Season of Creation
Reflection and Prayers ~ Iestyn Henson
Living, Loving God, as we begin an autumn month in which we will think of creation, of harvest, of our environment and climate, we remember that all of this is ours to care for because you first cared for us. The rich tapestry of life, all that we see, hear, taste, smell and touch, is the essence of our existence, and we acknowledge our responsibility to the world and to each other.
Just as your spirit inspired that creation, so too we turn to you for our inspiration today. And just as Jesus and his disciples explored relationships in their time and place, so too we look to their stories and teaching for our patterns today, that we might explore, build and celebrate relationships within creation itself.
This is the reason we meet in Jesus’s name, to seek a community in which his experience, his life, death and resurrection, make an impact on our relationships.
Be with us this morning, as we are challenged. Be with us as breathe in that challenge, not with fear or anxiety, but with a sense that what we do, we do because it is the right way to live. The right way to live with each other, with our world, and with you.
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me’… Of all the proverbs or sayings we learnt as children, it’s possible that this was one of the most flawed, inaccurate and even dangerous. Name-calling is rarely kind; a choice of words can be deeply offensive and deliberately so; the hurt can be as deep as a cut, and take far longer to heal. Our theme word for today is ‘breath’ – shortness of breath is an all-too-common symptom of anxiety, and that includes anxiety associated with verbal bullying. But just in case you are tempted to think that sensitivity is a modern weakness, that ‘political correctness’ is a 21st century invention, and that ‘if only the younger generation could develop a thicker skin, we’d all be ok’, today’s lectionary readings remind us that the issues which lie beyond are as old as humanity. They speak to prejudice, to favouritism and to discrimination too.
Back in July, I complained a little that the set Lectionary Readings for the first Sunday of that month did little to inspire me. Fast forward to the first Sunday in September, and today, the Lectionary provides so much food for thought that you’re going to get not one sermon, but two linked sermonettes.
So, without further ado, let’s have two of the set readings for today – the first comes from Mark’s Gospel, and the second from the letter of James. They are a little longer than some readings, so wide awake and concentrate!
Mark 7:24-37 and James 2:1-10 and 14-17
For our first sermonette this morning, we’re going to consider the reading from Mark chapter 7, and focus in on the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. We’re not going to consider the second healing miracle as such, but I want you to remember how the second episode ends: Jesus has done everything well, and even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak. Hold on to that please, it might be important.
Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman: a story from which a full 3-point sermon can be extracted, and probably has been, many, many times. (1) There’s the healing itself, healing of mental illness we might say today, and the relationship with Jesus’s other healing miracles. (2) There’s the metaphorical reference to food, the availability and sharing of God’s power and blessing. (3) And then there’s the fact that this is a non-Jewish woman, and the link here to what was an ongoing discussion in the early church, at the time of the Gospel’s distribution, as to whether God’s Covenant with Israel was rewritten for all. There’s a full 20 minute sermon just to cover those three points.
To do so however would be to duck out of addressing the actual shocking aspect of this story. I’m sure you heard it, and you may have been surprised by it again: you should have been. Because here Jesus displays prejudice, racial prejudice for sure, and possibly sexist prejudice as well. Jesus, plainly and simply, calls the woman a dog; equally shocking, the woman has the audacity and cheek to answer him back. We’ll come to that in a second, but let’s not start by excusing this behaviour of Jesus, but rather by acknowledging that prejudice – that is pre-judgement based on our previous experience, education or influence – is something that we all do. It’s actually a very human trait, and if you want a story which affirms Jesus’s humanity, you don’t need to look much further than this one.
Jesus displays all the prejudgement of his time and his place, and in particular of his religious heritage. Now, if we look at the storyline of Mark’s gospel, this is by no means the first healing miracle, and by no means the first engagement with a woman. It’s not the first reference to evil spirits, and it’s not the first time a mother has come to Jesus on behalf of her daughter either. But it is the first time a gentile woman meets Jesus in Mark’s narrative, and it almost brings us to a halt.
Jesus says ‘let’s first feed the children; it’s not right to throw the children’s food to the dogs’. Don’t try to excuse this. This is exactly the same as those who say that we should not be giving any foreign aid abroad, or those who object to giving a home to refugees on the grounds that we’ve not yet sorted out our own problems of poverty and homelessness. Jesus’s position is a standard one; it may well not have raised any eyebrow or given any cause for concern amongst the disciples. The woman had no rights in this situation – she would have been expected to shut up and go away.
