Sermon - Sunday, 9 September 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 9 September 2018.

Scripture: Isaiah 35: 1-6 / Mark 7: 24-30

Text: Yes Lord, she replied, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs        (Mark 7: 28)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY
SPIRIT, AMEN

It was at the 2004 Democratic Party’s National Convention held in Boston, Massachusetts, Barak Obama famously used the phrase the audacity of hope.

At that time the Senator for the US state of Illinois, Obama was invited to give the keynote speech in support of John Kerry’s Presidential campaign.

Here is what he said;

Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope, in the end that is God’s greatest gift to us……………. a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.

The audacity of hope……………..

As many of you know, my late father was a GP in my home town of Kilmarnock.

Throughout his career he had a particular interest in the life-changing and life-diminishing condition, multiple sclerosis.

It was an interest sparked by a ward sister he met during his days as a medical student at the University of Glasgow.

As he followed her on ward rounds, father said he learned more from this ward sister about a bedside manner than from anyone else, that is, how to speak to patients, how to listen to patients, especially when the diagnosis is difficult.

However he was horrified to watch when an aggressive form of what he later realised was multiple sclerosis quickly overwhelmed this young, talented, likeable, caring woman reducing her to a shell of her former self and ultimately leading to her untimely death.

Father resolved to do something about this terrible illness, its treatment, its cure, and throughout his working career and well into retirement he was engaged in research and spent time raising much needed funds as the pianist in a concert party.

Even as his own memory and health failed, he would still speak about his hope that a cure for M.S. would be found in his life-time.

It wasn’t – but he never gave up the hope – and when one day a cure is found, although no more than a footnote in the history of the disease, he will have helped to conquer it by his research, by his fund raising but most of all by keeping hope alive………………hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty.

The audacity of hope…………

According to the dictionary, audacity means daring, bold, even impudent, and there is certainly daring, boldness and impudence in Mark’s description of the encounter between Jesus and a Greek woman from Syrian Phoenicia.

Notice however, there is also hope.

Yes Lord, she replied, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.

Although it is one of the most intriguing, the encounter between Jesus and this woman is also one of the most disturbing episodes in Mark’s gospel.

It is disturbing because as well as appearing rude and unhelpful, Jesus appears to change his mind.

The encounter comes as part of a section of Mark’s gospel concerned with the radical crossing of boundaries. 

Jesus and the Pharisees have debated issues of cleanliness, the ritual washing of hands and the observance of dietary or Sabbath regulations.

According to the Pharisees these actions were the signs of holiness and observing these rules and regulations was what it meant to be faithful to God.

Evidently Jesus had a very different understanding of what faithfulness requires.

No information is provided about the nature of the child’s illness, the woman’s name is not recorded and no detail is given about the miracle.

Instead the focus of the narrative is on the exchange between Jesus and the woman, an exchange which leads to Jesus changing his mind.

Mark reports a woman entered the house where Jesus was staying and, ignoring all the normal protocols, she fell at his feet and begged him to help her daughter.

Jesus’ immediate reaction appears quite brutal.

The woman is a Gentile and so Jesus claims he is unable to help her as it wasn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.

If the evident harshness of Christ’s remarks take us by surprise, the woman’s response is equally surprising.  

Accepting the priority of Jesus’ ministry is to his own people Israel, the woman challenges him to embrace a wider and more inclusive vision of God’s presence and promise.

Although she was a Gentile, the woman invites Jesus to accept she too was one of God’s children and thus equally deserving of the help and healing God could bring her and her daughter?

After all, even the dogs were allowed to eat the crumbs that fell from the children’s table.

As one commentator has remarked;

She appears witty and wise, while he appears callous and unyielding[1]

Consistent with the theme of this section of Mark’s gospel, the encounter between Jesus and this woman describes another boundary being crossed because as well as having faith in Christ’s power to heal, the woman dared to hope his ministry extended beyond the household of Israel.

If this is a story anticipating the early church’s widening ministry into the Roman world, especially the missionary journeys of St Paul, the same commentator put it well when she wrote,

With wisdom and wit, persistence and passion, she (the woman) calls forth a larger vision of the power of God’s presence. [2]

And so what was our Lord’s response?

Can you not see the surprised look on his face as the woman speaks back to him, a look which breaks into a smile as he takes on board the truth of her remark, commends her for her answer and assures her when she returns home she will find her daughter fit and well?

Here is a story to disturb and delight in equal measure, a story alerting us to a wider vision of God’s presence and purpose.

Here is a story which speaks about hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, hope which like the woman in the story goes on hoping even when there would seem to be little reason for doing so.

It is an example of what the audacity of hope looks like?

If you have not already done so, you will soon receive an invitation to Cramond Cares – will you help us do more?, the Kirk Session’s autumn stewardship project.

Information is being produced and receptions will be held following the services over the next three Sundays where you will have the opportunity to find out more, ask questions and complete the response form.

Based on the Local Church Review process, Cramond Cares has identified five areas of our congregation’s life and activity - the care and support we give to older people, our involvement with children and families, the musical tradition of our congregation, the use we make of our church buildings and the role of social media in promoting the life and worship of our congregation and attracting new members.

If these different aspects of our congregation’s life provide the focus of the stewardship project, Cramond Cares- will you help us do more?: what I want you to see is that behind the project lies the question of hope.

As the people of Cramond Kirk today, we inherit what others have passed on to us, a beautiful building in which to worship, a congregation with a rich heritage of music, custom and tradition, a church which some years ago renewed and developed its hall accommodation to be a resource for the wider community, a people of God committed to reaching out and supporting people at home and abroad in a whole variety of ways.

Most importantly, however, we are a people of hope and whatever else we are called to do as a congregation, we are called to keep hope alive.

Every Sunday when I stand in this pulpit I see the board with the names of Cramond Kirk’s ministers reaching back to 1568 and Thomas Scott.

If the board reminds me I am but a temporary custodian of this position, it also reminds me my task as the minister of word and sacrament is to keep hope alive.

Keeping hope alive is not just my task however…………….it is our task.

Yes, as a congregation we have our customs, traditions and a whole range of activities.

Yet more important than anything we do is our hope, hope in the face of all life’s difficulties, hope in the face of all life’s uncertainties, the audacity to hope better days lie ahead and there will be a cure for multiple sclerosis, the hope of a new heaven and a new earth, the hope that nothing in life or death can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, quite simply, our hope in God.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm Preaching the Gospel of Mark Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville 2008 p128

 

[2] ibid  p 129