Who Should EatOff the Floor?
Pentecost 16 – Proper 18
My travels this summer, which, as I said last week, took me well over 20,000 miles in three months, were packed full of all kinds of adventures and stories. I’ll be sharing some of those, of course, over the weeks, maybe even months, ahead – depending on how long I can milk this – because I had a lot of truly wonderful experiences.
Something happened right here in this very room yesterday, however, that slapped me upside the head, because it helped me see the common thread in the experiences and adventures I had in so many different places.
What happened yesterday was that we had a funeral, a Celebration of Life, for the Reverend Harvey Buxton, whom I’ve known for years and years. Harvey he often came to Celtic Kirk on Saturday nights. He was exactly 16 days younger than my mother.
Harvey died in mid-August while I was still away, and his family asked me if his memorial service could be here at Good Shepherd after I returned from sabbatical. Of course, I was happy to do so.
The sermon was given by the Rev. Dr. Allen Robinson, who had known Harvey nearly all his life, since Allen was 8 years old, when Harvey served at Allen’s church in Texas.
Now, there were three priests who had a part in the service, and they wore the mics just like Cindy and I are wearing now. The mics blended in with the skin of two of the priests, but not with the skin of Pastor Allen.
When it comes to standard-issue mics, they are beige; Pastor Allen isn’t beige; he doesn’t fit the standard-issue norm. Now, the mic worked just fine for him and maybe I’m the only one who noticed, but I did notice. It struck me that I, too, spent a great deal of time this summer not fitting the norm of whatever place I was in.
In Cuba, the norm is to speak Spanish. Now, I can muddle through in Spanish, but English is my norm, which puts me in the minority in the world. 1 Chinese has by far the most native speakers, Spanish has the second most, English has the third. If you’re curious, Arabic has the fourth.
However, even in Cuba, we had something in common: we ALL know Jesus; Christ of Havana is a statue and landmark everyone knows, and even in a communist county, the vast majority of Cubans are at least nominally Roman Catholic. In Scotland and England, of course my accent was the unusual one, and their summer weather was downright strange: 48° F on June 15? really?
Today’s Collect and Scripture readings are at the end of the sermon text.
Copyright notices: The Scripture text (except for the Psalm) is from the Common English Bible, CEB, Copyright 2010, 2011 by Common English Bible. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, all other content is original and copyrighted by Becky Robbins-Penniman, 2018. All rights reserved.
And although I looked a lot like everyone else there, the country’s ways, habits and modes of getting things done were so different that I had to stay on my toes constantly –such as remembering first to look RIGHT when crossing the street, because when you drive on the left, the traffic comes from right. You can die if you forget that. Their norm was a hazard for me.
What we all share as a norm is brand names: Starbucks, Burger King, KFC. American fast food brands are all over the place, same as here. Now, in Greece, their traffic was back to what I consider normal, but their alphabet certainly is not, and even the letters that look the same represent a different sound. An example: Here’s an English word we all know: Eucharist, pronounced YOO-kah-rist. It means “Thanksgiving”. It’s a word in America we use only in church. In Greek, the word for “thank you,” not just in church but always – is
– pronounced eff-CAR-ee-STOW. As I said, some letters look like ours, but are pronounced differently – I mean, where is the “F” in that word?
Anyway, we probably heard
1,000 times a day – Greeks are very polite.
And, yes, my 5 years of seminary Greek let me READ a lot of things in Greece, but I had no clue what people were saying, except for thank you,
Good Morning (“Kala” is “good,” “mera” is “morning.”) and please/You’re welcome, both of which are
[PAR-ah-kah-LOW], (“Para” is “For” or “to,” “Kalo”, as you know, is “good.”) Parakalo roughly means “For what’s good” or “It’s for the best.”
I understood those words because, as I said, Greeks are very polite and say those words a lot.
I LOVED hearing and saying “Eucharist” a 1,000 times a day –THAT’s how to make a priest happy! Even so, my experience for a good part of the three months I was away, was that I did not fit the norm of the place I was in. As cool and exciting and delightful as these places were, it’s also kind of exhausting. You have to ask for help, pay close attention, think things through, not react and get upset when things aren’t what you expect, and try again and again to do simple things like buy a train ticket. Normal is so much more comfortable. Even for Jesus.
Today we heard about a time when even Jesus wanted things to be comfortable. He needs a break, he’s trying to get far, far away and hide out for a while, when along comes a stranger, a woman who is outside his norms. She’s a Greek, she’s not Jewish, and she is set on bothering him when he just wants to get some much-needed rest.
So, when she asks for help, he’s rude to her. He really is. But she pays attention, thinks things through, declines be reactive, and tries again after he gives her a flat “no.”
Using polite logic to make her point she says, basically: This isn’t hard for you, Mister, because you’re ALREADY healing everything, healing is what you do, and it is what I need from you. You think people who aren’t like you, people like my daughter and me, deserve to eat off the floor. OK. But when we come to eat what you let fall there, don’t kick us away.
She gently, very subtly, holds a mirror to Jesus to ask: Is this your norm? That it’s OK to tell a desperate mother of a sick child to get lost? Well, no, Jesus does indeed know that’s not how things are supposed to be. So the Prince of Peace banishes a demon of darkness from a human life. THAT is Jesus’ norm. He won’t forget this again.
