The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 5, 2021

The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 5, 2021
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10,14-17;
Mark 7:24-37

      From the Gospel according to Mark, “Then looking up to heaven, (Jesus) sighed and said to (the deaf man), ‘Ephaphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     There is something about today’s combination of scripture lessons that always remind me of what is called the “Boston Toast”. (Now, I realize this is the South and for many, Boston exists in a foreign but bear with me for a moment.) The Toast goes like this, “And here’s to good old Boston, The home of the bean and the Cod, Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots, And the Cabots talk only to God.” See, Boston, like all cities, has a storied history. Part of that history includes a group of people whom Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to as the Boston Brahmins – the elite of the City. As businessmen, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists that included the Lowells and Cabots, as well as the Delanos, the Emmersons, the Lodges, and so on, left their mark not only on the city and nation, but the Church as well. See, most of them were Episcopalians. Episcopalians who often used their financial holdings and standing in the community to influence how and who the church should welcome and serve. And if you were to ask the average Bostonian then and still today, they would describe these Brahmins, these Episcopalians, as absolute snobs. Truth be told, for all their charitable works and contributions to society, I am pretty sure that the reference to Episcopalians as “the frozen chosen” came from folks who had met these Brahmins. In the words of that old proverb, their example reminds us that actions always speak far louder than words. 

    Now, we might snicker at the phrase “frozen chosen” after all, nothing could be further from the truth in today’s Episcopal church, but  the reality is, many houses of worship today continue to kowtow to the rich and famous instead of, as our reading from Proverbs says, “sharing our bread with the poor.”

     Exclusivity and the mercy of God are at the heart of today’s readings, They challenge us to treat all people with equal respect and dignity, to be inclusive, and in response to God’s mercy, be just and honorable in meeting the needs of all whom we encounter.

   Proverbs says, “the rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” The writer goes on to speak of God’s mercy saying that God pleads the cause of the poor and the afflicted and judges those who foster injustice. God looks to the heart and regardless of whether we are rich or poor, what matters to God, the writer says, is our generosity. Generosity that mirrors God’s mercy and grace described in this morning’s Psalm. There the Psalmist says God surrounds those who have put their trust in God. God shows goodness and mercy to those who are true of heart whether they are rich or poor. God looks to the heart, not one’s social standing in life.

     The early Christian Church had its own share of Brahmins, of elites, who tried to dictate not only whom to welcome and how to serve others, but also where someone should sit. The wealthy and influential had preferred seating while the poor stood at the back. Now we shake our heads at such nonsense and yet, this same situation was not only true in our own country’s history, but up until as recent as 50 years ago, African-Americans were not given a seat at all in our churches. They had to stand in a balcony or outside.  

   In today’s Epistle lesson, James urges the church to treat all persons alike. He asks, “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Jesus Christ?” He is saying that if, in our hearts, we really believe in Jesus Christ, we will treat all people with equal respect and dignity. Why? Because we live the law of liberty – that law whereby we have been made equals in and with Christ, equal children of God and equal heirs of God’s Kingdom. But there is still that tendency towards showing partiality or favoritism for the wealthy while ignoring the poor. James urging reminds us of St. Paul who, in Acts 10:34 says, “God shows no partiality.” James says that playing favorites violates the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

But James does not stop there. He takes things a step further saying that if we say we have faith and see our neighbors in need and simply say to them, “Go in peace,” or “God bless you” or “I’ll pray for you” and do not take care of their physical needs, then our faith is dead. And he rightly asks then, “Can such a dead faith save you?” Faith does save us but only if it is a true faith. True faith that is living and makes a difference in our lives as we are changed and transformed into the body and image of Christ. True faith – our faith - is an active faith that engages and shares Christ’s light with the world bringing healing and offering redemption to all regardless of their station in life. And it is our faith that urges us to seek justice with labors of charity, works of love. These are not ritual works like circumcision that are useless human rules and regulations, but rather, they are works born in and from the heart, the very heart of God, who seeks to bring life and wholeness to all who will believe. This is true faith that does not exclude but seeks and serves Christ in every person we meet. That is the message of today’s Old and New Testament readings, and today’s Psalm.

