Call to worship
We come as mothers, daughters and sisters.
We come as fathers, sons and brothers.
We know the lengths we would go for our family.
We understand the depth of family love.
We come to worship the one whose love is stronger and wider and deeper than we can ever know or understand.
Prayer of approach
God who calls us to praise,
let us be glad and sing for joy.
Guide us in our worship this morning.
Help us to be attentive to You
as we come together as a community of faith
to grow and learn, to be challenged and to be comforted.
Help us to listen for Your voice today. Amen
“Be Still and Know that I am God.”
Sit back. Breathe deeply. Quieten yourself and listen to the noises around you; birds outside, the fridge humming, cars passing by, the neighbour working outside. Offer these things to God in thanks.
Be aware of the working of your own body. Your heartbeat. Your inhalation and exhalation. The aches and pains. The blood flowing through you. Offer the life within you to God.
In your mind’s eye, go to your happy place. The place where you long to be. Picture the scene, busy or remote. Beautiful or ordinary. Tell God why you love this and give thanks for the time you have spent here.
You have chosen today to sit here and be part of this act of worship. There are many other places where you could be, many other things you could have decided to do instead. You are here because of the people in your past and present who have guided you, who have taught you Christian ways, who have been signposts to Jesus. Remember them and give thanks to God for their ministry to you.
Holy One, in a time when we can so easily focus on the negatives, on the bad news, help us to remember to pause and give thanks. To notice the good things, the ordinary things that go on around us. To be aware of the life you have breathed into us. To remember happy times and good people who have enriched our lives. When things are tough, give us a poke in the ribs and point out the good things. We know that these good things don’t take away the pain, but they stop us from feeling overwhelmed.
Forgiving God, there have been moments this week that have been difficult.
There have been times where we have not lived up to everything You created us to be.
We have done what we should not and not done what we should.
We have said and thought things that were not kind, or honest.
We haven’t loved other people or ourselves.
We are sorry.
God of fresh starts, help us to wipe the slate clean.
Walk beside us and teach us Your ways,
give us hope that the difficult things won’t always be this way.
Help us to know Your forgiveness for ourselves and show Your forgiveness to others. Amen
Reading: Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8
Our two readings today are about foreigners and how they are treated. Badly, usually. Both readings pit two ethnic groups against one another: the Jews and the Gentiles. Who has favour? Who deserves better treatment? Who wins at the game of life? Who does God love the most?
Isaiah is speaking to a community that has returned from exile and life isn’t quite what they’d been hoping for. This prophecies of a time when foreigners will be welcomed and embraced. The Israelites have experienced what it is like to be immigrants, asylum seekers if you will, but they are also used to thinking of themselves as God’s chosen people. How will they feel about God bringing these new people into the promised land and these people worshipping in the same space as the Israelites? Given the same rights, the same level of justice?
When living as exiles, as foreigners, the Israelites experienced significant discrimination. They knew what it was like to be marginalised, to be treated less favourably on account of their ethnic origin. Life had been hard. In returning to the promised land, perhaps they were relieved to be back amongst their own kind, they probably felt a lot safer on home turf, but Isaiah is now telling them that God is adamant they must share this land with other foreigners; others who themselves have experienced oppression and injustice because of their nationality. Justice is the key here and the great vision God has for God’s chosen people is that the blessed and promised land created by God will be a place of diversity, a place of harmony and unity amongst people of difference.
The message here is clear – the covenant God set up is not exclusive. It’s not restricted, but is available to everyone.
We are tribal people. We tend to gravitate towards people who are like us, who look like us, talk like us, think like us, love like us, pray like us, vote like us. The sorry state of the Methodist Church in Britain is that we are rarely a place of diversity, but instead a place of cultural uniformity. Uniformity will be our downfall, if we only ever attract people who are like us, if we only ever cater for people who do the things we do.
Most churches, not just Methodist, make a big deal out of saying, All are Welcome. As read those words in our opening hymn: All are Welcome in this place. And we probably mean it. We’re probably genuine in our desire in wanting anyone who walks through our doors to feel at home here. A sign inside Coventry Cathedral reads:
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, questioning, well-heeled or down at heel. We especially welcome wailing babies and excited toddlers.
We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You’re welcome here if you’re ‘just browsing,’ just woken up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been to church since Christmas ten years ago.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep-fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, are down in the dumps or don’t like ‘organised religion.’ (We’re not that keen on it either!)
We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or are here because granny is visiting and wanted to come to the Cathedral.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as kids or got lost on the ring road and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters… and you!
Isn’t that great? That’s how to say ‘All are Welcome.’ But are we really prepared for new people, because their very presence will disrupt us. Each of you reading this is a precious person, needed and loved, and I’m delighted you chose to engage in this act of worship. The church is shaped by each one of you. And anyone else who comes to the church will shape the church – is that what we want? Are we prepared to move the goalposts for them?
