Sunday, September 30, 2012

"...And One Turned Back" - A Homily for Harvest Home, 2012

Homily for Harvest Home, 2012
Sunday, September 30th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 17:11-19

“Master, have mercy on us!”
--Luke 17:13

 One of the most fundamental prayers of our faith, is “Lord, have mercy.”  It is a prayer that expresses our human frailty in the face of God’s majesty and sovereignty.  It is a prayer that takes great vulnerability on our part and places great trust that the majestic and sovereign God is also a compassionate and loving God. It is a prayer that is repeatedly offered in the gospels and a prayer that Jesus repeatedly answers – this is the ground of our praying it.  We have before us the example of those who have been marginalized, are forgotten, are broken with illness, sickness, or despair, and when they cry out to Jesus, even if they fear to approach him in the own uncleanness as with the lepers in this story, Jesus blesses them and offers them God’s mercy. 

“Master, have mercy” – it is at once a cry for help and a profession of faith.  It is a cry that comes from the depths of abandonment.  The lepers have been pushed to the margins of society, beyond the boundaries of their religion, and outside the community of their homes and families.  They have suffered profound loss and separation from their people, and indeed they feel, separation from the God.  Yet, even amidst that sense of separation and loss, there is still a profession of faith.  They call Jesus “master.”  Even in all they have lost, even in their separation, they still know who their Lord is.  Thus, when he travels past them, they call out to him, “Master, have mercy!” 

In an instant Jesus recognizes his own.  He sees past the illness that afflicts them and disfigures their appearances.  He even sees through the illness and afflictions that disfigure their hearts.  He sees through it all.  He sees into them deeply, and he recognizes his own.  With one command, he orders them to present themselves to the priests.  By saying this he was telling them that they had been made clean, they had been cured.  If they went to the priests and the priests found them without leprosy, they could be readmitted into the life of the community, into cult of the Temple.  They would be restored to their people, to their religion, to their God. 

But notice one crucial thing.  It is not until they have gone on their way that they have found that they have been healed.  They pressed forward, even with the signs of their illness still showing and went out to seek the priests and present themselves.  Imagine a faith that moves forward in belief, even when the signs of healing were not yet fully manifest. And yet, there was one thing still missing.   And only one of the men saw it. 

One leper amongst ten, when he saw the signs of healing taking place in his body turned back and came to Jesus, fell down at his feet and praised him and thanked him.  One leper amongst ten put his praise and thanksgiving to God above his reintegration into his community, above his restoration to his religious life.  One leper amongst ten said “thank you, Jesus.”   And that man was a foreigner, a stranger, a Samaritan.

 Should it surprise us?  Do we not learn all through the gospels, and especially in this Gospel of Luke, that Jesus has a special eye for those on the outside, the foreigner, those who have been forgotten, those who make terrible mistakes and yet are able to turn to Jesus, to return to God? Think of that good Samaritan along the road who risks life and limb, and offers of himself for that wounded man. Think of that prodigal son who so flagrantly wastes his inheritance, and yet is welcomed home by a loving father who missed him more than words can express. Think of that widow, whose mite he honoured more than the riches of the wealthiest of men. This Samaritan, this stranger, who had been excluded not only because of his illness, but also because of his foreign brand of the Jewish faith stopped, for a moment, and thanked the one who had made him whole. This is the fullness of faith.

Let us note that all ten received the gift. Whether or not we are gracious and thankful, God longs to pour his blessing upon us, God loves us, and God offers us healing and life.  Only one turned back to give thanks, but yes, there were ten that were healed.  Yet that one receives something more.  That one has his eyes opened – the eyes of his heart.  That one sees something very different than what the others see. The others will be able to return to their homes.  They will be able to return to worshiping in the Temple.  They will be renewed in their relationships, but God stood before them and they failed to see him.  One man, though, a Samaritan, and outsider, a stranger, saw Jesus.  One man recognized that God was in his midst.  One man recognized that it was no ordinary physician who had cured him, but a great physician.  One man saw in a way that the others could not, and though he goes on his way, as Jesus commands, he becomes a follower of Jesus.

Where the others go on their way merrily and with excitement, the Samaritan has first turned. He has turned to Christ and in his turning he has been healed in much more than his body.  He has been healed of all that ails him. He life has been healed.  His spirit has been healed.  He has turned back, and in that risk of turning back to offer a brief “thank you” to God, he has been given the gift of life.  His sins are forgiven.  His body is whole.  And though he is an outsider amongst men, he will never be an outsider to God.

“Your faith has saved you,” Jesus says.  The Greek term equally means “Your faith has made you well.”  What the Samaritan receives is the gift of faith, a faith that God has saved him, made him well in body, mind and spirit, a faith that God has forgiven his sins, and a faith that in Jesus Christ, God will never leave him.  Ten men cried out “Lord, have mercy.”  Ten men received mercy.  One man truly understood what that gift meant.  One man really understood what mercy does.  It does not simply heal the body, it does not simply restore us in community (great things as these are), it makes us well in all ways, in the entirety of our being.  It saves us.  It makes us right with God.

God’s mercy is poured out abundantly, in all times and in all places.  May we, when we are given the courage to cry “Lord, have mercy,” be given the grace that our eyes might be opened that we might see that we are indeed loved, that we are indeed healed, we are indeed forgiven, and that we are indeed saved.  And may that grace so enflame our hearts that our only response can and ever will be, “Thank you, Lord.”

c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"...And Franktown Still is My Delight" - A Sermon for the 190th Anniversary Celebration of St. James' Anglican Church, Franktown, ON

Sermon for the 190th Anniversary of St. James, Church, Franktown, Ontario
in the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa,
Sunday, September 23rd, 2012
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 1 Chronicles 29:6-19

“Near Franktown first I saw the light,
And Franktown still is my delight…”

These words come from the pen of a distant relation of mine and a son of this parish, the Rev. John May, M.A. (1834-1913), and are taken from a poem loftily titled, “Franktown Past and Present: A Poetic Panorama of Rich and Exuberant Fancy.”  Beyond these verses Mr. May goes on to lament the decline of the dear old place he loved so much, and yet, as I stand amongst you today, over a century after these words were penned, I see no cause for lamentation, but indeed, great cause for rejoicing!  For as John May first saw the light here in this place, as he was nurtured on God’s most holy word and holy sacraments from this pulpit and from this altar, so too, have countless others first seen the light here, and have been nourished thus. 

By my reckoning, for eight or more  generations, our Lord has drawn folk from all walks of life, all sorts and conditions, young and old, rich and poor, into his loving embrace in this very place.  For eight or more generations, Christians have first seen the light here.  For eight or more generations, Christians have heard that old, old story told, and have had their lives transformed by the Good News of Gospel in this very place.  St. James’ Church, Franktown, stands as a monument to the faith of our fathers and mothers who have now entered into glory and are at rest with the saints.  And yet, this place is no cold, lifeless monument, but a living, breathing witness to God’s power to bring healing, hope, reconciliation, and salvation in Christ Jesus.  While St. James’ Church may stand as a monument and a memorial to the work of God in the past, it continues to shine as a bright beacon of hope for those who come through its doors today, and for those who will one day catch a glimpse of that light and come to hear those wonderful words of life.  It calls to mind a particular biblical metaphor (one that was a favourite of John May) from the Sermon on the Mount: “You are a city set upon a hill.”  And indeed, although in Franktown one may search far and wide for a hill in geological terms, in theological terms, you are indeed “a city set upon a hill.”

 Every church, like every person, has its ebbs and flows in life.  There will be times when the way is hard, and the path uncertain.  Every church, like every person, will face moments of existential angst and crisis:  “Will we make it?” we might ask.  And “where are we going?”  And “how can we afford to do this.”  And yet, the simple fact that for 190 years you have faced these challenges serves to remind us that such fears, as real and pressing as they are, are but fears and not the final word. That these challenges have not overcome us or destroyed us speaks to the plain and simple truth of the most central aspect of our faith:  God is with us and is ever faithful.  Is this not the most self-evident message of the Incarnation, a message of which we so often lose sight?  In Jesus Christ, God is with us.  God has made his home among mortals.  But through the changes and chances of this fleeting life, we so often lose sight of this fact, we so often find ourselves drifting into fear, we so often find ourselves wondering if we can “do it.”  Then, we pause, then we listen once again to the words of Jesus, “Fear not, for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age,” and with his words stirring the very depths of our souls, we realize that it is not all about our striving, about whether we can do it, but about God bringing about his Kingdom in us, around us, and for us. It is about God choosing to dwell among us, to bear our burdens and transform our suffering, our fear, and our failures for his glory and for the building up of his kingdom.  God has chosen to make his home in this very place, and as the words of life are read and the Sacraments administered, Jesus Christ dwells with you.

It has ever been thus.  When we cast our minds back to the early days of this community, we may need to engage our historical imaginations, but the story is a familiar one.  We cast our minds back to the early settlers and imagine what hardships they endured.  We imagine the personal cost of building this church when they were also trying to clear land and meet their own legal settlement requirements, and more importantly, feed and shelter their families.  Imagine the extraordinary personal cost of erecting the edifice of this fine place of worship, of furnishing it for God’s honour and glory.  It was no small feat.  It was no small feat, considering the journey that most had just taken. Once again, the Rev. John May helps us paint a picture of that life as he reflects on this journey, a journey from Ireland that his family took, which surely stirs within each of us an image of similar journeys taken by ancestors of the many others worshipping here today.

Slow fades loved Erin from his lingering view;
Slow glides the keel across the solemn sea;
As, sad at heart, his wife and children, too,
Gaze fondly back in silent misery.

 Six weeks at sea! – the Gulf – and then Quebec –
The Durham boat – St. Lawrence – Montreal –
Old Bytown – then the “Bush” where’s not a speck
Nor sign of man! Unbroken forest all!”      
(From “The Pioneers,” by the Rev. John May 1911)

A wandering people, seeking a new home in a new and unknown land, but they sought to erect more than a home for themselves and their families, but a building in which they could give thanks to God for all his goodness to them, even during their wandering and exile.  It would cost them greatly.  It would mean extraordinary personal sacrifice, and yet, they did it; they did it because they believed God was with them, through their good times and bad, through moments of joy and moments of loss.  They believed God was with them on their journey. They built a house, not because God needed a house, for God dwells everywhere, but because they wanted to proclaim, in a tangible way, that God dwelled with them, ever and always, faithful to last.

Why should we be surprised at this?  Did not the Hebrew people build a house for God, even though God had been with them through their escape from slavery?  During their journey in the wilderness, through famine, in their living and in their dying, God was with them, a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.  And yet, in the fullness of time, they needed to construct something more permanent as a sacrament of God’s permanence, of his never-failing presence.

However, we must never let the apparent permanence of any structure we construct distract us from the spiritual grace which is incarnated in the “sacrament” of this building.  God forbid that though this building should ever be lost, we might ever be reminded of the fact that we shall never be lost, because we journey with the presence of God.  Jesus does not say that a building is a city set upon a hill, or that a building is a light of the world, rather he says “you are a city set upon a hill; you are the light of the world.”  Oh, to be sure, this building means much to us, and although I have lived all my life in another part of this province I feel such affinity for this place knowing that it was one of my ancestors who was amongst its architects.  I can only imagine how deeply important the very fibre of this building is to each of you.  It is an important and holy place because God has made his home here, but it is holy and sacred also because God has made his home in you.

And so we find ourselves here today.  Many of you have made your home here for generations, and others amongst us have found that our own wandering, or the wandering of our ancestors, has taken us far and wide.  On this earthly pilgrimage we, like the Hebrew people of old, are all aliens and transients, whether we stay put or whether we wander.  This earthly life is fleeting.  The ages pass us by and we wither like the grass.  Who are we in the sight of an unchanging God?  Who are we and of what value are the things we offer when we realize that our gifts, even offered with great personal cost, are so small?  But thanks be to God that in Christ Jesus, small things are counted as great things.  Thanks be to God, that when and where we are weak, he is ever strong.  Thanks be to God that through this pilgrimage he sustains us all the day long of this earthly life until the day has ended and the night falls.  Thanks be to God for the immeasurable riches we have known in Christ Jesus and for his abiding presence in our lives and in this place.  Indeed, all things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.

A light has shone in this community for one hundred and ninety years.  A light than will not be extinguished under a bushel, for it is not a light made by earthly flint, but indeed is ignited by a heavenly spark.  It is a light that has shone and cut through the darkness that has threatened to overcome many a faithful Christian, but the darkness has not, and never shall extinguish the light.  It is a light that has shone in the hearts of the faithful of this parish, and a light that has been a lantern along the path of many a lost wayfarer on the spiritual journey.  It is a light that continues to shine in your ongoing ministry and in the witness you offer to this wonderful village and the surrounding countryside.  It is a light that shines because God has made his home here, in you, in this city set upon a hill.

In closing, may I bid your indulgence for one last bit of verse from the pen of my Reverend ancestor, John May?  I shall let it be my prayer as we break bread together around this holy table, as did our ancestors in ages past, and so shall our descendants in years to come:

Come, Saviour, Come! And with us sup;
The night is drawing on apace.
Come, break the bread and pour the cup
That we may see and know Thy Face.
Come! Drink with us the sacred wine.
And feed us with the bread divine.

And when before the final gate
We stand, and shrink in mortal fear;
Then, as we halt, disconsolate,
Wilt Thou not, as of old, draw near;
Bide with us through that awful night,
And lead us safely to the Light.
(From “The Eyes were Holden that They Should not Know Him,”
by the Rev. John May, M.A. of Franktown, c.1913)

c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

The Rev. Daniel F. Graves is a priest of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, and is the first cousin four times removed of the Rev. John May (both are descended from William May, c. 1765-1855, the progenitor of the May family in Upper Canada).  Fr. Graves is the Priest-in-Charge of Trinity Church in Bradford, the editor of Prayers for Healing from the Anglican Tradition (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2010), and in 2007 wrote his M.Div. theological, political, and educational thought of the Rev. John May, M.A.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

"Who do People Say that I am?" - A Homily for Proper 24, Year B, 2012

Homily for Proper 24, Year B, 2012
Sunday, September 16th, 2012: “Rally Sunday”
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 8:27-38

"Who do people say that I am?"
When Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say that I am?” he is asking a question to which he knows the answer.  Jesus knows what people think of him. He knows who people think he is. He knows that some think that he is a prophet, like John the Baptist or Elijah, while others think him a miracle-worker or magician, still others think him a wise teacher.  Perhaps each of them have caught some part of his character, but each of them have understood him incompletely.  Then there are those who do know him. Surprisingly, when all others fail to understand him the demons he casts out recognize him for who he really is. For them, there is no doubt; he is the Son of David, the Messiah.  Yes, even the elements know him, for does not one witness cry out when Jesus stills the seas, “who is this that even the seas and the winds obey him?”  And so Peter reports to Jesus what people are saying, to which Jesus presses him further, “… and who do you say I am?”  Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”

But what does this mean?  What is does it mean to call Jesus the Messiah, the Christ?  Peter knows the right word, but does he know what it means?  Peter had a thought about what it meant, but he was sternly rebuked by Jesus when Jesus began to overturn the convention meaning of the concept of the “messiah” with talk of suffering and death.  There are literally hundreds of books written investigating what the typical first-century Jew thought the messiah might be like.  Investigating contemporary sources like inter-testamental Jewish literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and ancient historians like Josephus, we see that although in many ways Jesus does fit the bill for the description “messiah” (otherwise, how would he have been recognized as such?), in one important way, his version of messiahship was revolutionary.  Yes, he was a messiah that would ride on and conquer, as was expected, but he would ride on a lowly animal, not a majestic beast; he would take up a cross and not a sword; on his head would be placed twisted thorns and not a garlanded crown.  This messiah would suffer pain and suffer death. 

Peter would have been right to say “Forbid it, Lord!” Peter was right, given what he had learned the messiah should be, to object sternly to Jesus’ proclamation that the messiah must suffer and die, for this image of a messiah was not what was expected.  But Jesus rebuked him, for this messiah was not simply present to upset the current order of domination, but the cosmic order.  This messiah was here to set things right on all levels.  This messiah was here to deliver the people not only from the bondage of oppression of their earthly masters, but to deliver them from all other bondage, from the power of Satan, from the power of death, from the  all the things that bound them in body mind and spirit.  And how would he do this?  He would defeat those powers by defeating death itself.  He would go to the cross, go to the grave, with faith and hope and trust that God would raise him again.

Who do people say that I am? 

