St. John's Episcopal Church

Sermon for September 9, 2018

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carol Hancock


St. John's, Centreville
September 9, 2018
Proper 18 B
Mark 7:24-37
     Take my lips, O Lord, and speak with them; take our minds and think with them; take our hearts and set them on fire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
     "The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all." All of our readings this morning have to do with the equality of all people, particularly the rich and the poor, as children of God.
     In our Old Testament lesson from Proverbs, we are told that the rich and the poor are alike because God is the author and giver of all life. The rich are blessed by God when they help the poor. But its not just rich and poor that this proverb is addressing. It's anything that separates us into groups, into us and them, into "otherness" - immigrants, rednecks, gay and lesbians, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Republicans and Democrats. God has made each and every one of us, in the image of God, not making one group better than another. Suspicion, discrimination, and prejudice about a whole group of people, because they are different from us, is wrong.
     The New Testament letter of James picks up on the same theme of equality before God. The author gives the example of a rich man, dressed in fine clothes and jewelry, who goes into an assembly, perhaps the synagogue, and is ushered to a good seat. A poor man, dressed in rags and probably with an odor about him, also comes into the assembly and is told to stand against the wall or to sit on the floor, at the feet of others. Why are they treated so differently? Because of their difference in wealth, the haves and the have nots. One can dress well and one cannot. One can take a shower and one cannot. So one is respected and one is not. Perhaps it also goes to the fact that the man who is wealthy will undoubtedly be able to give more money to the synagogue than the poor man. So give him the preferred seat. Maybe he can help us pay the bills, buy the new water heater or the new roof. Maybe, but the poor man is just as much a child of God as the rich man, and when they die, it won't matter who has money and who does not. When we have a funeral in the church, we put a white pall or covering over the casket so no one knows if is a casket made of solid gold, or a plain wooden pine box, because we are all the same in the eyes of God. The same is true of cremations. It is covered so no one knows if it's a fancy, expensive urn or a plastic box.
    I think we tend to categorize "the poor" as weak, or lazy, or uneducated. We try not to notice the homeless as we drive around town - out of sight, out of mind. We don't want to make eye contact with the people who hold up signs in intersections or parking lots, saying they are unemployed, or homeless, or hungry with children to feed. It makes us feel uncomfortable and they may want more than we can give. Maybe it's a scam, we say. And it might be. Or it might really be a person in need.
     We all have our ways of reacting to people who are poor. Maybe we give them a few dollars. Maybe we tell them where the nearest food pantry is. Maybe we ignore them. But we are not here to judge them, or judge others who help or don't help. But to at least recognize them as children of God with dignity and respect, who, for whatever reason, are in the position of needing to ask for money, that's the least we can do.
     In our gospel lesson from Mark, we hear that Jesus is trying to find some quiet time to be by himself. But as often happens, someone finds him and needs his help. This time it is a  Syrophoenician woman, in other words, a Gentile and not a Jew. She desperately asks for Jesus to heal her daughter, who is suffering from an unclean spirit. Today we might call it mental illness, or perhaps epilepsy. At some point, she must have heard about Jesus and his power to heal people. She must have believed that he could help her daughter. Even though she is a woman and a Gentile, she boldly asks Jesus for help.
     Jesus' reaction and reply to her is not something we would expect from Jesus. He 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." Jesus is telling this woman that his mission is for the Jews and the Jews alone, and he calls her a dog. Rather than being deterred by his remark, she boldly replies, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
     Some commentators try to explain this passage by saying Jesus was very tired and was trying to get some rest. He was provoked at being interrupted. Other commentators say that Jesus was aware of the economic hardship that many Jews in the region of Tyre experienced due to the exploits of the Gentile landowners and his rebuff of the woman reflected that anger. No commentators explanation is really satisfactory and we are left to ponder what Jesus really meant.
     Jesus' earlier understanding was that he was to spread the gospel to the Jews, the people chosen by God. They should be fed first. But the woman argues with this assumption by saying that the Gentiles are just as important and they should at least be offered the "crumbs" of his ministry. They, too, should be able the hear the gospel.
     Perhaps this is an awakening for Jesus, a moment of clarity. Perhaps his mission is not restricted to the Jews, that God's love expands beyond all boundaries and barriers. And he heals the woman's daughter. Jesus reaches outside his own ethnic group and invites us to do the same, recognizing all ethnic groups as children of God.
     There was a big division between the Jews and the Gentiles. They did not like each other, to say the least. In other passages, Jesus does share the gospel with anyone who will listen, even the Samaritans. He tries to break down barriers between groups - Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor.
     I think our readings this morning are inviting and encouraging us to do the same - to break down barriers, to stop putting people in categories with labels on them because we are all beloved children of God - no one better than anyone else, all loved in the eyes of God.
    I think Jesus calls us to see each person as an individual, a person with gifts and talents, with flaws and difficulties. God calls us to see Christ in each other, rich or poor, black or white, Christian or Muslim, Republican or Democrat. We don't have to like them or agree with their views. But God calls us to love one another as God loves us. May we follow Gods call today and always and follow our baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being. Amen.
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