Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
30th Aug 2020
Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
“God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all”
The graphic story in today’s gospel tells of a Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman who as a foreigner, successfully challenges Jesus’ intention to minister to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’ only. This woman is a rank outsider. She crashes into the party where the invited and the included are those deemed to be righteous and for whom the inheritance of faith in God was sacrosanct. The Jewish inheritors of the old covenant covenant which had given them exclusive rights and access to Rabbinic teaching. But the woman’s presence reveals the down-side of this righteousness. For it excited in them feelings of ethnic cleanliness, which hardened itself against any who stood outside the community of the chosen.
Jesus, as a rabbinic teacher, stands awkwardly in the middle of these racial tensions both as a Jew himself and as an inheritor of the Jewish tradition. But crucially we discover that he is ready to give ground. He knows from deep within that the gift of faith; the Kingdom of God is latent in all and possible for all. It has not been parcelled out to the practising religious alone. This woman, comes from a territory unvisited by strict Jews. But she is bold and confident and is not put off. She gives Jesus due respect, using the title ‘Lord, Son of David’. She contradicts his assertion that he has come only to Israel and that the good food of the inheritance should not be thrown to the ‘dogs’. And in a gentle play on words like ‘dog’, which were and still are in the middle east used as insults, the woman turns the play on words to her own good use and appeals to the witty idea that even (real) dogs are permitted to eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table. Jesus commends her for her faith. The word faith here is being used as a kind of forthrightness, a kind of keen wit and intelligence borne of necessity; a kind of passion. One comedian once said that in order to have a sense of humour and to make humour work you need also a strong sense of proportion. She might be saying, even to Jesus, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’.
This Gospel reading and this strange, insistent, interesting woman provide a timely reminder of the need to challenge the forces of prejudice, hatred and anger that bedevil our world even as we commemorate the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. The shocking and terrifying footage of a black man, Jacob Blake, gunned down in his won car with his children in the back seat is a depressing reminder of how little has been achieved from the promising message delivered all that long ago. We may say that this is a problem for the gun toting USA but the Church of England has had to own up to institutional racism and re-examine its own perhaps subtle but nevertheless innate prejudices also. Meanwhile, the hope of the black community and for others who feel outraged and excluded day by day lies bleeding on the world’s pavement.
The summons to defend basic human freedoms is as urgent now as it was at the time of Jesus. In a multicultural and perhaps fractured world, Jesus, like us, was immersed in the potential conflict of interests that such a situation threw up.
The Canaanite woman prompts us to consider the enlargement of the household of faith. She reminds us that such widening of understanding and trust is necessary to the very integrity and honesty of the Christian Church, and ultimately for the freedom of the world.
Jesus is manifestly Son of God. In him, we come to know that it is the Creator’s will and purpose that all are given free access to his love and mercy, beyond the imposed confines of human will and the vanity of fundamentalist ideology. As the hymn reminds us, there “There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy”, not just for we of the household of Christian Faith but for all who, seek God from the bottom of their hearts. Human freedom, the freedom to live and to thrive, in peace and harmony, must never be taken for granted. It must be proclaimed daily, defiantly and fearlessly. All are ultimately included. We must welcome the critical stranger as Jesus did, for she will always deserve our attention.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice,
Which is more than liberty.
F W Faber (1814-1863)
In August 1963, Billie Jean Brown knew that Martin Luther King Jr. had just delivered a powerful, momentous address.
Her then-employer, Motown Records, recorded King’s “I Have a Dream” speech 57 years ago today at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., releasing it later that year on an album titled “The Great March on Washington.”