Sunday, 2 December 2018

Hope in the darkness, hope in the apocalypse: a sermon for Advent Sunday

Sermon preached on 2nd December 2018 at Long Buckby URC. Texts: Luke 21:25-36, Jeremiah 33:14-16.

So Advent is here, and it’s time for preachers everywhere to remind congregations that this is not a time for feasting. Nor is it just a time to prepare our houses and our families for Christmas. Because we live in the time between the first coming of Christ and the second coming of Christ. And Advent is a time to prepare for the second coming as well as to prepare to remember the first.

This is why, as a Scottish Presbyterian who grew up without much awareness of liturgical seasons, I’m now really keen on Advent. Because it’s a solemn time. The gospel readings are full of doom and woe and foreboding, solid Presbyterian themes. But let’s face it, also themes which resonate with today’s world. And they’re threaded through with hope, with words of consolation and reassurance that look forward to the future. Because we know that 2000 years ago, a baby was born in difficult times and in difficult circumstances, and that baby ushered in a new world. And we’re promised that one day the world will change, and the kingdom of love and hope will surround the whole world, when Christ comes again. And that to me is the hope of Advent.

But we can’t get there the easy way. There’s no point in Advent, no point in Christmas really, if it’s all about sentiment and jingle bells. Let’s not mince words. The world’s in a terrible state just now. Authoritarian and far-right leaders are in power in Brazil, Italy, Turkey and the United States among others. Our own country is split down the middle over Brexit, facing an uncertain future with little prospect of a positive outcome. Homelessness and food bank use are increasingly rapidly. The oceans are polluted, with coral reefs dying and plastic waste everywhere. Global temperatures are rising to dangerous levels, maybe to the point of irreversible damage. And many of us have personal stories to match.

Yes, there have been worse times in history. And who knows, there could be worse to come. But just now feels like a really dark time. So it’s timely to think about apocalyptic pieces like this one we heard, with the sun and the stars and the sea and all that. Now apocalyptic literature needs to be treated carefully. There was a lot of it written around the time of Jesus, and it had a very specific form and purpose. It’s not prophecy. It’s not to be taken literally. It’s partly poetry, partly commentary on the current world, partly a cry for help. Because apocalyptic literature grows when people are oppressed. The book of Daniel was written when a Greek king threatened to destroy Jewish worship in the temple at Jerusalem. The book of Revelation was written when the early Christians were being persecuted across the Greek-speaking Jewish world. And the various apocalyptic stories of Jesus’ time were told and written under Roman persecution of the Jewish people, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

But you need to read it carefully. In the weeks leading up to Advent two years ago, I read and blogged my way through the book of Revelation, the longest and most vivid piece of apocalyptic writing in our scriptures. That’s an extraordinary book, full of incredible imagery and poetry, weird symbolism, vicious commentary on the wickedness of the Roman empire, and texts so beautiful that they’ve been set to music by some of the greatest composers. My head was full of song as I read Revelation. But what I found I couldn’t do was look at it directly. It’s like one of those optical illusions by Escher - it only makes sense if you look at it from the side, if you look at it head-on your eyes go funny and your brain hurts and nothing makes sense. And one of the great problems with Revelation is that it’s read as if it was a weather forecast, and you get bizarre American websites tracking the events of the book against real life and scoring how close we are to the events shown, or trying to make movies and popular books showing the events of Revelation in our current world. None of that makes any sense of the book, and at worst it can be actively harmful if it’s used as a guide to policy or life.

And all this goes with our passage today. I don’t believe that the detail of the signs Jesus is talking about are important. He’s using these as symbols, within the accepted style of the time, to give a clear message about what happens in situations of disaster. He says that the signs will be clear that the kingdom of God is coming near. The form of the disaster isn’t so clear, but what is entirely clear is that the kingdom of God is coming.

