Sunday 16th August 2020, Year A. 11th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev Dr John McCulloch
Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8
Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32
St Matthew 15: 21-28
Grace mercy and peace are yours in Jesus Christ.
I’m John McCulloch, the minister of St Andrew’s Jerusalem & Tiberias Church of Scotland, and its great to be with you today on this 11th Sunday after Pentecost.
Let us pray the collect for today:
you have broken the tyranny of sin and sent into our hearts the Spirit of your Son. Give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, that all people may know the glorious liberty of the children of God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
I remember many years ago when I was in India, feeling overwhelmed as I walked through the crowded markets and dusty streets, at the sight of so many adults and children begging by the roadside in terrible conditions of privation. Many of them were Dalit, also know as untouchables; that is, born into the lowest caste. The Dalit constitute over 160 million of India’s population, and they are considered less than human. Not only do they endure discrimination and exclusion, but they are the poorest of the poor. Born into an unjust system which they cannot break free from, they are condemned to a life of unimaginable suffering.
But on that same trip to India, I also remember visiting Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. The Carmelite sisters defy and challenge the caste system, by sharing Christ’s love and compassion to all. After half a century of service to the most vulnerable and excluded, Mother Teresa reflected:
“Even after almost fifty years, that painful reality of ‘suffering humanity’ still exists (…) at the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in (…) we think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”
We live in a world where walls of exclusion and division, both physical and non-physical, are an affront to God’s kingdom. And we too, at times build walls of division.
Our lectionary passages from Isaiah 56, Romans 11 & Matthew 15 are all about inclusion and exclusion. Jesus’ ministry had been about breaking down the barriers between those who thought they were in favour with God, and those who were on the outside, a mission which leads to him being crucified outside the city walls.
Our gospel reading Matthew 15: 21-28 is a difficult passage. We read in verse 21 of how a gentile woman, a descendent from the ancient Canaanites who were enemies of the children of Israel, cries out to Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus’s response seems harsh. At first he remains silent and does not answer her. The disciples ask him to send her away. Jesus then says to her that his mission was first to be ‘to the lost sheep of Israel’ but does not send her away. Remember that the response of the disciples to the thousands who were hungry in the previous chapter, was to send them away. But Canaanite woman shows great faith and persistence, and continues to plead for her daughter. When Jesus says in verse 26 that ‘it is not fair to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs’ she replies ‘Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from the masters table’. Jesus then responds to her commending her for her faith, and her daughter is healed.
What is going on in this passage?
In using the harsh language that he does, by making a comparison between gentiles and dogs, is Jesus showing up the ugliness of exclusivist religion for what it is? Is he testing her faith, as some have suggested? Is this story included to illustrate the tensions moving from a religious tradition based on being part of the chosen people, to one where all are welcome?
Note that the passage ends with healing and a commendation of the woman’s faith. Jesus does not send her away as his disciples had requested.
11 weeks ago on Pentecost Sunday we were reminded of how when the Spirit comes, barriers and walls of divisions fall. Language, ethnicity and race are all done away with. God’s love is revealed to all of humanity, not limited to one people at one particular point in history, but to all.
This encounter with the Canaanite woman comes between the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand. There were baskets of bread left over, enough to feed many more. Jesus, the bread of life, would feed not only the children of Israel, but would become bread for the world. The manna from heaven which had fed the children of Israel in the wilderness as they escaped slavery was confined to time and space. The bread of life continues to feed all who are hungry.
Our OT passage from Isaiah 56: 6-8 presents a picture of God’s kingdom where all are welcome. It talks of God’s house being called a house of prayer for all people.
We live in a world torn apart by divisions, by walls of hatred and suspicion. Earlier this week, there was much debate in the UK media about what should be done about the migrants risking their lives to try and cross the English Channel in search of a better life. Many were calling for the navy to patrol the seas and prevent them from arriving on our shores, rather than addressing the root causes of poverty and conflict which had driven them to risk their lives in the first place. It is easier to build up walls of division and fear, then address the selfishness of the human heart which excludes and pushes away all who we see as a threat to our way of life.
In this season after Pentecost, we are reminded that in God’s kingdom there is room for all, regardless of race, language or background. We all come to God as sinners in need of grace. We come responding to his call, his invitation, and by his grace we are renewed and forgiven, and sent out into our world, bearing the love which breaks down all divisions.
Our world today needs the church to embody a community of grace. A community that is prepared to speak out against the walls and divisions that exclude, so that we can say with the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:14 For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation.
May each of us at the beginning of this new week, allow God to break down the walls in our hearts and minds, that we may go out in to the world overflowing with the love of God, which cannot be contained.
Go into the world, with the love of God shed abroad in your hearts.
And the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with you and remain with you, now and forever more.