James 2:1-10, 14-17
There are hard sayings of Jesus. Then there are passages like this. This one is a hard passage of Jesus. There’s nothing easy, nice, warm, or fuzzy about Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. This is why I think God works through the lectionary. I sometimes tremble at the power of the Holy Spirit working through these assigned texts. This week, of all weeks, we are given a passage about a foreign woman with a dying child willing to suffer great indignation and harm to save the life of her child. When we turn on our televisions, open our newspapers, and look at our computers we see children drowning in the Mediterranean, parents suffering the greatest indignations possible, and it is as if God is saying, right before our very eyes, what more do I need to do get you talk about and respond to what’s happening in the world around you? Just because they are not walking up on our lovely beaches (versus the lovely resort beaches of Greece and Turkey), doesn’t mean it’s not our concern as members of the church universal and this thing called the body of Christ.
Both the gospel and epistle lesson tell the story of the world we inhabit and offer guidance for how people of faith can move forward. James, in particular, is describing the church in his own day. When you read it, you can almost feel the tension. It is not because he’s that good of a story teller but because we know exactly what he’s talking about. We’ve lived through it, we’ve been there, done it, got the t-shirt, and for some of us, we know we need call a meeting with God about our actions.
James sets a definite cultural, social, economic, and religious scenario. Two people come to our church. One is dressed very well with gold rings and in the finest clothes. The other person is in rags. How do you treat that person? Of course, you say, we’re not going to treat them any differently. Each person would be equally welcome. No one will openly admit to favoritism. That’s our assumption. What if that person sits on your favorite seat? What if they reek of alcohol and body odor? What if they don’t speak English? And the English they do know is littered with expletives? Would you then start to think, “This is a little uncomfortable?” Would you then start to think, “Maybe they have a service where they speak their language?” Might you look for a translator to say, “This is my seat?”
In theory, we’re not going to fall into James’ trap of playing favorites until our comfort zones get invaded. When our comfort zones get challenged we have to ask ourselves, is this stuff we say we believe really what we believe? This is what’s been happening all week in Europe. Comfort zones have been challenged. On the border between Hungary and Serbia, in the waters off Greece, and in some far away tavern in Tyre where Jesus was having a moment of Sabbath; human constructed comfort zones have been challenged by the invading and challenging power of almighty God. A power, asking in no uncertain terms, will you let my grace go to work on people in great need. People, James says, “that God has chosen as the heirs of his kingdom.”
The Syrophoenician woman simply wanted the same respect and love that Jesus offered to God’s Israelite children. Mark tells us the story to say to us that even Jesus needed to be reminded God’s grace is not bound by ethnicity, race, or gender. God’s love transcends all existing boundaries. Name a boundary, God’s love jumps. Build a wall, God’s love will go around it.
I once walked from Serbia to Hungary. I was using the bathroom on the Serbian side of the border and the Hungarian train left me. I think I a drink purchase might have been involved as well. This was in 1994. The Serb border guards said if I walked fast enough, I could catch the train at the first station inside Hungary. The Hungarian guards would have to check the passports of everyone on the train. This might buy me some time. So I walked. It was June. I had luggage and I was hot. I knew I could get on another train somewhere along the way. I needed to get to Budapest so I walked to the Serbian checkpoint. It wasn’t that far, the actual international border, between the fences was maybe 6 miles. I can’t imagine doing it with children, fleeing a war or with everything I own on my back. I wondered, as watched people on those same rail lines this week, where was the kingdom of God breaking through.
It’s breaking through in the actions of those trying to help the most vulnerable people. Those who’ve given the refugees water, food, and supplies are the visible evidence of God at work amidst the chaos.
James says it is one thing to tell people to “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal! What good is it if you don’t give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity?”
What can we do? We can begin to move beyond our comfort zones. We can start by asking this question. What would it be like if when people considered generosity (of all shapes and sizes) on this island said, “Those Methodists are the most generous people around.” Or if we begin hearing expressions like, “that sure is a Methodist thing to do.” I heard that often this summer when I was passing out water at the ferry docks. Do you know how proud that made me? I’d like to hear that about everything we do as a community.
God is breaking through amidst the chaos of our lives. There are ways we can respond and I’m not just speaking about refugees in Europe, I’m talking about the refugees from post-modern culture who wander roads of this island. Young people whose live are dominated by little more than video games and casual substance abuse on weekends. They are refugees as well. People need the church. They don’t need us to tell them they’re going to hell or tell them how sinful they are. They need us to do something for them. We do these things together. We give of our lived out faith not of our shallow words, says James. We must remove the self-imposed limits on how God works and allow the Holy Spirit to take charge of what we think we’re about to do.