Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Eat the Crumbs

About a week ago, I listened to someone tell the story of a church in Seattle called Northshore that was trying to help some of the homeless people in the area. A lot of these homeless people were living in a tent city, and the law required that this tent city be moved every 90 days. The place that the tent city was going to move to next backed out at the last minute, and so the people at Northshore decided that they needed to step in to help, and so they submitted paperwork to the city in order to get a permit. What they didn't know was that about a month prior to that, the city had put a moratorium on these permits and refused to even look at their application.

So the people at Northshore had to make a choice. They could follow the law, and not get into any trouble. Or they could follow their hearts, and offer the people living in the tent city a safe place to stay, so that they wouldn't have to go back out onto the streets. They decided that the only real choice they had was to help. And so, they welcomed the tent city onto their property, even though they didn’t have a permit for it. And, as they feared, the city filed a lawsuit against them. The superior court ruled in favor of the city, and the city was awarded damages which totaled more than the entire operating budget of the church. There is often a price to pay when you openly disregard those in authority.

We learn this at a very young age as we battle with our parents over our bedtimes and the foods they try to make us eat, our allowances and curfews. As children, we have to do as we're told, or else suffer the consequences: being sent to bed without supper, having our allowance taken away or not being allowed to hang out with our friends. As we go through our lives, we have to learn how to deal with teachers and principals, supervisors at our jobs and sometimes the cops. And of course, there is the ultimate authority figure of all.

Our gospel reading today describes one such encounter with that divine authority. A Canaanite woman is asking Jesus to help her because her daughter is being tormented by a demon. His disciples wanted her sent away, she was bothering them and she was after all, a Canaanite, a foreigner. And here is where the text gets tricky. A lot of people don't like this part, and I have to admit that I had and still have difficulty with this part of the text. Jesus says, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs. Can you believe that? What kind of answer is that? It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs. It's no wonder that many scholars question if this scene is historical at all, if Jesus ever said anything like this. Not only is he refusing to help this woman, he insults her! He calls her a dog!

After hearing Jesus say this shocking and insulting statement, she answers him. I mean, who wouldn't respond to something like that? But, she responds with humility. She says, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." She is humble in her reply, and yet she is still pushing back. She doesn't just take what Jesus says sitting down. She's not going to just let him call her a dog! She knows who she is; she is a beloved child of God, just as worthy of God's saving grace as the other men in the room, the Israelites, the Isrealites that are asking Jesus to send her away.

This story reminds me of the story of Abraham and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sin, but for some reason, God decided to tell Abraham about it first. Abraham wonders if completely destroying two entire cities is such a good idea, after all there could be some innocent people living there. And so, he asks God, "Are you going to destroy the cities, even if there are 50 innocent people there?" God tells him that if there are 50 innocent people, the cities will not be destroyed.

Abraham thinks about this for a few seconds, then asks, "What if there are 45 innocent people?"

God says, "If there are 45 innocent people, I will not destroy the cities."

Abraham mulls it over, then asks, "If there are only 40 innocent people, will you destroy the cities?"

In this story, God has taken the form of a man and is actually standing there talking to Abraham, so you can picture God, however it is that you picture God, shaking his head and smiling at Abraham indulgently, like a parent would smile at a child. "No Abraham, if I find only 40 innocent people, the cities will not be destroyed."

"30 people?"


"20 people?"


"10 people?"

"If I find but 10 innocent people, the cities will not be destroyed."

Apparently, this answer was good enough for Abraham, because he stops bargaining with God after 10. The point of this is that Abraham had a strong enough sense of who he was in relation to God that he could challenge God's decision, give his own opinion on the situation and expect that God would take his opinion into consideration.

I remember one of my professors saying that Abraham's act was the defining moment in Jewish history, when the Jewish people established themselves as Jews, when they established their relationship with God. Abraham had the gumption, the courage, enough sense of himself that he felt he could essentially talk back to God, to have a dialogue with God on a level that no one had ever had before. You could say that this was the moment that he became Jewish.

