Thursday, 21 August 2014


Sunday 24th August 2014
Sometimes the title or name you give to a person has major implications, for that person and for you. For example, from the day I called Paul husband, our relationship changed  and became more committed, more intimate and more public – that new name or title was given in front of a church full of people, after all. The day I was called deacon, the day I was called priest, the day I was called priest in charge, each of those days changed the way others saw me and the way I saw myself. Responsibilities attached themselves to me, the expectations  others had of me changed. It’s happened to all of us, whether the ‘who are you’ is answered by the word ‘Dad’ or ‘Lance-Corporal’ or ‘Assistant Manager’ or ‘Class 2 teacher’ or ‘barista’ or ‘new sixthformer’ or ‘Grandma’… you get the idea – when these names are given to us, we take on the tasks, responsibilities, authority and dignity (or not) of the role.
The one title I can be sure that every one of us shares today is perhaps the most important one that we have. Christian. The word was a first century invention in Syria to describe the people who followed a man with a title: Christ, or Messiah. Simon Peter gave Jesus that title first, and was rewarded with a title of his own – Peter, the rock. The Christ is a title for the son of God, the one sent by God to save humanity. There is no greater title, and thus no greater responsibility, authority or dignity – it is greater than any King or Emperor. Christians are the followers of Christ, and to them comes the responsibility of living in the way that Christ taught and sharing His teaching with others. It is no small calling, no ordinary title. Every one of us who is privileged to call ourself Christian lives with the great promise and joy that knowing Jesus gives, but also lives with the knowledge that others may look down on us and condemn us for our faith.
You’ll be aware, I am sure, of the effect that the title of a follower of Christ has for fellow followers in other parts of the world. In some parts of the Middle East followers are referred to as Nasrani – or Nazarenes, a reference to Jesus being a Nazarene, a man from Nazareth. In the way that we generally use the cross as a symbol to identify ourselves by, Nasrani followers of Jesus also use the Arabic letter N to identify themselves. Right at the moment, to be Nasrani in Iraq is to be persecuted. Following Jesus in the way of persecution is one of the things that can happen to all followers of Christ, but for most of us in the West, we don’t experience it beyond comments at the water cooler or the verbal rejection of others who say they don’t do God. In Iraq, the Islamic State movement, ISIS, is actively persecuting those who don’t follow their brand of Sunni Islam. Nasrani followers of Jesus have come home to find the N painted on their houses as a marker to ISIS troops – this is a house where you can enter and offer a choice to the inhabitants: pay a high tax and convert to Islam, or die. Nasrani’s have been forced to flee their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They have seen relatives murdered – children and women as well as men – and they are seeing the vulnerable, elderly and children, die of thirst and exhaustion in the desert where they are seeking refuge. Those people are being persecuted for wearing the same title that we do – they have the same priorities as we do, the same devotion to God and commitment to living in the way of Christ. They are Christians, we are Nasrani.
So for us here, in a place where we are safe, the responsibility that comes with the title Christian includes a responsibility to our Nasrani sisters and brothers feeling persecution in Iraq. Some of you might be thinking that there is nothing you can do. We aren’t all wealthy, and the Middle East is far away – a matter for governments, not for us. But the wonderful thing about following the Messiah of the world is that there really is always something we can do.
The Church of England has a website about the situation in Iraq and what we can do about it with some very helpful links. If you are internet savvy, look at it: The Church has also produced potters to remind us what we can do, and I’ve got posters today for each of our churches. It has three words at the top: Pray. Act. Give. These things we can do to support the Nasrani’s and all who are persecuted for their faith.
Firstly, pray. We can all do that. Ask our Lord to protect and help all who are persecuted for bearing the title of Nasrani, of Christian. Pray that food and other supplies will get through. This week one of the doctors working with refugees sent a message about a young boy called Fahad who is very anxious because school should be starting again soon and he does not know where, if at all, he will be able to go to get his lessons. It’s something we can take for granted for our children. So let’s pray for Fahad and the other children who don’t have access to their schools any more. Follow the news and pray for the situation as you understand it, in Iraq and wherever people are persecuted for their faith or beliefs.
Secondly, act. Churches and individuals are being encouraged to write to their local MPs urging them to press the Government to increase Britain's humanitarian efforts for all those affected by the crisis and to ask for asylum to be granted to a fair number of those who will be unable to return to their homes. Our MP, Andrea Leadsom, is more likely to press for helping refugees if she hears from lots of us. And we can also act by showing publicly that we share the same title that those who are being persecuted have. We say Christian, they say Nasrani, but it amounts to the same thing in the way that the titles Christ and Messiah amount to the same thing. They are being persecuted for being Nasrani, and that is why the Church of England urges its members to say with them, we are Nasrani. We share the same name, the same calling, the same Lord.
Thirdly, give. I know that not everyone has money to spare, but even a tiny bit helps – and those of us who do have a bit more can give a bit more. It is often difficult to know who to give to. How do we get money to the right people in this sort of situation? That’s where being Anglican can be a real help, because within the Anglican communion there are ways of doing things that get straight to people in need. Last week I was able to give directly to a hospital in Gaza by doing it through a fund administered by the Diocese of Jerusalem. When it comes to supporting our sisters and brothers in Iraq, the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf directs us to an organisation run through St George’s church in Baghdad, - the foundation for relief and reconciliation in the Middle East. Canon Andrew White – often referred to as the vicar of Baghdad – set this foundation up, and at the moment they are directing funds to relief operations in the north. Those of you who use social media could ‘like’ Andrew White on facebook in order to follow what he and the foundation are doing to help. (It was from Canon White’s facebook status’s that I got the news and image of Fahad, for example). Christian Aid have an Iraq crisis appeal, so if you prefer to use a locally based aid charity, give to them.

