THE EXTRA REACH
Sermon delivered on the 14th Sunday after Trinity, the 6th September 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Isaiah 35: 4-7a James 2 : 1-17 S. Mark 7: 24-37
James 2:5 "Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom which He has promised to those who love Him?"
BATTLE OF MINDS
Watching the star tennis players competing is for me fascinating and instructive. Last week we may have seen on television Andy Murray and Nick Kyrgios in the U.S. Open Championships, with the stakes in favour of Murray, and Kyrgios at times, it seemed, unable to escape the thought that his losing was inevitable, but still playing as a victorious man should and causing Murray to lose his rather new-found cool on some occasions. At that level of tennis it is the battle of minds that is the most important - can you believe that you are going to prevail in the end? I can still remember quite a number of years ago now Pete Sampras seemingly being beaten soundly by his opponent Richard Krajicek and then suddenly raising the level of his game, taking six consecutive points to break a tie in his favour and going on to win the match. That was an astounding reversal, and it seems to me, a great illustration of faith. The Christian also has unprecedented levels and possibilities when he is backed up against a wall by the forces of evil. There is every appearance of impossibility for him but there is always the provided way through. He must reach for a spiritual level of his life's game if he is to prevail, and only through the Spirit and prayer can this be done. By the end of the twentieth century, the Church had lost a number of games and is now in the 21st century fighting for the survival of the Christian mind from a position four points down on a tie. At this stage (if we are seeing clearly) there is every appearance of impossibility because, as we considered last week, the characteristic language and thought-forms of the Christian mind have been very nearly lost, but if we faithfully continue the fight, the way through will be found.
RESTORATION OF THE CHRISTIAN MIND
Our Scriptures today point to the reversals accomplishable through faith. Fearful hearts are directed to be strong, the conditions of the blind, the deaf and the dumb are restored, and the hard parched ground is watered and made fertile, according to our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah. The context of the passage was perhaps originally the hope of restoration of a defeated and exiled people. Today we refer to the defeated and exiled Christian mind of our time, and announce the living hope of its restoration. It is we who must take heart and hope and in the way Nick Kyrgios at times did, and in the way Andy Murray sustained for his game, reach out with the prayer reach we are given for a spiritual level of combat, in order to prevail in the hope of the restoration of the Christian mind.
A CONGREGATION THAT DID NOT REACH OUT
St. James in the second lesson worries that the Christian congregation to which he addresses himself is shutting out from itself such a possibility of spiritual combat. Some are beginning to ally themselves with the conditions of their own age. (He who is married to the spirit of this age becomes widowed in the next, said the famous Dean Inge.) But St James asks, "Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom which He has promised to those who love Him?" In disregarding a shabbily dressed congregant while paying special deference to the well-heeled, they reveal themselves not to expect those reversals which we should be eagerly expecting and praying and working for. They were forgetting to care about whether individuals whose condition needed to be reversed, and who had come into their circle of responsibility, were being helped by them to apply the salve of Christ or hindered by them from doing so. We in the Church must not quickly or readily fall for the expectations and assumptions of the society of our own day, because our mission is to pray and work for a day that is new. If the letter of St. James reflects the social strata of Jerusalem before the destruction of that strata's very centre, the Temple, in A.D. 70, this is particularly poignant. Their current life and times would not be lasting very long in the form they knew. We must fight with a greater spiritual reach than the limited perspectives of our own time will allow to us.
JESUS REACHED OUT TO THE GENTILES
The Gospel reading today presents the Gentile Syrophoenician and her daughter, and the deaf man from the Decapolis region in need if healing. Now Jesus' own ministry in His incarnate manifestation was to the Jewish people, and yet these events show that He was not confined to the principal community He came to. We might even know of the tradition that as a boy He accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to England.
"And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills?"
- asked William Blake. The question perhaps will never be answered in this life - and unhappily there are now other "Satanic" things to think about in Britain and the West than the industrial "mills" of William Blake’s time, such as the utterly horrific and sustained sexual abuse of little children, the satanic character of which is even now beginning to come to light. What we do know is that during His ministry to the Jewish people Jesus did sometimes meet with Gentiles, and also went into Gentile territory as we see in our Gospel passage. Perhaps He went there this time to be alone with His disciples and escape the pressure of the crowds for a time. But when the woman came to Him, not claiming for herself that she had as much right to His powers as others did, but simply pleading for His help for her daughter, He ministered to her and her daughter's needs. In so doing He went beyond the expectations of His time or those of His disciples. Perhaps like Murray or Pete Sampras on the tennis court He reached spiritually and found that extra power at the time of His own weariness. That is an illustration to us of the kindness and mercy of God to us Gentiles, who historically were always among those fighting against God and His chosen people. In a real sense all of us Gentiles are included among the people of God because of the "extra reach" to us of God in Christ, not only in His earthly ministry, but through His Power in the ministry of S. Peter, S. Paul and the other apostles and evangelists.
OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO REACH OUT
In our own time, too, that "extra reach" will be the lifeblood of the continuation of the Christian mind in this new millennium, and of the Church in any recognisable form. By the help of Christ, we who are members of His Body are the ones who have to make that reach, apply that faith, achieve the reversal, and win the match.