Thanks to Phil and his family!
He called her what?!
Do you actually miss Sunday services?
This was the question that a colleague asked me last month. A question that many of us have considered recently. Do we miss Sunday services? If so…what do we miss about them? Perhaps, like one church member I spoke with, you miss the routine, the conversations, the togetherness. Perhaps, like another, you miss the communal singing most, or the affirmation of faith, the sense of forgiveness and renewal. Or perhaps, like another, if you’re brutally honest, you’ve felt free of obligations and have appreciated being able to worship online – and in your pyjamas! – instead.
As I was struggling how to discern, let alone articulate, how I felt in response to that question, I found myself uttering something about my enjoyment of exploring Bible passages with others. Which is 100% true. I really enjoy getting to grips with a challenging passage of scripture, researching it, dissecting it, imagining it, and somehow – by God’s grace, the Spirit’s inspiration and with varying degrees of success – communicating something of God’s good news for all creation within it, to a community whom I love.
Last time I preached, it was a particularly difficult passage in which Jesus told a parable and offered an explanation that included furnaces of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth. How might God be communicating a message of extravagant love through that?! Well, I prayed that I might be faithful to the text, preach what I could with integrity and gave the rest to God! As I bumped into people over the next couple of days, I began to hear responses. One person said they were challenged with the encouragement not to judge others. Another said they liked St. Francis’ quote about compassion and humility. Another said they laughed at the parable-inspired concept of us naming whom we think are ‘children of God’ and ‘children of the devil’ at church!
Another said they found my message sinister, shocking and disturbing.
In today’s reading, Jesus’ words have been heard as humourous and compassionate as well as shocking and disturbing. As we hear two different translations of this short passage, I encourage you to imagine the scene and consider your response.
Matthew 15:21-28 – The Message; NSRV
So, what do you think? How do you hear or interpret this passage? What do you think is going on? Maybe read through it again and have a think, pray, what is the God-message I hear in these verses? With whom do I identify? Where, and what, is the good news?
I ask, partly because I’m not totally sure. Down through the centuries, Jesus’ intentions and actions within this passage have been greatly debated.
One interpretation sees Jesus’ actions in this encounter as a model of compassion and inclusion. In this interpretation, the Canaanite woman is just about as marginalized as one can get – an ‘other’ in terms of ethnicity, heritage, religion, gender, mental well-being (the demon possession) and basic social etiquette – women were not to make a fuss and here she is shouting incessantly! No wonder the disciples want to send her away! And yet Jesus engages in dialogue with her; he teases her into a theological debate, treating her as an equal; he heals her ill daughter and commends the faith of someone outside his own religious tradition. So, in line with the verses immediately preceding this passage – context is everything! – Jesus is teaching that the more traditional view of God’s fierce and particular love for Israel is better understood as a wild and wonderful love for all people, thus calling for any exclusive religious perspectives and practices to change.
Another interpretation flips this on its head. In this version of events, the unnamed heroic woman – so common in Christian history – is the protagonist of the story. For Jesus is tired, a little grumpy and very human. He is – as some commentators have put it – ‘caught with his compassion down’ and so he tries to ignore the loud woman before using language that we might find offensive but that was common in his day as a reference to gentiles as he tells the woman that he’s come to make God’s love known to the Jewish people, not the likes of her. But the woman refuses to give up. She is a strong, passionate woman, determined that her daughter might have a good life and be considered of worth – remember, demon-possession generally meant social ostracization – and she will not be silenced by any of the men. Jesus finally engages with her; is matched by her quick wit; and is reminded, by the woman, that there are no limits to God’s mercy. He learns from her and they both leave transformed by the encounter that she engineered.
So then…which is the right interpretation? Cast your votes now!
When I heard that one listener to my last sermon found it sinister, dreadful and shocking, I was at first taken aback before getting over the dent to my ego – at least partially! – and thinking about why some found the sermon challenging or encouraging and others found it humourous or even disturbing. And in the end, I concluded that it must come down to relationship and the perspective that gives you. You see, those of you who have known me a while have got to know that I sometimes over-rely on humour to deal with difficult situations or to lampoon religious conservatism. Through previous sermons and in our time and joint action together, you have learnt that I think there are no barriers to God’s unconditional love; that the kingdom community must be blessed in diversity, inclusion and grace. Therefore, you could laugh at any in-jokes, catch my tone and hear allusions to previous conversations we’ve had whereas the person who was upset by my words is one of the more recent – and very much appreciated – members of our wider community who has connected with us online and thus has only encountered me via a screen. None of which means that their response is any less valid, enlightened or enlightening than the others! On the contrary, it challenged my outlook, helped me see a different perspective and enabled me to look at this week’s passage with fresh eyes.
