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Ephphatha: Be Opened!

September 9, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 9, 2012

James 2:1-10          Mark 7:24-37

Our gospel text points to the practice of partiality shown toward one cultural or religious group over another, while the letter of James focuses on economic realities that favor wealthy people over those who are poor. These texts are addressed to communities divided and defined by culture, religion and class.

In Mark’s gospel we witness the early church seriously struggling with what it meant to open their doors to non-Jews, as in those Syrophoenician dogs not worthy of eating morsels from God’s table, or those deaf and dumb Gentiles who could neither hear or speak God’s word, even if they didn’t have impediments

In James we overhear snippets of dialogue in which some members of the community want to be identified by their association with the rich (have a seat here, please) rather than with the poor. Which doesn’t even make sense because the rich oppress them, drag them into court, and by their economic practices, blaspheme the name of God.

Overlooking the rapacious activity of the rich because we hope they will sit at our table, or welcome us to theirs; using names, like dog, to refer to the one who looks different, speaks differently, eats differently, worships differently:

The world of the bible is sooo different from ours, isn’t it.

What percentage of Americans do you think are millionaires? Less that 1%. Yet what percentage of the American people do you think believe they will one day be millionaires. Almost 33% of us; and that belief shapes our actions, our responses to our neighbors, and how we vote. The 1% who control the economy, the government, and the media regularly convince us to support their privilege because we hope one day to share it.

All the while our scripture reminds us that God favors the poor, is the advocate for the poor, and has given the covenant as a way of ensuring well-being for everyone, not just those who can buy it for themselves.  James reminds his congregation that God has chosen the poor to inherit the kingdom; a kingdom that is coming right now in our midst.

My friends, do we with our acts of favoritism give glory to our Lord Jesus Christ? Or even, do we, when we assume our faith has nothing to say to these things, that it is a-moral, that it is neutral in matters of economics and culture, are we showing faith?  Do we, in permitting an economic system (and national budget) that rewards the wealthy and punishes the poor, allows the rich to continue unfettered while requiring austerity from the rest, do we not sin and are we not convicted? Does this reflect the love of neighbor as ourselves, which is the whole of the law?

To paraphrase Gene Peterson’s translation of this passage: an indifferent faith is a corpse that saves no one.  James’ words remind us that faith matters in the day to day living of our lives and has to be demonstrated in the way that we treat not only the neighbors we know or wish to know, but also the neighbors who we might, without faith, ignore or disregard.

And what of the struggle to open ourselves to others? A few weeks ago we witnessed a series of violent acts directed against Muslims and Muslim communities. In the Prayers of the People I prayed that “when such things happen, our Muslim neighbors would find in us ready allies to stand against hatred, fear and bigotry.” That same week, Westchester commuters were greeted with anti-Islamic billboards in our Metro-North train stations.

The signs in the train stations proclaimed that nearly 20 thousand acts of deadly Muslim violence had occurred since September 11, 2001 and declared: “It’s not Islamo-phobia. It’s Islamo-realism.” Associating the tragic events of 9-11 with Islam rather than terrorism, and using intentionally deceptive information, the ads sought to keep fear and misunderstanding of Islam at the forefront of our minds as we remember the tragedies in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania this Tuesday. The question for those of us who are not Muslim was, would we let the hateful statements and vicious associations go without public comment?

And I hear Jesus’ words: “Ephphatha: Be opened.”  Of course Mark intends us to hear these words not simply as Jesus’ command to the Gentile man’s ears and mouth, but as Jesus’ command to (the community of) his followers who were struggling with whether to accept non-Jews into their own congregation.  “Be opened.”

During the last couple of weeks an ad-hoc coalition of citizens, clergy and advocacy groups circulated an open letter denouncing the ad campaign and calling for unity and understanding in response to fear and violence. We heard the same appeal from the Sikh community in Wisconsin after seven were killed in their Gurdwara, presumably because they were thought to be Muslim. I added my name to the open letter, as did at least a dozen of my Presbyterian colleagues (including Rev. Howland and our General Presbyter Susan Andrews).  Both Rev. Gawain De Leeuw, president of the White Plains Religious Leaders, and Rev. Sarah Henkel, our Parish Associate and the Presbytery’s Cross-Cultural Coordinator, spoke at a press conference on Thursday.

In part, what Sarah said was this:

Fear is the easy way out in a complex and diverse world. Fear is used to manipulate, to paint things in black and white, to mislead and misinform people to base our unity in finding a common enemy. Our call is to reclaim our communities from fear. These ads won’t have the last word. We use them to recommit to stand with our Muslim sisters and brothers as we are united – not by fear – but by a common hope in peace.

My friends, our faith is not indifferent nor is it isolated.  Our faith in Jesus Christ requires us to love our neighbors in concrete and real ways; to attend to systems and prejudices that favor some over others.  Jesus comes as a healer, not simply to individuals but also to congregations and to whole nations:  be opened.  Be opened.

This coming week as we remember the horrible acts perpetrated on September 11th and as we as a nation reflect on the state of our country as we prepare for the election in November, let us remember God’s call to honor those our world makes last and calls least.  Let us in our congregation and community show the welcome and abundance that God has shown us at this communion table, to all our neighbors.

Can I get an amen?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jenise permalink
    September 9, 2012 9:14 pm

    This is a really great sermon by a learned and sincere pastor (and historian) who knows the word of God and how it ought to be applied in today\’s society. I\’ll bet it was very powerful to hear it delivered in person. I am a Catholic who no longer attends church, but I feel very strongly that If religion has any purpose today it is in this message. It is so refreshing to read this rendition of scripture when one thinks about the negative expressions of intolerant bigotry and self-righteousness we see so often in the media and politics, which has given Christianity a bad image. This is what it is really all about. Great sermon, Pastor Jeff!


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