SERMON: The challenge of a stranger

SERMON: The challenge of a stranger

A sermon preached by David Barton at the Evening Eucharist on 16 August 2020.

Romans 11.1-2a,29-32. Matthew 15.21-28.

Two interesting readings tonight that turn out to be unexpectedly challenging.  Let’s take the Gospel first…

The woman who comes to Jesus in the Gospel story is a Gentile.  Up to now Jesus has worked and preached within Israel – a Jewish context.   There had been arguments with the Pharisees, and fierce arguments about who was able and not able to interpret the tradition, but essentially these were arguments within the family. 

And then this woman comes along and skews the story.  She’s a gentile, and she’s not going to let this debate be a comfortable, in house, Jewish affair.   She challenges Jesus on the implications of everything he says and does.  Her daughter is seriously mentally disturbed.  That sharpens her perceptions: if God is as merciful as Jesus says God is, then this mercy is surely for everyone.    And she needs to make a claim on it for her daughter.    Jesus challenges that.  But this woman has done her homework.    Not long before this encounter was the feeding of the 5,000.  And there were 12 baskets of crumbs left over!   That was the measure of God’s generosity and mercy.  It was abundant!  So, surely, there was a crumb or two for her and her daughter from one of those baskets? 

And Jesus who, of course, knows this full well, heals her daughter, admiring the mother’s faith. 

Now Mark, when he tells this story, makes this a relatively easy exchange.  Its Matthew who tells us that Jesus hesitates.  And in doing that he is suggesting that Jesus knew the future implications of what he would be doing in stepping outside a Jewish context.  There would be trouble, and he was not prepared to do that lightly.   And Matthew had a reasons for telling it this way.  Don’t forget, he records this, fifty years after the event, probably in Antioch..  And there were plenty of Jewish members of his church in Antioch, who were reserved about the way their faith had been opened up to Gentiles.  So out of this story comes a message for them: Jesus knew what he was doing.  If you find it difficult, then look deeper.   Dig into the great baskets of mercy given you, the reserves of forgiveness and love God has poured out for you.  And then live alongside your fellow Christians with forgiveness.

And in the Epistle Paul is concerned about that same issue.  What was very interesting about the church in Rome, to whom Paul writes, is that for a while it had been an all gentile affair.  The emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome in the late forties.  They were invited back 7/8 years later,  sometime after AD 54, which is, we think, about the time that Paul wrote this letter.  Paul knows just how bitter the clash of Jews and Gentiles can be –  he remembers his own encounters in Antioch with Peter.  Each side writing the other off in the process.  In this case the Gentiles of Rome were more likely to shun the Jews.  If that were to happen, it would undermine everything Paul has stood for and indeed written about in Romans so far.  You once received mercy, Paul says to the gentile Christians, now grant it to the Jewish community – the original people of promise.  Dig deeply into the reserves of love gifted to you by God.

But the more time I spent pondering this, the more I found this is an uncomfortable set of readings.  The woman’s accusation is a telling one. Christian congregations can so easily become a closed shop.  In which case gifts and grace and love get locked up.  And on a personal level, its very easy to see the Christian faith merely as a personal resource: it’s familiarity and assurance a comforting refuge in a troubled world.  And also, I suddenly realised how prophetic that Romans passage is. If only Paul’s advice to Rome’s gentile Christians about holding close to the Jewish community, had been heeded, and kept to over future years, what pain and horror might we have avoided over the centuries?

And consider the time we live in.  The lockdown brought out real togetherness and generosity from people.  But now we’re moving into a more fractured period.   High levels of unemployment loom.  People slipping though the gaps in the welfare system.  Desperate people risking their lives to cross the channel…education…. Black Lives Matter…. and Lebanon too craves our attention.  And so on….

So we should note that in troubled times it’s very easy for society to close in on itself, to blame it’s ills on “others” – to find enemies, scapegoats, and to build walls.  Already there is a growing demonisation of those risking their lives crossing the channel.. 

We were in Florence when the first waves of migrants from North Africa were arriving in Southern Italy.  Europe and the Italian government were wondering what to do, but sounding negative.  Then the Pope announced that space in church property could and should be used to house refugees.  And across Italy parishes stepped forward to offer food and help and play their part, and make that real.     It was a powerful signal of what the Christian faith stood for, 

Compassion is what lies at the heart of our life as Christians, collectively and individually.  But we can only do collectively what we feel in our hearts individually.    These readings are a reminder for each of us to look carefully at our instinctive responses – the response of our hearts – as we move into a potentially more divisive period.   Are we going to be people who are prepared to listen compassionately when the needs of others press in on us?    Can we avoid the rush to judgement?  Can the Christian community, can we ourselves, be counted on to be on the side of the vulnerable, the displaced, the outsiders, those who are just different – the people who are all too easily turned into a threat by the press, and gossip and social media?

The woman in the Gospel story was an outsider.   The Christians in Rome were making the Jews outsiders.  In Jesus’ stories the stranger, the outsider is always welcomed.  The Good Samaritan, this woman, the Samaritan woman in the fourth Gospel, and Jesus himself on the Emmaus road – in Jesus’ world the stranger is the bearer of God’s uncomfortable liberating truth. Crises like the one we now live through surely bring us to our knees, to rediscover the depth of our calling, grounding ourselves in the treasures we are given, and called on to share.