Happy and Blessed
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
September 5, 2021 Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 146; James 2:1-8, 13b-177; Mark 7:24-30
You can read or download the scriptures here: 9-5-21 Service Readings
You can watch the video recording of the Call to Worship, Children’s Time and Sermon at the end of this text and you can see the entire Online Service by clicking here.
You can download the pdf of the Call to Worship, Children’s Time and Sermon here: 9-5-21 sermon pdf
Call to Worship:
We are a community shaped by the way of Christ, the sacred way of the universe, and that means we have some unusual characteristics in our society. Jesus calls us to place above all others not the famous, rich and powerful but the hurting, the grieving and the outcast. Here it is in giving that we receive, and yet we are equally blessed when we have nothing to give: blessed are those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst.
Sometimes it is particularly because of our needs or because we are struggling that we have gifts to serve another. The Nazi death camps were places of the worst suffering imaginable, yet a prisoner would go hungry and give a weaker or sicker one his scrap of bread. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” maybe because they know to have compassion and give generously. Blessed also are the tired and burned out, the discouraged and hurt, those confronting death. Blessed are those who are upset at the condition of our world, and the violence and greed of the human heart. Blessed are the hopeless, the lonely, the alienated. Blessed are those who are struggling with their own flaws.
Blessed are all these because God loves them especially, and Jesus calls us all to lift up those who are bowed down, even if we are bowed down, too, and can offer only the crumbs of our exhausted capacity to love.
Blessed are you who have found your way here where you can be comforted and renewed and invited to participate in the ultimate meaning of life, which is simply to give and receive lovingkindness, to serve and be served.
Let us worship together…
Time with the Children: Good morning!
Today I am going to tell you a shocking story about Jesus, and explain some things that I hope help it make more sense. Jesus was exhausted and stressed out, he had been teaching and healing people without rest and powerful political and religious authorities were attacking and threatening him.
He escaped for a beach vacation in Gentile territory—not his people so he could really rest—but a Gentile woman heard about him and discovered his hiding place. She bowed down at his feet and begged him to heal her sick daughter. Back then women were not supposed to bother a spiritual teacher, and Jews had nothing to do with Gentiles.
So Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, sorry, I’m exhausted and have only so much to give and I need to save it for my own people. That may have been the proper response in his society, but it was really not like Jesus. She was on the floor begging and he said no. And he called her a dog, which was really rude back then.
She said, “But sir, even the dogs under the table get to eat the children’s crumbs.” Imagine how Jesus felt. This Gentile woman groveling on the floor shocked him awake because he was always humbling and lowering himself, always helping those who were outcasts or hungry and here she was out-Jesusing Jesus, breaking down the last social barriers he had. He said, “For giving that answer, you will find your daughter completely healed.”
So that’s the story, and one lesson is that it is not ours to decide who deserves lovingkindness, our job is to extend it to all who need it. Everyone is to be included in the community of our care. Another lesson is that sometimes the world asks something of us when we think we have nothing more to give, and we need to trust the Spirit of love to flow through us even when we are hurting. And another lesson is if we need something from Jesus ourselves, it might help if we get down on the floor and beg, because God lifts up those who are bowed down. So what can we do to let God know we need help?
PRAY! The Cloud of Unknowing is the medieval book that first taught Centering Prayer, and it recommends praying sometimes by picturing ourselves on the ground crying out the one word, “Help!” So let’s try putting into this prayer all our longing for any help we need. Let us pray the Lord’s Prayer…
Sermon: Happy and Blessed
One of the great Winnie the Pooh stories is about Eeyore’s birthday. Eeyore is the glum donkey who expects everyone to forget him and everything to be bad, but on Eeyore’s birthday when Pooh brings him a honey jar that Pooh has accidentally tasted and then accidentally licked clean, and Piglet brings him a balloon he has accidentally burst, Eeyore becomes ridiculously happy and thinks they are the best presents in the world. He gleefully keeps putting the limp balloon in the empty jar and taking it out and putting it in again—such useful presents! Of course, it is not really the pitiful gifts that bring him joy, it is the transformation from being left out to being included. It is the love.
Today’s sermon is entitled “Happy and Blessed,” but you may need to have the heart of Eeyore to see why.
For instance, let’s hear again the words of Psalm 146:
Happy are those whose help
is the God of Abraham and Sarah.
Happy are those whose hope is in the God
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
God sets the prisoners free.
God opens the eyes of the blind,
and lifts up those who are bowed down.
God watches over the strangers
and upholds the orphan and the widow,
“Happy are those whose help” is the God who does all those amazing and unexpected things for people who are hurting and sad. The Hebrew word translated as happy also means “blessed.” Happy and blessed are those whose help is God and whose hope is in God. Happy and blessed especially are the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind, those who are strangers in a strange land, and those whom death has left vulnerable and bereft.
This is great good news, and it is also shocking, because every society that I have ever heard of has honored people who are just the opposite of those who are bowed down.
In today’s gospel passage Jesus is turning on its head the honorable way to be in his society. He is doing a shocking and scandalous thing with a shocking and scandalous person, and yet this is exactly the kind of work that the Psalm says God does.
A Gentile woman, as lowly and as much an outsider as she could be, asks Jesus to include her in the community of his concern. His compassion is moved to cross those barriers and it becomes his definition of what it means to love our neighbor as our self. The teaching of the Good Samaritan comes out of the insight Jesus gains. No one is to be excluded from our loving, healing and serving—not on on the basis of race or nationality or religious background or social status or anything else. Everyone is to be included. Today we have learned that even other species, even the earth itself needs to be included in our care.
James asks, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” With Christ, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Mercy, compassion and love foster a sense of justice that gives special preference to the oppressed and outcast, the disabled and disadvantaged.
The first scene of the movie Entertaining Angels shows the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, as a white haired respectable looking church lady in 1963. But she is in in a prison cell after being arrested for protesting nuclear weapons. An African-American woman is sprawled on the cell floor, a prostitute who is so strung out on drugs that she can barely function. The woman starts to vomit and rather than moving as far away as the cell will allow, Dorothy Day gets down on the cell floor with her and holds her and strokes her hair and speaks comfortingly and then sings to her as if she were her little daughter.
Not only does Dorothy Day not care that the woman is getting sick all over her, she seems truly happy to be there. She feels blessed because God is her hope and her help, and she is exactly where God has led her, doing exactly what God’s love asks, doing exactly what God had done for her in her hardest, lowest times.
That is how shocking and selfless and Spirit-led Jesus was being with the Gentile woman. It is also what the book of James is calling us to do: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
A popular book has the title, To a Child, Love is Spelled T-I-M-E. The Book of James says that to Christ, faith is spelled W-0-R-K-S, and the works he has in mind are exactly what our Future Directions vision describes, “extending faithful Christlike love and support to all, reaching out especially to those in need.” To us, works is spelled L-O-V-E.
What will that love look like? It may look like Dorothy Day on a jail cell floor, it may look like Jesus helping a stranger and welcoming her into loving community, it may look like the hearts of our Mission Committee being moved to give on our behalf to the victims of Hurricane Ida, or the poorest children in devastated Haiti, or the women cringing in fear in Afghanistan, or the hungry in the Upper Valley.
Our works of love include a member of this congregation calling someone who is shut in just to chat, or reaching out to someone in rehab, or holding up signs about the climate crisis or putting a Black Lives Matter sign in the yard or volunteering to help people vote where they are being oppressed. Our works of love could be serving the poor in this town or working against the systemic economic inequity in our society that makes people poor. It could be a concert or reading or art exhibit that raises consciousness and donations for a cause.
Albert Schweitzer, the pastor, theologian, doctor and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, once said to a graduating class, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know—the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
Many of us are having a hard time right now, many of us are bowed down with worry or grief or troubles. The way of Christ promises to help us feel happy and blessed. It does so by surrounding us with people who love us and want to lift us up, and it does so also by giving us people we can love and lift.
Let us pray in silence, asking the Spirit to show us our path to be happy and blessed in this moment of our lives…
You can hear and watch the text being delivered in the video below.
I am trying! But no matter how I try, I am given more than I receive!