So if we think of the end of the world, we can think of it as the end of this world. As the end of the world of pain. As the end of the world of oppression. As the end of the world where power is everything, where hierarchy is central, where climbing the ladder and pushing others down matters. The end of the world where violence is the heart of society. The end of the world where if you gain, then I lose. The end of the world that mistreats people because they’re black, or female, or a minority religion, or gay, or disabled, or transgender. The end of that world. Carrying on with Revelation, we’re told at the end of that book that “Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away”.

Now that’s a hopeful kind of apocalypse. And it goes back to another Jewish theme, the coming of the Day of the Lord, which is a day of judgement and trial for evil forces in society, for those who put others down, but for ordinary people is a day of hope and a day of celebration. This is the promise given through the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament reading that we heard – that God will fulfil his promises, and will save Jerusalem and Judah through the descendants of David. We hear this as relating to Jesus, as a descendant of David, but it’s a promise given to the Jewish people in a time of their great need. It’s a collective promise rather than an individual promise, a gift given to a whole people who were suffering and struggling. Jeremiah has a reputation of being a rather gloomy prophet, but that section of the book is sometimes known as the Book of Consolation and it’s full of reassurance and hope for the people of Judah in dark times.

And in the same way Jesus offers reassurance and hope in dark times. He tells us that the kingdom of God is near. That phrase is familiar and occurs throughout the gospels, but here he uses it to refer to the coming kingdom at the end of days, when the justice and righteousness that Jeremiah promises will spread throughout the whole world. He says that his words will never pass away, that redemption is coming soon.

All this is more important than the troubles that will be found in the apocalyptic times. And so Jesus instructs his disciples to be alert, to be watchful, to be ready for that day to come. Now we know when Christmas will come – 3 weeks on Tuesday, check those last posting dates and the deadlines for turkey orders – but we have no idea when that second coming will occur. The early Christians believed it was imminent – there is a statement of that in Jesus’ words that “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place”, and there are many occasions when St Paul writes of expecting the second coming happening within his own life. In the ensuing Christian centuries, people have often believed it to be imminent, and lived their lives accordingly.

In the strict sense of the calendar, they were wrong. Christ has not come again in glory, evil still walks on the earth. And yet the process of waiting, of watchfulness, of readiness for the kingdom is a very powerful one. For if Christ could return at any time, how can we not be ready? If he has instructed us to love our neighbour, indeed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked, how can we possibly not be doing those things right now? This instant! How can we possibly be so self-indulgent as to hate others, or to allow those who work in our name as churches and governments to treat others badly? How can we tolerate mistreatment of immigrants, or allow poverty to persist, or permit prejudice and discrimination in all its ugly forms? Because Christ could be coming back any moment, and he will call us to account for the keeping of his word. That’s the kind of watchfulness that I think he’s calling us to in this passage – to live as though the kingdom of God has already arrived, to live in that upside-down kingdom where the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the hungry are filled with good things. And that’s a true calling of watchfulness.

The early church knew this. They were watching for the return of Christ, and they lived in that spirit. My son is called Gregory, which means watchful, and that name was so popular in the first centuries of Christianity because the church was watching for the return of Christ. And they were living in the spirit of this kingdom. And yet the passing of the centuries and the deal they eventually did with the Roman Empire meant that this spirit was lost.

There’s another way in which we can look for the second coming. Various religious groups have believed that Christ had already come again, such as the early Quakers for whom the return of Christ was an inward experience. George Fox, the founder of Quakers in the mid-17th century, said that “Christ has come to teach his people himself”, and this led them to challenge the powers of the world and still animates their mixture of social action, radicalism, and contemplative worship. In a more mainstream form of liberal theology, the late American theologian Marcus Borg wrote:
During Advent, we remember the first coming of Jesus, even as we prepare for his second coming. And the second coming occurs each year at Christmas, with the birth of Christ within us, the coming of Christ into our lives. Christ comes again and again and again, and in many ways. In a symbolic and spiritual sense, the second coming of Christ is about the coming of the Christ who is already here.
So perhaps this is the hope for Advent, and the message of this passage. In the midst of desolation, in the midst of despair, be watchful, be ready, live your life so that Christ can come again within you and among you at any time. And he will give you strength, and hope, and new life and transformation.


