Date: Sept. 5, 2021
Scripture Lessons: James 2:1-17 and Mark 7:31-37
Sermon: Opened Up
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
This week I went to make a purchase at a local store and when the clerk looked up my rewards points, she gasped and said, ‘You have six hundred and sixty six points. Six. Six. Six. Would you like to use them.” I said, “Yes.” She said again, “Wow, 666.” “Well,” I said, “with the weather issues and the pandemic, it kind of feels like 666.” She considered, and then agreed.
It’s pretty clear we are living in momentous times, some kind of shift, turning point. Believe it or not, people felt that way in the first century, too. When the writer of the story that we heard today remarks about Jesus, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak,” it is a direct reference to the prophecy of Isaiah. In Isaiah, we are told,
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. [35:5-6].
This indicates the coming of the redemption of God manifested in a special leader, a messiah. Attributing these activities to Jesus is a way of telling readers that he is the messiah. This is the beginning of the messianic age. A turning point. A new reality is breaking in. God is doing a new thing. So in this healing story, we are being given a clue to the greater workings of God in the cosmos. This wasn’t just about one person being able to hear and speak, this was about a drastic new divine social/historic era emerging. The hearers in the first century would not limit this story to literalism, a trend of the 19th century and surprisingly continuing today. The people of Bible times were not literalists. They knew that stories were meant to have multiple meanings and function in various ways for the benefit of the community.
So we heard a story about one person being made able to hear and to speak clearly. Surely a wonderful blessing in his life. But this story shows us so much more. In family therapy, there is often one person that is healthier than the others in a dysfunctional family. And if that person can stay steady and grounded, they can help to restore health in the whole family system. One strong, steady manifestation of health can effect a system. We can think of Jesus as that one. Strong, steady, bringing the love, grace, and power of God to people. And then we see their lives transformed, and they become an agent of further transformation, and the whole social system can begin to shift.
In the story we heard today, we are told of the ears being opened, unstopped. Being made to hear. Open. Hearing. Aware. Conscious. We are being told of the person becoming open to the love and power of God. Of becoming aware of another reality. The kindom of God. But the person does not just become open to the awareness. We are also told that the person also becomes able to speak. To proclaim. To share. To tell. To witness. So this story tells us about becoming aware of the truth of the presence of the reign of Divine Love and speaking out about that reality.
To be aware, to view experience with the consciousness of Love, as Jesus did, means understanding the many, maybe I should say, pervasive, deceptions and lies that are perpetuated in the society around us and even in church. If we truly hear, if we truly see, if we are really open, we become aware of the lies around us. And there are many. And I hesitate to even begin to name them because where do you start and where do you stop? But I will make a few comments about this –
On a recent road trip, we saw a billboard that said “Genuine Christians obey Jesus’ teachings.” Well, I like that, I thought. Then further down the road was another billboard: “Pro God Pro Life Pro Gun.” Well, there seems to be a bit of a problem between the first and the second billboards. Obey Jesus’ teachings, like Love your neighbor and Love your enemy, doesn’t quite compute with Pro gun. Maybe you can convince yourself to be so literalistic that you believe that nothing Jesus said has to do with guns because there were no guns in Jesus day, so you can’t disobey anything he said about guns because they didn’t exist. Talk about mental gymnastics! [Billboards on I 75 south of Punta Gorda, FL]
What other lies and fallacies can we name that are perpetrated today? There are those who deny the validity of critical race theory and don’t want the teaching of systemic racism incorporated into the school curriculum. That is like saying you are going to teach science without ever mentioning the force of gravity or the existence of the atom. Or like teaching math without reference to multiplication. You can’t teach what is accurate and factual about the history of the United States without reference to race and racism. And it’s continuing impact on society this very minute. You can’t. William Carlos Williams speaking of America and the conquest of the Gulf of Mexico says it straight: “History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery.” [Cited by Jack E. Davis in The Gulf: the Making of an American Sea, p. 73-74]. What does it mean to be a country that is founded not only on genocide and slavery but on lies about that very foundation? It’s not a stable structure by any means. And it is not honest or free. The truth is what sets us free, not lies and coverups and manipulations.
