ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 6, 2015
James 2: 1 – 10; Mark 7: 24 – 30
Rev Sabrina Ingram
A favorite book when my kids were young was Sammy’s Special Day by Cyndy Szekeres. Sammy is a little fox whose friend Thumpity is coming for a visit. Sammy can’t wait to play with Thumpity but when Thumpity arrives, a very bossy Sammy refuses to share his blocks, toys or truck. My favorite part is when Thumpity goes to sit on a chair and Sammy pulls it out from underneath him and snootily declares, “That’s my chair! You can sit on the floor.” It’s a human tendency to be protective of what is ours. For instance, it’s no longer enough to lock a car – now we put a Club on the steering wheel and alarm it. The wait lines at the border grow longer as customs officer carefully question each driver. When I was a kid we had a milk box in our house. When my parents forgot their keys they could push it open and lift me through so I could get inside and open the door. We’ve gone from that to deadbolts to gated communities. Everywhere we turn there are gatekeepers guarding the entrance.
In the gospel reading today we find the disturbing story of Jesus insulting a woman who bowed before him in humility and begged him to deliver a demon from her daughter. Jesus snubbed her saying, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Mark 7:27 This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know. What’s going on here? We must remember Jesus was a Jew – born and bred. In order to insure the Jews kept their covenant relationship with God they were to remain undefiled by certain things God declared to be “unclean” or an “abomination”. This list includes dogs and Gentiles (all non-Jews). Many Gentiles worshipped false gods and idols so their culture was offensive to the Jews. Jews were not to marry or live beside Gentiles. Travelling with Gentiles was dangerous for a Jew lest the Gentile “smash his skull” (BT Avodah Zarah 25b) Other writings declared the offspring of Gentiles to be animals; their female children were perpetually unclean. Jews were warned not to use a Gentile midwife in case she poisoned the baby. Gentiles were considered liars and therefore poor witnesses in court. Some Jewish men prayed each day thanking Yahweh they were not born a Gentile. This sounds awful but we need to remember the Jews had suffered greatly at the hands of non-Jews. They had been enslaved in Egypt, exiled to Persia, attacked by the Greeks and occupied by the Romans. They’d fought many wars against Gentiles and suffered loss, looting and degradation. They’d been starved, beaten, killed and pressured to abandon their faith. The woman who came to see Jesus was Syrophoenician – a Gentile. In context, we can see that Jesus, in snubbing the woman, was simply being true to his culture. He wasn’t about to give Jewish privileges to unworthy Gentiles. He was simply being a good Jewish gatekeeper.
The early Church also had gatekeepers. Great debates took place between Peter and Paul as to whether Jesus had come to be the Messiah to all people or just to the Jews. Peter, the gatekeeper, said Jesus came for the Jews. Later he softened his position and said if Gentiles first converted to Judaism they could be included in Christ’s kingdom. Paul on the other hand boldly ventured forth to bring the good news to Jews and Gentiles of many persuasions.
But Gatekeeping continued. In his letter to the “12 tribes in the dispersion” James addressed their current conduct, including their gatekeeping practices. This time it wasn’t a Jewish – Gentile rift, but a rich – poor divide. The Christians in these communities were kowtowing to the rich. If someone came into their fellowship in expensive clothes and jewels, they were welcomed with open arms. The congregation would shower attention on them giving them the best seat in the house, introducing them to the leadership, bringing them coffee and making certain they signed the guest book before leaving. When a poor person came in, they held their noses, turned away, didn’t speak to them leaving them to stand or sit on the floor. James chastised them for three reasons. First the rich oppressed the Christians and dragged them into court. Secondly, they were contravening the “royal law” of loving all their neighbours as themselves. Finally he argued, “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? But you have dishonored the poor.” (James 2: 5 & 6)
Now I wish I could say gatekeeping is no longer an issue in the Church, but it is. This summer I took the opportunity to visit both Presbyterian and other churches. These were some of my experiences.
- In a church where I’d preached before and so was known, no one but the minister spoke to Terry and I. The only interaction we had was with the person in the pew in front of us who turned around to look at us while we were singing. We went to coffee time and were ignored.
- In another congregation I was met by a scowling greeter who looked at me as if to say, “Who are you and what do you want?” Later she came over and warmly apologized saying she hadn’t recognized me. If I’d been a stranger I’d have just received the evil eye.
- In one church I practically had to yank the bulletin out of the greeter’s hand.
- In yet another congregation no one spoke to me, in fact they left me standing alone in the Narthex while they all went down for coffee.
In all of this I experienced firsthand how difficult it is to go into a congregation of strangers, especially when I was alone. And I’m a minister! I’m comfortable in church. I made a point of smiling and saying hello to people who would look at me oddly, nod and keep going. I gained a new appreciation of our first time guests; they are courageous people! The lack of engagement gave a clear message – “go away, you’re not one of us, you’re not welcome here”. And so I discovered the mystery of why so many churches are closing. Gatekeepers. If these people were meaning to protect their turf they did a very good job, it is very unlikely I would ever go back. I’ve also gained a deeper appreciation for our congregation and congratulate you on not behaving like this!
Unlike the reaction most people would have, the Syrophoencian woman wasn’t dissuaded by Jesus’ comment. Her sick daughter caused her to suck up her pride and take whatever scraps she got. Jesus was touched by this and healed the child. I’ve often wondered why Mark included this story since Jesus doesn’t appear in the best light. This was a turning point in Jesus’ understanding of his ministry. Jesus realized he’d come not only for the benefit of the Jewish people but to be the Messiah for the world. His role was not to shut people out of God’s kingdom but to bring them in. This included Jews and Gentiles. From this point on, Jesus opened the door to anyone who turned to him. All were welcome.
In the early church we know that with the intervention of the Holy Spirit, Peter eventually came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah for all people (cf Acts 10) He opened the gate first to the mystery of God’s will and then to the Gentile, Cornelius. Christ’s church continued to expand.
We don’t hear the results of James’ admonition. What do you think, did the Christians he addressed learned to welcome and honour all people regardless of class and status? Did they become accepting, embracing of all? Given the Church continues on, it would seem they did.
Not only does every congregation have gatekeepers, each one of us is a gatekeeper. Our words and actions either allow people to come in and join us in following Jesus, or they keep people out. It is normal at times to struggle with the question of “who belongs?” Not everyone is like us. Not everyone fits in easily. Sometimes we feel like we have enough relationships. Some people rub us the wrong way or even scare or repulse us. Some people don’t seem to have much to give. Yet God brings all kinds of people to our gate so we can welcome them. We don’t get a choice about who comes – but we know they are brought to us by the Holy Spirit and they will influence our community for the better. A congregation is a container which has room for an ever expanding number of people. The whole is greater than the parts. Together we’re strong enough to hold all those who come. Some gatekeepers keep people out, but gatekeepers also open the door to welcome people in. What kind of gatekeepers do we wish to be? In Sammy’s Special Day Sammy learns that while having toys can be fun, sharing them with a friend is even better. It’s a simple lesson we easily forget. While being loved by Christ as part of his body is pure joy, sharing that love with friends, old and new, is even better. May we continue – and grow – in our ability to be the kind of gatekeepers that welcome others to share the Bread of Life.