Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 14 2015

Isaiah 35.4-7a
James 2.1-17
Mark 7.24-37

I’ve been enjoying a lovely couple of weeks on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. It’s a delightful place for a holiday and I doubt if anyone would wonder why people go there. But if instead I’d spent two weeks in, say, Frinton, there may perhaps be some who would scratch their heads and ask why. Some destinations are obvious, some more surprising.
This is what confronts us at the beginning of today’s gospel reading. Jesus went to the region of Tyre. Why? If we were familiar with the geography of the gospels this would be surprising, because Tyre was a Gentile city, well outside the Jewish regions that had so far been the focus of Jesus’ ministry.
Now we may need to remind ourselves that this scene follows on from last week’s encounter with the religious authorities from Jerusalem. So this is a real contrast. This is an excursion from the centre to the edges, indeed beyond the edges of Israel. Almost as though Jesus is testing the extent of his calling, the remit of the Messiah. Is he called to Israel only, or to all the world?
And as there is a contrast in scene, so also there is a contrast in the response of those Jesus encounters. The religious authorities from Jerusalem had sought him out to put him to the test, and had taken offence at him and rejected him – even though all he had done was quote the scriptures that they should have known very well.
But in Tyre a Gentile woman comes to him in a strange house, in Gentile territory, and bows before him. This is very compromising both for her and for Jesus, breaking the social taboos of her own culture. But she comes in faith. Unlike the religious authorities, she does not take offence at Jesus even when he uses the very rough language of the time that referred to Gentiles as “dogs”. And if his response to her can seem to be a test or a challenge, her reply to him seems to confirm him in what he was exploring – whether his vocation was to the Gentiles as well.
It is worth noting that this is the only exchange between Jesus and another person in which he concedes the point. In all the exchanges with the religious authorities who reject him Jesus comes out on top and shows them how they are wrong. Here, alone, Jesus gives way to someone else. And the person talking to him is a Gentile and a woman – so this is very significant.
On returning he comes by way of the Decapolis, that is, a group of mixed population towns in Galilee. We need to remember how multicultural Galilee was at that time. Here he performs another healing miracle. And all think well of him.
Earlier in his gospel Mark had told a pair of healing stories set in Jewish territory – the raising of the daughter of Jairus and the healing of the woman with a flow of blood. Both of those crossed lines of purity and included the excluded. With today’s two Gentile healing stories Mark shows that the same principle of inclusion has to be brought to bear in societies outside Israel as well.
So this is not about contrasting Jewish and Gentile society as though one was purity obsessed and exclusive and the other open and inclusive. Quite the reverse: both societies tended to define themselves by who they excluded, and both societies needed to be converted, to discover God’s generous love that reaches out to all.
Jewish society, it is true, had the advantage of the law and the prophets, but Jesus shows that outward observance of the law is not enough: righteousness and justice, compassion and love, need to come from the heart. And Gentile society, even without the law and the prophets, could still arrive at the same understanding. Outside the revelation of God to Israel there was still an intuitive knowledge of God that could lead people to seek Jesus – even when he tried to stay hidden.
Human society, whether it be Jewish or Gentile, tends to organize itself against the way God works by setting up barriers of exclusion and defining itself in terms of insiders and outsiders. In Jesus God shows his preferential option for those whom human society casts out: the poor, the unclean, the outcast and the marginalized.
The apostle James enlarges on this in his letter. “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” This is a radical new understanding which God’s people are to enact in the life of the Church. In place of exclusion, the barriers of purity, class, caste and sex, God’s people are to live from the compassion and love that has found them and saved them. They are to live in such a way that others are drawn in to that same compassion and love. Faith that God is turning the world the right way up in Jesus is to be expressed in works that bear witness to that faith.
We do not need to look far to see the need for compassion in our world today. The desperate plight of migrants, the tragic pictures of a dead child on a beach in Turkey, have brought home to us how much human society is still ordered by exclusion, defining itself by who is on the outside, the victims who are cast out and sent away. We may feel helpless in the face of such tremendous suffering. But the church is speaking out, and, more importantly, acting to make a difference. In many of the places where refugees are arriving it is Christians who are providing for their most immediate needs. And even where we are not, as it were, on the front line the churches have been speaking up, providing a voice of conscience and compassion in our national life.
Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement on the present crisis. He acknowledges that it is hugely complex with no easy answers, but he seeks to encourage political leaders across Europe in a joint response, as well as commending immediate help for those most in need. He reminds us, in his words, that “As Christians we believe we are called to break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves and to seek the peace and justice of our God, in our world, today.”
That is part of the mission that Jesus came to fulfill, and that he entrusted to his Church. We may feel that there is little we can do personally about the terrible violence in the Middle East and the crisis it has caused. But we can pray; we belong to the one universal church, and some of our brothers and sisters are labouring on the front line and need our prayers. With them also we pray for all who are in need and for an end to oppression and violence.

But we can also make a difference by living differently, as St James tells us in today’s epistle. Our faith is something that ought to appear in our works, that is, in how we live. All societies are in need of conversion, our own no less than those of the first century that Jesus encountered. And as we live in a democracy we can play our part in forming and informing public opinion and social policy. The role of the Church in our society can be compared with the yeast that leavens the whole loaf, making a difference in the society around us. With all people of good will, we can help ensure that compassion and welcome do not become strange concepts in our city and our nation.

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