From Other to Brother

Sermon for September 9th, 2012
Proper 18, Year B
Isaiah 35: 4-7; Psalm 146; James 2: 1-17; Mark 7:24-37
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

The email from The Cohasset Mariner last Wednesday was straight forward enough.  “Margot,” it read, “is the homeless man still camping out at St. Stephen’s? Items in the police log indicate he had your permission to set up camp.”

“Really?!?”  I thought to myself, “Like I would let a homeless man set up camp on the church’s property?  Are you serious?”

But then, in light of this week’s readings, I’ve wondered a lot about my reaction to that email, and why the very idea seemed so preposterous and so totally outrageous.

Because as we just heard, both James’ letter and Mark’s gospel address the issue of our openness (or lack thereof) to those we perceive as the “other”—whether that “other” is one James describes as “a poor person in dirty clothes” who appears in the otherwise well-dressed assembly, or one Mark describes as “a Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin”, who encroaches totally inappropriately on Jesus’ mission to his own people, God’s chosen ones.

In my case, the “other” came in the form of the homeless man The Mariner was asking about— a very shabbily dressed and decidedly strange sort of fellow, who looked a lot like you might imagine Jesus to have looked if he’d lived to be 60.  A friendly sort, this homeless man showed up at church two weeks ago, bounding with energy and introducing himself with an easy smile as “Richard.”  Now, I would be lying to you if I said that as I greeted Richard that morning and welcomed him to St. Stephen’s, I felt entirely comfortable.  I didn’t.  Because you see, Richard—to me—was already “the other.”  Without even being conscious of it, I had done exactly what James tells us not to do:  I had made a judgment about Richard…made a distinction between him and everyone else—a distinction between him and me…a distinction every bit as clear as between Jew and Gentile.  And that distinction distanced me from him.

Admittedly, you didn’t have to talk to Richard very long to conclude that he was a bit—shall we say “different” by mainstream standards. He appeared seemingly out of nowhere at our coffee hour in the courtyard, said he was homeless by choice, that he’d spent the previous night sleeping on a piece of “Mrs. Dean’s” property near the church, and that he’d grown up in Scituate but hadn’t been back to this area in years.  He spoke passionately (some might even say maniacally) about his love of Jesus Christ, described rich mystical visions of angelic helpers and divine messages, reminisced about his parents and his childhood, then disappeared almost as suddenly as he appeared—having declined our offers of help, and professing his love for all of us one last time as he waved goodbye.

So when the police called me late the following night to say a homeless man was planning on sleeping on the church’s property, and asked if it was okay for him to “set up camp” there, I was—admittedly—a bit flummoxed.  But they needed an answer: Did I want this guy–this “other”– removed from our property or not?

It’s one of those situations that seminary just can’t prepare you for!  Half asleep, I asked God for a really quick answer, while hemming and hawing to Sgt. Trainor like the totally clueless and fallen creature I am–until I finally heard myself say:  “Why don’t we let him sleep there tonight–but be sure he understands it’s just for one night, okay?”

And with that, after emailing the vestry wardens, I tried to go back to sleep.  But I wondered:  Had I made the right decision? Was I putting anyone at risk? Was this what James meant when he wrote about mercy triumphing over judgment, or simply a case of liberal guilt? I mean, what would Jesus do?  Maybe I should’ve said something metaphorical and Zen-sounding like Jesus in this morning’s Gospel: “Let the children be put to bed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s cradles and give them to the dogs to sleep in.”

Well, the next day, after making sure our parish secretary wouldn’t arrive at church before us, Adam and I met with Richard in the Watermelon Room.  And something remarkable happened I couldn’t make up if I tried.  Something unexpected and mysteriously grace-filled.   Something our readings this morning point to: You see, Richard went from being the “other” to being our neighbor—our neighbor as in, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Because despite what we may or may not have been feeling about Richard, by the grace of God, in our actions toward him—in what James would call our “works”— we treated Richard like the human-being he is, like the beloved child of God he is—and in the process we became more human.  It was as if through Richard, Jesus laid his hands on our hearts and whispered, “Ephphatha! Be opened!” And Richard was no longer the “other,” he was our brother.  Mind you, he was still very different…still, I must admit, beyond the boundaries of what I would call “normal.” But who was I to judge? He was a fellow traveler on the way and everything was completely different.

