A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

photo of AVC sanctuary
Sermon: Back to School

Back to School

September 5, 2021

come-share-in-god's-joy

Even though few of us have gone back to school this week, many of us feel the shift in seasons.  Whether or not we are going back into a classroom, this juncture can be an ideal opportunity to pause, reflect, and become conscious of how we want to learn and grow in the months ahead.  September is a good time to get re-organized and focus on what we want and need to do next.  All of us can go back to school with God. So let’s think about how we can learn and grow as Christians and as spiritual people. 

As an interdenominational community, we look to Jesus as our teacher. So what is Jesus trying to teach us?  What lessons is he offering us for how to live and how to love? And in what way is he doing it? (Jesus often teaches us not just by what he says, but by what he does and the way he does it.)

With Jesus as our teacher, today’s reading has much to offer. At the very beginning of the passage, he gives us an invaluable lesson.  If we want to grow, if we want to experience the presence of God in new ways, we are well served to journey beyond our comfort zones, to travel beyond the familiar. 

As the Gospel writer Mark tells the story, Jesus has just had a transformative encounter with the Syrophoenician woman (last week’s lesson) where they sparred together as equals. This was something unheard of for a rabbi to do with any woman, let alone a woman who was not Jewish.  The Syrophoenician woman enabled Jesus to see that his mission was not only for his own people, but is for all people in need. 

Having learned this, Jesus does not take the most expedient way home. Instead, he goes out of his way to encounter others who were not of his tribe, but who were also very much in need. It’s as if he wants the disciples who are traveling with him to understand that his conversation with the Syrophoenician woman wasn’t a “one off.” Rather, he is making the point that God calls him and them and us to cross boundaries – to be open to the grace and healing that is available when we choose to meet someone we perceive as different. Our teacher wants us to see that human needs are human needs. 

It doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or Gentile, a male or female, young or old; It doesn’t matter if you are light skinned or dark skinned; a friend, stranger or even an enemy – being poor, being blind, being deaf, being voiceless – all of these challenges can strain the human spirit and impact participation in community no matter what tribe, gender, race, or age you may identify with. Physical, mental, emotional, and social challenges are common to all types of people and make enjoying the fullness of life difficult. 

What might this suggest to us as students of Jesus?  If we want to learn and grow, we can’t simply stay where we are, interacting solely with people we see as like ourselves.  We need to go out of our way to encounter others who we believe are different than us.  

Many years ago I ran a service-learning program at Seattle University.  As part of their academic classes, students were required to participate in 2-4 hours of community service per week.  Depending upon the class, I curated certain options.  A class on food systems offered opportunities at the local food bank and soup kitchens.  A literature class offered options with ESL and literacy programs.  A public health class offered opportunities at the local hospital and with programs reaching out to people with HIV, Alzheimers and more. You get the idea.  

Students often wanted to know which opportunity to choose.  My answer was always the same.  If any of the choices intimidate or scare you, pick that one. Why? We often can learn more when we face what feels overwhelming or frightening. And when students heeded that advice their eyes and ears and hearts and minds opened in ways that merely reading about a topic could never accomplish. 

At this point in your life, do you have a sense that Jesus might be calling you to go into new territory to encounter others who are different than you in some particular way? Maybe, maybe not…

I wonder if the man who was healed realized that Jesus went out of his way for him? It strikes me that this is another important lesson from our teacher.  Think about those times someone has gone out of their way to help you.  How did it make you feel? The first time I came home after being hospitalized I was living alone. Nothing meant more to me than those people who went out of their way to stop by for a visit, whose presence tended both body and spirit.  Friends who brought me a meal when making one for myself was out of the question, also healed my sense of loneliness and isolation. They were angels!

It seems to me that part of what Jesus is trying to teach us is that grace is present when we go out of our way for each other. Is there someone you know who would benefit in body and spirit if you went out of your way for them?  

Another approach we might consider to more intentionally go back to school as one of Jesus’ students is to take some time to reflect on our own deafness and blindness. Earlier in the year, our church’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Team piloted something called the 21 Day Challenge.  Every day for three weeks we were given videos to watch, articles to read, or exercises to take so that we could examine the history and impacts of racism and inequities so that we could  deepen our collective learning about, and commitment to, racial equity. 

When we met to discuss what we were learning, participants said “I just didn’t know. I had no idea. How could I not have known these things?” In other words, how could I have been so deaf and blind?

It is a human truth that we don’t know what we don’t know. The ministry of Jesus is often focused on helping us get beyond our spiritual deafness and blindness.  And when it comes to racism in this country, many of us are deaf and blind.  Because some of us piloted the 21 Day Challenge, we discovered that we need to present the most important material in a different way – to give us more time to learn, understand, and reflect – so that we are not merely overwhelmed by the scope of racism and related issues that we face, but to help us wisely discern what we as individuals and as a congregation are called to do.  Hence we are offering a 7 Week Course with less material and more time to integrate what we are learning, to work on overcoming our deaf and blind ways.

Our teacher, Jesus, speaks one single word so we can’t miss the point of today’s lesson.  Ephphatha! Be opened. 

This is how we learn… this is how we grow… we must be opened. And then, once we are opened with the Spirit of God… we keep becoming more and more opened. Our vision expands.  Our hearts expand. Our mission expands. We expand as individuals and as a spiritual community.

As your pastor, I invite you to be open; to take some time in prayer and consider how you can be conscious and intentional as a student of Jesus in the months ahead.  What is one step you can take beyond what you ordinarily do to open yourself to learn and grow on your spiritual path? How might you open yourself to follow Jesus into unknown territory? How open are you to go out of your way to help someone else? Might you open your mind and heart to realities that you have been blind and deaf to, perhaps about how racism operates in this country?  Or is there some other way you feel called to be opened in new ways? How can you be open and go back to school with God?

Ephphatha!  Be opened! Amen.