Be OpenedPosted: September 9, 2012
The lectionary gives us a series of scriptures from both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures every week, and the goal of the creators of the lectionary is to find a common theme that ties those passages together. This week our theme is “be opened.”
For instance, Isaiah the prophet, in chapter 35 says, when the Messiah comes: 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
The Psalmist in Psalm 146 echoes the Prophet: (The Lord who) executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.The LORD sets the prisoners free; 8 the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.
Our Epistle lesson from James exhorts us to be open to the needs of others: James 2: 15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Our gospel lesson contains two stories of becoming open. In the healing of the man who was deaf and unable to speak, Jesus opened the man’s ears and loosened his tongue – truly a miracle. The story reminds us that we cannot be healed against our will. Do you want to be healed? Are you open to be healed? Be open.
The most profound story of opening, however, is in the first half of our gospel lesson. When Jesus himself was opened by an encounter with a gentile woman, described as a Syrophonecian. As a child of his race and culture Jesus was suspicious and even disdainful of gentiles.
In our story, some of the Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod Antipas was searching for him in order to arrest him. Jesus was attracting large crowds, healing and feeding people. He was preaching justice for the poor, and he was giving hope to landless peasants who had been foreclosed upon and pushed off their land into poverty. Herod, who was amassing large estates at the expense of common peasants, considered this Jesus to be a dangerous radical. Like John the Baptist before him, Herod was planning to arrest this miracle working country rabbi and execute him. The poor were looking for a Messiah, Herod wanted to snuff out any messianic movement. So Jesus had decided to get out of Galilee for a while. He left, Herod’s jurisdiction, and sought sanctuary in the region of Tyre and Sidon in the Roman Province of Syria. He found a Jewish family to take him in and hide him. But even in a predominantly gentile neighborhood Jesus’ reputation had preceded him. Jews living in the area began bringing their sick friends and family members, and then Jesus was confronted with a problem.
A gentile woman pushed her way into the Jewish home, fell on her knees and implored Jesus to heal her little daughter, who was possessed by an unclean spirit. As Jesus looked across the gender and cultural chasm between them, I can imagine him saying to himself, who does she think she is? By custom Jewish men did not even talk to women who were not relatives. This Syrophoenecian woman was probably dress immodestly by orthodox Jewish standards and worse she was a gentile. She was unclean. She ate things no self-respecting Jews would even touch. She was a foreigner (probably undocumented). She believed and prayed differently. She didn’t have the right theology.
Jesus didn’t want to deal with this woman. He was closed to her. So as a way of dismissing this embarrassing and troubling woman he said to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And his use of the word dogs was a cutting epithet intended to send the woman away. Jesus was closed to her plea for help.
Now I understand this description of Jesus’ interaction with the woman may be difficult for some of us to hear. We are so accustomed to the perfect Jesus, the all loving Jesus meek and mild who helped everyone, we may have a hard time imagining him calling this woman a dog, a female dog. And some commentators try to soften this passage by claiming that Jesus was just testing the woman. But for those of us who are willing to embrace a truly human Jesus, we can see that Jesus was a product of his culture, a child of his race, and like all of us who grow up in cultural contexts he had his prejudices.
Now what happened next in our story was truly miraculous and in my eyes makes Jesus even more wonderful than the perfect Jesus. For this Syrophoenecian woman would not take no for an answer. She was desperate in her need. Out of love she was reaching out to Jesus for healing for her child. And in that moment she was inspired with a rejoinder that broke through Jesus’s prejudices. “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
In that moment of confrontation, Jesus was touched by the love and wit of this gentile woman. He was opened to someone who was radically different from himself – someone to whom he was closed. Someone he had been taught to disdain. Remember Lt. Cable’s song from the musical South Pacific?
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid,
And people whose skin is a different shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late.
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
Jesus was becoming the embodiment of love, and so when he was finally able to see the love in this woman, even though she was a foreigner, even though she was female, even though she was different, he was opened to her and her need. He transcended his culture, he transcended who he had been taught to disdain, and extended to this woman’s child the power of healing power of God’s love that flowed through him. Jesus became open to the possibility that God’s love was for everyone.
And that is why the early church first opened up the community of faith to Samaritans, and then gentiles, and tanners, and eunuchs, and all classes of people who had been unclean before, because God’s love is for everyone. We at United Church have a mission to be open to everyone. We at United Church have a mission to proclaim God’s love for every human being. Think about it a minute, how many of us would not be welcome other places – either because we are the wrong gender, or because of our sexual identity, or because we are mentally ill, or because we’re the wrong racial or ethnic identity, or because our beliefs are unacceptable? One of our missions is to be open and welcoming to everyone.
Of course, none of us is perfect. Like Jesus we all were born into cultural contexts, and we have inherited prejudices from our families, our communities, our social class. We are closed to other people in ways we are not even aware.
I was looking for something funny to try to lighten the sermon, and finding a joke about discrimination and prejudice that isn’t too offensive, is difficult. Maybe this story isn’t too offensive and illustrates how subtle prejudice can be.
A first-grade class in Murfreesboro comes in from recess. The teacher asks Sally: “What did you do at recess?”
The teacher says, “That’s good. Go to the blackboard, and if you can write ‘sand’ correctly, I’ll give you a fresh-baked cookie.”
She does and gets a cookie.
The teacher asks Michael what he did at recess.
Michael says, “I played with Sally in the sand box.”
The teacher says, “Good. If you write ‘box’ correctly on the
blackboard, I’ll give you a fresh baked cookie.”
Michael does, and gets a cookie. Teacher then asks Mustaffa Abdul Machmoud what he did at recess.
He says, “I tried to play with Sally and Michael, but they threw rocks at me.”
The teacher says, “Threw rocks at you? That sounds like blatant racial discrimination. If you can go to the blackboard and write ‘blatant racial discrimination’ I’ll give you a cookie.”
One more story about discrimination, and I’m pretty sure this won’t offend anyone. So a proton, electron, and neutron walk into a bar and each one orders a beer. The proton asks, “How much will that be?”
The bartender replies, “two dollars.”
The electron asks, “How much will that be?”
The bartender replies, “two dollars.”
But when the neutron asks, “How much will that be?”
The bartender replies, “For you, no charge.”
Be open to God’s spirit. My hope is that with the help of Jesus who was opened to a gentile woman to extend the love of God, that we might be transformed to become open to all people extending the love of God in Jesus Christ.