Sermon for Trinity 14 Sunday 9 September 2012
TRINITY 14, 2012 HIGH MASS Sermon preached by the Vicar
Proper 18: Isaiah 35.4-7a; James 2.1-17; Mark 7.24-37
“Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
When I worked in a parish in the centre of Edinburgh, a major part of our ministry was running a day centre for the homeless; people very like that poor man in dirty clothes whom St. James speaks about in the epistle. Some of them would come to church. One was called John and when I was a curate he would sit a few rows in front of the pulpit and snore very loudly throughout the sermon: very good training in making yourself heard. He was quite egalitarian: he slept through the rector’s sermons as well as mine.
When our centre was closed people in need of food or shelter would often come to the rectory instead: at any hour of the day or night. The door bell would ring at 3 o’clock in the morning and still only half-awake, I would stumble down the stairs trying to get my “christian” face on before I got to the door. The dialogue would often follow this pattern:
“Have I got you out of your bed, Father?”
“Yes. Don’t you know what time it is?”
“I dinnae have a watch, Father.”
At this point, Father would point wearily to the clock on the North British Hotel above Waverley Station, knowing all the while that his hearer was too cold and too drunk to take it in and that he had a bed to go back to.
These encounters came to mind as I was thinking about that between Jesus and the woman in today’s Gospel.
This passage in Mark, and its even harsher parallel in Matthew, has caused commentators and preachers, and ordinary hearers of the Gospel no end of upset ever since. Jesus’ response seems so out of character. He normally welcomes those who come to him in need, even foreigners, and reserves hard words for religious people like us who try to stop them getting near him.
Some commentators have tried to soften Jesus’ words by pointing out that Jesus uses the word for little dogs, puppies – but it does not really work. Others suggest that part of our problem with the passage lies in that we cannot hear the tone of voice Jesus is using or see the expression on his face; for we known that such things can make all the difference.
Yet others see it as a demonstration of his humanity; not just in his tiredness and need for rest and recuperation – this is one of a number of occasions in Mark when he seeks a time of retreat after a demanding period of ministry – but also in his testy reaction. Well we all know what it is like when we are caught unawares,. We don’t always react as well as we would like.
Some, who have perhaps drunk too deeply at the well of what is called in the trade the “hermeneutic of suspicion”, always assume the worst of people, seem almost to take a delight in having found Jesus with his guard down: rather like a journalist who has uncovered grubby secret about a politician or celebrity. Here is Jesus showing that he shares the racist attitudes of his contemporaries who would refer to Gentiles (often just called Greeks) as dogs.
A more subtle version gives us a Jesus whose real humanity means that his sense of a mission beyond the Jewish people to the Gentiles only comes with time and the Syro-Phoenician woman is instrumental in forcing him into this new way of thinking. Luther takes great delight in the way the woman wins the argument with her riposte.
Part of our problem with this passage is that we usually hear it out of context; isolated from the flow of Mark’s argument. So let’s try to put it into some of that context. If we think back to what we have heard from Mark over recent Sundays, we have already seen Jesus heal a Gentile – the Gerasene demoniac. We have heard him teaching, contrary to the Jews’ dietary laws which marked them off from other peoples, that all foods were clean.
It is not stated at the time, but the logical outcome of this would be access to the kingdom of God for all people.
Then we see him crossing a boundary; heading off into Gentile territory. There was not much love lost between the Jews and the people of Tyre and its district. It was a considerable trading centre and much of the grain output of Galilee went to feed its people. An arrangement which was no more popular with farmers then than some of the purchasing practices of supermarkets are now. Jesus may be quoting a bitter saying of those who resented seeing their crops taken off to feed pagans while their own children starved. Mark wrote in the aftermath of the Jewish revolt which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. In that conflict the Tyreans sided with Rome and the Jewish historian Josephus, who changed to the winning side in time to survive and write the history, described them as “our worst enemies.”
After Jesus’ encounter with this woman, and his healing of her daughter in response to her deft response to his word, before he returns to Galilee, he heads off deeper into Gentile territory and heals the deaf mute man – another Gentile. His hears are opened, as will be those of his rather dense and deaf disciples who have failed to get the message. His tongue is set free to speak the praises of God and to proclaim the Gospel to all the nations, as will be those of both Gentile and Jew.
In their brief debate, Jesus and the woman speak of “bread”, and a few Sundays ago, we heard the Feeding of the Five Thousand. They were Jews, but soon Mark will show us Jesus feeding another crowd; this time of 4,000 Gentiles. Just as Jews would share in the Messianic banquet, so too would the gentiles. At the end of the Gospel, it is another Gentile – a Roman centurion – who recognises the divinity of Jesus: “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
Mark wrote too at a time when the young Church was engaged in dispute about the whether it had a mission to the gentiles and on what terms. Did they have to become Jews first? Mark shows us Jesus – and the woman – acknowledging the priority of the calling of the Jews, God’s original “children” – in that mission. This was, as Paul points out in Romans, both a matter of history but also of theology. But the mission of the Christ and his Church did not stop there.
In that wider picture, we can see what Mark’s intention is in using this apparently embarrassing story; one which any spin doctor worth his salt would have edited out. Or which some errant politician speaking fluent American, would excuse by saying that they “mis-spoke,” It also suggests that is not implausible that when he makes his first response to the woman’s demand, Jesus may have been acting as a “devil’s advocate” or like a wise teacher who allows, indeed provokes, a pupil to come up with right answer. Martin Luther sees the woman as the hero of the piece: winning the argument; getting what the disciples have failed to.
Like them, we have been failing, or at least very slow, to get it ever since. We are in lots of good, or should we say bad company. The Letter of James fiercely denounces those who rather than breaking down boundaries, set about building them higher. The example he gives is of blatant discrimination on grounds of wealth; between rich and poor. This, he says, is in clear contradiction of God’s expressed will; as well as being politically stupid given that it was the rich and powerful who usually persecuted the Church.
There have been times in the past when this church had a rather grander social status than it has now. A century ago, Fr. Mackay would sometimes write unconsciously as if all his parishioners were men who shared his own privileged social background: public school and Oxbridge and private incomes. The founders of this church were men of material substance, but they had theological vision too. That is why this church was built with no pews. This was not just a matter of architectural or ecclesiastical fashion.
We are busy encouraging everyone who worships at All Saints to think and pray about their giving in support of God’s mission in this place. All Saints was built at a time when the equivalent of stewardship was the renting out of pews. This or that family would pay a set sum for a pew which would be for their exclusive use. The poor, who could not afford the rent, had to be content with standing at the back. So they would often not come to church at all, or become Methodists; and who can blame them. All Saints was built without pews so that there could be no pew rents: so that no one could claim a seat was theirs and no one would be excluded.
The blatant favouritism on grounds of wealth and social position which James has been only one of the issues on which Christians have practised discrimination. Today the Paralympics come to a close and we have been rejoicing in the success of event and the competitors, but we would be rash to think that our society still does not have a long way to go in removing barriers to people with physical or mental disability. And that is before we add race, gender or sexuality to the litany.
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses