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Sermon for Sunday 6 September 2015

First Reading    Isaiah 35:4-7a
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7a the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.

Psalm    Psalm 146
1 Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! 2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. 3 Put not your trust in rulers, in mortals in whom there is no help. 4 When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. 5 Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help, whose hope is in the Lord their God; 6 who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps promises forever; 7 who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The Lord sets the captive free. 8 The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. 9 The Lord cares for the stranger; the Lord sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked. 10 The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!

Second Reading    James 2:1-10, 14-18
1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? 8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

Gospel    Mark 7:24-37
24 [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. 31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
I’m sure that almost everyone here knows the name Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh is best remembered as a troubled, but highly talented post-impressionist painter who died at the age of 37, perhaps at his own hand. His best-known work is titled, “Starry Night.” However, there may be some things about Vincent van Gogh that you may not know. For example, did you know that van Gogh was drawn toward the Christian ministry at an early age?
In the winter of 1878, van Gogh volunteered to move to an impoverished coal mining town in the south of Belgium, a place where pastors were usually sent as punishment. He preached and ministered to the sick, and also drew pictures of the miners and their families, who called him the “Christ of the Coal Mines.” As a missionary to these miners, van Gogh identified with them in a powerful way. He lived as simply as they did. He gave away his good clothing to the poor and dressed in shabby clothing. One day, a baker’s wife, with whom he had boarded, saw him and asked why he had given away his good clothing. Vincent replied, “I am a friend of the poor like Jesus was.” Not impressed, the baker’s wife told him, “You are no longer normal.” Van Gogh’s governing body in the church agreed with the baker’s wife.
The church’s governing body disagreed with van Gogh’s lifestyle and refused to renew his contract. This forced him to find another occupation. And so, I suppose, it was then that Vincent devoted himself to art. The baker’s wife was correct: Vincent van Gogh was not normal. He was a troubled young man whose life was filled with sorrow. But what does it really mean to be normal? The baker’s wife determined that he wasn’t normal because he tried to follow Jesus. He did so in a rather eccentric way, but is that bad? If we truly want to be all that Christ calls us to be, I suspect that the baker’s wife is right—in today’s world, we’ll be anything but normal. In today’s culture, as orthodox Christians, we find ourselves in the minority.
Society today basically says we want you to be normal and to be considered “normal”, you need to fit in, to be accepted. And because of the pressure to conform, perhaps one of the meanest things you can say to another person is, “You are not normal.” Consider this, however, will the world ever be changed for the better by people whose greatest ambition is to simply fit in, to be accepted–in other words, to be normal. Consider all those who stood outside society’s category of normal: Biblical figures like Moses, Daniel, all the prophets, the apostles and of course Jesus. Non-Biblical figures like Luther, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa. Many saw these and many others as something other than normal.
So we must ask ourselves, is being abnormal really bad? Consider Albert Einstein, was he considered normal? It’s said that Einstein shuffled in the streets of New York in his bedroom slippers and communicated intelligibly with only a few close acquaintances. It’s also said that he was so absent-minded, that his wife had to cut his food at dinner to keep him from slicing off a finger. His memory was so bad he couldn’t remember names, dates and phone numbers. He had no car of his own and never learned how to drive. He didn’t like to wear socks. And yet he’s still considered one of the most celebrated scientists who ever lived. Is it bad to be abnormal?
What about Warren Buffett; do you consider him to be normal? Buffet is, of course, one of the richest men in the world. Dan Miller, in his 2008 book, No More Dreaded Mondays, described Buffet this way: “He runs his $136 billion company, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., from a small office in Omaha with the notable absence of a computer. He shuns meetings and spent most of a recent Wednesday working on new lyrics to “Love Me Tender” for a birthday party for his friend Bill Gates. Despite having substantial stakes in Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, American Express, and countless other companies, Berkshire has no public relations, human resources, or legal departments. Its headquarters is staffed by just seventeen employees. Mr. Buffett occasionally carries a cell phone but doesn’t use one when he’s in his home city. He keeps no calculator on his desk, preferring to do most calculations in his head . . .” Considering today’s high tech, fast paced, instant everything, business world, is this normal behavior for a business person–no computer, no calculator, and heaven forbid, no cell phone? Some of us wouldn’t be caught dead without our cell phone. So, is Warren Buffet normal?
