Sermon - 6th September 2015
God at work on the edges
Isaiah 35:1-10, Mark 7:24-37
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
The connection, I think, in the minds of the compilers of the lectionary between our reading from Isaiah and our reading from St Mark is that of extraordinary things happening in unexpected places. Isaiah dreams of the desert coming to life, and in a curious passage in St Mark Jesus is bested by a pagan woman. Both passages serve to remind us that the mercy of God is wider than we can ever dream of and the Church is more diverse than often we’re comfortable with. The idea of God working in extraordinary ways is also seen in Psalm 146, another reading set for today, where the Psalmist sees God at work especially in care for the outsiders, the poor and the downtrodden.
Our Isaiah passage was written when the Jewish people were in Exile – and Isaiah offered hope of a return. Instead of the long caravan route home they would go through the desert. The desert, instead of being a place of danger and death, would become a place of fruitfulness and blessing for the journey home. Just as the desert was a place of liberation for the Jewish people when they escaped Egypt it would, once again, become a place of unexpected blessing and freedom. God would bring fruit from barren land; God would work in unexpected ways in unexpected places.
The passage in St Mark has always troubled me because it doesn’t show Jesus in a great light. We believe Jesus was human and divine but this passage reminds us rather too sharply of Jesus’ humanity. He was clearly tired and rather irritable but he does refer to the pagan woman – and by default all pagans – as a dog. This is not normally a term of affection. So what is going on here?
At this point in St Mark it seems that Jesus hasn’t understood his call to preach beyond the Jewish people. As a good Jew he would have been suspicious of gentiles. He understood his mission to be to call the Jewish people into a deeper relationship with God – but Jesus is stretched in his understanding of God’s mission and this encounter is pivotal in deepening his understanding.
Up until this point the various stories in the Gospel show that many characters don’t really understand the radical nature of the Kingdom of God, In today’s passage it’s as if at this point Jesus doesn’t quite understand it either. This is shocking as we are used to thinking of Jesus being perfect – but there again Jesus seems out of step with God again in the Garden of Gethsemene when he asks for the cup of suffering to pass him by. Now to be fair Jesus is very clear to change tack when the woman makes him realise that he’s in the wrong. Her daughter is healed and she corrects the Messiah – not a bad day’s work!
Each of our readings show God at work on the edge of things – with the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned and the blind not princes, with the exiles, and with a pagan woman. But it’s more than this. It isn’t just that God is at work with these people on the edge – as our Gospel reading shows it is those on the edge who speak God’s truth to power.
As a church we like to pride ourselves on the ways in which we seek to make a difference in our world; we do important things we think about how we invest and spend our money, we try and buy fairly traded goods, we do amazing things with those who have fled here for sanctuary. These are all good things but the Gospel requires something more; it’s not that we help people who are on the edge but that we see God teaches the powerful through those who are on the edge.
This afternoon I have the privilege of baptising two people; one is from Central Africa, another is a convert from Islam. They and 8 others will be joining the Metropolitan Church and, all being well, will be part of the 30 or so people who will become members of Wilbraham St Ninian’s. Almost all of these people are from either Africa or Iran – one is from Wigan which is a little closer to home. They represent where most Christians are in the world – the South and East of our world. Whilst most Christians are in what we call the developing world, the power is in the north and west of our world; places where the demands of Christianity have been forgotten, places where the Church struggles to find a voice. Places where we are very keen to keep people out.
Yet just as that woman, so long ago, changed Jesus' mind and the shape of his ministry, so our minds, our church, our denomination will be renewed by welcoming, listening to and responding to the voice of God in the poor, the outsider, and the stranger. Only then will we see the desert bloom; only then will we see God’s purposes are so much wider than we’re comfortable with; only then will we truly see the universality of the Church.