It Isn’t All About the Work

RCL – Year B – Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 9, 2012

Series 1:
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125
Series 2:
Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146

James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

Labor Day has come and gone. The summer has come to an end (never mind what the thermometer or the calendar says). Students and teachers have returned to school. And Congregations stand on the brink of a new program year. There is a certain amount of excitement and anticipation in the air. There’s a mix of beginnings and endings in September that no other month contains. Someone even asked me today if I knew the holiday worship schedule yet. What? It’s 80 degrees outside and you want me to think about Advent? (But, yes, I have a draft of the schedule.)

That’s it, though, isn’t it? It’s all beginning and no one I’ve talked to feels quite ready. Not parents who are sending kids off to school for the first time or the last time or any time in between. Not teachers preparing for new classes or familiar ones. Not students stocking up on supplies and new clothes. Not pastors who need to get back into the full swing of congregational life. Not anyone whose pace of living slows down a little or a lot during summer months. And, yet, it is September ready or not.

Both the reading from Isaiah 35 and Psalm 146 are among my favorite scripture passages. Given my sense of being unprepared for this season of endings and beginnings, the promise of help and powerful transformation evoke both yearning and hope from me. I want transformation now, everywhere. I want the blindness to injustice to end. I want the deafness to the cries of oppressed people to end now. I want the limping along of the status quo to become absolutely unacceptable. I want all who are thirsty to have more than enough to drink. And I want these things now, thank you. If it were left up to me, there would be no more war in Syria or Afghanistan. There would be no children starving anywhere in the world. The ancient land disputes in the Middle East and elsewhere would not matter so much. Nuclear weapons would become a shameful part of human history. Homelessness would not be on the rise. There would be an international Jubilee year so we could all start over again on equal footing. My list goes on. But I am not in charge and a lot of what I would like for the world is impractical, if not impossible, and cannot possibly happen without a whole lot of real, hard work. Hence the yearning.

Right next to this deep longing, though, is hope. God lifts up those who are bowed down. The One who made heaven and Earth tends to those who are overwhelmed. This Psalm is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to those who are oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, blind, strangers, widows, and orphans. With God, justice, freedom, healing, and welcome are not only possible, they are promised. Isaiah says it quite clearly: “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Although, I have to point out that there is no timeline on this promise and there is nothing that says work and struggle won’t be a part of salvation.

Nonetheless, Isaiah’s and the psalmist’s words offer some comfort to my fearful heart. But this only until I continue reading the other passages. The James pericope is one that I like but tend not to recall very often. Unlike the unequivocal promises inherent in Psalm 146 and Isaiah 35, James’ words about mercy triumphing over judgement are a bit unnerving. Judgement is so much easier to extend than mercy. It makes me question which is more prevalent in my life: mercy or judgement. And, if I am honest, it all depends on who’s standing in front of me. And that isn’t comforting at all. Add on the part about faith without works and I become downright squirmy. Are my actions truly motivated by faith or is it something else? Mercy and hard work strengthened by faith would help bring about a world where the transformation Isaiah prophecies could begin with human hands guided by the Holy Spirit. (And it might quiet some of the political squabbling going on right now.)

If the James passage is one that I tend to set aside quickly because it is a bit unsettling, then the story of the Syrophenician woman is one that I usually avoid. I am just not quite sure what to make of the seemingly harsh Jesus who ends up doing exactly the right thing. It makes me wonder what really happened there. But what I take it to mean is that judging people on racial or religious differences is foolish. Jesus didn’t do it. He gave the woman what she asked him for; he healed her daughter. Ultimately, it didn’t seem to matter to Jesus that she was not a Jew. That’s a pretty powerful example of radical welcome. Talk about mercy! Why is it such hard work for Christians today?

This episode is followed by the healing of a deaf man with a speech impediment. It’s an odd story. Jesus healed him with a touch, some spit, and a “Be opened” command. The man could then hear and speak just fine. And no one in the crowd could keep a secret.

And this brings me back to where I started writing. I do not feel ready for all that lies ahead in the coming weeks. While I don’t think that Jesus’ ability to heal is much of a secret, I don’t think I have attended much to the command to be opened. I am easily distracted by what I cannot do, and what I cannot change. I sometimes forget that it isn’t all about the tasks to be done and the meetings to be attended. It is about why I do what I do and being open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is still Pentecost, after all. So for all of us who feel not quite ready for what needs to be done, we would do well to remember that not only is God ready, but God keeps faith forever.

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