St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2019
“He answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.”
ONE PRAYER in our liturgy sets the stage for priest and people to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in our Office of Holy Communion. The prayer informs us, while say it to God, of what we will now do, but first it establishes an astonishing fact about our status. We have no right at all to do it, no quality in ourselves: nothing that makes us worathy of this unspeakable honor. In flowery language this prayer kills all pretense we might have, and it levels all human classes and social distinctions to one meager, lowly, needy bunch.
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
The allusion to bread crumbs is biblical, as is every prayer in this volume we call Common Prayer. This one calls up a scene in the life of Jesus. At a point when the popular success of Christ’s preaching and miraculous life has drawn fire from the Pharisees of Galilee, from Jerusalem’s priestly caste, and from the court of Herod Antipas, Jesus gets away and escapes their observation in the northern pagan lands around Tyre and Sidon, ancient Phoenicia. The Sidonians are idol worshippers, which means they dedicate themselves to fertility idols and participate in rituals with the gods Baal and Ashtoreth, and with temple prostitutes that we would only describe as performing satanic rituals. Playing around with this religion could easily get you demon-possessed. Jews shun Phoenicians, though at times they have been political allies and even prospered through trade with the world’s greatest sailors, in whose territories are the famed cedars of Lebanon.
No crowds follow the disciples here. Jesus and His band of disciples can breathe a sigh of relief from the throngs of Jews wanting miracles, as well as those accusing Him of healing on Sabbath. It might be a time of quiet instruction for them, of prayer and retreat in this non-Jewish but picturesque seacoast. But now who is this?
She comes wailing and shrieking, “Healer! Son of David! Listen to me! Help me! I have a daughter and she’s terribly vexed with an evil spirit. She doesn’t even know me anymore. You have to deliver her. Come and set her free. I know who you are. You’re the Messiah. Healer, listen! Don’t go! Come back, please.” As Jesus seems about to pass her by, His disciples say, “Master, tell her to go away. She’s making a racket.” Jesus stops walking and breaks His silence.
“I have been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman runs ahead, then stoops and begs Him again, “Master, help me!” Testing her, Jesus answers, “It is inappropriate to throw the children’s food to dogs.” Now, in any culture calling a person a ‘dog’ is an insult. Dog was the way Israelites referred to all of our non-Jewish forebears, the Gentiles, the pagan nations, the great unwashed. And spiritually the description was accurate. My ancestors did awful things religiously, up until the conversion of the Vikings about 1,000 years ago. Nevertheless, you usually don’t call a person ‘dog’ to their face, especially in his home town. At this point, Jesus hasn’t directly spoken to this woman, as His Jewish custom would dictate. He spoke statements into the air. She has a decision to make now. Will she walk away insulted in the name of all her people?
The religious practices of all her people has brought her to this day. Dedicating your child to Ashtoreth, goddess of love and fertility, exposed the girl to spiritual infestation. This moment is decisive for her mother’s entire religious life, an essential question of her faith: is the God of Israel and His Messiah the truth, or are the gods of her Sidonian people still true for her? He calls her dog. She considers it. She accepts His judgment as the truth.
“Truth! Master. I agree! And still,” she reframes the argument, “the dogs may eat crumbs when they fall from their master’s table, can’t they?” A more humble pleading cannot be imagined. She gladly places herself with dogs, and from that humble place still begs for her daughter’s healing.
She passes the test. Jesus smiles. Only a few times have we heard Him address anyone with greater affection: “O woman, great is your faith. It will be for you just as you desire.” He nods and the Phoenician woman at last looks straight in His face, tears streaming, filled with wonder, the long agony relieved at last. Hope clears her expression. She struggles to her feet and, watching Him still, makes her way home to see the deliverance for herself.
A while later, she comes back to the Lord’s entourage, again shouting, this time praises to Jesus, “Son of David! Jehovah be praised in you! My child is returned to me whole. You are everything you say! We are dogs, but happy dogs, your own sweet dogs. Thank you! Thank you!”
