(James 2.1-10, 14-17; Mark 7.24-end)
It’s very nice to see the Godolphin School back after your summer holiday, and in particular to welcome any of you who may be new to the school and to this Cathedral. Starting a new school or going anywhere you’ve never been before is always a tricky thing: most people feel quite nervous, trying to work out how to fit in to this new group - where to go, where to sit, who to speak to, how to behave. It’s happened to everyone, at school and in lots of other places throughout life; and it’s absolutely fantastic when someone else notices that you’re new and uncertain, and so greets you with a smile and helps you find your feet. Little things, easily done, but they matter a lot. And the opposite experience - being ignored, or being greeted dismissively or unkindly - is correspondingly hurtful, and can really set you back.
These things apply whatever age you are, and whatever social grouping you may be entering. When James the apostle wrote his letter, he certainly didn’t have in mind a girls’ boarding school in England. But he did have in mind something vaguely resembling this service: a gathering of Christians. And is any of us the host here? Is any of this ours? No, this is God’s house and Christ’s fellowship into which people have come. So, rich, poor, stranger, friend - all should have equal place here, all should feel equally welcome.
The scene in Mark’s gospel shows Jesus trying to get away for a break. He has just spent ages in debate and argument with religious leaders and his own followers; he has been surrounded by crowds and he obviously was hoping that by going away from his own Jewish community he might get a bit of peace and quiet, some personal space. As we are told, ‘He did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice...’. Even among strangers he found that people came up to him and asked him to help them. Maybe he was tired, maybe he was saving his energies for people whose understanding of God was similar to his own - but either way, when a woman asked his help for her son, he said one of the most unpleasant things he’s recorded as saying. ‘... it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ No one wants to be called a dog; but this woman so believed that Jesus could help her son that she was happy to embrace the comparison, and then even an irritable Jesus could see the power of God’s healing grace working through her.
We easily make the Christian faith a very complicated thing, overflowing with innumerable words and ideas. At heart though - and the heart is usually more powerful than the head - it’s simple. And there are two quite simple messages to be drawn from across these two readings.
1) Before God, there aren’t ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups, people he favours and people he doesn’t. Anyone and everyone is welcome, even those we might most naturally disregard or despise.
2) We have to care about and for other people; we have to help. The stranger, the poor person, the sick person - whoever.
These things aren’t new. It was all there in the Old Testament scripture Deuteronomy. It was there when Jesus quoted that scripture. It was there when James also quoted it and called it the ‘royal law’. It’s here now and it applies everywhere. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’