The message from Isaiah tells the people you’re special, you’re blessed, you’re precious to God. But God is adamant that every person created is special and blessed and precious. And there’s enough space to go around, enough love for us all. We don’t have to prove we are loved by God by identifying who might not be loved by God. God gathers us all in, holds us, embraces us. God’s arms are wide enough to encompass us all, there are no limits, God’s love isn’t rationed or risks running out.
How did the Israelites feel about sharing? Well I imagine a bit like a toddler who is presented with a baby brother or sister and suddenly realises they’re going to have to share their parents and are not best pleased about it. I remember when I was pregnant with our second son, worrying that all of my love had been poured into our eldest and I couldn’t possibly love this new child as much. I thought my love had already reached peak capacity. How wrong I was. Because when love is stretched, it doesn’t thin, it expands and multiplies.
All are welcome – it’s a challenge that requires serious consideration about whether we are prepared to take it seriously. But as the Israelites are told, when people come together, there is joy and holiness and celebration. Our communities should be places of safety that are welcome to everyone, not just catering for the majority, but being attentive to differing needs. It’s God vision and God gives us the responsibility of building on this vision.
Reading: Matthew 15: 10-28
I remember as a young adult being told that we shouldn’t pick and chose bits of the bible we like and ignore the rest, that all texts are of equal value. Well, I certainly don’t think we should ignore any of it; those tricky passages need examining, we need to sit with them and grapple with them, put them through the lens of 2020 and see how God is still speaking through these holy words and how they can help and direct us in our lives today. But that said, I don’t actually believe all of scripture holds equal value – each of us here will have come across texts throughout our lives that have significance, have helped us through difficult times and hold special meaning for us. I can’t compare the instruction for us to love our neighbours as ourselves to the passage in Leviticus that determines people with disabilities are forbidden to make an offering to God – these are not of equal value.
And so we come to our gospel reading for today. One in which I struggle to recognise Jesus – he seems irritable and frankly downright rude to the Canaanite woman. Does this passage hold equal value to the feeding of the five thousand that comes almost immediately before, or the feeding of the four thousand that comes immediately after? Is there anything in this passage for us today? Or in our picking and choosing, should I have gone with the epistle instead?
Jesus went away to the district of Tyre & Sidon. In modern geographical terms this is Lebanon. Well this was my first clue this week that perhaps I can’t ignore this passage – modern day Lebanon, as we know, has been in our news because of that catastrophic explosion and they will be living with the consequences of that blast for many years to come. So what might this middle eastern woman and her encounter with Jesus have to teach us?
The woman shouts out to Jesus – has she heard his reputation as a healer? She knows there is a gulf between them – they couldn’t be more different – different gender, different family circumstances, different language, different nationality. But this woman is clever, she seeks common ground and is strategic in her confrontation to ensure she can’t be ignored – Son of David, she calls him. She’s finding a point of commonality in their ancestry – in the genealogy of Jesus there are three Canaanite women – Rahab, Tamar & Ruth. They share a heritage. They might even be distantly related.
And here’s where it gets tricky. Despite her determination, Jesus doesn’t answer her. Oh Jesus, why do you make things so hard for us? Why couldn’t you have turned around, a bit like with the Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman with a haemorrhage and behaved like the feminist we know you are, and treated this disadvantaged woman with a bit more respect. Why couldn’t you have modelled to the disciples what compassion to the foreigner looks like, what it looks like to treat women as your equal? Couldn’t you have been just a little bit nicer?
Has anyone heard of the modern word, ghosting? It means to suddenly for no reason stop all communication, to withdraw without explanation, to ignore someone, to blank them. It has deeply traumatic psychological effects of making the person being ‘ghosted’ feel insignificant and worthless. Is Jesus ghosting this woman? Far too often in history, in scripture, women’s voices are not heard. The testimony of a woman was much less important than a man’s. If your neighbour told you they had been burgled, you’d offer sympathy and perhaps practical help – you wouldn’t doubt their word. Your first reaction wouldn’t be to question whether they’d brought it on themselves by not locking their windows, or flaunting their possessions. But if a woman says she has experienced the crime of a sexual assault, still, today, she can be doubted, she can be scrutinised, her behaviour brought into question as to whether she is deserving of this crime.
This Canaanite woman is in good company, because like Rosa Parks, she doesn’t give up. She’s perhaps used to being treated like this, but not today. Today, like a lioness, she’s fighting for her child.
And here’s where this passage gets really complicated, because Jesus seems to be saying he only came for the house of Israel, for the Jews, he’s not interested in helping the Gentiles, so please go away. And still, she doesn’t give up – what determination, what strength she demonstrates. And then he insults her – ‘ it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,’ he says. So let me get this right – the children, the children of God are the Jews, and she is the dog; the dogs are her people. Woah – that’s pretty awful stuff. That’s perilously close to being a racial slur.
But this woman is feisty and she’s quick witted – dogs eat crumbs, she retorts. And finally, Jesus takes notice: woman, you have great faith. Respect. Your daughter’s healed already.
There are a couple of ways of reading this passage – the first, is that Jesus knows all along that the woman has great faith, and he’s setting her up to be able to demonstrate this, to be able to make the point that God is for everyone, not just the Jews. He needs to banter with her to show this, and rather than irritability, he’s doing this with humour.
