Preacher: The Rev’d Jenny Wilson

Text: Matthew 15:21-28

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

The word Fieri, the name of our choir in residence this week, means “become”. This is a word, an idea, with no small theological meaning. That we as human beings, that our visitors as a group of singers, that our planet, that creation even, are in a place of becoming is a truth given by God who created us. We are made but we are not static. We are not yet complete. God has created us in love, but God’s work is not yet done. We are in a place of becoming. The word “fieri” describes us too.

Before we ponder the place of music in these things, on this our Music Sunday, before we ponder how music nurtures our “becoming” in God, we need to spend a little time with what is indeed a most challenging gospel reading. We might find that, in this reading, not only are the characters who encounter Jesus undergoing a change, embracing their “becoming” if you like, but this is true of Jesus too. We will reflect on what it might mean that Jesus allows himself to embrace the process that this reading seems to strongly imply he undergoes.

Jesus has just been challenged by the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the scribes, about his disciples’ failure to observe the religious laws about washing their hands before they eat. In a long exchange, Jesus, with the leaders and then with the crowd that has gathered around, explores what it is that truly renders a person unclean. The religious leaders are offended by Jesus’ challenge to him. Jesus then goes into Gentile territory, into the district of Tyre and Sidon, presumably to have a break from such challenging encounters. But a Canaanite woman from the region will not let him rest. She cries out to him, three times, begging him to heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon. She is about to challenge him, this time, about who is clean, about who belongs. We find that, unlike the religious leaders in the previous scene, the woman is far from offended by Jesus’ response to her. She perseveres until he gives her that for which she asks.

Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; The woman cries, at first, identifying Jesus as a leader in the Jewish faith, but he does not answer her at all. Jesus’ disciples come and urge him to send her away. Jesus, though, does speak to her, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ He is saying that she does not belong to the group to whom he has come to bring life. Abandoning the Jewish title, “Son of David”, the woman comes and kneels before Jesus, saying, simply, ‘Lord, help me.’  She brings only her vulnerability, her longing for the daughter she loves to be healed. Jesus answers, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ We need to understand what he is saying here. He is not insulting the woman as it might first appear. In the culture, non-Jewish people were referred to as dogs. Jesus is saying that, because the woman is not a Jew, he is not there to heal her daughter. Speaking a third time, the woman says, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ The woman uses Jesus’ own image to challenge him, to teach him.

We know Jesus is the consummate teacher, one who uses parables involving images from ordinary life to give those around him insight into the ways of God. This woman, this outsider, plays him at his own game. She subverts his image. She is clearly broadening the scope of Jesus’ healing power, engaging with the image Jesus has employed and using it to challenge him. The Canaanite woman sees a breadth to Jesus’ capacity to heal that it seems he does not yet see.  She converts him and Jesus answers her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter is healed instantly. Jesus’ view of the woman is transformed. The one he had named a dog, an outsider, he now calls “Woman.” Through this woman he has become a little more who he is. The one who brings healing to the world.

We might ponder this encounter a little more deeply. For it is puzzling. Is this a battle scene? Are Jesus and the woman fighting, a fight that the woman wins? We would surely struggle a little with this – for it seems incongruent with everything else we know about Jesus.

It is possible that the key characteristic of Jesus, the offering of vulnerability that we see on the cross – might give a lens on this story that will help. We remember that, in what is known as the Philippians Hymn, Paul writes that Jesus “emptied himself …  humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8)We might also remember that, in another healing story, when a woman with a haemorrhage which has plagued her for twelve years touches Jesus, he becomes aware that power has gone forth from him (Mark 5:30). In the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, again, Jesus loses power, Jesus is humbled. He engages with the woman allowing her to overpower him with her faith and her insight into God’s desire to heal. This is not about a fight that Jesus loses, so much as a humbling engagement that Jesus allows.

Through her faith, through the power of her love for her daughter, the woman in this story becomes the one who not only brings healing to that daughter, but is the one who helps Jesus become more deeply who he is. His engagement with this, though, is of the nature of his engagement with his whole life and particularly in his death – an engagement of humility. Jesus allows this engagement to take place; he allows his limited understanding of himself to be exposed by a foreign woman.

In the gospel stories there are many accounts of Jesus’ healing of one who is suffering. These stories have a pattern. In each healing story, Jesus acts in humility allowing the one who suffers to cry out, to reach out and in the case of the Canaanite woman to argue with him, in order that healing may take place. In every case Jesus allows the one who is healed or who asks for the healing of a loved one to find their faith, to become a person of faith, and through their becoming, to bring out healing from him, to enable him to become the one who heals. Jesus acts in humility, as the one who asks for healing acts in faith. Both are blessed, both become more deeply who God has made them to be.

This engagement through humility has resonances with the way we engage with music. This morning we are blessed by music, by the beautiful Mass setting by Christopher Tye into which our Eucharist is woven; last night, in the concert entitled ‘Out of the Shadows’, we were blessed by music that explored the concept of transgression – legal, moral, and spiritual – and humanity’s journey towards redemption. When we allow ourselves to be touched by music we approach it with humility, with vulnerability, we allow it to reach us, to possibly even transform us; we allow music to open our eyes to the beauty and the struggle of life, to the possibility of God and love and redemption. Our encounter with music is not unlike Jesus’ encounter with those who come to him for healing, not unlike their encounter with him.

Fieri, becoming.

The presence of the Fieri Consort with us this week and particularly this morning, reminds us of the profound significance of music in the life of this cathedral, music that nurtures our growth, our becoming as children of God. We offer our heartfelt thanks to Hannah, Helen and Lucy, Ben, David, Josh and Tom, The Fieri Consort, who have come into our midst to sing and to teach, to inspire and to share friendship. We are deeply grateful to our Music Foundation for sponsoring the Fieri Consort’s visit. As we are grateful to Music Foundation for supporting the Fund Raising for the restoration of our Cathedral organ. The courage we have shown in embarking on this project is a courage in which we are claiming our identity as a sacred place dedicated to the performance of and education in fine music. This cathedral is indeed a place where prayer is nurtured in beautiful music and fine liturgy, where prayer is nurtured in the midst of people who have gathered to ponder what it is to be given the gift of life, to know the struggles and blessings of life, and to glimpse the truth that the God who made us continues to bless us as we become the children God made us to be.