Mt 15:21-28

To a man with a hammer…


The reading from Matthew has a foreign woman approach Jesus, asking for her daughter to be healed.  And it seems as though Jesus says, “No, sorry – you’re not Jewish.  You’re not one of us.”  And he makes the woman beg.  It doesn’t seem very Jesus-like.  “Sorry – you’re not one of us.”


There’s a growing feeling around at the moment, that this is the government’s response to the economic crisis.  A cabinet full of millionaires and multi-millionaires – a crisis caused by millionaires, and multi-millionaires – a total lack of censure for the millionaires and multi-millionaires – and then… benefit cuts.  In a big society like ours, benefit cuts have led to the closure of play groups that our own members have relied upon – that hasn’t happened to the prime minister’s children.  Even though, “we’re all in this together.”  It sounds more like, “sorry, you’re not one of us.”


Hardly surprising then – that this is the kind of attitude that leads to trouble.


1: Screw


Who knows what a Birmingham screwdriver is?  That’s right – it’s one of these. [produce hammer]. The thought being, that in Birmingham – where people are slapdash – rather than waste time looking for the right tool or using it properly, we resort to bashing in the screw.  (My family are from Birmingham) [BANG screw into wood!]


It’s perhaps not the best way to achieve a result.  I wonder if the same could be said of the riots we have seen this week, and the trials this weekend.  I’m not talking about the failure of police to take appropriate action.  I’m talking about the rioters and looters themselves.  I’m not sure if we know who they are yet.  But do we really want to find out?  Do we really want to know why they were rioting?  What the root causes were.  What the basic questions are?


No no, these riots are nothing other than gangs seeking opportunity to get what they can.  So we must be tough on crime, adopt a zero tolerance approach and draft in an LA cop to help us. I wonder if – from the perspective of a liberal church, we would have a little more compassion.  And perhaps regard the violence that has been committed as an example of a massive frustration – frustration with life which leads to a desire to hit out at something but doesn’t know how to hit the right thing.


So, instead, these misguided, frustrated, underprivileged people just hit out at anyone who is doing better than they are.  I suspect that in at least some cases, this is how it is.  To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  A legitimate target upon whom I can vent my frustration and anger.  Tut tut tut.


2:  Egg Shell


To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  It’s interesting that during his election campaign last year, Nick Clegg predicted that Tories’ economic policies, could result in rioting in the street.  Not surprisingly, now that prophecy has come true, politicians and right wing media are busy laying the blame at empty headed, self-centred, violence – ‘pure criminality’ says David Cameron.  


Of course, it is not in his interest to get to the root cause of these riots.  It is not in the interest of the right wing press to get to the root cause, and anyone who does – will find themselves being accused of taking sides with the rioters.  And why don’t we want to get to the root causes?


Because it will entail asking basic questions.  By basic questions, I don’t mean simplistic.  I mean the stuff that everything else we do is based upon.  And that is why it is difficult to ask ourselves basic questions.  If we ask basic questions about these riots, we are driven back to the questions about taxing the poor.  We are driven to questioning why – when men in suits and leather shoes, working in Canary wharf – when these men engage in violence and looting and thievery, by selfish, irresponsible financial behaviour – it is acceptable.  Despite the government’s rhetoric and the crowd-pleasing gestures, these men find themselves rewarded for their looting.  


Whatever happened to David Cameron’s pleas to ‘hug a hoody’?  Today, he announces, zero tolerance for rioters in hoodies.  The looters in suits, who plunder their victims invisibly, says Cameron – well, they ‘deserve a second chance’.  I’m sure those rioters who found themselves in court this weekend, would love a second chance – but sorry – Cameron and his peers implicitly declare, ‘Sorry!  You’re not one of us.’


Of course, they would not consider their own actions as at all questionable.  To them, they are just doing what comes naturally.  Never mind the fragile economic status of the thousands whose lives will be affected, the nest eggs of so many are there to be plundered.  Those who gamble with other people’s welfare, are simply doing what comes naturally.  To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  (BANG)  But that kind of violence is acceptable.


3: Nutshell


Basic questions are hard to ask.  Not just hard because people don’t want to hear them.  But hard because people cannot hear them.  They are too basic, based upon assumptions to deeply buried in our psyche, that we do not know how to question them.  This is why Jesus didn’t just pop up, and said – are – this difficult political situation requires that we ask basic questions.  Instead – he did something else.  He told parables.  Some people were infuriated, because they took them over-literally.  Some people were angry, because the parables forced them to ask basic questions of themselves.  Their reaction, was to accuse Jesus of being a trouble maker.  But some people threw their hats in the air, because the kinds of questions that parables asked, are the questions people were longing to hear.


A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece for the Bloomsbury Magazine article, designed to ask basic questions in a particular way.  And the reaction seems largely to have mirrored people’s reactions to Jesus’ parables. Because it asks basic, basic questions.


