Saturday, 5 September 2009

St Giles & Proper 18 Combined!

A quick word of explanation - it's the nearest Sunday to the Feast Day of St Giles who whom our local Church is dedicated, so we have a special service to remember our 'Patron Saint' and to celebrate our Church life together. This one came after a fair amount of wrestling with the passage, and some help from Twitter friends (I go by @revdal on Twitter if anyone wants to follow, I will reciprocate). Anyway, I wanted to keep the usual Sunday readings rather than using the 'Common of the Saints' readings for 'Religious' (ie Monks) so I needed to think about the two. I have to say, as the first few paragraphs I hope make clear, there was a very natural link.

This one's not been preached yet, it may change in the telling.... If you say something in the next fourteen hours or so it may find its way into the final sermon, a work in progress!

Year B Proper 18 (2006) RCL Principal
St Giles’ - Open & Welcoming

So, who knows who St Giles was?

My first patronal festival here at St Giles means that I really felt I had to do a little bit of homework on who the great man himself was and why our Church might have been named after him in the hope that I could find something to say about him as we think on the part we have in this community and in our village. So I did a little bit of homework, and it turned out to be only a little as my first instinct was to turn to a book called ‘Exciting Holiness’ which said all I needed to get the thought processes going:

Giles was a hermit who died in about the year 710. He founded a monastery at the place now called Saint-Gilles in Provence which became an important place on the pilgrimage routes His care for the wounded and those crippled by disease resulted in his becoming the patron saint of such people both to Compostela and to the Holy Land., particularly of those with leprosy. Leprosy sufferers were not permitted to enter towns and cities and therefore often congregated on the outskirts, where churches built to meet their needs were regularly dedicated to Giles.

What made me stop and think was that we have a Church dedicated to someone known for his welcome and his care for those in need. For the outcast and the unwanted. Something I think is at the heart of what it means to be God’s people here in Kilmington. And in our welcome and care for our community I believe we build on the foundations of saints such as St Giles and their desire to reach out and to show the love of Christ to their community.

Having said that, though, a look at our Gospel – and it is that I want to preach on despite the excellence and value of our passage from the book of Proverbs– a look at our Gospel gives us more than enough substance for a whole raft of sermons. Though I will try not to stray too far over my self-allotted 10 minutes or so for this sermon.

It is a well known passage, the story of a Syro Phonecian Woman who approached Jesus with a request to heal her daughter, and was dismissed by him until she came back with the exquisite riposte ‘even the dogs get to eat the crumbs under the table’ – a phrase that has sunk deep into the spirituality of the English as our Prayer Book has included it as the foundation for what is known as the ‘Prayer of Humble access’. “We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs under thy table” we pray in our Communion services as we recognise our own sinfulness and the response of God’s grace despite that sinfulness.

But it is an uncomfortable story, at least it should be if we look at it closely. We believe in a Jesus who said words that come up in so many of our services and sermons ‘Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’ and a Jesus who welcomed and touched the outcast, the leper, the sinner – yet in this short passage we are shown a Jesus who rejects a woman because of her lack of status and her national heritage. He goes so far as to allude that she is a dog – ‘it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs’ he says in verse 27 of Mark chapter 7. Not terribly flattering, in fact downright insulting. But the woman does not leave it there and her quick response about being allowed to take the crumbs under the table causes Jesus to change his mind and offer healing to this woman’s daughter.

But this time it is not the woman and her persistence that I want to commend. I want to consider exactly what it is that Jesus did in that encounter.

Some preachers, and indeed many normal people I have met, contend that Jesus was testing the woman who came to him – that it was an attempt to elicit faith from her that would make the healing of her daughter possible – for again and again in the Gospels we have the refrain ‘your faith has made you well’ or ‘your faith has saved you.’

I have to say, that if this was Jesus’ aim it was done rather cruelly, by dismissing the woman and insulting her. Remember this was a woman who meant nothing in first century Palestinian society – she wasn’t a Jew, she was a woman and she had no husband or sons to give her value in society’s eyes. It was a case of ‘three strikes and you’re out’ for jewish society! She was consigned to widow-hood with an equally valueless daughter and wasn’t worth bothering with. If Jesus was testing her he did it by adding to her sense of worthlessness and lack of importance.

