Emerson Avenue Baptist Church
17 August, 2014
Jesus had just had a confrontation with the preachers and the officers. They demanded he tell them why his disciples did not was their hands before a meal as prescribed by the purity codes of the tradition. By not washing their hands first they were defiling their bodies and making them impure before the Lord. Why was Jesus, this supposed rabbi, allowing such sinning. Jesus challenged them by asking them, “is there not a commandment about loving one’s mother and father? Whoever speaks of their father must die. But you say, ‘I don’t have to listen to my father because I have been told do to this or that by God,’ are you not breaking the commandment? You are making void the world of God – for the sake of your own wellbeing. Isaiah was right, you hypocrites. He said, ‘this people worship me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain teaching human rules and doctrines.”
Needless to say, the Pharisees were flummoxed and the scribes scandalized. They left in a hurry. Then Jesus gathered those who were nearby and told them:
“Listen up folks, pay attention – it isn’t what you eat or how you eat that defiles you – it doesn’t matter what goes in your mouth, but it is rather it is what comes out of your mouth that makes you dirty.”
“Um, Jesus, You do know the preachers and officers were offended by what you told them? Right?”
Jesus replied to them – “Every plant Daddy has not planted is going to be pulled up. Don’t worry about them – they are blind leading the blind. Eventually they are going to fall into a pit.”
“Jesus,” said Peter, “you know I am dense – explain this parable to us.”
Eyes rolling, Jesus began – “Ok, when you eat you put the food in your____.” “Mouth,” they reply.
“Right, and after you eat what happens?”
“You have to go to the toi…..Ohhhh, I get it.”
“Ok, So what goes in doesn’t matter because it ends up in the toilet, but it is what comes out that matters because that comes from you heart. For out of your hearts come the evil intentions, murder, adultery, sexual exploitation, robbery, false testimony, and blasphemy. These are the things that defile a person, not what they eat.”
With that Jesus got up and left the safety of the sanctuary and wander to the land of Ferguson in Missouri. A land where racial tensions were high. A land where there was a real divide of “us” and “them.” A land where he knew the preachers and the officers would not be. A land in the margins where God had drawn him.
Just then, just as he stepped foot into town, a woman who was not of his tribe, came running up to him. Tears streaming from her eyes, and really undignified like, she started clinging to him and crying out, “Have mercy on my, Lord, Son of David; my baby is tormented by a demon.”
Sensing a teaching moment, Jesus decided to test his disciples. To see if they had even comprehended what he had said. He did not answer here. Instead he moved deeper into the troubled city. Half-hoping his disciples would respond to the call. Well, respond they did, they shoved her out of the way and rushed to Jesus, “what are we doing here? Send her away. She keeps hounding us.”
Testing them again, even thought he was pretty sure they didn’t get it, Jesus said, “I was sent only to help out the lost sheep of my race.”
Undeterred, she clung to him. “Lord, help me.”
Pushing the disciples to respond, Jesus replies, seemingly in contradiction to his own commands, “It isn’t fair for me to help you. Why should I take the food out of my own people’s mouth to help you? It isn’t fair. I can’t take their food and throw it do the dogs.”
The weakness leaving her legs, the woman stands tall and proud. Fierceness returning to he visage. Dignity filling her very soul. Enough is enough. She stands up and as she does, a smile crosses Jesus’ face. The disciples are afraid. He sees what they don’t – this woman get’s it. She gets that what is coming from the heart is stronger what what goes in the mouth. She has heard enough and is rising. “Yes, Lord,” she whispers with the power of a mother whose love for her child knows no bounds. “Yes,Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Embracing here – this untouchable – this woman who the disciples had initially seen as someone outside of themselves. Embracing here, Jesus pulls here into the family of God – acknowledging publicly here God given humanity – her imago Dei, “Woman, Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And instantly her daughter stood, proud and strong. Dignity restored. Hope renewed. Life transformed.
