September 5, 2021

The Audacity Of Faith

Passage: Mark 7:24-37

I found two definitions of “audacity” on Google.  The first is: “a willingness to take bold risks.”  The second is: “rude or disrespectful behavior, impudence.”

My sermon title, “The Audacity of Faith” was freely borrowed from the title of a book that became a bestseller in 2006.  The book was based on a speech given at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 by a then junior Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.  Later, Barack Obama took the main points of his speech and expanded them into a book which was read and promoted by Oprah. It immediately became a bestseller. This speech and this book, The Audacity of Hope, launched the political trajectory that   eventually landed Barack Obama in the White House for two successful terms as President of the United States.

What I didn’t know, until I searched his book’s title, was that Barack Obama borrowed the title of his speech and book from a sermon delivered by a pastor in a church that he attended in Chicago.  The pastor was the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright.  Wright preached his sermon, “The Audacity of Hope,” using the text from 1 Samuel.  The sermon title was inspired by a painting he had seen called “Hope.” The painting showed a woman playing a harp while sitting on top of a globe of the world.  It looked serene at first glance.  However, upon closer examination one could see that the harp had only one string. Playing a one stringed harp on the top of the world.  Audacity--the willingness to endure in hope, “to take bold risks.”

Since Barack Obama felt it was okay to borrow his title from a preacher, I feel quite justified to borrow it again and changing it to “The Audacity of Faith.”

Audacity is not a word that would describe the faith life of most Presbyterians.  Taking bold risk, disrespectful behavior, impudence.  Not so much.

Some other religious denominations could be defined by audacity.  Jehovah Witnesses, for example—they stand on the street corner professing their beliefs.

They knock on your door and Sunday and catch you in your bathrobe in order to promote their understanding of the Bible.  Audacity!

Mormons—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  Their young men come to your house in pairs.  Young men , boys really, in dark suits, sporting shirts with ties.  They are friendly, engaging—they explain their convictions in bold detail—if you are willing to listen.  Audacity!

Pentecostals fill the TV channels with their bold and enthusiastic voices.

But Presbyterians—we tend to retain our composure.  We don’t force ourselves with our beliefs on faith at anyone.  We have a heritage that is founded on the theology of Calvin and Knox. We are Scriptural, solid, a clear and forceful doctrine of a Triune God’s sovereignty, love, compassion and hope and forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  But we tend to deliver our message politely, with solemnity and dignity, not brashness or impudence. We don’t often take those “risks” that are part of the definition of “audacity.”

But, I suggest, that if we are to survive as a denomination, or a church in this community or any other on Langley, West Vancouver, or Kitimat, we have to turn up the heat a little bit.  We have to begin to behave more boldly, more assertively, more impudently.  We have to practice the “Audacity of Faith.”

Our text from Mark’s gospel this morning is an example of this kind of audacity—an audacity driven by faith. Our NT text tells us two stories.

The stories are both miracle stories—the first involves a Syrophoenician woman—a Gentile whose daughter is possessed with an “unclean spirit”—a demon.  The second involves another Gentile that Jesus encounters in a predominantly Gentile region below the Sea of Galilee heading toward Damascus through what is now Lebanon.

In the first instance the audacity is shown by Jesus in his characterization of the Gentiles as dogs.  But the greater audacity is shown by the mother of the afflicted child, the Syrophoenician/Gentile who reframes Jesus’ rude comment and turns it to her advantage.  We’ll look at that more closely in a moment.

In the second story, the audacity is demonstrated by Jesus’ re-engagement with the Gentile community—the Decapolis—ten villages—but also by his order to “tell no one”—and the audacity of people who witnessed the healing of the deaf mute—"the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” (Mark 7:36) They ignore Jesus, and they tell it to everyone that will listen.

Let’s take a closer look at the first story., the one where Jesus responds to the pleas of a desperate mother.

Jesus is tired.  He needs some R&R after teaching about the defilement of the body and arguing with the Pharisees about the law and its rules and regulations—dietary laws, cleanliness laws, etc.  He needs a break.  But Jesus’ reputation has preceded him.  Yet he could not escape notice. (v. 24) And the Canaanite woman—as she is called in Matthew’s gospel, breaks through the group of friends and acquaintances, minority Jews, most likely, that are housing Jesus, shielding him, in effect.  She breaks through the cultural and traditional barriers, prohibitions really, and throws herself at Jesus’ feet.  She begs him to cast out the demon that is possessing her beloved daughter.  Mark reiterates that she is a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.

As I said, Jesus is likely in a Jewish family’s home.  The Gentile woman’s mere presence is already an affront—Jews and Gentiles are not permitted to eat together.  She has taken a bold step just to come through the door. She speaks out. She begs Jesus—pleading.  And Jesus’ response is surprising, unexpected, even rude. Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. (v.27) This is not the gentle healer, the compassionate Jesus that we expect.  This is a brazen, dismissive, even stereotyping or racist Jesus. Jesus words, “Let the children be fed first” refers to the Children of Israel – the Jews. He characterizes the others, the Gentiles as “dogs.” These people were viewed by Jews as inherently wicked and dangerous because it was from these people that the Jews “took “and settled the “Promised Land.”

He clearly discriminates. He draws a line between the house of Israel, those who are beneficiaries of the promise of salvation, and the Gentiles, -- Canaanites, Moabites and Ammonites, the ones who are left out.  This is a hard-hearted Jesus.  A Jesus that is difficult for his followers, yes, even us, 2000 years later, to comprehend.  “Why would he say such a thing?”

But the woman is desperate.  She will not be dissuaded by the insult.  And it is an insult.  It is an insult because of Jesus’s reference to dogs: to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

Dogs. Dogs to us are pets.  Dogs are “man’s best friend.”  Dogs are part of our households.  In some cases, we pay as much attention to our dogs as we do to our children:  special food, special attire, vet bills—oh boy!   We rescue them and ship them over from Mexico, Thailand and other places, where dogs are mistreated or killed for food.

But dogs in the first century were not seen as pets or animals to be welcomed. Most dogs were wild scavengers.  Yes, there were, so called, “pet” dogs. But kept dogs would be part of a wealthy household.

They would be kept for a purpose—not just companionship or amusement.  They would serve the household, their masters, as hunters, as guard dogs or vermin chasers killing rats.

Few dogs lived in luxury of a household.  Most dogs roamed the streets or alleys.  Most dogs ate from the shambles, the junk pit, outside the city wall.  This is where animal carcasses were tossed.  This is where the offal from the slaughter houses was dumped. This is where the dogs fought over a chunk of meat with rats, with vultures and ravens.  The reference made here by Jesus is about these wild, vicious, flee-bitten and vile creatures.  Jesus’s reference to “dogs” is an insult.  Nothing less.

But this audacious woman, in her deep state of helplessness, her despair over her daughter’s affliction, this woman, demonstrates her faith.  She has a great need.

She demonstrates her faith by not allowing this comment to dismiss her as Jesus obviously intended.  She assesses the situation where she finds herself—in a wealthy household where there may be dogs underfoot, and she lets that inform her response:  Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.

The image she fashions is one of kids at the table, maybe even deliberately dropping tidbits to the floor.  The dogs lap up the morsels, wagging their tails. It is a complete “reframe” of the image that is placed before her by the healer, Jesus, to whom she is appealing.

She takes him on: her retort is audacious, bold, clever, and imaginative.  It gets to Jesus. You can imagine the look on his face.  He is moved by her audacity, her cleverness. He understands her desperation, her hope. He acknowledges her faith.  He acknowledges her audacity.  He acknowledges her audacity of faith.  For saying that you may go – the demon has left your daughter. (v.29) She goes home. Her daughter is healed.

The audacity of faith.  How can we Presbyterians, even Langley Presbyterians, learn from this story?  What can we learn as we, Presbyterians, are today a challenged and beleaguered denomination? Covid, the same sex controversy.

We look around. We see other churches

We see their effectiveness, their “success” and we say, “Why can’t we be full and flourishing, thriving like they are?”  We rub our hands together in anxiety.

“Givings are down; expenses are up.  We are getting older.  We are running out of energy.  What will we do?  How will we survive?  How will we call a minister….? How will we adjust to the new reality, the position taken by the General Assemble this year?

This story and the one following, are lessons for us to heed. Let’s look for a moment at the second story.

To the deaf mute, Jesus says, “Ephphatha” an Aramaic word. It means—be opened, “open up”, —open your ears—listen!  And we must listen.  We must respond, like the deaf mute. We must open up and hear the Word.

The irony, the audacity even, is that the deaf-mute’s miracle is so overwhelming, they, the witnesses, cannot remain silent, despite Jesus’ emphatic instruction . He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.  (v.37)

He has done everything wellIt is well with my soul . Jesus has done “everything well” in our lives.  We can make that known, boldly, audaciously. We should feel that we cannot remain silent, subdued or cautious.  We must proclaim Jesus’ healing, forgiveness and love in our lives always, daily, more in deeds than words, even as we challenge ourselves and our long-held convictions. We cannot remain mute.  We must let our love be known and shown. As James tells his friends in Jerusalem , and us , Faith without works is dead. We must act.

We cannot keep our faith to ourselves.  “Tell no one—“  audacious comment!  But the more he ordered them to be silent, the more zealously they proclaimed their faith. (v. 36) They respond to Jesus’ comment with more boldness, more audacity.  More audacious. And we must do the same.

Mark’s story of the Syrophoenician woman is instructive. Our gospel, the good news, is universal. It’s for everyone, all peoples, all nations, all cultures, all colours , all languages, all orientations. Grace abounds. Jesus comes to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Jesus compassion cuts through tradition and cultural norms.  Jesus comes to everyone, in the First Century and the Twenty -first Century. Jesus too has an initial dismissal, a rude rejection even, but it is the woman’s audacity the changes everything. Her faith is audacious, and Jesus’ healing, his blessing, his inclusion is also audacious. He responds audaciously. The audacity of Faith. Jesus’ response is instructive today. It is also inspiring and motivating.

Don’t take your, misgivings, your fears of the future, your feelings of rejection lying down. Don’t be dissuaded by harsh circumstances. Don’t despair. Get up, re-think, re-frame re-, imagine; and act out, with boldness, with audacity, the Audacity of Faith.  

Amen