Sunday, 17 August 2014

A Mother's Boldness

Sermon for Trinity 9. 
Matthew 15: 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

I expect, like me, you have been following the news unfolding in Iraq with horror.
My attempts to update myself on new events about fundamentalism and its terrifying spread through Iraq, is met with warnings online of graphic photos, and I’m not sure I want to see them.
The Catholic online reporter writes: ‘what is happening in Iraq and Syria, especially to Christians, is not hyperbole. They have shown no mercy to women or children.’
Wherever there is violence and conflict, it is often mothers and children that come in for the most severe fall out.
As a mother (and I expect anyone who is a parent will feel the same) I can only imagine the horror of fleeing from persecution, and the ensuing fear, travelling, homelessness, hunger, exhaustion and dislocation that has been brought on the minorities in Iraq who do not wish to see it become an Islamist State.

Mothers and children are traditionally thought of as in need of protection, certainly when children are very small and defenseless.
But in even in extremis, mothers have always been resourceful when it comes to protecting their own children.
On Friday the Church remembered Mary the mother of Jesus, one who said yes to the demanding call of God, who was also made a refugee at the time of Herod’s purging of Jewish babies, ad sent into exile in Egypt.
In our reading today we see the strength and determination of another resourceful mother, though this time a non Jewish mother.
In Jesus’ day the the Jewishness of a baby was carried down the maternal line.
As an online Jewish blog explains:
‘Jewishness is not in our DNA. It is in our soul. The reason it is passed down through the maternal line is not just because it is easier to identify who your mother is. It is because the soul identity is more directly shaped by the mother than the father…
Jewishness is passed down by the mother because being Jewish is a spiritual identity, it defines our very being. And our very being we get from our mother, both in body and in soul’

Historically, the Jews had to guard their faith with strong boundaries which marked them out from the surrounding pagan nations
As a matter of national survival, circumcision and the Ten Commandments/special relationship with Yahweh was instituted, and at various points in Jewish history, strongly threatened.
It’s a known psychological fact that threatened people put up boundaries.
Into this steps Jesus, a Jew, with a strong sense of mission to the Jews, but a habit of crossing boundaries, to the horror of many other Jews surrounding him.
The Jewish faith was closely guarded by the Pharisees and Sadducees.
To some extent their guardianship was admirable: there were many threats, but this close guarding could alienate the less religious and make them feel like outcasts.
And outcast were Jesus’ speciality.

We who are used to the rituals of the church, what you do at the communion rail, what you do during prayers and hymns, how you find your way around books in church, mustn’t forget that all these things are alien for a growing % of the population.
In Jesus’ day things were very demarcated.
The desperate woman who approaches Jesus to heal her daughter, is not part of the covenant people; she is a non Jew, an outsider.
It was unusual for a woman to instigate a conversation with a man.
Even more so, that a Gentile, one of the unclean ones, should approach a Rabbi.
And it may be, like me, you are puzzled, even disturbed, by Jesus’ reaction.
In Mark he says he was only sent to the house of Israel.
Matthew embellishes by adding that he ignored her requests and the disciples became bothered by her insistent calling out.
He certainly doesn’t hurry to respond to her.
We might also ask, why is Jesus even in this pagan territory of Tyre?
Mark suggests Jesus went to region of Tyre to escape the crowds.
He is in pagan territory; he doesn’t expect to find faith in this place.
He hadn’t bargained someone who was about to throw herself at him.

Timothy Keller, writing in his book on Mark’s Gospel, asks the question: ‘How do we approach Jesus?
When did you last throw yourself at Jesus?
Do we have a sense that God is too remote, or that He can be accessed at all hours, no questions asked, so long as he grants me my hearts desire?
Do we come to him casually, or with awe and wonder?
I come across people who are afraid of God, who despise him, who are upset with him, or who ignore him, as well as those who love and worship him.
For instance, some people keep their hands in our pockets when they worship God
I recall someone getting told off during training for preaching with ‘a lazy evangelical hand’; one hand in the pocket doesn't exactly send out the right signal about how we view things divine...
The Syrophonecian woman comes to him in desperation though.
Again, Tim Keller: ‘You know why she has this sudden boldness don’t you? There are cowards, there are regular people, there are heroes, and then there are parents. Parents are not really on the spectrum from cowardice to courage, because if your child is in jeopardy you simply do what it takes to save her.’ (p.86, King’s Cross)

Jesus’ response, that it is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to dogs, seems an insult to us, even with our toleration and love of dogs as pets, which was unknown in Jesus’ day.
In his day they were simply creatures that begged; they scavenged at the foot of the table, hoping for leftovers.
In our society, where people insist on their rights, we are astonished that the woman herself was content to go along with this figure of speech, this suggestion that she is like a dog content with the leftovers.
In fact she understands perfectly what Jesus is saying, revealing her abject poverty of spirit.
Blessed are the poor in spirit….
She knows she is not worthy.
As we say in the Eucharist, echoing her very words:
‘We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table…’

Isn’t this the key to the question ‘who is richly blessed by God?’
Those who are richly blessed are those who know their need.
And suddenly, here is the universal Saviour who cannot fail to respond ultimately to a show of faith, wherever it may be found.
So for the woman’s amazing retort, that even the dogs eat the crumbs under their master’s table, her request is instantly granted: an exorcism, from a distance.
Her daughter is healed instantly.
To quote Tim Keller again – ‘She’s not saying Lord give me what I deserve on the basis of my goodness’; she’s saying ‘Give me what I don’t deserve on the basis of your goodness – and I need it now’ ‘ (p.88-9)
This is a parable of the gospel in a nutshell.
Here are the disciples, slow to understand, trying to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem and be killed.
Here are the Pharisees, obsessed with internal religious order, unaware they are neglecting the very essence of a loving God and failing to share the good news.
Here is an un-named pagan, a woman, who immediately understands the free gift of God in Jesus Christ and doesn’t mind debasing herself to get it.

And so we come to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
It was her special day on Friday, 15th August, and we marked it at Morning Prayer on the Team.
Here too is a woman of humble spirit, in this case, a Jew, but one who said yes to God, and bore Jesus to be the Saviour of the whole world.
As we listen again to the ancient piece of music, 'There is no rose of such virtue', 

let us also say YES along with Mary, and may we follow in her footsteps of obedience, as we pray for mercy towards all those mothers in Iraq who cry out to God, and to us, day and night.


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