This is the sermon that I presented at Pleasant Grove UMC, Brighton, TN, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (B), 7 September 1997. the Scriptures for this Sunday were Proverbs 22: 1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2: 1-10 (11-13), 14-17; and Mark 7: 24-37
The Gospel reading for today reminded me of the first time I ever considered what it meant to be a Christian.
When I was a college sophomore, during the spring of 1969, I went to the pastor of the church that I attended. Spring break was coming up, and while I was coming home to Memphis, I felt the need to take communion at the church that I attended in college since that was where I was a member.
(This is not the first time that this account has been posted to my blog. I first published my account of this conversation and what happened on that spring break trip home in “That First Baptism”; the details of the conversation itself were first published in “Our Father’s House”. But this is probably the first time that I spoke of this encounter in a message)
Now, Reverend Fortel was a little surprised by this request but he agreed to it anyway. So on the day before the break, we met at the church and went to the chapel for communion.
Now, instead of going through the ritual of the Sacrament, we discussed what communion was and I recall reading the prayer found on page 30 of our current hymnal
We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.
But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. (The United Methodist Hymnal, page 30)
I don’t recall my exact emotion but I do remember questioning the statement “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”
I felt that, as a Christian, our worth was such that we could sit at God’s table as his equal. But Reverend Fortel pointed out that because of sin we had lost our place at God’s table, but because of His grace, God has restored our position.
The woman in the Gospel reading today was neither Jewish nor from Israel, yet she still sought Jesus. And when Jesus reminded her of her status, she point out that “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” to which Jesus acknowledged her faith.
It was because of her faith and not her status that she was saved. God’s grace is given to us all, no matter what our status.
Each of the Proverbs that are part of the Old Testament reading for today speak of the relationship between the parts of society and how each part should treat each other.
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.
The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.
Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate;
For the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.
Yet, today, it seems as if status is everything. Even in Wesley’s time, being poor was considered the result of a sinful life. In the Epistle reading for today, James warns the reader against showing partiality because of a person’s status. On more than one occasion, Wesley pointed out that being poor was not something to be pitied.
Doing good works should never be and cannot be considered an accounting technique. We cannot say that we did so many good works and expect those works to take our sins. Much will be said about the good works done by Lady Diana and Mother Theresa. Many will see the works of Mother Theresa in terms of her job as a nun but nothing will be said about the faith of Lady Diana. I do not presume and will not make any judgements about these individuals. They showed the world through their lives and actions what can be done and that is all we can say.
It is what we do because we have come to Christ that matters. Good works are one of the responsibilities that we accepted when we came to Christ was to help those less fortunate than us so that they could find Christ in their lives. To Wesley, this was very important because the living conditions in England at his time made it very difficult for the poor to survive, let alone succeed. And when the day-to-day conditions make it impossible to live, a simple greeting to have faith is going to do little to reduce that individual’s burden.
It was inconceivable to Wesley how anyone could ignore the poor and their struggles. He remembered the words of Jame, “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?
Having been saved by our faith, having been lifted up by God’s grace, how can we not help others? James told his readers that if you break one law, then you break all the laws. If you sin, it doesn’t matter how great or small the sin because you will have fallen from God’s grace.
It is our duty as a Christian and as a Methodist to work towards the life of Christian perfection. It is not an easy life but then no one said that it would ever be. It is a much easier live to not worry about others and simply seek God’s forgiveness when we sin. But there may come a day when we fail to seek forgiveness. What will we do then?
Think of the woman in the Gospel reading today whose faith in Christ brought her to Him. Though in the eyes of society, she may not have been worthy, by her faith and her actions, she was saved.
The last portion of the prayer that caused me to think concludes “. . .that we walk in the newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” Each day we renew the bond we have with Jesus, each day we seek to fulfill the redemption of our worth by our faith and our actions so that other may know of a life in Christ.