Our English worship has always used the most dignified, worthy language for addressing God. High fallutin’ and sometimes pompous to our ears, the Elizabethan tones of our liturgical custom, the elaborate dress of high church worship, our high altars, the ceremonial acts, smells, bells and organ music, may encourage us to believe that we are something special. Some of us could have nobility, some think How lucky for God to have us actually coming to see Him in church today. Now, I’m just a Viking, but some of you may actually have your lineage from kings and queens of England. Great. Good for you. We’re all one class here.
The common cup silently makes quite another case. Everybody drinks from it, just the same. On Ash Wednesday a few years ago, we drank wine from this goblet with a man who’d spent 18 years in San Quentin. He had tattoos up his neck and down to his wrists. He’d been an officer in the Arian Brotherhood. His chiseled face could freeze your blood were you to meet him in an alley on a dark night. He told me after the service, “I hadn’t tasted real wine in 30 years. That was the real stuff. Amazing.” Pastor Michael T became a Christian in prison, watching a television preacher while cooling his heels in solitary confinement. His ministry began before he left his incarceration, and once free he became a minister to those who’d come out of former lives of crime. And He loved our worship, though it was a very foreign experience to him. I celebrated the Eucharist at his church one Sunday night, and they’ve been having communion every service since then.
Jesus, whose bloodline never created another generation by natural children—for He never married in this life—freely gives His human and divine natures through this consecrated wine, His Blood, which we all drink in common from the same royal cup. The blood of the true King then flows through each of us, making us blood brothers and sisters, with kings and queens, presidents, mayors, and an ex-con.
Bread crumbs fall from the table set for the children of the master onto the floor below. Well-bred kids will never stoop down to pick these crumbs up to eat them, but rather leave such crumbs to the dogs, who aren’t so picky. These were the crumbs the Canaanite woman begged of the Son of David, and received them gratefully when He consented.
The 16th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, compiler and translator of the first Book of Common Prayer in its lovely and stately English, found the need for an entirely new prayer, one not found in the Sarum rites of the Catholic Missal. Perhaps inspired by the braggadocio of the courts of Henry, perhaps due to the pride he found in his fellow clergy, Thomas set this low-born foreign woman as his example. And he took us a step beneath.
We can’t have any presumptions of our own goodness, our worthiness to receive the Blessed Sacrament. We aren’t worthy. There is no good thing in us that qualifies us so that God owes us an honorable mention in the list of the damned. No achievement of ours, no gallant act of service, no sacrifice or rich gift to the Church qualifies us for anything. We approach the throne of the King of the Universe and we are mere pond scum, water beetles, amoebas by contrast. Only on His mercy may we rest our case to receive such an honor. We are not worthy so much as to gather up His crumbs.
Cranmer places us a step beneath the Syro-Phoenecian who does merit a crumb through her humility and great faith. Not even a crumb do we deserve by our personal merit. Let’s not think we’ve earned this.
Communion is the greatest leveler, it reminds of who we are and Who He is. He always sheds mercy, grace, unmerited favor towards us. It’s our command, our sacred duty to respond to this honorable meal and to come forward as supplicants. Our bodies are sinful, our souls are soiled by sin. We have no health native to us. It is for you and for me that Christ came, not to prove our worthiness, but to save us from our destitution. We may refuse, and that would be pride. Or we may submit, but then we have to leave our dignity behind us. We are sinners, needing everything the Savior may give us, for without Him we are nothing.
This meal gives us life. The Son of God shares His nature with us, feeding us on His own Body and Blood, that we might live more holy lives, and also dwell gloriously in the next life gladly in His presence.
This is a forever endeavor, a mountainous ascent, and we aren’t worthy even to start on the expedition. We can’t rightly assess our fitness for the climb. Heaven makes Everest a foothill. The air thins out up there so much as to make conventional aircraft, even space vehicles, ineffective. It’s impossible to do it, to even train for it. Nobody can climb this peak. But with holy food, and the breath of God, His Holy Spirit within us, giving us new life, we start now on the quest. Feeling very small, we enter His courts with wonder and the table does not offer us spilled crumbs after all, but a wonder of rich festivities, breads, fruits and golden wine goblets, a feast served by angels that goes on for a very long, long time. Bread crumbs here, everlasting and fully satisfying loaves and flagons there: happy are we, his obedient little dogs.