12th Sunday After Pentecost
Proper 15A: Gen 45:1-15; Ps 133; Rom 11:1-2a, 29-32; Mt 15:21-28
The Rev'd Cameron Partridge
August 20, 2023
God of the story,
You are in and out of the stories we read
calling us into them
and calling us out of them.
Give us courage to listen to our own curiosities
as we read old stories.
Dare us to ask the questions
hidden in the heart of the text.
Lead us to mine – with heart and mind
and desire and desperation –
the many meanings
in the one story.
Because this is where we find you
and where you
Good morning, St. Aidan’s.
When I was in ninth grade, I discovered Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a memoir both harrowing and hopeful. I read it for an English class in which we had to keep a reading journal. Angelou went through so much as a child, cared for by her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, then by her mother in St. Louis, Missouri for a brief, terrible interlude, before returning to Stamps and finally coming to San Francisco to be with her mother. Our reading journals required us to draw a line down each notebook page with a particular quotation on the left side, and comments on the right indicating what had struck us about the passage and why. The quote I vividly recall from that journal exercise engaged a scene from after Angelou had come to San Francisco, as she sought her first job. She was now fifteen, a year ahead in high school, and wanted to get a few months of work experience before returning to finish school. The job that grabbed her was to be a streetcar conductor – or conductorette, as an advertisement gendered the position. Women were now hired for these roles in the early 1940s because so many men were away at war, but the conductorettes were all white, and Angelou was Black. When Angelou went to apply, the hiring office, blatantly racist, would not give her an application. She returned every day for two weeks until she was allowed to apply, and finally was hired. On the left side of the page I quoted a declaration she made along the way: “I would have the job. I would be a conductorette and sling a full money changer from my belt. I would.” On the right side of the page, I wrote how I loved this quote and said, “this really shows her determination to do what she wanted to do. Not what other people told her she could do. I hope I can do that someday. I WILL.” Followed for some reason by a smiley face. My teacher commented, “I see you in it.” I was so moved by Angelou’s persistence, resilience, and courage, and was touched by my teacher’s observation of how deeply Angelou’s witness resonated with me, how much I needed such a story at that time in my life.
I thought about Angelou’s fierce determination and strength as I reflected on the themes of our gospel passage as well as our first reading this morning. I thought of how stories such as these can call us into them and out of them, and invite us to mine their meanings, as Padraig O Tuama writes in the prayer with which I began. As I let these stories wash over me this week, and as I sifted through commentaries, I found myself gravitating with “heart and mind and desire and desperation” towards meanings grounded in nourishment. What I am finding nourishing is how the characters in this story grab hold of life in the face of refusal and death.
In our passage from Genesis, a whole family is reaching for life in the midst of famine, loss, and betrayal. Last week we heard how Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, was betrayed by his jealous brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. Always a dreamer with deceptively powerful insight, his dream interpretation allowed him to predict a famine, and he rose to power under Pharoah. Years later, when that famine caused the very brothers who betrayed him to approach him for assistance, not knowing with whom they were speaking, Joseph finally forgave them. The whole story is much more complex than two brief passages on successive Sunday mornings can convey, however. The family encounter in our reading follows upon earlier ones in which Joseph had schemed and deceived, secretly having his dream-divining cup hidden in the luggage of his youngest brother Benjamin. He accused Benjamin of stealing it and threatened to enslave him, reenacting his own earlier family trauma. Yet this time, instead of leaving Benjamin behind, his brother Judah asked to be kept in his stead (Genesis 44). As theologian Miguel De La Torre characterizes this moment, the brothers “are different [people] than the ones who had sold Joseph into slavery so many years ago. Seeing how much they have changed is more than Joseph can bear.” At this point Joseph sends everyone else out of the room, weeps, and declares himself to his family. The barrier of separation is broken. And, as De La Torre puts it, Joseph “sees the hand of God” in the bigger picture of what has unfolded. Had he not been in Egypt, had he not been in a position of power, he could not be an agent of life.
As I consider this story, it both resonates with and disturbs me. I react against Joseph’s retaliation along the way, deeply wounded though he was by the horribly evil actions of his brothers years earlier. I also struggle with the questions of theodicy – of God’s justice – prompted by his statement “it was not you who sent me here but God” (Gen 45:8). As De La Torre notes, “we are left with a dilemma: does God redeem evil and bring good from it, or is God the cause of evil?” I cannot countenance the idea of God as a cause of evil. Evil’s redemption, however, its transformation is deeply hopeful to me. Joseph is seeking finally to end a traumatic cycle. I hear in his statements of divine preservation in the midst of it all a proclamation of good news: that even in loneliness and despair, in disconnection and betrayal, God is with us, calling us to work with God to write a different ending – hopeful, redemptive, and life-giving in the face of death-dealing odds. This is the nourishing energy that leaps out of this story to me.