Do we deserve our place in central London?  Before the riots, I had planned to address this at further length – but we’ll have to wait for next week now.  But for now – let’s ask the basic questions:


Whatever my profession, education, background, personality type – those things will naturally shape the way I understand the role of the church.  But what often happens is this: that my training, that my education, that the things that formed and shaped me – I take to be true for all time.  These things are too basic for me to know how to question them.  And if I’m not careful, I will let them shape the church – and if my voice is loud enough – I will try to build the church in my own image.  In every aspect of the church’s life – from visiting folk to preparing food to youthwork, social action and mission and preaching.


Of course, the church is precious to us.  We are committed to it, we realise that despite all its imperfections – inside there is something precious.


Out of the very best of intention, I can come to church – with sound motives, wanting to promote the ministry and mission of this place.  But … to a man with a hammer – everything looks like a nail.  If the church’s functioning and structure and even its people and their way of working, does not fit with my own expectations – BANG.


And without realising it – look what we do!  We destroy the very thing we claim was precious.  Because we were too scared to ask basic questions.  


4: A Mirror


Of course, when we project our own egos, and needs and expectations onto others – the result is always going to be disappointing.  We will only destroy ourselves.  


Now, read the papers today – and you’ll hear bishops and politicians and journalists talking about the moral corruption at every level of society – indiscriminate charges of immorality to everyone.  Today’s radio 4 sermon says as much – now that Christianity has fallen from favour look at the mess our country is in!  Once again – to a bishop with a hammer…


There are more serious questions to ask here:


The man with a hammer… will never see himself as others see him.  Never have any grasp of the effects of his hammer… Never have any sense that – despite the worthiest motives and deepest commitment – there can be damage inflicted upon other people and ultimately upon himself.  


So what does it take, to put the hammer down?  That is the point of Sabbath.  That the things that have formed us, the habits we have acquired, the worldview we treasure, the things we know for sure, the questions we dare not face – if we have come to worship God today, all of these things are up for grabs.


I had coffee this week with a friend from Cambridge.  He was a boat club captain, a university cricketer, a fine athlete and is now a Dominican Friar.  And as we discussed worship, he told me of a friend of his, who said:


“I am suspicious of any form of worship that does not bring the darkness of the human condition into the presence of God.” – and not the darkness of someone else’s condition – but of mine, of yours – in specific, down-to-earth, practical, disturbing ways.  Yes we can collectively confess our sins in private… yes we can acknowledge in some generalised form of pseudo wisdom, that none of us is perfect.  But do we, really have the capacity to face who we really are, here and now, in the presence of God.


(put hammer down)


Because if we cannot do that – we cannot worship, we cannot celebrate Sabbath, we cannot put the hammer down.  And we cannot ask basic questions of ourselves.  Oh, yes, we can answer advanced questions about who we are – and about the church and its mission – but we dare not get to the root cause, any more than the politicians dare to address the root causes of these riots.


In the end, asking basic questions brings us into the insufferable presence of God.  The hunger to look at this cross, and the need to look quickly away.  Its much easier to run around with the hammer, than it is to put the hammer down and stand face to face with God.


But when we do that – are we really standing face-to-face with a Jesus who looks us in the eye, as he did with the woman from that reading, and say, “sorry, you’re not one of us.”  Do we engage with a God who is too busy with worthier people, to waste his time with you and me?  Sorry, says Jesus, I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.


Jesus proceeds to calling her a dog.  There it is, in your NIV bible. Again, it does not seem very Jesus-like.  You’re not one of us.  You – are a dog.


But look at how the woman answers:  even the dogs wait for the scraps from the table!  And so, it seems, she manages to wrestle a bit of grace out of a reluctant saviour, before Jesus gets back to the real business of relaxing, which he was busy trying to do.  


Of course, when you read it in context, everything in this little story is found inside the punch line.  The dispassionate charade that Jesus has been playing, fulfils entirely everyone’s expectation of what a Messiah should do – he is for Jews only.  Foreigners – all foreigners, are outsiders, worthy of judgement.  To a man with a hammer, everyone looks like a nail.  

But … by turning around and declaring that this foreign woman has great faith… Jesus has disarmed those who bear hammers.


The previous chapter has shown a series of Jewish people whose faith had failed.  But now, Jesus is in foreign territory – this woman demonstrates the very faith that was meant to be a hall mark of Jewish identity.  This dog – the Jewish term for gentiles – this dog, is more Jewish, than all the Jews who happened to hear.  This woman has a faith akin to Abraham, the father of the Jews, who was chosen by God because of his great faith.


Jesus, it may seem, is now being indiscriminate with his grace … to a man with a hammer…?  To a god with compassion, everyone looks like a human.  Even dogs.  Even rioters.  Even bankers.  Even politicians.  Even Church members.  Even a man with hammer.  Even me.  Even you.