Sermon by Martin James 05.09.2021

Sermon by Martin James


Mark 7:24-37


As we were leaving after last Sunday’s service Deglan apologised to me because he hadn’t said in the notices that I was leading this Sunday. I said it was probably a good thing that no one knew and that it reminded me of a story of a Bishop who was visiting one of the churches in his Diocese one Sunday. He was in the vestry with the Vicar and looked through the door to see who was in the congregation. When he saw there was only one person he asked the Vicar “Did everyone know I was coming; there is only one person out there?” The Vicar replied “Yes, and obviously the person in the church didn’t hear!” Maybe that says something about reputation!


And for Jesus, what a reputation he had. Here in today’s Gospel he was trying to find some peace and quiet by withdrawing to what was to the Jews a foreign land. Probably he wanted to have a break, but also he would no doubt have wanted an opportunity to give his disciples some more teaching without any interruptions.


It's easy to think of Jesus always being on the go. But no. He had patterns to his life. Ministry, teaching, healing. Private times to explain to his disciples in more detail his teaching and God's purpose for him. And also his times of quiet to be alone with his heavenly father in prayer.


I’m just going to look at the first part of today's gospel and whatever his reasons for not wanting anyone to know he was there, here comes one of those all too familiar interruptions. The Gentile Syrophoenician woman pleading for him to help her daughter. And in Matthew’s account of this incident look at how she addresses him - (15:22b) - “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Lord, Son of David. "Lord" could have been seen as the way someone might address a person they considered superior. Like we might say "sir". But "Son of David"? That shows Jesus's reputation again. More than that, though, it could have been the stirring of faith in this woman. Why else would she have come seeking Jesus's help.


In Matthew’s account again (verse 23b) - we’re told that the disciples couldn't cope with her. "Send her away - she keeps shouting after us.” That’s not dissimilar to the reaction of the disciples, in our reading from James where we heard his strong words - verse 1 - My brothers and sisters do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? As a leader in the church he must have heard something to stir him to write that. And then verse 8 - You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”


But then look at Jesus’s response to the woman - verse 27 - 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.” A strange answer. To call someone a dog was often used as an insult. An expression which some Jews used against those not of their race. They used to say "Gentile dogs". Many dogs were scavengers, diseased, wild. But the word Jesus uses for dog here, in the Greek is counaria (kunaria). And that was the word for household pets. Almost affectionate.


And Jesus’ answer isn’t as harsh as it first sounds. Remember that Jesus came as a Jew. The Jewish Messiah. He had to begin with what at that time were his own people. Indeed God's own people. They had to hear the message first. That's how he sent his disciples out - Matthew 10:5&6 - These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It wasn't to be until later that the gospel would be spread to the Gentiles. Which of course is what the early church eventually did. And so started it for us.


In the meantime though, Jesus wasn't going to ignore need. This isn’t the only occasion in the Gospels of how he responded to calls to heal non Jews. For instance his healing of the Centurion’s seriously ill servant (Matthew 8:5-13).


But here he wasn’t insulting or ignoring the woman’s cry. He is simply emphasising that the gospel had to go first to the Jews. The woman, however, is quick to see his point and responds with a wit of her own - verse 28 - “Sir even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She was willing to settle for crumbs. And Jesus sees her fledging faith and gives her the blessing and healing which she so much desired - verses 29&30 - 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.


Jesus knew his mission and calling. To be the Messiah. And also of course for us today the Saviour. But he was prepared as here to widen it in response to need. Need coupled with faith, however weak.


That is our calling. Our calling to our locality, our community, indeed anyone in our family or social circles. To show we care. To share the good news. And no discrimination.


In one of my previous churches we introduced a slogan - “No perfect people”. We did that to emphasise that everyone is welcome. And it also sort of countered the story of anyone who is looking for the perfect church. The answer to that of course being if anyone finds it they will be the only member!


So out of our faith comes our calling. A calling to show we care in practical ways.


But also then, in the reading from James we heard - verses 14-17 - 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.


Stephen referred to this last Sunday and again it’s important to emphasise that James and Paul were not in conflict about faith versus works. They are complementary. You know that we can’t in any sense “earn” our way into the kingdom. No, the “works” that we do as Christians - caring, sharing and so on - they all stem from our faith and our love for Jesus.


Of course there are many people in the world who are what I like to call not yet Christians who also do wonderful things for others. It’s just that for us we do whatever we do out of gratitude and love for Jesus because of what he has done for us.


He didn’t ignore that woman any more than he ignores anyone who comes to him for help. I realise that that begs all sorts of questions about healing and also about the turmoil in so many parts of the world today. That - God’s will and sovereign power - that would be the subject of another sermon or more.


For us, we go on with our lives responding to need where we are able. And also the importance of praying. All to follow Jesus’s example as we seek to live for him. To respond to his call.