Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lectionary 23
Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

Put not your trust in princes, Nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.

It is really fascinating that in today’s Gospel lesson we have two people healed without one word of faith. Faith might be implied by the boldness of the woman who went to Jesus based on what she’d heard about Him. The deaf man’s friends may have had faith enough to lead him to Jesus and beg for healing. However, Jesus doesn’t speak about faith in these two stories.

The two stories are odd. In the first, Jesus seems to reject and ridicule a foreign woman. It isn’t something that we would expect from Jesus. It is shocking to us to hear Jesus refer to the woman as if she were a mangy street mutt begging for a morsel that might keep her alive. In the second lesson, Jesus goes through the most disgusting and unbelievable ritual. Why would He put the woman down and why would He spit on that man? It doesn’t make much sense to us. Add to it the absence of faith, and we have to wonder what this is about.

There is no mention of God in these passages, no mention of faith. The woman said the right words and her daughter was set free. The man’s friends begged Jesus, so Jesus did what He had to do. Here we get a hint at Jesus’ tone. Mark writes, “…and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.” Jesus was in that region perhaps hoping that He might find some peace and quiet away from the Jews, but His presence had an impact wherever He went. He was recognized for what He had done. Word of His healing power traveled far and wide. He sighed. Was it a sigh of sympathy for a world wracked with dis-ease or a sigh of frustration that they were seeking Him for only physical relief from their ills?

There are several lessons we can learn from the Gospel passage. From the woman we learn about humble boldness. She knew her place in Jesus’ world, even if Jesus did not really think of her in that way. She knelt before Him and agreed with His assessment that she was a dog. But she was bold enough too seek His grace, even if it was the leftovers. Her words made Jesus act. He said, “For this saying go thy way; the demon is gone out of thy daughter.” At first Jesus indicated that He would not do anything for the woman. Her words changed His mind. The child received the healing the mother sought. We learn from this story that God can change His mind. With humble boldness—a boldness that first knows our place and trusts God's mercy anyway—we can seek God’s grace even when we think there’s no chance to receive an answer. He will hear and He will be present in our circumstances and we will know the transforming power of His grace.

It’s all about God. It isn’t faith that saves the woman and the man, it is grace. Knowing this makes the comment from James a little easier to understand, especially if you are using the New Revised Standard Version of the text. James writes, “Can faith save you?” (James 2:14b, NRSV. In other versions the text reads, “Can that faith save you?” or similar.) Can faith save us? We often heard it said that we are saved by faith, but is that really what we should believe? Paul writes in Ephesians that we are saved by grace through faith. It isn’t the faith that saves us; it is the grace of God.

So, when James asks “Can faith save you?” in relation to the good works he is describing, he isn’t suggesting that good works will save a person. What he is saying is that those who are saved, those who live in the faith that comes from grace, those people will have the same mercy on those whom they see that need to be saved. When we see someone who is hungry or naked, we’ll offer them what they need. It is not enough to wish them well in their hunger and nakedness. James writes, “If a brother or sister be naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; and yet ye give them not the things needful to the body; what doth it profit?”

Faith without works is a dead faith, not a living faith. Just as the God who comes to save us does so in an active and powerful way, so too we are sent into the world to be God’s hands and share His grace with others. Isaiah talks about the work God is going to do in the world. The eyes of the blind will be open, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a dear and the tongue of the speechless will sing for joy. God will take those who can’t do things and make them people who can. Faith is about action. It is about seeing, hearing, leaping and singing! And then it is about going out in the world to help others see, hear, leap and sing. God gives us the faith and in that faith we do.

The psalmist tells us for whom the promise is given; the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind, the fallen, the strangers, the orphans and the widows. The wicked are those who ignore or reject or pass off the needs of our neighbors to others. I saw a funny joke on the television recently, I’m not sure of the source. A man entered into an elegant party and found a beautiful woman in a glittering gown being the perfect hostess. He complimented her on the fact that if there were a natural disaster, the organization could throw a magnificent ball in just 24 hours. The ball, of course, would be given to bring awareness to the problem and perhaps collect a few donations to help. But wouldn’t it be better to go and serve and share our resources directly with those in need?

I tend to avoid political issues in my writing, partly because I’m not knowledgeable enough to have an intelligent debate about the issue. My readers are from extremely diverse backgrounds, including those from other countries who have little or no interest in the issues that affect Americans today. I’m sure that half my audience would disagree with my ideas if I specifically approached those issues from my point of view, whichever way I lean. Perhaps I’m more obvious than I think, but to me the devotions have never been about pushing a specific point of view, but about opening up the scriptures so that we might think about how they relate to our lives.

That said, I have been pondering something for some time that fits into the scriptures this week. I read an article recently about how the Catholic hospitals may close their doors due to laws requiring that all hospitals provide any care to every patient. The issue in question is abortion. Should a hospital run by a church that believes abortion is wrong be forced to give abortions to those who ask? These hospitals receive payment from medicare for some of their patients, so does accepting that federal money take away their claim to do what they believe is right and wrong?

