A Church That Welcomes Challenge

A Church That Welcomes Challenge

August 29, 2021 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

This series on The Church the World Needs seems to have hit home for many of you. Over the last couple weeks I’ve gotten a number of emails and texts saying the issues we’ve addressed are right on target for the call of the church at this time. We’ve considered how the church at its best is accommodating and welcoming of all and seeks to reduce conflict rather than create it. Well, today, at the risk of contradicting what I’ve said so far, I want us to think about how our world also needs a church that creates disturbance and is not always tolerant.

As we get ready for our message would you join me in prayer…

Why do you come to church? What drives your need for worship? For those of you watching online, you might even type that in the chat. Why do you worship? Is it for comfort? Inspiration? To get a spiritual feel-good? Something else?

That’s a question that a group of retired clergy in St. Luke’s got into last week. We have quite a few retired pastors in our congregation and thanks to the coordination of Don Griffith, we meet monthly for lunch and fellowship. Retired clergy are similar to retirees in any profession, there’s a shared professional interest as well as mutual association across the years, especially for those clergy who served in the same conference. But with clergy it is more than that. There is a sisterhood and brotherhood among pastors. Clergy share a calling from which you don’t retire. In many ways you are ordained for life. Your name is not removed from the list of clergy in the conference until you are commissioned to the Church Triumphant—which is a churchy way of saying, “Until you go to heaven.”

So the retired clergy in our church, which includes more than just United Methodist pastors, get together each month. Until last week we had not met since before Covid. And we thought it would be interesting to discuss the current state of the United Methodist Church considering the looming divide we face.

As we got into our conversation, we discussed how this time affords a rare opportunity to rethink the church. What needs to change? Who do we want to be as United Methodists? What needs to be cleaned up? And that led us into a larger question about why people come to church anyway.

I was the one who said that this pandemic has driven up the need for comfort. In my experience with all folks are going through, most people come needing to be comforted. This got a quick reaction from all the retired clergy. They said, “We get that. We understand people need to be comforted, but even a pandemic should not limit the church from challenging as well. They all spoke with unified agreement that they come to church to be challenged as much as they do to be comforted and that Jesus came to challenge people to be better, and a church that doesn’t challenge in the end just offers limited comfort.

I felt like John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves sitting in the teepee with the seasoned veterans of the tribe. Only we weren’t passing a peace pipe.

So let me ask you again, Why do you come to church? Where does challenge fit in your list of needs?

CS Lewis said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” (as quoted in Good News magazine, Jan 2021, p19)

Have you ever thought about what happens if we don’t seek challenge in our lives? I read recently about a letter sent from the Greenville County Department of Social Services in South Carolina to a man named Philip Fleming who had died. The letter said, “Your food stamps will be stopped because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.” (Homiletics, July 1993 p29)

Now maybe the Department of Social Services had more faith than I give them credit for, but I’m going to say that letter erred on the side of stupidity. I know that’s not a polite word, but as Forest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” Someone just followed the rules and sent a form letter without being challenged to check it carefully. But we are all capable of doing stupid things if we are never challenged, aren’t we? Isn’t that a basic belief of ours, that we are all sinners, and sin makes us capable of doing stupid stuff. As Catholic theologian Joseph Fitzmeyer says, “While we cannot save ourselves, we can very well condemn ourselves.” So if we are willing to admit that we need to be challenged in our lives, what does a church look like that welcomes challenge?

I want us to think about a moment in the life of Jesus when he was challenged, but before digging into this story I want to point out that the way we understand this story depends on what we believe about the life of Jesus. In Christian tradition we believe Jesus was fully human and fully divine, but some people lean heavily on the divinity side. They believe Jesus lived always knowing he was the Son of God. In fact, there developed myths about Jesus as a boy using special powers to punish other boys who were mean and performing miracles for good people in need.

But what if Jesus was more normal than that? That, like most people, he didn’t know from the earliest days just what he was meant to do in life, that it was something which evolved as he grew. That he, like each of us, was a product of his environment, being influenced and shaped by his family and the culture around him, much of which was good. But some of which he would later discover would need to change.

Could Jesus have been human like that? Could he, for instance, have begun his ministry believing he came only for his own people because that’s what he’d always been told a Messiah will do?

If you’re thinking, “I’m not so sure about that,” then let’s look at today’s story. Matthew chapter 15, just over half way through Jesus’ ministry, he retreats from the threats of religious leaders who are offended by him. John the Baptist has been beheaded and Jesus knows his life is danger, so he goes to a place where Jewish leaders will not be, Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile area. A woman comes up to him and calls him by a Messianic title, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.” We’ll come back to that in a moment. She pleads that Jesus might heal her daughter. But Jesus doesn’t respond. I guess he pretends not to hear her. His disciples encourage him to shoo her away. But the woman is not put off. She keeps pleading. When Jesus does speak he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (15:24)

Some people say that Jesus didn’t really believe that. He knew he came for all people. He was just trying to use a clever way to engage the woman in conversation. But what if Jesus did mean it? What if he believed his ministry was supposed to be just for Israelites? Still not sure? Well, look what Jesus says next.

The woman kneels before Jesus. She’s now in a posture of worship, and her prayer sounds like many of our prayers, “Lord, help me!” (v25) Ever prayed that way? Lord, help me! But look at Jesus’ response, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” (v26) Now what did Jesus just do there? He treated her the same she had probably been treated by every Israelite man she met. Demeaned and discounted.

