Sermon 09/09/2018: Be Opened

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You're Invited

"Be Opened"
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Senseig

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Scripture: Mark 7:24-37

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Be Opened

Community Mennonite Church (9-9-18)

Jennifer Davis Sensenig

Text: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

Kyrie, eleison

[SLIDE #2] Kyrie, eleison. Lord, have mercy. These are not words with which we speak about Jesus. This is a script–thousands of years old–for speaking to Jesus. This is prayer. And if you’re needing something to pray, this is a good way to begin. Kyrie, means Lord. The first person who spoke to Jesus in this way was this Syro-Phoenecian Lady. I say lady because the Syro-Phoenecians were wealthier and more worldly than the Galilean Jews. In this lady’s story, in Mark, the earliest Gospel she says, Kyrie, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. In the whole Gospel of Mark, she is the only character to address Jesus as Kyrie. She alone calls him ‘Lord.’ She models a discipleship that wealthy and worldly societies desperately need.

Since she boldly asked Jesus for help, many millions of others have dared to speak up and speak directly to Christ–to ask for healing, to plead for mercy and cry out for justice for others and for ourselves. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the one who will meet our deepest need, who knows our need because he lived as one of us and now lives in all places and within us. This Jesus can be our Lord, whether we’re rich or poor, young or old, part of the in-group, or dismissed as the out-group.

[SLIDE #3] When Jesus of Galilee encountered this Gentile woman and her fierce mother-love for her child he was offended at first. Jews like Jesus and Gentiles like this lady didn’t just visit one another’s houses, doing neighborly favors for each other. They kept themselves separate. Jesus begged off any responsibility. Let the children of Israel be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. But then she called him Lord and made her case. I wonder whether at that moment Jesus plunged into the heart of God’s love that encompassed not only Israel, but all nations. I wonder whether Jesus recognized his own mother’s legacy of love and justice in this lady’s demand. Taken to task, the Lord humbly acknowledged her truth and shared his healing power with her. Without speaking to her daughter, without touching her or even seeing her, Jesus delivered the child from terrible suffering. It was a miracle. Jesus took the path that we must take: expanding capacity to not just speak of love, mercy and justice, but to act not just for our own people, but for strangers and outsiders.

MCC Relief Sale

[SLIDE #4] Next month many of us will participate in a local tradition–the VA Mennonite Central Committee relief sale. It’s a wonderful event–a chance to see friends, enjoy music, volunteer, compete in a 5K run, bid on furniture or quilts and eat delicious food all to raise funds for the relief, development and peace work of Mennonite Central Committee around the world. The people who benefit directly from these funds are people we might never see, with whom we might never speak, or shake hands. The relief sale creates a healing connection with people in other parts of the world. It’s the stuff of miracles.

The relief sale also bonds local Mennonite folks across the theological tensions that sometimes threaten our shared witness to Jesus’ way of peace, mercy, love and justice. Currently MCC has about 775 people from the US and Canada serving in over 60 countries. There are another 230 people serving as in-country staff to MCC projects. If you’ve served with MCC in the US or some other country, or supported MCC’s work financially, you are already familiar with organizing your life around God’s dream of meeting the needs of the world with love and mercy. Thank you for your example and inspiration. Today our scriptures encourage us to continue this tradition in Jesus’ name.

Proverbs, James and the Wealth Gap

[SLIDE #5] The scriptures we heard today all concern how the people of God relate to those in need. In the Bible, the book of Proverbs comes from the perspective of power and privilege. Proverbs is a collection of wisdom originally compiled as instruction for elite young men eager to rule the world. Yet it addresses the wealth gap in Israrelite society.

First, God made everybody–whether rich or poor–so we’re all family.

Second, don’t perpetuate injustice.

Third, generosity is about sharing with the poor– not with rich friends.

Fourth, don’t exploit the poor, even though it’s easy to do!

Fifth, God is on the side of the poor.

This bar graph gives you as sense for the extreme wealth gap in this country.

[SLIDE #6] We also heard an excerpt from the New Testament letter attributed to James, brother of Jesus. James is radical with respect to wealth and poverty. For James there is no reason for worship if we are not sharing with the poor. James exposes empty religion and false spirituality in a heartbeat. Much of the wise teaching in James sounds like the wisdom sayings of the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus. What is our relationship to the poor of the world? The MCC relief sale is a fun tradition that raises funds to meet global needs. In recent years the Share our Surplus campaign goes further. At the relief sale we can not only divert our recreational dollars that weekend toward a good cause, but give money directly from our surplus to provide for refugees. Harvey Yoder says the Share our Surplus campaign is “to willingly become poorer for Christ’s sake.” James goes further still. James makes us examine systemic privilege and prejudice in our community, so that we interrupt the cycles that keep some poor while others grow wealthier at their expense.

