Sacred spit- Challenging our prejudices

James 2:1-8, Mark 7:24-37

            Colin Kaepernick. Some of you may know that name. Some of you may have heard it, but don’t remember its significance. Some of you may never have heard of him. But if I told you Colin Kaepernick was the professional football player who knelt like this – kneel – when the national anthem was being played, you probably knew whom I was talking about.

            This simple act, ironically held as an act of respect before royalty and humility in religious prayer, has caused a firestorm of debate over the past two years. The National Football League has struggled to declare a position, even though nearly everyone else has. Interestingly, standing for the national anthem is not a law or a requirement in most sports, but is a cultural norm, one of those traditions we do because we’ve always done it.

            I understand the anger and frustration of those who feel that the flag, and by extension, the military and country, are being disrespected by Kaepernick’s action. I do worry about the fragility of the country when one act of civil disobedience, and an exceedingly mild one at that, causes such rancor and divisiveness. Wouldn’t it be actual disrespect if Kaepernick and other players were yelling loudly or turned their backs or talked on their phones during the national anthem? I’ll add here that I have seen paying customers in the stands do all of these things at sporting events, and yet there’s no outcry.

            It’s equally unfortunate that the outcry over kneeling threatens to obscure what Kaepernick was kneeling against – excessive acts of violence against people of color, in a number of instances, but not exclusively, by white police officers. It’s unclear to me whether the number of incidences has grown or just our awareness of them, but there should be less question of the issue of implied bias that permeates American culture. The data is sobering and the stories are heartbreaking. Clearly Kaepernick and other athletes felt that not enough was being done and not enough awareness was being raised, so the acts of civil disobedience began, to make all of us see what only some of us experienced before.

            This is another situation where it’s easy to make quick judgments about whether a person is right or wrong. These past two years have given us numerous moments such as this to challenge our prejudices. We all have our prejudices. It’s part of our instinctive nature. The word itself means to ‘judge before learning.’ In the natural world, prejudging allows animals to survive. A deer doesn’t wait to see if a pack of wolves is friendly, after all. It sees the wolf, and based on its instinct and experience, responds accordingly.

            But what makes us different as human beings is our ability to reason, to use our frontal brain, rather than the instinctive part of our brain. What makes us different is our ability to move past our prejudices, whatever they are, and engage one another to determine the person’s quality on the inside. That’s a lesson we teach our children. It’s a lesson we continue to master throughout the course of our lives. It’s a lesson with which humanity has struggled for thousands of years.

            Our scripture texts reflect lessons on prejudice. The two stories of Jesus are mirror images – in one instance, Jesus appears prejudiced against the Syro-Phoenician woman, and in the other, Jesus heals a deaf man who the rest of the religious establishment has abandoned. Likewise the James text offers another tangible example that prejudice is a part of the human condition.

 I find it interesting that these two Gospel stories are back to back. In one, Jesus is the one who challenges and in the other, Jesus is the one who is challenged. There’s widespread debate over whether Jesus was testing the woman or his disciples, in his response to her. We can’t know what his motivation was for how he acted towards her. All we can do is interpret the behavior and in this instance, the behavior isn’t the loving and accepting Jesus we have come to expect.

With this woman, Jesus is curt and more than a bit rude. He calls her a dog and asks her why she should receive the same blessing that the Hebrew people does. By his words, and his words alone, Jesus is prejudiced towards the woman. Why is he rude? She is neither Jewish, nor is she from Judah or Israel. She is an outsider, a stranger in a foreign land. Ultimately, he ends up giving her what she wants, so our interpretation of his behavior is more nuanced and complicated. But we’re still left to struggle with his seeming prejudice all the same.

And then we arrive at the next story. With this healing story, it is easy to marvel as Jesus’ sacred spit and the randomness of this act in the midst of Jesus encountering another outsider – this time a man who was deaf. We know nothing more about the man than that. We know of no connections to anyone – the disciples or temple officials or Roman authorities. The main difference was the power imbalance. The woman took the initiative herself to come to Jesus, whereas the disciples brought the man to him. That implies that the man, in spite of his infirmity, was likely Jewish and was more sympathetic to the disciples than the woman, who was the wrong gender and the wrong nationality.

One biblical scholar notes another hidden dynamic that adds to the societal complexity. Jesus’ response to the woman may be an acknowledgment of the hardship of Jewish farmers, who often saw the fruits of their labors used to feed Gentile cities like the one that the Syro-Phoenician woman likely came from. This is another reminder of how real are the barriers that divide people. It would not be easy either for a Gentile woman to approach a Jewish teacher for help. But she reached out. Her love for her child had brought her across boundaries of gender, religion and ethnic origins. Even before she met him, she believed that the Jesus who would heal her child would never turn away those who seek help.

And yet, the discomfort caused by these stories, even in the midst of their healing nature, challenges us to examine how we treat the Gentiles in our midst. Similarly, James has a direct reminder to not judge on the basis of wealth. This was a particularly important issue for James, the brother of Jesus, who was known for his generosity, humility, and moral compass for the early church. James named power and privilege, not for those who already had it, but for those who did not.

For the church, whether in James’ time or in ours, a key part of the mission is to bridge the barriers that separate, in whatever form those barriers are made. Whether by gender or wealth or infirmity, we witness examples in these texts of God’s love overcoming human made constructs of prejudice and the imbalance of power. This is not an easy task for the church. And sometimes the church gets in the way of itself as it strives to do this work. We all have our prejudices that need to be overcome.

I know of a church that received a tangible lesson in prejudice during its worship one Sunday morning. The pastor was preaching on this text and had asked for one of his members to dress in disguise as a homeless person and come to the church for worship the next Sunday. This was a small congregation, located in a suburban town just outside of a large city, and prided itself on being welcoming to anyone who came in its doors. The woman took the assignment to heart, and was so convincing in the changes to her hair, clothing, and persona that no one initially recognized her.

She came in, and only one or two people approached her. She entered the sanctuary and sat in a pew alone. It wasn’t until halfway through the sermon that the pastor asked her to reveal herself. Several members of the congregation suspected her disguise, but most were surprised. It was a valuable lesson for that congregation, to remember that we never know who is among us, in our midst.

How we confront our prejudices, as individuals and as a faith community, is crucial in ground ourselves in sharing God’s love with others. We may believe we don’t have prejudices, but they tend to surprise us in unexpected moments. Even in our advocacy for marginalized peoples, we are called to not to be prejudiced against those who actively work to marginalize others. For a congregation like ours, that may be the most difficult task.

Extending grace with justice, love with peace, is something that Jesus was remarkably good at, and even he struggled at times. The good news for us is the same as the challenge – to recognize our prejudices, not let them dictate our motivations and actions, and continue to serve the world, just like Jesus. Amen.