Pentecost 18B

Christ Church, New Haven

The Revd. Ann J. Broomell

September 6, 2015


This weekend I’ve been able to watch some of the U. S. Open Tennis. I rest in awe of the athleticism and skill of these players. While I don’t play often today, tennis was part of my life for many years.  My ability to return the ball with some regularity is the result of group lessons when I was a child and some years of individual lessons as an adult.  

Slowly, I moved from a high level of frustration to often hearing the “thonk” when the racquet and ball connect in that sweet spot when the ball is hit just right. Whatever sport you may play now or know from childhood, I dare say that there is that moment of joy caused by the swish of the ball through the basket, the ease of the football passed and caught, much like the beauty of the music sung or played that called forth God’s Spirit and grace.

I have, on occasion, likened my years of frustration with tennis to our life experience in today’s world.  Events, ideas whiz by.  We may try to connect only to find something like a hole in our racquet.  Sometimes hardly know we’ve missed something.  Sometimes in realizing what we’ve missed, we are torn apart by doubt and pain.

Today’s Gospel lesson can be seen as a lesson about healing of some of that disconnect with the world where crises, new ideas, new technology come at us faster and faster.  Where we, overwhelmed, can’t let it permeate our ears, our eyes, or connect in our minds.  A man is brought to Jesus who is deaf, and probably having never heard anyone speak, has a difficult time being understood when he tries to speak.  Those who bring him, bring him to be healed.

There is the expectation that he wants to be healed. Today we have surgery that can allow people born deaf to hear.  However, I’ve come to realize that not everyone wants that surgery.  You may know people who come to understand that what you or I might consider a disability is part of their identity, who they are, not something to change, to heal, even if possible.

It seems to me, though, that healing is not necessarily the point. Jesus orders them to tell no one.  This has always seemed confusing to me.  Here Jesus has enabled a man to speak, but tells him not to speak.  Why? Perhaps Jesus didn’t want to be known as a miracle worker.  Jesus didn’t want to be known only as one who healed paralysis, or enabled people to hear and speak.  He wanted to be known as one who changed people, giving them the ability to understand who he was, and to know that they could find all they needed in him.  

The word Jesus uses, Ephatha, is so important that it is clearly stated in the Aramaic and then translated, “be opened”.  There is to be no doubt what it means. We can understand why the word is brought to our attention when we speak of Jesus as one who changed people, who gave people the ability to understand him, understand God, more deeply.

Today, we live in troubled times. There is war and upheaval across the world resulting in a crisis of refugees and immigrants brought home by the body of a toddler that washed up on the Greek shoreline.  Here in the United States we have spent much of the last decade immersed in racial struggles. The change in the structures of power in our nation, the ready availability of hand guns, and overt language of hatred at a level not seen in decades has contributed to today’s deep concern with regard to violence and racism.

There is anxiety in our nation, in our culture.  It’s natural for us to tend to seek security by trying to control our environment.  We wrap ourselves with a cloak of rules and regulations, and try to regain that predictability we long for.  We pull ourselves in, and isolate ourselves.  We make our world smaller so that we can hope to control it.

Yet Jesus says be opened.  Don’t seek security in the world around you.  Don’t let there be limitations on what you see and hear and know.  Find security in God.  With everything so unsettled around us, find that one unchangeable, solid ground.  

Social psychologist Milton Lerner has said that in order to function, human beings need to view their world as manageable and predictable, but also just.  We need to believe that people get what they deserve and injustice is the exception, not the rule. (1)  Yet it seems that we routinely avoid seeing signs of injustice.  I’ll speak for myself and say that I know that at times I avoid looking for injustice because I don’t think I can do anything to change the suffering I see.  

Yet our action is being sought.  This week the leadership of The Episcopal Church asked that parishes participate today in “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday”. We have been requested by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church to stand in solidarity with them as they respond to the murder, by a white racist, of nine church members while they were at Bible Study in Charleston, SC. Their request is an immediate response both to the killings at the Mother Emmanuel Church and to frequent reports of abuse and killing of unarmed people of color in our nation.  AME Bishop Reginald Jackson writes, “Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking. This is an effort which the faith community must lead, and be the conscience of the nation.” (2) 

We are requested to repent of the sin of racism.  There are levels of racism—institutionalized, personally mediated, and internalized. Institutionalized racism is differential access to goods, services and opportunities of a society by race. It is a structure supported by law, custom and practice that is most visible in inaction in the face of need. We see it around us in New Haven. It is given excuses, people are blamed and shamed and jailed. We are so immersed in institutional racism it that it can be hard for us to see our part in it. Yet we can see why our action is required.

Personally mediated racism is what we are most likely to see in acts of prejudice and discrimination.  Assumptions are made of differences and actions are based on race. We see its impact in lack of respect, suspicion, devaluation, and scapegoating. 

The impact on humans is internalized racism—where the negative messages are taken on as true. It brings on resignation, hopelessness and helplessness.  We must work to open our eyes to racism so that we can see the reality and work for change. (3)

As individuals, we can and must take this on and repent of our sins. In doing so, we can pray that lives will be changed.  However, it seems important that we bring this action to a personal level and become aware of our own racism.  One way to become aware of our racism is to ask God to show us where it lies.  (My parents were committed to raising us without prejudice. Yet, when) I did this some years ago and was shocked and ashamed when I became aware of the assumptions that were revealed. It seems very important to me that we, followers of Jesus Christ, are opened, that we are brought up short by our own racist attitudes and beliefs, and that we repent of them deeply and sincerely on a daily basis.

Jesus says be opened. What, then, would it mean for us to be opened?  To open ourselves to the suffering of people here in New Haven, in our cities and rural areas, Indian reservations and thousands of miles away?  To be able to act rather than draw back in anxiety and fear?

What if our trust in Jesus would, by itself, open our ears and eyes to recognize injustice and misery—and also to see Jesus at work bringing forth justice and peace.  What if our trust in Jesus made us able also to understand what Jesus wants us to do.

We hunger for justice and equality. Being opened, hearing and seeing, must lead to action if that hunger within ourselves is to be met.  In the words of the author of the Letter of James:  Be doers of the word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves.  Doers who act…will be blessed in their doing.

Effecting change can feel as if we’re walking through a heavy fog.  Grabbing onto solid ground can seem nearly impossible.  Yet Jesus is the place of solid ground, of security, of safety.  Jesus is the resting place of hope.  We can see in Jesus’ life that solid ground, that security, is found in action.  That sense of safety we need is found in working to be part of a more just world.  Fear and anxiety can only overwhelm us only when we draw back, when we turn away.

Repentance that is real leads to change. It leads to action. I can’t tell you exactly what to do, what steps to take today, this week, but I can urge you to trust in God, and, clothed in that trust, allow God to open you to the world.  Ask God, What can I do? Listen for the conversation between family and friends that jumps out at you.  Listen to reports, especially those revealing injustice and suffering.  See what touches your heart.  Ask again What do you want me to do? Listen, God’s answer will become clear.

Let us pray in the words of our Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

(1) Lerner, Milton.  The Belief in a Just World:  A Fundamental Delusion.

(2) Jefferts Schori, Katharine and Gay Clark Jennings: A Letter to The Episcopal Church From the Presiding Bishop, President of the House of Deputies: Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.  The Episcopal News Service Press Release, Sept. 1, 2015.

(3) Jones, Camara Phyllis.  Levels of Racism: A theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale. American Journal of Public Health, Aug. 2000, vol. 90, No. 8, p. 1212-1215.