The priority of loving the stranger

Ven. Richard Brand, 16 August 2020

Isaiah 56: 1, 6–8; Romans 11: 1–2a, 29–32; Matthew 15: 21–28

Come Holy Spirit: what we know not, teach us; what we have not, grant us; and what we are not, make us; for your love’s sake. Amen.

I wonder what you would say the difference is between ‘optimism’ and ‘hope’. Well, one suggestion is that optimism is the belief that things will get better; whereas hope is the faith that, together, we can make things better. The former is passive in outlook, the latter active, reliant in part on our engagement and commitment to shaping a better future.

Last week my daughter was sympathising with migrants crossing the channel, in awe of the courage it takes to leave all that is familiar and known and home, and ending up taking your chances in a fragile inflatable across the world’s busiest shipping lane. I don’t know about you, but I struggle with how to respond to migrants. Where even do our responses and responsibilities begin, and where do they end? Where do they begin and end geographically and morally? How do we square what we say about the choices of the rich in this world with the choices of the poor?

Now, I’m not making direct links to today’s readings, but I believe they have some interesting things to say, both about inclusion and exclusion, and about optimism and hope.

Our gospel reading is about the Canaanite (or in Mark’s version you’ll remember it’s the Syrophoenician) woman, and it’s amongst my favourite biblical passages. This stems from a time it finally struck me that this Gentile and woman (let the reader understand in both counts) gently challenged Jesus’ views to the degree that she changed them. Now, theologically we could spend a long time on this one, but suffice it to say that there other examples of Jesus’ self-understanding developing, such as early on in John’s gospel when it’s his mother who challenges him at Cana to see that the hour to begin his ministry has come.

In today’s passage the context is all-important to Matthew. In my Bible the previous section is entitled, ‘Things that defile’. And having taught others about what really defiles (that is, things stemming from the heart), Jesus himself now learns that rather than excluding Gentiles because of their supposed impurity, his calling is inclusive of all peoples. Indeed in our Romans reading we hear this is part of Paul’s later learning, that God is ‘merciful to all’; and it’s there in the prophecy of Isaiah, where he declares that God’s house ‘shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’.

Back in 2002 the then Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, wrote a book called The Dignity of Difference. Sacks in this points out that the Hebrew Bible contains the words. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. And then no fewer than 36 times it commands us to love the stranger. He goes on to say,

We encounter God in the face of a stranger. That, I believe, is the Hebrew Bible’s single greatest and most counter-intuitive contribution to ethics. God creates difference; therefore it is in one-who-is-different that we meet God.

I wonder how comfortable we are with that. I wonder how comfortable we should be with that. We live in times, I believe, where the rights of difference, on many fronts, are declared by some to be incontestable. And as Christians we often struggle to enter this space, but I believe Jonathan Sacks brings some hopeful words. He is addressing cultural difference but the message is wider when he writes,

The abstract language of rights fails to enter into the depths … It suggests that the particularities of a culture are mere accretions to our essential and indivisible humanity, instead of being the very substance of how most people learn what it is to be human. In particular, it understates the difficulty and necessity of making space for strangers – the very thing that has been the source of racism and exclusion in almost every society known to history. If we are to live in close proximity to difference, as in a global age we do, we will need more than a code of rights, more even that mere tolerance. We will need to understand that just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so the human environment depends on cultural diversity, because no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth; no one civilisation encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.

We will need to understand that just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so the human environment depends on cultural diversity, because no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth.

The other day I was reading another report about Christianity’s failure to reach the younger generation in this country. And one reason given was our failure to provide them with a coherent account of meaning and purpose in the world. Perhaps the things we talk about are too often periphery matters and we need to keep saying more about our central values of the Christian faith and our belief in what it means to be human. Perhaps we need to declare more of our belief in the value of each and every human life, created in God’s own image and through God’s grace, seeking to grow into God’s likeness. Perhaps we need to declare more therefore, about our respect for and valuing of each person, their dignity and their inherent difference involved. Perhaps we need to declare more of our belief in loving our neighbour as our self and the priority of loving the stranger. Sacks states that:

The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognise God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.

So what might we do? Well, there is much, from scriptural learning to prayerful attention, and one simple place open to us all is conversation. Conversation: the disciplined act of communicating and listening; of sitting with another and learning from another; of giving voice to what matters to us and growing in understanding of what shapes others. Conversation with a Canaanite, or whoever is the stranger in whom we might encounter the face of God.

So be it. Amen.

View the sermon here
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