Texts: James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
Most of us here are old enough to remember the televised Billy Graham crusades and the lovely, touching song sung by the great booming baritone, Cliff Barrows, “It Is No Secret What God Can Do.” The song spoke to our own needs for hope, for help with our problems. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I began to be aware that it wasn’t what God wanted to do for me so much as what God was going to do with me.
Mark’s Gospel reveals much of that same kind of progression for the disciples. Most of us are not aware that for many years, the Aramaic word, “Eph-pha-tha”, “be opened”, was spoken at the baptism of new Christians. Be opened…to hear God’s word. Be opened, to receive the Holy Spirit to live within you to replace that old crippled spirit of self-centeredness that drags you down, that causes you to hurt others when you don’t want to, and even when maybe you do, that adds to the world’s woes. Be opened…to see the world around you in new ways. Be opened, so that you will see the poor, see sorrow, see hunger…instead of acting dumb. Be opened, so that your tongue will not drip with acid and cynicism but with kindness and laughter. Be opened, so that you will not speak lies, nor tolerate hearing them.
Be opened, so that you will not be silent in the face of twisted logic and corrupt business or political behavior. Be opened! Eph-pha-tha! Let down the shield you keep around your stony heart so that it may feel your own anxiety about life…and maybe death. Be opened from the stultifying prejudices that clothing makes the man or woman, that wealth is an indicator of virtue or worth, that poverty is a sign of immorality. Be opened to see that initiating a war to save a nation is as crazy as believing that violence against terrorists will somehow prevent more terrorists from attacking our neat and safe and sometimes boring little lives. Be opened to see that the trivial obsessions of religion and denominations are keeping others from hearing and receiving God’s mercy, God’s grace. Be opened to receive the simple things of bread and wine, not as a ritual venture in right opinion or right methods of delivery and acceptance, but as a sacrament of tears and hope, a banquet that makes us into a community of mercy.
At the heart of this pairing of stories about the Syro-Phoenician woman that I read last week and the healing of the man who was deaf and mute, we find Mark’s continuing message: Jesus accepted everyone indiscriminately. God loves without discrimination.
“My brothers and sisters”, the writer of James, says: “Judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith, but do not have works?” Mercy triumphs over judgment. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
These words always prompt me to remember the great lines of Shakespeare from the Merchant of Venice that I was made, thankfully, to memorize when in high school, but have to admit that I can no longer spout them off—but at least they come to mind:
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest…”
And then it goes on to say:
“…That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. …”
It is easy, in this time of tweeting and social media, and in an election year when the differences between political ideologies are so stark, to be judgmental, and if we don’t say so in so many words, to assume that our position is that of virtue and good, and that the other side will lead us straight to the depths of Hades. If we good progressive souls think we don’t judge people based on their race, their economic status (even though we will go to the other side of the street to avoid a homeless person—gee, I think that Jesus told a parable about some people like us), or their clothing, the fact is that we do discriminate a lot based on politics. And rarely are we open to other points of view.
Last week, in response to my sermon, Martha told me of an encounter she had at the Farmers’ Market the day before, with a homeless person who had, shall we say, left some of his or her bodily business right there in that crowded market place.
What’s a Christian who has also to be smart about safety to do? Believe me, I get it. Sometimes it is easier to say we should follow Jesus than to actually bend down and help up a person who stinks to high heaven from their own bodily lapses.
But back to the matter of mercy vs. judgment: Martin Luther always insisted, like Shakespeare, that if absolute justice were to be applied, none of us would come out unscathed, unjudged, or, more directly, none of us could be saved by our good deeds. At the same time, Luther liked to quote the Roman playwright Terence, who said: “Homo sum. Humani nil a me alienum puto.” Or in English, “I am a human being. Nothing that is human is alien to me.” In other words, we can look at every human being and see ourselves. Again, Shakespeare says that if we pray for mercy for ourselves, then we must be merciful to others. And likewise, Maya Angelou says that “Empathy may be the hope for humanity.”
I included the little cartoon Kudzu in your program today not so much because it illustrates the point, but to tell you a story about a most interesting man, the Rev. Will Campbell, who was the real person behind Doug Marlette’s character in the comic strip Kudzu, the Rev. Will B. Dunn, whom you see praying there for the Lord to smite his enemies. Rev. Sloan in the Doonesbury cartoon strip represents Bill Coffin in a similar way. Marlette, for many years the political cartoonist for the Richmond, Virginia Times-Dispatch newspaper, and who was killed in an auto accident in 2007, met Will Campbell at Ole Miss, and kept up with him for some years. Will Campbell, one of the earlier recipients of the Yale Divinity School’s William Sloane Coffin award in whose company I am but a pale shadow, was born and raised in rural Mississippi. He was ordained by family members at a country Baptist Church at age 17. After WWII, he went to school at Tulane, Wake Forest, and then Yale Divinity School, after which he took a job as the director of religious life at the University of Mississippi in the mid 1950s, which he had to leave after 2 years because of his stands on racial issues. He went on to be one of the few and one of the key white people in the civil rights campaigns of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
But that’s not the whole of his story: eventually, Will Campbell began to realize that he enjoyed thinking that God must surely hate all the people he hated. Campbell realized he had made God in his own image, politically and personally. Campbell came to admit that after twenty years in ministry he had become little more than a “doctrinaire social activist,” which was different than being a follower of Jesus.
Like Will Campbell, the tempting danger for many of us may be the subversion of God’s indiscriminate love for everybody, without exception, into an ideology of “liberal sophistication.” If this shoe doesn’t fit you, I am well aware of how often it pinches my toes, which is why I keep that cartoon front and center on my desk at all times. It forces me to pray: Mercy, mercy!
In his book, Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell describes how he decided to become friends with the KKK, even becoming close to a grand-dragon. He did their funerals and weddings, he took care of them when they were sick. Where once he got hate mail and death threats from people opposed to his fight against segregation, after this particular twist in his ministry, he began to get hate mail from people on the left. Much like Jesus, Will Campbell, committed to human reconciliation, confuses the powers and principalities. Will Campbell still lives and ministers to one and all at his farm outside Nashville.
Like many others, I don’t know that I could befriend a member of the KKK, or pick up that stinky homeless person at the Farmers’ Market, but I do know that Will Campbell, the writer of the book of James, Terence the Roman playwright, Shakespeare—and thousands of others from Dorothy Day to Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr., keep inspiring me with their convictions and subsequent actions based on the non-discriminating love of God. I know, like the Rev. Will B. Dunn there on his knees in that cartoon, that my own worst enemy is myself, and that I am always in the need of God’s mercy. Like the deaf man who could not speak very well, I too need to hear “Eph-phatha”, be opened. I suspect that it is true for you as well.
And here’s the final truth: empathy, growing out of our own need for mercy, may be the greatest and only hope for humanity, not to mention our political systems, and for global peace. The quality of God’s mercy is not strained, but droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven…It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…It is an attribute to God himself. Thanks be to the God of mercy. Amen.
[Thanks to Daniel B. Clendenin, The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, “Playing Favorites: What Will Campbell Learned”, posted 3 September 2012, for his reflections about the Rev. Will Campbell]