Cake and Crumbs

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Matthew 15:10-28

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.[a] And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 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.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Cake and Crumbs

A story of sheet cake and crumbs: Tina Fey, the brilliant, the hilarious, my hero, made me laugh and cringe this week. She went on a TV show to talk about the terrible things happening in the world: White Supremacist gatherings at Charlottesville, Virginia, political responses and a general feeling of hopelessness, and her character’s advice was instead of going out to engage the White Nationalists in a protest that could potentially be violent, to instead stay home and eat sheet cake. She recommended going to a nice, minority, locally-owned bakery, ordering a sheet cake covered in the American flag and then eating it while ranting with increasing despair about the wrongs of the world. She continued with increasing mess and agitation until the cake was flung, flung about the studio with rants, raised hands and that overwhelming feeling of bluch. And I watched her and I said, “Yes, you are me because (a) I like being at home, (b) I like cake and (c) I am really good at ranting at headlines.” Josh can attest. And so how much do I find myself embodied in the newly-coined term sweeping the people of “sheet caking?”

And we know that this has a certain degree of an edge because you need to have a certain degree of safety and comfort to be able to indulge in despair covered in frosting. Folks have responded to this piece because, apparently, sitting at home and yelling at cake does not technically actually do anything and its part of a privilege of a nice white lady to be able to channel anger into confections rather than controversy.

So here is my true confession: I was kind of hoping for a comforting scripture this week, one that gave us a breath in the midst of trouble. There are a lot of scriptures like this: God the good shepherd watching over us, maybe something that promises that no matter what it’s going to be okay because we’re all in God’s care, something reassuring. As I look out on you all I feel the need to provide something so that everybody gets fed because I know you go back to the week with complicated lives and a complicated world and whatever the newspaper decides to throw at us in the week to come. I would love to send you back to that feeling refreshed and whole and at ease and instead the lectionary gave us this scripture this week that has Jesus’ inscrutable parables, clueless disciples and Jesus’ rude interaction with a woman who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and none of it is comforting. Even though I find scripture very beautiful, its comfort is not simple or easy. There is no point of scripture where Jesus proclaims, “Behold, I am the cake of life,” although it does sound delicious. Instead, we are not offered what we want but what we need: bread, or lacking that, crumbs that hold our salvation.

The scripture today is from the Gospel of Matthew and Jesus, after teaching on dietary law, that perhaps the reach of the good news might extend beyond those that are covered in Jewish dietary restrictions. Jesus is met by the Canaanite woman. A Canaanite is a gentile, not a Jew, and so if Jesus was to draw the line of where his ministry was to reach, she would be on the other side. The actual term “Canaanite” would have been a bit of an anachronism. At this point in time I had one commentator I read comparing it to calling New York, New Amsterdam. Yes, we kind of get it, but no one calls it that these days. So what is the word “Canaanite?” Where is this helpful? Canaanite is the word for an historical enemy. The Israelites fought the Canaanites as they entered the land. This word refers to an old war, an old feud, an old enemy. And more than that, she is a woman. A woman in this time would not be a voice to be listened to. One of the ways that Jesus had a counter-cultural ministry time and again was that he spoke to women directly. A woman who speaks directly with a man in this patriarchal culture is naturally suspect; perhaps only a prostitute would dare to upset the social wars this greatly. But this Canaanite woman, when she comes to speak, she comes with a tone that is not measured or calm. This woman is inflamed. She cries out on the street, “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David.”
Calling Jesus the title of the Messiah she refuses to be turned away by the disciples and cries out again and again for the healing of her daughter.

There are many times in scripture where we, as followers of Jesus, are called to do exactly what Jesus did in that time and place. We, the disciples who try to follow in the steps of one who is pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and this moment is one where Jesus doesn’t seem perfect. First, Jesus doesn’t answer. Then when he does he responds that he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel and Jesus, her Lord, calls her a dog. And then, even after her response that dogs get the crumbs from the table, it is then and only then that he sees her, that he is moved by her faith. She pleads with Jesus and when he is rude and even almost cruel she continues until he transforms, until their conversation, her daughter and Jesus’ ongoing mission are changed in the process. This interaction is loud and messy and Jesus doesn’t come across looking compassionate or cultured or caring.

