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Thursday, 5 March 2015

Making a family out of strangers (2)

This year's Limborough lecture, the annual lecture organised by the Worshipful Company of Weavers, was held here at St Stephen Walbrook and given by The Ven. Paul Taylor, Archdeacon of Sherborne. It was entitled 'Making a family out of strangers,' this being the strapline for St Michael's Camden Town, a church which has been brought back from the brink of closure through its open door policy. The Archdeacon used the story of St Michael's as a paradigm for the openness to the other - those who are different from ourselves - which he argued is desperately needed locally, nationally and globally today.

He spoke in the light of the way in which the debate about immigration has changed enabling the whole apparatus of the state to be bent towards reducing immigration. The effect can be vividly seen in the suffering of those who come to the Sunday International Group at St Martins-in-the-Fields. These people gather once a week for food, a shower, to wash their clothes, meet others in the same cruel dilemma as themselves and to garner what legal advice is applicable to their situation.

The Archdeacon referred his listeners to the recent pastoral letter from the Bishops of the Church of England which is entitled 'Who is my neighbour?' There the Bishops state that the starting point for the Church of England’s engagement with society, the nation and the world is that: "Followers of Jesus Christ believe that every human being is created in the image of God." As a result, we are not made for isolation but belong together.

We could quite easily have pictured Jesus as being on the negative side of this debate as we listened to our Gospel reading today (Matthew 15. 21 - 28). He was deliberately rude to the Canaanite Woman – a woman from another race and culture – that he encountered in today's Gospel reading. He began by making it clear that she was not one of the chosen people for whom he had come and continued by insulting her and her people in calling them 'dogs'.

Why was he so uncharacteristically rude? His disciples had wanted him to send the woman away; ostensibly because of the fuss she was making but, more probably, because she was not one of 'them'. Therefore, Jesus threw all their prejudices at the woman both as a way of confronting his disciples with the ugliness of their prejudice and as a provocation that revealed the faith within this woman.

In the face of seeming denial and insult, she persisted in her request and in her faith in Jesus' ability and willingness to heal. On the back of this tangible example of faith, Jesus was then able to challenge the prejudices of his disciples (as I think was his intent from the outset) by pointing out the depth of faith which he had uncovered in a woman of another race, culture and faith.

Seeing this incident as a deliberate challenge to the prejudices of his disciples is consistent with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10. 25 - 37) where Jesus tells a group of God's chosen people a story in which one of their own receives help, not from his own people, but from a man of another race, culture and faith. In that story, Jesus went further than his already radical teaching of love for our enemies by telling a story in which a member of God's chosen people received God's love and help from a person that he considered to be outside the people of God and an enemy of his own people.

However we choose to draw the boundaries of who is and who is not one of God's people, Jesus breaks through those boundaries with his love for all people, his sacrificial giving for all, and his recognition of all that those who are excluded actually have to offer to those who exclude. The strapline of St Michael’s Camden Town - 'Making a family out of strangers’ - is a good summary of this aspect of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. The ministry to those who are homeless which is offered through The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields and the ministry that began here at St Stephen Walbrook, which continues through The Samaritans, to those who are suicidal, are just two practical examples of including those who feel excluded and of making a family out of strangers.

It is a helpful practice, which comes from Ignatian spirituality, to try to place ourselves fully within a story from the Gospels by becoming onlooker-participants and giving full rein to our imagination. If we were part of this story, would we be with the disciples, who wanted Jesus to send the Canaanite woman away because she was not one of 'them', or would we be with Jesus, who challenged the prejudices of his disciples by pointing out the depth of faith which he had uncovered in a woman of another race, culture and faith? Our answer to that question will determine the extent to which we seek to make a family out of strangers.

A podcast of this sermon can be found at the London Internet Church.


Paul Mealor - Salvator Mundi: Greater Love.

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