Sunday, September 06, 2015

Sermon; 15 Pentecost/Proper 18B; James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

Every once in awhile the Epistle and Gospel readings do a good job of matching up.  I say this because, normally during Ordinary Time, the Epistle readings are basically a continuous reading through the letters.  You may remember that we began the season with readings from 2 Corinthians.  This was followed up with several weeks of readings from Ephesians, and last week we moved into a five-week cycle from James.  The season will close with readings from Hebrews.

In short, the Lectionary is designed to give us a breadth of New Testament writings without necessarily tying them to the gospel of the day.  But every once in awhile, if you roll the dice often enough, the Epistle and Gospel readings will have a commonality to them.  Today is one of those days.

Our readings from James today has to do with behavior, favoritism and piety.  James was addressing a problem not only prevalent in his day, but one prevalent in ours as well, and that is giving special attention to the rich.

The churches James was addressing apparently had a habit and system of doing this.  They would offer the best seats and personalized attention to the rich among them, while belittling and ignoring the poor among them.  James is pointing out that this discrimination has no place in God's kingdom, nor does it have any place in the kingdom represented by the Church.  Commenting on this passage, John Chrysostom says, “To show contempt for the poor is as much an infraction of the law as murder or adultery, and it is even more serious because it is so common.”

And while we don't behave that way here at St. Luke's, we are part of a society that does.  Our challenge as Christians is to manifest the kingdom of God, which means addressing and confronting those societal systems that continually reward the rich while punishing the poor.

This is exactly where James is going in his letter.  “What good is it,” he asks, “if you give a blessing to a poor person but do nothing to help or provide for their physical needs?”  Besides not helping at all, it allows us to not get involved.  By offering only a passing prayer or blessing, we can keep our distance.  Going back to last week, we can keep from being defiled and contaminated if we refuse to be involved in any way.

Our two gospel stories from Mark share James' theme of active involvement and equality.

The first occurs in the Gentile territory of Tyre.  One possibility for this location is Jesus' desire to bring the gospel message to Jews outside the territory of Israel proper.  While there, he is met by a Gentile woman whose daughter is said to have a demon.  She comes to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter.

The response we get shakes us.  We are generally not prepared for our image of a loving, welcoming Jesus to deny a request or hurl insults at the other person.  But that's what we get here.

I’ve preached on the whole dog thing before, so I won't say much about it.  But what I will say is that I think this is one of the places where Jesus' humanity shows and where he learns.  What he learns is that the grace of God is not limited to only a chosen few, but to those he, and we, might consider to be the dogs of society.

I also find it interesting that this event comes directly on the heels of last week's discussion about defilement.  After he jumps on the Pharisees for worrying about defilement by association and how they should pay attention to justice, mercy and kindness, Jesus himself is confronted with that very thing.  A Gentile woman is seen as a nuisance, a dog, but in his conversation with her he ends up treating her as a child of God.  He comes to realize that treating her as a dog puts him in the same category as the Pharisees he was just attacking.

The second story is the healing of the deaf man.  Due to Mark not identifying him as a Gentile, he was most likely Jewish.  He is brought to Jesus by his friends who beg for his healing.

We are so accustomed to Jesus healing people that we sometimes (oftentimes?) miss the importance of what he was doing.  It's important to remember that the people he healed were, on some level, societal outcasts.  Many often had a physical disability, making them unable to work and forcing them to live on the street, begging for food or money.  One woman had a continual flow of blood, making her perpetually unclean.  Some were possessed, living with what we might call mental illnesses.  A few were dead.

In most of these healings, Jesus touched the person.  Jesus could have simply uttered words of healing, which he sometimes did.  But in the context of these readings, and this sermon, it is important to note that Jesus touches the deaf man to heal him.

If Jesus hadn't touched him, then we would have an example of simply passing on prayers and blessings.  But because Jesus touched him, because Jesus was willing to engage the Gentile woman, James has a basis for telling the churches that works must be a product of faith.

School starts this week.  We have a relationship with FVES.  It's one thing to pray for them every Sunday, which we do; but how are we doing at getting involved and touching them?  I believe we can do better.

Last week I delivered a bunch of school supplies that Joani purchased from money donated by both parishioners and non-parishioners, and which several others helped organize and pack up.  While that was a good thing, there are other opportunities for us to provide for their needs and touch them.  There is a high percentage of children at FVES who do not receive adequate amounts of nutrition.  One of our forms of assistance is to provide snack packs for those who need them.  And yet, the basket at the back of the church dedicated for those snack packs has sat empty for months  Why is that?

There are also children at FVES whose parents, because of their income level, cannot afford to purchase either new or replacement clothing as needed.  Theresa, the FVES Family Advocate, maintains a room full of clothing that she gives to children as needed due to clothes being torn, soiled or simply lacking.  We have two barrels in the parish hall to collect new and used clothing.  And yet, those barrels remain empty.  Why is that?

James stated bluntly that faith without works is dead.  Jesus showed us that there is more to the kingdom of God than offering prayers and blessings from a distance, but that we need to engage and touch others as we help heal them.

We have an opportunity to help provide food and clothing to those on the margins.  We have an opportunity to treat others with dignity and respect.  We have an opportunity to touch people and help heal them.  May we hear the words of today's Epistle and Gospel and do more than simply pray for those in need.  Amen.


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