20th August 2023. St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh
Isaiah 56.1, 6-8; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15.21-28
What would you do if a friend handed you a million pounds and asked you to give it away? No money-laundering concerns, all tax liabilities sorted. ‘I’m off on a humanitarian mission to distant lands,’ explains your friend, ‘and I’d be very grateful if, whilst I’m away, you hand out this money. Give it to anyone and everyone. I know it isn’t enough to eradicate poverty or anything, but it might make some people’s lives a little happier.’
You would quickly realise that your friend had imposed on you quite a responsibility. Some of us might wisely decline the invitation – others might delight in wandering the streets thrusting wads of cash at unsuspecting passers-by. But if you’re like me, you might want to spend some time working out priorities, where the money might be used most productively, where it wouldn’t (subjective term this) be wasted. So, I might not give him the money because it would feed his drug habit, or her because of her gambling addiction, and as for those secretive individuals over there, I’d be worried that they might use it to finance terrorism.
Now, I’m not saying I’d necessarily be wrong to have these qualms, but you can see how easily an act of simple generosity on my friend’s part, their desire to include everyone in their largesse, has become, from the best of motives, hedged about with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and lost in a moral maze. A glorious desire for inclusion has been subverted by an instinct for exclusion. It’s as if a big sign saying, ‘Everyone Welcome Here’, has had small print added listing all those who perhaps aren’t so welcome.
Today’s readings all speak of inclusion – of the outward thrust of God’s love to include all – of not finding reasons to exclude. Isaiah speaks of a time when foreigners, not just Jews, might be numbered amongst God’s people, when the Jerusalem Temple will be a ‘house of prayer for all peoples.’ St Paul, writing at a very different moment in history, is at pains to affirm that just because most Jews had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah they are still, nevertheless included in God’s purposes and, indeed, are a key part of God’s salvation plan.
And in our gospel reading just now we heard of Jesus’ intriguing encounter with a Canaanite woman (a non-Jew) who has a sick daughter – an intelligent woman who refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer and engages in what can only be called a theological debate with Jesus. Some have suggested that we see in this story Jesus learning, stepping beyond his inherited prejudices that regarded Gentiles as unclean, like dogs. Or is there a twinkle in Jesus’ eye as he deliberately provokes the mother to speak her mind? Either way, the child is healed – the dogs do get the crumbs that fall from the master’s table, and they reap the benefits. And the readers of the story, including you and me, are introduced to the extraordinary inclusiveness of God’s grace. All are included, even a Canaanite woman, even her little girl.
This morning’s readings, in other words, put up that big sign, ‘Everyone Welcome Here!’ Yet, let’s be honest, we don’t need to look too far to discover that Christians too have, over the years, been eager to add small print and to find categories of people who may not be quite so welcome. Jesus says, ‘Come to me, come share my generosity with others’, whilst the church too often has echoed the disciples in the story, ‘Send her away, she’s annoying us’, or the older son in the story of the Prodigal, who can’t understand why his father would be so pleased to feast his wastrel brother.
We Christians have had to learn, and we’re still learning, what it really means, what it means deep down, to say that God’s arms are wide open to welcome everyone in, no exceptions, no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.
Now this message of Godly inclusion can take us in a number of directions this morning. And, at a time of human migration and displacement it offers us some hard challenges. But I’m not going to labour that point. Instead, I find within our readings an opportunity to say something positive about Edinburgh and all its festivals.
I love Edinburgh in August. I love the international feel and the chatter of different languages, I love the way language is transcended by music and performance, how boundaries are pushed and broken through, how drama, poetry, humour, invite us to step away from what we take to be normal and orthodox and permanent and to consider, if only for an hour, other possibilities. I love how, at its best, this joyful collision of the arts enables us to encounter and even to enjoy our differences.
Not that we always get it right. Once again, during this past week, we’ve bumped into the question of where the limits of free speech lie. As Salman Rushdie famously said, ‘No one has the right not to be offended.’ Equally, our laws don’t give anyone the right to indulge in hate speech in public or to spread lies about another person. Yet, given what I’ve said already this morning, and given what the Christian church has learned, often painfully, over the years, you won’t be surprised when I suggest that a festival of the arts is at its best when it includes rather than excludes, when it enables people to hear and understand different ways of looking at the world, even if in so doing they are made to feel uncomfortable.
We live, I believe, at a dangerous moment, when healthy public discourse is under threat and when too many regimes seek to silence dissent and suppress alternative viewpoints. I fear that so-called ‘cancel culture’, and the de-platforming of speakers plays into and normalises this threat. I believe that when one group refuses to listen to another both sides suffer, and we risk becoming a world in which ideologies go unchallenged and never called to account. We know, and the founders of the Edinburgh Festival knew only too well where such failures may lead us.
I believe that this is where faith and the arts may touch and nourish each other, partners in longing for a kinder future. Faith and the arts both seek beauty, but not at the expense of truth, both understand that for human beings truth and beauty are elusive and sometimes contradictory. Both, at their best, open up new possibilities and invite us into a quest that seeks to benefit all and not just some.
For it is when we include rather than exclude that all this ambiguity, honest disagreement, connection across difference becomes not a cause for suspicion or fear but an opportunity to discover the delights of more abundant living. A pattern of living, I believe, to which God calls us, and which we glimpse in the encounter of Jesus with a Canaanite woman and her child.