God’s power empowers our faithfulness 

Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA 

by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, September 5, 2021 

Proper 18, year B, James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37 

 

James 2:1-17 (NRSV): 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? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? 

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 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. 

 

Mark 7:24-37 (NRSV): Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. 

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” 

 

Monday is Labor Day, and this weekend is a traditional time for families and friends and recreation. The holiday started as a celebration of workers, and it developed in the late 1800s as the labor movement was gaining steam. Historically, Labor Day carried with it some of the divisions of labor and management, rich and poor. Though the holiday has lost some of its historic politics, our culture still often thinks in terms of polarized groups: rich vs. poor, powerful vs. weak, this group vs. that group. How are we as Christians to navigate these classifications? How do Christians understand the right use of power and authority? 

 

These questions come up for us in our readings today. In the Gospel reading, Jesus heals a deaf and mute man, and he delivers a woman’s daughter from an evil spirit. But woven into these healings is the contrast between Jew and Gentile. Jesus’s words to the gentile woman sound harsh in our ears—is he really calling her and her people “dogs?” And yet, they sound harsh precisely because we know more about Jesus and his calls to us to love and embrace others. What is going on here? 

 

First, note that in terms of divisions of first class and second class, the Jews were very much second class to the gentiles. Indeed, in this scene, Jesus takes his disciples from Jewish territory into Tyre and Sidon—he goes into gentile territory, where the Jews were foreigners to the dominant culture. Certainly, Jews separated themselves from gentiles, because of the long history of oppression under foreign gentile power, and because of the desire to stay faithful to God as God’s people. But especially in Tyre and Sidon, Jews were out of place and out of power. 

 

Second, notice Jesus ultimate relationship with Jewish leaders and with gentiles. Pharisees often criticized and challenged Jesus based on their interpretation of Jewish law. In contrast, here is this gentile woman who reveres Jesus and shows him humility and respect. Given the attitudes of Jesus’ Jewish followers and the opposition of the Pharisees, I wonder if Jesus wasn’t giving a double meaning here—who are the dogs and who are the children? It was a child he healed, after all. 

 

Jesus never says no to the woman’s request. And this scene and conversation is remembered and included in the Bible precisely because Jesus honors the faith and humility of this gentile woman, and he heals her gentile daughter in a gentile country. The whole scene carries with it the message that God’s grace is extended to all who seek him, Jew or gentile. This was unexpected for the Jews, and it took some time for Jesus’ disciples to live into it. I think Jesus’ words are a kind of prompt to raise the prejudices of his disciples up into the light, and to let this woman’s faith and Jesus’ grace to her shine out. Jesus’ power empowers faithfulness where he finds it.  

 

This does raise questions about the right use of power and authority. Jews had no power in Tyre and Sidon, and yet Jesus had power that he brought with him. The woman had no power over the evil spirit that oppressed her daughter, but Jesus had power to heal her. So how did Jesus use this power?  

 

Sometimes public commentary cannot resist seeing everything through the lens of power and authority. A common question in many issues is “who has power, and who has less power?” This is a new way of thinking for me that I’ve encountered in recent decades, but I think these questions can be helpful. The reading from the letter of James today calls our attention to this with how we deal with rich and poor. If we are not careful, especially if we tend to have more power and influence, then we might be blind to the needs of others, or blind to how our actions impact others. This is true in terms of wealth, but also of race and nationality and language and many other differences.  

 

This can be over-done, however. Marxism in particular seems to view everything through the lens of power. Even some Christian voices in recent decades seem to assess sin and righteousness only in terms of differences in power or liberation. But Marxism is a blunt instrument that often polarizes and stirs up bitterness between groups rather than reconciliation. In large systems, someone will have power and authority, and we trust those in authority to use their authority rightly rather than simply give it up. And self-interest can use Marxist framework for its own power as well.  

 

On the other hand, a more individualist or libertarian view has its problems in Christian theology as well. Individualism starts with self-interest, assuming that the good of others will arise naturally. Thus, individualism is often blind to the needs of others. Both systems underestimate the problem of human sin. They seek to raise either the authority of the self or the authority of the collective, but they neglect the authority of God and God’s calls to righteousness. 

 

So if power and authority has a place in the Christian life, what is the right use of power and authority? Here is where Jesus’ example helps us. Jesus has little authority in the systems of his day. And yet, he had power from God, and the power of his words and actions drew people to him. He used this power to bless, to teach, to heal, to deliver from evil, to forgive, and to call to repentance. Jesus both set boundaries and opened barriers. He showed mercy and he rebuked and challenged. Jesus used his power to point to God, and to empower faithfulness to God where he found it. Jesus did not use his power for himself, but instead laid down his life to free us from sin, and to empower us for righteousness with God. Jesus’ power empowers faithfulness. 

 

What does this look like in our own lives? We can see this in societal issues and in personal encounters. For instance, immigration issues often polarize into those who believe in the rule of law at our borders and those who advocate for immigrants. What if we advocated for both? God wants blessings both for our citizens and for those who seek to live here. We can both hold boundaries & expectations and have compassion to those in need. Rights and responsibilities can go together. I don’t claim to know how this works out in actual policy, but we don’t have to buy into the framework of us vs. them, of power vs. compassion. God calls us to both. God’s power empowers faithfulness in both law and caring.  

 

On a personal level, some of us are parents or managers or teachers. We can use the authority we’ve been given to benefit the whole group—the family or business or classroom, and at the same time bless each child, employee, or student. We can use our power to point to God’s righteousness—for all of us.  

 

All of us have the power of respect or disrespect in our personal encounters. We are not forced to take time to listen and understand. We have the right to ignore those who disagree with us. But what if instead we used our power with compassion? What if we set boundaries with love, or with humility sought to understand even as we stand our ground? Which use of power is more likely to share God’s grace? 

 

Sometimes we see God’s forgiveness and mercy and we think we should throw out systems of authority. But we tend to throw out respect for God and God’s standards when we do that, and we lose the virtue of humility in the process. Christians are called to honor God’s authority, and even earthly authority when it seeks God’s faithfulness. But look at how God uses his power and authority. God humbled himself to be born into humanity. Jesus had the right to resist the Romans, but he gave his life for us instead. And the end of the story is resurrection and reconciliation. The right use of power points to God’s righteousness, both high standards and merciful compassion. The right use of power starts with both humility and fidelity to God. God’s power empowers our faithfulness, and our faithful use of power responds to God’s generosity to us. 

 

On this labor day weekend, we celebrate the blessings that God gives to us, both rich and poor, and we celebrate the need we have for each other. God calls us to humility in any station in life, so that we might more clearly see all the blessings God has for us to enjoy and to share. In our faithfulness to God, we find blessing for all of us.