Sunday, August 16, 2020
"Preach about what you know, about your own experiences of the life of faith", said one of our tutors an alarming three decades ago when I was training as a Reader. But todays gospel immediately puts me in a situation of which I have absolutely NO experience, and demands that I engage with it. I have never, to my knowledge, been excluded from anything that I sought on the grounds of my raceDoors have opened for me before Ive even noticed they were there. Encouraged by friends and family, Ive been able to pursue dreams almost effortlessly not because I am remarkably able but because I am remarkably privileged. That doesnt mean that Ive led a charmed life, with everything falling easily into place, but rather that as a white woman Ive never had to consider whether race might impede me in any wayAnd Im guessing thats true for many of you listening this morning. To quote one contributor to We need to talk about race, a book some of us have read this summer If youve never considered your colour, thatll be because youre white. Over the weeks since the Black Lives Matter movement took centre stage, I have become daily more conscious of the layers of white privilege that have protected me from so much in life from the risk of a stop and search, through the possibility of being denied a job interview, to the increased likelihood of my falling seriously ill with Covid 19 and much more besides. Whether we recognise it or not, it seems that our society is constructed to silently, imperceptibly benefit those of us of white British descent. We who are white are the unconscious beneficiaries of an far from level playing field and if I have learned nothing else from our reading, it is that attempting colour blindness does nobody any favours. All of which may seem to have little to do with todays gospel, with Jesuss encounter with this Canaanite woman, one of the first nations indigenous people who were supplanted when the Children of Israel reached and claimed their Promised Land. We need,then, to take a closer look at the dialogue between Jesus and that tenacious, outspoken woman who dared to cross cultural divides in search of healing for her child. Today, surely, shed be one who wore a t shirt emblazoned Nevertheless she persisted and her persistence achieved the unthinkable. Through her, Jesus himself received a lesson in the wildly inclusive love of Godthrough, unbelievably, a woman, one on the fringes, one who was pushing her luck in approaching him at allone he really should have avoided, for the sake of his reputation. Of course, we know that reputational risk is rarely a priority for Jesus he delights in spending time with outsiders, but as he begins to live in to the message of radical inclusion that lies at the heart of the gospel, its not easy, even for him. Today, Jesus is on retreat, seeking some down-time after his run-in with the Pharisees Here, in Gentile country, he might expect a break from the demands of ministry, but real people with real needs just cant be put on hold. His space, his silence is disturbed by a woman driven by that most compelling force, parental love. She will not hold her peace, demands a hearing, for she is intent on claiming the healing that 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? If I were asking that question in a school assembly I can confidently predict the answer. What happens? “Jesus makes the child better Thats what wed all expect. Jesus goes about doing good, healing, rescuing,- surely thats 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 doesnt. It's as if he doesn't even see her. He looks away. He did nothing Not at first. First, we find ourselves thrown off balance, our expectations flouted by words that seem frankly racistwords 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 dont think were under any illusion that he meant much- loved and cherished pet spaniels. He is saying without compunction that as Gentiles, the woman and her daughter are not fully human. Ive encountered that approach too often in the chronicles of black oppression Ive been nervously exploring...Its the mindset that made it possible for the Church to condone slaverythat somehow black lives were of a lesser order, black pain less real, black freedom ours to command. But the one place that I would