Sermon preached on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (17 August 2014) by The Reverend Sarah Eynstone, Minor Canon and Chaplain

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (17 August 2014) by The Reverend Sarah Eynstone, Minor Canon and Chaplain

The Reverend Sarah Eynstone looks at the 
values, attitudes and prejudices we inherit and says that 'as society changes the church community needs to respond in ways which reflect God’s generous love'.

If you are a visitor to this country and are unfamiliar with English culture you might find yourself confused by our customs and attitudes. The English are notorious for being polite, reserved, not given to big displays of emotion.

This means we are not always direct in our speech; it can be hard to penetrate our words and phrases to understand what we really mean.

For example, when an English person says ‘It could be worse’ they generally mean ‘It couldn't be any worse.’

When someone says to you ‘With all due respect’ what they mean is ‘What you are saying is completely ridiculous.’

A culture’s social conventions and ways of using language are never discussed or agreed upon. Instead they have emerged slowly, over a long period of time, until they are simply taken for granted. Attitudes and customs become embedded in our culture to an extent that we are unaware of them.

It is only when someone from another country fails to understand us that we are given cause to step back and look afresh at our social norms and expectations.

We are all shaped by the period and cultures in which we live; we are social animals and so necessarily take on the habits and values of the societies into which we are born.

A difficulty of this is that just as we inherit language and customs we also inherit values, attitudes and prejudices.

For example there was a time when slavery was taken for granted as a natural way in which society was ordered. It was once so ingrained in our culture that it was seen as a given. Today we recognise slavery as inherently wrong, a practice which is degrading to other human beings, but it required people with insight and compassion to question this practice and to work for change; to see slavery through a different lens to those around them.

To see our world through a faith lens can give us insights like those who campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Equally when faced with a new set of circumstances we can, at least initially, be blinded by our existing religious attitudes and expectations.

The story of the Canaanite woman in today's gospel reading sounds very challenging to us and Jesus’ response to her pleas for healing particularly so. In the society in which Jesus had grown up the Canaanite woman represented everything that was unclean to an Israelite man. She was a Gentile, a woman, who transgressed social boundaries by talking to a group of men and refusing to be ignored. It seems the disciples are annoyed by her presence. Jesus initially ignores her and then speaks to her in ugly and derogatory words:

‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ and ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

It sounds as if Jesus had absorbed his culture’s beliefs about what – and who- was clean and unclean and so prioritised accordingly.

There are many ways we can interpret Jesus’ shocking retort to the woman’s plea for healing for her daughter. Is this a literary or teaching device to show us that the attitudes of the disciples needed to be shown up for what they were; exclusive to the point of inhuman? By Jesus talking in this way to the woman the disciples would be faced with the limitations and inhumanity of their attitudes.

Perhaps Jesus was revealing to the disciples the effects of their own prejudice towards this woman; that taken to extremes their exclusivity denied his own redeeming power.

Or does it reflect the debates that were happening around Matthew’s community at the time this gospel was written? Jewish Christians were perhaps seeking to understand where the boundaries lay and who the Christian gospel was for. This text reveals that ultimately no one is to be excluded from Jesus’ healing power.

Or perhaps the aim is to show those who seek Christ’s aid now that a persistent and bold faith will be rewarded. If only we hold onto a belief in the power of Christ whatever knock backs we face, we will, in the end, receive the healing we all need and seek.

All this may be true but we should not be too hasty in rendering this story a safe and tame one.

Potentially this text reveals what it really means that Jesus was human, like us; whilst he was without sin in every other respect he was a human being vulnerable to the ethnic and religious categories of the people around him and the culture in which he was raised. As the gospels say ‘he grew in stature and wisdom’, but this was a process. Jesus did not drop out of the sky fully-formed. We know very little about Jesus before his public ministry which began at the age of thirty.

It is all too easy for us to emphasise the divinity of Christ and ignore the very hard parts of Jesus being human; we should not be surprised if Jesus’ humanity meant he was caught up with the cultural norms of his day.

What is most significant about this passage is that we see in Jesus a man who accepts the challenge before him and allows himself to be changed through this encounter with a woman.

This passage represents a turning point in the narrative in Matthew’s gospel; it is after this point that Jesus’ ministry extends to Jews and Gentiles alike. Jesus’ own boundaries were not so rigid that he could not grow and enlarge his understanding of his mission and ministry; this can encourage us when we face new and challenging people and situations which confound our religious categories or ways of looking at the world.

As Christians we are encouraged to have a strong faith, but what does this mean?

We might all know someone who is very steely; who we dare not challenge because we fear the repercussions; a sharp response or a quick put-down or a ferocious logic which leaves us mute. We might also recognise that we ourselves have, over time, developed a sharp and steely exterior in response to being challenged or hurt in the past.

The problem with steel is that it is also very brittle. It cannot bend and under pressure it will snap and break. It doesn't have the capacity to be flexible.

Religious faith is the same. A steely faith can be a destructive one; both to the holder of that faith and those who seek to be in dialogue and relationship with that person or community. Faith groups with strict boundaries and categories are often marked by a kind of steeliness which is exclusive to those who are different.

In contrast a genuinely strong faith is one that has an inherent flexibility meaning it can withstand challenges and pressure and not be broken.

As society changes the church community needs to respond to these new circumstances in ways which reflect God’s generous love.

If we feel a need to protect the customs and practices of our faith rigidly in the face of change we become unable to relate to people of different backgrounds or religious perspectives. We will also be unable to grow and develop ourselves; it may be that in the challenging circumstances we face God is calling us to grow in humanity and trust; to enlarge our faith and our understanding of him.

So we pray for God's strength to take root is us; to give us a strength which will enable us to grow in the midst of change and to respond to those who challenge us with his grace and love.