Sermon for September 9, 2018: Love God and fear nothing (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 14

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My mother used to speak to me in proverbs. If I got angry with someone, she would say, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” When I would argue that I only yelled at my sister because she yelled at me first, I heard, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” and when I told her Gary and I were moving in together, she simply shook her head and murmured, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free”?

Many common proverbs come from scripture and quite a few are from the book of Proverbs itself. Although the first chapter of Proverbs suggests it was written by King David, scholars believe that Proverbs is a collection of sayings dating back thousands of years. As evidenced by its continuing quotability, Proverbs covers a lot of issues of interest to both ancient and modern people, but is largely concerned with “the moral character of the individual [and] the formation of a wise community rooted in the peace and justice of God.”[1] It is, in essence, a guide to knowing who we are as people of God, and, as such, how we should act.

Proverbs is generally pretty practical. It accepts that people are not always faithful, fair, and compassionate and recognizes that money is an issue that separates us from one another. Primarily, though, it teaches that regardless of the problems of the human condition, all people live by the grace of God and all people can contribute to the development of God’s kingdom on earth. The sayings in Proverbs not only guide us in doing our part to make this happen, but they form the basis for the writings of the New Testament, which applies them to the teachings of Jesus. “The letter of James, like Proverbs, incorporates a wisdom tradition for its ethical teaching; however, its proverbial character is based on the prophetic vision of a community in which rich and poor are united, where good works follow faith, and where rich oppressors of the community will be judged in the last days…The readings from James and Mark envision a beloved community of compassion and sufficiency for the oppressed.”[2]

This idea, of a fully realized community made up of perfected humanity is what we as Christians believe we will experience by teaching and following the ways of Christ. It is also something that frequently seems impossible. It often feels like all of our efforts to be “good” end up being thwarted by the turmoil and ugliness in the world around us. We are not the first to feel this way; the struggle to be faithful in a hard world was familiar to the earliest Christians and, as the author of James knew, to their ancestors. “James does not want the oppression generated by secular social structures to impose itself upon the moral values of the church.”[3] He reminds the early Christians that it is faith that will carry them through – but not faith without works.

The issue of faith versus works is an old and complicated one. Our theology says that God provided the law (what to do) to the ancient Israelites in order to draw them closer to him. Christians believe that God provided Jesus to us for the same reason. While some have argued that Jesus made the law of the Jews null and void – that he superseded it, our denomination does not subscribe to this belief. We understand that the law is not superseded by faith, but believe that when we have true faith we are able to live out the law without being bound by it. In other words, works come with faith.

The bottom line is our relationship to God and to one another. “It is our [connection] with God that bears safety and security in the promise and power of good to do good and bring forth righteousness.”[4] It is by clinging to what we know of God and attempting to do what we have been shown by the ministry of Jesus that we are able to work through our struggles with worldly terrors. “Brokenness, sin, and evil are real in this world, in both individuals and institutions, but this is not the last word. God’s relationship to evil is one of resistance, judgment, and, ultimately, victory.”[5]

What does that mean, though – that God wins? In our society, “winning” generally means getting something that someone else wants – but that is not a Christian notion. A Christian view of “winning” is not getting what we want, but for everyone to get what they need. No matter who they are. And that’s the hard part – so hard that even Jesus seems to have forgotten it - because in today’s gospel, we see Jesus exhibiting behavior that looks suspiciously like racism.

Granted, Jesus has been going around the country, preaching and healing and trying to do God’s will. He is clearly tired and travels to a fairly isolated place, hoping that no one will bother him there. But at the very first house he comes to a woman asks him to heal her daughter, who has a “demon.” Now, it’s not completely clear why Jesus initially refuses to heal this woman’s daughter, but it’s certainly reasonable to think that it’s because of her race and religion. And he doesn’t just turn her down, he suggests that she is less than human by calling her a dog. Jesus does exactly what his apostles will later tell Christians not to do. He makes a distinction between himself and the woman. He judges her. He dishonors her. He shows partiality. What are we supposed to do with that?

First of all, I think we’re supposed to remember that Jesus was human, and it is passages like this one that remind us that he was fully human. Jesus was a person of his time and, as countercultural as he was in many ways, he was still an itinerant Palestinian Jew living in an occupied country who was regularly harassed and mocked. Why should he make time to help the child of a rich foreigner? After all, as my mother would say (and Jesus seems to say), “Charity begins at home.” Except that proverb’s not in the Bible. Today’s gospel suggests that even Jesus might have needed a reminder of that, and the Syrophoenician woman gave it to him.

Because when he refused her, she did something unusual. Instead of demanding he heal her daughter, she acknowledged her own inability to help herself and indicated her willingness to trust Jesus – despite the fact that he was of a different race and gender than she was – and despite the fact that he had insulted her. She responded to unkindness with humility. And it was her humility that reminded Jesus that the salvation he brought from God was for everyone – even pushy, non-believing outsiders.

We would do well to follow her example – first, by recognizing and speaking out about who our God is - a God who promotes all that is good and resists and destroys what is bad[6] - a God that is so powerful that even the crumbs that we receive from him are more precious than any human power. Secondly, we must respond to God and to those around us with trust and humility, as befits a people that know that God does not allow the wicked to triumph – that believes that we have nothing to fear – that has faith. The true wisdom of scripture is simple; Love God. Love one another. Do what is right – and fear nothing. AMEN.

[1]Stephen C. Johnson, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 27.

[2]Charles E. Raynal, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartl