James 2:1-10, 14-17
Recently in the news, this guy showed up:
Recognise him? Yeah, me neither. Until I read that he’s actually this guy:
Now do you recognise him? I wouldn’t really, until someone said he was one of the regulars on the Cosby Show from the 80s. Now do you remember him? Still, maybe not, this actor, named Geoffrey Owens, played like the husband of the oldest daughter who no one really knew about because she wasn’t Rudy, Theo, or married in real life to Lenny Kravitz or later to Aquaman.
And while the average Joe wouldn’t recognise this guy, someone did, actually saw him at his new job, ironically at Trader Joe’s (where all the Joe’s hang out). She thought it novel that this somewhat obscurely known actor from one of the most popular sitcoms of all time was now working as a cashier scanning in delicious snacks, and took a picture of him and of course posted the picture on social media.
And oh, the backlash.
Apparently she isn’t the only one who thought it funny or strange or somehow newsworthy. The picture made its rounds through various mediums and people wanted to catch a glimpse of the actor, and maybe pick up some delicious snacks while they were at it. This wasn’t a good thing, because it wasn’t in the name of celebrity watching or actor admiration, it was more under ridicule and job shaming. People thought it was funny that this actor was now working at a grocery store and they all wanted to go feel sorry for him. In fact, the unwanted and frankly unwarranted attention got to be so bad that the actor had to quit. But not before he released a statement about it.
He says, “I hope that this period that we’re in now, where we have a heightened sensitivity about that, and a reevaluation of what it means to work and the idea that some jobs are better than others — that’s actually not true, there is no job that’s better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a resume and on paper. But actually, it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable.”
Suddenly, all the job shamers out there feel bad. I feel bad. While I personally didn’t really didn’t have any feelings towards this guy (mostly because I don’t really remember him), but I have in the past thought it funny when I hear about celebrities pulling other gigs other than whatever they did to gain their celebrity status. I guess growing up when I did, it seems unusual for me to hear people making such drastic and surprising career changes, especially from such a lucrative career like acting or other professions that give a celebrity status. I don’t know, I guess I felt sad for them, like they have somehow failed in their calling, they failed in their career, they just failed in life. And now this Cosby Show guy thing happens, and thankfully his words really put it all into perspective for me.
Because we do think that don’t we? We think some jobs are “better” than others, some classes of people are better, some ways of living are better. We buy into the “modern” and western way of life and when we encounter someone who doesn’t live that exact same way, well our reaction at best is that we feel pity for them, and at worst, we shame them like they should be better. Perhaps you don’t see it or believe it, but trust me, I see it all the time in our society because I’m not a middle classed, Caucasian, father of 1.6 kids, and own a single family detached home. And while I don’t feel as weird or different as I would have say a generation or two ago, I still feel the pressure of conforming and keeping up with the Joneses and trying to impress my distant relatives and former classmates when and if I ever run into them.
This is what Geoffrey Owens meant in his statement about us having this “heightened sensitivity” in that while we might not be largely aware of the hierarchy of class, status, and income, we sure do live it.
What I don’t agree with, however, is how Geoffrey Owens says “now”. This isn’t a new thing. This isn’t a western thing. I think people have been judging others who are different from themselves ever since Adam noticed his boy parts are different Eve’s girl parts so he blamed her for everything and they together covered themselves up in shame. We see it in the rest of the Old Testament as the Israelites, the chosen race of God, tried to protect their bloodline from outsiders both by religion shaming and intense patriotism. And then we see it in the New Testament where the newer generation of Israelites pretty much kept doing the same exact thing. And we see it now, even though we are a bit more aware of racial injustices and inequality, we still find a reason to judge, to differentiate, to isolate us from them.
This is really apparent in today’s gospel lesson, where Jesus surprisingly and rudely calls this Syrophoenician woman a dog. An actual dog. Not a casual and cool updog either, to which you ask, “updog? what’s updog?” to which I would say, “not much, what’s up witchu, dog?” No, Jesus was actually referring this woman, and perhaps everyone like her, as a dog in comparison to those who share the same heritage as him.
And notice that no one really bats and eye. The disciples present didn’t react with the collective gasp like we did, like this was the worst, potentially job-terminating thing that Jesus ever said. Rather, they were just like, “well, yeah”. This was normal for the time. This was how life was. This was what people, even the greatest of all teachers, would just understand as the hierarchy of the world.
Still, it seems like a shock. It is a shock that Jesus would stoop to their level. It is a shock that Jesus would buy into it all. It is a shock that Jesus doesn’t see past the racism and sexism and classism of the time and just meet the woman’s need of healing her daughter.
But… he doesn’t… and he does. See Jesus didn’t stoop to their level, he was just bringing to light what their level looks like. Jesus didn’t buy into it all, he was voicing what the world was buying into and maybe revealing how ridiculous it is. Jesus does see past the racism and sexism and classism of the time, and actually heals her daughter and brings her back to wholeness.
And he wasn’t done there, at least not in today’s reading. He travelled a bit more and healed again, he gave a deaf man the ability to hear and speak, one who also would be seen as an outsider and shunned from society. Although not a part of what was considered a class that would command respect, not part of what was sought after or desired, not part of what was seen as “normal”, Jesus reached out, touched him, and opened his ears.
Interesting, huh? Jesus casts out a demon and opens ears that once were closed. Jesus lifts a burden and restores community. Jesus drives out oppression and grants understanding and clarity. See while we were thinking that Jesus was being all racist and stuff, Jesus was actually breaking down barriers and restoring to wholeness, that in spite of what the world tells us about others, those who don’t belong, how we should regard the different classes and income brackets, Jesus reaches out, touches our hearts and lives, and heals.
But this doesn’t always happen, does it? Not everyone is healed. We’re not always healed. And the classes of society always seem to be there. We tend to still look at others of different walks as different, and we judge those who aren’t as privileged as us. So where is the good news here? What is our take home? How does this help us see God in our lives today?
Well, while we aren’t always healed, while we do still tend to judge, while we are still trapped in the unending cycles of class and society, Jesus still reaches out. The text tells us that Jesus travelled to these people. He was way out of his hometown; he was seeking out the different, the outcast, and the oppressed. Jesus was reaching out. In a world that is as racist, sexist, classist, and about any other “ist” you can think of as ours, Jesus reaches out.
“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God who will come and save you.” See it isn’t about us going out into the world to save others and do things for others and be better people for others, but it is about us needing to be saved, us needing things done for us, us being imperfect, not measuring up, at risk of feeling shame for being different. And it is about Jesus showing us just how much we are loved, how much we are valued, how much we are worth to a God who has decided to forgive and redeem us all.
It is in that, realizing that we are loved and valued, that perhaps we can begin to see how others are loved and valued. It is in how we can accept forgiveness and grace that we can learn to forgive and be gracious. It is how we, as Geoffrey Owens said, see how no job is better than any other job, how no person isn’t inherently better than another person, how we are all valuable and make our contribution to our society and community that we just might be able to respect and regard each other equally, equally welcoming, equally inviting, and equally caring and compassionate, that our society and world might one day be a better place, full of love, community care, and service to one another.
This is our faith lived out. This is who we are as God’s chosen and beloved children. This is what we are called, empowered, and led to do through the love and grace of Jesus Christ.
As we come down from the height of summer and gear up for a new year of service and ministry, may we see the grace and mercy of God working in and through us, calling us into love and respect for ourselves and for our neighbours. Thanks be to God. Amen.