September 9, 2012

The Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Dr. Robert G. Moore, Senior Pastor
Christ the King Lutheran Church
Houston, Texas

Readings (NRSV) and Psalm (ELW):
Isaiah 35:4–7a
Psalm 146 I will praise the LORD as long as I live. (Ps. 146:2)
James 2:1–10 [11–13] 14–17
Mark 7:24–37

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is none other than the announcement that God is faithfully keeping the divine promise made to Abraham. God made the promise to our father Abraham that the entire world will be blessed, not by bypassing history but by going through the struggles and calamities of history. To this end God called out God’s chosen people to continue the struggle to realize God’s triumph in the wreck and ruin of our human folly.

The story of God’s promise, God’s faithfulness, and God’s victory is the heart of the biblical message. The picture of God is gained through the whole biblical story as the one who creates, liberates, and continues to call God’s creatures to service and praise. We perceive God’s fulfillment of God’s promises as nothing short of the miraculous. So we hear the prophet Isaiah proclaim the promise as he admonishes his people to be strong and fear not. God is coming, and what will be the sign of God’s advent? Life will break out!

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:5-6)

As we have seen over and over again, the miraculous functions only as a sign that reminds us that we are not in control. We are not in charge of everything, even if for a time it might appear to be so. In fact, our arrogance to believe we are in control is what sets us at odds with our neighbor. We prefer our own standards for who is in and who is out.

In Palestinian society two thousand years ago the world was dominated by a rigorous social system by which everything was measured by honor in the system. The more honor one had in the social order, the more wealth, benefits, and privileges one accrued. To amass honor in the system, one had to play by the rules.  That meant accepting all rules at least on the surface.

For example, one did not argue with the rules concerning the place of women in society. The woman had her honor but only in her rightful place as sexual object, bearer of children, and manager of the household. Women who attempted to bolt from this role or who were in some way violated in these roles were left in shame.

Sickness and disease also had a major role to play in society. In our time we are prone to read stories of healings as events in which people who could not function in their roles were miraculously returned to regular life. The last thing a miracle in the Bible does is return people to their former life.

No, to be sick or disturbed meant a loss of position in society. We do understand this today. There are still vestiges of this dynamic in our social life. How many of us labor, sometimes to weariness, to keep secret our illnesses or our losses? We fight to evade the stigma that goes with sick, physically or cognitively challenged, mental illness, or social status with regard to sexual identity. Why do we try to keep these things secret? It is because we do not want to lose our honor in society and our place in the world, real or perceived.

All this points to the fact that we show partiality to those who fit our ideals of superiority and correctness. It is no minor thing when we hear in the Letter of James a perfect description of how Christians act in contrast to the world that surrounds them.

James castigates those who show partiality to the well-to-do and ignore the poor in their midst. James goes so far in his criticism that God chooses the poor because they are rich in faith. The poor cannot trust in wealth if wealth is something they do not have. James evokes the royal law of the Torah Jesus himself proclaimed, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (James 2: 8b)

For James faith can only mean to trust in the God of Jesus Christ. Thus, the Christian is going to live the radically new life no longer beholden to the honor games that society expects us to play.

And that is what the gospel narratives are portraying in concrete terms as they tell us the stories of Jesus and his encounters with society in his day. What better example do we have as Jesus ventures to alien territory far north of the Jewish areas of Palestine and Galilee.

Apparently he wants some time away, but no sooner does he arrive in Phoenicia, in the region of Tyre but he is confronted by a Gentile from Syrophoenicia. And to make matters worse, this Gentile is a woman. We might call her an assertive woman in today’s language. She ignores all propriety knowing that Jews risk contamination by being too near a woman and a pagan woman at that. Still she approaches him. She bows to him to offer respect. She then begs Jesus to heal her daughter who was demon-possessed.

Jesus knows already that all the rules of honor are broken. Jesus who is on retreat from his Jewish mission station says 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.”  (Mark 7: 27)

Now Jesus brings the matter to a point, he refers to the woman as a dog, such nasty epithets were commonly applied to Gentiles by Jews, just as we have nasty words for people with whom we do not want to mix.

But then the woman answers cleverly,

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  (Mark 7:28)

Jesus changes his tune as he marvels at the woman’s quick wit. He sends the woman back home having already healed her daughter. The woman’s life has been restored as much as her daughter’s.

Dear brothers and sisters, the church exists for one reason only, to declare and live out God’s message communicated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church proclaims the fulfillment of God’s promise in the one human being Jesus Christ. Jesus also comes to be known as the truest son of God because his fidelity to the covenantal promise is so radical and steadfast that Jesus becomes the embodiment of God’s communication to us human beings. Jesus is the Word of God and will not fail. The message of the resurrection is the realization that God is the victor even in the death of his faithful Son.

The message of his ministry, death, and resurrection is the revelation of God’s will to save. Jesus’ faithful obedience to his mission leads him necessarily to confront our human ways of saving ourselves. To follow Jesus is to experience the transformation from a life of earning honor, i.e., justifying ourselves in the eyes of the world, to a life of trust that it is God alone who justifies us. We have come to know this grace in the light of Christ who shows what grace looks like in human form.