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Great Expectations

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We are not long back from four months supply in the vacant Methodist parish of Te Puke and Mount Maunganui. It was an interesting experience: for one thing living in the Bay of Plenty where many of the wealthiest New Zealanders also live, and for another being back in church life again. One of my great achievements was to learn how to do PowerPoint presentations; and another was discovering and managing all the brilliant theological podcasts that are available - I’m in the process of listening to lectures from Yale, Stanford, and Fuller Theological Seminary. I am virtually the model of a modern minister - almost! And if I had to learn new things I gave as good as I got. On the first Sunday I prefaced the sermon in the manner customary at St Peters: In the name of the Father... Whereupon a loud voice from the back called out, So we’ve gone all Anglican have we! I think that person was still in the back on my last Sunday - but I’m not entirely sure, because they were quiet.

Expectation is a powerful force. When you go to a Methodist or Presbyterian church you don’t expect popery before the sermon. In an Anglican service you would be disappointed if they didn’t. You go to a service expecting a particular style or direction, but if it’s not forthcoming you go home quite unsettled. Things are not quite right in heaven today. Or, I read a book - I expect the clean, green man to marry the clean, green woman - and if they don’t I feel quite let down, and the forces of chaos appear to prevail. I need things to be tidy at the end of the story. I’m not sure from whence this expectation sprang - some flaw in my upbringing, perhaps. Expectation is an outlook on life, an existential stance, if you like - which is why it’s such a powerful force.

There is probably no better place to discover the power of expectation than at the Olympic Games. How is it that at the Olympic Games an athlete exceeds his or her personal best time after time? We’re disappointed that Moss Burmeister didn’t come third against Mark Phelps, and maybe he is, too. We should at least be rejoicing that Moss exceeded self-expectations and broke several records in that race. Such was the power of the Games that he did better than he ever did before. I wish we had the same kind of expectation in the church. Congregations would once come to the service or the sermon with a real sense of anticipation, that in and through this holy moment God’s word would be spoken to their lives. Imagine what it would do to St Peter’s clergy if we came in to find 300 expectant people. It would scare the living daylights out of us - and that would be a very good thing indeed. I’ve been moved in St Peters in Rome, St Paul’s in London; but I was moved more deeply at Gwen Ap pit in Cornwall. Gwen Ap was one of the preaching places of John Wesley. It’s a sunken mine shaft, so it’s like an ampitheatre. John Wesley stood at the edge and preached to the 20-25,000 people who gathered. It’s 1750, and there is no public transport, and there is not the population density of today. Where did they come from, those 20-25,000 Cornish people who must have walked miles to be there? And why were they there? They were there because they expected John Wesley to speak the word of God that would transform their life. And he did.

It’s the same expectation that drives the Canaanite woman to Jesus with the demand that he cure her daughter. Somehow she’d heard of Jesus, who he was and what he did, and she knew he was the one. And there grew up in her this passionate expectation: that Jesus could and should and would heal her daughter. That’s why she’s there. Like those Cornish people she’s walked miles to be there. She is not going to be denied. Of course she doesn’t say, Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon, that’s bible language. She says, Please, heal my daughter from her depression. Go on, you can do it. You can do it. Have a go. Go on, you can do it. Heal her; heal her; heal her. Not a word out of Jesus, not a word. What is he thinking? Perhaps he’s thinking, her daughter is her business, not mine. Her expectation is not my obligation. The disciples don’t like her expectation either, which sort of forces Jesus to reply: Her expectation is not my expectation; she’s not a Jew. But the woman doesn’t give up, she tries harder. She kneels before Jesus and looks up so Jesus is forced to look directly at her: Please heal my daughter. You can do it. You can do it for me. Jesus shakes his head, No, you’re not the one. You’re wasting your time. Take your expectations back home. I’ve obligations to others. Whereupon the woman says, Wonderful! I knew it. If you’ve got obligations to others you can do it, and if you can do it for others, you can do it for me. And Jesus was caught. In the end, his obligation had to meet her expectation. Great is your faith, says the bible language, great is your expectation, let it be done as you wanted it. You see, Jesus came through and did it!

Something of the same dynamic lies in the difficult passage from Romans. In the 8th chapter from which we have recently been reading, Paul brings Christian experience to a triumphant conclusion by insisting that we have every right to expect that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. But there’s always a troublesome person in the congregation, some realist whose great joy in life is to bring us down from our flights of fancy. I stand up here and proclaim Nothing can separate us from the love of God, and this voice pipes up from the back of the church: What about the Jews? If it had been me, I’d have replied, I wasn’t talking about the Jews. Paul is too noble for that and gives a serious reply: if we can expect the love of God to surround our lives, so can the Jews. God is not going to give up on the Jews. Just like the sharp point made by the Canaanite woman: God doesn’t meet us in an either-or, God doesn’t meet us in Jew or Gentile or Gentile or Jew; God meets us in a both-and. Always. Not Gays or Straights. Not Anglicans or Methodists. We must not expect Jews to be dumped, discarded even in the age of the church. Jews who come to God with expectation will find God meeting that obligation. This was the point of the Canaanite woman’s faith: if God can do it for you, he can do it for me. If God can do it for me, God can do it for you.

The troublesome realist who sits at the back of the church and who pipes up in a voice which even the deaf miraculously hear, won’t be satisfied. They will want to know: why Jesus didn’t do the healing straight off? why was Jesus so indifferent? why did there ever have to be a split between Jews and Gentiles? why we can’t all be one? Why do we have to have people in and people out? Why ever does God make it so hard for some people? Well, I don’t know and if I did I can’t tell you at the tail end of a sermon. But part of the answer is, why did the Turbos beat Canterbury, tie with Waikato when they can’t beat Hawkes Bay? Or Wairarapa/Bush? Why do athletes do their personal best at the Games? And not at home? If life and faith were easy we’d never take them seriously. We need the Canaanite woman because she helps us to be persistent, because she helps us face up to the expectation we have of God, because she backs God into a corner for us, and demands fair treatment. She helps us to say to God, what we’ve been wanting to say for a long time: You can do it. You’ve done it before, you can do it again. You’ve done it for Jim and Tom and Betty and Raewyn. You’ve even done it for the troublesome realist in the back row; now you can do it for me: you can have mercy upon me. Expect great things from God.

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