Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 5 September 2021.
• First Reading: Isaiah 35: 4-7a (Be strong, do not fear. Your God will come with vengeance; with divine retribution He will come to save you)
• Psalm 146
• Epistle: James 2: 1-17 (Mercy triumphs over judgment. Faith without deeds is dead)
• Gospel: Mark 7: 24-37 (The faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman)
There is always something dangerous about being an outsider. This may be a person with a different colour of skin, who dresses differently or who sounds strange. It may be the person who does not make much of the prevailing sport or taste in music or worse, one who supports a minority political interest.
These days, inverted snobbery has become the national obsession and some have so taken over the national symbol that any not of their political persuasion are treated as the enemy.
And yes, the outsider has often had to bear exclusion from local contacts or support. Some have had their places of worship destroyed and their books burned.
To be an outsider can be very risky. And yet in our days there have been unbelievable migrations of people made aliens in their own homelands and who have hoped to find security and protection among strangers.
In Isaiah, the prophet seeks to encourage those who are down-trodden and finding despair rather than hope in their lives. But it is these people whom he is addressing: the fearful, the blind, the deaf, the dumb and the lame. All those who live in permanent fear and anxiety. All those who do not know where their next meal is coming from and who fear for the ambush of the weak by the vengeful and the unscrupulous.
Many societies equate strength with righteousness and suggest that there must be something morally wrong with the person who has been facing personal handicaps.
But this is not the time to congratulate ourselves on our sensitivity to the disabled and to celebrate their prowess in the Paralympic Games.
Stress and tension are still part of the management technique of many in power and who enjoy being able to make misery of other peoples’ lives.
But Isaiah was pointing to far more than the occasional relief of disability. He was looking for a complete healing of body and soul, and for those who had known exclusion to be in the midst of the celebration, released from their own difficulties and from their memories of them.
Isaiah was looking for a time when God would bring healing to all and that the land itself would be restored as deserts had bubbling springs and streams of water. He was looking for the time when courts would render justice and not just law, when politicians would strive for the whole people and not just their own interest groups.
And so Isaiah was saying to those tied up in their own anxieties, ‘Be strong, do not fear, your God will come.’
For Jesus, both in the coastlands of Lebanon and in the 10 Greek-speaking towns of what is now Syria, He was already known as the miracle-worker from Galilee.
Being in these places however, He was not among the Jews to whom He had be sent in the first instance. In this sense He was among the outsiders, who had no right to call upon His aid.
But there are two points here: First, Jesus was still willing to give healing and comfort to those who sought it. Jesus had come for the sins of the whole world and would send His disciples into the whole world with the message of His death, resurrection and forgiveness. His victory over death and His authority to forgive sins were universal, even if they were first demonstrated to the people who should have been ready for Him.
But second, Jesus Himself was also an outsider, not only in these regions but also in Israel itself. He spoke and acted with the authority of God yet many went out of their way to reject Him, even when they had seen His deeds and heard His teaching.
Jesus was an outsider to Jerusalem since He came from Galilee, and in demanding faithfulness to the law of God and not to the human traditions then He was an outsider to the authorities who would try to destroy Him.
In taking time out in Lebanon and Syria, Jesus was among people who had no claims on Him or even expectations of Him. He was recognized and was known but He was being take for the man He was, without theological baggage.
But He was free to be merciful and to give healing and the people were free enough to be able to receive them. This in itself must have been something of a holiday.
It is James who draws so much together. The mouth that can be eloquent about doctrine but who cannot forgive or render aid in time of need is lacking, for a genuine faith is one that changes the believer from within and it then leads and guides that person’s life and actions.
Genuine faith will be seen in acts of mercy and the readiness to forgive. Mercy is there in offering aid when it can be offered and in refusing to condemn others, knowing that there are also faults in one’s own life.
And so yes, the outsider still has a genuine place among the worshipping community and may hope to grow in it. Lives can be changed and sins can be forgiven.
Perhaps it is the sense that Jesus Himself was also an outsider that gives us that freedom to welcome and to forgive others. It is there as we also point the way to the same forgiveness that we have received and the hope of the time when all outsiders who seek the mercy of God are indeed welcome at the Lord’s table.