     But then we come today’s gospel reading. Mark sets the stage by telling us that Jesus has entered the region of Tyre. Now, this is Gentile territory. And it was the prevailing thought and theology at that time among the Hebrew peoples, that Gentiles were less than human, like dogs actually, and outside the covenant and promises of God. Our text tells us that a woman - a Gentile woman – comes to Jesus bows down at his feet and begs him to heal her daughter. Jesus’ response is both upsetting and intriguing because it suggests exclusivity. He sounds like one of those elitist Brahmins. In fact this particular exchange is considered one of the most perplexing moments in Jesus’ ministry because his response flies in the face of not only all of the rest today’s readings, but the whole of scripture itself. So what is going on here? As always, scripture invites us to look closer.

     At first, Jesus affirms Israel’s authority as the chosen people of God and affirms his culture’s dim view of Gentiles saying, “Let the children be fed first, because it is not fair to take their food and throw it to the dogs.” Now, there’s lots of debate among theologians as to the exact meaning of the word “dogs” Jesus chose here, but his metaphor is still the same: he is suggesting that Gentiles are second-class citizens. And that just doesn’t sound like the Jesus described by the gospels. So we have to look even closer at what’s going on in this story. 

     And that’s when we realize that the woman’s response is equally intriguing. In our translation, she calls him “Sir,” however, the Greek word here suggests “Lord.” Now think about that. If she calls him, “Lord,” then she is the only Gentile in Mark’s Gospel to call him by that title and this is important to understanding Jesus’ next response to her. By calling him “Lord,” she affirms his authority, she has recognized who Jesus really is and in so saying has revealed that she is not outside the promises of God but inside. She continues saying “Okay, lets use your dog metaphor, but even the dogs under the table eat from the children’s scraps.” The dogs are still part of the household. Yes, they are under the table, but they are still part of the family. She has twisted Jesus’ metaphor and turned the discussion from one of exclusion to inclusion and Jesus immediately understands exactly what’s going on here. This Gentile woman acknowledges Jesus is Lord and she knows that he is the kind of Lord that will feed everybody, regardless of who they are by birth. He is the kind of Lord who proclaims that all are welcome at God’s table. All are welcome in God’s kingdom. All may partake in the promises of God if they repent and believe. Her affirmation of Jesus as Lord moves Jesus to heal her daughter. All who call Jesus “Lord” will be saved. The door is open to all – Jew and Gentile, you and me – simply by faith – an active true faith – faith alone.

     Our story continues with Jesus healing a man who is both deaf and speech impaired. To be deaf and mute or speech impaired in an oral society is a terrible thing. Remember, in first century Palestine, most people could not read or write and, therefore, everything depended upon their ability to speak and hear. This poor man, this Gentile man, is brought to Jesus for help. Mark goes into great detail as Jesus doesn’t describe the man as a dog, but physically touches him– touches an unclean Gentile – in fact, he’s practically climbing all over him in order to heal him. And that is Mark’s point: Jesus sees no distinction between Jew and Gentile, no distinction in birthright. All who believe are welcome in God’s Kingdom and all are equal in that kingdom – by faith alone.

    Our scriptures this morning call us to grasp that in the church there can be no distinction of wealth, social status, income, or circumstance. All that matters is our faith: a true and active faith in Christ who not only redeems us, but unites us to God and to each other. True faith that actively serves Christ in all persons. Others may judge by appearances – that is certainly true in our society today - but, as James affirms, as Proverbs upholds, and as Jesus demonstrates, God’s mercy extends to all people and always triumphs over judgment, and beloved, so must God’s people, so must the Church.

    “Then looking up to heaven, (Jesus) sighed and said to (the deaf man), ‘Ephaphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” May not only our ears, but our eyes, our hearts, our minds, and our hands be open to God’s words and to our neighbor this day and always. Amen.