Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Tenth Sunday After Trinity (20 August 2017) by the Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Tenth Sunday After Trinity (20 August 2017) by the Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

The Canon Pastor explains that through the expansiveness of God, we are all connected, and asks us to learn to talk, listen and walk together.

God of grace
Awaken us to your presence
and to your call, especially in the cry of those in pain or in need.
Grant us such an experience of your mercy that we might reach out to one another.

The speaker turned to face me.

‘I was taught this’, he said, ‘each person is to care for 100 neighbours. Just 100 that’s all. 50 neighbours to the left and 50 neighbours to the right, and if we each truly care for our neighbours to the right and to the left, all is well with the whole world’.

It was the evening of 10th June this year. The speaker, a Muslim faith leader and I were on the West Steps of St Paul’s. It was a beautiful evening, the setting sun catching the Portland stone of the Cathedral. Almost impossible to imagine that exactly one week before, horror had been unleashed around London Bridge and our sister Cathedral of Southwark.

Those events were very much on our minds. Our gathering had been planned for some time. Initially simply to extend a welcome to Muslims from nearby Tower Hamlets as they began a sunset walk towards the East London Mosque to share a meal at the end of their day of fasting.

The events of London Bridge changed that.

Now we walked together in sorrow, remembering the people whose lives had been so viciously taken and those whose lives would be changed for ever. We walked in defiance, resolving that we would add our weight to the efforts of so many, to do what we can to stand against hate, division, fear and evil.

As we walked, we talked and we listened to one another.

As Pilgrims through the centuries have discovered, in what can be a relentlessly preoccupied and busy world, there is something human about the pace set by walking, particularly if, as it was that evening, the pace takes account of those who might struggle to keep up. Strangers walking side by side, coming to know more of each other’s worlds, joys, concerns, pain.

It’s not always easy to give space and time to one another, especially to strangers or where there is suspicion, disagreement or history.

Our gospel passage this morning describes a challenging encounter between a stranger, Jesus and his disciples. Challenging for those who were there and challenging for us as contemporary readers.

The woman who approached Jesus, asking for help was a triple outsider: a woman in a patriarchal cultural setting, a gentile approaching a Jewish teacher, and a resident of a region outside Jewish territory, with whom there was both historical and contemporary suspicion and resentment.

Jesus’ disciples insist that Jesus send her away – she’s demanding something of us, she’s in our way, holding us up, causing a scene, she is a nuisance. Who is she to us? Send her away, they say, she keeps shouting after us!

They sound anxious – and anxiety so often sounds like anger and distain. Anxiety closes down our ability to see options. It gives us the mental equivalent of tunnel vision – driving us to either/or and stark black or white thinking.

If I am anxious about whether my children will get into a good local school I may find it easiest to reach for simple answers like, then it must be ‘their fault’ – whoever ‘they are’. If I am uncertain about what my place in this society is then it must be because ‘they’ whoever they are, are here. If ‘they’ have a share then surely there won’t be enough for me and mine?

Anxieties need to be addressed, genuine concerns heard, but narrow thinking and flawed assumptions need to be challenged.

Where some would use the differences of ethnicity, heritage, gender and more to keep her away – the woman refuses to be ignored or dismissed and she challenged the efficacy of these apparent barriers.

Because she had grasped a fundamental truth.

The fundamental truth she refuses to let go of is this: God is a God of generous mercy.

This woman seizes on the fact that while God’s mercy may begin with Israel, it does not end there, because of the very nature of God. Of God’s mercy, God’s goodness, God’s grace there is enough.

If we fail to grasp this we immediately narrow our understanding of God.

The expansiveness of God means that there is no room for exclusion or hate in any of their forms. The expansiveness of God means that we are connected: so when people mourn in Sierra Leone, in Madeira, in Nepal, in Barcelona, when people hate in Charlottesville, God feels it and we are all touched by it. Because of the expansiveness of God we are neighbours and we urgently need to learn how to live together.

To talk, listen and walk together.

Listening - for the real underlying concerns and anxieties which if they go unheeded distort our speaking and our listening.

Talking - which involves naming and challenging the barriers of exclusion.

Walking together, coming alongside those to the right and to the left of us.

These are brave actions, brave conversations but they need to be had.

Neighbour to neighbour; neighbour with neighbour

Jesus said:

'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'

[Matthew 22:37-39]