I’ve been feeling hungry lately, the kind of hunger that comes when you start to exercise more. I don’t want to jinx it, but after more than 2 years struggling with injury and the limits of pandemic, I’ve finally found my stride again as a runner (no pun intended) and, gratefully, the miles are starting to stack up. And, whenever this happens, I find I’m hungry all the time. Experience tells me to be careful that this is just my body’s early warning system, thinking somehow scarcity is coming, that I won’t have enough calories in my future to sustain this level of energy output. But, I know I have enough and to spare. So, I persist these days in a perpetual state of mild hunger – craving the next snack, the next meal, the next bit or crumb I can find.
Over the past year and a half I have also been experiencing a sense of hunger for something more than food. I know many if not most of you have been feeling it too, a craving for Communion, for sacramental connection to each other and to God, to commune bodily with the other and the Other in bread and wine and in shared space and shared word. This pandemic has forced us, in the spirit of love and care, to refrain from gathering at the table and with one another, and in so doing, it has left us feeling disconnected and fragmented. In many ways, the pandemic has been a great revealer, where we can see more clearly and distinctly the ways in which the world and even the church we live in is already fractured and fragmented, yearning for healing and belonging. This pandemic illuminated just how little we know our neighbor down the street or across the aisle, how hard it is to reach out of our own isolation to commune in new ways, how thin are the threads that keep us tethered and connected in relationships based on niceties rather than authenticity and vulnerability. The pandemic turned a glaring light on the inequity that divides our society and our church, how gender and sexuality and imigration status and income, and especially race, form clear demarcating lines in our culture which we seem unwilling to heal or unable to transcend. We are hungry. We crave communion. We desire healing. We yearn to know that we belong to one another.
In his brilliant new book, After Whiteness, Yale Divinity School professor Willie James Jennings describes the fundamental sickness ailing the Western Academy and theological formation within it, a sickness that affects the whole enterprise of western culture and which has far reaching implications for the church – a sickness which we saw all too well during this past year and a half. Jennings, speaking about his book puts it succinctly thus:
“What I’m writing about in this book is that there is a crisis…[in Western education and theological education] a longer, deeper crisis that is founded right at the very beginning of the endeavor, and that is the image that drives the aspiration for education, and the image that drives the goal of formation, not only in theological education but in Western education. That image is the forming of a self-sufficient man who embodies what I call three virtues: possession, control and mastery.” 1
This sickness infects the heart of the educational process, perverting both the way we shape the church, but also impacting for ill the shape of every person formed by the western academy who is in the church. In schools we are taught from an early age that to know something is to possess it. To memorize information and truly comprehend a subject, we are masters of it. So it is that we enter the “real” world with the deeply dehumanizing belief that we can possess, control, and master any idea, any situation, and any problem – and by default, any people. But, as Jennings argues, it is this fundamental problem that so impedes us from truly communing with one another. It is this same impulse that pushes individuals well-formed in this image, to fracture the world into greater and greater fragments, to divide and classify the natural order, to name or rename colonized lands and peoples, to segregate by borders or corporations the resources entrusted to our care and stewarding, and to compete for mastery of the knowable and possessable world. The antidote to all of this, says Jennings, is to strive for a Christian formation in “the art of cultivating belonging”. We cannot possess, control, or master one another. But, by God’s grace we can work to create a culture and community of belonging.
In short, the work that Jesus does, the works James speaks of this morning, that proceed from a faith that is alive, comes through the art of helping others know that they belong. Ours is the work of tending connections with one another, ushering others into a sense of belonging – not to an institution or a tradition – rather belonging to a way of being in communion and community with God and each other in a world that has been shattered and fragmented.
This morning our gospel tells the disturbing story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenecian woman, who comes to Jesus as he is trying to get away from the crowds. He is taking his break when this woman, this gentile, approaches him and begs him to heal her daughter who is afflicted by an unclean spirit. Jesus does not ignore her, but instead rebukes and insults her. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Like us, Jesus lives in a world divided and fragmented by those formed to possess, control, and master. He has been schooled to see the world through the lens of these boundaries and sharp divisions, the hierarchies of those who belong and those who do not, insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, the deserving and the dogs. Even though his mission and purpose was to heal these boundaries and to draw the many fragments into a new and unified whole, in this moment it is the older image that blinds him to this woman. His response ought to offend us more than a little. And, no matter the work that theologians and scholars might do, the mental acrobatics and explanations that might make this phrase even remotely ok, we are right to be shocked. The woman though, undeterred, responds with a liberating and life-giving truth “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She knows that when it comes to God’s grace, in a world where everything is fragment, everyone is worthy to receive, everyone belongs, there is always enough and more grace, enough healing, enough love to go around. And, Jesus, eyes open and newly reminded of these same truths, newly reminded that he has been sent to offer just this kind of grace, sends her away in the knowledge that her daughter had been healed.
I can’t help wondering what her words might mean to us who live in today’s fragmented world. I know you can feel it, that things are not healed, that we might be more divided now than we ever have been. This pandemic has pushed and stretched and strained what limited connections we’ve held, and especially now when we are hungry and yearning for belonging, we can feel the ligaments beginning to snap. We are more dissatisfied with our jobs, our churches, our neighborhoods, our fellow citizens, our politics, and our leaders than we have ever been, and at least in this country there is what pundits are calling a Great Resignation afoot as Americans leave their jobs in startling numbers. But we’re also leaving our churches and marriages and neighborhoods too in what feels like a great shifting and separating. We are dissatisfied and yet we continue to fragment, to separate and walk away. Of course we know that this shifting and migrating and moving started long before the pandemic. In her brilliant address to the University of Toronto nearly 20 years ago and captured in the required reading of her collection of essays The Source of Self Regard, Toni Morrison describes how this migration began with exiles, refugees, outcasts, and migrants fleeing climate change, war, persecution, poverty and genocide. She says
“The spectacle of mass movement draws attention inevitably to the borders, the porous places, the vulnerable points where one’s concept of home is seen as being menaced by foreigners. Much of the alarm hovering at the borders, the gates, is stoked, it seems to me, by (1) both the threat and the promise of globalism and (2) an uneasy relationship with our own foreignness, our own rapidly disintegrating sense of belonging.”
Yet now, in this moment, we are being called away from the image of self-sufficiency toward communion, away from the center and toward the border and margins, away from our well-formed desire to possess, control and master and toward humility and mutual interdependence. We are being called in this moment instead to lean into and rely on the worthiness of a God who shares his very self in great humility, intimacy, and vulnerability at this table which is not ours by right or owed to us as compensation – where crumbs are a feast, and we, fragmented and in need, our reunited with one another in the Body and the Blood. We are called here, to belong to each other and to find our belonging in God. Amen.