The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - September 9, 2018
Scripture: Mark 7:24-37      
Sermon Title: Inclusiveness

The Rev. Robert Vodra


     After a few weeks of sermons on Old Testament and epistles, this week we move back into Mark.  If you remember several weeks ago we were in Chapter 6 of Mark. Jesus fed the 5,000, Jesus walks on water, then Jesus heals some people when he arrives on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  A re-occurring theme is that Jesus wants a little time alone.  Really when you read the gospels, we hear that many times.  Jesus was walking on water because after he fed the 5,000 he went off, away from the crowds, and the boat left without him.  And today’s scripture starts that same way.  Jesus went away and went to a house; he did not want anyone to know where he was.

     When I was in college there were sometimes I just needed to get away.  These were day trips. I was a college student, didn’t have any money for a hotel stay. When I needed a day away, I would leave Orono, Maine and drive South, toward the coast.  Sometimes I made it to Acadia National Park, maybe stop in Bar Harbor.  Although much of the loop road is not plowed, there are still plenty of ways to get close to the ocean, and in those months, parking is easy and mostly free.  I always was able to scrape up enough money to get lunch.  Sometimes in a restaurant, sometimes a sandwich from a gas station to eat in the car.  And for those hours I was alone.  Nobody was asking about my classes, I was not thinking of homework I had to do, I could just sit for hours and watch the waves pushing ice in and out.  This was well before cell phones, so my roommates and I had a deal - As long as we were back in time for class, nobody worried. 

     You probably have a similar place.  For me, it mostly exists in my brain now.  I have work, and children.  Children play soccer, take piano lessons, and are involved in Scouts.  But sometimes I can just take a few minutes, close my eyes and picture in my brain the waves pushing ice in and out.  Jesus needed to physically get away.  No doubt he was under more pressure than I have ever experienced. He was in high demand.  He could feed 5,000 people, he could heal people, he could walk on water, he didn’t want anyone to know he was at this house in this territory near the city of Tyre. 

     And then a knock on the door.  Well I don’t really know if knocking was a thing back then, but he was found by a woman whose daughter had an evil spirit in her.  We have an expectation that Jesus will heal her.  This was not just a woman asking for her daughter. First, she was a gentile, a non-Jew.  This made her unclean in the eyes of the Jewish.  She didn’t worship at the temple, probably had never even been to Jerusalem, and made no attempt to conform to Jewish laws.  And she was Phoenician, a foreigner.  A woman seeking out Jesus on his time off was bad, but a Gentile, Phoenician woman was just too much.  Jesus calls her a dog. 

     It’s a little veiled, but basically Jesus calls her a dog, a female dog.   What in the world?  Today, you call a woman a dog, especially if you use another term for a female dog, you are going to get slapped.  We just don’t do that.  But the woman continues, “Although I may be a dog, at least the dogs get scraps from under the table.”  I don’t expect the best, I am a woman, I am not Jewish, I am a foreigner, but can you give me anything”.  Jesus changes his mind, says “Go home, your daughter is healed.” 

     We all know about Jesus, born in a stable the story goes.  We hear about him once in Jerusalem, about age 10. His parents kind of leave him behind and have to go back and find him.  And then boom, he is about 30, getting baptized by John in the River Jordan, the start of his ministry.  Since shortly after Jesus lived, we have been trying to figure him out.  If he is the son of God, fully divine, can he learn something new?  Certainly God knows us inside and out, created us.  So if Jesus is God’s begotten son, be thankful you were not his teacher in school.  Jesus would not only know how to read and write on his first day, but would also know how to read, write and speak every language on earth. 

     Although I believe that Jesus is fully divine, I also believe he is fully human.  Don’t ask me how this all works out biologically, but I think that Jesus, when he was with us, started as a baby.  Learned how to hold up his head, and roll over, smile, make babbling sounds, and cry his lungs out.  As a boy, I would like to think that he learned as boys still learn today.  Playing king of the mountain with boys who are bigger than you may result in a broken leg, a lesson I learned as a boy.  Jump off the swing and you may twist an ankle.  You learn how to make friends, share, and even when it is best to let past friendships go.  Although certainly unknown, Jesus was around 30 when we start to hear about his public ministry. It’s possible that he fell in love, was married, maybe even had children.  Or maybe he went out on dates, but never found the right person. 

     So what was this interaction all about?  If Jesus was fully divine without being fully human, this could be seen as a test.  Not a very good test.  Last week we had a woman in town who put her two children in her car, then overdosed on narcotics.  A neighbor, luckily, went out to walk his dog and saw the two little girls strapped into their car seats and called 911.  We think they were in that car for about an hour, and it was about 90 degrees outside the closed up car.  I heard the first unit arrive on scene, “I have at least three patients, I need ambulances, fire department and police.”  Everyone on the fire department with children were at the station ready to go in about a minute.  There is something about children.  My children, I would do anything for.  So even insulted, I would not walk away from someone that can help them.  Not much of a test.  Beyond not being much of a test because it involves her child, if Jesus were only fully divine, he would have known what she would say.  And already known if she would have passed the test of not.  And I don’t see insulting someone as a method to teach something.

     Maybe Jesus learned something that day. Jesus knew he could heal people. Plenty of stories of him doing this.  But maybe he saw his ministry in a limited sense.  He was a Jew who traveled around Judea, Samaria and Galilee.  Outside of Tyre he was in the Phoenicia, and from here went a little farther north to heal the deaf man with a speech impediment, and then went south again.  Maybe made it as far south as Egypt in his life, we are not sure.  By the time Jesus lived, the earth was populated.  There were people in North and South America, China, Japan, Australia, all over Asia and Europe.  There were probably somewhere between 170 and 400 million people on earth. 

