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A Seat at the Table – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

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Title: “A Seat at the Table”

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor 

Date: 20 August 2023,  The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:21-28.

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 What does it take to get a seat at the table?

I am assuming you all know that there is a world cup football match going on this morning- we’re about 20 minutes in, and, for this particular England Team, it has taken years of preparation to get here; it has taken courage and conviction to be seen, to be counted and to be celebrated.

 To be at the table is not always easy, especially for women. But there are plenty of others in our society who have not been invited to take a seat at the tables of power and privilege, plenty of people who have been denied opportunities, plenty of people who have been ignored, slighted, belittled, prejudiced even hated because of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, status, class or religion.

We human beings build our walls don’t we? We close our borders, inflict violence upon one another, we discriminate and we judge! Why, Oh, why do we do this? We all live on the same earth, we all breath the same air, we are all made of the same stuff.  More than ever we need a vision of an undivided world and indeed an undivided church, where all are welcome and all are shown mercy, because in spite of our diversity, we are all children of God. Surely, we all need to be at the table? We will only overcome the challenges that we face as a human race and as people of this earth, if we work together, and recognise each other as beloved children of God.

 Who gets invited is the question raised in our gospel today. With courage and conviction enough to match that of any lioness, a Canaanite women simply asks for a seat at the table.

The earliest Christian communities for whom the gospels were written, were beginning to make rules and form boundaries to maintain the integrity of this young, fragile church. Who was this church for? They wondered. Who would be invited to the table?   At first, Jesus appears to conform to the traditional societal and religious expectations placed upon him. He knows he is not permitted to talk to such a woman as this. Women were literally second-class citizens.  But a Canaanite as well? One of those foreigners? From the region of Tyre and Sidon- known to be an outpost of disobedience to God?  She was beyond his cultural boundaries, and not the kind of person with whom one would socialise, not the kind of person you would invite for dinner.

At first, Jesus tries to ignore her. She roars at him, we are told that she shouts – and the disciples try to send her away. But her persistence, her courage and conviction, cause Jesus to see her face to face, and already one barrier is broken down.  Jesus says, perhaps to himself as much as to her ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, reiterating his mission to God’s chosen people, but the woman persists -her daughters’ life hangs in the balance: ‘Lord, help me’, she says.

She knows who Jesus is and she recognises him as the Son of God. Jesus continues his argument, ‘it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!’ He was putting into words the commonly held belief at the time- that the Children of Israel had to come first, but it was a harsh way of responding to her. His words make us flinch even now. And yet she comes back again undeterred.

‘Sir’ she says, ‘even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table’

And in that one sentence, in that one particular sentence, the Canaanite woman changes everything.

I know I am not worthy even to gather the crumbs under your table -she says, but the crumbs will be enough and are you not the same Lord of all, whose nature, whose property is always to have mercy? This Canaanite woman, of all people, sees past the very human Jesus, and sees in him the divine mission of God and a glimpse of a kingdom for all people.

Through her courage and conviction, we see that this kingdom is expansive rather than narrow, inclusive rather than exclusive, this kingdom is for both jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female, and open to every person who kneels before the throne of God’s grace.  She refuses to be ignored, she refuses to be excluded, she is staking her claim on the love and mercy of God.  There are other vignettes in the gospels where we catch a glimpse of this kingdom: remember that Jesus is often accused by the Pharisees of ‘dining with tax collectors and sinners’ and hosting an open table so that all may eat together.

In the gospels it is often those outside of the tradition, and outside of the religious community who remind us that the love and mercy of God is for all people.  In the twentieth century, William Temple, Archbishop of York said something similar- I’m sure you’ve heard it from this pulpit before: he said that the church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members- we are always called to look out and to look beyond ourselves and our own communities.

Through her humility this Canaanite woman shows the world, that Jesus is for her, as much as the next man, and anyone can have access to his grace.

‘Great is your faith’, Jesus says to her, perhaps the greatest faith he has ever seen, and through his own death and resurrection, the door will be opened, and everyone will be invited to have a seat at the table in his kingdom. In the gospel it is often the least likely person, the least welcome guest, someone perceived as outside the covenant and outside the religious expectations of the day, who has the greatest faith.

In this one very human encounter, it becomes clear that Jesus mission, God’s mission, is to be wider, and broader than was ever thought possible. God’s love is to be shared among all peoples to the ends of the earth, there is no east or west, or south or north.

We might set our own boundaries and entrance requirements about who we think is worthy enough to sit at God’s table and eat his food. We might even think we are not worthy to be here- but whenever we fall into this narrow way of thinking, God proves that his mercy is wider, as wide as the sea. Perhaps we need the courage and conviction to recognise that we are loved, and so is everyone else.

Our world, and indeed our church, seems to be spiralling into yet more division. But our gospel reading today seems pretty clear. To follow Christ faithfully, we are called to err on the side of generosity and inclusion, after all God’s house is a house of prayer for all peoples.  After all, there are no limits to God’s mercy, and his love is broader than the measure of our mind; there is no top table in God’s house.

God says to every human being, come dine with me, and he calls each and every one us to sit by his side.

This Love bids us welcome, and everyone is invited to sit and eat.


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