I'm Listening

September 11, 2015

The Rev. Emily Mellott
Calvary Episcopal Church, Lombard
Texts for the day included James 2:1-10, 14-17Mark 7:24-37 

I don’t really want to be a member of James’ church. It sounds uncomfortable, because I bet he’s one of those preachers who points fingers and calls people out from the pulpit. Look what he’s saying today:My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?
“YOU discriminate,” he says. “You treat the rich and the poor differently, and frankly, you’re rude and disrespectful to poor people.”
 
I’m sure that church had a lot of good people in it. People who gave a lot to charity, volunteered their time to feed the hungry and help neighbors in need. People who sometimes wanted to take a break, because meeting people’s needs really is hard work.
People like Jesus, who’s off today in Gentile country, hoping he won’t be recognized.
 
But of course, as usual, Jesus is found. Found by a woman, a gentile, of Syrian ancestry, an outsider, with neither power nor advantages, who clearly doesn’t belong and isn’t going to, and who definitely has no right to bother Jesus with her problems.
Jesus doesn’t hesitate to tell her so. He calls her - and her desperately ill daughter - dogs, and says they are not his problem.
But she argues.
Tells him there is enough to go around, even for dogs.
And he agrees with her, applauds her reasoning, and heals the daughter.
 
Some commentators want that story to be about a test of faith. Others make it a joke between Jesus and the woman, winking at prejudice. But others dive right into the uncomfortable probability that in this story, Jesus is wrong.
And not only wrong, but acting on genuine prejudice and racism.
 
Are you uncomfortable yet?
I am.
For months now, my inbox and social media and regular news have been full of articles and memes and commentary about racism in America.
And I hate it, because of course I’d like to live in a world without prejudice. I want to be a good person. I’ve absorbed the gospel values at Calvary where we really try to welcome everyone,
to accept and include the folks who don’t fit “normal;” to adapt and include and welcome even when that disrupts our peace and comfort at church.
 
And I hate it when I have to wrestle with racism in the news, in the church, or closer to home.
I hate it when the news and the commentators tell me I benefit by racism in this country because I am what’s called “white,” even when I suspect - or know! - it’s true.
 
Maybe even Jesus would have hated that feeling, too.
Though maybe not as much as that one Syro-phonecian woman with the sick daughter, who probably gets ignored often, and is definitely insulted and dismissed by Jesus.
I don’t know if you noticed, but the whole time she’s visible in this story, she’s kneeling on the ground, humbled and humiliated at Jesus’ feet, justthe way James complains that his congregation is insulting and humiliating the poor and oppressed who come to them.
In spite of that additional barrier of oppression, the woman argues with Jesus - which no doubt makes him uncomfortable - but he listens.
Listens, in spite of all that the culture and the differences and the status gap between the two of them can do to muffle her voice and ensure that Jesus can’t hear her.
And she changes him. And he changes his mind, and acts differently.
 
And going on from there, the next thing he does is give hearing and voice to a man who’s been physically deaf and dumb.
“Open up!” he says, and it happens.
Just like it happened to him.
 
The moral of this story might be that the kingdom of God is more powerful than us, maybe even more powerful than God.  After all, it’s more powerful than Jesus in this story. But that doesn’t absolve us of responsibility to listen, and to take down barriers.
 
Last Tuesday, I got an email from the headquarters of the Episcopal Church, inviting Episcopal congregations to join with our sisters and brothers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and make today "Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.”
 
Within hours, my inbox and social media were full of fellow clergy complaining about the short notice, the skimpy, half-baked resources, and the holiday weekend. We were indignant about what felt like a brush off of an important issue, and even more, we affirmed one another in our tiredness and frustration and our inclination not to try to pull this off, but to go our own ways.  
And then late Thursday, one colleague shared a letter from the Bishop of New York.
 
Apparently he’d heard from a few people about this, though he was supposed to be on vacation.
“I’m listening,” he said. “You’re right that the powers that be have screwed up, me included, when I asked you to do that this week.”
He went on to assure his clergy that they could treat themselves and their congregations and the painful, momentous issue of racism with the respect of more time; offered options for praying the problem on short notice without tearing ourselves apart; and thoughtful, deep, and holy reflection on faith and race, history and present, that honored the pain on all sides of the issue. 
 
“I’m listening,” Jesus said. “You’re right. Let’s heal your daughter.”
The stories are almost the opposite, in a way, but they’re also just the same.
 
The gospel story today, the letter of James - even the “quotable quotes” of Proverbs on generosity - are steeped in privilege, oppression, racism, sexism, classism. Our own church, playing last minute catch up with an ecumenical initiative from a predominantly African-American denomination, is steeped in the same things and tripping over our own governance and good intentions.
And it’s just as uncomfortable for me to name these things as I thought it would be, and it might be making you uncomfortable too.
 
But if even Jesus - fully divine and fully human - participated in the racism of his time, maybe we can stop being afraid of the word. Stop being afraid of the simple fact that we participate in - and sometimes benefit from - a culture that discriminates and oppresses, so that despite the healthy, holy, welcoming, accepting desires of our own hearts, we wind up carrying on the system and sins of racism, whether we know it or not.
 
If we can accept that truth about ourselves; see our kinship to Jesus in this, too, then we have a better chance of “opening up,”of hearing and listening in spite of the ways fear and good intentions and culture block us from the people and truths we need to hear.
If we can see this truth in Jesus and in ourselves, we have a better chance of trusting God and accepting the hurt when it feels like we’re being blamed, of seeing and acting on opportunities to change and heal, even to change things we didn’t do or didn’t mean to do.
 
There’s not one simple action to take, for this change and this healing (oh, if only it were that kind of problem) but we can work now to open our hearts, and our ears, and eyes, so that other people can transform us.
 
On the insert in your bulletin, there are prayers to help our hearts and spirits listen.
Make a commitment, this week, to pray those, and to deliberately face the guilt or the anger or the discomfort of seriously engaging a piece of the uncomfortable commentary on racism that fills the news and the internet these days. If it’s not showing up in your inbox and Facebook feed, you can find something to engage this week via links on Calvary’s website.
Next month the Diocese of Chicago is offering three days of intensive anti-racism training.  The bishop and I will be both be taking that training, and there are still a few spaces available. There’s another training in November.  Ask me for information.
 
Do something to open yourself up this week, even if you’re tired, busy, and have already done enough.
 
Because you are, like Jesus, good and faithful, generous and giving;you’ve absorbed the gospel values we depend on at Calvary, of welcome, and inclusion, and acceptance.
Because a system of racism is more powerful than any of us, but the kingdom of God is also more powerful than any of us, with a bigger vision of healing, inclusion, and welcome than we could ever see on our own, 
and sometimes we, like Jesus, need help to open ourselves up so we can be part of the healing God’s kingdom brings.
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