This time last week I was at Greenbelt contemplating another night under canvas. It had rained hard all afternoon – and I was feeling slightly grumpy about my decision to camp, having commuted to the festival from the comfort of my own bed for the past 10 years.
In the event I was perfectly comfortable, despite a rather leaky waterproof.
Camping at Greenbelt was a good choice.
I was there with my family, my friends, and the wider festival community whose presence makes those 4 days of faith, art and worship an essential highlight of my year.
Yeah, it was damp and chilly on the camp-site on Sunday and Monday – but the truth is that I wouldn't have changed places with anyone else in the world, no matter how much you paid me.
But at the same time as 6,000 festival goers settled down for the night in our muddy field, across Europe thousands of refugees were also struggling to get to sleep in camps that had nothing to do with faith, fun or creativity...
The refugees whose very existence has prompted the language of crisis ...whose desperate faces fill our screens...who, surely, if we listen, will call us back to ourselves and to our true humanity.
They are people on the edge, right enough.
People like the woman we encountered in our gospel – an outsider, on the fringes...less important than the dogs who scratch and scramble for crumbs under the table.
Someone who doesn't belong, who has no rights.
But a mother, desperate to do the best for her child.
Just as Aylan's parents, and thousands like them, were desperate to do the best for THEIR child.
But oh dear God – we're slow to learn, aren't we?
Living on an island seems to make us alarmingly well – insular.
And yet – and yet...LISTEN...to these words written by another Dean John...John Donne of St Paul's, writing almost 400 years ago
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
We can't pull up the drawbridge...because we are interconnected.
These are our brothers and sisters, crying out in despair.
And we can't hide behind the differences of race or creed or language.
Whatever Cain thought, there are times when we are most truly our brother's keepers...our differences swept away in the face of our common humanity.
I know it's not easy. Not easy practically, politically, even emotionally.
We're not good, on the whole, at dealing with outsiders
We are, all of us, more comfortable with familiar situations, familiar people...and that can make the Christian life a challenge.
We know the theory – God's love embraces all...but we tend to organise our lives, even our churches, into zones of like-mindedness.
And we're not alone.
1st century Jews, Jesus among them, had had many centuries to establish themselves as a race apart...God's chosen people...The ultimate insiders, secure in an identity reinforced by law, faith and practice. But in our gospel today Jesus encounters someone from the other side of the tracks – and is challenged and changed by the encounter.
He has crossed into Gentile territory, where Jewish law, Jewish custom have no remit – and comes up against a woman driven by that most compelling force, parental love.
She pushes her way in, intent on claiming the healing she believes her daughter deserves.
Like so many others, she throws herself on the mercy of Jesus. Kneeling at his feet she entreats his help.
And what happens?
For reasons that may be obvious, I’ve never tried to tell this story in a primary school assembly, but if I did, I know that the children’s answer to that question would be. What happens?
“Jesus makes the child better”
That’s what we’d all expect.
Jesus goes about doing good, healing, rescuing,- surely that’s the essence of his earthly ministry. Of course Jesus is going to comfort the mother and heal her child, without further ado.
Except that he doesn’t.
Not at first.
First, we find ourselves thrown off balance, our expectations flouted by words of such staggering rudeness that they are almost unbearable. Jesus, JESUS of all people, tells that frantic mother that she and her child are no better than dogs….and I don’t think we’re under any illusion that he meant cute and cuddly spaniel puppies.
He is saying without compunction that as Gentiles, the woman and her daughter are not fully human, and they’re therefore beyond the scope of his love, his healing.
“It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”
It’s extraordinarily hard to hear this. We want to retain our soft focus image of Jesus, the source of endless compassion…but this abrasive stranger shakes us.
However, this woman is made of sterner stuff, and refuses to go away quietly.
Instead, she responds in kind, picking up Jesus’s words and turning them back on him without missing a beat.
We may be dogs, but surely you’re not so mean that you begrudge us even the left-overs.
She refuses to take No for an answer…
And in doing so, she stops Jesus in his tracks.
Against his own expectations, he is forced into really seeing her, - another human being, a child of God…and what he sees makes him change his mind in a radical way.
Jesus change his mind?
As God’s Son, Jesus must be perfect…the unmoved mover, no shadow of turning, right?
Well, it seems to me that since Jesus is fully human, he must have lived and learned. Even Mrs Alexander was prepared to accept that Jesus went through all the normal stages of physical development – “day by day like us he grew”
So too, surely, he learned and grew in relationship…and maybe sometimes he changed his mind. It seems to me that today's gospel presents Jesus rethinking the scope of his whole mission, as he responds to that Gentile woman whose love for her child is every bit as fierce and determined as any Jewish mother's.
His eyes, his ears, his heart are opened...and another miracle of scandalous grace occurs.
And oh, how badly we need that scandalous grace today.
We find it so hard to admit we might be wrong.
We cling to the notion that we don't really need to listen to the voice of strangers, because we already know the truth. It’s hard not to sympathise with the Jews, who believe themselves to be the insiders, on a fast track to Salvation. We don't have to look far in our churches, or in ourselves, to find traces of that same approach.
Time, then, for us to be challenged.
Today's gospel concludes with a second encounter, as Jesus heals the deaf man, transforming his life and his world with that great “Eph phathah” “BE OPENED”.
That, surely, is the call to us as we confront the heartbreak of men, women and children fleeing for their lives, and risking those lives again and again as they seek a place of safety, somewhere they can call home.
Preaching back in July I quoted some words of radical welcome ...and because they were well received the Precentor decided to print them on the cover of our service books. They have generated tremendous interest in the weeks that followed...and I would want to say loudly and clearly “HERE I STAND. I CAN DO NO OTHER”
Here's what I said...
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, gay, confused, filthy rich, comfortable, or dirt poor. We extend a special welcome to wailing babies and excited toddlers.
We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You are welcome here if you are ‘just browsing,’ just woken up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you are more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been to church since Christmas ten years ago.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree huggers, latte sippers, vegetarians, junk food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you are having problems, are down in the dumps or don’t like ‘organised religion.’ (We are not that keen on it either!)
We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or are here because granny is visiting and wanted to come to the Cathedral.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as kids or got lost in the city centre and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters… and you!*
But...speaking our welcome is one thing. Living it is quite another.
We can long to BE truly inclusive, reflecting God's boundless hospitality in our every moment....but we don't always get that right.
So- we need to pray...to ask God to speak that great “Ephthaphah” over us too....
We need God to open OUR ears, eyes, minds, hearts..
We need to allow ourselves to be challenged and changed, as we encounter a God who listens and changes his mind, whose unlimited love seems almost to surprise himself.
We need to be open to the realisation that with God there are no boundaries...that there is grace enough to include us all
We need our eyes opened so we may SEE our brothers and sisters as God does, as beloved children, neither better nor worse, more or less beloved than we ourselves.
... our ears opened to hear their voices – and our tongues loosed so that we can be their advocates, speaking for those silenced by circumstance.
Today the 3 readings the church offers all share a single theme
James makes it so very clear.
“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? He asks
If we don't act on our faith, it is ultimately pointless...for our faith should be transformational, enabling us to go beyond our innate caution, our fear of the unfamiliar, to offer the clothing, food, shelter that our brothers and sisters so badly need.
We don't need to be fearful. God's generosity abounds.
To welcome the stranger will not lead to penury for the hosts.
To exclude them may just be the end of our claim to humanity....for actually, there is no “us” and “them”. Each of us, from the politicians who make decisions to open or close borders to the refugee family camped at Calais is created in the image of God...and God loves each of us equally.
“God loves the rich and poor.” the Old Testament reading from Proverbs proclaims...going on with stern words for those who try to restrict that love...
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.
Those who are generous are blessed.
Do not crush the afflicted at the gate
for the Lord pleads their cause.
The afflicted at the gate...a picture as compelling as the images that have shaken the world this week.
And but for the grace of God, we could find ourselves waiting there too.
A friend in ministry offered a prayer space, with stations that included a pop up tent and an invitation to pray for refugees...As she tidied up, she found this reflection, written from the viewpoint of a Syrian mother....another desperate woman longing to save her family.
IT’S A JOURNEY I DIDN’T WANT TO TAKE.
BUT HERE I AM, RUNNING FROM FEAR AND MESS AND WAR.
WANTING TO FIND PROTECTION AND SHELTER. WANTING TO SAVE MY FAMILY.
IF WE HAD BEEN BORN IN DIFFERENT PLACES, THIS COULD HAVE BEEN YOU. IT COULD HAVE BEEN YOU.
It could have been you.
No man is an island, entire of himself.
We belong together – children of the same heavenly Father....alike dependent on his love and his mercy – which are without limit.
So, in the end, there's no need for any outsiders.
We all belong and there is enough and to spare for all….
Nobody need be content with crumbs from under the table.
Again and again, God’s reckless mercy sweeps us off our feet, his love compels us to come in, and we find that we are all alike included in a boundless welcome.
May God give us grace to share that welcome with all who need to know that they are not alone, that the human family can and will care for its own, in God's name.