Thursday, September 10, 2015
The cure for the skubalon-filled heart . . . and the evils which flow from it!
This week, thanks to a good bit of organizing on the parts of our brothers and sisters in the AME church, we are reminding ourselves that racism, and for that matter lots of other “ism’s,” seems to be thriving in our country. So, on this day, many churches around the country are observing “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday” today. Truthfully, I imagine that most pastors are preaching to the wrong audience today, if they are, in fact, wanting the Holy Spirit to change the hearts and minds of people in America to stamp out racism. While I am certain there are exceptions in the pews around churches in America today, I would imagine that most people who dragged themselves out of bed on the last three-day holiday of the summer season have an understanding that racism has no part in Christianity. None.
Of course, maybe I am just preaching to the choir today at Advent. One of the pleasant discoveries in my short time with you has been the fact that the discussions about racism and skin color are fairly direct, but always respectful. One of those first conversations about racism happened during my first few weeks at Advent. Billy sent the EYC to see the movie Selma. Lynne thought it would be a great follow up for the kids to ask Billy what it was like growing up in the era depicted in the film. For those of you who do not know Billy, he has an incredible story to tell. I’m not just talking about his education as a doctor and as a dentist. Billy has broken some barriers and ceilings that were in place until he arrived on the scene. He shared some of those stories with the Advent youth. At a time when events in Ferguson and NYC were still dominating our Facebook feeds and talk shows, Billy was able to share what he had experienced as a child, as a youth, as a young adult, and as a young professional in this country. In the eyes of our youth, Selma came to life. It wasn’t just a movie; it was Billy's story.
For the adults, of course, it was also a good lesson. As a country, we have much work still to do, but we have also come a long way. Sometimes, given the news stories and cycles, it is hard for us to see that. We chatted afterwards about how the youth had absolutely no understanding of how people could be treated that differently because of their skin color. The idea of separate bathrooms, of separate water fountains, of sitting in assigned places on busses or in theaters, and other dehumanizing actions and attitudes that were accepted four or five decades ago were unthinkable to them. Attitudes and practices that likely informed the behavior of our youths’ grandparents’ generation was simply incomprehensible in their eyes. If we had charged a dollar for every time one of them said “really?” or “are you making this up” or “wow, that’s dumb,” we might have balanced a small city’s budget. We have made some progress, or rather God has made some progress, changing hearts and minds.
Perhaps there is an undercurrent of racism at Advent of which I am still unaware, but so far discussions that touch on racism have seemed well-considered and acknowledged as difficult. Certainly our discussions about Ferguson and other lightning rod events that involved the police, as well as the AME martyrs and the subsequent discussions of the Confederate flag have been mature. Unlike the press, we seem to be far less concerned with “gotcha” statements, and far more concerned with “how do we acknowledge” and “how do we honor” questions. In a body that proclaims that in Him there is no Jew or Greek, such an attitude makes absolute sense. The problem that faces us today and the one that our AME brothers and sisters likely really want addressed is the question of how we preach and teach effectively to those outside the walls of our churches about the inherent dignity of all humanity? If fewer and fewer Americans are going to church, self-identifying themselves as Christians, and engaging in the worship of God, should we be surprised that society is becoming increasingly racist? If fewer and fewer Americans are self-describing themselves as hearing or reading the Gospel on a regular or even infrequent basis, how do we begin to combat the attitude that seems to be growing to some?
I will say, as I peeked ahead to the readings, I thought this week well chosen by the AME church to address racism. My hope was that the press would cover the effort around the country and people would get to see how Christians can lead the fight against racism. As you all heard me read a few moments ago, our Gospel lesson was on the faith of the Syrophoenician woman. It is a well-known story. In fact, her faith is enshrined in our Rite 1 liturgy. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist using Rite 1, we say the Prayer of Humble Access. We do not presume to come to this Thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in Thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy Table. But Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink His blood, that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us. Amen. It is a wonderful story that speaks to our human dignity and the unity with which we as a human race meet our Lord.
