James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-30
September 9, 2012
I. Art Howe was a homeless man in his 80s who usually slept in the shed behind the hardware store. He worshipped irregularly with the church I served in NJ. His one earthly treasure was a trombone he played with the pick-up orchestra we had for Advent and Palm Sunday each year. Somewhat incontinent, he didn’t change clothes or wash up often or well enough. You only needed your nose to know if Art was in worship, and people gave him a wide berth. He was the personification of the poor person in shabby, filthy clothes of James 2:2.
A. The rich and poor people of James 2 were guests in worship. The criticized favoritism was the way those early Christians extended hospitality to the rich in hopes they would become part of the church. The insult to the poor signaled them they need not return.
B. James’ Epistle elaborated on the Sermon on the Mount. Here he picked up on “blessed are the poor” as recorded in Luke 6:20. His warning was very strong. Verse 1 could be translated, “By showing partiality you do not really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, do you?”
C. Just as in the earliest days of the Church, a congregation who invites their neighbors to the love of Jesus can expect to welcome some challenging people. God does not always send the people we would choose.
II. Matthew’s report of the Beatitudes starts with “blessed are the poor in spirit.” (5:3) Not all of the challenging people who check out a church’s worship are shabby and filthy. Some may be affluent and educated but poor in spirit: hungry, hurting, hunting. As a boy, Steve Jobs – the recently deceased founder of Apple – attended a Lutheran church with his parents. At age 13 he asked the pastor, “If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I do it?” The pastor answered, “Yes, God knows everything.” Steve then showed the pastor a picture of starving children in Biafra and asked, “Does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?” The pastor answered, “I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.” Steve said he didn’t want to worship such a God, walked out of the church and never came back. (Kara Powell, Fuller Youth Institute, Hermanutics, Christianity Today, September 4, 2012)
A. Especially among those in their 40s and younger, the percentage who dropped out of church as children or have never participated in church at all is growing. They bring hard questions that leave us uncomfortable. When we ignore the questions or are too quick to hand out settled answers, we easily send the message, “We don’t ask those sorts of questions about God here,” and send the seekers elsewhere. Much more effective is to welcome the questions and explore their implications together.
B. Whether or not they ask theological and ethical questions, when secular folk check out a church, they often bring wounds – wounds that may have been inflicted by life or even by a church or Christians. Broken relationships, betrayals, addictions, disappointments and destructive decisions are not easily or quickly repaired. Material assistance and counseling may help but do not bring instant results. Prayer, confession of faith and baptism may be important steps on the journey but are not the destination. Transformation comes gradually in a trustworthy community patiently living Christ’s love.
C. A congregation will experience frustration whether people come with profound doubt or pain. We’ll get a chance to examine both in October when we’ll look at the book of Job from the Hebrew Scripture. I’ll share with you its pivotal place in my faith journey. By inviting their neighbors to the love of Jesus, a congregation can expect to welcome challenging people.
III. In Mark 6 Jesus is rejected in his hometown of Nazareth. He sends the Twelve on their first mission trip. When he is listening to their reports, a crowd gathers. He tries to get away for some rest with his disciples, but the crowd follows and grows to over 5,000. He feed them, sends the disciples away in a boat while he goes up a mountain to pray alone. A storm threatens the disciples’ boat, so he walks on the water to calm them and the sea. Another crowd gathers, many wanting to be healed. In chapter 7, Jesus has a prolonged confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes about ritual purity. Mark 7:24-30 tells what happened when he tried again to get away for some R&R, thinking that in Gentile territory he might get a break.
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”28But she answered him, “[Yes! Lord!] Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
A. I think this Syrophoenician woman was quite likely a very young single mother. She was a challenging person for Jesus. She interrupted his retreat for rest and private teaching with his disciples. She was annoyingly persistent, even though the account in Matthew 15 suggests Jesus tried to ignore her. She was desperate for her daughter with no apparent support system. In that society her husband, father or brother would have been expected to help, but she was alone. And, of course, she was a Gentile. She probably did not speak Jesus’ native Aramaic. Did he try to talk with her in Greek, which he would rarely if ever have used? Her presence challenged what Jesus had just been teaching about ritual purity.
