Proper 18 (23), Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
9 September 2018
You remember the rainbow on the library steps.1 I sort of remember it, even though for a few months now I have not actually been to the library. But the rainbow was there, as in other places like crosswalks, or the year Abbotsford City Hall flew the rainbow flag during Pride Week, to make it clear that everyone was welcome in that community.
That communities fly the flag or paint rainbows is relatively new and has raised anxiety that such public displays convey approval. That, I think, is where our anxiety comes in.
We may be OK with accepting people who identify as LGBTQ but we may not be quite ready to approve. And the sense that rainbow flags and crosswalks, or votes in churches may provide approval, is what may have made us uncomfortable.
The problem, I think, is not with how we feel about something but that we may think that this is about approval or disapproval, as if you or I could or should be the judge of someone, especially concerning something that people do not choose, like someone’s sexual orientation.
Some of you know that I wrote a letter to the editor of the Richmond News regarding the scribbling on the rainbow at the library.2 As I wanted my letter to get printed I chose to keep it short and I stayed away from ‘proof texting’. All I basically said was that the scribbling was outside of the bounds of civil discourse.
But let me tell you what else was going through my head. The writer of the comments understood the rainbow as only a Christian symbol, not as a meteorological phenomenon, which by itself tells us that their world does not include the world outside of a Christian world view, even though the God we worship loves not only the church but the whole world.
And if you want to go a little deeper into the Noah story you will see that it is a story that begins with God’s judgment and ends with God’s mercy. At the end of the story Noah, God’s chosen, gets drunk and naked and we learn that God promises to never again send a flood, not because humankind has changed or because Noah is God’s fanboy but because God has changed. Thus, what was a story of judgment becomes a story of grace. Therefore the rainbow as biblical symbol is a symbol of grace.
I know that this is not the reading for today but you will see how it fits together.
In our Gospel Jesus enters Gentile territory. In Matthew’s version of the story his disciples are with him and tell him the Syrophoenician woman isn’t worth his time or attention. The woman was there to seek her daughter’s healing. Mark does not tell us anything about the presence of the disciples, only that Jesus rebukes her as an outsider, and yet ends up learning something from her, from the woman he and his disciples had deemed unworthy. After first having refused help, Jesus casts out her daughter’s unclean spirit.
One faithful interpreter suggests that this difficult reading sheds light on the double nature of Jesus: Human and divine. The One who came from God, was God, but entered into our humanity.
And because most of us grew up with a perfect Jesus who looked more divine than human, this passage may help us understand the humanity of Jesus.
She writes, “The problem with “Perfect Jesus,” of course, is that he doesn’t exist. The Jesus who appears in the Gospels is not half-incarnate. He is as fully human as he is fully God. Which is to say, he struggles, he snaps, he discovers, he grows, he falters, he learns, he fears, and he overcomes. He’s real, he’s approachable, and he’s authentically one of us. The “Good News” is not that we serve a shiny, inaccessible deity who floats five feet above the ground. It is that Jesus shows us — in real time, in the flesh — what it means to grow as a child of God. He embodies what it looks like to stretch into a deeper, truer, and fuller comprehension of God’s love.”3
Our epistle reading from the Letter of James warns us of acts of favouritism toward the rich and neglect toward the poor. It makes our treatment of others a measuring stick of our faith. James asks, “do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” The implication is that if we believed, we would show no favouritism. As Paul and Peter can say, “God knows no partiality.”4 Our passage ends with James declaring that a faith without evidence of it is no faith: “Faith without works is dead.”
So I found it it fascinating that James in his rejection of favouritism is rejecting what Jesus practises and then overcomes in our story from Mark.5 I had never before noticed these two readings speaking to one another.
The question that remains for us is where we show favouritism and I think that James’s critique continues to be current as money still impresses us.
My first parish in Winnipeg was in Winnipeg’s West End, on the dividing line between a working class neighbourhood to the west and all kinds of social problems to the East. Not only was the church small enough that you could tell who was a regular and who was not (though our attendance was about 170 per Sunday). The church was in the neighbourhood where the members had once lived. Many had moved to the suburbs. People now bemoaned that the neighbourhood had changed, even though they had given up the neighbourhood when they had moved away.
We recognized visitors not only by being new but also by what they wore and how well-kempt they were, which betrayed something about their socio-economic status (and our biases). And yes, there was racism present among us. Christians are not immune to it.
A few years ago Jackie and I went on a bus trip up the Fraser Canyon, visiting First Nations Communities and the grave sites of Chinese railway workers. It was organized by our friend Bill Chu who as a devout Christian has long worked for reconciliation. Bill says that Canada was built on free land and cheap labour. It’s not the way we usually tell the story but it rings true.
One of the folk on the bus trip was Don Klassen, a member of Sardis Community Church and a missions coach with Outreach Canada. Don told us how one day he made the connection between the impoverished First Nations Community next door and his parents’ farm. His parents were good people who had worked hard. They were blessed with fertile land in the Fraser Valley and had provided Don and his siblings with a good and godly upbringing. Yet one day, he realized that the land his parents farmed had been taken from the people next door whose lives were forever changed.
James makes it clear that our faith is not contained to these four walls on a Sunday morning.
Jesus heals the child of the outsider, and as Debie Thomas writes, “Jesus shows us — in real time, in the flesh — what it means to grow as a child of God. (Jesus) embodies what it looks like to stretch into a deeper, truer, and fuller comprehension of God’s love.”
What a gift to us to follow in his footsteps.
3https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1907-be-opened, retrieved on 8 September 2018
4See 1 Corinthians 11 and Acts 10 – 11
5Here’s a piece by Catholic Theologian James Alison that helped me made some of the connections: