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17th August 2014 - Sunday Morning - Revd. Preb Maureen Hobbs

Sermon for Proper 15 - Trinity 9
Isaiah 56. 1, 6-8
Matthew 15.(10-20), 21-28

It is so easy for Christians to fall into the trap of being exclusive… of creating barriers and boundaries that others find difficult or impossible to cross. Sometimes we do it unwittingly and with the best of motives - so working on our ministry of welcome is something that we can all do, at all times.

And this morning's readings come as a wonderful reminder of the inclusivity - rather than the exclusivity - of God's love for the world.

We tend to think that this is something Jesus invented…. But actually the argument is there long before the time of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah was teaching the children of Israel that, although in Exile they struggled to keep their identity and remain faithful to the Law, God was quite prepared to accept foreigners / aliens who might want to worship him - as long as they too kept to his justice and mercy in their lives. So the precious Temple in Jerusalem was never intended just to be for the exclusive use of the Jews - it was to be a house of prayer for all peoples.

And when they returned and rebuilt the Temple, this was recognized in the creation of the Court of the Gentiles … although the Jews still wanted to restrict access to the Holy of Holies - the Ark of the Covenant itself that only male Jews were allowed to draw closest to and only the High Priest was allowed to enter - and then only on one day a year. In time, the kind of religion practised by the Jews became very exclusive. They surrounded the worship - the joyful worship - of God by so many rules and restrictions.

Jesus - in contrast - wanted to show the wideness of God's love. He taught against the strict rules of purity that the Pharisees had imposed on the eating of certain foods and the rituals to be gone through before eating. Not that he was against the hygienic washing of hands - but he was certainly against the obsessive ritualistic washing that the religious professionals were criticising him for not doing. So he said that it wasn't a particular food that made a person unclean (unfit to approach God) it was what was within their heart and mind that might do that.

And in the second part of our Gospel story we find Jesus outside Jewish territory, in the land of the Phoenicians. They were great sailors and navigators - the first we think to navigate using the stars. They traded with the whole of the Mediterranean - and even made their way to Britain to get our Cornish Tin - so they were used to meeting people of every kind and learning new ways of looking at the world. To be so successful commercially, they had to be accepting of other people's customs and practices - even when they did not agree with them.

And here a Canaanite woman - (or a Syro-Phoenician as Mark calls her) but at any rate, a Gentile woman, comes to ask for help. She was breaking the regulations of the Jews twice over by speaking to him in public. She is a gentile and a woman so would make Jesus ritually unclean by having any contact with him. But she is moved by love for her daughter… and who can go against a Mother's love?
She has heard about Jesus' power as a healer and so she doesn't just ask, she shouts, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented!" She obviously has some faith in the power of this Jewish faith healer. Her faith may be small, it may be poor and unschooled, but she is desperate. And we discover that it doesn't matter how small our faith is, if it is in a big enough God. A God who doesn't recognise man-made restrictions of nationality or custom.

At first Jesus rebuffs her and can seem to be quite insulting - 'dogs' were how Jews commonly referred to Gentiles. It sounds like and was intended to be an insult.

But I am reminded of a lovely little story that we used at the Pet Service. A legend of how dog came to be Man's best friend.
The legend has it that Adam and Eve were complaining that they felt lonely during the times of day when God could not be there to walk with them in the Garden of Eden. They had each other, but wanted another companion - one to remind them of God. So God says he will do just that - make them a companion to be a reflection of his love for them. And the creature's name will be a reflection of his name too - and so Dog is created and loves the human beings and is devoted to them - just as God is loving and devoted to all of creation.

Well the Canaanite woman takes Jesus' harsh words and turns them around reminding Jesus that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table. Her witty reply seems to delight him as does the strength of her faith. Jesus rejoices in her - seeing in her a sign of the universality of the love of God as revealed in Jesus.

And while we're thinking about dogs…. You know that I have two dogs and like all their kind, they like their food. But whereas Grace will focus first on her bowl and the contents therein … moving on rapidly to anyone else's bowl, , and only then seeing if she has dropped anything on the way, in contrast, Jandi is most particular about making sure no crumb is wasted. If anything falls outside her bowl, onto the floor, she will make sure this is 'hoovered' up first - before turning her attention to the main course as it were.

It strikes me that this is a good metaphor for our actions as we come to find God in our worship and our Communion week by week. We know what the 'main course' is - the thing that will satisfy our hunger - but before we get there we need to focus on the things that might have been dropped along the way; the mistakes we have made, the mess left behind. We need to clear that up, in our prayers of confession, before we approach the Lord's table and feel that wonderful sense of being included in his Church, in his love. The old BCP service has that line in it as the invitation to confession, "those who are in love and charity with your neighbours and intend to lead a new life following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; draw near with faith…."

Today's readings comfort us that even if our faith is small and imperfect, providing it is a faith in a big enough God who has the power to forgive even us, then God will not - will never - reject us.

17th August 2014 - Sunday Evening- Revd. Preb Maureen Hobbs

Sermon for Sunday evening - 17th August 2014
Proper 15 - Trinity 9

2 Kings 4. 1-37
Acts 16. 1-15

I wonder if you know the poem by Robert Frost?
The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Tonight's Readings make me think of this poem - and how often we are presented with choices in life... we choose one path - and then perhaps often wonder what life might have been like, had we chosen the other?

With the A level results coming out this week, there will be many young people - not to mention their anxious parents, making choices about courses of study or other options for their future that will have long-lasting and life-changing effects.

After all - where one chooses to go and study or indeed work, may affect the choice of a life partner - apart from either opening up or closing off certain career options... Had I not decided to study Russian and French, I would never have lived in Cheltenham... sometimes I think I might have done better to study electronics - then a very new branch of physics, but one in which I was also interested...

Or, of course, had I known that the Church would eventually ordain women, I might have opted to study theology.... I remember being rather annoyed at School that because of the particular option choices available to me, we were not allowed to enter for O level RE! Had I become a vicar much earlier in life, then maybe I would indeed be contemplating the House of Bishops now!

Oh but think of all the people I would then not have met or experiences enjoyed!

Paul and Timothy are on a journey. They have been sent by the apostles and elders - the Church in Jerusalem - to check up on all the new churches that were springing up all over the Roman Empire - or at least the Eastern half of the Mediterranean. There is a sense that this growth is becoming exponential and Peter, James and the others back at base are worried that they cannot control the movement that is being spread in the name of Jesus.... And we human beings do not like being out of control! And there was no telephone or social media then - not that much literacy around even. So word of mouth was critical - and it was important that all these new churches were taught the right messages, the right teaching, the right dogma.

So with Paul in the lead, the pair set off - intending to travel around the country we know today as Turkey.

But something stops them going further and then Paul has a dream in which he sees a man from Macedonia - northern Greece in today's world, begging for help. Well we know that preaching to the Gentiles was something that Paul was very much in favour of, so this chimed in neatly with his own agenda!

But in the end, it is not a man, but a woman who proves the key person in the church moving beyond the Middle East. A woman who is a power in her own right - a business woman; independent, confident - not afraid to argue and dispute with Paul - however strange and charismatic a preacher he may be. And it is she who shows Paul how God's Holy Spirit is moving beyond the confines of Judaism and Asia. This is an unexpected path that Paul and Timothy find themselves on... what would have happened if they had remained in Bithynia? We will never know - it was the Road not Taken...

And in our earlier reading it was two different women who provided the opportunity for the prophet Elisha to demonstrate the power of God's Holy Spirit.
Whether in endlessly replenishing the oil and flower jar in a poor woman's house, or replenishing the family of a rich woman who had everything bar a child, the miracles are performed to demonstrate God's power - not to be particularly caring for either of the people concerned. That their lives are improved and made more secure is a happy coincidence.

But what about the threat to the Shunamite woman's happiness? How cruel to grant her her heart's desire, only to snatch it away again!

But this too provides an opportunity for God's Spirit to be seen at work as the boy is restored to his mother and father.
But what if Elisha had chosen to stay with different people? Or declined to help the widow? The story might have been very different - except that God - if he has a purpose to reveal - will find a way eventually ... even if we human beings put stumbling blocks in the way at times.

Life is full of dilemmas - and our modern world only adds to them it seems. Should we go in with troops to help those refugees in Northern Iraq? Should we arm the Kurds. Should we have followed ex-President Bush in the first place into war in Iraq. What should be our response to those countries fighting the Ebola virus?
Should we take that new job? Choose this University over that one? Set up home with this person, rather than that?

Whatever choices we make in our personal or national lives there will be consequences that we do not expect. The Road not Taken presents us with unknown possibilities, unfulfilled hopes and dreams. But as Christians, we have to believe that whatever our mistakes; whatever idiotic, wrong-headed choices we might make, God's Holy Spirit will find a way to bring good out of bad; light out of dark; happiness out of sorrow. That, perhaps, is what redemption is all about?

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.