[SLIDE #7] You may have heard about the USA Today report identifying Harrisonburg as the city in VA in which poverty is concentrating at the fastest rate. One Harrisonburg neighborhood crossed the extreme poverty threshold between 2010 and 2016. Now 10.3% of the metro area's 23,600 poor residents live in a single neighborhood. That’s nearly twice the 5.6% concentrated poverty rate for Virginia as a whole. (July 2018, USA Today) Local economic development folks question whether our many students skew those statistics, but since CMCer Adrienne Griggs and the JMU Campus Kitchen folks are in touch with food insecurity in the wider community as well as among students, the USA Today report seems relevant.

[SLIDE #8] And we know that the ALICE report issued earlier this year–which identifies persons who are asset-limited, income-constrained employed–includes more than 60% of Harrisonburg residents and 42% of Rockingham County residents. The United States has wider disparities in wealth between rich and poor than any other major developed country. Our Christian scriptures, both Old Testament and New–Proverbs and James–address the people of God and the wealth gap in their society. Proverbs comes from the perspective of the elite; James comes from the perspective of the poor. Both indicate divine judgment against societies like ours.


[SLIDE #9] Sometimes the invitation in scripture is less comfort and more challenge. This morning our invitation is to be opened. It’s what Jesus said to the man who was deaf and mute. Ephaphtha–Be opened. The Old Testament prophets regularly spoke of God’s people being spiritually deaf, unable to hear or comprehend, God’s hope for their nation. Here’s an example from Zechariah (7:8-12)

Thus says the Lord: Render true judgments,

show kindness and mercy to one another;

do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor;

and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder,

and stopped their ears in order not to hear.

They made their hearts hard in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit

through the former prophets.

Jesus comes to heal all nations, to open our ears, so that we can hear, to help us speak plainly and truthfully about the real conditions of our world. And Jesus shows us how to live as the healing presence of God’s mercy and love in our communities.

Jesus was known for relating to the poor, oppressed and excluded people of his society. Rather than steering clear of these undesirables, Jesus connected with the sick and possessed. Jesus had a reputation for healing. Jesus organized his life to care for those in need. And he expected his whole nation to follow him and do the same. This is mad! This is not the way nations operate! Nations concentrate wealth and power and give the poor just enough so that they do not rebel.

Jesus was not just a good individual example from long ago. Jesus is the Messiah, the leader, the Lord of a nation. Jesus has actually shifted history, so that now, whenever we pray or give or serve or heal in his name we are exercising our citizenship in a nation led by Jesus the Lord, Kyrie. In whatever creative ways we are addressing the wealth gap in this country or alleviating global poverty we are not just doing good, we are part of God’s history, God’s story for the earth and all its creatures where Jesus is Lord and needs are met with mercy and love.

Voluntary Service Unit

[SLIDE #10] Today we celebrate the beginning of a voluntary service unit here in Harrisonburg. Through the dreams, vision, planning, prayer, administration, and leadership of CMCers we are beginning something new. There has been some persistent, fierce love that has gone into this endeavor. It has not been easy and we have a great committee to thank. We also have two young adults, Ali Zuercher and Taylor Hodges, who are open to this inaugural year. We have been praying for you and are delighted to welcome you. I believe that over time this voluntary service unit will do some good in the community. Individual service workers like Ali and Taylor will make positive contributions to people served by agencies in Harrisonburg. But voluntary service is more than doing a bit of good. When VSers organize their lives to care for those in need, it is evidence of their citizenship in a nation, a people for whom Jesus is Lord. When a church organizes our money, our time, our relationships, our staff, our energy to care for those in need we are joining God’s dream for our community.

A tough job

[SLIDE #11] When Jesus enters Gentile territory he heals a little girl without seeing her, without speaking to her, without even touching her. But then he seems to have a tougher job. When people from the Decapolis bring him the deaf mute, Jesus drives his fingers in the man’s ears, spits, touches the man’s tongue and offers an anguished cry in a language the man doesn’t understand. Be opened!

Is it easier to give money to alleviate poverty at a distance than to address economic inequality when it is close enough to touch–in our neighborhood, in our city, in our church? Perhaps so. And yet, even we who live in a society that is far from God's dream are hearing–at least in part–what God is speaking to us in these scriptures [SLIDE #12] We're invited to love deeply (like a wealthy Gentile mother). We're to love enough to do something out of the ordinary. Imagine a Syro-Phoenecian seeking out a Galilean for help. But who knows, perhaps it is the poor whose help we need. Today we're invited to love deeply. We're also invited to be opened, so that we can both hear and speak about God's dream for the world in which every need is met with mercy and love. And, of course, we're invite to belong to the worldwide nation who claims Jesus Christ is Lord. AMEN. [/otw_shortcode_content_toggle]

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

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