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.

Amen.

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