Trinity 10 2017 | St. Paul’s Athens
Isaiah 56,1, 6-8; Romans 11, 1-2, 29-32; Matthew 15, 21-28
It is funny how zoological my preaching seems to be at the moment. Some of you might remember a sermon I preached here a couple of years ago about how to eat an elephant – ‘in small pieces’. Then over the last few weeks we connected the little guinea pig type animal called a hyrax to its nearest relative, which is an elephant; then last week we had the irritated pig. Today we are keeping up the theme.
You have in this church a stained glass window – there on the organ side of the church. One of the figures is a certain Caleb. Caleb goes back to the time of the Exodus, and he was sent as a spy, with Joshua to ‘reccy’ the land of Canaan to see if it was the promised land, and giving a favourable report he was one of the few people in the exodus group who then entered Canaan.
Now in Hebrew Caleb means ‘dog’. The orthodox Jews of Judea, where the Temple was in Jerusalem, referred to non orthodox Jews as ‘dogs’ by way of insulting them as a people and for their impure religion. The gospel this morning involves a Canaanite woman – from the land of Caleb, the ‘dog’ – and there is a dialogue between Jesus and this woman. Can you see where I am going with this? There are lots of connections that make good sense of this conversation in which the Canaanite woman says to Jesus – even the dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.
So today our in our animal anthology we are thinking of dogs. Plenty of those around, some of them strays of course, but up in Kolonaki I can picture the woman who walks her two very lean looking whippets; the man who lost his dog – we saw the dog running along past the bar where we were sitting, and a few minutes later the owner running along huffing and puffing; or there is the man with the very old dog that walks along at its own pace many metres behind his owner; this dog won’t be hurried. You will all have your own picture in mind. Maybe even your own dog if you have one.
With every religion there are tensions – the three great Abrahamic faiths, Jews, Christians and Muslims, might well be ‘monotheistic’ but they are FAR from monolithic. All religions divide into different expressions, each gathering around a nuanced version of the same core faith. The issue is then one of identity. Who belongs in ‘our group’? How do we keep our version of the faith pure and clean from those who see it a bit differently. Ultimately some groups in some faiths take the view that it is better to have a smaller faith group so long as it is a purer group.
This dilemma faced the Temple prophet and most likely also a Temple priest in the 8th century. Under the old covenant only pure Jews, who were of the right ethnic origin, and who kept the jots and tittles of the religion, could enter the Temple precincts. Foreigners were kept in the courtyard. In Isaiah’s prophecy today we hear this challenged. Those foreigners who love the name of the Lord, and who wish to be part of the worshipping assembly, these should be allowed on the holy mountain where the temple stands – for God’s temple is a house of prayer for all the nations.
It is the violation of this generous orthodoxy that Jesus himself challenges when he turns over the tables of the money changers, when the house of prayer for all nations has been violated by the exploitative money changers who force all peoples to buy their sacrifices only in one currency, thus narrowing down those who could approach for worship.
There is a woman whose daughter is very sick. She is not a pure Jew – in fact she is from Canaan, the region of Caleb, the region of the dogs. She asks of Jesus that she might share in the wonders of his ministry. ‘Please heal my daughter’! But you are from another group, you are not one of us, is basically the reply she gets. Should the food of children (the children of Israel) be fed to dogs? She gives a profound answer in which she is acknowledging Jesus as her Lord, though in the image she calls him the master. She is calling on the name of the Lord. The daughter is healed.
The challenge for us a church, indeed for every church community, is how we make ourselves inclusive, or maybe not. If we restrict or control might we be missing the chance of a miracle happening among us? We don’t have many rules and regulations as Anglicans, but we often let inherited conventions become like a rule book, and we hold to it hard and fast.
Later this morning we will have a baptism and little Zoe will put on the garment of Christ; she will have a new dignity; she will be born again, as our language of baptism rightly expresses it. Will she as a child be allowed to receive Holy Communion? In many Anglican churches the answer is no because we have to keep to inherited conventions. ‘Even the dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table’. These words of the Canaanite woman challenge us deeply at all levels about how we understand and how we apply a gracious doctrine of welcome and inclusion, for this is a house of prayer not just for all nations, but for all ages and conditions of humanity, including you and me.