On September 1, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and President of the House of Deputies the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings wrote us (the Episcopal Church) a letter.
“Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,” they wrote. “On June 17, 9 members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were murdered by a white racist during their weekly bible study. Just a few days later at General Convention in Salt Lake City, we committed ourselves to stand in solidarity with the AME Church as they respond with acts of forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice.
Now our sisters and brothers in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church have asked us to make that solidarity visible by participating in Confession, Repentance and Commitment to end Racism Sunday on Sunday, September 6. We ask all Episcopal congregations to join this ecumenical effort with prayer and action.”
They go on to quote AME Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, “Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking. This is an effort which the faith community must lead, and be the conscience of the nation. We will call upon every church, temple, mosque and faith communion to make their worship service on this Sunday a time to confess and repent for the sin and evil of racism, this includes ignoring, tolerating and accepting racism, and to make a commitment to end racism by the example of our lives and actions.”
I read the letter with a mix of reactions. On the one hand, it has been a year of heightened awareness of racism. Not just the horror that happened as faithful Christians attempted to study the Word of Christ in South Carolina, but the events in Ferguson, MO; the highly publicized traffic stop in Texas, (the death in Baltimore in police custody), the loud and vehement debates about what the Confederate Flag “really means”. Race relations are generally understood to be worsening according to polls. Somebody must do something to reverse the trend, and this seems to be a positive something.
On the other hand, we live in a relatively homogeneous community. We don’t think of ourselves as racist, for the most part. Racism is something that happens other places – the South, the slums, the big cities – somewhere else, someone else – not us, not here. We can keep living that happy illusion day by day because, most of the time, nothing confronts us to test or to shatter it.
“The plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams.” wrote activist and poet Maya Angelou. Dr. Angelou was a beautiful and insightful soul who spoke truth from her heart. I fear that she accurately illustrates the subtle, constant, unbidden influence of century upon century of racism. But if that is the case, if racism (along with ageism and classism and sexism, and all the other loathesome isms) if racism has wormed its ugly way into the structure of our society, woven itself into the very fabric of our beings, what do we do next? Must we look at the repugnant unrecognizable reflection of ourselves? Isn’t it better then just to stay in our separate bubbles and have enlightened thoughts without risking actual interaction?
A man travels to a foreign land. It has been a long and stressful trip making him tired and grouchy. He wants to be alone. He just wants a little peace. He is approached by a woman whose daughter is sick. She begs Him for help. It is help that He is perfectly capable of providing, but He insults her instead. The desperate mother of an ill child, begging for help. He.calls.her.names.
We don’t recognize Jesus in this story. We don’t want to know the Jesus in this story. But we must, because therein lies the hope, therein lies the Good News.
Extraordinary homiletic gymnastics through the years have desperately undertaken to render Jesus’s words in this lection more palatable. Apparently, the Greek word translated as “dog”, might more accurately mean something more akin to “puppy”. I don’t see that helps things much. Whether he thought of her as a cute little fuzzball or a roving scavenger – given the 1st century Jewish attitude towards dogs, the latter is far more likely – either way He clearly meant to say that she, and her sick daughter were somehow “less than”. He has healed lepers and talked with demons, eaten with tax collectors and prostitutes, but considers this mother beneath his notice.
Another suggestion to ameliorate Jesus’s seemingly callous remarks is that they did not reflect his true nature, but rather were specifically intended to draw out the very response the distressed mother gave – to bring out her faith. Surely, approaching a strange man from an enemy territory, bowing at his feet begging “Help me, please.” shows faith enough. Far from placing Jesus in a kinder light, any further “drawing out” seems convoluted and cruel.
This is Jesus’s first direct recorded encounter with someone from another religion and culture. He grew up around other cultures, other nations, but in first century Jerusalem Jews associated almost exclusively with Jews, Greeks with Greeks, Romans with Romans, Syrophoenicians with Syrophoenicians. Jesus treated the woman with the contempt that any Jewish Galilean would employ towards a Syrophoenician from Tyre. What happens if we accept that Jesus might not have grown up immune to the effect of centuries of enmity between people? Rather than tying ourselves into theological knots trying to excuse or rewrite that distasteful interaction, what if we accept it? Because if we do, then we can consider the possibility that his interaction with her changed him. Made him think. Made him open his eyes to all His brothers and sisters. Brought him suddenly and beautifully to the truth that Maya Angelou expressed two millenia later – No human being can be any more human than any other human being. If He can be changed, maybe we can change…
“Ephphatha.” Jesus said to the deaf, mute man. “Ephphatha.” And the man could hear. “Be opened” The man could speak. “Ephphatha” “Be opened,” He says to us all. Be opened as I became opened. And we can open our eyes to face our own culturally ingrained biases. We can open our mouths for justice, for peace. We can open our ears to the stories of those among us who have been have been ignored and reviled. We can open our hands to do the difficult work of reconciliation. We can open our hearts to the cries of those who have been silenced and insulted for too long.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.