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Sunday 5 September 2021

Trinity 14, Twenty-third in Ordinary time, Proper 18

Embracing difficult conversations

Isaiah 35:4-7a, James 2:1-10, 14-17, Mark 7:24-37



By Ed Sauven

Anglican pioneer priest, leader of Wayfarers community, Stroud

Context: a small gathering of young adults, working in social enterprises in a market town with alternative influences; predominately white, mainly well educated

Aim: learning to navigate difficult conversations relating to justice

The myriad of ways we communicate with our fellow humans continues to grow. And yet it feels as if we’re continually struggling to respond to difference. I don’t currently do social media. I’ve many excuses, but I admit one is probably because I’m a coward, I don’t want to offend or be offended. The endless misunderstandings of some current public conversations can feel tense and bewildering. How do we listen well and how do we handle the pain within these conversations infused with issues of difference and justice?


We are not the only ones dealing with misunderstandings. In Tyre Jesus risks causing both confusion and offence. I don’t think he would have tweeted his response to that Syrophoenician woman. There is no denying the offensiveness of the word ‘dog’, no mistranslation. If Pope Francis used such language the media would be in overdrive. What did Jesus mean? Surely there are more civil ways of saying ‘I’ve come first for the Jews; your time is nearly here’ or even ‘I’m exhausted, could you come back later.’ There is little to go on but if I had been present, I would have been looking at Jesus’ eyes, his posture, noticing his tone. I suspect it would have given those words a quite different nuance, something tweets can struggle to carry. How do we move beyond superficial confusion and offence to deeper conversations?


The woman’s response to Jesus’s peculiar remark is fast and audacious, she’s not giving up. And Jesus does something surprising, he changes his mind. He never changes his mind, not since his mother in Cana made him get the wine. Encounters with Jesus always end with the other person changing not the other way around. Perhaps it is a reminder for us all that in order to truly listen to another there must be the willingness to let the other person change us. In Tyre the daughter is healed, and the woman leaves vindicated. An inspired Jesus heads deeper into foreign lands, travelling to Sidon the miracles continue and there is no holding back.


The readings from the gospel of Mark, James and Isaiah are all saturated with justice issues. The marginalised are present, dishonoured, and honoured. Discrimination is challenged, boundaries are crossed, freedom is promised and granted. At the origin of all these situations, visible or hidden there is fear and pain. How do we respond to it, particularly if it feels like it is being directed at us?

When tense or caught off guard we easily slip into fight or flight. If we are not fleeing the pain and hurt of another and running the opposite way, then we’re digging in, becoming defensive. Feeling threatened we seek to justify ourselves. And if we’re not defending, we might be on the offensive, condemning others we don’t understand often in subtle ways. All are dead ends. The Apostle James reminds us that to practice justice is to walk in mercy. When someone shares their pain, instead of running away or rushing to defend or judge; we need to be present to it. Seeing their pain not as an obstacle but as a point of connection.

The road to reconciliation and reconnection only begins by descent, humility, and awareness of our fragility. The cry of our heart should be ‘friends, you are right, we have fallen short, this is not where we want to be. Let us join together to begin afresh.’ What if this is the cry that is heard and taken up rather than condemnation and defence? This is mercy triumphing over judgement, not hiding from another’s (or our own) pain but embracing it.


If we persevere through the confusion. If we seek to be open in conversations, to others changing us. If we see people’s pain as a point of connection rather than being threatened by it; then change is possible. To ears that have been blocked Jesus sighs ‘Ephphatha, - be opened’ (Mark 24:34), may he start with our own. What if the conversations and discussions which we find difficult became the ones that bring the greatest life? Like waters breaking forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert, what felt like a desert can become a lush oasis. Let’s have the courage to listen others into free speech and join Jesus as he continues his work of freedom, reconciling shattered relationships and people to himself.

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