I can't stand mess. What about you?

St Mary’s Church, Thorpe

Proper 18 – The 14th Sunday after Trinity – Sermon Notes

Introduction and Call to Worship

Today we are reminded that the love of God knows no limits and that all of us share in that love – such love that we pray our bells will ring out that same message of love to this community of Thorpe. We give thanks for God’s loving presence with us, here as we gather around the altar.

Today’s Readings

First Reading Isaiah 35:4-7a

God promises to redeem Israel and the prophet portrays the signs of God’s presence.

Second Reading James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17

Showing favouritism to those who are wealthy or well-dressed in the church community is an insult to the poor and conflicts with our profession of the Christian faith. Genuine faith must be accompanied by good works.

Gospel Mark 7:24-37

Jesus travels into Gentile country, where he performs two miracles: the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and of the man who is deaf and has a speech impediment.

HOMILY “Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” (Mark 7:26)

I can’t stand Mess – sorry but it’s true. I wouldn’t say I was obsessional about it, or OCD, and if you have seen my study recently you may question my commitment to order, but I do love things to be tidy, neat, and organized. I shouldn’t be surprised, because I have a dreadful short-term memory, so being organized helps me to remember where things are. Then, when I look at the world around me, I am reminded that nothing is as organized as I perhaps once thought or would like – there is chaos! Yes, there is order, incredible order, and complexity. And at Emmaus over the coming weeks, we will be looking at the world and asking if it could have been possible for such an interwoven and diverse planet to have happened by accident? I don’t think so, because I believe God as creator made everything and is still busy creating and re-creating and thank goodness for that. We need a bit of re-creation don’t we!

Then I ponder the diversity of Creation – what a mess! And what a mess we human beings are making of it too. We only must look at the destruction caused by natural disasters recently to recognize that mess is everywhere – even in a world so wonderfully ordered. Then there is the messiness of incarnation: Incarnation is one of those ‘theological’ words that simply means, God becoming a human – one of us. So, what of this God made man, Jesus? He teaches in public and private, in the streets, on hillsides and synagogues, in the temple and at dinner tables. He shares faith and breaks bread all at once, sometimes quite straightforwardly, but often speaking on different levels to different people. Add in his miracles; healings and the offer of new life, and as we have reflected over the summer, his continual run-inns with the religious authorities and his bodily rejection of old barriers and taboos: all these are interwoven in patterns of visibility and secrecy which can leave us deeply bewildered. It seems chaotic too, perhaps mirroring the world.

Our Lord responds to the messiness of the world, and in so doing he walks with and reaches out to different people and their needs, with inclusive love. Rather than boxing people up, he sees the real person, the real need, and he offers healing. In a world of so much chaos, not least with the Covid pandemic still raging, Jesus offers calm and healing. We his church today are to bring that calm also. We do this by allowing our Lord, his love, his teaching, and his ministry to work through us and our lives. This is what mission is all about – taking the message of the Gospel that we hear and read every Sunday out into the world and sharing it through our daily living. The mission of living lives as disciples: yearning after Christlikeness by giving of ourselves, emptying ourselves in the service of others, inviting others to come alongside us in friendship, and inviting them into the fellowship of sacramental worship – this holy place of prayer – St Mary’s.

This is to offer a glimpse of the Gospel of delight, the Gospel of welcome, the Gospel of our Lord’s inclusive love for all. This world needs mission, however messy it gets. And as we journey the path of life and faith, we may meet a woman, like our Lord did, who dares us to break taboos. We might be begged for help, only to find our quiet assistance becomes the stuff of unwelcome and mis described publicity. Jesus words to the woman are shocking, because we read them out of context, and they therefore rightly challenge us. But his words, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7: 27) is thought to be a traditional phrase of the time, to describe non-Jews, those referred to in scripture as Gentiles – people like you and I – and therefore our Lord’s comment is meant for those whom he desires to challenge, the religious leaders of his day, those who sit at table with him and judge. But her response is brilliant and helps cut through the messiness of this situation, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7: 28)

Remember, Jesus doesn’t ignore her need; her daughter is healed because she trusts – she has faith. Our Lord meets her needs, and many others with healing miracles, forgiven and utter love which overflows for all people, you, and I also.

Biblical scholars have sought all sorts of alternative and more acceptable explanations of the term. I suspect that Jesus reply to the woman’s pleading was perhaps making use of a well-known sentiment or even a “tongue-in-cheek” response. He only responds to the woman’s request when she gives a smart answer!

The approach of Jesus seems at odds with the reading we have just heard from James, discouraging favouritism towards certain people, and stressing the need for good works as an expression of faith. But there is more here. The woman believes in Jesus! The Syrophoenician woman’s approach to Jesus was her act of faith: she had heard of Jesus’ presence in the neighbourhood and believed he could heal her daughter. He has a reputation for cutting through the mess. Jesus is revolutionary, crossing our man-made boundaries of culture, belief, and prejudice to reach out to a Gentile woman who recognised his power. Likewise, he reaches out to all people today – Yes, all people. The Gospel speaks to us of “crossing boundaries” and working through the mess to reveal God’s glory. This healing miracle should remind us that the Gospel is about overcoming barriers and reaching out to people in need whoever they are and whatever their circumstances and that includes some of those seeking a new life away from the dreadfulness of their desperate home country – we may think of Afghanistan at this time.

Friends in faith – today’s Gospel is a challenge to each of us at a time of mess! Being able to live, pray, work together, even worship together depends on being confident in our own faith while allowing diversity to flourish. Cultural variation is of great value when we, in God’s terms, recognise the worth of an individual whatever their race, nationality, background, gender, faith, sexuality or anything else for that matter which causes us to box people up or treat them consciously, or unconsciously as different. Hopefully this Autumn on our Emmaus Course many of us can join together to listen intentionally, debate, discuss, pray, study scripture and be open to the inclusive love of Christ for us.

The Syrophoenician woman discovered that, despite her differences, Jesus did not reject her but responded and met her need. Her daughter was healed, and her life was changed. What needs do we need to meet at this time of great challenge in our nation and wider world? How could we come together to offer the hope of faith anew to others and be built-up anew as the family of faith, part of God’s kingdom?

Fr Damian Harrison-Miles – September 2021.

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