Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 23)
Sunday, September 5, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (TLC Worship Service 09/05/2021)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

One of the highlights of my recent vacation was spending time with my niece and nephews. Because I only see them once every 6 months or a year, I see them grow up in spurts, and it’s interesting to notice the changes in their personalities and interests.  They used to beg me to give them pushes on my parent’s swing set. Specifically, they enjoyed underdogs where I pushed them by running under them.  But this last time I was home they weren’t interested in playing on the swing set, now they’re focused on a computer game called Minecraft.  I suppose the game could also be played on a smartphone, but they’re too young for their own phones, and so when they come to grandma and grandpa’s house, where I was babysitting them, they used my parent’s computer. 

The only thing I know about the game Minecraft is what I’ve learned from my niece and nephews.  I learned that only one person can play at a time, and all three siblings want to play. The solution they came up with, is that they would all have equal time on the computer.  My niece would have 40 minutes, the oldest of her younger brothers would have 40 minutes, though the youngest brother – just going into kindergarten, would have 30 minutes.  Or, so I was told by his older sister. 

When I announced to my youngest nephew that his 30 minutes was up, he started crying and protesting. He complained that his siblings both got 40 minutes, why did he only get 30?  I don’t know anything about it, I didn’t set the rules, and it made sense to me the youngest one would get fewer minutes.  But when my parents got home, I asked my mom about the time.  She told me they all get 40 minutes. My niece lied to me.  When I challenged her on it, she looked me straight in the eye, her expressions softened a little bit but still serious, and she told me,  “I thought he only got 30 minutes because he was the youngest.”

Perhaps as a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, babysitter, teacher, you’ve been in a position where you’ve had to make sure things were fair for the children in your care.  Perhaps equal amount of candy, or ice cream, or time with a toy, or equal attention.  It’s a loving thing to be fair – so that all get an equal amount.

The truth is, we like equality when it benefits us, but like my niece, we’re also comfortable with inequality if that benefits us.  That’s one message told by our scripture readings this morning. Today’s scriptures reveal our human sin to play favorites, and to practice inequality when it serves us.   

Our reading from James this morning (James 2:1-10, 14-17), critiques early Christian community for doing just that.  I don’t think the church has changed much in the last 2,000 years, because it seems like James description then could describe the church today.  James writes:

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 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, 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,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”  (James 2:1-4)

I saw this played out in my first congregation many years ago.  In my first few years in my other congregation we did annual door knocking campaigns inviting people to church.  Yes, imagine that – we went door-to-door inviting people to church (that was before people of color suggested that it can be horrifying for people of color to see to white people knocking on the door).  As we developed routes through the neighborhood, one of my parishioners suggested we go door knocking in Marina Bay.  Marina Bay was a relatively new and definitely wealthy development in town where a young Tom Brady had a house (until it was broken into several times, and he fled into Boston’s Back Bay to a condo where he lived for several years). This person suggested we door knock in Marina Bay because that’s where people with money lived and new members from that area would help with the church budget.

Now, obviously, all people need the gospel. And if that development was in the immediate neighborhood of the church, it would make sense to knock on their doors.  The problem was, we would have had to pass by hundreds of homes and thousands of people to get to that one small community.  In the words of James, we would have passed by people with dirty clothes, leaving them uninvited, in order to invite the people with fine clothes and gold rings.

And today’s gospel reading also presents us with a story in which Jesus himself seems to be playing favorites.  The Gospel of Mark doesn’t sugarcoat or soften this encounter between Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman begging Jesus to heal her daughter. Instead of a compassionate response, Jesus offers a cruel rebuttal to the woman’s plea. Jesus called not only the woman but her entire community dogs, that his ministry wasn’t for them but for the real children of God.   What’s up with that?

Theologian Gail Ramshaw offers a helpful comment when she writes that the Gospels are not audio or video tapes of the ministry of Jesus. As some of you have heard before, the gospels were not written by journalists as if for a newspaper or news source. The Gospels, instead, are testimonies of faith written by people of faith for communities of faith, all doing their best to understand what it meant to follow Jesus.  Ramshaw suggests that to read the story in this way, invites us into a community wrestling with the question about who the ministry of Jesus is for. Is the ministry of Jesus for just a favored few? Or, is the ministry of Jesus for everyone, even those others would consider dogs and unworthy?   

