Psalm 146, Isaiah 35: 4-7a, James 2: 1-17, Mark 7: 24-37
In our reading from the letter of James this morning, we hear James speak out against showing special favour to some people over others, something which James addresses as a sin. To illustrate his point he tells the story of both a rich and a poor person showing up at the assembly. Their arrival creates a decidedly dramatic situation and raises the question of how each will be received. We picture the rich man making a fine entrance, welcomed by all, even if he is a stranger. After all, he wears two badges of belonging. Gold on his fingers sends a clear signal of his high social rank, perhaps a nobleman of equestrian or senatorial position. The rich man’s clothing is also rather splendid, literally bright, shining clothes.
The poorer person, wears clothing quite the opposite of shining. The clothes she wears are filthy, shabby. These clothes look rumpled and out of style. The poor person’s very demeanour implies a lack of confidence. She could be a homeless person. Did she sleep under the awnings of a shop last night?
The usher at the door scopes out both visitors. They are treated according to their attire. The rich man enjoys the red-carpet treatment, escorted to the best seat. The usher relegates the poor person to standing or sitting on the floor by his footstool, to keep an eye on her just in case she asks anyone for money.
What is going on in this scene? What can we take from it? How might it be useful for all of us today?
This passage from James is illustrating the incompatibility of favouritism, or partiality, with faith. In contrast to the people at the assembly, Jesus actually went out of his way to honour the poor. Even his enemies observed that he didn’t evaluate people merely by position or appearance, either rich or poor. And then there is God who chose the poor to be rich in faith, thus heirs of the kingdom.
When James wrote about partiality, he used the word from the Greek, which literally means “to lift up the face on a person”. As Paul said in both the letter to the Romans and Gallatians, “God shows no partiality”, God turns his face from no one.
This passage from James speaks not only to the profound issue of acceptance but also to inclusion.
Later this morning I’m going to baptise a little girl at St Luke's – so as I read these passages I had baptism on my mind. Reflecting on scripture in the light of our own Baptism is something we perhaps don’t do often enough. For many of us it’s a far off thing we don’t remember. But baptism is a life long journey of faith and it’s worth checking back in with our baptism from time to time. This passage and its message of acceptance and inclusion is integral to what baptism means. God’s love is for all of us, no matter who we are. We are all loved as the unique and different individuals we are. In Matthew Chapter 3 – which tells us the story of Jesus’ Baptism in the River Jordan - What God the Father said to Jesus when he came up out of the water of the River Jordan was so amazing and beautiful: ‘You are my beloved child, and I am so pleased with you’. And what’s really wonderful is that God says this to all of us when we are baptized. The love of God is for all of us. He sees us individually as if we were the only person on earth and is so delighted with us, yet this love is for all and forever.
Life is full of new beginnings at the moment – a new academic year about to begin in our schools, colleges and universities, many more people are now returning to the office. There is newness in the air. New friends, colleagues, new members of the church family.
New people, whatever their background, whether they join us in baptism, or at another point in their lives, need to be stitched into the social fabric of the church, not merely formally received as new members. The text from James is neither critical of the rich nor the poor. We are all valued as part of the fabric of the church community. All of us are loved as individuals by God and we should reflect that inclusion in how we show no favouritism to others.
The other element of the passage from James which is helpful when we think about baptism is a message about how we live out our faith in our day to day lives. James encourages us to have an active faith, not just what we say but what do, characterised by showing mercy rather than making judgements. Christian faith and good works (or doing good things )are integrated and not separate. If faith is to produce fruit, it cannot remain dead in empty words. “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Both the reading from James, and the Gospel reading from Mark, tell us something else that is worth holding onto as we start or continue our journey of faith after baptism. Both the poor person who enters the assembly and the Syrophoenician woman in today’s Gospel from Mark, show great courage and tenacity. The person who dared to enter that assembly as an outcast and outsider, and the Syrophoenician woman who dared to approach Jesus as a Gentile woman from the wrong side of the tracks, both show an uncommon and daring faith. The Syrophoenician woman is insulted by Christ after her initial approach by being referred to as a dog (though many think this insult is actually meant as a test of her faith), but her response shows yet more tenacity, and yet more courage. She accepts Jesus’ priority of ministering first to the people of Israel, yet she isn’t satisfied with this. Her faith calls forth a larger vision of God’s mission to the Gentiles. Jesus instantly recognizes the God given wisdom of her words, commends her faith and heals her daughter. Her bravery and perseverance is rewarded.
A life of faith certainly takes tenacity – a need to keep asking to be alive and alert to God. Like the Syrophoenician woman and the outcast daring to enter the assembly – who both actively persevered even in the face of challenge. Having the courage to show up, with humble courage before God. A God who is love itself. Having courage to allow oneself to be loved. And as I baptize a little girl beginning her own Christian journey this morning, this is something I will pray for all of us wherever we might be on that journey from baptism. May we have the grace to love our neighbour as ourselves, may we have the tenacity and bravery to hold onto our faith even in the face of life’s challenges. May we always know that we are God’s beloved children with whom he is well pleased. Amen Rev Melanie Harrington