Sermon Preached on September 9, 2018 – Pentecost +16
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
James 2:1-10, 14-17
Resoundingly Expansive Grace
While I was reading this section of letter from James, I was struck by wanting to introduce James to Vijay Gupta. (“James, there’s someone you have to meet!”) Setting aside minor details like a couple thousand years and some geography separating them, I think James would be thrilled to meet Vijay Gupta and hear more about his Street Symphony project in LA. Hopefully you saw Dateline NBC’s episode on August 19th, called “City of Angels,” about the growing homeless epidemic; the show featured Gupta’s Street Symphony and the corresponding Messiah chorus project, and their involvement in the community of Skid Row. Vijay Gupta is the artistic director and founder of Street Symphony; Gupta, a violinist, joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2007 at the age of 19, after completing a Master’s degree in Music from Yale University, and a Bachelor’s in Biology from Marist College.
In the organization’s own words:
“Street Symphony creates live, free, on-site musical experiences of the highest artistic quality for people experiencing incarceration and homelessness.” “Street Symphony aims at the intersection of underserved communities, talented artists, and the community at large by pairing live performance, art and music workshops, and education programs to raise awareness and remove the stigma associated with mental illness and homelessness.” (Street Symphony’s Facebook page, Street Symphony Home| Facebook)
All of this grew out of Gupta’s willingness to go to Skid Row and meet people, face to face. Engage them and hear their stories, and then offer them his gift of music. He found other musicians in the people there, and people who appreciated music. So he kept coming, and brought friends to play with him. And they began to teach those gathered to play as well.
This June, Gupta gave the opening keynote address at the League of American Orchestras conference. As Gupta describes it:
I was honored to share the work of Street Symphony, with a focus on creating a culture of radical mutuality with communities too often relegated to the margins of our institutions. Our job is to share our stage. Our job is as much to heal and inspire, as it is to disrupt and provoke – and to ask uncomfortable, timely questions about how we tackle the lack of diversity, equity and inclusion in our field by addressing systems of institutional racism and toxic patriarchy, which enfranchise our own organizations and the systems in which we operate.
Think about what we hear from James this morning – don’t you think this would resonate with him? James is deeply concerned that we not show preference. He particularly emphasizes not showing partiality for those who are wealthy over those who are on the margins – who are on Skid Row or in prison. Being careful not to choose those who are like us over those who are the least of us. (Dr. Margaret Aymer, Professor of New Testament, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Commentary on James 2:1-10, 14 -17, Working Preacher, September 9, 2018.)
James insists we live out our faith together in ways that show forth God’s mercy and benefit the marginalized. As in – bring our gifts and skills to them, even if they are on Skid Row, and use those gifts to promote their dignity and joy. James wants us to begin with those people beyond our personal circle.
Kind of makes you wonder what James has to say about this particular Gospel story, doesn’t it? There’s definitely something strange going on in this text from Mark, at least at first glance. So, let’s consider the overall pattern in Mark’s Gospel – and pay attention to where Jesus is and how his ministry is unfolding. In chapters 5 and 6 Jesus is primarily in Jewish territory, and he heals a desperate woman, and goes on to miraculously feed a crowd of 5,000. Now as we move into chapters 7 and 8, Jesus is traveling primarily in Gentile territory, and he heals a desperate woman’s daughter (in this week’s story) and will go on to miraculously feed a crowd of 4,000.
Notice the repeating pattern – the emphasis in Mark’s Gospel is this expansion of God’s saving, healing, liberating work – from Jewish insiders to the inclusion of all people. That’s good news for Mark’s primarily Gentile audience. And this week’s story is a decisive pivot point in this larger narrative of scandalous, widening inclusion. (“Be Opened,” commentary, September 4, 2018, http://www.saltproject.org)
Which brings us to our story. Jesus is exhausted, he’s human after all. And he seeks out a place to retreat from the crowds, to restore himself. He escapes to a house in Tyre, but sure enough, word gets out and someone finds him. Not just someone but a stranger. A Syrophoenician woman barges into the house, without knocking; she throws herself at Jesus’ feet, and begs for his help. She’s desperate because her daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit, and she knows Jesus can restore her to health and life and community. Her audacity is scandalous in her first century context – and as a Syrophoenician, a Gentile, and a woman, she’s crossed barriers of patriarchy as well as religion, ethnicity, and longstanding enmity between peoples.
