Trinity 11: Crumbs

Trinity 11

Isaiah 56:1,6-8
Matthew 15:21-28

How is everyone doing this morning? Let us check in with one another. Are you doing okay? Is anyone bothered by anything or anyone? I will spare you the list of things that could be potential bothers at the moment.

If you are in a state of bother, fear not! You are in good company with our Gospel reading as Jesus seems hot and bothered too. Bothered by travelling around, the Pharisees and scribes are on his case in an attempt to catch him out, the disciples are slow to understand, hungry crowds that keep following him around! And now a Canaanite woman with a sick daughter has turned up and is shouting the place down with her demands.

What is up with everyone?! A question we might be asking ourselves about others these days too. I want to focus on Jesus and the woman for a few minutes. I think that we see Jesus at a point in his ministry where he is trying to test his disciples in their reactions (one explanation for his response to this woman). We also see something of his humanity as Jesus comes to understand his own ministry more deeply as well as the frustrations that being human brings.

The woman is looking for some good news, some help and relief in a deeply troubling time. At the outset, she does not receive the welcome that one might expect from Jesus! Anybody else a little short of love and goodwill these days?
We are living in a world that is hungry for good news, maybe even starving for it. It seems like all the news is bad; wild fires threatening homes and livelihoods in many countries, the economy, the climate, migrants are washing up on our shores, students are struggling with their grades, racism and injustice blight far too many lives. Where is the good news?!

As Christians, we are to be the bearers of, not the hoarders of the good news of a God who loves and cares for us. In every situation, no matter how bad and terrible it seems, we must share the promise that God’s liberating, saving and reconciling power is available for all people, in all places, all the time. This is a hard calling. It is easy to proclaim it theoretically, much harder to live it out in real life, which is the exact place where it is needed most. I think that in this complex and often confusing Gospel reading, we can find some hope in working out the call to share the Good News.

Jesus, like us, seems to be working out his calling. Jesus and the disciples have been sharing the message mainly with the Jewish people. They were God’s chosen people from the beginning, and this does not change in the New Testament. Israel had to hear the message first. Along the way, other people like the Roman Centurion, the Samaritan woman at the well, hear the message of Jesus too. The future is breaking into the present and it seems to take Jesus by surprise.

I wonder how this poor mother heard about Jesus. The news of Jesus was spreading. Who told her about Jesus? Maybe someone who had been at the feeding of the 5000? Or at the Sermon on the Mount had told her and the neighbours about this Jesus? Clearly this woman has heard about Jesus even though she is a Canaanite – a Gentile, an outsider to the good news. Whatever she had heard obviously had made a deep impression and gave her some level of faith.

Jesus’ first response is silence and then when the disciples urged him to send her packing, Jesus refused to help her. She does all the right things, she addresses Jesus by his Messianic or Jewish title – ‘Son of David’ – so she acknowledges his Jewishness. When he finally does answer – it seems harsh. ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’

It helps to remember that Matthew is the most Jewish of the four Gospels and he is trying to get his first readers – Jewish Christians to know and believe that Jesus really is the Messiah they have been waiting for. Jesus is trying to explain that he came for Israel first.

Then the exchange about taking the children’s bread and throwing it to their dogs. The children here mean the Jews and the dogs are the Gentiles. I don’t think that many people would take kindly to being referred to as a dog! This would have been a derogatory remark, suggesting that she and her children were inferior because of class and race.

Yet she presses on and gives a brilliant rebuttal; ‘but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Here she is saying that even if Israel were to be first, the promised people, then the Messiah (Jesus) will ultimately bring blessing to the whole world.

The Isaiah reading: (v6-8) ‘and the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to love the name of the Lord, will be accepted on my altar’. This woman is joining herself to the Lord. Jesus’ countenance seems to change in her answer, he sees her faith and grants her request.

What is also so great about this answer: if we think back to the feeding of the 5000. What do the crumbs of Jesus look like? 7 full baskets! This woman wants so badly what she believes Jesus can do, she will take the crumbs off the table to help her daughter. She just wants a few crumbs, not the whole loaf bread. And for a few crumbs she is joining herself to the Lord. This is the faith that she is rewarded for. Back to mustard seeds and pearls, small things that get made large in the hands of Jesus. This is good news!

Sometimes we need reminding that even God’s crumbs can satisfy us completely! Her daughter was healed from that very hour. In our hot and bothered states, we too can lose sight of the bigger picture, the good news that we are meant to share, the promise which we have been given in the great love of God. What do we need to be reminded of today? What do we need a crumb for? Take a few moments to bring those things to the Lord and ask for some bread!

Lord God, we thank you that you hear our prayers and feed us with your bread of life. Thank you for your abundance of love and grace. Help us to have faith in every situation that we face – today and always. Amen.

Lammastide: The Need for First Fruits

Trinity 10

Leviticus 23:9-14
Matthew 15:32-39

Lammastide. We are going a little off piste this morning. It feels important to mark the start of the harvest season, given the difficulty of the weather during the farming year. This is also true on a global scale with the complexity of the situation in the Ukraine and grain exports. There is famine in Africa and Yemen.

History lesson on Lammastide. Lammas means ‘loaf-mass’ in Old English and was originally an Anglo-Saxon festival. Lammas Day (August 1st) celebrated the first harvest of the year. The first grain was milled and baked into bread that was brought to the Church to be blessed. It corresponds with the Hebrew Festival of Weeks when a sheaf from the barley harvest was offered.

This is what Moses was being instructed to prepare for in our Leviticus reading; the offering of the first fruits. This is an important biblical concept that we will take some time to consider this morning. First fruits is used two ways in the English Bible. The first simply describes the first portion of the produce of the land. Secondly it refers to the specific ceremonies related to the first portion of the harvest. The offering of first fruits acknowledged God’s sovereignty and ownership of all things.

In response to this and a token of stewardship, Israel has to acknowledge that the first issue of human, beast and soil belonged to God. God had delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and they were never to forget this.

The Feast of Weeks, celebrated 50 days after Pentecost, was a straightforward agricultural feast. It was to celebrate the first fruits of the wheat harvest. The barley harvest would have already come in; the wheat harvest was more important. Now a full celebration of God’s goodness could be celebrated. It was only celebrated on a single day as it was impractical to party for seven days in the middle of the harvest.

If God, creator of all, gave everything for our benefit, why does he want some back? Like the early Israelites, our memories can be short! We can so easily forget all that God has done for us when the bounty runs out. Firstfruits also helps to keep our humility in check when tempted to believe that we do it all ourselves.

In giving away the firstfruits, which would be very tempting to keep especially if a farmer was starving, we demonstrate our dependence on God. We learn to trust that God will continue to provide for us.

The first concept of first fruits goes back to Genesis chapter four and the story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. Abel kept flocks and Cain worked the soil. If you remember the story, Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil but Abel brought portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked in favour of Abel and his offering but not on Cain. Cain then became angry at God. God told Cain that he should have done what was right and his offering would have been accepted. Cain was also instructed to fight against sin that was lurking at his door.

Cain’s response was to kill his brother Abel. We have the first recorded murder. Cain then lived the rest of his life outside the presence of God. Entitlement got in his way; thinking that he could give God whatever and that should be enough. Greed also plays here, Cain wanted to keep the first fruits for himself. The punishment was severe. There are consequences to ignoring God, it always leads to sin.

Fortunately there is always a way out if we want to take it. In the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus shows the disciples and the crowd what can be done with a small offering. Note that there are two feeding stories in Matthew’s Gospel. The first has five thousand people being fed with five loaves and two fish. The second, this one, has four thousand people being fed with seven loaves and a few small fish. A little Bible trivia for you, all four Gospels have the story of the feeding of the five thousand but only John mentions the small boy providing the loaves and fish.

Matthew’s recording indicates that the disciples had with them what was needed to feed the massive crowds. They came to the picnic with food in their hamper. It was not very much and would not have fed 12 grown men. They did not offer it until Jesus asked them how many loaves they had. Maybe offering their meagre rations felt embarrassing or insignificant in the face of the need in front of them. Maybe they wanted to keep it for themselves.

Whatever the reason for holding it back, Jesus draws it out of them. Then to their amazement, Jesus gave thanks for it, broke it and every single person had enough to eat. More than enough as there were leftovers. Seven full baskets.

Seven is a significant number in the New Testament; it is the number of perfection. Seven loaves turned into seven full baskets. Jesus turned scarcity into abundance. He still does that. He will take the perceived smallness of our offering and make it magnificent.

We should give our first fruits to God, the best of ourselves, our attitudes, our money and time. As frightening or impractical as that may seem! There is always more than enough with God. He is the creator and sustainer of the cattle on a thousand hills. He knows the number of hairs on our heads and when sparrows fall to the ground.

Our giving to God should reflect our thanks for all He has done for us; not from a place of begrudging obligation or guilt or historical duty. Remember Cain, attitude matters.

In this season of Lammastide, as we look to the fields around us, let us remember the bounty of God and pray for those who work the fields. When tempted to hoard from fear of scarcity, remember those who will have nothing to eat today. Let us bring to God what we have and let him bless it to bless others.