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12th September 2021

Into the Unknown- do you care?

Passage: Mark 7;24-30


You know those old comedy programmes from the nineteen sixties and seventies, shown on TV with a warning note that this programme contains language and culture acceptable at the time of recording? And when we watch them, do we not feel quite shocked at the levels of racism and sexism which seemed hilariously funny at the time but are rather offensive nowadays?
I think an advance warning should have been placed on that story about Jesus we just heard. Did you not think he was rude to that woman? She was out of her mind with worry over her daughter who was seriously ill. We don’t know what was wrong with her- all illness, mental or physical was thought to be due to demon possession in those days. But she must have been pretty bad for her mother to walk alone into a stranger’s house (women stayed close to home in those days) and beg a holy man from the Jewish culture which she knew despised her, as a non-Jew-to heal her daughter.

And Jesus not only refused to help but insinuated that people like her were not his problem. He was here for the Jews, the “children” of God and not for those the Jews called heathen dogs. I am surprised that woman did not smack his face, Lord or no Lord…..
Would not you have been furious in her position?

There is a lot of anger around today: anger at the pandemic, at the threatening chaos of climate change, at the ongoing wars which leave millions brutalised and homeless, at the floods, wildfires and earthquakes. There is anger over the atrocities of the past and anger in the face of an uncertain future. And this anger surely contributes to the alarming rise in mental health issues. Many people feel that they are screaming for help but there is no-one there who can or will offer help. And people of faith, if we are honest, feel like screaming at God- do you care what is going on in our lives? What might this angry woman in our story today teach us today?

I think (and this is just me, not some professional scholar) Jesus meant to make that woman angry. He deliberately provoked her.
You see, when you are taught persistently that you are worthless, you start to believe it. People born into abject poverty feel ashamed of the poverty which an unjust social system inflicted on them; victims of abuse feel ashamed and guilty that they were abused; people have felt ashamed of being black; ashamed of being female; ashamed of being elderly. And those with such shame believe that they have no right to speak out; barely any right to exist at all. They have no self-esteem. They cannot love themselves, which means they find it difficult to love others and impossible to love life. Many embark on a system of self-destruction and some on a campaign of destruction against those even more vulnerable.

Getting angry can be the first step out of this vicious spiral. Campaigns such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter started with people who once believed they had no voice. Then their anger changed them into people who would raise their voices, tell their stories, and demand their rightful place in the world. There were a lot of people in Jesus’ world who believed themselves worthless, especially if they were poor or female or-in Jesus’ culture- outside of the Jewish faith. A mother with a sick child is very easily made angry and I think Jesus wanted her to be angry and take her first step out of being invisible.

Did you hear how he praised her for standing up for herself? She flung his argument straight back in his face. ‘OK, preacher man. Let God’s children have the bread. But even the dogs under the table are glad of the crumbs they drop.” I think Jesus wanted to cheer. “Well done, that woman! You have found some self-respect. And your strength will bring about your daughter’s healing.” We don’t know how Jesus healed the girl-that is a discussion for another day- but we do know that strong mothers are a very powerful force in fragile children’s lives.

I am not denying that anger can be very destructive, especially when it is directed against innocent people or turned inwards upon yourself.
Yet anger can also be creative. How many great healers and social activists have found the root of their vocation in anger at the suffering in the world? In a novel by Taylor Caldwell, we meet an irascible Dr McManus, who tells of how, when a young man, his wife died in childbirth with their baby. And McManus there and then declared war upon the god he saw as snatching the loveliest and most well-loved from the world and he determined to fight back. McManus became a bold, daring surgeon, saving lives that others had given up on, because he was angry. The journalist William Stead, writing in the late nineteenth century, was made aware of thousands of girls as young as 10 or 11 in the UK being trafficked into sexual slavery. He was appalled that such things could go on in what was supposed to be a highly moral society. “It does not even raise the neighbours,” he was told. “Then I will raise hell.” And he did. Even though it cost him his job, he exposed this sexual slave trade, and the laws of the land were changed to protect young girls. All because Stead got angry.

As I see it, the difference between destructive and creative anger is hope. When you have no hope in life or in yourself or in God then all you can do with your anger is to take revenge. You have no hope of anything good and so you simply punish. And, more often than, not it is the innocent who are punished and the person most harmed, yourself.
But when your anger is backed by hope- hope that by standing up for yourself, things will get better, not just for you but for many more- then that anger can be the start of great things. In our story, Jesus had come not just to bring God to the Jews but to bring God to the world and he needed people like this Gentile (non-Jewish) woman to stand up for themselves; believe that they too had the right to be called children of God. He made her angry and gave her hope.

Having got this far, I started to understand something of the anger which placed Jesus on the cross and the anger which restored his life. It was as though all the anger in the world: anger at injustice; anger at oppression; anger at human suffering; anger at God who was not where He was wanted; anger without hope combined to nail an innocent man to a cross. If you read the story, you will see so many different forces of despairing anger displayed.
But this man could take it. He was willing to suffer rather than have us direct our anger at ourselves or others. And this is the man we call the Son of God. There is a Good Friday meditation from the Iona Community which says,
He will not give back evil for evil, return malice for malice, take revenge….or spew out hate.
He will not give back the sin of the world. He will take it away into death, into hell, so that he can lead us into heaven. Then he will go on again in faith towards the resurrection.

Jesus Christ, in taking upon himself the full weight of our anger, is able to give us hope. Death and destruction do not have the last word because God’s wrath has destroyed death and has overcome evil with goodness. We can be saved from the devastating power of anger without hope and our anger can be channelled with hope into creative and life-enhancing action because Christ has died, Christ is risen and in Christ all may be made alive.

I will leave you with some words of St Paul, who himself started out as a very angry man; angry at what he saw as a Christian threat to his sacred Jewish faith. His only outlet for that anger was to hunt the Christians down and kill them. But when he encountered Jesus, he was changed. Not only did he embrace the Christian faith but his attitude, despite all the hatred now directed at him, became one of hope and forgiveness. In his letter to the church at Ephesus he wrote, “Be angry but do not fall into sin. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with whom you were sealed for redemption. Get rid of bitterness, rage, brawling, slander and every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as Christ in God forgave you. “

The story of an angry woman becomes, through Jesus Christ, a tale of hope and healing. Carry this hope and healing with you into the weeks ahead. Amen.