Sunday, July 11, 2010
Love Always Falls Through the Cracks: A Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28
Preached @ Fayetteville Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, WV June 6, 2010
I want to tell you a story about my mum. She is a darling woman and so precious. We've always had a special relationship, my mum and I. She knew I would never be the one to stay close to home and take over the family business, but she loved me nonetheless, hesitatingly awaiting the day when I would leave her and get married.
But something happened and my mum began to fear I would leave her sooner than expected and it wouldn't be to get married, but rather to die. It started slowly. One day I tried standing up from a seated position and I just plopped right back down in my sweat. My muscles ached from straining. I was a little confused. When I talked to my mom about it, we decided it must be growing pains, like my older brother had when he was my age. He had some knee problems when he was growing up and the doctor said his body was just having some problems catching up with how fast he was growing.
This sort of thing began to happen more often. Then I began losing weight. And I wasn't working to lose it. I lost so much weight that my uncle thought I might be anorexic.
One morning I couldn't get out of bed. I could move, but just not enough to pick myself up. I called to my parents who rushed to help me. It was pretty embarrassing. I couldn't even get out of bed to use the bathroom. My parents had to take me. As the day went on, I got worse. Whereas I could move when I woke up, by mid afternoon I could no longer move my legs or feet and my arms and hands were getting weaker by the hour. You could almost tell the time of day by how many fingers I had the strength to straighten.
Breathing became hard. My speech became slurred. My heart was racing.
Mum was scared. Dad wanted to get the local doctor. Ever the logical Greek, he assumed the doctor could figure things out. I had been to the doctor earlier that week and he thought I might have some rare disease called thyrotoxic periodic paralysis. My mother was skeptical. She had never fully bought into Greco-Roman philosophy and medicine like Dad had. She was still true to her Canaanite roots and all its mysticism. She thought something else was at foot, something beyond the physical realm.
She asked Dad not to go to the doctor. She tried to whisper in the other room so I couldn't hear her, but whatever was going on with my body wasn't effecting my ability to hear. To this day, I remember exactly what she said. She said every word with care, as if they were the most important words she would ever speak. "Dougie," that's my dad's name. "Dougie, please don't go, not to the doctor. I hear there is a man in town, a man who can heal people ... a man who can," and the next bit she said sotto voce, "who can exorcise demons." And then she began to sound rushed, as if my father was leaving. "Please, Dougie, oh please, go to him. He'll be able to help our daughter."
All I heard before my mother came back to me was her tears. She looked torn when she entered the room again, torn between trusting her husband, trusting her intuition, and fearing for my life. She looked at me through her tears and I watched her countenance change to something I didn't understand at the time. She closed her teary eyes and moved her lips as if she was speaking, but no sounds came from her mouth. Then I lost consciousness.
Everything else that transpired I know only through the words of others. Mom opened her eyes when I let out a blood-curtling scream. She looked and I was wreathing and wrenching on the floor. My back arched up from the ground and I spewed blood from my mouth. I started to make noises she couldn't comprehend. She swears they sounded like words, as if I were speaking a language neither she nor I knew.
She had to take all of our clean drinking water to put out the fire we had going for supper, because I had rolled through it. Her tears stopped and she gained a strength beyond herself. Throwing herself upon me, she screamed for help, a scream heard by the neighbors.
Three of the neighbors came by, all of them brothers in their late twenties. They came in and were immediately dumbstruck. Mom yelled to them with authority, telling them to take hold of me and bind me. I bit one of them and to this day he crudely jokes that I should wear a muzzle. These guys were never the friendliest. They never listen to women, but I guess a mother in duress carries an authority that subverts patriarchy.
Once I was bound, she commanded the oldest brother to tend to the youngest brother's wound. And then she ran off, faster than any chariot those brothers had ever seen. My mother did not care that it would likely be dark when she was returning, which was a dangerous time for anyone to be out, let alone a woman. She did not care what people would think about a married woman running through town at that time of day, even though she was running to another man.
You might have heard of this man to whom she was running, he has quite the reputation. Mostly you hear good things about him, well, good and strange things, but he is certainly not beyond reproach in many a persons' eyes.
He was a Israelite man in his thirties, a sort of teacher in their culture, a rabbi. His name was Yeshua, or Jesus as you all call him. Apparently he wandered around a lot and people followed him. Some of them he asked to follow him. Others he sent away. He is said to make the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the mute to speak, and the lame to walk. He healed many maladies and exorcised demons.
Most people said he had great compassion, which is not something I would ever expect of an Israelite. My people used to live in his land until his people came in and committed heinous acts of genocide, leaving barely any of us left. My family is one of the few Canaanite families remaining in the area. To imagine, my mother going to this man. His people hated ours! And I heard this man spent a lot of time with less-than-reputable people: tax collectors, beggars, lepers, and prostitutes. What might he do to my mother?
My mother found him and while she was still a ways away, she cried out with a strange confidence, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed!" I barely believe she had enough wind to yell and still be polite enough to call this man "Lord." And she didn't beat around the bush at all, she wanted him to know she knew who he was, so she called upon his ancestry, calling him a son of David, an Israelite.
