A woman of no importance

1A homily for 6 September 2015

Proper 18 Year B. Isaiah 34.4-7. James 2:1-10, 14-17. Mark 7:24-37

The image of the child drowned trying to flee Syria will stay in my mind for a long time. I wonder why that image is so much more powerful than hearing of Rwandan children suffering similarly, as they are at this moment, or of Burton children suffering abuse at the hands of adults, as they are at the moment.

It makes me realize what a privileged and easy life I have. This is not my fault, and I’m not trying to make myself or anyone else feel guilty: it’s not my ‘fault’ that I was born on a European island in the mid-20th century. But it makes me question the job I’m doing in the face of suffering. Am I really advancing the Kingdom of God as the Vicar of these parishes? Should I not be doing something, using my medical or political skills, or my ability as a provocateur to disturb the comfortable?

It brings us face to face with our powerlessness and our mortality, and so how important it is for us to get out priorities right now before it’s too late. Squabbles about church stuff such as who can lay hands on whom at an ordination, or who may or may not take communion, are put into perspective. I see yet again the importance of taking risks for the big things of life and not sweating the small stuff. Compared to the drowned boy it’s all small stuff.

Look at today’s Gospel. Jesus taking risks—yet again. Goodness me, a sense of humour in the Gospels. How shocking. Jesus teases a woman—shock horror, a gentile woman—swoon, likening her to a dog—sal volatile please. If he said that today, he’d be in court on a charge of abuse. The woman was no pushover. She answered back and stood up for herself. Then he went on to the Decapolis, most definitely not among the chosen people. Pushing at boundaries, ignoring the conventions of the day. Stepping outside the comfort zone and getting our priorities right – loving neighbour as self.

In talking to the woman, Jesus paid no heed to the Levitical laws for hand washing. He seems to ignore those rules a lot when he’s eating on the hillside, on the lakeshore, across the lake on Gentile land. He pays no heed to where and with whom he eats—despised tax collectors and sinners. He talks about food with a Syrophoenician woman—certainly a woman of no importance (was he crucified because of the way he ate?). Jesus—cautious? I think not. Although meals are ritual events where social order and rules of the tribe are reinforced, he doesn’t let rules stand in the way of a party.

Look at today’s epistle. It’s easy to think this is the argument about faith versus works. It’s not about that at all, though some may say so. It’s not about comparing the relative sinfulness of murder and adultery either. It’s about getting your priorities right. Stop fawning over the powerful, the influential, the well dressed. Stop sucking up to the Masons, the members of the Burton Club, the MP, the Mayor, the doctor, the Vicar. Start ministering to your neighbour as yourself, no matter how they speak, or smell, or appear. Don’t let convention stand in the way of compassion. Don’t let duty stifle initiative.

We need to guard against being so concerned to keep our lives, our churches and our religion ‘pure’ or ‘just the way we like it’ in a way that excludes others, or welcomes them only on our terms. Being open-minded and willing to explore and do new things is expensive. It leads others to criticize us. It leads to a kind of crucifixion as we see the death of all we once held dear.

When I see pictures of refugees dead and dying I know that none of our conventions and rules is important enough to go to war over. Faith without works is merely self-indulgent narcissism.

Harden not your hearts. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy that seems to elude mere mortals.

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