Sunday, 28 October 2018

Courage, faith and healing: a sermon on Bartimaeus as a model for discipleship

Sermon preached at The Headlands URC, 28 October 2018. Text: Mark 10:46-52.

NB: As an 'introduction to the theme', I spoken about healing in the understanding of the Iona Community (and my own recent experience of the Iona healing service). In particular, I stressed that 'success' in healing is not an indicator of one's level of faith; and that healing may take many forms, not just physical. I did not stress these points further in the sermon but they form an important backdrop to the sermon.

Image: Jesus Mafa
We have here one of the great healing stories in a gospel full of healing stories. But more than that, this is a story about the faith and courage of one man, and what that tells us about discipleship. Bartimaeus is a man who suffers but he’s also a man who shows great courage, and who begins to follow Jesus before he’s healed. It’s also a story about how one of the most marginalised people was able to see things that the privileged people couldn’t.

A few words about context before we look at the content of the story. This encounter is the very last passage described before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, before Palm Sunday. Jericho is about 15 miles from the edge of Jerusalem, a day’s walk or so, and there wasn’t much between the two. Remember that the parable of the Good Samaritan happens on the Jericho road, and preachers often talk of the isolation of that road. So it’s next stop Jerusalem, the donkey and palm branches, the events in the temple, and ultimately Jesus’ betrayal and death. There are no other healings in this gospel. Bartimaeus has no further chance to be healed by this electrifying young rabbi. So he simply can’t afford to be denied by those around Jesus.

That’s looking forward in the text. Looking back, the story of Bartimaeus comes after a series of dialogues that Jesus has with his disciples and with those around him. We’ll come to a few of them, but in short, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, shows himself to have more insight than any of the disciples, more wisdom than James and John, and more courage than a rich man. The ongoing theme of Jesus’ dialogues before entering Jerusalem is that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and we see this really clearly in Bartimaeus. He’s a disciple for our times.

The first thing we learn about Bartimaeus is his name. He’s the only person Jesus heals in Mark’s gospel who gets a name. As I’ve said, there’s a lot of healing in 10 short chapters of Mark, but the healed person only gets a description – the leper, or the person with unclean spirits, and so on. So he could have been just the blind beggar, and in fact that’s how he appears in Luke and Matthew’s versions of the story. But it’s an odd name. Bartimaeus simply means ‘son of Timaeus’ in Aramaic, as Mark tells us. Naming someone as the son of someone was common enough – Jesus would have been called ‘Yeshua bar Yosef’ in Aramaic, just as the most famous holder of my first name was called Magnus Magnusson because that’s still the style in Iceland. But Bartimaeus only gets his father’s name – it’s as if in his misery he doesn’t really have an identity. Commentators disagree about the meaning of Timaeus as a name, but it’s a Greek word not an Aramaic or Hebrew one, so there’s a further sense of distance, and at least one possible meaning is ‘unclean person’. Bartimaeus does get a name, but it’s the name of a downtrodden and marginalised person.

Carrying on with the story, he’s told that Jesus is here, and he starts to shout out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me”. This is the first time that Jesus is referred to as the Son of David in Mark’s gospel. It’s a pretty political statement, fifteen miles from Jerusalem and just before the Passover. Son of David is a way of saying that Jesus is heir to the throne of David, that he’s a ruler; because David was an anointed king, it’s also a way of saying Messiah. The fact that the crowds are quick to silence Bartimaeus may have been simply because he was yet another person wanting something from Jesus, just as earlier in the chapter the disciples rebuked those who brought young children to Jesus. But I think there may have been a political fear as well. The Roman occupation of Palestine, and its client rulers, kept a watchful eye for political insurgents and often stamped hard on it. So close to Jerusalem, in a town such as Jericho where lots of priests from the temple lived, and so close to the Passover, they would have been really watchful. By calling Jesus the son of David, Bartimaeus was putting himself in immediate danger and possibly also those around him in danger. So they’d want to silence him for his sake and for their own.

