Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday + Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Psalm 125

James 2:1-17

Mark 7:24-37

 

The bicycle has been my primary means of transportation for pretty much all of my adult life. I love riding. It’s fabulous exercise, it’s a great way of saving on the costs of driving a car, and finding a parking spot is never a challenge. And for me, being on a bike is a kind of prayer, a way of finding communion with the earth and the sky and the creatures all around me. I am rarely anxious or otherwise stressed out on a bike, rarely frustrated or exasperated the way that I can be behind the wheel of a car in stop-and-start traffic.

The only thing that I don’t like about being a bicyclist actually has nothing to do with my bicycle at all. What I don’t like is how some folks treat me when they find out that I get around on two wheels. There are a couple of things in particular that keep on happening across the years, and they have never entirely stopped leaving me surprised and flummoxed.

The first thing that the leaves me disconcerted is when folks assume that being a bicyclist comes with a certain set of political opinions and a certain lifestyle. I’ve lost count of how often I have unintentionally shocked people when they have learned that I not only hold a driver’s license but I actually own a car. I don’t ride a bicycle because I think cars are immoral. I just like my bike.

The second thing that throws me off balance – and this happens still more often than the assumption that I have sworn a holy vow never to drive – is when people learn that I bicycle and take that as an invitation to start complaining to me about other people who bicycle. The complaint typically goes something like this: “Yesterday I was downtown and this guy on a BMX was riding the wrong way down a one-way street, weaving in and out of traffic. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, he didn’t have any lights, he was texting, and he was drinking a latté.” And then the complainant will conclude:

“You cyclists are crazy.”

I’m never sure how to respond. I don’t know the guy on the BMX. I’m actually pretty diligent about obeying the rules of the road. And I hardly ever drink lattés. The guy on the BMX and I: we’re not in a club. I’m not the representative of all cyclists everywhere.

Here’s the funny thing. In the twenty-five years that I have held a driver’s license, no one, no one, has ever taken my license as an invitation to complain to me about other motorists, about the guy who runs red lights or drives drunk or hits ninety miles and hour going through school zones. No one has ever said to me, “You drivers are crazy!”

Now, I occupy just about every category of privilege that there is, every category this world favors. I’m white. I’m male. I’m a grown-up. I live in America. I’m hopelessly straight. I am entirely comfortable being the gender that I appear to be. I was raised in a middle class family by parents who loved me and paid attention to me and gave me more opportunities to thrive than I can count. Riding a bike is as close as I get to living on the margins. And in the greater scheme of things, being a cyclist really isn’t marginal at all: the assumptions and the complaints that come my direction are mostly just a nuisance. And the instant that I take off my helmet, they stop. All of a sudden, nobody knows that I am a cyclist. I can pass.

I’m not saying, in other words (and I want to be really clear about this), that I know what it’s like to be transgendered or gay or poor or someone who speaks fractured English; I don’t. I’m not saying that I know what it is like to be a person of color; I don’t. What I am saying is that my experience as a cyclist, my fleeting glimpse of the margins, has got me thinking: if I feel frustrated and angry when folks direct their assumptions about and their hostilities toward bicyclists my way, what must it be like to endure assumptions and hostility like that all the time? What must it be like if those assumptions and that hostility extends to your intelligence, to your employability, to your character? And what must it be like if you can’t take off your helmet, if you can’t pass? What if the thing to which people are reacting is written right into your skin?

So. Jesus enters into a house. He doesn’t want anyone to know that he is there. He doesn’t want to be recognized. He is tired out, his work with the crowds wearing him down, he is ready to be left alone, he is suffering from compassion fatigue. But Jesus – well, he is not the sort of person who can escape attention, now or ever.

Immediately, inevitably, someone recognizes him. And if that is not enough, if Jesus does not sigh in exasperation and exhaustion when the eyes land upon him, it gets worse. The person who recognizes Jesus is from Syrophoenicia: she is one of those people. This woman does not worship in the synagogue as Jesus does, she does not dress as Jesus does. Her voice betrays an accent, and the handful of lines of the code written into her DNA means that the shape of her eyes and nose and forehead mark her as an outsider to Jesus’ tribe. The rules of the Ancient Near East – written and unwritten alike – demand that she keep her distance.

But the woman ignores the rules. Her daughter is gravely ill, sick nearly unto death. And something deep within her tells her that this man, maybe only this man, can make the child well. And so the woman draws near and falls on her face before Jesus.

Please. 

Please. Heal my daughter.

It is as though this question pulls the stopper out of the vessel that has been holding in all of Jesus’ hurt and loneliness and anger. His response is soaked in contempt. It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs like you.

How does the woman lying on the floor at Jesus’ feet feel? Does the slur that Jesus throws at her hit her like a kick: is the air knocked out of her lungs, is she filled with a rush of hot shame? Does she long to respond with contempt of her own? Or is she so used to being called a dog, does she hear it as often as a slave in the Antebellum South heard the N-word, that her reaction is something closer to resigned numbness?

