St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's Church, Manchester on 6th September 2009
Mark 7:24-30, James 2:1-10
At a chaplains’ conference this week I heard a story from a man who worked as a Methodist minister in Northern Ireland. We were chatting about his experience there and he told me about doing assemblies in primary schools; he would talk to students, both Catholic and Protestant, about life together. He would ask the Protestant students, can you tell a Catholic student from the way he looks? and they would say, “Oh yes, they have eyebrows that come to a point right above their nose, just like this, and no earlobes.” He would ask the same question of Roman Catholic students and they would say, “Oh certainly, the Protestants don’t have any earlobes at all, and their eyebrows grow together like this to a point right above their nose.”
All of us have prejudices that we imbibe with our mother’s milk, as the saying goes — presuppositions that may have a slim hold on reality. Whether its against Northerners or Southerners, Ibo or Yoruba, the French or Americans, Liverpudlians or Mancunians — all of us have presuppositions and prejudices built up over time. With this diverse crowd here I’m sure we would have plenty of stories to tell. The way prejudice is handed down through generations can actually be an insight into what Christian tradition has called the fallenness or sinfulness of the world. These patterns are borne in the air we breathe, marked indelibly on the communities we grow up in.
Jesus was no different than us in this respect, it’s a shock to learn. He doesn’t come across very well in the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman. Jesus is seeking a quiet place, and a woman comes to find him — a woman who is not a Jew but a Syro-Phoenician, a gentile, a woman whose daughter was possessed with a demon and who was desperately seeking help from someone in whom she had faith. And Jesus replies, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It’s not a very polite phrase. Prejudice against gentiles, against non-Jews, was common to Jews, as was prejudice against Jews. Ancient historians write about the enmity that existed between the Jews and the Gentiles in the region where Jesus was. The words here don’t show Jesus in the most positive light.
And just as remarkable as this slur on the lips of our Lord is the fact of his changing his mind about what his mission — a fact which didn’t seem to embarrass the writer of the gospel or the writer of Matthew, who also included the story. Jesus tells the woman, a gentile, that he came for the Jews, not for her; in Matthew he tells the woman point-blank, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” But Jesus changes his priorities in the face of a need presented to him; he heals the woman’s daughter, after he is challenged by her.
Many churches now in Manchester are preparing for the arrival of new students and staff. We have a full program here, as well — including a hike, a fairtrade wine and cheese evening, and other events that we’ve enjoyed in the past.
As new people arrive, we make a mistake, like Jesus did, if we focus so much on an agenda — even if it is an agenda of “welcoming” — that we forget that welcoming is always personal and individual, and it always risks changing us as much as those who come. The church must never confuse “outreach” with “in-drag” — making others conform to who we are and what we look like and even to what our mission is.
As Jesus discovered, it may be the ones who welcome, the out-reachers, who need changing. Welcoming is not something we do “to” others; it is always done in the awareness that prejudice inevitably colours our perception, and that our understanding of God’s mission continually needs adjusting in light of new needs. We are in need of God’s grace as much as those whom we welcome. We share in God’s grace together with those we welcome; we don’t give it out with the hymnals.
The reading from the epistle of James makes clear just how hard welcoming is. In this reading we hear of the poor, on entering a church, who are treated differently than the rich. Since its very first days, welcoming has been challenging for the church. But God is saviour of all people, and no mission of God exists apart from the struggles of people in need. Our deepest desires for our lives, our needs, our struggles will always find God listening. Likewise, following God is about listening and adjusting our priorities in the light of the needs of those nearby, not rigidly following a set course of action.
And we will ourselves be changed in the process of being open to this God.
Judith Gundry-Volf has written about waiting for husband after finishing work one day in a scruffy Los Angeles neighbourhood. A man who looked homeless shuffled up to her and asked for money. She was alone, she had heard stories about students and even her friends being mugged in situations like this, and she could smell alcohol on his breath. She didn’t usually give money out on the street, but this time she did, and she fumbled in her purse for some change. She gave him the change, and he walked away, counting the money, perhaps off to buy alcohol. As he left, he said “God bless you.” Many things divided them — she was white and he was black; she was relatively rich and he appeared poor. He left with a bit of spare change and probably no great change to his situation; she left with God’s blessing. A blessing instead of a mugging.1
Perhaps in the coming weeks we can welcome boldly, knowing that even our prejudices are no obstacle to God who wishes to use us for the healing of others, others who may be very different from us. In the end, it may be us who leave the encounter challenged and changed, as God changes us all, and blesses us all, together.
1. Gundry-Volf, Judith. “Spirit, Mercy and the Other.” Theology Today 51:4 (Jan. 1995).