And this is where Jesus gets challenged. This woman comes right back at him. She says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table.” (v27) This is where I read the story with a little imagination. I believe there was a lengthy pause here. You don’t get that in the Bible. It goes right into the next statements without any sense of time lapse, but I believe this was a moment where Jesus had just been bested and he knew it. And his eyes are wide as his world is spinning. He realizes a couple things. First, this woman was the first person to recognize his true identity. Before Peter ever said to Jesus, “You are the Son of God,” this woman acknowledged him as Lord, Son of David.” And then, second, she believed in him. She believed he had the power to heal her daughter and she was willing to depend completely on him. She had total faith.

I believe in that moment a really big shift happened inside of Jesus as he realized his ministry was not limited to Israelites. It was for all people. And that is when he commended her for her faith and answered her prayer. But something even bigger happened in that moment than just this woman getting blessed. All people like her, Gentiles, would be blessed, because this is where the Gentile mission started. Jesus’ worldview was rocked as he discovered he was not a Messiah for just his people but all people.

O the world needs a church like that! The world needs a church that welcomes challenge so we can be a better version of ourselves. That’s what Jesus demonstrates in this story.

Jesus modeled true discipleship. The word disciple means learner. It is a person who commits to learning from a teacher. But sometimes the best lessons a teacher offers are not answers, but the demonstration of what it means to learn. Jesus models learning in this story.

There’s a story about President Calvin Coolidge who was known for his quit wit with reporters. One time he made a declaration about some issue in an interview and a week later made another statement completely different. A reporter asked, “Mr. President, That totally contradicts what you just said a week ago. How do you account for that?” The President said, “Simple. I learned something since last week.”

In a time when doubling-down and defending our positions is so admired, how refreshing it is when someone says, “You know, I’ve continued to study and learn, and I now see things differently.”

Do you still hold all the same positions and opinions about matters you did ten years ago? Or 20, or 30 years ago? What changed? What did you learn?

Do you read to understand ideas you don’t agree with? Or do you read simply to bolster your own position with more facts? A true disciple is a learner, and Jesus models this in his own life. Because he was open to being challenged we, who are not Jewish, are in church today.

But Jesus displayed more than just a willingness to learn, He was willing to learn from someone he didn’t think he could learn from. Someone he perhaps thought because of his own biased upbringing that he couldn’t learn from, a Canaanite woman, he allowed to become his teacher. Don’t miss the significance of what the Gospel writers are trying to show us here. Matthew makes the point that she was a Canaanite woman. Mark’s Gospel says she was Syro-Phoenician, just another way of pointing out that historically for Israel she represented a despised outsider. And a woman to boot. Woman were not allowed to be in positions of authority over women. What are the Gospels trying to tell us here church? Don’t ever look down on someone so as to miss the lessons they can teach us!

Dr Steve Lehman is retired dental surgeon in our church who was in a highly specialized field. He sent me an email about a year ago telling about a patient of his who was not well educated and not all that bright, but one of the most important lessons in his career he learned from this man. He came in one day and said, “You know doc, everybody’s got something.” The man explained that if you just listen long enough and get past the things people say and the way they act, you learn they have something going on inside them that makes them that way. That changed Dr. Lehman’s career. He made a point to engage his patients differently and listen for the something they are carrying.

Jesus demonstrates for us in this story, by the example of his own humility and teachability, the kind of church we need to be for the world.

But don’t miss the lesson of the Canaanite woman, she shows us that the church must be willing to challenge. Sometimes the grace and acceptance of the church can become a liability. We can allow opinions that don’t represent the values of Jesus. Our tolerance can become a failure of nerve to confront attitudes and behaviors that actually destroy community. What this Canaanite woman demonstrates is a courage to speak up, even though she was being dismissed, and because she did she changed the direction of Jesus’ life, which in turn, changed the lives of others.

I read in a Guidepost edition a few years ago Troy Vincent Sr., a successful NFL player and executive who overcame domestic abuse as a child. He credits his faith and a particular Sunday where he felt God say to him, if you will give me your life I’ll get you out of this and use you to help others. And that’s what he did. Through his career he has devoted himself to volunteering at battered women’s shelters and standing up to abuse.

In the article he shared about a teammate in the locker room one day joking about women while holding up a porn magazine for everyone to look at and laugh. He waited until he was finished and then took him aside. He said, “I’ve heard you say you want to find a nice lady and raise a daughter and have a good family. Would you want your daughter one day to hear you talking like that? You’re a leader on this team but what you’re doing right now is not leading.” He said the guy was angry with him at first, but he never repeated that behavior again. Years later they appeared together on stage at a benefit. That other player shared that story about what Vincent said to him. He told the audience that moment changed his attitude.

Friends, that is the church the world needs. We need a church that will stand up to degradation, stand up to dehumanizing and sexism, stand up to racism and injustice, stand up to evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. And we need a church that welcomes the challenge to see those things and understand how they exist.

The conflict out there can make us want to come in here to hide from it, but it won’t change until we are challenged to face it and change it.

Let me close by returning to our retired clergy lunch. As we talked about all the chaos happening in the world, and especially the church, and our tone took on a bit of heaviness, Rev. John Young spoke up at the end. He reminded us of the work of Illya Prigogine, the 1977 winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, who pointed out that when certain chemicals combine there is a reaction that makes things appear as if they are falling apart. But in reality they are organizing at a higher level. This is called perturbation, from which we get the word perturbed.

He said what parent doesn’t get perturbed by the reactions they have with their children because it feels like things are falling apart, where in reality it is just part of the process of chemicals organizing at a higher level.

So why do you come to church? Is it to escape the things that perturb you? Or to be challenged to live by faith that God is at work in all that seems to be falling apart, helping things to organize at a higher level?