Encountering Faith – Canon Roly Riem

September 9, 2021

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SUNG EUCHARIST, 05.09.21, 11am, Mark 7.24-end, Trinity 14

Sermons always begin with assumptions, about what you the listeners know and what you’d be interested in knowing about or considering further. The biblical texts we preach from are never interpreted in a vacuum.

And as there are always different levels of knowledge, commitments and perspectives, the preacher’s job is not to make the same assumptions each time, so that every week a different group is kept engaged while others are allowed their forty winks.

Today I’m assuming that some know almost nothing about Christian faith and that some might have totally the wrong idea about it, that they might think of it as the equivalent of ‘buying in’ to a religion, its creeds, doctrines, tenets – however you’d like to put it – not so much because they are true but because by doing this it takes all the bother out of believing, just as always choosing the same brand of baked beans saves you time shopping.

Faith by this reckoning is a comfortable option. 50 years ago, ‘I’m C of E’ used to mean, I’m normal: please don’t embarrass me with further questions. And even if Christian faith today is far less socially acceptable, it can still be used for our self-comfort, to inoculate us from questing and questioning.

But I want to challenge that assumption of what faith is, by setting it alongside the possibility of encounter. Faith is A way, perhaps, THE way to encounter the mysterious other, what it actually not us, and not a comfort blanket. One hundred years ago Martin Buber, the Austrian Jewish philosopher, published Ich und Du, translated as I and Thou, in which he made the distinction between I-Thou encounters and I-It encounters.

In I-It encounters, there’s a transaction: I hand my money to the cashier and I get the aforesaid tin of beans; but there’s no encounter at depth. For this to happen, I need to approach the Other not as an It but as a You, an intimate you, a Thou.

You may not realise but the Thou we sometimes use in Church is not the formalised and distanced language of antiquity but the language of presence and intimacy. It’s striking, if one goes to Germany, where the culture’s more formal than ours and the formal Sie-form of You is preferred in everyday social encounters, to hear God addressed consistently in worship by the intimate Du.

Christian faith is the way into an encounter of mutual recognition and depth, where we meet God as a Thou and, as we’ll see as we now look at our gospel story, God meets us as a Thou.

Jesus is in Gentile country, the region of Tyre and Sidon, trying to take a detour from the demands of people. It’s understandable, but it doesn’t work. Immediately, a Gentile is at his feet begging him to liberate her daughter. Not only is this woman making demands, but she’s bringing an agenda in which at this point he believes he has no stake – he has been sent ‘only to the lost sheep of Israel’, as Matthew puts it in his version of this story.

No wonder he says, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

Christ doesn’t shut the door on her completely. He appeals to priority – let the children be fed first – and to justice – it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

Opinions vary about how rude this reply is. ‘Dogs’ was a way of referring pejoratively to Gentiles; on the other hand, the picture of taking children’s food and throwing it to semi-domesticated animals is a characteristically vivid expression. Jesus is saying that God’s people really do need to be given the love and attention they deserve. Why should this woman be a priority to him, especially now?

This is where faith comes in. The woman could have been deterred and deflated. Or she could have pressed her daughter’s cause more fervently. But she’s looks to him, expecting more from him. She uses the force of his own simile to throw his priorities: ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’

Christian faith is seeing something in Jesus from God for us all and going for it. It is a questing and questioning commitment to Christ, a brave trust in what might be possible when divine mercy and patience meets us in and through him, whatever the outcome. That’s the point about faith: it’s not about grasping, control or complacent expectation. It puts us exactly where this woman is in relation to Christ and the God who acts through him.

And where is she? A Gentile standing outside the circle of God’s particular favour. But faith takes her inside. Because of her faith, Jesus does for her what he has not yet done for any Jew: he liberates her daughter at a distance. ‘For saying that’, he says, ‘You may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ And indeed, it was so: the

woman went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

But there’s more than one liberation here. The astonishing, hidden fact of this story is that Christ is also liberated by this meeting. The woman shows him that his mission is not only to Jews but to all who trust in his mercy. Her courageous faith brings him this insight and results in this outpouring of grace.

Faith is the way into an encounter with the mystery we call God, and this living God is not an object to be pushed and prodded by our desire. He is the partner in our meeting. We think it’s just us who wants something other than ourselves to fulfil our being; but in a sense it’s God too, who deeply desires to one with our flesh, to be with us and in us, to reconcile all things to himself through Christ.

God going beyond himself to embrace his creatures brings him joy.

We’re privileged in this story to witness a crucial moment, when God’s desire for us all became clearer to Jesus, a moment when he’d intended to shut out the crowds but when instead he drew the whole Gentile world into God’s liberating power.

The woman’s faith precipitates this. There are certainly other kinds of faith which stir God to action – for example, a total and largely wordless surrender to the will of God – but to be honest, I think most people relate to the faith shown by the woman in this story.

We don’t believe that we are particularly favoured by God.

We feel that he’s unaware of our concerns, perhaps even that his agenda excludes ours.

But we feel there must be a way to turn his head and heart,

By falling at his feet, showing him our desperation, hope, trust, by arguing with him, appealing to his mercy.

These elements of the story ring true to our own experience of believing.

And whatever the outcome of our own questing and questioning, let’s hold onto this story. The woman didn’t know till she got home that her prayer had been answered, and until we get home, to the final banquet, neither may we. Meanwhile, let us continue to confess our faith in almighty God, even as we gather to catch the crumbs from his table.