September 5, 2021
Keep that story of the Syrophoenician woman in your mind as we now read from James… because these words from James express the spirit… that divine principle we are to strive for… principles that are behind her story. Listen as God now to speak to you from James 2 starting with verse 1.
Faith without works is dead. That’s the strong true statement this letter clearly makes. Faith that is only words you say without meaning or intent… or empty statements of belief that you make without understanding or conviction… faith without works is dead. Faith that is built upon principles and ethics and scripture that illuminates the cross… faith without the correct corresponding and real actions in the world… that faith is dead. This not a unique idea to James. By their fruits you will know them… and you will be known. It’s a lesson we repeat again and again because we know not only the truth of it… but we know that if we don’t listen… if we don’t heed these words… we will be little more than worthless hypocrites deluding themselves. If we don’t heed these words… faith without works is dead… we will never be real disciples… we will be little more than do nothing bystanders with pretty words and ideas that we like to spout now and again.
The faith of the Syrophoenician woman is clear to anyone with eyes to see. It may not have a name or a proper religious label under which it can be categorized. She believes God is merciful and just. She is the embodiment of so many words of scripture. “I know the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor. Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name; the upright shall live in your presence.” That’s from Psalm 140. Or consider these words from Psalm 10 and how they relate to this scene from Mark. “For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord. In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, ‘God will not seek it out’; all their thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’ Their ways prosper at all times; your judgments are on high, out of their sight… They think in their heart, ‘We shall not be moved; throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.’ Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless; they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert; they lurk that they may seize the poor; they seize the poor and drag them off in their net. They stoop, they crouch, and the helpless fall by their might. They think in their heart, ‘God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.’ Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed. Why do the wicked renounce God, and say in their hearts, ‘You will not call us into account’? But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands; the helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan. O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed…”
The Syrophoenician woman seeks justice… she seeks God’s mercy for her child. This is the right and proper work of her faith. She seeks justice and mercy for someone else in need. It’s not about her… so deep is her mother’s love for her daughter. It is a depth of love that Jesus encourages all his disciples to feel for one another. Love one another as I have loved you. How many times do we need to repeat Jesus’ one clear commandment before it connects? This is not a surface love, Christ demands. This is a love that because of the weight of mercy and love and sacrifice… this is a love that is to go deep into our very being… a love that cannot be excised from our hearts by the callousness of the world… by the prejudice and contempt that we meet… by the spirit of wickedness described so well in the tenth Psalm… that deceiving voice that tells us that this love… the works of this love are not what matters most to God… that God cares more about our approach about scripture… or what side of some stupid culture war we fall on… or what political party we’re associated with… God will not judge us by how well we loved as God loves us.
And yet, that’s the heart wrenching twist of this story every time we hear it… because in this story mercy gets tempered by deservedness. The Syrophoenician woman… she isn’t even given a name… we know her by only by the label of her undeservedness… she seeks mercy and justice from a prophet of God. We know this prophet’s name. We know who this prophet is… and our expectations get triggered. This is the right prophet for her to seek out… this is the prophet who specializes in mercy and justice. We know where this story is going. But looking at it from her point of view, she goes to this prophet about whom she has heard… seeking the God in whom she hopes and believes and trusts… and she is instead met with words of wickedness. She is told she is of the wrong sort. She is told she does not fit the bill. She is told she is outside of the purview of God’s love… that it is only meant for some… an exclusive group… and she does not meet the cut. Now go away. Judgment triumphs over mercy for her.
Favoritism. Partiality. Two giant holes in our bucket as we seek to be vessels of God’s love. James is right. We cannot show favoritism or partiality and at the same time expect to fulfill the royal law… “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Last Sunday I gave you all the challenge to discern and define what would be your five fundamentals of faith… reimagine and prioritize what are five essentials to Christian faith. Did that one make your list? You shall love your neighbor as yourself? If this is truly a defining characteristic of your faith it will demand a certain type of work… and if that work is not forthcoming… then it is clearly not a defining characteristic of your faith. The faith of our mouths must match the faith of our hands because when they don’t… the true faith of heart gets revealed in a way that we cannot spin or gaslight away.
