From Dogs to Daughters and Sons

by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

A Sermon Preached on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 6, 2015

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The anguish of the parent is palpable.  It is made more poignant and more unbearable by the seeming indifference that meets each cry for help.  But that should come as no surprise.  Between sufferer and potential helper lie centuries of distrust and dislike.  The old familiar slurs and ugly names are known and used by members of both groups of people. Race, religion, notions of respectability and good order—all of these divide the one pleading for a child’s life from those who cannot or will not be bothered to get involved.  And of course, as the tragedy deepens, so too do the ancient animosities. Perhaps the old hatred will glow hot again.  Perhaps the cycle of suspicion and contempt will begin anew, and the rift separating the individuals and the chasm dividing their cultures will grow wider still.

The suffering parent I have in mind is not the mother from this morning’s Gospel lesson.  It is Abdullah Kurdi, the Syrian father whose anguish has now been felt the world over.  Newspapers and websites around the globe this week carried the devastating photo of Mr Kurdi’s three-year-old son Aylan lying dead on a Turkish beach.  Four members of the Kurdi family fell into the Aegean Sea as they attempted to travel from Turkey to Greece, ultimately hoping to reach Canada.  Only Mr Kurdi survived, losing his wife and two young sons beneath the surging waves.

The Kurdi family’s heart-breaking tragedy has brought international attention to the refugee crisis engulfing the Middle East and Europe.  Millions of refugees fleeing civil war and the onslaught of ISIS in Syria have been looking to the West for safety and assistance.  Desperate to escape the violence and upheaval of their homeland they risk everything, paying exorbitant sums to illegal human traffickers and chancing the most dangerous routes and modes of transportation—poorly ventilated trucks (like the one recently found filled with dead bodies in Austria), and leaky, overloaded boats (like those that capsize each day in the Mediterranean Sea).  And they grow increasingly impatient, wondering why the West will not do more to aid them in their hour of need.

Meanwhile, the nations of Europe are struggling to find an appropriate response to the deluge.  As efforts to help grow and widen, so too does fear and suspicion of the newcomers—people who look different, who speak different languages, who hold a different faith. Among many, there is a passionate to desire to help; to do something, anything, to alleviate the suffering of the refugees. But many others are afraid, suspicious, and even disdainful of the outsiders. Action vies with inaction. Compassion struggles against contempt. And among the lowly and the least, the death toll continues to rise.

And of course all of this is merely the latest telling of an old, old story.  Division and suspicion; distrust and separation; indifference toward suffering; inaction in the face of another’s pain: these are the shameful hues that stain the long chronicles of human civilization.  All around the world and all through the centuries the story remains the same: as one of our collects puts it, “the peoples of the earth [are] divided and enslaved by sin.”

Entrenched, mutually reinforced division is one of the bitterest and clearest signs of brokenness in our world.  There is division among nations, division among races, division among religions, division among the branches of the Christian Church, division and strife in our own communities, and workplaces—in our homes and in our hearts.  We are people separated from those different from us. We are people suspicious of those nearest to us. We are people very often alienated from our own truest desires and best intentions.  Beloved, the strife and division we see in our world and in our lives is for us an inescapable reminder of that perennially unpopular doctrine of the Fall—the teaching of the Church that something has gone horribly, hatefully wrong in this beautiful, broken world.

All of which brings us back to our strange and disturbing Gospel lesson this morning.  Preachers quake before this passage, and for good reason.  Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman seems cruel, harsh—perhaps even racist.  To the anguished mother kneeling at his feet, begging for help, the Lord of love looks down and says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Impossible though it may seem, there is Good News in these words.  For in these hard, strange words today, Christ Jesus faces head on the brokenness and fallenness made manifest in human division—in the strife between individuals and nations, between peoples and cultures.  He speaks to the Gentile mother in a way typical in those days for Jews speaking to Gentiles—and for Gentiles speaking to Jews. And in so doing, he reveals in one unsettling moment both the problem that he has come to address and the means by which he will address it.

For it is precisely because we are separated and divided without and within that God came to dwell among us.  It is precisely because we regard others with suspicion and throw up walls of separation that God has taken on our flesh. It is precisely because we are broken and fallen that God became a human being in the person of Jesus our Lord.

And in tackling the great problem, Christ chose to step down into the problem with us. He was not born some kind of “generic human”, without a home, a history, a family, or a nation.  Rather, God chose to become fully human: to be born among a particular people at a particular time in a particular place.

So it was that Jesus of Nazareth was born an Israelite.  So it was that the everlasting Son of the Father chose to become also a Son of Abraham.  So it was that the Second Person of the Trinity consented to a Jewish baptism of repentance in the Jordan River.  He did not hold himself aloof from human suffering and human brokenness, but rather desired to stand in the midst of that fulsome flood, to plunge beneath those fearsome waves, and to embark on a ministry that would take away that suffering and brokenness forever.

Thus in Jesus’ upsetting words—the words of a real man, from a real nation, at a real point in the history of fallen humanity—we glimpse the offensive fullness of the Incarnation: that God really did become a human being, and really does stand in solidarity with broken, suffering, divided humanity.

But this story reveals more to us still. For in the faith of the Syrophoenician woman, we see the greater truth that God’s purpose in the Incarnation was not merely to sit with us in the muck and mire of our lives. It is to lift us up. If Jesus speaks in a way that emphasizes our divisions and upholds the special character of the Jewish people, then the Gentile mother, speaking out of the divine gift of faith, recalls his purpose and his mission for all humankind.

“Yes, Lord… but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

She does not deny the ancient, entrenched difference between his people and hers.  But she affirms what his people had too often forgotten: that their election, their special setting apart as God’s chosen nation, is not intended to perpetuate division and separation, but is, instead, God’s means of blessing all peoples and of bringing together the whole world.  She affirms what Jesus himself recognizes in his response to her and in his subsequent actions towards the Gentile deaf mute man: that while he came first to God’s covenant people of Israel, nevertheless he has come to do something that will convict and reconcile all the nations of the earth.

For as it was promised in Isaiah, our God has come. Our God has come with vengeance and terrible recompense for the sins of our self-imposed divisions. Our God has come with judgment and implacable wrath against the petty judgments and the wretched barriers by which we divide nation from nation, people from people. Our God has come and his ears are deaf to the subtle arguments of those who would deny the basic humanity of certain undesirables. Our God has come and his tongue refuses to join in the shrill cries of those who would demonize and dehumanize on the basis of color or nation or language. Our God has come, and he has chosen to become the triumphant victim of our divisions and oppressions.

For in the broken body of Jesus our Lord, God has overcome the brokenness that separates nations and that mars each human life. By the mighty weakness of his Cross, God has battered down the wall of hostility separating Jew from Gentile, slave from free, rich from poor, black from white, male from female—the wall that separated human beings from their God.

Beloved, the children’s food has indeed been thrown to the dogs. The holy things of God have indeed been placed at the disposal of the unholy. For on the Cross, God has given himself to people like you and me—people lost in their shallow hatreds and foolish fears; people squabbling over their silly prejudices and empty pretensions—God has given himself to dogs like us.

And he does it again now. For God’s gift of himself will soon be set before a people unworthy to gather up the crumbs from under his table.  The fount of righteousness now pours out his grace upon the unrighteous.  The feast will shortly be set for those who cannot pay for it, or earn it, or claim it as their own, but who can only receive it as mercy and grace.

Here at this altar, the Most Worthy rushes to lift up the unworthy.  Here the All Holy hastens to help the unholy.  Here the Master of the feast stoops to lift the lazy and the latecomers; the unwashed and the unwelcome; the servants and the slaves to sit at his table.

Here the mangy dogs become daughters and sons.

Thanks be to God!