Becca's sermon on August 17, 2014, the 20th anniversary of her becoming Chaplain at St. Augustine's Episcopal Chapel at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. Scroll down to listen to the podcast of this sermon. The Canaanite Woman in Matthew
What are we supposed to do about beggars at the Church? Do we give them money? Send them away? I have often thought it was strange that in the middle of the Gospel there is this strange story of the Canaanite woman begging for help and then her famous banter with Jesus in which she states, “even the dogs deserve the crumbs under the table”. It’s surprising that this one woman, just after he has fed more than 5,000 people is causing such a fuss.
Themes such as the place of the beggar in the life of the church are timeless and universal. The story of a Canaanite woman breaking rank and tradition by begging in the middle of Matthew’s gospel is a reminder that begging is in the middle of our faith. In the heart of Matthew’s mission another beggar comes with her hands out needing help for her daughter. I swear it never ends. Jesus was right, “the poor will always be with you.” She had no business or right asking for help, all she had was need. The Canaanite woman came and even though the disciples were overwhelmed, need outweighs annoyance, and so she made her way towards Jesus in spite of the weariness of the community. But it is at this moment we learn the place of charity in the life of faith is transformational. In the exchange between the woman and Jesus the community realizes she is the proclaimer of the Gospel. She was the preacher who offers crumbs of hope to a community in need of inspiration. She was the faithful one who reminds us still that a church without beggars is a museum, and indeed we are the beggars at an altar where we are grateful for the abundance of a crumb.
Beggars have been central to the ministry of the church and the reason for its existence. Thistle Farms’ mission is centered on the belief that women who have survived the streets and prisons, who have wrestled addictions and withstood violence, proclaim mercy so profoundly that a whole community can find healing. There are many people who read this blog whose vocations are about recognizing the profound place of begging for both the giver and receiver and how love is offered in the exchange. The leadership of Don and his whole team has nobly wrestled with how to serve the beggar with integrity, how love the Canaanite with dignity and how to preach love without judgment. Roy is a man who makes his way begging and has been at the chapel where I serve for twenty years. He has always depended upon folks for his survival. He and I are still debating if he lost his dentures or is someone stole them two weeks ago. Whatever happened the loss of those teeth is a reminder that begging is a full time job. Between transportation and finding caregivers, it takes a long time to replace lost items. Roy is doing it in his usual seesaw that leans first towards keen insight and wit and then more towards an internal mental struggle that I can’t fathom. He tells me that 20 years ago he brought me to my work, that he built the church and blesses the work. That may be true. He always comes to church early, first to shower off the Saturday night street and then to fold bulletins. Over the years I have seen him beg on Sunday mornings and have seen him handcuffed in the parking lot after cursing an officer. I have seen him with the staff stretching their patience and watching them help. I have seen him be a faithful servant and be so angry that I crawl under the altar and hide. After the chapel paid a portion of his teeth, I drove him to the synagogue up the street to get the next installment. I pulled off the road and after he got out, he walked into the street and stopped traffic so I could back up without waiting. He is something. He cannot be contained by a program, diagnosis or theology that asks us to simply serve the poor. He is the question in ministry, the embodiment of failed systems, the result of institutionalized poverty and often the teacher. I love his walk, his sense of humor and the fact that even when he gets banned or lost, he always comes home. He reminds me that “the poor will always be with you” is a blessing, not a curse.
This week as the news of Ebola in West Africa spreads, I have been reminded of the Yellow fever outbreak of 1878 in Memphis where beggars were overwhelming and the responders were scares. More than 5,000 died in the first three months and more than 30,000 people fled. It was the Sisters of St. Mary in Tennessee that stayed with the sick and lost several members of their community in the service. St. Mary’s had been founded just a few years before to offer sanctuary “for the reclamation of fallen women” according to their literature. But their mission was interrupted by the Epidemic and they cared for the sick and dying. One of the few surviving sisters moved to Sewanee, TN, in 1888 and now more than a 120 years later still serve and support the women of Thistle Farms. Their work for more than 120 years has always been interrupted by the needs of Canaanite women who come begging and ultimately form who they are.
Begging is not an issue to be solved, but a way we wrestle our way through injustices, oppression, poverty and sickness. A faith without begging is an act. Begging is the fount of innumerable blessings. None of us are above or below begging. I have been begging for my whole ministry. The crumbs under the table can fill our cups to overflowing streams of gratitude and hope for this world. But there are another 100 Canannite women at the door. We have a lot more begging to do.
Photo credit Albert Pujol