Duke Memorial UMC
Sept 6, 2015
Is it good news?
Last year my neighbor came to see me. Her subsidized housing unit, a dilapidated duplex, had been sold to a new rental company. In exchange for a break in the rent she’d agreed to move out early, to move to another part of town. In her seventies, frail and tired, she wondered if we would help her pack up her things.
And I wondered, is it good news?
A few weeks later a renovation team pulled up, turned over the entire property. Central heating, hardwood floors, a new paint job and appliances. A young man, who looked and talked like me, moved in with his dog. More houses of long-term Walltown residents are on the market today. Property values, including that of my house, have gone up.
And I wonder, is it good news?
Is it good news?
For the Christians at whom James directs his pen class and status cloud the answer to this question. The situation before them is where they seat visitors to their worship service. It’s rare that we are given an example from first century Palestine that translates seamlessly to our own context. But today we get just that.
Two people walk into church. One, James describes, as dressed in a well-tailored suit, gold rings flashing as he makes his way down the aisle. At the same time in walks a woman in filthy clothes. Maybe she slept in them. Maybe these are all she owns.
For the congregation in James’ letter it is obvious how the seating arrangements will unfold. The places up front, to be seen and to see others, there we will seat the man in his finest suit. The other woman – her we’ll keep out of sight, maybe in the balcony.
Is it good news?
This question echoes throughout today’s Scripture readings, throughout the course of Jesus’ ministry. This question haunts Christian history. Are we preaching good news, and is that good news being borne in our lives? Who decides? For whom is it good news? And for whom is the life that we live actually bad news – bad news for someone else’s job and children and school and neighborhood?
The community addressed in James’ letter sees good news in a well-dressed man walking into their sanctuary. He will boost their social status, maybe increase the church budget. Middle-income people, ready to be taken seriously by their wider community, the people of this church want to blend into the social world around them. They are drawn to these well-suited visitors. Respectable people. People who have something to offer.
It makes sense. It’s logical. But is it good news? In James the answer is no.
Thomas Long reminds us that the set up of worship in the book of James is a result of this tendency to rely on our natural inclination towards what is good. “James’s point,” write Long, “is not to encourage the ushers to smile with equal warmth toward all who come to worship but instead to remind the church that in the economy of God’s grace, the very ones for whom the world has little regard have become the guests of honor in the household of God.”
We can hear in James how, in this moment of ordinariness, in this moment of simply placing one’s body in the pew, that the good news requires a revelation. We know good news when it is good news for the poor, not when it is fair. And to hear this as good news we need to be changed.
We will not come to this on our own. We are too steeped in an ethic of fairness to imagine that God could possibly be for some and against others, that the good news for the poor may end up being bad news for those who oppress, that “God [has] chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom.”
We cannot see the good news before us of our own will or accord. The very fact that we can be “hearers and doers” of the Word of God is an act of divine intervention, a miracle of God’s reaching down into time.
Is it good news? We need a revelation to tell.
Our Gospel lesson is a moment of revelation, one that answers this very question. And this time the one who receives the good news is Jesus. In this story Jesus comes to be surprised by the ways the abundance of the kingdom spills over, erupts, and runs wild.
Jesus is tired. He has set off for Tyre, a gentile part of the country. Avoiding more confrontation, more miracles, more teaching Jesus ducks into a house. But even here, we read, he cannot escape notice. He is seen by a Gentile woman with a sick child, a woman who begs Jesus to cure her little one.
Jesus dismisses the woman. He insults her. “Look,” he tells her, “it’s not fair to give the food of children to dogs.” He calls her a dog. He belittles her. He reinforces ethnic boundaries, saying I’ve come for my people, for Israel. “You,” he says, there’s nothing left for you. There isn’t enough.”
So she asks him a question. She says to him, “even dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She asks him, is this good news? Is it good news? Do you know there is enough? Can you see through your exhaustion to the person sitting here before you, begging for a miracle? Is it good news? Can you see that I am the bearer of good news?
It’s not the first time that Jesus is surprised by the abundance of the kingdom. There are other times in Mark’s gospel when the good news gets away from him, slips beyond his reach, beyond his expectation. Earlier a woman approached Jesus for healing but, being pressed back by the crowd she decides instead to reach out. If I can only touches the edge of his garment I’ll be healed, she reasons. She brushes the cloth with her hand, I imagine just her fingertips as her arm presses through the crowd. Instantly she feels her bleeding stop. She can feel it inside her. Stopped after decades. She is healed.
Jesus power gets away from him. It’s superabundant, profligate, extravagant. And the Syrophonecian woman reminds Jesus of this, that there is enough. She reminds him that she bears this good news in her body because the Gospel, the good news will shatter the boundaries of Israel, going where it will.
Jesus heals this Gentile woman’s daughter. He does it because of this word she has spoken to him. He receives the good news from her.
I imagine that this is why the lectionary points us towards James and the ragged people seated at the back of the sanctuary, those who show up to worship with their despair worn on their very bodies. Consistently, without exception the people who bear the good news in the Gospel are those who suffer oppression. To put ourselves in a position to receive these people impartially is to make ourselves available to the revelation of the partiality of God’s good news, that God is for those on the margins.
Is it good news? It’s the question that finds it’s way to us when we make ourselves vulnerable to those who are the victims of systems by which so many others profit.
It’s the question that confronts us as we see Syrian refugees, camped in the train stations of Hungary.
It’s the question that confronts us in the child whose only meals will be those she receives in her public school cafeteria.
It’s the question that confronts us when a homeless person joins us for lunch on the lawn.
It’s the question that confronts me as my neighbor packs her bags for another move to another part of town.
It should come as no surprise that James reminds us that mercy, not judgment are what will find their way to us when all is said and done. The mercy of good news, of discerning it, is that we cannot control it. We cannot earn our way to it through study or piety or spiritual practice.
The kingdom, the outpouring of this good news, will spring up in unexpected places, like wild seeds that take off, enclosing the ground in thick weedy undergrowth. Like the yeast of our Communion bread that required no kneading, no effort on our part – yeast that worked itself into the bread before you.
Instead the good news will avoid the scholarly and the learned. Instead it will erupt from a little boy’s lunch, from a begging demon, from a windstorm. The good news will find it’s way into our churches. It will keep surprising us, keep upending us, keep us wondering and watching and waiting.
The abundance of God. It sounds like something we might want to be a part of. But James reminds us that our faith requires us becoming ourselves vulnerable to the places where we do not expect God’s kingdom to erupt. We are constantly in negotiation, constantly unsettled, constantly attending to the question before us: Is it good news?
Friends, that’s mercy. You cannot earn your way into understanding the good news, but you can wait, ready to receive whoever walks through these doors. You can ask for eyes to see the messengers of good news in your life, or the ones you try to avoid. You can lean not on your own understanding, in your natural sense of goodness. You can interrogate it. You can welcome the good news you never expected, hands outstretched, ready to receive the one you never knew was waiting for you.
welcome the good news you never expected, hands outstretched, ready to receive the one you never knew was waiting for you.