Then, I got to reading some of the planned sermons for this week on various listservs and other sites on the internet. I cannot tell you how many sermons are being preached on the idea that Jesus was a racist and needed His attitude adjusted by a Rosa Parks-like figure or on the idea that Jesus was just plain mean to this woman. I can tell you that I am thrilled that not many of the sermons will get any press. If Jesus was a sinner, what did His death accomplish for us? That’s right, nothing. Absolutely nothing. If Jesus’ sacrifice had a blemish, then we are all still under the curse. What a terrible perspective and belief! Can you imagine? All the way back in Genesis, what does it say about the image in which we, all of us, were created? We were created in His image. If Jesus truly is and was the Son of God, then this woman, as well as every individual we encounter in our daily life and work, was created in His image. Knowing that, how could we ever come to the conclusion He was racist?
The other idea, that He was simply mean or spiteful to this poor woman, is equally offensive. Jesus has just fed the 5000 men besides women and children. He has argued at length with the Pharisees and scribes over the question of cleanliness. Jesus has even rebuked them for adopting customs and elevating those customs as equal to God’s torah, even when they knew the custom was in direct conflict with God’s torah. In a few verses, Jesus will feed the 4000 mostly gentiles. In a couple chapters, He will begin His Passion Week, where He suffers and dies for the sins of the world. He who knew no sin became sin. And we are supposed to think He is mean-spirited? Spiteful?
I understand the appeal of such teaching and preaching. We want so desperately to believe that we can improve ourselves by means of our own efforts. If Jesus was just one of us, it makes it possible for us to live a similar life. Make no mistake, we should strive to mirror His life. Of course, you and I are burdened with this fleshy heart. No matter how much we wish we were different, we are still prone to wander, prone to sin. We cannot help but think mean thoughts at those individuals who cut us off in traffic. We cannot help but judge the “other” sometimes as being outside God’s grace because of their circumstances. Sin infects every single aspect of our existence—our thinking, our acting, and even our longing. Like those who practice racism, we often believe ourselves better than others, somehow deserving of God’s grace. In my short time among you I have heard comments like “God should be happy that I made time for Him today.” Do we really believe that? Do we at Advent really believe that God is lucky to have us as His disciples? You think He thought that while dying on the Cross for each and every one of us, the pastor chiefly included?
The unfortunate consequence of such teachings is that it turns the Gospel, the Good News, into “meh.” Who wants to follow a racist? Who wants to follow someone who is mean? Who wants to be a disciple of someone cannot stand those whom He created? Does anybody?
And what if ending sin, any sin, is truly up to us? Do you really think we have it within ourselves to fight racism in our hearts, in our institutions, and in our society? What is the likelihood that Brian can convince you to leave this sanctuary today, determined not to be a racist? What is the likelihood that any conversation you have with a brother or sister in this parish this morning can accomplish such a noble goal?
If such teachings are wrong, though, why do I think the reading was perfect for a Sunday that called Christians to their responsibility to stand up against racism? Take a look at the story and read it again. Jesus has gone into the gentile region. In fact, He is sought out by a woman whose people have been at war with Israel for generations. Somehow, someway, this woman has heard of Jesus’ miraculous healings, of His anointment with signs and powers, and still she seeks Him out, not to be denied. And what does she seek? She seeks healing from a demon for her daughter. How does the great Healer respond? He calls her a dog.
Part of the problem with the story is that dog is rightly understood as being a racial slur. It would not be as bad as the N-word in modern speak, but it would not be that far off. We know from Josephus that the residents of Tyre were despised by the Jews, and by Galileans in particular. In economic terms, Tyre was the gated community and Galilee was the working poor neighborhood. But the problem really exists in our own prejudices. Those who want to excuse Jesus’ behavior, as if it needed to be excuses, will claim it was a test of her faith (though nowhere does Mark mention it as such) or simply an account written back into the narrative of Jesus to explain the tensions found in the early Church when Jews and Gentiles needed to figure out how they related. Both are noble attempts to explain away Jesus’ behavior, but they do not make any sense in the narrative.
