Sunday, 17 August 2014

Trinity 9: A sermon for those with green heads and blue hands

“Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
 And they went to sea in a Sieve.”

If you are a fan of Edward Lear’s nonsense poetry those words will be familiar. The Jumblies were just one of a long list of unlikely invented creatures and situations he thought up. He’s responsible for the Owl and the Pussycat too – an unlikely pairing in real life, but one we are glad to see get together in a poem.

Edward Lear’s creatures are often in some way outsiders, odd and isolated. The Quangle Wangle, lives a lonely existence high up in the Crumpetty tree; “for his hat was 102 feet wide with ribbons and bibbons on every side, and bells and buttons and loops and lace, so nobody ever could see the face of the Quangle Wangle Quee.” The situation is remedied only when various other creatures decide to come and set up home on his enormous hat. “And at night, by the light of the mulberry moon, they danced to the flute of the blue baboon/ on the broad green leaves of the Crumpetty tree and all were as happy as happy could be/ with the Quangle Wangle Quee.”

The poems reflect Lear’s own life. He often felt like an outsider, awkward and ill at ease in the world. He may have been gay, though no one can be sure. What we do know is that he suffered from epilepsy, in an age when there was a huge stigma about this. He kept it secret as far as he could, but doing so mean that, like the Quangle Wangle, he was often lonely, and he worked that out in his poetry.
They are odd poems, but they have endured, I think, because most of us can identify with them. We all feel like outsiders sometimes, like those Jumblies, as if our head were green and our hands were blue, way out of our depth, at sea in a vessel that seems on the point of sinking. The poems comfort us because they tell we’re not alone, and they hint that maybe even the oddest of creatures is loveable, and the strangest of situations can have a happy ending.

In our Gospel reading we meet two other outsiders, who have a decidedly awkward encounter with each other. The first outsider is Jesus himself. He’s gone to the coastal district of Tyre and Sidon. It’s outside the land of Israel. Why he is there we aren’t told and it’s a strange place to choose if he wants simply to get away for a bit.Tyre and Sidon were notorious seaports in the land of Israel’s old enemy the Canaanites. It was full of dubious characters coming and going, of every race and background and it was a byword for sin and loose living. He must have known it would feel strange there, but it turned out to be even stranger than he’d bargained for. The woman who comes to him is a Canaanite, so she is automatically strange to him, but she is probably viewed with suspicion in her own community too. She is a woman on her own, apparently a single mother in a society where women were expected to stay in the background. Why isn’t there a man to speak for her – her daughter’s father perhaps? We don’t know. She might be a widow, or perhaps he was a sailor, with a girl in every port, and he has gone and left her. Anyway, she is all her sick daughter has, and she’s determined to do what she can to help.

When the disciples beg Jesus to send her away, we probably expect him to rebuke them, but even he seems to have reached his limit of tolerance. He tries to say that she is not his concern. Israel’s bread mustn’t be thrown to the dogs – it’s a shocking response. But she persists, and he suddenly sees beneath the label, acclaiming her faith. Her vision of God is wider and deeper even than his own at this point.

It’s an odd story to be included in the Gospels and a challenging one. But Matthew knew it mattered that it was told because the people he was writing for, an early Christian community, was living constantly at the boundaries of their tolerance too. They were Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free, and they regularly floundered as they tried to work out how to get along together. To add to that, following Jesus had often alienated them from their communities of origin. It all felt wrong. To know that Jesus himself had struggled and come through similar feelings was a huge encouragement. Faith and love grow when we work through the strangeness. We discover that God can be at work in our lives whoever and wherever we are.

And that brings me back to those Jumblies I started out with. Did they sink, on their perilous voyage? No, says Lear, they didn’t, and in the end, they were blessed by it.

“in twenty years they all came back,
   In twenty years or more,
And every one said, “How tall they’ve grown!
For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
   And the hills of the Chankly Bore”;
And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And every one said, “If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,--
   To the hills of the Chankly Bore!”
      Far and few, far and few,
         Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
      Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
         And they went to sea in a Sieve.


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