Trinity 15 2018
Yesterday, I’m very sorry to tell you, was ‘Buy your priest a pint’ day. I say, ‘sorry’, because no-one did. Although we had some very nice prosecco and some profound poetry courtesy of David Nash. Apparently, according to the website www.catholicgentleman.com (isn’t the internet a wonderful thing!?) – I quote:
“On this festive day, faithful Catholics all over the world take their priests out for a beer and get to know them better. It’s a beautiful Catholic tradition that goes back to the time of St. Hopswald of Aleyard, the first man to take his priest out for a beer.”
Of course, that isn’t quite true. But when did the truth every get in the way of a good catholic tradition, I hear you say….
Actually, let’s not be sectarian here – but thoroughly ecumenical, which, as well as allowing you to buy me a pint, brings us into line with the thrust of our readings this morning. I’ve been being ecumenical these last few weeks– a couple of weekends ago I was invited to speak at the Charles Wood Festival in Armagh. Charles Wood wrote, choral music and hymn tunes, and was professor of Music at Cambridge, and originally hailed from Armagh in Northern Ireland. And Armagh is a place name you probably know from the news stories of the recent past.
It was the heartland of what the Irish rather euphemistically and understatedly call, ‘the troubles’. Bombings, shootings, kneecappings, hunger strikes – these barbaric activities of the 60s, 70s and 80s, are mostly, but not entirely behind us – and the Good Friday Agreement of twenty years ago resolved for both sides to seek unity through peaceful means. The IRA have decommissioned their weapons, and some terrorists became politicians. But not all – and Brexit has come along, and in some quarters there are real fears that if it is not handled well over there, there could be more troubles. And you might recall that Northern Ireland, although it voted for devolution, cannot agree on power-sharing, and so does not have a government - all decisions are currently being taken in Westminster. This is why they have all had a significant pay cut – to focus their minds on getting on and working together. And of course, the DUP have huge influence on us all at the moment.
Meanwhile, while I was in Armagh I attended Mass in the Roman Catholic Cathedral on the Saturday evening and Communion in the Anglican Cathedral on Sunday morning. I met and was welcomed warmly by both the Catholic and Anglican Archbishops of Armagh, and generally had a splendid time surrounded by wonderful music and convivial company. Northern Ireland has come a long way in the last two decades, and we all give thanks for it. Let us hope and pray that the political will, and general loveliness of the people will prevail lest whatever the post Brexit arrangements are, they prove to be unsatisfactory in Northern Ireland. It behoves us to remember in London that in no other part of the country is there such a risk of violence should Brexit not be delivered well.
Now then, if we lay aside contemporary politics and recent Irish history and pick up our Bibles, we find connections. For we have the apostle James entreating his readers to be impartial and love the poor, acting with faithful works. And we read of Jesus’s most unusual encounter with the woman from Syro-Phoenicia.
Both scriptural passages address the contemporaneous, and now contemporary, issue, of how we handle and deal with people who are different to ourselves. Foreigners, poor people, immigrants, people of other faiths – our newspapers are full of stories about relationship difficulties. And it is very ironic that this week the government announced intentions to make divorce easier. It is not a mere turn of phrase that describes Brexit in terms of some kind of divorce, but the ongoing fiasco surrounding the introduction of Universal Credit, the ongoing arguments about who and how many people should be welcome to our shores now and in the future; trade negotiations, Labour Party agonies about anti-Semitism; and debate about how to prevent knife-crime and violence on our streets are all skating on the surface of a bigger issue, which is the terrible indictment that society is fragmenting and the cement of fundamental social relationships is beginning to crumble.
All this, and St James’ comments reflect an ‘them and us’ mentality: in his terms, and in ours today, the poor person, the criminal, the foreigner, is seen as ‘other’. And by whom? By ‘us’, of course, whoever ‘we’ are.
