Jesus challenges us to expand community


By Woody Woodrick

Oct. 4
Looking for Jesus
To discover that when we find Jesus, he incorporates us into the community of faith.
Bible Lesson: Mark 1:35-45
Key Verse: “When they found (Jesus), they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’” — Mark 1:37

A good friend says that every once in a while he needs a little “stump time;” time where he goes off by himself, sits on a stump and thinks. He works in a fairly high-pressure job, so I’m sure at times all he does is sit and not think about anything in particular. Other times, he probably puts some serious thought into whatever is on his mind. We all need “stump time” on occasion.

That’s what I draw from the opening of our scripture lesson; Jesus needed some time for prayer and reflection. Word of his miraculous healing had spread and more and more people were seeking him out. He needed some time alone with God.

Later, Simon and some other disciples found him, and it was back to serving others.

Leprosy. Just the word itself conjures all kinds of gruesome images. The disease is mentioned several times throughout the Bible, yet our lesson points out that the affliction we call leprosy didn’t emerge until medieval times. Whatever affliction carried the name leprosy during Jesus’ time, the reaction was the same. Those affected were cast out of the community.

Mississippian Neil White once was the toast of the Gulf Coast. He had a seemingly successful business and hung out with all the swells. It all collapsed, however, when it was learned that his empire was a sham. He was charged with bank fraud and other crimes and sent to a federal prison in Carrville, La.

The prison turned out to be at the nation’s last residential quarantine facility for those with what is now called Hansen’s disease — leprosy. Over the course of the year that White spent in the facility, he learned a great deal about those who had been cast out of society, and what it meant to be one of them. He tells his story in an outstanding book In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.

In another part of this issue is a story about two women who were felt called to provide art classes to clients at Stewpot Community Services in Jackson. The clients are among the poorest folks in Jackson, yet these women have discovered some true artistic talent by stepping out and connecting with a group of outcasts.

Who constitutes the outcasts in your community? What does your church do to reach them? What does your class do?

Bible scholars are mixed on how Jesus responded to the leper’s request for healing. Some translations say Jesus took pity on the man; others say Jesus was angered. What might have made Jesus angry?

After the healing, Jesus instructed the man not to say how he had been healed, but to show the priest and begin the purification rites.

If Jesus had healed the man, why was he instructed to go to the priest for purification? Why would Jesus not want the man to tell others about how he had been healed?

Oct. 11
Recognizing Jesus
To emphasize the importance of recognizing and being a witness to what God had done for us.
Bible Lesson: Mark 5:1-13, 18-20
Key Verse: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” — Mark 5:19

Most scholars tend to believe the possessed man in this story had some kind of mental illness. Others believe he was truly possessed by evil spirits. Either way he was sent out of his community as a danger to himself and others. Unfortunately, at times that step must be taken. Some people do present such dangers.

What I find most interesting in this story is that while many “normal” people failed to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, the evil spirits inside this man knew immediately who Jesus was. The man ran to Jesus, bowed before him and acknowledged who Jesus was.

Stories like this scare me a little bit. I can’t help but think I’ve missed recognizing Jesus. Did he walk right past me, or did I walk right past him, and not recognize him? At this point, even most of the disciples didn’t really recognize Jesus, but we have more knowledge and should be more aware. What do we look for when we look for Jesus?

Jesus ordered the evil spirits out of the man, but they begged not to be sent out of the country, and asked if they could be sent into the swine. Why do you think the evil spirits recognized Jesus when others did not? Why do you think they begged to be put into the swine?

Demon possession isn’t talked about much today outside of movie theaters. (An aside: Why are we so quick to believe in demon possession, but are so skeptical of the power of Jesus in people’s lives?) Some people earnestly believe in possession by demons. We can be possessed by a variety of demons, not all of them actual entities. For example, can work become a possessive demon in your life? What other powers can take control of our lives? What can the community of believers do to help us battle these demons?

When the people of the town came out to where all the commotion was taking place (2,000 pigs running off a cliff into a lake would cause a commotion), they found the possessed man dressed, sitting calmly and in his right mind. They looked around, heard what had happened and asked Jesus to leave. Why?

The formerly possessed man asked Jesus to take him along, but Jesus told him to stay and tell others about what Jesus had done for him. Presumably, the man was allowed to rejoin the community where he had been an outcast. (Do we see a theme here?) How do you think the townspeople reacted to him? How have your reacted to an outcast returning to your community? How does your community respond to former outcasts?

