This is my final sermon at All Saints, High Wycombe, after almost 6 years as Children’s, Youth and Families’ Minister. I am preaching on Mark 7.24-30, Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.
For this morning’s visual aid, I did consider bringing some crumbs! But I thought 1. that could get a bit messy, and 2. this isn’t really a story about crumbs, it’s a story about tables. Specifically it’s a story about who gets to sit at the table.
So instead of crumbs, I brought some of the things that might show us we have a place at the table. Place mats, place name cards, folded napkins, cutlery…
The story we heard this morning is a strange one. What’s going on here? Is Jesus trying to catch this woman out? Is he being mean to her? Is she teaching Jesus something he didn’t already know? I don’t think so.
I think – in fact I’m quite sure – that Jesus already knew perfectly well, knew all along, that there was a place for this woman at God’s table, as there is for us all. In saying this provocative thing about “throwing the children’s food to the dogs” – seeming to compare her to a dog (which would have sounded even ruder to Jesus’ contemporaries than it does to us) Jesus is provoking the woman into realising for herself an important truth – that she is worth more than this.
When this woman, whose name we don’t even know, stands up for herself, and demands more of Jesus, he responds. He does not give her only the crumbs she asks for, but the complete healing and freedom she needs, for her child and for herself. In this strange and dramatic encounter, the point has been made far more forcefully than it would have been if Jesus had merely stated it: everyone – even those who are considered, by themselves or others, the lowest of the low – everyone is held within the scope of the extraordinary grace generosity of God. In God’s eyes, we are all worth so much more than the crumbs from somebody else’s table.
We do not earn our place at God’s table because of who we are. We are given it because of who God is. Today we celebrate two great sacraments which remind us of this. In baptism, Lauren takes her rightful place at God’s table, which she has not had to earn, for which she has no need to prove herself, but which has been prepared for her from the foundation of the world by God who created her and loves her infinitely. In communion, we are all called again to take our places at God’s table, because we too are called by the God who loves us.
I read recently that a bishop in the US describes sacraments as “making real what is already true”. It’s an interesting distinction – there can be a great gulf between knowing something to be true, and experiencing it as being real – and that distinction is one which I think speaks into our reading today, as well as the sacraments we celebrate.
In challenging the woman to claim her place at God’s table, and in affirming it through his own healing action, Jesus was not making it true that she was loved and included by God – that was already true, and always had been. But he was making it real. Real for her, real for those who heard and saw what he did, and real for all of us who have read or heard the story.
As Lauren is baptised today, the act of baptism does not make it true that she is known and loved and called by God. That is already true, as true as it could possibly be, and it always has been. What baptism does is make that truth real – real in the symbols of water and oil and fire, real in the love and prayers and support which this congregation offers to Lauren today.
In communion, we refer sometimes to the “real presence” of Jesus in the bread and wine. Sharing this bread and wine together does not make it any more true that Jesus is here – it could not be any more true than it already is – but it does make it more real, differently real, as we physically share in his body and blood in the form of bread and wine.
In communion, an inherently communal act, we also become more real to one another. At God’s table we are gathered with friends and strangers, with those we love and those we cannot bring ourselves to love, those who are close and those who are distant. Even time and space themselves are no barrier to the all-encompassing scope of God’s radical hospitality and we all, wherever and whenever we share in communion, sit together as equal siblings around God’s table.
As we draw near to God, we draw near to one another, and as we draw near to one another, we can no longer view each other in the abstract, as “those people”. We discover the truth that “those people”, whoever they may be, are imperfect, unworthy, God-beloved individuals too – just like us. Out of that nearness, that realness, flows the compassion and love which marks us out as followers of the one who is Love.
If I could leave you with one thought, it would be this: be real. In a world which craves and needs integrity, live your life in ways which make real the truth that God calls us into a life of integrity, wholeness, redemption and renewal. Be real with yourself, be real with one another, be real with God. Take your place at God’s table, take up the space God has prepared for you. Show the world what a real, authentic, God-filled, imperfect, messed-up, honest, honest-to-God, love-infused life looks like. Be really and truly the person God created and called you to be, and in that reality you will find and reveal the real, true, all-consuming love of God.