To be an Episcopalian is not to be respectable

To be an Episcopalian means not to be respectable.

This morning’s gospel reading is one of the most interesting of the stories about Jesus that are ever told. Even if we’ve heard it before, it still has the capacity to surprise.

He said what?

And what did she say in response?

A mother begs for healing for her daughter and the one we now recognise as king of kings and lord of lords brushes her off with a remark that reads very much like racism.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”

Nevertheless she persisted and her cheeky reply has an edge to it. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

In that moment, she seems to know his mission to save the whole world considerably better than he did.

And she changes him. He thinks again.

Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.

The issue of race has been very much in our minds this week as night after night the news here has been filled with the events in Charlottesville in the United States and the obscenely inadequate response of President Trump to the racism and violence which occurred there.

The far-right mob that was saw on television was shocking to behold though for me not that surprising. The same forces which stoked that hatred were turned on us here at St Mary’s using the internet just a few months ago and we met under police protection for our worship for a while.

As has been the case at a number of times in our history, we were known then as a congregation to be not entirely respectable.

We are so used to seeing Jesus as the epitome of everything that it stops us short to hear his response to the woman we meet today.

Is he on the side of equity and justice or isn’t he.

The trouble is, then as well as now, that our notions of God can make us think that all that we behold in Jesus outshines all that is in the human heart. We think of him as perfect, eternal goodness, notwithstanding our view that he became fully human.

The danger of thinking of him in quite that way is that it might dazzle us so much that we cannot see the truth that God is in everyone. Everyone is made in the image and likeness of God and even the presence of Jesus next to someone should not drown that out.

And it doesn’t.

She speaks the truth. God’s truth. She has a conscience. She uses her cheek and guile and yes, maybe her sheer cussed desperation to challenge something that she knows can’t be right. She is not quite respectable and she doesn’t care.

And the Lord of Lords changes his mind. His heart is melted and he brings and end to suffering.

Never again do we hear of him attempting to turn someone away because they were not of the right people. Or indeed not the right anything. He ended up being the saviour for everyone.

God is with her as she speaks. God is with her even as she speaks the truth. And God is with each and every one of us demanding no less.

Even if it is the most righteous, Godly, holy person who confronts us with what seems to be racism, this gospel suggests that God will be with us as we confront it anyway.

The racism in the USA this week is real and must be confronted with the narrative of justice. It must also not blind us to such things here either.

Just up the road from here in the last 10 days there was a violent homophobic attack in a street in which I regularly walk.

Speaking truth to such violence can be costly.

My friends in the American church are trying to find the words today to speak truth and God’s wisdom to their situation.

They will be emboldened on this day by the memory of one of the people they have put in their calendar whose feast day falls today – Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

He is not so widely known here but he would be a good suggestion to enhance our calendar of saints too. He was a young Episcopalian seminarian who in 1965 answered Martin Luther King’s call to clergy and seminarians to go to Selma to work for Civil Rights.

Having been unjustly imprisoned, on his release he and those with him were attacked and he lost his life shielding a young black woman Ruby Sales. He died. She lived. And she went on to be a human rights advocate in Washington DC. He was a hero of the faith who died saving others. She is a hero of the faith who lives still, saving others still.

In the commemoration of his martyrdom today, I hope that our beloved Episcopalians in the USA find strength and courage and wisdom for this moment.

And so should we too.

For as I said, it is not just in the USA that such forces must be confronted.

I spent some time this week working on leaflets for the Pride march which some of us went on yesterday. As I was doing so, I went online to ask others for some ideas.

I was sent a piece of writing about the Scottish Episcopal Church written about 15 years ago which I’m going to end with.

It is from Robin Angus, one of the living saints of the diocese of Edinburgh.

He said this.