Jesus said, who do you say I am? The title made a difference. So does ours. We are Christian, we are Nasrani. Let’s make sure that it makes a difference to us and to those in need today because they follow Jesus, the Christ. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

Wild dogs, pet dogs and sheep.

Matthew 15: 21-28
Around the edges of Jerusalem there used to be many wild dogs. They lived off the scraps and carcasses thrown onto the rubbish heaps, especially around Golgotha. They engaged in desultory hunting, usually going for easy prey: in the shepherd’s fields between Jerusalem and Bethlehem the weaker sheep and young lambs were easy pickings if the dogs could get past the shepherds. Not surprisingly, the Jewish people had a low opinion of dogs. These curs were flea ridden, vicious and unpleasant scavengers. People the Jews saw as enemies to their faith or their way of living came to be referred to as dogs. Gentiles, especially the likes of the Canaanite neighbours in the north of Galilee and Lebanon, were often called dogs. Some still worshipped Baal, the god whose followers had committed genocide against the Jews in Elijah’s day, and other Gentiles worshipped multiple Greek or Roman gods, which was just as bad. The opponents of Israel were dogs, unwanted, to be kept out of God’s holy places.
Gentiles didn’t necessarily see dogs in the same way. They knew that the Jews despised them and the ones who had dealings with the less polite members of the Jewish race would have heard the nickname. But for some Gentiles, especially the ones influenced by the fashions of the Greeks, dogs were not all bad. There were guard dogs, especially around Roman owned farms. And pet dogs were becoming popular, especially among the ladies. Lap dogs were company during the long hours when husbands were off in the Forum or enjoying the company of their friends. Pet dogs were beginning, in some homes, to be seen as part of the family. In Greek, people distinguished between unpleasant wild dogs – the ones scavenging in the city rubbish – and pet dogs by using a diminutive form of the word. Pet dogs were effectively referred to as puppies. They were not the same as the wild dogs that no-one really liked.
I’m telling you this because it helps us understand the difficult conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel. Jesus was trying to get a holiday break, and this woman was stopping him from getting the break he wanted with his friends. Remember that Jews saw Canaanites as no better than those wild dogs, a personal threat, and at that moment this woman was a threat to Jesus’ peace and was trying to get, if you like, entry to God’s holiest place – the presence of Jesus. Canaanite women were a reminder to Jews of Jezebel, Elijah’s great persecutor and the instigator of the genocide of the Jew. Her eventual fate was a fall to her death, and her body consumed by wild dogs. There is an example of a good Canaanite woman in the Old Testament too, but somehow people generally thought of Jezebel first. This woman probably pestered every healer who came by. The disciples just wanted her to go away. In Greek – as the common language it is possible that Greek was spoken at least by the woman – the conversation is almost rhythmic. She says ‘Kyrie Eleison’ and the disciples say ‘Apolyson’. Lord have mercy. Get rid of her.
