Based on a sermon preached at Spring Mount Mennonite Church on Feb. 8 2015
Scripture text: Mark 7:1-30 NRSV
The jr. high school I attended was a large one located in the middle of a suburban town. Behind the building, near the center of the property was the football field. And bordering the football field was an approximately 8′ high fence—the top of which was equipped with barbed wire. “Why is there barbed wire around the football field?” my 14 year-old self would wonder, realizing that all gym class escape plans would be a painful waste of time. “Was it there to keep people in, or keep people out?” We sometimes go to great lengths to create boundaries.
Boundaries are borders, dividing lines, that all groups of people create to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” The authors of “Say to This Mountain” Mark’s Story of Discipleship mention an important element about boundary-making that we should be aware of:
Boundaries can be a good thing, such as when they help protect weaker people from domination by stronger people. But while this “defensive” function is usually cited as justification for boundaries, more often the actual relations of power are the opposite: Boundaries function to separate the strong from the weak, protecting privilege and maintaining inequality.(1)
These are the kind of boundaries that we find Jesus challenging in the Bible. Often Jesus was challenging the powerful political and religious leaders about their boundaries. But in one instance with a daring woman, Jesus was the one in the position of power and he had to demonstrate the new reality he was preaching. But before we get into that episode we need to understand what happened prior to it.
The previous parts of Mark 7 involve Jesus challenging some established borders of his people’s faith. This act would not leave everyone comfortable.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!
The border Jesus is targeting here is the “tradition of the elders,” a group of teachings that emerged over time to help people interpret scripture and live it out. Which is a fine thing to create—as long as you don’t start giving it more authority than it deserves (or enforcing it inconsistently). Which is what happened in Jesus’ day—this “tradition” was given such a high authority that it largely became the focus—especially of the religious leaders. They felt that if the tradition was not followed as they desired that the whole group would become contaminated.
Jesus then used a short parable to clarify his objection to the kind of boundaries that were being used (v.14-15,20-22):
Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile … 20 “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
In challenging the traditional rules, Jesus pointed to the heart—to what is inside of us rather than what is outside. Doctrines and traditions don’t mean anything if one’s heart is far from God. Therefore, worry about what arises from within—examine what is in our hearts—rather than defending perceived threats from outside.
Jesus seemed to believe that the social boundaries of the purity tradition were unable to protect the community’s integrity.(2) And I tend to agree.
One of the ways I’ve learned this to be true has to do with our own Mennonite Church. The current Mennonite Confession of Faith endorses the view that both men and women may serve as pastors and leaders in the church, since Christ gives gifts through the Holy Spirit to all believers.(3) Gender does not disqualify a person for these leadership roles. Yet there are Mennonite churches today who choose to not embrace this position. The social boundary of our confessional tradition has not prevented some of our churches from barring women from pastoral roles. Confessions like this are a kind of parallel to the “tradition of the elders” or the “human tradition” that’s mentioned in Mark 7. It is a thorough document and I appreciate the theological work it represents. But it did not fall out of heaven straight from God to us. Instead, it is the latest theological conversation in a long line dating back to the 1500’s—ways that Anabaptists (eventually Mennonites) discerned what their faith and practice should look like, in their particular time. That’s why there’s evolving versions—as the church we are always needing to ask ourselves, “What does faith and practice look like in our day, with its own unique challenges and opportunities?”
While we can certainly value these documents, we must remember that none of these confessions is the gospel. I get concerned when I hear calls demanding complete devotion to a document. Because what happens to the voice of God’s Spirit when we pledge our allegiance to a document? If such a document is operating as a boundary, who is it protecting?
I don’t believe that Jesus was entirely against the religious leaders creating a “tradition.” But I think he was likely concerned with how they were unevenly applying it (hence, the “hypocrites” language, which I’m sure went over big). Therefore Jesus claimed that the religious leaders of his day were following human traditions rather than “the commandment of God” (Mk 7:8-9).
And remember that on another occasion when Jesus was asked about the commandment of God, he responded with, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:37-39)
According to Jesus if you have constructed what you feel are proper boundaries, but your heart is not right, then you still have a big problem. The rules and boundaries won’t necessarily mean that you are participating in God’s work of renewal.
Love of God and love of neighbor are the HEART of what needs to be in our HEARTS. And when we try to live out that command (like Jesus and the apostles) we will probably find ourselves discerning how to respond to people who reside outside of some boundaries.
Which brings us to the story of Jesus and a Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30). Which is one of the most difficult and controversial stories in the whole Bible.
24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.[Other ancient authorities add and Sidon] He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus traveled to Tyre and Sidon, a region that was physically outside of the boundaries of his people. This area seems to be problematic: search through the Old Testament for “Tyre” and “Sidon” and it’s not exactly good news.
