Reflection and Prayers
With so much suspicion – some of it justified – about the Church today, being invited to talk to people outside the Church about who we are and what we believe is increasingly rare but it’s something that happened twice this week. On Thursday, we welcomed pupils from Coedylan into this building to look at our symbols and sacred space whilst on Tuesday I led a workshop with the Independent Office for Police Conduct on equality, diversity, and the Christian faith. At the latter, in explaining the breadth of beliefs regarding LGBTQ+ issues within the Church, I gave them a bit of a quiz about The Bible and as I prepared it, I did think to myself…I wonder whether church members would know these answers. So, seeing that it’s exam season, I thought we might enjoy something of a test!!! [Answers overleaf]
Question 1…a bit of an easier one to start with…what does the word ‘Bible’ mean?
A) ‘Witness’ B) ‘Books’ C) ‘Truth’ D) ‘Weapon’
Question 2 – how many books are there in The Bible?
A) 35 B) 66 C) 73 D) 81
Question 3 – how many different Christian denominations read The Bible?
A) Around 45 B) Around 450 C) Around 4500 D) Around 45000
Question 4 – Who wrote The Bible?
A) God B) Moses C) Jesus D) None of the above
Question 5 – In which language was the Bible written?
A) English B) Aramaic C) Greek D) Hebrew
Question 6 – Which of these is not a version of The Bible?
A) The Manga Bible B) The Brick Bible C) The Klingon Bible D) The English Bible
Question 7 – had to have a holy number! – was ‘What does The Bible say about the LGBTQ+ community?’ – but we’ll leave that for another day…perhaps a fortnight’s time when Ray will be leading our Pride month service.
Anyway, that’s all very nice – you might well be thinking to yourself – but so what?! Well today, we’re going to think a little about how we learn about, and from, God – and for all Christians, The Bible would be one source of learning. But how we approach The Bible – with it’s different books, languages, translations – often determines both the content and the medium of our Christian education. For some Christians, The Bible is like a textbook with all the answers written down for us to cram, so we can know the right things to pass the salvation test. For other Christians, The Bible is like a library of different books which tell us something about God – the main subject – but which also tell us about the time and culture – including the prejudices and priorities – in which the books were written. Others, still, would want to say we can learn about or from God through The Bible but that that’s only part of the curriculum for we can learn about God in the beauty of creation; through the revelation of the Spirit; through those made in God’s image and the art, music, stories they create…
These differences sometimes lead to great divisions. They can also be fruitful to reflect on and to explain why Christians can think vastly different things on the same subject.
But how about you? Where have you learnt about God? Who, or what, has been your teacher? Let’s take a second to consider that…
Hymn: Help us, O Lord, to learn
Here’s another question for you this morning – sorry if you didn’t come here to think! – but when was the last time you changed you mind about something? It could have been something trivial or pretty major. But when – through a learning experience or further research perhaps – did you change your mind?
Today’s reading is one which contains an intriguing story about Jesus. One in which he seems to change his mind. Well, that’s one interpretation of it, anyway…let’s hear it now. I wonder what we will learn from hearing it…
So…what do you think? What on Earth was going on there?!
Well, Jesus has just had another run-in with the Pharisees before getting a little grumpy with the disciples over their understanding of parables. So far, everyone’s getting an F – from the Nazarene rabbi. And then, like a teacher getting interrupted on their way to the staff room and five minutes of peace, Jesus has withdrawn from the crowds – Mark’s version even says he didn’t want anyone to know he was there – when along comes a pupil asking for some help. He does not answer her at first and the other pupils around tell her to go away. But she persists and begs for some help to which he tells her that he’s not even her teacher – he’s got his own class to deal with. In fact, he puts it a little more starkly than that;
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Ouch! I mean…this is Jesus at his grumpiest and most human. Biblical commentators have all sorts of theories about what’s going on here – ‘he’s being playful’ – say some. ‘He’s just called her a bitch’ – say others. ‘He’s including her in the dialogue’ – some suggest. ‘No, he’s telling gentiles they’re not his concern’, others declare.
Whatever the case…and it is a big ‘whatever’ to be fair…the woman’s response is a belter…
“Yes it is, Lord’, she says – effectively telling Jesus he’s got it wrong! – ‘For even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table’. There’s some absolutely glorious wordplay here but we’ve not got the time so let’s just focus on the fact that when Jesus says he’s not there to tend to the gentiles – not there to feed ‘the dogs’ – the woman tells him that he is for even the gentiles need to be taught, healed, blessed by him – even the dogs eat the crumbs from their masters’ table. I mean – this woman – she schools Jesus! This is the pupil telling the exhausted teacher that actually, yes, he is her teacher and yes, she needs some extracurricular help! The audacity of it. The bravery of it. The downright cheek of it!
To which Jesus replies – ‘You know – you’re right. A+. You have great insight and faith. Absolutely your daughter will be healed.’ And she was! It’s the only time in all the gospels that Jesus commends someone for what they say. Everything about this encounter is fascinating. But what can we learn from it?
Well, when I was a secondary school teacher – about five epochs ago – we were told that in RE, pupils should have a ‘learning from’ and ‘learning about’ objective each lesson. One way in which they could learn from whichever religion or worldview we were studying, and one thing they would learn about them.
