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. Tell a local story - or some experience of your own?
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 – and 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, even enviously, 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.”
The contrast of fake, thin, inauthentic religion with the real thing is nowhere better exposed than in this poetic piece I’ve heard over the years, with no idea of its origin: “I was hungry, and you formed a humanities group to discuss my hunger. I was imprisoned, and you crept off to your chapel and prayed for my release. I was naked, and in your mind you debate the morality of my appearance. I was sick, and you knelt and thanked God for your health. I was homeless, and you preached to me of the spiritual shelter of the love of God. I was lonely, and you left me alone to pray for me. You seem so holy, so close to God – but I am still very hungry, and lonely, and cold.”
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. Some quotables from Sam: “Altruism is not the goal.” “Our purpose, our calling is to be with God and with one another.” “There is no goal beyond restored relationship; being with is not a means to an end.” “We do not sit and have coffee with a homeless person because we are trying to solve their problem.” “Continue to see the face of Jesus in the despised and rejected of the world. You are not their benefactor. You are not the answer to their prayer. They are the answer to yours. You are searching for a salvation that only they can bring.”
Again, 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 – and 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.’ Much wisdom here – although the preacher dare not resort to trifling ideas such as those articulated in Garth Brooks’s crooning “Unanswered Prayers.”
The Syro-Phoenician woman’s persistence has recently been likened to the persistence of women right insisting on their place in the church. “Nevertheless, She Persisted” became a popular slogan, t-shirt and hashtag this year. Persistence of all kinds 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. And 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…” – and then she speaks of our wealth, access, 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?).
************My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.