God doesn’t fit in a box!
James 2: 1-10 + 14-17 and Mark 7: 24-end
As we prepare to move we are packing things into boxes, but they also have to fit into the right box so they can be found when needed. Books for here, books for there; clothes for winter, clothes for summer, the system is great until you are trying to find something you didn’t mean to pack.
It should have been in that box, but it wasn’t. So it must be in that box, but it wasn’t there either. We could unpack trying to find something before we’ve finished packing, but the easiest thing is to buy a new set of curling tongs for Virginia. Then the old ones are found where they should have been — and it wasn’t in a box. Some things don’t belong in a box and our mission and ministry is one that can’t be contained in a box of any size or shape.
God has plans for all of us, plans to prosper us and not harm us, plans to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29: 11) and we can’t put those plans in a box with a label. You don’t fit into any box so don’t let anyone put you in one because if you are poor and wearing shabby clothes you are as valuable to God as the rich man wearing a gold ring and fine clothes.
We can turn this reading round to be encouragement for those who feel discriminated against rather than a critique of the rich and powerful. This is the message of hope for people who live behind the High Street, not on it, and to translate our faith into the active love of Jesus Christ that favours neither rich nor poor.
I don’t claim to be an academic, or among the best theologians, but one thing I do say with confidence is that God plans are much bigger than any box so don’t let anyone put you in one because you have much more to offer out of the box!
People who put you in a box will provide a book of instructions on how to put everything together, but God is also bigger than the book, much bigger than our understanding of words which, thankfully, are written in God size print that can easily be read. God’s print isn’t small, but gets bigger and bigger, so you can’t possibly fit the book in a box or God in a book. Whoever you are, rich or poor, young or old, don’t try to contain what God has planned for you into the size of a plan people have for you.
The gospel reading is about a woman who wasn’t going to be contained by the worn out traditions or expectation of religion made by people because God is bigger, much bigger, than that. She shows that we don’t need a mountain of faith to do the will of God, just a crumb of faith for God to move the mountain. The woman had been put in a box because of where she came from, and what she looked like, but she jumped out of it because she had somewhere new to go too!
She cried out for mercy! She shouted for justice! She questioned tradition! She demanded to be heard! She challenged authority and no-one had more authority than Jesus! So don’t be frightened of Synod Moderators, Bishops or committee members who put you in a box because of who you are to them, but jump out now and be who God wants you to be: Someone who only needs a crumb of faith to achieve great things with God in your life.
People do struggle with this gospel reading for different reasons, but it excites me in a most profound way because I believe Jesus is showing a character of the image of God that is fundamental to our ministry. We don’t want to be disturbed by noisy outsiders shouting for help with demons in their families and just want them to go away, but Jesus pauses to reflect, considers his priorities, listens to the woman, hears what she says and is persuaded by her prayer.
The disturbance the woman causes is not the distraction to the ministry, but the expectation of the religious followers becomes the obstruction to the will of God being done. Jesus confronts a question of priority that faces us in the Church today: Do we feed our own congregation and build them up before responding to the needs of others? Am I the only one who has been challenged by this question and am then encouraged by how Jesus listens to the disturbed voices of our communities and encourages their faith? Jesus reflects on who he was sent for and why he was sent, but God also said what he would do to people and why but didn’t do what he said he would do! What is the purpose of prayer if it isn’t going to change anything? Jesus is engaging in a conversation with the woman and listening to what she says and prayer is our conversation with God. It is heard and God will be persuaded by people with just a crumb of faith to relent, forgive and heal.
Jonah knew that God was gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and relents from sending calamity, so spared Nineveh (Jonah 4: 2). We can have a Jonah attitude and he is so like an elder brother who is angry with a Father who listens, hears, watches and graciously forgives children who don’t always do as they are told as they are growing up!
The Lord heard a plea from Moses so relented and did not bring the disaster he had threatened (Exodus 32: 14) and the Psalmist (106: 45) describes how the Lord remembered his covenant and relented out of his great love. It should be encouraging to know that we can have conversations with God and we will be heard and that our prayers do make a difference. Jesus is persuaded like a judge was persuaded by a persistent widow who kept crying out for justice! (Luke 18: 1-8)
God loves the world so much that Jesus was sent to heal it, not harm it, and the world is much bigger than any one person, any one religion, any one nation, race, faith or culture so we can’t put God, the world, anything or anyone in a box. God will just take the lid off and, to use the words of Jeremiah, will find us and bring us out of captivity! (verse 14) That’s the power of the Spirit that cannot be contained because she comes from here, there and everywhere and you don’t know where she will come from next.
Perhaps she will be a woman who disturbs our ministry with a cry of despair because the Church does not want to listen to someone outside their box, but Jesus engages her in a conversation and recognises her needs to be as important, if not more so, than those who are already following him.
We will face a tension between nurturing a congregation with pastoral needs and listening to the cries for mercy from people outside the church who are suffering because their children are possessed by the demons of drugs, fear, anger, addictions, knife crime, and much more, but they might only need a crumb of comfort from our table to make a difference.
We are already reaching out to the community so know the value of listening, hearing and responding to the unexpected challenges and, I am sure, there are occasions when you have to change your mind about someone or something. It requires humility to do that and through Jesus we see that characteristic from the image of God that is fundamental to our ministry.
Never be too proud to change your mind about people and situations, but also be strong enough to change the minds of people who sit at our tables of power and authority. Let’s be honest and recognise that Jesus responds to people outside the box to encourage those who are in it to get out of it not to drag those out of it into it!
His followers wanted to silence the blind Bartimaeus, but Jesus listens to him and asks what he wants. The disciples rebuke parents for bringing their children, but Jesus welcomes them. The disciples are surprised that he should even talk to a Samaritan woman, but her story transforms a village…. I could go on, and on, and on, but I hope, as a church, you will recognise the value of being women, and men, of great faith outside of the box and that those of us who are in it will listen and be encouraged to get out of it.
It’s a long time since we presented Open the Book in our local schools but there is a song we sung in St Mary’s that reminds us that God is too big for a box:
Our God is a great big God:
Our God is a great big God
Our God is a great big God
Our God is a great big God
And he holds us in his hands
He’s higher than a skyscraper
He’s deeper than a submarine
He’s wider than the universe
And beyond my wildest dreams
He’s known me and he’s loved me
Since before the world began
How wonderful to be a part of
God’s amazing plan….
Our God is too big for any box so don’t let anyone plan to put you in their box..… Amen.