Jesus’ initial reaction is in keeping with this old hostility: “Let the children [that is, the children of Israel] be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”
Wait just a minute – how are we supposed to understand that? What was his tone? Did he include an emoji? Was he being sarcastic, challenging, disgusted…or winky face? Here’s the thing – there’s no way to know. On the one hand, it’s possible that Jesus is prompting her, suspecting that this audacious woman will push beyond the conventional view. That he expresses this popular folk wisdom with some sarcasm, “But isn’t it true that we shouldn’t give the children’s food to the dogs? Isn’t that what everyone says? What do you say?” And sure enough, the woman skillfully turns the metaphor on its head: “even the dogs gather the table’s crumbs.” The logic of abundance implies that God’s grace is for all people, right here and right now. After all, Jesus immediately concedes the point (and this is the only verbal fencing match in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus doesn’t win). He establishes the woman as an exemplar of faith, a model theologian, and an outsider who understands better than the insiders do. (Salt project commentary.)
So, it’s possible that’s how it went. But on the other hand, a less generous interpretation would be that Jesus was a product of his culture and times and really believed that his ministry was primarily to the children of Israel. That he bought into the cultural prejudices and meant these words that came from his mouth – until he was brought up short by this woman’s faith in the expansive grace of God. And Jesus changes his mind about the nature of his ministry, sees it through her eyes, learns something he needed to know from this encounter. Jesus learns and evolves and changes his mind. In the tradition of God who changes God’s mind when confronted by Abraham’s insistence, or Moses’s insistence, Jesus, too, changes his mind when faced with this woman’s insistence.
And the Syrophoenician woman herself stands in the ancient tradition of faithful lamentation and struggle with God. Like Abraham and Moses, she argues, and stands her ground and prevails. (Salt project commentary.)
Truth be told, we will never know what Jesus had in mind, or hear the tone of his voice. So, we have to hold both possibilities open. Here’s what we do know: the Syrophoenician woman is a “model of bold, creative, resourceful faith. And either way, her story is yet another example of an outsider seeing and understanding what insiders don’t. (SALT) A motif in Mark’s Gospel. True to form, Jesus’ disciples don’t get it. After the healings and the miraculous feeding in Jewish territory, Jesus moves into Gentile territory and expands his ministry. They are right there with him, witnesses to more healings and another feeding, as the salvation of God expands outward, beyond all attempts to contain it.
Yet his disciples miss it. The deaf man will be restored to hearing, but the disciples will continue to be unable to hear and understand. Jesus will ask them just a few verses later, “Do you still not perceive or understand? … Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (Mark 8:17b,18).
What about us? Can we hear and understand? Are we able to be part of extending God’s grace outward, expansively, extravagantly? Can we extend God’s grace to those who are not like us? Those who are behaving badly? With whom we disagree? To those whom we don’t think deserve it? James would say that’s a great place to start. Or at least with those on the margins of our society.
Start with those who need to hear a symphony, or to participate in singing the Messiah. Those who are homeless, or in prison, or standing on the medians begging for change. Those whose lives are overwhelmed with the anxiety of making ends meet, whose kids are in need of school supplies or clothing or a safe place to be after school. Start with them. Those whose fear comes as much from the bills involved as from the diagnosis, who can’t afford the health care we enjoy. Find a way to ease the burden, bring your gifts to bear.
Whomever you start with: look them in the eye, human to human, and listen to their story, heart to heart. Then share the grace of God as you’ve been gifted it. You’d be surprised how much genuine connection and concern for another can matter, how healing it can be for both of you. It goes without saying that you have something to offer, consider Vijay Gupta, who brought his violin to Skid Row and changed hundreds of lives.
In the days ahead, may we be open to all that can be, for all of us, when we connect with one another, and allow God’s grace to be extravagantly expansive, through us. Amen.