Loving Beyond Our Differences (a sermon from James 2:1-17 and Mark 7:24-30)

Martha Sterne, in her little book, Earthly Good: Reflections of Life and God, tells about the time an old friend morphed into an unacceptable person. Mrs. Caldwell, who Martha knew was a teacher somewhere, lived a few doors down. She would stop by their house from time to time with treats. She taught her little songs, how to play canasta, and took a wonderful picture of her and her cat. Mrs. Caldwell, says Martha, had fat sausage curls all over her head, just like Aunt Pitty-Pat in Gone with the Wind. And on each cheek was a small, bubblegum-pink, perfectly round circle of rouge. Martha says that she knew Mrs. Caldwell was very beautiful because she loved her and showed it.

Well, the years went by. They moved to a new neighborhood. Martha says she worked very hard in junior high to become cool and achieved a kind of fragile success. Then on the first day of her sophomore year in fourth period class guess who turns out to be her algebra teacher? Mrs. Caldwell – complete with sausage curls and rouge circles – and she was the laughing stock of the school. Mrs. Caldwell was so glad to see Martha. Martha wasn’t so glad. And guess what? She showed it.

I suspect at some point in our lives we have all treated badly those whose only crime was that they weren’t cool. Maybe they were just different in some way or maybe in some way disadvantaged – didn’t have what the others had. But the cool people made fun of them. I am ashamed to say that I was caught up in that at one time as a kid. In order to fit in with the cool people I did what the cool people did, even when I knew in my heart it was wrong.  

There is something similar going on in the congregation or congregations James describes in this passage. The community James describes treated the richly attired person with honor. The well-to-do person is invited to come close, to sit in a choice seat, and be comfortable. The disadvantaged person is ignored and scorned. The disadvantaged person is regarded as a kind of non-presence, a non-person, a nobody. James points out how utterly foreign such behavior is to the one the community gathers to worship. Such behavior James points out is utterly contrary to the values of the Christ in whose name they have gathered.

I don’t know if this happened or if Tony Campolo just made this up, but he tells about two boys in Philadelphia where he grew up, on the night before Halloween they broke into a five-and-dime store. The two boys didn’t steal anything. Instead, they changed the price tags on just about everything in the store.

The next morning, radios were selling for ten cents, while bobby pins were priced at 10 dollars. What was valuable had been reduced to practically nothing, and what was cheap had been rendered valuable.

A similar thing can happen in communities that lose their way. They forget who they are, what they are about, and their values get all mixed up. Christian communities/churches are no exceptions. 

When this happens in churches, in Christian communities, or simply in high profile individual Christians, it really exposes Christian inauthenticity and hypocrisy. We see this playing out right now in the life of Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses, claiming that her religious beliefs were being violated. She has been all over the news and the internet this past week. And on Thursday U.S. District Judge Bunning sent her to jail. The couples who originally sued in the case asked Bunning to fine her but not jail her. Bunning said that sending her to prison was his only alternative because he did not believe she would comply with his order even if she were fined.  

I have to admit I have looked at this woman with some disdain. I have thought, “Oh great, another example here in Kentucky of Christian fundamentalism and religious hypocrisy for all the world to see and poke fun at.” So generally, when I heard her name mentioned on television or came across another news story or opinion piece about her I would feel frustration welling up within me.

But something happened this past week that got through my defense mechanisms and touched by true self. I don’t know why, but when I read an article earlier in the week that talked about the possibility that she could be jailed or fined for being held in contempt of court (and I knew this already, but for some reason when I read it this time) somehow the Spirit broke through and was able to turn me in a different direction, a direction more in keeping with what James calls the royal law, the perfect law of liberty, which is the law of love.    

Here is what I thought. I don’t know where it came from. I would like to think it was from Christ. But for some reason, when I saw her picture and read the article, I felt compassion. I felt sorrow. I felt sympathy. Here’s what I thought: It makes sense when someone faces consequences for standing up for what is just and fair and right, the way the civil rights marchers did. It is commendable when those who oppose injustice - like  unjust wars or discrimination of minorities – stand up for justice and take on unjust systems of government and power. We applaud that or should. And while those who do take such stands often get beaten down or sometimes jailed or mocked or ridiculed, they stand forth for all time as witnesses to authentic faith and courage. And that, sisters and brothers, is commendable is it not? Even though the consequences can be rough, their faith and courage is commendable.

Then it hit me. Here is a woman who faces consequences, and now is currently in jail, for what? For standing up for equality and justice? No. For standing with the vulnerable and marginalized? No. Why is she jailed? For what? For standing up for what she believes? Yes. But what is it she believes?  

Yes, there is a group of conservative Christians which views her as a hero. But what will she be known for in society? If she is remembered at all she will be remembered as someone trying to cling to the past and assert her religious beliefs on others. She will be remembered as someone who made a last ditch stand for discrimination. Think about it. For that she is to be pitied.  And that is why I feel compassion for Kim Davis.

