Text of the sermon preached on Proper 18B (September 6, 2015) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
James 2: 1-17
The Oscar winning film, Good Will Hunting, is not only a movie that I think is an excellent, but it also has one of the most powerful and moving scenes in all of cinema. Sean Maguire, a counselor played by Robin Williams, has been working with Will Hunting, a young math genius, played by Matt Damon. Will has been sentenced to court required therapy. Over the course of the movie, the two develop a close friendship where both are able to push and challenge one another. In one of their final scenes together, standing in Sean’s office, both reveal that they were victims of child abuse. Both had drunken fathers who would stumble up the stairs at night and use them as a punching bag. Sean said the interesting nights were when his Dad wore his rings. But then standing there, in this vulnerable and quiet moment, with the audience wondering what’s going to happen — Sean takes a step towards Will and says, “Hey Will. It’s not your fault.” To which Will replies, “Yeah, I know.” Sean takes another step closer and says, “Look in my eyes, it’s not your fault.” Will looks at him a little strangely and says, “Yeah, I know.” Stepping a little closer, Sean says, “No you don’t. It’s not your fault.” They do this back and forth until the tenth time when Sean is right in front of Will’s face. “It’s not your fault,” he says and Will finally collapses into Sean’s arms with tears and cries of a broken soul.
Will Hunting, an abused child, could not hear. He couldn’t hear the words of his friend, Sean. His life history had plugged his ears with messages of guilt, shame, and worthlessness. It’s like he was deaf. And it took ten times of hearing this same message before it broke through and sunk deep into his soul and began to bring forth healing and new life. But back to that in a moment.
And the men standing around Jesus were astounded and said, “He has done everything well. He even makes the deaf to hear.”
In our reading today from the Gospel of Mark, we have two stories. The first is the big and familiar story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. It is an important story because Jesus isn’t very nice in it and many of us aren’t very comfortable with that. But too often this story over shadows the second one.
The second story is a relatively simple one: A group of men bring a man to Jesus and beg him to lay his hands upon him, because the man could not hear and he could not speak. So Jesus pulls the man aside, in private. He sticks his fingers into the man’s ears; he spits and touches the man’s tongue. Finally, he gazes heavenward and breathes out, “Be opened.” Immediately, this man’s ears become unplugged and his new life begins. And the people standing around Jesus were
astounded and said, “He has done everything well. He even makes the deaf to hear.”
Now, by itself, this story — while strange — is a relatively tame and ordinary healing story from Jesus. It is only seven verses. But this is not a story that stands by itself. It is a story that is tacked on to the end of that first familiar story. The two cannot be taken separately. They are companion stories and when held up together, one just might find the key that unlocks the other.
In the first story, Jesus has just arrived into Gentile territory. It is like he has gone on vacation and has entered a house in order to escape the crowds and to hide out. He does not want to preach, he does not want to teach, he does not want to heal. But even Jesus can’t keep his presence a secret and he is discovered. A Syrophoenecian woman, a Gentile, immediately goes after Jesus and falls at his feet. By entering the house where Jesus is, this woman violates many boundaries. Gender boundaries, religious boundaries. Men and women were not allowed to talk in this way. Jews and Gentiles were not allowed to talk this way. Yet, here rests a woman at the feet of Jesus, risking the consequences of breaking these boundaries, so she can beg this man, Jesus, to remove the demon from her daughter’s body.
And then, out of Jesus’ mouth, we hear the nasty response that makes us cringe. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, to throw it to the Gentiles. Not only does Jesus say “no” to this woman and her daughter, but he calls her a dog. He belittles her. He says his ministry belongs to the children of Israel and that it would not be fair to give it to the Gentiles, the dogs.
What happened to Jesus? Where is the Jesus we thought we knew? The caring and gentle Jesus that removed evil spirits, stilled storms, and fed five thousand people. What happened to him? Jesus is so rude to her, it is almost as if he doesn’t care that her daughter is sick. It is almost as if he isn’t even listening to what she is saying. It is almost as if he is deaf to her words.
But then the weary woman will not budge. This woman stands up to Jesus. She says, “Yes, but even the dogs under the table get some crumbs,” and suddenly the whole world shifts. Suddenly, Jesus’ ears were unplugged and even his understanding of who was worthy of the kingdom of God was challenged and changed.
Can you see it? Jesus heals a deaf man because Jesus was a deaf man. Deaf to the cries of a desperate mother because she was different from him. He unplugs the man’s ears because he knew the healing that can come from having your ears opened to the voices you’ve shut out. The woman’s daughter wasn’t the only one healed that day. Jesus was healed. Healed of his own prejudice and preference. All because someone unplugged his ears. And so he then goes around unplugging the ears of others.
And that was just the beginning. Like a little snowball rolled down the side of the hill, this thing just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Those boundaries all but evaporate for Jesus. Jesus heals the Gentile woman’s daughter, then he cures the Gentile deaf and mute man, and then he feeds thousands of Gentile people — the people he had previously seen as dogs. Jesus’ ears were opened and the kingdom of God was stretched wider.
When hearing is restored, when ears are opened to the voices that have been shut out, healing happens. Will Hunting couldn’t hear. But then along comes someone who would not allow himself to be dismissed. Sean persists until Will’s ears are unplugged and opened and he finally hears those words of pure gospel — it’s not your fault. When hearing is restored, when ears are opened to the voices that have been shut out, healing happens.
This week a letter came out from the Office of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church naming today as “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday” in the wake of the acts of racism committed against Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June. General Convention this summer committed the Episcopal Church to stand in solidarity with the AME Church as they respond with acts of forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice. Through prayer and discussions about this and other things going on in the world, we are trying to have our ears opened to one another. We are trying to hear the words and concerns of those who believe differently than ourselves. Because let’s be honest, if Jesus can get it wrong, Lord knows we can too.
Now, opening our ears to others can be risky business. The risk we are taking is the possibility of being a changed people. The risk is the possibility of walking away some how different than when you walked in — perhaps with bigger ears and a bigger heart.
Too often we are told messages about ourselves and others that seek to limit God’s love for the people of the world. Sometimes, we’re told that God’s love is too specialized and too specific that it could never include someone like us — because of the things we’ve done in our life or the way we treat people. But other times, we view ourselves as the worthy ones who have everything together, and thus like to point fingers at those who need to watch out.
These messages plug up our ears. But the good news is that God is at work, unplugging our ears to hear the voices we’ve stopped listening to, or never tried listening to, or never had that chance to listen to. For some, like Will Hunting, it will be voices of long awaited affirmation and love. Others, like for Jesus, will be the voices of disruption, challenging what you’ve always thought to be true. Which ever it is, what we can be sure of is when our hearing is restored, healing is not far behind.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, God’s love is very, very big. And very, very wide. Big enough for you, big enough for me, big enough for the world. The question is: Can you hear it?