But the attempted silencing has no effect on Bartimaeus, and he shouts all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”. He’s quite insistent – he will be heard, he won’t be silenced. As one commentator writes on this passage, the last time there was shouting like that outside Jericho, the walls came tumbling down. Because another aspect of kingship is a care for the downtrodden and the ability to heal. So Bartimaeus is almost issuing a challenge to Jesus: if you really are the Messiah, then do your job and heal me! Of course, Jesus had the compassion and healing ability of the expected Messiah, but the kingdom he was bringing was a very different kind, not based on violence and power but on justice and sacrifice.

And Jesus listens and calls Bartimaeus over, and then we have a key pair of verses, perhaps the heart of the passage. Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, springs up and comes over to Jesus. And Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants Jesus to do for him, to which he replies that he’d like his sight restored. There’s so much in that about discipleship.

First is Bartimaeus’ trust and courage in throwing off his cloak. He was blind and a beggar, so his cloak was quite likely his only possession. It kept him warm, it kept him safe. He would spread it out on the road to beg for money to live on. In throwing it off, he was making himself incredibly vulnerable for the sake of this Jesus. Now that is a sign of trust. And it compares amazingly to the rich young man who spoke to Jesus earlier in this chapter, who Jesus said had to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, in order to gain life in all its abundance. The rich man refused and went away grieving – we might imagine him walking head down, dejected, his enthusiasm lost. By contrast we’re told that Bartimaeus leapt up and came over to Jesus – full of hope and trust in this new opportunity for life.

Then we see Jesus ask a question which might seem surprising but is entirely in line with his way of thinking. He asks Bartimaeus “what do you want me to do for you?”. He doesn’t assume what Bartimaeus wants or needs, he doesn’t tell Bartimaeus what ought to happen. He waits for Bartimaeus to tell Jesus for himself. Too often, the church has told people what ought to happen to them, what’s best for them. But people know themselves what they need. This requires Bartimaeus to articulate for himself what’s wrong with him, to admit that he’s blind. This matters as well: we have to face up to what’s wrong with us. The first step to healing for anyone, whatever is wrong with them, can often be to name their condition. And if you’re not willing to give your condition a name, not willing to say out loud that you need to be healed, it’s often much harder to help.

Last week’s gospel reading had Jesus talking with James and John, who asked to sit on his right hand and left hand when he came into his glory. His question to them was exactly the same: “what is is you want me to do for you?” – but their answer was about power, about maintaining the same kind of authority structures in the kingdom of God that we have on this earth. And Jesus told them off for it, because that was precisely not what he was here to do. He came to turn upside the power, to put the first last and the last first, to give sight to the blind and hope to the downtrodden. So Bartimaeus had it right – he didn’t ask for power, he asked for sight. He asked to be able to see the world clearly, to live a life like others.

One more point from Jesus and Bartimaeus’ conversation that fascinates me. When he replies to Jesus, Bartimaeus uses the Aramaic word ‘Rabbouni’, my teacher. It’s a version of the word Rabbi, but more intimate and direct. It occurs only one other place in all the gospels, in the beautiful encounter of Mary Magdalene with the risen Jesus on Easter morning. Mary doesn’t recognise Jesus at first, until he says her name, and her response is that word Rabbouni. For it to be said by a blind beggar on the roadside in Jericho is a sign of enormous trust and faithfulness. And of course he follows Jesus on his way to Jerusalem – where else would he go now?

