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    Sep 09, 2018

    Be Opened

    Be Opened

    Passage: Mark 7:24-37

    Speaker: Father Lowell Grisham

    Series: All

    Category: All

    We all grow up nearsighted and hard of hearing. We all grow up with prejudice and bias. And we do so in a state of naïve personal innocence. But as soon as we have the opportunity to see the humanity of one whom we had thought to be a dog, instantly it’s time for us to change.

    Several years ago I was in a bible study at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. We read this story about the Gentile woman who comes to Jesus seeking help. She’s an outsider. A foreign dog, as everyone in Jesus’ hometown would have called her. I think we were reading the version of this story from Matthew’s gospel, because the disciples are involved, urging Jesus, saying, “Send her away.” 

    As we read the passage, I noticed a somewhat stricken look on the face of a woman across the table from me. I recognized the name on her name tag. She was one of the “Philadelphia Eleven.”

    Some of you remember the Philadelphia Eleven. On July 29, 1974 -- 44 years ago -- eleven women were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church even though the church had not explicitly stated that women could be priests. She was one of the first, illegally ordained women. Eventually their ordinations were recognized as “valid but irregular,” but at the time, theirs was an act that scandalized many.

    Their names were familiar to me. Years later, at the church’s legislative gathering, the General Convention, I was meeting this woman, who introduced herself as the Canon to the Ordinary of her diocese, the Bishop’s right-hand person. I looked across the Bible study table and saw her stricken face, this woman whose name I knew, and I heard her say, almost in a whisper, as if she spoke only to herself: “I used to be that woman, but now, I’m one of the disciples who says, ‘Send them away.’”

    I have a hunch. I think that all of us have experienced both sides of this conversation in the gospel story today. I’ll bet we’ve each experienced being the outsider, the misunderstood one. Maybe we’ve felt the sting of being judged unfairly.

    I’ve often I told the story about how stupid my teachers thought I must be when I started seminary. I went to school in New York City, and when they heard my Mississippi accent, I just sounded stupid to their ears. And they treated me that way for awhile.

    Some people live their entire lives with people making judgments about them for no good reason. And that’s the other part of my hunch. I’ll bet each one of us in here has judged another unfairly. All of us interiorize the cultural values of our environment, including the values and world views of our parents and peers and teachers, the cultural values of our region, our religion and our nation.

    Sometimes those are very nearsighted values, incomplete and occasionally cruel world views.

    When I read this story, and I hear Jesus say, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” I have an instant connection. I remember growing up in the segregated South during the Civil Rights days. I remember my 5th grade teacher defending our States Rights and vilifying the “integrationists.” I remember the fear of the other that infected my childhood.

    I think that one of the things this gospel story tells us is that it is not a personal sin to grow up with prejudice. We all do. Jesus inherited the prejudice of his own culture, where Gentiles were called “dogs.” Dogs were scavenger animals, unclean and dangerous. That’s the language he heard from his family and peers and community.   It’s all he knew.

    We’ve all heard dog language. So I think it was with innocence that Jesus said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But then she surprises him. The dog speaks. Speaks cleverly, even wisely. Jesus opens his ears and hears her, and instantly he discards a lifetime of cultural conditioning. Immediately he treats her like a fellow human being, with respect and compassion. He heals her daughter.

    From this moment in Mark’s gospel, Jesus gives to the Gentiles the same healing and feeding and teaching as he gives to his own people. Jesus immediately goes all the way from the northwestern seacoast of Phoenicia to the Gentile region of the Decapolis, southwest of Galilee. There he heals another foreigner, saying “Ephphatha,” “Be opened.”

    Ears are opened and tongues released. It is as if Jesus enacts what he has experienced. His ears were opened to hear the grace and humanity of a woman his culture had told him was a dog. And Jesus immediately released his tongue to speak compassion and healing to her and to other Gentiles.

    Jesus is our model. We all grow up nearsighted and hard of hearing. We all grow up with prejudice and bias. And we do so in a state of naïve personal innocence. But as soon as we have the opportunity to see the humanity of one whom we had thought to be a dog, instantly it’s time for us to change.

    Jesus shows us how to change. And there is so much that we need to change. How many cultural messages of unworthiness torment so many people in this world and haunt them like demons?

    Today’s reading from James indicts an economic pecking order that shames the poor and feeds the false pride of the wealthy:

    For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

    Our reading from Proverbs echoes quite a few other passages of scripture that say that God has a cultural bias.

    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.

    There are so many places in the Bible where God takes up the cause of the weak and impoverished that theologians have coined a phrase for it. They speak of “God’s preferential option for the poor.” They say that God takes sides, and that God stands up for the poor. James actively accuses his fellow Christians: If another person lacks daily food, and one of you says to them,“Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

    These are calls to change. Calls to ministry.  Calls to action. Calls to advocacy.

    One of the things that pleases me about the Episcopal Church is that we have taken action, created ministry, and exercised advocacy on behalf of the hungry and poor.

    I know that last Tuesday a group here at St. Theodore’s welcomed a ministry I’m deeply committed to, Magdalene Serenity House, a compassionate community where women may heal from childhood trauma, from violence and from threat, from addiction and incarceration.

    What are all of the ways that your congregation reaches out in direct care and in advocacy on behalf of the weak, the hungry, the poor, the outcast? Ask yourself, how have you responded with compassion and advocacy on behalf of many of those whom some treat as dogs in our culture.

    I was heartened to serve in a church that acknowledged the full humanity of our LGBT neighbors, and worked to extend hospitality toward our immigrant neighbors. I know these things are not without controversy. Jesus’ ministry was not without controversy. But I think these compassionate attitudes are faithful to the example of Jesus; they embrace the appeal we heard earlier from James’ epistle:   “mercy triumphs over judgment.”

    We are all still hard of hearing; we all still have our blind spots. We are always in process; there is always room to grow. But we can experience “Ephphatha.” “Be opened!"

    When we feel like we are the victim -- when we are treated like a dog -- we can let Jesus’ compassion drive out the demons of insecurity and hurt. And when we stand in judgment or when we seek to “send them away,” we can be open to Jesus’ inspiration to give us courage to change.

    For Jesus is still doing everything well; he is still making the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.

    “Ephphatha!”  “Be opened!"

    Magdalene Serenity House:

    Photo credit: Richard Balog on Unsplash