The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      20th August 2017
Breaking down Barriers
Jeremy Fletcher

Matthew 15. 21 - 28


I have a lot to thank Mr Turner for. In an incredibly painstaking way which I failed to appreciate at the time, he taught me Scripture at my Methodist secondary school. I think I knew his methods were not very good, but it was obvious that this was no mechanical exercise: Mr Turner was a Methodist Local Preacher, and there was devotion in his teaching. Because of him I just know that the passage we have as our Gospel today, in Matthew 15, is about the breaking down of barriers, the bringing of salvation to unlikely people, and the opening up of understanding. I hear those things in Mr Turner’s voice as he dictated our essay plans to us, so we could pass O Level a year early. Here Jesus goes beyond what was expected, pushes at boundaries, and breaks down things which separate, not always in a way which was welcomed by all.


Barriers and boundaries are there because people feel safe within them. The proverb made famous by its inclusion in Robert Frost’s poem ‘Mending Wall’ – “Good fences make good neighbours” – is actually pretty widespread across many cultures. As long as I know what separates us then I can accept our differences. As long as there is a line which we both know should not be crossed, then perhaps we can accept each other. Mr Turner also taught us Geography, but he was less successful in planting that subject in my soul. Nevertheless I have a fascination for maps and globes, and I can still remember the time I realised that the map of Africa had not always been like that, that new countries and borders had been invented, that boundaries were being redefined. More recent generations have had that experience over what we used to call Yugoslavia, the USSR, and back in Africa with the world’s newest country, South Sudan. Massive trouble goes into defining territory, and huge wars continue to be fought about it. Being a good neighbour does rather depend on where the line is drawn.


Where this begins to strike home is in the very territory described in Matthew 15.  The cities of Tyre and Sidon have been fought over by Israel and Lebanon for decades – most recently in 2006. The Decapolis, around Galilee, is in the territory annexed by Israel from Syria 30 years ago, the Bekaa valley and the Golan Heights. These were disputed territories then also: the land promised to the 12 tribes of Israel included these areas, and much of it formed part of David and Solomon’s kingdom before the boundaries were redrawn. The Jews then may have looked longingly at these lands just as modern Israel tries to secure them now. 


Look carefully at Robert Frost’s poem, and you’ll find it is not a justification of boundaries and fences. It calls them into question, and challenges the proverb. He is fixing his wall which has been damaged, and starts by saying ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’. He discusses this with his neighbour, who quotes the old proverb about fences and neighbours. Frost goes on: 


Before I built a wall I'd ask to know 

What I was walling in or walling out, 

And to whom I was like to give offence. 


In 2005 the Israeli Cabinet approved the route of a wall, separating Israel from the territories of the West Bank. It is horrifying to see it, in concrete and barbed wire form, defining, and some would say annexing, disputed territory. For a month in 2012 I looked it every day. The wars fought over boundaries give physical form to the differences between peoples which can deny, rather than affirm humanity. Whom do we offend when we define our differences? Who is being walled in and walled out? It is an easy step to go beyond the physical to legal, racial and cultural boundaries: many borders simply delineate them anyway. What offence might be given when we glorify and codify difference? 


The news this week, not least from the United States, has been full of that verbalising of difference, and violent actions which are both symptom and continuation of suspicion and hatred. The shocking thing about Matthew 15 is that Jesus seems to inhabit just this world of racial and cultural difference. Away from Jewish territory, in Gentile lands, a Greek speaking woman begs for help. The bread is for children, not dogs, he says. He calls non Jews ‘dogs’. Was that racist? Many commentators point out that this probably depends on tone of voice, and indeed the word for dogs is not the normal one for the feral creatures which were shooed away if they came close, but the house doggies which people loved. This may be: what I read is that, in a world where people had codified their differences, a woman with a need common to all humanity – a sick child - tried to reach beyond them, and Jesus ultimately responded. Having named the existing difference, he transcended it. Everyone knew the implications of what happened, just as they did when he talked to a Samaritan woman, or touched a leper, or shared a meal with a prostitute. 


This story is so important to the early church that the disciples refuse to airbrush out their complicity in reviling the woman: they want to ‘send her away’. In not doing so Jesus shows that the deepest things unite us; that boundaries and conventions and cultures can deny our common humanity and our common need for salvation. After all the Hebrew Scriptures affirm that the Gentiles will be saved. Jesus puts flesh on that when a Phoenecian woman goes home to find her daughter well. Jesus challenged his hearers, here and elsewhere, when hi commend a Gentile’s faith and contrasts it unfavourably with that of his own people. Here a barrier is broken down. 


The tragic world we inhabit spends much of its energy defining difference. The Jesus of Matthew 15 breaks down the barriers which divide us to declare loud and clear that we all receive the love and forgiveness and new life God brings; that with gifts differing and in a variety of ways we are one humanity; that attitudes to law, territory and physical attributes cannot be used to gain advantage over others and put them down; that we belong to one another, because we all belong to God. How that works in Tyre and Sidon, in Charlottesville and Barcelona, today should be the stuff of our prayers. And how it works in Hampstead and this multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-faith city today is the stuff of our discipleship, and our discovery of the kingdom of God.

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