This week the heart of this nation has been tested. Like the disciples in the Gospel this morning – we stand in the midst of rising racial tensions. Tensions like the ones that separated the Canaanites, the historical enemies of the Hebrews, from the disciples of Jesus and Jesus himself. Racial tensions that gave the disciples the ability to refer to this broken hearted woman as a dog. Notice, they did not defend her? They did not speak up. They were in need of a heart transplant.
This weeks the we have seen racial tension rise like they have not in years. In the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown, we have seen things most of us wish were still hidden. We have heard about corruption and systems that we would rather pretend just stay hidden at the margins of our society. Those of us with power and privilege are at a loss for why there seems to be so much anger rising from the streets of Ferguson.
Those of us with power and privilege – basically those of us who are able to psychologically divorce ourselves from the reality of what is going on by switching the channel or ignoring the news – when we do pay attention struggle to understand what is going on. We see people destroying property. Having no self-respect. Making themselves look bad. We stand in the long line of power that either willfully or unintentionally has had an unfeeling heart toward those in the margins. Through our own prejudices or racialized polices that are inflicting unseen damage -unseen to us.
This isn’t a new story. It is happening to the disciples in the gospel this morning. Jesus has just confronted the pharisees and scribes and told them it is their words and actions that matter, not the rules and regulations. He has just explained what another prophet meant when he told the Hebrew people of old,
“Thus says the lord, I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. “
Stop talking and do something. He is telling them they need a heart transplant. Stop relying on your own heart. Stop worshipping your piety. Stop trusting in your own righteousness, and instead be implanted with a new heart. A heart that does not find false hope in “evil intentions, murder, adultery, sexual exploitation, robbery, false testimony, and blasphemy.” A heart that does not find rest in the status quo. A heart that does not look at the world as “us” and “them”.
Jesus challenges the religious leaders (me), the powerful and the privileged, and even his disciples to stop relying on themselves and live with a transplanted heart. A new heart that beats justice. That beats equality. Be implanted with a heart that is beating with the blood of the creator of the Beloved Community. A heart that beats in tandem with our brothers and sisters. A heart that came into being when God breathed life in the the ones created in God’s image. Jesus reminds us all, that worship of God is manifest in actions, not words or self-righteous piety.
When confronted with the opportunity to act as people with new hearts, the disciples fail. They fail to see the woman who comes to Jesus as fellow child of God. They fail to know who she is and how she got to the point of breaking. How how her child became possessed by a demon. Not excuses, but history.
They fail to hear that since 1619, people of African descent have been subjects rather that persons. They fail to understand that for 150 years before the founding of the nation, people had been enslaved. The economic and physical infrastructure of a nation was built on the scared backs of a people – who like their Hebrew ancestors – were relegated to the status of property rather than person hood – and when that happened it was only 3/5 of a person. They fail to see that even after they were allowed to cross the red sea into freedom, there were vagrancy laws put in place to make it near impossible for the newly freed people to own land. And when those laws began to falter, might Jim Crow rose to take its place. Keeping free people subjugated to the will of the majority. And as Jim Crow began to fall, a new war was rising that would give rise to a for-profit prison industrial complex that determines how many beds they will need by looking at 3rd grade test scores. The disciples fail to see how the demon bored its way into the girls heart – emptying her.
The demon of mistrust. The demon of resentment. The demon history. Slowly it bored itself into her heart. Slicing her psyche. Causing her to mistrust. Causing her to resent the powers that have authority; to miss the hope in history. The demon has taken full control of her. Possessed, she has tried to fight the urge – she has tried to “stay in her place.” But as her screams have gone unheard, the voice of the unheard explodes. The disciples can not to see.
Their minds are full of reasons – justified and not. I wasn’t there. I don’t even live in that part of the country. That happened long before I was ever born. How can I have anything to do with what is going on? All rational reasons. Reasons that make senses – reasons I have used, but reasons that give rise to excuses rather than healing. Reasons that feed the demon, rather than seeing it for what it is – the power of death.
Through all of this, through all of the questioning for the mother and from the disciples. Through all of the back and forth a banter about who is to blame for the situations of unrest, through it all, Jesus walks into the operating theater of the margins to perform surgery.