Despite his reputation, this man was not so compassionate and ready to help my mother. He said nothing to her! She repeated herself as she got closer and he continued ignoring her. She said it again, lowering her voice when she was a polite distance from him. He remained silent, as if she were imploring one of our human-made idols. My mother had come so far and she believed he could and would help. Had it been me there, I would have wondered if this character only had compassion on his own people or if he was waiting for some sort of "advance," either monetary or sexual, before he would respond. Lots of miracle workers are only out for money and favors.
My mother says none of these thoughts crossed her mind. She remained hopeful and repeated herself, her voice never breaking with tears: "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed."
The men around him began to stir. They could no longer stand my mother to be in their midst. To them she was nothing but a sweaty, mad, terribly annoying Canaanite woman. Those dolts. One of them had the gall to say, "Jesus, please. Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us."
So he did: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Although he said no, my mother wasn't ready to give up. She rose and boldly got in front of him to bow before him. "Lord, help me!"
Perhaps he misunderstood my mother. She was still begging for mercy. She says her voice wreaked of desperation, but I wonder if he thought she was commanding him [in v. 22 her imperative is aorist active, in v. 25 it is present active, emphasizing the need]. Whatever he thought, his answer was far from polite: "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs" [the Greek here is the diminutive form of dog, perhaps meaning "puppy"].
My father was none to happy when mother told him that part of the story. Jesus had completely dismissed her and rudely. He may have used the cutesy, diminutive word for dog, but a female dog is a female dog, puppy or not.
Any normal woman's spirit would have been broken. Certainly any sane person, woman or not would have given up and gone home, tail between her legs. Perhaps my father had come back with the doctor. He would worry about my mother. Maybe he would be mad. Maybe the doctor could heal me. Maybe the doctor had already healed me. Was I even still alive? Were those pesky neighbors still keeping watch over me? All kinds of thoughts could have been going through her head, beating her hopes to a pulp.
Not my mum. She was not broken. She admits she was confused, but her love for her daughter created an unbreakable faith. She continued hoping she could change his mind, hoping she could convince him that all people deserve mercy, not just Israelites. Without missing a beat, my mother replied, "Yes, Lord; but even the little dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters' table."
I wish I could have seen his face. I can only imagine it was shock. He had sat around like one of our deaf idols as she prayed to him. But he could sit deaf no longer when her persistence began to annoy him and his friends. So he made that snide remark about my mother, hoping she would go away and seek some other miracle worker. Little did he know, my mother wasn't seeking out some miracle worker, she was seeking out the wisdom and power of the God of Israel.
Even though we were Canaanites, we heard those rumors about Jesus that circulated about him being a messiah and a man of God. We knew some of Israel's stories, especially since they had killed so many of our ancestors. We knew their God made a covenant with a man named Abraham and that covenant was not only to bless Abraham, but to make Abraham and his descendants a blessing to all nations. Now, certainly some of his descendants weren't much of a blessing to us, but my mother knew this Jesus could redeem their mistakes and be a blessing, if he were, indeed, a man of God and savior to his people.
She wasn't part of God's Israel and Jesus said he was only sent to Isael. But for what purpose? ln that moment she was confident that Israel was chosen in order to bless everyone. First the blessing would go to Israel and next to the Gentile, even the Canaanite, even if she had to call herself a female dog eating Israel's small, leftover blessings.
I don't know what his face looked like, but she convinced him. "O lady," he said, "your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish." He didn't ask her to become part of Israel. He didn't tell her she needed to born again. He didn't command her to leave her family and follow him. He didn't tell her to sell her possessions and give the money to the poor. He didn't even examine her faith, but he admired it. "Your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish." Before my mother could thank him or exchange other pleasantries like names and what-not, my mother sprang to her feet with joy and grace. She sprinted home even faster than she had run away.
When I came to, I saw those three men standing in the corner of our house, cowering. I hurt all over. My arm was broken, my nose was bleeding, and my legs were badly burnt, among other atrocious pains. I tried to move when I realized I was all tied up. I began to panic. Why was I tied up and what had those three brothers done to me. Where were my parents? What was happening?
I was struggling to free myself when my mother ran up to me and kissed me. She ran her hands through my dirty, tangled hair and whispered, "It's OK, my love. It's all over."
I began to cry. I still didn't know exactly what was going on, but I knew I could move again. My breathing and heart beat normalized as fear left my body. Mom was untying me and the three bothers scuttled away hurriedly, although they still deny how cowardly they acted throughout the whole event.
My mother freed me. With her hands she untied the ropes that bound me, but it was her faith that healed me--her faith, her hope, her love, that man Jesus, and his God.
I don't know where I would be today if my mum had not convinced Jesus to break bread and give her some crumbs. Ever since then, no one in my family has ever been quiet around inequality and oppression, no matter how different someone might be from us and no matter how much we might disagree with their ideology or disapprove of their actions. We know all blessings are meant to be shared. Miraculously, no matter how many times we share this bread Jesus broke for us, it never runs out, whether we enthusiastically share large pieces or reluctantly allow crumbs to fall onto the ground.
Love always falls through the cracks, sustaining every despised or oppressed person until all are sustained with the same food, and brought up to share at the same table, none of them as dogs, all of them as children of God.