Sermon for High Mass Sunday 9 September 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Mark 7.29 Jesus said to the woman: …go your way; the demon has left your daughter.
George Bernard Shaw was once asked where he would like to be at the end of the world. England, he said. Why England, they asked. Because, he said, England is always fifty years behind everywhere else. The Church too is either fifty years behind or fifty years ahead, depending on your view; we develop opinions and end up moving one way or another. That’s human, having an opinion, but that’s not Christianity. Christianity does not change. Christianity is not a matter of opinion, our opinions, but an objective creed about what is eternal. What is unchanging and eternal? The unchanging and eternal experience, which you and I know is desire, wanting to know God. That is the same now as it was for those who wrote the psalms and those who listened to Jesus Christ, and those who sat here a hundred years ago. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God [Ps. 84]. In the Christian view that’s two-way traffic; God desires union, communion, with His Creation. That’s why we’re here, in search of this living, communicating God. Knowing all about him and arguing about the Church isn’t nearly enough. My heart is restless till it finds its rest in thee, as St Augustine said. It’s a search for wisdom we’re on, and this starts and ends with a personal relationship, God and me, God and us, meeting Jesus Christ now at the centre of life.
But that’s easier said than done, because we then expect God to listen. We start a conversation. God is supposed to answer. We frame the scenario, our particular area of concern, and then invite God to join in somehow. But it never quite works out as we expect, does it?
Today’s Gospel story is about the difficulty we get into trying to speak to God. Who is this God, who never lets us go, but who never shows his hand? The Gospel story about the Syrophoenician woman asking Jesus to heal her little daughter helps us understand this. It’s not often discussed in pulpits, because clergy are so careful to be inoffensive these days, and the story shows Jesus as an impatient racist and frankly anti-canine; that bit about dogs eating crumbs under the table has led to pages and pages about the keeping of pets in ancient times, all irrelevant. Jesus as good as says no to the woman, no to any healing, because she’s not one of us, she’s foreign, beyond the pale, and Jesus’s mission is to the lost sheep of Israel. The contrast between children and dogs is the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, which takes a bit of getting used to in this liberal age. But in Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus receives the woman’s request in silence. He did not say a word in answer to her.
Is that your experience of prayer? Nothing, or nothing much from God? Could be. Maybe silence is as good an answer to prayer as the granting of our request. The silence has a purpose. The primary purpose of prayer is not to change God but to change us, and if we’re not prepared to change, there is nothing to say. Silence on God’s part is not a no; it is a challenge to us to raise our game, aspire to a new level of faith. The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. Jesus challenges the woman in this Gospel story, he brushes away a straightforward request, but it changes the woman’s view of her situation. She’s not the same person at the end of the story as at the beginning. At the beginning she is like us, asking for what we want to happen. By the end of the story she’s where we can be too, beyond the boundaries we set ourselves, dependent on a resilient faith in a God for whom everything is possible. Her desire for God, that unchanging eternal experience, has been fulfilled. This little Gospel story is all about the crossing of boundaries: a woman talking to a strange man alone, against the local custom; the children of Israel and the Gentile dogs; Jesus crossing into Gentile territory and discovering a new depth to his mission; the strict boundary between Jew and Gentile crossed by Jesus when the miracle occurs; and then there is the physical boundary of distance which Jesus crosses with a healing word – he doesn’t visit the sick daughter; he sends the mother home to find her daughter healed.
That is where prayer takes us, beyond the boundaries we and our culture have set for ourselves, beyond the arguments about church order, into the mind of Christ. Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart. Christianity takes us beyond ourselves and our requests to a place where we can set our troubled hearts at rest, because we are taking what God gives, even the crumbs from the table, rather than what we want. God offers a life beyond human divisions, a place of harmony, and we can find there the light of truth, beauty and human kindness; life and health and peace as we sang in our first hymn, and a joy which never changes, as wonderful now as when that mother went home, and found her child lying in the bed, and the demon gone.