Lectionary blog for Sept. 9
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146;
James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

“Say to those of fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God … (who) will come and save you'” (Isaiah 35:4).

“Happy are they who have their hope in the God of Jacob for their help, whose hope is in the Lord their God” (Psalm 146:5). 

Have you ever lost hope? I don’t mean just a little bit, I mean a lot—so much so that you thought you were going lose everything, that you were going to, quite literally, die? I did, once, a long time ago. I was maybe 6 or 7. We were at my grandma’s little house in the mountains of southwest Virginia. She and Grandpa had 10 children, and we were having a family reunion. The seven children who had lived to adulthood, their spouses and some stray in-laws, plus most of Grandma’s 21 grandchildren, as well as a few great-grands, neighbors, preachers and other, more distant, cousins, etc.

After a “covered-dish” dinner on tables set up under the walnut tree in the front yard, some of my teen-age cousins decided to go hiking. They were intent on climbing Joe’s Knob, a mountain that rose up directly behind Grandma’s house. A trip to the top and back was a rite of passage in my family. It was not an easy climb and there was no real trail. I wanted to go. Daddy said no. Mama said no. Grandma emphatically said no, gently swatted my behind and gave me a cookie. I stood on the kitchen steps, eating my cookie and watching the big kids head off on their great adventure. And as soon as I could, I lit out after them—without water, without food and with no plan but catching up with my cousins and following them from a discreet distance.

By the time I realized that my plan wasn’t going to work, I was in big trouble. I was completely lost. And the more I walked, the more lost I became. As the darkness began to deepen, I sat down on a log, crying, praying, begging and yelling. Eventually, I settled into a fitful and exhausted sleep, having given up all hope of living.

In Isaiah, we encounter a community on the verge of losing hope. They are a “little people,” who often aspire to join the ranks of the “big people.” Great empires like Egypt, Assyria and Persia march and swirl around them, ignoring the little lap dog states trotting along behind hoping to be noticed. And when they do get noticed, they often live to regret it, finding themselves trampled under foot in the battle for supremacy and power in the known world. Israel looks up from where they have fallen and cries and prays and yells and wonders, “Has God forgotten us? Is God punishing us? Will we ever get ‘home’?”

In the midst of their descent into despair, Isaiah speaks a word of hope, “Say to those of fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God … (who) will come and save you'” (Isaiah 35:4). This promise is two-fold: 1) the return to wholeness of the people—the eyes of the blind shall see, the lame leap, the deaf hear, the speechless sing, and 2) the return from barrenness to productivity for the land—water in the wilderness, streams in the desert, burning sands becoming pools of water, dry ground erupting with springs.

“Say to those of fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God … (who) will come and save you'” (Isaiah 35:4).

In Mark’s Gospel we encounter a gentile woman who is told (by Jesus yet!) that she should not expect Jesus to heal her daughter. “It’s not your turn. I came for the children, not the dogs.” Ouch! But, even when Jesus rejects her, appears to have turned his back on her, she holds on to hope. She takes Jesus’ meal image and runs with it. “Ah yes,” she says, “but even the dogs get to lick up the crumbs from under the children’s table.” She finds hope in a hopeless situation, and her daughter is healed. 

As Jesus moves on from Tyre to the Decapolis, he encounters a group of folks who ask him to heal a man with two connected problems; he is deaf, and he cannot speak plainly. For most of human history, that would be a hopeless situation with no conceivable opportunity to be healed. But the people who come to Jesus believe that he can do something. They have hope, and their hope is fulfilled; the man is healed.

Almost no one gets through life without experiencing a loss of hope. Not just the little things like “I hope she will go to the prom with me,” or “I hope I get into that college,” or “I hope we can swing the loan for that house.” Most of us learn soon enough to cope with those sorts of normal ups and downs in life—some of us better than others. But the larger loss of hope in the future can hit us like a ton of bricks, and it can hit any of us. A failure to find meaning in life, a loss of belief and trust in the church or the government or your fellow human beings. Sometimes we think society is moving progressively in one direction—then it veers and turns and goes another way. And to us it looks like the world is going to hell in a handbasket, downhill at 90 miles an hour. What can we do; where can we look for hope?

The Scriptures remind us to look to God, our loving parent, our creator. Psalm 146 says, “Happy are they who have their hope in the God of Jacob for their help, whose hope is in the Lord their God.” Mark’s Gospel, from beginning to end, is written to let us know that Jesus is God incarnate, here with us in our earthly existence to give us hope, to lead us in giving others hope, to remind us that God loves us and everyone, now and forever.

On that lonely Virginia mountainside, I awoke with a start from behind a log. There was a light shining in my eyes and a gentle hand on my shoulder. It was my father. He had walked many miles that night looking for me. He picked me up in his arms, gave me a long drink from a jar of water he had brought, carried me to a spring he had found nearby and washed me clean, put me on his shoulders and carried me home. And I have never, ever completely lost hope again.

Amen and amen.

Delmer Chilton
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

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