Pentecost 14 September 6, 2009

James 2:1-17                                                                       

Mark 7:24-37                                                                      

Once upon a time the gospel this morning would have been heard simply as an account of two miracle healings, the daughter of a Gentile woman and a deaf man. Today we understand that while such stories are indeed about the miraculous power of Jesus as Son of God, they are signs or clues that tell us important things about the in-breaking of God’s kingdom – in Jesus’s time and ours.

The healing of the woman’s daughter represents a radical breaking of taboos. In Jesus’s culture, a woman should never have spoken to a man in public like that. A Jewish man would have been defiled by speaking to a Gentile. The daughter’s “unclean spirit” would be something to be shunned, not healed. The facts of the incident are intended to be shocking in the extreme. And indeed, at first Jesus rebukes this woman. His Good News is for the “children,” that is the Jews, not for the “dogs,” the Gentiles. But the woman persists, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” and her argument prevails. The kingdom of God is for everyone.

The deaf man is also a Gentile – the geographic references underline that fact. His impediment – he can neither hear nor speak clearly – has symbolic significance. Jesus heals him by first spitting on his fingers and then touching the man’s ears and tongue. Spittle was regarded as a pollutant, like excrement. So here again the boundaries and rules are all being crossed and reversed in ways that would have been outrageous to people of the time.

So what about us? The honor and shame culture of Jesus’s day, with all its boundaries and taboos, seems strange and alien. We may learn of such things in the news, in far away places like the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but we think ourselves enlightened, free of these irrationalities. And yet, it’s precisely because we are bound by similar codes that we find it difficult to recognize them.

Gender and race, ethnicity and age still play a role, even in our supposedly egalitarian society. But most of our boundary and status markers have to do with money and possessions – the size and elegance of our houses, for instance, our cars, our clothes. They have to do with our jobs, our education. Did we go to college? Where? Do we work in an air conditioned office, with people under us? Where do we go on vacation – if we go?

Several winters ago, Anne and I went to Mexico for a couple of weeks. One of the towns we visited was San Miguel de Allende, something of a retirement and vacation destination for Americans “in the know.” An old friend is the rector of the Episcopal church there. Attending the Eucharist on Sunday, we spotted in the pew behind us a couple we had met once who were connected with St. Paul’s School in Concord. Introducing ourselves, reminding them that I was the vicar of Holy Cross, Weare, the man looked at me curiously and said, “My goodness, how did you know about San Miguel de Allende?” To which I am glad to say I replied, “Oh, doesn’t everyone?”

Snobbery, status, boundaries that we set up to define and protect us as better than others, come in many varieties. We are none of us free of them. And one of the points of these readings this morning – the lesson from James as well as the gospel – is, I think, that these things are plain and simple sinful. Jesus came to break them down, to over-reach them with the power of his healing touch, his words, his sacrifice for us upon the Cross. The gentleman (and I use that word deliberately) in San Miguel was careful to tell me that he went to Trinity Church, Copley Square, in Boston, one of the greatest and grandest of churches in the country – not to just any little Episcopal church like Holy Cross.

 But I am glad that we are not a church where people come to gain status or assure themselves that they are better than others. I think it has been the great curse of the Episcopal Church, part of our heritage from the Church of England, that for so much of our history we have been the denomination of the rich and powerful. We identify ourselves with our material trappings: stone buildings, vested clergy and choirs, elegant pipe organs and mahogany pews. The current economic woes have hit the congregations of our Diocese hard, and this is affecting the diocesan budget as it has our own. For Episcopalians, these material set-backs carry spiritual shame.

I sent the bishop an email saying that I was struck by how hard it is for a denomination like us, with a padded hierarchy and expensive pensions and health benefits, to conceive of how to cut back and scale down. But the other churches in Weare, I told him, have no denominational affiliation. Their clergy for the most part support themselves with secular jobs. They have no health insurance, no pensions. In some cases they built their churches and congregations from scratch, from the ground up. What is the message in this, I asked the bishop, for us?

We’ll be doing a Mutual Ministry Review this fall. The process will engage all of us in looking at where we want to go in the future. Let’s be at least a little crazy in opening ourselves to the in-breaking of God, to where God might be calling us to be going forward. Let’s forget the boundaries of “it can’t be done” or “it isn’t in the Prayer Book” or “it depends on the budget or the priest.” Let Jesus unstop our ears and loosen our tongues.

These readings speak to us in very intimate, personal ways. Each of us has our own internal boundaries that imprison us in fears and shames – things we’ve done or failed to do in the past, failings and shortcomings when we compare ourselves to others. Let us dare to think of these things not as weaknesses, but as strengths. Let us dare to let Jesus touch us in the deepest shadows of our being, where we do not want to be touched, so that we may be set free and empowered to be part of God’s kingdom. For it is only when we ground ourselves in Jesus Christ, not in any of the sources of honor our culture holds out to us, that we are healed of shame and truly able to reach out and love in Christ’s name.

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