How about telling the truth about the new abortion law in Texas. Here’s what I know. I have never had an abortion. But if I lived in Texas, I would feel that I was being denied my human rights. I would feel that the law assumes that I am not capable of making the healthcare decisions that are right for me. I would feel that my freedom was being taken away and that I was being judged not only incompetent but as a morally inferior semi-person. If a woman does not want to have an abortion, she does not have to have one. It is her choice. Do we get to say, as women, that we are sick and tired of men telling us what to do with our bodies? No legislature, no law, no authoritative body would dare in a millions years to treat a male human being in that way. Ever. Period. It is demeaning and insulting. It is an attack on the image of God in each and every woman. That is my reality. That is my truth. That is what Jesus shows me. Can we imagine Jesus telling the woman who had her period for 12 years, no, this should not be healed; you do not know what is best for you. Of course not. Jesus respects women. He would not approve of this recent attack on women. Can we say this in love? Love of self? Love of other women? Love of men who are defiling the image of God within them? If we have been healed and freed by Jesus, I think we can.
What can we say about poverty? People are lazy and don’t want to work. Really? I know people who would love to work and can’t find jobs. I know people who work, one job, two jobs, sometimes three jobs, and can’t make the rent. As we see in James, poverty is not only a social problem, it is not only an economic problem, it is a spiritual problem because those who have taken the label Christian have an obligation to serve the poor and to transform the systems that create poverty. Poverty is a manifestation of the spiritual sins of greed and self centeredness. And Christians, church-going people who believe in Jesus, have not demanded laws and an economic system that meets the needs of all people especially those most vulnerable, including children. It’s shameful. It’s sinful.
Can we say something about covid and the ridiculous notion that it doesn’t exist, that masks don’t make a difference, that it isn’t straining the healthcare system, that the self interested decisions of politicians are not responsible for people dying making them essentially murders? The former president bragged that he could shoot someone in cold blood in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York and nothing would happen to him. Well, he can be seen as responsible for hundreds of thousands of covid deaths, and he was right. Nothing has happened to him. No accountability or punishment. He maintains his popularity.
I read an article this week examining the supposedly Christian aversion to the wearing of masks. Apparently, the parents say that the wearing of masks hides part of the face, of the person made in the image of God, so it is obscuring God. That is why the mask cannot be worn. The commentator Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons of NBC News Think offers this rebuff:
“Are mask mandates a form of Christian persecution? That’s the argument a California man is making after his two teens were sent home for violating their high school’s mask policy.
“‘The Bible says we’re made in the image of God and Satan tries to cover that up. A mask is a sign of oppression,’ Gary Nelson told NBC News. And then it gets worse. He claimed that Muslims and Jews would have been accommodated but that the school administrators ‘feel safe’ persecuting Christians.
“These claims are laughable. Nothing in the Bible says you can’t wear masks. And you don’t see anti-masker Christians arguing against wearing clothing or hats or sunglasses. When these conservative Christians start mandating nudity, then they might have a claim about not covering up what God has created.” [Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, fellow, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, Center for American Progress | NBC NEWS THINK]
There are MANY more things that could be mentioned that show the gap between the teachings of Jesus and our behavior as a society as well as individuals.
Oh, how we love our self deception! Our excuses. Our mental and spiritual gyrations and rationalizations. Jesus is bringing on a new age. But we seem to like the one we’re in just fine, thank you very much. 666 and all. Global warming and all. The pandemic and all. We don’t really seem to want to change.
So, is there hope? In the story we heard today, the person who is brought to Jesus is not just made to hear. He is made to speak. And I think that is where we find the hope in this story. It is not just about seeing clearly, understanding, having your heart opened to Divine reality, knowing what truly is. That is important, but the man is also made able to speak. Clearly. Speak. Tell the truth about what he sees. It is not enough to see. The hope is in the speaking. The telling. The sharing of the stories and the naming of the fallacies and the dysfunctions and lies. The pointing out of the self deception. That is where there is transformative power in this story to me.