The odds were not great for the Canaanite woman in our gospel passage, yet she too claimed and received nourishment. I say nourishment rather than healing because although the drumbeat of her calling out to Jesus and his disciples is for healing for her daughter, the heartbeat of the exchange revolves around bread. This story, which appears in Mark as well as Matthew but not in Luke or John, also poses a problem of justice in Jesus’ reaction to the woman’s request. The woman is a stigmatized outsider in both versions of the story, a Gentile from the regions of Tyre and Sidon, referred to as Syrophoenician in Mark (Mk 7:26) and Canaanite in Matthew (Mt 15:22), identifying her with the community whom the Israelites pushed out when they arrived in the Promised Land. With the feeding of the 5000 having taken place not long before this story (Mt 14:13-21) and the feeding of the 4000 following directly afterwards (Mt 15:29-39), nourishment is very much in the gospel air. And more specifically, it seems to me, fragmentary feeding – the gathering up of crumbs that none might be lost (Mt 14:21) – and the amazement of what abundance these seemingly extraneous pieces reveal. While the Greek terms in the miraculous feeding and Canaanite stories are not the same this is what strikes me: the Canaanite woman claims the same abundance that is afoot in the multiplication of the loaves. She sets her own table in a sense, taking the baton from an initially reluctant, even hostile Jesus.
As I observe Jesus’ exchange with the woman I think of a longing expressed by the medieval monastic theologian Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153 C.E.) that we spent time with at Evening prayer this week, in honor of Bernard’s feast day: “O most Kind, break your bread for those who are hungering for it; by my hands, if you will allow, but by your own power.” Jesus is not “most Kind” in this passage. I am not persuaded by an interpretative approach that tries to explain away or at least soften Jesus’ harshness in his exchange with the woman by arguing that the Greek term for dog is not a slur but a family companion animal reference.Regardless of the exact term, the “children” / “dog” distinction is being used here to draw a line separating the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” from the woman and the healing nourishment she sought for her daughter. In the end it is arguably “by [the Canaanite woman’s] hands,” to use Bernard’s phrasing, that divine bread is broken for “those who are hungering for it” in this passage. And ultimately, it is by Jesus’ own power as well: power drawn forth, inspired by the sheer persistence and ingenuity of this woman who takes the terms of Jesus’ debate and flips the table. She won. As the scholar Laurel Schneider concludes, as quoted in Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s book But She Said: “In the end… she achieved the laying of a new table to which all are invited, under which none must grovel. And by this act, for this teaching, she went her way.”
And so this morning, as in Padraig O Tuama’s prayer, God comes to us in and out of the stories we hear, calling us in and calling us out of them. The invitation comes to us to mine these stories with courage and ingenuity, with the lenses of our unique experiences, listening to our own curiosities as they collide with the texts. Today I am encouraged by the agency and persistence expressed in them, the transformation enacted in them, the nourishment sought and taken from them. I hear their intersections with life in all its complexity and fullness, from the ancient Mediterranean to the medieval European context of Bernard of Clairvaux, to Maya Angelou’s World War II San Francisco, to my own early adolescent life and our lives here and now. May we seek and find Christ in our sacred stories. May the Most Kind find and feed us here, by our hands and by God’s power. Amen.
 Padraig O Tuama, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community (Norwich, England: Canterbury Books, 2017), 61.  Angelou’s story is also recounted and placed in the context of San Francisco street car history in this article: https://www.streetcar.org/maya-angelou-streetcar-conductor-the-full-story/ and in this one: https://www.sfgate.com/local/article/maya-angelou-sf-streetcar-conductor-16625972.php  Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Bantam Books, 1983), 227.  Last week’s passage was Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28.  Miguel De La Torre, Genesis: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 337.  De La Torre, 337  De La Torre, 337  Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza sees this story as connecting back to the miraculous feeding stories and more fundamentally to the tradition of “Divine Wisdom-Sophia who has been sent particularly to Israel and who offers the bread of understanding.” But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 13.  Anna Case-Winters, Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 200.  Fragments in Mt 14:: κλάσμα; crumbs in Mt 15:27: τῶν ψιχίων.  Bernard of Clairvaux, Homily 1 on the Song of Songs, in ed. G.R. Evans, Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works (Mahwah, New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 212. Today is actually Bernard’s Feast Day: https://www.lectionarypage.net/LesserFF/Aug/Bernard.html  Case-Winters, 202. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, 161-2: “All these arguments seek to diminish the prejudicial character of the saying on the lips of Jesus by giving good reasons for Jesus’ insulting words. In short, rather than critically assessing and ethically evaluating the patriarchal politics of the text for Christian identity formation, they try to explain away its offensiveness.”  Laurel Schneider, quoted in Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, But She Said, 163.