Sunday, August 16, 2020
Nevertheless, she persisted - a sermon for Trinity 10A at Coventry Cathedral, 16th August 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.