Sermon for the Kirking of the Council: 9 September 2012

Click here for photos of the 2012 Kirking of the Council

Call to scrap the Kirking:

click here to read report in the Inverness Courier, 18 September 2012

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 9 September 2012: Year B, The Kirking of the Council

SERMON
Texts: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Mark 7.24-37
The God of the outsiders
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This week I read an article by Ben Withnall, Head of Media at the Bible Society in England. Responding to press coverage of a legal case in the news, he reminded his readers that there is nothing at all in the Bible about whether or not Christians ought to wear a cross. He comments, ‘That’s not because the Bible has nothing to say in the debate, it’s just that it doesn’t ask the questions in the same way’. Jesus, he points out, does have something to say about his followers and crosses: ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9.23, ESV)’. As Withnall points out, Jesus’ words are ‘about banishing selfishness every day… and letting in love for God and love for others in its place’- things you could never pass a law against.

I thought that article was a useful antidote to much of what passes for reporting and commenting on religious affairs in the media today. Withnall brought Jesus into the debate. And Jesus makes us think about the issues differently. I once preached in a Church where someone had framed a verse from John’s Gospel and put it up in the vestry where the Minister would see it each time he went to preach. It was the words of certain Greeks to the disciple Philip, ‘Sir, we would see Jesus’ (John 12.21). That is what I understand the preachers’ task to be, today and every time I preach’.

But that does not mean that I don’t intend to address issues which we face in our life together as a community. Indeed, as many of you know, I spent the summer in the United States looking at how American Christians interact with politics and public life. For Christianity has political consequences. Jesus Christ told the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, yet the Pilate, urged on by the mob, still decided to execute Jesus- surely one of the most infamous political decisions of all time. You cannot keep Christ and his otherworldly kingdom out of public life- because he has been there since the beginning.

So today we bring Jesus Christ into this intensely political occasion. And we did so by reading two stories about Jesus healing people. These kinds of stories, even if we find them hard to believe, nevertheless teach us something about what Christians believe about God. The healings of Jesus tell us that God wills an end to sickness and pain. God wants his people to be able to live healthy and fulfilling lives. Here are the roots of Christian humanitarianism- the historic Christian concern for health and well-being. These stories continue to inspire people to want to carry on Christ’s work- they are the reason why so many Christian people and Christian agencies across the world are concerned with bringing health and well-being to those who need it.

The healing stories of the Gospels show Christ as God’s agent bringing wholeness and healing to those who need it. The stories we read today seem straightforward enough. In the first, a woman comes asking for help for her daughter, who is possessed by a demon. In the belief system of that age, demons were responsible for distressing mental or psychological conditions. People thought to be possessed would be objects of fear. No doubt modern science would have a diagnosis for the girl, but the story gives us no clues. What the story does tell us is that Christ was able to cast out this demon- to remove whatever it was that was troubling the lass, so that she once more returned to good health. She can go off and play with her pals, an outsider no longer.

In the second story, the person in trouble is deaf, and also has a speech impediment. So often, people like that would have been stigmatised in the ancient world. There might be superstitious beliefs about what had caused the problem. And it was difficult, sometimes impossible, for persons with such disabilities to earn a living. Yet this man has some friends who care for him: we hear that they brought him to Jesus ‘and begged him to lay his hand on him’. Once more, Jesus is able to cure the problem- and the people rejoice: ‘They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak”.’ The deaf and the mute- so often left out of conversations and society- outsiders- are once more included in the community. Again and again, the Gospels tell who Jesus reached out and brought salvation- health and wholeness- to those who needed God’s care. He reached out to those so often treated as outsiders, and brought them in.

Yet the first of our two stories today show that even for Jesus, reaching out was sometimes a challenge. The story of the woman begging for her daughter is one of the most fascinating stories in the Gospels. For in this story, Jesus is wrong- and it needs someone else to show him how he is wrong.

We’re told in the first sentence that Jesus ‘went away to the region of Tyre’. He’s gone to the coast, to the region known in ancient times as Phoenicia. It’s the first time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus leaves Israel and goes into another territory- non-Jewish territory. It seems he needs a break, for he seeks out a house where he plans to be alone. But he is interrupted by a local woman- a Syrophoenician woman. She dramatically throws herself at Jesus’ feet, pleading for the famous healer to help her poor daughter. But he responds in a strange way: ‘He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”.’ What does this strange statement mean?

