Saturday, August 16, 2014

Reading the times...? 17 August 2014 Thinking through the Scriptures

17 August 2014, 20th Sunday Ordinary Time

Genesis 45:1-15, Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15: 21-28

If I were a news-reader, how might I summarise this week?  In the Middle East the Islamic State terrorists have rewritten geographical boundaries, astounded everyone by their conquests and appalled us by their cruelty and ruthless barbarism.  The suffering in Gaza and the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis seems deadlocked.  In the Ukraine the stand-off between Russia and the West seems to teeter on the edge of overt conflict and the days of perestroika glasnost have become a distant memory.  Here at home, Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics is raising real questions; the Internet-Mana party seems to be attracting more support than we imagined and the nation’s political scene seems to be less predictable than we had thought.

I think a cathedral community (including the Dean) must be ‘news-readers’.  We must try to make sense of what is happening.  We look for shape and meaning; for light in darkness and for order amidst chaos.  We look - hoping to catch a sense of how God is at work or (and this may be the same thing) what God is calling us to do. Now, you and I know that the news over this past week has been difficult to follow with any sense of composure. 

I have seen the videos and photographs coming out of the Islamic State – its instruments of terror: the beheadings, crucifixions, the mass killings, genocide and the terrified refugees now in their millions.  How can we look for shape, light, or meaning in such horror?  Yet it is in this mess and muddle that history is formed – and we believe that it is in exactly such man made horror that God acts.  The other night I watched a film that drew much of this home to me:  The Book Thief – set in Hitler’s Germany it quietly revealed how, despite the outrages and the terror, nonetheless, courage, goodness and love endured.

One dares to claim that God acts in history amidst the darkness and violence, but to say it is also to find the words catch in the throat and sound false to your own ears – contradicted by the sheer scale and reality of cruelty.  Yet, somehow, we are the people called to dare to say it, however difficult it may be - and that thought reminds me of those words found inscribed on the walls of a cellar in Germany where some Jews hid for the entire duration of the war.
I believe in the sun, even when it doesn’t shine.
I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when He is silent.

So Joseph looks back across the troubled and lost years, the years ‘the locust has eaten’ and at last reveals his identity to the brothers that betrayed him and, instead of lament or recrimination and blame he says ‘God sent me before you to preserve life.’  In this moment of revelation Joseph declares that God has acted in their history – they are all surprised by this inexplicable grace; ‘God sent me before you.’

In that terribly opaque passage from Romans, Paul says something surprising about the brokenness of the human condition, the mutual ‘fallenness’ of both  Jews and Gentiles, and he claims that even in what looks like futility, the great purpose of God is still being played out: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”(Rom.11:32)  That was not what anyone could have expected.

What then about the gospel this morning and that confrontation between the Canaanite woman and Jesus?  Matthew’s gospel shows Jesus as upholding the privileged status of Jews as the Chosen people but in this incident something unexpected happens.  Note that the woman is described as a Canaanite, a descendant of the ancient pagan inhabitants of the area.   Forced by the desperate circumstances of her daughter’s condition, she approaches Jesus for help.  But she is an outsider; the cultural, religious and ethnic customs dictate that she can have no expectation of help of any kind.  At the outset, in the first formal exchange, she is declined by Jesus who sees her request as beyond his mandate: ‘I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’  But she persists, and even though he rebukes her as equivalent to dogs; her wit and importunity make an impression and grace is given; her daughter is healed.   

In that moment, across all the barriers that lay in the way, despite everything, the miracle of grace was given and we are surprised by the action of God entering and acting in our history, even in what seemed a lost cause.

When we leave here this morning and return to our papers and to the news broadcasts – as we again confront the confusion and pain of our world – Joseph, Paul and this Canaanite woman hold stories for us of the surprise of Grace; stories of the experience of God working amidst the brokenness and darkness of our world; stories of hope to fill our hearts and open us to wonder and to exclaim with Paul, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways.” (Rom.11:33)

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