The one with the crumby dog

I finally declared this picture finished…

It’s the story of the Syro-Phonoecian (Canaanite) woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter (Matthew 15):

22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

She is a woman. She is foreign. She has a disabled/sick child. And she shouts. She’s a reject in pretty much every way. And she’s awesome.

In the painting I tried to do something different from my previous attempts at this story (which had focused on the ‘meeting of minds’ that Jesus and the woman reach by both stroking the hypothetical dog, but I was challenged to have a go at the moment of confrontation itself, which is much harder. So this is the moment when the woman grasps Jesus’ arm and makes him listen. She’s small, but mighty.

Here are some things I’ve tried to do in the painting:

  • On the left, there’s a small gathering of Jesus’ disciples, but they’re a group of individuals. On the right everyone is presented relationally. The woman, by touching Jesus, draws him into the relationality of her family. This, for me, is a mirror image of the usual pattern in which Jesus draws outcasts into relationality (often by touch).
  • The stones on the floor are a recurring theme in scripture. Here, they stand for stumbling blocks – the stumbling blocks that Jesus warned about (in Mark 9), the stumbling blocks that we must not put in the way of ‘any of these little ones’.  The woman demonstrates to Jesus that her daughter is indeed one of the little ones that come within Jesus’ sphere of protection and love.
  • The woman is dressed in blue because her confrontation with Jesus reminds me of the way that Mary, his mother, showed him that his time had indeed come, and that it was the right moment for him to perform his first miracle (John 2).
  • The older lady on the right is grandma, and she’s looking after her other grandchildren so that the woman is free to go and confront Jesus.
  • I’ve always assumed that there was an actual dog.  Dogs can enable people who wouldn’t otherwise engage with one another to reach a place of understanding and generosity.

St Luke’s Day 2015

A sermon based on Luke 10.1-9

When I read this gospel reading today, the thing that struck me (and that had never particularly occurred to me any of the other probably hundreds of times I’d read it) was the peculiar way that Luke talks about peace: ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.’  It almost makes it sound as if the peace is a tangible object, something you could hold in your hand and offer to someone.  For Luke, peace isn’t an abstract noun, a concept, an ideal, it’s something very real indeed.  With this thought in mind, I wondered how this tangible kind of peace might draw together some of the big themes in Luke’s gospel, and indeed, with St Luke himself.

The first thing people probably think of when asked about St Luke is that he was a physician, a doctor. One who laid down the tools that would heal the body in favour of those that heal the soul.  So the first thing I wondered about was how this tangible peace relates to healing, to wholeness, to restoration, within the human being. I don’t know your names, let alone your stories. I don’t know what hurts you carry with you from the past or the present, the scars that come from your own mistakes and sins, or from the sins of others. I don’t know your doubts and uncertainties or fears about the future. But I do know that in the Eucharist, Jesus comes among us offering us each something tangible – a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that is about forgiveness, about the healing of old wounds.  I do know that when Jesus comes to meet us, he comes bearing that gift and he stays here, holding it out to us, giving us as long as we need to work out how to take that tangible peace in our hands and into our hearts. Luke the physician is intimately concerned with the healing not just of the body but of the whole person, and locates a person’s encounter with Christ at the centre of that process. As we celebrate Luke the physician today, we have another chance to take into our hearts and hands that tangible peace and let it work in us.

The second thing people might think of when they consider Luke’s gospel as a whole is his concern for the gap between the rich and the poor – he writes more about this than any of the other gospels – and his particular focus on the outsider, the outcast, the people who don’t fit in. Jesus’ ministry is seen by Luke as one of integration, that brings the outsiders into the centre of the community, breaks down boundaries and restores communities to wholeness.  This tangible peace, then, is not just about the healing and wholeness of individuals, it is for the healing of communities, it is for the building of communion in places of deep division. And Jesus does this sometimes with the skill of a surgeon – he cuts through the trickery and hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day and their obsession with boundaries and pecking orders, so that the people themselves can finally heal – be reconciled with one another, despite their differences, and with the God who made them all and loves them all.  So as we celebrate St Luke’s concern for the poor, the sinner, the outcast, and his desire to show what reconciliation looks like in real life, we have a chance to look at the tangible peace that is offered to this church community, to this village, and beyond. We have a chance to ask ourselves, where are the divisions here? Who finds it hard to fit in? How do we already welcome the stranger and the outcast, and how can we do more, in Jesus’ name?  When we take this gift of tangible peace, we take it not just for our own healing, but for the wholeness of those around us, and for the gradual mending of relationships, for the melting of old grudges, for the possibility of diversity in unity.