So…the learning from. What can we learn from this encounter? Much, I think. Perhaps we can learn from the woman. We can learn from her courage – for in a patriarchal world where she was an other in terms of gender, ethnicity and religion – she would not let a tired teacher or his disparaging friends silence her request. We can learn from her passion for justice – for she made a scene, blocked men’s path, risked her reputation and personal safety by reproaching a man in public – all to stop the suffering of another – her daughter. And we can learn from her inclusive worldview, for, after the Pharisees and disciples had just been scolded by Jesus, after Jesus himself suggested he did not have time to heal those outside his remit, she reminded him that his care was to extend beyond the normal parameters – that even gentile, foreign women were to be blessed through him. This incredible woman was a pioneer – a foremother of the suffragettes, of Malala, of Greta Thunberg. We’d do well to learn from her.
And what can we learn about here? Well – with any Bible passage, we might ask the question – ‘what does this teach us about God’? It’s a rich passage for this as Jesus is not his usual, affable self here. Having done battle with the Pharisees and been let down by his disciples, he is exhausted and exasperated and just when he wants to disappear from pubic view, here’s this woman wailing and begging and challenging him. He says nothing, walks on, says something about sheep and his remit to Israel, only for her to come back at him with a riposte which displayed faith, insight, inclusion. And he…according to some commentators at least…changes his mind! He does, as the papers would say today, a U-turn. He actually commends this difficult woman, praises her faith, and heals her daughter!
So what might this tell us about God?
I think it tells us that in the person of Jesus, God changed God’s mind! If that sounds a little heretical, there’s precedent for it. Think Abraham bargaining with God over Sodom. Or how seafood was definitely off God’s specials list, before Peter and that dream came along. Besides, we don’t really think that Jesus came out of the womb knowing everything, do we? He had to learn to speak. He had to learn about the faith through the scriptures of old. He had to learn about people through experience and relationship. God-in-Jesus learnt. Surely this is part of the mystery and wonder of the incarnation! That the omniscient God dribbled in a manger. That the eternal Christ took on an Earthly body and brain. That, in order to show us how much we are loved, God Almighty became God all-vulnerable. For me, this doesn’t diminish God but makes God even more wonderful whilst also being a great lesson that we don’t have to pretend we know everything. In fact, Jesus gave the greatest condemnation to those who did. Rather, let’s follow the example of the Nazarene rabbi who was vulnerable enough to listen to an other. Who was humble enough to learn from them. Who was secure enough to change his mind.
In the Bible, through other people, with the movement of the Spirit, there is so much more to learn of God’s goodness, grace, and love. So let’s not limit our learning, nor put limits on God’s inclusion. Or try to, anyway. For, as we sang earlier, the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind. Now that’s a lesson to take to heart. Amen.
- B – Books (from the Greek ‘biblia’)
- Which Bible?! The Hebrew Bible has 24; the Protestant Bible 66; The Catholic Bible 73 and the Ethipic Orthodox Bible – 81!
- D – Around 45000 denominations!
- Depends who you ask! Some Christians would say A – God; some Jews would say that Moses wrote the first five books of The Bible; the only account of Jesus writing that we have is when he wrote in the sand; whilst most commentators would say that the books of The Bible were written by over 40 men who were themselves products of their societies.
- B, C & D. Mostly Hebrew for the Old/Hebrew Testament; Greek for the Christian/New Testament…whilst a couple of books – Daniel and some of Ezra – were written in Aramaic.
- D – The others are all published Bibles (I have one of them!) whereas there are over a hundred different English translations!
Prayers of intercession
Creator God You love all that You have made, the world and all its creatures. Your love gathers and enfolds all things. Your heart breaks when any part of Your creation suffers.
So God, as our awareness grows of You present all around, may we be so attuned that we weep where You weep and our hearts break where Yours is broken. We offer back this complex, crazy world, like children offering our broken Lego sets to parents, asking that You fix it. Parent God, in love, You won’t do as we ask but You will kneel beside us and patiently show us how to make things better. You will unearth the wisdom that You created in us for the healing of the world. You will affirm us and give us each a unique part to play in changing the world, in challenging those who limit your love, in being vulnerable enough to listen to the marginalized and to learn from them, in ushering in Your justice and Your peace.
So, God, prepared to roll up our sleeves and work alongside You, we pray for world leaders, that they too may be filled with Your wisdom and love and Your healing power. We pray that their eyes, and our eyes, may be opened to the need to find new ways forward and the possibilities that abound for honouring all creation and for building nations where all are valued, where all matter, where the economy is modelled on Your divine economy.
We pray for all who live in fear today and for those whose fears have been realised – those who mourn loved ones, those who see no light of dawn after darkness. We pray too for those who have given up hoping for different or better. May we hold out hope and faith enough for the world and may we live in love.
We pray for those we know we are in need today, particularly thinking of Stephen and all who are mourning Cerys. As we give thanks for the way her life resounded with your harmonies of love, we pray for comfort, peace, and strength.
And because words often fail us, we come to you in a time of stillness, naming the people and places that are on our hearts and minds today…
We thank you, God, that you hear our prayers and tend to our needs. Open our hearts to your Spirit moving around us, between us, and within us, until your glory is revealed in our love of both friend and enemy; in communities transformed by justice and compassion; and in the healing of all that is broken. In love, in hope, and in Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.