Pentecost, Sept. 5, 2021

Uncomfortable Words

This is not the Jesus we are used to: the one on vacation, the one with sharp words — this is not the Jesus of “come to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest..” (Mt 11:28). This story paints a different picture, one that’s difficult to fathom. He just seems so over the top as he delivers his pithy message to the woman

Historians and scholars alike have tried to parse out what he means when he speaks to the syrophoenician woman, how he’s saying what he’s saying. Still, it comes  across so unkind. Not like him.  Was he joking? If so, we’ve missed the meaning; and, if you’ve got to explain it, it’s not funny.  It may be banter, the back and forth of people being ironic: “oh, get out of here, woman!” “Oh, grow up, Jesus!”  Perhaps imaginable, but not much better.

While we can’t easily figure out what is going on, what is unequivocal is this: her actions, what she will do for her daughter. Barge in, interrupt, be a nuisance, persist… anything. Desperate people do desperate things, even trusting those you don’t know much about. Or you only know by reputation. 

Like handing a child over a barricade to a soldier.

When you’ve pinned your salvation, your freedom and wholeness on someone, you are not going to take no for an answer, no matter how the word is delivered. So armed with a mother’s love, she takes Jesus on. No doubt about that.

These past few weeks we’ve seen incredible and compelling stories of bravery from our armed forces, from our first responders, from people who in times of great distress or emergency have made the choice to put themselves in harm’s way, whether in Haiti, Afghanistan, in Louisiana  or in our own state. We should be eternally grateful to them.

Doctors and nurses, search and rescue first responders, police and firefighters, and of course our armed forces, have acted with determination: professionally, compassionately, heroically.

I’ve always been in awe of people who enlist or join the ranks of first responders. We have had several of our young people here make that life choice. Their motivations vary. Some feel duty bound, some want a way to hone skills or learn new ones. Some want a place to land while they are growing up, investing in their future.  While serving, they deepen their knowledge of themselves, they mature.  Their lives fall into place. Service members, no matter what type of duty, learn and swear to a code of honor, ethics, they commit to certain behavior.  They live by that code sometimes even after they leave the service.

The church shares a similar type of configuration, so it’s no wonder that you find the same type of language among us: we speak of commitments as vows, we talk about faith as a way of life; we as clergy, talk about being deployed when we accept a call at a church; and we all  approach the world with a particular point of view because of this.

But I don’t imagine, we think of our faith as ‘service’ in the same way, though. 

Ours is a more comfortable approach, nothing like boot camp. We have nice rituals and lovely buildings and speak about ‘practicing our faith’ in terms of attending worship.  We expect comfort from our faith, a place to get our spiritual needs met,  a place to retreat from the world. 

But as Jesus himself finds out, even when you try to retreat, the world barges right in and demands action.

It is what James reminds us in his letter: “If you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? … faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  In other words, there has to be a visible, tangible outcome of faith.  In other words, if you’re going to claim to be a Christian, better put your boots on.

Faith is a practice, not just a set of beliefs.  

James calls out the modern custom of ‘sending thoughts and prayers’ to those who face calamity and catastrophe. “Take care,” we say. And those suffering respond incredulously: “how?” James reminds us that we cannot live our lives of faith from the comfort of our churches; we are called to the trenches, to the places where the poor and neglected live and move and have their being.  And the language of the battlefield, if not the imagery, is entirely appropriate.

Because it’s a war out there. So don’t get too comfortable.

There’s a war for resources right in our State, from Newark to Elizabeth, Manville, and places in between as they try to recover from Hurricane Ina.  There’s a battlefield in every hospital that’s trying to save people dying from COVID.  The disease of addiction is being fought in every neighborhood in this country. California is burning up and Louisiana is drowning. There’s a fight for humanitarian aid in Haiti. There’s a confrontation of ideologies war being played out in Afghanistan, with disastrous consequences. People everywhere are dying, and where they are not, they could be doing so much better if only we would act, live out our faith. 

Because here’s the thing.  The gospel of Jesus makes it clear that salvation isn’t an individual accomplishment. No, “for us and for our salvation” means that we are inevitably linked to each other. My salvation, yours and theirs are irrevocably intertwined. 

“You may see your own as a priority,” the woman reminds Jesus, “but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get anything: I will settle for crumbs.” So he does not hold back from the woman, impertinent as she may be. Jesus, agrees or relents –not sure which– and does what is asked of him.  Her daughter is cured. Her act of faith saves someone else. There are so many who will settle for our crumbs.

And while these words may seem hurtful, think of them instead of a call to service. Believe that there are so many ways in which you can put your faith to work. Faith is not about the things we believe, but how what we believe makes us act in the world. And every day there’s a new opportunity.  Every day the world needs saving. That’s what we enlisted for. 

What continues in our liturgy is the affirmation of faith, otherwise known as the Creed, literally, “what we believe…” before we go there, though, let’s affirm what we practice.

Join me in the Prayer of St. Francis page 833 in the BCP

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.  Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand’ to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

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