The challenge of the Canaanite woman

Usually, if I publish a sermon on here, I publish it verbatim. This sermon was a bit long, so I’ve cut out some of context setting from the opening section. It was also written for my very social-justice orientated congregation in Highbury – but I’ve added some things that I’d want to say to a wider audience…

Matthew 15: 21-28

Christ Church Highbury, August 20th 2017

The person who confronts Jesus has two important characteristics: she was a woman and she was a Canaanite. On two counts – her gender and her ethnicity –  this woman is unlikely to be listened to by those in religious or political positions of power. Including, it seems at the start of this encounter, Jesus and his disciples. When she cries out to Jesus to heal her daughter, verse 23 tells us that:

“Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’”

How does this response sit with you? Is this a rather inconvenient moment in the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ ministry? Where is Christ’s empathy?

There is an explanation for his reaction contained in his reply that: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’


When we read the New Testament as a whole, the message that the gospel is for both Jew and Gentile shines through. We take Paul’s words to the Galatians as a vision to live by: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But a reading of Acts or Galatians also reveals the division that was caused in the Early Church by disagreements about what ethnicity meant in the context of being a Christian.  The fact that the Early Church was able to unite over this division should be inspirational for us.

In this encounter, Jesus realises that he is not embodying the fullness of who he is as the Messiah. Yes, he has been sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but there is also enough of his glory for even just the scraps to be given to those outside Israel. In this Canaanite woman, Jesus recognises more faith in who he is and who his Father is, than many in Israel have managed to muster!

A key message throughout Matthew’s gospel is one of Gentile inclusion. Time and again he reinforces the fact that Jesus came for all, regardless of their race. Just four chapters prior to this morning’s reading, Matthew has recorded Jesus’ rebuking of those who had not recognised him.

In chapter 11, verse 22, the cities of Tyre & Sidon are mentioned specifically. Jesus says to the crowd before him:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.” [Matt 11:21-22]

And it is here, in the region of Tyre and Sidon that a miracle is performed for a Gentile who had recognised Christ as her Messiah.


In confronting Jesus, this woman seems to have a huge amount of confidence! Standing in front of an acclaimed teacher, who has ignored her and then told her that she is irrelevant because of her race, she throws his words back in his face.

In fact, she adopts an attitude that was something of a tradition among poor, desperate women in this culture. Being persistent in an attempt to gain justice from a corrupt judge or similar authority figure is a trait seen elsewhere in contemporary accounts. Luke’s gospel includes an account in chapter 18 of Jesus telling the parable of a widow who finally receives justice from a judge because of her persistence.

The Canaanite woman’s response uses language that is strong as the reply she’s just had from Jesus. Can you imagine how you might have felt having come to someone desperate for help and been referred to as a dog? Yet she throws the analogy back at him brilliantly: ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’

‘Yes it is, Lord,’ she said. ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’

It is a phenomenal example of the power of faith. Having been ignored, I’m sure many of us would respond by simply walking away and avoiding a confrontation, but not this woman. And in turn, this interaction not only saves her daughter, but has an irrevocable impact upon Jesus’ ministry.


I knew a few weeks ago that I would be preaching on this passage today and was looking forward to it because it’s an encounter that I find deeply powerful. But over the last week it has increased in resonance. While doing some research online, I found an article in Political Theology Today published on Monday, in which today’s lectionary gospel reading was considered in light of current events in America.

It highlighted the importance of ‘Jesus’ conversion to justice’ – how he had realised the need to be open to the call his Father had given him – and called upon society to consider their own approach to justice. One sentence that particularly struck me was:

“Jesus models the reality of failure—that we often fail to think beyond the limited categories of our culture—but also the possibility of redemption through the reinstitution of justice.”

In the US, this is a call to recognise the events in Charlottesville and the response of the President for what they are: fascism; white supremacism; and evidence that institutional racism still exists. You may be aware that 81% of Americans who identify as “evangelical” voted for Trump. This article, along with many, many other leading Christian voices in the US and beyond, calls for those Christians specifically to recognise the President for who he is. To change an opinion and act on it – as Christ did in this encounter. To embody the message of the New Testament that in Christ there is no Jew or gentile, slave or free, but all are one…

Changing your mind in public view requires humility. It can be a deeply difficult thing to do and requires courage. I have been very impressed with those Republicans who, in response to recent events, have come out and criticised their President for failing to properly condemn the violence and actions of those who seek to promote racist ideology. But one notable absence has been the majority of members of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council. Does a group of evangelical Christians really not have the strength and wisdom to speak the Gospel truth into this political mire?? It is no longer about who was the better candidate in last year’s election; it’s not about Democrats versus Republicans; it is about what is good and just in society.