Jesus assured the disciples that his job was to protect the sheep of Israel. As a shepherd, he was not about to allow any wild dog to attack or hurt the sheep – to damage his mission. But he still engaged her in conversation. It is not fair, he told her, to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. But here’s the interesting thing in this very insulting comment. He used the diminutive. He didn’t suggest she was a wild dog, rejected by the Jews, but a pet dog – less important than the children of the family, but still part of the family. All the same, you feed your children first and you don’t give the dogs the children’s food. And – sharp as a knife – she replies, ‘yes Lord, even the pet dogs eat the crumbs that the children drop.’
She isn’t going to settle for rejection, even if she has been acknowledged as an adopted family member – a pet. Jesus may be testing her, or trying to tell her to go away, but she will not go away. She does want the same food as the children, not something else. Only what Jesus has to offer is good enough – but the leftover scraps will do. Leftover scraps will heal her daughter, and leftover scraps will allow her to taste of the living God.
Now, if you are following the gospel readings at home – or even if you aren’t, have a look at home at the wider context of this reading. Today’s passage, from Matthew 15, happens very soon after the story of the feeding of the 5000, and not long before the story of the feeding of the 4000. One of the remarkable things about both of these miraculous feeding stories is that there are a lot of scraps left over. Jesus ensures they are collected up- he doesn’t permit waste. Matthew is making a point, and he wants us to remember that point as we listen to the Canaanite woman’s story. God is generous. He feeds his children and there is always more – always plenty left over for others. Yes, Jesus came for the Jews, but there is far more of God’s love and generosity than the Jews need – the rest is for the Gentiles. Those who come in faith can receive and they are receiving the same bread, the same love, the same healing. The Jews may fear sharing God with others, may think that by doing so they are letting wild dogs in, risking another genocide, another Jezebel. But actually, most Gentiles are like this Canaanite woman – and the unnamed one who housed the prophet Elisha. They have as much faith and love as any Jew.
Indeed, Jesus told the persistent lady that she had great faith. He frequently told his disciples that they had little faith. This lady’s faith was so great that she didn’t need to see her daughter being healed or to bring her daughter with her – if Jesus said she was healed then she was healed. The only other time we see something like that happen it is another Gentile, also praised by Jesus for great faith, the centurion whose servant Jesus healed. When it came to faith, Jesus’ Jewish followers had a lot to learn from the Gentiles that they saw as dogs.

 Later in this service we will say the words Lord, have mercy – actually we sing them, Jesus lamb of God, have mercy on us. When we sing them, spare a thought for that Canaanite woman of such great faith, whose persistence and determination to share in God’s generous gift ensured healing and salvation for herself and her daughter. And then, as we share bread together, the children’s bread as Jesus called it, remember God’s generosity and perhaps spare a prayer for those who God would like to join us at the table; those perhaps who feel that they can’t come – that somehow they aren’t welcome – like the dogs unwelcome in the holy places. How can we – how can you - share the message that they are welcome, they are wanted, they are part of the family and that there is plenty enough bread for everyone to share? If people perceive that the churches message is ‘apolyson’- get rid of her – how can we change that perception and make sure that everyone knows that there is a place for them? Because that is the message of today’s gospel. All are welcome, and there is enough for all.