I wonder how many of us went to see the award winning movie “Brokeback Mountain” back in 2005? It was based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize winning Canadian novelist Annie Proulx. Set against the sweeping vistas of Wyoming and Texas the film tells the story of two young men – a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy who meet in the summer of 1963 and unexpectedly forge a connexion which develops into a life – long love affair.
I think attitudes towards same-sex relationships were just beginning to change at the beginning of the 21st century when this movie was produced. I remember there was some quite vocal opposition to its screening at the time! Of course today we’re much more accepting, with Civil Unions and Same Sex Marriages being quite common. Well we’re certainly far more accepting than they were in the 1960’s when this story was set! OR ARE WE? What about the recent alleged assault by the New Zealand - born England Cricketer BEN STOKES? Stokes was on trial last month for allegedly mocking two gay men outside a Bristol Night Club and shouting homophobic insults before starting a brutal fist fight with bystanders. YES! He was finally acquitted – but it was still a malicious savage attack! Perhaps we are not as accepting as we would like to think we are. We’ve all “got our little list” like the Lord High Executioner in the “MIKADO” of those who are NOT QUITE acceptable – those we classify as “on the fringe, outside the boundaries, beyond the pale” – perhaps even beyond redemption! Those the New Testament seems to lump together as “the poor, the prostitutes and the publicans.” Those who are socially, culturally racially or religiously different from us.
THIS IS TERRIBLE STUFF ISN’T IT? SURELY WE’VE GOT BEYOND ALL OF THIS! Then why am I talking about it? Well I’m talking about it because it’s what our readings are about this morning. In the Epistle of James we are confronted with some very telling – brutally honest – statements about how Church members treat those on the fringe – the poor, the needy, the social outcast. And in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is confronted by this despised foreign, heathen, Gentile woman who comes to beg for help for her sick daughter. IT’S CONTROVERSIAL STUFF! And neither the Church members – nor Jesus for that matter – come out of it all unscathed!
“You must never treat people in different ways according to their wealth or social position …there must be no such distinctions among you. If you curry favour with the rich and powerful and neglect the poor and needy you are guilty of sin. If there are people in your community who are in need of clothing or food or any other form of assistance, and you piously say: “God bless you,” and offer up a prayer for their wellbeing, what do you expect to achieve? If you do not supply them with the necessities of life, or offer them assistance you are guilty of sin!” This is James - and of course we know all this!
And here at St Luke’s we are good at reaching out to those in need – in our own society and in our world. We assist so many groups through our Social Justice Programme, like Pillars, the Manurewa Marae, the Burundi Empowerment Project, Te Ako Puaho, East Tamaki School, Island Hospice in Zimbabwe, Books for Cambodia – and so on. As well as the many social justice and anti poverty and community groups that various member of our congregation are involved in individually. BUT CAN WE EVER DO ENOUGH? Do we each need to ask ourselves; “What am I doing?” And what about our country? N.Z. as a nation? Winston Peters says 9 years of underfunding has N.Z.’s contribution to international aid and humanitarian assistance ranking well below other OECD countries. We gave a miserly 0.23% of Gross National Income in 2017. Do we need as a church and as individual citizens to be asking: ‘Why are we spending so little and what is this Labour-led Coalition going to do about it’ Is it time to act? James says: “Some of you will say to me, ‘One person has faith, another has actions.’ My answer is ‘Show me how anyone can have faith without actions! I will show you MY faith BY MY ACTIONS!’ Faith without actions is dead!”
BUT our readings this morning are not just about how we treat the poor and the needy – they are also about how we view and behave towards those who are socially, racially and culturally different from us. Those who we do not necessarily see as ONE OF US!
