The Center for Faith & Culture hosted the Sarah Smith Conference on Moral Leadership last Thursday and Friday. It was called, "Crumbs from the Table? The Creation of Wealth and the Persistence of Poverty." I'll post an update in a day or so, but for now here is my sermon from chapel Friday morning.
anon and +peace,
This is an egg, beautiful and brown, laid yesterday by one among our little backyard flock. We got day-old chicks—eight of them—at the end of March. Now they’re full-grown hens, almost noble with their beautiful feathers and deep red wattles and combs. They lay five to seven eggs a day. I delight to see my five-year-old daughter Grace running back from the coop, her hand held high in the air, triumphant in her search for the latest warm gift from “The Girls.”
To be honest getting a flock of chickens was mainly about our children’s desire for a pet. A dog or a turtle would have sufficed. We ended up with chickens because we knew they’d lay eggs—one less thing to buy at the store! I have come to realize this is a powerful way for our family to remember that food does not simply appear on the local grocery store shelves. Having chickens, if I may say so, is becoming a kind of “fast.” While this may be stretching what Christians usually mean by ‘fasting’, I’ve beginning to think of what we’re doing as abstaining from the ease of our abundance. I mean, of course, ease in the most basic sense of our physical work. Our labor is required in a very concrete sense to get the eggs—providing water and food, as well as cleaning out the coop and gathering the eggs daily.
But this strange fast becomes a way to wake up from intellectual and moral ease that falls upon us in our abundance. Too often, we don’t know where our food comes from, who has produced it and how, and at what cost in lives and land. Too often, we pass the day never really thinking about the chilling reality of the exceptional nature of our abundance. It doesn’t cross our minds that every three seconds someone dies of poverty-related causes. It doesn’t cross our minds that these causes are entirely preventable. In our increasingly obese culture, driven by seemingly insatiable desires for more, we are literally killing ourselves at the table of our abundance. When catastrophes—like hurricane Katrina—crash through our satiated slumber, we too easily brush the crumbs off our tables of abundance to appease the immediate suffering of those below.
In the gospel text for today, we hear a powerful testimony from a woman on the receiving end of the crumbs. This brief story tells us that heaven won’t wait for the dignity of impatience to rise from the floor and demand more than the crumbs from our table. Heaven won’t wait because the Crucified God is already in the midst of the suffering, the marginalized, the hungry, and the hopeless. We who are at the table of abundance need the dignity of impatience to shake us, to wake us, to move us off our comfortable chair and into marching boots. We need our hearts and minds to be opened to the expansive nature of God’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth.
New Testament scholar Judy Gundry-Volf, one of our own here at YDS, vividly portrays the complexity of the encounter between the Canaanite woman and Jesus in her article, “Spirit, Mercy, and the Other.” She carefully unpacks the text, showing how the yawning cultural divide between the Canaanite woman and Jesus and his disciples is enough to doom the woman’s attempts to gain Jesus’ assistance for her sick daughter. But in addition, because she is a Gentile, the religious divide reduces her to the position of beggar, pleading for access to divine mercy. First the disciples, and then Jesus, as well, try to dismiss her without the help she seeks.
Yet, she will not be brushed off so easily. As Gundry-Volf writes, the woman “knocks down every obstacle in her path to making Jesus her Lord, the helper of the Gentiles.” In doing so, she does not angrily demand her right, but with the dignity of impatience, appeals for mercy. Dogs, Jesus argues, ought not get the children’s bread. Dogs, the woman retorts, eat the same bread at the same time as the children are fed, even it if is only the crumbs that fall from the table. Why not, she implies, invite the dogs to the table as well? Did not Isaiah of old say that Israel say, “All who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1)
Some interpreters, highlighting Jesus’ humanity, portray the disciples and Jesus as changed through this encounter, opening their own narrowed vision to the wideness of God’s mission and mercy. Other interpreters, focusing on Jesus’ divinity, see him as playing a clever game with the woman for the sake of the disciples’ transformation. Regardless, the woman remains a central dramatic focus of the story. Her dignity, grounded in her relation to God, and her impatience, expressed in her conviction that she could prevail on behalf of her sick daughter, forces us to shift our vision in relation to the Other—those suffering on the margins of our lives. God is with them, and in this woman—and so many women and men around the world—we see the dignity of persistence and impatience as those with wealth and power ignore their pleas. Not pleas for crumbs, but a place at the table.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus left the Canaanite woman rejoicing, her daughter healed. And in his very next act of ministry, invited a multitude of Gentiles to the table, feeding them with his word and with loaves and fish, means to sustain a weary people. As followers of this Jesus, we too are confronted by this Gentile woman, and by the dignity of her impatience with crumbs. How do we respond? Tony Hall, in his powerful book Changing the Face of Hunger, has this advice: “if you let him, God will use you. No matter how small the work or how large the work, if you want to be used, you will be. That’s how God works. God works through people.” Like the loaves and fish Jesus shared with the multitude, we want to be blessed and broken and given by God to the world. All that we are and have, we have received from God not for ourselves alone, but for the sake of those in need.
When I walk out to visit our chickens, and feel the warm egg in my hand, I imagine a woman in Malawi, where the international Christian development organization our family supports does some of its work. I imagine that woman, who has struggled mightily to hold house and family together, now with a flock of chickens. The chickens provide enough eggs to supplement daily nutrition, but also a few extra to sell. In time, the flock will grow, and prospects for expanding the business will grow too.
I imagine that woman and I remember the Canaanite woman in Matthew. I imagine that woman and I think of the dignity of impatience with crumbs. Heaven won’t wait; God is already at the table with chairs enough for all, and invites us to knock down every obstacle in the path to joining that great table where brokenness and suffering are overcome in the abundance of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.