The Canaanite woman challenged Christ and forced him to reconsider – which he did in full view of his disciples and those around him. Can these American Christian leaders have the courage to do the same? Could the people in churches across the US who voted for and have vocally supported the President do likewise?

And what about here in the UK? We may not have had white supremacist demonstrations on our doorstep, but just weeks ago there was an act of hatred and aggression on our Muslim friends and neighbours in Finsbury Park. Evidence suggests that since the referendum last year, acts of racial violence have dramatically increased in our society. Are we making sure that we speak out against such words and actions? Are we calling upon our church and political leaders to do the same?


There is also inspiration to be drawn from the actions of the Canaanite woman who stood up and demanded action. Who had faith and wisdom with which to speak to her Messiah.

Do we have the strength, courage and wisdom to know when to stand up for justice?

For me, one of the most powerful images to emerge from the violence and protests in Virginia was a photo of a line of clergy, robed and arm-in-arm leading a peaceful protest:

One of these protestors, the black woman with the red stole, is someone I heard speak on racial injustice in the US last autumn while I was visiting New York. Lisa Sharon Harper is someone who has dedicated her life to taking peaceful action against social injustice. She’s been arrested many times and has found herself in deeply difficult situations, but she carries on, firmly believing that this is what God has called her to do.

As I listened to her share her stories in a church hall that wouldn’t have looked out of place in suburban London, but was actually just off 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, I veered from “ok, I could do that…” to “my goodness! I’m not sure I could do that!!” The session was about the foundations of institutional racism in the US (I had several moments of feeling uncomfortable as a Brit as – of course – a lot of it was our fault originally) and what we, as Christians, could do to become more aware of, and take more action regarding racial justice. It’s how I discovered the brilliant Harvard Implicit Association Test – which I highly recommend as a way to become more aware of your own bias. During the evening, Lisa told the story of a 21 day fast she’d participated in to push for immigration reforms. She spoke of times when she had been arrested and was scared. It was both inspiring and extremely challenging.

Thinking about last weekend, if I had been in Virginia, would I have joined them? It just so happened that last weekend, one of my closest friends was in VA (although not in Charlottesville) staying with some good friends who I’ve visited twice in the last year. I have a lot of love for Virginia! And I like to think that I would have joined these clergy, even though it put them at risk of physical harm; arrest; and subsequent retribution as the photo travelled around the world. I grew up going to demos and protests, and since ordination I’ve been even more aware of the power of the dog collar in demonstrating that Christians can and do stand alongside those fighting for justice – whether that’s been at peace vigils; rallies against hate; or the memorial to murdered MP Jo Cox.


That’s not to say that we’re all called to be in those spaces. But we are called to use our voices to speak the words that Christ would speak. To bring light into dark places.

Many of the people who fight for justice in our society are not people of faith – so one challenge for you could be explaining the deeper motivation behind what you do. Whether that’s why you volunteer at the night shelter; or are involved in rehousing refugees; or are part of a political party; or give money to particular causes.

Or, a challenge for you could be to spend time in prayer and to ask God to show you where your words and actions are needed. This doesn’t need to be a grand gesture or big stand – it could be as simple as engaging in conversation with someone who has very different views to you and listening to them. Or bringing people together around the dinner table to unite in their difference by eating together.

I strongly believe that as followers of Christ we are called to be modern-day prophets. Not in the sense of predicting the future or having dreams and visions, but in our behaviour and our words. Of taking the risk of potentially being a lone voice calling in the desert, speaking out against injustice. Of showing that there is a different way. So I pray that the Holy Spirit would fill us afresh to perform God’s work in our world.

Risky Business

On New Year’s Eve, a question was asked of the table at which I was seated: “What did you learn in 2016 and what would you like to master in 2017?”

As reflective, end of year questions go, it was a pretty good one. Not too cheesy;  not uber-religious (given as it was a mixed crowd); and it could be interpreted in a few ways.

