A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this service:Mark 7: 24-37
Last week in the US Open tennis championship, the Australian Nick Kyrgios, at that point a set and 0-3 down, let a couple of serves pass him without attempting to play them. The hugely experienced and respected umpire Mohamed Lahyani, wondering whether the player was having a physical spasm or a mental meltdown, got down from his chair and said to him, ‘You’re great for tennis. But this isn’t good. It’s not you.’ Almost straightaway Kyrgios started playing as only he can, and won the match quite comfortably. There followed a furore about whether the umpire had stepped out of role and turned into a coach. What no one seemed to be able to say was, yes, he had stepped out of role, but yes, he’d still done the right thing. None of us like to be looked in the eye and told, ‘This is not you.’ But all of us need it.
Our gospel reading today presents us with two stories of healing that are really stories about identity. To grasp the significance of these stories you have to consider the chapters that come before and after them. Mark chapter 6 tells us about the feeding of the 5000. This is on the west of the Sea of Galilee, and is for Jews. Mark chapter 8 tells us about the feeding of the 4000. This is on the east of the Sea of Galilee, and is for Gentiles. Immediately prior to these two healing stories in Mark chapter 7 we hear Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and the Pharisees for their unnecessarily strict and rigorously exclusive food laws. And now we get two stories about Jesus going into Gentile territory and breaking a host of taboos and healing two Gentiles. Remember in Greek healing and salvation are the same word. The meaning becomes clear: these three chapters are, together, showing that Jesus is bringing salvation to the Gentiles. Which may seem obvious to us until we realise that we wouldn’t be sitting here if he weren’t.
Jesus does some terrible things in these stories. He fraternises closely with Gentiles. He gets very close to a woman, apparently letting her touch his feet, generally associated with sexual intimacy. He spits on another human being, a taboo in almost every culture. Those are the things that would have shocked the disciples at the time. But there are two things that shock us even more. He refers to the Syrophoenician woman and her race as dogs. If you think of the racially toxic words we shun today, you can insert any one of them in here. Dogs were not cutesy pets in first-century Lebanon. They were considered disgusting. It’s profoundly disturbing to hear Jesus say such a thing, not so much the expletive value but the offensiveness of the sentiment. But then there’s something even more bewildering. He changes his mind. How can God have a change of mind? The Syrophoenican woman is looking him in the eye and saying, ‘This isn’t good. It’s not you.’
The gospel here comes right up against one of the deepest issues of our time, and a subject that has scarred church and society for centuries. It’s what happens when one group of people, most influentially those who like to think of themselves as white, identify what they take to be a demarcating characteristic and make that a reason to assert their superiority over another people, justifying discriminatory policies and physical attacks upon them. In his 2015 book, Between the World and Me, the African-American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates characterises racism as ‘the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them.’ He insists that ‘race is the child of racism, not the father.’ (8) Difference has long been there – but difference isn’t the issue; the issue is to regard physical differences as disclosing indelible marks of character and then basing a social hierarchy on those imagined marks of character. He sees the fundamental faultline in American society not between the rich and the poor, but between those who call themselves white and those whom they choose to call black. The whites have in different ways asserted their right to dominate, humiliate and exploit the bodies of black people to maintain their own meaning, and to ensure there’s always someone down in the valley, ‘because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.’ (105)
Speaking to his teenage son, Coates explains, ‘You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels.’ (107) He describes what coming of age means for a black person in contemporary America. He tells his son, ‘what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could actually do. In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after.’ (120) And this distinction affects almost everything in society. The most poignant example is 9/11, which Coates witnessed, living in New York at the time. He admits, ‘Looking out upon the ruins of America, my heart was cold.’ And then he explains why: ‘I kept thinking about how southern Manhattan had always been Ground Zero for us. They auctioned our bodies down there, in that same devastated, and rightly named, financial district. And there was once a burial ground for the auctioned there. … Bin Laden was not the first man to bring terror to that section of the city.’ (86-7)
Coates dismantles two myths that the people who want to call themselves white hold dear. One is about the police. Whites maintain that police persecuting black people, and the courts sending so many black people to jail, are perversions of the law enforcement and criminal justice system. But Coates points out that such policies haven’t been imposed by a repressive minority. They represent the majority view of the people who want to call themselves white. Rogue police are not an out-of-control minority; they are simply enacting what most Americans think. (78-9) The other myth is the mantra invariably proclaimed by whites who propagate the tradition that black bodies are of lesser value: ‘I am not a racist.’ Coates describes such people as ‘obsessed with the politics of exoneration.’ He observes wryly that ‘There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally.’ (97) Such people have convinced themselves that their prejudice is either good, or at least in conformity to some kind of natural law.
