Sunday September 9th, 14th after Trinity,St John’s, morning

Reading Mark 7.24-30

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

Well – what a Summer. But now, as the barriers are carted off after the victory parade tomorrow, the tide of euphoria will ebb out, the rocks will emerge, and we’ll see again – if we ever lost sight of it – that life for many in these days is grim. In days like these you’ve got to laugh. According to Grin Up North, a comedy exhibition I once visited in Lancaster, the funniest region in England is one of its more deprived, the North West, home of Hylda Baker, George Formby, Ken Dodd, Les Dawson and Peter Kay. Up there, apparently, you trip over natural comedians everywhere, like the man at the motorway services who asked a woman if she could direct him to the Wigan turn-off: ‘I can, love,’ she replied, ‘I married him.’

In the comedy Olympics the gold medal would surely go the Jews, no strangers to grim times, but here’s a thing – the funniest woman in the New Testament is a Gentile, and she’s here this morning. Times are grim for her, too. Her daughter is in a bad way – not the ideal circumstances for a bit of stand-up, but in desperation, try anything, even humour, which she does. But let’s first think about the reply of  Jesus,  a Jew, to her Gentile cry for help: ‘You don’t give the children’s food to the dogs’. This is a bit inconvenient for the way we see Jesus, because it sounds bad, calling people dogs. You may remember how the then chairman of Newcastle United FC, Freddie Shepherd, got into big and deserved trouble when he used this term about women supporters, and here is Jesus using it of the greater part of the human race; that is, everyone who isn’t a Jew. What are we to say about this? Let’s see how this sounds in the context of comedy, a neglected aspect of Jesus’ teaching style.

There are certain jokes that only certain people can tell. If, like me, you have become rather obsessed with the Paralympics, then, like me, you may have been by turns beguiled and perplexed by Channel 4’s late-night wrap-up show, The Last Leg (geddit?), which serves up some pretty sharp-edged disability humour. Can you really say that to someone who has cerebral palsy? If you have a disability too, then it seems you can. Now here is Jesus, who has left ethnically-mixed Galilee for Gentile Tyre, in Syria. This is a region where Jews and Gentiles know each other well, share the experience of being under the heel of Roman imperial control, and seem used to having a pretty robust discourse between each other. In that context, Jesus’ words still perplex, but they kind of fit.

Our Gentile comic reacts to Jesus’ words, but not as to an insult. Like her comedic sister off the M6, she’s good at the hardest form of comedy, which responds to what it hears: you take what someone says to you and you riposte. So when Jesus says, ‘You don’t give the children’s food to the dogs,’ she retorts, ‘But I bet you give them the scraps; saves opening a tin.’ I added the last bit, but that is her point: Jesus uses a bit of homespun kitchen wisdom about catering for kids and dogs to get his priorities across; she takes the same situation, turns it round, and uses another piece of homely wisdom to get across what she wants. ‘Touché,’ says Jesus, heals her daughter, and changes the focus of his mission to include Gentiles as well as Jews: in the verses which follow we see him healing more Gentile people, and feeding a crowd of four thousand of them. What is going on here?

Faithful Jews believed (as you and I should) that God had a plan for the world. The Plan, most thought, was that God would sort the world out by first making the people of Israel pure and only then gathering in the Gentiles, the rest of the human race. The first Christians believed that, in Jesus, God had begun to execute the plan, starting this great and wonderful sorting-out in what Jesus proclaimed as the Kingdom of God; and it would be Jews first, then Gentiles. But here was a puzzle: when St Paul started spreading the good news of Jesus, some Jews accepted it, but before long, most of the people who said Yes and became Christians were Gentiles. And this was not the Plan. What was God up to? This story may be Mark’s response to that question: Jesus begins by going with the ‘Jews first’ plan, but then – thanks to this witty Gentile woman – the plan changes.

Plans, eh? The things that make God laugh. We all have them. Our new Cabinet Ministers are busy making them, so are Obama, Romney and their teams. Lord Coe and his people (I hope after a brief rest) will carry on making them for the Olympic/Paralympic legacy. In the Richmond Team Ministry, we have them too: plans to make best use of our new Ministry Assistants, Clare and Nic; plans for the building at St Mary’s, over a century after its last major development work. And our  school, Christ’s, is planning for five-form entry and a 6th Form, planning to explore academy status.

Planning can be tough – what should come first, what needs to wait, these are not easy decisions – but it’s important to do it; otherwise, ‘fail to plan, plan to fail.’ So plans are good, but they may need to change as things change around them. And that can be tough too. Think of the penalties politicians pay if they change course, the cries of ‘U turn!’, the accusations of weakness or lack of grip, as if wisdom were all about having every answer in advance, rather than also having the ability to look and listen and respond well to what you find. You may know the words attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes. When someone criticised him for changing his mind on monetary policy in the Great Depression he is said to have replied, ‘When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do?’

This seems to be what Jesus does here. But that is a second way in which this story may be inconvenient for the way we see Jesus. We often ought to change our minds, or course, but Jesus? Wasn’t he perfect? And if he was perfect, wouldn’t he have known everything in advance? And if he knew everything in advance, how would he ever have needed to change his mind? Well, perhaps he didn’t always know the answers in advance. Perhaps that was the cost of being born as one of us, sharing the flesh and blood of our humanity. And he was, after all, on a mission never undertaken before, to be the anointed one of God, the embodiment of God’s presence and purpose in the world, the one in whom God’s promises began to be made good. Perhaps he walked by faith and trust, as you and I try to do, and perhaps his perfection lay in the very way he did that, in the way he looked, and listened, and was prepared to change, so as not to make a false move. Perhaps that is what make Jesus (as the letter to the Hebrews calls him) ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12.2).

In 1845, John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman wrote about how we must take the risk of putting the Christian idea to work as we live our lives in this messy and surprising world. He said:

In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.


The Last Leg For example

Newman  The Development of Christian Doctrine, Chapter 1, section 7

[W]hatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. It is elicited and expanded by trial, and battles into perfection and supremacy. Nor does it escape the collision of opinion even in its earlier years, nor does it remain truer to itself, and with a better claim to be considered one and the same, though externally protected from vicissitude and change…. It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become wore vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.

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