What a friend we have in Jesus, 14 Pentecost, Proper 18 (B) – 2009

September 6, 2009

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and Psalm 125 (Track 2: Isaiah 35:4-7a and Psalm 146); James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

In today’s gospel, we hear that Jesus went about the countryside hoping to escape notice. And here and there he stops in a village or at a house. And as it appears, he stops not so much by deliberate intent, but by happenstance.

At those seemingly random locations, he is reported as casting out demons, healing the sick, and causing the deaf to hear and the mute to speak. It’s a really peculiar way to stay out of the public eye, isn’t it?

Jesus manifests divine power to cure and heal, in miracles of God’s amazing mercy and boundless love. Remember, this is first-century Palestine. There are no ambulances, no hospitals, no pharmaceuticals. People are used to getting sick and then dying, not being cured of their diseases. In this harsh world of very painful realities, Jesus stops by and, in an instant, makes all things well. Jesus comes for a visit and suddenly the mute are speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing.

No wonder Jesus could not escape notice!

And there is only one thing anyone need do in order to receive God’s grace: just ask.

Nobody performs an act of contrition, no offering is made, no sacrifice is made. There is no promise of leading a new life, no agreement to change one’s ways, no pledge of future faithfulness.

This is a clear and powerful reminder that God’s love is showered on all of us, whether we have earned it or not. And let’s face it: most of us do not deserve it.

Sometimes, sure, we are good and faithful and true. But all of us are also capable of the most despicable acts, the most grievous abuse, the most unforgivable sin. And we know this not as an abstract concept, either. We know in our hearts that we are sinners, and we know it by tangible, irrefutable, and recurring evidence.

Yet God loves us still.

Now some people live in a world of illusion, in which they try to earn God’s favor. They imagine that if they do just the right thing, or obey the right laws, or try very, very hard to be good – they imagine that if they do these things God will love them.

It is a surprisingly popular view nowadays, even though it cannot be supported by the witness of the gospel writers. For example, in Matthew 19 someone asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus answers, “There is only one who is good.”

In that same chapter of Matthew someone wonders, “Who can be saved?” Jesus replies that all things are possible for God.

In Luke 10, someone asks, “What must I do?” and Jesus says: just love. We don’t have to do anything – simply love God and love your neighbor.

It is not, of course, as easy to love as it is to hear the commandment to love. But the commandment is concise, clear, and unambiguous: love God and love your neighbor.

God calls us to love for one simple reason: God loves us. God loves us unconditionally. And God loved us first. So God is asking for us to requite that love, to share it with others, and to spread that love all over this land.

But whether we do that or we do not, God loves us still, always, and forever. From before we were born until after we die, when we are naughty and when we are nice, while we are sinning and when we repent: God loves us. Period.

Embracing that theological truth is simple sometimes – especially when our diseases are cured, or calamities come to an end, or misfortune turns to opportunity.

But who among us has not asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” when things go wrong?

It’s a perfectly natural response. Clergy hear it all the time. And, yes, clergy even ask the question when adversity arrives. So we must not be ashamed to ask, even as we must not get stuck asking and asking and asking. Because it is the wrong question.

You see, when ill fortune overcomes us, we become like the characters in today’s story. We get stuck in that endless and fruitless loop of asking – and blaming – God. So we need a friend, a family member, an advocate to ask God for help on our behalf.

When trials afflict us, when disaster strikes, when we trouble arrives on our doorstep – then we need a friend to ask for God’s saving help.

And in today’s story the Syrophoenician girl and the deaf man in Sidon each seem to have such a friend. These are some very good friends indeed. In today’s parlance we might say these two have health-care advocates, people who see to it that they get the attention and treatment they need.

They are truly fortunate, for the demon is cast out and the disease is cured. That does happen, and God is quite capable of effecting a miracle.

But miracles do not always come when we want them. The harsh reality is that we cannot command a miracle to occur, and – for some mysterious reason – God sometimes chooses not to, as well. The all-powerful creator of the universe sometimes decides not to intervene, not to effect a cure, not to bring an end to trouble.

This is when our faith is really put to the test: when we pray, and plead, and beg – but a miracle does not come.

Those who claim to know why God sometimes answers “no” to our prayers are fooling you, and probably themselves. The best we can do, really, is to trust that there is some bigger plan, some more important objective, some greater good that is somehow served by our individual suffering.

And as St. Paul tells us in Romans 8, the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

So to dwell on why we suffer is, again, a futile endeavor. Because it distracts us from a more comforting and more enduring truth: God loves us. God loves us unconditionally. And God loved us first.

And because God loves us, God shares in our sorrows, our suffering, and our hardships. As it says in the old hymn: “What a friend we have in Jesus. … Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?”

What a friend we have in Jesus, who willingly took the sins of the world upon his back and died a shameful death on the cross, that we might taste redemption.

What a friend we have in Jesus, who knows our every weakness, every fault, every mistake – and still loves us, and calls on us to love in return.

What a friend we have in Jesus, who knows we undergo afflictions and torments because he shares in our every pain.

 

— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates holds a Ph.D. in liturgical studies from Drew University and currently serves as rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, New Jersey.

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