Surprising Words for Surprising People

Today is a day of celebration, and I am not just talking about my return to the parish!

We celebrate with Penny and Pierre, together with their family and friends as they bring Ryan for baptism this morning, that is an exciting moment for us all. As a community we will celebrate Ryan’s entry into the community of faith, which is the church throughout the world in all of its different shapes and sizes, and particularly we will welcome Ryan here into this community in Greenwood. Every new birth, as I have been reminded myself this week is a sign of God’s ongoing love and commitment to our world.

And the context into which we welcome Ryan is the celebration which we share in every Sunday, as we remember together the life and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ around the altar – not just as something that happened in the past, but as we become apart of the celebration of the Lord’s supper afresh today in which Jesus gives himself to us totally in his body and blood, in the bread and in the wine. And if all of that isn’t enough, I am celebrating today the first anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, which took place this time last year, on the 14th of August, in St George’s Cathedral. So today for all of us (for different reasons) here this morning this is a day of celebration.

When you haven’t been a priest for very long like me, the first anniversary of being ordained is an important one. (It is less likely that I will pause to celebrate the fourth or fifth anniversary I suspect) – but later today all of those who were ordained in that service will be meeting for lunch to mark our anniversary together. Being conscious of that small milestone has meant that I have been particularly reflecting over the past week, as I have been travelling around, on the many people whose influence in my life has helped me in various special ways to discern not only the ministry which I am now in, but also the shape that that ministry has taken, the emphases which are important to me, as I share in the life of the Church. It is always good for us to take time out to stop and to reflect upon those people whose lives have interacted with ours to bring about who we are now. And I have been particularly thinking this week about one priest whose ministry to me about twelve years ago changed the whole course of my journey to ordination.

When I met that priest I was strongly opposed to women in the Church who wanted to be, or who had already been ordained as priests. Together with others in the Catholic wing of the Church of England I had a great many arguments about why women’s ministry was invalid, and particularly a list of what I thought were very good reasons about why women could do all kinds of things in church, but couldn’t be priests. And so when I arrived in Oxford for the first time and met this priest (my new Parish Priest), and found that she was a woman there was something of a difficulty for me. Over time it became a great surprise to me that she and I became good friends. I wouldn’t attend services at which she celebrated the Mass (because I didn’t really believe that it was the Mass when it was said by a woman) and yet she was so kind to me, that we regularly ended up having meals together. Over a period of a couple of years, as I watched her ministering in that parish, (as I saw how she loved and cared for the people,) my arguments against her became more and more irrelevant. One evening as I was listening to her talking to a group of us, all of whom were utterly opposed to the ministry of women as priests, about her ministry in the parish an incredible change took place in me. And I could still repeat most of that presentation to you many years on, because it came to be so influential on my own life. At that meeting she opened herself completely to us, she spoke honestly about the joys and struggles in her personal life and in her ministry, and as I looked at her, and reflected on her ministry in the parish, and listened to her words a very great change took place in me.

Now, that may seem to you to be a trivial matter, but for me at that time in my zealous youth it was of defining importance. And that transformation in me because of her words, was the beginning not only of accepting the ministry of women, but recognising too that God’s love, and that God’s call to live in the love of Christ, isn’t limited to any one group: male, female, black, white, straight, gay, able bodied, disabled bodied. And that hadn’t been a part of my world view at all. Through my encounter with that priest God spoke to me very clearly about the inclusive nature of God’s Kingdom. And if you had asked me at the time how God would communicate with me, the last option on my list would have been through a woman who was a priest.

Now I share that story with you because I think that it has parallels to the Gospel reading which we have heard this morning. When we first hear it, it is a very strange story indeed. We are used to Jesus challenging and provoking – providing a penetrating analysis of the human condition, but in this encounter he appears to be down right rude!

