Trinity 10A for St John and St Stephen Zoom Church.
August 16, 2020.
Romans 11:1-6; 11-20; 29-32 and Matthew 15:20-28
INCLUSION AND EXCLUSION.
To what extent do you feel included in the story of Salvation?
We start with a story about exclusion – about someone who was sadly given the message that she wasn’t included in the story of salvation, but how reconciliation came some 50 years later. The story is recounted by Karen Gibson, leader of the celebrated Kingdom Choir, who sang at the wedding of Prince Harry to Megan Markle last year. It is about Karen’s mother, who came to Britain in the 1960s from the Caribbean. Missing the familiar, she found herself looking up local churches and located an Anglican one nearby. After attending for several weeks, the vicar made a point of shaking her hand at the door after the service one day, saying as he did so, “Thanks for coming, but don’t come back, please”.
Karen writes: ‘it was a slap in the face (for my mother) to have been invited to the country to work, only to find ignorance and discrimination in all areas of society, and further, to be so casually dismissed from the one place in which she should have found refuge’.
The story continues in the Church Times here: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/24-july/comment/opinion/this-precious-moment-of-healing
Inclusion, and its opposite, exclusion, are strong themes both in Scripture and in society today. We can sometimes find opposites in the bible that seem hard to hold together. There have been themes of judgment in some of the recent parables of the kingdom. Many of these contain the idea of separation at the time of harvest – the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad fish. How are we to read them?
Meanwhile in society, while we’re discovering all the ways it’s wrong to exclude people on the basis of race, class, gender or sexuality, we’re still vexed about how to deal with people who exercise such exclusion towards others.
I learnt a new phrase recently: ‘Cancel Culture’.
You may or may not have come across it. It originated on Twitter, where celebrities with objectionable views are ‘called out’, and others who are offended by their views (either on their own behalf, or on behalf of others) call for the offending celebrity to be ‘cancelled’. This would mean their views would be blanked, they would not be followed anymore, and hopefully people would forget all about them. In some cases, they might no longer be able to get work. It’s a kind of digital equivalent of being sent to Coventry.
They are effectively excluded. Some, we would probably say deservedly, will face legal proceedings because their attitudes have led to actions that are in fact criminal.
For the Christian, it highlights an inherent tension within inclusivity; namely, how far does your tolerance stretch? Can you, or should you include and welcome the person who is non-inclusive of others? With a Saviour who shared bread with his betrayer, the bar is set rather high…
Exclusion and inclusion are important themes in the Romans reading we had this morning. I wonder how you feel about the book of Romans? What comes to your mind when you hear of it? Hard; Paul is difficult; dense; don’t understand it; used by Christians to excuse judgmentalism?
And I wonder if you’ve noticed that churches tend to prioritise different parts of Scripture, according to their churchmanship? I’m not going to go into it here, but it’s an interesting reflection! Of course, we’re Anglicans and the lectionary is set up to give us a balanced diet, but within that framework all preachers tend to make theological choices, and we might as well to be aware of it.
For my money, I try and see the epistles in continuity with the gospels. Paul is the link – he met the resurrected Christ on the Damascus road and so claims kinship with the first apostles who walked with Jesus. The Church was officially born at Pentecost, and God continued to speak through the ministry of Peter and Paul via their letters.
Though the Canon of Scripture is closed, God’s story of salvation continues through you and I and all believers.
And it’s a BIG STORY: today the gospel embraces the issues that we face here in the 21st Century, not just the ‘cure’ of our souls, but how we live a faithful life in the face of climate crisis, racial and economic inequality, pandemics and the rise of artificial intelligence.
With regards to the lectionary it can be very fruitful to look at both our Sunday readings alongside each other and it struck me this week how well they dovetailed.
I asked at the beginning, To what extent do you feel included in the story of Salvation?
Another question might be: ‘how well do you know that story?’
Because, let’s face it, we have some weird stories in our faith book. How do you feel being part of a story that includes the calling of Israel and her battles, the miracles in the early church and the Revelation of the end by John the Divine on the island of Patmos? When we say in the Eucharistic liturgy: “This is our story, this is our song” do we mean just the Jesus bit, or the whole confusing thing?
