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Amazing, Unfair Grace: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 35:4-7a
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

Servant Christ,
help us to follow you in untiring ministry to town and village,
to heal and restore the broken body of humanity,
to cast out the demonic forces of greed, resentment,
communal hatred, and self-destructive fear:
Servant Christ, help us to follow you.
India: Litany of the Disciples of Christ the Servant

There was this one rainy summer day, maybe three or four years ago, Leslie had to pick something up at one of those big department stores. I went in with her because I could tell I was starting to get a cold, so I wanted to pick up some medicine. And because it was raining I was wearing a hat and a raincoat, like a long trench coat. And — the weirdest thing — one of the people who worked there walked over to the end of my aisle and just stared at me from about five or ten feet away, as I tried to find the cough medicine. (I couldn’t find what I was looking for because I hadn’t realized that I was looking in the kids’ section, and I didn’t feel like asking for help because this employee was kind of creeping me out as I felt her eyes burning a hole through me.)

Later on, after I’d found what I was looking for and Leslie and I were leaving the store, it all started to make sense: that employee thought I was going to shoplift. That kind of thing used to happen a bit at malls when I was a teenager, but I’d totally forgotten about it. But this lady, because I was wearing a ball cap and a baggy jacket, and probably some heavy metal band t-shirt, I looked like a probable thief. And I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to be judged and targeted like that ALL THE TIME as we know that many people often are — having their dignity and even their very lives taken away, most often simply because of their race. It’s because of the privilege I experience in our society as a middle-class white guy that I was oblivious to the situation at that store for so long, and can look at it now as just an annoying anecdote.

And so today in our world we hear the frustration, or incredulity, or rage in James’ voice as he writes to a church — a church that was just a blink removed from the earthly ministry of Jesus — that in their favouritism of some, and their suspicion of others, they are living in a way that actually contradicts faith in Christ, in saying “have you not made distinctions among yourselves…”

Making distinctions is something that comes pretty naturally to us. And it need not be underhanded. Sometimes it’s just a common sense way of processing information, or making sense of the world, like the story of the animals receiving their names in the Garden of Eden. There’s distinctions, or opposites, all through the readings we heard today, and in that Isaiah reading, it helps make the passage so powerful and affecting: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened; the ears of the deaf unstopped.” And then lame/leaping; speechless/singing; desert/ streams; sand; pools.

And back to James: rich/poor; law-follower/law-breaker; mercy/judgement; faith/works; words/actions.

And then to Mark: anonymity/popularity; Jew/Gentile; man/woman; food/crumbs; children/dogs. And with the story’s second healing we come full circle to the prophecy in Isaiah: deaf/hearing; speechless/singing.

And it’s interesting how Jesus gets pulled into the world of distinctions too. And not just “pulled in,” but pulled BACK into this distinction-making right after last week’s gospel reading you might recall, where he has an argument with the Pharisees, and he says ‘it’s not all about the distinction between your tradition and our lack of tradition, or about certain foods being OK, and others being bad. Because “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” It’s what’s inside that really counts. And so Jesus challenges the dietary laws that represented the distinction between Jew and Gentile.

And yet we turn the page and here he is seemingly maintaining that very distinction! It’s kind of troubling how Jesus doesn’t just snap his fingers and fix everything right away. And so scholars will debate about how, maybe this was a moment where Jesus was changed in his interaction with the Gentile woman. Or, maybe Jesus was challenging her, testing her faith. Or, some suggest, maybe we’re not hearing Jesus so much as the voice of the early Church, Jews and Gentiles reconciled, and the woman as the symbol of hope for the first Gentile believers.

But still, this can still feel unsettling… because of the dog thing. Jesus kind of calls her dog. Or, if we’re a little more nuanced, we would say that Jesus uses a metaphor in which she and her people are compared to dogs. And so those scholars often smooth things over by saying ‘Jesus doesn’t mean ugly snarling dogs; the word he uses means cute puppy dogs.’ (A distinction itself.) But still… dogs. It’s unsettling.

But the thing is, whether we like the story or hate it, we’ll never totally get inside Jesus’s mind and psychologize him. But we do have his words. Words that sound harsh on first listen, but when we know the end of the story, there’s something important there: “For it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

“For it is not fair…” The good news in this troubling story is that grace is not fair. The grace that God offers to us: to you and me, to our families and friends, to the people who live all around here and across the globe, and to the people that love us, and those that hate us, that grace and love that God offers is not “fair.”

Grace is like the seed that the sower spreads, just throwing it wherever. On good soil, yes, but also in thorns and rock. Because there’s enough seed — there’s enough grace — to just take a chance, even on the ‘unworthy’ soil (or people). The soil (or again, people!) that the ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ would deem hopeless.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, a famous, kind of punky, tattoed Lutheran pastor (who would probably be scrutinized in the medicine aisle, like I was), captures this kind of radical grace when she says this: “grace and mercy and healing has always been for people who are basically dogs.” And the Gentile woman, she understands this — maybe in a way that Jesus, at the time, didn’t. The children are fine. But the dogs need some bread, and grace and mercy and healing. Because mercy triumphs over judgement, as James puts it in his letter.

So “be strong, do not fear” we heard from Isaiah. “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” But we today hear that prophecy alongside what we’ve experienced in Jesus. And in today’s gospel reading here waltzes in Jesus. Isaiah’s vengeance would be ‘fair.’ Terrible recompense would be ‘fair.’ But Jesus comes with grace. Whether he’s escaping an angry crowd from his argument with the Pharisees, or just trying to get away for some time on his own, “here,” apparently, “is your God.” And this God who surprises us with limitless grace unstops deaf ears and releases bound tongues… just like Isaiah said would happen. But also, kind of differently. It’s a bit less scary, and less flashy. Less terrible, or terrifying. But maybe more relatable.

So the good news is as Pastor Nadia summarized it so well: grace and mercy and healing has always been for people who are basically dogs. Those looked upon as dogs. Those sick as a dog. Those tired as a dog. There will be times when we feel thrown down on the ground with the dogs, rather than sitting up at the table. But James in his letter tells us that THAT is precisely who is promised the kingdom that’s coming through “on earth as in heaven.” Because in God’s upside-down kingdom, mercy triumphs over judgement, the last are first, the mourning will be comforted, and Jesus’s grace and very presence comes to us even (and especially) in crumbs of bread. Amen.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter