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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Even the dogs under the table

“ . . . even the dogs under the table. . .” Mark 7:24-37
A sermon preached on Pentecost XIV – September 10, 2006
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
The Rev’d Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor.

It is so good, if not a bit daunting, to be back in this pulpit after a month away. I’ve been told that preaching is a bit like riding a bike – you never forget, but you might wobble a bit in the beginning. (At least, I hope that’s true!)

And, what a gospel to have to preach! This story appears in both Mark and Matthew’s gospel, in slightly different versions. No matter. If I were to give either story a headline in ‘The Jerusalem Enquirer,’ or run the headline on The Israeli Fox Network, the boldface print might read: “BUSTED! Jesus Confronted By His Own Prejudices.”

Yes, that would be prejudices. Plural. Each week we recite in the Nicene Creed that we believe Jesus is fully human and fully divine. This is one of those stories when we see those two parts of him revealed in full. And, it isn’t a pretty picture.

In the midst of divine healing, he is not only confronted with his own sexism, but his own racism – as well as his own issues around class status. Not only is this a woman, a fairly insistent woman, by Matthew’s account, but in Mark’s version, she is a woman of Syrophoenician origin – a Gentile!

In Matthew’s account, she is a Caaninite woman – a Jew, but of questionable lineage and racial impurity, there being so much intermarriage in this tribe that they were known as ‘mongrels’ – which would make his remark about “dogs” all the more pertinent.

No matter. Whether Caaninite or Syrphonician, the woman’s persistence in finding healing for her daughter’s illness leads her to find within herself a brilliant rejoinder to the cruel dismissal from Jesus.

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In other words, “Listen, man, with all due respect, there’s food enough for everyone.”

And, in that moment, Jesus comes face to face with his own human prejudice against gender and race and class status. “For saying that,” Jesus tells her, “you may go. The demon has left your daughter.”

But, something even more important happens: Jesus comes to realize that his understanding of the ministry to which he has been called is too small. He thought he was to reform Judaism. What he learns is that he has come to change the world.

The Syrophoenician woman came for healing for her daughter from Jesus. What she brought was of even more importance: in her need, she brought divine healing for the humanity of Jesus.

Not only is our God a god of abundance, but our God is one of constant and continual surprise. I think God loves best to surprise us when we are most secure.

You know that old saying, “Do you know how to make God laugh? Make a plan.”

That’s not to say that we ought not have long-term plans, of course. But, we ought not be surprised if, as we head confidently down one path, to have God intervene with a surprise or two which confronts us on our prejudices, challenge our confidence, and tests our beliefs.

This is an important message for us to hear on the first Sunday of the new program year. After four years together, we now have an emerging vision of who we understand ourselves to be which has become embodied in our logo – the dancing tree, pushing itself beyond the boundaries of our name to invite absolutely everyone to “Come. Grow, and Celebrate with us.”

The challenge before us this year will be to discover the unique nature of our vocation as a church. What is it God is calling us to do? How will the mission of this Church make the mission of Jesus known in the world? What is it that we will do that will reveal to others what we know about ourselves as a Body of Christ?

Of course, I have a story about that. Oh, I have many, many stories about that, but I want to tell you this one in particular.

I was a newly ordained priest, working as Chaplain at the University of Lowell, in Lowell, MA. I had begun a course entitled, “The Ministry of Liturgical Leadership,” in which I hoped to raise up some of the students to lead worship services in the community.

I made inquiry about the neediest place in the city of Lowell were no worship services were being held and was told that The Solomon Carter Mental Health Center used to have services, but that no one was going there any more.

After several meetings with the University faculty and the folks at Solomon Carter, it was decided that I would take a group of students with me to the third floor locked unit for a simple weekly service of Holy Communion.

We were not allowed to bring anything from the outside, so it was agreed that the third floor staff would provide bread and grape juice (since wine would have an adverse affect on some of the psychotropic medications as well as the alcoholics in detox), and we’d have to use a paper plate and cup as chalice and paten.

Now, you must understand. I was a devout, dead serious, no-fooling-around, straight-up Anglo-Catholic in those days. Quite formal, actually. I know, hard to believe, isn’t it?

