This sermon was proclaimed in the community of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on Sept. 5, 2021. It can be viewed on our YouTube channel: Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.
The texts were:
Isaiah 35: 4-7a
Mark 7: 24-37
Young Friends message: Follow the leader.
What does the word discipleship mean to you? (Accept all answers) I have to admit that it’s a word that even as a pastor, can seem nebulous. I mean that is one of my roles, is to help form disciples of Jesus. And as simple as that sounds, in practice, it feels very complex and I wonder if I don’t understand fully what discipleship is.
I took a class with the Southwest CA synod in August where we read the book “The Rediscipling of the White Church” and the definition of discipleship in that book struck me as poignant. On page 15, the author David Swanson writes “our definition of a Christian disciple: following Jesus to become like Jesus, in order to do what Jesus does.” [i]This definition is rooted in St. Augustine of Hippo’s theology of “becoming more like Jesus.” And our own Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, very much adheres to this theology as well when he purports that it’s how we live each day that changes us and the world. This seems simple enough, but it’s quite complex, messy and anything but easy. I feel the weight of trying to be a disciple of Jesus, to do what Jesus does, and it’s overwhelming. For one thing, it feels hubris to claim to be anything like Jesus, and for another, what would Jesus do? I often sigh, and think maybe it’s easier to do nothing, than get it wrong, or maybe my actions don’t matter all that much. After all, I can’t change whole systems, and I can’t control a virus, I can’t control governmental systems oppressing people, I can’t control world affairs. This discipleship thing, is hard. Becoming like Jesus is daunting, as we forget that Jesus wasn’t particularly liked by people in power. He wasn’t considered nice. I get caught in liking being liked and wanting to be nice, but if I’m taking discipleship seriously, it’s not that easy.
Our text from Mark today is anything but easy, and it shows us a not nice Jesus. This text flows from last week’s where Jesus was sparring with the religious leaders over rules and what defiles, and it’s not what’s on the outside, it’s what’s in our hearts. Jesus disciples were being challenged that they weren’t following the religious rules by following Jesus. Jesus didn’t tell people to follow rules, he told people to follow him. So that makes our passage today even more complex. Jesus leaves the supposed safety of Jewish territory and crosses over into Gentile territory. There were some Jews living there, but not many. It seems that Jesus was ready to be out of the spotlight for a while. But it didn’t last. A Syrophoenician woman found out about Jesus’ presence and falls at his feet begging him to exorcise a demon from her daughter. Jesus responds not with compassion or empathy, but an insult. We can’t soften what he says to her-yes, he calls her a dog. Honestly, I don’t like this from Jesus, it messes with my simplistic mindset of Jesus as passive, soft and mushy. But that’s my problem and not Jesus’. The woman isn’t deterred and retorts to his insult with “fine, call me a dog, but even dogs eventually get taken care of too.” Jesus is snapped out of whatever funk he was in and realizes that he was wrong. The easy thing for Jesus would have been for him to double down and insist that she was wrong, and he was right, after all, he is God made flesh. But Jesus does the hard thing, he listens, and is changed by her need. He realizes that this woman is as important as his mission to the children of Israel and maybe more so. He acts and heals the girl without even being in her presence. Jesus doesn’t have to meet the girl to ensure that she is able to flourish and be a part of her community.
Jesus is so changed by this encounter, that he goes deeper into Gentile territory, where there are fewer Jews. A group of people bring their friend to Jesus who is deaf and doesn’t speak. They beg him for help, as anyone with a disability in Jesus’ day, and even our own, is ostracized from community and wholeness. Jesus takes him aside in private, I think to keep the focus on the man and not his own power. Jesus doesn’t just offer a prayer, he acts. He puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits on him and touches his tongue. That is considered gross in nearly every time, place, and culture. And a definite crossing of a boundary. And not COVID safe. Then Jesus does something that I deeply resonate with, he sighs. Jesus sighs. Maybe at himself, maybe for the man, maybe Jesus is overwhelmed by the systems in society that led to this man needing help. He says, “Be opened.” Again, maybe to himself, maybe to the man, maybe to all creation. The man is then able to hear and speak. And more importantly is returned to community. He’s opened to the presence of God.
As complicated and unflattering of Jesus as these stories are, they are good news for us as people who strive to follow Jesus to become like Jesus, in order to do what Jesus does. Following Jesus, means that we will be confronted by people who demand things of us that we don’t like, or hadn’t considered before. We will be called out for our own hypocrisy, given an opportunity to listen, learn, change and do better for our neighbor. Following Jesus, means that we may not be considered nice as we cross borders and boundaries and go to places and people where we aren’t comfortable and may want to hide. Following Jesus means that we don’t fall for what is easy or simplistic and we are opened to a new reality, and we admit when we were wrong.
Doing what Jesus does leads us to change the world with building relationships and offering mercy and real life, physical help sometimes one person at a time. As disciples, we follow Jesus, to become like Jesus to do what Jesus does: we feed the hungry, even if it’s one person, one family at a time. We house the unhoused, one person, one family at a time. We support Black people and POC one person at a time. We support women’s flourishing, dignity and worth, one woman at a time. Yes, systems need to change and yes, that feels overwhelming, but we act, we do what Jesus does. Like Jesus, we cross boundaries and we open ourselves up to risk. We follow Jesus into the heart of God’s mission of reconciliation, that is bringing all people and creation back into deep relationship with God where there is no separation from God, creation or one another. What happens to one of us, happens to us all and like Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, we are transformed by that radical connection.
Discipleship, following Jesus to become like Jesus, in order to do what Jesus does, isn’t easy. That’s not the promise. What is promised is that we have a God who has experienced and understands the complexity, who listens, hears our cries, and acts with mercy. What is promised is that we will be opened, our hearts, our eyes, our ears and our tongues, to do and say what Jesus does and says. Thanks be to God.
[i] Rediscipling the White Church, David W. Swanson, InterVarsity Press, 2020, page 15