It seems to me that people are very confused, both within the church and outside the church as to who Jesus is. This should come as no surprise, for when we begin to read the stories of Jesus, to read his overarching story, it is a challenging one.  Anything that involves the dead being raised may be difficult to believe.  Peter was challenged and so are we.  Let us enumerate the various Jesuses we may hold dear to us.  There is the Jesus who cures the sick.  There is the Jesus who teaches that the God loves the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed. There is the Jesus that teaches us to love our neighbour, and even our enemies. There is the Jesus who says “let the little children come unto me.”  There is the religious revolutionary, who turns over the tables of the money-changers in the portico of the Temple.  There is the Jesus who debates and criticizes both the religious zealots and hypocrites of his day.  There is the gentle baby Jesus, meek and mild, in his mother’s arms that we adore every year. There are all these Jesuses and more.  Each of us will have a favourite version, and vision, of Jesus.  And none of these are wrong.  They are all Scriptural, they have all been preached by me and many others from this very pulpit.  But like those early followers of Jesus who were taking guesses at who he was, if we latch onto only one of these images, or even just a couple, we are not getting the full picture, we don’t really and truly know who Jesus is. We catch glimpses of him, but we only catch a partial glimpse of who the Messiah is.  All these aspects of Jesus, Jesus as healer, revolutionary, teacher, all point to the deeper reality of Jesus, and that is the reality of God with us.   That is why John’s Gospel begins, with “the word was made flesh.”  That is why the book of Revelation draws to a close with “behold, God has made his home among mortals.”  Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. 

Yet we dare not stop even there, for God is with us, not only to accompany us, but to lead us into our salvation.  And thus, God delivers himself, in his life as Jesus of Nazareth, to death on the cross.  By the Father raising the Son from the dead, Jesus tramples down the gates of death.  Death is the thing that enslaves us most in this life. All of our fears, all of our anxieties are ultimately rooted in the fear of death.  To a remarkable degree, when we dig down deep enough, death is what shapes the narrative of our lives.  What Jesus does is proclaim in his teaching, in his journey to the cross on our behalf, and in his glorious rising to new life, that death is not and will never be the story that shapes us as Christian people.  Death will not destroy us. Death will not be the final word for us.  The resurrection of Jesus is our story, because his resurrection is our journey through the Red Sea out of bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.


Who do people say that I am? 


It is not wrong to take a particular liking to one image of Jesus.  Perhaps Jesus the healer is of particular meaning to us because we have known him to be with us through our own illness.  Have we been alone and felt the presence of Jesus the comforter?  Or do you feel the presence of Jesus the liberator in your ministry with those who are poor and in need.  Never forget though that all these aspects of Jesus point to Jesus the Saviour.  This is the Jesus we worship with all our hearts, for Jesus the Saviour seeks out you and me as individuals and saves us. Jesus the saviour opens his arms wide for the healing and salvation of the whole world.  Jesus the Saviour redeems and restores the whole cosmos. 

When we realize just how all-encompassing the Messiah is.  We can sometimes respond as Peter does, because our own fragmented image of the Messiah is challenged.  Our world view, our religious convictions are challenged. This isn’t the messiah I thought I followed!  But as we are challenged, and our older, safer understandings are broken open, God reshapes our convictions, reforms them, and recreates them.  But what is more, he breaks us upon, he reshapes us, he recreates us.  And this is what the Messiah does.  He leads us out of our bondage to death and he leads of out of the bondage of our old selves.

Who do people say that I am?

Even more important than this question that Jesus asks Peter is the question he will later ask, after the Resurrection: “Simon Peter, do you love me?” To understand who Jesus is, is one thing. To love this Jesus, to follow him, to trust him, is quite another.  And so the real question for us is, do we love Jesus?  This is why one of my favourite prayers is the prayer attributed to St. Richard of Chichester.  It is a prayer that you likely know if you have ever seen the musical Godspell. In fact, in the early 1970s it even got a lot of radio play. It is prayer that might well serve as an answer to both of Jesus questions, “Who do you say that I am,” and “Do you love me?” It goes like this:

“Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
 For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
 For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
 O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
 May I know Thee more clearly,
 Love Thee more dearly,
 Follow Thee more nearly,”
To which the 1970s version adds,
“day by day.”

c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, September 9, 2012

"...Whose Property is Always to Have Mercy" -- A Homily for Proper 23, Year B, 2012

Homily for Proper 23, Year B, 2012
Sunday, September 9th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 7:24-37

“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under thy table.”

