5th September 2021, Proper 18
Isaiah 35:4-7, Psalm 14, James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17, Mark 7:24-37
Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.
Words we have desperately wanted to hear this week, whether that was as protestors trying to draw the attention of the Government and the financial world to the dire emergency of the climate crisis and of the need to ‘act now!’ Or whether it has been as those watching helplessly as families and individuals tried to to flee from Afghanistan.
Yes – we want them to be saved, we want ourselves to be saved, from harm and hurt and fear. And we want to be saved from ourselves – I think we know that the cause of war and extremism, of failed diplomacy, rising global temperatures and the increased frequency of extreme weather events, is all of human making.
Was that the feeling of the people in Isaiah’s community? Did they feel trapped in the space between feeling helpless and knowing that their predicament was the result of their own failures? They were a people surrounded by war; a people being swayed to go with this side or that side, as superpowers fought over their land. A people who feared defeat and heard the words of the diverging words of the false prophets and of God’s prophets. A people who did know that they had sinned against God and against their neighbours. Would God be able to – indeed would God save them? What would the future look like? Isaiah is giving them words of hope, reminding them of God’s greatness and creating for them a vision of the world God desired for them: heaven on earth. The psalmist echoes this with words encouraging and exhorting us to hope and trust in God.
Yet I sense that God is not just going to intervene and wave, as it were a magic wand, and everything will be tip top fine. That certainly was not the experience of Isaiah’s audience: they suffered the humiliation of defeat and exile, and it was only during that time of exile that they learned to live once again in a renewed relationship with God and neighbour. It is at this point we turn to the epistle of James.
Do we really believe in Jesus Christ? What a question! Not do we believe, but do we really believe? For if we truly believed then we would live as Jesus lived, act as Jesus acted. We would see the flaws in human systems that Jesus saw – and sees today – and would work to transform them. We would like Jesus, be able to say ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’.
But, says the writer of James, we seem to have been hoodwinked by the rich and powerful. We have been drawn into their mindset that says wealth, riches and fine clothes are the indicators that show who is most important, who should be in power, whose words should be believed.
Instead we should be turning to the scripture and the royal law: love your neighbour as yourself. Here there is no hierarchy, no space of prejudice nor favouritism. Further more to love is not just to mouth the words; it is to enact them. The epistle writer is quite clear: if we do not act, we cannot save ourselves. Our faith is only of use if it is enacted. A life jacket only saves you if you inflate it and put it on! Just having faith that a life jacket can save lives is not enough.
It seems to me that what Jesus so clearly demonstrated for us is that with faith in God, we can do all that is required to love our neighbours, to create heaven on earth, to save the world.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, we see that there is not a time when Jesus cannot find himself called upon to do the work of God. Even when he goes outside the the Jewish territories of Judea and Galilee, there are people who need help. There are foreigners who are still neighbours. There are people who don’t expect much but still ask. There are people trapped by poverty and people trapped by disabilities. When the onlookers saw what Jesus was doing, they were astounded beyond measure.
Can we be as astounding? Can our belief in Jesus be such that we let ourselves be empowered by the strength and hope that comes from God? Can we put that faith into action so that by loving our neighbour, by creating heaven in earth, the world will be saved?