On the other hand, perhaps (and many find this hard to accept) Jesus made a mistake! Perhaps his understanding was that he had been called to bring the Jewish people back to God and that the Gentiles had no place in that plan. Perhaps at this juncture in his ministry he had to think again about the mission God had given him and reconsider his role over and above the calling to bring Israel back to God.

I find this far more plausible. And far more encouraging. And in keeping with the Gospel records with who and what Jesus was.

The main argument against Jesus making a mistake and having to correct himself is that he was God and therefore infallible. Yet the witness of our Scriptures is that though the people who knew him described him as God and worshipped him, they could also only talk about him as a man. And the teaching of the early Church was that in Jesus Christ we see someone who is fully God and fully human – someone who was, as the writer to the Hebrews says, exactly as we are, yet without sin.

And it is not for us as human beings to know everything! In fact, if we knew everything we would no longer be human but something else, some kind of super-human, or ultra-human, or something alien and beyond human.

This is not what the Bible says. Jesus was as we are. Those who shared his life saw him hunger and thirst, they saw him get tired, angry, confused about his mission and ministry, they saw him weep at the death of a friend. There is no picture of a serene Jesus wandering about Galilee with a sort of divine filofax the spelled out in advance what he would be doing each day (the seven visions before breakfast approach) and exactly how his mission was to develop. Our Biblical witness is of a Jesus who struggled, who felt pain, who was saddened. Who did everything we did, except sin.

And that perhaps is the crux of the issue, for many people confuse Jesus making a mistake with Jesus sinning. And my conviction is that Jesus didn’t sin, I believe wholeheartedly the Biblical witness, yet this story is given to us to show that he did make a mistake. Perhaps the sin would have been if he had continued to turn the woman away, if he didn’t listen to her response and refused to heal her daughter because of her status and her race. Yet Jesus heard, and his response is a telling on – ‘you have answered well’ – or to put it more colloquially, perhaps ‘good answer..’ The translation of the Bible known as the message, putting Scripture into contemporary language says this for Mark 7 29 & 30
Jesus was impressed. "You're right! On your way! Your daughter is no longer disturbed. The demonic affliction is gone.
Jesus sees a new aspect to his mission, to reach out to all people for God’s sake, and from this point in our Gospel he states his commitment to the world and not just the Jewish people.

I believe this is why the author of Mark’s Gospel follows this story with another encounter with Jesus where someone’s who has been deaf and unable to speak since birth has their ears and mouth opened ‘Ephphatha’ says Jesus – meaning ‘be opened’ – perhaps a reflection of his own experience in that previous encounter, as he found himself opened to the power of God’s work in the world.

So what can we learn from this today? Why go into so much detail with what is, in actual fact, quite a short story in our Gospels?

This story gives us a glimpse of what it is possible for us to be! If Jesus is always beyond us, never making mistakes, never having to change his mind – then we lose the fact that we are called to be like him and we constantly say to ourselves that is beyond our reach to be like Jesus. Again, this is not the message of the Bible, we are called to be transformed into those who are Christlike by the power of God’s holy Spirit. That is our calling as followers of Christ, and this story reminds us that it is possible and that we can make mistakes and seek to be those who are sinless.

This wonderful passage also reminds us to be open to the unexpected, and willing to change our minds, just as Jesus was and did. It reminds us that the movement from making a mistake to actively sinning comes from stubbornness and the unwillingness to see where God may be at work.

Lastly we are shown that in God’s scheme of things there are no outcasts, even those who society rejects, who have no apparent value are those who can receive God’s amazing, unmerited, overwhelming gift of love and life.

May we be those willing to learn, willing to accept our mistakes, and longing to be like Christ. Ephphatha – be opened. May we as those who are dedicated to Christ, and who have this wonderful church dedicated to St Giles, be opened to the love of God and be open to the needy, the poor, and those so in need of Christ’s life.