This is a reworking of a sermon I wrote for Inclusive Church two years ago...I can't remember if I posted it at the time, over on the St Mary's sermon blog, but here it is in its latest incarnation.
As most of you probably know already, the vicarage family has recently been extended through the arrival of Libby, a golden retriever puppy. She’s growing fast, already past the cuddly bundle stage and now lollopping delightfully in all directions, falling over her own paws and causing no end of mayhem in a happy sort of way. Recently she has discovered that she no longer has to confine her explorations to floor level. By standing on her hind legs, there’s very little that she cannot reach – so I’m having to work hard at teaching her that “Down” means just that, and that helping herself isn’t very good manners. In our rather messy family, there are quite good pickings to be had at floor level – the crumbs under our table are many and varied…but Libby realises that there’s more to life than grubbing about down there.
Sometimes, I’m not sure that the rest of us share her insight.
I’ve no statistics to support this, but I can’t help suspecting that a straw poll of a typical Church of England congregation would reveal the “Prayer of Humble Access” as one of the top prayers in the liturgy.
“We do not presume to come to this your table”.
It’s right up there with the comfortable words as a part of worship that many feel is non-negotiable – but I have to confess that it’s not one of my favourites. You see, I find it both slightly ironic that within a prayer that has become enshrined in the hearts of so many there lurks a reference to a scene that is thoroughly disquieting, - the meeting of Jesus with the Canaanite woman.
The first thing to consider is exactly its place in the Gospel. It comes immediately after Jesus has gone out on a limb in challenging the myriad food laws that had proscribed life for the Jews for centuries.
More, of course, Jesus redefines purity as a state of being, rather than a state of diet.
“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles”
This is almost a truth too far even for the disciples, - and it’s tempting to see it as a first shot in the revolution that is the Gospel.
Tempting, but possibly inaccurate, as we focus on tonight’s reading.
Jesus is in Gentile country, close to the port of Tyre,- but he’s trying to lie low, to take time out, but real people with real needs just won’t be put on hold.
Here is a woman who is driven by that most compelling force, parental love.
She pushes her way in, intent on claiming the healing that she believes her daughter deserves.
Like so many others, she throws herself on the mercy of Jesus, even as she recognises the cultural difference between them
“Son of David, have mercy on me”
And what happens?
For reasons that may be obvious, I’ve never tried to tell this story in a primary school assembly, but if I did, I know that the children’s answer to that question would be.
“Jesus makes the child better”
That’s what we’d all expect.
Jesus goes about doing good, healing, rescuing,- surely that’s the essence of his earthly ministry. Of course Jesus is going to comfort the mother and heal her child, without further ado.
Except that he doesn’t.
Not at first.
First, we find ourselves thrown off balance, our expectations flouted by words of such staggering rudeness that they are almost unbearable. Jesus, JESUS of all people, tells that frantic mother that she and her child are no better than dogs….and I don’t think we’re under any illusion that he meant much- loved and cherished pet retrievers.
He is saying without compunction that as Gentiles, the woman and her daughter are not fully human, and they’re therefore beyond the scope of his love, his healing. They are quite simply a different species – not the sheep of his pasture but a pack of mangy strays.
“It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”
It’s extraordinarily hard to hear this.
We want to retain our soft focus image of Jesus, the source of endless compassion…but this abrasive stranger shakes us.
However, the Canaanite woman is made of sterner stuff, and refuses to go away quietly.
Instead, she responds in kind, picking up Jesus’s words and turning them back on him.
We may be dogs, but surely you’re not so mean that you begrudge us even the left-overs. She refuses to take No for an answer…
And in doing so, she stops Jesus in his tracks.
Against his own expectations, he is forced into really seeing her, - another human being, a child of God…and what he sees makes him change his mind in a radical way.
Jesus change his mind?
As God’s Son, Jesus must be perfect…the unmoved mover, no shadow of turning, right?
Well, I’d say not.
For me, learning is part of what it means to be human.
Even Mrs Alexander was prepared to accept that Jesus went through all the normal stages of physical development – “day by day like us he grew”
So too, surely, he learned and grew in relationship…
He learned, he grew, and sometimes he changed his mind. There’s so much more going on here than just an exchange of banter, for surely Jesus is forced to rethink the scope of his mission.
This should, I think, serve to correct our own tendency to arrogance, to hardness of heart. It’s so tempting to believe that we don’t need to listen to others, because we already know the truth, already understand fully what Scripture means. It’s hard not to sympathise with the Jews, who believe themselves to be the insiders, on a fast track to Salvation. In our society, and in our church, we can surely think of behaviour that matches theirs, of insiders who guard their corners, and cannot believe in a God whose heart and vision are larger than anything we can encompass.
But if we take Scripture seriously, our limited view is inevitably challenged.
Listen to Isaiah
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”
or again to Paul
“God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that he may be merciful to all”
In Scripture we meet a God who listens and changes his mind, whose unlimited love almost surprises himself.
In Scripture, we encounter a God who is changed by his relationships, a God who is moved by the prayers of his children, and acts in unexpected ways to answer them.
In Scripture, above all, we meet a God who is love, and cannot remain unmoved by the beloved.
“We do not presume…”
Well, thank God that sometimes we do.
Sometimes, like Libby, we reach out to help ourselves.
Thank God for this woman, the outsider, the second class citizen who refuses to go away but demands that Jesus recognise her right to engage with him.
Thank God that she stops him in his tracks, forcing him to see and recognise both her faith and her humanity.
Jesus learns from the encounter…a lesson that we, his church, most sorely need to hear.
There ARE no limits to be set on God’s love.
There is enough and to spare for all….
Nobody need be content with just crumbs from under the table. To affirm some need never mean denying others. Too often we behave as if we need to claim our ground at the expense of others, we create hierarchies to defend our own position at the table. We act as if there might not be enough to go round.
We abase ourselves before God fearfully.
“We are not worthy….”
True enough, but the message of this passage is surely that worthiness is irrelevant.
God’s reckless mercy sweeps us off our feet, or as that alternative prayer in our liturgy reminds, us his love compels us to come in, and we find that we are all alike included in a boundless welcome.
“You are the God of our Salvation and share your bread with sinners”
Not just a few poor crumbs but the very bread of life itself…enough for all.