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Sermon for September 4, 2015: Trust in God
Today is “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” Which is interesting, 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.” And Jesus looks at her and basically says, “I am already tired of healing my own people and I still have a lot of work to do and I’m not going to waste my energy on you.”
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. Today’s gospel reminds us that Jesus was a person of his time and, as countercultural as he was in many ways, he was still a Palestinian Jewish tradesman living in an occupied country who chose to live an itinerant life in order to fulfill what he believed was his call from God. He was regularly harassed and mocked. Why should he make time for this non-believing foreigner who probably had no interest in his message of salvation – someone who believed only that he was a particularly talented “healer” who might be able to help her daughter.
But when he refused her, she did something unusual. Instead of telling him how rich or powerful she was and demanding he heal her daughter, the Syrophoenician woman 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.
The Syrophoenician woman’s willingness to humble herself in order to receive the gift of Jesus’s healing is often held up as an example of Christian behavior. Her willingness to accept the “crumbs” of God’s grace is interpreted to mean that we should be grateful for what we have, no matter how little it is. That God appreciates someone who knows her place. That’s a very dangerous idea because it seems to confirm that some people are better than others – that perhaps Christians are better than others. That perhaps what Christians believe is right – and it is our job to teach humility to those who need what we “have.”
That attitude is the one that has, I think, been embraced by Kim Davis, the Kentucky court clerk who refused to grant marriage licenses to gay couples. Arguing that gay marriage is against her “Christian” religion, she was recently jailed for contempt of court and is being hailed as a Christian martyr by some groups. I think Ms. Davis believes that by refusing to participate in a practice she finds morally repugnant she is acting on her beliefs. And many people find that admirable. After all, Ms. Davis is putting her money where her mouth is by acting on her beliefs.
Maybe, but Ms. Davis does not seem to be demonstrating her faith. Because there’s a difference. Belief is an intellectual exercise. It is based on ideas. Belief by itself is stagnant. It is rigid. Faith, according to today’s scripture, requires something more than simple belief. Faith requires trust. And trust is active. “What good is it,” says James, “if you say you have faith but do not have works”? What good is it to say you believe in loving your neighbor as yourself if you do not feed the hungry and clothe the poor? What good is it to say you believe that all people are equal in God’s eyes if you treat people as if some are better than others? What good is it to believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior if our actions demonstrate only contempt for our fellow human beings? According to Leonard Pitts, it is
“In faith, [that] a baker refuses to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. In faith [that] a minister prays for the president to die. In faith [that] terrorists plant bombs at the finish line of a marathon. In faith [that] mosques are vandalized, shot at and burned. In faith [that] a televangelist asks his followers to buy him a $65 million private jet.”
Why are we shocked that attendance at Christian churches has declined? As Pitts says, “It is hard to imagine someone looking [at the results of such faith] from outside and musing to herself, ‘I’d like to have some of that.’” If you thought that that is what we were encouraging you to do or be, would you come to church? To me, describing those kinds of behaviors as faithful is perverse. Because those behaviors are based on human ideas about God – on human belief in power – in might – and judgment. That kind of belief knows nothing about mercy, or kindness, or love. That kind of belief knows nothing about God.
Faith is not about belief. Faith is also about trust. “Trust in the Lord,” the psalmist tells us. Salvation comes to those who believe and trust in the God – those whose actions are based not on what they think is right, but on what God – who is in our hearts – tells us is right. Belief can be stagnant, rigid, unchanging. Faith is active, open, interactive. Faith develops through communication with God and other people. You can intellectually debate about beliefs, but you cannot debate faith, because faith depends on trust. And anyone of us who has ever put their whole heart into something or someone knows that
trust is hard.
C.S. Lewis, who was an atheist for a significant proportion of his adult life, knew that well. As an extremely well-educated man, he was able to argue persuasively about what he believed and why. But he could not escape the knowledge that was in his heart – the knowledge that God simply is. “The terrible thing,” he said, “the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ.” And that terrible jump into the unknown – that terrifying loss of control – that world-shattering embrace of the irrational – is hardest for those who have the most. Those who are suffering in this world, said Lewis, “are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger.” But we have to turn – we have to trust, or our actions will become perversions of what we believe.
Jean Blondin was a 19th century performer whose claim to fame was walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Before each stunt he would ask the crowd if they believed he could do it. The crowd would cheer and unanimously agree that he could do it. “Do you believe that I can cross the falls blindfolded,” he would ask. “Yes, yes,” they would answer. “Do you believe that I can cross the falls on a tightrope pushing a wheelbarrow”?
“We believe it,” the crowd would roar. “Then who will ride in the wheelbarrow,” he asked. He was greeted with silence. When we are asked if we believe in God, most of us answer, “Yes, yes.” When we are asked if we believe that God is with us, we say “yes” – because we have our church and our scripture to support our belief. But when we are asked to put our whole trust in God – to do as our baptismal vows demand – we are silent. Because truly trusting in God is hard. Truly trusting in God requires listening – hearing – being open to – what God is really saying – even if God is telling us that we are the ones who are unjust – that we are the ones who show partiality – that we are the ones who say,
‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ but do not feed our sisters and brothers.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus healed the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman – not because of her humility, but because of her faith. Because she was willing to put everything she had – and everything she was – into Jesus’s hands. Perhaps her story is not about who deserves Jesus’s healing, but rather about who truly believes in it. I don’t think that Jesus spoke harshly to the Syrophoenician woman because of her race or religion. I think he initially turned from her because he assumed she could not believe in him – and without that belief he could not heal her child. Scripture tells us that we are partners with God. We can share our bread with the poor or crush the afflicted at the gate. We can honor the poor or show favor to the rich. And we can trust that Jesus can and will heal our infirmities – physical or spiritual – or we can choose to believe that we already know the mind of God. The Syrophoenician woman made the choice to put her whole trust in Jesus – and because she made that choice, Jesus was able to heal her daughter. Jesus needed her, just as she needed him. This poor, foreign woman taught our Lord that beliefs are judged not by how much or how loudly we proclaim them, but by how willing we are to live them. Let us never seek to humble others, but to humble ourselves. Let us refrain from judging others, lest you judge us. And may we put our whole trust in God so that God may see us for who we are and lead us in paths of justice, love, and peace. AMEN.
 Leonard Pitts Jr., “Jimmy Carter’s Faith,” Miami Herald online,[http://www.epaperedition.com/Olive/Tablet/BurlingtonTimes/SharedArticle.aspx?href=BUR%2F2015%2F08%2F27&id=Ar0 0401], accessed 9/5/15.
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