James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
My friend, Henri Nouwen, used to say, “Life is what happens while I’m making other plans.” Well, I had plans for this sermon series from James. But life, and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, had other plans; she asked us to make today a day for Confession, Repentance and Commitment around racism. Life happened. The call comes out of the murder by a white racist of nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in June, and our Church’s commitment to stand in solidarity with them.
Today’s focus is a response to the AME’s request that we join them in an ecumenical effort of forgiveness, reconciliation and justice. I remember the African American supervisor of a group of peer supervision I was in saying once that California style racism is some of the most insidious. We don’t think we’re racist because it isn’t as obvious as it is in the south. But our lack of awareness can make us more obnoxious. The forms of racism are more subtle, but just as destructive. We need to raise our awareness.
So as St. A thinks about its mission, I don’t think we face any other human issue more critical than racism. It affects the immigration crisis, the global refugee crisis, the criminal justice system, police-community relations, gentrification, church membership, employment, housing and a host of other matters that touch our community. On this Labor Day weekend we especially think about the impact of racism on employment. If the mission of the church doesn’t address these matters we’re fooling ourselves to think we care about the Reign of God. James put it well, My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? This is not just one category of our life together that we’ll attend to if we have time. We can’t even call ourselves believers if we don’t address our isms, including racism.
Today’s Gospel story about the Syrophoenecian woman is arguably a case of Jesus himself needing to repent and commit to let go of racism and cultural prejudices. That statement will scandalize some. But for me and others, it puts solid grounding under my own repentance and commitment. The woman, who was considered doubly disadvantaged for being a woman and a Gentile, took on the task of advocating for herself: even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs. Jesus had no response but to give her what she asked. But beyond that he learned a lesson, because in the second part of the passage they brought a deaf man to him who was also a Gentile. Jesus didn’t hesitate this time. He responded immediately by healing the man. The Book of Hebrews says Jesus learned obedience by what he suffered. I think the cross cultural encounter with the Syrophoenecian woman was a learning moment for Jesus.
That is the power of the Gospel in today’s story. Jesus repented and changed his behavior. The late Verna Dozier, Episcopal teacher and theologian, put it this way: “Don’t tell me what you believe; tell me what difference it makes that you believe.” That’s what we see both in Jesus and in James. Believing makes a difference in how we treat people.
There has been a lot of commentary this week around Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to grant marriage licenses to same sex couples. I wonder if Kim can repent and change her behavior. Are we open to that possibility? Do we expect it? Why? Or Why not? I read an article this week by a progressive Christian pastor entitled, “I am Kim Davis.” He spoke about his upbringing, which was similar to Kim Davis’, and how he used to believe like her. He has changed. He writes, “I grew up as a theologically conservative Southern Baptist who had to go to drum major camp and took a small bat to sleep with because I was certain all drum majors, other than me, were gay and would obviously try to make a move on me while I slept. Yes, I was that guy. The more I read the words of Jesus, the more progressive Christian writers appealed to me because they seemed to more clearly echo what I read of Jesus’ teachings. In divinity school, Through my own research and writing, I have continued to grow theologically.” He asks, “Why couldn’t it happen to Kim?”
Today might be a learning, changing moment for you. James offers two case studies to support his statement at the end of chapter 1 that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” First he describes a situation that still happens all too often in churches. The homeless person is whooshed off into a corner where the smell and distasteful wardrobe will not get too much attention. When the largest giver arrives at the door, the family is ushered to the best seats in the church. Then he moves to the court of law, where the rich blaspheme the name and very meaning of Jesus by oppressing the poor.
Sometimes entire churches are organized around this view. I pastored a church for 15 years that had a long history of serving the wealthy. It had a beautiful building that was built with money from some of the early oil barons of Los Angeles. My predecessor had attempted to restore the church’s lost glory by attracting people from nearby wealthy neighborhoods where previously many members had resided. When I interviewed with the committee for the position, I told them in no uncertain terms: “If you want to continue trying to get money from the rich in order to serve the poor, I am not the right candidate. But if you want to embrace the neighbors that now live around this church, and let them determine the shape of our ministry, then I can help you do that.” I think they were so desperate that they didn’t see any other options, so they gave me the job.
James uses the word favoritism to describe behavior that favors the rich over the poor, even if that is simply a strategy to “help the poor”. He describes the encounter of rich and poor; but the implications go way beyond economics. They include racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, classism and every ism in the book. It is crucial that we hear what James is saying about this. Partiality is completely counter to faith in Jesus (vs. 1). We can’t say we believe in Jesus and practice partiality. Partiality is at odds with the nature of creation because the Creator favors the poor (vs 5). To choose the rich over the poor is to work at cross purposes with God in creation. That is not wise, and will not result in abundance. Finally, partiality toward the rich doesn’t even serve our own good, because the favored ones are usually the ones who take advantage of us. (vs. 6-7)
I had a conversation with someone this week about why churches don’t have as many people as they used to. He wondered out loud how we can “get back” to the numbers of the 1950s and 60s. I replied that I didn’t think we needed to get back anywhere. We need to move ahead. In the 50s and 60s, women were subservient to their husbands and were consigned to the home; African Americans were not allowed in places that served whites, including churches; and gays were outcasts whose behavior was considered deviant and illegal. I don’t want to “get back” to that, no matter how many people were sitting in the pews.
My friends, as we think about the mission and vision of this church, let’s practice acceptance and affirmation in all our relationships. I’d like you to take a moment right now to close your eyes and reflect: What category of people do you tend to look down on, judge, fear and generally keep at a distance? PAUSE The answer will be different for each of us. But the task is the same: we must confess our bias, repent of our discrimination, and commit to reconciliation. When we do that in our personal lives, and stay awake to the ways that people in the world are being oppressed by discrimination, we will not be able to avoid including in our mission the task of overcoming oppression, whether it be racial, sexual, economic, political, or any other kind of discrimination.