Matthew’s Gospel preserves a longer version of this incident, in which Jesus makes clear his meaning. He tells his disciples, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. You see, Jesus understands his mission to be only to his own people, the people of Israel. He is to feed God’s special children, the children of Israel. But this woman and her sick daughter are Gentiles, non-Jews. And so, in words which verge on the insulting, he says he has to feed his fellow-Jews and countrymen first; you don’t take the children’s food off the table and feed it to the dogs. But this woman is not put out by being compared to a dog. She replies with spirit, with a witty riposte: ‘Ah, but the dogs still eat the crumbs that the children drop on the floor!’

And at this moment, Jesus’ mission changes. He realises that although he might first have been called to minister to the Children of Israel, God is also calling him to bring wholeness, healing and hope to the other children of God. Jesus had begun by trying to reform Judaism. But now he realises that his mission is to all people. For no-one is really an outsider to God.

Jesus found it hard to learn that he was called to minister to someone so very different from him- a woman and her daughter who were of a different nation, and outside his faith community. And yet, we are told, the daughter was made well. He was moved, not just by compassion, but by a feisty mother who wouldn’t take no for an answer and who could answer the great teacher with a ready wit. And if that was a hard leap for Christ to make, what a hard leap it is for us to make. How hard it is to recognise that we are called to serve, not just those who are like us, but those who might well be very different from us.

This is an important lesson for a politician to learn. Once you’re elected, you’re not just there just to represent those who voted for you, or just your own party. Nor are you there just to represent people who are like you. You will find that people who are very different from you might need your help. You might even be called upon to stand up for people who are very, very different from you and the majority of the people in your ward. The immigrant or the asylum seeker, the travelling person, the antisocial neighbour- you serve them too, even although they might seem like outsiders. If you are called to serve them, you should do so, even at the risk of unpopularity. And by the way- that goes not just for elected politicians, but for us all!

For Christians, Jesus is the last of the great Jewish prophets. They were people who constantly called the Children of Israel back to the important bits of their faith. For Judaism sets great store on care for those who are in the greatest in need- including foreigners in the land. The Hebrew prophets reminded the people that their worship of God meant nothing, unless it was paired with living lives in which God’s law was lived out in the public sphere. Again and again, the measure by which Israel was judged was whether or not the poorest in the land were cared for.

There is a strong echo of these prophetic concerns in the book of Proverbs. This collection of sayings may well have been aimed at the rich and powerful; indeed, they are traditionally attributed to the wisest of kings, Solomon. Here is wisdom for those who aspire to be great, to be influential, to move in high places. How many scandals could be avoided if more leaders in our nation remembered that ‘A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches’? The other Proverbs we heard remind us of how we are to live justly, as individuals and a society:

The rich and the poor have this in common:

the Lord is the maker of them all.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,

and the rod of anger will fail.

Those who are generous are blessed,

for they share their bread with the poor.

Do not rob the poor because they are poor,

or crush the afflicted at the gate;

for the Lord pleads their cause

and despoils of life those who despoil them.

God judges us by how we treat the poor. Those who are generous to the poor are blessed; but those who try to afflict or crush them are under God’s judgement.

Like most public authorities, Highland Council is facing budget cuts. Already hard decisions have been made, and more hard decisions will be made in the months ahead. I hope and pray that councillors and officials will show wisdom as they make these hard decisions. But even more, I pray that your wisdom will be the wisdom of these Proverbs. Recognise that you must do justice: for if you do injustice you will reap calamity. Recognise that to do justice, you must not crush ‘the afflicted at the gate’. For those who depend most on public services are often those whose lives are already very difficult: the single mother to whom the after-school club is a godsend; the child having difficulty at school; the elderly person depending on meals on wheels; the family struggling to look after a disabled family member. The great scandal of recent years has been that price of the mistakes made by our bankers and politicians has been paid by the poorest in our society. But the Lord pleads their cause: God is on the side of the poor, and God judges us if we crush them.

The Old Testament prophet Amos declared God’s will when he proclaimed, ‘Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’. I offer today no political advice on how we can do that. Instead, I hope to have brought Christ into our politics today. I hope that he will disturb you, as once he disturbed Pontius Pilate. But I hope you will not wash our hands of Christ. Instead, I hope I have reminded you that Jesus stood in the Biblical tradition which maintained that justice is truly done when we’re generous to the poor and and care for the afflicted.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible

© 2012 Peter W Nimmo