This line, from the “Prayer of Humble Access,” the prayer that is offered by priest and people in the traditional Anglican liturgy, just moments before receiving Communion, is rarely used any more.  It is thought that having moved through the liturgical journey of hearing God’s most holy word, professing our faith, confessing our sins and hearing the words of absolution, that it now seems inappropriate to return to lamenting our unworthiness.  Yet, when we realize that these words are rooted in a particular story from the life of Jesus, and when we delve into that story, we begin to understand why we might wish to reclaim these words as an important moment in our liturgical prayer. 

In the seventh chapter of St. Mark, Jesus goes into the region of Tyre, that is, gentile territory.   Characteristic of Jesus’ modus operandi in St. Mark’s gospel, he wishes to conduct himself in secret.  He does not wish anyone to know that he is there and so he slips into a house.  But as is always the case, he does not escape the notice of those who have heard of his wonder-working power.  A Syro-Phoenician woman, a gentile, whose daughter was possessed of an evil spirit sought him out.  As any mother in distress might, she threw herself at the feet of the man who might prove to be the only hope for her ailing daughter.  And what would you or I expect Jesus to do?  Would we not think that he would rush to the daughter and cast out the demon?  Would we not think that he would look with great compassion and empathy on the mother who was so deeply grieved and troubled?  Would we not think that gentle Jesus, meek and mild, would offer her words of hope and comfort?  We would expect all these things, therefore, how amazed, and yes, how distressed we are to hear Jesus utterly dismiss her. How saddened we are that he offers not a word of compassion but a word of rebuke.  How disgusted we are when we realize that he not only rebukes her but compares her child to a dog.  To her plea to cast the demon out of her daughter, he dismissively and disturbingly responds, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!”

What are we to make of this?  Oh, it would be so easy just to ignore this passage, explain it away as later interpolation, because the Jesus we love and serve would never have said, could never have said such a thing.  Oh it would be easy to suggest that these first century words were offered in a different way than we understand today, and that they might have been heard in a different way than we would hear them today, but the reality is this: the historical distance only serves to starken the words, not soften them.  In ancient times, dogs were not the lovely animals that we have domesticated today. They were not “man’s best friend.” They were scavengers who roamed the countryside and streets to devour whatever they could find that had been recently killed or thrown away.  Some modern commentators have suggested that because Mark uses the Greek diminutive term for dog that perhaps Jesus is make a more pleasing comparison of the little girl to a little puppy.  This is not so. His words are harsh.  Why would he compare the Syro-phoenician woman and her child to dogs?

There is an old rabbinic tradition that those who were not schooled in the study of the Jewish Law, namely the gentiles, were often referred to as dogs.  The woman is specifically identified as a gentile and thus, she clearly fits into this definition.  While this perhaps increases our understanding of why Jesus says such a thing, it does not soften his words.  Likewise, there is another clue to understand Jesus’ words that is found in his use of the word “first.” “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  In several other contexts in Mark’s gospel, Jesus uses the term “first” to explain an eschatological reality, that is, how things are unfolding in the end times.  For example, the strong man (i.e., Satan) must first be bound; or using his harvest metaphor, “first, the grain and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear.”  In this sense, time unfolds in its proper order, certain things must happen first in order for the fullness of God’s plan to unfold and the kingdom to truly come.  In this reading, the gospel must first be preached to the Jews, and only then will the gentiles “come to thy light” as Isaiah had pophesied.

Yet, even with this level of understanding, the words are still harsh and unforgiving.  But let us turn for a moment from those harsh words of Jesus to the response of the Syro-Phoenician woman.  Before we do, though, think for a moment what you might have done if you had thrown yourself at the feet of Jesus and he had rebuked you as a dog.  What would you have done?  Would you have left in sorrow? Would you have quietly slipped away, regretting how vulnerable you had made yourself, only to be abused?  Would you wish that you had never even tried, and simply returned home to nurse your ailing daughter as best you could on your own?  Perhaps we would have responded in such a way, but the remarkable thing is that this woman did not.  Perhaps she was gripped by anger. Perhaps her resolve to see her daughter healed is what drove her to continue to press Jesus.  Perhaps it was her sense of justice in the face of what she took to be his unjust rebuke.  Whatever it was that drove her, she did not stand down.  She faced him.  She cleverly and adeptly transformed his parable, his metaphor, to her own just purpose. And what did she say?  Her answer was brilliant, “My Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

The sheer and utter brilliance exhibited by this woman is remarkable.  She did not demand a place at the table.  She did not claim an honour beyond her place.  She did not even ask for something unrealistic. She only stated the truth.  Even the dogs are fed.  “I may be unworthy,” she states, “but I still need to eat.”