The story of Bartimaeus is a fascinating one, as much about the nature of discipleship as about healing. It can give us hope – if we want to be a disciple of Jesus, or if we want to be healed, or both, we must first learn to name our needs and be willing to trust Jesus. And as the church, if we really want to be able to follow the gospel, we need to look to people like Bartimaeus rather than the rich young man – to be willing to say, our mission is to these people. And then to be able really to listen to them and their needs, to build relationship with them, and answer their needs.

I want to give the last word to an American writer and activist called Ched Myers who has written and preached and based his ministry on Bartimaeus for forty years. He writes that:
What this tale has taught me over the years is this: that embracing Jesus’ call is not a matter of cognitive assent, nor of churchly habits, nor of liturgical or theological sophistication, nor doctrinal correctness, nor of religious piety, nor any of the other poor substitutes that we Christians have conjured through the ages.  Rather, discipleship is at its core a matter of whether or not we really want to see.  To see our weary world as it truly is, without denial and delusion: the inconvenient truths about economic disparity and racial oppression and ecological destruction and war without end.  And to see our beautiful world as it truly could be, free of despair or distraction: the divine dream of enough for all and beloved community and restored creation and the peaceable kingdom.  Discipleship invites us to apprehend life in its deepest trauma and its greatest ecstasy, in order that we might live into God’s vision of the pain and the promise.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Widening the circle of God’s love: a sermon on being wrong and being corrected

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church on 9th September 2018. Texts: Mark 7:24-37, James 2:1-17.

Have you ever had that kind of conversation where someone you really like and admire suddenly says something offensive or obnoxious – something racist, embarrassingly sexist, toe-curlingly old-fashioned, that kind of thing? And your heart sinks and you wonder whether to argue back. Bad enough if it’s directed to other people. Awful, really horrible, if it’s directed to you. And worse still if the person saying it has power over you, or you need something from them.

So it is in the story which begins today’s gospel reading. And yet it has a happy ending of sorts, which shows Jesus widening the circle of what he understands as God’s love, of where he sees as his mission field, going beyond the narrow confines of the people of Israel to people everywhere. Now this might sound shocking in a different way. We know that Jesus had a temper had times, that gentle Jesus meek and mild was no such thing, but the son of God being actively racist? Or the son of God learning from his mistakes? Well he was human as well as divine, and humans say dumb things, humans do dumb things, and then learn to do things better. So is a story of hope for us all.

We start by seeing Jesus in foreign lands. The city of Tyre was an important port in what is now Lebanon, and was then part of the province of Phoenicia or Syria. But as you can see from the map, to Jewish eyes it was a long way from home. Remember that Galilee, the heart of Jesus’ ministry, was already seen as the distant north to the people Israel and Judea; and Tyre was far away from Galilee. Like various of their neighbours, the Jewish people didn’t much like the people of Tyre, and those living there would definitely be seen as foreigners.

It’s not clear from the text why Jesus was in Tyre, but we are told that he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. So he could have been on some kind of retreat, or just needing a bit of space. And speaking as an introvert, I can empathise with him getting grumpy with anyone invading that sense of privacy. But then a woman comes to his door. The gospel writer takes care to describe her as doubly-foreign. First she’s described as Syro-Phoenician, which is to say from the coastline around Tyre. Second, in many translations she’s called a Gentile, but the word in the original is simply ‘Greek’, part of the Greek-speaking culture found all around the eastern Mediterranean. The point from the gospel writer is clear: she’s a foreigner, she’s the Other, she’s not one of the chosen people.
Image: Ilyas Basim Khuri
Bazzi Rahib (1684),
via Vanderbilt University

But she’s in the kind of desperation that often brought people to Jesus – her daughter has some incurable condition and she’s in search of healing and she’s heard that someone is in town who might help. She throws herself at his feet, begs for his help. So does Jesus take pity on her, proclaiming that her faith has healed her daughter?

