Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Brexit still rules the waves when it comes to the political life of our country but over the summer another controversy has also had wind in its sails, namely the row over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
I’m in no position to give you a steer about the internal goings-on inside the Labour Party or any other political group but I will say this: racism of any sort is a very bad idea, a very unchristian idea, and we all need to be on guard against it welling up within ourselves, because it can very easily do so.
All people have infinite value. That is point number one in any Christian ethic.
My perhaps overly pessimistic view is that most of us, maybe all of us, are just a hair’s breadth away from malevolence in one form or another and racism is one of the forms that malevolence takes.
Anti-Semitism is often associated in the common mind with Christian history and civilisation, and it’s true that many Christians over many centuries have been virulently, sometimes murderously, anti-Semitic.
We must acknowledge that to our shame but anti-Semitism wasn’t a Christian invention. It goes back at least to the 3rd century BC – so way before there were any Christians around. The first instance we know of comes from the Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt – at least according to Wikipedia.
The Greeks were pretty contemptuous of anyone who wasn’t Greek but what offended them most of all about the Jews was their religion. The Greeks were pagan and believed in many gods, while the Jews had come to believe zealously in one God.
Now, some would disagree but it seems pretty clear to me at least that this belief in one God had developed quite slowly. The Jews, or rather their ancestors, had originally believed in many gods – just like everyone around them – but then the belief in one God gradually began to impose itself. Remember that verse from Psalm 95:
For the Lord is a great God
and a great king above all gods.
That verse clearly implies that many gods actually exist. Over centuries these other gods just withered on the vine and became non-existent idols – or even actual devils – worshipped only by benighted pagans. So the Jews despised the pagan Greeks and the Greeks despised the tiresomely monotheistic Jews.
So far, so human.
But, wonderfully, the Jews also hatched another idea – that they, the Jews, were the chosen instrument to bring the whole world to a knowledge of this one God. That saving knowledge was meant for all people not just for them. Consider these words from the prophet Isaiah (God is here speaking to Israel, to the Jews):
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
So, bearing all that preamble in mind, let’s look at our readings this morning. I’m going to take them in reverse order. First, the gospel, the healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter.
Jesus and his disciples have gone to a gentile area – presumably for some rest or for a period of intensive, rabbinic training (the reason isn’t given). He’s approached by this gentile, pagan woman and after some apparent hesitation on Jesus’ part the woman’s daughter is healed.
Now, I could spend the rest of this sermon talking about why Jesus at least seems to hesitate, why he seems initially reluctant to heal the girl. There are various possible explanations and they’re fascinating but, sadly, we don’t have the time. So I’m going to leave that to one side.
The thing we need to take on board is that Jesus accepts this pagan woman’s petition and does what she so desperately wants.
Jesus then moves on to an area called the Decapolis, which was again a predominantly pagan area – hence the name Decapolis, which means ten cities in Greek. He heals a man who is deaf. This man was probably a gentile as well, though we aren’t told that explicitly.
To use a modern term Jesus has a radically inclusive agenda. No-one is beyond the reach of God’s love. The deaf, the blind, the sick, the poor, children, lepers, tax collectors, gentiles, Pharisees, sinners of all sorts, you and me – Jesus reaches out to them all. They, we are all equally and infinitely loved by God.
That’s very good to know but it entails responsibility. Just as God loves indiscriminately, we also are to love without boundaries and without prejudice.
James in his letter uses the rather pointed example of how people are treated when they enter an assembly of believers – a church in our terms. Are we as a church, and as individuals, more welcoming to respectable people than to the unrespectable?
It’s very easy to respect only the respectable but James pleads with us not to treat people less generously merely because society has taught us not to like the cut of their jib.
And so, finally, we come to our first reading, the one from Isaiah, which may be read in a literal sense but which has a deeper spiritual meaning. It is a passage of encouragement. It tells us that God will come and save us. He will make us whole, by which is meant in my book that he will enable us to love as he loves.
Loving as he loves, in Christian terms that is what wholeness is.
We human beings are usually OK at loving certain people to a certain level a certain amount of the time but when it comes to loving with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, we tend to fall short.
We find it difficult, I would say impossible, to love fully through our own efforts. We need help and only divine help can do the trick.
Only by abiding in Christ, by abandoning ourselves into the presence of God and into the very hands of God, can we be enabled to love to the full extent of which we are capable.
That’s why we need religion.
If we can love God recklessly, if we can love others recklessly and without distinction, if we can love the rest of the created order as if it were an extension of our own being, we hear and we see, we leap and we sing for joy. Waters break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.