Sermon for 17th August 2014
Today we are going to celebrate a double baptism of two young babies, Saffron and Susanna, who have been brought to church by their families since their birth, as have their older siblings. We are going to ask their parents and godparents to renounce evil and turn to Christ on their behalf, and we will say to these beautiful little girls, “Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil”. That’s pretty strong language to use to someone who isn’t yet a year old.
So what are we doing? I think that first of all we are expressing our solidarity with Susanna and Saffron. We are acknowledging them as persons, though very small ones, who share our human condition. They have the dignity of being unique and beloved children of God, and they also share the burden of our flawed humanity. As they grow up they will have the same tendency each one of us has to put ourselves at the centre of the universe rather than live in perfect relationship with God. As they get older their gifts and talents will flourish and their quirks and flaws will also appear. They will not be automatic saints. Like the rest of us, they will have to come to Christian maturity through falling and rising and falling and rising again.
Baptism doesn’t turn us into perfect disciples. But it declares that we belong to God, inheritors of the promise of salvation. Baptism is not primarily something we do but something that God gives us. God says you are included in my family. I love you and will always be faithful to you. I will feed you, teach you, walk with you and, if you let me, I will enable you to flourish and become the person you were created to be. We can declare this with perfect confidence because it is the essence of the gospel.
Sometimes we forget how radical this message is. For centuries, the privilege of being loved unconditionally by God was claimed by the people of Israel, but was not extended to those outside. Today’s gospel reading is a really striking story about how this began to change.
We have Jesus in Galilee, going towards the boundaries of where the Jewish people lived. And who should come bursting in but one of the ancient enemy, and a female one at that. Those of us who are doing the Bible Challenge know all too well how much the Canaanites, the original inhabitants of the Promised Land, were reviled by the invading Israelites. There even seemed to be divine sanction for their extermination. Maybe some of you share my feeling that there is still a shadow of this hatred in the present crisis in Gaza.
The very word Canaanite would make the Jewish readers of Matthew’s gospel sit up in shock. What is this pagan woman, this defiler of all that is holy, going to do? She begins, surprisingly, by making a profession of faith in terms of Jewish theology: Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. She seems to recognize the special relationship that Israel has with God. But Jesus doesn’t return the favour. He ignores her. This is one of the most disturbing lines in the Bible for me. His disciples encourage him to send her packing – well, they would, wouldn’t they? We don’t expect anything better of them. But Jesus himself! He tells his disciples why he is ignoring her – it’s because his business is only with the Jews.
But this Canaanite woman is persistent. She kneels before him in an attitude of worship, despite Jesus’ cold shouldering and the hostile stares from the disciples. Lord, help me, she cries. At this point Jesus can scarcely turn away, but he says something that appears to be really rude – I can’t throw the children’s food to the dogs. Meaning of course that she and her kind are not on the same spiritual level as the people of Israel.
For the third time she refuses to go away. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table, she says – throw me a crumb at least! And now at last Jesus must have looked at her properly and seen her as a person. Great is your faith! He says to her, in words of enormous praise. Let it be done as you wish. And the evangelist tells us that instantly her sick daughter was healed.
Matthew is giving his readers a lesson in inclusiveness. Remember his gospel was written for the Jewish Christians. Throughout his account he constantly refers to the Old Testament prophecies and shows how Jesus fulfills them. Those early Jewish Christians were wrestling with a very big problem: is the gospel just for us, or for the Gentiles too? In this little story Matthew shows Jesus sharing their difficulty. It is a masterpiece of psychological subtlety. Ah, so even Jesus needed to learn how to welcome the Gentiles! they would conclude. Maybe, just maybe, we can take that step too, difficult though it seems.
Including the one who seems to be outside is a constant struggle. The temptation is always to put up barriers around “us”, whoever “we” may be, and leave all the others on the outside. Whether it is ISIS in Syria, or the Israeli Defence Force in Gaza, or the white police force in Ferguson, Missouri, over-reacting to a black teenager, or the panic-mongering about immigrants that some politicians dabble in, we are all tempted to feel more comfortable if we can isolate ourselves from THEM. The same temptation occurs, of course, in the Church itself. Not just the first-century Jewish Church looking suspiciously at Gentile converts, but the 21st century Anglican Communion wishing that gay and lesbian Christians would stop being visible. Or it might just as well be the liberal Christians wanting to disassociate ourselves from the biblical fundamentalists who, we may feel, give us all a bad name. But they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can’t draw the boundaries around God’s love and welcome. We need each other. We need to learn from our disagreements and hear each other’s experience.
Fight valiantly against sin, the world and the devil, we will say in a few minutes to our young baptismal candidates. This desire to define ourselves over against others is perhaps what the world means in this sentence. The world, the cosmos, is not bad. Of course God made it and loves it, and we rejoice with God in the good creation. But worldliness is the temptation to take the values of our in-group and use them to exclude others who were also made and loved by God. It is the temptation to refuse to call good what God has called good.
When we do that, we take a step backwards in our maturity. Even Jesus is shown in Matthew’s gospel as enlarging his vision as he goes on with his ministry. He goes to the very border of his comfort zone, is confronted by the other, and responds by developing an even more gracious and generous welcome.
Note that he had to go to the border to have this encounter. He didn’t learn to be generous to Canaanites by talking about them, but by meeting one as a person. We cannot grow in Christian maturity by just thinking about those who are different from us, but by encountering them one by one and face to face. We do this by engaging in interfaith dialogue, by volunteering for the winter shelter for the homeless, by meeting the young people that our youthwork programme serves, by speaking with those who are unlike us in all kinds of ways. People from different social, economic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds from ourselves can show us aspects of God that we would otherwise miss.
Church is the polar opposite of a gated community, guarding us from what is different and therefore dangerous. It is the place where the borders melt, the walls come down, and we look with surprise and excitement into the face of the stranger who is our sister or brother. And we welcome, as God does, everyone who wants to be part of this family.