I remember a Sunday Service in Zimbabwe at St. Aidan’s Church in Kadoma in the early 1990’s. St. Aidan’s had been the European Church in the old Colonial Era – but now was attended by both Europeans and educated, professional Africans, who wanted to attend an English-speaking service. During the singing of the first hymn I noticed a stranger slip into the back row. I had never seen him before, but could tell from his appearance that he was of Middle-Eastern origin. It was a Communion Sunday, and at the appropriate time, he came forward with the rest of the congregation knelt at the rail, and received the bread and the wine. Afterwards, I discovered that he was an Iranian, passing through the town. He was a Muslim, and had been longing to find a place to worship God. Seeing the open doors of the Church, he came in - and when invited by others in his row had come forward and shared. Some of the Congregation were outraged! They felt that what had happened was completely inappropriate, totally offensive! Others “Praised God!”
Our reading from MARK this morning is one of the most controversial passages in the whole of the New Testament … it contains words of racial abuse and an act of discrimination. I wondered what the Jesus Seminar thought about the authenticity of this story, so I looked it up. 57% of the scholars believed that there was in all probability a historical core to Mark’s story……. ‘A Greek woman regarded Jesus as an exorcist ….Jesus had a conversation with her involving an exchange of witticisms, in which the woman got the better of him.’
It’s interesting that Matthew and Luke, who normally repeat Mark’s stories faithfully in their Gospels, do not know what to do with this story of Jesus’ encounter with this “foreign” Syrian woman MATTHEW tries to soften Jesus’ words by pointing out that Jesus’ mission of teaching and healing was exclusively to the Children of Israel. The writer of LUKE – who we believe was himself a Gentile – finds the story so offensive that he leaves it out of his gospel altogether! Here Jesus is, across the borders in Lebanon, on the fringe, on the margins, in foreign territory – so uneasy he didn’t even want anyone to know he was there! But this Syrian woman has seen him, she has a need - and she will do anything to get assistance for her mentally disturbed daughter! She comes to Jesus, falls at his feet and begs him for help. Jesus’ answer, that it wouldn’t be fair to take the children’s food and “throw it to the dogs” doesn’t sound like a joke to me - it sounds a bit rough! In everyday Jewish speech Gentiles were often derogatorily referred to as “dogs”….. GENTILE DOGS! The Jesus who showed so much compassion for the sick, the blind, the disabled, the mentally ill in Israel, seems rather scarce on compassion here! But the woman will not take no for an answer, she persists: “Sir,” she says, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s leftovers.” Her answer leads to the healing of her daughter, and in Matthew Jesus commends her faith.
I HAD A FRIEND who was a great joke teller – every time Marion and I visited Gordon and his wife he had a new collection of jokes to share with us. The trouble was that they were usually either racist or sexist! I tried to tell him I didn’t want to hear them – but to no avail! He would just laugh and continue anyway! In the end I had to say. “No Gordon…. I don’t want to hear these! They’re offensive! And you shouldn’t be telling them. I don’t believe that snide remarks or jokes or “witticisms” as the Jesus Seminar wants to call them, about RACE, CLASS or SEXUALITY have any place in our society today. They are not just in bad taste but are evidence of an underlying hostility and lack of acceptance of the group being targeted. There is a very fine line between “free” speech and “hate” speech isn’t there? As recent events concerning the proposed lecture tour of far right activists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux have shown.
WHAT OF OUR STORY FROM MARK THIS MORNING? What are we to make of it? Well, obviously those who choose the readings for the Lectionary see it as aligned with the comments from the Epistle of James – it’s about the need for us to accept – and to welcome - all people. Mark’s narrative focuses on the exchange between Jesus and the foreign Syro-Phoenician woman rather than on the exorcising of her daughter’s demon. So ultimately this story is about accepting and including those considered to be outsiders. Accepting and including all people. All racial, class and gender issues are swept aside when we become followers of Jesus! As Paul puts it in Galatians:– “ there’s no difference between Jew and Greek, between slave and free, between man and woman – WE ARE ALL ONE! ONE IN CHRIST JESUS.” Isn’t that the AFFIRMATION we want to make this morning?