“He Did, What?!”
September 9, 2018 – 16th Sunday after Pentecost – Year B
One day in an Episcopal church, a very smelly disheveled man came into the sanctuary during worship. He was not known to anyone in the congregation. When the congregation rose to go forward for Communion, the odiferous man went too! On his first pass, the priest overlooked the stranger and gave communion to all the others at the rail. On his second pass, the strange man reached out and stopped the priest and said, “What about me? I want Jesus, too.”
Tears welling in hid eyes, the priest gave the host to the stranger. Later, the priest recounted that he had withheld the elements in order to avoid judgment from the decent, clean members of this church who paid his salary and maintained the peace. The second time around, in the face of the man’s persistence, the gospel finally prevailed.
Today’s gospel text is remarkable because in it Jesus is challenged about his own assumptions. The story is set in a predominantly Gentile region north of Galilee. Jesus is approached by a Gentile woman seeking healing for her daughter. Her daughter, she reports, has a disease of the mind. She bows low before Jesus, expressing her distress and indicating her profound respect for Jesus. Yet, his answer to her is a rejection. Her request for help is met with an insult. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” “Children” was a term used for disciples or the community of Israel. “Dogs” were not beloved house-hold pets but scavengers who were a nuisance to the community. Jesus’ declared self-understanding is that his time and energy goes first and foremost to his own people.
But, the woman refuses to be silenced by the insult and instead engages Jesus in debate. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she says. Jesus, who usually overwhelms his opponents in verbal jousting, lets her reply stand. Surprisingly, the mother’s faith remains strong. Jesus accepts her challenge and opens himself to her teaching. “For saying that,.” He replies, “your daughter is healed.”
The healing story which follows Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman again takes Jesus into the predominantly Gentile territory of the Decapolis. There it is a deaf and mute man who needs his ears and tongue opened. Jesus heals him with touch and spit and word: “Ephphatha, be opened.” The story does not give the man’s faith or national identity. Whether he was a Jew or a Gentile didn’t matter anymore.
Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears, spit and touched the man’s tongue and said, “Ephphatha”. “Be opened.” And the man could hear and the man could speak.
Now he could hear the birds sing. Now he could praise God with his voice. But now he could also hear the cries of people who were hurting. Now he had the responsibility to speak out for justice and to act on their behalf. As James said, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
By healing the Phoenician woman’s daughter and the deaf man, Jesus gains a new level of empathy. He now has a deeper appreciation of the fact that God’s love is a never ending circle that includes us all. These stories about Jesus becoming more inclusive are a tremendous challenge to all those who claim to follow him by being church.
Churches all around the world are asking themselves “how they might draw more people into their congregation.” They know that the key is inclusivity. Our fellowship activities and groups do much for creating community. Inviting friends into our community of faith so that they might see that we are a place of healing, inclusion, and welcome is yet another approach. It is all about how we stretch our circle.
One of my colleagues writes about a day at the park. He says, ”two years ago, my family and I were at the park, on a main highway near our home, watching my oldest daughter play softball.
I had noticed a man in dirty clothes sitting at one of the far tables near the street, with all his earthly belongings in a single shopping cart. After a while, he walked my way and I tried to make myself invisible (probably as invisible as he feels every time someone ignores his outstretched hand.)
To my relief he was only going to the drinking fountain. I was so relieved I didn’t even consider offering him some of the cold bottled water in the ice chest at my feet.
After he finished his drink, he lingered for a moment to catch the girls’ game. Many thoughts passed through my mind as I looked at him. How old was he, did he have children, how did he end up living on the streets? He walked back to his cart without asking any one for anything.
As the game wore one, my 2 sons, aged 9 and 3, played kickball on the grass outside the ball field. I was absorbed in the softball game, but I can still remember my older son’s scream “Erick, stop!”
As I turned, I could see my younger son chasing a ball directly toward the highway, loaded with fast moving cars.
I screamed my son’s name and began to run the 40 or so yards to the street. To my amazement, the man in the dirty clothes jumped up and ran in front of my son only a few feet from the highway. I reached them both a few seconds later and immediately began to thank the man who so unselfishly protected my son from harm. I tried to give him all the money I had in my pocket.
“That’s okay man, I just wanted to help.”
I begged him to take the money, and finally he agreed. Then he walked back to his cart.
The irony didn’t escape me. An hour earlier, I tried to ignore him so he wouldn’t ask me for spare change. Now I would have gladly given everything I had for his act of kindness. It’s truly amazing how our vision can change so quickly.
Isn’t interesting that we all need wake up calls? The man in the story I just shared certainly did. So too did Jesus. It was the foreign mother of the child with a disease of the mind who set Jesus straight. That Syro Phoenician woman gave Jesus the wake-up call about who are outsiders. I certainly have had many wake-up calls. Coming to this church was certainly a profound ah ha. Your love and acceptance has been life giving. Your willingness to try new ideas has been awesome. You include newcomers with great delight. Inclusion is your commitment to God’s way. You are committed to inclusion, and that is rare in today’s churches.
Rare, I say – because most of us are hesitant to put our biases, phobias, racist thoughts, and anxieties aside and truly invite the newcomer into our “tight little fellowship.” We do it in token ways, but not in life changing, and faith healing manners. That is what Jesus confronted in himself and Jesus challenges us to look inside ourselves and see if this is true for ourselves also. Once we do that we are far more likely to invite the person we were first repelled by to join you for lunch.
Are we prepared to have our spiritual eyes and ears opened to even the most disturbing aspects of the gospel? Are we prepared to have our spiritual hearts touched by a homeless person, a prostitute, a person from another country, a person you struggle to tolerate? Are we the kind of church that offers a warm welcome to every person who walks through our doors? Is our inviting acceptance for every individual that is in the shadow of our building and asks for help?
That was what Jesus did. Now it is in our hands to open the ears, the eyes, the heart and spirit so that all may know Penticton United Church as a place of welcome, acceptance and healing. May that be so. Amen.