No, he does not. Instead he continues with this othering process and he refuses to heal her daughter. His mission is to the children of Israel, and they must be fed first – to take that from them is as bad is taking food from children and giving it away. And then he uses a racial slur, comparing the Syro-Phoenician woman and her daughter to dogs. This wasn’t an uncommon comparison for Jesus’ day as a term of abuse by Jewish people towards foreigners, but it needs a few words. Here’s how we think of dogs today – pets, companions, members of a household. Whether you’re a dog person or not, most of us have a similar sense of dogs. Certainly there are badly behaved dogs, with strays and the like, but mostly they live with humans and mostly behave themselves.

In Jesus’ time, dogs were seen very differently. They were frequently wild, often scavengers. Unpleasant, wild creatures. You didn’t throw food to them, you didn’t give them little treats. If they were under a table, it wasn’t to be given food as part of a family, it was picking up what they could get where they could get it. So to be compared to a dog, to have a gift of healing compared to giving food to dogs, that was pretty insulting. And let’s be clear – this was explicitly a racialised insult. I have no wish to sully this church by speaking out modern equivalents, but I’m sure you can think of some. There are abusive words which are spoken by the powerful to the less powerful, and which are specific to the abused person’s race, or gender, or sexuality. They continue today and they’re horrible. That Jesus was in a foreign land is not relevant, because history is full of people whose culture had led them to believe themselves superior, going to foreign lands and treating the natives badly. Think about the British in India, or the Belgians in the Congo.

Now, the idea of the son of God speaking in a racist manner punctures a lot of what we like to think about Jesus, so over the centuries there have been attempts to explain this language away. The word for dog is a diminuitive form, a little dog, so perhaps he was playfully calling her a puppy. Or perhaps he was testing her, in the way that rabbis sometimes did, being deliberately provocative to bring out an answer. Or perhaps that the woman was actually part of an economic elite in Tyre and he was criticising her for her privilege. Or something else. I get why people feel the need to defend Jesus, but I’m not convinced by these, it doesn’t fit to the text. In my view, this simply shows Jesus in a bad light, but demonstrates that nobody is perfect, even the one who was sent by God to change the world and who hung out with the poor and the downtrodden, that even Jesus had his moments.

And fortunately it doesn’t last. Because the woman replies with an argument that changes Jesus’ mind. In a few words she convinces him that he’s wrong. These are calm words, the kind of words that oppressed people have often used to challenge those in power. She doesn’t dispute the dog imagery, but she says that even if that’s so, then the dogs get crumbs from under the table. This is standing up to authority. This is speaking truth to power. I like this image, because this is the image of a woman coming out from oppression and seeing her own power
Image: Ched Myers
. This is saying that she matters, that her life matters, that her daughter’s life matters. It’s the same spirit that inspired the civil rights movement in the US, and that today inspires those young people who stand up and call for gun control. It’s the same spirit that inspires gay people to march in Pride parades and demand equal marriage from the state and from the church. It’s the same spirit that inspired the women’s suffrage movement. It’s the same spirit that inspired the anti-slavery campaigner Sojourner Truth, herself born a slave in the USA, to say the words “ain’t I a woman?”. It is, ironically, the spirit of Christ, of the gospel of liberation and love, but it’s words spoken not by Jesus but to Jesus.

In fact, and I use this phrase carefully and with respect, the woman is saying that Syro-Phoenician lives matter. Her call is for racial justice. And Jesus, because all his message is about widening the circle of God’s people, about bringing justice to people in all sorts of oppression, Jesus hears her argument. And here’s a thing – he doesn’t commend her for her faith, he commends her for her argument. The Greek is logos, often translated as word with a capital W, identified in the gospel of John with the eternal Christ who comes before the human Jesus, and is the spirit of wisdom. Logos is not something you attributes to dogs, to sub-humans, to inferiors. Logos is a word you use of someone you respect. It’s a sign that Jesus has really heard this woman, that her words have touched him and affected his ministry. He immediately says that her daughter is cured. But then, as this slide says, he understood justice more deeply because of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s insistence on justice for herself and her daughter.

