Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Year B Proper 18 2021 Choice

 Year B Proper 18, 5 September 2021

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA


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 2:1-10, 14-17

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.

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.”

[Note: This sermon was written, recorded, and titled before the Texas decision in the Supreme Court las week. This sermon is not about abortion in any way, and it is not mentioned in the sermon at all. The title happened to be chosen at a particularly charged moment. Thanks, R+]

In the Book of Common Prayer it may seem that we are stuck saying the same things over and over again. Before I spent much time in the Episcopal Church I was trapped by that limited mindset as well. As I dug into it, I started to see its breadth and depth. There are so many options at times it can make your head spin. But that, for most, is showing how the sausage gets made.

Tucked away in the Rite I Eucharist service, there are some options right after I break the host wafer at the height of the Ministry of the Table. Turn to page 337 if you want to follow along...

I snap the host wafer, and give a dramatic pause, and then I say:

Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;

Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.

Then comes a beautiful hymn of worship and praise:

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,

have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,

have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,

grant us thy peace.

And then I have an option to say this prayer:

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.

This is a prayer I almost always say, even though it is optional. I find it beautiful and meaningful. But once I was visiting with a family whose elderly parent was in their final days. During some small talk an adult son said to me he pretty much had stopped going to church, and singled out this prayer as why. He said it made him feel bad. He could even remember the phrase that burnt his biscuits: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” He went on asking why he would go to a place that tried to make him feel worse.

I never know where someone is coming from, and taken out of context it does sound pretty bad. I appreciated his honesty. I then asked, “Do you know the context that that comes from?” He didn’t. It comes from today’s Gospel reading, by the way, this troublesome reading about the Syrophoenician woman. Most do not want to touch it with a ten foot pole. It doesn't settle well with us and our modern sensibilities. The woman mentions that at least the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall off the table. And because of her faith, and probably her tenacity, Jesus immediately heals her daughter.

Because of that, we continue in the prayer:

But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.

We are reminded, especially at Christ’s table, that he loves and welcomes us, no matter how we see ourselves. Jesus sees us as he made us. Tov vetov, Good, Very Good, as God declared in the first chapter of Genesis.

I have a choice to use that prayer, or not, as the Celebrant at the Eucharist. The rubrics, those funny little italicized instructions show that it is optional.

We all have like to have options most of the time, like I do whether I use that prayer and its seemingly offensive language or not. While the adult son used his options to stop going to church, I use mine to include it. We both use our options for the same reason. BECAUSE IT MAKES US FEEL BETTER. Pretty ironic. Not sure if that adult son ever went back to church, but at least he thanked me for explaining and giving context to that phrase that so rankled him. 

Jesus had options. I cannot explain to everyone’s pleasure why he treated the Syrophoenician woman the way he did. I have my ideas, and I shared most of them when I preached on this passage the last time we were at this place in the Lectionary cycle three years ago. But what we do have is how it ended and what he did. That is much more important than the words that seem rude or racist to our ears. Jesus had choices. You have choices. How we choose to treat one another is one of the most important choices we can make.

Our passage in James speaks to that, how we treat the wealthy or the poor in our midst. Is one more deserving of our attention? Jesus modeled for us welcoming in the ones neglected or scorned. Zaccheus up the tree, the woman caught in adultery, the Gerasene demoniac, the woman at the well.

Look at his disciples, no one, NO ONE, would have picked them to form a team to change the world. They stank of fish and ill-gotten gains. They repeatedly made silly if not dumb choices. But Jesus saw their heart more than the externals. He saw who they could be, who they were made to be, and loved them. He chose them; he chooses us. Thanks be to God.

Having options are important. The movie Groundhog Day is an exploration of what happens when one is trapped, both good and bad. The main character is doomed to repeat the same day, over and over, 10,000 times, or 10,000 lifetimes of times, no one is truly clear on that. He has lived it so many times he knows what every person in the town is going to do every minute of the day. And within that knowledge he is finally given the option to do what he should have, could have, done in the first place. He was finally free to do who he was born to be and be his Best Self.

Now the cosmic forces may not align to give you 10,000 days to learn that lesson, but you are given today. And today you will be given choices. Choices to get right or get left. Choices that lift you up or push you down. Choices to love your neighbor as yourself. Choices that show your faith through your works.

Doing right is an act of faith, a brave one at times. Choosing to care for the least of these is not a popular option. We have class, race, and gender differences that entrap us more than help. Breaking down those barriers, seeing with God’s eyes, picking to love and serve shows the world what you believe better than any statement or sermon you will ever give. Like the apocryphal statement of St. Francis says: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary use words.”

Tomorrow is the cultural ending of summer, a day set aside to remember and celebrate those who labor, an uplifting of the working class that makes our lives better. It began at the end of the Industrial Revolution where so many were required to work 12 hour days 7 days a week to survive. Children as young as 5 years old were working menial labor jobs. My great-grandmother worked in the mills of Burlington in her childhood. We as a society made choices to move us to a better way of living for more of us. Weekends became a thing. Imagine that, a day off! Make that two! 8 hour days. Leisure time became a thing. Then a middle class became a thing. All steps came into place that made life better for those who too often were forgotten. Remember that tomorrow when you do whatever it is you will do.

As you take the time tomorrow to do what you will choose to do, think on those who do not have the liberty of choice. They do not have the luxury of options. They are trapped living the same day over and over and over again.

As we make choices, as we exercise our volition, our voices, our votes, we make the world more like heaven or not. The choice is ours.

There are a lot of competing things for our attention and our assent. As followers of Christ, this must be the deciding factor for us. It is as simple as preference. And there is in the Scriptures a repeated and obvious preference of God for those who are the last to be picked. Theologians call this “God’s preferential option for the poor.” Widows, orphans, foreigners, strangers, least of these, many labels, all one condition that demands our support, encouragement, and alleviation of their suffering.

Friends, may we be like Christ, and strive to make earth like it is in heaven. We do this through our choices. Soon you will be hearing appeals for those who are in our charge fleeing from the crisis in Afghanistan. May we all find ways that we can live up to the biblical ideal of caring for the stranger and the orphan in our midst. When you are given the choice, what will you do? We live it out in our Labor, in our service. Faith, without works, is dead, as our James reading reminded us. May we live out what we believe in the name of Christ and to the glory of God. Amen.

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Blessings, Rock