It’s funny when certain things start to press into your consciousness and suddenly you see and hear it all around you. Over the last few weeks there has bubbled up so many events that have displayed hatred and prejudice among different groups of people and all of this fed into my wanting to say something. This week’s gospel of Jesus and his meeting with the Canaanite woman seemed to offer an opportunity to do so.
May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
I was once asked by a bishop to think of a story where Jesus had had his mind changed… by a woman. At first my senses bristled slightly as the nuance that it might have been a more unusual moment because a woman had done so… but actually what I think he was trying to explore was my attitude to feminist theology.
Feminist theology, in case you’re wondering (and according to Wikipedia), includes goals of ‘increasing the role of women among the clergy and religious authorities; reinterpreting male-dominated imagery and language about God, determining women’s place in relation to career and motherhood, and studying images of women in the religion’s sacred texts and matriarchal religion.’
Feminists and women’s rights campaigners were very much part of the social history that surrounded me in my formative years – people like Germaine Greer, the Greenham common women protesters, being encourage to ‘burn your bra’ to make a stand for women’s rights. This was of course another stage on from the Suffragette movement and ranged from extreme hatred of anything masculine to fighting for equal opportunities in the workplace.
Alongside this were the big news stories of racial segregation, race riots in America, the assassination of Martin Luther King and apartheid in South Africa. Images and words that soak into your consciousness – to be absorbed and considered often subconsciously, but tempered with the opinion of your family and friends.
Nearer to home, and yet still not directly affecting my everyday life were the tensions in Northern Ireland, the segregation along faith lines – of roman catholic and protestant, the IRA bombing campaigns and the tragedies of Enniskillen and the killing of Airey Neave. Although no doubt my views were coloured to some extent by fear and shamefully a sense of annoyance, when early on in our marriage my husband David was not able to openly wear his naval uniform outside of ship or barracks and had to have the subframe of his car checked with mirrors on sticks – just in case
Hate and prejudice between men and women… black and white… Christian and Christian… and they were just the big prejudice issues.
And this last week or so, that ugly prejudice has reared its head again in Charlottesville, USA. Where groups of people believed they were justified in chanting racial slogans and inciting violence against those who disagree with their points of view and lifestyle, a humourless parody of neo-nazism and white supremacy – a belief in one group of people being ‘the chosen ones’.
The shame is that these are often views that have been formulated and passed on using specific scriptures and texts to validate their attitudes – a real reminder to us that we should not cherry-pick individual verses and hold them up in isolation – better to see the bigger picture from Alpha to Omega
It’s true though that in the bible we can find it difficult to get away from the motif of certain people being ‘the chosen ones’. In the Old Testament how often do we hear of the Israelites being God’s own people, chosen and special, to the disadvantage of all other peoples. This week alone in readings from the lectionary, Ezekiel spelt out God’s wish that ‘no foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the people of Israel, shall enter my sanctuary’ and Jesus himself in Matthew’s gospel, talking about reproving another who sins, used the phrase, ‘if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.’
Even the verses that we don’t hear today in our New Testament reading, Paul talks to the Romans about the salvation of the gentiles only coming through the stumbling of God’s ‘own people’ and that although they have been ‘grafted in to the original branches and root’ they are not ‘to vaunt’ themselves over the branches’.
Subtle prejudice creeps in however hard we try and distance ourselves from it. I would count myself as very liberal-minded, open-hearted and very much against prejudice in all of its forms; willing to defend those views without compromising my faith, and yet I know that there are times when I can catch myself thinking of things I was taught and heard as a child, things that I spurn when I realise that it’s not appropriate or even Christian. The trouble is as a white, middle-class woman the only prejudice I have really suffered has been positive prejudice.
I can never feel what it must be like as a young black male driver being six times more likely to be pulled over by the police than my white contemporary; or a young male Muslim suffering discrimination because of the radicalisation of a small minority of my faith; or a young female Asian, subject to an arranged marriage, virtually imprisoned and sold as a chattel in twenty-first century Britain who doesn’t have a voice.
I could say ‘What do these things matter to me? They are not part of my life; these are not my experiences of prejudice’ – and yet it doesn’t stop me from empathising and feeling in my heart the injustice and wanting to speak out – to challenge those who hold these prejudicial viewpoints.
So what has that got to do with the gospel we heard this morning? Well, if you hadn’t already guessed this was the passage that the bishop wanted me to call to mind. A passage in which both the disciples and Jesus himself appear to display prejudice against both women and people of other races and faiths; and were challenged.
What of the Canaanite woman? The same story is told in Mark’s gospel, where she is called an Syrophoenician, and he very clearly identifies her as a Greek and a Gentile – a non-Jew. The place where she lived near Tyre and Sidon had traditionally been at the edge of the land of Canaan. However, now this area was a prosperous Roman city port, but its people had already heard about the things that Jesus was doing and now he was coming to them. So when she comes running after him, she had already made up her mind that he was going to be the one who could help her.
A Gentile… a woman… begging insistently for him to help her, only for Jesus to turn around and tell her that he had only been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – the Jews. You could almost imagine his friends nodding and exchanging superior glances. Then he adds possibly a rhetorical question, ‘Would it be fair to take food from the mouths of God’s chosen children and give it to anybody gathered around the table?’ Those with him were no doubt thinking, ‘No of course not – come on let’s move on and not waste any more time here’. She was dismissed!
Yet, she wasn’t going to be brushed aside and it must have taken a lot of courage speak out and challenge Jesus, and perhaps this was what he was waiting to hear. ‘Everyone who gathers around the Master’s table will be grateful, even if, like dogs, they only get the crumbs.’
No doubt there was a sharp intake of breath from Jesus’ followers, but Jesus would have looked at her and seen just much faith she really had because she believed in him. Was the Syrophoenician woman a Christian? Did it matter what she looked like? Did it matter where she came from?
When we believe in Jesus, when we believe in God, when we believe in the Holy Spirit, we confirm our faith……and it’s when we truly believe, that we begin to understand the importance of being ready to challenge prejudice and to be challenged.
Paul will go on to confirm to the Galatians that ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. and last week, he confirmed that ‘the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ We can therefore be very clear that at the heart of the gospel message, salvation and acceptance is open to all. Let me just emphasis that – to ALL. There is no room for hatred or prejudice of any kind
How great then is our faith?
Sermon preached on Sunday 20th August 2017