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Sunday, September 06, 2015

Be Opened

Be Opened: Breaking boundaries and finding compassion
Pentecost XV - Proper 18B - September 6, 2015
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

Note: On June 17, nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina were shot and killed by an attacker expressing reasons for the murders connected with race. The African Methodist Episcopal denomination has asked all churches in this country to join in a “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” The leadership of The Episcopal Church and Bishop Wayne here in DE have encouraged all parishes to participate. We will say a special prayer during the Prayers of the People and the Eucharist will be offered in thanksgiving for the lives of those nine members who died. I will address aspects of racism in this sermon.

This is a sermon about boundaries and compassion. This morning’s gospel from Mark ( 7:24-37) provides us with two stories, both of which teach us something about Jesus and boundaries and how compassion breaks them down.

This is as timely a message for us today as it was for those who first heard the words of Jesus. 

I don’t know about you but, these days, I hate to turn the television. Have you noticed? Suddenly, there are more ads for political causes than there are for Year End Sales Events and Victoria’s Secret! And, most of the political cause have to do with boundaries – if not with the Iran Peace Agreement then between Israel and Palestine. 

Got a problem? Build a wall! Real or legal!

The news carries the ongoing struggle over the issue of immigration in this country and terrible refugee situation in Europe, culminating this week with the horrifying images of the tiny body of a three-year old Syrian boy that washed up on the beach in Turkey.

And aren’t you just tired of the endless news cycle of that clerk in a small town in Kentucky who refused to do her job and is now in jail crying that her religious freedom has been compromised? 

All the political pundits are lining up on either side of the issue, drawing lines in the sand while they declare that anyone on this side of the line is a real Christian and anyone on that side of the line is not. How dare they!

Where are the boundaries? Who makes them? Who decides who stays on what side?

In this morning’s gospel lesson Jesus ventures outside of his boundaries into the region of Tyre. Up north. He’s apparently trying to travel incognito. No such luck. “He could not escape notice,” we’re told. 

In the first story, we learn that word travels that he’s in town. A Syrophoenician woman whose daughter is very ill comes to ask him to have mercy and please heal her.

Now, what you need to know about this woman is that first, she’s a woman. In ancient Israel – and, indeed, in some branches of Hassidic Judaism – it is not ‘kosher’ for women to speak with men. 

The second thing is that she is not Jewish, so she has absolutely no right to speak with a Rabbi. 

The third thing is that, as a Syrophoenician, she is of mixed racial origin. Indeed, Syrophoenicians were considered “mongrels” or “dogs” because of their racial impurity and religious irregularities.

But the woman does not back down and, in fact, stands up to Jesus, turning his rather cruel statement about “feeding the dogs” upside down in an intelligent rejoinder about how even dogs get “the crumbs from under their master’s table”.

So impressed is Jesus with this woman’s persistence and intelligence that he gets caught short. Theologian Letty Russell writes that, “Jesus got caught with his compassion down.” 

In one holy moment, Jesus dissolves three boundaries which had become barriers to his compassion: her gender, her race and her religion. 

Jesus sees this woman for who she is: a mother – not unlike his own – who simply loves her daughter and even more simply, wants her to be healed.

In the next story, Jesus is back in the Decapolis region of the Sea of Galilee and some of the folks brought before him a man who could neither hear nor speak. They begged Jesus to heal him. 

This time, Jesus takes the man away from the crowd and, in private, crosses some personal boundaries. He sticks his fingers into the man’s ears and spits on the ground and touches his tongue. 

And then, looking up to heaven, he says, “Ephphatha!” which means, “Be opened.” 

Of course, the man was healed and could hear and speak clearly. Of course, Jesus told him and those who brought the man to him to say nothing. And, of course, they did nothing of the sort, proclaiming this great miracle to everyone they saw.

Ephphathat! Be opened! That’s what Jesus said to the deaf man. Be opened!

Do you think maybe, just maybe, Jesus had learned something about his own ways of being closed to the Syrophoenician woman? Be opened! 

Do you think her openness to him – even though he was as much a foreigner to her as she was to him – also opened Jesus to a new way of understanding his ministry which included Gentiles? Be opened!   
Do you think there’s a message in the midst of these two stories for the people of God today?

Now, if you think I have some wise answer for you that will settle the immigration problem in this country and the refugee problem in Europe and solve the problem of civil rights vs. religious freedom while bringing peace to the Middle East, much less how to end racism and gun violence – well, I’ve got news for you. I don’t. I’m a priest not a magician.

I do think there is something to these words of Jesus to “be opened”. Here’s the thing: I don’t know how to be compassionate without having my heart opened to the suffering of others. 

I don’t know how to be compassionate without removing whatever protective barriers I have put up so as to not see the needs of another person – to be able to see them as a whole human being.

What I’ve learned from my hospice patients is that compassion is a verb. It means I first have to stick my fingers into my own ears to unblock them. And then I’ve got to move past the barriers of my own sense of what’s proper and do something. Even something I’m not included to do. Like spit. 

Finally, I have to touch my own tongue, not to loosen it so much as to still it.

I’ve learned over the years a simple truth: Your ears don’t work well if your mouth is moving. I don't always do it well, but I've learned it to be true.

You can’t listen and hear if you don’t stop talking.  My grandmother used to have a little poem she often recited to me:   
“The wise old owl sat on the oak
the more he listened, the less he spoke
the less he spoke, the more he heard
Why can’t I be like that wise old bird?”
What I’ve learned about compassion and boundaries is very much what Jesus learned from his encounters with the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man. 

I have learned that I have to be opened to that which is beyond my own carefully constructed boundaries.  Because, just beyond those boundaries is compassion. And, inside of compassion is love. 

And love, I have learned, may not change the world, but it changes me to be a better person who can do small things, which, over time, make the world a better place.

Like, for example, being opened. 


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