As someone has said, “it’s not the bits of the bible that I don’t understand that worry me; it’s the bits I do understand…”
Someone recently asked the question “how will the Church survive the pandemic?” What do we offer that other humanitarian agencies don’t offer, after we’ve all agreed that we must help the most needy and look out for our neighbour, as so many organisations have done so effectively through the Corona crisis?
The reply was interesting: “How will the Church survive? By telling its strange stories”. By telling its strange stories. To tell the stories we have to engage with them honestly and sometimes be prepared to ask questions of them. We can’t preserve the bible in aspic and read it without comment.
So in Morning Prayer, when we read about Saul pinning David to the wall with a spear, there are raised eyebrows. When King David, a man described as ‘someone after God’s own heart’, goes off to collect 100 foreskins so he can marry Saul’s daughter, we are forced to re-think what a messy thing our faith story can be.
So to what extent do you feel included in this messy STORY?
Paul’s purpose in Romans 11 is to address a pressing cultural issue of his time; the relationship of Jews to Gentiles in light of their differing responses to Jesus, who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. Our cultural standpoint is different – we carry an awareness, as we read Romans, of 2000 years of anti-Semitism – some of which was propagated by the Church itself.
The misunderstanding that God had in some way ‘rejected’ the Jewish people by including Gentiles, is something that Paul refutes. ‘God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew’. He cites the story of Elijah, who thought he was the only one not to have bowed the knee to Baal, but God reminded him that there was still a faithful ‘remnant’ through whom the story would continue.
Paul shows how neither Jew nor Gentile can boast: Gentiles are grafted into the tree of the Jewish faith and we inherit their stories as a result. But in a reciprocal move, Gentile faith in Jesus will provoke some Jews to turn to him yet. This is Paul’s hope. His heart is still with the Jews, but his vision has expanded to become universal.
And it seems to me that how we navigate the specific, in relation to the whole, is behind a lot of problems that society faces, not least Brexit.
And then we have the puzzle of the Canaanite woman in our gospel, and the apparent unwillingness of Jesus to include her in his healing and saving work.
How many ways this story has been interpreted down the years! You know how it goes: Jesus is looking for respite and takes himself off to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon are both port cities located in modern day Lebanon. In Jesus’ day the Jews saw these as pagan regions, places where there was unforgivable ignorance of God.
A woman from this region has heard that Jesus is a healer and she desperately needs this for her daughter who is sick. She shouts: ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David’, a genuine faith response that many in Israel have been so far incapable of. She’s following the group of disciples, shouting, and they urge Jesus to send her away. It doesn’t occur to them that she might be included in the scope of God’s salvation.
And Jesus comes out with his famous (infamous?) response: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Is he testing them, or does he not yet sense the opening up of the vision that was primarily for Israel? (Or, to be more provocative, would he today be ‘cancelled’ as a racist?)
The woman is persistent and kneels before him, saying ‘Lord, help me’. He addresses her directly: ‘it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’. It reads uncomfortably. If you were a director, putting this on the stage, I wonder what tone of voice you’d give to Jesus? Is he being downright rude (it’s hard to imagine) or is he drawing her out; in effect saying, ‘you and I both know this is irregular; what’s the scope of your faith here; if I come to meet you, how far can you come to meet me?’
To put a very positive literary gloss on the encounter, it makes me think of Jane Eyre to Mr Rochester: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you!”
Both women claim equality of opportunity. Perhaps one way of reading this encounter is to see a faith exchange of great potential, where the woman pushes on the door marked ‘inclusion’, to see how wide it will open, and where Jesus ends up praising her for her great faith, in contrast to his usual epithet for the male disciples as ‘you of little faith’ (lit. ‘mini-faiths’).
She takes on board the metaphor of children’s food not being wasted on the pets and extends it to herself: ‘but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table’, thus enshrining her response in Anglican Eucharistic liturgy: ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table’.
So after this exploration of inclusion and exclusion, how wide is your vision on inclusion in the kingdom? How included do you feel? This is really to ask questions about our calling, our vocation in life. You yourself are a gift to the church, however many rotas you’re on, or not. What matters is not how much you can ‘do’, but how you’re growing in your faith; to what extent you are still hearing the call to follow Jesus at this stage of your life.
As we journey through the summer together and out into the strange new chapter of the story we’re all in after Covid-19, may we continue to discover God’s calling together, and our own cherished place in the strange but wonderful story of salvation.
For further exploration, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon Press: 1996) born out of the Balkan conflict, is highly recommended.