A sermon by The Revd Stella Wood, Chaplain of Godolphin School
The 14th Sunday after Trinity
I have a terrible habit of people-watching.
I try really hard not to do it in Church services – certainly never in the Cathedral.
But I do find it intriguing to watch people on the train,
or on platforms when people run into other peoples’ arms,
or mope off the platform as girlfriend has said farewell to boyfriend maybe for a whole week apart.
I’ve indulged in a spot of people-watching over the summer.
We went to Chatsworth.
Despite August’s signature dish of dark rainclouds hovering menacingly on the horizon,
my children fancied the maze.
We went forwards and left between the hedges
We went forwards then right then backwards.
Until 20 minutes later we were back at the start.
Those of you well versed in T.S. Eliot and with a more patient spirituality than me will tell you that it is good to do this sort of thing.
“and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know it for the first time”
but it didn’t convince my children.
So round two.
We met the same families we’d encountered on our first attempt.
But this time, as we recognised each other,
we compared notes and checked the strategies we’d all tried.
And a jolly comraderie struck up.
OK, so it was only a maze.
But we did find our way to the middle together.
In the afternoon we “did” Chatsworth House.
And the contrast was huge.
Inside, people didn’t really talk to others they didn’t know.
Many had their audioguides glued to their ear
and I was struck by the extent to which they were oblivious to the people around them, or indeed of much they were missing as they ploughed on whenever the beep on the audioguide ordered them on.
It had been even worse at the Warner Brothers Studios in North London a few weeks before.
There were the audio-guide folk again, this time with headphones.
And sometimes those doing the exclusive, guided tour,
with a real life expert. And also the headphones.
That, for them, was the way to make the most of the visit.
But it made it a very individual experience for them compared with the bonhomie of the maze.
There is a point to telling you all this.
I confess perhaps to a tiny element of procrastination since this morning’s Gospel reading is not the one I would have chosen personally for a service at the start of term and for a congregation including 400 young women.
But I suppose the world-wide Church wouldn’t have known you were coming when they set it.
The passage we heard was about Jesus’ rather shirty encounter with a woman from Syro-Phoenicia.
A different race and a different faith background to Jesus.
“Heal my daughter” she pleads.
“I haven’t been sent to the likes of you, but for the Jews” he replies and effectively blanks her.
That was rude.
It is not a comfortable story.
If you like your image of Jesus to be cuddly
or else for him to be wearing a dinner-plate halo, it doesn’t fit.
And so over the centuries, those who write about these things have pored over the original Greek words of the Bible
and tried to soften Jesus’ words or see them in a different light.
I’m not going there this morning.
I think for me, Jesus’ response is a reminder that if we believe in a Jesus who is fully human as well as fully God,
then he must have had his set of cultural expectations and prejudices just like anyone else.
A reminder that we believe in a 3D Jesus, not a portrait in a gallery.
But what if you’re not terribly into the Bible or the intricacies of what Christians believe about Jesus?
What if you’re here today because you are visiting Salisbury?
Or if you’re a parent of one or other school and you’ve come either because your child has nagged you
Or because you’re wanting to look compliant to the Head’s letter which encouraged parents to come.
What does the story say to you?
Or what if you’re here as a student?
Blearily getting used to it being term-time again and adapting to a new routine, maybe a new school?
What’s it got to do with you?
Well, let’s people watch a bit harder and look at this story.
Let’s conjure up an image of this Syrophoenician woman.
She doesn’t get a name in the Gospel,
but Syro-Phoenicia is the area up a bit and left a bit from the Sea of Galilee,
where so many of the Gospel accounts are set,
bordering on Syria.
If it helps, we’re not so very far from the temples of Palmyra which would have been buzzing in her lifetime.
We know she’s a mother .
We know her daughter is little and has an unclean spirit,
which, in a pre-scientific world, could mean any sort of illness from a fit to a learning disability.
So, a lady whose name is unknown, but from the Syrian region
has a child in danger and looks Jesus in the eye and asks for help.
She knows he has the power to help.
Cast your mind back over this week’s news
and it’s not a hard scene to imagine at all, is it?
It’s one that stares out at us too from the papers.
There’s been a sense of confusion as to how best to help.
Jesus too initially struggles to find the right response.
I think the echoes are there for any of us.
Whether you’re into the Bible or not, there’s a nudge that as human beings we can’t be indifferent to what’s going on and be fully human.
And of course at the heart of the story is the girl,
A young girl, maybe 8 or 9? Again no name.
Adults discussing her while she’s not there.
Some of you may recognise that!
Her mother fighting passionately for her.
Jesus, a man she’s never met –
indifferent at the start, but then changing her life.
You know, as I people watched this story,
I realised it was actually a really good one for today
as schools across Salisbury and the country
spring back into life and term-time.
I love its heart being the safety, happiness and health of the child
– that’s what anyone involved in education should be about
and I think it’s a pretty obvious litmus test for any shiny new educational initiative which lands on our desks during the term.
I love the way two adults find their common ground in the needs of young people despite coming from different worlds themselves.
I love its emphasis on dialogue, on working things out together.
Yes, there is a brisk and a bit of a shirty exchange.
The woman won’t take Jesus’ no for an answer and comes back,
as quick as a flash, with her point about her child having the crumbs from under the table.
But that helps Jesus to look at her anew and to heal her daughter.
In honest dialogue,
in persistent talking to each other, comes common ground.
And even maybe learning on Jesus’ side as he realises the woman’s faith and that he should not dismiss her.
I don’t want you to think I spent my whole holiday being nosey and watching people.
I did also read some books.
And there was a story in one that touched me.
It was a story from Kofi Annan,
the Secretary General of the United Nations for almost ten years
between 1997 and 2006 when so much happened in the world.
He has always struck me as a remarkable man
and he wrote about one of the most important lessons he had ever learnt in life.
He learnt it at school and remembers it 70 years or so later.
He learnt it while he was alongside others, not on his own.
“At school in Ghana” he writes, “I was one of a group of boys who sat on the floor of our professor’s office for a weekly lesson in ‘spoken English’. One day the professor put a large sheet of white paper on the wall.
The paper had a little black dot on the right-hand corner.
When the professor asked “Boys, what do you see?” we all shouted together “A Black dot!”.
The professor stood back and said “So, not a single one of you saw the white sheet of paper. You only saw the black dot. This is the awful thing about human nature. People never see the goodness of things and the broader picture. Don’t go through life with that attitude”.
“One of the most important lessons I ever learned” he concludes, “came from a sheet of paper and a black dot”.
At the start of the academic year, I hope all students,
well actually all of us,
will have a “white sheet of paper” moment.
I hope that you’ll use it to the good of other people and be prepared to stand up for what you believe in when you need to.
I believe that you have the potential to help those of us older to do the same,
And I pray that children – whether from Salisbury, Syria or Sudan will always be cherished and never under-estimated.