Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Trinity: ”My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 20 August 2023 by The Reverend Robert Green. (Isaiah Ch 56: v 1, 6 – 8; Matthew Ch 15: 21 – 28)
Malakai Bayoh is a 14 years old chorister at St George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, in Southwark, South London, and he is a lad of some talent as he has already sung in The Royal Albert Hall and performed in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and has produced an award- winning album of his singing. At that performance at Covent Garden there was one man who booed after he had sung, and it was simply because his skin was not white. This man has been banned for life from the Royal Opera House. This, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident, as the racial chanting that sometimes takes place at football matches is a constant reminder. Racial prejudice is alive and well in this island of ours, and this kind of prejudice has been around for centuries. In deed as we heard in the Gospel reading this morning it was a foreigner, a Canaanite mother, who approached Jesus asking for healing for her daughter. The reaction of the disciples was predictable as she was a Gentile; “send her away, for she keeps crying after us”, and initially Jesus also appears unsympathetic. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”, he said. She then implores him, “Lord, help me!” He still is reluctant to grant her request, so much so that he challenges her further with these words; “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (Gentiles were frequently referred to as ‘Dogs’ to emphasise their inferiority) Her reply is truly remarkable “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. At this Jesus sees how much faith she has, and grants her request, and her daughter was healed from that very hour.
In order to understand what is going on in this encounter, we need to remember what was Jesus’s fundamental mission in his earthly ministry. He had a very specific calling to let God’s people, Israel, know that God was beginning to fulfil his promises. The kingdom for which they had longed was beginning to appear. Jesus was its herald- and as the disciples were starting to realise, he was himself the anointed king. The mission was always aimed at Israel itself, for not to do that would imply that God had made a mistake in choosing and calling Israel to be his special people, the promise bearers through whom his word and his new life would be brought to the rest of the world. If God’s new life was to come to the world it would come through Israel. That is why Israel had to hear the message first, and that is why Jesus himself and his followers at his instruction, limited their work almost entirely to the Jewish people.
But as Tom Wright points out, in so much of what happened in Jesus’ public career, the future keeps breaking in to the present, and even here seeming to catch Jesus by surprise. He has already commented on the faith of the Roman centurion, a Gentile, in Chapter 8, who recognised Jesus’ authority, and did not even expect Jesus to come to his house, but saying the word was enough to heal his servant. Understandably Jesus was amazed when he heard this, and proclaimed that he had not found faith like this, not even in Israel. Now he commends the faith of another Gentile, a Canaanite who lived some way north of the country of Israel. Jeus and some of his followers had sought some refuge away from the backlash of the controversy that had been caused by some of the things he had said and done, and so found themselves in Gentile territory.
Because Jesus’ earthly ministry was primarily to his own people, its culmination had to be in Jerusalem, the very centre of Judaism, and so we find little by little he makes his way to that city knowing full well that the controversy that has been caused already would have to be played out before the leaders of both the Jews and the Romans, the occupying power. These expressions of faith by foreigners broke through that waiting time when Jesus would be killed and raised again and his followers would be sent into all the world. From the very early days of the Church the acceptance of Gentiles on equal terms was essential. As our Reading from Isaiah makes clear, not only the people of Israel shall be God’s people, but also the outcasts and foreigners as long as they worship and are faithful to God, so there has always been that vision of gathering people of all nations, but it had to start with God’s chosen people. ”My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations”
Here in this Benefice we have our own mission statement; ‘To know God and make Him known in wonder, love, and praise’. It is a constant reminder for us all of the vision that has been given us, and Bishop Stephen has given the Diocese a complimentary vision; ‘To make Jesus known’, and both these statements give us all something to aim for in our own lives and the life of the church. No doubt there are many ways this can be done, and we can explore these in the coming years, but let us not be surprised if we come across expressions of faith in the most unlikely people.