September 9, 2018

Faith PLUS Action

Passage: James 2:1-17 and Mark 7:24-30

Faith PLUS Action

Faith PLUS Action. This theme comes through loud and clear in the second chapter of James. It also comes through in the gospel story…though the word faith doesn’t even appear. Let’s look first at the reading from the 2nd chapter of James.

Verse 14 of the second chapter of James says: “What good is it, my friends, for someone to claim to have faith, but has not deeds? And then verse 17, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by actions, is dead.” So, a straight forward message. Faith plus action. It builds on the message contained in the first chapter of James which we looked at last week. We must listen and respond. Both are necessary. Listen and respond. Faith plus action.

For James a big part of one’s faith must be action…helping others…showing love to our neighbour. Faith makes a difference in us…which makes a difference in our relationship with one another. In chapter one James mentions taking care of the widows and orphans. In chapter two he extends this thought further by challenging us on how we look upon our neighbours. In James’ day he saw a great disparity between the rich and the poor. He shares with us one example of favoritism based solely on outward appearances. The illustration is from days of old, but relevant still today. Would we have that same reaction if 2 strangers came into this sanctuary – one well dressed and one not so much. What would our reaction be? James saw people in his day reacting with favoritism, and he is quite clear about what this says about us and our love for neighbour. According to James we should never treat people with distinctions that say, ‘A is more worthy that B’. Distinctions are unacceptable. All people are valued, respected and loved. Or as Winnie the Pooh said in response to Piglet’s question, “How do you spell love?” “You don’t spell it, you feel it.” All God’s children should feel God’s love from us. And we do that by living our life guided by the ‘royal law’ – loving our neighbour as our self. That is the most excellent way. Anything else is wrong.

James’ advice is really quite practical. It speaks to how we should be living out our Christian faith on a daily basis…our willingness…or not…to put our faith into action. Faith plus action go together. James never states that that works or action alone brings salvation…but rather that one’s actions makes one’s faithfulness apparent.

In an article entitled “My Mother’s Theology” Terence Lucarelli writes about an expression his mother often said: “Don’t do as I do…do as I say.” We’ve likely all said those words…when we know we’ve fallen short on the action end. If not those words, then perhaps: “Practice what you preach, or walk the talk.” Terence Lucarelli says that the key to what his Mom was saying in her expression “Don’t do as I do…do as I say”, is that little word, “Do.” Just doing is enough, because, in the final analysis, it’s not what you say that’s all that important…but what you do. Because…what you do speaks volumes about what you believe.”

Another writer, Verna Dozier a teacher and theologian, put it this way: “Don’t tell me what you
believe; tell me what difference it makes that you believe.” Our faith should make a difference. Our faith should lead to action. We need to have both faith plus action.

In the book “Green Shoots Out of Dry Ground – growing a new future for the Church in Canada”
there is a chapter entitled ‘where have all the young people gone?’ Well, the author Erika Anderson contends that what drives them away is what they see as static faith…a faith without passion…a faith that is just empty words. What helps them stay are experiences…personal experiences of God, and an environment that grapples intelligently and honestly with how to live out a Christ focused identity in a secular world. Faith plus action.

I think that desire to see faith being lived out…being put into action… is not limited to young people. Authentic faith that is lived 24/7 – not just on Sunday mornings – is inviting. Authentic faith that lives out the command to love your neighbour as yourself. And we can live out that command by following some basic practices: be gracious to those around forgiving…be quick to listen and slow to anger…slow to be upset…be generous…look out for the interests of other people. Opportunities abound…if we but listen to the promptings of the Spirit and respond. Faith plus action. And the command to love your neighbour as yourself is a command that individuals are to follow, and also congregations. God calls congregations to a love that is real and that must be reflected in a true concern and love for neighbour. It means taking time to examine what we do… why we do it…and how we do it…for our actions should always reflect the Christian faith that professes that all are deserving of God’s grace.