never look to encounter it is here, HERE, in the gospels Was Jesus a racist? And if so, what do we do with that? “Its not right to take the childrens bread and throw it to the dogs no blacks, no Irish, no dogs Whoohto meet those attitudes in Jesus is almost intolerable! This isnt our Jesus We long to hold on to our soft focus image of him Jesu, thou art all compassion and this abrasive stranger shakes us to the core. Nevertheless, she persisted This Gentile woman is made of sterner stuff than I, and refuses to go away quietly. She isnt bothered who she upsets. Like Jacob two weeks ago, she will not let go til she has received her blessing, and she responds to his put-down in like vein, picking up Jesuss words and turning them back on him in quick-witted repartee.. We may be dogs, but surely youre 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, not an annoying, impertinent woman of another race but simply a human being, a child of Godand this makes him change his mind in a radical way. Is that idea too startling? Its tempting to believe that as Gods Son, Jesus must be perfect there is no shadow of turning with thee. But he is fully human, and surely learning is part of what that means. 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 relationshipHe learned, he grew, and sometimes he changed his mind. Theres so much more going on here than just an exchange of banter, for surely Jesus is forced to rethink the scope of his mission, to enlarge its scope, sent not simply to the lost sheep of the house of Israel after all. This should, I think, serve to correct our own tendency to arrogance, to hardness of heart. Its so tempting to believe that we dont need to listen to others, because we already know the truth, and our perspective is, of course, the right one..In that respect, perhaps, its hard not to sympathise with the Jews, who believe themselves to be the insiders, on a fast track to Salvation. In our society, and in our church, we can sadly identify behaviours that match theirs. The wideness of Gods mercy is sometimes just too much for us, so we shrink it to something we can deal with more easily. We enshrine those false limits long after the time has come for them to be deconstructed so we can rebuild on foundations of justice, in kinder, healthier ways, but if we take Scripture seriously, our limited view is inevitably challenged. Here we meet a God who listens and changes their mind, whose unlimited love almost surprises Godself. Here we encounter a God who is changed by relationships, a God who is moved by the prayers of Gods children, and acts in unexpected ways to answer them. Here, above all, we meet a God whose love and grace are inexhaustible. Of course, this particular gospel story lies behind the much-loved Prayer of Humble Access “We do not presume to come to this your table O merciful Lord Trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercy “We do not presume Well, thank God that sometimes we do! Thank God for those who dare to persist, who challeng and draw us into a landscape of larger hearts and wider compassion. Thank God for this woman, the outsider, the second class citizen who refuses to go away but demands that Jesus recognise her right to engage with him. Thank God that she stops him in his tracks, forcing him to see and recognise her humanity and forcing him to own that manifold and great mercy which is always so much greater than our worst inadequacies, our most glaring failings and faults. Here, as everywhere with God, love wins. The mothers love, a passion that drives her to take risks that she would probably never have contemplated for her own benefit. The Fathers love, Gods love, stronger than the divisions that scar society and church, the hatred that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class. Stronger than unconscious privilege and all the institutional structures that support itStronger than our own fear of outsiders and our anxiety that we might find ourselves outsiders in our turn. So today, can we find the courage to look hard at ourselves, and at Gods Church, to ask Gods help to root out the unconscious bias that may sometimes hold part of our hearts and minds hostage and to ask that WE may be healed so that we can love more fully, and work together to enable the flourishing of all.
Saturday, August 08, 2020
I grew up by the sea, and miss it dreadfully – both on the hazy days of high summer, when the entire world seems to be heading to the nearest shoreline, regardless of the need for safety and social distance, and if possible even more when the storms hit and the waves are high, breaking onto the promenade, flinging shingle onto parked cars, changing the whole shape of the beach overnight… My father loved the sea too – but, having served 6 years in the Navy, with the experience of Atlantic convoys for ever branded on his mind, his love was balanced by a sense oplayf great respect which he tried to pass on to me. I might treat the sea as a beloved friend – rushing down to talk to it if we had been away for a couple of weeks, leaping around in the shallows as if the sea were a kind of oversized family pet…but he had seen the full fury of Atlantic storms, had helped rescue men from the water after their vessel had been torpedoed…The sea, for all its wonder, was a place of risk…not to be trifled with. I never got to talk theology with my father…He died when I was 18, a long time before the God story began to be the most compelling story of all for me – so I don’t know how he felt about the gospel we’ve just heard. I’m certain that, as an introvert, he’d have been absolutely with Jesus on the need to take time out to regroup after over populated days…but what would he have made of the storm on Lake Galilee, and Peter’s foolhardy challenge to his Lord – “If it you, command me to come to you on the water”. I mean – what was that even about? Was it a desperate need to be sure that he really was an insider, able to do the very thing that he had just trembled to see Jesus doing? Was he trying to prove to himself that his decision to abandon his own work as a fisherman was not going to leave him high and dry? It all feels a bit bonkers, really – and I’m sure Jesus was tempted to respond “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. But he doesn’t. He lets him take the risk – that step of faith that gets Peter out of the boat, and walking, incredibly, on those very waters that just a few minutes before had battered the boat so fiercely…And of course all is well, as long as he keeps his gaze on Jesus. When he’s distracted, when he notices the wind and the waves again, then it all goes horribly wrong again. And one perfectly valid reading of this passage would simply be to remind you to hold on, to focus on the things of faith, to hear for yourself Jesus’s words “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid”. That might be what you need today…if the week has been tough, if corona worries have kept you awake at night and economic anxiety perplexed you by day…then do just hold on to that assurance that Jesus IS there in the storms…that he won’t let you drown, but will reach out a hand to help you, and will walk you back to safety in the boat… But it feels impossible this week to consider those in danger in small boats on big seas without reflecting on the families who have taken a different kind of risk – in stepping INTO a boat, an inadequate rubber dinghy perhaps – and launching out on to treacherous waters. We know their motivation at least: they truly believe that what they are leaving behind is so bad that it’s worth risking their lives – and the lives of their children – in a desperate attempt to reach somewhere they believe will be better. That isn’t a decision anyone would take lightly. It’s a tremendous risk and we know that most of those travelling will have paid everything they have, staked their all on that journey. For them this small island, with its rising unemployment, denuded Health Service and increasingly inhospitable approach to immigration, still looks like the promised land. I cannot imagine anything that would currently make me take that kind of risk…so perhaps God is inviting me to notice that, however leaky my boat might seem, it’s still afloat and actually, I’m not really even slightly damp. In other words, as I pray for those braving the Channel day by day, I need to take time to count my blessings, to notice and be thankful that amid all the fear and frustration, life is beautiful and full of love. Perhaps, too, there is an invitation. If, as God’s Church, we are Christ’s Body here on earth, are there things that we should do – ways in which we should move forward to take those desperate travellers by the hand and walk with them to a place of safety? That’s a real question, not a rhetorical one – because I recognise that open borders look uniquely threatening at the moment, that on the whole there is no general will to offer hospitality no matter what it costs. But though it’s a real question, I think I’ve found the answer for myself at least. You see, the trouble is that I think we’re SUPPOSED to be counter-cultural…That if we’re serious about following Jesus, we need to remember where the road took him… It’s going to be costly – true hospitality means sharing til it hurts, and then continuing anyway… More, its going to be risky after all…though not in the way I’d imagined. It turns out, you see, that we are going to be taking exactly the same risk as Peter…in leaving our place of safety to get closer to Jesus. That’s what discipleship looks like. Taking the risk to stay close to our Lord. Scary, as the waves rise around us…but actually the only choice worth making. It may take a while to commit to it…And there may well be times when we fear that we’ll drown, but you know, it’s going to be OK. Truly, he IS the Son of God – and he will walk with us til we too reach safety
Sunday, August 02, 2020
Wrestling with God - a sermon on Genesis 32 for "Welcome to Sunday" and the Cathedral Eucharist, Coventry Cathedral, 2nd August 2020
Poor Jacob. He really does struggle to get a good night’s sleep! Two weeks ago we thought about his amazing dream – the stairway to heaven – and his unexpected realisation that God was there, even amid his wilderness experience. Now he is on his travels once again – heading homewards, with understandable caution, since at journey’s end he will meet the brother whom he last saw the day he cheated hi of his birthright. Knowing that HE is responsible for the broken relationship...knowing that it is up to him to seek forgiveness and reconciliation...it is not perhaps surprising that he is suffering from insomnia. He has sent his family over the ford but stayed alone on the near side. The text is quite clear about that. Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him til day break You would think, wouldn’t you, that that one half or other of that sentence must be wrong. If Jacob is alone – there is nobody else there. If there is a wrestling partner – then Jacob is not alone. What are we to make of that? We can’t just imagine a virtual wrestling match...fightings and fears within, without… This is more than just the product of a guilty conscience and a healthy anxiety about confronting his own past. This is a real, physical struggle – one that marks Jacob for life. It turns out, indeed, that this is another point in his journey when, against all expectations, God shows up. Of course, Jacob shouldn’t have been surprised...and perhaps he wasn’t. God had said he would be with him right through until he had accomplished all God’s plans for him. This journey towards reconciliation is surely part of God’s plan – but they’re not there yet. Jacob still has work to do… And he starts with honesty. The last time he sought a blessing it was from his father Isaac – a blessing based on a lie, as he claims his brother’s name, and his brother’s place in the family. Now he admits to being himself, Jacob...and asserts his continued need for a blessing. The process of reconciliation is going to cost him – and not simply in the flocks and herds he already plans to send on ahead to deflect the wrath of his estranged brother. He knows the truth of this – the truth of who he really is...and now, beyond this – unlooked for – comes this experience of wrestling all night. Wrestling with God. His experience comes to define the nation of his descendants. Israel means one who wrestles with God – and so this is a description of all the People of God throughout the ages. They, we (the “new Israel”), are those who hang on to God no matter what...who will not let go until we receive a blessing. I don’t know how you’re feeling, but my experience of 2020 has most definitely been one of wrestling, both for myself and for the Church I love. Wrestling with fear – that I’ll die too soon to see my beloved grandchildren grow, that my children’s jobs will disappear in the inevitable recession and that I’ll be powerless to help and support them... With grief – that cherished plans have been obliterated, joyful celebrations cancelled, with no certainty that they’ll be recoverable at all With anxiety that the Church as institution will be so badly damaged by the impact of the pandemic that it won’t actually be around for me to retire from. With doubt, - that the whole faith thing might be a wild delusion, leaving me a child crying in the night with but the language of the cry... Much of that wrestling was not deeply rational – but it certainly led to a good few disturbed nights and weary mornings, when I may not have been limping visibly – but there was a definite lack of spring in my step spiritually and emotionally, if not physically. I wonder what you have been wrestling with through the past weeks and months? I wonder if you’ve found that God was part of the struggle after all? Perhaps, like Jacob, you are haunted by the past. By a failure or a sin, real or imagined, that we cannot forget...Reconciliation means acknowledging that; calling ourselves by our true name, with all the baggage of our history, and then offering that baggage to God for healing and transformation. That’s a good night’s wrestling – but if you get stuck, remember that the Church has a Sacrament to help you... Perhaps you’re wrestling with theology, with your understanding of God or of Scripture. Perhaps the faith you have relied on now feels like a boat that has sprung a leak...is not quite equal to your longing to make sense of our current predicament. Perhaps your struggle is with a threat of some kind: a real or imagined enemy, -the virus? Grief? Aging? Or a lost or broken relationship, an Esau in your life. In all of these wrestlings, the point is to hang on until the day dawns and the blessing comes. Do not let go. God IS there, your companion in the darkness...even if God’s presence feels not like a comforting arm round your shoulders but a relentless stranger whose legacy leaves you limping in pain. We know in Coventry, better than most, that to be reconciled – to ourselves, one another, to the reality of life on this beautiful, broken, transient planet – is a journey that involves pain and loss as well as hope and transformation. The wounds of history, collective and personal, are real and deep. Perhaps we cannot heal them ourselves – but we can limp on. We are here as the people who struggle with God. We may be limping, you and I...but we remain committed to the struggle. We will not let go, but wait in hope for the new name that God has for each one of us as we receive the promised blessing.