Earlier last week before the judgment by Bunning she said, “I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s word.” And though there are critics who mock this, I really do get it. She really does think she is being faithful to Christ. She does not see. She is blind to what is. She cannot see the hypocrisy and discrimination in her actions.
She does not see and in this regard she is comparable to the Christians James is talking about in this passage. They did not see. They were catering to the well-to-do and ignoring and disrespecting the poor. James says, “Don’t you see? Are you that blind? Do you not know that in God’s value system, in God’s world those who have the least in this world are the very ones who are rich in faith and are heirs of God’s kingdom.”

In fact, says James, the rich, the well-to-do, the powerful people of this world are the ones who oppress you. They drag you into court to take what little you have and they disrespect your faith. But you do not see.  

They couldn’t see. Kim Davis doesn’t see. And what is true of the congregation in our text and what is true of Kim Davis is also true with regard to you and me on some level. Maybe not to the same degree, but on some level we all have trouble seeing. A large part of our spiritual growth and development is about taking our blinders off and learning how to see.

Even Jesus needed some help seeing according to our Gospel reading today. Did you find the Gospel reading today in Mark a little troubling? (If you didn’t it’s because you have already thought about this or you were asleep during the reading or you chose not to think about it. And the last option is the one many Christians choose. Unfortunately, there are not a few Christians who refuse to think).

Maybe Jesus got into a bit of a rut. From all indications in the text, Jesus wasn’t going to expend the energy to heal the little daughter of this woman from Syrophoenicia, this Gentile woman’s daughter. In fact, his response seems so out of character doesn’t it? He says, “Let the children be fed first (referring to his fellow Jews), for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did Jesus really say that? No way to know for sure, but most likely he did. It’s hard to imagine a follower of Jesus creating this sort of response. I find it somewhat amazing that this saying didn’t get edited out. So, here it it. But this Gentile woman did not take offense did she? I would and you would, but she didn’t. She was persistent. She responded, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then Jesus healed her daughter.

I would like to think that maybe she helped Jesus see something he wasn’t seeing at the moment. Maybe Jesus was too locked on, too preoccupied with his work among his own people. So even Jesus had to keep opening his eyes. Even Jesus was impacted by others who helped him to see.

I heard about a urban pastor who led his church to create a soup kitchen in the basement to help feed the many homeless people who lived in that part of the city. Over time many of these homeless people began to wander in to church on Sunday. The upper middle-class folks were not all comfortable with that.

At some point a deacon took the pastor aside and asked him, “Do these people have to be here with us? Can’t we provide a special service just for them?”

The pastor said, “Well, I think everybody should have an opportunity to meet Jesus personally.” “Well, of course,” responded the deacon, “everyone should have a chance to meet Jesus. Sure they should have an opportunity to meet Jesus.”

The pastor said, “I’m not talking about them! I’m talking about you!”

That’s where we find Jesus isn’t it? In, with, and among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable among us. That’s where Jesus is. These are the ones, says James, who are called to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. If only we could see.  

I’m sure I have practiced favoritism. I’m sure I have hown partiality in ways that I am not even aware of. I suspect you have too. Our ego blinds us to our sins.

So somehow we have to help each other see. Sometimes it is you who does not see, sometimes it is me. Surely part of what it means to be a Christian community is that we can help each other in those areas where we tend to be blind. 

It’s easy to find fault in others, but it is much harder to find fault in ourselves. We can become so intoxicated by our personal views, our positions, the stands we take that we are like a drunk trying to walk a straight line. The guy tries so hard to walk straight doesn’t he? He stares down, he wants to do it right. But his senses fail him. He wobbles and drifts. There is no balance, no perspective. He cannot see.

We need the whole community to help us stay balanced. I am, of course, referring to our local community, our faith community here - we need each other. But I also mean other faith communities, other voices, other perspectives, even those outside our Christian tradition. Christ can speak to us from a variety of places. 

We all need to keep before us what it means to be a follower of Christ. It’s not what we believe about Christ that is of ultimate importance, but how we embody and model the life of Christ. James is clear on this: faith, without works, without deeds, without active engagement and involvement, is no faith at all.  

James admonishes us to live and act as those who will be judged by the law of liberty, the law of love. That’s what matters. The question is this: Is our faith turning us into more loving persons? If it’s not, there is something wrong somewhere.

And once again, it’s much easier to see this need in others than in ourselves. I look at Kim Davis and think: What if the law of love became the basis of her actions, instead of her bias against same-sex couples which she justifies by her faith? I can see this clearly over there, but how about right here, in my heart, in my life and in my relationships? I can’t do anything about Kim Davis but I sure can do a lot about my own prejudices and biases and unloving ways if I will first, see them, admit them and second, get serious and do something about them.

Do I have the will (the drive, the determination) to work on my faith by making my faith work? Do I have the will to replace my negative, selfish patterns with more compassionate, gracious ones? Am I willing to be judged by the law of love so that I can become a more loving person?

Gracious God, forgive me when I judge others without first judging myself. Forgive me for reacting without trying to understand and identify with those who like Jesus said, “Do not know what they are doing.” And help me to see more than I have been willing to admit that in any number of ways I am the one who does not know what he is doing. Help us, Lord, to see and judge in ourselves any partiality or prejudice that may be lurking in our hearts. Help us to learn how to love consistently, impartially, unconditionally, the way Christ loves us and wants us to love others. Amen.   


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