Have you ever asked yourself if it’s okay to argue with God? Some folks don’t like thinking about God because they take every bad thing that ever happens in the world and either blame God for it or decide it’s proof that God does not exist. Some folks take misfortunes like their daughter’s ill health or their disabilities as a test of their obedience. But sometimes I think it is quite okay to argue with God, to challenge what we think God has or has not done.
We see Jesus getting challenged. He wanted to get away and have a vacation where he wouldn’t be recognized. Like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt putting on sunglasses or Benedict Cumberbatch sporting an ugly beard, Jesus thought he could go off and relax deep in the heart of gentile territory, modern day Lebanon. He got called out by the Syrophoenician woman, who refused to take no for an answer, who refused to be treated with racist and sexist comments. Despite her ancestors being at war with Jesus’ ancestors for generations, because let’s not forget that Goliath was a Philistine and Phoenician who was killed by David, one of Jesus’ ancestors, this lady was not going to take no for an answer. Despite the cultural animosity between their two peoples, she was going to challenge Jesus until he could see things her way. And he shifted his opinion. He realized that God’s love is not limited to one race, to one faith, to one culture. He took that learning into his next teaching stop, the Decapolis. Opening a man’s ability to speak was similarly dramatic and like a cork popped on a genie’s bottle, the good news of that healing could not be contained or silenced. Good news spilled out wherever he went.
James also was letting the good news spill out. He spoke out against favoritism, reminding everyone that they were beloved regardless of their income level, how much they could throw in the collection plate, how famous they were or how they dressed. And that just praying for folks in difficulty is not enough. Like recent gun control advocates in the states remarked, there comes a time when we have to stop praying for the victims of mass shootings and start challenging the NRA. Start boycotting companies and organizations that profit from the manufacturing of tools meant to hunt humans. Hurt them in their pocket books. Something that even we Canadians can take part in.
But I like to argue with James. Just as Paul argued with him, and Martin Luther argued with him. James thought it’s all about our actions and deeds. Paul thought it was all about grace. This is one of the oldest arguments in our Christian faith, and it is not easy. Which comes first, faith or action? Or in academic words, praxis or prayer? And why does one answer have to be the right answer? Some people come to faith first and then learn to act from a faith perspective, some practise acting like they have faith before they have it. Do we have to say that either way is better than the other? Do we have to demonize all wealthy people like the Koch brothers who support libertarian organizations in the states, or can we remember folks like Jimmy Carter who is also a wealthy man and who came to Edmonton at the age of 92 to work on a Habitat for Humanity build? Or the millionaires who helped fund The Ocean Cleanup, which has raised $35 million US in donations to fund the project, including from wealthy folks like PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
Christianity is at its best, I think, when we argue with the scriptures and with our teachings. Augustine argued with the folks who taught him about Plato.
He argued with the people who wanted to take every story in the Bible literally, saying that sometimes it is clear that the bible stories, even the ones about Jesus, needed to be looked at as metaphors. And scholars have argued with him too, on concepts like just wars and his sense of sexuality, which was much healthier when he was living with his concubine and son. We argue. It’s healthy. But as James reminded us, if we are going to argue, it must be done in a spirit of love. We must remember to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we argue, let it be done with a higher purpose in mind, whether it’s to develop a deeper sense of our relationship with God, or to develop an action plan to address an injustice.
Why is this important? I heard two different rumors this week that were very disturbing. One person claimed that all Subways stores were being forced to get rid of their ham and bacon due to pressures from Muslims. Another told me that Christian churches are being burned down around the world by Muslims. Both of these are patently false, planted to foster fear and suspicion. True, some Subways in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods have chosen to see what their customers would buy, but that’s a few places in England. Lest you say they should leave their food culture at home, where would we be without dim sum, pizza and cabbage rolls? And true some churches in the Middle East have been burned by Muslim extremists, but they are destroying museums and archeological sites, not just churches. And in Egypt, Muslims often surround Christian churches to protect their friends so they can worship in peace. And the Koran says that Hallal meat can be blessed by people of the book if no Imam is present. Who is a person of the book? That’s how they describe Christians and Jews.
In the end, we are called to be both healed and healers. The call comes from God, and we do need to argue with that call to make sure it is indeed God’s voice calling and not our own egos or need for power and control. We are called to take the time we need to be centered and grounded in God’s word, in prayer and in community. We are also called to do what we can to heal the injustices we see around us.