See, God wants to be in relationship with us. There's a lot going on in these two stories. We could talk about the nature of God or whether or not these events actually took place. We could argue about whether or not God might have known ahead of time how Abraham or the Canaanite woman were going to respond. We even might wonder if these stories are allegories for the way that God tests us. What I do know is that these stories are about relationship.

God does not expect or require blind servitude. God gave us free-will, so that we could make our own decisions, so that we could choose to love God and follow God's laws, or to choose a different path, even if that would mean breaking God's heart. God gives us that choice.

And, God gave us brains to reason with, so that we could think things through, to weigh the merits of one action over another, one choice over another. So that we could out figure what all the possible consequences of our actions might be. So that we can take a rule, or a law or a decree and figure out whether or not it's right or wrong, good or bad, or perhaps, somewhere in between. And, that is usually the case with things that are difficult. There are often no easy answers in the decisions that we make in our lives.

So, how do we choose when there is no clear-cut answer? We have to rely on our relationships, our relationships with God and with each other. We have to make the choices that will make our relationships stronger with each other. Not just with the people that we know, our friends and family, neighbors and colleagues, the people that we go to church with and the people of our race, nation or tongue. We have to make the choices that will strengthen our relationships with all of humanity; the choices that will ultimately strengthen our relationships with God.

See, when the Canaanite woman said that the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off the master's table, she was not trying to interfere with Jesus's relationship with the people of Israel. She just wanted to be a part of it. She was willing to take the smallest of crumbs, because she knew that it would be enough. Don't forget that these are God's crumbs. God's crumbs are more than we could ever need. They are more than enough. And, this woman understood that. She did not want Jesus to spend less time with "the lost sheep of Israel," to do anything that might hinder his relationship with them.

But, she knew that in Jesus, there is more than enough to go around. And, above all, she knew that she was just as worthy as they to receive it. So, she said that she would take the crumbs. And, Jesus immediately answers her with joy! He says, "Woman, great is your faith! Your daughter is healed! By your faith, your daughter is healed."

The people of Northshore made a choice that showed their faith in God. They chose to honor their relationships with God and humanity by helping the homeless people of Seattle. They allowed the tent city to move onto their property, even though they knew that they were going to get into trouble. And, they received a judgment against them that they could never hope to pay. And, for the next three years, as they fought against this judgment, they didn't know whether or not the church was going to survive. They had to come to terms with the fact that Northshore might not be around anymore. But, they went through with it, because they had to do what they felt was right, what God was calling them to do. They had to be good neighbors to their fellow human beings. They had to honor, and foster, and strengthen those relationships. And, they had to create new relationships where there were previously none.

The state supreme court eventually ruled in favor of Northshore, saying that the church had the right to exercise their religious freedom on their own property. And in 2010, new legislation went into effect in an effort to prevent something like this from ever happening again. Local government could no longer prevent a religious organization from getting a permit in this way. The hope was that these new laws would help local governments and religious organizations resolve their conflicts over services provided to the homeless without resorting to litigation. The relationship is changing, and it's changing for the better. And, it can all be traced back to that single act of compassion by the Northshore congregation.

As human beings, we have to question things that we think are wrong. We cannot blindly follow laws because "that's the way that it's always been" or because "whoever's in charge told me so." God gave us reason and free will, and wants to live in relationship with us. God wants to know how we feel about things. I'm not telling you to openly defy God whenever the mood strikes, but if there is something going on that you don't agree with, approach God in prayer, humbly and with the faith and understanding that God loves you. Question God the way that Abraham and the Canaanite woman questioned God, with humility and love in your heart, and listen to what God has to say. God wants to live in relationship with us, because that is the nature of God. God exists as three persons, all living in harmony. God's existence is based in relationship, and God wants to share the wonder and the love and the beauty of that with us. So, love God. Question God. And, live in relationship with God and with each other. Amen.