Breaking down Barriers

Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at St Mary’s, Garsington and St Giles’, Horspath on Sunday 9th September.

Readings: James 2:1-10, 14-17 and Mark 7:24-37.

Across Oxford for the last few days, there has been an opportunity to discover some of the often hidden, secret gems which this beautiful city holds. This year it is the first time that we as a family have really taken advantage of what Oxford Open Doors offers. Yesterday we explored the sites associated with two great Oxford people, the kilns, home to C. S. Lewis and the college where Cardinal John Henry Newman lived and prayed. Today we hope to climb the castle mound, a place we have often longed to venture onto but never usually allowed. What a wonderful venture Oxford Open Doors is, as doors literally are flung open in welcome and friendship to everyone. The barriers which so often exist between town and gown are dissolved as we are invited through the narrow door into magical college grounds like Alice entering a wonderland.

And yet, at the same time, this week we have been reminded of a darker history to Oxford, one which is not about open doors and inclusivity but of barriers, walls and partiality. Maybe the discussion to lay new tarmac on Wentworth Road in North Oxford was simply based on need by someone who did not know the history of this area of Oxford. But for those who live on the adjoining Aldrich Road it has opened old wounds of class segregation, exclusion and simmering anger. For at the very point the new road surfacing ends there used to stand a wall two metres high which was topped with spikes. Built in 1934 by Clive Saxton, the Cutteslowe wall separated the ‘posh’ private houses of North Oxford from the poorer estate, to ensure that the adjacent ‘slum’ housing as it was called, did not impact on the desirability of Wentworth Road property. Many attempts by protesters and the council to remove the two wall structures was foiled until 1953 when local authorities were given the power to make compulsory purchases. But the residents of Aldrich Road had to wait until 1959 before Oxford’s ‘Berlin Wall’ actually came down.

I first heard about the Cutteslowe wall a couple of years ago when I was catching up with Gavin Knight now vicar at St Michael’s and All Angels and who I trained with. He was giving a SpiDir study day with his wife on Encountering Difference and spoke about the impact this literal barrier still had on the emotional, spiritual, social and political culture of this area of Oxford. I simply couldn’t believe that such a structure had ever existed in this very special city and was only convinced by his pictures of it. Gavin told me about the long memories of people in the area and how much of his work was one of breaking barriers down, of healing and seeking to enable others to overcome their natural partiality and welcome the other. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that though the wall has long gone the words ‘class war’ were graffitied onto the road this week where the new tarmac stops for however innocent the act of resurfacing the Wentworth Road seems it has sent the message of partiality to the rich.

It is this inclination to favour those who are wealthy, connected, fashionable, clean and attractive over those who are poor, dirty, unconnected and unattractive that James addresses in our first reading this morning. James was writing to Christians who had converted from Judaism and were dispersed across Palestine. He was therefore not addressing a Christian community as such like Paul does but rather to individuals who were seeking to live out their faith in whatever context they found themselves. Usually dated to around the 1st Century or 2nd Century the letter encourages these small groups of people to live differently from those around them, to literally live what they believe, to act out of a whole set of different criteria based on the gospel values.

We see these gospel values being formed and set out by the person of Jesus in our gospel reading today. Mark tells us of a series of journeys Jesus makes around the region of Tyre, Sidon and Decapolis. He must have encountered many people during his trip but we are only told of two who Jesus encountered but they were significant for both of them were about breaking down barriers, of seeing beyond the circumstances of the individuals and looking on their heart. The first is the Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, a woman who believing that Jesus as a Jewish teacher would probably have regarded her as little better than one of the dogs, begs in faith for him to cure her daughter. Jesus shows no partiality to her gender, race, religion or culture but sees her faith, and breaking down all the barriers that divided them socially, religiously and ethnically, heals her child.

The second is another outcast from society, a deaf man with a speech impediment. Perhaps he was a beggar, dirty and in rags we do not know but perhaps his physical affliction is enough to tell us that this man was excluded from society but also physically cut off from others by his disability. Jesus literally opens him up and releases his tongue. The walls that separated him from others are removed and though Jesus then ironically tries to silence him, the man cannot but zealously declare his faith.

Two healings in foreign countries, where physical, spiritual, emotional and social barriers are destroyed and human dignity restored. It is these gospel values encapsulating the royal law of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ that James seeks to make us aware of in our own lives this morning. To intentionally look beyond the surface of the other and instead to encounter the person as they are known and loved by Jesus and in our own way tear down the walls which divide. But Jesus also asks us to be honest with ourselves. To be aware of our own partiality however good and noble that may be. We all love our families and our friends, those neighbours who are like us over those we do not know or simply do not get on with. We too need healing from Jesus, we too need our walls, those known and unknown to be broken down so that we may truly fulfil that royal law to love our neighbour as ourselves and daily live out what we declare with our lips and believe in our hearts. Amen.