15th Sunday after Pentecost, year B, 2015 (preached 9/6/2015)
first reading: Isaiah 35:4-7a
second reading: James 2:1-17
gospel reading: Mark 7:24-37
For vacation this year I spent two weeks traveling around the western area of our country. I saw some amazing sights – marvels of God, the power of water, the genius of the Native people in living with their environment.
But I also witnessed evil genius. I also witnessed the power of self-destruction. I also witnessed greed and egotism on one of the grandest scales I’ve ever seen.
My family experienced the Grand Canyon, Arches, Mesa Verde, and Bryce Canyon National Parks among many other places – and our journey ended in Las Vegas.
I could go on and on about feeling God’s power and majesty in creation – but my thoughts after pondering the readings for this morning are more with Las Vegas. And those thoughts aren’t near as nice or clean or beautiful.
What we have in our readings this morning are hypocrisy, beggars, and not listening to what Jesus says. That seems to sum up Las Vegas pretty well. Except it’s not that easy.
The nickname most of us know for Vegas is “Sin City.” But after being there a mere two days I came to see it more as “SAD City.” There were people, including me, who walked past homeless folks on the streets. There were people bent on self-destruction. Activities that given the right frame of mind and context are fun and life-giving, but are taken to such extremes that one can only wonder why more people don’t DIE there.
At first I wondered why the pool was only four feet deep and closed at 8pm, then I saw how people were behaving at the pool at 6pm and I knew. The casinos are open 24 hours. I only saw them by 9am, but even at that hour they were filled with people staring at their machines with desperation as their cigarettes burned in their fingers.
All in all I felt an overwhelming sadness for these folks, and ANGER too – at the “higher ups” who were benefiting from people’s addictions and desperation. Evil geniuses that profit from our greed and compulsion to stake it all for the chance to win big. Anger at the old women who were trying to push “baseball cards” of young “girls for hire” into my husband’s hand as the two of us walked past.
But I only saw there on a grand scale what I see around me in my daily life on a regular basis.
James, in our second reading, calls out our hypocrisy. Our tendency to play to the money crowd, our accumulation of things, our hoarding of stuff, while we see our neighbors suffering around us. Jesus himself acknowledges our baser instincts, our attraction to exclusion, our need to think of ourselves as better than others, when he calls the Syrophoenician woman a “dog.”
And we, like the crowds in Jesus’ time, are just as incapable of listening to his words. To them he said, “don’t tell anyone,” but they couldn’t contain themselves and told EVERYONE. To us he gives the new commandment to “love one another,” and the mission to “teach all nations,” and what do we do? We keep it to ourselves, happier to share the latest gossip than our faith, insulted by the instruction of the Church to give of ourselves, our time, and our possessions.
What are we to do when confronted with our sin? What are we to do when we realize what a mess the world is – and OUR part in making it and keeping it that way? What are we to do?
We’re stuck. We are in bondage to sin and we cannot free ourselves.
WE ARE THE SYROPHOENICIAN WOMAN – unworthy of anything, even the smallest crumb that falls from the table – from THAT table [pointing to the altar] especially.
Depressing isn’t it. In our “do it yourself” culture, none of us want to hear that we “can’t.” But there it is, like it or not.
Well, as much as I might not “like” it, I’m also eternally grateful that I’m not left to work out the mess of my life, or anyone else’s, on my own. I’m grateful I don’t have to rely on my own strength of character or righteousness to get on God’s good side.
Jesus has done all that and more on the cross.
He didn’t give his life for us because we’re good or noble. He went to the cross for us precisely because we’re NOT. We don’t deserve a place at his table, we don’t even deserve the crumbs from it – yet he invites us, every one of us, to feast on his love and forgiveness.
We are beggars – yet he lifts us up and gives us a place of honor. We are beggars – yet he carries us through our deepest pains. We are beggars – yet he gives us hope beyond this life. We are beggars – yet he gives us strength to meet the day ahead.
We may not be able to do anything to save ourselves, thank God. But now that we ARE saved, we beggars have a LOT of work to do. Sure we screw it up. We fail. Sometimes we make a real mess of things. But it doesn’t keep us from working – because we are FREED from the bondage of all our mistakes. Jesus sees us fall, picks us up, and sends us out again.
That freedom is tremendous, indescribable. Jesus may have healed the woman’s daughter, he may have healed the deaf man – but how much MORE has he healed and given to you and me?
We go to the casino empty handed. Not one coin to put in the slot, and yet the owner himself comes up to us and says, “You’ve broken the bank. You get it all.” What would we do? Jump for joy! Hug everyone around us! Drinks for everyone!
Jesus does so much more than that. We get MORE than money – we get our LIVES. We get LOVE. We get to SHARE that love without losing any for ourselves. We get HEAVEN.
HOW can we keep that to ourselves?