falls on the floor. Neko doesn’t eat human food! She never has.

I love my dog, but she is not normal when it comes to eating table scraps!
I love my dog, but she is not normal when it comes to eating table scraps!

We had a normal dog named Presley—an English springer spaniel—when my kids were babies. Presley would park himself underneath the high chair in the morning, waiting for every little Cheerio that would fall to the floor—which would be a couple of handfuls before all was said and done. Spill a bag of Goldfish on the floor? No problem! Presley was on it! But not Neko! Crazy!

Many contemporary people who read today’s scripture are bothered by Jesus’ words about dogs. Is Jesus comparing this woman to a dog? How could he be so rude—so chauvinistic, so prejudiced against this Gentile woman? Some recent New Testament scholars have bought into this idea as well. They’ve tried to say that this is an example of Jesus’ “humanity” on full display—that Jesus was tired and irritable after a long day’s travel, the way any of us would be, and these words just slipped out in an unguarded moment. And the woman set him straight. Or maybe he didn’t yet understand that his Messianic mission wasn’t simply to Israel but to all the world. So this woman taught him something that he didn’t already know.

I don’t buy these interpretations for a moment. I don’t believe Jesus was insulting the woman, nor do I think she took it that way. When you’re speaking, how you say something is almost as important as what you say. That’s why we have emoticons when we text: because we want to convey not simply the words, but the tone of the words. For example, I use the winking smiley all the time. But I never use the “lol” tag. Because it’s never true. Are our friends really “laughing out loud” when they text “lol.” No! Do you think anyone in the history of social media has ever literally been ROTFL-ing—or doing other things that I probably shouldn’t say in church! No!

Unless I’m texting my good friend the comedian Jim Gaffigan, and he’s talking about bacon or ketchup or Hot Pockets, chances are I’m not LOL-ing. So I don’t type that.

Be that as it may… Tone matters. My family knows that when I’m happy, I speak to Neko in the same tone of voice that I speak to babies—or even my 13-year-old, and I say, “How’s my beautiful girl?” and she says, “Dad, stop talking to me like I’m Neko!” Maybe I’m a bad dog owner, but sometimes I even like to say mean things to Neko in that same tone of voice. I’ll scratch her belly and say, “You’re no good. You’re so ugly. No one likes you.” But Neko loves it. She doesn’t care! It’s not the words, it’s the tone. It’s all about tone.

Likewise, this conversation between Jesus and the Gentile woman is all about tone. Maybe if he were writing it today, Mark would have inserted a winking smiley after Jesus said, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Jesus, in other words, is speaking to the woman in friendly banter; he’s teasing her. And that’s clearly the spirit in which she receives the remark, because she dishes it right back: “That’s true, Lord, but even the dogs eat the Cheerios that fall from the baby’s high-chair”—I’m paraphrasing.

Also, consider the context in which the story takes place: Jesus has already healed a Gentile, so he’s certainly not opposed to ministering to Gentiles when it’s appropriate. It’s clear from the Old Testament that the Messiah’s mission was to bring salvation to the whole world—Jesus knew that, and he wouldn’t need this woman to teach him that. But Jesus also knew that his mission started with Israel: they must first hear the good news that their long-awaited Messiah was now here, that they must repent of their sins and believe.

Jesus also knew that his mission to Israel wasn’t complete until he suffered and died on the cross. He had an urgent appointment to keep in Jerusalem, on a hill called Calvary, and he couldn’t let himself be sidetracked by a new mission to Gentiles. That mission would begin in earnest after his resurrection and after the Holy Spirit gave birth to the Church in Acts 2. The Book of Acts tells that story. But suffering, dying on a cross, and being resurrected—in other words, providing the means by which everyone in the world can now enter into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ—that was more important than even healing the sick.

Did you hear that? A church that focuses more on good works—like healing people and helping people—than on saving people is a church that has lost its focus. I hate to pit these two tasks—evangelism and service—against one another, but isn’t it easy to see how our own church—the United Methodist Church—is really good at one and not so good at the other? Want to help people rebuild after a hurricane? Call the Methodists. Want to get rid of malaria? Call the Methodists. Want to fight for justice in the world? Call the Methodists. Want to tell someone how they can be saved? Hmm… Doesn’t Billy Graham still do that? Or the Baptists? Or the maybe community megachurch down the street? Are the Methodist just supposed to outsource that part of the job?

Among other things, Jesus makes it clear in today’s scripture that he was sent into this world, not to be a “universal problem-solver,” not to be the world’s greatest medical missionary, not to be an all-around nice guy who helped out wherever and whenever he could.[1] He wasn’t even sent into the world to perform miracles. His mission was to reconcile humanity with God, to offer them forgiveness of sins, eternal life, salvation—nothing more, nothing less. Even the miracles he did perform were signs that pointed to his identity, his mission, and his saving purposes.

Remember the story of the four friends who lower their paralyzed friend through a hole in a thatched roof—because the house where Jesus was preaching and healing was too crowded to get through the door. They lower him down on a mat. Jesus saw their faith, and he said to the paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Your sins are forgiven? Are you kidding? Surely that’s not what the guy wanted! But Jesus understood that the paralyzed man needed to have his sins forgiven more than he needed to walk again! If you go back and read the story, you’ll see that Jesus later heals the man physically, but only to prove to the Pharisees that he also had the authority to forgive sins. The point of the miracle was salvation and forgiveness.

