Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 20 August 2023.
• First Reading: Genesis 45: 1-15 (Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. ‘God sent me ahead of you.’ Reconciled together)
• Epistle: Romans 11: 1-2, 29-32 (Did God reject His people? By no means. God’s gifts and call are irrevocable. God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that He may have mercy on them all)
• Gospel: Matthew 15: 10-28 (Defilement is from within: murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. The Canaanite woman. Sent to the lost sheep of Israel. Yes, but even dogs eat the crumbs from the table)
There is a paradox in the economy of evil. We ask why, if God is almighty, it is allowed to happen at all, and yet we then demand the free will to determine our lives and futures. We want him to take the blame and then object when He has already done so.
We find that while the extremity of evil can be unspeakable, there are also side effects which are beneficial. You might see that just as the valley of bones of Ezekiel’s vision became a mighty army, so also the ash heaps of the Jewish holocaust and the gulags of the communists gave rise to the vigour of today’s state of Israel.
And this is a place where human rights and the rule of law are honoured at a time when others are still seeking to continue, if not finish, the miseries of the 1940s.
You may well criticize the policies of the government of Israel without denying its place in the democracies of the world which live under the rule of law.
Perhaps another paradox is the restraint on war that comes from nuclear weapons, even when modern times have plenty of insurrections and localized or regional battles.
We do not really understand this process and certainly cannot predict or manipulate it.
But then there is that emotional telling of the reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers. They had sold him into slavery, out of sight was supposedly out of mind – provided that there was no pursuing burden of guilt.
And yet even he had discerned the hand of God in the way life had unfolded for him. Father to Pharaoh and Lord of all Egypt. Chief minister and controller of the wealth and fertility of the land.
This was a situation where Joesph had risen above his own memories and resentments, and was now able to greet and be reconciled with his brothers. In this perhaps one of the last enemies was himself and his own feelings and memories which could so easily have clouded his judgment.
But no, Joseph had been able to rise above his own questions and to become one of the patriarchs of Israel.
Then we have the paradoxes that Paul looks at concerning the Jews.
What he sees is how in rejecting Jesus, not only did they provide the manner and means of the atonement of Jesus for the sins of the world, but they also opened up for God the space to make His unearnable gift of everlasting life available to the nations of the world.
In other words, their temporary failure and rejection opened the door to a far wider reception of the message of salvation.
And this did not prevent many Jews of Jesus’ time from receiving His message, becoming His disciples, remembering and recording His ministry and spreading it around the Roman empire and beyond.
If that apparent failure was the basis for the worldwide message of the love and mercy of God then just imagine how their wider acceptance of the same message will be for the glory of God and those whom He has drawn into His purposes.
In the gospel there are two apparently unrelated conversations. The first is of Jesus with His disciples, who had been with Him long enough and should have been learning how to receive and apply His teaching.
But then there is His encounter with a wholly non-Jewish woman, pleading with Him for the life and health of her child. She knew very little about Him of His mission but enough to know of Him and His works of mercy and healing.
In the first conversation Jesus was explaining that defilement in the sight of God did not lie in the details of the law but in the quality of attitudes and relationships within a person’s heart.
Ceremonial washings were neither here nor there for one taken up with lies and deceptions. The corrupt heart would have to change before it could be seen as holy and undefiled.
It would have to change into one centered on Jesus and His priorities.
And His priorities were not going to abandon the mother pleading for a stricken daughter, when with a word He could heal her.
The mother might not have been up to speed on the teachings of the synagogue or the worship of the temple but this did not prevent her from caring for her child, especially one in such dire and distressing need.
The theology of atonement might not have been the centre of her attention but her self-outpouring for her daughter was definitely a sigh of her love and commitment. And that love, appealing to the mercy of Jesus, was enough to melt the hardest of hearts.
For us, the lessons are there. Even when we do not understand our times or what is happening, we can still bring things back to the most essential: we may not be in control but we can still believe and trust, in this we can pray on our own and worship together.
And yes, there are people in our own time who may be only dimly aware of the things of our faith and life – but who appeal to us for our aid. As we are able we also can surely hear and have mercy, and begin to tell a story.