Prv 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Ps 125; Jms 2: 1-10, 14-17; MK &: 24-37
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice… AMEN.
The Proverbs two-liners set my teeth as much on edge as do James with the Gospel. Our culture also bombards us with similar slogans, as absolute and hard to do. “The rich and poor have this in common: the Lord God made them all.” Duh. “What good is it if you say you have faith but not works? Can faith save you? If someone is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and you don’t supply their needs, what’s the good? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Duh.
Then Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus doing two of his most celebrated healings, those of the feisty Gentile woman’s daughter’s and of the man who couldn’t hear or speak. I want to shake my hands in futility. I know the platitudes in proverbs are true and that faith by itself is dead, but I can’t cast out demons or return hearing and speech to anyone. How do these lessons edify, teach, or give us hope and curiosity? How do they not make us more frantic to do more things beyond our range and less of what we believe we’re called to do, be, think, teach, and lead with? How do we connect what our own faith is to what our works are? How do we recommit after a summer respite? Our faith’s works can be seen as our personal goals and mission, being part of a lifework to identify it, to do it.
Jesus showed his capacities in these healings. The Gentile, Syrophoenician woman came to Jesus, because her daughter was inhabited by a demon. She was fierce and determined to find help and had heard of Jesus’s wonders. She knew she wasn’t part of Jesus’s community, but her daughter was at risk, and she was willing to do anything for her—as any anxious parent would. Jesus recognized that as a Jew, he was to be both politic and religiously pious. He knew that any involvement with this pushy pagan would be problematic. We don’t have equivalent barriers to relating to other groups, but for Jesus to associate with her would make him tainted to those of religious authority and social standing around him. Perhaps he would not be as ritually unclean as an Indian untouchable, but he was under similar strictures. She was persistent and desperate. He listened to her again; he heard her again; he felt her need, and he understood his own capacity to act. He knew his power could overcome such an evil, because he understood he was filled with the living God. How he knew that, I imagine, wasn’t so different from how we know what we know about ourselves. He’d been told that God was well pleased with him, and that must have helped confirm for him his identity of Holy One. That would have given him both confidence and obligation to act for someone tormented by evil. He could, so he did. His faith guaranteed his ability to act for her and his ability for those works.
Then they, the disciples, or others following him, brought him a deaf man with an impediment in his speech. Jesus took him aside in private. There was some unease then, and even for us with some illnesses, that being near such a disability was contagious. Jesus “put his fingers in the man’s ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’ that is ‘Be opened.’” Immediately the man was healed. The idea of putting fingers in someone else’s ears or spitting and touching another person’s tongue is unappealing, but for them there was an added layer of ritual uncleanness in those actions. Again he could act so he did. Again he was acting against the codes of those in his religion and society, but his faith and identity guaranteed the effectiveness of the actions. He understood that spreading the word about those deeds would have a double effect. More people would crowd around him hoping and demanding more from him—more healings, more triumphs over adversities, illnesses, and evils, leading to an unending line of exhausting requirements from him. He also knew that he had violated some of his society’s codes and rules, and that that was an offense and challenge to various authorities. He understood that that they might well move against him for either or both of those reasons. He was acting on faith and yet was putting himself at risk with these authorities. However, he could act in no other way, and still satisfy the realities of his identity in faith.
That makes it hard, or harder for us. Most of us, I would wager, don’t have that satisfaction of knowing just what we’re called to do, or what identifies us as a true God-bearer, or puts us at risk. Most of our callings are mundane and human scale. Paul reminds us that some would be “apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers,” but even that list doesn’t include most of us. Again we’re flat up against, faith in action or faith without works.
I read a comment in “The Christian Century,” quoting a New York Times article by Paul Vitello examining lives of clergy. He wrote, “The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression, at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.” Its author continued to look at Vitello’s piece and analyze it. He observed that neither respite nor being out of touch are possible. Like Jesus’s constant crowds, we’re all always in touch—whether by phone, computer, text, or other. Even when we do get to be out of range or on retreat, it all waits for us, and somehow we’re supposed to respond all the time to everyone for every reason. Were we to do that—any of us—often we’d be out of our depth. We don’t or can’t respond, because we don’t know how, and yet we aren’t permitted ever to punt. Teachers are supposed to react to student psychiatric crises; prophets are supposed to heal the sick; apostles are supposed to clothe the naked; evangelists are supposed to feed the hungry… and more. Not only are most people way out of their skill set most of the time, they—we—are out of their zone of competence. We’re supposed to be, or at least, feel responsible for the whole list of mission actions, all of us, and the more we try, the more we realize we cannot do all those things, and we feel more behind, not living up to our baptismal promises, not doing enough. I have a friend who served in Africa for a year between college and Law School. Like many 60’s folk, he felt urgently a personal need to work in such a mission/worthy venture. He’s gone on to be a useful Labor Attorney, but he’s had a nagging feeling he ought to have done more, different, or other, but he knew he’d been called to be a Labor lawyer. I think of a doctor who thought he should be a medical missionary, and his wise college chaplain observed to him, “We know you’ll be a fine doctor, but what evidence is there that you have any gifts for missionary work,” so the student did indeed become a useful, fine doctor.
These readings are not supposed to fuel our feelings of inadequacy. Rather, I think, they’re supposed to point two directions. First we’re in the list, or an expanded list, of callings God offers us in the gifts we each receive, have, develop, and hope for. They help build us into adults with curiosity, to expand our actions beyond just doing jobs, but to find ways to incorporate, incarnate, our gifts into our work as our way “to seek and serve Christ in all persons…that there may be justice and freedom for all.” Jesus’s call to each of us echoes Micah’s command: “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God.”
That last phrase, “walk humbly before our God” is paramount. It points to the other helpful direction this morning’s group of readings point to: we’re not Jesus; we’re not the full Child of the Living God. We receive him at our baptism and at each Eucharist, and through prayer, our corporate life and work, and through other gifts of the Spirit. While we each share in God’s life and work, we’re not so filled with God’s Word, that we are co-equal with God. That’s pretty obvious—at least I’m clear who I’m not—and that understanding gives me and demands I observe my limits or limitations, or even boundaries. As it turns out, I cannot heal the sick, but I have family who can. I cannot make the deaf hear, though I know folk who can. That also permits me to say, and requires me to choose between “yes, I can,” “ and “I’m sorry, I cannot.” None of us should feel as threatened by such choosing, but today’s readings seem to point to if we’re not doing it all, we’re not people of faith. That’s harsh. “Yes, I can, “ is often true, and “Yes, we can” is still more true; God’s capacity is infinite, and we can only work towards utilizing our gifts optimally. Jesus calls us not to be him, but to be as like him as we can be, being out own best selves. However we do, it will be welcomed as enough, sometimes part of the challenge to do more, but we will be welcomed, as we are, into heaven with Jesus forever. Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 9 Sept. 2012 St. John’s, Boston