What about Mother Teresa, I mention her frequently, does she fall into the category of normal? I think most of us agree that no normal person would make the kind of sacrifices that this little nun made. That’s why she’s considered a saint. So, is it really all that bad to be abnormal? It isn’t, if you’re willing to pay the price. With all that said, could we then agree that it’s all right to be abnormal, if in doing so, you change the world? Let’s take this one step further. Would you then also agree that it would be all right to be seen as abnormal, if it meant you left your little part of the world a better place? Let me share with you the story about an ordinary man who was at the same time abnormal.
Many years ago, when author Steven Mosley was teaching at an English school in Japan, he met a young woman named Yasuko. Yasuko’s family had a history of abandonment and broken relationships. Her father died when she was young, and her mother, who had never experienced love and security in her life, wasn’t able to pass on these qualities of love and security to Yasuko. After Yasuko became a Christian, she struggled to understand and accept God’s love for her.
One day, Yasuko ran into one of her father’s old friends. He began sharing with Yasuko one very special memory. Her father had often thrown wild parties when she was a child at which he became quite intoxicated. Whenever he got drunk, he would start giving away whatever food he found in the pantry. This was right after the war, when jobs were scarce and hunger and poverty stalked their town. Most of the men at these parties would have starved if it hadn’t been for Yasuko’s father’s drunken generosity.
After the man left, Yasuko’s mother told her the truth: her father never drank alcohol. You see, in Japanese culture, accepting charity is a form of dishonor. If her father had given his friends food, they would have been too ashamed to accept it. But under the guise of his “drunken” parties, he was able to help his friends and keep them from “losing face.” He had made himself look foolish in order to protect his friends’ pride. In her father’s sacrifice, Yasuko began to understand the love of a God who gave up His own power and died to save us from our sins. If her father had acted normally, many of his friends would have gone hungry. So I ask again: Is it really all that bad to be considered abnormal?
Our second lesson for today comes from the Epistle of St. James. It reads like this: “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose someone comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor person in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the one wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor person, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? “Listen, has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”
Wouldn’t you agree that what James is describing, in this passage, is normal behavior in our society, and even, heaven forbid, in the church? Those who are considered wealthy, which include our politicians, sports stars and Hollywood stars, are far too often treated differently than those who live below the poverty line. Generally speaking, those who are considered poor are shunned, looked down upon or considered their own worst enemy. Now to be fair, I understand that the term wealthy is ambiguous.
Depending on who you ask, the amount one earns, to be considered wealthy, can change. If you ask someone living at or below the poverty threshold, it might be anyone who ears more than double what they do. Today there are more than 50 million people in the US, or 14.5% of our population, living below the poverty threshold; those earning less than $23,550 per year. These are considered people who are unable to make a decent living without assistance. And then there’s the other side of the spectrum, those who are considered wealthy.
Again since the term wealthy is unclear, I tried to be fair and went to answer.com and typed in the question, what salary constitutes being rich in our country today? The answer I received was $150k in earnings per year. Surprisingly, those who earn at or above this level make up some 4% of our society. If you move the bar to $250k in earnings per year, that percentage drops to less than 2%. To be one of the so called affluent, those earning above $380k per year in the US today, you’d need to earn the salary of the president. These are the 1%’s that are so often discussed in the news. Those who are catered to unmercifully.
These folks live lives of opulence; they are worth millions and even billions of dollars. Again those who live in extreme poverty, those living on less than $1k per month, some 8% of our society today, are far too often shunned, called irresponsible, criticized as welfare queens and blamed for their own misery. The wealthy ride in limousines, walk the red carpet and eat in the finest restaurants. When a wealthy person comes into the room they get the best seat, while the poor person is left out in the cold. Wouldn’t you agree that this is considered quite normal behavior in our society?