We’ve seen ‘them and us’ in Northern Ireland - Catholics and Protestants – and in recent weeks we have seen the great hope of Burma, or Myanmar as we must call it – Aung San Suu Kyi, fall from grace – a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, now being accused of ‘them and us’ genocide. As someone who was once ‘them’, and is now officially ‘us’, she should know better. It is hugely disappointing.
But let’s be very, very, very clear. Jesus Christ does not do ‘them and us’.
For not only does his disciple James leave us with an indictment ringing in our ears to eschew discrimination based on wealth, Jesus himself mocks racism. James says in his letter, ‘do not show favouritism in church’ – ‘do not honour those with wealth rather then the poor.’. He had perhaps been reading the passage from Proverbs we heard:
The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.
And perhaps he also remembered an account he had heard about Jesus and a woman from Syro-Phoencia, which took place in Gentile country across the sea. She was not ‘one of us’ for Jesus – she was not Jewish – and her people, as non-Jews, in slang, would be known as ‘dogs’. Such racist language would not be tolerated in most countries today. But such was the kindness generally shown to outsiders by racist first century Jews. So it is ironic, again, that anti-semitism is very much in our political news this week. Jesus makes his sarcastic comment about dogs to her, in order to remind her and his hearers that she is persona non grata, she should expect nothing from him, and should barely dare to ask. She has broken convention, defied the rules and possibly caused offence by even asking. ‘How dare she?’, Jesus’ disciples probably asked themselves. But Jesus is not being rude, but rather exposing the fact that the disciples had not grasped his radical religious inclusivity, whereby Jews and Gentiles had equal rights, and equal opportunities of salvation. That is to say, no right and every opportunity. For it is her faith in Jesus’ abilities to heal, even though she has no traditional right to even have that faith – the woman’s open-hearted faith saves her and her daughter. She is a gentile - a non-Jew – but it does not matter.
In this brief but highly significant miracle it is as though Jesus is opening faith up. And that is exactly what he does in the immediately following miracle when he utters that wonderful Aramaic Word ‘Ephaphtha’ – ‘be opened’. ‘be opened’ – it is a rally cry for the burgeoning Christian faith. And with ‘ephaphtha’, Jesus ushers in a new order – salvation based on faith, not on birth, wealth or culture. ‘be opened’ – it is not only a word of healing for the blind man, it is a soundbite that echoes down the centuries, and goes to the heart of every Christian culture – ‘ ephaphtha’ – be opened. Borders, hearts, wallets – our calling is to be open, open to the Spirit of God, open to the call of Christ, open to doing the decent thing, loving our neighbours, forgiving their transgressions and stepping out on that open pathway that leads to a better world and the hope of heaven.
The thing is, these issues do not change – the sins and the solutions remain the same. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and so is the call to follow him by working on our faith and doing faithful works of goodness and truth. 12 years ago I preached on these same readings. Aung San Suu Kyi was a political prisoner, Brexit hadn’t been thought of, and the Good Friday Agreement was much more recent and fragile. If I may be permitted to quote myself, I said this:
“We have to think – and pray – very hard indeed about what our future holds. As creatures of habit … we must be careful not to form new, bad habits based on prejudice and ignorance, but rather good habits founded on love, openness and freedom. … love, pioneered by Christ, for everyone – absolutely everyone, as children of God. …. Christian openness to salvation and healing, which is not discriminatory or self-protective. And the conviction to live and love and pray and witness to and worship Christ without fear or embarrassment and to share his good news of salvation with everyone - in this and every age.”
That’s how I ended. Has anything changed? The same is still true, even if time’s ever rolling stream has flowed for a few years. And Jesus still reacts with compassion and love to all who turn to him. Sometimes people hear about him and make a direct and individual approach. But how, in today’s world will anyone ever hear of his saving love unless we tell them? We must live lives that resound with his glorious compassion. And where possible we should seek to bring people to him. For he will meet their – and our - needs.
As it was, is now, and ever shall be, Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 09/09/18