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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
16 Sunday after Trinity – Evensong
Exodus 18. 13-26 & Matthew 7. 1-14
What do these things have in common – a rubber duck, a kebab skewer, a sock, a light bulb, 104 pennies, 9 sewing needles, and a penknife? No, they are not prizes on a rather disappointing edition of the Generation Game – they are in fact items that have been eaten and swallowed by dogs! I promise I was not just wasting time doing some random Googling when I should have been writing my sermon for evensong, I discovered this fascinating information in the course of writing this sermon! Hopefully, all will become clear…..
When I first looked at the bible readings we have just heard I thought that writing a sermon would not be too difficult. It seemed like the passage from Matthew is full of pithy sayings with plenty of scope for sermonising. To be honest, when I actually began to think harder about what I might explore I found it very difficult indeed. The first few verses of the passage from Matthew 7 begin with ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.’ That is very clear and straightforward but is followed by, ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.’ As I thought about this I couldn’t help thinking that some significant judgement is required to decide who are ‘dogs’ and who are ‘swine’!
Of course, as ever, I began to make some sense of all this when I remembered to try and read the passage in context. Jesus was speaking at a time when Judaism was exclusive and the language of ‘dogs’ and ‘swine’ was freely used to describe Gentiles. For example in Matthew 15 a Gentile woman approaches Jesus to ask him to heal her sick daughter and Jesus pointedly ignores her and then tells her that he has been sent to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’, and then says, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ The woman is not deflected by this, perseveres with her request and eventually Jesus heals her daughter. So, on this occasion, you could say, he gives what is holy, healing, to the dogs, which is very interesting and very good, but doesn’t really help when trying to make sense of the passage from Matthew 7 when Jesus specifically says we should not give what is holy to the dogs.
Having made a little progress by reading the passage in the context of the time it was written, it is still important to make some sense of these verses today. Perhaps what this passage should be reminding us is that the things of God, what is holy, the pearls of truth we know through Jesus, are both precious and challenging. We talk a lot about the generosity of God’s grace but we have to remember that living in God’s generous grace, is hard. The life of faith is challenging. This is a difficult message when we are constantly trying to engage in mission and call people to join us in the life of faith. Churches are generally falling over themselves to find ways to make the Good News accessible, relevant and attractive – the danger is always that the profound challenges there are in living a life of faith and becoming a follower of Jesus are skated over. Faith can easily become primarily about the things you believe rather than the way you live, the way you relate to other people and the choices you make every day.
What we need, as we grow in faith, is discernment to see the profound beauty and the profound challenge of the gospel. And this is where I justify my Googling; dogs will eat almost anything, they show no discernment – some will eat a lightbulb with the same enthusiasm as a bowl of Pedigree Chum. We have to engage in mission in such a way that we do not make it seem that faith is simple, that following Jesus is easy, that grace is cheap, that faith is just another ‘lifestyle’ choice, something to be consumed with everything else there is on offer today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was imprisoned by the Nazis and died in a concentration camp, wrote a book called ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ in which he warns against thinking that grace is cheap. He says, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
As we think about what Jesus said about not giving holy things to dogs and not throwing pearls to swine, Bonhoeffer makes us, first, look at ourselves. Do we treat the Good News as the truly precious and challenging gift that it is or do we treat it as something easy and cheap, something to make us feel comfortable, just something else for us to consume, taking the bits we like and ignoring the bits that are hard and challenging, the bits that involve sacrifice and vulnerability, the bits that lead us to the cross?
‘Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.’ It would have been easy and comfortable to spend our time worrying about the political incorrectness of this statement when what we should be doing is wondering whether we treat holy things with care and discernment accepting the challenges as well as the blessings they bring. Wondering whether we trample over the pearls we are given with our self-centred arrogance, taking what makes us feel good and safe and ignoring that which disturbs us or involves suffering. The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7 is hard to read, hard to understand and it challenges us to examine our conscience – are we simply consumers of faith, along with everything else we consume, or do we make ourselves vulnerable to the life changing power of the ‘holy pearls’ of the Good News Jesus shares with us all? God’s grace is not cheap, as Bonhoeffer says, ‘It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.’
Responding to God’s grace means entering by the narrow gate, as Matthew 7.14 says, it is challenging and costly, but it is the entrance that leads to life.
Let us pray
Lord, your searing judgment penetrates the hidden places of our hearts and minds. Heal the injuries carried that would wound others, confront the prejudices held that would restrict vision, calm the fears that would strike those who would challenge. Transform us in your grace with humility and love, and may all our wrestling with matters of faith, ultimately end in blessing. We ask this for the sake of him who died to bring true peace and blessing to the world. Amen
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