September 9, 2018 – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver

Year B, Proper 18, Track 2, Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

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A couple of years ago I first became aware of an online test you can take through Harvard University. Maybe you know of it: it’s called the Implicit Association Test, and it’s designed to measure the subtle biases and stereotypes many of us carry around, both consciously and unconsciously. The best-known version is about race. Images of black people and white people are flashed on the screen, together with words with either positive or negative associations, like “kind” or “sneaky” or “hardworking” or “lazy.” The test measures your response times as you push a button to categorize the images you see. The results for most people in our culture can be sobering. It’s easier and quicker for most participants to associate a picture of a white person with a positive descriptor, and a picture of a black person with a negative descriptor, than the other way around. Most people show some level of preference for white people over people of color.

Now this is just one test, and scientists aren’t universally convinced of how relevant the results are to how people behave in the real world.[1] But it’s pretty clear that racial bias isn’t just a matter of people being explicit racial supremacists. We have great difficulty talking about race in this country, and one of the things that makes it difficult is that it’s hard for many white people to think of ourselves as harboring racism. Perhaps that word makes us think of a Bull Connor or David Duke. We’d like to believe, perhaps, that we’re different, that we’re color blind and see everyone equally. But the fact is, racism isn’t so much a binary yes/no, where you’re either really racist or you’re not racist. Racism is more like a pollutant that pervades the water we swim around in. This is true for white people, and it can even be true for people of color. Just as fish who swim in an ocean polluted by plastic end up having tiny bits of plastic in their bloodstream, even people with the best of intentions in our society end up having subtle bits of racial prejudice in their psyches. That’s why studies show that resumes with names like Emily and Greg get more interviews than resumes with names like Jamal and Lakisha.[2] That’s why, just this past Friday, a teenage black boy was pulled over and handcuffed outside Milwaukee when someone saw him riding in a Lexus with two white women and called the police. The two women turned out to be his grandmother and her friend, and they were on their way home from church.[3]

Race is one of the factors people use, even subconsciously, when making snap decisions. But of course it’s not the only factor. There are lots of others. Our attitudes about people’s gender, age, ability or disability, body type, class, and so on also come into play. And all these factors overlap and intersect. How people are dressed is a big one. In our reading from the letter of James today, when James asks us whether we treat people differently if they come into church wearing jewelry and nice clothes or in shabby clothes, it feels almost shockingly contemporary, as if this part of the letter could have been written in 2018. How are we at welcoming all people into this community at Incarnation, no matter who they are, what they look like, how they dress? One of the greatest joys about our church’s ministry is that we’re the only Episcopal parish in Santa Rosa, located downtown in the heart of the city. I believe that means we’re called to be truly a parish for the whole community: not for one neighborhood or one demographic, but for the whole. Every Sunday we have people in worship who are wealthy and people who are struggling; people with big homes and people staying on the streets. I think we do OK at welcoming everyone to worship—but how can we do more to become a truly hospitable community, where every single guest is treated as a guest of honor?

Getting past our unspoken biases can be a struggle. But one piece of encouragement is that Jesus is with us in the struggle. I mean that literally. Because we see him engaged in his own struggle in today’s gospel reading. This is one of the most remarkable stories, I think, in the whole New Testament: because it shows Jesus, our Savior, the Word of God made flesh, in his complete humanity.

It’s been said that when the Divine falls into the sea, it becomes a fish.[4] Well, when Jesus fell into the sea of human culture, he swam in the same sea we do, and he absorbed the attitudes of his society into his own bloodstream. And in this story Jesus shows his own prejudice. He initially refuses to heal this woman’s daughter, because she’s a Syrophoenician, a Gentile, and he understands his mission as being only to the people of Israel. But more than that: he even insults her, using what’s essentially a racial slur by calling her a dog. Unthinking, perhaps. Hurtful, no doubt. And this woman does something truly amazing: she calls him on his prejudice. She does it cleverly, with wit, turning his own comment about dogs back on him. She tells him, essentially, that Syrophoenician lives matter. And Jesus, in his full humanity, is startled into learning, and growing, and into a change of heart.

This is the very first time in Mark’s gospel when Jesus encounters someone who is not part of Israel: the first time he meets someone of a different race, religion, and culture. This is the first time he’s confronted with the question of whether his mission just might be even wider than he had realized. This unnamed Syrophoenician woman helps Jesus to a moment of conversion.

As Christians we proclaim that Jesus lived in every way as one of us, yet without sin.[5] And I think I would say that it wasn’t a sin, in and of itself, that Jesus grew up with the attitudes around him; it was human limitation. It would have been a sin if he had failed to confront those attitudes in himself. As we, who aren’t Jesus and who are sinners, walk the struggle of confronting prejudice in ourselves and in others—we can draw strength from the fact that Jesus has walked this same journey with us.

We live in a time when racism and other forms of prejudice are in our nation’s consciousness in ways they haven’t been in decades. We can ignore that reality. Or we, as individuals and as a community, can seize the opportunity for conversion. In God’s beloved kingdom there are no outcasts. May we learn more and more deeply to make it so in our nation, in our city, in our congregation, today.

[1] See “Implicit Association Test,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicit-association_test.

[2] Katie Sanders, “Do job-seekers with ‘white’ names get more callbacks than ‘black’ names?” PunditFact (March 15, 2015), https://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2015/mar/15/jalen-ross/black-name-resume-50-percent-less-likely-get-respo/.

[3] Damien Sharkov, “Black teen driving with white grandmother handcuffed by police because bystander said he was robbing her,” Newsweek (September 6, 2018), https://www.newsweek.com/black-teen-driving-white-grandmother-handcuffed-police-when-man-said-he-was-1108837.

[4] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 575. Lewis seems to be quoting Bernard Bosanquet, Logic, or The Morphology of Knowledge (1911), vol. 2 (Book II, ch. VIII.1.5), p. 257, as noted by Arend Smilde at http://lewisiana.nl/painquotes/.

[5] Hebrews 4:15; Eucharistic Prayer D, Book of Common Prayer p. 374.