To be an Episcopalian means to be on the side of the poor and persecuted everywhere. For nearly a century our worship was outlawed, our churches were burned or raided by soldiers, our priests were banished, imprisoned or killed, our people harried and fined, informed against and ostracised. For this reason, it is the glory and honour of every Episcopalian also to be a Jew, a Palestinian, gay, black, untouchable, and every other kind of person who ever has, is, or will be persecuted or disadvantaged. This is why, too, Episcopalians glory in racial diversity, a tradition which goes far back into our history. Bishop Forbes of Ross proudly recorded how he had confirmed two young [black people] at one of his crowded Highland Confirmations in 1770, at a time when even to attend such Confirmations, let alone minister at them, was still a criminal act.

To be an Episcopalian means not to be respectable.

Remember that this day as you worship in this beautiful house of God in the oh so respectable West End of this glorious city.

To be here is to be part of something decidedly not respectable.

And as we give honour and love to God here in this place for an hour or two a week, it is our joy, our destiny and our delight to give love and honour to God as God appears to us in the faces of the souls we meet for every other hour.

That is who we are.

And if you are here this day or find yourself in any of our churches, then that is the kind of faith to which we call you.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.



  1. Superb take on this difficult story from Matthew, and the other stories of Jonathan Daniels and Robin Angus. Thank you.

  2. But Mark records Jesus as saying, ‘Permit first to be satisfied the children;for it is not good to take the bread of the children and to the dogs to throw[it]’. That word ‘first’ tells us that Jesus already knows that there will be a ‘second’, that his ministry will extend beyond the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

    These words of Jesus also suggest that ‘I was not sent except to the lost sheep of [the] house of Israel’ refers to this phase of his ministry.

    Also, if the following incidents were earlier in time than the incident of the healing of the woman’s daughter, your

    ‘In that moment, she seems to know his mission to save the whole world considerably better than he did. And she changes him. He thinks again’.

    is disproved.

    Luke’s account (chapter 4) of the visit to Nazareth, because Jesus’ reference to Naaman and the widow of Sidon suggest that he was aware that his mission, like that of Elijah and Elisha, would extend beyond the covenant people.
    Matthew’s account (chapter 8) of the healing of the centurion’s servant, giving rise to Jesus’ ‘And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.
    Jesus’ explanation (Matthew 13) of the parable of the tares of the field: the one sowing the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world (my emphasis); the good seed are the sons of the kingdom; the tares are the sons of the evil one.

    What are your reasons for being sure that these three events are later in time than the healing of the woman’s daughter?

  3. Martin Reynolds says

    We do not live for the poor, we do not live with the poor, we do not identify with the poor.
    We wear silk vestment adorn ourselves with elegant titles and eat at the best tables and are welcome in the highest corridors of power.

  4. Sarah Lawton says

    Kelvin, thank you for your email today pointing back to this sermon. I appreciate your pointing to Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who was a friend of my parents. My mother always felt she had a part in his death, I think, because she was one of the organizers of the seminary group that responded to the Rev. Dr. King’s call for church leaders to go to Selma, and it was she who persuaded Jon to go. One of her last acts on this Earth was to help put his name on our Church’s calendar (first reading, General Convention 1991). But then, we are baptized into Christ and therefore each other, which is I think what you are saying in this sermon. That means we are implicated in the ills of this world but also share in Jon’s martyrdom. We live in the hope of resurrection but the way there is through the utter scandal of the cross. Jon in his latter months of life rejected theologies of complacency and also self-righteousness as he committed himself to a ministry of presence.

    Martin Reynolds, there is no question our particular church tradition has some history with money and power. My own little congregation identifies strongly with the poor, the folks sleeping rough right outside our doors, and the immigrant families of our neighborhood. Our Sunday services can be a little chaotic as a consequence of the varieties of folks in various states of mind who come on a Sunday, but our spiritual life as a congregation is pretty good; it honestly feels like a gift to be there in the communion circle. We’re a longtime LGBT congregation, so I think it’s part of who we are to have economic diversity and also a rejection of traditional social masks. We’re also deeply rooted in prayer, which is how we got through worst of the AIDS years and all the funerals.

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