Every instinct tells her to crawl away, to disappear, before the slur turns into violence, as it has so often before. But drawing on a reservoir of courage that she didn’t even know that she had, the woman speaks again.

Sir,

Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps. 

And now it is Jesus turn to gasp as though he has been struck. The woman’s response cuts through all of his armor, it lands right in his guts. He feels his anger rise even more, he thinks about following up his slur with the back of his hand. But then the woman raises her head and their eyes meet. And abruptly he sees her. He sees her. He hears her words. He knows her need for healing. It is the same need for healing that the crowd has, the same need for healing that Jesus has.

Jesus is startled to feel his anger fall away. Startled to feel understanding take its place. Startled to realize that he is beginning to confess to and repent of the assumptions and the hostilities that he has been taught since he was a child.

For saying that, he whispers, you may go. Your daughter is well.

And then the two of them part. And neither is sure which of them has received the greater gift.

Today is Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday. Earlier this week, our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the President of our House of Deputies, the Reverend Gay Clark Jennings issued a joint letter urging Episcopal congregations to participate in this day. They were passing on a request from Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the same church in which a white racial supremacist murdered nine people during a Bible study earlier this year.

While the invitation came on short notice (the letter was written on September first), I’m glad that we at Grace are able to participate, glad that we are able to join with houses of worship across this land in responding to racism. Racism, which is one of the great and ongoing sins in our country.

I imagine that the leadership team at Mother Emanuel chose this day because of the story that we just heard about the Syrophoenician woman. This story is perfect for this subject. If we were to start shouting out ideas about its implications for responding to the sin of racism, I bet we could be here for the rest of the afternoon. I would like to highlight, therefore, just one element of the story, and that is Jesus’ reaction to the Syrophoenician woman. I’d like to highlight what he doesn’t do and then examine what he does do.

Notice that, when woman catches Jesus employing this slur (a slur which has left his lips so easily, a slur that he likely learned as a child – who knows how many times he has employed it before), Jesus spends no time whatsoever explaining to the woman that he isn’t a racist. He does not tell her that they live in a post-racial society, that racism used to be a problem but it isn’t any more, that he is colorblind, that he has a lot of black friends, that she needs to lighten up and get a sense of humor. He does none of that. Jesus just repents. He turns around from the way that he has been engaging with this woman and begins to engage with her in a new way, in a transformed way.

I want to emphasize Jesus’ action (or inaction) because, in America in 2015, we are preoccupied with racism as an individual sin. It is terribly important for me to let you know that I, personally, am not a racist. “I’ve never owned slaves,” the argument goes. “I’ve never treated anyone differently because of the color of their skin. I have nothing for which to repent.”

The problem with narrowing the spotlight down to individual behavior is it allows broken systems, broken structures, to remain hidden in the dark. This focus on individual sin causes you and me to largely ignore corporate sin. There may well be little in your personal behavior for which you have to repent. (Although, speaking for myself, I have much for which to repent: in the letter inviting us to participate in this day, I was deeply convicted by Bishop Reginald T. Jackson’s words when he spoke of the sin of ignoring or tolerating racism. I have often taken advantage of my privilege to ignore and to tolerate racism.) But all of us have much to repent for when we examine the corporate racial sins of our society.

To be a person of color in America is to face a greater likelihood of being stopped by the police, a greater likelihood of being sent to jail, a greater likelihood that your sentence will be harsher than a white person would receive for a similar crime or misdemeanor. It is to face a higher likelihood of living in poverty, a higher likelihood that, if you have a “black sounding name,” your resume will be passed over by prospective employers – Adam is called in for an interview way more often than Deshaun.

Unlike the nuisance of the assumptions and hostilities that I put up with as a cyclist, these corporate sins limit black lives and, in some cases, end black lives. You and I are called to repent for that.

By choosing not to argue with the woman about his character, by choosing not to insist that he isn’t a racist, Jesus allows the woman to become his teacher. There is an abrupt, radical shift in the middle of this story, so that one moment this woman is sub-human, she is a dog, unworthy of Jesus’ attention or his compassion. And in the next he sees her, he hears her. She is not only fully human but a carrier of wisdom. He becomes her student.

There is good news in this story. And there is good news in this day. The good news in this story is that we follow a savior who is willing to learn, who is willing for his heart to be opened, who is willing to be changed, who is willing to repent of the corporate sin with which he grew up.

As Christians, as people whose vocation is to imitate Jesus, we are called to do likewise.

And the good news in this day is that, across this land, houses of worship are standing in solidarity with Mother Emanuel, standing in solidarity against racism.  The promise of this day is that racism is a sin for which you and I and everyone can and will be healed.