Sunday 14th August 2011

10.30 am Communion and 6.00 pm Evensong Woodchurch

Matthew 15:21-28

May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”.

There have been times during the past week when it has felt as though we have been living in a world gone mad.  On Monday night I sat up until 2 in the morning watching the reports of looting and arson.  Like many others I was angry not only at the youths who seemed to have taken over the streets but at the seeming ineffectiveness of both the police and politicians – why were the police standing by while looters emptied the shops and why were the politicians dithering and not sending in the troops?  Like everyone here I was shocked by the image of an injured student being helped to his feet only to be mugged and by the stories of those who were killed while apparently trying to protect their property.  The politicians kept calling the actions of those who ran amok in our streets “sheer criminality”, as if that were the only explanation necessary, but the fact is that thousands of people committed acts of sheer criminality at the same time – that means something, that was caused by something and if we don’t give serious thought to the root causes we will see it again.  

But the riots and looting weren’t the only thing going on during the week – some much bigger economic chickens were coming home to roost, once again, as America’s credit rating was downgraded and stock markets took a massive tumble around the world.  If you don’t own shares you may say “so what, the rich got a little poorer for a little while” but the fact is that this is indicative of economic changes which will affect us all.  In short Western society has been living beyond its means for many years and we are all going to get a  poorer as the world’s wealth shifts to the East – and I don’t mean to Folkestone.

I wonder if there is a common thread that joins together the stories of looting and economic turmoil?    There are of course complex causes behind both situations but the one thing that struck me strongly was that they were both partly about the desire to have it all and to have it now.  For years we have been told a thousand times a day that what we buy makes us the people we want to be.  If you are a government you can have it all and have it now by borrowing money on the international money markets, if you are middle class with a job you can have it all and have it now by putting it on your flexible friend and if you are unemployed with no chance of a job you can have it all and have it now by smashing in a shop window and grabbing as much as you can – Just Do It!  There is a great deal of hubris or pride in our society – the feeling that we personally are the centre and the most important thing in the universe and that we should have whatever we want whenever we want it “because you’re worth it”.

But does it have to be this way for us – is hubris or pride or self-centredness the correct or only way for us to live as Christians?   

On Tuesday lunchtime, still tired from watching London burn the night before, I went off for a pre-arranged two day retreat at Alton Abbey, which is an Anglican Benedictine monastery in Hampshire.   I visited this monastery a couple of times for retreats before I was ordained but this was the first time I had been back for the last three or four years, and it really felt like returning to a spiritual home.  Interestingly for many years this monastery has consisted of only six full time monks but on this occasion the community had grown with two new novices, two new postulants and three others who are living alongside the community.  I am happy to report that monasticism is alive and well within the Church of England. 

Part of the reason I went to Alton Abbey, quite apart from the desire to spend some quiet time with God, is because I wanted to explore and discuss a possible calling to become an Oblate of that Monastery – an oblate is someone who seeks to live alongside the monastic community and by their values but whilst continuing to lead their ‘real life’ outside the monastery.  To help me explore this further I took along some books on the Benedictine life and I spoke to both the Oblate Master and the Abbot of the Abbey.  I don’t know whether you have ever experienced this but sometimes I experience God speaking to me through the things other people say and through my reading and sometimes it feels as though God is ramming the same word or  message home in half a dozen different ways and eventually you have to hold your hands up and say “OK God I get it” because the same word or the same message just seems to leap at you from every book you open and every conversation you have.  In my two days at Alton Abbey the word for me was “humility”.  

Time and time again I read in my books and I heard from the monks and I saw in their lives how humility is the first building block of a life lived fully towards God.  In our society humility is a deeply undervalued and mistreated and misunderstood virtue – it offends against the self-centred pride on which we build so much of our self worth and it also brings to mind the hypocrisy of false humility in characters like Uriah Heap – who was always “ever so ‘umble”.   We also think that to be humiliated, to be made humble, is almost the worst thing that can happen to a person.   

Now of course I realise that God meant that word for me as part of my retreat and as part of my discernment and I am not too proud to admit that I need more humility in my journey towards God.  But I also felt very strongly that I should take the risk of sharing that with you because it seems that to recover a little humility and to take away a little of our self centred pride would be good for the spiritual journey of us all and it may even say something to the have it all and have it now culture which we inhabit.

By happy coincidence, or rather by God’s providence, this weeks Gospel reading of the Canaanite woman seeking Jesus’ healing for her daughter also says something to me about humility but also about God’s grace in the face of prayer.

The Canaanites were historic enemies of the Jewish people and the Old Testament is full of stories of the Jewish and Canaanites battling it out for possession of the land.  Whilst those battles were old news at the time of Jesus still the divisions remained and, whilst they are all under the common Roman yoke, this did not make the Jewish and Canaanites friends.  It was a bit like the English and the French within the EU.

Nevertheless the Canaanite woman dares to ask the Jewish rabbi Jesus to heal her daughter who she believes is afflicted with a demon.  Jesus’ initial response seems surprisingly harsh:

I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.

But she persists – she kneels in front of him and says:

Lord, help me

Jesus’ next answer may then strike the politically correct as being positively rude:

It is not fair to take the children’s food [i.e. that which belongs to the Jews] and throw it to the dogs [i.e. the Canaanites – geddit?]”

Now I don’t know about you but, in my pride, if someone called me and all my race “dogs” I would probably be tempted to say something rude and walk away at that point but instead, and perhaps Jesus knew that she wouldn’t, this woman picks up Jesus’ metaphor and plays with it:

Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 

And at that point Jesus says, ‘great is your faith!’ and her daughter was healed.

It has to be said that at one level Jesus humiliated the Canaanite woman – in the sense that it took great humility for her to say that she and her daughter weren’t really worthy of Jesus but like a dog receiving crumbs from the table she would be grateful for whatever came her way.  As I have said before we need to be careful not to read difficult bits of the bible through such modern eyes and sensibilities that we get so offended at what we think we see that we lose sight of what is really going on.  

So what do I think is going on in this story?  It seems to me that we are being reminded that when we are approaching Jesus we are also approaching God the creator and upholder of all.  Yes, course God loves us as his children, but we should approach the healing arms of our heavenly Father not with pride in ourselves and our own importance but with a little humility recognising our true respective positions in the grand scheme of things.  But that deflation of pride and increase in humility, whilst it may insult our modern sensibilities, does not lessen us in the eyes of God – far from it – to fall on our knees, to say “Lord help me!” and to persevere in humble prayer is the place of true healing encounter with God.  Something that I have no doubt that I continue to need day by day, that we need as a church and that the whole of our hurting society needs.

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”