Sermon 2017 August 20th

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

SUN 20 AUG 2017

Preacher: Revd Angus MacLeod MA BD

Listen here: https://youtu.be/8HwOmFI9ldk

 

Jesus said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

“Yes” replied the Canaanite woman, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs

that fall from their master’s table.” Matthew 15:26-27

 

In a week of headlines, that range from

white supremacists in Virginia to “soldiers of Isis” in Barcelona,

(echoes of Westminster Bridge and Finsbury Park mosque attacks);

in a week marking the 70th anniversary of the Independence of India

and foundation of Pakistan –

recounting vast uprooting and terrible violence

along the fault lines of faith;

the gospel interrogates us about prejudice and the attitudes of our hearts –

sometimes secret, sometimes known.

 

What prejudices, conscious or unconscious, checked or unchecked,

do we bring to postcode or politics,

to family, neighbour or enemy,

even or particularly, to faith and worship?

Former Moderator, Very Revd James Whyte, (year of the Lockerbie bombing)

widely acknowledged by students and parishioners as wise, faithful and kind –

said of himself: “I am a bundle of prejudices, loosely tied together.”

(In other words – we all have some examining to do.)

 

This week a fly on the wall, television documentary

followed an experiment undertaken in an English primary school

with a class of Year 3, seven-year-old pupils (and their teacher);

its aim was to observe and challenge thinking about gender

assumptions, about what boys and girls “liked” and didn’t “like” –

assumptions, about what they are good at or supposedly inclined towards,

simply because they are girl or boy.

What emerged of course is how much is learnt behaviour,

conveyed by the language and expectations of adults.

 

In one side experiment, adult carers were given a range of toys –

some traditionally female (dolls), some traditionally male (robots)

and asked to play with a toddler.

Faced with a small girl, the carers engaged with female toys;

with boys, they choose different “selected” toys

and the engagement was more robust and physical.

The sting in the experiment was that unbeknownst to the carers

the children were a male child, dressed as a girl

and a female child, dressed as a boy.

 

Back at school, there was an alternative challenge of perceptions.

The old-fashioned fairground attraction, ring the bell, test of strength

was set up in the playground.

Each child had three go’s to hit as hard as possible

and see how far they could raise the dinger.

But before each took a turn, they were asked to predict their score.

The boys invariably predicted high – “Ten – No problem!”

The girls generally far more reticent – mostly predicting fives:

marked difference in levels of confidence and self-belief.

 

On the day, the girls, to their surprise, scored just as well as the boys in the class.

One particularly shy girl amazed herself with a bell-ringing ten –

then promptly dissolved into tears.

The teacher checking- “Are those happy tears?” “Yes” the sniffled reply.

And the class’ most confident boy,

due to his over hurried attempts to smash the task,

failed to register even one on the scale –

promptly hurtling off like Achilles to his tent,

to kick and scream at the unfairness of it all.

It viewed like an Aesop fable.

 

The programme’s more serious point is about the opportunities and potentials

that are stunted by the attitudes conveyed by adults,

and imbibed by children from the earliest of ages.

Today’s gospel asks us to consider the disconcerting evidence

of just such a learnt prejudice, held by Jesus himself.

 

Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem, inquisitors from the centre of power;

come to see first-hand, the provincial carpenter’s son,

whose preaching is disturbing the status quo.

“Why do your disciples disrespect our ancient laws –

not performing the ritual cleansing before taking food?”

Jesus counters, Blind guides:  you who have lost sight of what the laws are about.

Not a message to make friends among the rule-makers.

 

Wearied maybe by this hard-heartedness, Jesus takes leave awhile.

He heads to Tyre and Sidon; modern day Lebanon.

Historically – a centre of Baal worship – Border/Bad-lands.

His disapprovers would spit: Gone to the dogs: Jewish insult for the gentile.

 

It is there he encounters the anonymous Canaanite;

a hostile tribe – strange gods, ritually unclean. And a woman.

Foreign and female – a double no, for any self-respecting rabbi.

 

“Have mercy on me; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

The cry of the heart – God save the child.

Our own century is too familiar with images of desperate mothers

bearing children in their arms,

running from shellfire, or wading towards a new shore.

Have mercy on the girl.

 

And with the plea, also a recognition; Lord, Son of David.

Here beyond the boundaries of Israel,

on the lips of the ill-informed – she uses the Messiah’s title.

Recognising Jesus in ways his own disciples seemed unable to.

 

At first, no answer.

Was Jesus indifferent, compassion fatigued or stunned by her address –

an understanding, lacking among the folks

who spoke his dialect, knew his kin, and shared his God.

 

The woman persists. The handlers step in.

“Send her packing Master. She’s not for us. We’re not for her.”

We hear Jesus’ inward thoughts:

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

God knows, that is task enough.

So this one – is beyond the fold.

 

But love keeps coming; her daughter’s life at stake.

How long will you ignore my child’s need?

 

You are not the one for who I was sent.

To which she hurls back his hound words: Says who?

Or as Matthew recounts it:

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

 

“Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Please! a piece of your dream, that my child’s nightmare might end.

 

Therein, checkmate: the blessing is wrestled forth from Jesus.

“Woman, great is your faith!”  The girl is made well.

 

Arguably, it is Jesus who is healed.

The woman’s feisty heckle proves a revelation.

Jesus does that most difficult thing for those born,

into a particular privilege or dominance; he listens.

he allows himself to be fundamentally changed.

Surely there’s enough for me and my daughter, says the stranger.

And perhaps to his own surprise Jesus says, Yes. Yes, there is.

 

That is the miracle, or the message, from beyond the border that day.

A foreigner, a woman, whose only credentials were her cry for help –

teaches Jesus that God’s purposes for him

are grander than he had hitherto imagined.

Teaches him that there is no neat parceling out of love, tidily labeled –

it is to be offered to anyone – anywhere,

trusting that God will give sufficiently to provide.

 

Charlottesville and Barcelona evidence the terrible power of prejudice and fear.

Many voices will say – “Things – people will never change.”

Yet Jesus preached change and Jesus embodied change;

growing in mercy and compassion,

as he met and was changed by an anonymous Canaanite woman.

 

Jesus once asked an enquirer: Who is my neighbour?

The enquirer replied: The one who showed mercy.

Jesus said: Go and do likewise.