Weekly Preaching: September 9, 2018

September 4th, 2018

Last week, I explained why I am fond of the likelihood that the author of James was the brother of our Lord. In this week’s text — James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 — he echoes the beatitudes (Matt. 5), and cites Leviticus 19, just as his brother did. In chapter 2, James gives us more on what “authentic religion” is, which might appeal to our culture, especially younger generations, for whom authenticity is the rage. How we treat, think about, and act around the rich and the poor is a test of authenticity. Most churches and Christians flunk this test miserably.

Churches, of course, are deeply segregated — not just by race, but by class. We might gripe about preferential treatment for wealthy, well-placed people, but if we find ourselves in the company of someone famous or wealthy, we get all chipper, so very polite and interested, preening, proud of ourselves for just being there.

All this is normal in our culture. But Christianity is a peculiar movement. Luke Timothy Johnson puts it well:

“The assembly gathered by faith, says James, must act on the basis of another set of values. Those whom the world most despises are to be regarded, in faith, as heirs of the kingdom and therefore honored by the specific hospitality of the community: its greetings, its body language, its space. It is by this measure that the community is to be judged. Woe to the church that does not meet this measure of mercy, for it will face merciless judgment.”

The preacher can hold up this text to ask, gently but clearly, some questions about our space, our body language… Yes, there’s pressure on wealthier churches (like mine), but no church can dodge the inquiry.

How we fawn over the wealthy poses a spiritual crisis; our doting on them might only be via gawking at the TV or gazing far down at the people with the choice seats at an event. Johnson reads James (rightly!) as suggesting that we wind up divided not only among ourselves but also within ourselves; the one who sees and lives into division is divided in soul.

James’s text fascinates, in that it seems to allude to those who have been oppressed themselves suddenly becoming oppressors of others! Pheme Perkins explains this phenomenon pointedly:

“They have learned from their oppressors, not from God! The tendency of the oppressed to adopt the behavior of their oppressors frequently emerges in revolutionary movements. The lowly may prefer the limited power they can exercise against others to the exaltation that comes from God.”

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The litmus test of authentic Christianity is how we live with the poor — not, as Sam Well has pointed out so eloquently in A Nazareth Manifesto, what we do for them. We foolishly think Jesus is tickled when we, the haves, offer to solve their problems for them because they are (in our usually unarticulated view) incapable. Every encounter then reinforces their humiliation. Christians don’t send stuff to the poor. They are with them; they befriend them. A local story of being with the poor, of how all benefit when such friendships arise, is illustrative in the greatest sense of the word.

* * *

A curious enactment of James’s principle is found in our Gospel, Mark 7:24-37, when his brother encounters the Syro-Phoenician woman and frankly treats her quite rudely, shockingly to us. There must be some rationalization, right? Floyd Filson, in his 1960 commentary on Matthew, suggested that he winked at her when he spoke these words, implying insider status for this one. Or was it a clever ploy on Jesus’ part to evoke deeper faith in her, or those watching?

Morna Hooker, noting how Jesus confined his attention to the Jews, suggested that “the Gentile woman requests a cure outside the context of Jesus’ call to Israel; she seems to be asking for a cure which is detached from the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, merely taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the presence of a miracle worker. This is perhaps the reason for Jesus’ stern answer; his healings are part of something greater and cannot be torn out of that context.”

Joel Marcus is mindful of the history of bad blood between Tyrians and Galileans, of how the farm produce of Galilee so often wound up in Tyre while the peasants in Galilee went hungry. So Jesus’ words make a bit of compassionate sense. Or should we suggest, as many have, that Jesus had a growing moment, a learning experience, a maturation in himself? Mistakenly he turned her away, and her persistence cracked open a bit of hardness in Jesus’ Jewishness to leave space for a desperate Gentile? Depending on the height of your view of Jesus’ humanity, this may or may not work.

Martin Luther examined this text and thought of the ways Christians are to persist in trusting God, even when God seems to turn his back on them. They must learn to see the ‘yes’ hidden in his ‘no.’ There's much wisdom here — although the preacher dare not resort to trifling ideas such as those articulated in Garth Brooks’s “Unanswered Prayers.”

The Syro-Phoenician woman’s persistence has recently been likened to the persistence of women insisting on their place in the church. “Nevertheless, She Persisted” became a popular slogan, t-shirt and hashtag this year. Persistence of this kind is a biblical thing, falsifying the absurd notion of God’s will being associated with “the door was open.” Many open doors we most surely should not walk through. Many closed and bolted doors should be knocked down.

I am fond of Sheila Nelson-McJilton’s probing sermon, “Crumbs," cited in Leonora Tubbs Tisdale’s great book, Prophetic Preaching. “Crumbs. That’s all they are looking for. Crumbs. Not the whole life. Not even a slice. Just crumbs. You and I want the whole loaf…” She then speaks of our wealth, access, and all the poor lack. But then she presses further: “Crumbs. They want more than crumbs because deep in their souls, they know they deserve more. And yet they often do not know who to ask or how to ask…”

The second half of the Mark reading has its own possibilities with its echo of Isaiah and the inspired music of Handel. The Aramaic word, miraculously preserved, ephatha, has been used in many baptismal liturgies. The priest touches the ear of the infant and asks that it be opened. We should redo such a prayer for ourselves daily so we might hear God. The “prayer for illumination” before the sermon: open our ears, O Lord. (And do we pray before the sermon? or before the Scripture reading? or at the very opening of the service?)

"What can we say come September 9? 16th after Pentecost" originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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