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This morning is a communion Sunday. In the church in which I was raised, we celebrated communion every single Sunday. It wasn't church if we didn't have communion. In fact, because communion fell before the sermon, it was not uncommon for a family to go to church and leave right after communion, knowing that even though they hadn't stayed for the whole service, they had at least done the important part (before heading off to the beach). It didn't take long for the church leaders to figure out that people would stay for the whole service if they put communion after the sermon.
I later learned that it was possible to have a meaningful and sacred worship service without necessarily celebrating communion. However, the centrality of the Eucharist table, first learned in my childhood, continues to form and feed my Christian faith.
When I was growing up, only those who had been baptized by their own choice (in other words, not as infants) were considered Christians, and only Christians were welcome to partake of the Lord's supper. I have memories of going up to the church building on Saturday night to help my parents prepare communion for the Sunday worship service. My brother and sister and I, even before we had been baptized, would fill the little communion cups and place the matzoh crackers into the trays and feast on the crumbs and leftover juice. The next morning, we would sit respectfully in the pews, watching everyone else take their bread and drink their juice, our mouths watering, wishing for another taste. If we tried to sneak a piece of bread, someone was sure to give us a reproachful look. We were not welcome at this table.
Many years later, I joined a church affiliated with the Disciples and UCC traditions. In this church, every week when we gathered at the communion table, the pastor said these words: "This is God's table. Whether you are baptized or not; whether you believe a little or you believe a lot; you are welcome at this table.” I remembered myself as a young girl, wanting a place at the table. What a relief it was to know that I did not have to hope for crumbs. No, I was welcome to feast at this table.
The Gospel of Mark tells the story of a Greek woman, a Gentile woman, an outsider, who was used to hoping for crumbs. She knew her place, and she was used to waiting her turn. But not this time. This time, her role as a mother outranked her ethnic heritage. Her young daughter was very ill, filled with an unclean spirit. Perhaps it was a mental illness, perhaps a bacterial or viral infection or some other ailment. Determined to find healing, this mother heard that Jesus, a man who was rumored to have healing powers, was staying in her town. So she went to him, willing to sacrifice her pride for the sake of her daughter. What mother wouldn’t do the same?
I don’t know whether she was surprised by Jesus’ response to her request: "Let the children eat first. It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She will not let anything stand in her way, not even being called a DOG by a holy man. Undeterred, she shot back, "Yes, Sir, but even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table."
Now we might wonder, did he really call this woman a dog? Did he really seem to deny healing for her daughter? Healing that he had so readily offered to his own people? Why would he do that? Scholars have endlessly debated Jesus' motives for these harsh words. Perhaps he was testing her or his disciples. Or perhaps, he truly believed that the blessings of the kindom of God were first and foremost for the people of Israel, and that they did not need to share all that they had worked so hard for.
Regardless of what we imagine were his motives, what I notice is this: Jesus was having a debate about health care. He was ready to deny treatment for this woman’s daughter’s condition. But she wouldn’t let him walk away.
We don’t have to look far to find stories of people in our own time who won’t be ignored. A single mother with two children, and no child support. She’s barely making ends meet, and she worries that she won’t be able to afford her monthly health insurance premiums.
An elderly woman forgoes her medication in order to eat. Another, having lost his life savings and overwhelmed by medical bills, files for bankruptcy.
"It is not right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
"Yes, Sir, but even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table."
In this nation, we find ourselves in a polarizing healthcare debate. We could spend time talking about policies, about economic realities, about democratic values, and about the role of government. Those things are being debated in the public sphere, and they are important. But that’s not what I want us to consider today. The question is, Who has access to the table?
The Gospel of Mark sandwiches this healing narrative between two accounts of Jesus feeding a multitude. In Mark's Gospel, as Jesus showed what the kindom of God looks like, he spent a lot of time doing two things: feeding people and healing people. These two things, food and health, are essential to abundant human living. In God's world view, people should have universal access to everything they need for a full and abundant life. Sometimes it’s too easy to be satisfied with just the crumbs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2008, 17% of persons in the United States under age 65 were uninsured. Nearly 9% of children under age 18 were uninsured. It would be easy to say, "if 17% are uninsured, then that means that over 80% are insured." And should those 80% have to share their bread with the ones who won't stop nipping at their heels? Why can't they be satisfied with the crumbs?
Just as this woman was not satisfied, we, the church, have to keep struggling. We have to keep pushing for universal access, for everyone to have all that they need for full and abundant life.
I don't want to leave out the rest of the story in our reading today. Jesus was deeply moved by this woman's persistent faith. This encounter represented a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, when he realized that there was more than enough bread and more than enough room and more than enough resources for everyone to have a place at the table of universal access.
Having healed this woman's daughter, Jesus continued on his way, only to encounter another person in need of healing. This individual was deaf and could not speak. Jesus' prayer for this person was simple yet profound: Ephphatha! Be opened! But perhaps the miracle of opening had taken place before Jesus met this man. In his encounter with the courageous foreigner, Jesus' own ears were opened, and he himself could now speak more fully the truth of universal access in the kindom of God.
Every week we pray together for loved ones who are ill. The author of James says that prayer is not enough. “If any are in need of clothes and have no food to live on, and any of you says to them, "goodbye and good luck. Stay warm and well fed," without giving them the bare necessities of life, then what good is this?”
And if one of our members or other loved ones could not afford necessary treatment: medications, tests, a surgery – would we not join together not only to pray for that person, but to find a way to ensure that they had access to resources and treatment? Why then would we not do the same for all of God’s children?
In a recent letter to the editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, our own pastor K wrote that we love God by loving our neighbors, and that all of us together have the resources to provide health care for everyone. There is enough bread; there is enough room; there is enough for all at this table.
This is the amazing and miraculous message of the Gospel on this day: We don't have to pay anything or work or do anything to earn our place at this table. We don't have to sit around on the outside, hoping that there will be a few crumbs left after God's children have had their fill of bread. Whoever you are, and wherever you find yourself on the journey, there is a place for you at this table. This is an open table, where we can find health and wholeness and all that is essential for abundance of life.
And this is the challenge of the Gospel today -- that no one has to do anything to deserve a place at this table, and that we are called to hear with open ears and speak with open mouths and work with open hands so that everyone can have access to food and health and all that they need for abundant life. Ephphatha! – be opened. May it be so. Amen.
Sermon as prepared for delivery, September 6, 2009 @ First Congregational UCC in Fort Worth, TX