Sermon Sept 9 2018 St Chad’s Linwood
Today’s readings are all familiar texts. None of them are obscure, with weird names that are unpronounceable. Yet such familiar stories can often wash over us.Yes, we say, I know the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman. I know she had a clever reply for Jesus.But let’s have a closer look at this story.
Jesus was in a region outside the traditional area of the Jew’s homeland. This woman too was an outsider, from further north, and probably mixed race too. She was three times a gentile, therefore. Not only not a Jew, but not a local to where she was living, and not of only one race. In this story at first Jesus seems to reject her plea. She comes to him, desperate for help for her daughter. Those of us who have been parents will be familiar with the drive to help our kids, no matter what it costs us. This woman is the last person anyone would expect to come to Jesus for help. After all, who knew what gods she worshipped? So, Jesus’ first response is to remind her that he came for the Jews first, that the ‘food’ of his work, his life, is not to be shared with the dogs. It sounds really rude, doesn’t it. In the original Greek the word for dogs is softened a bit, by using a diminutive, so it really means ‘little dogs’, or puppies.
Jesus had a particular way of speaking that would shame those around him, by putting words to what the disciples were thinking, in order to expose their lack of charity. This woman is not only desperate for her daughter to be healed, she is clever and witty. She replies that even the dogs eat the crumbs from the children’s table.
Fair enough, Jesus said, you have shown me your great faith in who I am and what I am, in spite of your different background. Jesus sends her home with the word that her daughter has been healed.
This story teaches us several things. One, that persistent faith is always a good idea, and will be rewarded, two, that people should not be judged by their outward appearance. This woman was a three-times outsider, and yet Jesus demonstrated that the kingdom of heaven was available for her too.
Our reading from the book of James also deals with the outward appearance.In our society those who get the most attention, at least in the media, are the rich, the famous, the glamorous, the young, the slim, the healthy. Does that sound like you? No, me neither. If historians look back at media from the 21st century they would get a very different view of life today from the one most of us actually experience day-to-day.
But from since time began, people have been concerned with how things look, with a spirit of one-upmanship. Of trying to keep up with the Joneses.
James sets his teaching in the middle of a worship context. Can you imagine someone coming into our church, wearing a fancy robe, all gold and jewellery? Maybe it could happen. Can you imagine someone coming in work clothes, covered in paint, not having had a bath for too long? Well, we know that happens too. Most of us are somewhere in between.
Some of us have been brought up to wear our Sunday best. I remember when I was about 13, and I had my first pair of jeans. One Sunday morning I put together what I thought was a really nice outfit, with my jeans, a pink shirt, a jersey draped over my shoulders, a necklace in the shape of a packet of chewing gum – this was about 1980 so you can see the picture. I thought I looked really good, casual but smart. When I came out of my room, ready to go to church, Mum was horrified. ‘You can’t wear jeans to church’, she said. Loudly. And send me to get changed. I was mystified. Maybe God can’t speak to people in jeans? Maybe other people will reject me? It was probably the latter actually that Mum was afraid of. Maybe people would criticise her parenting of me.
But thankfully we have moved past those days. Many of us still put on our Sunday best to come to church, out of respect for the place and for each other, but also out of habit. I’m sure too that we all realise that what’s important is that people come to the service, not what they are wearing. Part of being a welcoming and inclusive congregation is accepting people no matter what they might look like, or let’s be frank, smell like, on outward appearance. Why is this? It’s because God sees the heart, of all of us, and like we heard in last week’s reading, it’s not what goes into, or by extension, on the body that defiles us, but rather what comes out. If we speak words of love and friendship, we are at least sounding like nice caring Christians.
But hang on. It’s easy to speak nice words. ‘Come, in, be welcome! ‘But we need to act in a welcoming way too. James tells us that faith without work is dead. If we say, I hope you are warm, but don’t actually help that person be warm, we are making empty noise and letting Jesus down. If we say, ‘come and have a cup of tea after the service’, but don’t sit with our visitors and talk to them, we are just noise. This reading from James is a good challenge to all who call themselves Christian. It really says “put your money where your mouth is.’ Sometimes we need a bit of a nudge, a bit of a reminder of these things.
This idea extends to our society too. It’s all very well to watch the news, tut-tutting at the large number of homeless, or the lack of support for recently released prisoners, or children who go to school without any lunch. If it stirs us, we need to do something about it. Now, I know many of us here are on the far side of 70, and even 80. 90 in some cases. You are probably not going to want to be out on the streets giving out blankets to the homeless. Or turning up at the local school at 7.30 to spread jam on toast, though some of you do help in this much-needed ministry. But maybe you can do something. Maybe you can talk about the situation to people who can do something practical. Maybe you can raise awareness. And there’s always the ultimate weapon – you can pray.
Just as it can be easy to judge the poorer than ourselves, those who make less effort, it’s also easy to judge those on the other end of the spectrum. It’s easy to resent those who seem to have everything. I find myself resentful of those who go away on holidays, knowing that we can’t afford to do that. Whenever I feel that way, I try to remind myself of all the wonderful blessings God has given me, and when I do I am humbled by how rich I truly am.
Our reading from Proverbs sums up the rewards to be found in living this way – ‘A good name is more desirable than great riches. The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor’. And as a last word, to remind us of where we sit under heaven – ‘rich and poor have this in common – The Lord is maker of all.’