A very special day
A Sermon on Matthew 15: 21-28
This is a very special day. It is the only time I can think of where Jesus appears to be absolutely RUDE in the gospel reading; more on that in a moment. It is also 66 years ago today that World War II ended. I remember it well.
It was my sister's birthday. Friends and family were gathered and when we heard the news over the radio, the kids ran and blew car horns until the grown-ups made us stop, fearing dead batteries. Ignoring gasoline and tire rationing, we then jumped into the cars and went up the road to St. Mark's Church, where we rang the bell until no one could pull the rope any more. Quite a day; Happy Birthday, Susan.
While St. Mark's was most of the beginning of my personal spiritual journey, it was not the actual start. I was baptized as an infant at a relatively new church in Baltimore, St. David's, Roland Park. I mention this because the present Rector may be known to some of you, The Rev'd Scott Bellows. Fr. Scott was not present at my baptism. My parents moved to my present home a few weeks later and were nice enough to bring me with them.
St. Mark's Parish was formed from All Saints' Parish in 1800. After 20 years at St. Mark's, I bounced around Baltimore and Salisbury for 18 more years before arriving here at All Saints'. Sort of like moving back in with a parent.
Both All Saints' and St. Mark's did well in their early days. As we look forward to the 200th anniversary of our Parish Hall building, the building that was our second church, the following excerpt from the bishop's report to the 1813 Convention of the Diocese of Maryland seems appropriate. This is taken from a book, The Life and Times of Thomas John Claggett.
"On Sunday the 2nd of May last the Bishop visited All Sts. Parish Church in Frederick Town; the Congregation was large & attentive, the Bishop preached to them and Confirmed about 50 Persons among whom were several of the more respectable Inhabitants of the Town & its Vicinity & some from Virginia & others from remote parts of their state; there appears to be considerable zeal for Religion & the interest of the church excited at this time in this Congregation they are building an elegant new brick Church in this Town; the walls are constructed in a very handsome stile & it is already covered in. . . .The next day the Bishop set out for St. Mark's Parish on the Maryland Tract in Frederick County. . . . The Bishop preached to them & Confirmed about 36 persons. This church appears to be flourishing and attentive to the duties of religion."
It must have been flourishing, for some 29 years later, St. Paul's Parish, Point of Rocks was formed from St. Mark's. It is to this parish that I am going. Off to stay with the grandchild.
St. Paul's is not far away - 9.0 miles down Ballenger Creek Pike from the WAWA Station, if the State ever finishes the roundabout at Elmer Derr Road. One of the goals of the Frederick Regional Council for the coming year is greater interaction between and among its members. If this goes well, you ain't seen the last of me yet.
One more piece of housekeeping and then we'll look at today's gospel.
There has been some confusion in the past year around the Dismissal in both this and the Great Hall service. I plead guilty but blame Bishop Rabb. About a year ago, Bp. Rabb, in a meeting of the deacons, pointed out the rubric in the Book of Common Prayer that states the Alleluias can be added to the Dismissal "From the Easter Vigil through the Day of Pentecost." See page 340 (366) of the BCP. (Rubrics are the instructions that used to be printed in red, hence the name, but are now printed in tiny italics.) Bp. Rabb emphasized this rubric and reminded us that this was not the same as the instructions for Alleluias at the time of the Breaking of the Bread. These are allowed any time except during Lent. See page 337 (364) of the BCP. This was the same meeting at which he told of his preference for the congregation to face the door at the dismissal, as Rev'd Kay initiated a few weeks ago. In any event, I took this seriously and have tried to limit the Dismissal Alleluias to the proper occasions. I am especially glad I did because just recently, The Rev'd Canon Stewart Wright, who was our guest here in June, sent an email reminder concerning clergy disciplinary canons. Among other things, he emphasized that clergy are subject to discipline should they not conform to the "canons of the Episcopal Church and the rubrics of the BCP." At this point in my diaconal career, I do not want to incur any disciplinary action. I don't know of any canon concerning the congregational response to the Dismissal. I choose to conform to the rubric. The response is your choice.
And now, our most unusual gospel, Jesus and his encounter with the Canaanite woman. You didn't think you were going to get away without this, did you? We see a side of Jesus seen only in the same story in Mark's gospel. We have seen Jesus angry before, as when he cleansed the temple or when he was disgusted with the Pharisees, but rude? Never!
The region of Tyre and Sidon is very near gentile territory; in Mark's version, Jesus may very well have left Galilee. Whichever, Jesus was in or near rough country. Israel fully believed that God would never again destroy the world by flood, but they also believed that God would somehow destroy the Canaanites. They were that despised.
Jesus ignores the Canaanite woman. She calls him "Son of David," acknowledging that she indeed believes him to be the Messiah, but "he did not answer her at all." The disciples ask Jesus to "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." Bible scholars defend the disciples, saying they probably meant that Jesus should do as she asked so she would leave, but even with this assumption, they don't appear very hospitable.
Jesus then makes a statement that seems to be a thinly veiled ethnic slur, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." In other words, you and your type aren't good enough for me to fool with. She asks for help and receives the unkindest cut of all: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She wins game, set and match, though, with her reply: "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table."
Some commentators feel that this cannot be a true story, that Jesus would never act this way; others accept the story. John McKenzie, in his article in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, explains it this way.
"The proverb is less harsh in a Near East context than it would be to us, but is not gentle. The dialogue is an instance of the kind of wit that was and is admired in the Near East, the same wit that is called wisdom in the Old Testament; it is the ability to match riddle with riddle, to cap one wise saying with another, to match insult with insult, or - as here - to turn insult into a commitment."
For the first century church, this exchange emphasizes the difference between the believing gentile and the unbelieving Jew. The ministry of Jesus throughout the New Testament is to the Jews, only. Ministry to the gentiles came from the early church, from the disciples and most notably, from St. Paul, not Jesus. Jesus accepted the faith of the gentiles, as this story shows, but he did not seek it.
This story has even more meaning for us today. In the Prayer of Humble Access, from the traditional language Eucharist, we say, "we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table." We, the chosen people of the New Covenant, God's Frozen Chosen, are not as good as the Canaanite dogs?!?
Probably. We are created in the image of God. How many times have you heard that? Many, I hope. I've used it quite a few times, myself. The first question in the Catechism in the BCP, "What are we by nature?" is answered that ". we are made in the image of God." As such, we are supposed to be smarter than the dogs, smarter than all other animals, so smart that we can make rational decisions.
But sometimes we don't. Consider the hole in the ozone layer; the polluted Chesapeake Bay; Election Day. We, who are supposed to be in harmony with the rest of creation, have made some pretty bad decisions. We tilt at windmills. We outsmart ourselves.
That's the bad news. We can't stop there. The good news is also in today's gospel. Just as the Canaanite woman got what she wanted and needed - her daughter was healed because of her faith - we, too, are rescued from our own foolishness. Even though we are not worthy to eat the crumbs from the master's table, not worthy to eat with the dogs, we are invited to the Lord's table, not to eat crumbs, but the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, We, unworthy sinners, have been offered a place at the Messianic Banquet. We need only faith, faith to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord. At my ordination, Bp. Cox, in his sermon, urged the four of us to introduce people to Jesus. I hope I have done that.
LET'S HEAR IT FOR JESUS ! ! !
—The Rev. Thomas W. Claggett III