Link to Service:

Ruth 1.11-18

Matthew 15.21-28

Scraps and Leftovers

Reign of Christ

I stopped by the church yesterday to pick up a book I needed for this morning.  There was no one around, and I thought it would be a quick in and out.  But as I was leaving the church, one of our Deacons was here dropping something off for the Christmas Fair – the Deacon will remain nameless for reasons you’ll soon understand.  As we were chatting and comparing Thanksgiving dinner stories, a car I didn’t recognize pulled into the lot and made its way over to us.  It was an older car that had seen better days, and as it approached, the window went down and the woman behind the wheel called us over.  The Deacon and I looked at each other with mild curiosity and went.  The driver was kind of disheveled, smelled of cigarettes and alcohol, although she did not appear to be impaired in any way.  She asked if we went to this church and I said sure, I’m the minister and this is… and I introduced our Deacon.  The driver, who I came to learn was Native American,  began to tell us the kind of hard luck story I’ve heard many times before in a variety of versions.  She recently lost her job, was running low on food and though she didn’t say so, it looked like she could have been living out of her car as well.  Could we spare a few dollars?  Well, my fallback answer, as I try to assess the situation, is that we don’t hand out cash, but we do have gift cards to some local grocery stores.  In fact, thanks to all of you, the office is flush with grocery cards.  She gave me a reply I also often hear, that she really needed cash so she could get groceries and gas up her car, but I could tell our Deacon was thinking the same thing I was, that any cash we might give her would likely go straight to more cigarettes and alcohol.  Besides, the discarded fast-food wrappers on the front seat told me it hadn’t been that long since she had last eaten.  As I was about to reply, our Deacon surprised me by replying first, “Then I guess we can’t help you.  Do you live around here?”  She said no, she lived in Uncasville, but was driving through town and thought she’d stop when she saw us.  “Well,” the Deacon went on, “being a church we do get a lot of requests for assistance, but we try to help out our neighbors first.” 

This did not go over well, and the woman told us in no uncertain terms that she was, in fact, Native American, her ancestors were Wangunks, and did we know we were standing on Wangunk ancestral grounds?  “If anyone is a neighbor, it’s me!” she said, her voice agitated and growing louder, and I remembered a little bit of Chester’s history and had to admit she was right.  The Wangunks were here long before any of the rest of us were.  “My ancestors were here before your church ever was,” she snarled at me, “so don’t tell me about neighbors.  If you really were good neighbors, you’d help me out.”  She had a point.  The Deacon looked a little shaken, and the woman turned her ire toward me.  “Father,” she said – and by the way, it isn’t the first time somebody called me ‘Father’ – “Father, I bet you’d help out a white person from your town, but don’t you have anything left over for someone whose people were here before any of them?”  At this point, I knew she wasn’t going to go away.  Besides, she was right.  I just didn’t feel right turning her away, and so in spite of her protests, I grabbed a couple food cards and gave them to her, and even though she didn’t like the fact it wasn’t cash, she accepted it and was ready to drive off when she hesitated.  I was ready for another round of berating when she looked me square in the eye and said, “God bless you,” and drove away.

And in that moment I understood that my initial reaction, which should have been compassion and charity, was woefully inadequate.  It was Thanksgiving weekend after all, and I’ve spent the past three Sundays talking about abundance and generosity, and I had to be talked into giving a food card to someone who was hungry.  In retrospect, she taught me a lesson I needed to learn.

I share this story with you, not because it really happened, because it did not, but rather to try to place ourselves into the story about Jesus and the Canaanite woman, which unfolded very much as I just described.

You heard the story from the middle of Matthew.  A Canaanite woman came to Jesus with an urgent need.  Her daughter was tormented by a demon, and the woman was desperate.  “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David.”  Here Matthew uses both Jewish and gentile terms for Jesus, Son of David and Lord.  She is covering all her bases.  But the Deacon – I mean, the disciple spoke first.  “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  Obviously the disciple was a bit shaken by her forthright manner of addressing Jesus.  Who did she think she was asking for a handout from the Son of David?  Jesus, taking his lead from the disciples, replied similarly, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  Or, to put it another way, we save our food cards for the people who belong to our own community.  Besides, Jesus went on to say, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Ouch.  Ouch.  Not even I would be so cold as to say this, I don’t care if you’re from Uncasville, Ledyard or Nazareth, you can’t talk like this to someone who comes to you with such desperate need.  If you’re going to let them down, do it softly and gently, don’t insult them when you do it.  Of course, the children Jesus is referring to are the Jews, but still, you don’t call a gentile a dog.  This is a remarkable exchange, especially for Matthew, who tends to clean up other writer’s stories about Jesus.  But here we see him in a rather stark light.

And I’m not going to try to explain it away.  In this encounter, the woman is in the right, even more than we might imagine.  She is a Canaanite woman speaking to Jews.  If we remember our Old Testament history, we remember that Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt and into what we  often call “the promised land.”  But the promised land was not a big empty wide open space just waiting to be occupied by the Hebrews; there were already people living there, people who were displaced and vanquished by folks like Joshua and Gideon and Deborah and Samson.  Does anyone remember what the promised land was called before it became Israel?  Canaan.  This was a Canaanite woman standing before Jesus and the disciples.  Her people were there long before Jesus and his people were.  Israel had taken over Canaan and subjugated their people.  So if the woman had an edge in her voice, it would have been with ample reason.  And she had the right comeback for Jesus.  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus said, effective calling this importunate woman – and those like her - a dog.  But hear again what she said in reply:  “Yes Lord,” – I wonder if she snarled the word  - “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  Double ouch, and let’s throw in a touché while we’re at it because in this moment, the Canaanite woman got the better of the Son of David.

There are not many Bible stories that portray Jesus in unflattering terms, but this is surely one of them.  And I’m not going to try to explain away his less-than-pastoral words to the woman, because that’s not my job.  Sharon Ridge, writing in Letty Russell’s book Feminist Interpretation of the Bible says this about the encounter:

“The exchange between the woman and Jesus reverses the pattern usually found in such stories.  Usually a situation or event provokes a hostile question from some onlooker to Jesus, to which Jesus responds with a correcting or reproving question and then drivees home his point by a concluding statement which the opponent would be hard put to deny.  In this story, however, it is Jesus who provides the hostile saying and the woman whose retort trips him up and corrects him.”

It is a story of a persistent faith that will not let itself be denied, not even by the object of that faith himself.  It is a story of a persistent faith that will not let itself be denied, not even by the object of that faith himself.  It is a story that invites you and me to put ourselves in the place, not of Jesus, nor of the disciples as I tried to do at the beginning, but instead invites us to put ourselves in the place of the other, of the woman, of the displaced native Canaanite, whose land and culture and traditions have been either co-opted or expatriated by Jesus’ and the disciples’ ancestors.  And it is in this encounter that the nature of a stubborn faith is seen.

I think what we see here is similar to what we glean from the story of Ruth.  Like the Canaanite woman, Ruth is a gentile, she is not heir to the promises made to Abraham and his descendants.  But when Ruth’s Hebrew mother-in-law Naomi urges her to return to her own people following the death of Namoi’s son, Ruth’s husband, Ruth’s stubborn yet laudable decision to stay with Naomi and treat her like her own mother become the vehicle of her deliverance.  “Do not press me to leave you, or to turn back from following you,” Ruth said to Naomi.  “Where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God [shall be] my God.”  And by the end of the story, Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi placed her in the circumstance where she met and married Boaz, and as a result eventually became the grandmother of David.  The Canaanite woman’s confession of who Jesus really is, the Son of David, connects the dots between the two stories.  In both cases, it is not the dominant culture that is the vehicle of salvation, but rather of the outsider, the other.  Professor Eugene Boring writes, [This] story serves to challenge the sexism and racism of readers, ancient and modern, who tend… to consider those of different gender and ethnicity as ‘the other,’ somehow more distant from God and the divine order and plan than our own group.”  And if Jesus and the disciples if the religious leaders of his day – learned a little something about themselves and their world in the process, well, sometimes this is how faith and justice and inclusion do their best work.  Sometimes, it is in the scraps and crumbs and leftovers from the table that make for the richest and most sumptuous feast.

Uniter 2

 community 2

Current Events Button

 donate 2

Join Us!

Sunday worship

is at 10 a.m.

In-person &

online on our

UCC FB Page

 

 

Worship

Handicapped Accessible 

 

Directions

United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697

 

From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.

 

From the South: Take CT Route 9 North to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn Right; we are .8 miles on the right.

Office Hours

Church Office:

Tuesday - Friday 9-1

 

Minister's Hours:

Wednesday  - Friday

8:30-12:30

 

Mailing Address:  

Post Office Box 383, Chester, CT 06412

 

Physical Address:  

29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412

 

Telephone:

860-526-2697  

 

Email Address: 

unitedchester@uccchester.org