In fact, he makes an extra-special effort with the next person, the deaf-mute man. This time, when friends beg for Jesus’ help to heal him, he gets really personally involved in the case. His methods were not our norm for medical care, but, hey, whatever works. After this, people say he does “everything well.” The Greek word for “Well” used here is
which means “good,” but better here,” excellently.”
The excellent things Jesus did were right out of the prophesies of Isaiah. Isaiah some 800 years earlier describes our God as the kind of God who heals the blind, deaf, and lame, who makes the tongues of the speechless sing. God saves us and Creation by doing everything well, making it all excellent. That’s God’s norm. It’s this norm by which Jesus lived and acted.
The letter from James we read then shifts the focus from what God’s norms are to ask the church about its norms, what the people in church think it means to, like Jesus, do everything well, to make things excellent.
James has become aware that some “religious” people have it all backwards! They weren’t working to make things excellent for the poor, hungry and cold; they were fawning over the people for whom life is already excellent and making the poor, hungry and cold sit on the floor, if not eat off of it.
The world’s definition of excellent, those worldly standards James decries, encourages us to serve our own comfort, our own opinions, our own status, our own privilege. These are the norms, the worldly standards, of our society both then and now; we see it every day.
James holds a mirror to the church, to those who say they believe in God and God’s excellence, and asks, “Really? Or are worldly standards actually your norm? Norms that say it’s OK to curry favor with the rich and heap even more indignities on the poor?”
Well, says James, that’s not how things are supposed to be. This isn’t faith in the God shown to us by Jesus. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, not serve ourselves.
As my travels showed me, our neighbors around the world include an astonishing variety of people and places. We need to look at the norms we routinely live by, that we take for granted, and shine the bright, searching light of Christ on them.
This will often make us very, very uncomfortable as our comfort, opinions, status, and sense of privilege are exposed as deeply self-serving. When we are uncomfortable, we sure can get defensive… and then offensive.
We have a clear example of this now in the Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick and this whole controversy over players taking a knee. With lightning speed, everyone has predictably leapt into polarized corners and started hurling very ugly words at each other. Is this how Christians are supposed to act? Is this our norm? That it’s OK to rush to opposing corners surrounded only by people who think like we do, vilifying God’s children in the other corner with all the passionate energy we can muster?
This is how followers of the Prince of Peace are to live, acting like demons of darkness towards each other? No, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
Remember: this is about advertising and Nike is suddenly being talked about by everyone, so Nike is laughing all the way to the bank. How about we remember this is also about TV sports, entertainment, a GAME for goodness’ sake, and focus on the real issue, the one that came to forefront for me yesterday at a funeral: that Rev. Dr. Allen Robinson’s skin color doesn’t fit our norm. Which makes him, what? abnormal? But he isn’t. He is, in a word, excellent. Shining the bright light of Christ, on this, maybe it’s the norm that needs to be changed.
So instead of rushing to opposing corners and yelling, what if we changed our norms so that no one is higher or better than the other? What if we stopped our favoritism towards those like us, and really listened to other people, different people, even if they talk in languages and accents that are hard for us? I guarantee you, those others have had experiences we can’t even imagine, and they can tell us about the world as it is for them.
The converse is also true; we do have things to say. But since it’s OUR norms we are examining in the light of Christ, we first need to listen, listen to understand, not to respond; to listen so well that we can tell the other person what we heard them say in a way that THEY acknowledge is accurate. It doesn’t mean we agree with them, it simply means we’ve really heard them.
After noting our differences, we can work towards discerning together what faithful activity is necessary for things to be excellent for us all, using GOD’s norms of excellence, not our worldly standards.
If this whole notion of shining the light of Christ on our norms exhausts and upsets you, you’re in good company. Jesus felt the same way, once. But he didn’t stay there, did he? He listened, he understood, and he did something excellent. You and I, us, the Church, we need to be excellent, too.
COLLECT OF THE DAY
Gracious God, throughout the ages you transform sickness into health and death into life. Open us to the power of your presence, and make us a people ready to proclaim your promises to the whole world, through Jesus Christ, our healer and Lord.
Say to those who are panicking: “Be strong! Don’t fear! Here’s your God, coming with vengeance; with divine retribution God will come to save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing. Waters will spring up in the desert, and streams in the wilderness.
The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water. The jackals’ habitat, a pasture.
Praise the Lord, you that fear him; stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;all you of Jacob’s line, give glory.
For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; neither does he hide his face from them; but when they cry to him he hears them.
My praise is of him in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied, and those who seek the lord shall praise him: “May your heart live for ever!”
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations bow before him.
For kingship belongs to the lord; he rules over the nations.
JAMES 2:1–10, 14–17
My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evilminded judges?
My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?
You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it.
My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
“Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.
After leaving the region of Tyre, Jesus went through Sidon toward the Galilee Sea through the region of the Ten Cities. Some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly speak, and they begged him to place his hand on the man for healing.
Jesus took him away from the crowd by himself and put his fingers in the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. Looking into heaven, Jesus sighed deeply and said, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Open up.” At once, his ears opened, his twisted tongue was released, and he began to speak clearly.
Jesus gave the people strict orders not to tell anyone. But the more he tried to silence them, the more eagerly they shared the news. People were overcome with wonder, saying, “He does everything well! He even makes the deaf to hear and gives speech to those who can’t speak.”
SERMON HYMN: Christ, Be Our Light