Now to be clear, the point I’m trying to make here has nothing to do with politics, with whether the lines drawn by the government dividing the wealthy from the poor are realistic or not, nor with who is paying or not paying their fair share of taxes. Furthermore, the point I’m trying to make here has nothing to do with condemning those of means or the poor. I’m merely pointing out what is normal in our society today. Those of means, especially those of affluence, are treated much more favorably than those without means. What we need to understand is that it’s not the poor, the rich nor the government who are on trial here; it’s those who follow Jesus.
The author of James isn’t writing to the government about its attitudes toward the poor. He isn’t writing to the poor to chastise them about how they use their money. The author of James is writing to us in the church and he’s asking us whether we pass judgment on people according to their economic status, a practice that, regrettably, is more normal than we’d like to admit.
Lutheran pastor Ed Markquart tells about two people from their church who went to the welfare office. One person was dressed very middle class; with a middle class hair style, a middle class dress on; and with middle class shoes on. He says the shoes and the hairstyle were a dead giveaway as to her economic status, or, at least, so he was told. This first woman gave off the aura of being middle class. The second person from their parish didn’t have very much money and her dress, hair style and shoes revealed that she was financially poorer.
The face of the clerk at the counter was bland and expressionless as she looked at the poorer woman. Her eyes didn’t smile; her face didn’t smile; her cheeks didn’t smile. Then, the clerk from behind the counter addressed the middle class woman from their church, and the clerk’s face lit up, her smile lit up, her voice lit up and she spoke softly and politely, “It is so nice to see you today,” as if she knew the middle class woman from their church. The clerk behind the counter obviously had a preference for the woman who was middle class and also had an obvious disinterest toward the person with a look of poverty.
Pastor Markquart sums it up this way, “Money talks. Threads talk. Clothes talk. People treat you differently when you are dressed in a certain way. You experience that every day and so do I.” And we do. It’s normal in our society. We have two different standards. We assume that people who have wealth deserve it, even if they inherited their wealth or they started their work life with a Harvard education and the financial backing of their family.
Pastor Bill Hybels tells of going boating with a friend in Southern California. Among the many boats they passed was a huge luxury yacht. On the side of the yacht was painted only one word: Deserved. And I’ll bet that’s how its owner felt. That’s normal for people in that economic bracket. You and I understand that. What James is saying to us is that following Jesus calls us to an abnormal attitude toward people. As disciples of Jesus, we’re to see all people as Jesus sees them–as loved, as worthy, as important in the Kingdom of God.
In 1932, in the heart of the depression a lady named Violet married a union organizer and within a few years had four sons. When she was pregnant a fifth time, gangsters moved to take over the union, and her husband left, feeling his family was safer without him. Violet and her sons moved into a tiny apartment, and a few months later, a daughter was born. To feed her family, Violet worked days at the National Silver Company and nights at a drugstore. She would work, have bouillon for lunch, finish her first job, pick up a kidney for twenty five cents and make soup. She would tell the children not to mind the taste, go to the second job, come home and wash out the children’s socks and shirts, catch a couple of hours of sleep, and begin her next day. On days off, she waited tables, and holidays, she worked at a department store.
Over the years she worked in a cracker factory, hawked ice cream, labeled medicine bottles, cleaned offices, and pushed a coffee cart. In 1959 she became an orderly in a home for the aged, and seventeen years later she retired with a pension of $31.78 a month. For the first time since 1946 she had a week off. Thomas, her son, perhaps paid her the highest tribute possible, saying he had only “happy memories” of his childhood. As he put it, “We didn’t even know we were poor until years later.” Violet and her family are part of the “working poor.”
A few of you, particularly among our older members, may have come from families like that. We must be careful when we say the poor are undeserving, irresponsible, lazy. Many of them, even today, are just like Violet–working two shifts, trying to do the best they can to take care of those whom they love. They deserve our admiration, not our scorn–and, where possible, even our help. James writes, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. . . . If you show special attention to those wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? “Listen, Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” That’s an abnormal way of looking at life, but that’s the Jesus way. But think of it this way: it’s not normal for the Son of God to give His life for our sins. Thank God, Jesus was abnormal. If He wasn’t, you and I wouldn’t have a chance.

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