The third thing people might know about the gospel of Luke is that, of all the gospel writers, he is most concerned to root the story of Jesus in history – we can see this most easily by the sheer number of difficult to pronounce names (of people and places) in Luke’s gospel – he talks about who’s who, he mentions the names of the places Jesus went, and the names of all the Roman Governors, and the High Priests.  This is partly because one of Luke’s concerns was to establish that Jesus wasn’t a myth, an idea, he was a real person, and everything in the gospels actually happened. But more profoundly, rooting Jesus’ story in political history shows that this tangible peace is not something limited to the individual, nor even just to the local community, but is a gift to the nations, and to the whole world, given to real places and real times. And it’s offered to our own time and our own place, just as it was offered to Jesus’ time and place.  Throughout the last two thousand years, there have been glorious moments when, by the grace of God, our own nation, and even the world has grasped this peace with both hands, often at great cost, and taken the peace of God into the heart of our national and international relations. And we know all too well that there have been even more times when Jesus has patiently held peace out to us and, as a species, we have failed to grasp it.  As we celebrate St Luke, we celebrate someone who understood that the grace of God can work not just within individuals, or local communities, but in the political sphere. And so we think beyond the village, beyond the places where we ourselves live and work, and pray earnestly for that peace which the world cannot give to be given now to the world, and for the leaders of the nations and all who hold the future of this planet in their hands to be given the wisdom, humility and courage to reach out and grasp what God most desires to give us. And we think about our own role in enabling that kind of tangible peace – our democratic right to vote, our spending power, our engagement with current affairs are just some of the ways in which we can contribute to the peace of God taking root and growing here and now.

So today, keep in your minds that image of Jesus’ disciples, sent out by him to take a tangible gift of peace. And then realise that he sends us out today to do the same, he gives us that same peace, for ourselves, for the people we meet and for the wider world. Whether it’s in our own hearts, in our relationships, in our community, at work, in our dealings with people face to face or online, our interaction through commerce and comment with people we’ll never meet, let us bring that tangible peace with us, and may we let it be the very first thing we offer, wherever we are, and whatever we do.

A hymn that’s not entirely irrelevant to Sunday’s gospel

I wrote this one a few weeks ago, and while I was looking for a hymn for Sunday (the Lazarus story) it occurred to me that this one wasn’t wholly irrelevant. Here it is (and when I posted this yesterday I forgot to say – the tune is ‘Slane’ aka Lord of all Hopefulness).

Jesus, our Saviour, your life-giving breath
brings order from chaos, and life out of death;
You give us your blessing, now help us impart
that gift to our neighbour­ as a gift from the heart.

Jesus, our healer, the touch of your hand
fills us with new confidence, helps us to stand;
Your strength in our weakness is power indeed
to stand up for others whatever their need.

Jesus, our brother, your love never ends:
makes slaves into children, helps strangers make friends,
may love be the lesson we learn and we teach,
may love be the motive for our actions and speech.

Jesus, inspirer and source of all good,
we stand here on earth as of old you once stood;
The Church is your body,  the task you begun
is ours to continue till the work here is done.

John 5.1-9 Do you want to be healed?

A sermon for Sunday 5th May 2013

I wonder if any of you have an aspect of yourself that you wish was otherwise?  Some besetting sin, or some character trait that you perceive as a weakness, or some flaw that you feel defines you, though you wish it didn’t. Or something that’s been central to the way you explain yourself for so long that it’s become part apology, part excuse, and you’re no longer sure whether you want it to change, or whether it’s better simply to take refuge in it and let it keep defining you?

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then good for you!  But I certainly have a few of these things.  The easiest one for me to talk about is “I’m disorganised”.  You’ve probably all heard me say it.  It’s an apology, sure, but it’s also an excuse. And I know that for me, when I say it, I’m accepting something as inevitable, rather than working to grow beyond it.  Whenever I say “Sorry I’m so disorganised” I’m taking refuge in my own flaws and making it harder for me to be anything other than what I say I am.

