Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity 2017
20 August 2017 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Ralph Godsall, Priest Vicar
One of the complex issues behind the racist attacks of last week in Charlottesville, Virginia, the terror attack in Barcelona, and the recent comments on sex grooming gangs in her constituency made by Sarah Champion, the member of parliament for Rotherham, is the question of multiculturalism within plural western societies.
In this country we have significant settled communities of people who come originally from very different parts of the world. Quite understandably, they retain their own traditions, in many cases their own religion and their own values, and the question of how we can find a way of living peacefully and openly with one another has again been challenged by acts of abuse, hatred, terror, and violence.
Now I happen to think that the mix of people in this country is a good thing. In so many ways cultural and ethnic diversity makes being British more interesting. I think it was G.K.Chesterton who once said that one of the virtues of overseas travel is that it enables you to see you own country in a new light. Well, now we do not need to travel abroad to do that. Comments on this country come from those from outside who have now lived here for a long time, and we need to listen to them to learn more about ourselves.
There is dignity to be found in difference, but a shared inheritance does create challenges. A different people, with different customs and maybe even different values, can be unsettling and lead to clashes of values which erupt in violence and the breakdown of civil society.
This morning’s first reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 56.1,6-8) reminds us that incorporating the foreigner into an existing society is scarcely a new matter. In his vision of restoration, the prophet takes a generous and welcoming view: ‘Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’ It is a generosity based on an understanding of Israel’s own exile and restoration - of justice for all and universal salvation.
The prophet has seen the people of Israel brought back from their Babylonian exile not by their own strength but by the hand of Cyrus the Persian king. So he understands that God is able to work well beyond the boundaries of those who love and worship him and to bring about his will through someone who does not know him.
That is a rich lesson and leads to an understanding of God's will as one of reconciliation, bringing together into peace and harmony widely disparate people, all of whom God loves. The prophet calls on the people of Israel to gather in the foreigners and outcasts so that the house of the Lord may become ‘a house of prayer for all peoples.’
In this morning’s epistle (Romans 11.1-2a,29-32), the apostle St Paul highlights Israel’s disbelief in God’s plan of universal salvation but hints at a ray of hope. ‘Has God rejected his people? By no means!’, he states emphatically. Israel’s disbelief is only partial or temporary because, in God’s plan, there is mercy for all people.
If Israel has been unfaithful and it is the Gentiles who are now accepting the Gospel, God is not repudiating his chosen people, the Jews. He knew the character of his people before he chose them and he also knew of their frequent unfaithfulness. Their rejection of the Gospel makes no difference to His faithfulness. Perhaps after centuries of Protestant teaching where the tendency has been to put the emphasis on our part in faith, we have forgotten that what matters most is God’s faithfulness to us. That note of God’s faithfulness sounds out loud and clear in the final verse of this morning’s epistle, ‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all’.
In this morning’s gospel (Matthew 15.21-28), it is the faithfulness of God that draws out the faith in the Canaanite woman. Though a Gentile, she had the faith to speak to Jesus as the Messiah. We also see here a very human Jesus, inhabiting the enclosed circle of his race and cultural tradition.
Jesus the Jew belonged to a nation that was fashioned by a painful struggle in history – and continues to be. He lived in a society where women were regarded as possessions and inferior to men and such misogyny still exists today. Jesus lived in a society where Gentiles were regarded as unclean and now here he is, being confronted by someone who is both a woman and a Gentile and an astonishing conversation ensues. It is an appeal from a non-Israelite woman for healing on behalf of her daughter.
At first Jesus doesn’t answer her. He reminds the woman and his disciples that he is sent only to the people of Israel, the implication being that healing was an integral part of his ministry and so the healing he offers bears that limitation also. But the subsequent exchange between Jesus the Jew and the Gentile woman goes to the very heart of the Gospel - the faithfulness of God. Religious and racial requirements appeared to mean that Jesus couldn’t help. The woman wasn’t a Jew, he was sent only to Jews. In his words about the food and the children and the dogs, common Jewish wisdom provided a code of conduct and offered him a way-out.
But Jesus challenged his disciples to move beyond established norms of conduct and to meet the responsibilities laid upon them by God and not evade them. Now, at the prompting of this woman of faith – humble, polite and determined, Jesus acts in that way himself – her faith cleverly expressed in a piece of common household wisdom. In her gentle reply ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’, she triggers a moment of understanding when vistas open and barriers dissolve. And we Gentiles are here in church this morning because of the truth uncovered in this story.
We see the astonishing sight of Jesus, a male Jew, receiving a lesson as it were, from a Gentile woman. Someone who stepped out of her cultural background and made her own bold confession of faith in the presence of God who gives life to all. This notion of God’s justice and mercy is fundamental to the Gospel. We get not what we deserve, but we receive from the generous, forgiving and loving acceptance of God. Mercy from God is offered to us all, whatever our race, whatever our nation, whatever our religious faith, whatever our differences.
It is interesting, and I think highly relevant, that all three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, recognise God as being, above all things, Merciful: Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Perhaps if we all reflected more deeply on what it is to believe in a God of mercy, we might find a way of living together that respects difference, or to use the former Chief Rabbi’s wonderful phrase ‘the dignity of difference’. And living consciously under a merciful God, maybe, we would then find our plural societies in both East and West, not a threat but a positive virtue.