By citing the remarks of Ta-Nehisi Coates I’m not for a moment suggesting that America has a problem Britain doesn’t have. My purpose is to highlight how racism works. And unless we recognise how pervasive racism is we can’t grasp the dynamics of today’s gospel passage. But it’s more than that. We can’t understand today’s gospel passage unless we already know or are willing to find out wat it means to be on the receiving end of racism. We are not the insiders who plausibly suppose that Jesus and the gospel are just for them; we are the outsiders like the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man who had an impediment in his speech.
Now I want to take a closer look at how these two stories work. The first story, about the Syrophoenician woman, is about race and exclusion as a collective phenomenon. God is among us; but there are many barriers between us and God, represented in the story by Jesus seeking to remain incognito. Gender and convention exacerbate those barriers. But our desperate need, and our awareness of being in the grip of malign forces, impel us to seek help. God’s grace has hitherto been limited to the chosen people, the children of Israel. But in our need we are willing to accept even the crumbs that fall from the children’s table. A crumb that comes from the source of true healing and redemption is indescribably more precious than a banquet that comes from anywhere else.
And the food language is crucial. Because this is what happens in the Eucharist. We Gentiles, knowing we don’t formally belong, come forward and receive a crumb that falls from the Jews’ table. And that crumb is enough to save us. (Salvation is represented in the story by the deliverance of the daughter.) Remember Cranmer’s ancient prayer: ‘We are not worthy so much as to gather the up the crumbs under thy table.’ It’s as if the whole trajectory of the Bible, from Abraham in Genesis chapter 12, is altered, and the Gentiles enter the covenant by a combination of the wonder of God’s grace and the Gentiles’ own awareness of their need. It’s like an equation that says God’s mercy plus our humility equals glory.
Then the second story follows on from the first, and plays out the personal implications of this seismic shift in the circumference of grace. Here is the condition of being a Gentile embodied in one person: he can’t hear revelation and he struggles to articulate truth. But somehow he comes to Jesus. Jesus forms a relationship just with him, taking him aside. Jesus touches him, in a remarkably intimate way, sharing the water of life. (Just as earlier in the crumb of the table we can detect the Eucharist, so here in the water of saliva we can glimpse baptism.) And Jesus speaks to him. The word and the sacraments are offered to him as the key forms of revelation; and the healing represents his salvation. And straightaway the man is released into his destiny: he joins the chorus of God’s praise made known in Christ.
And the central phrase is the Aramaic Ephphatha, ‘Be opened.’ Everything is being opened. The man’s ears, obviously, and in a sense his mouth. But also the covenant between God and Israel. And also, perhaps most fundamentally, the heart of God. What we have is a visual and tangible portrayal of the opening of God’s heart towards the Gentiles – towards those who seemed inferior, excluded, unclean; to be, to use Coates’ vivid language, the valleys without whose lowliness others wouldn’t be confident they were mountains. The first story portrays God being opened to us. The second story portrays us being opened to God. These aren’t really stories about disability or suffering: they’re about salvation, and how it becomes limitlessly deep and limitlessly broad. And it is on this being-opened, this precise moment in the gospel, that our salvation, deep and broad, depends. But we can only appreciate it if we’re prepared to walk in the shoes of a person like Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is what it means to say African-Americans have a privileged understanding of salvation that few people who need to call themselves white can fully share.
Which takes us back to the story of the umpire and the tennis player and their conversation. Mohamed Lahyani rose from his chair, came down to court level, looked the wayward and wilful Nick Kyrgios square in the eye, and said ‘This is not you.’ Jesus left the right hand of the Father, came down among us, reached out to us in our exclusion and waywardness, looked us in the eye, as a people and as one person, and said, ‘Be opened.’ Be opened: enter into your true identity, as one who sees and praises God – an identity the more vivid and powerful for your knowing what it means for it to have been withheld.
The umpire was well out of order. But he was right. Jesus transgressed decency, language, consistency and propriety – every rule in the divine handbook. But today we celebrate the moment the rules changed. We who were once far off have been met by God’s Son, and brought home. We’re not the umpire. We’re the player. Whether you’ve known exclusion by centuries of injustice or by your own wilful waywardness, hear the good news: Jesus is looking you square in the eye; and he’s come to bring you home.