As Americans, as members of a privileged group in a privileged country, we tend to view the behaviors of others through our own prejudices and with our own cultural understanding. We like to think that the fights that existed in the early Church have been resolved. We like to think that that the Gentiles deserved better treatment because so many Jews rejected Jesus. We like to think that Jesus was not the God Incarnate Man divine that he was and is.
When Jesus tells the woman that He has come for the children, the Jews, what does He mean? Peek back in Genesis to the story of Abraham and Sarah. What does He promise them. Your descendants will number greater than the sands on the beach. Your descendants will number greater than the stars in the sky? What is the “why” of that promises? I will make of you a nation of priests, a light unto the world, that My name will be glorified. Way back in the teens of Genesis God declared that Abraham and Sarah’s descendants would be priests to the world. Their job would be to live, to eat, to worship, and to relax in accordance with how God instructed them. All this instruction, the torah, would cause others to seek Him. When Jesus declares it is His job to feed the children first, He is acknowledging the purpose of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah. Salvation comes from the Jews.
We like to think of Jesus as some hippy, peace-loving, never-raising-his voice, patient instructor. The truth is, He is far more patient and loving than we or any of His disciples deserve, but is He really that figure in Scripture. Last week He mocked the Pharisees and scribes for outward cleanliness and inward crap-filled hearts. A few weeks before He noted how His own people and His own relatives held Him without honor and lacked faith in Him. He will complain of humanity as a perverse generation. He will remark upon the lack of understanding on the parts of His disciples. Heck, He will call Peter Satan. He is not the relaxed, inoffensive Messiah we like to imagine. In truth, Jesus is often quite accomplished at name-calling. Jesus is often quick to point out in the lives of those whom He encounters those stumbling blocks which keep them from a right relationship with God. And few, if any, are glad to hear those words when first they are directed at them. No doubt neither were you when He first reached into your life with the words that spoke to your pride. The big problem, of course, is that He names what really is wrong with us.
If Jesus is neither sinning or wrongly steeped in His own culture nor to be thought of as the polite, inoffensive healer, what is going on in this passage? More to the point, how should the teaching of the passage inform our efforts to overcome racism? Place yourself in the lady’s position for just a moment. You come from the gated community of Tyre, but you have heard incredible things about this rabbi from Galilee. Your money, your education, your hard work is normally sufficient. Only the lazy and ignorant suffer and, let’s face it, they do because they deserve to. Now you are confronted with something you cannot fix, a demon in your daughter. What’s worse, the possibility of her healing requires the help of one of “those” people. What would you do? How many of us would do anything we could to avoid going to Him for help?
The lady goes and has the famous encounter that will earn her a memory in our celebration each week. Notice, nearly unique in Mark, she (that’s right, she) gets it. She understands that the Messiah’s mission is to the Jews first. But it is that first bit that does not deter her. Whatever stories she has heard in her privileged home have caused her to realize Jesus mission and purpose. Yes, He is there for the Jews, but His crumbs will satisfy the rest. Jesus is under no obligation to her; she can make no demands upon Him. Like everyone else whom He encounters, she is dependent upon His grace. And so she accepts the truth of His statement. But in acknowledging His purpose and her position, she reveals much about her faith. She is stubborn and persevering. She hunts Jesus down, knowing what His attitude as a Galilean Jew is likely to be. She engages Him in His teaching. Yes, we call each other dogs, but even the puppies get to eat of the Master’s food. She is willing to do whatever it takes to save her daughter, even to the point of humbling herself before this particular man. Make no mistake, she has no idea yet of the living bread that He offers; she is certain, however, that His crumbs will meet her need and save her daughter. And for her humility and perseverance what does she get? She gets not only her heart’s desire but remembered in the Church even to the present.
