Thursday, August 18, 2005

"What Would Jesus Do?

Eventually, I will resist the temptation to recycle myself, and post pithier (or at least shorter) posts. In the meantime, however.... Lots of ideas here, I realize: hospitality; ecclesiology; soteriology (salvation by faith? by works? both and a little bit of neither?); inclusion/exclusion. In the end, still a sermon; which means it had its own purposes, once upon a time.

TEXT: ISAIAH 35:4-7A; JAMES 1:1-17; MARK 7:24-37

The question that James puts before us is this one: Do you belong to this church? Or does this church belong to you? It's a question of ministry. Do you belong to your ministry, or does your ministry belong to you? That's what the Syrophoenician woman is asking. Who do you serve? And why? What do you think? What would Jesus do?

"My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please/, while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?" We don't do this, of course. We don't dishonor the poor here. We don't treat the stranger differently because of the way they are dressed. We know that lesson. We know how we should behave. But the assembly James is talking about is the "synagogue." It's the meeting of the believers, the gathering of Christians in the name of Christ. So there's more to it than just being civil; there's more to it than just not being a snob. Because the question really is: how should we act in church? And why?

The second question answers the first; and it isn't an easy answer to get to. It isn't easy in part because we don't like to think that little slights, that personal opinions, are the same as evil thoughts. But James says that, as soon as we distinguish among ourselves, that's what we become: "judges with evil thoughts." But over so slight a thing as how someone is dressed! Surely that isn't what he means! Surely it isn't that simple, that easy, to do evil! But if it is, what do we do about it?

Well, what kind of evil are we describing? The evil of adultery, or the evil of murder? One is surely worse than the other, and both are surely worse than showing favoritism to one person over another. But all of them violate the law. It's inevitable we would violate the law; is one violation better than another? The frightening truth is, that evil is that close at hand. It is as close as the way you treat the next stranger who comes through that door. So I repeat: do you belong to the church, or does the church belong to you?

Because if the church belongs to you, it is yours: it is your possession, your property, you own it. If you own it, then you have a vested interest in maintaining it in the way that suits you best. And that includes who you invite here; who you welcome here; young or old, rich or poor.

Because every time someone new comes to church, that means your church changes. Your idea about church has to change; it has to expand to include someone new. And what if that person doesn't look like you, or doesn't speak your language, or, hardest of all, brings new ideas about the church, ideas you don't like? What does that do to your church? And what right have they, these strangers, to change it, to mess with your church?

Isn't that what James means? If someone comes to your church with poor rags, but wants to worship here; if someone comes who is young, or brings children, and they want to eat here, and study the Bible here, aren't they also bringing new ideas here? Aren't they changing your idea of what this church is? Is it even easier, in fact, to accommodate new people, than to accommodate new ideas? After all, if it's only one person, you can adjust to that. But what if it's 100 people, and they all have new ideas about how to do things, how to use the kitchen or what hymns to sing or what missions we should pursue? What if it is so many people you can't adjust, your idea of church can't expand enough, and pretty soon it's not "your church" anymore? What then?

"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." Faith without works is refusing to get your hands dirty, refusing to get involved with all the other people who make up this church. Faith without works is trying to keep the church "your church," because to do otherwise would mean getting involved, and expanding your world, and doing things for other people you might never have done before. It's easier to say "Go in peace" than to offer your hand; to say "keep warm" than to open your door or give a blanket; to say "eat your fill" than to add "and do it here, at my table, right now."

Faith without works is saying "This is my church." But what if you were to say "I am the church's. I belong to this church." What then? Would you see the church as whoever is here, and you here equally as they are, young or old, rich or poor? Would you see the church as belonging to God, and you as having a ministry, a service, a role here in Christ's name? And then, instead of looking at the poor and saying ''There but for the grace of God...," you would say "We are both here because of the grace of God, and because of God's grace, I will help you." What then? Then you don't care what the person looks like who walks in the door; you just thank God who has called them.

Then, every time someone new came with a new way of doing things, a new song to sing, you could bless God for the new things that are being done. Then, the church would be God's, and you a part of it, each of us a servant, and all of us praising God together. Then, if you asked yourself, what would Jesus do, you would know the answer; you would know he had been there before you, he had shown you what to do. Because when the woman comes to him, a Gentile woman, and asks for help, he tells her his ministry is not to her. He reacts as we might to a poor person, or a newcomer: "Let us be served first," we might say. Your turn to be served will come. Or, as Jesus puts it: "Let the children be fed first," he says, "for it is not fair to take the
children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she reminds him that his ministry is God's, not his; that his role is servant, not judge. "Sir," she says, "even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Now this is a new thing; Jews didn't have anything to do with Gentiles. Gentiles were not the children, the children of Abraham. But this Gentile woman opens Jesus' eyes, and his heart. "For saying that," he says, "you may go-the demon has left your daughter." In other words, he blesses her for teaching him, for allowing him to see that his ministry is God's work, not his; that his ministry is a blessing from God, for him to share.

What would Jesus do? Listen, and learn. In fact, the next thing he does is heal another Gentile, this time without hesitation. He has learned that his ministry is God's work, that his ministry is not his possession to protect, but a blessing to share. He learned that God is indeed doing new things, and Jesus opens the ears of the deaf-mute, just as he opens our ears, so we can hear, and learn, and do God's will, and not ourselves be judges with evil thoughts.

When your idea of church is too small to contain all the people who want to be part of it, when your idea of church has been forced to expand so many times you can no longer hold onto it, that's when you should let it go. Let it go, because what you will have is better than what you held on to. Let it go, because that's what Jesus would do.

Let it go, so your ears can be opened, and your tongue can speak. Our ministry is not our possession, anymore than this church is our possession. We, and this church, and this ministry, all belong to God. And in God's name and in God's love we welcome children, and strangers, the rich and the poor, those with new ideas, and those with old. We welcome them all, because God welcomes them just as God welcomes us. This is Christ's place, and we are Christ's ministers. There is great joy, great freedom, great strength in that! What would Jesus do? Jesus would free us from our fears, from our need to be in possession. Jesus would open our ears so we can let go of being judges in favor of being ministers. Jesus would have us simply listen, and believe:

"Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy

For God is about to do a new thing, and we are going to be a part of it.


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