But she does not. The Syrophoenician woman instead answers back, and in doing so doesn’t just question the logic of Jesus’s statement, but throws his language back in his face too.
We are not told what happens next, not really. We are not told whether this affrontery caused a stir in the crowd, tut-tuts or stronger. We are not told what Jesus’s thought processes were, or might have been. We are not exposed to any theological debate, or the sort of engagement with which Jesus confronts the Pharisees’ hypocrisy; we are not given a parable to make us think a little bit more either.
All we get – and as Mark tells it, it’s immediate – is that Jesus changes his mind. I’ll say that again to rub it in: as a consequence of the cheek and answering-back of a gentile woman, Jesus changes his mind.
And so the first lesson to be taken from this passage this morning is simply this. When we are challenged, when our prejudices and attitudes are challenged, even from the most unlikely sources (to be frank, by people we would never ever dream of listening to) then we must still be open to change. Jesus is confronted by a prejudice – the pre-conceived, culturally biased view that the grace of God’s healing was somehow limited to the chosen few. He is confronted by that prejudice, and he responds with change.
What might our culturally biased and pre-conceived ideas be? What are our prejudices and in what ways might they need to be challenged?
One more bit of imagery which links to our theme of breath and breathing, before we move on. Breathing, to a very great extent, is sub-conscious; most of the time, including when asleep, we just don’t even think about it, let alone notice it. It’s only when we are under pressure, including periods of ill-health, that we really think about it.
Are we, in any way, making it hard for any part of God’s creation to breathe? Are we, without even thinking about it, putting pressure on others?
Our prayers this morning have been written by Carol, who will come now and pray for us the first of two short prayers:
“Breathe on me breath of God, until I am wholly thine.”
When we are well we take no notice of our own breathing, yet with the Corvid virus we know how devastating this can affect us. When our breathing is compromised by illness or physical effort and we are gasping for breath we are aware of each intake.
You have given us life and breath to lead a full life, but being human we do not always use it as best we can.
We all have different journeys and they shape who we are.
Because of this we see the world differently therefore all of us must take care that we do not come to you with preconceived ideas about other people or cultures.
Help us to talk, listen and try to understand other people’s points of view. We must not let our preconceived ideas become a form of discrimination against other people or countries.
Help us Lord.
If the conclusion to the first of our sermonettes encouraged us to approach Mark’s story from Jesus’s perspective and if it encouraged us to recognise and acknowledge our prejudices, and to think again about the danger of discrimination, then I wonder if our second reading from the letter of James might help us to see the story from the perspective of the Syrophoenician woman? Because just as we can prejudge things, so too can we be prejudged. Just as we can discriminate, so too can we suffer from discrimination – or if not, we can at least see the discrimination experienced by others.
What has James got to do with this, you may ask?
Well, the letter of James is a key text of the New Testament, and one which makes a challenge to the Christian Church. This is where we have to get a little bit theological, though in truth, everything we do in church is ‘theology’ one way or another. As we know, the ‘letters’ part of our New Testament is dominated by the writings of Paul and his associates, and as such Paul’s thinking also dominates, to a great extent.
Paul’s focus is on faith – and, in the jargon, ‘justification by faith’, which in more plain English may be translated as ‘faith being all that’s necessary to be right with God’. Key texts (yes, I know I’m taking them out of context, but this is for illustration!!) include Romans 3: 28 “For we conclude that a person is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands” and Ephesians 2:8-9 “For it is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it.” There are good sections of the Christian Church, down the ages, and across the traditions, which follow Paul here, ‘religiously’ we might say. If – and only if – we profess faith in Jesus, then, by Grace, we are saved. Full-stop. Nothing more required.
The letter of James however offers more, and read in a particular light, offers something of a contrast to Paul’s position.
James is absolutely insistent that faith alone is just not good enough. Faith is shallow, or is hollow without putting it into action – of doing something. In the Good News translation, we read:
14 My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? 15 Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. 16 What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!”—if you don’t give them the necessities of life? 17 So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead.