Adam made tea, and the three of us sat and talked for about an hour.  Richard had a last name, a history, an amazing life story to tell of success and failure, family and friends, addiction and recovery.  A story of crime and redemption, death and rebirth.  He was filled with amazing faith and gratitude.

And don’t you know that when we suggested he go to Wellspring in Hull, he thought it was a great idea–but not for the reasons we intended.  No.  Richard thought going to Wellspring was a great idea not because he needed help, but because he thought he could help other people there—and what Richard wants to do with his life is help people and serve Jesus.

Now, I wonder– who was the face of Christ to whom here?

You see, Richard was my Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin.  He called me out of my comfort zone; he challenged me to act in concert with what I profess about living in right relationship; he opened me to a more expansive and inclusive reality of what it means to love my neighbor—all of my neighbors– no matter how different or “other” they may seem; and he modeled mission and ministry for me in his desire to serve others selflessly in gratitude for the love of Christ.

Not bad for someone the police log, The Mariner, and I all referred to as “the homeless man” with the kind of cool detachment one usually reserves for an inanimate object.

Maybe I should have invited him to camp out here after all…

You know, the “Gospel Question” that our Biblical Preaching Project asked us to reflect on this week had to do with how we thought the Gentile woman’s response to Jesus effected him.  You’ll remember that in Mark’s gospel, when Jesus hesitates to heal the Gentile woman’s daughter he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, ” —and the woman retorts right away, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” at which point Jesus commends the woman’s wisdom and does, in fact, heal her daughter.

Now, whether or not Jesus actually referred to Gentiles using a common 1st century ethnic slur the way Americans once used ethnic slurs and told tasteless jokes in ways that now make us shudder—that really isn’t the point. The point is that whether or not Jesus used these exact words, and whether or not they were offensive in his 1st century context–the writer of Mark’s gospel wants us to notice that this Gentile woman—this unclean, female, “other”—somehow opens Jesus to a more expansive and inclusive sense of his mission and ministry. It is no coincidence that this story appears just after the feeding of the 5,000—who are Jews–and before the feeding of the 4,000—who are Gentiles.  Mark uses Jesus and the Gentile woman in this story to open his reader’s hearts to what was, in the context of 1st century Judaism—the “other.”  Just as surely as God used Richard to open my heart.

We all have groups or individuals who function as “the other” in our lives.  And often we don’t even know it.  I was, quite honestly, ashamed when I realized I was relating to Richard “the homeless man” that way.  But I was equally delighted to learn that with God’s grace when I acted differently, the way my faith teaches me to, I was richly blessed and made more human.

At St. Stephen’s we take great pride in how welcoming we are, and in particular to the way we not only embrace but even celebrate the breadth and depth of our theological and political differences.  It’s really quite awesome.

Yet as individuals, I’m willing to bet we each have “others” in our lives—groups or individuals God is inviting us to relate to differently.  Groups or individuals God is inviting us to connect with, rather than distance ourselves from.  Groups or individuals who might stretch us out of our comfort zone, challenge us to behave differently, open us to a more merciful and less judgmental way of being, and make us better Christians.

For some that “other” might be a religious group or political party, a certain social class, nationality, or demographic.  But far more often my guess is that for most of us the “other” is the person we once called a friend, the family member to whom we no longer speak, the neighbor we never bothered to get to know, any number of invisible, anonymous people we walk through life treating as objects rather than human beings, or maybe even the person sitting next to us in the pew this morning.

So your mission this week (should you choose to accept it!) is to ask God for the grace of awareness, so you might recognize one of the “others” in your life. Ask God to show you your own Syrophoenician woman.  Then see what happens when your works reflect your faith instead of your feelings.  See what happens when your mercy triumphs over your judgment.  See what happens when Jesus says to you, “Ephphatha, be opened!”

You just might find yourself astonished beyond words!  Amen.


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