No one is unclean through God’s redeeming love, says Sutton

The Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton speaks during the worship service Thursday Aug. 3, 2023 in the Amphitheater. JESS KSZOS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Column by Mary Lee Talbot

“In today’s scripture, Gospel writer Mark says that Jesus returned from Tyre, through Sidon toward the Sea of Galilee. That is a strange itinerary, like leaving Chautauqua for Buffalo, via Pittsburgh,” said the Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton. “Why would you go to the land of the Bills through the land of the Steelers?”

Sutton preached at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Ephphatha,” and the scripture reading was Mark 7:31-37.

The Gospel of Mark uses an economy of words, Sutton said. Nothing is insignificant. Nothing is without theological meaning. 

“Jesus was doing theology by geography. He took a circuitous route. Why? Because he was going to the place of the unclean, the Decapolis, an unsavory place, like Washington, D.C. The Gentiles in the Decapolis were the unclean ones,” Sutton said. 

Sutton reminded the congregation that the Rev. Craig Barnes has preached a sermon in Week Four about Jesus healing a man with many demons. Jesus cast the demons into a herd of swine; afterward, Jesus was driven out of town: “Swine futures were down and since Jesus was messing with the economy, he had to go.”

He continued, “But Jesus was in a growing dispute with the religious authorities who flaunted the purification laws of the religious establishment. They had lodged a complaint that Jesus’ disciples ate without washing their hands and did not purify their cooking utensils.”

This ceremonial washing had nothing to do with not passing on germs. The presenting issue is not always the real issue, Sutton said. “This was not about hygiene, which was about being symbolically unclean. Jesus’ point was that true defilement is not exterior, it is in the heart. Dirty hands are not morally offensive to God.”

Jesus challenged the authorities about rules that were not in the law of Moses, but were traditions of the elders who imposed them on everyone. Sutton asked the congregation if they had ever belonged to a religious institution with a tradition that was not in the Bible but could not be changed.

Confronted by a man who was deaf and mute, Jesus was asked to lay his hands on the man, but he went further. Jesus stuck his fingers in the man’s ears and then spit on a finger and placed it on the man’s tongue. “All I can say about this unorthodox method of healing is: Yuck,” Sutton said. 

He continued, “‘Ephphatha’ means to be released, to be opened. ‘Immediately’ — a word used a lot in Mark’s Gospel — the man was healed.”

Jesus had gone out of his way to go to an unclean land to lay hands on an unclean person using unclean methods. That is the point of this gospel text, said Sutton. 

“No person is unclean, not one is outside God’s redeeming touch,” he continued. “Who are those who are treated as unclean today? Those who are outcasts are assigned to the margins by the ‘majority,’ who are actually a minority with power. They decide who is the wrong gender, nationality, religion, color, orientation, class, body shape, political party.”

In scripture, those who are frequently marginalized are those with physical disabilities.

“They remind us that we will all be there and we don’t want to be reminded of our limitations,” Sutton said.

In 2003, when Sutton was canon pastor at the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., he helped to reinstitute a pilgrimage program there. He expected visitors to come as spiritual people on a journey.

The first group he led was from Alaska, and in the group was one person with a cane and one in a wheelchair. The pilgrimage starts in the Olmstead Woods, at the bottom of the Cathedral’s property and, after winding through the woods, the path comes to a set of 50 steps up to the Cathedral before the actual pilgrimage through the building. 

“When I thought about pilgrimage, I thought about walking and taking a vigorous walk. Three times, I told the group that not everyone needed to do the whole pilgrimage, some could stay back and we would pick them up later. The group said, ‘No, all of us are going to do it.’”

Sutton led the way, carrying a processional cross. The person with the cane and in the wheelchair were driven to woods and everything was uphill from there.

“It took a lot longer than I thought. When we got to the 50 steps, I walked up and I did not want to look back,” Sutton said. “But when I did look, I saw a teenager and an older man lifting the wheelchair up every step. Each person stopped on each step and said, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need.’ They said that 50 times as part of the pilgrimage ritual.”

He continued, “I learned that day that no one is cast to the margins in that space. We need to ask ourselves who are we leaving out because of what we think they are capable of.”

Sutton proposed three actions the congregation could take. First, educate yourself about physical disabilities so you know what to say to someone, how to talk about someone. “A person is living with a physical disability,” he said. “And stop expecting someone living with a disability to educate you. Do your own homework – and that applies to other marginalized people. It is not my job as a Black man to teach you about racism.” The congregation applauded.

The second action is to listen to what the person with a disability is telling you. “If they say something you don’t understand, don’t correct them. You aren’t the one living with the disability. David Steinberg, the comedian, defines listening as the art of taking on the skin of the other and wearing it as your own.” 

(While Sutton forgot the third action, he said after the service it was to expand your horizons.)

Chautauqua is trying to be an “ephphatha” space. He noted that there are only five buildings in Chautauqua built after the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. He praised Amit Taneja, senior vice president and Chief IDEA Officer, for his work with inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility at Chautauqua. 

“The Chautauqua staff decided to provide worship services in Braille so that people like Roger, who was our soloist this morning, could participate,” Sutton said. 

He continued, “We need to look at ourselves and each other and say ‘ephphatha.’ We need to be more open, ephphatha. We need to be more giving, ephphatha. If our mind is closed, ephphatha. If we are closed off from anyone, ephphatha. Ephphatha, ephphatha, ephphatha, ephphatha.”

The Rev. Luke Fodor, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jamestown, New York, and vicar of the Episcopal Chapel of the Good Shepherd, presided. The Rev. Cynthia Strickland, president of the Presbyterian Association of Chautauqua, read the scripture. For the prelude, the Motet Consort, Barbara Hois, flute, Debbie Grohman, clarinet, and Willie La Favor, piano, played “I. of Beauty,” from Palisades Suite (A Trio for our Time), by Eric Ewazen. For the first anthem, the Motet Choir sang “The Secret of Christ,” music by Richard Shephard, text from Isaiah 42:14-16, Revelation 22:1-3, and Colossians 4:2-4. The choir was under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, and accompanied by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, on the Massey Memorial Organ. The second anthem, “The Blind Ploughman,” by Paul Robeson, was sung by Roger Chard who was accompanied by Maurita Holland. The postlude, played by Stafford, was “Menuetto – Impromptu,” from Miniature Suite for Organ, by John Ireland. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.