Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on 20th August 2017 at St Peter & Paul
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Loving God, by your Holy Spirit,
take these words such as they are and do with them as you will,
take us such as we are and do with us as you will
for your greater glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The words of Isaiah and the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, have not been heard just here, and at SMAA, they have not just been heard in the churches of our Deanery and across the Diocese, they have not just been heard in the Anglican churches across our country and the wider Anglican worldwide Communion, but they have been heard in all those churches across the world – Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist – all that follow the Common Eucharistic Lectionary. I find that a powerful thought – thousands upon thousands of people across varied ethnic and cultural communities across our world will have heard on this 9th Sunday of Trinity words that challenge us to work out our relationship with God and our neighbours.
They are words that communities through the ages have needed to hear, yet struggled to grasp their implication; sadly, they are words that we desperately need to hear in our own day, for it seems that in America, in the united Kingdom, across the Middle East, in Europe, indeed just about everywhere in our world, people, communities, struggle to grasp what it means to love God and our neighbours. Too often, we continue to build barriers – physical, psychological and bureaucratic – to keep away from us, to keep outside our clearly defined circles the people we see as different, and therefore a threat to our own sense of identity and wellbeing. That perceived difference might be ethnicity or culture, race or religion – or any combination. And always, always, it is the people kept ‘outside’ who pay the greatest price; but we are all diminished by the inhumanity of this manner of thinking and by the fear, hatred and bigotry that so often underpins it.
And so, while we find many and varied ways of ‘circling the wagons’ to keep ‘them’ out (whoever they may be) and ‘me and mine’ safe, God draws circles also, much bigger circles. But His circles are not meant to keep anyone out, they are bigger to invite all people in.
This is what Isaiah is referring to in the words we heard a few moments ago. The words come towards the final section of Isaiah’s prophecy, and he speaks to Judah about the obedience that should mark and characterise life of the people after exile. And here the prophet speaks to the people, not as a nation state, but as a religious community. That obedience is to be reflected in their willingness to maintain justice, do right and keep the Sabbath. But there was a problem. Because while keeping the Sabbath was clearly a marker of the faithful, the issue of who were legitimate members of the community of the faithful was a sensitive one, and discrimination was at work! Isaiah reminds the people that eunuchs should not be excluded on the grounds of a physical imperfection, and foreigners ‘joined to the Lord’ will also share in God’s promises to his faithful people. The new world that God is constantly bringing into being will be founded on faithfulness, and while His covenant with the chosen people still holds, the Covenant is dynamic, living and growing, and its welcome extends to all who genuinely commit themselves to God and live according to His laws of faithfulness, justice and love. Isaiah’s words challenged accepted thinking; specifically – and radically – he mentions outcasts.
Words that brought hope to the outcast, but uncomfortable for people who saw themselves in the inner circle, people who tried to pin God down within the limits of their own vision and understanding. Isaiah challenges them to revise their understanding of what it means to live lives of obedience to God as members of the Covenant community.
And it is in the process of revising the understanding of his mission that we find Jesus this morning. Jesus has crossed from Galilee to the region of Tyre and Sidon, on the Mediterranean coast (in what we now call Lebanon); it was gentile territory, and it was here that he met the Canaanite woman. There was longstanding bitter hostility between the Jews and the people of the area where the Canaanite woman lived as there is still hostility between Jews and the people of the Lebanon. So this ancient story is also a contemporary one.
The woman is desperate to find help of her sick daughter – as any mother would be. Her desperation encourages her to push at the religious and social boundaries. She lived in a culture where there was mutual loathing, and certainly it was never acceptable for a lone woman to approach a man. So for this Canaanite woman, the stakes were high indeed.
But before we look further at this story, we need to look back at what immediately precedes it. the Pharisees and Scribes have challenged Jesus who they believe is ignoring the faith Tradition handed down, especially that concerning hand washing before eating. They imply that Jesus and his disciples are breaking the traditional purity laws. Jesus attacks them for what he sees as observance of religious law and ritual which concentrates on externals; externals that in no way reflect what is going on in the heart and is therefore insincere. He challenges them on their teaching and understanding of relationships with one another.
Jesus then turns his attention to the crowd and his disciples, explaining that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out; for food once digested goes out into the sewer. It is passing, unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart – and words spoken can build up or tear down, can be life-giving or destructive.
So back to our desperate Canaanite woman. She begs for mercy and healing for her sick daughter, recognizing Jesus as Lord and Son of David (something the Pharisees and Scribes had failed to do). Jesus initially ignores her and when he eventually deigns to answer, his response is jarring, unsettling and makes us feel uncomfortable – particularly in the light of what he had just been teaching! And his disciples what her sent away!
Even when she kneels before him, implying worship and a deep understanding of his divine status, Jesus uses the ultimate insult and calls her and her daughter “dogs”. The Canaanite woman knows Jesus power to heal and is willing to endure underserved humiliation, and so persists, again addressing Jesus as ‘Lord’ and insists that even dogs eat the crumbs from the table. Matthew takes us back to the feeding of the 5000 – remember the baskets full of scraps left after all have been fed?
In the Canaanite woman, Jesus comes face to face with a person of great faith whose heart is filled with the love and the desire to do right. Through barbed words he encounters someone whose faith enables her to trust that God’s mercy is abundant; God’s healing and love overflows; and there is enough not only for the children of Israel, but for the entire world – all people, everywhere. The woman’s prayer was answered in more ways than one – her daughter was healed; she received mercy for herself and public praise for her great faith.
Through this extraordinary encounter, Matthew shows his readers how Jesus mission and ministry is expanding; tearing down centuries old boundaries and opening up the culturally identified family of God to all God’s people. Jesus has crossed the boundary between the land of Israel and gentile territory; he has redefined the boundaries of what is clean and unclean and he has expanded our understanding that actually the Kingdom of God has no boundaries! Jesus is the Messiah for both Jews and Gentiles.
The Canaanite woman challenged Jesus and she challenges us too, all who meet her this morning wherever in the world we might be. She challenges us to ask ourselves ‘Who are the Canaanites among us today? Who do we want to see Jesus to send away? And who would we not welcome into our fellowship here with us this morning and every time we gather? And what message do we send, knowingly or unknowingly to ‘the others’, the Canaanites in our world?
For now, we echo her prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on us. Amen