Sunday, September 9, 2018

Be Opened!

Scriptures:            Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23               Psalm 146
                              James 2:1-17                                  Mark 7:24-37

All the poor guy wanted was some “alone time”.  Within the past few days, Jesus had just experienced a major rejection at his hometown synagogue, commissioned his disciples for their first mission and welcomed them back on their return, learned of the death of John the Baptist, fed a crowd of 5,000 people, walked on water, healed the crowds at Genessaret, and dealt with a run-in with some of the local religious leaders.  Can you blame Jesus for wanting to take a chill pill.

Anywhere he went in his home territory, the crowds would recognize him, and so it was time for a road trip.  Jesus, his disciples in tow, headed north into Tyre, located in modern day Lebanon, a distance of over 30 miles, nearly two days’ walk on foot.  Mark tells us “he entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice”…..Jesus wanted to be alone, but ….curses, foiled again.  A Syrophoenician woman – that is to say, a Gentile, a non-Jew - came into the house and threw herself at Jesus’ feet, threw herself on Jesus’ feet, begging for Jesus to heal her daughter, who was possessed by a demon. We’re not told how the woman had heard about Jesus – though we do know that Jesus had healed a man in Gentile territory once before, a demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs.  Though it was a distance away, perhaps word of this healing had reached the Syrophoenician woman. And also, earlier in Mark’s gospel, we’re told that among the crowds witnessing Jesus’ healings by the Sea of Galilee were people from the region of Tyre, and perhaps their stories had spread.  In any case, this woman – this foreign woman was not only on Jesus’ doorstep, but throwing herself at – and on top of - Jesus’ feet.

Maybe it was because Jesus was tired and annoyed at the interruption, but Jesus’ initial response to the woman doesn’t sound very…..Jesusy.  “Let the children be fed first,” Jesus said, “for it’s not fair to take the children’s food and toss it to the dogs.”  Did Jesus just call the woman a dog?  Why, yes, Jesus did.  Actually, the word “dog” was not uncommon language for Jews to use in referring to Gentiles, non-Jews….but it’s jarring to us just the same.  And Jesus’ reasoning doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense….it’s as if there’s only so much healing power available, and if Jesus heals a Gentile – a dog – it means there will be less healing power available to  Jews – that is to say, to the children.  It’s an odd argument to make, especially since Jesus had not many days before fed five thousand people with a few loaves and fish.  With God, there’s enough bread to go around, but not enough healing power? Really?

As shocking as Jesus’ words are to us, the original hearers of this story would have been more shocked by the behavior of the woman….this woman who, in this culture, was three times an other – a woman, a non-Jew, and from a different country…separated from Jesus by boundaries of gender, religion, and nationality.  Other, other, and other.  Remember that, in that patriarchal culture, for a woman to approach a man she didn’t know, and then to touch him, to throw herself at his feet, just wasn’t done.  And for a Gentile to approach a Jew, speak to a Jew, let alone touch him, again just wasn’t done.  As much as Jesus words may put us off, for Mark’s original audience, the woman’s behavior would likely have freaked them out….in that culture, this foreign woman was just coming on to Jesus way too strong. 

So the woman violated a number of social boundaries by approaching Jesus as she did, and Jesus responded in a way that makes us uncomfortable, but in a way that was very characteristic of his culture.  The conversation could have ended there, but it didn’t, because the person who approached Jesus was not only a foreigner, not only a Gentile, not only a woman – but was also a mother.  And the mothers here today don’t need me to tell you that if your child is sick, you’re going to do anything – walk through fire even, if it comes to that – to get help for your child.   So the woman, who we already know is no shrinking violet,  comes back at Jesus hard – “Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table” – and it’s notable that, up to this point in Mark’s gospel, the only person who has addressed Jesus as Lord is this woman. Ok, Jesus, ya wanna call me a dog – fine, at least give me the consideration that a dog would get in being allowed to eat the crumbs.  At least throw some little scrap of healing at my sick daughter. And Jesus basically says, “For saying that, you win; your daughter is healed.”

We’re told that Jesus then took a roundabout route through Gentile regions – going by way of Sidon, which was another 15 miles further away from his home territory and then heading toward the Decapolis, ten predominantly Gentile towns along the sea of Galilee.  The people brought Jesus a deaf man with a speech impediment, and Jesus healed him, touching his ears and tongue and saying in Aramaic “Ephphatha” meaning “Be opened.”  And the crowd is amazed, saying, “He has done everything well, he even makes the deaf hear and the mute talk.”

“Be opened!”  These were the words of Jesus to the deaf man, but in a sense, these were also the words of the Syrophoenician woman to Jesus – “Be opened!  Don’t limit your healing powers only to those of your own people.  Open them up to others as well.”  As Christians, we affirm that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, and as one who was fully human, he had to deal with the cultural baggage of the people among whom he lived….and it was out of that cultural baggage that Jesus initially responded to the woman in calling her a dog.  I believe that the woman’s strong comeback startled Jesus into looking past the blinders of his culture, into being opened to a larger vision of who it was he was being called to heal.  What had initially been for Jesus a very unwelcome interruption became a moment for God’s grace to come into play, for the woman and for Jesus.

How about us?  Like Jesus before his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, we all have our comfort zones and our cultural baggage.  We all have those groups of people with whom we are comfortable, other groups of people to whom we might not give the time of day, and still other groups of people that we might cross the street to avoid.  But, like Jesus, we in the church are called to mission.  In fact, we’re called to Jesus’ mission, to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  Might we, in our mission, sometimes be like the man whom Jesus’ healed, deaf to the cries of those outside our comfort zones, unable to speak the Gospel in a way understandable beyond our own in-group?  Might Jesus be saying to us, “Be opened!”

Our reading from the letter of James gives us a very specific example of what it looks like when we’re not opened.  James give us a vivid image, a sort of pictorial instruction manual of how not to do church:  Two people walk into a church.  One is dressed to the nines, with fine clothes and gold ring.  The other is wearing ragged, wearing dirty clothing, may have a few flies buzzing around their head, and probably smells a little bit ripe if you get close enough, perhaps with the faintest hint of the scent of cheap whisky on their breath.  And the ushers are falling all over themselves helping out the well-dressed guy while those same ushers are trying to hide the shabbily dressed man in the corner. Now, I have to say, I haven’t seen Warren Buffett or Bill Gates come to Emanuel Church any time recently – though our conference minister will be visiting next week, and I hope you’ll give him a very warm welcome indeed.  But many of our members and regular visitors are struggling, some struggling just to get the basics of food and water for the day.  And our church has come a long way – a long way – in welcoming all sorts and conditions of people, and not only on Sunday morning.  Not that we’ve reached the promised land of perfect welcome, but we’re on the journey.

At the same time, to measure our progress, here’s an interesting exercise to try – to walk into our church, or into any church, and ask “Who’s missing?”  Not just “who of our regular members isn’t here?”….there will always be some of our regulars away on any given Sunday, but we know they’ll likely be back next Sunday or the Sunday after.  But, who’s missing?  What groups of people aren’t here?    Who isn’t our church reaching?  Whose cries for help aren’t we hearing?  Who isn’t able to hear the good news of Jesus in our church, in a way they can understand?  Whose absence is creating a gap between where we are now and the beloved community of full welcome and inclusion to which Jesus is calling us?

It’s not easy for our ears to be opened, to hear and understand the still small voice of the Spirit in our lives.  If we’re  not attuned, it can be a bit like learning a foreign language.  As a Spanish teacher once told our class during one of my many failed attempts to learn Spanish, we have to tune our ears to hear and understand.  And truth to tell, if I overhear a conversation in Spanish or turn to a Spanish radio station such as La Mega, I can usually pick out a few words here and there – but I can’t understand enough of them quickly enough to keep up with the conversation or the broadcast.  Mostly all I hear is a raging torrent of very fast syllables.  My ears aren’t sufficiently tuned – though I can say that years ago when I visited Cuba several times, by the end of those trips, my ears were beginning to be tuned, and I began to understand the conversations going on around me in Spanish – not fully, but I was picking up a lot more.  And then, of course, I went home, and left my minimal learnings behind on the island.  And it is like that in hearing the voice of the Spirit – we need to focus, really focus, in a disciplined way over time – which is where regular daily prayer comes in.  One of the goals of regular times of prayer is to tune our Spirits so that undergirding our whole lives is a constant current of prayer, so that beneath our words and actions is a constant, perhaps even unconscious, flow of prayer, a constant, perhaps unconscious, connection to the Spirit.  I can’t hope to understand a broadcast in Spanish, or follow the voice of the Spirit, if I am distracted with other things, if I’m constantly checking my cell phone or updates on Facebook or Instagram.  I need to put all those things aside so that I can focus on what is essential.

Jesus not only opened the deaf man’s ears, but also loosened his tongue so that he could speak plainly.  And I think sometimes we suffer from a kind of garbled speech, in a spiritual sense.  We may try to communicate our faith, but do so in ways that are so heavily packaged in our own cultural assumptions, that bear such a heavy cultural accent, that those outside our circle can’t understand what we’re saying – just as when I try to speak Spanish, my American accent is so heavy that I have to repeat myself slowly in order to be understood by those who speak Spanish as a first language.  Once again, our prayer is that we will be opened – open ears to hear the Spirit, open mouths to speak Gods word of grace, open hands to serve.
A pushy, even overbearing foreign woman pushed Jesus to a new understanding of his mission, a new understanding that included this woman, and people like her.  James pushed his readers to understand that faith is an action word, that praying can be done with folded hands or with open arms or with marching feet.  May God likewise continue to lead our congregation out of our comfort zones, so that in unplanned encounters with unexpected people, we too may be surprised by grace.  Amen.

Walking Our Talk

Scriptures:     Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9                    Psalm 15
James 1:17-27                        Mark 7:1-8, 14-23

I’ll start off with an old Sunday School song:
                If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands
                If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands
                If you’re happy and you know it, then your life will surely show it
                If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands
“If you’re happy and you know it, then your life will surely show it.”  This song, and this line, may give us an opening into the letter of James, which we’ll be reading this month.  James was one of the brothers of Jesus, and he eventually became leader of the early church in Jerusalem.  While the letter of James covers a number of topics, the main theme is that faith leads to action – that if we’re followers of Jesus, then our lives will surely show it.

This letter that we’ll be reading over the course of the next month is the only writing we have from James – but we have many letters of Paul in the New Testament.  And I think there’s a tendency to give the letter of James a little bit of side-eye, a little bit of suspicion, because it seems to conflict with Paul’s teaching that salvation comes through faith, and not through works.  And this apparent conflict may reflect some differences that Paul and James themselves experienced.   James was the Lord’s brother, and like Jesus himself and most of the early disciples was a Jew.  The church he led in Jerusalem was composed mostly of Jewish converts to the way of Jesus, and many of them still held to the Jewish ceremonial law – rules around eating and sacrifices and such.  Paul was called to faith in Jesus in a vision.  While he was also a Jew, he found his calling in bringing the Gospel to Gentile believers, and did not impose the Jewish ceremonial law on these Gentile converts.  This was a cause for controversy, and at one point Paul and Barnabas, along with Titus, a gentile convert, met with James and some of the other apostles, Peter and John among them, in Jerusalem.  Among Biblical scholars, this is referred to as the Jerusalem council, and was a turning point in the life of the early church.  At this council, it was agreed that the Gentile converts did not have to follow the Jewish ceremonial law in its entirety, though they did impose a few requirements.  This council is described in Acts chapter 15, as well as the 2nd chapter of Galatians.  It’s interesting to read both of these accounts, because they are very different – Acts chapter 15 sounds like minutes from a church meeting, with peace and harmony prevailing, while Paul’s account in Galatians is edgier, with Paul sounding defensive and even a little adversarial.   And so Paul and James represented different constituencies – Paul was apostle to the Gentiles, while James’ place was among the Jewish believers.  While they held the same faith, they communicated their faith in different ways to their respective congregations to whom they ministered.

While there are differences between Paul’s and James’ writings, I don’t want to over-emphasize them.  James certainly lived by his faith – he only insisted that a true and saving faith would inevitably result in action.  And Paul of all people had no problems putting his faith into action, and instructing others to do so – after all, he traveled most of the known world of the time in preaching the Gospel, encountering hardship and persecution at every step of the way.  In fact, as Paul traveled, he took up a collection to support the church in Jerusalem that James led!  So while they had their differences and their followers sometimes clashed, Paul and James fully respected and supported one another.  And both Paul and James were martyred for the faith in Christ that they shared. 

I think part of the reason that the letter of James is undervalued, at least in the Protestant denominations, is because Martin Luther felt that the letter of James undermined his interpretation of Paul’s writings on justification by faith through grace.   The Roman Catholic church of Luther’s time taught that by purchasing indulgences, believers could reduce their time in purgatory – indulgences were sort of a get of out of jail card, though they surely weren’t free.  In preaching against this teaching, Luther taught that justification, rightness with God, came through faith in Jesus Christ, as a free gift.  The letter of James sounded to Luther a bit like trying to earn salvation, and so he looked down on the letter, famously calling it “a right strawy epistle.”  Now, the faith that both Paul and Luther wrote about was a total reliance, total trust, in Jesus, totally throwing oneself on the mercy of Jesus.  And James would agree, only insisting that if we truly trust Jesus, our actions will reflect that trust.  But over the centuries, Protestants in particular have watered down Luther’s teaching to the point of saying that merely holding correct ideas about Jesus in one’s head, merely being able to memorize and recite a creed, was enough to be saved, no matter how one lived – and lots of churches teach this today. 

It’s likely that even some of Paul’s converts were circulating similar notions, centuries before Luther’s reformation.  In fact, some of these notions – that so long as we “believe in Jesus”, it doesn’t matter how we live - show up in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians – and Paul wrote to oppose them.  It’s exactly this notion – faith as head knowledge and nothing more, faith as being able to memorize a creed and nothing more – that James was writing against.  James writes about God’s grace, saying “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”   These beautiful words are all about God’s grace.  But then James goes on:  “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.  But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”   Be doers, not just hearers.  Anyone can come to church and hear the word.  But it takes a true believer to act on that word, to take the word outside the church and live it out in our lives. 

Lest we think James is leading us astray, Jesus says much the same in our Gospel reading today.  Jesus’ disciples were eating food with unwashed hands, and the Pharisees were scolding them because that went against their tradition.  Of course, washing our hands before we eat is healthy, and we were al taught as children to wash our hands before we eat…but the Pharisees attached a religious meaning to the washing of hands and utensils beyond whatever health benefits it brought.  While it sounds a bit arcane and archaic to us today, in our context we might think of foodies who chastise others for eating food that’s not organically grown, or that’s not vegan or such….while eating healthy is in itself commendable and good for us, we get into trouble spiritually when we look down on others who eat differently.  And Jesus came right back at them, questioning some of their own traditions that contradicted the plain word of the commandment to honor one’s father and mother.  But then Jesus went on to tell them a parable that was a sort of riddle:  It’s not what goes into a person that defiles him, but what comes out of a person.  The disciples didn’t understand him, and so Jesus told them – what goes into you – what you eat – can’t defile you – it just goes in one end and out the other.  But it is what comes out of a person – not referring to what goes into the toilet, but the evil actions that come out of an evil person’s heart and mind that defile a person, that drag a person down and make them less than what God intended, and Jesus gives us quite a list – fornication, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  And so Jesus was very concerned, not only with belief, but with actions – because our actions reveal our true beliefs. 

“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”  In connection with this passage, I read a story this week about heaven.  A person died and went to the pearly gates, and St Peter let the person in, and one of the angels gave the person a tour.  As the person was checking out the sights, the angel led him to an enormous chest of drawers.  The angel pulled out one of the drawers, and inside the drawer were a multitude of ears.  Understandably, the man was puzzled and a little taken back.  The angel explained, these are the ears of people who went to church every week and listened to the sermon, but never acted on anything they heard – and so when they died, only their ears went to heaven. 

Bottom line, for James and for Jesus:  we can’t separate our faith from our actions, because our actions reveal what we truly believe in and who or what we truly trust.  I’ve said before and will say now – if you want to know what you truly believe in, look at your checkbook, your credit card statement, and your calendar – because how we spend our money and our time reveals our true priorities.   A person who has built up an enormous investment portfolio but does nothing to help those less fortunate has faith in gold, not in God, no matter how often they attend church.  A person who steals from other people, who lies and gossips about other people, who attacks other people verbally or physically, who uses other people and then throws them away, who feels a need to put themselves first in every situation, trusts only in their own ability to get over on other persons – and thus has no real trust in God, because a person who trusts in God doesn’t feel the need to get over on other people. 

There are two theological words that might help us to put Paul and James in perspective:  justification and sanctification.  Justification is being made right with God, which comes through the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross.  But sanctification is being set apart for God, being made holy, being made more Christ-like, which also comes through the saving work of God – and is the work of a lifetime.  And what I’m about to say is an oversimplification, but it may help us remember:  Put simply, justification says that through the work of Jesus Christ, God loves us, just as we are.  But sanctification says that, through the saving work of Jesus Christ, God loves us too much to let us stay that way.  Let me repeat that again:  God loves us, just the way we are.  But God loves us too much to let us stay that way.  God loves us, just the way we are.  God loves us too much to let us stay that way.  For me, that’s the bottom line of the letter of James.

“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” James wrote.  At the beginning of this sermon, I saing, “If you’re happy and you know it, then your life will surely show it.”  And the message of James is like that – ‘If we’re faithful and we know it, then our lives will surely show it.”  May our lives reflect our faith in Christ.  In the words of the old campfire song, may they know we are Christians by our love.  Amen.