9-6-15--Proper 18 B

Readings for Proper 18 B

Ever since I was a little girl, I have been fascinated by other cultures.  There were twin girls in my class in 3rd grade whose parents were from Korea, and I was delighted by going over to their house, where you took off your shoes before going in and there were beds on the floor.  In high school as I began to learn Spanish, I made friends with the guy who came to clean up our yard, and asked him about his family and Mexico. 

I approached difference with openness and innocence, and, as I later learned, from a position of privilege.  I had the freedom to engage with my friends cultures, or not, while their parents lived a delicate dance of wanting to preserve their culture for their children, on the one hand, and allowing them to absorb the dominant culture enough that they would not experience the disadvantages the parents had experienced from looking different, sounding different, acting different.  As I got to know Juan, our gardener, I began to ask myself questionsquestions about why he was here taking care of our yard and not with his family in Mexico, questions about why in California, which had been part of Mexico, so many people from Mexico lived an impoverished, second-class life.  These questions led me directly to my first visit to Latin America, to El Salvador, part way through college.

Today is a good day to talk about difference, both because of our startling Gospel reading, and because our Presiding Bishop has asked us to.  Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and president of the General Conventions House of Deputies Gay Jennings have asked all Episcopal Churches to preach and pray this Sunday in Confession, Repentance, and Prayer to End Racism.  This is in solidarity with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME, the denomination whose church was attacked by a white supremacist in Charleston in June.  Not simply because this attack happened in a church, but because racism is such a deeply rooted institutional and spiritual sin in our country, some have called it our countrys original sin, the AME believes that racism will not end by the passage of legislation alone; it requires a change of heart and of thinking.  This is an effort the faith community must lead; and be the conscience of the nation. 

I dont know about you, but when I hear Jesus words in todays gospel reading, they hit me like a bucket of cold water in the face.  This is Jesus, my loving, compassionate, healing, forgiving God, and he not only refuses initially the Syrophonecian womans request for healing for her daughter, but actually calls her and her daughter dogs!  We are not sure why Jesus is so uncharacteristically inhospitable to the Syrophoenican womanperhaps he is drawing on old ethnic resentments between the Syrians/Phoencians and the Jews, or lumping the woman together with the wealthy Gentile elite who oppressed the Jewish peasants of the region.  Maybe he just doesnt think its her time yetbelieving that he came to preach the message to Jews, and that the kingdom would be extended beyond the bounds of Israel at a later date.  Or maybe, after feeding 5,000, crowds pressing upon him for miracles, and hardly any time to eat or sleep, hes just plain cranky and tired.  But for whatever reason, Jesus has a human moment here.  He withholds hospitalityhealingfoodgracefrom the woman, telling her, It is not fair to take the childrens food and throw it to the dogs.  After being cut so low by the one in whom she has placed her faith, the Gentile woman does not wavershe accepts the slur, but refuses to believe that there is not enough grace flowing through Jesus for herself and her daughter to get just a scrap: Yes, Sir, she replies, But even the dogs eat the scraps under the childrens table.  Her humble but unwavering and determined faith move Jesushe is changed by this encounterand he heals her daughter from a distance before performing more healings and feedings in Gentile territory.  In the story which follows this one, Jesus uses an Aramaic word as he opens the deaf mans ear and loosens his tongue—“Ephphata he says, be opened.  In his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, it is Jesus who is opened, he encounters another on such a deep level that he is changed.

On the survey we completed this summer for our Mutual Ministry Review, the top 3 priorities were: Welcoming and incorporating new members, partnering with others to impact the neighborhood and community around us, and making changes that would make our church more attractive to families with children.  In the conversation we had at the retreat with vestry and other leaders as we processed the survey, we began to talk about our church better reflecting the diversity of our neighborhood and community.  One older member spoke up and said, You know, this means we will have to change.  We cant just expect new people to come and be just like us.

