A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
Preached at Christ the King Chapel, Ralston, AB, CFB Suffield 14 August, 2011
Lectionary Year A: Gen 45:1-15; Ps 133; Rom 11:1-2a,29-32, Mt 15:21-28
Have you ever been in a place or situation where you made to feel that you didn’t belong? It’s an uncomfortable and even demeaning feeling, isn’t it, unless you are one of those rare people who feel that they can go everywhere and anywhere. I’m not one of those people. When I was on my chaplain basic training, our course officer organized an excursion to Toronto where we had lunch at the Officers’ Mess of his regiment, a posh Reserve unit with a proud history. We were all in training mode, supremely conscious that we were the lowest forms of life in the military food chain, and we had been told by our host that we would be on our best behaviour, and that we had better not embarass him. Sure enough, one of our number sat in a rather opulent chair that just happened to be unoccupied, not thinking to ask himself why the nicest chair in a crowded joint just happened to be vacant.
“Is that chair comfortable?” an officer of that regiment asked our colleague?
“It sure is!” he replied, grinning rather foolishly.
A minute later, the grin faded as the host explained that the chair was by tradition the Queen’s chair, having been sat in once by royalty long ago and now reserved for royalty should they ever visit again. Needless to say, our course officer had some words for this hapless fellow later on.
Most people are blessed with sufficient situational awareness that they have the ability to discern where they are welcome and where they shouldn’t be. Sadly, however, I think people many people mistakenly exercise this power of judgement when it comes to going into churches. On more than one occasion some little child has toddled past the door of my office and stared through the glass doors of our base chapel or even, heavens forfend, ventured inside those doors. Inevitably a horrified mother from the base wives and mums club has rushed to scoop the child up, saying “that’s the church, you don’t go in there.” And its not just mothers who do this. What army padre hasn’t heard a soldier say “You’ll never catch me in church, I’d burst into flames if I went inside one”?
Some people, like hardened atheists, say this on principle and I get that. I
thought I was an atheist myself once, so you never know what happens to folks like that. But often I wonder, what makes a person feel that they don’t belong in church? Is it a lack of familiarity with the customs of liturgy? As an Anglican I get that too, and I try to help people get over that hurdle. Is it the unfamiliarity of being a stranger? I get that too, and often, when I’m by myself, I have to force myself to go into a strange church, particularly a small one where I can’t be anonymous. That’s why it’s so important that pastor and people try to be as welcoming of the stranger as we can, and that’s quite an art, especially for small churches, being welcoming but not too smothering or needy.
Perhaps the deepest and most pervasive reasons why people don’t feel they are good enough to go to church are either because they have had an experience with pious gatekeepers who make them feel unwelcome, or, sadly and more profoundly, because deep down they feel unworthy. The pious gatekeepers wh want to enforce dress codes or ban noisy children can are a problem, but that training and good theology can help a a congregation wants to get over its own piety. The sense of unworthiness is a harder thing to deal with. Only Jesus can help you with that problem.
In today’s gospel we have a situation where a person, the Canaanite woman, goes into a situation where she doesn’t seem to belong. The woman has a sick daughter, and has run out of options to help her girl until she meets Jesus. So she approaches him, and greets him as “Lord, Son of David” (Mt 15:22). Now normally in the Gospels, getting the identity of Jesus right is usually a necessary step for those people seeking his help, and the woman certainly gets it right, calling him “Kyrie” or “Lord”. She also gets his lineage as the Jewish Messiah right by calling him “Son of David” but therein lies a problem, for she is not a Jew but an outsider, a Caananite, and as you recall from the Old Testament, the original Caananites were the folks who were cleared off the land promised by God to the people of Israel. Caananites had their own gods an customs, and there was hostility between them and the Israelites.
We see that hostility in the reaction of the pious gatekeepers, the disciples, who ask Jesus to “send her away”. James Boyces describes the scene in these wonderful words.
Gathered in one corner are those familiar disciples, for Matthew the true blue representatives of the faithful lost sheep of Israel, now leaping into the fray like so many ravenous beasts, as it were self-styled guarantors of the holy tradition, on their guard lest the mercies of God be wasted on the unworthy. Like a gang of watchdogs at the door they are about the checking of IDs and keeping out the non-pedigreed riffraff. On the other side of the gate stands this outsider, a woman no less, one lone representative of the dogs of religion, now become as it were a lost sheep plaintively pleading for the mercy of the master shepherd. No English translation can capture Matthew’s careful orchestration of the painful choral refrain. “Lord, have mercy,” the dog’s solo bleating cry. “Get rid of her,” the “lost-sheep chorus” barks back in reply.
