The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, August 14, 2011
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Almighty God, who hast given thy only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Romans 11:1-2, 29-32
While you might think it would not be something that comes up often in daily conversation, I find myself quite often remarking that I am not really a fan of Aristotle. I think you know me well enough to realise that I do not merely live in some rarified life of the mind. I watch plenty of junky TV, read novels, listen to popular music, all this in addition to my intellectual pursuits. Indeed, had you been sitting next to me just yesterday at an outdoor table at The Coffeeshop, a restaurant on the corner of 16th Street and Union Square West, you could have been heard remarking that very fact—my feeling that subscribing to Aristotle’s physics has gotten us Christians into trouble. Yesterday I was speaking of the Eucharist. Today, my worries focus more on the nature of the Godhead.
One of the most common things you will hear about God is that he is changeless. This notion comes, I have always believed, from the God of Greek philosophy, the God of Aristotle, the Unchanged First Mover. The idea that God is remote, fixed, and non-responsive can go hand-in-hand in our imagination with our notions of his omnipotence and omniscience. We imagine that God’s totality, God, power, God’s majesty is somehow diminished if we believe that God is somehow affected in and through time, affected by what we do and what we say.
The witness of the Bible, however, offers us a countervailing view. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is intimately connected with the lives and work of his people, he is moved by what happens to his people. The God of Israel is jealous of other Gods. God gets his hand dirty, wrestles with Jacob, leads Abraham and tests him, and he certainly had a tumultuous relationship with Moses. The Old Testament teaches us just how much God loves his people and is engaged with them in history. For centuries, then, our knowledge of Scripture has been in tension with the dominant philosophical view of God.
The philosophical theologian Charles Hartshorn and his disciple, Anglican apologist W. Norman Pittenger, following the work of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, addressed this central problem and suggested a better way of speaking of God's majesty and power was to consider the unchanging nature of his core identification with the work of love. God, then, is steadfast in his purpose, which is nothing less than love itself. God is working out love in the world to the end of achieving the Kingdom of God in its fulness. Love is limitless, love is endless, love can always grow, always be increased. More people, more of creation itself can be enveloped in Love and more creatures can express more love and thereby incarnate God and God’s kingdom into the world.
Today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew is, perhaps, the primary New Testament text that shows God in Christ, responding to what is unfolding in creation and offering a new response in Love that had not previously been imagined. Here we learn that Jesus went to the coastal district of Tyre and Sydon and there he meets a Canaanite woman. Canaanites, the ancient peoples of that region who worshipped other Gods—Gods who had once attracted many an Israelite—were not a people with whom respectable Jews would mix. Yet this woman acknowledges Jesus’ lordship and addresses him by the title Son of David as she asks him for help in curing her daughter from possession by a demon. The disciples immediately ask Jesus to make her go away “for she is crying after us.” While it is possible to argue that the disciples wanted Jesus to heal her and thereby get rid of her, it is more likely that they just wanted her gone. Now in a number of stories that have the disciples wanting to be rid of a marginal character, such as the story of the woman with the flow of blood, Jesus rebukes them and offers that person help. Here, however, Jesus seems to agree with the disciples and he tells the woman that he has come not for her people, but only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He goes on, quite cruelly it would seem, to make that well known remark about taking “the children's bread and throwing it to the dogs.”
The woman, however, is undaunted and she comes back at Jesus with the quite clever retort about those very dogs eating “the crumbs that fall from their master's table.” In that instant and far from being unmoved, Jesus has his own revelation. He sees the power of the woman's faith in the steadfastness of God's loving purpose and recognises that perhaps more people than just those of the house of Israel are to be included in God's kingdom. Praising her unreservedly, he grants her request and heals her daughter.
Jesus shows that he is changed by his encounter with a stranger, with someone who he and his disciples clearly believed to be The Other, different and therefore less worthy of God's love than they were. He is changed and in that moment, opens up new avenues for God's love to flow into the world.
Of course this was not a new idea, as we heard in today’s lesson from Isaiah:
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, ... I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Nevertheless, caught-up in the mores of his day but facing a real-world situation, facing a person in distress, God in Christ expands God’s love. Jesus helps us see that encountering someone we might see as Other—by virtue of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, or even political views—can change us and allow us to see the world differently, to see that other person with a hitherto un-experienced compassion and move us to act generously and in the very love of God.
Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
Jeremy Taylor, 13 August 2011
© 2011 Andrew Charles Blume