A woman comes to Jesus as he is travelling in the region of Tyre and Sidon: two places which are marked out in the Old Testament as cities of great evil, and which are being used by the author of the Gospel (here and in Mark’s account as well) to set the stage and emphasise that this woman is herself an evil person. She comes to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter. But Jesus – knowing that she is not a Jew – ignores her pleas, and instead reinforces to the disciples who are with him that his mission is to the Jews alone (the chosen people of God), and not to those, like this woman, who are Canaanites and Gentiles. Well, as we heard, this woman isn’t going to take “no” for an answer. Jesus’ fame has spread even to this region, and she is desperate for help, and so she comes nearer to Jesus, and kneeling before him she asks for help again. And Jesus’ reply isn’t to say yes, he says instead these extraordinary words – “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!” Or to put it another way, Jesus says to her, “I am here for my people the Jews, not for the rest of you who are animals, who are dogs.” Am I the only one here who would be offended if someone called me a dog when I asked them for help?

But the woman persists: she really isn’t going to give up – “yes Lord,” she says, “yet even the dogs, even people like me who you see as a dog, don’t we deserve to eat the crumbs which are left by those of you who are Jews?, is there no part of God’s kingdom which is open to us?” And hearing those words something happens in Jesus, his mind is changed, he understands for the first time that the culture which has shaped him has got it wrong about people like this Canaanite woman – something from his eyes is lifted – “Woman great is your faith,” he says, “let it be done for you as you wish,” and the woman’s daughter is healed.

So what are we to make of all of this? Well the traditional interpretation of this passage tells us that to get to God we need to persevere. Because we are so dirty and sinful, we need to plead for attention, we need to beg to be admitted into God’s Kingdom of love. Is that what Pierre and Penny will be doing when they bring Ryan for baptism – pleading to a God who looks at us and sees only sin? That interpretation seems to ignore the fact that it is Jesus who is changed by this encounter, and not just the women’s daughter who is healed.

Before Jesus meets this woman he believes like other fellow Jews of his time that all those who are not Jews are outside the love of God, or as he puts it are animals in comparison to the chosen ones who sit at the table. By the end of this encounter Jesus’ ministry has been globalised – through this woman he now recognises that his ministry is now to everyone, and as a sign of this her daughter is healed. Just like that priest in Oxford for me, it is through this woman, the least expected of all, that Jesus hears the voice of God in the words of someone whom he has been taught to despise. Jesus comes to the conversation sure that he knows the mission which his Father has given to him. And he walks away from the encounter with a very different vision of what he is called to do.

The heart of this morning’s Gospel – good news from God is this: that Canaanite woman who in his culture is considered to be the least worthy to speak to him, like an animal who does not even deserve the crumbs left over at the end of a meal, is in fact the bearer of a message which will totally change Jesus’ earthly ministry – away from being focused only on the Jews, to being inclusive of all of humanity. Which is why we celebrate here together every time someone comes to join us in this community of faith. Every time a child is baptised, every time a family visits us here, every time someone comes for the first time or returns after years of absence, we celebrate because through them (through their voices), however unexpectedly, we may hear God’s voice speaking to us.

That’s why we as Christians are not called to follow Christ on our own, because we know that it is through encounters with others that we will come to know the risen Christ more and more in our own lives. And as I am talking there may be people who are coming into your minds, who in your own lives have significantly helped you along the way — through whom your path in life has been radically altered – If there are, why not celebrate that this week by contacting them and thanking them? Or if you can’t contact them celebrate it by spending some time reflecting on the difference which they have made for you.

We began by remembering that we are here each week in celebration for all that God has done for us. As we celebrate, let us remember that we worship a God of wonderful surprises; who will speak to us through the people that we least expect. And let us remember too, that the God who speaks to us in surprising ways, will use us to speak to others as well. Which means that this week, through our words, God might change someone’s life for ever. Jesus meets a women who speaks to him words that will transform him. Are we ready this week to listen out for God’s voice, especially at those times when we least expect to hear it? And are we willing to be used by God to speak words of love and truth and transformation to others?