Rev. Rebecca LeMenager
September 5, 2021
Scripture: Mark 7:24–31
Crumbs from the Master’s Table
I know at Plymouth you’ve been following the Old Testament readings this summer, and so you don’t realize the shift that has happened this morning in the common lectionary with regard to the Gospel. This morning, we move from John’s Gospel, where for the last six weeks we covered 71 verses about bread, to Mark’s Gospel, where in only eight verses, he tells us two distinct stories. And, because in all my years of preaching, I’ve never had someone after service shake my hand and say, “Good sermon pastor, but it could have been a little longer,” I’m not going to take my cues from Mark and attempt do it all. This morning I want us to focus just on that first story, the story of the Syrophoenician woman who comes to Jesus seeking healing for her daughter.
Who is this woman we find in today’s Gospel Lesson? She’s important enough that her story is also found in Matthew’s Gospel, and yet we never know her name. Take a moment, if you will, to wonder about her. She was a gentile—a non-Jew—but she must have heard the stories of Jesus, the miraculous healings he had been doing, or she wouldn’t have come to him in her time of need.
Do you wonder when she decided to seek out Jesus? Was it when word got out and she heard that he was in the area? I can see her at the village well, early in the morning, drawing out water, telling the other women in her village of her decision to go and speak with this miracle worker that everyone is talking about. Did the other women laugh at her? Did they remind her that he was only ministering to the Jews, and how did she—a gentile—hope to get his attention?
In my mind, I think she caught up with Jesus in late afternoon after having just missed him earlier that morning. I can see her with dusty feet and slightly flushed face: a plain woman, not really old, not really young. And I wonder why her husband isn’t mentioned. Was she a widow, trying to make ends meet? Did her husband leave her, unable to cope with his child’s illness? Or perhaps he is working that day, unable to take the day off to see this man who might help his daughter—unable to take the chance of risking his heart one more time by hoping for a cure—hoping that this child might actually make it to adulthood.
I can see her bursting through the door of the house: she, herself, the embodiment of all her hopes bursting forth. Did her heart race, her pulse pound? Was it from the embarrassment barging into a home without an invitation, fear that he was her daughter’s last chance, or excitement, her unshakable belief that today she would once again see her daughter well?
I can imagine her remembering the nine hours of labor to bring her child into the world, of seeing that red wrinkled face, the surprising strong grip of her daughter’s fist around her finger. Did she think of her daughter’s inconsolable wails, sick with fever, and how frightening it is that now she no longer even has the strength to cry, but lies so still in her bed? I think it was those memories that gave her the strength to push through the disciples, throw herself at this man’s feet, to humble herself, and beg this man to heal her daughter.
And Jesus looked her in the eye and replied, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”—in other words, “Know you place.” With her hopes in tatters, I believe that it was more than a mother’s unwavering love, more than sheer audacity born of desperation, it was deep-rooted faith that, if Jesus was the Messiah, then he and all those who follow him would be compassionate and just, and it was hope in Jesus that made her reply, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Banquet or crumbs: a place at the table or begging for the leftovers
This last year and a half, with COVID and the murder of George Floyd, the blinders have been ripped from our eyes. We cannot ignore the fact that in this country with banquet tables overflowing, there are too many who are still told, “Know your place.” There are too many who continue to be told, “Be content with the crumbs and leftovers.” There are far too many who have never really been given a seat at the table.
When I was first asked to preach at Plymouth, I thought this was going to be a sermon about social justice and societal reform, but sermons, as any preacher will tell you, cannot be controlled. Like the Holy Spirit contained within them, they often blow in directions that surprise even the one preaching. And so this morning, this is not a sermon tackling the social issues of out day. In my sermon today, there will be no mention of Afghanistan or other world or national events (although I do hope we are talking about them in our faith communities), but instead it has a smaller focus. I want us to look at who we tell, “Know your place,” a little closer to home: here in our own churches.
As I read this story from Mark’s Gospel, what kept niggling at me was an event that happened almost 20 years ago. With the permission of the subject of my story, I want to share it with you this morning. My very first call out of seminary was as an associate pastor of a 1,500-member congregation. I had been a pastor for a whopping three weeks when a Korean woman, whom I will call Hee Ann, asked if she could speak with me after the service.
Hee Ann attended the 8:30 a.m. traditional style service. Averaging less than 70, it was the least attended of our three services. Hee Ann had been a member for several years but had only attended worship. She wanted to be more involved, but somehow someone who had experience or connections or had been a member for longer was always chosen when she volunteered to serve on a board or committee, or showed interest in being a Sunday school teacher or confirmation mentor. Then finally, shortly before I arrived, she had been allowed to usher for the 8:30 service.
