Sunday 9 September 2018

Faith & Works

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 9th September 2018, the 15th after Trinity.

Do you feel anxious for the future? Many of us do, I think, including me.
Different folk worry about different things. Some dread accelerating climate change, some are concerned by the unknown dangers of new bio-technologies or artificial intelligence, some are frightened that newcomers of different races and religions will change their familiar communities, while others fear that class, race and religious hatreds will lead to social collapse and disastrous wars.

But there is nothing new in any of this. It is part of the human condition, as we grow older, to fear that the world is going to hell in a handcart. Jesus himself warned his disciples not to be alarmed by ‘wars and rumours of wars’, for ‘the end is not yet’ (Matthew 24:6).

Nor should we ignore the good things that are continually happening. In my lifetime, advances in hygiene and medicine have reduced the burden of disease and immensely increased life expectancy. And global development has lifted hundreds of millions of people across the world out of crushing poverty. We should see these as signs of hope, signs that God’s kingdom of peace and justice is growing.

I think today’s readings teach us much that is important about our Christian duty to contribute to the growth of the kingdom. And if we respond to them as we should, perhaps it will allay some of our fears.

In the Gospel, Mark (7:24-37) tells us two stories about Jesus ministering to foreign strangers.
Jesus has left the Jewish homelands to travel on a circuitous route through Gentile country in the regions of Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis. We are told he did not want anyone to know he was there, so perhaps he was taking a holiday from ministry, but news of his presence got out.

In the first story, a Greek-speaking Syrophoenician woman with a sick daughter hears about him and comes to beg him to cure her daughter.
Jesus says to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She boldly and wittily answers, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ And Jesus tells her that because of what she has said, her daughter has been healed.

I ask myself, is this the moment when Jesus realises that his ministry is not just to Jews, but to people of all races and faiths? We believe that he is fully human as well as fully divine – in his humanity we can believe that his understanding of his own significance and mission developed over time.

Do Jesus’s words sound like a rude and crushing response to you? Some have seen his words that way - the children would be understood as the Jews, the children of Israel, and the dogs as gentiles like her. But I cannot believe Jesus was being rude or crushing – it would not be like him.

What I think was going on is this. A pious Jewish religious leader at that time would avoid contact of any kind with a Gentile woman to maintain his ritual cleanliness. But Jesus is different, he is intrigued, and he engages with her, no doubt with a twinkle in his eye and a friendly tone of voice. I think his words were to the effect that, ‘Look, I’m a foreign Jewish Rabbi and I’m on holiday – do you really want my help?’ In the woman’s witty reply, the word translated as ‘Sir’ is the Greek ‘Kyrie’, meaning Lord. She is acknowledging Jesus’s status and insists that she believes he can help. And that is what he does.

In the second story, the friends of a deaf-and-dumb man bring him to Jesus to be healed.
Jesus ‘took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue’. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and prayed over him, and the man was healed.

Notice how sensitive Jesus is to the circumstances and needs of the deaf-and-dumb man. The deaf man could not have known what was being said, and perhaps he was frightened by being the centre of attention in a crowd. So Jesus treats him in private, and Jesus uses mime to let him know what is going on.

As followers of Jesus we should model our behaviour on his.
Like him we must engage at a human level with people we meet who are different to us, and pay attention to their needs. We must not demonise Muslims or people of other faiths and races, but rather treat them as our neighbours, and offer them help if they need it.

And when we minister to people in distress, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, like Jesus we must be sensitive to their circumstances and treat them as individuals with rights, not merely anonymous ‘cases’.

The author of the Epistle of James (2:1-17) urges Christians to break down the barriers of class and wealth in order to relieve the distress of the poor.
We can’t be certain who the James was who wrote the epistle, but an ancient tradition says it was James the brother of Jesus, a leader of the earliest church in Jerusalem. At the great council there, he and St Peter supported St Paul’s case that gentiles should be accepted into the Christian church alongside Jews without being circumcised.

Nor do we know what church or churches he is writing to, but they are clearly riven by class divides – the wealthy are being treated better than the poor.

James challenges his readers to ask whether their behaviour is consistent with their faith in Jesus Christ. He points out that God has ‘chosen the poor… to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him’. And he reminds them of the law proclaimed by Jesus, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.

‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters’, he asks rhetorically, ‘if you say you have faith but do not have works?’ By ‘works’ he clearly means good works, deeds of love and compassion toward those in need. He continues, ‘If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food… and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?’ ‘So’, he concludes, ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’.

The message is clear. We have no right to call ourselves Christians – our faith is dead – unless we seek to relieve human distress when we see it. For us in modern Ireland, this means that we should not evade the taxes which fund the social welfare system and the health service – we must pay up with a good grace, provided we’re blessed with the resources to do so. And we must also be generous in giving to the organisations which support those who slip through the cracks - organisations such as St Vincent de Paul, Protestant Aid, the Simon Community, and the newly established Nenagh Food Bank, to name a few.

The 1st reading from Proverbs (22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23) tells us ‘Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor’.
And we are indeed blessed, aren’t we? Most of us live in at least modest comfort, and can well afford to be generous to those with less.  

And as Proverbs also reminds us, ‘the Lord pleads the cause of the poor’.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
O God, whose word is life,
and whose delight is to answer our cry:
give us faith like that of the woman
who refused to remain an outsider,
so that we too may have the wit to argue
and demand that our children be made whole,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen