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zero-sum?

SERMON PREACHED AT St PETER’S, ARROWTOWN

St PAUL’S, QUEENSTOWN, and THE GLENORCHY MISSION HALL

20th ORDINARY SUNDAY (August 13th) 2023

For a complete collection of Michael's sermons see Broken Moments:



READINGS:

Genesis 45: 1-15

Psalm 133 Rom 11: 1-2a, 29-32

Matthew 15: 10-20, 21-28

One of the more criminal misapplications of the gospel-events made by Christians over centuries is what is called supercessionism, or replacement theology. In short, such a theology basically affirms that the Hebrew People, the original People of God, blew their chance; God confiscated the baton of salvation, and handed it over to the Christians. More specifically, it is incorrectly alleged, the Jews executed the one we know as Son of God, and as such they are to be rejected, even despised.


Such a theology, so-called, is deeply evil. It reached its nadir in the Holocaust, the Shoah or “catastrophic destruction,” as most Jewish people would prefer it to be called. It is a dreadful misreading of the scriptures, and one that we slip into all too easily when we see the finger of scripture, as it were, pointing at others, and not at us.


Charles Wesley, amongst countless others, saw that the reading of scripture must far more accurately be pointed at ourselves. “Died he for me,” he wrote in the hymn we will soon be singing, “who caused his pain ̶ for me, who him to death pursued? Amazing love!”


We are not called to beat ourselves up, but we are called to recognize that we, as humans, will too often execute love, however bizarre that seems. We are called to recognize that love, compassion, justice: these are entwined.


I’m not sure where the phrase “zero-sum” came from. Google tells me it originated in game theory in the 1940s. It is a phrase much loved in conflict resolution, and seeks to convey the attitude that in conflict, and indeed in any collision of ideas, the outcome is all or nothing.


Australia’s Matildas and Sweden’s women experienced the brutal world of zero-sum last week. But football is a game.


The clash of faiths is not. To approach our siblings the Jewish people with a zero-sum mentality has been a deep stain in Christianity’s history.


Sadly it has been an attitude we have repeated in other realms, too, keeping people out or forcing them to change, rather than drawing them into the magnetic love of Christ.


I think Jesus is telling us more. Whatever happened in the witty exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, any attitude of zero-sum or win-lose is dismantled. The Jews traditionally hated the Syrophoenician gentiles, but hate is not the path of God.

Not quite uniquely, it is Jesus who is corrected. But let’s not be too literal about this. Jesus here exemplifies an attitude that in reality he was dismantling. He – and at this point we meet him as a character in a morality tale – represents an attitude of exclusion, uses zero-sum language to exemplify harsh boundaries and the hoisting up of drawbridges.


The desperation of the woman – the desperation of any parent about to lose their child – outweighs imagined scruples, and Jesus turns his own apparent response around to open a path of love and reconciliation. The woman – who remains like so many women in the scriptures, nameless – the woman’s daughter is healed.


The greater healing is up to us. Matthew wants us to see that we must exercise the compassion that Jesus, after the feisty exchange, exemplifies. The unnamed woman, like Jacob centuries earlier, has wrestled with God and prevailed. More to the point, the desperate woman has wrestled with injustice, even bigotry, that has come to be embedded in religious systems.


Our job is to ascertain where we embody zero sum, win-lose bigotry: where I am in, you must stay out. It works in a soccer game, where teams strive for ultimate glory. It does not work in a world crying out for compassion.


So I can only ask “who do I shut out of the encounter with Love that is embodied in our faith, our worship, our fellowship?” I will not dare to answer for you. But I do find God has a habit of whispering to me.

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