CHANGE – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost
by The Reverend Jeffrey C. Johnson
James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17
1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? 8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
24 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, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. 31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
Today’s readings can be summed in that most dreaded of all church words: change. It’s about change. Change in life, change in location, change in behavior. Change, like death and taxes is something we can depend on. However, it’s how we embrace it.
In the Isaiah reading we have the prophet Isaiah is envisioning the enslaved Hebrews returning from Babylon to a new Jerusalem. What you the reader don’t know is that the Jerusalem to which they return is now a land of rubble. So, Isaiah prompts them to change their hearts and imagine a place where God restores their faith, their homes, and their lives.
Our gospel today is about change and is my favorite Jesus story in many ways. I have two favorite narratives in the NT: the narrative about the Ethiopian Eunuch (that we heard right after Easter) and this one about Jesus and the Syrophoenican woman.
Now, background, background, background: A Syrophoenican of old would be from the modern day country of Syria now. And we know the sad, tragic land of Syria became recently with genocide, relocation, and refugees to other parts of the world.
Sadly, the Syrophoenicians of Jesus’ time didn’t seem to have such a good time of it either. For the Ancient Jews, the Syrophoenicians were mixed blood. There were not Jewish and Canaanite (their old enemies) which meant they were definitely foreigners. In Harry Potter language, they were mud bloods. They were human beings, but less than.
And have I said continually from this pulpit, the worse thing a Jew could do is come into contact with any sort of Gentile. It made them ritually unclean and unable to worship and to participate into everyday society. This is not the same as a woman of my mother’s generation wearing white shoes after Labor Day. This is not some minor infraction of a dress code; this is almost like ritual shaming.
So, in our shocking narrative, a Syphonecian woman with a demon possessed daughter confronts Jesus. She does not stand, but she kneels before him. And what does she beg and I mean BEG of the man who has the far spread reputation of being a great healer…”Please heal my daughter.” And if you can’t imagine Jesus’ response, it’s something like “the children need to be fed first before we can feed YOU the dogs.” Meaning, our children will be taken care of before you dog of a Canaanite will. To put it plainer and much cruder, Jesus calls the Gentile woman of Syphoniciean origin, a word most commonly used in a dog kennel.
This is not the Jesus we usually portray to Sunday School children or we talk about lying in a manger on Christmas Eve. Yes, Jesus in a single stroke demonstrates the very ugly human ability to be both misogynistic and frankly a little ethnically racist.
What does the woman do? Does she remain in her servile victimhood? No this daughter of Wisdom retorts, flips back at Jesus…”Master even the dogs deserve the crumbs under the table.” I hope that just made the hairs rise on your head. It does me. No only does she defy the boundaries of her gender and race in Ancient Israel but she pushes back to the Son of God.
Jesus, my friends, is changed. He sends this woman on her way with the knowledge that her daughter is healed…the very thing she wants. He sees her for her humanity, her womanhood, and her motherhood. And as I look around this room right now at the mothers and grandmothers assembled, there is not one of you who would not do the same thing for your own child suffering from physical or mental disease. You would all turn into Tigresses.
So, I bring us here in the telling of this story not to show Jesus up as some sort of chump. I tell you this story to illustrate the great capacity of Jesus to learn compassion from the least likely, for Jesus to self-reflect, for Jesus to recognize his own limitations, and for Jesus to change. And I put this to all of us, if Jesus can change, so can I.
When in seminary and I first went out on the streets of San Francisco to minister to the people of the streets from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., my first month or so was spent in sort of the judgment that Jesus has here at the beginning of this narrative. The constant comment that ran in my head when I would encounter the homeless, the marginalized, the Syrophoenician women of the streets was this comment: “Why can’t you get a job? Why can’t you be a little more presentable so I can talk to you? When you’re cleaner, maybe we can have a conversation.”
Well, after about 4 weeks of that personal judgment, I learned that it was a tad more complex than “Why can’t you get a job?” What I learned was that Jesus was right there on the streets with me staring at me with the outstretched hand like our Syrophoncian woman. That the dirty, stinky, frustrating, hungry creature staring at me was Jesus. And these encounters required me to CHANGE. I’m not a much better Christian, trust me if there’s such a thing, but like Jesus in our gospel, it gives me pause to think before I judge.
Yesterday I was at a church on Main Street and Heyward Street called Dunkin Donuts. Perhaps you’ve heard of that local denomination. I was there for a meeting. DD is kind of like the Cape Cod Café, a crossroads. And there at one of the table at DD was a man named Glen. And trust me, I encountered Jesus. I will tell you our conversation later if you wish to hear, but suffice it to say that Glen was a person who changed my heart yesterday. Glen certainly looked like one of the people mentioned in the James epistle from today. Glen did not have on beautiful gold rings. Glen was one of those folks who probably would be told to “sit at our feet” or even better, “sit over there.”
It was a Godly encounter that only took ten minutes probably much like Jesus’ encounter of the Syrophoenician woman. But the impact still stays with me. Yesterday’s encounter for me was one of change.
We are a congregation in the midst of a great deal of change these days. Good change, scary change, risky change. I think we all agree that must go forward. Lying down and dying in the middle of the road is an option here at FELC, but I think you would agree to me that is not an option. Embracing change is tough friends. I’m not sugar coating that. But I know this much. We are capable of great and marvelous change because Jesus is capable of great change. Frankly, I want to be like Jesus. That’s what is means to follow him. For those of us who are scared, anxious, a little nervous, Jesus is with us. Even though our boat seems very small and the sea is so great, we must remember who is piloting our boat: Jesus. Not me. Not the Synod. Not the Mayor. Not the church council. Jesus.
So, as we fear forward and not backward, I give my fear of change to Jesus. I give my joys to Jesus, my frustrations to Jesus, my money to Jesus, my workaholic nature to Jesus. He can handle that. He ministers to this marvelous, brave, mother in our gospel today. He ministers to us here at FELC. Thanks be to God. AMEN.