James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
I always love this first Sunday of our new program year each year because it’s so nice to see everyone and have the choir back. Lots of energy! And let me just say right now, I know you were away a lot over the summer and couldn't get to church, you don’t have to apologize to me at the breakfast downstairs. Blanket absolution for everyone. If you were away, I hope it was Sabbath time for you, time to rest and reconnect with yourself and hopefully God as well in a different way.
And now we’re back and what a set of readings to start off with. The shapers of our lectionary must have a wicked sense of humor. We have this letter from James, saying it’s just incompatible with Christian faith to show partiality to treat different groups of people differently is simply wrong, and then we have Jesus doing exactly that, refusing to heal this woman’s daughter because they are not Jewish. What gives?
Let’s start with the second reading, the letter from James. James tells a story about something that maybe actually happened in some first century Christian gathering. A visitor comes dressed like a well-to-do person, and the ushers, the liturgy team, shows them to a very nice pew up front. A homeless person in smelly clothes comes, and they are told to sit on the floor in the back, sorry we ran out of chairs. James says, this is crazy! Are you people Christians or not? That’s not what we do here.
It’s worth noting that James is not saying the church should necessarily favor the poor over the rich, either. He’s pretty clear we need to help our neighbors in need, but his message is to Show No Partiality. Treat everyone as if they are the same – because, in fact, they are. To even put people into two categories, rich or poor, is not a Godly way of looking at the world. Rich, poor, black, white, young old, sick, healthy – these are all false dichotomies, as irrelevant to who we are as the clothes we are wearing, underneath which we are all children of God. (Synthesis, Trace Haythorn)
So why does Jesus seem to be doing just that? First, let’s be clear. It’s OK for Jesus to be wrong here. Jesus being wrong doesn’t mean the Bible is not true or Christianity is all hogwash or anything. The Bible says, and the Christian church has always said, that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. If that’s so, then Jesus must have grown in his faith and understanding of God’s mission for him. To say Jesus was always right and always knew exactly what he was doing leads to the kind of thinking that he only pretended to, say, talk baby talk when he was a baby. Of course not, Jesus was truly human as well as truly divine and had to learn to talk from his human family like anyone else. Likewise he had to grow in his understanding of his mission and God’s call to him. (Sarah Dylan Breuer)
What happens here is Jesus is changed by his encounter with this woman. He starts out thinking that he is called to bring the message of change and renewal, of God’s kingdom close at hand, to his own people. And here, in this story, he realizes that God’s plan is even bigger than that, bigger than he imagined. This outsider, this person he isn’t even supposed to be talking to given the social codes of the time, has a stronger faith, a surer trust in God’s love for her, than his closest followers. If Jesus shows his divinity here, it’s by allowing himself to be changed, to open up even wider to God’s unfolding plan. Even Jesus, even Jesus himself is not allowed to limit the spread of God’s love and healing – God gives it to everyone, without exception. And for the rest of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus ministers to more and more to Gentiles and outsiders, until this ticks off the powers that be so much, or scares them so much, that they decide to execute him.
What might they have been afraid of? What does this story, and James’ harsh condemnation of those who show partiality, those who talk about faith but don’t live it out, make us afraid of? When we think about, say, our liturgy team welcoming someone in ragged clothes might be that we’ll lose our safe space. This story in James’ letter reminds me that every week, sometimes several times, someone comes by the church office looking for financial help. We have a town wide interfaith voucher system to help them, so I can give them a voucher and I always also invite them to church on Sunday. I don’t think anyone has come yet. Perhaps I am not a very good inviter, but I wonder if they worry about being judged, if the will be giving a nice pew or a seat on the floor. I know you all well enough to know they don’t need to worry -- if a stranger comes here in a wheelchair, I worry about people knocking each other over in the race to be the one to help them with the elevator. But I also wonder what kind of reputation Christianity, in this country, has developed in the last few decades that churches in general are not seen as necessarily welcoming places.
I heard someone say recently that churches can be welcoming, but sometimes their way of welcoming is to be polite and patient while the new person becomes more like us. That’s missing the point and the opportunity, because God sends us people that we think are different from us, to show us who we really are, how much we really have in common, that our clothes or cars or education don’t really define us, are just part of those false dichotomies. When we put people in those categories, rich, poor, black, white, college degree or not, we’re kind of deciding not to really know them. We can’t judge and understand at the same time, it’s like patting your stomach and rubbing your head.
I was inspired and challenged about how I usually react to those seeking vouchers from the church office by a recent TV show I caught. I mentioned to a few of you, this summer I’ve been watching a new British TV series on Hulu called Rev., about an inner city priest in London and his parish. In one episode the priest, his name is Adam, faces the same problem. And there’s one recurrent character, an addict named Mick who shows up all the time and Adam generally blows him off, knowing he’ll spend any money on drugs. But in this episode, Mick goes to AA and gets sober. Adam feels totally caught short, he’s underestimated this guy, he’s thinking, I should have helped him out, so he spends days working the phones and finds a bed for him at a local shelter. Then he has to explain to his wife that the bed isn’t free for a few days so Mick needs to stay at their house. Everyone thinks he’s crazy for doing this, it’s way too risky, but Adam keeps saying, like James, are we Christians or not? Isn’t this what we are supposed to be doing? There’s a great scene where Adam and his wife are having dinner with Mick and Mick keeps asking, do I eat the potatoes, then the broccoli, then the meat, or the meat first, then the broccoli? And Adam keeps saying, you can eat them in any order, it doesn’t matter, but it dawns on the viewer and Adam that Mick has never had a meal with three different foods in it.
In the end, Mick isn’t changed. Or at least his transformation is in his own hands, it’s not something someone else can impose on him. But Adam is changed. He can never look at one of the people his church serves in the same way again, he encounters everyone with more awareness of God’s mysterious mercy and grace at work in them.
Welcoming someone strange into our lives, whether it’s Jesus with the Syro-Phoenician woman, or Adam with Mick, is scary. Scarier even still to ally ourselves with them, to take their side against those we feel more in common with. Our secret fear can be that we ourselves will somehow lose part of ourselves, lose part of our identity as one of the tribe, as part of the categories which we think make ourselves up. And guess what, that’s exactly right. We will. Our little safe self-construct will be shaken, maybe even damaged. And God will say, yay, you are becoming a little more yourself, a little more who I intended you to be.
God works, is working, through other people to complete us, to change us, to make us our fullest selves. God does this for Jesus in this woman, and God does this for us, too. Without a willingness to change, a willingness Jesus shows us in today’s Gospel, we have the dead faith that James refers to.
Who will walk through our doors here at Redeemer this year, who will we go out to meet, who we be this year, and who will God bring us to change us and make us even more who we are? I can’t wait to find out.
Works consulted also included
“God’s Choice” by Stephen Fowl The Christian Century, September 5, 2006
Working Preacher for September 9, 2012