I invite you to imagine a circle, although the size of each of our circles will be different. You will be able to work out just how big your circle will be as you think of who will be in it. You see, inside your circle will be all the people you find you can relate with easily. That may include friends, family, perhaps neighbours, acquaintances, and colleagues, perhaps those you befriend on Facebook, those you encounter in your everyday life, even people here today worshipping alongside you. Of course, it might not include every person in all of those categories. It’s just those you would naturally and willingly without hesitation extend a welcome to. As you think about that, as you imagine such a circle of those with whom you relate – who are those closest to you in the circle? Who are those nearer the outside, perhaps even on the edge? Thinking about all the people inside your circle, who are you noticing on the outside? Beyond the circle you call your own. Who might you not have included? What puts them there on the outside?
It can be a sobering reflection. Who is on the inside of our own circle and who is on the outside? So many things can influence who we discover are our outsiders: past experiences, our fears, our ignorance, the way we have been raised, our values, our preferences, our prejudices, our beliefs. Slowly over time, we develop a sense of insiders and outsiders.
What about here in our Cathedral? Who are those on the inside and who are outsiders? Who will you and I make welcome and who will we either struggle to make connection with or not see at all? Who will you personally extend welcome to? Make conversation with? Who is in and will feel our welcome, and who is outside, and will slip silently away or perhaps not even venture inside anyway? Just how inclusive are we?
Listening to a couple of workshops, one on social injustice presented by Simon Cayley and the other led by Bishop Philip, both Simon and Bishop Philip spoke of the work of Fr Gregory Boyle. Father Gregory works amongst the marginalised in Los Angeles especially those within the 11 gangs operating in his part of the city. Over the years he has led a series of initiatives in creating employment, providing health services, and a number of social service type programmes for men and women in the largest intervention programme in the States. There is a TED talk called, Compassion and Kinship where Fr Gregory talks about the work he and others are involved in in this project.
Fr Gregory speaks of such a circle as we have been considering this morning. The circle of those who are in and those who are out. He calls it the circle of compassion. The vision for a world that is like the one Mary the mother of Jesus spoke of in the Magnificat – a kingdom without end where the poor, the hungry, the lowly will be cared for and cherished. “A kingdom or world where”, Father Gregory says, “we will each remember that we belong to each other. Where each of us, in considering honestly the circle of compassion we are comfortable with, will find ourselves moving towards the margins so that we can stand with the poor and powerless, the voiceless, those who are demonised or those who have lost dignity because we stand in awe of what each person we find there has to carry. And as we stand there, we will find in ourselves a mutuality – no longer an “us and them”, but simply “us”. Simply put, we will know that there are no lives in our community or in our world that are less than other lives. There will be not be any lives that will matter less to us.
This brings us to the Gospel reading today. It is not a very comfortable incident. And it is hard to understand why Jesus would speak so harshly to this woman who comes to him longing for healing for her daughter. It is tells of an incident where Jesus changed his mind.
There are two incidents recorded in the gospels where we see Jesus change his mind. The first you might recall is over wine at a wedding. And it is his mother, Mary who challenges him with the words – they have run out of wine. And although Jesus is sure it is not his time yet and so therefore what does this have to do with him, Mary is sure it is time to get involved, and directs the servants around her to do as Jesus tells them, and very soon there is fresh wine for everyone. Pretty much Mary is pressuring Jesus in this incident and telling him to get on with it. And as we read the Gospel account in John, we see that he did just that.
Today’s reading is that second event where Jesus changes his mind. Picture the scene if you will. Jesus has in Matthew’s gospel left a place where there has been much discussion about things that defile a person and is heading for a different region, the district of Sidon and Tyre, on the coast of the Mediterranean, well north of Galilee. And as he walks with his disciples, a woman – obviously a foreigner - perhaps determined by her accent, her language, her dress, or even that she dare approach a man, approaches Jesus and the disciples shouting. Clearly she knows who Jesus is – for her words declare it, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David”. And then her request follows, “My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
From what you have heard or know about Jesus, how would you be expecting him to respond? To heal this woman’s daughter? After all he had healed lepers, and the centurion’s servant, the blind and the mute, the woman with the issue of blood. But as you watch – Jesus just ignores her. It is as if she had not spoken at all. What was going on? Were Jesus and the disciples irritated by the woman’s shouting, embarrassed at the attention she was drawing, or perhaps uncomfortable at what they were seeing – we don’t know, but what we hear next is the disciples drawing close to Jesus, urging him to send the woman away. After all, this is a Canaanite woman, not a Jewish woman but a pagan. Why should she be bothering them, much less shouting and why should they respond? Jesus pauses, and turns to face the woman – “you know what”, he says, “I was sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Her face stings as the words greet her. She is not of the house of Israel. She is a gentile or pagan woman. It is obvious that Jesus expects that she will leave them in peace. But this woman, drawing her shawl close to her, comes and kneels before this man, this man Jesus, whom she calls Lord, and simply says, “Lord, help me”. Jesus looks at her. Surely she must not have heard what he said. For she is still there. Kneeling there in the dust of the path. He responds, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She winces visibly. What is this man saying? That she and her people are no better than dogs? That he is simply Lord of the Jews? Lowering her head so he cannot see the pain in receiving such words, she replies, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Silence descends. What will happen next? Seconds seems like minutes as the reality of what is unfolding is considered. And as we watch, we see Jesus change his mind. Woman, Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish. And straight away her daughter was healed.
This story does not place Jesus in a very good light, does it? It’s a hard story to be comfortable with. Some people would want to soften it to say that Jesus was testing the woman or perhaps it is that he and the woman were engaged in a jovial banter – yet it is not that jovial to be called as dogs is it? They are cruel words.
What if in this story, it was Jesus who was learning. What if he was being challenged about who was in and who was out? Challenged to enlarge his circle. Could it be that Jesus who was fully human, continued to learn and be changed as he continued in ministry? What encouragement that would be for us. That we could also move from seeing people as outsiders to accepting them as insiders, as part of us. What does that look like for us, in a world where the forces of hate and fear, of prejudice and ignorance exclude and destroy those who differ from those of us? This is cause for hope as we consider our own circles of insiders and outsiders.
We are in an exciting time. A time where we are being invited to consider who we are as people of the Taranaki Cathedral. Who will we be when the Cathedral reopens? Whose Cathedral will it be? It was a very deliberate act, to name this Cathedral, the Taranaki Cathedral. For the people of Taranaki. Not only the people of this city. As we think about who we are right, and who Taranaki is right now, are there insiders and outsiders for us as a Cathedral community? Does everyone feel welcome here? If there are outsiders, how has that developed. What needs to change? How big will our Cathedral circle become?
Exciting times are ahead for us. Today you will have received with your pew sheet the panui, the invitation to a hui, here. It is about us widening our circle. Extending our welcome. So that the Cathedral becomes about us – not us and them, but us as Taranaki people. The collective us. A much bigger circle than we have as yet. A circle where all are inside, and none are outsiders. The hui is another step in discovering how that can be. There is encouragement for us in the gospel today. Jesus was also faced with widening his sense of inclusiveness, pushing the circumference of his circle out to include others. Jesus who came in human form so that we might know who God is and what the compassion of God is like. Jesus who grew into the understanding of inclusiveness. And so understanding our weakness, he supports us as we learn and grow.
The question for us to ponder is how open are we to extending our circle? To seeing all people as insiders, as welcomed and as part of us? And to see ourselves are part of them?