Now we have a two year old grandson who is just learning to talk. It’s a precious stage of development. We were just visiting the children for their baptism, and what with covid, we haven’t seen each other for a long time. So, Soren became reacquainted with his uncles. Uncle Malcolm. And Uncle Sterling. One day, he came into the kitchen the there were Sterling and Malcolm, but Soren was looking for his favorite – Baba. Grandpa Jeff. Soren took one look at the two guys at the kitchen table and declared, “No uncles. No uncles.” He kept repeating it. He wanted Baba, not the uncles. A few days later, Malcolm left. There was only one uncle. Uncle Sterling. Again, Soren was looking for Baba. And he saw Sterling. And he declared, “No uncle. No uncle.” Now, this was very telling about his speech capabilities. First of all, he knew that Sterling and Malcolm were both Uncles. And when he addressed them both, he used the plural. But when there was only one, he used the singular. So he is really advancing in his language skills. We can tell in these small steps and statements.
And I think that is how it might go as we advance in our ability to speak the truth in love. To tell the truth. To not only see and hear and understand, but to proclaim the truth of what we see. We learn in steps. In increments. We practice. We learn more. And we get better at it. We see more. We say more. And we learn from watching each other. And listening to each other. And encouraging each other. Holding each other accountable. Remembering that one person, one, can initiate change in an entire system. And we are many people, not just one.
For these harrowing days of covid and climate change to be a time of the birthing of a new reality, of a new awareness, of a new system of justice and peace, we need to be like Jesus, practicing what we preach, with no separation between our beliefs and our ethical commitments and our behavior. We need to be like the healed person in the story not only aware, but vocal about it. About our becoming aware. Not judging of other people, but sharing about our transformation. How we have been changed. How we are seeing the world differently because of the gospel.
While we were in Massachusetts recently, there was a story in the local small town paper about River Dave whose cabin was burned down in the New Hampshire woods. The next week, we saw an article about Dave in the Tampa Bay Times. Several things struck me about the story. Yes, the one thing he wanted from the ruins of his dwelling was his Bible, saying, “The main thing I wanted out of the whole thing was my Bible. Hopefully, Canterbury police took it home. . . I had the keys to camp and the camp’s just ashes. So I have the keys to God’s heart, and that’s all I got.” It’s also heartening to note that a nearby Quaker congregation is talking about providing River Dave with a place to live on their property. Heartening to see a church acting like a church. But what I found most interesting was the attitude of River Dave about the destruction of his camp. In the articles I read, he did not express any anger about what happened. He was not determined to rebuild his home where it was, despite outstanding legal issues. After being a hermit for 27 years, and estranged from his family, River Dave is thinking that maybe it is time for him to lead a different kind of life. He reflects, “Maybe the things I’ve been trying to avoid are the things that I really need in life,” says David Lidstone, 81. He goes on: “I grew up never being hugged or kissed, or any close contact.
“I had somebody ask me once, about my wife: ‘Did you really love her?’ And the question kind of shocked me for a second. I. . . I’ve never loved anybody in my life. And I shocked myself because I hadn’t realized that. And that’s why I was a hermit. Now I can see love being expressed that I never had before.” He is referring to all the people who have expressed a willingness to help him. To me, this story is a beautiful expression of being opened, of coming to a new understanding, of being in a new reality. The experience of the fire instead of ruining River Dave’s life seems to be giving him a new life, and he is open to it. Seeing it. And speaking about it. Honestly. [Quotes taken from “‘River Dave’ grateful for help after fire ravaged his home,” by Kathy McCormack, Associated Press in Daily Times Chronicle, 8.9.21, B6, and “Former hermit in N.H. ponders his next move,” by Kathy McCormack, Associated Press in Tampa Bay Times, 8.22.21, 24A]
I find great hope in that story. And I hope that as we navigate the challenges that we are facing, the changes in our lives – sought, and unwanted, alike – that we may be open to learning, to understanding, to seeing in new ways. Allowing a new reality to open before us and that we might open our mouths to speak about that new reality. So may we be part of ushering in a new age of justice and peace for all. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.