Under the Table

Aug 17, 2020   •  

The Rev. Justi Schunior

August 16, 2020

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.    Matthew 15: 21-28

Under the Table

Greetings, St. Mark’s! I’m so happy to kind of be with you this morning, even if I’m not actually with you. I’m picturing your individual faces. And for those of you whom I have never met before, I’m so happy that you’re worshiping in a community that means so much to me; I feel like I know you. What a strange time we’re in now. We can’t BE together. And especially for my St. Mark’s family, that’s really hard. BEING together is what we’re good at. Touching each other during a very extended passing of the peace through hugs, handshakes, sharing of news. Standing shoulder to shoulder around the altar receiving bread and wine or grape juice out of the same messy cup. This is hard; it’s like we can’t be who we are in this space. And I’m hurting about that; the same as you are.

Years and years ago, before I even really thought about vocation and becoming a priest, church meant something very particular to me. It meant quiet, the strange sort of quiet that comes from being in a large space with people who are also quiet. It meant incense and strange but enjoyable smells. It meant chanting – music I’d never hear in any other place.

As I became an adult and moved to other places in the world and when I became a church and served different congregations, I had to let go of this particular notion of church. It wasn’t just subsuming my own preferences or more seriously, ignoring my own theological convictions, that led me to different understandings of what church was. It’s that being in community with other people changed me. For example, it’s just not enjoyable for me to use incense in communities of faith that hate it. While it feels good and holy and spiritual to me, (I loved leaving service with the smell of it still in my hair) it’s not fun when people are coughing and gasping for breath. Telling them, “this is all inside your head!” doesn’t fix their experience of lack of breathable air.

So my understanding of what is church, what makes it specific, understandable, or good has changed over time. As it should for all of us who are growing, learning beings. But we are in a very special and strange time right now. Very quickly, not gradually, as change usually takes place, we have come to think about church and what it is in new ways. It is now sitting on our couch drinking coffee and listening to Michele’s sermon. It is typing in the name or concern we have into a comment box instead of saying it out loud in a group. It is checking in on a neighbor who might be needing some more connection in this lonely time. And perhaps most counter intuitively, it is staying in our own houses, not meeting with people or mixing in crowds so that we may keep one another safe.

A few months ago, when it seemed as if we might be on the verge of returning to something like normal, before Pentecost, I was on a zoom meeting with members of a church where I had been serving. The rector was interested in thinking about what this time of social isolation but freedom from being bound to a building or a schedule might do for us. How might we be church in new ways considering that we aren’t obligated to certain types of maintenance and activities? This kind of mental exercise was tough for everyone. We kept coming back to how we might approximate what we’d always done with a few simple rules or regulations. Church outside, socially distanced choirs. We need, we long to get back to what we know.

I get it. I know. I want to sit in a group of people who love me. I want to chew on bread, I want to hold the cup in my hand and drink knowing that I’m sharing this cup with all those gathered. I want the germy and messy reality of church – that’s what church is, right – germy, messy togetherness?

But Covid has spilled into every area of our lives – Covid has creeped into every crack of our society and exposed all of our faults and frailties showing us what and who we really are. It has forced us to ask what is a state for[1]? Is it just some Hobbesian reprieve from an uglier state of nature, or does is aspire to nurture something better? What is an economy for[2]? Is it just to reflect our most atavistic preferences, or is it to help human life and giftedness flourish? And so we have to ask what is church for? Is it primarily about the preferences of those still interested in engaging in the rituals we’ve come to know as church or is it something more fundamental? Can we understand messy togetherness is a new way?

I think we can. And that we must. In our gospel today, Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman – interestingly, there were no Canaanites as such in Jesus’ time, so this woman is being coded as OUTSIDER with a capital O. She is OTHER.

We have to be careful here because Jesus initially treats this woman very, very badly. There is nothing that can take away how painful it is that Jesus calls a woman in need a dog. And it’s not particularly soothing that she uses that same dog language to expand his thinking. It’s insulting and baffling, and I don’t think we should easily move on from that stumbling block. I do want to say that the Rev. Dr. Joy Jay Moore[3] reflected on this text by saying that she did not think it was ok that a woman of color or a minority woman had to argue for her humanity, argue for the fact that she was made in the image of God to God itself. Instead she preferred to interpret the text that Jesus was voicing the prejudices of his peers, knowing, all along, the humanity of the woman in front of him.

Regardless of whether Jesus is learning or whether we’re learning, the words of the Canaanite woman’s are paradigm shifting. Church is not just the faces we see around the table; we need to look under the table.

Perhaps, in the coming months, we will get back to what we know. There will be a vaccine; there will be a stimulus package that cures the ills for most of us. Don’t count your chickens…but maybe. And maybe next year, all will be back to normal. What will you say then? Will you have looked under the table, out the door, into the alley?

It’s hard to let go of the thing itself – the crumbly bread, the sloshing cup, the feeling of another person’s hand in yours. But what do those things signify? Maybe they mean solidarity with teens on Tik Tok, workers in meat packing plants, your mail carrier.

They must signify a kind of connection that meets the needs of this particular time. Or else those symbols don’t actually mean much. In times of crisis and rapid change, our faith communities have met the moment. Judaism in the face of the destruction of the temple, the confessing churches under Nazi government, Black churches during the Civil Rights Movement. How are we meeting this moment? The Canaanite woman is standing in front of us. How do we respond?

[1] I have been really interested in the questions of what the building blocks of functioning society are for; these two podcasts are helpful: https://www.vox.com/2020/6/5/21279530/ta-nehisi-coates-ezra-klein-show-george-floyd-police-brutality-trump-biden

[2] https://www.vox.com/2020/8/13/21364766/keynes-stimulus-zachary-carter-the-price-of-peace-the-ezra-klein-show

[3] You can hear the Rev. Dr. Moore’s thoughts/analysis here https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1288