|Isaiah 35:4-7 – Say to those of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not be afraid.” He will come and save you.
Psalm 146 – I will praise the LORD as long as I live. (Ps. 146:1)
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17– Don’t show favoritism to the rich. Faith without works is dead.
Mark 7:24-37 – Syrophoenecian woman’s daughter. Deaf man with a speech impediment.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Western Michigan University. During the Q&A after the speech he made this often quoted observation,
“I must admit that I have gone through those moments when I was greatly disappointed with the church and what it has done in this period of social change. We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing ‘and Christ has no east or west’, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”
We are now almost 50 years beyond King’s observation, but I think it probably still holds true. My counterparts in other synod offices sometimes ask me, “How many ethnic specific congregations do you all have?” With a wink I sometimes answer, “Oh, about 113.”
When I was out doing call process stuff in one of the Brenham area congregations, I found the following chart from the 2010 census to share with them. (Both of the charts below I abbreviated so they would fit into this post.) The important thing to note is the marked shift in percentages when you get into the “Under 18” category. The leaders in the congregation could appreciate the facts.
And, of course, it isn’t just the Brenham area. Take a look at Sugar Land, Houston, and Baytown:
Or, New Orleans, Metairie, and Kenner:
You don’t have to have much imagination to extrapolate what these percentages will mean 10 years from now. If you want the data for your area, go to http://proximityone.com/metros.htm.
When I was in the parish, I wasn’t very successful in getting our church hallways to look anything like the hallways of Regan High or Travis Elementary. Perhaps the congregation had at one time been a microcosm of the neighborhood, but over the years it had become a subculture within the neighborhood. No one really intended it to happen; it just happened. However, even if it didn’t happen intentionally, it will require great intentionality to turn it around.
“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…”
In congregations (and in society), perhaps no distinctions are harder to overcome – no boundaries harder to bridge – than those that are socio-economic. And, of course, socio-economic distinctions are often rooted in historical racial, ethnic, and cultural distinctions. What can we do?
- I think it is important for every congregation to intentionally work on its core values and what those core values mean for its “life together” in the areas of evangelism, stewardship, worship, fellowship, and so forth. I think our synod’s core values might serve as a good model.
- I think it might be helpful for a “secret shopper” from a different racial, ethnic, economic, or cultural background to come in and give a congregation feedback. The truth is that we often are unable to see how pervasive and invasive the cultural “wrappings and trappings” of our congregations are.
There’s a great article I stumbled across: ” Emerging Churches in Dialogue with Dietrich Bonhoeffer“. It speaks of the emerging church and inclusion with reference to Life Together, but I think there is much that more traditional congregations can learn from it as well.
Also, I think that our Tri-Synodical Theological Conference , January 28-30, in New Braunfels, TX will be helpful in all of this. It will feature Diana Butler Bass and Kenda Creasy Dean. Get yourself signed up when registration opens!
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” – Acts 10:34-35
Last Sunday’s text was Jesus’ confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees about ritual cleanliness/purity.
Then [Jesus] called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come….”
After that, Jesus headed into the “margins.” He went into the region of Tyre and Sidon – Phoenicia – and into the region of the Decapolis; both of which were gentile lands filled with ritually “unclean and impure” people.
Jesus’ first encounter was with the Syrophoenician woman. (See Sebastiano Ricci’s – Italian Baroque school, 1659-1734 – culturally bizarre rendering of this encounter. What?!) I’ve preached lots of sermons on this text ; “Is Faith Going to the Dogs?” and other snappy titles. And I’ve waxed about the “game of wits” Jesus had with her. (I shudder at some old sermons.) But finally…
Who was that woman? Did she believe in Jesus? Maybe she had just heard that another miracle worker was in the area. We know nothing of her “faith”. Some people think that she was persistent. Maybe. But maybe she was right at the edge and at her wits end with nothing to lose. Maybe she was just desperate. We don’t know her heart.
And in the Decapolis, what about that man?
Who was that man? We know even less of him. We don’t know if he even knew who Jesus was. People brought him, asked Jesus to do something, and then were astounded when something happened. Maybe they too were just desperate. We know nothing about any of their hearts.
In some sermons I finally started exploring the “heart” of the matter. (We get too fast old and too slow smart.) I read somewhere that Jesus had the most conflict with the Pharisees because both the Pharisees and Jesus were concerned about purity; they just had very different ideas about what purity entailed. Jesus had said that purity and cleanliness wasn’t a ritually external matter; that it was a matter of the heart. But now, in this week’s text, he doesn’t seem overly concerned about the condition of woman’s or the man’s heart either!
I am reminded of the exchange between the young pastor and the older rector in Bo Giertz’ The Hammer of God:
The Young Pastor: “But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved.”
The Older Rector: “You are right, my boy. And it is just as true that, if you think you are saved because you give Jesus your heart, you will not be saved.
You see, my boy,” he continued reassuringly, as he continued to look at the young pastor’s face, in which uncertainty and resentment were shown in a struggle for the upper hand, “it is one thing to choose Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, to give him one’s heart and commit oneself to him, and that he now accepts one into his little flock; it is a very different thing to believe on him as a Redeemer of sinners, of whom one is chief. One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor give one’s heart to him.
The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks his walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him. That is how it is.”
Now, there’s some “salvation” stuff in there that…. But, I won’t drive down that road. Suffice it to say that the Jesus – who does not care about the external – is the transformer of the internal. But then again, Jesus does care about these “unclean” persons’ externals: a daughter, sight, and hearing. And also in these stories there is no indication of any internal transformation of the woman or the man. (The man’s friends carry on. But the man?) Internal, external; it’s all very confusing.
So what do we do with all this? (And I think that the long Season of Pentecost is the “So what?” season for the church.)
It may be about healing; and there again is the link with James. If congregations and the church are to be anything, we are to be communities of healing; communities of healing without distinction. In sum:
To judge people over exterior things – as the scribes and the Pharisees did – is not a good or Godly thing. As James wrote, that is to “make distinctions and become judges with evil thoughts”.
Neither is it good or Godly to discern and judge another’s heart. It is sinfully perilous for we are bound to do it according to our own needs. And it is an impossible, for we cannot even discern our own hearts.
But what we can do is to think of ourselves as having been called to embody the healing heart of Jesus. In any and all situations – on the desperate “unclean” margins of life where everybody lives – we can ask ourselves, “Are we being helpful or hampering? Are we lifting up or putting down? Are we creating hope or despair? Are we making for hurt or for healing?”
And if, as we try to be Jesus healing presence, we find ourselves asking, “What about us? How will our community be healed?” remember this:
“As you enter into relationship with the lonely, the suffering, or the hurting you will discover something else: that it is you who are being healed. The broken person will reveal to you your own hurt and the hardness of your heart, but also how much you are loved. And the one you came to heal will become the healer.”
In losing our life, we find it. Until next week, be at peace.