Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Able Canaanite Woman (Proper 15A sermon)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jason A. Fout
on August 14, 2005 (proper 15A)
at St. John's Episcopal Church, Mount Pleasant, MI

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

After a long day the house had finally settled down. The kids were in bed and the wife and husband, exhausted, sat down to enjoy a few well-earned minutes of relaxation. But no sooner had they sat down when their seven-year old son called from his room, “Daddy, can I have a glass of water?”

Familiar with this delaying tactic, the father called back, “No, it’s time to sleep.”

After a few minutes, the child cried out again, “Daddy, can I please have a glass of water?”

The father, exasperated, replied “No, it’s time to sleep! If you ask me again, I’m coming up there to punish you!”

There was a pause, and then the child called out “Daddy, when you come up to punish me, could you bring me a glass of water?”

We see in this story the same kind of surprising, clever persistence about a cup of cold water that we encounter in today’s gospel lesson about crumbs of bread.

That gospel reading is an odd little story; truth be told, it might even seem a bit embarrassing. A Gentile woman approaches Jesus, which presents all sorts of difficulties for a Jewish man of that time. Is she unclean? Will she touch him? What does she want, anyway? Yet she strides right up to Jesus and the disciples, imploring Jesus to help her daughter. One imagines the disciples almost visibly recoiling as she comes near.

And here is perhaps the oddest and most embarrassing thing about it all: despite her insistent shouting, Jesus stands mute. Why not just heal her daughter and be done with it? Why all this temporizing about Jew and Gentile, about his mission to Israel, about children and dogs? Isn’t Jesus’ mission to everyone anyway?

To address this embarrassment we would do well to remind ourselves that throughout the panorama of Scripture, God always uses particular and concrete means for the good of the whole. The particular nation Israel, as God’s covenant people, was called as a blessing to many nations. The particular person Jesus, as God’s Messiah, is the unique mediator of God to God’s larger creation. The particular body known as the church, as the people of the new covenant, is called as a witness to the world about new life in Christ. And so, at least for Israel and the church, their unique status is not due to any superiority on their part, but due to being used by God for the good of the world.

And so Jesus’ insisting that his mission is to Israel is not in conflict with his mission to the larger world; it is part and parcel of it. And yet we should also be immensely thankful for this woman’s dogged persistence. For as catholic theology reckons Mary to be the mother of the church, so this nameless woman ought to be considered the mother of the Gentile mission. Mary replies to the angel “Let it be with me as you have said.” The Canaanite woman says “Why not me, too?” And I imagine most of us here at St. John’s are descendents of Gentiles rather than Jews, and so this Canaanite woman is then the mother of us all. In a sense, it is here in this woman that we may best find ourselves in this odd, slightly embarrassing story.

I say “in a sense” because there is another sense in which we ought to allow this clever, nameless, foreign woman to confront and question us, too. Two thousand years later, the success of the mission to the Gentiles can hardly be in dispute. We Christians are nearly all Gentiles, and there is a healthy debate about whether or not one can even be both a Jew and a Christian. Add to that the power and riches of the West that many of us Gentile Christians lay claim to, and we should be very careful not to find ourselves too easily in this powerless, persistent, outsider woman.

Perhaps we might also find ourselves in the disciples, who are so concerned to have her shuffle off, who are upset by this woman’s temerity, and who prove themselves to be not half so clever as she is. At least as Matthew tells the story, this little encounter comes between miraculous feedings. It comes after 5,000 people were fed with five loaves and two fish. After everyone ate and was filled, there were twelve baskets of leftovers. And it comes before Jesus feeds 4,000 people from seven loaves and a few fish, leaving seven baskets of leftovers. With leftovers like that, it’s only natural this woman would think there were a few crumbs left for the dogs. And so at last we see just how clever this Gentile woman is: she knows that at God’s table there is always enough to go around. She believes that God’s gracious abundance pours forth so fully that everyone at table may eat and be satisfied, that even the crumbs and leftovers might nourish the world. This is the kind of faith she answers Jesus with, and that Jesus praises. Although the text doesn’t register the disciples’ reaction, I can only imagine they were caught flat-footed and slack-jawed.

Even as she kept after Jesus and the disciples in her time, she continues to pester us today as the heirs of the disciples. In the face of the other, she confronts us and asks us to make good on our promise that as the church, we exist for the health and salvation of the world. She continues to ask “Why not me, too?” She comes to us in the face of the widows of Chile, Kosovo, and Darfur. We see her in the faces of people in our nation forced to the margins and caught in generations of despair and poverty. And she comes to us in the faces of the men, women and children who daily populate the tableau of life lived in Mount Pleasant and the university. She is in all these people, in their integrity, their brokenness, their dignity.

And so the challenge for us as the church is how do we respond? How do we keep in mind that there is enough of the feast to go around? How do we make room for the Canaanite women of our day?

There are some who might suggest we answer this question by, say, removing crosses, or putting up a projection screen, or installing a coffee bar, so as to be more welcoming. Or perhaps they would advise updating musical or liturgical styles to be more in tune with contemporary tastes. There is indeed something to be said for making discerning changes at appropriate times, although careless, thoughtless change can be worse than beside the point.

But it seems to me that the far more profound meditation for us as Episcopalians in Western Michigan is this: Are the things that we are doing in the parish and the diocese intended to bring health and salvation to the world? Or are they more focused on ourselves, on mere survival, on holding on to what we’ve got? If it is the former, then we may confidently hope our sails will be filled with the wind of the Spirit of God, for we have grasped that there is enough for everyone. But if we are only focused on ourselves, then what will we say to the next clever Canaanite woman who comes along, desperate for Jesus’ help? Or what will we say to those many speechless others, desperate for help, who would never even dream of approaching Jesus or the church in the first place?

Of course the nature of things is that we are always oriented towards both health and sickness, life and death, God and ourselves. We are always in-between, living in the odd and sometimes slightly embarrassing contemporary story of the church. But perhaps as we wrestle with these questions and seek life, health, and God, we might keep in mind this clever, outsider woman who is at once our mother in the faith, and also the persistent stranger who confronts us, asking “why not me, too?” Amen.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005 5:08:00 AM  

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