Matthew 15 (10-20) 21 - 28
The Rev. Carmel Jones, one of the most prominent members of the Windrush Generation, and one of the UK’s most well-known black church leaders, died peacefully at St George’s Hospital, London, following a bout of ill health, on Saturday 22 July. He was surrounded by his family, including his daughter, my friend and colleague Elaine.
He was a pioneering Pentecostal church minister and will be remembered for the great legacy he created – the Pentecostal Credit Union. He established the credit union because black people – the Windrush generation and their children – found it difficult to access financial services from Britain’s established banks and building societies. Responding to these obstacles of racism and financial exclusion, the Pentecostal Credit Union provided a range of services, including personal loans, business and church loans, and savings accounts.
In his obituary they told the story of Rev Jones’ and that he had been an altar boy at his local Anglican church in Jamaica and, upon arrival in the UK in 1955, he attended a service at his local Anglican church in Clapham. At the end of the service, the vicar thanked him for coming, but asked him not to return. In a terrible and shameful twist of irony, the Church was St Paul’s Clapham, and is most famously associated with William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect. The sect were made up of prominent and wealthy Evangelical Anglicans who were social reformers. In the early 19th century, they worked towards the liberation of slaves and the abolition of the slave trade, motivated by their Christian faith and concern for social justice and fairness for all.
Having been rejected by this local Anglican church, Rev. Jones later joined a Pentecostal church – the Church of God in Christ UK – after being invited by a friend. Here, he was eventually ordained and was a lifelong member. In Black History Month, on 25 October 2020, the Anglican Church reached out with a moving apology for the humiliation Rev. Jones had suffered at St Paul’s some 65 years earlier. The Archbishop of Canterbury sent a letter to Rev. Jones, lamenting the “shameful historical racism” within the Church of England.
The Archbishop was right - but all of this is symptomatic of deeper systemic issues. I don't need to tell you that one of the great moral and cultural issues of humanity from the dawn of time has been racism and intolerance towards people of other ethnicities. In recent time we have seen this in slavery, but also six million Jewish people were murdered in the Second World War, we've had apartheid in South Africa, ethnic war crimes and genocide in Central and Eastern Europe and over a million people displaced in Myanmar for simply being Muslims.
In many ways I'm proud to be British and to live in Britain because despite the great many failings that we all too often see (and feel) - including institutional racism in the police force and the terrible experience of Reverend Jones and many in the Windrush generation - I do believe the country is trying to work at equality and dignity - to create a place where irrespective of ethnicity or colour people from all kinds of backgrounds can live together in peace and harmony. We have a long (long) way to go - but many are on this path and more join every day.
With all of this in mind we finally come to our Gospel passage and that is to say the least a difficult read as it's about ethnic divides. It's one of those passages in the Bible that I often think of when people say to me ‘it's all made up’…. let's be clear, if it was all made up, I can think of no reason why anyone would include this very difficult text in this way.
Imagine if you fell in the street or you needed a doctor and the paramedic refused to help you because of where you were from and what you look like.
I read quite a few commentaries in preparing this sermon and they have varying views on what is happening here and why this passage has been included in the Gospel.
For example it's an analogy for prayer and the need for persistence when an answer or block appears….perhaps. Or it's about Jesus's humanity (Jesus is full divine and fully human) - and that his ministry was revealed to him in stages…. In this way some feminist theologians identify this passage as an important pivot point in Jesus's ministry, where he learned from the Canaanite women about his global ministry and the Gospel message as a result from this point starts to move from something focused on the people of Israel to the whole world. Perhaps.
I quite like Tom Wright’s narrative on this passage as it seems to find a way through all of these varying points and ideas. Tom points out that Jesus is not a travelling paramedic or doctor whose task was to heal everyone he met, instead he had a very specific calling to the people of Israel. His message was clear and he said it time and time again - the kingdom for which the people of Israel had been longing for was here. This message was aimed at Israel and any significant change to this would have indicated that God had either changed his mind or made a mistake in calling Israel to be his special people, through whom salvation would be realised.
All too often the church and Christians have tried to forget the important and central role of Israel in the purposes of God. Remember in Matthew Chapter 5 Jesus was very clear that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. Tom Wright says it's clear, Jesus is saying he is not doing away with the category of Israel as God's chosen people but he has come to fulfil the purpose for which the Jewish people existed in the first place. God's new life is to come through Israel.
This is why Israel had to hear the message first and why Jesus and his followers limited their work almost entirely to the Jewish people. Tom Wright goes on to say ‘as with so much of what happens in Jesus' public career however the future keeps breaking into the present even as here, seeming to catch Jesus himself by surprise’.
The Canaanite woman has great faith and she identifies Jesus as the Son of David which is a Messianic title….. in many ways she's way ahead of most people at this point in knowing who Jesus is.
She's no fool and she's going to do everything she can to save her beloved child and she banters with the Messiah. She accepts the designation of dog in this banter which was a regular way at the time of dismissing gentiles or non-Jewish people (that's you and me) as inferior. But she insists on her point, that if Israel is the Chosen People then Israel's Messiah will ultimately bring blessings to the whole world. The dogs will benefit from the scraps that fall from the children's table. She wants this food now - her child can’t wait.
We know from the epistles and other texts the early church struggled with accepting non-jewish people on equal terms with Jews and this was an important part of Paul's ministry - the establishment of equality through Jesus Christ.
Tom Wright suggests that what we have here is startling and shocking because the woman's faith seems to break through the waiting period…. through holy week, through Easter - to that point where Jesus sends out his followers into the whole world. This foreign woman is already insisting upon Easter. She is a prophet and wants and needs Jesus Christ in her life - now - and she can’t wait.
I talked earlier about William Wilberforce and his friends…..In the early 19th century many Christians agreed that slavery was evil and would eventually have to stop but many did not want to do it just yet. William Wilberforce worked and prayed and devoted his life to the belief that what would happen in the future had to happen by God's power in the present - in the now - it couldn't wait.
That is the great faith upon which Jesus congratulated this brave Canaanite woman. This is the same faith that drove Rev Carmel Jones to establish the Pentecostal Credit Union - sorting out the injustice of financial exclusion because it couldn't wait. It didn't have to wait.
God bless these people of faith and may we learn from them.
I believe we are asked by them - what promises of God have we imagined might be fulfilled in the future but could and ought to be claimed now and in the present - with a prayer and a faith which refuses to be silenced or put off?
I’ll end with a quote attributed to Augustine of Hippo: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”