Approaching the mercy seat, approaching our Lord, requires great humility, brothers and sisters. We live in a world that constantly bombards us with the idea that we are masters of our own domains, that we are captains of our own ships, that with hard work and a bit of luck we can have it, whatever “it” is, too. But we who are gathered here know that advertising is false. The things we need, the things for which we long, we are insufficient. We have lots of doctors and nurses among us, but who among us can keep death at bay? We have members among us who seem to float placidly along the currents of life. But we all know we are more like ducks, paddling furiously beneath the surface, worried about the next turmoil, the next raids, or the next predator. Each of us gathered here today, brothers and sisters, has faced the same choice as that wise Syrophoenician woman. Each of us has stood before the Savior as He named that which in our pride, that which in our Ego, caused us to want to flee Him. Yet when it mattered most, we accepted the truth of His words. We accepted as true our undeserving and unbelieving faith and asked, asked Him to save us in spite of ourselves.
That humility, brothers and sisters, is where we are to begin this push to eradicate racism from our midst. The effort will fail miserably if our efforts are based on programs or any other foundation but the fact that each and every one of us, as well as each and every single person we encounter in the world around us, appears the same before God. It does not matter whether they or we are red and yellow black and white, it does not matter whether they or we come from gated communities or hillbilly slums, it does not matter whether they or we are currently disciples. The Cross casts its shadow across all humanity. It is that knowledge, and understanding of our Lord’s commitment to everyone we meet, that compels us to invite others to His feast. For all the good that this weekend may or may not do, think of the pride that is involved to have created and kept distinct so many denominations. We in the Church, better than all, should understand the lack of need for “racial” churches. We who are offended that Jesus called the lady and her daughter a dog are little moved by the fact that there are Korean churches, Armenian churches, and whatever else within a few short miles from here. We who claim to have the wisdom to which the rest of the world should accede will, in our press releases and photo shoots, make a big deal about how black churches, white churches, Spanish churches, Asian churches and whoever else are participating in this effort today. We will enshrine the division we so deplore, patting ourselves on the back and feeling better for having done it. And the world, if it even notices, will likely ignore us or remind us we are a bunch of hypocrites.
Brothers and sisters, the fight against racism and all other evil skubalon that proceeds from the heart is a noble fight. We should never accept any evil on account of “that’s just the way it is.” But if we are truly to begin to combat any evil, if we are truly intent upon following those great commandments of our Lord and Savior, we must begin in all humility in the shadow of the Cross. It is there that our fleshy hearts, our skubalon-filled hearts are circumsized. It is there that we come to recognize our undeserving nature. It is there that we come to recognize the true inestimable value of grace. And then, as a raised people empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are fit heralds of God’s grace to the world. Such humility never seeks a reward. Such humility understands it does not deserve any reward. But it is that kind of humility that truly models the life our Lord lived for us and for all those in the world around us, whether they have heard His offer or not. It is, in the end, that humility which will lead to crucifixion of all our pride and egos, and all the sins that flow from them.
In the days and weeks that followed the shooting in Charleston which served as the foundation for this nationwide, inter-denominational effort today, that humility was certainly on display. Over and over the survivors and the families of the martyrs struggled to explain their effort to forgive the young man who maliciously altered their lives on earth. Newspapers and televisions and blogs were full of stories of trying to comprehend their humility. How could they explain their need to forgive? How could they mourn and yet find hope in such a bitter situation? And for a brief time, a small snippet, we got to see the fruits of such humility on display. For a few short weeks, they came. For some weeks people of every color, creed and language visited to worship with them, to mourn with them, and to encourage them. For a brief while Facebook memes raged that it was a shame we were not like that all the time. Of course, God is like that, is He not. When we are the most vulnerable, when we are the most helpless, when we are the most impotent, that's when He shows up in all His redeeming glory. For a few brief weeks, the Church resembled the resplendent bride for which He died and which He promises to raise. For a time, the Church lived what He taught. The Church was glorified in its humility. Pray that we do more and more, that all might be drawn to His saving embrace.