Proper 18 (September 4-10)
Texts: Mark 7:24-37;
James 2:1-17; Isa. 35:4-7a
LISTENING TO THE LEAST
On October 28, 1959, John Howard Griffin underwent a transformation that changed many lives beyond his own — he made his skin black and traveled through the segregated Deep South. His odyssey of discovery was captured in journal entries, arguably the single most important documentation of 20th-century American racism ever written. This is the story of a man who opened his eyes and helped an entire nation to do likewise.
That’s from an Amazon.com description of the book Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin, a white man who turned his skin black to write a book about racism. It’s an amazing story, but it raises the very crucial question: why did it take a white man’s account of racism for other white people to finally listen? African American scholar and author Professor Nell Painter notes, “When Griffin was invited to troubled cities, he said exactly the same thing local black people had been saying, but the powers that were could not hear the black people.” (1) People of Color had been telling this story for a long time, but could the white community listen to them? Why did it take a white man for them to finally hear?
Another question: did you notice the joke Mark is telling us in today’s Gospel Reading? I think he might actually mean for us to chuckle or at least smile. He tells a story where Jesus actually listens to a marginalized woman, as she teaches him a lesson about inclusivity in the face of their ethnic brand of ‘racism’ in Jesus’ day. Then, he takes his disciples aside to heal a deaf and mute person. Do you catch the comic irony? Jesus listens to an outsider to whom his people usually remained deaf and mute, and then he literally heals a person who can’t speak or hear. It’s as if he is saying that it may be easier to heal someone who physically cannot hear than it is to heal us ordinary folks when it comes to listening to outsiders. Shortly, in Mark’s Gospel, we will hear two healing of blind men when Jesus is trying to help his disciples see what discipleship means. In being able to laugh at the disciples, hopefully we can also laugh at ourselves.
Jesus is modeling for us an important wisdom, if the barriers that divide us are to ever be healed. Jesus’ receptivity to Syro-Phoenician woman’s wisdom points to a critical truth: Oppressed people often have a profound analysis of social situations, and know the paths to justice. People in positions of authority would do well to heed them if we are to stand together for peace. (2)
Last Sunday we concluded our series on the ELCA Social Statement on Criminal Justice by lifting up the hardest part for us to hear about, the racial component. And what I want us to consider carefully this morning is this: if we aren’t willing to listen to the story of People of Color themselves, then it is difficult for us as white people to fully comprehend the inequities in our Criminal Justice system.
Last week, I mentioned that the excellent recent book on this matter is titled The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. Ms. Alexander is a graduate of Stanford Law School; she clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and she is a professor of law at Ohio State University. Michelle Alexander is also African American. We might ask ourselves as white people: Does that make us any less or more able to hear what she has to say in this book? Does a voice inside us say, “Well, of course, she would argue that, she’s African American.” Like with John Howard Griffin and his book Black Like Me, would the white community be more likely to trust the story of racism in our Criminal Justice system if it were told by a white person?
Jesus did the unthinkable for a Jewish man. He himself had just finished debating with other Jewish teachers about how inclusive the boundaries of clean and unclean might stretch. He had deemed all food as clean. That was already outrageous enough. But then he goes to foreign territory, where a foreign woman bursts into the house where he is staying. By Jewish standards, she is doubly unclean: Gentile woman with demon daughter. Notice first of all, though, Jesus doesn’t throw her out, which would have been the reaction of most Jewish teachers. He actually listens to what she says. He lets her plead her case. He at first voices the traditional stance of exclusion, even calling her a dog. But her courage, her faith, and her persistence yields a complete about-face. The woman does not argue with Jesus’ refusal. She does not retaliate or attack. She does not seek to be great or to be first. She seeks to serve her daughter’s well-being, and she is willing to become least in order to make that happen. The spiritual secret of becoming least is so that God can become most. This is the attitude of the kingdom, the new humanity that Jesus is bringing about. (3) Jesus responds by making this woman a model of faith for us and then heals her daughter.
Healing. We know Jesus’ healing in our lives, don’t we? Most often that healing comes when we listen to and heed the broken parts of our selves — rather than casting them away from our consciousness. Jesus heals us when we are courageous as the Syro-Phoenician woman to trust that Jesus helps to heal the broken and the least among us and in us.
This morning we lift up that Jesus also heals our communities. Jesus models for us a listening to the wisdom of the oppressed that we might be healed of our divisions. If the Syro-Phoenician woman were to speak to us tonight, would it be something like this? (Read by female voice)
My daughter is many. She is within you, broken and weeping and raging. She lives homeless on your streets. She is incarcerated for drug use in your prisons. She is the lesbian woman whose partner is denied entering the hospital room of their dying daughter. She is the beautiful and suffocating earth. She seeks healing, liberation from the demons. Where do you see my daughter?
Sisters, know your strengths and use them for healing. My strengths were a clever mind, verbal dexterity, and an iron will. My request was granted because I used my gifts in the name of healing. Sisters, claim your strengths, honor them, and use them. What are the gifts you have been given for healing?
Sisters, brothers, don’t back down in the face of injustice. Persist. In my persistence I was heard. Where will you struggle relentlessly for the healing of my daughters?
Where you sit in privilege at the expense of others, I invite you to listen to my daughters who suffer the lack of privilege. See it and find ways to not cooperate with it, to stand against it, to dismantle it. I was a pagan and a woman. Jesus, compared to me, was a person of privilege. By the rules of his world, he should have turned me away. He did not. Instead he later gave up his privilege on the cross, letting himself be declared unclean, in solidarity with me. Follow him. Follow him that we may be healed and together live in the grace of God’s one human family. (4)
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, August 30 & Sept. 2, 2012
2. Ched Myers — with the team of Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor — “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996], page 85. I owe the basic idea for this sermon to Myers and team and their chapter on Mark 7.
3. John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom (Year B) [Liturgical Press, 2005], page 220.
4. Myers, et al., pp. 85-86 – an edited version of their monologue.