At this point the story can create complex reactions in us. Some people admire the chutzpah of the woman for getting in Jesus’ face and arguing that she has a claim on God’s mercy even if she isn’t one of his chosen people. Others cringe at her apparent self-abasement in comparing herself to a dog under the table, though as I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog in a sermon on Mark’s version of the story, I think that’s an unfortunate but quite human reaction that we need to get past. Still others are troubled by what first appears to be Jesus’ ignoring her. Whatever are discomforts are with this story, we need to put them on the backburner until we get further into it, because if we do then our qualms about the story may well recede and good things can happen.
Once Jesus begins to speak (although it’s not clear yet is he is speaking to her or to the disciples or, even, to himself), he appears to say that his mission is only to reach the “lost sheep of Israel”, that is, he is the Jewish Messiah only and exclusively. He then changes animal metaphors when he compares the woman and her people to dogs under the table (v 26) but as she persists (“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” v 27) Jesus appears to relent and grants her wish, praising her great faith. Some people argue that the woman actually forces Jesus to change his mind, and thus alters the broadens the scope of his ministry beyond the “lost sheep of Israel” to other peoples. Others argue that Jesus is doing what a good teacher does, using questions and challenges to make others think. I have my own thoughts on this choice, but I don’t really think it matters. What’s important is that we notice what has actually happened here.
What’s happened is that the disciples, the self-righteous gatekeepers who, as Boyce notes, want to check the ID of those at God’s door, have been totally repudiated. Jesus has shown that mercy triumphs over entitlement, and that he reserves the right to decide who the “children of Israel” are. In Matthew’s gospel, often called the most Jewish of the gospels, there is a decisive movement towards broadening the scope of Jesus’ mission beyond the spiritual elite of Israel towards the whole world, and Paul will pick up on this many times in his letters, saying that both Jew and Gentile are chilren of God. So what matters here is that the story is not about sheep or dogs, not about whose in and whose out, but rather it’s about a robust and generous mercy that God grants as he wishes.
Several weeks ago here I talked about the parable of the Sower and the Seed and about what I called the crazy generous nature of God’s mercy. In that sermon I also talked about the parable of the Labourers and the Vineyard, and how the final words of the owner of the vineyard, “Can I not do what I want with what is mine?” really speak for God and his right to do what he likes with his mercy. I think this story of the Caananite women is woven out of that same cloth. The point here is the same, that if all we bring to God is a willingness to throw outselves on his love and mercy, then we will be allright. A related point is that if we think we have some special claim on God because of our piety or holiness, like the disciples, then we had better check that at the door, because like the disciples we are likely to be disappointed.
My final point has to do with the quality and qauntity of God’s mercy, which is, as Shakespeare’s Portia says, “not strained”. The Caananite women asks for crumbs from the table, but Jesus does not limit himself to crumbs. Recall that several Sundays ago in the lectionary, we heard the earlier story from Matthew of the feeding of the five thousand, and how there were “all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full” (Mt 14:20). That’s a lot more than crumbs. In John’s Gospel Jesus says “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to be will never be hungry” (Jn 6:35). You don’t make a promise like that if all you have to offer is crumbs.
If our lectionary readings come together to make a single point, then that point is that God’s mercy is not partial or limited in any way. The only claim of the Caananite women is that she wants God’s mercy, and she has some idea of who God’s son is. As may commentators have noted, her request to Jesus, Lord have mercy, is quoted Sunday by Sunday in the church’s eucharistic liturgy, kyrie eleison. It is the request that we ourselves make in this chapel, a motley lot drawn from several nations, ranks and walks of life. We are, in the words of our first lesson from the prophet Isaiah, the “foreigners” who have “joined ourselves to the Lord” (Is 56:6), trusting, like Paul, in the “irrevocable” call and mercy of God (Rom 11:29). When we welcome the stranger to our midst, that’s all we have to offer. We have nothing here that comes from ourselves, except our gratitude and our willingness to share. As someone once said, evangelism or faith sharing is simply one beggar telling another where to find bread. We’ve got good bread here. And lots of it.