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Detours on the Way

Mark 7:24-37

October 24, 2015

Message given at the 135th Anniversary of First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco

Mark said, “Then Jesus returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of Decapolis”  (7:31).

If you drive to church these days, it’s a tough place to find your way around. Washington Street is closed because of the Central Subway construction. Pacific is closed because of the new Chinese Hospital. Even in front of our church, traffic is often blocked because of construction at the former Four Seas for the new Chef Brandon Yip’s restaurant. I used to drive through the Stockton Tunnel to get to the Bay Bridge but now you have to be detoured to Montgomery to cross over Market Street. While detours add time to your trip, you also get a chance to see some places that you have never been before.

Where are we? Today we are in Millbrae—where most of us are not too familiar with but we do get the chance to visit a new place. Where are we in today’s Scripture? Listening to today’s text, Mark is using geography to do theology. For instance, Mark begins the story of Jesus out in the Galilee—in the boondocks among poor, rural people. Then, step by step, Marks takes Jesus from Galilee where the simple folk received him gladly to Jerusalem where the sophisticated and politically powerful capital city people crucify him. By moving Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, Mark says something about Jesus and why he died.

In today’s text, a blind man is healed. Jesus is out in Gentile territory beyond the bounds, out among foreigners. In those days, Gentiles are seen as a long way from home.

Jesus has gone out to Sidon to get away from the press, to retreat from the crowds who follow. But while in Sidon, out among the Gentile, Jesus is confronted by a Syrophoenician woman who wants Jesus to heal her daughter. Unfortunately, she is the wrong kind of woman. She is a foreigner, a stranger to the promises of Israel. And what Jesus says to her makes her blush if not offended: “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.”

Now if I had been writing Mark’s Gospel, I would have left that out. Or I would have at least “poli-speak” that point—say something but making it very vague. Our Lord calls this poor Greek woman a dog! It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want to help suffering people. That’s what he has been doing constantly. But his mission is to the children of Israel, and who could be more oppressed and deserving than they? Occupied by Rome, the forces of opposition—he’s got his hands full without this Greek woman pulling at him. Like a physician in an emergency room full of seriously wounded people, if Jesus turns to help one, another may die.

“What you say about dogs is true,” this gutsy mother replies, “but even dogs are allowed to clean up the children’s crumbs.”

“You’re right,” says Jesus. He heals her daughter.

From here, Mark takes Jesus on a ridiculous itinerary. He says that Jesus went from Tyre to Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the Decapolis. This is like saying that Jesus traveled from San Francisco to Sacramento by the way of Los Angeles and San Diego. The little maps in the back of my Bible reveal that Sidon is north of Tyre, and the Sea of Galilee isn’t anywhere near Decapolis. You can’t get there from here.

When Matthew tells this story later, he corrects this odd geography. Did Mark not know where these places are? Or is it possible that Mark intentionally told this story this way, blurring geography into a theology of what it’s like to follow Jesus?

Jesus went to Sidon for some much-deserved peace and quiet. But he allows a Syrophoenician woman, an outsider, a Gentile dog to sidetrack him from his original intent, his original itinerary. Jesus was detoured—a funny thing happened to Jesus on his way to heal Israel.

Jesus didn’t go by himself. He led his disciples out of Galilee into Gentile territory. Out there, places and people got mixed up. No one stayed put, orderly, and fixed. Out there, as the healing of both the Syrophoenician woman and the blind man show, the message and compassion of Jesus are pushed to their geographic and ethnic limits.

Through this topsy-turvy geography, Mark says, “When you follow Jesus, be ready for surprises, unexpected circumstances, for people you didn’t expect to meet.”

Maybe Mark hasn’t made a geographical mistake; he has made a theological statement. Mark knew where Tyre and Sidon were. He also knew where Jesus was: a new world where geography is not closed but open, where the future is not clearly mapped out but is subject to detours demanded by the unpredictable geography of God’s grace.

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How Did We Get Here?

This Gentile woman with Jewish chutzpah, this Galilean blind man out there on the fringe—these typify the way God’s unexpected geography gets us somewhere we would never have gone if we had simply stuck to the map.

When you called me as your senior pastor back in 1998, I took a detour to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania for 20 years before coming back to FCBC. I wouldn’t have ended up here if I didn’t go to Valley Forge. If I stuck to the map, I would have retired in Pennsylvania.

How did you get here? Ask yourself that question today, following Jesus. How did I get here?

Some of you came to FCBC being detoured to Hong Kong or San Jose first. Some of you who studied in Southern California were detoured there before ending up here. You see, we are all detoured to Millbrae today in order for us to be in San Francisco.

Jesus got to the Sea of Galilee by going north and east when he needed to go south. That’s the way it is sometimes with God’s geography.

Some of the world’s great scientific discoveries have occurred on the way to somewhere else. We got silly putty from some NASA experiment. We got duct tape from heating and air-conditioning people. Every kid’s shoes has Velcro discovered when a scientist on a hike saw that burrs were hooking onto his pants. Coca Cola was discovered from searching for something to relieve a headache. A good researcher travels with a willingness to be detoured.

Recently, I had lunch with one of the pastors in Chinatown and he was telling me how his church was struggling to be committed to the ministries in Chinatown. They have become withdrawn and fearful of what’s outside. And unless they rediscover their reason to be a missional church of Jesus Christ, it wouldn’t be too long before they would be unable to sustain their existence.

