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Sermon for Sunday 9 September 2018

FIRST READING Isaiah 35:4-7a

4Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters 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

1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. 2Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. 3When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. 4Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God; 5Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever; 6Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. 7The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; 8The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked. 9The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!


SECOND READING James 2:1-10, 14-18

1My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? 8If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.
14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.


GOSPEL Mark 7:24-37

24From there {Jesus} arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. 25But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 30And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. 31Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. 34And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”



Everyone knows the name Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh is best remembered as a troubled, but highly talented post-impressionist painter who died at age 37, perhaps at his own hand. His best-known work is titled, “Starry Night.” But what you may not know is that Vincent 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 mine 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.
They disagreed with van Gogh’s lifestyle and refused to renew his contract. He was forced to find another occupation. And so, I suppose, it was then that Vincent devoted himself to art. When you stop and think about it, that baker’s wife was correct. Vincent van Gogh, by typical social standards, wasn’t normal. He was a troubled young man whose life was filled with sorrow. But what does it mean to be normal? The baker’s wife said he wasn’t normal because he tried, in his own way, to imitate Jesus. Does this make a person abnormal?
Normality; isn’t this basically what the majority of us desire–to be considered normal, to fit in, to be accepted? Perhaps one of the worst things someone can say to another, in our super-conformist culture is, “You’re not normal.” I wonder however, if the world will ever be changed for the better, by people whose greatest ambition is to fit in, to be accepted–in other words, to be normal. This morning I think we need to ponder, that there are times when being seen as abnormal isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Consider Albert Einstein; was he 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. He was so absent-minded, it’s said, 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 to drive. He didn’t like to wear socks. And yet he’s one of the most celebrated scientists who ever lived. So what is the criteria by which we see certain behaviors, certain personal attributes, as abnormal, as bad?
What about Warren Buffett; is he normal? Buffet is, of course, one of the richest men in the world. Listen how Dan Miller described Buffet in his 2008 book, No More Dreaded Mondays: “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 does, on occasion, carry a cell phone, but chooses not use it when he’s in his home city. He keeps no calculator on his desk, preferring to make most calculations in his head . . .”
In today’s ultra-modern, fast paced, instant communication society, can this be considered normal behavior for a successful business person–no computer, no calculator, and heaven forbid, no cell phone? Many of us would suffer a panic attack if we didn’t have a cell phone with us. So, is Warren Buffet normal or abnormal? And by what criteria do we make this judgment? What about van Gogh or Einstein? Consider, if you will, someone completely different, Mother Teresa.
Was Mother Teresa normal or abnormal? This should be easier to answer. Most would agree that no normal person would make the sacrifices that this little nun made. That’s why the Catholic church has Canonized her. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is now officially known in the Roman Catholic church as Saint Teresa. So, is it bad to be abnormal? Not if you’re work is enduring and you’re willing to pay the price. What was it that Jesus lifted up in the Beatitudes? Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted and those who are reviled on Jesus’ account. Are these the attributes that society would lift up as things we need to strive for, as things that make a person normal? And for those who strive toward being these things, are they then considered abnormal? Jesus must not think so, He calls them blessed!
So, let me ask this, is it okay then to be abnormal if in doing so you change the world? Let’s take this one step further. Would you agree that it would be all right to be abnormal if it meant you left your little part of the world a better place? Years ago, author Steven Mosley was teaching at an English school in Japan where 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, was not 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.
Yasuko’s father had often thrown wild parties when she was a child at which he became quite drunk. 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.
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’ll ask again, is it so bad to be abnormal?
Our epistle lesson for today comes from the letter of St. James. It reads like this: “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man 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, my beloved brothers and sisters: 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?” (2:1-5).
Admit it. What James is describing here is what our society considers normal. In a way, we’re all guilty of it. Wealthy folks in our society are treated differently than those with little means. The top 1% are catered to unmercifully, held up as something to aspire to, while the bottom 1% are shunned, seen as irresponsible, often blamed for their own misery. The top 1% are worth millions and even billions of dollars and live lives of opulence. Meanwhile those at the bottom of society are criticized as welfare queens, most living in subsidized housing struggling to provide for their families. When a wealthy person goes out to eat, it’s in the finest of restaurants. If the poor tried to eat in the same establishment, they’d be tossed out in the cold. We all have to agree that this is considered normal behavior in our society.
Now before I’m accused of promoting class warfare, I’m not. I’m simply stating what’s considered normal in our society. I’m very much aware that many at the bottom of society act irresponsibly with their resources. I know that things like drug and alcohol addiction are problems people have gotten themselves into. I also understand that mental illness plays a big part in our homeless population’s problems. These are all factors in why some have a problem rising through the economic ranks.
Retired seminary professor Fred Craddock tells about the first church he served as a student. They had a fund called the Emergency Fund that had about $l00 in it. They told their young pastor he could use it at his discretion, provided he dispensed the money according to the conditions which the governing body of the church had set. So, he asked, “What are the conditions?” The chairman of the committee said, “You are not to give the money to anybody who is in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness, or poor management.” Craddock asked, “Well, what else is there?” Then he adds, “Far as I know, they still have that money.”
What we need to understand here in James’ letter is, that it isn’t the poor who are on trial here, it’s those who follow Jesus. 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. He isn’t even chastising the local congregation for their lack of giving to charities. He’s writing to mature Christians and he’s asking us whether we pass judgment on people according to how we see them, according to how we perceive their economic status; a practice that, regrettably, is quite normal.
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 wearing middle-class shoes. 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 solidly 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’s 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 Ed sums it up this way, “Money talks. Threads talk. Clothes talk. People treat you differently when you’re dressed in a certain way. You experience that every day and so do I.” This is normal in our society. We have different standards for how we treat people based on their appearance, their social standing and their affluence. We even go so far as to treat people differently if we think that have a lower intellectual level. Society forwards 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. I saw a picture of a luxury beach house the other day. On the front of this ocean front house was the sign announcing its name; it had a single word: Deserved. I’m sure 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 the church is, following Jesus calls for us to have an abnormal attitude toward people. We’re called to see everyone as Jesus sees them–as loved, as worthy, as important in the Kingdom of God. This isn’t to say that we’re to be blind to what motivates people, but we’re warned not to be judgmental. And this is the difficult part of this passage.
In 1932, in the heart of the depression, a woman 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 again the next day. On her 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.”
I agree that people with the work ethic of Violet are unusual today. She and her family are part of the “working poor.” And James is warning us that we must guard against being judgmental. We need to be careful when we say the poor are undeserving, irresponsible, lazy. There are a good many who, just like Violet are working two shifts, trying to do the best they can to take care of those they love. Most of the time, we don’t know the circumstances of the person and we must be careful not to pass judgment. James writes, “Brothers and sisters in Christ, you must not show favoritism. . . . If you show special attention to the man 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?”
And in Matthew chapter 5 Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted and those who are reviled on His account. These are the actions and attitudes we’re called to adopt. We’re also warned not to pass judgment on others based on how we see them.
By society’s standards, this is an abnormal way of looking at life, but that’s God’s way. In closing consider this, was it normal behavior for the Son of God, the eternal One through whom all things were created, to give His life for our sins? No–and I thank God, Jesus was abnormal. If He was normal by our standards, we wouldn’t have a chance.

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