I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 6, 2015, at the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield Gardens, Queens.
Sisters and Brothers in Christ, it is my privilege to be here with you today to share in the worship of God Almighty, and I thank you for this invitation. We are almost, but not quite neighbors. I live about 12 miles from here, which is close by any other standard than New York City. After seven years as an associate at a large congregation in Manhattan, I have turned my ministry toward evangelism and church growth.
Most weeks, I am doing this– preaching to God’s faithful in congregations without steady pastoral leadership. It is so wonderful. I have learned new music, new prayers, and more new ways to encounter the risen Lord on a Sunday morning than I even thought possible. I have shared communion, and also coffee and cake with Christ’s disciples in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.
Yes, the reports say, church membership is shrinking, as if the decrease in attendance is proof that God is no longer at work in the world. That’s nonsense! The landscape is changing; that is true. But the church is not dying. It is shifting contexts; it is reforming; it is being cast in the fire for purification, to burn away the dross. So that we will be nimble for the sake of the Gospel. So that we will be known, perhaps not for our denominational ties, but for our steadfastness, our forgiveness, our hospitality. So that they will know we are Christians by our love.
So, thank you for being here. For proclaiming the Gospel in this little part of the world. For bearing witness to the kingdom of God that breaks through into the world no matter how many people fill the pews on a Sunday morning. As if that could stop our God!
On Sundays when I am not filling pulpits, I am participating in a new thing called Waffle Church. Yes, you heard me correctly. Waffle Church is a monthly service for people of all ages, from the youngest to the eldest. It is an intimate and informal service that embraces music and movement and art and food in a liturgy that always finds at its center the Word and Sacrament.
It’s been a change for me, accustomed as I am to chancels and pulpits and silver chalices and white lace tablecloths. At Waffle Church, the children help me set the table, with colorful fabric and a plastic baptismal bowl and a large, seeded loaf of bread. Last week, a Darth Vader figurine sat beside the cup and Luke Skywalker contemplated his baptism by the font.
We worship in a storefront without pews. Worshipers stand or sit in chairs around the table. The kids prefer to sit on pillows on the floor. Last week, as I prayed the Great Thanksgiving, my four year-old somehow crawled underneath the table and sat there through most of the Words of Institution. He had found both a secret fort and hiding place. But when it came to serve the bread, he jumped up from under the table and exclaimed, “I want to help!”
He has proved my point to those who question a child’s ability to understand the mystery of faith. Even from under the table, he was listening. He knows the story that I tell each month, about the friends of Jesus gathered at a table. Not just any table. A table of promise. A table of hope. A table of remembrance. A table of Good News. And when I cracked that loaf and tore it in half, he saw the crumbs sprinkle down around him, and he knew that God had, once again, been unleashed into the world. And he, absolutely, definitely, wanted to be a part of it.
Maybe you can begin to see where I am going with this?
To another table… Not in Jerusalem, or Nazareth, or any of the towns on the Sea of Galilee. A table in a city in what is now Lebanon. A table in a place filled with Gentiles. A table that Jesus thought was far enough away that the hungry and the desperate who had been following him day and night might not be able to find him.
A table on the far side of his rivals and critics who assail Jesus at every turn, for failing to wash his hands before a meal and for healing a suffering man on the Sabbath. And in the verses leading up to today’s story, Jesus appears to lose his cool:
“Jesus said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines…” Then Jesus said [to the Pharisees], ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.’”
God’s presence in the world, Jesus then explains to his disciples, is no longer contingent upon human action. Traditions and laws have a purpose, but God’s purpose in and for the world through Jesus Christ has broken down every barrier that might stand in our way of receiving God. What goes in the body cannot mitigate our access to God, Jesus tells them, only that which comes out of our hearts, if it is malicious, or self-serving, or at odds with God’s will for God’s people. No human law or tradition can stand in the way of God. God will break through every barrier, every wall.
From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.
Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
This is one of THE most controversial stories in the New Testament, maybe in the entire Bible. A woman found Jesus, despite his effort to stay hidden. A woman with a passport that marked her ‘different.’ A woman with a sick child who would do anything to save her daughter. A woman who believed that Jesus, the one who rejected the exclusionary claims of his critics, might actually cross the borders of ethnicity and culture to help her.
And Jesus says, No. You do not belong within the scope of my mission. I cannot have my energies pulled away by an outsider. There’s no room for you here. I have other children to feed; I cannot also feed yours. I must take care of my own first.
This doesn’t sound like Jesus. But it does sound familiar, coming from the countries and politicians who are saying to the teeming mass of Syrian refugees, ‘No. You do not belong within the scope of our mission. We cannot have our energies pulled away by foreigners. There’s no room for you here. The borders are closed. We have other children to feed; other problems to solve. We cannot also take care of you.’
There was a picture in the paper this weekend of a bridge in Hungary. Thousands of Syrian refugees flowed across the bridge on foot, headed to Germany and Austria. Hungary doesn’t want them, and is poor besides. Turkey has two million of them. In Lebanon, one out of every three people is a Syrian refugee. Western Europe is the apex of their hope. A place to put a roof over their heads; clothes on their bodies; food in their bellies. They are drowning by the thousands, crossing between Turkey and Greece by rubber boat. The image of that three year-old on the beach; I wish my eyes could unsee it. And that child– that one blessed, made-in-the-image-of-God child, is only a single, horrible glimpse of a reality that is simply unimaginable.
No one wants these refugees; they will die if they stay in Syria, so they risk their lives trying to escape. I saw one quote that said, A parent will only take a child on a boat if the water appears safer than the land. The roiling waters of the Mediterranean, to many parents, appears safer than the raging violence that drove them from home in the first place.
These refugees, are looking for restoration; to have their humanity returned to them; to be free; to be safe. There is no more home to return to, only the hope that home might be rebuilt on foreign soil.
In Mark’s gospel, we get an image of the crowds, swarming together like a school of fish, following Jesus wherever he goes. And he goes, it seems everywhere. From one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. East to the Decapolis in what is now Jordan, north to Sidon and Tyre in modern-day Lebanon. He puts miles on his leather sandals. Each and every time he heals, he says, “Don’t tell anyone what you’ve seen and heard.” And each and every time, it seems, the one healed pays no heed to Jesus’ command. The crowds grow bigger; they find him behind closed doors; on a secluded mountaintop; across the country; across the border.
So desperate that they travel by foot on dusty landscapes toward Jesus, the apex of their hope.
He does not disappoint, he heals and proclaims; proclaims and heals. When the crowds are stranded, he feeds them. When he is weary, he heals them still. When their hearts are hardened against the truth of who he is, he welcomes them anyway.
And then this foreign woman challenges Jesus, when he refuses to heal her daughter. She calls him out on his own hypocrisy, just as Jesus has called out the Pharisees on their hypocrisy, and, as the story goes, changes Jesus’ mind. The Syrophoenician woman tells Jesus, “Guess, what? Jesus. God said yes to me. God said yes to me when God tore open the heavens. God said yes to me when God decided to show up in the wilderness rather than in the temple. God said yes to me when you came here instead of spending all your time in Jerusalem.”
Even the dogs under the table deserve some good news, Jesus. The kingdom of God can reach this far, Jesus. The boundary-breaking message you proclaim has found its way here, too, Jesus. There’s no turning back now, Jesus.
Even under this table, there is good news to be found.
And Jesus agrees, and the light pours forth from that table, and through the streets of that Gentile city, and into the woman’s house and over her daughter’s ailing body, and then out the window again and through the entire world.
In every place, there is good news to be found.
We find the good news here— every time we prepare the table with our best, as our best, to receive the gift of God’s breaking into the world for us. But the light that emanates from this table, cannot be snuffed by the darkened shadows underneath, or in the far, dusty corners of our world. Or laid out like a doll on the beach, or broken on the asphalt of our city streets, or even blood-soaked at an evening bible study. Even there! There is good news to be found.
Jesus, you’ve broken through the world, and there is no putting it back together again. The shards of your grace have scattered, reflecting light everywhere. Everywhere.
There is no ownership, no proprietary rights on this good news. It is, like water and fire and wind and air, a shape shifter. That kind of good news can get in anywhere.
I saw a picture last night of Hungarians lining the highways with platters of fruit and cases of water to offer the refugees as they plodded past on their march westward. I received emails as recently as last night from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, detailing how we can help. The good news is pouring forth, even if it’s hard to see.
I’ll end with the information on PDA’s website about how to Stand in the Gap: Give, Act, Pray.
Give money to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, knowing that PDA is engaged with the best disaster organizations around the world and get supplies and services to those who need them most.
Act. Don’t turn your eyes from the problem, but join together to study and understand what’s happening and how you might advocate for increased, compassionate action by our government. Be bold like the Syrophoenician woman to cry hypocrisy when you see it.
Pray without ceasing. Turn over to God all of the hurt and pain and suffering that you see around you, in the confidence that God is present in every shadowed corner, spilling love and light and hope to dispel the darkness.
And finally, come to the table of hope, the table of love, the table of remembrance, the table of grace, the table of justice. Come and be fed. For God has laid out a great feast for us, for any who come hungry.
Let us keep the feast.