It might help to think of it this way. Perhaps you’ve had a long relationship with Jesus over the years, possibly wrestling with some of his difficult words but have come to believe that he always tells the truth in a slant way – that he enjoys wordplay, stories, humour and hyperbole in his teaching. Perhaps you’ve come to know him as a friend who accepts and loves you as you are; who tears down human-made boundaries to God’s love; who calls us to stand against discrimination and all forms of injustice. Perhaps you can think of stories of him commending the faith of others outside Israel; of him entering into dialogue with other outcast women; of him giving up power and might to live amongst us, die and rise from death so to demonstrate God’s love for all creation. Thus, when it comes to his encounter with the Canaanite woman, you see it through the perspective of that relationship; you understand it as an example of Jesus’ radical, inclusive, mischievous side; you interpret his use of difficult language as his demonstration of just how outdated such exclusive language and thinking is. Perhaps, then, what you take from the encounter is the call for us to listen to the cries of the oppressed; to share God’s love with all; to rethink any excluding religious perspectives or practices to which we might still cling.
Or perhaps you might identify more with the unnamed woman. Perhaps you have felt overlooked, oppressed or ostracized by society or even the Church. Perhaps those who call themselves friends of Jesus have tried to silence you or send you away. But perhaps your passion for justice or belief that God’s mercy is for you and those you love has caused you to continue in your cries and prayers, challenging the words of religious men that have sounded divisive or disturbing; engaging them in dialogue; and teaching them something of God’s radical love, ultimately leaving them, and you, transformed by the encounter. Perhaps, then, what you take from the passage is an admiration for those courageous individuals who loudly challenge prejudiced individuals and institutions; a desire to follow the actions of the Nazarene preacher who showed humility in engaging with, and learning from, an apparent outsider; a renewed sense that God’s goodness, welcome and love can be revealed by those whom the pious keep at arm’s length.
You see – our own context, our own relationship with God and with those who claim to walk God’s way – can frame our interpretation and understanding of our community stories – and God’s good news might be revealed through each one. Speaking of which, given all of this, I wonder which interpretation of the passage chimes most with you? What is the message that God is sharing with you through it?
Personally, I’m still not totally sure but that doesn’t overly bother me because I’ve been reminded once again of the joy and importance of exploring the stories of God as a church family – a community of diverse experiences and perspectives; of different voices and visions, all of which must be seen and heard if we are to even begin to understand, ‘how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge’ (Ephesians 3:18b – 19a).
So whether we do it through hand-delivered sermons or YouTube videos; garden based conversations or Facebook posts; conference calls or even – one day surely – our usual regular gathered communal worship, let us keep exploring the riches of our scriptures, engaging with those beyond our known community, and listening to the Spirit together, ‘that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:19b – 21).
Prayers of intercession
We’re going to speak with, and listen to, God now, using our hands as a guide. We’ll leave short pauses for you to say your own prayers out loud or in silence.
First stretch out a hand in front of you. Each finger will remind us of someone to pray for. Your thumb is closest to you. So let’s start by praying for the people who are closest to us – our family, our friends, the people we love…
The next finger is the one you use for pointing. Let’s pray for the people who teach, encourage and guide us. Perhaps you could think of someone in particular, and hold them in the light of God’s love…
Your middle finger is the tallest. It reminds us to pray for the leaders of our country and our world; like the people who work in the Welsh Assembly and British Parliament. Perhaps you could pray for wisdom for those making decisions for our country at this difficult time…
Your fourth finger is your weakest finger. We’ll use it to remind us to pray for people who are sick or grieving, people who are hungry and people who are struggling with life…
Your last finger is your smallest finger. It can remind us to pray for ourselves. In a moment of quiet, let’s bring our own needs to God, remembering that God loves us and hears our needs…
We’re going to bring all of our prayers together now with the words that Jesus taught us in whichever language we choose. We pray the Lord’s prayer, saying:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our sin as we forgive those who sin against us;
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory. Forever and ever.
Prayers online were given by Phil’s sister, brother-in-law and nephews (below) and inspired by the Greenbelt Communion 2016, led by Andrew Graystone.
This year, the Christian festival won’t be going ahead as usual but there are many excellent free talks currently available and a virtual festival also planned.
Please go to https://www.greenbelt.org.uk for more details.
 Those online will hear these passages read and if you’re reading at home, I encourage you to look at the passage in more than one translation of The Bible, if possible.
 Russell-Jones, I. (2011). Theological Perspective on Matthew 15: (10–20) 21–28. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A (Vol. 3, p. 358). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
 In the case of the individual who challenged my last sermon – who pre-read the sermon and has given me permission to share the above – we have continued the conversation; I have been blessed with a new perspective on things; and they hope to visit our community when we’re physically gathering together again!