Jesus steps into the land of the Canaanites, into the streets of Ferguson, Mo, into the streets of Indianapolis. Jesus steps into the margins, into those dark and hidden crevasses we would rather ignore. He steps into our pain – into our sickness. He meets us where we are. His hands gloved, ready to perform a heart transplant. Like all surgery it is going to hurt. It is going to take that which is broken and remove it. It is going to cut deep so as to remove all traces of brokenness. It is going to, though in the end, bring healing and renewed life.
The events of the last week were, I pray, the beginning of a collective heart transplant for not only the nation, but for the Church as a whole. The all too silent church in the midst of such unrest. The church was silent in the aftermath of the violence, both against Mr. Brown and in the rioting afterwards. Violence is never the recourse that should be made. That should be the church’s answer anytime she is asked. Hear that, that way of the church is non-violence. Even when it seems that a violent response is the necessary answer. In the last 48 hours we have seen what happens when the threat of violence is replaced with the ethic of mutual respect – when the threat of a militarized police force is replaced by a heart willing to listen. Rubber bullets and tear gas have been replaced with hugs and a willingness to listen.
The events of the last week have opened wounds we thought had been healed. We see a grieving mother mourning the death of her son, to her it doesn’t matter the circumstance of his death – she just knows a mother is supposed to out live her son. We have seen a gas station burned to the ground and owners loosing their livelihood because their business happened to be where all of the events began. We have seen teargas lobbed and rubber bullets blasted, journalists arrested, people clamoring to be heard and resorting to violence in order to be heard. We all are crying out, “Lord, save me.” The events of the last week and opened wounds in all of us.
Jesus gets that. Jesus is bearing the wounds of history, laying bare before us the brokenness – and collective misunderstanding of our history. Jesus is taking individuals, you, me, black, white, Latino, Latina, asian, LGBT, straight, and laying us bare. Offering us a chance at healing. Knowing often times we don’t know our own illness until we begin to feel sick. Until the wounds become so infected we can not ignore them any longer. Jesus is ready to change our hearts. To open our eyes – all of our eyes. It doesn’t matter where you have been on the subject before – we all need a change of heart.
When it seems that Jesus is ignoring the please of the woman, she finds her power and is greatly rewarded. When it seems that we are abandoned by God – when our wounds are exposed, it is then that we stand collectively and say, “LORD HELP ME.” It is in that sense of absence that we understand our dependence on God and on each other. As Dr. King says, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
The love ethic of Jesus breaks through all of the boundaries of isms that we use to separate us. It is when we are laid bare – exposed and know we need healing that Jesus performs the miracle. That the love of Jesus breaks through the darkness of our hearts. That we begin to identify ourselves as persons of dignity and worth. That we begin to see others as persons of dignity and worth. That regardless of our circumstances, we are inescapably bound together. That we rely on each other – that we are to carry each other when we fall. That regardless of race or religion, gender or sexual identity – we are all created in the Divine Image.
Jesus is testing disciples. Jesus is testing us. Do we stand on the sidelines of history, waiting for a prettier dawn, or do we stand as sisters and brothers – all – regardless of our differences, ready to step out in faith – in the love ethic of Jesus, ready to proclaim the gospel truth of the Beloved Community? Do we beat each other down or do we stand as people with new hearts – telling the world that God’s reign is a reign of peace and personhood? A reign that does not say, yes to the self-centered idol of me, myself and I, but instead reaches out of ourselves, reaches out as individuals into a community of sisters and brothers. Do we watch helplessly – throwing blame left and right, blaming police or protestors, history or time present time; do we make excuses for why we should not be involved, or do we go with Jesus, transformed and hopeful – hopeful that when the sun sets on the eve of hatred and avarice, it will rise again shining a new light, a light of reconciliation and redemption. Do we stand as wounded victims or a world spinning out of control, or do we stand healed – healed healers in the middle of heartbreak? This week the heart of the nation has been tested.
Thanks be to God.