Lectionary 23B, September 9, 2018
Isaiah 35:4-7a, Psalm 146, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was a teenager, an old, homeless, mentally ill woman lived for some time on the outside stairs down to the basement of my home church. If I ever learned her name, I’ve long since forgotten it. This was in downtown Salem, Oregon, and that stairwell was off the road and sheltered from the elements, and not much used. She was pretty clearly not all there, mentally, and sometimes she was hostile. And it’s hard enough for homeless people to keep clean when their brains are working well; like many people who are both homeless and mentally ill, she stank of sour, unwashed misery. I don’t recall that she ever came to worship, but when we had a potluck or a meal or something, she would come in and eat.
I dreaded that. I have a very sensitive sense of smell, and being anywhere near her made me gag. So, probably about the second time that old homeless woman came in to a potluck, I complained to our associate pastor. Wasn’t there anything she could do? I mean, I didn’t have anything against homeless people or mentally ill people, but I would enjoy the potluck a lot more if that smelly person just wasn’t there.
Our pastor heard me out, and said she was sorry that I was having such a problem. But, you know, they’d tried to help the woman, and failed. They’d tried to connect her with every service available for homeless or mentally ill people in Salem, and nothing worked. Either she didn’t quite qualify for services in one way or another, or the service decided she was too difficult to deal with, or getting services required a degree of organization and mental togetherness that she simply was not capable of. She just fell through the cracks, and if she had any family or friends who might be able to help, nobody had been able to find them.
And after explaining all that, my pastor looked at me and said, “The thing is, Anna, she’s a child of God. Just like you and me. God loves her even though she’s smelly and mean, and not living in the same reality as the rest of us. And God doesn’t want her to be hungry, or cold, or sick, or homeless, but she is. So if the only thing we can do to help her is to see that she gets a good hot meal once in a while at a potluck, well, that’s quite literally the least we can do. And, Anna, our basement is pretty big. If you sit on the other side of the room, you won’t be able to smell her while you’re eating. And even if you can’t eat with her in the room, you have lots of food at home. You won’t go hungry. If she doesn’t eat here with us, she will be going hungry. God calls us to love all people, and welcome the stranger, and feed the hungry. She needs a place to be welcomed, and she’s definitely strange, and she’s hungry. So if it comes down to a choice between following the Gospel and your comfort level, I’m sorry, but we have to put the Gospel first.”
I was mortified. I was so embarrassed. My pastor hadn’t spoken in a condemning or judgmental way. She had been very compassionate to me. But I, of all people, should not have needed to have that explained. Being a Christian and being faithful to God has always been very important to me. As a kid, I not only listened to the main sermon, I sometimes took a printed out copy of it home with me to read later and think about. I paid attention to Sunday School, I went to adult Bible study as a teenager, being a Christian wasn’t just something I did because my family was Christian. I was really proud of my devotion. If some issue in my life had a connection to Jesus’ teachings, I should have been able to spot it a mile away. And yet, I hadn’t. Even at that age, if you’d asked me to give a temple talk on Jesus’ words to love the stranger, I probably could have done a decent job of it. But when I saw someone who definitely, genuinely needed compassion and help, my only thought was “holy cow, she is so gross, can we get her out of here so I don’t have to deal with her?”
James writes: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? … have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” Paul, too, in his letters, says that he firmly believes that God shows no partiality to one person or group over another. The Old Testament laws have a lot to say about how to care for the poor and outcast, and the prophets regularly condemned those who did not care for the needy. And Jesus spent lots of time welcoming people of every description from every race and tribe and walk of life. The story of the Syrophoenician Woman is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus ever hesitates to help anyone in need, and even then, all it takes is a few words from her, and he changes his mind and helps. (I wonder if Jesus felt as embarrassed as I did, after having someone point out that lack of godly compassion and generosity.)
God is impartial. God doesn’t play favorites. But boy howdy, humans do. We do it all the time, make biased and unfair judgments based on every human criterion imaginable. But we usually don’t recognize when we’re doing it. Scientists have actually done research on this. See, the way human brains work most of the time is not based on logic, even when we think it is. We respond based on our gut feelings, and then come up with logical reasons why our guts were right. And our gut feelings are shaped by a lot of things: our own experiences, the common culture around us, the stories and jokes we hear and tell. We empathize a lot with people who are like us, whom we admire, or people who have attributes our culture promotes, whether that’s money or a large social media following or a thin, beautiful body or the right ethnic background. We don’t generally empathize with people who aren’t like us, or who don’t have attributes our culture values, or whose lives we’ve never imagined ourselves in. And how much we empathize or don’t empathize with someone has a huge impact. When someone we empathize with needs anything, we are willing to help, and think that they should receive what they need. When people we don’t empathize with need anything, we find excuses not to help. And when people we don’t like need anything, we actively look for reasons why their needs are unreasonable and bad. Sometimes, as was the case with me and that homeless woman, we can’t even conceive of them as people. Just obstacles to be gotten rid of, or judged, or ignored. We don’t see people through God’s eyes, but with human eyes. And sometimes, we don’t see them at all.
James writes: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? …. have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? … You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” Unfortunately, there isn’t any way I know of to truly be impartial. There’s no way to stop our guts from pre-judging people and caring about some more than others. But we can be better than we are. We can choose to show compassion even to people we don’t like or wouldn’t otherwise care about. We can choose to stop and think twice instead of letting knee-jerk assessments lead us into injustice. We can focus on remembering that people who aren’t like us are still God’s children … and we can put that knowledge into practice by choosing to reach out to those who are different and treat them with mercy and justice. We can choose to see the world through God’s eyes, remembering that all people are God’s beloved children, just like you and me and that homeless woman. And we can let God’s love guide our actions, instead of our own snap judgments.
I don’t believe in works righteousness. God doesn’t choose to save us because we earn it through good deeds. But at the same time, if we truly believe in the love and grace of God poured out to all the world through Christ Jesus, shouldn’t we act like it? If we have been transformed by the good news of God in Christ Jesus, shouldn’t that transform the way we see the world, and how we treat others? If we want our faith to live and breathe and grow, we have to actually put that faith into action, so that faith is not just something we think about sometimes, but something we do. May God’s vision and God’s love guide our hearts, minds, and hands.