I probably could have answered it multiple times over. Looking at my list of 2016 Firsts [yes, I still do this – less intentionally, more reflectively realising what I’d done for the first time in the past year], there were plenty of things I’d learned. Including:

  • How to take a funeral.
  • A huge number of film-related factoids, thanks to regular attendance at the BFI’s monthly MK3D nights – when Mark Kermode shares his wisdom.
  • How to lead a Transformational Index workshop on my own. [Now a significant part of my freelance income.)
  • More about gin. Specifically, which gins I like. (Still not found many that I don’t like!)
  • That it’s possible to walk from Gare du Nord to Gare d’Austerlitz and really is the best way to combat French strike action in Paris.
  • How to preside at the Eucharist.

Some lessons were simply the natural course for the stage of ministry I’m at. Some were delightful happenings. Other lessons were less of a joy and more of a necessity. But I’ve learned a lot all the same.

However, it wasn’t anything from that list that came to mind on New Year’s Eve. In fact, it wasn’t a specific event or experience, it was an attitude. In 2016, I learnt that I can take risks and it will be ok. And if it doesn’t turn out ok, that can be fine too.

I’m not a natural risk taker. My Myers-Briggs profile is ISTJ (some readers will at this point nod sagely and understand exactly what this means…) I am an introvert and a planner. I don’t do spontaneity well. I like to know what’s next. Someone once commented that my love of walking across London is indicative of my personality type: it’s time alone with my thoughts (or podcasts) and I always know exactly how long it will take to reach my destination because traffic/other people won’t interfere with my journey time. They were pretty spot on.

It’s not that as 2016 dawned I decided to become a risky person. It just sort of happened and it was good.

The example I shared on NYE was from my adventures this year at the BFI. Back in February I went to my first MK3D event. I knew that in the room were people who I’d communicated with on Twitter, but I didn’t intentionally set out to meet any of them. When I returned in March, I noticed that a few of them were sitting together and so, with all my extrovertedness mustered, I approached them in the bar afterwards and asked if I could join them for a drink. I don’t do that sort of thing – ever! But it worked. We’re now a committed foursome and sit together at each event. We all agreed in December that becoming friends was a definite highlight of the year.

It may not sound that incredible, but as friends who heard about it at the time commented, it just wasn’t something I’d usually do.

Fast-forward to the summer and the planning of a holiday to the States. I discovered a while ago that my sister has coined the term “Doing a Liz”, to describe my habit of jetting off to some semi-exotic location simply on the premise that I have friends there. She has never travelled alone. I thrive on it.

Usually, these trips are pretty well planned. I know where I’m going, where I’m staying, who I’ll see and when I’ll get there. Over the last few years, my trips have increasingly involved friends who are my MBTI opposites. There’s less planning, more spontaneity. I’m getting better at having a flexible schedule (to a degree). But on that October trip to the States I left a whole weekend blank. I was hopeful that it would be spent in Virginia, but I’d not been able to lock down the details. I’d told the friend I was staying with in New York that I’d probably be with them on the Monday, but that there was an element of uncertainty around it – if things went wrong, perhaps I’d end up there sooner.

I took a risk. A previous version of me may well have said that it was a ridiculous plan (or non-plan) and booked to go straight from DC to NYC. It all worked out. In fact, it worked out better than I might ever have been able to plan it – including a car-ride from Northern Virginia all the way to Brooklyn (what are the chances that someone will need to make an 8 hour drive to your destination on the same day you need to be there??). I had a great time and returned home so thankful that I had *not* planned the trip to within an inch of its life.

As if to cement 2016 as something of a risk-taking year, I celebrated New Year’s Eve back in Virginia on a trip that ranks as the most spontaneous bit of international travel I’ve ever undertaken. Friends were heading out there before a work trip to North Carolina and I had unexpectedly secured Sunday January 1st off work – cue space for a decent length holiday. But the actual trip booking? The week before Christmas. That is decidedly uncharacteristic Liz behaviour – but my goodness, how much did I need that trip!!

Thinking about this theme of risk in the early days of the new year, I’ve been struck that actually, riskiness has been a bigger part of my life since I got ordained. Not so much because of ordination, but because I took up a half-stipend job, trusting that I’d be able to muster enough freelance work to make up the difference. Financially I’ve not quite managed the other half of my stipend, but every time I’ve finished a piece of work a new piece has shown up pretty quickly. As 2017 dawned, I’ve got two pretty exciting projects on the table and the prospect of more to come. The risk is paying off.

A dear friend who was with me on both my American adventures in 2016 has told me more than once how proud she is of me. (Each time emphasising very sweetly that she doesn’t mean it in any kind of a patronising way!) It’s not that she wants me to live in a particularly risky way, but that taking certain risks is demonstrative of confidence – confidence in myself and perhaps most importantly, confidence that God has got this.

It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve taken risks, but I think in 2016 I realised how important it can be – even when the risks don’t quite work out how you expect them to. In fact, especially when they don’t!

Appropriately enough, on January 4th, in Durham NC, I discovered this print in the rather fabulous Parker & Otis:

The plan is that it’ll hang on the wall and help me face the risks of 2017. I will not be afraid. Even when I get stuck into the thing I said I was looking to master…

…driving. Yep. 2017 could actually be the year I knuckle down, feel the fear and do it anyway. God help me and all other road users!

Take the BART (man)

It wouldn’t be a trip to another major world city if I didn’t take some time to analyse the public transportation network. (On my 2009 trip to the US East Coast, I compared and contrasted the systems in Philadelphia, DC and NYC. No one accuse me of not taking this geekery seriously!)

I should confess that I only actually made one journey on the BART – the Bay Area Rapid Transit. It could have been two, but I managed to misread the map so badly on my penultimate day that I didn’t realise that I could catch the BART all the way into The City from our local station. However, my only journey proved to be a long one. Pleasant Hill to SFO airport is almost an entire line – 22 stops and 70 minutes long.

BART mapIt was the yellow line that proved useful. Sadly, the lines don’t have fun names – instead using the stations at either end. 

One of my criteria for grading international transit systems is how easy they are to navigate by a clueless tourist. I generally consider myself to be fairly savvy, what with my love of public transportation and all, unless I’m operating in a foreign language. The BART has a fairly easy map (unless you’re an idiot and forget where The City actually is), but what is utterly flummoxing is its ticketing system. When you look up a journey online, it tells you the exact cost – mine was $10.05 – which I thought was random. When I came to buy my ticket, I came unstuck – I couldn’t work out how to buy a single journey. There was no station finding option, just an automatic $20.00 added to a ticket. It took a trip to the ticket office (who wouldn’t sell me a ticket) to get an explanation. Apparently I needed  to use the +/- buttons to get my ticket to the correct amount for my desired journey. What?? How crazy! Can you imagine what would happen if you had that system in London?

However, the train itself was very pleasant. You know that mild sense of panic you feel whenever you attempt to take luggage on the underground? Will there be space? Will I annoy people? Will I be able to keep it safe? [Or is that just me?] There was none of that on the BART – there was oceans of room and, possibly because I got on at the 3rd stop, I had a seat where my luggage could easily be placed in front of me. It was clean, smelt pleasant and for most of the journey we were above ground, running parallel to the highway, with plenty of pretty views to consume.

BARTInside the BART. See, spacious! (Although it was Saturday…)

Within the BART, you have what seems to be a pretty good system – for a state in which the car is king. Admittedly, if you have the misfortune of living north of the Golden Gate Bridge, you have no link at all, but otherwise it might work out. Of course, during our trip we actually only met one family who regularly used it – even though our last week was spent within easy reach of stations. (It may have helped that the family were originally from New York and had lived in Paris, so public transport seemed more normal to begin with.)

Oh, and obviously, for a certain generation there is a near uncontrollable need to say ‘man’ immediately after the word ‘BART’. If you don’t understand why, simply Google ‘Bart Simpson Man’ and it should be explained to you…

On Target…

When you’re an aficionado of American blogs as I am, there are certain things which attain almost mythical status – craft products unknown on these shores (‘Modge Podge’, I’m looking at you…); baking goods only acquirable at inflated cost (Funfetti, Fluff, assorted cake mixes…); and, above all else, the lifestyle essential that is Target.