Ramshaw also suggests it’s not helpful to consider psychological motives to Jesus’s response (e.g. was he having a bad day? Was he tired? Was this the human side of Jesus coming through?). More helpful, and necessary, is considering our response to those around us.  Do we play favorites with the message and ministry of Jesus? Who do we label insiders and outsiders? How, through our words and actions, do we label some of God’s children as dogs? By the ways we shape and form our lives and ministry, do we proclaim the grace and compassion of Jesus broadly, or are we cautious and narrow?

Again, we cherish and celebrate equality when it benefits us, but we also cling to inequality and favoritism when it benefits us – when it helps us get or keep what we want. That’s the problem presented in our scripture readings today.

In response to this problem, God plays favorites. Let me say that again because it may be shocking to hear, and perhaps scandalous for me to say. In response to our human sin, God plays favorites!

That’s what theologian James Honig sees in our reading from James this morning. Honig writes: “James doesn’t speak of fairness. James speaks of God’s special concern for the poor and the oppressed.” Honig points out James 2:5: “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?” (2:5). 

Reflecting on this reading from James, theologian Amy Lindemann Allen points out that Liberation theology, developed in the latter half of the twentieth century among people experiencing poverty and oppression in Latin America, called this partiality, “God’s preferential option for the poor.”

That can be hard for us, who are mostly middle class, to hear – that God might actually prefer and favor others over us. But again, let’s be clear about why.  Could it be that God, revealed in Jesus Christ, who himself was proclaimed an outsider as he we rejected and crucified on the cross, shows special favoritism to those who are rejected by society and suffer because of other people’s sin? That God, revealed in the crucified Christ, prefers those community has shunned and cast out in its sin?

This makes sense, if you think about it.  Going back to my time in Iowa with my niece and nephew … when my niece tried to steal time away from her youngest brother, in that moment I favored my youngest nephew.  I took his side against his sister who was stealing computer time away from him. I saw that he was deserving of equal time, even if his older sister didn’t.

And yet, when her youngest brother joined forces with his older brother in picking on their older sister, in that moment I favored my niece. I stopped my youngest nephew from punching her and stopped my nephews from picking on her because my niece deserved love and respect.  

God can never take the side of the strong when the strong pick on the weak. God can never take the side of the mighty when the mighty oppress the meek. God can never bless systems of sin that exploit, oppress, and domineer. In those moments where sin has created victims, God in the crucified Jesus Christ, announces that God will always take the side of the oppressed.  God’s first choice is to love everyone equally. God’s love is announced for the world and to the world. But, when humanity in its sin divides community up, in response God takes the side of those society is against.

And could the gospel itself, invite us to consider that God DOES prefer those who turn to him in faith over those who don’t? I admit, this is risky to say, and I say it carefully and cautiously. But, could we say it as plainly as this: God wants people to turn to God in faith.  God wants us to confess our sin, to repent, and to live in relationship with God and each other as disciples. That is what God wants from us, that is what God prefers.

And maybe being honest about that shapes our outreach efforts?  Maybe we aren’t called to go bring in every single person into this ministry?  Maybe we are called, first, to the people in our community, and in our social networks, and in our families – who are most in need.

Maybe we’re not called to invite the people who are the strongest and have it all together, but instead those who are falling part – those who are hurting and lonely, those who are questioning and confused, those who are struggling to make ends meet, those looking for community and companionship. Maybe God prefers us not to go chasing across town to invite the few people we think we want here.  Maybe God just wants us to have open hearts and minds to receive those God will send if we have the patience, the wisdom, and the compassion to receive them in the love of Jesus Christ?

So maybe it is a faithful thing, and a mark of discipleship, to play favorites, when our favoritism, and our preference, favors the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the naked, the prisoner, the sick, the stranger? Perhaps in those times, favoritism and preference is a mark of discipleship, when we are lead outside of ourselves, and beyond ourselves, into relationship with the whole people of God.

Ultimately, the Good News we celebrate today, is that God offers crumbs of grace to each and every sinner who calls upon the name of the Lord.

Here, the bread of life is offered to all people who in faith desire to experience the risen Jesus Christ. Here, the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ is announced for all people.  Here Christ longs to show up, especially to any of you here today, or watching at home, who are feeling most left out, most in need, most unloved and unwelcomed.

Alive in this good news, may the Holy Spirit fill us with the faith of the Syrophonecian woman.  Favoring those labeled dogs and those cast out, may we persistently and passionately proclaim the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. May we demand that all people be fed with food, dignity, and respect they deserve as beloved children of God.  

Indeed may it be.  
Thanks be to God. AMEN