And then Jesus moves on, not south back towards Galilee or Jerusalem, but north, further into Gentile territory, to the city of Sidon and then back to the Romanised area of small towns called the Decapolis. He’s heard the Syro-Phoenician woman’s argument, and he’s off to heal and preach to the Gentiles. And as if to emphasise the point, he heals a man who is deaf and mute, in quite a physical way that’s described in detail by Mark. He allows the man the power of hearing and speech, by urging him to Be Opened – which is Aramaic is that splendidly unpronounceable word ‘Ephphatha’ which most of the translations preserve. Because opening is what this whole passage is about. Opening up an understanding of God’s justice. Opening up an understanding of who is welcome in the kingdom. Opening up an sense of God’s love as wider than human boundaries or categories or prejudices.

We say in the church that we’re open to all. But are we really? There are too many stories of churches which said they welcomed everyone, but only on their own terms, only if they’re willing to fit in with the dominant culture. Churches which say they’re open to children, but make no effort to change their wordy sermons or archaic liturgy. Churches which say they’re open to autistic people or those with dementia, but give no pointers to help those people make sense of their worship. Churches which say they’re open to gay people, but not if they want to bring a same-sex partner or get married in the church. Even churches which say they’re open to women, but refuse to let them have leadership positions.

The United Methodist Church in the USA has a slogan based on these ideas, ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors’. Which are wonderful words, except that members of that church have pointed out the many ways that the United Methodists fall short of that ideal [see the Pulpit Fiction podcast for this week]. And they’re not even bad as American churches go, they’re a long way from the evangelist megachurches. Openness to all really matters. It’s at the very heart of justice. But we have to be able to live out what we say.

So a quick return to the epistle of James that we heard before the gospel. A few verses before the passage we heard is the wonderful phrase which in the King James Version reads ‘be ye doers of the word, not hearers only’. I quote this version because it’s on the lectern in the chapel of Westminster College in Cambridge, and there’s something rather charming about having those words on a lectern. But it’s the way to truth: not only to hear the word of God, but to live it out.

Put in a different way, we heard in the reading from James that ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’. There was a lot said in the Reformation about faith and works, about what you believe and what you do, and Martin Luther didn’t like this book much, but I find it very profound. If we don’t put into practice what we believe, is there really any point in believing it? The church doesn’t exist as a cosy club of people who believe the right things, it exists to transform the world, to help to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a much later member of Luther’s church put it so well: without works, there’s no faith at all, and no obedience to God.

I’ve not spoken about the long and interesting story with which the passage from James began, and it would make this sermon too long, but it’s quite scary that people might judge those who come into a church and give the best seats to those they consider rich. Not us, you say, and probably not – but in some places and some times yes, and there are certainly those who are more favoured in going into new churches than others. But where it connects back to the rest of this sermon is the idea of dishonouring the poor and favouring the rich. Our society does this so well, especially if we extend the word rich to mean those with privilege and power, those who are white or male or able-bodied, those who aren’t too young and aren’t too old. Even though we know the rich, the privileged, don’t always have the interest of others, and although we know the world is stacked in their favour – we still let the world turn for them.

And yet here is the message that the Syro-Phoenician woman, speaking her truth to power, taught to Jesus and can teach to us: the circle needs to widen. The rich might always be there, the privileged might always have fortune, but the kingdom of God belongs to those who weep, to those who mourn, to those who are downtrodden by life and by the world. God is on the side of the poor, God is on the side of the foreigners, God is on the side of those who have been ruled out by those who claimed to speak for God. It’s sometimes taken the church a long time to work this out. It even took Jesus some time to work it out. But Jesus worked it out, and Jesus widened his understanding of God’s love, and with the grace of God, we can widen our understanding too, and the church can widen its understanding, and come to heal all people and to love all people and to value all people. For of such is the kingdom of God.