Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Crumbs of Faith — Coming Before the Lord with all Boldness and Humility

Sunday, August 17, a.d. 2014
RCL, Year A, Proper 15, Track 1

Nanaw and Sniffles

Good morning. When I was a kid, I remember listening to stories about my great grandma Nanaw, whom I never met. Nanaw was my mother’s paternal grandmother, and I never heard a nice story about her. In fact, this past week, I contacted a family member about Nanaw. And this person, who shall remain anonymous, wrote in an email:
“It’s not nice to speak of the dead in a negative way, but Nanaw was one mean old woman. Straight as a stick in her corset and blue hair, she drove like she was the only person on the road.” 

By the way, did I mention she was from Texas. I’m not sure that has any bearing on the story, but I just thought I would throw that out there.
     Anyway, this past week, as I was reflecting on today’s gospel story, I was reminded of a story about Nanaw, which concerns my mother’s brother, Uncle Ted, and his wife, Aunt Jeannie. It was the 1950s. And in order to save up money to buy a house, Uncle Ted and Aunt Jeannie were living in a very small cabin at a tourist court. They lived there with their two little boys, Mike and Blaire, who were both under three years of age. The cabin had two rooms, which were about the size of a walk-in closet, and they used to bathe the kids in the sink.
     One day, Nanaw came for a visit. Upon arrival, she accidently ran over Mike’s tricycle, which she denied. She then came into the house with her little dog Sniffles, who proceeded to pee on the floor. Nanaw was also carrying a package, which she placed in the refrigerator. Uncle Ted and Aunt Jeannie were sure that it was a roast, and they were excited about the prospects of eating meat. They all visited for a while, and then Nanaw asked them to turn on the oven. “Turn on the oven,” she said, “because Sniffles is hungry, and I need to cook his dinner.” Shock! Disbelief! As it turned out, they had guessed correctly. It was a roast, and Nanaw fed the entire roast to Sniffles. Nanaw was, indeed, one mean old woman, taking the grandchildren’s food and feeding it to a little dog.

It’s Not Fair to Take the Children’s Food and throw it to the dogs

What’s Up with Jesus?

I begin with this shocking story about a mean old woman because, in today’s gospel, Jesus says and does some shocking things, which could be construed as mean, or at the very least, rude.
Our gospel opens with Jesus and his disciples out on the road. They have left behind their familiar Jewish homeland of Galilee, and they are traveling through foreign lands, Gentile lands.[1] While there, they come in contact with Gentiles, which is not particularly surprising. What is surprising is how Jesus responds to a Gentile woman, who is distraught over the condition of her demon-possessed daughter. This desperate, grieving mother—follows Jesus shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David” (15:22b).
     And what does Jesus do? He ignores her.[2] He doesn’t say a word. He simply goes on about his business. Then, when his disciples—who are themselves motivated by annoyance rather than compassion—approach Jesus about the situation, he responds, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). Upon hearing this, the woman falls down at his feet and begs him, “Lord, help me.”
     And what does Jesus say? He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:24). Wow! Did Jesus just call this woman’s daughter a dog? That doesn’t sound like Jesus.[3] None of this sounds like Jesus. Jesus doesn’t refuse requests for healing. And the only people he ever insults are the scribes and Pharisees.[4] So what’s going on here?[5]

More than Meets the Eye — Background[6]

Let me begin by saying that the very fact that Jesus seems so out of character is our first clue that more is going on here than meets the eye. To better understand what’s going on with Jesus, we need a bit of background.
     First of all, we need to remember that Jesus is a Jew, an Israelite, a member of the chosen people of God. Secondly, we need to remember that Israel was chosen by God, not for privilege but for service. For example, when the Lord first called Abraham and Sarah, he told them,
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…. [I]n you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12:2, 3c).
Then, following the Exodus from Egypt, the Lord made a covenant with Israel. “I will be your God; and you will be my people.” “[Y]ou shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Exod 19:5b–6a). This means that
as Israel lived in covenant relationship with God, Israel would begin to acquire and embody the very character of God…. This would enable God’s chosen people to serve as God’s priests to the world, as those who would mediate the presence, knowledge, and forgiveness of God to all peoples everywhere. Thus, being God’s treasured people did not so much characterize Israel’s status as it defined Israel’s vocation; being the chosen people of God signified obligation not privilege.[7]
But Israel struggled to live out its vocation, and Israel’s history is characterized by a failure to keep the covenant. So persistent were Israel’s failures that God eventually sent them into exile among the nations. And yet, despite this, God never ultimately abandoned his people. God remained faithful, even when Israel did not. And so, through the prophets, like Jeremiah and Isaiah, God begins to rekindle hope. “One day,” the Lord says, “I will send my servant, anointed with my Spirit, to restore the fortunes of my people.” And when that happens, when Israel is restored, then all the nations of the world will experience the blessings and salvation of Israel’s God.
     So, when Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he is not rejecting Gentiles. He is simply clarifying the nature and scope of his earthly ministry. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. It is his task to seek out and gather together God’s wayward, scattered people. In this respect, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s faithfulness. Israel, like sheep, has gone astray; Jesus has come to shepherd them home.
     There will be a Gentile mission; but won’t be carried by the Messiah. Instead, it will be conducted by the followers of the Messiah. We see this at the end of Matthew. In the final scene of the gospel, the resurrected Jesus instructs his followers to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, Jews and Gentiles alike.
     But in today’s reading, we are not to that point. Jesus’ mission is to the Jews. He has come to bless the children of God so that they, in turn, might be a blessing to the Gentiles. And how has Jesus blessed Israel? Through his teaching, his healings, his exorcisms, his pronouncements of forgiveness, his table-fellowship with tax-collectors and sinners. All of these a part of God’s blessings for Israel, and it is from within this context that Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matt 15:26). It is not right to

Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs eat the
crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.