I wonder sometimes if she was an usher because they simply had no one else. It was hard to get ushers for the 8:30 service because of the church’s tradition that, although the pastor came down the stairs with the offering plates and (on communion Sunday) the communion trays, it was the ushers who climbed the five chancel steps to return the offering plates and leftover communion elements to the altar. For our mostly elderly parishioners who attended at 8:30, the stairs were difficult. Hee Ann, in her 30s, ushered every week and, when necessary, she would take both plates and all the communion trays to the altar. At the end of the aisle, she would slip out of her shoes, and barefoot she would climb the stairs.
I can see still Hee Ann that morning as we met in my office. Head bent, she confided that she had been told that some people were upset that she went barefoot in church; they said it wasn’t proper—even scandalous. She said in her heavily accented English, “I not even know what this word “scandalous” mean. I look it up.” “The altar,” she said, “it is the holy place; I cannot disrespect God by wearing shoes. It is Korean way of respect. Pastor, I do not know what to do. I can be proper Christian or I can be proper Korean, but not both. I want to serve my church, but they tell me I do this wrong.” In her quiet words, I heard her pain of having no place at the table.
I felt my anger rising. This is why people don’t feel welcome at church I fumed to myself, our rules and whispers drive people out. “Tell me, who said this.” I demanded. I may have been new at this church, but I had my suspicions who the “some people” were: Eleanor and her two cronies. Don’t let the fact they were septuagenarians fool you. They ruled women’s fellowship with an iron fist. Just the week before, when there was a discussion about how many forks to buy as women’s fellowship was ordering new flatware, Eleanor had stood up and stated, “I will remind you that we are a two-fork church. We do not use the same fork for the salad and the dinner course. It is not proper.”
“I’ll talk with them.” I ground out, “I’ll be talking to the worship committee too. The way they made you feel is not okay,” I told Hee Ann.
Hee Ann shook her head. “No pastor. This is for me to do. This is my church family. I want to tell them why I do this.” I didn’t know then, but I see it now, that by wanting to talk for Hee Ann instead of allowing her to speak for herself, I too was saying, “Know your place”: be content with crumbs and not a seat at the banquet table. Luckily, Hee-Ann convinced me that she wanted to speak.
So the following week, at the beginning of the service, our last announcement of the morning was made by Hee Ann. Slipping off her shoes, she walked up the steps to the lectern where announcements were made. She talked about how lonely she had been when she came to this country and how church was the first place she felt at home, and how after her divorce when she was too sad to go anywhere, she still came to church, and everyone was so kind. She told them how she loves this country and is proud to be an American even if in her heart she is Korean, too. She described the joy she feels when she ushers and explained that it is out of love and respect for God and this church that she removes her shoes. She told us that she reads her Bible every day and takes seriously the words that we are not to be a stumbling block to others. With her voice quavering, she said that she had become aware that her bare feet were a stumbling block for some and so she needed to explain why she would no longer be ushering and wanted everyone to know that she was doing this out of love for all of us. It was silent as she slipped her shoes back on and took her seat. In that suffocating silence, we all had to confront the knowledge that our church’s table was too small. We had not invited her to the banquet but expected her to be content with crumbs.
For most of us, our churches have been on pause. There has been little if any in-person programming. Boards and committees have had to learn to meet and function in new ways. We have been worshipping online and under tents. And most of us, out of love and concern for our children, will be doing so for a little longer.
The world is so different from March of 2020, when we all thought, “Well, we’ll be back in the building in a week or two.” Or perhaps we have just been shown how the world has always been—but in a way that we can no longer fool ourselves into believing otherwise. Whichever the case, I believe that many of us see the world differently, but the question remains: will we do church differently—will we be a different church—knowing what we have seen? I think Mark’s gospel is challenging us—as he was challenging the early church—to reconsider who Christ is here for. Is Christ’s love for a select few or for everyone? What will we do having seen the disparities of our world? Will we just throw more crumbs, or are we ready to do the harder work of building a bigger table?
I have seen a glimpse of that larger table. It was the following Sunday. There was Hee-Ann in her spot in the back pew, head bowed, well-worn Bible open. It was a communion Sunday. And as the familiar liturgy was spoken, Eleanor tapped Hee Ann on the shoulder and the two of them made their way up the center aisle. I walked down the steps of the chancel and put the communion trays into their outstretched hands and then took my seat. After the trays had been passed, the two made their way down the aisle. At the end of the aisle, Eleanor took Hee Ann’s arm to hold herself steady as she removed her shoes and offered her arm to Hee Ann so she could do the same. Two barefoot women made a banquet from the crumbs from the Master’s table. Will we have the courage to do the same? Thanks be to God. Amen.