Vicar’s Sermon – 16th August 2020

Matthew 15.21-28

Today’s Gospel reading: what a strange pairing of stories from Jesus’ ministry. A paragraph about handwashing, drains and sewers and then a story about a desperate woman and Jesus acting in an almost unrecognisably heartless way towards her.

Where do we start?

I think we start by saying that these stories have handed down to us because they present us with two key moments in Jesus’ ministry. We have here two stories that show us turning points in the understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus …but time has worn away the impact of what the stories are saying, it has eaten away at their power.

The first story – about food and eating and the washing of hands- ends with Jesus telling his disciples that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles them but what comes out (Jesus lists some of these things from the 10 commandments). We may well nod in agreement with what Jesus is saying – we’ve lived with 2000 years of his message, we understand that faith involves more than ‘just going through the motions’ of formal religion. But when Jesus said these words he swept aside 1000 years of Jewish tradition: tradition that went back to Moses, tradition that was divinely ordained. In one sentence Jesus dismissed the Jewish food laws – laws that might confuse us at this distance in time but which had helped define the nation and what it meant to be a member of God’s chosen people. This story marks a turn in the road for Jesus’ people – a break with the past. A clean heart is what is needed He says. No amount of washing your hands can sort that for you. No amount of soap or sanitiser or singing Happy Birthday whilst we wash. God looks right through us to our hearts and it’ll take more than soap and water to sort them out.

And then, a few verses on we hear Jesus clambering up and over and beyond the nationalism of the Judaism of his day as he heals the daughter of this unnamed woman who would not take ‘No’ for an answer but instead badgered him …and pursued him ….and threw herself at his feet …and begged him to have mercy upon her. Every group of people, every organisation has a set of boundaries around it. Sometimes what these boundaries are have been written down (in constitutions and the like). Sometimes the boundaries are less clear leading to confusion as to who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. The boundary around the Judaism of Jesus’ day was more of a wall: a wall that kept people out. You belonged to God’s people by birth. What we would call ‘conversion’ was rare: it was difficult to join the Jewish community. No wonder then, that Jesus reflects this by saying that he was called to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. It seems that even Jesus lived with this ‘closed’ idea of who God favoured: Israel was God’s chosen nation But whilst Jesus was in the region of Tyre and Sidon –outside the bounds of geographical Israel – this woman presented herself and challenged him to change his mind. It’s almost as if we see the struggle between His prior understanding and the obvious need in front of him and Jesus coming to a point where he has no choice but to see that the work of God can no longer be confined to one people in one place but is for all people, in all places. The seeds of a world faith that will go on to transform the lives of people al over the world are sown right here at this moment.

So two explosive stories today. The first says that we can ‘do all the right stuff’, say all the right things, and add our ‘Amens’ to the right prayers but then asks ‘Have we let God anywhere near our hearts so that He might change them?’ That is an uncomfortable question I know, but we can’t escape it.

And the second story asks us just how large our hearts really are? Is there room in them for the person who is different, who thinks they don’t belong, who is awkward and challenges us. If even Jesus had to learn this hard lesson then we’re going to find it difficult too but where he leads, we must follow in working towards an ever more open and welcoming community of disciples.

Jesus called the crowd to Him and said ‘Listen and understand’. Amen to that.

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