B. In his comments on this week’s lectionary readings in the Christian Century (September 5, 2006), Steven Fowl writes that someone had a wicked sense of humor putting these two passages on the same Sunday. “Jesus seems to engage in just the sort of activity that James warns against, refusing to heal a very sick child because she and her mother are not Jewish.” Suddenly Jesus is the uncomfortable guest in our worship from whom we distance ourselves. Some commentators go through all kinds of exegetical contortions to soften Jesus. Other caution against trying to wiggle out of our embarrassment.
C. If you can live without trying to explain away how rude and insulting Jesus seemed to be, I think we can hear God’s voice in this awkward space between James and Jesus. Right after his devastating dismissal of ritual purity in favor of purity of heart, Jesus intentionally went to Gentile territory where he was certain to meet Gentiles who would want his help. His disciples were not offended by his rudeness. In fact, Matthew 15 says they asked him to send the woman away. Jesus’ response to her was typical of Jews at that time.
D. But the tables turn in the exchange Jesus and the woman had about dogs, which could be especially interesting if they were speaking Greek. For Jews all dogs were unclean and were never house pets, but Jesus used the word for small family dogs that Gentiles did keep as pets. It would still be insulting for him to compare her to a dog, but she picked up on it and responded that these small family dogs did clean up the crumbs that dropped from the children’s table. Her desperate love for her daughter prompted her to accept this insult and turn it to her advantage. We miss some of the impact in the NRSV that uses “Sir.” She emphatically responded to Jesus, “Yes! Lord!” Matthew 15:28 reports Jesus commended her for her “great faith.”
E. When a church welcomes challenging people who bring their puzzles and their pain, it is not just to meet their needs. God uses these people and their challenges to stretch those of us who consider ourselves to be Jesus’ serious disciples. By inviting your neighbors to the love of Jesus, this congregation can expect to welcome some challenging people who will surprise with what they contribute to the church.
IV. Do you remember Midori Ito, the figure skater from the 80s and 90s? Because of the multi-cultural implication and the sound of her name, I suggest we might think of some of these challenging people as Midwest City Midori. Of course, plenty of long-term Oklahomans are your neighbors too. I thought I might call them Choctaw Chuck. As your church invites your neighbors to the love of Jesus, you will be challenged by many Midwest City Midoris and Choctaw Chucks. By 2022 they could outnumber you who have been part of this congregation for years. Some of them will be like Art Howe, Steve Jobs and the Syrophoenician woman.
A. Most churches think they are friendly and welcoming. Effectively including challenging people calls for an intentional and intense ministry of hospitality. You will need to learn how to protect people who are already feeling that they don’t quite fit from embarrassment that will drive them away. More important than getting them into programs is helping them make new friends. People usually need at least five friends to stay in a church for more than a couple of months. You will have to teach people the basics about Jesus and faith and church without making them feel ignorant. You will need to be patient as they take years to work through their puzzles and pains.
B. Twenty years ago Candy and I lived in the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario. We had a 4 month sabbatical in this Roman Catholic community of about 50 mentally handicapped adults called core members and about 100 assistant members. God used some very challenging people to help us grow. They have a prayer that captures this experience well. It is in the insert in your bulletin, and I’d like us to pray it together.
O Father, we ask You to bless us, and keep us in Your love.
May [ours] be a true home, where the poor in Spirit may find life;
A place where those who are suffering, may find comfort and peace.
Lord, give us hearts that are open, hearts that are humble and gentle,
so that we may welcome those You send, with tenderness and compassion.
Give us hearts full of mercy, that we may love and serve;
And where discord is found, may we be able to heal and bring peace;
And see in the one who is suffering, the living presence of Your Son.
Lord, through the hands of Your little ones, we ask You to bless us.
Through the eyes of those who are rejected, we ask You to smile on us.
Lord, grant freedom and fellowship, and unity to all the world;
And on the day of Your coming, welcome all people into Your Kingdom.