(Matthew 15: 21-28; Genesis 45: 1-15)
George Wirth, former head of staff of First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta and a mentor of mine during seminary, once shared with me the story behind one of his favorite “pastor sayings.” It was a Friday afternoon, he told me, and he was on the golf course with a half-dozen of his parishioners, some of the movers and shakers in Midtown Atlanta. They were on the back nine when the skies suddenly darkened and the bottom fell out. Huddled under the lone shelter, these men, used to calling the shots in their professional lives, cursed the inaccurate weather report and grumbled over a lost afternoon – after which they directed their discontent at the minister, ganging up on him as they would joust with a fellow partner across the board room table. You have connections, they mocked. Can’t you do something about this?
To which George, with a quick wit to both lighten the mood and rectify incorrect theology, quickly retorted, Sorry guys, I’m in sales, not management!
I have since adopted this as my favorite pastor saying! Chances are you may have already heard me use it. Kind of a “don’t-shoot-the-messenger,” verbal disclaimer thing. Which comes in pretty useful when you really need it – like, for instance, this morning. That’s pretty much what I feel I need to say to you in light of today’s second scripture: Sorry, guys, I’m in sales, not management! I didn’t pick this scripture – the lectionary did. I didn’t write these words – Matthew did. I didn’t say these words – Jesus did. Which is kind of the most troubling part, really.
Because make no mistake about it: these verses from the 15th chapter of the gospel of Matthew are confounding at best and troubling at worst. Perhaps it would’ve made more sense for me to focus on the other scripture, the one DC read, from Genesis – this beautiful story about Joseph revealing himself to his long-lost brothers, decades after jealously led them to sell their father’s favorite into slavery and pass him off as dead. Truly amazing, isn’t it, the crazy twists and turns of providence that lead someone like Joseph to become second in command in all of Egypt, right during the peak of the famine that drove Jacob’s other sons to his doorstep seeking sustenance. Except they had no idea – no idea – it was his doorstep they were going to. But instead of exacting revenge and balancing the scales of justice, Joseph reveals himself and provides a new home for his long-lost extended family.
Now that’s a story that can preach right there! Nothing like this other scripture, which is a lot like sucking endlessly on one of those godawful sour candies my 9-year old loves and dares me to try. It’s a shock to your palate and leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
I mean, what do we make of this passage from Matthew? There’s a woman, a mother, who seeks Jesus out. People were always seeking Jesus out; this is anything new. She is seeking Jesus out because her daughter is sick, very sick. The mother is desperate, as any loving mother would be. She is also, as Matthew points out, a Canaanite. Which is important to know. It means, first and foremost, that she is not Jewish – as Jesus is, as most of the people with him are. It also means that she is descended from a group of people who were pushed off their land centuries before; as God’s people, the Israelites, moved into and claimed the Promised Land as their own. A Promised Land that, for the record, was not empty before they got there. So just as this woman’s ancestors were displaced all those years before, now she and others like her find themselves displaced in a cultural sense. She has no status, no position, as both a woman of her day and as a people who were an afterthought.
This Canaanite woman with a sick daughter is trying desperately to get Jesus’ attention. And here’s the confounding, troubling part: Jesus totally ignores her. Sorry, y’all, I’m in sales, not management! The disciples are just as callous, telling Jesus he needs to send her away, she’s being a nuisance. We’re kind of used to the disciples being dense from time to time, but …… what’s up with Jesus?
Hold that thought for a minute; let’s get back to the story. This woman is undeterred – which is pretty powerful, if you think about it. She is a woman, she has no status or power or influence in her day. She is a Canaanite; a forgotten race. Jesus has ignored her, the disciples want her gone. She knows the odds are stacked against her. And yet, and yet – She. Does. Not. Stop.
You know what this reminds me of? This reminds me of the phone call I get in my office every now and then; this office and other offices I’ve sat in. It’s a phone call that goes something like this:
Hello, this is Steve.
Are you the pastor?
Yes I am. Can I help you?
I hope so. You see, my husband left me and my children six months ago. I’ve tried to get by with some part-time work
babysitting and cleaning homes, but it’s hard to do that when you’ve got three little ones on your own. The social security
check and my little paycheck don’t add up to enough, which means every month I have to make a choice – pay the rent or
feed my kids. I’m in a bind right now. Can you help?
Gosh, I’m real sorry to hear what you’re going through! I want to see if we can help, but first, can you tell me if you’ve gone to any other places yet?
Yes, I’ve checked with the Salvation Army – they’re already out of funds for the quarter. I’ve looked at a homeless shelter,
but they don’t have room for the four of us.
I see. How about the food bank?
They helped, and I’m very grateful, but I’ve maxed out on my quota for the month.
Hmm. Is there any family you have who may be able to help?
We’ve been staying with my sister, but she’s moving out of state next week.
Okay. What about other churches?
I’ve called them all. Well, those that come before “T.” I’m going through the phone book, A to Z. I’m getting close to the end.
Persistence. That’s what I think of when I get these phone calls. Not all are like this, mind you, but with ones like these I can tell these people are trying, trying so hard, leaving no stone unturned. Persistence. That’s what I think of when I think of the Canaanite woman. Despite all the obstacles in her way, despite all the dead ends that keep dead-ending, she persists, she fights, she presses on until she gets what she’s looking for. Whatever we have here in this confounding story, we have the story of a persistent woman who defied every cultural expectation and sought healing for her daughter.
And listen, I have no idea why Jesus, when he finally does speak to her, chooses to use the crude vernacular of the day: Israelites as “children” and Canaanites as “dogs” – which, if you didn’t already guess, is not at all flattering. Could this have been some simple slip of the tongue? Was Jesus merely employing that kind of language to draw attention to the cultural divide? Or was he so exhausted from the two naps he didn’t get to finish in the previous chapter? I don’t know!
Sorry, I’m in sales, not management!
There’s a lot about this passage I don’t understand. But here’s what I do – life is messy. Life is complicated. Faith is complicated. A father’s favorite gets sold into slavery and passed off for dead, and for decade after decade everyone lives under that ruse. The dysfunction, bubbling just beneath the surface, the tension so tightly wound it seems like it’ll snap at anytime – for thirty-some years. Life is messy.
Just this past week, you and I faced the unanswerable questions that came fast and furious as the news hit our Facebook walls and Twitter feeds, and later evening news and website blogs: how can a small town in Missouri become so consumed with anger and fear, and how could a beloved actor and comedian who brought us so much joy and laughter bear such incredible pain that the only way he saw out was to take his life?
Life is messy. And if we go through life expecting clean-cut answers at every corner, if we expect everything to wrap up all nice and neat like our favorite movie where the guy finally kisses the girl and the nice music plays as the credits begin to roll, if that’s how we expect life and faith to unfold, we are going to find ourselves deeply disappointed, dissatisfied, and disillusioned. And more than that – we’re going to miss the truth of it all – that oftentimes our greatest moments of transformation and renewal do not come out of the easy answers. They come from having to dig deeper, dig into the messiness and the muck, keep searching, keep asking questions whatever the answers are. Persistence.
Persistence like this woman, this amazing woman, who refuses to cower in a corner or let a putdown put her down. No, in a brilliant act, genius , she takes the hand she’s been dealt, answering metaphor with metaphor, saying to Jesus and to everyone else, Well, it may not be fair to give the children’s food to the dogs. But even the dogs, Lord, even they eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.
In other words: Thank you, Jesus, for recognizing my plight as a woman and a Canaanite. And thank you for recognizing what I recognize – that while your grace and your mercy may begin with Israel, it cannot end there, because of the very nature of who you are. So if all that’s left for me are the leftovers, if all that’s left are the crumbs that fall from your table, I’ll gladly take them. Because they are all I need.
There’s a song on a U2 album from a few years back – it never got a ton of airplay, and I’m not even sure the band plays it in their live shows. But it’s one of my favorites because it speaks of the person struggling with their faith, persisting in searching for answers and seeking healing and wholeness when it sometimes can feel like the whole world is against them. The chorus of the song goes:
You speak of signs and wonders
But I need something other
I would believe if I were able
But I’m waiting on the crumbs from your table
Bono, the lead singer, explains that he wrote the song out of a deep sense of frustration. As a leading advocate for ending world hunger and poverty, Bono said that getting churches and faith organizations on board was sometimes like trying to “get blood from a stone.” It’s that rub of waiting, of persisting, of not being treated fairly – and yet, sometimes that becomes the genesis, the seeds of the greatest faith, as this woman more than demonstrates to Jesus, to the disciples, to us.
Which is why, as much as we may get stuck on what Jesus says and doesn’t say, what he does and doesn’t do, I have to wonder if this story is really more about the woman than him. And I know that sounds odd, and maybe even like I’m trying to sidestep the whole thing. I’m not suggesting that Jesus’ actions aren’t confounding. What I am suggesting is that this woman’s actions are anything but – and that maybe, just maybe, we are supposed to be looking at her. A Canaanite woman, persisting in help for her daughter, her faith fed quite sufficiently from the crumbs.
It actually pairs up nicely with our scripture last week, does it not? A “little faith” Peter dares to step out of the boat. Here, a “woman of great faith” claims as her own the crumbs of grace. Faith comes in all shapes and sizes, in all different kinds of people, in all places and all times. And at the end of it all, grace – whether a five-course smorgasbord like the one Joseph shared with his long lost brothers, or the flaky crumbs a persistent woman gladly accepts – that grace is extended to everyone, because grace can do nothing different.
All of which brings us to the question of the day, and it is this: are those crumbs enough for you and for me? Are they? Are they enough for the racial unrest that still rears its ugly head in our country, as we’ve seen on a nightly basis this past week in Ferguson, Missouri? Are they enough for the centuries-old divide in the Gaza strip that continues to fester like kerosene thrown on a never-ending fire? Are those crumbs enough in our partisan-saturated society as we struggle to govern and lead and accept unity amidst diversity? Are they enough for the endless fear-mongering in our own Christian faith; the message of Christ’s never-ending love drowned out by the false idol of a vengeful, wrath-filled God? And are those crumbs enough here in our own church, as we faithfully try to live into our vision and move this church forward while still contending with the nagging demons of perceived scarcity, apathy, and anxieties of days past?
May you and I be like that woman – that wonderful, amazing, brilliant woman – seeking healing and wholeness, constantly persisting, a faith fed quite sufficiently from the crumbs. Mercy and grace, abounding always. Always! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
 http://www.atu2.com/lyrics/songinfo.src?SID=611, visited on 8.12.2014.