10 Pentecost: Grasping for crumbs

"Crumbs" by Jonathan Green1, on Flickr

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

The world is heavy these days, my friends. You know it as well as I do.

Conflict continues at the Russia/Ukraine border, as both tensions and weapons mount, and as the world still struggles to piece together an investigation of Malaysian flight 17 that was shot down by rebels.

Conflict continues to shake the Middle East, as Israel and Palestine struggle over the Gaza Strip; rockets are flying, violence continues to put civilians and refugees in increasing danger.

Political turmoil and violence churn in Iraq, as terrorist groups continue to sweep through villages and into the mountains, killing women and children in their wake.

The Ebola virus has claimed more than a thousand victims in west Africa, and the Center for Disease Control has issued its highest alert, confirming the outbreak as a world health emergency.

There has been a surge in the number of unaccompanied immigrant children at our border, children who are making a dangerous and uncertain journey for the hope of a better life as they flee violent or abusive or situations in their home countries.

It has been a week of grief in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting death of Michael Brown, which has given way to protests, violence, curfews, and questions about justice and the reach of law enforcement.

A cloud of suspicion and shock surrounds the death of NASCAR driver Kevin Ward after being hit on the track by rival driver Tony Stewart.

Hollywood and society are shocked and saddened by the untimely death of actor Robin Williams, which has sparked an important national conversation about depression and suicide.

And then, of course, we each have our own personal list of troubles and fears to add to this list. Broken relationships. Illness. Addiction. Food uncertainty. Job uncertainty.

I consider myself an intensely hopeful person; a die-hard optimist. It’s in my nature and in the nature of my faith to see hope beyond despair, to trust the promise of the resurrection. But friends, I’ll be honest. The world outside is dark and heavy right now, and holding on to hope feels a bit like scrambling for crumbs beneath the table.

“Lord, help me,” the Canaanite woman begged.

The woman’s world was dark and heavy. Her beloved daughter was tormented by a demon, and surrounded by the power of darkness. This child was in need of more than healing; she needed salvation.

“Lord, help me,” the woman pleaded to the disciples and to Jesus.

And in what is perhaps the most disturbingly out-of-character moment of Jesus’ whole life, he turns to the woman and dismisses her. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” he says. “I am only for the chosen.”

And just like that, things have gone from bad to worse. The Canaanite woman’s fear for her daughter suddenly becomes fear of being rejected by God himself.

This fear of rejection is also the fear of the Jewish community in Rome to whom Paul is writing in our first reading. They fear that if God, through Christ, has opened salvation to the Gentiles, that it might mean he has rejected - turned his back - on the Israelites, his chosen people.

We can sympathize with these fears that God has turned his back on us. When we see the horrors on the news, and look at a world that seems to be getting worse and not better, it can feel like God has rejected us, because we just don’t know how else to make sense of the darkness and pain that we see.

A friend and colleague of mine has recently been dealing with ongoing relapses with a chronic illness. Earlier this month, she wrote a piece about the difficulty of reconciling faith and hope with the struggles of facing one bad turn after another.

She says,
I don't know where I am on the "how much control does God actually have?" spectrum anymore. I used to attribute every blessing in my life to God. Every good news. Every happy moment. Every joy. Every meaningful coincidence. Every learning opportunity. It was all: thanks be to God. But lately I'm wrestling with how reasonable it is to give God the credit for every good thing but never for the bad things. That's how I've been operating. "Thanks be to God" for the good stuff. But "it's not God's fault...God can't control it" for the bad stuff. [But] It doesn't seem logical [anymore] to try and make a matching pair with those two cards.
This is the struggle of the Canaanite woman, the struggle of the early church in Rome, our struggle: how to deal with the problem of a God who gets credit for the good stuff, and a God who might seem at best, absent, or at worst, at fault for the dark and heavy things in our world.

I don’t think our gospel reading today gives us an answer as to why bad things happen, why it sometimes feels like God has turned his back on us. Our gospel reading is difficult and problematic and forces us to look at a cranky side of Jesus that we don’t quite believe actually should exist.

I could debate with you, as theologians do, about whether Jesus was just testing this woman, or whether he was just grumpy and tired, or whether he really meant it when he said that she wasn’t included in his plan for salvation. I could try to say something clever that would bring a satisfactory resolution to the encounter, tie the story up with a nice, neat bow.

But I can’t do any of that. I don’t pretend to see the obvious moral truth in this story, I don’t know what Jesus was thinking or intending, and all attempts to turn this messy story into something neat and today seem like gloss in the face of a world that appears to be falling apart.

So let me tell you what I do know.

I know that the Canaanite woman had faith. I know that she had heard about Jesus - about his healing power, about his care for the broken and the outcast. I know that she, out of blind faith, chose to believe that there was yet hope for her and for her daughter, even when it looked like the Son of God was going to turn his back on her.

She knew that even a crumb of hope, a speck of healing, a tiny taste of salvation would be enough. Maybe not enough to make everything all better forever and forever, but enough to get her through another day.

When the choice laid before her was hope or despair, she chose hope, and grasped at crumbs, and looked God in the eye, saying “You know that you aren’t in the rejection business. You know that you are in the business of salvation.”

And her reward for having even a few crumbs of hope was receiving wholeness and more hope. Her few crumbs of hope gave way to a giant loaf of hope bread. Because even a little bit of hope, even a little scrap of faith was enough to see through her fear, to see straight into the heart of God’s love, a love that dealt with all of the crap in our world by showing up on earth, in the flesh, and making a beeline for the cross, that we might know that there is no suffering that is unredeemed and no chaos that is beyond reordering and no fears that fall on deaf ears.

I can’t promise you that if you just go toe-to-toe with Jesus you’ll always get what you want. I can’t promise you that if you just pray hard enough, the world will right itself. I don’t want you thinking or worrying that salvation for our broken world somehow depends on how much strength you can muster, because friends, I know how hard it is to keep faith sometimes, and I know that there are days when it takes every bit of energy that you have just to pull yourself out of bed for the day.

But I can promise you that the mystery of God’s love and salvation is brighter than any darkness this world tries to throw at it. And I can promise you that even the tiniest bits of hope and faith will get you through to the other side of this present darkness. I can promise you that God’s gifts and God’s callings in your life are eternal, without strings attached. I can promise you that God hasn’t turned his back on you or the world, even when it really really feels that way.

Because the crumbs of bread that we will share today around this table bind us together in the one hope of Christ, who himself called out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you rejected me?” but who three days later walked out of that empty tomb, stomping down darkness and death beneath his feet. Christ, our bread of life, knows both rejection and resurrection, and when we eat and drink the bread and wine, we share in that hope that our own fears of rejection will also give way to the promise of resurrection, for ourselves and for our world.

So catch a few crumbs from under God’s table today. Taste the bread and the wine that are sweet with salvation. Let these crumbs sustain you through all fear or despair. Hold onto whatever bits of faith you have. Praise God for the light, even if you do not understand the darkness. Even a crumb of grace and a sliver of faith will be enough to sustain you, for God promises that his hold on you is for all eternity. There will be light. There will be hope. There will be salvation. Thanks be to God for that.