I shared with my colleague that I believed FCBC is growing and thriving because it has followed the way of Jesus faithfully and humbly wherever that discipleship leads. In reading some of our recent church history, when the church called Dr. James Chuck as its senior pastor in the 1950s, it took a detour from all the past pastors who were primarily Chinese-speaking. This eventually led to the building up of a strong American-born foundation of church members and leaders.

Catching the vision of planting a new church led by deeply faithful and enthusiastic members, you took a detour in 1996 to start Sunset Ministry on 29th and Noriega where there is now a strong American Baptist witness where there hadn’t been one for some time.

When FCBC in 1997 decided that the American Baptist witness in Chinatown was not yet finished, you decided to expend a tremendous amount of resources financially and in expertise to retrofit the church home. You took a decisive detour to remain in Chinatown where new immigrants to America continue to make San Francisco their first port of call.

Seeing the harvest is great, FCBC detoured resources to create the Community Outreach Minister position with a strong commitment to specifically reach out to our neighbors and residents around the church because they are our Syrophoenician women and Gentile blind men.

From our Lanna Coffee Project, we are detouring to Chiang Mai with the House of Love and the New Life Center. We are now supporting Ivy and Emerson Wu as missionaries with a detour to Macau. And FCBC is sending a mission team to Northern Thailand every summer to bring fresh water to a village so that clean water would bring better health and sharing the truth that living water is Jesus Christ. Our mission teams are taking a detour from their normal summer activities to make a difference in the world. We are detouring to Thailand to reaffirm our mission in San Francisco Chinatown.

Celebrating our 135th anniversary may be a time for us to stop in place and to spend a couple of days patting ourselves on the back and to reminisce on how God has blessed us. This can be so. But celebrating a church anniversary is also the time for us to reaffirm our faith and trust in God to take us where he wants us to be. Just as Jesus takes a detour from his expected itinerary and ends up out in Gentile territory, what does this mean for us who are here at FCBC in an attempt to follow Jesus?

Geography is Theology

Commentators on this Scripture believe that the rather jumbled geography we have here cannot have referred to an actual journey. They say that it’s best explained as an attempt to make the point that Jesus went to non-Jewish areas. This geography is a theology—perhaps a “spiritual geography” that speaks about the meaning of following Jesus today.

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Since my retirement, I have been praying for you as you continue to study and pray about the church’s affiliation with a region. Forgive me if I come across as interfering in what is developing. But I do see the ongoing discussion is the result of God leading you on a detour. You can do nothing and stay the course on your clearly defined itinerary. Or you can be open to God’s unexpected surprises—a journey with constant twists and turns. The path is not always so certain and sure.

In God’s name, we are reminded that the twists and turns are giving you meaning because God is making this journey with us.

Recently, I thought about the church’s Vision/Mission Statement,

            The First Chinese Baptist Church, San Francisco is a multi-generational, bilingual bicultural church. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to be a people so transformed by God’s gracious love in Jesus Christ that we joyfully commit ourselves in worship, witness, discipleship, and ministry.

I wondered if in light of our long history and perhaps our church’s DNA that we might also add “bi-theological.” Surely, we are multi-generational, bilingual and bicultural but as American Baptists who believe in the freedom of soul liberty to interpret Scripture with the integrity of the priesthood of believers that FCBC has always been and is still today and maybe in God’s will, will continue in the future to be “bi-theological” too. This means that as an American Baptist church, there is theological diversity that makes us an even closer resemblance of God’s one family.

This detour of searching for a regional affiliation has in some ways taken us on a circuitous journey of twists and turns—full of surprises. But perhaps in the end when we may be able to see the bigger picture of God’s mighty work for FCBC that we have also realized that it’s okay to be “bi-theological” as we are “multigenerational, bilingual and bicultural.”

In Retrospect

One of the wonderful gifts of retirement is to have the time and opportunity to look back over the course of many years. In retrospect, I really believe that everything that happens to me does so because God wants it that way. I don’t mean to be naive or simple about this. But when I look back, even looking back on some of the very worst events in my life, it’s amazing how well it all turned out. It’s beautiful where it all led. It’s as if some unseen hand guided me to where I would never have gone if left to my own devices.

I think that’s what’s called faith—the belief that God does order life, orders our steps, gives directions to Heaven’s Gates, puts odd people, strange circumstances together into a sometimes disorderly whole. Let’s believe that it was God who led us on a detour to be together in Millbrae today so that we may be the church in San Francisco tomorrow. Being together for our 135th Anniversary, detoured from our normal routines and typical conversations reminds us that we are God’s beloved people with only the love of Christ in our hearts to proclaim Good News in the world.

A colleague shared with me recently that when we list the many things that we in FCBC believe in and the one or two things that we may have some differences, it’s more important and faithful to emphasize what we have in common than what we differ in. Perhaps God is using geography to teach us something about theology.

Don’t be afraid of detours because they may very well be God’s doing to help you follow Jesus more faithfully. Being detoured on the way will help you see some things that you have never seen before. Jesus took the long way around to get to the Sea of Galilee because he got sidetracked by strangers. May we be, too.

Let us pray.

O God, honor and praise to you whose hand has led this faithful community over these 135 years of witness and service in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We pray that you continue to strengthen First Chinese Baptist as it celebrates its heritage and pledges to continue its transformative and restorative ministries in the many days to come. And in the detours on the way, may these become opportunities to know your Word in Christ and to follow where Christ leads. In his name we pray, Amen.

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