10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15A
A Place At The Table, sermon by Pastor Fred Kinsey
We all have our reasons for disliking the 3 year lectionary, and the readings appointed for us to read from, each Sunday. The most popular complaint is that we just don’t get to hear a good deal of material from the bible, we miss a lot of parts. Not that anyone wants to hear all the “begats,” like, Noah begat Shem, and Shem begat Aram, and Aram begat Mash, and so on.
My own personal ‘beef’ with the Lectionary is more the opposite – of all the readings they do pick, why did they choose this Gospel reading, today! Couldn’t we just skip this embarrassing side-story, which takes place far from the action, outside Israel, and portrays Jesus being so, politically Un-correct – “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus tells the Canaanite woman?! What are preachers supposed to say about him, after that, without appearing to rationalize his rabid remarks? But, every 3 years, I get to try again!
There is something here that both, convicts us, and pulls us forward; that feels like a train wreck, but we can’t let go of; that lays bare our deepest most vulnerable shortcomings, and yet insists that God’s mysterious Holy Spirit, ever present, ever changing, must be there, somewhere!
It’s striking, first of all, that this embarrassment we feel, was not the feeling Matthew’s gospel readers had. Times change! The first believers, being Jewish Christians, would have been much more scandalized and embarrassed at what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees, in the first half of our gospel reading where Jesus challenges their customs about washing their hands before eating:
it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.
And when Peter says he’s still confused, Jesus makes it even more explicit:
Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?
Ouch! Sewer jokes – that’s not where I’d go with the sensitive customs of my own people! But the point is, for us, this part usually runs off our backs. The issue of hand-washing before dinner, that Jesus is addressing, is so passé to us – I mean, we rarely even think about sitting down together for dinner, much less worry about how we set the table!
But for the disciples of Jesus, who are traveling with him to get away from it all, to Tyre and Sidon, to Gentile, outsider territory along the northern coast of the Mediterranean, to a downtrodden occupied people that the Israelites long ago defeated – where is the crime in Jesus dismissing such a rude person who they don’t know, and feel they have no real responsibility to, by telling the truth? They probably felt they were being relatively polite to her, compared to how they really felt!
So, the point of the story, then, still remains, now: It’s about the validity of everyone’s faith, and the power of gospel message to convict us in the lives we live today, while creating believers in the Messiah, David’s royal Son – it’s about the boundaries which come tumbling down in the person of this Anointed one, through the blowing of the Holy Spirit’s never-ending work.
Jesus was Jewish by birth, and crucified as, the king of the Jews. He was also a prophet, bringer of redemption to the Gentiles.
In Tyre and Sidon, Jesus might even be in prayer, because he has gone far away, to be on retreat, after a grueling schedule of ministry – of teaching authoritatively in parables, healing whole towns of people, feeding 5,000 and walking on the Sea of Galilee – and Jesus is perhaps too deep in meditation, or, too exhausted to even respond to the Canaanite woman. So, the disciples, ever-slow to understand, think this is a cue to shoo her away. But in her persistence – persistence that knows what she has come for – the Canaanite woman rushes right up to Jesus, to kneel before this One she recognizes as king in a posture of worship, and petitions him as the religious royalty she knows him to be: “Son of David, help me,” she says!
Trying one more time to dismiss her as a low priority, in his overwhelming, not yet completed mission, he belies the privilege of his heritage, which to our ears, amplifies the injustice of their separation in so many ways, by religion, race, ethnicity, and gender, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs,” says Jesus.
Without missing a beat, the Canaanite woman responds: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” She sees, not just what she wants to see, but what is really there. She sees the true king of the heavenly empire, come down to earth, not the human-made boundaries of religion. She sees, in this man on retreat, the Savior of the empire of this world. And when she cleverly indicates that she really only needs the crumbs from the whole loaf of Israel, that fall to the floor, she is actually asking for much more, ‘a place at the table!’
So, one actually has to know what one is seeing, to see what is actually there.
This week the nation was shocked by what it saw, in Ferguson, MO, through the eye-witness accounts of the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, raising his hands in surrender, pleading “don’t shoot,” through the pictures of his body lying in the street in a pool of his own blood, and the film clips in the days following, of a militarized local police department in full battle-ready gear, compliments of a spending spree by Homeland Security, that only encouraged separation, misunderstanding, and confrontation, in an “us vs. them” posture.
In Ferguson, however, residents were not shocked, at least not in the same way. What I mean is, they know this treatment is a possibility for their black sons, and it is so common place that mothers and fathers teach their children at an early age, how not to resist arrest, in the hopes of surviving on the streets. They know it is not uncommon to be treated as –pardon the expressioin- animals, dogs living by the crumbs that fall from their, 21st century, master’s table. It is the rest of us, the insiders, like the disciples, who do not live there, and who have rarely been on, this foreign territory, who are only now, perhaps, coming to see what is actually (happening) there. If any of us can take it for granted that when we call 911 the Police will come and protect and defend us, then we live in a different Zip Code from Ferguson.
And yet, like the Canaanite woman, Ferguson residents responded overwhelmingly positive, taking the high ground, if you will, protesting peacefully, using their anger to join hands across the racial divide, asking again for what they have always wanted, for Police to ‘serve and protect’ them too, and so, have shown an awesome and amazing faith, hoping to transform this horrific nightmare, into the possibility of something redeemable and good.
If we admire the faith of the Canaanite woman, who revealed a faith stronger than the priests and Pharisees of Jesus’ own tribe and clan, how can we not practice what we preach? “God’s work, our hands,” as the ELCA slogan goes! How will they know of our faith, unless we are the ones to reach out, and grasp their hands, across the divide? Otherwise this will be just one more news cycle that fades away, and with it the powerful meaning of our gift of faith.
In occupied 1st century Palestine, Jesus came to plant God’s empire squarely in the middle of an overwhelmingly oppressive regime that claimed ‘it’ was sovereign. He used sophisticated street theatre and courageous table fellowship to transform the world. And so, as we strengthen our faith together, we learn to see Jesus for who he is, even when it seems like he’s not listening – or like we’re being ignored, like we are less-than.
“When we go off into the world, it is important to know what we are looking for—and what we are seeing,” says Pastor Rufus Burton. “This is where the readings for this Sunday, are encouraging.” The Canaanite woman knows she is not currently recognized as one of them, as within the boundaries of the Covenant Chosen People. She is used to living in a different neighborhood, feeling the oppression and exclusion of being under-served, yet as minorities often are, she is well acquainted with the dominant culture, the community the disciples are from, including the king who lives among them now. “One actually has to know what one is seeing, to see what is actually there.” (Rufus Burton, CC, 8/14/14 Living by the Word)
God offers each and every one of us, a place at the table. We are Christ’s body, broken and shared – from one loaf. Only then – when everyone is at the table – will that which divides us, begin to be healed – and we will hear yet more clearly, Christ’s declaration, ‘People, great is your faith!’