I started writing this on Friday morning….the morning after a night of such surprises that its still hard to determine whether we should rejoice at the resurgance of a progressive hope, lament the depth of division that is clear in so many quarters of society, or simply stand like rabbits in car headlights too fearful to move as danger approaches. Tonight, as we celebrate God’s inclusive welcome, perhaps the best thing to do is to pray.
The General Election was not, though, the only historic vote last week.The synod of the Episcopal Church of Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing same sex couples to marry in church, and I’m guessing we can celebrate that as unequivocally good news...and proof that it is always possible to change your mind.
And that, of course, is what tonight’s gospel reading is all about.
Tonight we are told that the unthinkable can happen.
That Jesus himself has to receive a lesson in the wildly inclusive love of God – and from a thoroughly unlikely source.
And a woman on the fringes at that.
Someone he really shouldn’t be talking to, if he cares about his reputation.
Of course, we know that reputational risk is rarely a priority for him – and this periscope comes in a particular place in the gospel, as Jesus begins to live into the message of radical inclusion that we would want to claim as a dominant gospel theme.
But that’s not always easy, even for Jesus. Immediately before this encounter,
he has gone out on a limb in challenging the rituals that had proscribed life for the Jews for centuries, as he begins to redefine purity as a state of being, rather than a state of diet.
“For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person – not eating with unwashed hands”
We’re in interesting territory here, then both figuratively – the territory of larger hearts and more open minds – and geographically, as Jesus makes a move into Gentile country, close to the port of Tyre. This might be planned as a retreat, time to draw breath after his run-in with the Pharisees…but even here life catches up with him!
Here, where he might expect a break from the demands of ministry, real people with real needs just can’t be put on hold.
His space, his silence is disturbed by a woman driven by that most compelling force, parental love.
She will not hold her peace, demands a hearing,for she is intent on claiming the healing that she believes her daughter deserves.
Like so many others, she throws herself on the mercy of Jesus.
Kneeling at his feet she entreats his help.
And what happens?
For reasons that may become obvious, I’ve never tried to tell this story in a primary school assembly, but if I did, I know that the children’s answer to that question would be. What happens?
“Jesus makes the child better”
That’s what we’d all expect.
Jesus goes about doing good, healing, rescuing,- surely that’s the essence of his earthly ministry. Of course Jesus is going to comfort the mother and heal her child, without further ado.
Except that he doesn’t.
Not at first.
First, we find ourselves thrown off balance, our expectations flouted by words of such staggering rudeness that they are almost unbearable. Jesus, JESUS of all people, tells that frantic mother that she and her child are no better than dogs….and I don’t think we’re under any illusion that he meant much- loved and cherished pet spaniels.
He is saying without compunction that as Gentiles, the woman and her daughter are not fully human, and they’re therefore beyond the scope of his love, his healing.
“It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”
It’s extraordinarily hard to hear this kind of language, especially if anything in your own experience of life in the church has made you feel that you too might not be recognised as fully human. To hear it from Jesus is painful…hard to take…We want to retain our soft focus image of him “Jesu, thou art all compassion…” and this abrasive stranger shakes us.
However, this Gentile woman is made of stern stuff, and refuses to go away quietly.
She, like many another, is determined to keep on wrestling for a blessing, and responds in kind, picking up Jesus’s words and turning them back on him.
We may be dogs, but surely you’re not so mean that you begrudge us even the left-overs.
She refuses to take No for an answer…
And in doing so, she stops Jesus in his tracks.
Against his own expectations, as a result of their “shared conversation” he is forced into really seeing her, - seeing another human being, a child of God…and what he sees makes him change his mind in a radical way.
Jesus change his mind?
As God’s Son, Jesus must be perfect…the unmoved mover, “there is no shadow of turning with thee”, right?
Well, maybe not.
For me, learning is part of what it means to be human. Even Mrs Alexander was prepared to accept that Jesus went through all the normal stages of physical development – “day by day like us he grew”
So too, surely, he learned and grew in relationship…He learned, he grew, and sometimes he changed his mind.
There’s so much more going on here than just an exchange of banter, for surely Jesus is forced to rethink the scope of his mission, to enlarge its scope.
This should, I think, serve to correct our own tendency to arrogance, to hardness of heart. It’s so tempting to believe that we don’t need to listen to others, because we already know the truth, and our perspective is, of course, the right one..
In that respect, perhaps, it’s hard not to sympathise with the Jews, who believe themselves to be the insiders, on a fast track to Salvation. In our society, and in our church, we can sadly identify behaviours that match theirs. We’ve all encountered insiders who guard their corners, and cannot believe in a God whose heart and vision are larger than they, or we, can imagine
But if we take Scripture seriously, our limited view is inevitably challenged.
In Scripture we meet a God who listens and changes his mind, whose unlimited love almost surprises himself.
In Scripture, we encounter a God who is changed by his relationships, a God who is moved by the prayers of his children, and acts in unexpected ways to answer them.
In Scripture, above all, we meet a God who is love, and cannot remain unmoved by the beloved.
This particular gospel story lies behind one of the most beloved of all prayers in the Anglican Prayer book, known as the Prayer of Humble Access
“We do not presume to come to this your table O merciful Lord
Trusting in our own goodness, but in your manifold and great mercy
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table
But you are the same Lord, whose nature it is always to have mercy…”
“We do not presume”
Well, thank God that sometimes we do.
Thank God for those who dare to challenge, to draw us into a landscape of larger hearts and wider compassion.
Thank God for this woman, the outsider, the second class citizen who refuses to go away but demands that Jesus recognise her right to engage with him.
Thank God that she stops him in his tracks, forcing him to see and recognise her humanity – and forcing him to own that manifold and great mercy which is always so much greater than our worst inadequacies, our most glaring failings and faults.
Here, as everywhere, love wins.
The mother’s love, a passion that drives her to take risks that she would probably never have contemplated for her own benefit.
The Father’s love, God’s love, that is stronger than anything in all creation…
Stronger than the divisions that scar society and church
Stronger than fear and hatred
Stronger even than death itself
Only ten verses later, we see Jesus practising what he has learned here, as he feeds not just one but 4000, almost certainly also Gentiles, on more than just crumbs…
It is as if he suddenly realises just what is possible, just how boundless the love and grace that is on offer.
And of course there are baskets left over.
That, surely, is the lesson the church most needs to hear.
There ARE no limits to be set on God’s love.
There is enough and to spare for all….
Nobody need be content with just crumbs from under the table. To affirm some need never mean denying others. Too often we behave as if we need to claim our ground at the expense of others, we create hierarchies to defend our own position at God’s table.
That’s certainly true in politics, - and the divisions that scar our country are the result of that way of thinking…that YOUR gain must mean my loss…
That the world can be divided into worthy insiders and unworthy outsiders
Us and them. Sadly, we behave as it those same rules must apply within our churches
But God never thinks in those stark binary terms.
God is God in community – and on this Trinity Sunday it is good to remember that in the famous Rublev icon, our God in three persons leaves space at the table for you and me...and his love – well, as the prayer puts it, his love compels us to come in, and we find that we are all alike included in a boundless welcome.
You see, God is not a God who draws lines to exclude but one who is continually enlarging the boundaries until we, each one of us, know for ourselves that we belong...that we are each one of us wanted, each one of us insiders, held in God's embrace….that nothing, - least of all any human divisions, will ever separate us from God’s love.