SERMON: Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Being a Christian is about a life-long and fundamental transformation of our hearts, minds and behaviour.

A sermon preached by Graham Low at St Mary’s on 9 September 2018.

We have just heard about a foreign, feisty, non-Jewish woman arguing with Jesus. Her persistence, her courage and her sheer guts are admirable. She is not just a woman of faith. She also has determination. And she is a person of action as she bows down at Jesus’ feet and begs him to cast out the demon from her daughter who is in profound need, as indeed she is too.

At the end of the reading from the Letter of James we have heard that faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. In a sense the approach of the Syrophoenician woman fits in with this view. She not only has faith but in a particular way she acts on her daughter’s behalf. Her faith and her behaviour are qualities that reveal her as one of the first Christians.

The story of this woman, and the gospels in general, remind us that being a Christian is about the transformation of our hearts and minds, leading to a fundamental change in our behaviour. Oneconsequence of this is that when, as Christians, we find ourselves in situations where there is wrongdoing, lack of trust or injustice, we are called to challenge the matter with persistence, perseverance and not a little courage. A former concentration camp survivor said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for peace: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented”.

Those who indulge in wrongdoing are often fully aware of what they are doing but choose to ignore it, to deny it, or to justify it on spurious grounds. Sadly, that is a familiar phenomenon in public and political life. It is our Christian calling to be informed about and to think through situations from local to international, and to be unafraid of making our thoughts known in appropriate ways when necessary.

There is a strand of Christian witness today which is assertive and confident that it knows the answers to the wrongs of the world. But if we look at the Bible as whole, those who are most fearless in speaking about God and injustice are often quite insecure people. Isaiah, as an example, felt that he was utterly unworthy.Many of us are introverts and are uncomfortable about, and even fearful about speaking out against injustices. But to expose wrongdoing, to speak up for those without a voice, or those who like the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter suffer from mental health problems, is an inescapable priority for us all. This call may be where we work, or at home, or in the wider world. If we are fearful about this then we need to recognise that fear may stop us witnessing to what is good and right in a challenging situation. When we are fearful of being bullied, or of damage to our reputation, or of being isolated, or of upsetting someone, we need to identify and face up to these fears. If we do not face up to them, then, through our inaction,wrongdoing will triumph rather than justice. To face up to our fears and to seek to overcome them is part of our Christian journey of transformation.

Some years ago, Jeffery John, Dean of St Albans, made a remarkable and courageous statement on a radio programme:

I have a memory from my schooldays that still haunts me. One year we had a boy in my class – I’ll call him David. He was a pathetic kid, weedy and rather effeminate. And his life was hell. Children can be incredibly cruel to anyone who’s different, and David was a brilliant target. He was beaten up, he got his lunch thrown away, he got called girl’s names, and he always sat on his own. I can hardly think of the misery that kid must have gone through. Now I never beat him up, I never called him names; the fact that it was happening used to churn my stomach.  But I never said or did anything to help him. Because of course I was terrified that if I did, they’d turn on me too, and I’d get the same treatment. And of course that’s how it works, in so many bad situations in the world – and yes, in the Church too. We know what’s happening is wrong, but we keep our heads down, and hope someone else will do the martyr bit and face down the bullies with the truth”.

The challenge then is to avoid allowing fear to determine how we are to behave. Some of the most remarkable people I have known have been involved in resisting wartime and post-war atrocities in central Europe: in their behaviour they have been able to counter fear with belief. Likewise, Jesus must have faced fear and was eventually crucified for resisting otherwise unchallenged ways imposed by powerful and wealthy people. He upheld the vulnerable and the forgotten and he gave them dignity, strength and courage. As his followers we are called to do the same in our time.

Over thirty years ago an American Benedictine, Sister Ruth Fox, gave a group of students a blessing at their graduation. It went as follows:

May God bless you with a restless discomfort

about easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world,so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

The Syrophoenician woman has a faith of this kind. Through her faith she recognises in Jesus his call for the challenging and overturning of the value systems of the world.

May we not remain silent, but be given the grace to respond to Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom with joy, with thanksgiving, and with courage. Amen.