Being Opened by a Merciful God

September 6, 2015

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

The 15th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 18 
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:10-17; Mark 7:24-37

(Gospel text is provided at the bottom of this post)

When I was a young girl, probably in 6th or 7th grade, I wanted to be an acolyte at my church. Unfortunately our church didn’t let girls be acolytes. It wasn’t a matter of church policy, just that the man who trained the acolytes said that he’d only let boys be acolytes. He wouldn’t train girls, so they weren’t allowed.

monkimage-cropI’m not sure why he set this boundary – whether he had a deeply held theological conviction about gender roles in the church; or maybe he just found it easier to work with boys – maybe girls required a different teaching style; perhaps he thought girls weren’t up to the task of lighting candles, or carrying crosses and flags and such; or maybe it was just the way it was when he was growing up, so he wanted it to stay that way. I really don’t know why he held fast to this boundary – that only boys could be acolytes – I just knew that he was in charge, he set the rules, and no one was asking him to let girls in.

Then, one day, I’m not sure how it happened, a few of us girls told our Youth Minister, Steve, that we wanted to be acolytes. He was pretty new to the church, and didn’t see any problem with it, so he trained us. While we still couldn’t acolyte on Sunday morning, we could come to either of the two weekday Eucharist services and acolyte there. This meant waking up very early on Wednesday mornings during the summer so we could help at the 7am Eucharist. That’s how determined we were.

Now the 7am service used the Rite I Liturgy, which has different prayers than the Rite II. One prayer in particular stood out to me. It’s said right after the Breaking of the Bread and before we take communion. It was written by Thomas Cranmer, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and is often referred to as the Prayer of Humble Access. It goes like this:

cranmer1We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. 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. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. [i]

I must admit that over time, adopting this posture of unworthiness – “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table” – has given me pause and made this prayer less inviting for me. But that’s the problem when you get stuck on one sentence of the prayer instead of keeping the whole message in mind. The overall message of the prayer speaks of God’s endless mercy for all people.

As I think about it, it’s ironic that my having been denied access to serve as an acolyte had actually provided access to a message of the mercy, graciousness and the boundless generosity of God through Christ.

And in this prayer, the phrase about the crumbs comes from today’s gospel lesson, when Jesus encounters the Gentile woman, a woman of Syrophoenician origin. She’s an outsider on many levels. But she’s desperate to get help for her daughter. So desperate that she’s willing to go and beg a stranger who she’s heard about, named Jesus. She is willing to break through the physical, cultural and socio-economic boundaries, at the outside chance that he can heal her daughter.[ii]

But this story doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of Jesus. I’d much rather the story go something like this:

  • The woman approaches Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter.
  • The Pharisees step in and say that it’s against the Jewish rules for Jesus to help this woman because she’s unclean… a Gentile. She’s like a dog and Jesus should only help the children of Israel.
  • Then Jesus says that even this woman, even a Gentile, is worthy of God’s mercy.

That’s the way Mark should have written the story. That makes more sense, doesn’t it?  That’s the Jesus we’ve come to know.

But that isn’t how it goes. It’s Jesus that calls the woman a dog – an insult on every level. Jesus sets the boundaries of God’s mercy to first be for the Jews.

Yet, not unlike Moses who confronts God when God is about to wipe out the stiff-necked Israelites in the desert, and through that confrontation God changes God’s mind and spares the people – here, in this story, we see this Gentile woman confront Jesus. She says:

Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.

syrophoenician2-53870_222x180Her words don’t speak of entitlement or worthiness. Instead, they speak to her faith that God is able to provide for both the children and the dogs – the Jews and the Gentiles – at the same time. The boundaries that had been erected to limit God were broken down and all people have access to God’s mercy. And not unlike God in his encounter with Moses, Jesus, when confronted by the faith of this Gentile woman, changes his mind and shares God’s healing and mercy with her daughter.

So, as we look again at the Prayer of Humble Access, while the phrase about unworthiness holds its own truth, the Good News comes in the next sentence:

But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.

God’s mercy is available to all people.

Now the healing of the woman’s daughter seems like a good place to stop the story. But today’s gospel lesson doesn’t stop there. It goes on to tell another healing story – the healing of a deaf man with a speech impediment. A group of people bring the man to Jesus and ask that he lay his hand upon him.

Jesus takes the man off in private, puts his fingers in the man’s ears – quite intrusive if you ask me – and then spits on his dirty fingers and touches the man’s tongue. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m thankful this wasn’t adopted as the Christian Baptism ritual, or Christianity may not have made it past the first century.

Yet, through this image we see a man who is desperate for healing. The boundaries of his own life were limited by his condition and he wanted to be transformed. His access to the temple, not to mention just regular friendly conversation, was inhibited, and he wanted to be set free, to be treated like everyone else, and to no longer be an outsider.

Have you ever been an outsider? I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t felt like an outsider at one time or another. We all have things in our lives that make us feel othered.

I’m not smart enough; strong enough; pretty enough. I can’t keep my life in order like so-and-so who seems to have it all together; I’m not one of the cool kids as school; I’m different and people just don’t understand me. These are just a few of the internal messages we tell ourselves that make us feel othered, that make us feel lesser than.

There are external things that can other us, too – like the Gentile woman – where her gender, her place of origin and her religion created othering.

Or the deaf man with the speech impediment. Inside, he was just like everyone else, but he was born different, and it impacted how he was perceived by those around him. There were different rules that applied to his life. He was considered unclean in his culture, not even allowed in the temple.

In these two healing stories – side by side in Mark’s gospel – we see two people who took their lives to Jesus. They risked rejection and made themselves vulnerable. They trusted that Jesus would make a difference in their lives.

So, with Jesus’ fingers in the man’s ears, and Jesus’ spit on the man’s tongue it says:

studylight-orgThen looking up to heaven, [Jesus] sighed and said to him…”Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

In that moment, Jesus showed the power of God’s love! God’s manifold and great mercies! God’s generosity – opening up things that had been closed off.

What a relief this must have been for the man. No wonder he couldn’t keep his mouth shut about it. He had been un-othered and he wanted to shout it from the roof-tops!

breaking wallSo, in this spirit of jubilation, I ask:

What in your life is desperate to be opened?

Will you bring yourself to Jesus, otherness and all, and allow God to open you in new ways?

It can be hard. Vulnerability isn’t easy. But Jesus is here for you, and for me.

He came to break down the othernesses that separate us from God and from one another.

And his healing acts carry in them God’s message of love; and through them, they reveal God’s boundless mercy for all people.

That is the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And for that, I am truly thankful.

God is Generous


[i] The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Seabury Press, 1979, p 337.

[ii] Loader, William R G. 1996. “Challenged at the Boundaries: A Conservative Jesus in Mark’s Tradition.” Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 63, 45-61. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 2, 2015).


Gospel Text:

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” (Mark 7:24-37)


One Response to “Being Opened by a Merciful God”

  1. Jim Greenwood said

    > One of the most memorable sermons I ever heard was by an Anglican priest in Vancouver British Columbia who had recently been to Texas and learned about “hush puppies” apparently baked to appease dogs who groveled under dinner tables. Her Texas story was the lead in to her sermon on the passage about the woman who pleaded that her daughter, as other “dogs,” should be allowed to eat the crumbs under the children’s table. It was a wonderful sermon. Your sermon today was wonderful as well. It is a great biblical passage and you treated it with the excellence it deserves and that you always deliver.

    Bless you. Love. Dad

    Sent from my iPad


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