The woman takes no offense. Quite the contrary, she concedes the rightness of Jesus statement. “Yes, Lord,” she says. And with great humility, this Gentile accepts the privileged position that the Jews occupy in the economy of salvation. They are the children; they are the masters of the table.
But she is not asking for their bread, only the crumbs. She does not wish to take their blessings. Instead, she only wishes to partake of the bits of leftover blessings that have fallen from the masters’ table. What humility! What faith! And Jesus recognizes it: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matt 15:28). And her daughter was healed instantly.
     To believe that mere crumbs were sufficient to heal her daughter is remarkable. And, oh how there has been an abundance of crumbs falling from the Lord’s table. Just two weeks ago, Jesus fed a crowd of five thousand with just a few loaves and fish. And afterwards, the disciples gathered up twelve baskets full of leftover crumbs. Twelve basketfuls! That’s more leftovers than what they started with. And the Gentiles want those crumbs. And so, they push forward, looking for the crumbs of blessing. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus does not go to Gentiles, but they make their way to him. God’s blessings are in such abundant supply that even Jesus cannot contain them. As he says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Oh, to be possessed by such a faith. The faith that seeks the crumbs of blessing that fall from the Lord’s table; the faith which knows that a small bit of bread and a taste of wine are an entire banquet, more than enough to satisfy our souls.[8]

With All Boldness and Humility

Israel was chosen to be blessed first that they might go forth and bless all nations, for God’s desire is and has always been to bless all peoples everywhere. The Canaanite woman approached Jesus with all boldness and humility. She knew his ministry was to the Jews . . . yet, she asked for a blessing anyway… and she was blessed.
     At times, we all feel as if we are the marginalized, those at the sidelines, those who are “not” chosen. So, on what basis do we go to God? The Canaanite woman does not approach Jesus on her own merit, she approaches Jesus on his merit. Likewise, we approach God on God’s merit, not on our own. As I have said before, it is not about who we are, it is about who God is. The Canaanite woman recognized who Jesus was, and she knew that even his crumbs were enough to heal her daughter.
     So let us boldly approach God, not based on who we are, but on who God has shown himself to be. Let us approach God in the spirit of the Prayer of Humble access:
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. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Delivered on Sunday, August 17th, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

[1] This is strange because earlier in Matthew, when Jesus sends the Twelve out on their first apostolic mission, he explicitly instructs them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5b–6).
[2] Which must have taken a concerted effort on the part of Jesus. After all, think of the pictures we have seen on the news of middle-eastern women wailing for their children who have been cut down by the violence, crying out for justice. I imagine that is the sort of situation that is being portrayed here.
[3] Not only does this account about Jesus differ from the stereotypical portrait of Jesus that we are used to in our society; it differs from the portrait that Matthew has been constructing throughout his gospel.
[4] … when they are being narrow-minded and when they are straining out gnats and swallowing camels
[5] Lots of explanations have been offered to explain what’s going on with Jesus. For example, in recent years, it has been suggested that this story—recounted both here in Matthew and also in Mark—offers a glimpse of Jesus’ humanity. The argument goes, that Jesus, being a first-century Jew, would have shared his Jewish contemporaries’ disdain for Gentiles. In refusing to heal this Gentile woman’s daughter, Jesus appeals to the privileged position of the Jews as the chosen people of God. Yet, this woman’s persistence and witty rejoinder challenges Jesus’ prejudice and parochialism. Jesus has a change of heart with regard to Gentiles, and after this point in the narrative, opens his ministry to Gentiles as well. Often this interpretation is used to elevate the status of women; after all, this Gentile woman teaches Jesus something. Now, while I am all for elevating women and girls in a society that has tended to devalue them, and while there are other things that I find attractive, the evidence simply does not support it. For while Jesus does not engage in a mission to Gentiles in the gospel of Matthew, he does not refuse Gentiles when they seek him out, as was the case with the Gentile centurion.
[6] When faced with troubling texts like this one, as a preacher, I am often tempted to defend Jesus. I am tempted to dismiss or explain away all of the supposed difficulties, in order to “rescue” Jesus, as it were. I don’t think I am alone in this. But, I am also aware of the fact that so many of my efforts to “save” Jesus, in the end, are actually designed to make Jesus appear more relevant and appealing to a twenty-first century audience, by showing how Jesus actually reflects and embodies our enlightened twenty-first century values and sensibilities. But Jesus doesn’t need to be rescued; we do.
Now with that being said, I would argue that Jesus’ words and actions in today’s gospel are not as troubling as they, at first, would seem to be. And in fact, the fact that Jesus seems to be acting so out of character is our first clue that more is going on here than meets the eye.
[7] J. Ted Blakley, A Lector’s Guide and Commentary to the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B, 237 (modified).
[8] Lord, we are not worthy that thou shouldst come under our roof,
but speak the work only and our souls shall be healed.

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