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Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 6, 2015

On Halloween I put a pumpkin on the front porch and I turn on the porch light. These actions signify that I am home and am ready to offer treats to all who come to my door. I give treats to the babies in their cute fairy princess or animal costumes. I give treats to children in their superhero costumes. I even give treats to teenagers who come to the door with no costumes and a very blasé attitude about Halloween (although I would rather not). I give candy to white people, Hispanic people and black people. I expect I give candy to Muslims, Christians and Jews, though of course I don’t ask. Halloween is a holiday to be open and inclusive even if all they get is a little piece of candy.

In today’s story being open leads to much more than a piece of candy for two people. It leads to healing and wholeness.

The Syrophoenician woman is the first person to be open. She has a daughter who is very ill, possessed by a demon. She hears Jesus is in town and knows he can heal her daughter. She will do anything to get her daughter help, even approach a Jewish male who probably has nothing but disdain for her. So she goes to Jesus, drops in front of him and begs for her daughter.

To our surprise, it is Jesus who is not open. In fact, he is downright rude, although no one in his day would have seen anything unusual about calling a Gentile a dog. To us, though, the remark is terribly out of character for Jesus. We expect compassion and instead we see a boundary going up. Scholars have tried to explain away this remark by saying that he is testing the woman’s faith, but a test is not mentioned. They also posit that perhaps this was added by the author to include the beginnings of the Gentile mission early in Jesus’ ministry because it was so hard for the early church to accept that mission. But since we don’t know about any of that, it seems best to take the remark at face value. Jesus was fully human and he may have been having a lousy day after all the crowds clamoring at him. Even after he has just overturned the food laws in the Jewish community in the quest of breaking boundaries, he is still bound up in this one. He is not open to healing this little girl. He says that it is not fair that the children’s food should be fed to dogs. The children, that is, the Jewish people, should be the first people to receive Jesus’ message. His ears are closed to her plea.

But the woman does not slink away, cowed and discouraged. She has something else to say to Jesus. Okay we’re dogs to you. I accept that. But don’t the dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs? Her witty retort surprises Jesus and opens his heart and mind to a message God is sending him about God’s longing to be inclusive, to embrace everyone. This opening of Jesus’ spirit leads him to heal the woman’s daughter. Jesus mission is to welcome all to his healing powers now, not later.

Then Jesus journeys to the region of Decapolis. There, he encounters a man who is a deaf mute. There is a lot of openness in this story too. The Gentile man’s friends are open to bringing him to Jesus and begging for his help, and the man is open to being healed. Jesus takes the man aside, puts his fingers in his ear and spits on his tongue (no, I am not going to demonstrate that one), breaking another boundary. Although the Greeks thought spittle had some curative properties, the Jews saw it as unclean. He looks up to heaven and sighs and says Ephphatha or “Be opened”, and the man’s ears and mouth are opened and he speaks plainly. Jesus, who has been opened to his mission by the Syrophoenician woman’s persistence, now opens someone else. He orders them to tell no one, but as usual the crowds pay no attention. They have seen the wonders and they cannot keep their mouths shut. They have to proclaim God’s glory and Jesus’ amazing abilities to the surrounding area.

I was at a meeting on Wednesday where someone said he had come to believe that inclusivity was the most beautiful word in the English language and exclusivity was probably the ugliest, because inclusivity means being open to all and exclusivity includes an aspect of judgment, a note that we live in a better community or run in more elevated circles or have more money than most people do and that means we are better than they are. Now there is no question that the people of Israel were God’s chosen people, but with the coming of Jesus, they became a first among equals. God was open to saving everyone without no formal application process or the right heritage.

Again I found two stories in the Washington Post that illustrate our inclusivity and our exclusivity. Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, is “seeking to solve one of Washington’s most intractable social problems by increasing the number of homeless families given shelter by the government”. They want to open the shelters all year instead of just when the temperature is below freezing. And the need is great. Almost 300 families were placed in motel rooms in June. Bowser wants to offer families up to 12 days of housing while officials check to see if they qualify for long-term help. Current law says families can apply for shelter only on nights when there is a danger of hypothermia. And still the need is great. 1,942 DC families applied for housing during the winter last year and only 1007 of those received housing. Bowser’s attempt to take steps to solve the city’s homeless problem is a measure of inclusivity, of reaching out to people on the margins and being open to working with them to solve their difficulties.

Another story in the Post says that there is a shift in the face of heroin addiction that has allowed more compassionate measures to come to the fore. The new face of heroin, says Courtland Malloy, is a white face, mostly middle-class and suburban”. “far from the stereotype of the shivering urban junkie” says the Christian Science Monitor. During the height of the nation’s “war on drugs” the urban junkie was seen as simply lacking in moral fiber, fit less for drug treatment than for jail or the grave”. Nowadays Malloy says, contempt has turned to pity. Kathie Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, said “With the changing demographics, there is the ability to frame this as a public health issue…because [enforcement officials] seem to relate to white users…more than people of color. How exclusive can you get? Different drug enforcement solutions based on race. That is not openness; that is close-mindedness.

We are called to follow Jesus and that means to be open and inclusive to all people, even if we don’t like them very much, like my costume-less teenagers at Halloween. We are called to break down barriers that divide us and work for openness in an incredibly exclusive social system. Sometimes we have to be shaken up as Jesus was by the Syrophoenician woman. We have to have our hearts rattled and the locks on them freed up by God. People aren’t moral failures because they are suffering – they need the healing that God can provide. They need God’s touch and we are God’s hands. They need us to advocate and work for them.

There is another openness we are called to by these healings today. Remember the people at the end of the story who couldn’t help but proclaim the gospel because of the wonderful things Jesus had done. We are called to be open to telling our story of what Jesus has done for us, of the open arms that have embraced us. It may be awkward at first – it is even awkward to say something at church – but we have God’s strength to draw on.

“Be opened” says Jesus to the deaf and mute man. That is our charge too. Be open to working for inclusivity in all communities, including the church. Be open to proclaiming the gospel because you cannot help it. Above all be open to God’s love for you and for everyone.


     - Rev. Ann Barker