Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Nearly two and a half thousand years ago Isaiah spoke to a broken nation about an age of joy to come, an age when eunuchs will find their lives fruitful and rich, that the immigrant would be fully accepted and adopted into the community. He wrote as the Children of Israel’s long exile in Babylon was coming to an end. The Exile is traditionally described as seventy years, historians and Biblical scholars now paint a more complex picture of the Exile, but the the fact that many Israelites were enslaved in Babylon for a generation is not contested.
For that generation captivity was all they knew, a generation born in captivity would not know or understand any other reality. The accepted wisdom would be that they were a people who were born in slavery and would die in slavery.
When I was growing up in Belfast the accepted wisdom was that there would never be peace in Northern Ireland, that there could never be peace.
Other pieces of accepted wisdom in our time include that the Cold War could never end (or if it did end it would be in nuclear war); that Berlin wall would never fall; that the white population would never give up power in apartheid South Africa. And that’s only the impossible that has happened in our lifetime, before that we ended slavery, an institution as old as civilisation itself…
As Nelson Mandela once said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
There are hundreds of not thousands of things that accepted wisdom has said were impossible, but which still happened.
I have a very amateur interest in science, and science is littered with things that one generation of academics said was impossible that was confounded by the next:
For example – ‘heavier-than-air flight:’
Just 130 years ago he universally accepted wisdom of scientists and engineers was that heavier-than-air flight was impossible. Just eight years before the Wright brothers’ flight Lord Kelvin (In 1895) stated that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
But that is just one example of doing the impossible: Even after the breakthrough with flight, the idea that we might one day send any object into space was seen as preposterous. To be fair this scepticism was well-founded – the necessary technologies were simply not available. To travel in space, you must reach the escape velocity of 11.2 kilometres per second. (To put that figure into perspective, the sound barrier is a mere 1,238 kilometres per hour was only broken in 1947.) The first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was eventually launched in 1957, and the first manned spaceflight followed four years later.
In 1934 Albert Einstein said, “There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear energy] will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”
“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.” so said the actor Christopher Reeve.
Thomas Carlyle said that “Every noble work is at first impossible.”
“There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” So said Alexander the Great. We may have to admit that there are some things that are literally impossible, but the spirit that led Alexander to say “nothing is impossible” certainly got him a long way.
So why am I talking about the impossible?
The Church is often accused of believing the impossible – that Virgin’s can give birth, that the universe was created in six days… It’s OK to believe those things if you want to, but it is not the Church’s ministry or duty to promote belief in supernatural events in the distant past.
Our duty is to, in the words of Isaiah “Maintain justice, and do what is right…”
We are called to live a life of love here and now. But we do so looking to the future: “To the eunuchs …who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house… a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; …an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, …to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants …these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer”
Not a belief in the supernatural, but a belief that despite the impossible situations we read about in the newspapers, despite the harrowing images we see of Gaza, Iraq, Syria, despite the problems of the Ukraine there is hope for change, hope for peace, hope for an end to poverty.
Time and again throughout history humanity has done the impossible. All our small efforts – raising money through our monthly appeal, twinning toilets, our collecting for LEWCAS, our involvement in our local community through ESOL and the Wash House, all this is part of a tide that will change the world. The Kingdom will come and we can be a part of it.
This sermon has a post script. I can’t resist talking a little bit about our Gospel Reading:
Our Gospel reading is a unique story in the Gospels. In the story a Gentile woman came to Jesus – so far so unremarkable, but the unique thing about this story is that the words of Jesus are not the climax – the climax is the woman’s speech.
This story of the Gentile woman throwing herself at Jesus feet begging for mercy on her daughter, and receiving a, frankly rude, rebuff from Jesus is striking. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Words very uncharacteristic of the Jesus we read throughout the rest of the Gospels:
Jesus was often very rude about people, but generally it was the Pharisees – “You brood of Vipers…” he called them. But they were in power, they had authority and prestige, they were public figures, and fair game for a satirist. This woman was in desperate need, and vulnerable.
Jesus response was totally within the culture of his day. Having suffered greatly under Greek and Roman occupation, the anti-Gentile feelings were at an all-time high. In his frail humanity Jesus was acting how we all would in the culture of the time.
The disciples want Jesus to send her away, and Jesus adds “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”
Perhaps Jesus thought his mission was only to the Jews, and this woman showed him that his message was for all people!
The most remarkable and unique thing of all is seen in the humility of Jesus. In front of all his followers, his disciples and friends, he allows himself to be corrected by a Gentile woman. Women were not allowed to study the faith – their opinion was invalid; Gentiles were outside of the faith – their opinions were dangerous. Yet Jesus allows himself to be corrected by a Gentile woman.
Surely this is a profound lesson for us all – Jesus did not care about looking silly in front of his disciples – he realised the right thing to do and he did it.
And perhaps here is where the Gospel connects to our earlier reading – a world where the outcasts are accepted and even the brightest and best accept that the poor and outcasts are not just recipients of charity, but people who can teach us profound truths.
When all are included and listened to the Kingdom is not just faintly glimpsed, it is unstoppable.