Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 20 August, United Benefice of Holland Park, Trinity 10 with Sacrament of Healing

Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 20 August, United Benefice of Holland Park, Trinity 10 with Sacrament of Healing

In 1968, Jane Elliott conducted a famous experiment in an Iowa classroom. It was inspired by the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King and the inspirational life that he led. The year three teacher developed an exercise to help her white students understand the effects of racism and prejudice.

Elliott divided her class into two separate groups: blue-eyed students and brown-eyed students. On the first day, she labelled the blue-eyed group as the superior group and from that point forward they had extra privileges, leaving the brown-eyed children to represent the minority group.

She discouraged the groups from interacting and singled out individual students to stress the negative characteristics of the children in the minority group.

What this exercise showed was that the children’s behaviour changed almost instantaneously. The group of blue-eyed students performed better academically and even began bullying their brown-eyed classmates. The brown-eyed group experienced lower self-confidence and worse academic performance. The next day, she reversed the roles of the two groups and the blue-eyed students became the minority group.

At the end of the experiment, the children were so relieved that they embraced one another and agreed that people shouldn’t be judged based on outward appearances. It’s an exercise that has since been repeated many times with similar outcomes.

It addresses one of the most significant problems facing our world today: how do we relate to those who are other? How do we respond to those who are not like us? The Tutsis and Hutu of Rwanda; Jew and Palestinian; Turks living in Germany, Gypsies in Italy, the half a million illegal aliens living in Britain. And we’ve witnessed it this week in the United States with neo-Nazis, which has reminded us of the most extreme example otherness in the experience of the Holocaust. Various kinds of religious, social, ethnic and cultural cleansings force us to think hard about the social reality of otherness.

And that’s what the readings today are about. Isaiah speaks of the day when the foreigner will come to worship the Lord: ‘for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’. The early primitive way of being community for the Jewish people, pre-exile, included a vision an exclusive community of purity. And some wanted this to continue after the return from Babylonian exile in the late sixth century. Yet the visionary passage from the poet Isaiah radically and deliberately flies in the face of the old Torah provisions (Brueggemann p.170). This is an extraordinary piece of hermeneutical revision.

The few verses that our lectionary misses out describe the inclusion of eunuchs. The Torah, the old law, very clearly (and rather graphically) excludes such persons in Deuteronomy 23.1 [Just to warn you, men, these are difficult words to hear read out!]: ‘No one whose testicles and crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord’.

Such persons were without hope and without a future in Israel. Yet Isaiah overrides this, and he widens the circle, he widens the boundaries of who can be included. God’s vision, expressed through Isaiah, includes eunuchs and it includes foreigners. Both are welcomed into the full life of the worshipping community.

This is a fascinating example of the way Isaiah handles pervious sacred writings: he doesn’t treat them as set in stone, rigid and unchangeable. Rather, he treats previous sacred writings with flexibility, or malleability, and it includes a willingness to challenge previous ways of thinking.

Then we come to today’s Gospel reading and Jesus’ encounter with an unnamed woman from Canaan, or modern Lebanon. She was from a region that exploited Galilean farmers, and the Canaanites were Israel’s old enemy. And through this encounter, Jesus himself is challenged to expand his mission to include Gentiles.

At first Jesus refuses to help because he has only been sent to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’ (Matt 15.24). This is the only time in the Gospels where Jesus ignores a person who approaches him in need. And it seems incredibly rude.

Jesus’ second response is even more shocking. ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ The children are clearly the people of Israel, and the dogs are the Gentiles, the non-Jew, those on the outside. Even so, the woman persists, saying that even dogs get a few crumbs that fall from the masters’ table. Jesus is challenged: Is there no mercy for the outsider, the other, in Jesus’ kingdom? Jesus is amazed at the woman’s faith. And through the encounter, Jesus’ own understanding of his mission was enlarged; he saw the key concept of his message – unbiased grace – in a new light (Volf 1996:214).

This episode is a turning point in the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel is written to a largely Jewish community, and they were coming to terms with their own identity and the limits of their mission. ‘Matthew’s community journeys from silent separation from the Gentiles, to conflictual encounters, to embracing an active mission to include them, as reflected in the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”’ (Barbara Reid, The Lectionary Commentary, p.93).

The faith of Jesus Christ – who opened his arms wide upon the cross, so embracing all humanity – this faith also frees us from pursuing our interests only. This faith inspires and creates within us, a space for the interests of others. This is salvation indeed: Turning from our ego and our self-interest, and from simply sustaining our tribe, in a journey that joins in Jesus’ embrace of the world in radical inclusivity.

It starts with a step of faith, just as it did for the Canaanite woman. As we make that journey, we allow the walls that surround our hearts, our lives, our church, to be broken down, and to embrace those in distress, to welcome those who are isolated.

It is a journey that comes with a health warning: a comfortable journey is not guaranteed. The journey doesn’t mean becoming the same… difference, diversity, is good and healthy. As we walk in the footsteps of Christ, we become a channel of healing and love to those who are other, because ultimately, we are all God’s children.

‘For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’

Reference: Volf, Miroslav. (1996).  Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon.

Holland Park Benefice