By Catherine, Reader at St Mary's
The Women’s World Cup final is about to begin/has just begun. If you secretly wanted to miss St. Mary’s today in order to watch another Mary’s skill in goal, don’t worry - I’ll keep this short so you can catch the second half…
Football is tribal. Us and them. For at least 90 minutes, you do whatever you can (within the rules) to confound the opposition and win the game. Sadly with the men’s game, the rivalry between fans often turns ugly. To maintain order and safety, pubs restrict customers to home fans, and the police bring out the dogs and helicopter.
The women’s game has been refreshingly different, and has become deservedly popular in recent years. It’s been noticeable that the players are kind to each other and those winning are often quick to console their tearful opponents.
Because you need two teams to make a football match possible. You need many more to put on a tournament. You need players of great skill on all sides to make the match challenging and entertaining. For a World Cup you need teams from all over the world. This year’s tournament did that well.
Players might be light or dark-haired, have dark or light skin, wear a blue shirt or a red one, but ultimately, they’re all footballers. Some have only been opponents during this tournament. During the rest of the year, they play on the same team for the same club. And all of the teams in this World Cup have faced the same challenge – to encourage people to take the women’s game as seriously as they do the men’s game. These women have all ultimately been on the same side. Far more unites them than divides them.
Forming tribes and groups happens in all walks of life. It happens in sport, politics, between different racial or socio-economic groups and different religious groups. It happens within the same religious group.
Today’s passage from Isaiah shows that this is not new. Its backstory is found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. After 70 years’ exile in Babylon, the people of Judah have permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and temple. Those who have returned now follow a strict interpretation of God’s Law. They see the exile as God’s punishment for having strayed from the Law, and want to get things right this time. They worry that foreigners might contaminate their worship and society with other beliefs and practices. So they refuse to let the people of Samaria help with the rebuild, and tell anyone with a foreign wife to send her away.
The prophet objects:
...my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
Besides those already gathered.
“You were far away and I brought you home. But others love me too. I want them to worship and serve me, just as I want you to. My temple shall be a house of prayer for everyone.”
The issue is still alive and well in Jesus’ time.
When a Canaanite woman follows Jesus’ group, crying out repeatedly for Jesus to heal her daughter, his first response is to ignore her. When she persists, his disciples urge him to send her packing.
Finally he speaks. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Is he speaking to the disciples or the woman? It isn’t clear. Is he speaking with conviction, in jest, or with a hint of doubt in his tone, suggesting a change of mind? We don’t know. But she sees her chance, comes nearer and kneels before him. When he suggests that his own people might need him first...
“It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”
...she is ready with her response:
“Even the dogs will eat up the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
She’ll gladly have whatever his people will discard.
An encounter with a foreigner, a woman at that. But one in which she stands her ground, opening up the possibility to Jesus’ disciples, yes and maybe even to Jesus himself, that God’s love may be broader than ever previously imagined. And so her daughter is healed.
Far more unites us than divides us. God is on your side, my side and their side. So whatever our individual differences let’s remember as a church that we’re ultimately all playing together for God’s side. And that God’s love is still broader than we can ever imagine.