Jesus just wanted to get away. He needed a break, a time out, from the crowds and the questions and the challenges and the demands and the badmouthing of his critics. He needed to get far enough away so that people would not know where he was or what he was doing. He set the “Out of the Office” message on his email, changed the voicemail message to “away until the end of the month”, did not take the company data package to allow him to continue his work when travelling, didn’t tell his mother where he would be and resolved to just turn off the phone and all other electronic devices for his vacation time. He crossed the border into the region of Tyre and Sidon where no one knew him and went to the house he had arranged to stay in. He was on holiday. Finally he was alone with his book and his thoughts and maybe a nice glass of wine and the bread that was famous in that region.
But then the knock came on the door. Could someone have spotted him as he had tried to sort out the address of the AirBnB? He thought he had gone far enough away. Maybe it was just the owner with the fan he had requested. So he got up and opened the door and there she was. A complete stranger. With the clothes and the accent, clearly a local. Not someone who had followed him from home or someone who was a member of the local synagogue. Right there in the doorway she got down on her knees and started pleading with him. At first he wasn’t even sure what she was asking for because her dialect was different from his. He just wanted to say, “Sorry, I’m on holiday”, back up and close the door and get back to his book and his wine. But she was insistent. It was her daughter, he finally understood, who she said was possessed by a demon and she wanted his help. She had heard about him, all the way up here, and she was determined that he was going to do something for her.
Clearly, this woman didn’t get it. He was from the house of Israel. His mission was with his people, for his people. People who understood what it meant to be chosen by God. People who were waiting for God to act for them. To vindicate them and to get rid of the occupiers that were making their life miserable. He didn’t have anything to do with her or her people or her miserable little girl. And he didn’t want to have anything to do with her or her people or her miserable little girl. He was just here on a holiday and he wanted her to get out of his face. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he said to her. Well, we’re shocked. That is not what we expect to hear from Jesus. To call anyone a dog, in any culture or language, is an insult. It seems that there are limits on Jesus’ tolerance and compassion. He would decide who is worthy of his healing power and clearly this woman did not measure up.
The woman looks up at him from her knees. A man, a Jew, a teacher, the one who held the power to heal her daughter. She was nothing. A dog. She had nothing. She could have just wept and crawled away. But she says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Perhaps it was just a parting shot before she turned her back and left. But Jesus heard her and her words went directly to their mark. It was one of those moments when everything changed. From the mouth of a foreign woman bothering him on his time away, the voice of God was clear. There are no limits on God’s love and grace. God’s chosen were not chosen to receive that which was not available to all. God’s chosen were to be a conduit through which grace and love and dignity could be brought to the whole world. Those who were considered to be outside, to be the dogs under the table, were also to be the recipients of what those at the table had known all along. God’s healing power was to flow to the whole world. Jesus’ healing power was for the daughter of this woman as much as it was for all those of the house of Israel who had already experienced it. Not quite what Jesus had thought would happen on his holiday.
We cannot minimize the import of this little story. It has raised a good deal of controversy in the church over the centuries and it has occasioned some theological gymnastics among biblical interpreters. Could Jesus have been wrong? Could Jesus have changed his mind because of the words of this woman? What does this do to our understanding of Jesus, fully human but without sin, with the knowledge of God in him. Some would rather just excise the story and get on with the perfect and perfectly compassionate Jesus. And yet, there it is. For those in the early church, it pointed them to the fact that the gospel was not to be contained to those in the synagogue. As the good news spread and was received by gentiles throughout the Roman Empire, they realized that the crumbs that fell from the table were being eagerly received and that they had to make the seismic shift to welcome those who had once been considered to be outsiders and even enemies.
Many of us are back from our holidays. Our time out. Maybe you travelled a long distance to get away. Maybe you headed to the cottage and had your feet up on the dock. Maybe you stayed in the city and took in some of the amazing festivals and events that marked the summer. Or maybe you just sat in your garden. Some folks may still be out there, pushing into September and feeling quite smug that the rest of us are back to school or work or regular routines again. Did any of you have an experience like Jesus’ on your holiday? Any surprises? Unlikely people turning up at your door? Or insights into your own life and the life of the world as you had a break from the way you usually live your life? Anything that makes you wonder about our life together in this community of faith at St. Andrew’s? As we get started again into the routines of our life together, are there things you have been contemplating that would make our life together more rich, more embracing, more loving? It’s easy to just get back into the routines. To leave that experience in the brilliant star lit night. Or on the busy street with the amazing food and music. Or in that place where you gazed on a painting or a piece of architecture and felt like you had a deeper insight into the meaning of this life and this world or of the world beyond.
Bring them in. Don’t just go back to the way things were and the way things have always been done. We need a shake up. Did you hear the reading from James today? Seems that people in his community had gotten pretty content with feeling good about themselves because they had faith. All was right with the world. But they continued to show favouritism to those who had a little more money and the better clothes and to ignore the needs of the poor. If we have faith we need to look at things differently. We need to put that faith into action in the way we organize ourselves, in the way we treat others no matter where they might find themselves in the social pecking order. It doesn’t mean that those with a few more of the world’s resources aren’t welcome. But it does mean that those with a few less of the world’s resources are equally welcome and that we need to find ways to be human together in this place.
Some of you may have noticed that we have a new coffee maker in the Great Hall. A wonderful modern instrument with a digital screen that tells you exactly how many minutes it is going to take to brew your coffee and will count down to the last second when the last drop of water will come through the filter. It is directly hooked into the water line and there are beautiful carafes that can be filled and keep the coffee hot for your meeting or event. Thomas has come through again. Well, in July shortly after it had been installed I came to the Tuesday morning Community Breakfast. By the time I arrived the old coffee makers had been emptied and several volunteers were trying to get the amazing new machine to work, to no avail. It just sat there with no beeps or numbers appearing. Could I get it working? Well, I would give it a try. Maybe the circuit breaker had flipped. Went to the box and checked. Everything ok there. Maybe the little fuse on the outlet. No matter how many times I pushed it off and on, no light, no coffee. I went and got the extension cord, plugged it in far enough away so that it had no connection to the outlet near the coffee maker. Tried again. Nothing. Several volunteers and guests had gathered around wondering when the coffee was going to be ready. I found it hard not to raise my voice and say, “Do you not see that the coffee maker is not working?”. Finally a guest came up and said, “You know there is a switch on the back of these machines that you have to turn on to make them work”. Sure enough, there it was. The machine beeped and the screen lit up. The countdown began to heat up the water and then the countdown for the water to pour through the grounds. A little late in the morning, but there was more coffee for the diehards who had waited.
We need each other. We need the insights all of us bring from our own experiences of life, no matter what those experiences may have been. The incredible message of the gospel is that we are all welcome. God’s grace and love is sufficient for all of us and God’s grace and love is reflected in all of us. At the center of our life together is a table. Sometimes we get to feeling that that table belongs to us. That we determine who is welcome and who is not welcome. Who it is that can sit at the table and who it is that needs to be content with the crumbs that are left over. But then we hear the voice and the words of a stranger who reminds us that it is not our table, that there is enough for all. Or the words of a wise leader who reminds us that our faith means nothing if it does not change our life and our relationships with others. Or a person who usually is the receiver who becomes the giver and turns our dinner party seating order all around.
As we share together today at the table to which God invites us, at this time when begin again to shape our life together for another year, let us have the courage to imagine and to work for a table where all are welcome and a community in which all God’s children can find a place of honour and dignity.
Thanks be to God.