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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 15 – Year B

Let us pray. O Lord, open our ears and our eyes. Open our hearts and our minds. Stretch us by the loving power of your Holy Spirit so that each of us may grow in our own individual ways, so that each of us may more closely resemble your son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Well, hello! It is so good to see all of you this morning. For those of you who have been away much of the summer we are glad you are back. For those of you who have been here all summer long, it’s time for a vacation! Ready, let’s go!
Let me ask you a question. Did you grow this summer? … I don’t mean in girth! I did plenty of that, but that is not what I am asking. Did you grow as a person this summer? Did you have experiences that expanded your horizons and stretched you as a person? I hope so. Because we are never too old to grow, to mature, to gain wisdom, we are never smart enough to have it all figured out.
In our Gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus encounters and is encountered by a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician, who opens him up in ways that expand his mission and his thinking. Jesus, exhausted by his travels and his ministry, seeks some solitude, some time away from the crush of the crowds and the demands of the people. He is intent on sharing the good news about the Kingdom, but he is tired. The needs of the people are overwhelming. The more he preaches, teaches and heals the larger the crowds become. When someone offers him a quiet room in their home as a little get away, he accepts their hospitality hoping that no one will know where he is staying.
But he isn’t so lucky. A Gentile woman, whose child is ill, seeks him out hoping for a miracle. Now, we have to understand that in those days social status dictated that Jews did not speak to Gentiles and Rabbis did not speak to women. She was unclean, unacceptable, from the wrong side of the tracks. But this Gentile woman loved her daughter so much that she was willing to break every, and any, social taboo if there was the slightest possibility that Jesus could help. Throwing herself at Jesus’ feet she begs him to heal her child.
What happens next in this passage makes us uncomfortable. Jesus, probably sick and tired of so much human need, of so much being asked of him, snaps at the woman equating her with a dog trying to steal food from children. In essence, he tells her that his mission is to the Jews and he doesn’t have time or energy for Gentiles. This is not the picture of the loving and forgiving Jesus that we are used to, the Jesus who hung on the cross for all humanity. But we have to remember that holy Jesus, Son of God, was also human Jesus, son of Mary. And like all human beings even Jesus had to grow.
Luckily for us (since 99% of us in this room are Gentiles), this Gentile woman was not thinned skinned. Acknowledging Jesus mission to his own people, she nevertheless challenges him using his own analogy and points out that even dogs eat the scraps from the table. Immediately Jesus understands her challenge, a challenge that opens him up and pushes him even further in his ministry. Jesus heals the little girl and then goes on to literally open up the ears of a deaf man with the word “Ephphatha” – “Be opened.”
There is an old story you may have heard about a young man who drove his girlfriend home after their second date and tried for that all-important first kiss. Standing by the front door and leaning in with his hand in the wall he smiled at her and said, “How about a goodnight kiss?” Shocked she replied, “No way. I know my parents are watching out the window right now.” “Oh come on,” he replied, “just one kiss.” “I’d like to,” she answered, “but it’s just too risky.” “No one will see us,” he argued back. “I can’t,” she continued. “Please,” he asked. “No,” she said. “Pleeeeze,” he pleaded. “No,” she answered. At that moment the porch light went on and the girl’s sister opened the front door and walked out on the porch. In a sleepy voice she said, “Dad says go ahead and give him a kiss. Or I can do it. Or if need be, Dad says he’ll come down himself and do it. But for God’s sake please tell the boy to take his hand off the intercom button!”
For all of us there will come a time in our lives, perhaps multiple times, when we will need something from God, beg for something from God for ourselves or on behalf of someone we love. When that happens we will lean hard on God’s intercom button in hopes that our prayers will be answered. Because of our Gospel lesson for this morning, because of the persistence of this Gentile mother, we can know that when we do plead into the intercom of prayer our Lord’s compassion is not limited by any human labels or status – Jew, Gentile, Muslim, Christian, Black, White, gay, straight, Republican or Democrat. We can know that there are no external barriers between God and any human being. Because all human status is a product of our own imaginations and as such it is invisible to God.
In Elizabeth Yates’ book: Howard Thurman: Portrait of a Practical Dreamer, there is a story that when Thurman was in India in 1935, he spoke in many villages. Late one night a young boy knocked on his door. His dress revealed that he was what Indians considered an “untouchable.” In faltering English he said to Thurman, “I stood outside the building and listened to your lecture Sahib. Tell me, please, can you give some hope to a nobody.” The boy fell to his knees and Thurman reached out compassionately to him. Thurman knew what it is to be classed as a “nobody.” As a black man, he had often endured rejection in a white man’s world. But he had committed his life to the ministry of a love that identifies with suffering humanity, of reaching out to the “nobodies” of this world in the name of Jesus Christ.
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Do you recognize those words from the oldest of our Eucharistic Prayers? It is called the Prayer of Humble Access and it is part of the liturgy to remind us that none of us are worthy to ask God for anything. There is no human status that gives us rights with God. We don’t earn favor with God, we can’t. But we are loved by God. Loved and welcomed to God’s table in spite of our race, gender, age, class, physical condition or sinfulness. God’s love and mercy are bigger than any of our human labels and constructs.
As we start a new program year today, what do I wish for all of us? I wish and pray that we will each be opened up, that we will grow and be stretched through our worship, our service in the community, our classes and Bible studies, and our many mission trips. I pray that we will grow in our understanding of one another and ourselves. I pray that we will grow in our ability to welcome the stranger, in our ability to love the “other” who is different from us. As disciples of Jesus our job is to work for the reconciliation of the world. Our job is to reach beyond the barriers that divide us and love our neighbors as ourselves. This requires a willingness for each of us to grow as individuals and it requires courage and faith. But this is the challenge of the Kingdom, the challenge to reach beyond the homogeneity of our own lives, our own relationships, our own congregations, to welcome the other in Christ’s name.

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