Sermon: Crumbs from the Table
From Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
Crumbs from the Table: 6 September 09: am: The Very Revd Frank Nelson
- Psalm 125
- Proverbs 22: 1 – 2, 8 – 9, 22 - 23
- James 2: 1 – 10, 14 - 17
- Mark 7: 24 - 37
I shouldn’t read the Saturday paper before I get Sunday’s sermon written – but invariably I do. “Let us trust ourselves not our church leaders” screams the headline of yesterday’s “Religion and Ethics’ column, written by Anglican priest, and one time priest assistant at this Cathedral, Graeme Davidson. It was probably only a matter of time before someone like him pointed out very publicly that the ‘church leaders’ were clearly ignored in their advice to the general population in the recent referendum. So, now it’s official – no one listens to church leaders! Actually, I have a surprise for Graeme and those who think like him – few of the ‘church’ people listened to Jesus, or the prophets of the Old Testament. That did not make them right in God’s sight.
While it may be true that we do not listen to our church leaders – I am not sure that there has been any breakdown of the way members of mainline churches voted – this does not mean that God approves of smacking! Nor should we forget that it was the media that skewed the whole debate over the repeal of Section 59 with the sensational, but inherently misleading, slogan of the ‘anti-smacking bill’. As I recall, the intention of the particular bill in question was to remove the clause available to child abusers, and we are all too aware of the dark side to our national psyche, in a law which justified an essentially immeasurable concept of ‘reasonable force’.
Today’s three readings invite us to look at things from a somewhat different perspective than simply ‘trusting ourselves’. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the Gospel encounter between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman suggests that Jesus himself had to change his mind!
The Book of Proverbs is not generally regarded as being strong on justice issues – more often it is a collection of reasonable, sensible and comfortably generalized truths. It was left to hotheads such as Micah to give us that challenging verse in Micah 6:8. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good! And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Yet in today’s few verses from Proverbs we read: “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” And again, “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause …” The ‘gate’ of the city was the place where the king or the judge sat to hear the people’s complaints. The reference then to crushing the afflicted at the gate may well be to the institutionalized legal system which inevitably comes out on the side of the rich and powerful, those who can afford to pay for legal counsel. Justice and compassion are key principles embedded in the Old Testament. Another is the bias of God towards the ‘poor’ – not only the monetary poor, but the ‘little’ people, the widow with no one to stand up for her, the child left to the whim of the adult. These principles were born out of the harsh experience of the Hebrew people’s years as slaves. While they often forgot, there was never the excuse that they could decide for themselves what was right or wrong.
The New Testament reading comes from an Epistle famous for the author’s straight talking. Immediately before the start of today’s reading James has spelt out his understanding of religion in very precise terms: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1: 27) The very practical implications of faith are further spelled out by James in today’s reading around the questions of favouritism and indifference. These are uncomfortable verses which make us squirm. There would, I suggest, be few here today who are not impressed by a well turned out, well spoken and confident person. That’s the sort of person Cathedrals expect. On big occasions we put out reserved signs for the VIPs, and have even been known to set aside seats for the VVIPs. We are not, I suggest, and I include myself in this category, always so welcoming of the person who has come straight from the Night Shelter, or who pitches up every time there might be a ‘feed’ available.
Perhaps we can take heart from the two stories told about Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Having had some harsh words to say to the Pharisees so caught up with their traditions and rituals, Jesus tries to slip away for some RnR. He travels quite a long way north, well away from traditional Jewish territory, and enters a house incognito. It was not to be, and a pushy woman, definitely not a Jew, approaches him. At one level it is a simple enough request to someone whose fame has spread before him. Her daughter is sick and she is prepared to do almost anything to get help. In Matthew’s account it is the disciples who try to chase her away. In Mark Jesus himself brushes 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.” Can this really be Jesus speaking? It is one of those intensely uncomfortable readings that make Jesus all too human. Tired and hassled, he blurts out words he probably instantly regretted. Michael Laws would probably have some sympathy.
Yet it is the woman’s rejoinder that makes the light come on. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In those few words Jesus, the Messiah, the one who will come to be called the Christ, the Son of God, the Lord, is reminded of what James referred to as the royal law. Incumbent on any and every person joined in covenant with God, was the duty to care for his or her neighbour. I am sure you remember the story of the Good Samaritan told in Luke’s Gospel in response to the question: Who is my neighbour? (See Luke 10: 29ff) Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. The woman holds a mirror up to Jesus’ face. He has to take a good hard look at the miser reflected in the glass. Did he, I wonder, have a sudden memory of those words of Micah – do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God?
Was Jesus thinking of himself, I wonder again, in the next incident described in today’s Gospel reading. A deaf man is given his hearing. The opening words of the Torah, that great summary of the Law of God we know as the Ten Commandments, are: “Hear, O Israel…!” Even Jesus needs to have his ears opened to ‘hear’ what God is on about. The poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner or stranger in our midst – all have a special place in God’s economy. The collector of those ancient proverbs reminded his readers of that fact when he enjoined people to share their bread with the poor; James was disturbingly forthright in his condemnation of those who claim faith yet spare nothing for the practical needs of others; and the Syro-Phoenician woman brings an about turn in Jesus in her words about crumbs of the children for the dogs.
I wonder what will go through our minds today when we pray the Prayer of Humble Access later in this service – including these words: We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs from under your table. (ANZPB pg 426)
Practical opportunities to live out our faith are never far away. In the past ten days I have written a letter in support of one of our Cathedral congregation as she struggles to be given residence to stay with her mother in this country which has been her home for the past ten years. Last Friday I made a sad early morning trip to the airport with a mother and daughter, very much part of our congregations these passed three months, as they return to their country of origin, hopes and dreams of a new life here dashed as time ran out and no permanent job was forth-coming.
The God we worship, the Father of the one we call Lord and Saviour, Jesus the Christ, calls us to care for the least of our brethren – the widows and the orphans. Does an 88% poll really make it right?