Sermon 9th September 2018

“He could not be hid,” City URC 9th September 2018

On the News at 10 this last Friday Clive Myrie reported from Tripoli about the relentless, chaotic violence among rival factions after the messy end of the Gaddafi regime.  Libya has become what they call a failed state and at one-point Myrie says a woman saw the BBC cameras and came forward to say she wanted to talk to him.  Naeema Ali, 51 and the mother of four, poured out her heart, even with her face covered in a green veil, she was the very picture of desperation. You could see it in her eyes, “we are a peaceful people,” she said, “we want peace. we are like everyone else—we want our children to grow up in peace.”

In our Gospel lesson for this morning we find Jesus exhausted after a frustrating day failing to get through to the hard-hearted Pharisees and his knuckle-headed disciples.  Jesus is desperate for a day off.  But he can’t hide, even in Gentile territory, where he thinks no one will know him.

But he is found out.  A Gentile woman, a Syro-Phenician woman cries out to Jesus like the woman in Tripoli who cries out to Clive Myrie in her desperation to be heard.  She pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter.

But Jesus is no Clive Myrie.  He snaps at her, he’s tired and his nerves are shattered.  All he wants is a piece of quiet, so it is perhaps understandable if not excusable that he loses his temper.  But we are shocked when he refers to this woman as a dog, all the more shocking today when we hear people like Donald Trump using this language for those he considers his enemies.  He calls his former staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman “that dog”.  Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney, former adviser Steve Bannon, Obama’s one-time pastor Jeremiah Wright and many more whose names you won’t recognise are all dogs in Trump’s mind.  It’s an exceedingly ugly term that people use all the world over as an insult.  Jesus says you don’t take food meant for the children of Israel and throw it to the dogs.  The shock of witnessing the raw humanity of an overworked, stressed-out Jesus in this story is a real eye-opener.

He’s just like us.

And then look what happens.  His attempts to teach the insiders has gone nowhere.  The Pharisees and the disciples just don’t get it, Jesus is not just tired.  He’s frustrated, feeling defeated.  But then here comes this outsider, this Gentile woman.  She, too, is just like us.  She knows what it feels like to hunger and thirst for a bit of compassion.  Here in Jesus, she knows where to find it, and she won’t be put off.  With a quick, sarcastic wit, she says even the dogs get to eat the crumbs the children drop from the dining table.  One of my favourite television commercials is the Specsavers advert that shows a worried detective saying “what am I missing?  What am I not seeing?”   And then the camera shows that he is staring at the staff notice board instead of the bulletin board covered with photos, notes and clippings relating to the Lipstick Murders.  “What am I not seeing?”

Later on in our lesson for this morning (Mark 7.24-37) Jesus heals a deaf man, an episode that comes as a kind of commentary on this confrontation between our Lord and the Syro-Phoenician woman.  Remember how in the prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 35, Isaiah says a day will come when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.”  Isaiah is speaking about the healing of forms of blindness and deafness more tragic than literal, physical blindness and deafness, however tragic those literal forms of blindness and deafness may be.  When the one-time slave-trader John Norton sings in Amazing Grace that once he had been blind, and now he sees, he is singing of this more insidious blindness that prevents us from seeing the desperation of our neighbours, a desperation for which we are invariably to blame.  Surely it is this more poetic sense of visual impairment, so deeply rooted in the biblical imagination, that is being illustrated here in the story of Jesus and the Syro-Poenician woman. What is Jesus not seeing?  Confronted by the desperation and the quick wit of this Gentile woman, Jesus himself can join John Norton in saying, “I was blind, but now I see.”  His eyes are opened, his ministry has been too parochial and his vision of the kingdom has been too narrowly conceived.  This is a story about healing.

Amazing grace.  Jesus can see the Syro-Phoenician woman, he can hear her desperation. Our deafness and blindness to the suffering of others is our deafness and blindness to the collateral damage that our self-focused lives, our personal lives, our communal lives and our national agendas can so easily cause.

This blindness of ours may even be a characteristic of our species, perhaps understandable therefore, but not excusable.  The light of Christ opens our eyes to what we have not seen, and thus makes a fundamental difference to how the world goes.  Like the woman in Tripoli, like anyone, we want a world in which our children can grow up in peace.  Outsiders like this Syro-Phoenician woman play an important role in the movement of the grace of God among us.  Insiders like the Pharisees work so hard to keep our religious institutions running, guard our cherished orthodoxies against slippage and serve tirelessly, caring for the needs of the flock.  It all gets so very, very predictable.  But these outsiders who come to us hungering for the gospel

can open our weary eyes to what the church is really all about.  The hunger of the human heart sees what we the distracted insiders don’t see, and teaches us, the church, as the Syro-Phoenician taught Jesus, that our ministry has been too parochially conceived.  The church can get in its own way.  I think the church needs to organise itself in such a way that it programmatically allows itself to be interrupted.  Make that an agenda item for every elders’ meeting.  What are we not seeing?  How can we allow ourselves to be interrupted?

The good news is that the good news refuses to be hidden.  It breaks out from under every effort to suppress it like the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome.  From the hunger of slaves in the land of Egypt to the hunger of victims of human trafficking today, there is something that cries out against our settled, comfortable lives to be seen and heard and liberated.  From the broken dreams of the Babylonian exiles to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the human heart hears God calling us home.  From the tax collectors and sex workers and the crowds that were like sheep without a shepherd in the time of Jesus to the residents of the UK’s 9 out of the 10 poorest European communities, the gospel’s promise to the disconsolate will be seen and heard either through the church or despite the church.  But the gospel will not be hidden.

St Augustine prayed to a God for whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden.  So let us in the church opening our eyes and our ears to the desires that burn in the hearts of our neighbours like the burning bush itself.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reminded us that our age has learned to see the greatest events of our history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer, and we have learned to obey these voices from below as if they were from above.  Such openness to the voice from below is not just the experience of revelation.

This is amazing grace.

Revd Dr Tom Arthur

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