Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost Study

15TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST   09-05-2021

FIRST READING:   Isaiah 35:4-7a

The first part of the Book of Isaiah contains announcements of God’s judgment against his unfaithful nation, the southern kingdom of Judah. When Isaiah began his work as a prophet, the nation seemed strong and wealthy. But Isaiah saw injustice and unconcern toward the poor, religious “lip service” to God that never transitioned into faithful obedience, and outside threats by nearby neighbors and faraway monster empires. Isaiah declared that the only true hope for the future was God’s mercy and intervention, not material wealth, religious pretense, or political alliances. Chapters 1-39 are often called “The Book of Judgment”. The prophet Isaiah outlasted four kings of Judah, but he finally offended one beyond repair. Tradition records that King Manasseh (who practiced infant sacrifice) didn’t like Isaiah’s strong words at all, so had him fastened between two planks of wood and sawed in half.

These verses in that “Book of Judgment” are actually an interlude of hope, a word of encouragement, a call to courage, promise for the future. There is the image of dry desert and barren wilderness being transformed by waters that bring and sustain life. There is the image of seeing, hearing, leaping, speaking persons, transformed by God’s presence and God’s power into joyous new life. And there is that word “vengeance” in verse 4… the thought that God will enact “restorative justice” rather than just some sort of angry “revenge”.

This scripture begins with a command to speak, a call to reach out to those who are weak and afraid. Who has not needed a word of hope in times of stress and struggle and desert-like silence? When have you experienced “streams in the desert” during your life? How might the greeting, “Be strong, do not fear!” apply to your own life or to this congregation? 

Verse 4 assures us “Here is your God.” The future is as bright as the promises of God. Hold on!

 

SECOND READING:   James 2:1-17

James is clear that there is no wiggle room for faithful Christians to show partiality to the rich and the powerful of the world, and especially when it is at the expense of the poor and the weak. Likewise, faithful living finds its true expression in fervent loving – that is, genuine actions of compassion and mercy – and not just in “lip service” that sounds pleasant and kind and caring but isn’t.

Did your high school cafeteria have those tables for the popular and those tables for the unpopular…those tables for athletes, tables for scholars, tables for those whose race or language wasn’t our own… and tables for those who didn’t seem to count as much? Teenage social boundaries, unwritten but quite visible, were and are so difficult to cross sometimes. Does your church have social boundaries that also seem to divide and sometimes to exclude? Why can’t we reach out and welcome? Why won’t we cross a line and include? Why are we acting like the rest of the world?   

And have you ever realized that you were mostly “talking a good talk” about caring for a person in need or having a heart for a particular cause of justice or mercy? Sometimes, when all is said and done, more has been said than done. Sometimes it isn’t even close.

Today’s reading reminds us, that when it comes to God’s command to “love your neighbor”, wealthier does not mean worthier. So don’t make distinctions that Jesus wouldn’t approve of.

Today’s reading remind us, that when it comes to God’s command to “love your neighbor”, don’t think that seeing and speaking about the needs of your neighbors… and maybe even shedding a tear or two for them… are sufficient. James even suggests that our faith dies when we do not support that faith with loving works. Put your love into action! Let your faith be truly alive!

On the day that this is being written, there have been two separate incidents of persons connected to our local community and congregation having ill feelings and perhaps even “legitimate” disputes with one another and one person telling the other person that they were not welcome to ride in their vehicle on this particular occasion. In one of the incidents, a pastor’s appeal for getting together to talk it out as Christians was rejected. It’s a reminder that we are each (every one of us!) still on the journey of putting our faith into our actions and interactions.

 

GOSPEL READING:  Mark 7:24-37

The first part of today’s reading, found in verses 24-30, is very startling, an uncomfortable story.

Some details. Jesus was out in Gentile territory, a long way from home, out among foreigners. He had gone out into the region of Tyre, to Sidon, to retreat from the crowds who followed him. He was tired and exhausted, seeking solitude and rest. A woman found out where he was, found him. She didn’t simply ask him for help as much as she confronted him, approaching, kneeling, and begging. She was NOT JEWISH, this woman – she was a foreigner, a heathen, a stranger to the promises and presumed privileges of Israel. And she is a woman initiating a conversation in public with a man in a time and a setting where that wasn’t done, where that isn’t allowed.

Another detail. Jewish boys in Jesus’ day were taught in school (Please note that girls didn’t go to school, didn’t have formal organized education – still a battle in some countries today!) to pray throughout their lives each morning, “I thank you, Lord, that I have not been born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” That’s TWO strikes right there against this Syrophoenician Gentile woman.

Read the story again and reflect on it. Mark simply tells the story and offers no explanation, no “mitigating circumstances” as they say in court. Was he testing her faith in the way and the words that he used to respond? Was he teaching his disciples a lesson through dramatic role play? Or, as some biblical commentators have suggested, was it just a little teasing, a little fun, calling her a “puppy” or a “pet”, no harm done?

I think that the human side of Jesus is revealed in this passage – his weariness, his emotions, and, yes, the cultural prejudices that he was raised with, the human worldview he was taught. I believe that, for a brief moment, Jesus was not fully synchronized with the Good News that he was sent to deliver and to embody… I believe that he was briefly shackled by racism and prejudice and even hatred.

And he was changed in an instant. See how quickly Jesus not only steps beyond his upbringing of religious and ethnic prejudice and any concern about religious purity to respond differently to this woman and to pronounce healing for her daughter.

If Jesus can be transformed to a broadening of God’s mercy and love, then so can we! In a world where some people count and some people count for nothing, let us pray that our St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church might always be about the business of reaching out and extending love, going and growing beyond the boundaries of the worldview our society has taught us, offering hope and help to people starving for just a few crumbs from the table. They aren’t dogs.  

In the second part of today’s reading, Jesus similarly crosses a social and religious boundary as he touches the untouchable and heals a man who can’t hear, who can’t speak… and who would certainly be labeled, judged, and excluded. Jesus uses fingers and spit and a spoken command and his love to heal and transform. When Jesus offered that word “Ephphatha” to a deaf man with a speech impediment, might it be that he was speaking to his own heart and mind as well, his inclination earlier not to help? Is that part of his “sigh” as he looked to heaven?

In what ways is our own hearing and understanding of Jesus impeded? What factors in our lives deafen us? When has our speech been impeded, especially when Jesus has commanded us in our own life situation, not to be silent, but to go and tell? Today, EPHPHATHA – be opened – to the ways and wonders of God’s healing in your own life. And let us pray that our own eyes and ears and heart and hands and tongues may be opened to be more and more like Jesus. 

The story did not end with the healing. Jesus urged and commanded the man and his friends to be silent and to tell no one. But they couldn’t remain silent. What they had experienced was too dramatic to stifle.

If there is GOOD NEWS to tell, you can’t help but share it! Jesus will never turn on you for trying to be a witness, a bearer, a sharer of his love.

In today’s readings we are reminded, encouraged, and challenged that God already has a heart for the people of God. And when God’s people can have that same heart in their daily living, then class lines can be crossed, racial barriers can be torn down, prejudices won’t be allowed to matter, love will overflow, and there will be a new table for all with enough bread for all!

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2024
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