A sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:31-37
There is a classic story told by sociologist and pastor Dr. Tony Campolo. He was attending a conference in Honolulu. His jetlag was keeping him up the first night he was there. At 3 am he ventured out into the dark streets in search of something to eat. He found a tiny coffee shop. He ordered coffee and a donut from Harry, the man behind the counter, and sat down in a booth.
Around 3:30, the diner door burst open and group of boisterous women entered. Overhearing their conversation wasn’t hard, and Tony soon figured out that this was a group of prostitutes.
They were smoking. They were cursing loudly and pretty crude. Tony felt a little uncomfortable, and planned to leave. Then he overheard one of the prostitutes, “Hey! It’s my birthday tomorrow!” The other prostitutes sneered, “What do you want, Agnes, a party?”
An hour or so later, the women left, and that’s when Tony began to plan with Harry, guess what – a birthday party for Agnes.
At two-thirty the next morning, he was back at that diner. He picked up some crepe paper and other decorations, and made a big sign that read, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” He decorated that diner from one end to the other. The word must have gotten out on the street because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was there. He writes, “It was wall-to-wall hookers, and me!”
At 3:30 the door swung open and in came Agnes. When she came in they all jumped up and screamed “Happy birthday, Agnes!” and sang the birthday song.
Tony says he had never seen a person so stunned and surprised. Her mouth fell open. Her knees started to buckle, and she started to cry. When the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, she just lost it. She started sobbing.
Harry, who was not used to seeing a prostitute cry, growled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake.”
She pulled herself together and blew out the candles. Everyone cheered and yelled, “Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!”
Instead Agnes looked down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”
Harry shrugged and said, “Sure, if that’s what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want.”
“Oh, could I?” she asked. Looking at Tony she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I’ll be right back, honest!”
She hopped off her stool, picked up the cake, and took off out the door. Everyone was watching in stunned silence. They look at each other. Then they look at Tony.
And what did Tony say? “Let’s pray!” So there they stood, Tony, Harry and a diner full of prostitutes, praying for Agnes that God would touch her, and change her life, and bless her on her birthday.
When he finished, Harry leaned over and grumbled, “Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
Tony answered him quietly, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry thought a moment, and then sneered, “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it!”
My friends, if you have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, you won’t treat some people better than others. Suppose a rich person wearing fancy clothes and a gold ring comes to one of your meetings. And suppose a poor person dressed in worn-out clothes also comes. You must not give the best seat to the one in fancy clothes and tell the one who is poor to stand at the side or sit on the floor. That is the same as saying that some people are better than others.
Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. Jesus said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Wait! Say that again, Jesus? Did you just call that woman a dog?
This moment in the Gospel reading should shock us. Where did Jesus go, the Jesus who showed his disciples and others, again and again, to treat others with mercy? Where is this coming from?
Believe me preachers and theologians still debate and puzzle over this encounter. Does Jesus mean it? Is he rejecting this woman who is coming to him for help?
I believe Jesus is treating her the way he was expected to treat her. Jews were to have nothing to do with Gentiles. The way he speaks to her was the status quo. No one could fault him for that. Only God’s children deserve grace, not the Gentiles who were treated as badly as dogs were.
But the story isn’t finished. This woman is bold. She is brave. She is desperate. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She has nothing left to lose. “Can’t I even have a little grace? Can’t you show me even some hand-me-down mercy?”
Then Jesus does something remarkable. He changes his mind! Would he have healed the woman’s daughter anyway? Who can say? But in front of those who were watching, Jesus turns away from the status quo. He shows his disciples, and us, what it means to live beyond the Law.
Technically, this woman deserved nothing, a bit like a prostitute on her birthday. But Jesus changes the equation. Not only does he show her mercy, but he gives her dignity as well.
Then Jesus is confronted with this deaf man with a speech impediment. Remember, Jesus is still in Gentile territory, and here he heals a Gentile man. This kind of healing and the way it happens is challenging categories and boundaries just as in the healing of the gentile woman. Neither she nor this man were “supposed” to be healed. She wasn’t allowed to ask for it because Gentile women weren’t supposed to speak to Jewish men. And this man can’t ask to be healed simply because he’s incapable.
In both cases, these miracles happen outside the norms set by the religious establishment. According to Jewish law, a healing ceremony for a deaf Jewish man would have involved elaborate prayers and ritual washings. Remember the passage last week about the Pharisees’ obsession with purity laws and cleanliness. Well they surely would not have approved of Jesus’ methods here. Jesus uses his own spit and touches this unclean man with his own hands. This isn’t kosher. Jesus is in Gentile territory – he works a miracle for the sake of this man, regardless of the purity laws. Jesus opened his ears, but he was also opening hearts.
Jesus is turning the tables, again. He is pointing his disciples and us to a new way of being God’s people – embracing the unworthy, touching the outcast, throwing a birthday party for a prostitute.
Show me your works, James writes in our epistle lesson. If someone who is hungry comes to you, and all you do is wish them well, what good is that? Faith without works attached to it is not just dead, it’s deadly. People can starve to death on our good intentions.
We have committed ourselves at St. Brendan’s to meet the needs of those in our community who need it most. We collect food. We donate produce from our garden. We write checks. But what more can we do? Is there another need going unmet? I believe God is calling us to be ready, to be watching, to get out there and find out what people need, no matter who they are: black, white, immigrant, illegal immigrant, gay, straight, unwed mothers, orphaned children, the unemployed, the depressed, the lonely, the aged. Jesus showed us by his own actions that our distinctions don’t matter. We all need grace and mercy.
God, open our eyes and our hearts, show us the needs and give us the strength and the courage to meet them. Amen.