Tenth Sunday after Trinity

20 aug 2017

9am & Choral Eucharist

Preacher: The Dean

Readings: Isaiah 56.1,6-8; Romans 11.1-2a,29-32; Matthew 15.21-28


I want to come clean, to be honest with you, I need to make a clean breast of it – I am prejudiced! Ok, I’ve said it! You want to know what I’m prejudiced against?  Well, I can’t abide men who wear shorts, sandals and socks.  You may not think as well of me now as you once did.  ‘How can he harbour such views’, you may wonder? ‘How is that influencing his decision making as a Dean, his ability to stand alongside such a person – shorts, sandals and socks proud – and not make judgements based on his prejudice?’

You’re right to ask those questions.  But I have to tell you before you get all self righteous that there are other prejudiced people here as well and that may, that probably, includes you.  They tell me that there are people in this Cathedral, for instance, who don’t like cats! You’re not allowed to express those views on the day on which we launch the Doorkins book – but perhaps you secretly hold that hatred.  Disgusting!  Call yourself a Christian?

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, has gone outside of his comfort zone.  He’s in the region of Tyre and Sidon.  There are foreigners there, people outside of the tightly defined family, the tightly defined and regulated community that was the people of God, the Jews.

And a woman comes up to him, a Canaanite woman.  A woman is bad enough, a foreign woman, a woman from outside the faith community who worshipped other Gods, this was terrible.  And Jesus reacts. 

For me, this is one of the most difficult passages in the whole of the four gospels.  In it we see Jesus reacting in a way to this poor woman who’s come outside of her comfort zone to plead to a Jew for the healing of her demon possessed daughter.  She’s at the end of her tether, seeking the last resort.  She’s probably tried everything, everybody else and so she decides – ‘what can I lose, I’ll go to this Jesus who everyone’s talking about – they say he loves everyone – let’s see if he loves me’.

The really shocking thing about this reading is that Jesus is so rude to her.  He speaks about her, not too her, as though he can’t bear to address her; he calls her a dog, likens her to an animal that picks up the scraps under the table when other people are feasting – a dog acting like vermin.  He’s been brought up listening to the stories of how his ancestors beat up and defeated the Canaanites and he’s bought into it, swallowed the stories and the prejudice.  He might love everyone – but he doesn’t love her and he shows it.

The last week has been shocking.  At the moment every week seems shocking.  If it isn’t sabre rattling of the most dangerous kind between the USA and North Korea, its Brexit and hair-brained schemes which seem to get us no further forward.  If it isn’t the scandalous waste of money on the Garden Bridge it’s the horror of terrorist attacks in Cambrils and in Barcelona, a city as diverse as our own, with a market on the Ramblas, where the attack happened, twinned with our own Borough Market.

And trumping it all has been President Trump with his failure to condemn the alt-right, the neo-Nazis, the KKK and their friends in the USA, his failure to condemn the horror of Charlottesville and the killing of a martyr for peace and inclusion, Heather Heyer, and to clearly state, as our own Prime Minister clearly stated, that there is no moral equivalent between the racist, fascist far right and the anti-racist majority.  His failure to do the right thing has given a new legitimacy to views and attitudes and prejudice that have no place in any society.

The prophet Isaiah has a vision of what the kingdom of God will be, is like

I will gather others … besides those already gathered.

The God who Isaiah knows is the God of inclusion, whose vision is for one family, gathered around one table, without difference, bound together by their common humanity for, as God says through Isaiah,

my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

It’s a beautiful vision, this is what the kingdom is like.  So why does Jesus have such a problem with the Canaanite woman?

I don’t think in reality he does but by the way he reacted he perhaps awoke in his disciples and others, who’d travelled with him across the boundaries into a place of discomfort, just how shocking their own attitudes were.  Perhaps in reacting like they would, but in a way they never expected he would, he cast a spotlight on the way in which they thought.  And for the woman too, who’d have had her own set of prejudices against Jews, she’d have been expecting his first response and only hoping for his second.

And we listening to this Gospel are forced to consider our own prejudices.  Because the truth is that we are all prejudiced – it’s part of human nature – but the question is, do we allow those views to run our lives, and dictate our decisions, do we allow those views to define our relationships, do we believe the generalisations about people who are different to us, people of another gender, people of another colour, people of a different sexuality, or age, or economic or social grouping? Have we the guts to confront our own shameful values and deal with them?

At the end of this Eucharist we’ll be commemorating the sinking of the Marchioness twenty-eight years ago today.  51 women and men, most of them young, died that night.  As you hear the names read, as you read them for yourselves on the stone, you’ll encounter names from across the world, the names of young men and young women, black and white, gay and straight, people who’d been born here, people who hadn’t, who were having a good time.  It was the same with the victims of the terror attack on our community – of the eight who died only one was from this country.

The cry of the racists is ‘give us our country back’ but whose is it?  The Christian vision is for an inclusive world in which we’re all equal citizens, free and loved and, as Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, living by the principle that

by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.

This community has committed itself to this way of living, honest and loving and trying, sometimes well, sometimes successfully, sometimes inadequately, sometimes failing, but always trying to be the reflection and incarnation of the kingdom to which Jesus points, even in that foreign place in which that child is healed.

The African-American writer Maya Angelou said

Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.

The God we meet in this Eucharist, the God who provides bread and wine for all people, who shares the divine life with all, is the God of the past, the future and the present who makes nothing inaccessible but everything accessible to all.

To the woman before him Jesus says with divine love

‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’

Whoever you are, whoever I am, he says the same, with equal love, to us.