Well, it was quite true. I was as serious as a heart attack about the Eucharist and the true presence of Christ, and the thought of using grape juice made me even more dizzy than the thought of what I was supposed to do with paper Eucharistic vessels. Still, I soldiered on, devoutly asking Jesus in advance for his forgiveness and understanding.

We came to the locked unit, my students and I, all enthusiastic and excited, if not a bit scared, and were immediately distressed to learn that the staff had not gotten the memo about the bread and grape juice. Not to worry, the head nurse said, as her staff quickly improvised. Within minutes the orderly reappeared with what were to be the Eucharistic elements for the night: Graham crackers and grapefruit juice.

Lord have mercy!

I sent up a quick prayer of confession and prayed that Jesus would, in fact, come into this place and make himself truly present in the Graham crackers and grapefruit juice.

The recreation room was filled with an assortment of men and women in various states of consciousness – mostly barely so. Most were heavily medicated, rocking in their seats or standing against the wall, swaying back and forth.

I began to have serious doubts about this whole enterprise. I wondered that if, in fact Jesus did show up, would it make any difference to anyone here?

Therein awaited the surprise.

She sat in the front row, chain smoking unfiltered cigarettes, watching us carefully move through the reading of the first lesson, the psalm and the gospel. Lorraine, I think, was her name. She listened with amused curiosity as I tried to give a little homily and then, with perhaps a wee bit more enthusiasm than necessary, invited “absolutely everyone” to receive communion.

“Hey,” said Lorraine, “I’m divorce. Catlick. Been excommunicated. You can’t give me communion.”

“Oh, but you can receive,” I said. “We’re Episcopalians.”

“Ah, I heard of them ‘Piscopalians,” she said, “You take anybody.” She took long puffs on her cigarette as she considered her decision.

As I presided at Eucharist, the atmosphere in the room changed decidedly. Many of the patients began watching me carefully, curiously drawn to what was happening at the table. It seemed to awaken old memories, something, perhaps, from their youth.

They continued to rock in their chairs or sway on their feet, but their eyes were watching for Jesus.

When it came time for distribution of communion, much to my surprise, Lorraine devoutly took the bit of Graham Cracker, but she sipped the juice with great disdain, obviously having anticipated wine. I could hardly fault her for that.

She seemed to be in deep prayer and then suddenly looked up and shouted, “Hey, ain’t we s’posed to be singing something?” “Sure,” I said, “go ahead, Lorraine. Lead us in your favorite hymn.”

And, so she did. She closed her eyes and opened her mouth and piously began, “She’ll be commin’ round the mountain when she comes.”

By the second round, the rest of the congregation joined in, “She’ll be commin’ round the mountain when she comes.” By the time they got to, “She’ll be driving six white horses when she comes,” and EVERYONE was singing, I knew that this was a holy place, and that Jesus had never been more present – for them or for me.

Further, I understood clearly that my vision of ministry had been too small, too rigid, too narrow, and that God was calling me to reexamine my vocation in the light of what I was learning about Jesus from the clients of the Solomon Carter Mental Health Center in Lowell, MA.

My dear friends, there is a Syrophoenician woman waiting for you and me this year, who will be sent to help us clarify our unique vocation in this part of the Vineyard of God.

She’ll be drivin’ six white horses – or on the NJ Transit – when she comes to challenge our confidence and test our beliefs. We, like Jesus, will no doubt be busted by our own prejudices.

Hopefully, we too will find healing of our humanity, so that we may find the spark of divinity which called each one of us into being.

For not only is our God a god of abundance, our God is one of constant and continual surprise. There is holy food enough for all God’s children – in Graham crackers and grapefruit juice as well as in bread and wine.

Sometimes, it is the one who begs for crumbs who leads us to know the fullness of the Eucharistic feast.

Or, as one evangelist once said, “The Church is at its best when it understands that it is one hungry person showing another how to get bread."



B Hip said...

My favourite story. Thank you for this lovely homily. It warmed my heart after a long day of work and a sad anniversary of the day that produced a tremendous surge of prejudice and bigotry toward those whose religion is Islam.

keyless_chuck said...

Thank you for posting this sermon. It brightened my day reading it, and reminded me once again of why I am still a Christian, on a day when I needed such a reminder.

I love hearing stories of the mystery of the Eucharist. Such stories remind me that we do not control the Sacraments -- it is God who does, and God who works through them for us.

Thank you.