The readings on which this sermon is based are found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r135.htm
s135o03 Lockleys Sunday 23 7/9/03
"Be strong, do not fear!" Isaiah 35.4
I recall reading an article about a woman, in Afghanistan I think it was, and it described her as having three strikes against her. Firstly she was a woman, secondly she was a member of a despised tribe and thirdly she spoke up for other women. I am sorry that I have lost the source of the quotation. The Syrophoenician woman in our gospel story had four strikes against her - the first three ring true enough, and the fourth is that her daughter suffered a mental illness.
As I thought about these words I thought that Isaiah spoke the word of the Lord to the people saying be strong! - not - be dependent! Somehow we think that God is impressed with lots of people being dependent on him or her. It is recorded that Jesus sought some privacy from the crowds, he did not want people to be eternally dependent on him. Indeed of course, dependent people are frequently self absorbed, and Jesus and God are on about us loving our neighbour - rather than satisfying our self obsessions. It is this that holds some hope for the world, not God fulfilling all of our requests all of the time.
Indeed I have little doubt that the mother was as much afflicted by the mental illness that supposedly only affected her daughter. It is the nature of any illness that it affects other members of the household just as surely as the person diagnosed - as they try to care for the member who appears to be most in need. It may well be that the mother needed to be strong to help her daughter through her illness - she may well have needed to draw some boundaries. It may well be that the strength that Jesus elicited from this woman was to enable the woman herself to exorcise the demon from her own life as well as from her daughter's life.
Being in the job I am - one of the fairly constant things one encounters are people who suffer from mental illness, people who want to impose their religious agenda on others and people who suffer from cancers of one form or other. And I have been making connections between these. Cancers are just normally occurring cells which are just particularly hardy and reproduce quickly. Like rabbits and weeds - they take over - if left unchecked. The imposition of one's religious agenda on other people to the detriment of other perceptions of the divine is motivated by similar impulses. The guru wants to be the centre of attention. And so often this is what those who suffer mental illness want - they also want to be the centre of attention. One has only to think of our local serial pest, Peter Hoare, who interrupts parliament, sporting events and even funerals.
I am reminded of some bylaws from the "Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua" <http://www.dogchurch.org> by J A H Futtermann, and in particular the third: "Every once in a while, when you assert, "I believe ..." ask yourself just exactly who is it that is believing. After all, if you don't even know who you are, you should be very cautious in making assertions about who God is. This exercise may help you refrain from projecting your inner demons onto God when you are witnessing to others."
In the second of our snippets in the gospel for today, the first thing this man ever heard was the command to be silent about his healing, and the first thing this man spoke plainly was to disobey that command. Again, Jesus isn't Mr Fix-it and didn't want to be eternally distracted fixing up everyone's problems. Goodness, one man came to Jesus to get his brother to share an inheritance with him! We have got to get off our knees and make this society a more accepting place - for surely this is what God would want. If god is on about the opposite of this, causing arbitrary divisions amongst peoples, why on earth would anyone worship that god? That god is not the Almighty - but a demon if ever there was one!
Some people are want to expect God to help them in their illness while neglecting the help of doctors and the like. There is a good deal of self delusion here. Why would God deprive the person who has studied and practised medicine all his or her life the satisfaction of being able to render assistance when needed? God does not need to prove him or her-self! I expect some people have a death wish :-)
So "Be strong" doesn't mean - be strong to trample on other people or to neglect the skills another can bring to our lives, but "Be strong" to love others. "Be strong" to accept help when we need it as well as "Be strong" and offer help to others when it is needed. (I say this as a true "Heath" who would dig my own grave if I could save a bit of money :-)
In our prayer life, we do well to ask for things, but God cannot fix this world single-handedly while humanity continues blithely on it's own way - maintaining our little boundaries.
Indeed there is little point in being strong and not fearing if we live behind 10 foot high 2 foot thick walls of concrete! Our lack of fear is meant to overcome the boundaries, especially the religious boundaries which are around us. There is little merit in fearlessly celebrating high mass amongst like-minded devotees, or roundly denouncing wickedness when one isn't actually referring to anyone who is listening :-)
The words of St James' about making distinctions between people is all based on the reality that people who do make distinctions between people, usually only want others for what they can contribute to their cause. I have no difficulty in welcoming a distinguished visitor to our fellowship, except that everyone is equally as welcomed, because we love others for who they are, not for what they can contribute.
When the poor realise they are loved as equally as the richest person, then naturally they will leap for joy.
What is our love worth if we are only interested in others for what we can get out of them? We can have no doubt that if this is the sort of love we have, it will be seen for what it is. It has certainly got nothing to do with the love God has for all of humanity.
Jesus made it quite plain when he said: "If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matt 5:47) and "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return." (Luke 6:32-35) It is all about being like God who loves us as we are and not for what the Almighty can get out of us.
Members of the Mafia greet only their brothers and sisters. The real question is - is our faith any different - and if it isn't - why bother? That sort of thinking will only prolong the squabbles and bloodshed and it is not just elsewhere. We can't point the finger at anyone else if it is only our timidity that stops us doing the same.
In the trap the Pharisees set for Jesus, they preface their question by saying, "You defer to no one." This betrays the reality that they were put out that Jesus didn't defer to their authority, but rather that he deferred to everyone.
God loves each and every one of us for who we are, not just for what we can contribute. This is the source of our strength - this is the reason no one but the uncharitable need have any reason to fear.
So God does not look at the contribution one makes and thinks that it is "better" or "worse" than someone else's contribution. The only exception is that contribution which is given in a spirit of competitiveness - that mine has to be more acceptable, because it is more biblical, more sacramental, or more spiritual. This is what we have to fear for it will taint our contributions as indelibly as it did the offering of Cain.
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