Oct. 18
Begging to Get In
To nurture steadfast and relentless faith that challenges prejudice and works for inclusive community.
Bible Lesson: Mark 7:24-30
Key Verse: “Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged (Jesus) to cast the demon out of her daughter.” — Mark 7:26

Bible commentators indicate that Jesus’ response to the woman in our scripture was a less-than-kind retort. Jews and the Gentiles in this area weren’t good friends, and in Jewish culture dogs were considered unclean animals. He seems to be telling the woman that she’ll have to wait her turn for his attention. Undaunted, she makes a clever reply, which prompts Jesus to heal her daughter.

This same story is also related in Matthew, but with a different tone, where Jesus is said to be moved by her faith.

What are we to make of how Jesus responded to the woman in Mark’s account? He had come to the area to rest, telling his friends not to tell anyone he was around. However, word got out. Fatigue can often lead us to say things either we don’t mean or to use a tone that puts an edge on our words. What do you think about the Jesus shown in this story? Might Jesus have been applying some kind of test to the woman, maybe to see just how determined she was or how strong her belief in him might be?

One aspect of the story is the cultural difference between Jesus and the woman. We are often quick to put people of different cultures in certain boxes based on assumptions or past experiences. Each of our lessons this month has focused on Jesus interacting with those on the “outside.” In each story some cultural prejudice has been challenged.

What are some of the cultural challenges we face as a church today? How is the church responding to them? How does your church respond to them? How do you personally respond?

Although hit with what was considered an insult, the woman persisted in her effort to get help for her daughter. Most of us would do the same. If your child had an illness that only one doctor in town could cure, would you give up if the doctor insulted you, or would you push past the words and press for healing?

So at least part of the lesson we learn from this story is that at times we have to persevere. Sometimes we have to go it alone; other times we might have the support of a group but still face huge obstacles. What are some issues the church faces today that will require persistence to settle so that we may be an inclusive church? 

Oct. 25
Opting Out
To explore in what ways wealth and possessions can hinder love of God and neighbor.
Bible Lesson: Mark 7:24-30
Key Verse: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” — Mark 10:21

This Bible story sparks thousands of sermons and discussions of what Christians should think and do about money. Some see it as an indictment of wealth, while others claim it doesn’t condemn wealth per se but rather the danger of placing earthly treasure above heavenly reward.

I tend to be in the second group. Many great mission efforts have been funded by wealthy individuals who were more than glad to contribute. A man from our state, now dead, made quite a bit of money in the timber industry. He gave generously to his local church, but also built a Christian school for girls in Korea. Other wealthy folks have similar stories of generosity.

We also know of people who like to appear generous, but aren’t. They want to chair the finance committee, but don’t share their blessings themselves. They have to have the best seats in the stadium, the newest car, the phone with the most applications. However, having the “things” is most important. Some folks give, but only because it gives them power in the church.

Money does funny things to us. I sometimes fantasize about what I would do if I were to win $100 million in the Florida lottery. I usually start out giving to various church funds and community nonprofit organizations, but before long I find myself pondering the ability to do things that would not be so good. Do I need a Rolex to replace my ancient Pulsar that still works? I would be able to afford to take off and do things with certain anonymity. Nobody would know. Yeah, right.

What my little mind game reminds me is that wealth just might come between me and God. Instead of it being a tool to glorify God, it becomes a barrier in our relationship.

The lesson book shares how Christian writer Philip Yancey decided he needed to live more simply. He greatly lowered his standard of living, but he realized that almost no matter what he did, someone somewhere was less fortunate than he. However, he also realized that God’s grace allowed him to see his own sins, to live with the ambiguity of money and the opportunity to make financial sacrifices.

Allow me to share another story about wealth I heard recently. One of the cable news channels did a story about a family that has been hit hard by the recession. Both parents had lost their jobs and were living on severance pay. They had had to make some big changes in their lives. Instead of movies, they went to the library. They stopped eating out. Yet, they were happy and had a positive outlook. They also shared that they still tithed to their church.

Wonder why they were so happy?

I might consider that family wealthy. Certainly, they were in a precarious financial situation, but they had wealthy souls. In what ways might you be wealthy other than financially? How might you share your wealth or use it to glorify God? How can our wealthy spirits make us more inclusive?