For those who aren’t American blog fans, the closest comparison I can make is to a French Hypermarket. It sells everything – from food, clothes and toys, to stationery and soft furnishings. For years I’ve read about shopping trips taken there. Of days lost in its aisles. Of children pacified by its contents. Of designer ranges launched – specifically an Orla Kiely line back in 2009. Despite my trip to the East Coast that same year, I still failed to explore one thanks to their absence from the centre of more cosmopolitan cities. (New York, like central London, lacks that most useful of amenities: huge grocery stores.)

It was with genuine concern that Cathers asked, on my very first morning in Texas, if I minded stopping by Target to quickly return some things she’d bought the day before. I think she was surprised at my enthusiastic response. We were both surprised by what eventually ensued…

My debut Target experience wasn’t just a regular Target, it was Houston’s Super Target. Cathers went off to return her stuff and I set off to explore, promising to go no further than stationery. I shouldn’t have worried, stationery alone kept me occupied for over 20 minutes. A suitable notebook for travel journalling was purchased, as were some notebooks so cute that they couldn’t possibly be left on the shelf. In fact, much of that particular section was so cute it was difficult not to leave it behind – I counted over 20 varieties of Thank-You notes alone! (Seriously, stationery addicts would be hard pressed to ever leave that place.) After some time Cathers returned, bearing frozen beverages – yes, Super Target even has its own Starbucks.

Thus, we wondered around the store, sucking mocha Frappaccinos through straws and generally exclaiming in excitement over many a new discovery. We’d been there about an hour when we were startled by a colossal crash. None of the Texans batted an eyelid, but as we looked towards the doors, we saw rain of Biblical proportions falling from the sky. Crashes and bangs interrupted the peace at regular intervals for some time, so we saw it as a sign from God that we should stay in the store longer. So we did.

It’s not even as if we ran out of things to do… We tried on clothes – I needn’t have bought any new summer clothes prior to leaving London, Target had all I needed – an activity that took nearly an hour in itself. Even when we got to the point of being ready to pay, Cathers pointed out that we’d yet to peruse the dollar section. Unpacking my bag last week, I discovered the results of that particular foray – Little Miss Cheeky post-it notes, a pack of Iced Tea mixes, and a book of Biblical word searches I’ll be saving for the next Vicar Weekend. We didn’t even make it anywhere near the groceries section…

Two hours after arriving, we finally left. The storm had passed and the ground bore next to no sign that it had ever been torrentially raining. Target had been everything I had heard, hoped and dreamed it would be – and more.

It’s a good job we had far more interesting things planned for the week, as a shopping trip to Target would have been a fairly pathetic trip highlight. But a highlight it was nonetheless – just last night Cathers and I reminisced over its joys, as she ate a lolly made with her Target dollar aisle popsicle maker, and I wore my Target leggings…

When cheerleaders go bad

Just when you thought this blog was becoming a little too serious and intense, along comes a post about cheerleading…

Apparantly, cheerleading is the world’s most dangerous sport. This isn’t because of the injuries that can occur when a pom-pom flies into the eyes, oh no…it’s become particularly dangerous because of the increasing number of gymnastic stunts involved. As of 2008, High School Cheerleading accounted for 65.1% of ‘catastrophic’ sports injuries amongst girls.

And the danger doesn’t stop when cheerleaders leave the gym or football field. Cheerleading is seemingly not as sweet, innocent and wholesome an activity as depicted in the classic film ‘Bring It On’.

An article in today’s Guardian chronicles Cheerleading’s annus horribilis, including the kidnap & beating of a cheerleader by 6 other members of her high school squad in Florida. Not to mention the fact that the University of Idaho were forced to change their uniforms to something less slutty. Or that eight high school cheerleaders in Georgia were suspended for performing cheers whilst drunk. (Wouldn’t that just be hilarious to watch?)

In other cheerleading news, did you know that Indian cricket teams have them? And even they have their scandals. Last year, two British cricket cheerleaders were allegedly excluded from a squad because their skin was ‘too dark’.

Then there’s the gay cheerleader that was axed from Heroes. (I’m saying that like I watch the show, I actually don’t, but probably should.)

I think we need more cheerleaders in the UK. Not just pretty girls in slutty outfits either, have some decent gymnastic men in it too. (Although, my concept of male cheerleaders is slightly tainted by the fact that the current – but soon to be ex – US President was a member of a cheer squad!)