Year B, Pentecost 15
James 2: 1-17 & Mark 7:24-37
In 2003, the Bishop of Rhode Island took a sabbatical. She decided to leave her home for a month; but she didn’t go far. She went to the streets. She became homeless for one month. She said that because of her privileged position in life, she had lost touch. She wanted to get to know people in a different way. She only told her staff. No one else knew where she was or what she was doing, nor did anyone recognize her despite the fact that she saw clergy of her diocese and even visited different Episcopal churches in that month. When asked about her visits to Episcopal Churches she said that there were “Moments full of grace, and moments of deep disappointment.” The moments of grace were when people welcomed her and invited her to coffee hour and shared food without expecting payment. The example she used as a moment of deep disappointment was when she was in a church that would not allow her to join them for breakfast because she did not have the $3 that they required. I imagine that they had treated her much differently when she made her official Bishop’s visit.
Our second reading for today is from the Book of James. James is an interesting book and we will be hearing parts of it for the next several weeks. Unlike the letters of Paul, it is not addressed to a specific person or community. However, he clearly had some experiences in a community or several communities that he found rather troublesome. He spoke of a time when two people entered a worship space. One was poor with dirty clothes. The other was clearly well off. The rich person was shown to a choice seat and the poor person was told to stand or even to sit at their feet. James then challenged the community to consider whether this was the way that they showed love for their neighbor. Hadn’t Jesus loved the poor? Hadn’t Jesus consistently shown compassion for the people who were on the fringes of society?
We do not have to look very far for the answer to that question. There are a multitude of examples in the Gospels of Jesus’ treatment of the poor. He fed them. He healed them. He encouraged others to do the same. He spoke passionately about the need to care for the poor. Jesus lived among the poor because he was born to a poor family. God chose a poor girl to be the mother of his child. He could have chosen anyone, the daughter of an emperor, a high priest, a wealthy land owner. But he chose someone who was poor and marginalized.
Our Gospel reading for today does not explicitly talk about the poor, but certainly the marginalized. First we hear of a woman who came to Jesus begging him to cure her daughter. If a woman was approaching a man on her own in this time period, it was because she did not have a man to speak for her. And if she did not have a man, it was unlikely that she had resources. It was not impossible, but unlikely. She was almost surely poor. The other person in today’s story was a deaf man. In this time period people who had any kind of disability were outsiders. Often it was assumed that they had sinned or their parents had sinned and that was why they were disabled. So this man was most likely also among the marginalized.
Yet consider how Jesus cared for these people. I have preached many sermons about the Syrophoenician woman and there are many theories about why Jesus initially refused her. But the important point for today is that he heard her. He heard her desperation and her pain and he cured her daughter. He didn’t even have to go to visit the daughter. He healed her in a moment. The second story is different. He was face to face with the man who needed healing. The man was deaf and had a speech impediment. Jesus took the man aside, put his fingers in his ears, spat, touched his tongue, looked to heaven and then said, “Ephphatha.” The first couple of times I read this I was struck by how different these two healings were. The first was at a distance without even a word. The second seemed to be so much more involved. There was spitting and hands in ears and a special word. It seemed so elaborate for Jesus when you know he could have cured him just by thinking it.
Let us not forget that Jesus knows us. Like the Good Shepherd knows the sheep, Jesus knows us. He knows what we need and how we need it. This man was deaf. Jesus knew that for this to be a true healing of heart, body and mind, the man would need to see what Jesus was doing. Jesus healed him in a way that he knew that he would understand. That required that Jesus touch the ears that were not functioning and the tongue that was not responding. Jesus wanted the man to know what was happening so that when his ears were suddenly functioning, he would understand it. He would be able to process it. Miracles are well and good, but Jesus was more than a miracle worker who was interested in showing off his powers and moving on. He wanted people to know that he loved them and he loved them in their joy and their pain, for their gifts and their needs. That is how he continues to love us.
In one of the interviews, the Bishop was asked if Episcopalians deserve our reputation for being the frozen chosen. She responded, “We’re not frozen. But for some reason we choose to see whom we want to see.” I don’t think the reason for our partial vision is that difficult to understand. We’re not cold. The people in this church care. They care deeply. I have heard it when people have approached me asking how they can help so and so. I have seen it when people spend hours in the kitchen getting ready for our summer lunch program. I have seen it in donations people make to the discretionary account that is specifically for the poor and needy. I have seen it in more way that I can share now. But at some point, we get overwhelmed and we acquire some degree of blindness or deafness for self-preservation. Or we simply grow weary of trying to help and not seeing any change or any improvement. I don’t know the answer. I really don’t.
But I think our readings for the day give us a starting place. We can start by simply welcoming the people in our midst. We have all kinds of people visit St. John’s. But how do we treat them? It’s easy to welcome the young family with the adorable child. It’s easy to welcome the person who knows the same people we know. But what about the homeless or just the people who look a little beat up by life? Do we make sure that they are welcome? Do we smile and look them in the eye instead of averting their gaze? That is a place where we can begin.
While Jesus knows us all, we don’t know everyone who walks into our assembly. When we don’t know someone, we make judgments, often solely based on how they look. That is human nature. It’s going to happen and we can’t beat ourselves up over that. But after that initial judgment, we can try to consciously move past that judgment. We can remind ourselves that there is one thing we know about this person. Jesus loves them, just as much as he loves us. Jesus loves them and he wants us to see them and to hear them, just as he sees and listens to each one of us. We are all blind and deaf in some way. There is a cure and that cure starts with a word. After Jesus spat and stuck his fingers in the man’s ears, touched his tongue and looked toward heaven, he said, “Ephphatha.” Be opened. He did not say that for the deaf man. He said it for us. Open your heart, open your mind, open your eyes and open your ears. Be opened.