Challenging cultural conventions

By Rev Elizabeth Raine

To assist you in this worship, you may wish to light a candle, and gather some symbols that might help you to worship, reflect and pray. A green cloth for the current church season, something that inspires your imagination, a cross or an icon may be useful to help you reflect on today’s theme.

As this Sunday would normally be communion, I suggest you have before you an empty glass or wine glass and an empty plate on the cloth, for the liturgy of the empty plate and cup.

Opening Prayer

(adapted from Spill the Beans Iss.35)

Living God, we are here before you today as your people.
We are a community of faith, a family of hope, a people of love.
We give thanks that your constant and unending love
knows no boarders, no ethnicity, no gender or sexuality,
but is poured out freely upon each one of us, today and in perpetuity.
In a time of uncertainty and fear,
we ask that this love continues to sustain us
through whatever trials we face.
As we seek to follow you in this ever-changing world
we ask for the wisdom to see your light shining in every person we meet.
Let your example of care and compassion for all people be our guiding force.
In the many times that we fail to follow in your footsteps,
we ask, not only for forgiveness,
but for boldness and surety in our ability to carry on, to return to your path.
No matter how many times we may falter
we pray that we will always know that you stand with us.
God of all, merciful and loving,
we come before you,
in faith, hope, and love,
today and every day,
Amen.

Matthew 15:10-28 (NRSV)
15:10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Reflecting on the Word

“I have come only to the lost sheep of Israel”

Today’s passage has two parts. The first is one on purity and religious custom, and the second is… also about purity and religious custom. What shocks us about the second story, though, is how Jesus speaks to the Canaanite woman.

The two passages, in different ways, talk what is socially acceptable and religious custom. But this story emphasises that we have to move past all the cultural stuff we practice in order to get to the heart of what God is about.

We are culturally hard-wired to repeat conventions and live by a bundle of unspoken rules in how we respond and react to people in our cultures. Each culture has caricatures about their generational conventions. For the UK it may be a ‘stiff upper lip’, and for Australia it’s “she’ll be right, mate”.

And we judge each other by these unspoken but ingrained rules each culture lives by. So the Pharisees challenge Jesus in the fact the disciples do not wash their hands (not for hygiene purposes but for signs of being pure) and say that they cannot be holy because they do not carry out the rituals that show they are pure.

Jesus challenges them in return suggesting that what comes out of your mouth comes from your heart. That’s how we can really see if someone is pure or not, implying the Pharisees are not pure because of what they have just said.

Straight after this, we move into the story of the Canaanite woman. All the conventions fly out the window. A woman (O dear!) who is on her own (What no chaperone? Breaking convention!) speaks to Jesus (Speaks!! How dare she do that!) and then by ignoring the disciples she breaks yet another social convention of obeying men.

So outwardly everything about her is unclean and wrong and potentially impure. Yet she then speaks from the heart about how she and daughter too have a place in the kingdom.

Perhaps at this point Jesus’ is confronted with his own words about the Pharisees and their motivation. What is he saying here in his initial words to the woman? Shockingly, the answer is nothing compassionate. But then, Jesus’ heart appears to undergo some sort of change, for after he addresses the woman as an unwanted foreigner he moves from this apparent cultural abuse to words of grace and healing to her.

This Gospel story provides us with a clear role model – an unexpected picture of Jesus, confronting a woman who acts out of character, who transgresses the rules of behaviour for her day, and who provokes Jesus into seeing things differently, and valuing the other person in a new way. It is an important reminder to us, never to be so settled, so comfortable, that we are incapable of changing our mind or revising our opinion. Because in the story, that is precisely what Jesus did.

Reflecting on the passage

What can we learn from this story?

Think about the some of the unwritten rules we have in our churches and communities that we take for granted and use to judge others against. These are often unspoken and are not recorded anywhere but have built up over generations. They might include things such as who does certain tasks, where we sit in church, who gets invited on social outings.

Questions we can consider include:

Prayer for ourselves and others

(adapted from Spill the Beans, Iss.35)

Generous God,
we pray for your blessing on us,
as we seek to find you in the midst of fear and trouble.
As we search for hope in times of darkness,
shine your light into the lives of each of us,
that we may know your love is with us always.
We pray for your whole church,
a people attempting to live in your example
and spread your message throughout the world.
We pray for the marginal,
those on the edges of our society, living in fear or hurt,
attempting to overcome great pain,
without the comfort and security many of us take for granted.
We pray that we, your people, will give everything to help them
and that they will find support in you.
We pray for our global community.
As the world seems ever smaller,
where one country is not immune
from the troubles of another,
we ask that leaders and citizens
will follow your example
of peace, love, and forgiveness,
and work towards a better world.
We pray that each one of us
will show your love to the world
welcoming friend and stranger alike,
bringing your kingdom ever closer,
Amen.

Liturgy of the empty cup and plate

This Sunday, as a church, we would have normally gathered to celebrate communion. At this time, we are unable to do that, so this liturgy has been written to help you reflect on communion and its place in your worshiping life.

Invitation
This earth is not our earth.
This is God’s earth.
This time is not my time.
This is God’s time.
This table is not my table.
This is God’s table.

God’s earth, God’s time, God’s table…
It is God who provides this place and this time.
Provision is made for us all to be part of God’s story.
In this time, we rededicate ourselves and our surroundings
for God’s good purposes.

Though we/I cannot come to your table
to receive the bread and wine,
we/I know that you still meet us/me here;
you embrace us in our brokenness,
you pour out your love upon us/me,
name us/me as your disciples, and claim us/me for an eternity.
And we/I can still remember, as you commanded.
We/I lament that we/I will not share
the bread and wine today.
We/I lament that we/I cannot grasp
a hand in fellowship today.
We/I lament the suspending of this sacrament.
We/I can remember that the Lord is with us/me.
We/I can remember to lift up our/my hearts.
We/I can remember to give thanks to the Lord our God.

Blessing and praise still belongs to you,
God of promise and of covenant.

Through your living Word
you created all things,
the majesty of the heavens
and the glory of the earth.
In your wisdom and goodness
you have made all people
in your image and likeness.

We/I remember the story
that on the night of his betrayal
your Son Jesus took the bread
and took the wine, blessed them
and shared them with his closest friends,
saying: “Remember me.”

Come now, Holy Spirit;
bless us/me here today.
Pour out the Holy Spirit on this empty plate and this empty cup,
that they may be for us/me – even in their emptiness
– the body and blood of Christ, so that we/I may take his life into our lives, and be taken ourselves to be blessed, broken and given for the world.

Blessing

(adapted from Spill the Beans, Iss.35)

God of the stranger:
open our hearts and our eyes
so we can recognise the foreigner as neighbour.
God of redemption:
help us to find the courage to work for your kingdom
and to build a community where all are included,
all are accepted, and all are loved.
Bless us as we go about the work of your kingdom. Amen.

Photo of Rev Elizabeth Raine

Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine

Elizabeth was minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, between 2018 and 2023. Elizabeth retired in December 2023 and has moved to Dungog in the Hunter valley, with her husband Rev Dr John Squires.

Over the years, Elizabeth has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister. 

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