Saturday, September 8, 2018
Year B Proper 18 2018 Crumbs of Faith
Year B Proper 18, 9 September 2018
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Crumbs of Faith”
Collect: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
James 2:1-17 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 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, 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,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 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? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 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. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. Mark 7:24-37 Jesus 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, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. 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. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
In our Rite I of the Eucharist, the rite we use at our 8 am service, there is a prayer that can be said right after the fraction of the Host (the bread in Eucharist). It opens with these words:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness,
but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.
But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.
Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
I was doing a hospital visit with a family, and one of the adult children was there. They no longer go to church, and they said that it always made them uncomfortable when this prayer was said, particularly the line: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. He said that it made him feel inferior, like he was worthless. And taken at face value I totally understand that. It sounds like that.
But I did not let it sit there. I asked if he knew the story it comes from. He did not. So I shared with him this story of the Syrophoenician woman, the one we just read. And how she begged Jesus for a healing. What would we not do for our kids? Anything. Anything at all. Come hell or highwater, which of us would neglect a need of our child? Not one of us, I think.
And this woman was no different. No matter what Jesus said, she was not going to let go. He was, as she saw it, her only option.
Now we do need to talk about about what Jesus said in response to her request. We cannot ignore it, and it strikes our ears as harsh, to say the least. 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.” Is Jesus calling her a dog? It sounds that way. Now I have heard this pitched and stretched a few ways. Some hear Jesus saying what would be expected of him, his cultural baggage coming through. Jews saw themselves as God’s Chosen People. Anyone less is exactly that, less. Inferior. She is lowly, a dog, from one perspective.
Another view, is that yes, Jesus was saying what was expected of him, both by those listening and even by the woman herself. She knew that as a Gentile she would need to beg this Jewish rabbi. The Teacher let all those who had expectations hear what they wanted. Now before he could counter, she fires back with this resounding statement of faith. But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She is not leaving till she gets what she wants, even just a crumb of his power, of his grace.
Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Was what she said causative? Did she get what she wanted because of her insistence? Was it her tenacious “mama bear” spirit that impressed Jesus? Was he going to heal the daughter anyway, but “played the expected role” so that the healing stood out more? We do not know. We cannot know. So let’s take it as it is. She came for a blessing, a healing of her daughter, and when she left she had it. And found the truth of the statement of Jesus when she arrived home. Jesus models what we hear in the James’ passage: “DO NOT SHOW PARTIALITY!” Exactly. Exactly.
Everyone we meet, every eye we look into, is a Beloved Child of God. God’s Beloved. What if we treated every one that way. Our family members. The person who cut us off in traffic. The person on the news who infuriates us. The person who hates us. God loves them and wants what is best for them, too. It makes us look at them differently. It makes us treat them differently. It changes a stranger into a brother, an enemy into a sister.
When we start acting this way, we play the long game. Often we do not recognize the shift from what Jesus did to what we do. Jesus, the Apostles, and even St. Paul all were intenerants, travelling speakers who came in, did ministry, and most often moved on. They were sent, and that is the meaning of Apostle, those who are sent. We live our faith in a very different way. We put down roots, and we are sent next door, not to the other side of the world. Sometimes it is so much easier to give God’s love to a stranger than the person who keeps doing the jerky thing over and over and over again. For years. But we are called to love them, too. So often that is where our real faith is expressed.
I am reading a novel right now. [Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke] And in it there is an interesting premise. It starts in an English city with a club based on magic. People come, discuss, write articles, and debate magic in a theoretical sense. No one who comes to the society of magicians has any expectation for magic to happen. They like magic, and even call the members of the society, or club, magicians even though not a one of them does magic or has ever seen it done. Then one day someone comes who not only claims to do magic, but actually does. To get him to “prove” his claims, the members of the society make a bet. If he can do an unquestionable magic feat they will stop using the moniker “magician.” Every single one of them will walk away from being theoretical and historical “magicians” because the word actually means something with a real magician walking around and about. And because of the magic, real magic, practiced and practical magic, the club members no longer see themselves or call themselves as “magicians.”
It made me really pause and reflect, of so many churches I have been a part of, there has been too often that feel. That faith expressed in some churches I have been a part of was theoretical and historical only. Jesus did miracles “back then” and we will just gather and talk about how good it was “back then.” For faith to be faith, it has to be real. It has to be practiced here and now. If it just something we ponder, than it is no longer faith. This is nothing new in the church. Within decades of Jesus this dangerous idea had already snuck in. James argues against it near the end of today’s reading.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Somewhere along the way, even at this early stage in the Church’s life, we missed that what we say has to have an impact on what we say and even more on what we do. We can go to Church every Sunday, but what James argues is that what we believe, where our faith really lives, has to come out on Mondays (and Tuesdays and Wednesdays and so on).
I remember when I was like the Syrophoenician woman. I was made to feel that I did not belong. I knew it. I felt it. I was backpacking around Europe right after I graduated college with an old roommate. We had done the whole Eurail pass thing, sleeping on the trains and not bathing much and washing our clothes even less. We landed in Zurich on a Sunday morning, and I was shocked that we actually had about 5 hours to kill. I knew of the Baptist seminary which was about 20 minutes from town by train. At the seminary was a Baptist Church which actually worshiped in English, so I jumped at the chance to go and actually worship in English. We had been touring some of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world, but I had not worshiped in a one of them. My roommate was exhausted after a poor night’s sleep, and he decided he would stay with the luggage and I would just run up.
I was so excited I did not think about how I looked, and, worse, how I smelled. I just wanted to see the seminary I had heard so much about. The train stopped in the little village of Rüschlikon, and I wandered up the mountain above Lake Zurich. I arrived just a few minutes before the service. From the very tidy Swiss, I have never felt more judged nor more embarrassed in my life. I just wanted to worship. I sat down. Someone let me know that Church was about to start. I responded that that was why I was there. They were surprised, looking how I did. I was not given a bulletin, and I could tell from the furtive glances and whispers that I did not belong. Just before the service started a man came in, sat down, and someone let him know about “the guest” for the day.
About this point I wanted to crawl in a hole, but I had spent what little Swiss money I had on my ticket to get up there, and by God, I was going to stay. But the man who came in at the very last moment got up, came and sat down next to me. He got me a bulletin, and wanted to make sure I could follow along. Because I was so unkempt, I think most people thought I was homeless having left my luggage at the train station. After the service, I learned that the welcoming man was a seminary professor. And he learned that I was on my way to seminary that fall, and that I was in Church by choice and some effort. Needless to say, I need not worry about the Christianity taught in his classes. He lived his faith in his welcome to me, and his encouragement to me on my path. I have no clue his name, or what he taught there, but I do now and always will remember how he made me feel. He got over my smelly sweatshirt and sweatpants (so I would not be in shorts) and how he wanted me to know that I was welcome there.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? ...So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Next week we will look at and celebrate the many Outreach ministries that are organized through you, the people of this parish. Thanks be to God! And there are hundreds of times a week when we do the simple thing, the godly thing, the Christlike thing, the charitable thing, the polite thing, and we do it because of what we believe and what that belief is making us to be.
Today marks my 365th day at St. James the Less. This last year with you I have been humbled and moved to see your love of God and love for each other in so many ways. Your love for the least of these, as Jesus put it, shows to all who come walking through these doors or out and about in your daily lives what you believe. You have a living, breathing, growing faith and the world takes notice. And as you are living out your faith in your lives keep dropping those crumbs of faith. They are a feast for many for whom that is all they have. Amen.