The Tenth Sunday after Trinity

16 August 2020

Isaiah 58: 1, 6-8

 

Shout out, do not hold back!
   Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
   to the house of Jacob their sins.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.

Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32

 

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

Matthew 15: 21-28

 

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She 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.

Collect

Let your merciful ears, O Lord,

be open to the prayers of your humble servants;

and that they may obtain their petitions

make them to ask such things as shall please you;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.

Sermon

Mark Taylor

 

I will bring (the foreigners) to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer

Abraham was a nomad. A nomad's outlook on life is in some ways unlike ours, people settled with land with mortgages, houses and gardens[1].  All his wealth was in his flocks.  Moving from place to place to keep his animals nourished and watered he would have encountered others doing the same.  His kinsman Lot for example (Genesis 13:5).  The way was important, the place ephemeral.   Ownership of land was a distant promise.  When he was approached by two strangers he welcomed them and offered the best hospitality that he could.  That act, which the Lord "counted as righteousness"[2], kick-started the history of the Hebrew nation, to say nothing of our redemption.

In Dover harbour today there are scores of inflatable boats being lifted out and transported to a secure holding so that they cannot fall back into the hands of traffickers. Each boat is a story of hospitality or the lack of it.  Each boat is witness to the desperation of many people,  a very different kind of nomad, usually one who was resident somewhere, but whose life became threatened in one way or another.  Religious or political persecution, family breakdown, climate change or just poverty.  Modern migrants seek the security of place. Any resilience they have for the way is born of desperation and dogged determination.  

Our readings today resonate with the idea of divine hospitality. In Old Testament writings this is primarily based on justice. In the New is added the sheer exuberant generosity and grace of God.  Isaiah, not the original Isaiah son of Amoz but a later writer using the same title and addressing the Jewish Diaspora, has a divine message for a homeless people.  "Maintain justice, do what is right"  "And the foreigners ....I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer".   The Hebrew nation will be gathered together, but not just them, outsiders too. The vision is one of unconstrained divine inclusion.

Paul writing to the Romans, an audience made up mostly of converts from paganism,  restates the position, albeit using what for us might seem slightly obscure 1st century arguments.  He has to understand how the covenant with the Jewish people which seemed exclusive, a people specially set apart, could within an historic framework roll out to be the salvation of all humankind.  He knew from his encounter with the Lord that the kingdom of God is for all people.  How could he best argue the case?  Earlier (Romans 10: 12) and again in his letter to the Galatians he expresses the inclusivity of the gospel "no distinction, neither Jew nor Greek, slave or freeman, male or female" (Gal 3: 28). He draws heavily on the prophetic work of Isaiah.

The rich land-owning section of the Jewish nation had become exclusive towards foreigners in the time of Jesus, Samaritans, Greeks and Romans all treated with suspicion.    Might they be plotting to extract wealth or resources away from the rightful residents of Judea?  A generalisation no doubt but an attitude well attested in biblical sources.  Human decision making is heavily influenced by our appreciation of the risk of loss and chance of gain[3].  The wealthy and landed have something to lose.  The Canaanite woman in the gospel reading, coming from what would now be coastal Lebanon, was seen by the disciples as no more than a nuisance. They would have seen any Messianic prospects in Jesus with political nationalistic eyes, blind to the reality of a foreigner in their presence.   Jesus'  lack of an immediate response either to her or to his disciples became a severe test of the latter.  What had they missed about this frantic woman?  Jesus' first response is to question who in fact are the "lost sheep of Israel".  The disciples would learn that it is they themselves who are lost in not understanding as yet the wide remit of divine grace to all creation.  Jesus' response to her pleading,  "Iy is not fair to take the children's food and give it to the dogs" is more an enigmatic statement than a question.  Challenging because he uses the derogative language of "the dogs", code for all that is unclean and beyond the pale. The woman has nothing to lose after that. Yes it is fair! The mold of exclusivity has been broken by faith in a fairer system. 

Christians are likewise challenged daily over their hospitality. If we believe that the grace of God is real and inexhaustible then nothing is taken away from those who show hospitality. It has no cost to the giver, as the giver is already in receipt of everything he or she has or needs.  What the giver has to give they have already been given by grace.  Ownership and possession, the earthly domain of the landed, melts into the desert hospitality of a people on the way.   Our attitude to the migrants on our shores is a litmus test of how much we are bound by being landed, and how much we are freed to see the real face of the of a fellow traveller, even if they are seen by others as a vociferous nuisance.

The writer of the last section of Isaiah, half a millennium before Jesus, could see the impact of this kind of thinking. I will bring (the foreigners) to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer.

 

 

 

[1] The travel writer Bruce Chatwin touches on the psychology of nomads "Nomad invasions" in "What am I doing here" Picador.1990

[2] Paul quotes Genesis 15: 6 in Romans 4

[3] This is superbly explained in the paperback "Thinking fast, and slow" Daniel Kahneman. Penguin 2011