     We don’t know what the people of that time knew about other groups of people.  We know the Phoenicians were traders, so at least around the Mediterranean, they knew other people lived.  But if Jesus was fully human maybe he saw his ministry only to those he met in the small area he lived and traveled.  Maybe he learned he could heal and started to do that with those who needed it.  Perhaps he saw his ministry similar to Moses’ ministry.  Moses took the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, was not called by God to work with the Egyptians, or any other group that existed on earth at that time. 

     During our reading this morning, Jesus heals the Phoenician woman’s daughter, and then the deaf man with a speech impediment.  In this reading, his ministry reached out beyond Middle Eastern Jews, to gentiles, to women, to foreigners. 

     Perhaps you are starting to see why it is so difficult to say if Jesus were human, divine, part human, part divine or something else.  Most of us gathered this morning are trinitarian, Father, Son, Holy Ghost or Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.  Jesus the Christ is divine in our theology, but if Jesus changed his mind to help this woman, does this mean that God can change God’s mind?  If Jesus learned that his healing power was for more than just middle eastern Jews, does that mean that God can learn new things?

     Beyond these deep, theological questions, I think this passage can also encourage us to look at our ministry.  When I arrived here, about two and a half years ago, there was talk about changing the name of the church, or at least adding a subtitle to our name “The Federated Church of Marlborough, Marlborough’s Community Church.”  I think I knew that a name was important, but never had experienced it like this before.  In truth we are a community church.  We have one annual meeting, have one governing body, and one budget.  In a true Federated Church structure, each denomination would have their own annual meeting, their own governing body, their own budget, and then probably the whole church would also have an annual meeting a governing body and its own budget.  That was probably the structure when our churches first federated, but I don’t think there would even be a way to go back to that, you don’t want to.

     And our ministry is a community church ministry.  Who runs the town food pantry, who does Thanksgiving baskets, and Toys for Tots?  We do.  Who does the Gramma’s kitchen monthly meals, serves ice cream at the library concerts?  We do.  Whose buildings are used for exercise, toddlers, NA, Girl Scouts, groups putting on plays, sometimes voting, and probably a bunch of other groups I am forgetting about?  We do.  And who do people call if their loved one dies, or they want to get married in a church in town?  They call us.  This is a ministry that God has called us to do, and we do it well.  We are Marlborough’s community church.  As Marlborough’s community church, we also reach out.  We have a few members from Keene, and some of our of members have gone to serve meals at the homeless shelter in Keene.  The last Habitat for Humanity house some of our members worked on was in Troy.  Even a community church can reach out beyond the town line. 

     But we have not dropped the Federated Church part, because we are bigger than just Marlborough’s Community Church, or Marlborough plus a little Community Church.  Through our United Methodist connections, we are part of a world wide denomination.  United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalists are based in the US, but have very strong connections with similar churches around our globe.  When we send in our annual giving, each denomination has ways in which that money is used for things far away from Marlborough. We don’t want to give up the Federated part of our name because it keeps us connected to the whole Christian Church. 

     Jesus’ healing touch reaches out beyond the Jewish, to gentiles and foreigners.  Certainly, healing his followers was important, just like our being a community church is important.  But our larger reach is also important, as Jesus’ reach extends during his life, and then even greater and greater after his death and resurrection. 

     I think this also has some lessons for us individually.  After I graduated form seminary I went to work for the Presbyterians in Michigan, running their youth camp.  It felt right, and I was comfortable doing that.  Moved to a few different camps over the years and in 2013 I applied to serve my first church.  I had been ordained for almost 15 years, had preached and led worship in many different churches.  When I was offered the position, I was happy and frightened.  I am going to have to write a sermon almost every week.  People are going to call me when they get sick and go to the hospital.  If someone dies, they may ask me to do a funeral.  God was stretching me.  I had my ministry I was comfortable in.  At camp, working with children and youth.  I don’t think God ever wants us to get comfortable.

     Jesus was comfortable among the Jewish.  And if he had not gone and healed the Gentiles and foreigners, those seen as unclean in the eyes of the Jews, he may have stayed out of trouble, at least for a while. 

     It’s time for us to get into trouble.   We see Jesus’ circle getting larger in these two stories.  In today’s world we have a lot of divisions.  It is easy and even accepted for others to choose their group and keep others out.   If you don’t choose, you will be assigned to a box. You are defined by the color of your skin, those you love, the gender you express, where you were born, your socio-economic class, your religion, your political party affiliation, and so many other factors.  And we become afraid to reach across many of those lines. 

     I talk a lot about the Kingdom of God, and what that might look like.  We pray every Sunday, and maybe even during the week, for “thy Kingdom to come.”  I believe in that Kingdom, lines will no longer be important.  I believe that we will all realize we are children of God, which makes us all brothers and sisters.  It will be a place or time of ultimate inclusion, where all are welcome and all are important.  Not easy, others may get upset, but ultimately what I believe we are called to do.  Work toward God’s Kingdom.

     And that, my sisters and brothers is what Jesus learned or taught us that day.  It is important to take time away, even sneak away for a day to watch the ocean, Jesus knew that.  But then Jesus realized his ministry was not just for the Jewish, just not for Judea, Samaria and Galilee, not just for men, he also pushes us to open our circle wider, as his was made wider.  There is nothing wrong with Jews from the middle east, just like there is nothing wrong with a community church, or nothing wrong with doing ministry where you are comfortable, or even wrong with being in your box for a time, but Jesus is inviting us to more.  Jesus is saying that the more we realize how similar we are, the closer we are to experiencing the Kingdom of God.