And yet, this is a world I recognize, the world we live in, where the voices are sometimes loud, where our heroes are not perfect and yet there is potential for transformation in the midst. For what was it that the woman was begging for but crumbs, morsels of grace from God which she believed in faith would be more than enough. She came not screaming for cake but crumbs, for there is nothing like a desperate mother to force us to return to our moral center: mothers grieving, those who have been lost, mothers who want a safe place for their kids, mothers who fear what the systems of racism will do for their babies, mothers who are poor and don’t know where to go. There is nothing like mothers to make us return to look and see where we stand.

The persistence of desperate women is a downright theme in the Gospels as Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow whose continued pleas were so great that they toppled the resolve of the unjust judge. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first miracle is done at his mother’s request. It was women who moved past Jesus’ disciples to anoint him with perfume to follow him to the cross and the empty tomb.

If Scripture were comforting, the story would have gone that Jesus saw her pain from the start, was moved by compassion, pushed aside the heartless folks, lifted her in dignity and healed her daughter across lines of class and difference. But this isn’t a comfort story; it’s a story that teaches us what morsels of grace look like in an imperfect world. It shows us that to change one mind can be a holy thing. It shows us that even our model of faith can show us it’s okay to be wrong and to listen and to start again.

I dearly hope that when they are writing the biography of my life they don’t include the moments I was really wrong: when I was ignorant, when I misjudged, when I was too brusque and didn’t listen to the voices I should have. And yet, it’s through being really wrong that I can look back and say, “Look at the gift God gave me. Look at how I was able to be changed.” That part of my story that I look at in shame might be for God a moment of celebration for something shifted or something changed.

I read a poem this week by Jan Richardson titled “Stubborn Blessing,” which includes the stanza:

I am saying
I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
Unclench your hand,
your heart.
Let the scraps fall
like manna,
like mercy
for the life
of my child,
the life of
the world.

Don’t you tell me no.

I read this poem where the crumbs are so precious that in them hold the powers of life and death, where there is this stubborn persistence that she will not leave without the morsel of hope. I contrast that with myself and Tina Fey and any of us that find crumbs so cheaply that they can be flung from the table without noticing. For what are the crumbs in this life? Crumbs are seeing protestors outnumber those that they protest, even as you can’t believe they need to protest at all. Crumbs are seeing decency in unexpected places. Crumbs are inching towards process when you can’t believe the miles to go before justice can be seen, for I know what God can do with crumbs.

I’ve been working in past months to try to learn from those who are battling the world for crumbs, to read more in particular from women of color who have been doing the work, and here is what I have learned: that crumbs are also learning that you don’t know it all; crumbs are admitting that you are wrong and I hate being wrong; crumbs are stepping into uncomfortable places and trusting that God sees the potential in our discomfort for I know what God can do with crumbs. Crumbs are seeing cities grapple with old wars, old feuds and old enemies through a messy process, even old sins, and saying that something needs to change, even if it begins with the statues we honor together. Crumbs are in the youth on their immersion trip this weekend; crumbs are witnessing in our world; we still have room for awe to stare at the heavens and say, “We aren’t the biggest thing here.” Crumbs are seeing the number of people who are inspired to move, impelled and uncomfortable enough to not let this moment pass. For I know what God can do with crumbs. Rather than seeking the cake in places where we feel comfortable, we are invited to follow the breadcrumbs one by one out into the world, leading us forward to find manna enough for each day, step by uncomfortable step, as they lead us to the new reality God has promised.

And so hear the blessing that doesn’t sound like a blessing: May you learn from the desperate mothers how to be hungry, so hungry that only a crumb will do, for I know that God knows what to do with crumbs. Amen.

© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2017. All rights reserved.

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