Isaiah 35: 4-7a
Mark 7: 24-37
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. 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. Amen.
When I was a girl and attending St. John’s, Olympia, I was taken by the liturgy….by the images of God and of Jesus - even in that, what was then a relatively stiff, cold, cement sanctuary. I loved the liturgical colors and the words and, especially the music. It all beckoned to me, and as I grew, my longing to be there, involved in the liturgy, flourished, even as my mother’s desire to be there declined. And so, as I’ve told you before, I would hitch a ride with my friend’s mother just so I could be present at this weekly liturgical and mysterious worship that was having increasingly more impact on me during the other days of my week, this growing need in me for Word and Sacrament.
It wasn’t all good. I remember some pretty dry sermons that must have been at least 6 hours long – or so it seemed, containing reports on the latest diocesan or congregational committees on fiduciary standing, or something as equally boring to an early teen.
It was the liturgy that held me fast. I didn’t understand it, but it held me fast. One of the strong images that I remember was the line from The Prayer of Humble Access, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table….” We have, with this edition of the
prayer book, discontinued the Prayer of Humble Access, though it still rests in our current prayer book. If you want to read it in its entirety, go to page 337, it’s down at the bottom. The prayer, with its comfortable and oh-so-familiar words recognized (for me) a way of approaching the Communion. One that proclaimed that, though we are not worthy, God’s overarching love was and is present; it recognized a view of God that is more awe and fear than love and communion. Again, I didn’t fully understand the words, but I came to believe that compared to the glory and omnipotence of God, I was not worthy. These were comfortable words from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and, as I said, and as Bill said last week, we hear them, but don’t necessarily always understand them. As we weekly take part in Word and Sacrament, we immerse ourselves in them, letting them surround us, speak to us, and change us, over time. I was changed by them. What is it that calls to you in worship each week?
From the gospel of Mark this week, we heard that Jesus went to the region of Tyre. If you consult your Biblical Atlas, you’ll find that the region of Tyre is way out there – so far north that it was in Gentile territory. And there, he met the Syrophoenician woman. He met her because she approached him when he was in someone’s home there, a home, it says that he did not want anyone to know he entered. She, a woman, and a woman whose culture was not on friendly terms with Jesus’ own. Culturally, she would have probably been Hellenistic, and came from Phoenician stock when it was a part of the Roman province of Syria, a culture that had, historically, not been friends of Israel. She approached Jesus because her daughter was possessed by a demon and she was desperate…desperate to find healing and wholeness for this child of her heart.
I think this woman had more to say than we’ll ever know. You and I have known her, because we see and hear her through many generations. She is the migrant mother looking for
work and a safe place for her children. She is the transgender woman, seeking safe lodging, fearful that someone will beat her up and hurt her child. She is the Palestinian mother waiting with a sick child at an Israeli checkpoint. She is the Salvadoran mother, fleeing the dangerous conditions in her home, hoping to cross into a country, any country safer than her own, that will give her and her child asylum. She is the undocumented mother who goes to the emergency room with her sick baby, but who fears being seen because of her immigration status. This woman is known to us and she has a good deal to say. Her meeting with Jesus is interesting. Jesus, a Jewish man, and ironically an outsider there in a Gentile land, is, nonetheless, well-known and, as a male, has power, honor, and authority far beyond her own as a woman with no accompanying male. This encounter with Jesus makes us lean into what is said between the two.
The woman, certainly as desperate as any parent would be, does not hide herself, but kneels at the feet of this healer and begs him BEGS him to heal her child. His response, always shocking to me any time I read this portion of Mark, is to cast her aside. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus calls her, in her desperation, a dog, a real demeaning term in the context of his own Jewish culture, and he seems to say that the important people, that is those of Jewish/Hebrew stock, the “children,” Let them eat first. Jesus believes, it seems at this point in his ministry, that his mission is for the Jews and the Jews alone.
Why does Jesus take this approach? This portion of Mark always makes me uncomfortable. Couldn’t he have been more mindful, as one human might be to another, especially one who is in need? Didn’t he recognize her fear, her desperation? His pastoral
care skills were lacking– to call a woman a dog, especially as the name was understood in his own Jewish culture. Commentators explain it away by reminding us that Jesus is saying that healing is for the children of Israel first and only then for the Gentiles. Still, his harsh words to her make us uneasy, and I bet they made the Syrophoenician woman uneasy too.
