Acting with Faith
Prov. 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
James 2:1-10, 14-17
Dwight Nelson told this story about the pastor of his church. Apparently the pastor had a kitten that climbed up a tree in his backyard and then was afraid to come down. The pastor coaxed, offered warm milk, etc, but the kitty would not come down. The tree was not sturdy enough to climb, so the pastor decided that if he tied a rope to his car and pulled it until the tree bent down, he could then reach up and get the kitten. So that's exactly what he did, all the while checking his progress in the car. At one point in this process, he figured if he went just a little bit further, the tree would be bent sufficiently for him to reach the kitten. But as he moved the car a little further forward, the rope broke.
The tree went 'boing!' and the kitten instantly sailed through the air – and out of sight.
The pastor felt terrible. He walked all over the neighborhood asking people if they'd seen a little kitten. No. Nobody had seen a stray kitten.
So he prayed, 'God, I commit this kitten to your keeping,' and went on about his business.
A few days later he was at the grocery store, and met one of his church members. He happened to look into her shopping cart and was amazed to see cat food. This woman was a cat hater and everyone knew it, so he asked her, 'Why are you buying cat food when you hate cats so much?' She replied, 'You won't believe this,' and then told him how her little girl had been begging her for a cat, but she kept refusing. Then a few days ago, the child had begged again, so the Mom finally told her little girl, 'Well, if God gives you a cat, I'll let you keep it.'
She told the pastor, 'I watched my child go out in the yard, get on her knees, and ask God for a cat. And really, Pastor, you won't believe this, but I saw it with my own eyes. A kitten suddenly came flying out of the blue sky, with its paws outspread, and landed right in front of her!'
Most of the time, God’s messages to us are not quite so clear. At least for me, most of the time my prayers are not answered so quickly, so clearly, or with such an enthusiastic “yes!” Most of the time we have to listen, in each situation, for the direction God is calling us to.
I hear in today’s scriptures the command to love your neighbor as yourself, again, always, consistently THE message from Jesus. I hear in the James passage and in the Proverbs verses that faith is active, that being a person of faith means loving our neighbor in the concrete ways of caring for the poor, in particular. I hear in the passage from Mark that Jesus included many whom we might not include in his care, that he reached across lines to bring healing and comfort and that we are called to do the same. So it isn’t that God doesn’t direct us or tell us what to do. But I also recognize that when it comes to every day behavior, every minute action, it can still be hard to hear God, to get a clear message about what we are supposed to do, how and why. I love stories like the kitten story in part because I wish that God was that clear with me.
So how do we discern? Well, again, we start with scripture. We start with the message, loud and clear that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We start there. That means we don’t start the conversation, or any conversation, with “what is best for me in this situation” but instead with “what is best for you.” And by best I don’t mean what is most comfortable or even what seems most profitable at the moment. I mean what is really, ultimately best for the other. I don’t believe that is something that we can discern on our own. We simply can’t figure out what is best for another alone…that would be patronizing and condescending. We figure this out with our neighbors, with the community of faith, with one another and in prayer with God.
That cliché question, “what would Jesus do?” is frankly the most important question we could ask in our everyday behaviors and interactions. A friend of mine told me this story…a pastor went to a tribe in Africa that was mostly made up of warriors, fighters. And after teaching them Jesus’ message, the pastor took them down to the river to be baptized. But as he baptized the men in this tribe, he saw that each of them kept their right hands out of the water. They would go all the way in, except for their right hands. Confused, the pastor finally asked one of them what was going on. Their answer was that they needed to be able to fight with their right hands. They had read the gospels, they knew that Jesus would not approve of killing another, even their enemies, so they left their right hands out of the water so that they could still do their jobs of fighting, keeping that part of them separate and unbaptized.
We do this, too. What parts of us do we keep out of the water of our baptism? Is it our wallets, during stewardship time or when someone is in need? And again, I don’t mean that we should just give anybody who asks us whatever they ask for…we need to do what is BEST for people, which is not always giving them whatever they ask for. We know this as we care for our children and others. But what is best for the other is never going to be our judgments when we are angry and feel vengeful rather than seeking out forgiveness, grace and reconciliation. It will never be our sense of who should be included and who shouldn’t in our hearts, in our lives. If Jesus is our model, our actions need to be consistently in favor of the poor, the needy, the outcast – and that needs to be every day, not just Sundays. What parts of ourselves do we keep above the water? We all have these parts, these areas that are uncomfortable for us to really commit to loving the other. And our call, as people of faith, is to see them, to remember these passages that call us to act in faith and love, and to be willing to put all of ourselves, even our hands, into the water of our baptism, to ask, “what would Jesus do?” and to do it, too.
Henry David Thoreau said, “Could a greater miracle take place than to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
Today in the story of the Syrophoenician woman, we see Jesus doing exactly that, looking through her eyes and understanding. Understanding her desperation to help her daughter. Understanding her willingness to do anything in order to make that happen. Understanding her faith, her absolute trust that he could help her. And through that vision, seeing through her eyes, that understanding led to compassion for her and choosing to do what was best for her. It is through her story that Jesus’ whole ministry changed. Before her, his service was strictly to and for the Jews. After her, his ministry expanded to any and all who asked for his help. His seeing her was a miracle that changed history for all of us. His seeing her was a miracle that all of us are called to repeat as we look through the eyes of those with whom we are uncomfortable, those who challenge our ideas of what an “equal” human being looks like, those who need us to have compassion and understanding, those whom God calls us to love as we love ourselves.
We may not be given as clear a message as the little girl in the kitten story, but the message is still pretty clear. We are called to live out our faith by loving everyone as we love ourselves. It’s all that easy, and it’s all that hard.