Saturday, August 16, 2008
Here's tomorrow's homily, on one of my favorite Gospel passages. I've preached on this one before, but because we're doing an infant baptism tomorrow, I had to find a way to tie that in. And when I found the Modest Needs article, it fit perfectly!
Here are the readings, although I only discuss Genesis and Matthew.
This morning we’re here to celebrate a baptism, to welcome Elena into our church family and into the Body of Christ. A baptism is, among other things, a party, and since we usually have a lot of guests at these occasions, those of us who are regulars want to put our best foot forward. We want to make it easy for everyone to praise and worship the Host of the party, our generous and merciful God. Like any proud relatives, we want everyone to love him as much as we do.
This morning’s readings don’t make that easy. Things start out well enough, with the lesson from Genesis. While it’s true that Joseph’s brothers are somewhat less than admirable for having sold him into slavery, the point of the story is that he forgives them. Furthermore, he discerns in their actions the hand of Providence: because they sold him into slavery, he is now in a position to provide for his family during a time of famine. Responding to betrayal with love and generosity, he transforms pain into blessing. Surely that is how we want everyone in God’s family to act, and surely it is how we strive to act ourselves.
But then we get to the Gospel. Jesus, our beloved and gracious Host, is not having a good day. In fact, he seems to be doing his best to embarrass us, since he tries to drive away a desperate woman seeking healing for her sick daughter. Not only does he tell her to get lost, but he does so in the most insulting terms possible. “Sorry, you’re not one of us. I’m not here for people like you. It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Various scholars have done Olympics-worthy somersaults trying to soften this. The word for dog, for instance, might better be translated “cute pet puppy.” I don’t know about you, but I find this interpretation completely lame. Being called a pet puppy is very little comfort when the puppy’s being deprived of needed nourishment. “What a cute little dog. Let’s starve it!” Oh, Jesus! How could you behave this way in front of guests?
If Jesus isn’t being a very good role model, though, the desperate, unnamed mother is. She’s chased Jesus down in the streets, even when the disciples tried to shoo her away; she’s nothing if not persistent. And she’s smart. When Jesus insults her by calling her and her daughter dogs, she doesn’t argue the point. She doesn’t say indignantly, “I’m no dog!” as I suspect I’d do in her place. Instead, she uses Jesus’ words against him. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” All right, Jesus: if I’m a dog, let me have what all the other dogs have. It’s not like I’m asking for much. We’ve all seen you heal people; a mere crumb of your power will make my daughter well.
And Jesus, astonished and probably abashed, finally responds the way we want him to. He finally starts behaving in front of company. “‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
This anonymous, outcast mother is the only person in the entire Gospels who wins an argument with Jesus. She forces him to reconsider his ministry, to realize that he’s called to heal everyone. As a result, she’s directly responsible for widening the circle of God’s love. In this lesson, Jesus teaches us that God is capable of changing his mind about who deserves help. That means we can challenge God, or human conceptions of God, when they seem too narrow, and it means that we can change our own minds too, widening our own circles of mercy. The Canaanite woman, meanwhile, teaches us that sometimes persistence and street smarts are necessary to get what we need, and that it’s all right to argue on our own behalf -– yes, even with God –- when our cause is just. And, finally, this Gospel passage reminds us that often it takes only crumbs to help people who are hurting, to transform pain into blessing.
I thought of the Canaanite woman last week when I read an article about Keith Taylor, a Tennessee English teacher who started a charity called Modest Needs to help the working poor, people without the safety nets of savings accounts or government assistance. Modest Needs offers one-time checks to help cover expenses: $65 to help pay for auto insurance, say, or a hundred dollars to help pay for new eyeglasses. Taylor started out with a personal website asking people who needed small sums to write to him. In 2002, he set up a system where anyone can log onto the website and donate money. Donors can choose the kind of recipients they’d like their money to help: the elderly, say, or single mothers, or victims of domestic violence. Each grant request is carefully screened for genuine need.
According to the article, “the average Modest Needs grant of late is $560 and goes to those who need help with a month’s rent or a doctor bill or money to fix a car to get to a new job. The check goes not to the recipient but to the bank, business or landlord that needs to be paid.” Last year, the organization awarded more than $800,000, helping over 1,500 people. Seven out of every ten recipients later become donors.
One of those donors is a woman named Brenda Fallon. In 2005, Modest Needs gave her $29.95 for hormone shots that she believes safeguarded the birth of her daughter Ciara. “A year after Ciara’s birth, Fallon read a story on Modest Needs about a woman who became a donor after receiving money for an appraisal to refinance her house. ‘I thought, “they saved my daughter’s life. I should be giving too.” I’m embarrassed I didn’t do it sooner.’ She now contributes $10 a month.”
For most of us, $29.95 is a mere crumb, and yet it saved a child’s life. Ten dollars may seem like a crumb too, but it is more of a sacrifice for Brenda Fallon than it would be for many of us. And the crumb Brenda Fallon donates every month will surely help someone, or many someones, enjoy feasts they might not have known otherwise.
The Canaanite woman in the Gospels is never named, but I think her name just might be Brenda. And I wonder if, like Brenda Fallon, she went on to give to others in direct response to what she had been given. How many people did this woman of great faith, and her daughter, go on to comfort and help heal?
We don’t, and can’t, know. Although the same story occurs, in a slightly different form, in the Gospel of Mark, neither narrative tells us what happened after the healing. We don’t know how it changed the Canaanite woman’s life, but we can be sure that it did. She has not only had her daughter’s illness healed, but been welcomed into the family of God, surely the most healing moment of all, both for her and for the One, and the ones, who welcome her.
And so this is my hope for Elena this morning. I hope, and know, that she and her family will find a warm and joyous welcome here. I hope that, helped by all of us in her new family, she will grow into her faith basking in God’s love and in the gifts God has so generously bestowed on all of us. And if she endures times in her life when God seems to be behaving badly, I hope she will be persistent in reminding God -– and the people around her -– what she needs. I hope she will advocate both for those she loves and for those too often unloved by society, but always loved by God. And I hope she will remember that even a crumb the size of a mustard seed can help transform pain into blessing, giving those it feeds a taste of the Kingdom of God.