15 Pentecost—Proper 18-B
September 6, 2015
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
The Letter to James this morning reminds me of a scene from the 1978 classic movie, “Animal House”, in which a prestigious fraternity is holding a meet and greet: all the cool, handsome, rich white kids are ushered into a large room where the party is, and the blind kid in a wheelchair, a guy with a turban, a black kid, and two guys one pretty girls calls “a wimp and a blimp” are ushered into a back corner and told to talk to each other.
Apparently the same thing is happening in the church James is writing to because the rich folk are getting the royal treatment—“Oh won’t you please sit in this padded seat up front! It’s just wonderful having your beautiful family worship with us today! You’ll find we are a great church for people like you. You seem like one of us, so welcome!”
All the while the family dressed in clothes bought at the Goodwill Store are shown seats on the floor in the back where nobody has to be bothered by their look or smell. These folks aren’t one of us—surely they would be happier down the street at the Salvation Army.
The Animal House version of this is so funny because it is so true! But what might be forgiven of a fraternity which by its very nature is meant for people who are somewhat alike, according to James it is unforgiveable for any place that claims to worship and obey the Lord Jesus Christ.
But of course it happened then and it keeps happening in churches all across America—even to people like me: I clearly remember one Sunday when the new young doctor in town and his family visited our church in North Carolina. After the service I nearly herniated showing the cute family around, telling them about the many other doctors who were members and how we had great programs for the kids and generally how we were just the church for them. It was all laughs and smiles and inside I’m screaming choose us, choose us!
Oddly, I did not give this same treatment to homeless people who showed up from time to time. And after all, there were a few members who would pull me aside and say they don’t think that people who smell like that have any business in their church.
James says, “if you show partiality, you commit sin”—that is you miss the mark of God’s will and your own fulfillment as human beings.
This kind of behavior does not reflect the mind of Christ whom we claim to follow as our Master and Maker.
Yet, it should give us some comfort to reflect on the gospel reading for today, because in it we find that even Jesus himself had to struggle with the question: just how big is God’s vision for humanity? Does God really intend for us to include everyone in the tent of Divine Love.
I know many scholars want to keep Jesus on the pedestal in this encounter with the Gentile woman whose daughter is suffering from an unclean spirit. They say, Jesus had a big smile on his face and was just trying to teach the disciples a lesson on the mercy of God and on what real faith looks like. He doesn’t mean it when he calls this woman a dog!
Martin Luther, however, will have none of it and instead says in one of his sermons that Jesus is caught by this woman.
So what’s going on? I think Jesus is tired for one. Mark tells us he leaves Israel so he can have some rest and relief from the neediness of people. Yet, his fame has reached the city of Tyre and this desperate woman throws herself at his feet and asks him to come off vacation and heal her daughter. But Jesus tells her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” And please note that dogs in that day are not bright shiny members of the family, but dirty scavengers.
What is going on here?
I think Jesus is revealing the default setting he was raised with.
Gentiles are dirty and no better than dogs.
If he didn’t hear this from his mother Mary he surely heard it from everybody else in Nazareth. It was simply an accepted fact.
Jesus though is a supremely awake human being and when he hears the woman’s profound trust in God he does not double down on his resistance to her, but is humble enough to realize that one of the culture’s default stories has come out of the cellar of his psyche and into the light. Once he sees that, he drops it and moves into the truth he knows from his heavenly Father. The true story is that all people are chosen by God from the foundation of the world as recipients of the divine mercy.
Makes me wonder what stories we grew up with? What stories were we told that live in the cellar of our psyches and continue to blind us to the true story of the furious mercy and compassion of God for all God’s people?
Today in this political season lots of stories are being told about illegal immigrants and Muslims and the poor and gays who want to marry and people of color, on and on. And of course from the other side we are hearing stories about people of faith and White Anglo-Saxon Protestants like us.
Until we become conscious of our stories and then do the hard work of bringing them into the light of Christ, they will control our lives from womb to tomb, world without end, amen. And we will remain small people instead of growing into the universal people God creates us to be.
It comes down to whose story we believe is true. You remember in the parable of the prodigal son at the end there are three stories being told: The younger son tells himself the story that he is no longer worthy to be called his Father’s son. The older son tells himself the story that he works hard all the time yet his Father never once offered to grill even a goat for him and his friends and that this younger son is no longer worthy to be called HIS brother.
But then there is the Father’s story: that his younger son was lost and is found, was dead and is alive and that the older son is always with him and everything the father has belongs to him. See more on this parable in Rob Bell’s excellent little book on heaven and hell, Love Wins
It’s a matter of faith as to which story we are going to believe: the stories we tell about ourselves and others, which are invariably small, limiting, and hurtful, or shall we believe the story the Father tells and Jesus acts out, which is a large, inviting, healing story in which everybody belongs.
Without faith in the Father’s story made visible in Jesus we only have our small stories and we will continue to divide up the world into us and them, thus justifying violence as the inevitable outcome.
The young mother with the sick daughter has a profound belief in the story she’s heard about Jesus being an icon of the God who loves even Gentile dogs. She sticks with her belief in this story even when Jesus rebukes her.
That is a faith that is willing to believe even when there is no evidence to keep believing.
Martin Luther says of this woman: “But oh how painful it is to nature and reason, that this woman should strip herself of self and forsake all that she experienced and cling alone to God’s bare Word, until she experiences the contrary.”
Luther then prays what can stand for our prayer today: “May God help us in time of need and of death to possess like courage and faith!” From William Placer’s in commentary on Mark