Some time ago, Cherise and I drove to Boston for a friend’s ordination. We were running late, and as we scurried toward the Cathedral with just minutes to spare, a woman stepped into our path – disheveled, filthy, with a desperate look in her eye. Without a conscious thought, I became an urban veteran, averted my eyes, and headed straight for those large Cathedral doors.
Cherise, of course, stopped to chat with the woman, so by the time we sat down, they were about to read the gospel. Catching my breath, I heard the same words Liz read moments ago, “Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre…” Listening to Jesus’ encounter with this Syrophoenician stranger – this three time loser – a woman, a Gentile, with a family member possessed by a demon – I found myself looking around the grand cathedral, full of well dressed, well fed people, gathering to hear God’s word, and to celebrate all of God’s blessings.
And I thought of that woman outside, and dozens like her we had passed that morning, surviving on the kindness of those few strangers who chose to notice them.
The gulf between those two worlds was painful and palpable, and I flinched as I heard Jesus’ cutting, dismissive words to the same kind of outcast, “Let the children of Israel be fed first, for it’s not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”
Here’s Jesus at his most human, meaning I suppose, most like us – exhausted, stressed, distracted, a prisoner of his own cultural and spiritual upbringing, oblivious to his own privilege. Many biblical scholars believe that Jesus only discovered his identity as Messiah gradually, through continuous experience and learning. If that’s the case, he’d just met his master teacher.
Because this nameless woman decides to tell God’s son it’s not good enough for him to talk the talk about loving your neighbor; he’s got to walk the walk. “Sir,” she responds, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In other words, all of God’s creatures, even those reduced to the most destitute states by the fear and hatred of others, deserve God’s, and our love.
And the scales fall off Jesus eyes, and his ears become unplugged. It’s as if she, rather than he, utters the famous word, “Ephphatha!” – “Be opened!”
And my mind immediately went back to when I fell in love for the first time, and then became engaged, all at the tender age of 19, and how this experience opened me to a whole world I had no idea existed. The scales fell off my eyes, and my ears became unplugged. You see, my beloved fiancée, Michelle, was black. And while the two of us worked incredibly hard to navigate each others’ worlds, in the end, the forces of opposition were so powerful that our relationship could simply not bear it. As for me, my life was changed forever.
This has been an extraordinary year of growing awareness of racism in our country. From the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the riots that followed, to the public exposure of so many controversial police killings of young people of color, to mass demonstrations by our young people and the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Just this past week, two events have come particularly close to home for me.
At Yale, stimulated by the murders of nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina during a Bible Study, and the subsequent controversy over the use of the Confederate flag, President Salovey and Dean of Arts & Sciences Halloway challenged the university to begin a conversation about Yale’s history, the possible re – naming of Calhoun College, and the rightness of replacing a portrait of Elihu Yale accompanied by two collared slaves, with one in which he stands alone.
A few days later, our Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, and the leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church asked us to focus this Sunday, September 6, on the theme of Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism.
Their request is not just a response to the events in South Carolina; or the growing awareness of police violence against people of color; or the mass incarceration, especially of young black men; but to an understanding that these realities are, in fact, the bitter fruit of our national history of slavery and racism that everyone in America, in one way or another has colluded with, and continues to collude with, unless we actively choose to be opened by God’s invitation to a new path, and a new future.
Confession and Repentance – this is why the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island just announced the opening of a new museum that documents the ways that Episcopalians and other Christian Rhode Islanders promoted and profited from the slave trade. They do this because they believe we cannot create a new future unless we acknowledge and repent for the ways we are all responsible for such a bitter past.
And today? Confession and Repentance acknowledges how so many of us choose to see racism as someone’ else’s problem, something we see on TV and are appalled by, but then turn to whatever it is that demands the next moment of our attention.
Whether or not we like to hear it, my sisters and brothers, that’s colluding with racism. As Eli Wiesel, the great student of the impact of the Holocaust on the human soul reminds us, “The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference.”
Which is where Commitment comes in. Our faith doesn’t call any of us to change the world – that’s beyond my power and yours, in fact we could argue that that’s God’s job. But what our baptism does call us to is first to be awake to reality – not just ours but that of all our sisters and brothers; to realize that simply by remaining unconscious, we are failing to respect the dignity of every human being.
As a young man of 19, I learned something which so many white people still fail to understand, that the experience of being black or brown or red or yellow in this country is fundamentally different than the experience of being white; that people of color do not have the luxury of not thinking about race; or the luxury of failing to be vigilant for behaviors and threats that most white people never need anticipate; people of color do not have the privilege of being colorblind.
Which means, if we are ever to even begin the great work of racial reconciliation, we must start by becoming anthropologists, not just of the mind, but of the heart – becoming students of very different worlds, and radically different experiences.
Today, our bishops, our church, and I dare say our God, calls each of us to begin again. To commit ourselves to God’s great dream of shalom, to the fact that there is hope for change, there is hope for justice and reconciliation, there is hope for unity in the Body of Christ. All it takes is to listen to what Jesus says today. After a down and out stranger exposes his own prejudice, Jesus’ life and ministry are transformed. And Jesus responds by saying, “If I can be opened, so can each of you. Ephphatha! Be opened!”