As some of you may know, I have from time to time taken to studying scripture in coffee shops instead of my office. Something about the buzz of human interaction makes the gospel come alive. Certainly there are distractions, but none of them have the weight of property issues or administrative tasks.
One such day I overheard two women talking about their past and current struggles. They were both displaced by Katrina, and probably in their late 40’s. One of them, who called herself Karen, noted my Bible and asked for prayer. She was living on Social Security while getting certified as a medical transcriptionist. I did pray with her, but I did not share the poem they inspired. It seemed a bit much to tell a stranger that I wrote a poem about her, but I’ll share it with you now. It was raining that day, so the title of the poem is Rain.
I hear a woman's chatter, deep and low.
Storms have uprooted cities
While she and her cats grimaced
With pearl and onyx.
Bangles on her wrist chatter as she rises
Whispering secrets of survival
And communion to her friend,
While I exist as a gnat on fruit
Sucking life from their conversation.
Still my joints ache from battles less sacred.
Still the clouds and their gray dresses
Appear as indicators of my distress.
And the women warriors to my left,
Having been drawn together by the same demon,
Speak of tenacity and expectation
As the path of salvation.
More so it seems that in the sharing of their pain
They have seen its end;
Not to say that pain is over,
More so that its purpose is made clear.
In the wake of ten years of recovery and in light of the current crisis in Syria, today is a good day to recognize God’s grace and mercy. By “grace and mercy,” I am not referring to the fact that we are safe and sound and worshiping freely. I am referring to the fact that God is active and present in this place as well as in places of pain and suffering. By “grace and mercy” I am referring to what we have received and to what we must give.
That said, I do want to take just a moment to be sure you are aware of what the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) is doing in response to the current refugee crisis in Syria. As you probably know, this is the first time since WWII that there have been more than 50 million forcibly displaced people in the world. There were 59 million in 2014. That means that, on a global scale, there are roughly 1 out of every 122 people that are displaced and half of them are children. In and out of Syria the displaced number around 13 million. In international crisis, the PDA tends to partner with other organizations so that resources and actions are more focused and connected to actual needs. So far, we have partnered with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Libya to provide resources for infrastructure and school systems in Syria. Meanwhile we are partnering with the ACT Alliance (Actions by Churches Together) to provide services for children in Hungary. The need is great, and there are other organizations focusing on other areas. But I wanted you to know about the work of the PDA.
Like I said, it’s a good day to think about God’s grace and mercy, especially when so many lives hang in the balance. Such news leaves us asking what God might want us to do about all of this mess, and I believe that our scriptures are pretty clear today about what God wants. Proverbs tells us that if the wealthy “despoil the poor,” God will “despoil their lives” in the same way. James, the brother of Jesus, tells us that if we give a hungry person a prayer instead of food then our prayers are empty and our faith is void. And then Jesus brings healing and wholeness to the gentiles to demonstrate that the abundance of God’s grace does not stop with loaves and fish but extends even to those who cannot ask or articulate faith in the way that others do.
At least that’s the big picture view of it all. And maybe the summary is enough. Maybe it’s enough to say take care of the poor, put your faith into action, and don’t try to limit the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, without some conversation, those ideas can become what I call “shoulds and shouldn’ts.” You know, like the way the guy in my neighborhood shouldn’t be operating a repair shop out of his garage but does it anyway?
So, let’s start with Proverbs. Suffice to say that Proverbs is not just a bunch of bumper stickers. It’s meant to be sound advice for the young men (sorry ladies) of the King’s court. That said, the portion we have today is pretty good for anyone, because it reminds us that whether we are rich or poor we have the same kind of blood in our veins and we need each other. In the words of Maya Angelou, “The race of man is suffering. And I can hear the moan, ‘cause nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.”
It’s no coincidence that we have the threat of our lives being despoiled as the backdrop for the words of James, the brother of Jesus and the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He would've been well versed in these words, and they would make sense to his audience. Scholars believe that he was writing to smaller gatherings that were becoming divided between the rich and the poor, perhaps they were even courting larger donors – or the right kind of members – to keep the doors open.
Either way, he was pretty clear that God was less concerned about the reputation of the member and more concerned about putting faith into practice. Showing preferences or favoritism is the opposite of faith. I have to admit, that stings pretty harshly when I read quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. that criticized Sunday at 11a.m. as the most segregated hour in America. Of course, this is not because we want it that way, but it remains our present reality such that we need to ask ourselves, “Are we doing anything about it?”. It’s kind of like the way I recently realized I should not complain that I am not doing anything about my belly, because in truth I am doing something about it. I’m just not helping it shrink.
And as though that 360º mirror of “faith versus personal preferences” weren’t enough, James goes on to tell us that, “faith without works is dead.” Aha! Those with a Reformed heritage will say, “Isn’t that works righteousness? We can’t earn our faith no matter how nice we act.” And right you are. In fact, Martin Luther even argued against including James in the canon of scripture. But here’s why it remains. The words of James are not opposed to the words of Paul who said that we are saved by grace alone. Instead, they are in response to those who believed that their actions did not matter.
Our actions matter in the way that Jesus said, “Each tree is known by its own fruit.” And what about this Jesus? Have we let him off the hook by focusing on his willingness to include the Gentiles? He was a little grumpy to that Syrophoenician Woman. In fact he was downright rude, calling her a dog.
Some have said that Jesus was using her request as a way to open the door to others. Some have said that he was just baiting her so that she might take a stand and be empowered to break through social taboos. Personally, I have always felt that this passage is a great example of the humanity of Jesus. What I think is so very “Jesusy” about this is that he is able to demonstrate his humanity and divinity in the same relationship. Even though he may have been downright mean to her, he was able to “get out of the way” of the gospel – the promise that God is with us.
Korean theologian, Poling Sun, takes it a step further, though. In his article, “Naming the Dog” he acknowledges Syria as a Roman province that literally took it’s bread from Galilee. So, Jesus was essentially naming her as part of a system of oppression as if to say, “Look you’re already taking bread from the Children of God. Now you want God’s blessing on top of it? I don’t think so.” But in her response – we know that she has heard of him and the recent feeding of 5k – she is calling him out on the promise that in God, especially through Jesus, there is always enough grace and mercy to go around.
Thinking about it that way, it may be that her faith is what encouraged Jesus to continue healing as he went out of his way to go deeper into Gentile territory “on his way” back to Galilee. And the one person they brought before him was deaf and mute. He could not have heard. He could not have asked, yet God’s grace was given to him intimately and personally. And even though he was told to keep quiet about it, the good news of Jesus was told all the more widely.
And so here we sit, longing for the table of grace and mercy like the Syrophoenician woman. Let’s give her a name. Let’s call her Karen. Are we ready to name the injustices in our world? I don’t mean in the sense of posting news channel talking points online, although that can certainly start some lively discussions. I mean, are we ready to name injustice in a way requires us to act with the same grace and mercy that we have received?
And when we find that healing has come to us, will we keep quiet? For, having been drawn together by the same demon, we speak of tenacity and expectation as the path that leads to salvation. More so it seems that in the sharing of our pain we have seen its end; not to say that pain is over. More so, that its purpose is made clear.
God does not want us to suffer, but it is through suffering – both ours and others – we find our true humanity. And in those times of suffering we express the mercy that we need so much. In finding that our neighbor is a part of us, we experience nothing less than the presence of God. That is the hope we carry with us to the table today, and it is the blessing we bring with us to every table we are sent to – in our homes, in the café, and even more so with those whose poverty may bring us closer to the Kingdom of God. At least I pray it may be so with me, and I pray that it may be so with you. All to the glory of God, whose kingdom is both present and yet to be revealed in fullness. Amen. Amen, and again I say, Amen.