A sermon preached by the Reverend Deacon Jason A Burns
on 5 September 2021 [15 Pentecost]:
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37
Both James and Mark are pointing us to the fact that there is no room for distinction in the Kingdom of God. They are both speaking of the need for us to include everyone in the Kingdom as God does not turn anyone away. To be clear neither Mark, nor James, are saying that we should never point out the difference between people as it is not humanly possible to ignore the traits of others, especially when they are right in front of us. What they are saying is that we can’t allow those differences to influence how we treat other people, yet almost the entirety of human history indicates that we are really bad at doing so.
As much as I would like to, I am not going to turn this into a history lesson instead I want to draw our attention to the interaction between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. We don’t really know what Mark intended with this passage, it appears that Jesus is caught off guard and we are given a glimpse of his humanity, but that is merely a theory, for all we know this encounter never actually occurred. Ultimately what matters is that despite his negative reaction to the woman’s request, he in the end grants it, which is a sign that with God, love and compassion will always win the day. It also points us to what is expected of us, that despite our initial reaction to someone we need to be willing to reassess and allow the word of God to reach everyone, regardless of our first impression or our prejudice.
We are trained to judge everything in our culture, it is our default position to form an opinion and if you think we don’t do that log your thoughts for 10 minutes while reading Facebook and see what you get. We are trained to measure ourselves against one another to drive our ambition to participate in the market, it is the hallmark of capitalism, and we are very good at it. I have come to realize that a large part of anxiety in life is feeling as though it is not possible to measure up to what I believe others expect of me. I have also learned that what others expect of me is not particularly relevant, although my anxiety has yet to learn that. The good news is that God is not only forgiving, but also a source of comfort.
There have been many things of note in the news lately. The devastation of a hurricane and wild fires, the enacting of restrictive laws across our country, the ending of a long and deadly conflict, and of course the continued rise in COVID cases across the globe. In all these cases people have been quick to pass judgment, just like Jesus appears to do in the Gospel. The Syrophoenician woman is of course a gentile and gentiles were outsiders, they were usually looked down upon by the Jewish people as unclean and the response of Jesus appears to be rooted in the Jewish belief that gentiles should be kept at arms-length, preferably further and that the Jewish Messiah is for Jews; but in the end Jesus relents and he relents because he realizes that it is not his place to limit who experiences God through his ministry, so he grants her request.
When it comes to current issues, we could easily be Jesus or the gentile woman. We could be an outsider looking into a situation and asking ourselves why can’t I be a part of this? Why can’t I understand? Or we could, and likely do, have a visceral reaction. As I hear of the various restrictive laws being passed across our country, laws that frankly endanger lives, I find it difficult to not have a visceral reaction and to not target my frustration at the people who pass the laws. My instincts tell me to hate the people who do such things, which is a sign of the judgmental culture we live in and my participation in it; but the good news is that there is another way, the way of compassion. Jesus tells us, not just with his cryptic parables, but with his actions that we need to approach everything through the lens of compassion. Whether we agree with a person, or their beliefs has no bearing on whether they have a place in the kingdom of God and it is never, I repeat never, our place to pass judgment, even if they are doing the same.
What I find fascinating about Jesus and more especially the people who wrote about him, is that the lessons he taught are so multi-faceted. Jesus was ready to reject someone because they were not Jewish, but in the end, he didn’t. That however is only half of the message here. The healing of her daughter did far more than restore a young girl to health, it was a step towards healing the divisions between two communities, divisions that had existed for centuries. We are called to do the same, but to do so we must be willing to look past our judgements and stop assuming that just because someone supports a different viewpoint that they have evil intentions because they likely don’t, they are simply acting on what they believe to be true. Sometimes those truths are refutable and sometimes they are purely a matter of opinion, either way we are called to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, not only love the people we agree with or who don’t annoy us or who we think belong in our club and loving them means that we approach them with and their ideas from a position of compassion and love, not hatred. If you are like my students, you are now refuting me in your mind and thinking, well what about Hitler? His intentions were certainly evil. Well, yes they were, but my point still stands because when we are dealing with humanity we need to accept that evil things will be done, but we also know that humans were not created for that, we choose it and some people venture so far off the path that we will not be able to bring them back. The best we can do with such people is stop them before they can do more harm, hold them accountable for the things they have done, and try to understand why they did what they did and that is where the compassion begins. People like the Nazis did not start life intending to be evil, something happened and human nature took over, a part of our job is to learn what happened so that we can understand. Just to be clear, I am not saying we don’t hold people accountable, I am saying that holding them accountable is not enough because if there is no compassion, if there is no love in our reaction then we are only pretending to be followers of Christ Jesus.
By healing the young girl and the blind man Jesus is sending the message that these outsiders are in-fact insiders and James is giving the same message. All people belong to God, all people have a place in the Kingdom, not the pie in the sky kingdom, but this kingdom, this one right here. And if we find ourselves forgetting that; if we find ourselves marking someone as an outsider, as different, as annoying, as evil; then we need to repent and begin again because we are dead wrong. We must always look for the good, no matter how far back we have to go in a person’s history to find it because looking for the good is compassion. Amen.