Another boundary that was broken had to do with the honor culture (4) of the day—it was inappropriate for such a woman to approach a man like this in a private home, and also inappropriate for a Gentile woman to ask this kind of favor. However, she seems to have been willing to risk breaking these rules in order to find healing for her daughter, and sensed that in Jesus healing could be found.
But then Jesus makes an insulting remark to this woman—did he just call her and her daughter “dogs”? What in the world do we do with that? Some say that the statement identified Jewish people as “children” and Gentile folks as “dogs,” indicating that his ministry priority at that moment was first to the Jewish people, and then to people of the whole world. But seriously–so many better ways to say that!
Yet most interesting to me is the daring and quick response of this woman—she said something that was both clever and theologically true: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” It’s like she’s saying: “the Kingdom of God you represent is so full of abundance, that it can provide for ALL people; And even if I can only get a crumb, that will be enough to change my life.” Remember what stories in Mark come before and after this one: There’s the feeding of the 5000 in his homeland in chapter 6, and then the feeding of 4000 Gentiles in chapter 8. Both feedings included an overflowing amount of leftovers. While many seemed to find the kingdom of God difficult to grasp, perhaps this woman understood it better than most.
So what might we learn from this story:
I think this story makes us wrestle with Jesus’ humanity (and hopefully our own). Even Jesus had to confront that part of human nature that desires to separate from others who are different. This gives me hope, because it helps me to know that Jesus really does identify with us, and he understands the difficulties we face in human interactions—he’s not some robotic holy man that’s programmed to always respond automatically.
I think we also see that Jesus truly listened to this woman, and was willing to change his mind. He “allowed his privileged status as a Jewish male to be severely affronted by a Gentile woman for the sake of inclusivity.”(5) He listened to her, and granted her request, and her child was healed.
What might happen in our lives and in our churches if, instead of focusing on boundaries, we tried to understand our privileges, note the postures we take in our relationships, and intentionally practice listening to one another? My hope is that if we are willing to follow the example of Jesus, even into new territory, we will find the guiding presence of the Spirit and a deeper grasp of God’s mission and Good News. And we also may find the healing we seek.
(1) Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship (NY: Orbis Books, 1996) Kindle Locations 1517-1520.
(2) Myers, et al. Locations 1522-23.
(3) Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, 1995, Article 15, “Ministry and Leadership”: http://resources.mennoniteusa.org/about/confession-of-faith-in-a-mennonite-perspective-1995/article-15-ministry-and-leadership/
(4) Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship (NY: Orbis Books, 1996) Kindle Locations 1538-1539.
(5) Myers, et al. Locations 1552-1553.
An element of my (ongoing) seminary education that I’m particularly thankful for has been a steady dose of the works of Cuban American theologian and historian Justo González. In Christian Thought Revisited: Three Types of Theology, González provides a brief history of Christian theology and outlines three types contained within orthodox Christianity and the perspectives that shape each.
As we continue the journey into a new millennium and into the reality of Post-Christendom, many western Christians are feeling perplexed and anxious about a changing world, faith, and church. The previously dominant theologies and forms of Christianity do not seem up to the task of providing a way forward. Into this reality González writes,
It is my contention that in the early church one finds, besides the distant ancestors of modern-day fundamentalisms and liberalisms, a third type of theology; that this third type leads to a different reading of the Bible and its message; and that this different reading is particularly relevant to our present day perplexities. Therefore this essay is addressed primarily to Christians who, amidst the perplexities of the transition into the third millennium are searching for an understanding of their faith that will lead them, with hope and obedience, into the future. (xiv)
González labels the three theologies “Type A,” “Type B,” and “Type C,” all of which had originated by the 3rd century (C.E.). Types A and B have historically been more dominant and are probably more familiar to the average western Christian today. He lays these two theologies alongside an older form (Type C) for comparison. I’ll give a brief overview of each.
Type A is associated with the Christianity that emerged from Carthage in Northern Africa, and it’s main advocate is Tertullian. The basic theological concern in this perspective is “Law” (6). This type primarily views God as a judge (20), salvation as the satisfaction of a legal debt (33), Jesus as a new lawgiver (34), and interprets scripture as a legal text (49). This kind of hermeneutic leads to more literal and fixed interpretations. It is concerned with law and order, and is interested in being “right” (69). This type of theology helped to prop up the merging of church and empire in Christendom, and became the dominant form of theology in western Christianity.
Type B emerged from Alexandria, an intellectual center containing diverse philosophical and religious thinking, especially Platonism. The main advocate of this form is Origen. The basic theological concern for Type B is immutable and transcendent “Truth” (11). This type emphasized distance between God and the material world, and spirit over matter (material creation was a result of sin). In this perspective, the problem is that human beings need illumination so that they might be able to contemplate the transcendent God and return to a (spiritual) heaven (37). Jesus, the Logos, was sent to provide this illumination. Scripture was often interpreted in allegorically in this type.
