Sunday 9th September 2018
Isaiah 35: 4-7a; Mark 7:24-37
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s Anglican. It’s ancient. It’s controversial. It’s the Prayer of Humble Access:
We do not presume
to come to this your table, merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.
This prayer dates back to 1548, when Archbishop Cranmer first wrote the Book of Common Prayer and, of course, we continue to use it now in our Common Worship service. However I understand that some people, not specifically here but more generally, don’t like praying these words as they feel that they are too Uriah Heepish in their hand-wringing humility.
‘Oh, Lord, we really are unworthy of receiving You — oh, yes we are, make no mistake.’
Of course the point about Uriah Heep is that his humility was always false but the concept of humility itself has rather gone out of fashion; for some it offends against the desire to always be positively affirmed and others may feel that once we are part of God’s family then there is simply no further need to be humble – we should simply stand tall and claim what is ours by right.
But like all good liturgy this prayer does not come out of nowhere, but is based on scripture, specifically on the encounter between Jesus and the woman we heard this morning in the gospel of Mark. So this morning we are looking at Mark 7:24-37 which can be found on page [ ] of the pew bibles.
This reading follows straight on from last week’s, which took place at Gennesaret, which was on the non-Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee. In the first verse of today’s reading we are told that Jesus left that place and went to Tyre. Tyre was also a non-Jewish region, but this time on the Mediterranean coast. So that short, easily missed, line actually contains a journey of several days in which Jesus travels from a non-Jewish area, through Jewish Galilee and into another non-Jewish area. This may help put some of Jesus’ more challenging words into context, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
What did Jesus do when he got to Tyre – did he set out on a preaching, teaching and conversion tour?
No, he entered a house and did not want anyone to know it. What was Jesus doing – was he hiding from the authorities, was he trying to avoid the crowds, did he just need some down time?
We aren’t expressly told any of these things but it seems fair to assume that Jesus wanted to be alone. And there are a good number of other places in the gospels that Jesus withdrew to a quiet place, with greater or lesser success. Our culture, including our church culture, idolises the extrovert and the evangelist and seems to pity the introverted and the contemplative. Although there is always the danger of reading what you want into the person of Jesus these episodes give me some comfort in knowing that after being with the crowds it is OK to need some quiet space, in fact, for some, it is essential.
But despite his best intentions it proved impossible for Jesus to keep his presence there a secret. We don’t know how the word got out, it probably wasn’t Twitter, and as soon as she heard that Jesus was in the area a women appeared and fell at his feet. And this wasn’t just a women – we are told that she was Greek and was born in Syrian Phoenicia. From a Jewish, male, perspective, this women was several steps beyond being an acceptable person to speak to. But it gets worse, not only is this a non-Jewish woman, born and living in a non-Jewish land but the reason she has come to Jesus is because her daughter has been possessed by an impure spirit. This woman, and her family, are an awful long way from being worthy to speak to a Jewish man, let alone a healer and teacher.
But, as we have heard before, when people are desperate, especially if there are concerned for their children, they will do anything, and this nameless women begged Jesus to heal her child. In an very real sense she was praying to Jesus on her knees for her child.
Jesus’ initial response sounds at first both rude and hard-hearted:
“…it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Bearing in mind that for the last few weeks we have been thinking about Jesus being the bread from heaven, the new manna sent to feed the people in the wilderness, it is uncontroversial to suggest that Jesus is saying that he was sent to feed the children of Israel and then, perhaps more challengingly, that it would be wrong to waste himself on feeding the dogs before the children. Although using metaphorical language Jesus seems to be calling this woman, and by extension all gentiles, dogs in comparison with the children of Israel. This is hackle raising stuff!
The women, however, is not put off and persists in her prayer and even enters into a word game with Jesus, giving us the imagery of our prayer:
“…even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Her perseverance, her faith and her desire even to have a crumb of this bread who is Jesus pays off and her daughter is healed.
But should we be offended or worried about Jesus’ apparently rude initial response to this woman? Was he begrudging his healing presence to the non-Jewish people? Well, at the risk of cliché, actions speak louder than words. Jesus had travelled from one non-Jewish area to another and, in the second half of today’s reading, he travels on from Tyre to the Decapolis, which was a Roman conurbation. If Jesus had come only for the children of Israel then he seems to be spending a great deal of time travelling amongst, speaking to and healing the so-called ‘dogs’. In my view Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, and what he was doing was inviting this woman to engage with him more fully, to enter into a word-play relationship with him and to persevere in prayer.
And Jesus has form (is that too colloquial – can I say Jesus has form?) – you only have to think of other stories like his discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 to see that Jesus wishes to bring healing to all, including the most outcast and unclean, but that he does like to engage in relationship, rather than simply acting as a divine dispenser.
It is therefore no coincidence that the prayer of humble access, based in part on this exchange, comes before we receive communion. Although the grace of God is free it was never intended to be cheap and certainly not intended to be dispensed without thought and reflection, not to mention perseverance and engagement by those who receive.
Humility may be unfashionable, and the insincere humility of Uriah Heep should be avoided at all costs, but if pride is a sin then, in my view, it can only be good to challenge our pride with the perspective of humility as we not only come into the presence of God but ask him to enter our lives. In our own strength and by virtue of our own goodness we are not worthy even to eat the crumbs from under God’s table.
But, of course, the prayer and our relationship with God doesn’t stop there. We may start with humility but we are given a promise of cosmic significance:
But you are the same Lord
whose nature is always to have mercy.
Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of your dear Son
and to drink his blood,
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us. Amen.
So God, here in the person of Jesus, does not come to us because of our goodness and greatness, but because of his goodness and mercy and when he comes to us we are promised that we will dwell with him and that he will dwell with us forever. We are lifted into God’s life, and God comes into our life because he loves us, he longs to heal us and to have an eternal relationship with each and every one of us. So let’s get over ourselves and let God get to work in us. Amen.