Does that mean that miracles don’t happen anymore or that we shouldn’t pray for them? By no means! But Jesus could have spent his entire three-year ministry doing nothing but healing people, and he would have made very little progress toward eliminating human misery in the world. There’s just too much of it. Moreover, every physical healing in the Bible was temporary—every person Jesus healed got sick again and died. Even Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead, later died. Physical healing is temporary; the gift of salvation that comes through faith in Jesus is eternal. So you tell me: which one is more important? Which one should we, the church, make our top priority?

I promise I am preaching to myself, too. My temptation, after all, is to be satisfied with numbers. I’m obviously being a good and faithful pastor if people are showing up for worship, showing up for service projects, showing up for Bible studies. If people show up, good things happen! If people show up, they might hear God’s word speaking directly to them; they might become more faithful followers of Jesus Christ. If people show up, they’ll put money in the offering plate, they’ll pay the power bill, they’ll pay my salary, they’ll pay the “apportionments” that we owe to our denomination. If people show up, I’ll never hear a discouraging word from my district superintendent or bishop. If people show up, it makes me look good and successful.

I care deeply about people showing up. But, dear God, by the power of your Holy Spirit, please, please make me care more about the people who don’t show up. Amen?

Every week in staff meeting we go over the numbers, and they read the Vinebranch numbers, and I’m like, “Hey, looking good! We’re up 25 percent over last year. We had 200 in worship, and that’s good. Let’s not worry about those tens of thousands in Alpharetta who didn’t show up at any church on Sunday. Do you think that many of those tens of thousands needed Jesus in their lives?

I don’t know much about Hampton, Georgia. I don’t know how big the town is, and how many churches are in the area. But I’ll guarantee that there will be a lot more people in Hampton who don’t show up at church than do, and I want them to be the church’s top priority. Amen? Will you please pray this prayer for me, starting today: “Dear Lord, please help Brent to care more about the people who don’t show than the people who do!” It’s not that I don’t deeply love and care for the people who show up, but you get my point… May we all care more for the people who don’t show up.

And on this Mother’s Day, there’s a message for parents here, too, isn’t there? The most important work of evangelism takes place between parent and child. Are we making our children’s salvation a higher priority than anything else? Are we doing all we can to ensure that our own children will not only be productive, successful, independent members of society when they grow up, but that they will also be Christians when they grow up?

Earlier, the band played a great song about mothers, “Lady Madonna.” Paul McCartney has said that the song is a way of appreciating all the hard work that mothers do.[2] At one point, he asks this mother, “Who finds the money when you pay the rent?/ Did you think that money was heaven-sent?”

Well, if the mother in the song did think that money—in fact, everything that she needed to survive—was heaven-sent, then she would be on right track! We Christians sometimes get hung up on whether or not God can or will work a big, dramatic miracle in our lives. And sometimes we might need one of those, to be sure. And maybe we pray for that miracle and it doesn’t happen. And we wonder, “Why didn’t God intervene in this situation and answer my prayer?” We often think of miracles as if God’s intervention in our lives were the exception, rather than the rule: but God constantly intervenes in his children’s lives. There’s a sense in which every moment, every heartbeat, every breath is an ongoing miracle from God. And this song points to the miracle of everyday living.

McCartney calls the mother in the song “Lady Madonna,” which reminds us of the Virgin Mary, and God’s miraculous intervention in her life to conceive a child without a human father. That’s a dramatic miracle if ever there was one! But notice the song isn’t about those kinds of dramatic miracles. It’s about the little ones: How does this mother manage to make ends meet, or pay the rent, or feed her children? And yet here she is doing it, day after day, week after week, month after month. It seems impossible. And apart from God’s grace, it is. God gives this woman everything she needs to survive. Every good thing that she possesses and enjoys comes to her as a gift from a generous, loving, merciful God.

I wish I could live my life in a constant state of gratitude for all the gifts that God continually gives me. Don’t you?

I discussed my dog, Neko, earlier… She may be a complete failure when it comes to eating human food that falls on the floor, but I’ll give her this… She’s absolutely faithful in her devotion to her family—including even our cat, Peanut, who frequently repays her devotion by smacking her on the nose with his claw. Neko loves us. She depends on us for everything. She knows exactly who feeds her and gives her water. She knows who opens the door to let her in and out. She’s shameless about asking us for whatever she needs. She’s persistent—she doesn’t give up until she gets what she needs. And she’s grateful: she will lick you to death as a way of saying thanks.

See, we think that Jesus was being insulting by comparing this Gentile woman to a dog. But why? The truth is, my dog can teach me a few things trust and faithfulness. Like Neko, I could remember that my Master is the source of everything I need to survive. Like Neko, I could learn to ask my Master to give me what I need. Like Neko, I could be far more persistent in asking than I am. Like Neko, I could always be grateful—and not just take all the good stuff for granted.

So why should this woman be offended by Jesus’ words? She was humble. She knew she was a sinner. She knew she wasn’t worthy of God’s help. And, after all, none of us is!

In fact, there’s only been one person in human history who was worthy of God’s help, and at the very moment that he could have used it most, he refused to ask for it. Talk about humiliation… And as a result he suffered and died the most painful, tragic death imaginable. And he did so in order to save us from death and hell, to forgive all our sins, to give us eternal life, to make us beloved children of God. We may start out as dogs begging for scraps under the table, but, praise God, Jesus has prepared a place for us at his table if we’ll receive him by faith.

All of this he gives to us as a free gift from God available by faith. Have you received this gift? [Prayer and invitation.]

[1] Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 96.

[2] This characterization comes from Steve Turner’s book, A Hard Day’s Write (New York: It Books, 2005), 146.

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