There is another way of reading this – that Jesus himself believed that his mission was initially to his own people. He needs to seek and save the lost, the people who have wandered from God, who have turned their backs on the covenant, and he needs to remind them they are special and blessed and precious. But his encounter with this formidable foreign woman changes him. His own mission, his own understanding of the kingdom of God is stretched and challenged by her, that she persuaded him of her own validity and importance. Her tenacity means she won’t let him go until he’s noticed her child – parents will do that for their children, they find strength they never knew they had to step up.
But actually, the question of whether Jesus knows all along, or is changed by this encounter, might be the wrong things to focus on. Instead, I think this links really nicely with our passage from Isaiah, about who’s in and who’s out. Who is included and who is excluded. Because the answer to that is, no-one.
In recent days we’ve seen news items of migrants on flimsy, overcrowded boats in the Channel, and we’ve heard our government’s reaction which seems to be about fostering fear of the stranger. If you see a boat, full of desperate people, some of whom are children, and your first reaction is, they are not welcome here, I seriously question your moral compass. Many of these people are parents, picking up their children and fleeing perilous homelands, seeking safety. Isn’t that what Mary & Joseph did, when they escaped to Egypt?
Those who are being persecuted, facing discrimination and injustice, need their voices heard. They need allies and occasionally they need advocates. They need treating with respect. They do not need to be told they are sub-human, or that they do not belong. Our heritage, our nationality, our territory is an accident of our births. Those of us who were born in the UK haven’t earned it and our birth rights do not give us superiority or special favour. We need to recognise the privilege of living in the UK, and especially for those of us who are white, or straight, or well educated, that we are given opportunities denied to many others; we may face hardship, but our skin colour or nationality or sexuality is unlikely to be the reason.
All are welcome, we heard earlier. Do we really mean it? Or do we secretly think that those who are different from us are somehow inferior, that they should have less say in all manner of things? So what I take from both of our readings today is that God celebrates our diversity, but gives no distinction to our race, gender, social class or culture. These social ills that divide us have no place in God’s justice.
Jesus heard this unnamed woman’s voice, was struck by her tenacity and faith. This woman was in the wrong place, speaking with the wrong accent, in the wrong gender, but she spoke up. Doesn’t that tell us something? And so the final thing I take from this is that if this woman, this woman of no importance, this woman who was so very different from Jesus, if SHE can speak out, then so can we. Do we sometimes hold back from asking? Are we sometimes afraid of approaching Jesus with our concerns? Do we speak and feel we get nowhere, as if Jesus might be ghosting us? Don’t give up, keep talking, shout up a bit, get cross, get feisty, Jesus can take it – are you angry about climate change – tell him! Are you furious about poverty in the Yemen? – yell at Jesus. Are you upset about friends or family who have died – trouble Jesus about it. Because in the act of conversation, what you’re actually doing is demonstrating great faith. I’m not sure Jesus is very interested in platitudes, or in hollow words we think we ought to say. I think he might be more interested in our honesty, because he wants an open and honest relationship with us, a relationship that is real, and real relationships sometimes mean a bit of shouting. This woman didn’t question her worthiness to be noticed and neither should we. Because the love of God, the love of Jesus, the love of the Holy Spirit, stretches and encompasses us all. Amen.
Hymn: Let love be real (Singing the Faith 615)
You may like to use the Taizé refrain between sections:
“The Kingdom of God is justice and peace
And joy in the Holy Spirit
Come, Lord and open in us the gates of your Kingdom”
I invite you to remember especially Beirut and those young people who have received exam grades or who are still waiting for their grades to be released.
God of Love
how wonderful it is for us all to know that God loves us,
no matter our background.
Thank You that in the Kingdom of God
we find radical welcome and inclusion for all,
We delight in our Father’s love.
In Your Kingdom there will be justice and peace,
but we know that this is not the experience of everyone today.
Bring Your Kingdom Lord.
The Kingdom of God is justice and peace…
God of Justice
we pray for people who find themselves caught up in conflict.
For those navigating difficult relationship
and making hard decisions.
For those who have experienced discrimination and unfairness.
For those caught up in dangerous situations around the world.
We pray for people who find themselves on the margins.
For those who feel they don’t quite fit in or are being left out.
For those who don’t want others to know they are struggling.
For those who can’t access the things we take for granted
because of poverty or disability.
Break down the barriers.
Bring Your Kingdom Lord.
The Kingdom of God is justice and peace…
God of Peace
we pray for Your church.
For our neighbouring churches in our communities.
For our the faithful Christians around the world.
Strengthen and encourage us Lord.
As we settle into new rhythms of life,
we remember those who have suffered
and are struggling with the effects of the last few months.
We pray for those who are trying to trying to return to a new normality
and for those who are caught between the two.
Bring Your Kingdom Lord.
The Kingdom of God is justice and peace…
Hymn: The kingdom of God (Singing the Faith 255)
Blessing: Psalm 67:1
May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us