Preached at St. Mark's Protestant Chapel, CFB Greenwood, 6 September, 2009
Lectionary Year B, Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17, Mark 7:24-37
But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:26)
For the quotation below from C.S. Lewis' "God in the Dock", I'm indebted to the blog Anglican Continuum's defence of the BCP Prayer of Humble Access. For the story from Fred Craddock, I'm indebted to the Presbyterian preacher Dirk Ficca. The links below will take you to the respective sources.
The last time I preached here, my text was from John's Gospel, where Jesus says that "I am the bread of life" (Jn 6:48). I spoke about how Jesus was the good bread, the best source of nutrition for our spiritual and earthly lives, and to make this point I compared a loaf of locally produced, whole grain bread with a manufactured junk food. I gave you some questions to ask as you prepared to receive the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper this Sunday. These questions were:
1) How will you prepare to receive Communion? Have you reflected on why you in particular need to receive the love and the forgiveness that Christ offered through his self-sacrifice on the cross, a sacrifice that we remember in this meal of bread and wine?
2) How will reflect on your relationship with other Christians who come to the table, both here and in the wider church? We need to ask this question because we take communion not only as individuals, but also as fellow members of the Body of Christ.
3) Will you consider those who are not fed as we here are fed? What will we do, as we heard James say in our second reading today, about the poor who do not have enough to eat, and what will we do about those who are spiritually starving and need the good bread that Jesus offers?
4) What does Jesus mean to you? Do you believe that Jesus is who he says he is, the Son of God and Saviour, or is his message difficult teaching which you keep at arm's length?
Today we come to the Lord's table. The rite of our service happens to be according to the Anglican Church of Canada, but that is of secondary importance. What truly matters is that we gather as Christians to receive that good bread and wine which represents our Lord's body, broken on the cross, and his blood, shed for us. In that sense, it is a sombre and sad occasion, but fortunately for us that is not the end of it. It is also a joyous occasion, because we remember that our Lord's broken body rose from the tomb. Jesus appeared before his disciples as proof that God had power over death. His disciples had abandoned and denied them, but Jesus gathered them together, ate with them and sent them into the world as proof that God's love and forgiveness can set aside human sin and weakness. Today is a joyous and grateful occasion, because that power over death and that endless love are offered to us in this meal of bread and wine, uniting to us to all faithful believers across the world and across time. Does that sound like a feast, or what?
So everything's good, right? We have a God who loves and forgive us. We have Jesus, the good bread of eternal life, and it's offered to us today. Fantastic! But wait a minute. What about today's gospel reading from Mark, when we heard Jesus' conversation with the Syrophonecian woman? This lady was a non-believer, a Gentile whose daughter was ill, with what Mark calls "an unclean spirit" (Mk 7:25-26). She came to Jesus asking for healing for her daughter, and Jesus refuses her in what seems like a humiliating manner: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (Mk 7:27). Scriptural commentaries tell us that Jesus is denying the woman because she is not one of God's chosen people, the children of Israel, but what comes through most strongly after two millennia is the strong sense of rejection. To use the analogy of the good bread from my last sermon, imagine if you had gone to the French bakery and said "Padre Mike told me you had the best bread in the Valley, I'd sure like to buy some" only to be told "That bread is for special people, and not for the likes of you?"
However the woman, God love her, persists. She picks up on Jesus' figure of speech and says "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs" (Mk 7:28). In other words, the woman argues for a second-class spiritual status. She's not a Jew, not one of the children of Israel, but she believes in Jesus and in his power, and therefore will settle for the scraps and leftovers of whatever gifts of God the Jews don't need. Now some people see the gentile women here as an example of persistence in prayer, similar to the parable of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). Others see the woman as a kind of feminist hero, who gently teaches Jesus to take a more inclusive view that sees all people in need rather than just ministering to a chosen few. But I'm sure what bothers us, and I'm willing to bet this flashed through you mind as you listened carefully to today's gospel, is the woman's self-abasement. How can she compare herself to a dog? How can she settle for crumbs and scraps. If the French bakery had told you that their bread was reserved for special people, would you say "Can I then have few crumbs, like the dog under the table?" No, of course not. You'd storm out of the bakery.
When I was younger, I stormed out of church with a similar sense of indignation. As a teenager before 1980 and the kinder language of the Book of Alternative Services, I always heard the Communion service in the language of the Prayer Book. In that older rite, just before the congregation receives communion, the priest and people say together the Prayer of Humble Access, which begins this way:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table,
O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in thy manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much
as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. (BCP p. 83).
See the whole BCP online here.
My teenage self thought it demeaning to be relegated, like the Syrophonecian woman, to a few crumbs on the floor. Was I not a child of God, a person in my own right, deserving respect? I wasn't going to let the church diss me this way. So I stormed out, and I stayed out until my thirties. However, during that time I discovered that I wasn't so special or so wonderful after all. I did things that I was ashamed of. And like the Prodigal Son, when I came back to God I knew that I needed his love and his forgiveness, but I sure didn't feel that I deserved a place of honour that the table. A few scraps and crumbs would be fine for me. And most of the time, even though I'm now a priest of the church, I still feel that way.
Those who love the Prayer Book, and I'm now one of them, despite my teenage self, love what we call its sense of "penitential self awareness". The value of the Prayer of Humble Access is that it teaches us to be like the Syrophonecian woman, trusting in God's mercy rather and distrusting our own holiness. C.S. Lewis once said that it's very easy for religious people to be like the Pharisee who thanks God that he is better than other people (Lk 18:11), but in our hearts we now that no good can come from this way of thinking. It leads us to false holiness and hypocrisy. In reality, Lewis said, the hard and necessary truth we need to learn as Christians is that we all carry something which, if not lifted off our backs, will break us.
Fortunately for us, God gives us more than we think we deserve. In Mark's gospel, Jesus gives the woman more than just crumbs. He restores her daughter to full health, and he recognizes her worth as a loved child of God, a category which transcends and replaces lesser categories such as Jew and Gentile. In our own cases, if we bring to the table whatever burden it is that we fear will break us, God will lift it off our backs. In receiving the sacrament, we receive the power of God's love and forgiveness, a power greater than anything else we will find in heaven or in hell. If I could go back and tell my teenage self anything, it would be to listen more closely to the concluding words of the Prayer of Humble Access:
But thou art the same Lord,
whose property is always to have mercy:
Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood,
that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. (BCP 83-84)
Let me close with a wonderful story told by the preacher Fred Craddock about another blessing that came in the way of food.
A missionary was sent to preach the gospel in India near the end of World War II. After many months the time came for a furlough back home.
His church wired him the money to book passage on a steamer but when he got to the port city he discovered a boat load of Jews had just been allowed to land temporarily. These were the days when European Jews were sailing all over the world literally looking for a place to live, and these particular Jews were now staying in attics and warehouses and basements all over that port city.
It happened to be Christmas, and on Christmas morning, this missionary went to one of the attics where scores of Jews were staying. He walked in and said, "Merry Christmas."
The people looked at him as if he were crazy and responded, "We're Jews
"I know that," said the missionary, " What would you like for Christmas?"
In utter amazement the Jews responded, "Why, we'd like pastries, good pastries like the ones we used to have in Germany."
So the missionary went out and used the money for his ticket home to buy pastries for all the Jews he could find staying in the port.
Of course, then he had to wire home asking for more money to book his passage back to the States.
As you might expect, his superiors wired back asking what happened to the money they had already sent.
He wired that he had used it to buy Christmas pastries for some Jews.
His superiors wired back, "Why did you do that? They don't even believe in Jesus."
He wired back: "Yes, but I do."
Today in Mark's gospel we heard a story about a woman who found the love of God despite herself. What mattered was that she believed in Jesus, and Jesus believed in her. Like the missionary in Fred Craddock's story, Jesus could have discriminated between Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean, but he didn't. He embodied the love of God for the whole world, for all who would accept and believe in him. Today we come to this Eucharist not because we deserve the good bread of Jesus, but because we need it. We don't have to settle for scraps. Today we're given a place of honour at God's table, a place we don't deserve or qualify for. We're there because we believe in Jesus, and Jesus believes in us and what we can be, with his help. Amen.
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