The command to love one’s neighbor was a command, of course, that was well known to Jesus. And yet…when he first encountered the woman in the story we read today from the 7th chapter of Mark…it appears that Jesus has set the command aside…at least for a moment.
In the gospel story from Mark, we find Jesus being challenged by a woman…a woman from away…who had heard about Jesus and believed that he was the one that could heal her suffering daughter. And so she went to Jesus.

The story takes place outside of Jesus’ usual stomping grounds. Following last week’s story
about the controversy with the Pharisees about hand washing, Jesus embarks on a long circuitous journey. He begins in the vicinity of Tyre…the location of today’s gospel story…then goes to Sidon and the Decapolis…areas that are today modern Lebanon and Syria. Mark doesn’t tell us why Jesus went to this particular area. We don’t know if he needed a break and wanted to lay low and remain anonymous. Perhaps he was attempting to catch a few days of solitude and silence in the quite of a private home. That explanation would fit with Mark’s words that Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know it.

However solitude was not to be and the news of Jesus presence does not go unnoticed. Somehow hearing that Jesus was nearby, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came to Jesus and fell at his feet. Her daughter was ill and she knew…somehow she knew…that Jesus would listen to her request…not turn her away…and would heal her daughter. And to even get close to Jesus she had to break several rules. She was a woman…a Gentile…a Greek…and she approached Jesus unaccompanied by either a husband or male relative. She alone spoke to Jesus. She begged Jesus to heal her daughter.

You can feel her desperation in the brief details that Mark provides. It didn’t matter to her that she was an outsider. What mattered was the health and well being of her daughter. Can’t you just picture those who were present, just pulling back in shock at this woman’s behavior…her boldness? The Syrophoenician woman was a woman with a great deal of courage…and she used that courage to come before Jesus no matter what people thought. She begs Jesus for help…and what does he do…he responds by turning her down. What? The woman obviously needs help, but Jesus doesn’t help her. He says: “First let the children eat all they want…for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Strong language from Jesus. Insulting language from Jesus. Jesus tells the woman that she is an outsider…a dog…that does not deserve his help. Why did he use that language?

Biblical commentators offer all sorts of speculation…but no one knows for sure why Jesus was so impatient…dismissive…or as some have said, even down right mean-spirited. We wish that Mark had included more information, more description, more context, to help us understand. He didn’t…but what we do know that Jesus’ words don’t deter the woman. She could have left… angry or in tears…but she didn’t. She is determined to receive help for her daughter and so she holds her ground and responds to Jesus…using his own words against him. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She fearlessly persisted. She would not take no for an answer. And she knew that Jesus had the power to heal her daughter. She knew that Jesus’ healing power could not be contained by gender…or race…or status…or ability…or geography…. There is no ‘us and them’ when it comes to who God loves. All boundaries are broken down. The Syrophoenician challenged Jesus…takes him to task really. And at the end of what is a remarkable exchange, Jesus reverses his original response. Jesus sees the woman’s faith…plus her action…and he says to her: “For such a reply, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.”

This story about the Syrophoenician woman is remarkable for many reasons. One of the reasons being that Jesus was changed by this woman, and her dialogue with Jesus. Did you know that there are only 2 places in Mark’s gospel where words spoken by women are recorded? The words of the Syrophoenician woman, and the words of the three women at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning. The impact of this encounter with Jesus cannot be diminished. Faith is a gift from God, and the Syrophoenician woman had faith…that she was willing to put into action. Her faith plus action was demonstrated by her persistent efforts…her hopeful determination… and her trust in Jesus that he could and would heal her daughter. By this trust…this faith…her daughter was healed and they both received life again from God.

Listen and respond. Faith plus action. James’ practical advice and reminder to love our neighbor as our self, is there to be lived out day by day. Jesus showed us in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman the importance of listening to those around us…including those we might be tempted at first to overlook. When it comes to loving our neighbor, there is no us and them.

So what will be our response to God’s Word this day? How will we put God’s Word into action? As I said at the end of last week’s message: We all have the ability to respond. Will we do it? The question is now before us, and with the help and grace of God we can. Thanks be to God. Amen.