Now, it could be argued – and many have – that proper faith, true faith, legitimate faith, would naturally lead to action. James himself goes on to ask “show me how anyone can have faith without actions” (2:18b). This is certainly Pauls’ point of view, and it’s the point of view which Martin Luther and the Reformers advocated, and which we have inherited. Reformed theology does not accept that James contradicts Paul – but rather, James gives Paul more context and clarity. And indeed, back in a sermon of 2008 (see: https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20081119.html) Pope Benedict concluded that “Luther’s phrase: “faith alone” is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love.” This is really important, because I think it also gets to the heart of the point which James makes.
James is addressing not just a discussion about what action is or isn’t valid (thus, demonstrating faith) but he is also addressing inaction – the absolute failure of Christians to put into practice the very thing which they preach.
This is where we return to the Syrophoenician woman, because in some Bibles, including the Good News, where paragraphs and stories are given editorial titles, her story is headed “A woman’s faith” (or similar). Note the emphasis on faith. And yet, in the text of the story, her faith is implied by her action only, not stated in any religious way. How could it be? She was a gentile and as we’ve already discussed, she had no automatic right of access to Jesus or the God of the Hebrew faith.
And here’s another shocking thing for us to realise: specifically, it’s not the action of coming to Jesus which demonstrates this woman’s faith in action. No, it’s the affrontery of calling out Jesus’s prejudice. You don’t believe me? I’ll remind you that she replies: “…but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s food” and Jesus says “because of that answer, go back home where you will find that the demon has gone out of your daughter” It’s not because she came to Jesus, it’s because she answered him back!!!
So, with the help of James, we can start to see that we must not only be aware of our own prejudgements and preconceived ideas, but we must also be aware of how other people’s behaviour can demand action of us. We start to see that where we personally experience prejudice or discrimination, we need courage to speak out. We can also understand our obligation to speak out when we see other injustice or witness discrimination against others. For James, inaction is simply not an option.
I finished the first sermonette with that reference to breathing being subconscious and by suggesting that it’s mostly when we’re under pressure, or in pain, or struggling, that we become aware of our breathing. That’s not a full picture either though is it? It’s not always external influences…. We’ve had a lot of sport on the TV this summer – and it’s not all over yet. I’m running a marathon this time next week (link is in the newsletter!!) and before we know it, the rugby season will be in full flow. Sports people will tell you that breathing is not at all sub-conscious, if you want to be efficient. Swimmers know that technique – including how to breath properly – is a really significant factor in their activity. We can be conscious of our breath and breathing, and there are times when it can make a very big difference.
And I want to suggest that the same is true of Christian action. Much of the time, we just ‘get on with it’, because it’s who we are, it’s what we believe, and it’s what we’ve practiced for a long time. Being conscious of it, working on our technique, so to speak, and being pro-active in doing so, improves our efficiency and can make a big difference.
Finally then, have you remembered that there was a second healing miracle in our reading from Mark this morning, and have you remembered how the reading ended? Of Jesus, the people said “he even causes the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak!”
So then, may we hear when we are challenged, and may we speak out too when faith needs action!
Inspired always by Jesus!
All that is happening in our world has become overwhelming to us. Floods, high winds, extreme heat, wars and viruses: a never-ending list. We have not been respectful of our climate and nature. We have thought that man was all powerful and forget the power of nature.
Lord please help us understand.
Sometimes our faith is strong and at other times it is weak, but you are always there for us. We are asked not to keep it to ourselves but to show your love to the world through our actions.
Help us to look at ourselves and see where we can make changes in our lives. We are told by our deeds we will be known.
Finally we pray for all parts of the world which are in trouble, we have to face these problems and as Christians we be known by the way we respond to them.
Let us listen and not judge.
Now let us depart in peace
To be a light to lighten our world.
Fe chwythodd yr awel Translation
The wind of the spirit has swept across Wales again,
We praise you, Lord, that miracles may happen:
You awoke us dead people, and raised us through faith,
And turned our faces to the fairness of day.
We praise you, we praise you as one family together
We praise you, we praise you, our song spans the world;
We’ll work together, walk together, praise together and live
To give our all to you, our Lord and God.
We give thanks for the paths that we trod of old,
You were our companion and strength on our way;
You sent us as witnesses, each to our own way,
And the flame of the gospel, you gave us as fire.
But today we all sing of your praises
For bringing us together as one family:
We’ll work together, walk together, praise together and live
To give our all to you, our Lord and God.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.