Type C emerged from the Northeastern Mediterranean (Asia Minor/Syria; Antioch). González names Irenaeus as the chief exponent of this theology. In contrast to the other two forms the theology from this type is pastoral, which makes sense since, of the three church fathers mentioned in this schematic, “only Irenaeus was actually the shepherd of a congregation” (14). The central theme of this kind of theology is “History” (15). God is the great Shepherd who is moving history toward God’s future. Therefore God (Father, Son, Spirit) relates directly to the world (28). The problem human beings have is that we are subject to Satan and tarnished by sin, and we are in need of liberation. The work of Christ is victory over the evil powers that enslave us. “Jesus recapitulates humanity” (41; see also Ephesians 1). The consummation of history is God’s communion with humanity and creation in an everlasting kingdom. Type C theology generally uses a typological approach to interpreting scripture (56).
Some highlights from the book include:
1. A discussion of the social setting and perspective of each type of theology. As González noted, “We can look at each of these theologies and ask what sort of social agenda they would serve” (61). The Christian faith of Type B sought to show that it was compatible with Hellenistic philosophy, an influential element present in its context. Tertullian “wished to prove that his [faith] was compatible with the best Roman moral achievements” (69), and therefore Type A theology, “a theology of law and order,” (70) created a bridge that made it easier to turn Christianity into a support system for Rome (which is what happened when Constantine came to power). Irenaeus’ Type C recalled connections to a persecuted church in Asia Minor, and had no desire to be compatible with the reigning powers. From this situation and perspective there was interest in promoting obedience to a God who was the “loving parent, shepherd, and teacher” (71). This was not theology for the powerful, and had no interest in compatibility with the empire or of gaining its respect.
2. The mention of liberation theologies (black, feminist, and others) as evidence of the recovery of Type C theology in contemporary times. This kind of theology comes from those who have been excluded by the powerful, deeply values historical truth, has a “keen awareness of the powers of evil,” and characteristically uses typology in its hermeneutic approach (138). “Christianity does not consist in a series of doctrines or rules, but in the action of God incarnate in history” (138). Personally, I want to commit to engaging with more forms of liberation theology in my faith and practice to further explore Type C theology.
3. Thoughts on liturgical renewal and its contemporary significance. “Historians of liturgy, as well as historians of theology, have long been aware that there is a connection between the way the church worships and what the church believes. Worship both expresses and shapes theology. In recent times, the rediscovery of worship as it was practiced in the ancient church has given the new forms of Type C theology a vehicle for expression and a nurturing atmosphere” (138). I have found this renewal to be of particular interest in my ministry contexts, and am thankful for serving in a congregation that embraces experimentation and discovery in this vein.
This book also helped me gain some greater understanding of my own theological journey over the past twenty years-a period which saw me move from Reformed/Evangelicalism to Anabaptism. I had become restless within a sort of generic, suburban, Evangelical expression of church and faith, and was feeling motivated to seek out other theological paths. I think I became most fully aware of this need for exploration upon completing a book study with the youth group I was pastoring at the time. We were studying some of Lee Strobel’s A Case for… books. But by the end of the study I found that I was not really convinced by the arguments presented. The book’s arguments were reasoned well and highly logical (very Type A), yet I was still looking for something more. I wrestled with what that meant for me, and wondered what these younger students were thinking about the material.
I think what I was searching for at that time was what González called “Type C” theology. Making a move to Anabaptism hasn’t totally realized this desire-my experience in the Mennonite context I inhabit seems to be quite Type A in some ways. But I have been encouraged by ongoing theological and liturgical conversations happening within Anabaptist contexts, which has felt theologically life-giving.
I recommend this book to all who wish to explore how we think theologically and who are willing examine and reimagine how we live and express our faith as followers of Jesus today.
As we now stand at the beginning of a new millennium and the end of modernity, this rediscovery of Type C theology may well provide the church at large with unexpected possibilities, and even open the way to new (and the rediscovery of ancient) understandings of catholicity and Christian unity. (123)
Justo González, Christian Thought Revisited: Three Types of Theology (New York: Orbis Books, 1999). Print.
On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear,
a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
We are—we could be—people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness that
will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule,
with deep joy and high hope.
Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008) 164.
“I Will Light Candles This Christmas”
Candles of joy, despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.
In preparation for this Sunday’s worship gathering I’m in the process of creating a responsive prayer practice for our congregation, using this poem from Dr. Thurman. In the midst of the circumstances that compound our lives, may we discover joy, hope, courage, peace, grace, and love in the light of Christ.
Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (Friends United Press, reprint 2011), 19.
I invite you to check out a new book that was just released, A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World. It was a honor to contribute a chapter to this anthology, joining co-authors A.O. Green, Benjamin L. Corey, Brian Gumm, Chris Lenshyn, Christopher Gorton, Deborah-Ruth Ferber, Donald R. Clymer, Drew Hart, Hannah Heinzekehr, Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Joanna Harader, Justin Hiebert, Micael Grenholm, Robert Anthony Martin, Ryan Robinson, Sam Wilcock, Steve Kimes, Tyler M. Tully, and William Loewen.
If you are interested in Anabaptist theology, faith, and practice, then I invite you to check out #ALivingAlternative. To order, click on the links above.
Scripture Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9 NRSV
1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
A word on “hope”:
This is the final risk of my work, the risk of hope. The only history I know is one that drives us into the future, moving like a river toward our best possible evolution. So I am willing to take this history of my people as a sign of all human possibility. I see the way we have come, the chains we have broken, the visions we have maintained as a broad-side invitation to all people. Our history joins with that common hopeful element in all histories of human struggle for community and calls each of us to develop our great hidden capacities to dream, to imagine a new American society, to become full participants in its creation, bursting with our courage and hope the barriers of all the political, economic, and social institutions that now hold us in bondage to our worst selves.
Come, Lord Jesus-form and shape us into people of courage, healing, and hope. Amen.
Harding, Vincent. There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. xxv.
This fall I have been reading What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, by Thomas G. Long. In the book there is a section titled “Solvitur Ambulando,” a Latin phrase that means “it is solved by walking.” This section has particularly stood out to me as I consider what it means to participate in community contexts like neighborhoods, families, and churches.
Long describes solvitur ambulando as
a completely different way of knowing, a knowing that comes only to those who are actively engaged in the questions they are asking. (115)
This phrase connects thought and action. Which makes it a counter to passivity and distance, which is often a path of lesser resistance. The experience of walking can open us up to discovery and understanding.
I preach and teach often in my suburban Mennonite congregation. This role is part of a larger list of responsibilities that make up my pastoral job description. I enjoy this role and feel the need to take great care in practicing it. Sometimes the weekly process of prayer, meditation, study, and writing quickly leads to a sermon, or at least the general outline of one. But there are also times when “preacher’s block” sets in, and I can’t find the right words or I don’t know where to start and it’s Friday but Sunday’s coming. During times such as these I have found it helpful to take a break and take a walk. Conveniently, the county trail system runs through our neighborhood and provides a fantastic route for exercising and for experiencing nature. The combination of physical exercise and space for silent reflection allows for refocusing and provides refreshment. Though I typically have good results with this practice, I still have to convince myself sometimes that this walking is helpful (even needed), and that it’s not a diversion or a waste of precious time. In this area of my life, walking has led to discovery and to a lessening of anxiety.
My local church conference gathered recently for our annual assembly. The word “conference” itself is a term that feels like a corporate form of solvitur ambulando-actively engaging, working, and walking with one another. We gather to share, to speak, to “confer.” We are reminded of a common mission (the theme of this year’s gathering was “Esperando: Waiting & Hoping”). And we visibly see that we are part of something larger and more diverse than just ourselves.
What might be solved, learned, and experienced as we walk together?
One of the highlights for me of this conference assembly was the opportunity provided for table conversations. The meeting agenda wasn’t too large and the time required for voting was pretty minimal, so there was space created to be with one another in conversation. Building relationships requires that we learn to inhabit the same space well, and intentionally seek to know and value each other. Walking requires some working.
For me that weekend, Solvitur ambulando meant learning to sing a Haitian worship song in Creole, listening to a message about global Anabaptist relationships from Danisa Ndlovu, and hearing my friend and colleague Pastor Marta Castillo remind us that “Waiting on God is expectant and hopeful.” My view of the world and of faith is continually enriched as I commit to walk with a wide variety of friends.
Thomas Long particularly connects the idea of solvitur ambulando with how we engage theological questions.
The most important theological questions are often “solved by walking” – that is to say, they are questions that yield the deepest insights when they are explored with the eyes of faith… exploring issues and questions as a person of faith can be a bit like looking through night-vision binoculars: faith enables us to see more of what is genuinely there, things we would have missed otherwise. To love God and to walk in faith with God is to be joyfully drawn into a deeper and deeper understanding of the ways of God. (116-117)
When we find ourselves struggling to hope, or wrestling with the anxieties of living in a complex world, perhaps we might recall “solvitur ambulando,” and keep walking together in faith. May we be drawn in to the hopeful expectation that, as we participate with one another, the Spirit will do transforming work in us and through us.
Thomas G. Long. What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).