The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
As a European multi-national company, my former employer benefitted from the best experience, skills and innovation from countries across Europe. But that breadth could also be one of the biggest challenges. People didn’t want to loose face for themselves or for their nationality. People would too often put their national entity over ahead of the company. Making a compromise was extremely difficult. We were lucky to have an expert at enabling decisions to be taken without anybody loosing face. It usually involved a 15 minute break in the middle of a two hour teleconference in which, over a cigarette and a phone call, inevitably conducted in French, such that when the teleconference resumed the issue of the day didn’t need to be discussed any longer, and a brief reference to the agreement which had just been made on the phone would be enough to indicate we could move on.
Obviously, having a Frenchman in the team, seemed to help in these negotiations with the French team. Being challenged to change by somebody who we define as different from ourselves is extremely difficult to accept. However, if we do truly come into relationship with those who are different from ourselves, change, in them and us, is inevitable, whether it be pre-conceptions or more fundamental challenges to the assumptions we make. Our worldbecomes larger…
A friend of ours is a primary teacher in a school in a diverse part of London. She sees her very multi-national, multi-lingual class not as a threat to the education of her students, but as an opportunity for them to learn. Education is, after all, not simply about learning what to think, but about learning how to think, how to question, how to learn after you stop being spoon-fed answers. The opportunity to learn about different perspectives, traditions and life experiences gives us a wider depth of knowledge and experience to draw on. But in all this, there is, I suppose a threat, a threat that our misconceptions, our misunderstandings, the limits of our own traditions, will be challenged by the experience and relationship with others.
The woman in today’s gospel is a Gentile, like most of us. She is, therefore, in Jesus own words, at least with regards to a relationship with the God of Israel, as good as the dogs, and should therefore wait until God has reached out to the Jewish people before she should hope to receive any favour from God. As the Gentile, the other, her words, her response could, arguably, be disregarded as that of the disadvantaged, trying to muscle in. But Jesus listens and agrees that even the dogs eat the crumbs from under the table. The implication being that even the crumbs of the goodness of God, even the tiniest morels from the loaf, is potent enough to change lives, to cure the sick, to cast out the demons of the age. She surprises Jesus by her logic, but also by her faith, and thus we get the message that the Gospel, the good news is not just for a select group, the good news is for everybody.
At theological college we were always told that, rather than setting out into a place with a clear idea of what God should be doing there, we should be listening to what God is doing in that place and coming alongside it. Jesus does this very thing, he realises God is at work in this woman and comes alongside and participates in that relationship. God’s kingdom is for the diversity of creation. The Gospel is radically inclusive.
In reality listening isn’t easy, I tend to be very focused on my own thoughts, unable to hear somebody speaking more than superficially. But truly listening means being open to change, being willing for it to break into our subconscious and actually make us think differently. We are fortunate that unlike a disturbing number of countries in the world, we can voice our opinions freely and know that we will have an opportunity for our politicians to hear them at elections but also, sometimes, in between them. It is difficult for me to hear today’s Gospel story and not draw parallels between it and the government's change in posture with regards to the Syrian refugee crisis. Though I think there still is a challenge to society more generally, why was it that photo of a boy on the shores of this continent dressed in such a familiar way which has caused such reaction, when there are far more horrifying photos of people suffering inside Syria taken over the last four years. Does removing the otherness, the distance, making it more local, more immediate, more familiar really change our willingness to listen?
Politics is supposed to be an exercise in listening but also an exercise in disagreeing well, debating and forming new opinion shaped by the debate, but too often it can be a case of building trenches and walls and withstanding the oppositions view through all possible assaults, no willingness to be changed or challenged to do better.
This area and this community are used to variety and diversity. We are surrounded by different perspectives and experiences, by different nationalities and faiths, by different political ideologies. We try to empower those who society used to disempower. But empowering people to speak and listening are different things. Tolerating them and trying to respect, understand and cherish them are not the same.
Tolerance is not enough.
We need to be open to the different perspectives we are presented with - and willing to be changed by them. Engaging with those with whom we disagree, trying to understand their perspective. This is a potentially scary, vulnerable position to put ourselves in, but allowing our world to be broadened, practicing radical inclusiveness, that is, including others and being willing to be shaped by them helps us to better ourselves and to become more like Christ. God’s kingdom is for the whole diversity of creation, so stop and listen to God’s calling to us all to take part.