September 6, 2015

Proper 18

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; PSALM 25: 1 - 12; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37


Before I became a parent to human children, I was a dog mom. I dutifully walked my dogs daily and took them to the dog park in order that they could run and recreate and generally pretend to be wild animals. This sometimes included early morning trips. The upside for me of arriving just after daybreak was that no one was there. It was a time of stillness, contemplation and quiet in the heart of the city. The downside for the dogs was that few - or no - dogs were there with whom they could act out their wildness.

Nonetheless, there we were one morning as the only ones in the park, until a woman came along walking her bicycle. She had no pet, but she did have an animal carrier wired the back of her bike.  It seemed from her cargo that the bicycle might have been her mobile home. We did not exchange words or even glances. Yet, I had the feeling she was there for the same thing I was; a moment of quiet in the heart of the city on a rare expanses of park green.

My new companion in silence took a restful seat on one of the park benches and seemed to be soaking up the morning’s peace. While my stomach grumbled, she had brought herself breakfast. As a life-long fan of the Egg McMuffin, I knew exactly the pleasure she was savoring with her eyes. It was like she was going to make the goodness last as long as possible, soaking in every morsel through every possible sense with taste to be the last. The sandwich finally made a move toward her mouth when out of nowhere lumbered a slobbering Great Dane who literally snatched the sandwich from the woman’s lips. Without even a sound the breakfast had vanished, been ingested, dematerialized and was gone. What had started as a day break with the promise of so much goodness suddenly turned into a moment of seeming mercilessness.

What the readings from today - specifically the letter of James - want us to hear, is that faith is brought to life in contexts injustice and moments of mercilessness. James asks, “What good is it to say you have faith if you do not do good works?” James’ letter rewritten the context of the dog park might read, “If a woman has only enough money for one egg sandwich per day, and you say to her, ‘Don’t worry about the dog, go buy another muffin!’ without providing for funds for the purchase, what is the good of that?!” Faith stands on the legs of mercy which can only manifest through acts and can only manifest by way of actors.

The psalm for today assures that God is the greatest of all actors of mercy, bringing not only justice to the oppressed also food to the hungry. The gospel read today tells of Jesus being convinced to heal a child who was considered irrelevant to him by way of her tribe. It was an act of mercy not required of him by the culture, and yet in the end mercy was not withheld.  Similarly, there is a story in the Islamic tradition that the Prophet Muhammad kissed his grandson and an onlooker remarked, “I swear by Allah, I have ten children and I never kissed any one of them!”  to which the Prophet is said to have replied, “He who does not show mercy to others will not be shown mercy by God.” These words appear in almost identical form in the portion of James read today. The prophetic tradition, whether expressed through Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, instructs us in the way of a faith built upon mercy and justice.

Mercy, unlike justice, does not necessarily require great courage of us. It can be a practical matter. Even cold stone can be put to merciful use. Some grand scale churches in medieval times lent their covered, exterior walkways to serve as overnight shelter for the poor and the dying. Where practiced, this was a merciful use of architectural grandeur.  Mercy may not require great sacrifice, though it may require us at times to be willing to look a fool. Befuddling examples can be found in the animal world such as the chimpanzee who helps to raise a tiny puma orphan, or the leopardess who after killing an adult baboon for supper subsequently cuddled and protected overnight the dead prey’s one-day-old infant.

Sometimes we hear the letters of Paul or we read the letter of James and we think there is a great Christian debate or conflict between faith and acts. Cynthia Bourgault, an Episcopal priest and leading teacher of spirituality, reminds us that if we hear the Bible telling us that faith and works, or grace and works, are separate and at odds, then we are mistaken. To hear it that way would be to accept a false dichotomy.  Rather, she instructs us that the two are a single, unitive and divine portal through which flows into us the divine mercy of the great Creator. We are to understand that acts and mercy, acts of mercy, grace and acts are how God gets into the actor’s soul. Be we rich or poor, committing acts of mercy is - to quote Leonard Cohen - how the light gets in.

Mercy is never guaranteed. Mercy is not a birthright even for the faithful. And yet, when it comes, it comes in divine forms through divine portals to people like you and me through other people like you and like me.