Mark 7:24-37 where Jesus is challenged by the Syrophoenician woman to provide healing is among the more challenging texts for congregations and preachers.

Deeply troubling for centuries of interpreters is Jesus’ negative initial response. The woman’s tenacious retort prompts Jesus to recognize her faithfulness and proceeds to grant her request.

Reading this story, I recalled some questions I posed to seminarians at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, when I served as an adjunct instructor.

These questions were not on a test, yet they sparked classroom dialogue as they are not quickly or easily answered:

  • When you talk about your beliefs about Christianity, who is readily included and welcomed in your theological worldview?
  • Further, who is considered somewhat included, but not fully, for reasons you believe strongly in?
  • Finally, who is considered not able to be included at all or to be kept at a distance until they fit into your theological way of understanding the world and the church?

These questions are at the core of pastoral ministry with regard to sharing the faith and helping congregations understand their theological identity.

The point of asking the questions is quite straightforward. Like it or not, no matter the religious traditions in the classroom, each tradition has in its theological worldview places we must recognize as we tend to place barriers, impasses or restrictions in ways overt and covert, subtle and outright.

Our beliefs and deeply held convictions are not just “there” in the woodwork. Beliefs influence our day-to-day living. We cannot compartmentalize our faith values and our convictions about what it means to follow the way of Jesus.

Further, our religious beliefs shape how we approach our relationships with people who may be beyond our spiritual boundaries. Beliefs shape the way we live in the world in all its diversity and difference.

In conversations about persons or groups of people “in” and “out” of our theological comfort zone, it is customary to speak about how we deal with “others,” those who are most unlike “us.”

Those who are “other” to us may be those who we deem suspect, to be kept at arm’s length or too controversial to be discussed.

Our religious values are our own to keep and live by. However, we have to realize that our beliefs are reflected back in how we view and live in the midst of the world.

Inevitably, we have our points of contention where we see some sort of difference as an obstacle or a less desirable element in our relationships with those we deem “other” to us.

As local churches are free in the Baptist tradition to interpret and order our fellowship based on how we read Scripture, what do our beliefs say about the world and its diversity? Are there boundaries that we need to acknowledge or barriers to be identified?

Who is the “other” that we need to consider more carefully in our judgments and in our willingness to reach out or include? How would such a vision play out in our programming and potlucks, worship services and times for gathering together?

In an often-fractured world, where people feel less connected despite the heightening connectivity of technology, surely the gospel has a good word to be shared about churches that believe God’s love is given freely.

Are we willing to hear when someone we deem “other” speaks up and asks for the church to listen again to the gospel’s good word?

Jerrod H. Hugenot is the associate executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State. He blogs at Preaching and Pondering.

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