Historically, the Church (universal, not any specific denomination) has always been the institution who provided for the needs of the world. Monasteries fed the poor and provided medical care for the sick. They even provided education for at least some of the children. Martin Luther supported the idea of the Church being responsible for these things. That ideology was brought with the earliest Americans, and that’s why the oldest hospitals and schools in the country are faith-based.

Unfortunately, it has become much harder for the churches to hold on to these institutions. As the American public have been required to give income to the government, there has been less to give to the charities. As the charities have less money to run, they’ve had to rely on government subsidies. A hundred years ago, a sick person would walk into a faith-based hospital, be served and would pay according to their need. The costs are higher, the regulations impossible and the donations are down.

I can speak more capably about how it is affecting the schools. There was a day when many churches had at least day cares for the neighborhoods in which they were located. Our church has a school, but over the past few years they have had to drop classes and they now have only preschool aged children. There are scholarships for students, but not enough for every child that might want to attend. State rules require certain salaries for staff, and the schools are required to do so many things to receive the license necessary to do business in our world today. Since there is publically funded education available for all children and most parents can’t afford even the small amount that churches need to charge to keep the school open. We just learned recently another school in our neighborhood has had to close. The church just can’t afford to keep it open.

So, how do we do what Jesus has called us to do if we do not have the resources to do so? Unfortunately, many churches have decided to let go of the faith-based institutions and have accepted the reality of what is happening in our world. Instead of feeding the poor, they act as advocates so that others will feed the poor. Instead of offering schools for the children, they lobby for better education paid for by the government. Instead of having hospitals, they have given the responsibility to heal to the secular world. This is why, in my opinion, the church has become irrelevant in the world today. We talk, but we don’t do.

Don’t get me wrong: I know the churches that are doing whatever they can. We try, but it is impossible for the Church to do the work in the world that has evolved around us. The government and other institutions in many ways have taken over our role as God’s hands, but they do not glorify God in the process.

We have to be in this world and respect the laws. We’ve tried to find new ways to be God’s hands, but we’ve lost a piece of who we are and what God has called us to do. We have, in some ways, decided that it isn’t our job to provide these things that the people need. In Mark 6, the story of the feeding of five thousand, the disciples tell Jesus to send the crowds away so that they can get food to eat. Jesus answers, “You give them something to eat.” It seemed like an impossible task. They argued with Him, but He sent them to find out how much bread was available. He took the five loaves and two fish and made it enough. Could we have the faith to give what little we have and do what we are called to do without relying on men to provide?

The Psalmist writes, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no hope.” Instead we are called to trust in God, who gives hope to those who look to Him for help. God is not limited, He will not perish. He has created the world and all that is in it. His presence transforms, brings healing and peace. He sets the prisoner free and feeds those who are hungry. “Jehovah preserveth the sojourners; He upholdeth the fatherless and the widow.” We have heard these words recently. In last week’s lesson, James wrote, “Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” God calls us to be His hands and His feet and His mouth in this world—to be His presence among those who need His grace.

In our Gospel lesson, it seems as though Jesus wants to send the Syrophoenician woman off to get her help from somewhere else. But where would she go? Like the psalmist says, men who are mere mortals can’t do the work of God. She went to the only one who might help her and she wouldn’t take “That’s not my job” for an answer. When the people brought Jesus the deaf man, Jesus actively addressed the problem by reaching out to the man, directly touching him in his need and in doing so opened the man’s ears.

Mark tells us that the more Jesus ordered the people to be silent, the more loudly they proclaim God’s glory. They sang praise to God and they told everyone about the good things Jesus could do. They were so amazed and said, “He hath done all things well; he maketh even the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.” This brings us back to the Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah. Jesus was, even from the beginning of His ministry, fulfilling the very things that were promised of the One who would restore Israel. And we see in the story of the Syrophoenician woman that Jesus’ power was not limited to Israel. Jesus would restore all people to God. Our faith makes us part of that salvation story: first as recipients and then as God’s hands sharing His grace with others.

We don’t need to keep silent. Though Jesus repeatedly told the man to keep silent, his joy was so great he could not keep silent. The brief encounter with Jesus gave him the voice to speak and the ears to hear, he could not receive such a great gift without praising God. Hallelujah! Do we feel that same sort of joy? Do we receive God’s grace with such an enthusiasm that we can’t help but share it with others? Do we respond to God’s grace with the same enthusiasm? Do we receive the answers to our own prayers and rush out into the world proclaiming the wonderful things God has done? Can you imagine singing today’s Psalm as you walk down the street? Even moreso, can you imagine yourself living out that praise in very real and tangible ways, trusting that God can and does provide all we need? Is your faith a living faith that responds to God’s grace with active and joyful service?

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