9/6/2015 Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Mark 7:24-37
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today, I have a longer than average sermon as I have a story to share that was written by Janice B. Scott about a little boy name Henton. As she tells it, Henton knew he was different soon after he started school. His name marked him out, and it wasn’t long before rather cruel jokes about “Henny Penny!” accompanied by clucks and squawks and arms flapping like wings, followed him all day long. Henton would have liked to run away, but he had difficulty in running. His legs wouldn’t move as he wanted them to move, and he staggered and lurched from side to side even when he was walking.
The teachers tried to help. They called the whole class together and explained that Henton was “disabled” and would have his own helper with him all the time, and that all the children should be kind to him. Henton was so embarrassed that he wished he could disappear into the ground. He didn’t want to be thought of as “disabled”. He hated his helper. He only wanted to be like the others. And he didn’t want anybody being kind to him because they were sorry for him.
He needn’t have worried. A few of the children were curious and wanted to inspect his legs and a few more tried to be kind, but Henton soon got rid of all of them. Most of the children ignored him, but a significant handful continued to regard him as a huge joke and to plague him whenever he managed to escape from his helper.
Henton grew tough. He learned to spit and curse, and when he was sure he wouldn’t topple over with the effort, to kick viciously. Sometimes he would throw a huge tantrum even in class, and had to be taken out by his helper. They said he had “special needs”, but he could see by the look on the teachers’ faces that they didn’t really know what to do with him.
Henton became very alone. He hated school, he hated his family and he hated himself.
One day, a strange man appeared at school. He came into class and began to talk about sports. Henton switched off immediately. He couldn’t play any sports, so he knew that as usual, the talk had nothing to do with him. He fidgeted and sharpened the point of his pencil ready to plunge it into the girl who sat in front of him, when his helper wasn’t looking. But just as he was about to reach forward with his pencil poised, he heard his name.
“…and Henton,” he heard the man say. Henton had no idea what had been said before, but there was an immediate cry of anguish from the class.
“Not Henton! Not Henny Penny!”
“Why not?” asked the man.
“Because – because – he’s not one of us,” spluttered the boy who was the best runner in the class. “He’ll spoil everything. He’s no good. He’ll make us lose.”
Henton immediately plunged his sharpened pencil into the girl in front of him, who screamed. The class erupted into chaos and Henton got in a few good kicks and spits and curses before his arms were pinioned to his side by the man. Henton expected to be taken off into the side room where he always went when he disrupted the class, but this time the man lifted him bodily to the front of the class, keeping him pinioned so that he was unable to move. He continued to spit and curse, but it was difficult when the rest of him couldn’t move, and the man took no notice anyway.
Eventually Henton subsided and began to listen to what the man was saying.
“Henton is coming,” the man said, firmly. “He will take part in the races.”
Henton was horrified. Races? What races? How could he take part? He wasn’t one of them.
“What’s more,” the man was continuing, “Henton will win. You’ll see.”
The man took Henton away and began to train him. It was the happiest time of Henton’s life, and he soon looked forward to his daily training session – in the swimming pool. How glad he was that he’d learned to swim. Even with funny legs he could swim reasonably well, but he’d never thought of swimming as a sport.
When the gala began, Henton was allowed to start his race in the pool. Because his legs were so weak he wore flippers on his feet, and he was soon streaking down the pool. He won his race easily and the whole class cheered and cheered.
When he staggered onto the podium at the end to receive his gold medal, there was another cheer from Henton’s class and nobody said “Henny Penny” or squawked or flapped their arms.
After that, Henton’s life changed. He was always different because his legs never worked liked other people’s, but he was accepted in class and he began to make friends. He still threw the occasional tantrum, but they became fewer and fewer when he began to be ashamed of his friends witnessing his behavior.
And he worked so hard at his swimming that he became swimming champion of the school and eventually represented his country in the Paralympics. Then he knew that at last, he was “one of us.”
This is a wonderful story about acceptance and how it can change a person’s life. All too often, in one glance, we act as if we know someone and we judge the person as one of us or not one of us. We stereotype individuals “based on their economic, ethnic, or cultural background, especially when it comes to the poor or the outcast. Yet…James wants us to see the outsider as the face of his brother Jesus. And as for the gospel passage, this seemingly very audacious text shows Jesus temporarily limiting someone’s access to God’s grace based on their ethnic background — at least until someone calls him on it.” (Frank Ramirez from Emphasis Preaching Journal)
The truth is, it takes work to see people as people and not as some stereotype. And it hurts being pigeon-holed in one way or another. I remember, as a teenager, having a neighborhood boy come up to me and tell me that I couldn’t swim. I asked him why he said that as I was pretty good in the water. He told me that his mother told him that I would sink because I was fat. I have had people give me the eye of disgust when they see me eating a dessert, and have had their mouths drop open when they see what I can do in the gym, all because they accept as truth a stereotype that says that overweight people sit on sofas eating bonbons and are lazy, unenergetic souls.
But this is not the only area of my life in which I’ve struggled with stereotypes. When I was promoted to the accounting staff at Rosen, Lassoff and Flaster, they expressed their concern that I would not be able to control my emotions and concentrate on the tasks at hand during a certain time of the month. When looking for my first position as a pastor, things were not much better as I received a letter from a call committee informing me that although their vote was unanimous in my favor, that a call could not be issued because the congregation would not accept a woman.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Struggling against stereotypes has been a way of life. If it was not where I lived as a child in Welles Village, then my gender or my size or my overall height, became a basis for labelled. Just ask Karen McCann what it is like to buy clothes that fit. In order for me to buy pants that I can wear without dragging them on the ground, I have to purchase capris or crop pants…all because I have short legs. Because I am merely around 5 feet tall, the strap of the seat belt in my car may decapitate me if I’m ever in an accident as it goes right across my neck, rather than my shoulder.
Now, I don’t know what it is being Black or Hispanic. I don’t know the pain of racism. I don’t know what it is being physically or mentally challenged. I don’t know what it is like being a Syrophoenician woman during the time of Jesus. But, I do know what it is like being stereotyped and how discrimination feels. It hurts being pushed to the outside, disregarded, laughed at and scorned. It hurts being labelled, “not one of us.”
In today’s gospel, the Syrophoenician woman wears that label as she is an outsider, both as a female and as a Gentile. The man from Decapolis is physically disabled — both deaf and mute — and probably also a Gentile… unclean on both counts. Both these people know they are different. Both know that there is little hope of Jesus responding to their need, but they go to him in faith and hope…looking to be treated as one worthy of God’s grace. As a faithful Jewish man, these are people that Jesus is expected to disregard. And yet when they reach out to him in their need, Jesus does not let the stereotypes get in the way of his helping real people with real needs. Jesus accepts them as people, and not as labels. Jesus looks past the obvious and does not push them aside. Jesus finds them worthy to receive God’s mercy and grace. For in Christ there are no outsiders. All stand as children of God – brothers and sisters in faith. For, under the skin, we are all the same. Black, white, red, brown, there is no distinction between us. The members of Mensa and the mentally challenged are the same in the eyes of God. Fat, thin, tall, short, old, young…it doesn’t matter. All sin and fall short of the glory of God. All stand in need of the forgiveness and salvation provided by Jesus. Through him, everyone is one of us.
So, let us live as one…not by concentrating on the ways we are different, but on the ways we are alike. Let us celebrate our diversity as it completes us as the body of Christ. May we rejoice in each other and live in harmony as the family God made us to be. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.