But for the Grace of God

Twelve years ago, I had the honor of presiding at my Great Aunt’s funeral. My aunt was a devout and faithful Episcopalian for most of her life. When she moved into assisted living at the age of 81 and realized the facility had no space set aside for prayer, she generously gave towards building a chapel on the site of the nursing facility.  On the day of her funeral, family and friends gathered in the small and beautiful space that she had supported and championed for many years. In the front row were my grandparents, both 93 at the time. As I took my place at the front of the chapel, fully vested in my festal white chasuble and stole, my grandmother, who was now in the later stages of dementia, turned to my grandfather and in a voice that everyone could hear asked, “Les, where’s the minister?” My grandfather pointed to me and said,” He’s right there in front of us Ruthie.” “No! Les,” my grandmother responded, “Where’s the minister?” Again he responded, “He’s right there.” As he again pointed in my direction. “No! Les, that’s not the minister.” My grandmother retorted at the top of her lungs, “That’s Craigie!” 

I have always considered that moment as one of the more humbling moments of my ministry. It’s memory serves as a constant reminder, that no matter how high up the church latter I may climb, or how elaborately vested I can be, my grandmother always saw me as the baby she once held soon after I was born, the child on whom she generously lavished her attention during summer vacations and holidays and as the young man who she felt was often in need of her advice. Even at forty-one, I was still, and would always be Craigie, her beloved grandson and not. . .the “minister.”

As I’ve reflected on this most memorable moment through the years, I have come to realize that how my grandmother understood our relationship is not that different than how God understands our relationship with. When I came into this world, I was named and then baptized Craig Raymond, a child created wholly and wonderfully by God. As the psalmist tells us, God know us so intimately that God knows every hair on our heads. And, although, I have grown up and become The Rev. Craig Swan or Father Craig, the Rector of St. Peter’s by the Sea, from God’s perspective, I am still the same person I was when I was baptized Craig Raymond three months after I was born. And, it is from this perspective, from that place of humility as dependent children we are called to approach God.

This is the lesson gleaned from today’s Gospel. Often, when we hear the story of the Syrophoenician Woman we instantly become focused on Jesus’ rudeness. This passage, along with the stories of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple, provides a contrasting image of the Jesus we know and love. This just begs us to ask why Jesus was so rude. What we fail to ask is, who was the Syrophoenician woman and why was her request so extraordinary that the Gospel writer chose to include it in his story?

The Gospel writer only tells us the obvious, the Syrophoenician woman was a gentile, not a Jew. What historians can tell us is, the Syrophoenicians were the ruling or the entitled class of the area. It is likely that the woman who approached Jesus wanted for nothing. Although a woman, and technically powerless in Roman society, she had access to many resources and possibly ran a large household. Most likely, every wish, every desire, everything she wanted within the boundaries of Roman society, she was granted.  

What she could not control, what she could not fix, what she could buy with all the resources at her disposal was her daughter’s freedom from the demon who possessed her. As one who has experience in mental health, I have often wondered what the demon really was. Was the child afflicted with some form of mental illness or was it possibly a seizure disorder. The modern world of enquiring minds will never know. What we do know, whatever the child’s malady was, no doctor, no wizard, no temple priest of her day could figure out how to heal the child.  

So, like the powerful Centurion, as a last resort to heal her child, the woman sucked up her pride and approached Jesus, a Rabbi, a member of, in her eyes, a lowly race. I now wonder if she offered to pay Jesus to heal her daughter. Perhaps that was the cause of Jesus’ rudeness. And, I can only imagine her shock when he turned her down. But she was desperate, and willing to accept the challenge to humble herself, to accept that she, like all of us, is totally dependent on The mercy of Jesus, on the grace of God to heal what she valued most in life. . .her child. 

Every week at the eight o’clock service, members of St. Luke’s in Camillus proclaim, “ All things come of thee O’Lord and of thine own have we given thee.” 

All things truly come from God. As Americans, we tend to forget this reality. Because of our vast resources and the conveniences of modern life, we live insulated from the fragile reality of this earth. Because of Shaw”s, Belmont, and Stop And Shop, hunger and famine is never a concern. Despite a drought in California, food still shows up in abundance at the super markets. In today’s world, if we want it, if we need it, it is available to us at the click of a mouse and the swipe of a plastic card. This allows us to take for granted that the basics of life, and then some will always be available to us. It also gives us a false sense of our independence or lack of need for the grace of God in our lives.

This is not so for everyone, as the youth of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill learned fourteen years ago. While on a youth mission trip to Puerto Rico, our time was spent working in the mountain villages near Ponce just above the southern beaches of the Island. The area where we lived and worked was agricultural. Early each day, as we were awaking, we could hear the itinerant workers head into the chapel which stood at the of the coffee plantation where beans were in the midst of being harvested. For those who are not familiar with how coffee is produced. It is planted and harvested on the steep mountain sides of Puerto Rico. Slopes that are so steep, that when looking down, one literally feels as if he or she is looking down a cliff. On these steep slopes workers walk up and down to harvest the beans. Each day, they literally put themselves in God’s hands. One missed step and a worker can literally endure an unbroken fall of three or four hundred feet. Not a year goes by without at least one worker, often more, falling to his or her death.  

On the coffee plantations of Puerto Rico, there is no cushion to shield the people from fragility of human life. Death and injury is a a constant part of their lives. They live with the awareness of their total dependence on the grace of God. This is why they begin their day praising God and praying for protection as they prepare for work. As they pray the words, “All things come of thee O’Lord,” they know that all food, all health, all of life is truly predicated on the mercy of God.

All things do come from God as the Syrophoenician woman came to accept in this morning’s Gospel. All things come from God and are freely shared when we are willing to humble ourselves, when we are willing to accept that no matter who we are, or who we have become, we are still children God and like the Syrophoenician woman, we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, but for the grace and mercy of God.
Let us pray,

We do not presume to come to this your table, O 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. But you are the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us. Amen (BCP p. 337)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dorothy Pierce says:

    Another great sermon, Craig(ie)!

  2. Mary says:

    Thank You as always spot on and great insight. God’s speed and glad I could read! A sermon and educational discussion group and no one noted her ability to pay. Indignation, of the woman and Jesus in this senerio. Proverbs and James lessons fit beautifully too.
    Prayers for your new ministry!

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