When the Syrophoenician woman is rebuffed. When she is told to go away. When she is told she has no place at the table. She remains faithful. She remains true to her hope that God is the God of the weak who find their strength in faith. She doesn’t become angry. She doesn’t pitch a fit or even scream about her deservedness that is not being acknowledged. She persists knowing that mercy and justice are not limited commodities. She persists knowing that God’s love isn’t finite… that if she is shown love that somehow… somewhere… some other child of God will not be loved. Her persistence sends clearly the message that here… now… you have the opportunity to show love to a neighbor. Here… now… you have the chance to do a work of mercy… a work of mercy you can perform. Here… now… you can bring some grace into the world… grace… the law of liberty… grace that isn’t interested in credentials, but is only interested in setting people free to love as they are loved… here is a work of grace before you… an opportunity to give witness to the true character of God. Will you take it?
You and I both know that had Jesus not healed her child. If he had insisted on the purity of his doctrine… a doctrine in which she had no place… we would not be here today. That that Jesus would ring hollow to us. I mean, where’s the good news if Jesus doesn’t welcome all? If Jesus only extends grace to some sinners and not to others? Grace can’t be grace and be controlled by arbitrary rules and guidelines. You can’t be both Christian and a Syrophoenician woman. What? Grace is the one thing we all need… and only Christ can give to us that grace. It would be like if a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of us says to them, Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet we do nothing to supply their bodily needs. What’s the good of that? It would be like a church declaring it is welcoming to all, but in practice… with their works they reveal a different faith at work.
I was looking at an old sermon on this James passage and I was reminded of some my experiences with the works of congregations… works that revealed the real faith at work in those communities. Works that have been repeated again and again in different congregations. Such as… works that happen when a big financial giver becomes unhappy with something within the congregation… and how quickly that person with gold rings and fine clothes is appeased at the expense of others… more often than not at the expense of the integrity of that community’s faith as a whole. People so afraid that they are willing to knowingly do the wrong thing just so they won’t lose money. How many times as a minister have I witnessed conflicts being settled not because what was right according to the principles of our faith, but because someone had been in a congregation longer than someone else? What was right was not as important as who would get upset if we pointed out that they were wrong. Length of time in a congregation… the fear of telling a friend they were wrong… that was the more important distinction.
That old sermon reminded me of an incident I’d forgotten. Where I received visits from members complaining about a person who had started coming to the church… that homeless person I’d befriended in my time there. So I was told how thing like… there’s nothing wrong with helping him out… I’m glad we as a church do what we can to help him and other people like him… but does he have to come on Sunday morning? All he really wants is to eat the food at fellowship time after worship. He’s not here to worship God and hear the gospel. I’ve been behind him in line at our fellowship time and you should see how he fills that plate. Our crumbs ought to be acceptable, but he dares to want to eat from the table.
Then there was the church that called themselves a loving family. It was even on their website. They wanted it to be their defining faith characteristic… a loving family. If someone in that warm, loving family ever had a problem… the others were there in an instant. They would move heaven and earth to help one another… and keep one another happy. Red flag right there. Keeping one another happy actually leads to trouble. I’m sure you can see where this story is going. A loving family… as long as you were a part of that group in the church who were members of that loving family. To anyone who was not a part of that “in” group… they were a cold, uncaring group of people. There was this invisible wall of distinction… a wall of favoritism kept up and in place by their actions again and again. Still… still they couldn’t understand why people on the outside of the loving family wall wouldn’t stay at the church and kept leaving.
Favoritism. Distinction. A lack of grace. Haven’t we had our fill of this yet? Haven’t we witnessed enough of what these works create to make a change… to do something different? The hardest part about reading James is how spot on it still is… how relevant it still is… how it still speaks so clearly to how we still act even while declaring our own faith. We continually encounter the Syrophoenician woman in all the different forms she takes. Maybe… maybe… one of these days she will be met first with the mercy she seeks… and we… without the drama… will know how we are all children of God… made one through grace. Amen.