We cant just expect new people to come and be just like us.  What wise, even prophetic words.  Real welcome, gospel hospitality, means encountering another on such a deep level that we ourselves are changed.  This is what happens with Jesus and the Syrophoenecian woman.  He meets her with prejudice and an ethnic slur, she persists in her faith that the love and power of God flowing through him are for absolutely everyone, for her and her daughter too, and Jesus living out of his mission and ministry is expanded as a result.

Racism, the belief that the racial group in power is somehow superior to another, is blasphemy.  It takes the beauty of the diversity that God has created and twists it into a system of social and economic oppression.  Even if we dont subscribe to racist beliefs, in our society everyone is socialized into subconscious, knee-jerk reactions to people who look, act, sound, or dress a certain way, and if we are white we benefit from a social and economic system designed to maintain our privilege.  This is called institutionalized racism. 

So its not enough, you see, just to refrain from telling or laughing at racist jokes.  Its not enough to pray for the end of racism.  Its not enough to simply check and refrain from acting on our ingrained, subconscious reactions to those who look, act, sound or dress differently.  Its not enough to support the passage of legislation aimed at leveling the uneven playing field.  All of this is important.  But I believe the dismantling of racism in the heart of this country will require us to invest in the building block of the kingdom of God: relationship.  Relationship across difference.

As we invest in intentional relationships with those who are differentwith people who look, act, sound, or dress differently than we do, or even with people whose economic backgrounds, beliefs, or lifestyles may not correspond with ourswe begin to change.  Like Jesus in his encounter with the Syrophoenecian woman, our perspectives shift, our horizons are expanded.  We dont have to travel to Bangkok or Pakistan or Brazil for our understanding of the world to open up; we just have to get to know our neighbors.

Id like to tell you the story of a church which heard Jesus call—“ephaphata”—open upand got to know its neighbors.  This church in southern CA, a large, beautiful brick church, had been built in the 1950s  in the middle of what was at the time a beautiful new suburb.  The residents of the neighborhood and members of the church were mainly white, middle-class.  The neighborhood changed, over the years, and the church dwindled, until it was about 25 people who gathered there each Sunday, still mainly white, now older, and every one of them drove at least 20 minutes to get to this church which was now in the middle of a majorly economically depressed city.  Through their involvement with the local broad-based community organizing group and other faith communities in the same situation, this congregation heard Jesus call to be opened”—“ephphatha!  And they decided it would be a good idea to get out and meet their neighbors.  They walked the neighborhood in pairs, going from door to door, introducing themselves and just talking to folks about what it was like to live in this neighborhood.  Many of the people in the surrounding blocks did not even know they had a church in their neighborhood!  And the folks from the church began to learn about what it was like in the neighborhood at night, when they werent there: prostitution, drugs, gang violence, and a neighborhood so abandoned by the city that their street lights didnt even work.  Well, the folks from that church got together with folks from the neighborhood and other churches, and they went to the city and got those street lights fixed.  Then they started English as a Second Language courses in their church, and before they knew it, they had Latino families coming to church on Sunday.  The church began to fill up and look and sound different than it had beforekids making noise in church on Sundays, different kinds of music.  They hired a bilingual pastor, continued their involvement in the community, and continued to grow.  Their open-ness to genuine encounter led to change.

Three years ago when I preached on this text we were just beginning to discern our vision.  Gods vision we discerned for St. Lukes was one of building bridgesrelationshipsacross difference.  Of being a place where absolutely everyone could come and experience Gods love and grace, and be in community with others who were not like them.  Our preschoolLittle Bridgeswas born of this vision, and is now welcoming some of our immediate neighborskids who live in the alley apartments.  We will be going out into our neighborhood, with training and support from COPA, our broad-based organization, two by two in just a couple weeks, to listen.  To get to know folks.  To gain an understanding of their experience of living here. With Katie Reeves were dreaming up ways that our yard and landscaping can invite the people of our immediate neighborhood in, for food, for rest, and for prayer.  St. Lukes, we are being opened.  Ephaphata.  With Gods grace, we are being changed through openness to others.  Thanks be to God.

 

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 c. 2015 The Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga

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