Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
Sept. 9, 2018
Sermon Series: What Would Jesus Do? Current Issue: Racism
It was August, we were on vacation at the beach. The sun was shining, it was 80 degrees, and a cool breeze was coming off the ocean. I was sitting under an umbrella for shade. Brian and the kids were either reading or napping. And so I picked up a book I had brought to read for fun, a novel called Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. I opened the book and read on the inside of the jacket a summary: “Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than 20 years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine check up on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene? Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with the death of the baby and put on trial. A white public defender takes her case, but gives unexpected advice: mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Author Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion--and doesn’t offer easy answers.” Whoa! This might not be the easy fun beach book I had hoped for. To turn the page or to close the book, I wondered...
Today is the first Sunday back in the Sanctuary, back from summer vacation, back to Sunday School, back to church. It’s a big Sunday! We come with great anticipation. We hear the grand sounds of the organ, we see the precious baby baptized, we see the eager children go to Sunday School, we greet friends, we settle in to hear the Gospel reading….and what do we hear? A woman begging Jesus to heal her sick daughter. Knowing she is a Gentile, an outsider, 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.” Whoa! Jesus called this woman a dog, which at the time was a racial slur for those who were not Jews, but Gentiles. This is not be the easy Bible reading we hoped for. And we all know that mentioning race in the church is not a winning strategy. To preach this sermon on not, I wondering….
We took a deep breath, said a prayer, and began to talk about this strange story in Bible study on Wednesday. We had a lot of questions--like why did Jesus say such an insult? Doesn’t seem like him. Maybe Jesus was just tired and worn out; he was human and lost his temper. Maybe Jesus was testing the woman--to see if she had faith that he could heal her daughter. Maybe Jesus was teaching his disciples a lesson--being the foil, so they would correct him--that God’s mission is open for all. Maybe Jesus never said these words, but a scribe later inserted them. Truth is, we don’t know. Scholars have suggested any of these possibilities. But reading the text as it is, we see Jesus allows the woman to have a voice. She says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus replies, “For saying that, you may go, your daughter is healed.” A Gentile woman convinces Jesus to heal her daughter and opens him to a new way of seeing that the time is right to share the breadth of God’s mercy and the depth of God’s love, with all of God’s children.
Inspired by this woman and back to his merciful self, Jesus goes to another Gentile region, where he meets another outsider--a Gentile deaf man who had an impediment in his speech begged to be healed. Jesus sees this man--not as Gentile, not as handicapped, not as an outsider. He sees him as a child of God. Without hesitation, he heals the man, saying “Ephatha” which means, “Be opened!” The man’s ears were opened and his tongue was freed and he praised Jesus for his healing.
With our ears open, we can comprehend the messages of these healing stories:
Jesus’ healing knows no boundaries--ethnic, racial, gender or religious
Jesus is sometimes better understood by the outsiders
Jesus’ mission was always meant by God to be bigger--to include all people
That day on the beach, I considered closing the book and not troubling myself with such a weighty story. But, I took a deep breath, and opened the book….I read this quote on the first page: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those how are” (Benjamin Franklin). And so I decided to read on…and for the next 400 pages I was engrossed in a gripping novel based on a true story. In the end, Ruth did not take the advice of her lawyer--she talked about race in the courtroom and still won the case and in so doing, taught her lawyer something important about racism. Author Picoult says that’s why she wrote the book, because racism is fraught, and it’s hard to talk about. And so we don’t. We close ourselves off to it.
And what happens when we don’t talk about it? It doesn’t go away. In fact if we ignore it, its power grows. Just listen to the language used by our political leaders, calling a black woman a “dog.” Calling a black man a “monkey.” Just look at the increased number of hate crimes. Just look at the number of young black men shot by white police officers. Just look at the Charlottesville white supremacist rally that ignited hate, violence and death. Make no mistake about it--the answer to our racial divisions won’t be delivered on Air Force One. And the answer won’t come riding from the Capitol on the backs of donkeys or elephants. It won’t come in courtrooms, even the highest court in the land. And, if history is any indication, the answer won’t come in the church. The problem we Christians face is that 11:00 on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America. The problem is that we have allowed class, culture, gender and race to divide us and to divide the common call of Christ, who came to make God’s kingdom come on earth, where there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus. The answer will only come through ordinary people like you and like me. But the biggest problem of all is that we are afraid to talk about it.
Steve Mellon and I will be co-leading a conversation about racism using the new book Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism. Author Carolyn Heshel writes: “Being politically correct isn’t the goal. The goal is something much bigger than political correctness. The goal is love. The goal is building relationships. The goal is working together to make the world a better place.” Steve and I will announce the dates of the book discussion soon. We invite you to consider being a part of the conversation. In talking about racism, in looking at it, we can begin to dismantle its power for evil, and we can open ourselves to be agents of change for good.
For the next several weeks, we are going to talk about issues in our world today through the lens of Scripture. And as we hold the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other hand, we will ask, “what would Jesus do?” In today’s story, we learn that Jesus would say, “Be open.”
Be open to new ways of seeing people. Be open to hearing the voices of people often silenced.
Be open to the possibility that someone outside your comfort zone might teach you something you need to learn. Be open to a new way of seeing that the time is right to share the breadth of God’s mercy and the depth of God’s love, with all of God’s children.
Be open to hearing truth in unexpected places:
Like in Maya Angelou’s poem:
Take the blinders from your vision,
take the padding from your ears,
and confess you’ve heard me crying,
and admit you’ve seen my tears.
Hear the tempo so compelling,
hear the blood throb in my veins.
Yes, my drums are beating nightly,
and the rhythms never change.
Equality, and I will be free.
Equality, and I will be free.
What would Jesus do? What is Jesus calling us to do? Be open.
Maybe this troubling story is in the Bible to teach us a valuable lesson: If even Jesus is open to learning from an honest mistake. Maybe we can be too.