Why am I telling you this?

If we leave aside for a moment the fact that the story of the man by the pool at Bethzatha was probably a true story, and that a real miracle of healing took place, we can treat it more like a parable and ask ourselves why that particular story was preserved in the gospels and what its deeper meanings might be.

When we do this it turns out that there are several: one concerns Jesus’ willingness to go round healing people on the Sabbath, even though he knows it will get him into trouble – there are other stories that do this, too, so I won’t go into that today.

The deeper meaning that struck a chord with me today is the question of what healing really meant for the man by the pool.  He’s spent 38 years lying in the same spot, always thinking that if he could only be first in the queue for the magic healing waters he would be well again, and always finding that someone else was faster than him, beating him to it.  38 years of trying the same thing, again and again, and still expecting the outcome to be different.

38 years of telling passers-by, “It’s because I don’t have anyone to put me in the water” until that’s all there is.  He is the man who never gets healed, it has become what defines him.  It’s been so long that he can’t remember what it was like before he was ill, and he’s not sure what he’d do if he was ever made well again.  Yes, the man’s paralysis was real, but metaphorically he can stand for all of us who take refuge in something that’s been holding us back for years, unsure if we really want things to be different.

This is where I am that man, stuck saying “I’m disorganised” even though I know it doesn’t help.

So when I hear Jesus ask the man, “Don’t you want to be made well?” I hear him saying to me, “Don’t you want to be more organised?”  And I think to myself, “But if I didn’t have my constant refrain as an excuse, then I’d have to take more responsibility.   I wouldn’t be able to write off and explain away the many things that slip through my net, attributing them to some general sense of disorganisation, as if it were an illness that is beyond my control.

“Get up, take up your bed and walk” says Jesus.  And the man does. He receives healing without going anywhere near the magic healing waters, and he will have to find a new story to tell about himself, he’ll have to find a new way to define himself, because he’s no longer the man who never gets healed, no longer the man who can’t get to the water first.

So when Jesus says those same words to me, he says them through the people he’s sent to me to show me that just because I’ve been disorganised, doesn’t mean that that’s what I am and always have to be.  That I can actually change, be better, and rewrite my own story so that I’m no longer peddling a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Is it simply about willpower?  No, it’s not. It’s about the way that God can act on our will and enable us to make choices that we wouldn’t have the strength to make on our own.  It’s about the power of God to show us how much of our healing and wholeness is not to do with making sure we get access to the magic water, but showing us that we can, in fact, through his grace, redefine ourselves and not be ruled by our flaws.

I’ve shared with you something of my own response to this story, confessed something of the way that I’ve let my flaws define me (and believe me, I have worse ones than disorganisation!).  And I do so as one whose process of healing and new life is still a work in progress.

If anything I’ve said has struck a chord with you, then consider that the words of todays gospel, on that same metaphorical level, can speak to any individual, or group, or organisation, or community, who is aware of a flaw, or negative tendancy, that they know is holding them back, but who has given up any hope of things being different.  Such groups have a choice: to wait around, hoping for some external solution which will probably never come, or always trying the same solutions, which have never worked and never will – or to hear Christ asking the question, “Don’t you want things to be different?” and respond not by repeating the same story that we’ve always told about ourselves or heard others use, but by really opening up the question honestly, and working out what it would mean for things to be otherwise.

But it’s not some magic water that makes change possible.  It’s Christ right here with us, asking us to look at ourselves and become what we might be, not get stuck with what we’ve always been.    It’s Christ right here with us, asking us why we’re letting our flaws hold us to ransom and offering us another way.  And it’s Christ looking at us, including our flaws, and unlike our own self-image, being able to see beyond them to what we could be.  And it’s Christ showing us that the power to be otherwise is within us, not because it’s all about our willpower, but because he, Jesus, is active within us, and has promised to work within us to make us whole and strong.

When we invite Christ to dwell within us we should expect to be changed. We should expect to lose our excuses and have to rewrite our stories. We should expect to be changed, to become more than we are.  The question is, are we ready for that kind of healing?  Some days I’m not sure I am, but by the grace of God I pray that when God next asks me to stand up and bundle up my excuses, I’ll find that I can.