But the woman is bold and replies so. Even the dogs under the table get the crumbs. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” “Even the Dogs get the crumbs.” In her culture, unlike Jesus’ own, dogs would have been more acceptable, like the domestic pets they are for us. And, as we know – well, certainly I know from my own experience – that dogs (like Daisy) inhale, gladly, every last crumb that hits the floor. Dogs do that.
But, he calls her a dog from his own understanding, and that’s hard to ignore. And yet, despite that she still presses on. Her boldness is an inspiration. For, what she came for - the healing of her daughter - is far too important to her to leave without having completed. So she, in her lowly state, speaks her need again. Jesus has handed her a put-down of exclusion and she throws him a metaphor of inclusion. Even the dogs get the crumbs. We are worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table.
I think we see a turning point in Jesus’ ministry in this lesson. Jesus expects too little from his own ministry and then gets reoriented, and surprisingly, by a Gentile…and a woman. If Jesus can expect too little of himself, I know I am surely capable of the same. Because the truth is that God is present and available and longs for us, no matter how we feel about ourselves or our worthiness. God’s abundance, God’s astounding, knock-you-over compassion and mercy is here, right now, and yet, we often fail to ask for it. We may be
blind to it, or too polite to ask. Or, we doubt our worthiness, or that there is even enough grace for us.
But God offers us this abundant grace and compassion, and are we bold enough to ask for what we need? What is it that you will dig your heals in for and not let go of until you get it? Just how bold are you with God about that? God’s abundance is clear. God’s grace is obvious. How relentless are we?
Prudence Crandall was born to a Quaker family in Rhode Island in 1803. Because Quakers believed, even then, that girls needed to be educated, Prudence was schooled in arithmetic, sciences and Latin at the New England Friend’s Boarding School in Rhode Island. At the age of 28, she founded a girl’s school in Canterbury, Connecticut, where the daughters of the town’s wealthiest families were educated, and all went very well…until two years later when Prudence admitted a young African-American girl called Sarah Harris. Sarah was bold and wanted an education too, so she could teach other African-American children. But, the parents of Crandall’s other students, the parents of privilege in the town were outraged and demanded Sarah’s expulsion. They, like Jesus in today’s gospel text, and like us sometimes, expected too little of themselves. They did not recognize God’s abundant love among them.
But, Prudence Crandall was bold and knew that abundance, for she refused their demands and then decided to open a new school for African American girls. The town members tried to close the school, but Crandall boldly persisted.
Sadly, in 1833, with growing anti-African American sentiment among the populace, the Connecticut state legislature passed the so-called “Black Law” which made it a crime to
open a school in which black children from any state other than Connecticut were schooled.
These leaders were, I believe, misguided individuals who failed to recognize the abundant love offered by God to all people. Prudence, who had received pupils from other states, was arrested, jailed, tried, and convicted, but a higher court reversed the decision. Boldly, she went back to her students and her commitment to their education, but the harassment from the town’s people grew worse, and, so fearing for the safety of her children, she closed her school in 1834, just 3 years after she began as an educator.
Years later, in 1886, when Prudence was 83, the Connecticut state legislature awarded her a pension – better late than never, I guess – but with it came with a petition, signed by more than a hundred citizens of that state, expressing their regret and shame over her treatment. Today, Prudence Crandall is remembered as the official state heroine of Connecticut, for she recognized God’s abundant love for all people and with boldness, she declared it in her actions. We are, Prudence inferred in all that she did, all worthy and there is always enough.
Perhaps, in the way of a midrash, there may be another way to understand the encounter of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. I recently heard a different ending offered, and in the way of the midrash, it fills in the gaps and sweetens my own perspective. . .The woman races home and finds her daughter rid of the unclean spirit and hugs her with unrelenting love and deep joy. She is so very thankful, but she’s not done, for she wants her daughter to meet Jesus, and so, together, the two of them, hand-in-hand, walk to the place where the crowds are gathered, and Jesus spots them and comes to them. He looks at the mother and simply says, “Thank you.” And, there, because there is a crowd who will be fed, is a basket of bread. Several loaves, still warm from the oven, emit an inviting aroma, and he takes one whole fresh loaf, and breaks it in half and hands half of it to the daughter, and half of it to the mother, and looks at both of them with love and says, “You deserve more than crumbs.”
You deserve more than crumbs. Know this – and ask.