The Syro-phoenician woman touched a truth that is universal.  We all need the benevolence of others.  None of us can get through this life under our own strength and power alone. We need others to help us, support us, encourage us, nourish us.  Sometimes those things are offered lovingly, and sometimes they are offered resentfully, sometimes they are even offered unknowingly or thoughtlessly, like those who throw the scraps to the dogs. However this help comes, when we are starving, when we are helpless, we grasp at it wherever we can find it.

It is not enough to leave it here, though, for the Syro-Phoenician woman also touched another truth, and this is something that is true about God.  She reminded Jesus that we have to do with a merciful God, not a God who expects us to get it right, to follow all the rules perfectly, or even to be a part of a chosen, select group.  We have to do with a God whose property is always to have mercy.  This is what she reminds Jesus, and this is the thing that touches Jesus’ heart, for Jesus knows she speaks the truth.   

And when we consider this text in its context in the Gospel of Mark, we realize that this is where things have been moving all along!  Remember that last week Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for ignoring the spirit of the Law by embracing oral traditions in contrast to the Law? Recall that he turned the purity laws upside-down by suggesting that it is not what goes into a person that makes them unclean but what comes out of them? Think back and remember that Jesus had just redefined the boundaries of who was at the table and who was not, and he had opened the doors and broken down the barriers.  The woman who approached him this day did not ask him for a seat at the table, but only a scrap.  Yet, her request resounded in his heart for she was actually asking him to demonstrate in action what he was known to preach, that God’s mercy is not simply for those who keep God’s rules, but for all; not for the perfect, the righteous, and the sinless, but for the sick, the outsider, and the sinner. She did not claim to be worthy, she simply asked God to be God and demonstrate his mercy upon her, unworthy as she was. She was a gentile.  She had not kept the Law of the Jews.  She was not righteous nor did she claim to be.  She simply asked God to throw her whatever scrap he could that her daughter might be made well, for even a scrap from God is more wonderful and abundant than any scrap that is thrown from the table to the dogs.

If we allow ourselves to be transported from that moment so many years ago, we will realize that we are not unlike that Syro-Phoenician woman. We are gentiles by birth. We have not kept the intricacies of the Torah. And yet, do we not hope for God’s love and mercy? Do we not hope that he will look upon us not as dogs but as his children, too?  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve done a single thing is this life that could ever make me worthy of God’s love, and if I have, it has surely been cancelled out by the myriad of mistakes I have made.  But thankfully, we have not to deal with a God who asks us to be perfect before he loves us, before he offers us his mercy.  The true sacrifice to God is a broken and contrite heart.  The true worshipper is the one who recognizes their need to cleave to God, even for a scrap of his goodness, for even a scrap has the power to transform us beyond measure.  Even a tiny morsel of God’s mercy makes me more worthy than I could ever be under my own power.  At the same time it is the thing that keep us humble.  We ever remember that it is not me, as St. Paul would later say, but Christ in me.  It is not my strength but his, not my righteousness but his, not my life, but his.

Now we see the table is set.  Surely there are those more worthy than me that will approach it.  There must be others that have kept the commandments more thoroughly than me.  Maybe there are.  How often are we afraid to approach because we feel unworthy.  So many people feel unworthy before God. So many people never approach because they feel that they will be turned away because they are flawed, broken, have sinned, made terrible mistakes.  Yes, maybe by rights God should turn us away.  However, when pressed, Jesus hears the words of the Syro-phoenician woman and she returns home to find that her daughter has already been healed.  Even as she battled with Jesus, her daughter was being healed.  Even as she struggled with God, God’s grace was already at work.  Even as she sought God’s mercy, God’s mercy had already been poured out upon her daughter.  Yes, we are unworthy, but that does not matter to God, because mercy is what God is all about, and so we approach with all our flaws, and cry out for mercy, for God is the same God whose property is always to have mercy.
c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves