About a year ago, I was flipping through the Cokesbury catalog.  I was checking out different books, vestments, and church supplies.  As I was looking through the Holy Communion supplies, I found a new Communion accessory being advertised:

New!  Purity Host Communion Dispenser.  This beautifully designed dispenser provides a safe and sanitary way to offer communion.  Protects against airborne germs, spills, and waste.  The revolutionary, patented Rapid Re-Load System for fast and easy reloading reduces the number of personnel needed to provide Communion by as much as 50 percent.  Dispenses 140 plain wafers without having to be refilled.[1]

 

Everything about this object sent me into shock. It seemed to grate against every thing I understood about Holy Communion.  If didn’t tell you that it was a Communion accessory, you might have thought I was talking about a gun, what with the “The revolutionary, patented Rapid Re-Load System for fast and easy reloading…”

More pointedly, I was struck by the phrase “a safe and sanitary way to offer communion.”  Is there such a thing as a safe and sanitary way to share the body and the blood of Jesus Christ?  Jesus says it himself in John 6: 53, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  I know it sounds like I’m preaching about flesh-eating zombies, but if we are to really take seriously our encounter at Christ with the table, we must ask these questions. Is there a safe and sanitary way for us to come to this table, to risk loving one another, and to share the body and blood that makes us whole?

Last week, we talked about the fact that plunging into the waters of Baptism and entering into Christ’s body is risky because it changes the shape of our life.  The way that this shape is continually changed is our continuing encounter with Christ’s body and blood at the table of Holy Communion.  This encounter is likely to get messy real quick.  Safe and sanitary are not good adjectives to describe it.

The stories Matthew shares with us today show us what it looks like to get messy because of our encounter with Christ.  In the first story, the Pharisees and scribes come to challenge Jesus again.  They want to know why the disciples “break the tradition of the elders” by not washing their hands before they eat.  Sometimes, the dietary laws of ancient Israel seem really distant, but we can relate to this one, right?  We don’t necessarily do it out of a concern for ritual purity, but we are all taught that good little boys and girls wash their hands.  And don’t get me wrong, washing hands is a good thing.  I wash my hands frequently.  It does help prevent the spread of diseases.

However, it is also true that in our culture we move beyond simple cleanliness.  We want sterility.  We want complete and utter elimination of all bacteria from our bodies and our lives.  We like to imagine the image in the commercial of all the little “evil” squigglies dying under the microscope.

We are so obsessed with sanitization, that we even go so far as to shame one another into being clean.  When we are taught to wash our hands, often we are taught to do so in order to not be like a certain group of people, who are dirty.  Often, that distinction is in a subtle or not so subtle way based on class, race, etc.  In fact, our obsession with hygiene has racial roots.

Take as an example The Help, the book that came out as a movie this week.  Part of the drama of that story is that one of the white characters is beginning a campaign for all of the white families to install separate bathrooms in their houses for their “help,” who are all African Americans.  The thought is that the help are dirty, full of unknown diseases.  In fact, if you look back to Lysol ads from the time, many of them are directed at parents, to make them concerned about their children touching the same objects as “the help,” such as doorknobs.[2]

At the end of the day, our concern for cleanliness is not just about health.  We also don’t want to be seen as “one of those people,” whoever “those people” are for you.  We don’t want to be associated with dirty people.  Jesus turns this on its head though.  He suggests that it is not what goes in that defiles us.  It is what comes out.  It is what comes from the heart.  We cannot separate who we are from what we do.  And if we are trying to separate ourselves from people with whom we’d rather not mix it up, Jesus is telling us that our hearts need cleansing.  We’re defiled not by what we touch, but by whom we refuse to touch.

In the next passage, Jesus encounters a “dirty” person.  Perhaps not literally dirty, but someone certainly considered dirty by Israelites.  A Gentile.  Even worse a Canaanite Gentile.  If you don’t remember, Canaanites were the folks who were already living in the promised land when the Israelites moved in.  Needless to say, they didn’t get along.  Not to mention her daughter is possessed by a demon, so that’s even more of a reason to avoid her.  Finally, she isn’t acting like they thought a woman should act.  She’s speaking in public.  Not just speaking. She’s crying out to Jesus, and she won’t stop![3]

If there is someone an Israelite thought would defile them, it would be this woman.  The most perplexing part of this situation is that Jesus seems to want to avoid her as much as anyone else.  She cries out, and he doesn’t even respond.  The disciples want to send her away, too.  But she won’t give up. Then it gets worse.  Jesus tells her he is only there for “the lost sheep of Israel.”  She keeps shouting.  Then, Jesus speaks to her in what can only be described as a pretty ugly way.  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  This was a common insult from Israelites to Canannites, and it carries all of the sting as if one teenager yelled it at another one in the hallway at school.[4]

This story is perplexing.  How can Jesus speak to her like this?  Doesn’t Jesus love everyone?  Doesn’t Jesus want to invite everyone into relationship with him?  What’s his deal?  She has been respectful, acknowledging him as “Lord,” and as the “Son of David.”  She is just a mom who no longer wants her little girl to suffer.  Why the cold shoulder and the harsh words from Jesus?  As much as I’d like to, I can’t give you a reason.  I can’t clean this one up.

What I can do is tell the rest of the story.  After Jesus calls her a dog, this woman’s reply is astounding.  “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  (pause)  You’d think she would have had enough of Jesus after all of his confusing actions up to this point.  But.she.will.not.give.up.  She is certain that he is the one who can make a difference for her daughter.  She is certain that he is the one he needs.  She is certain the he is the one she needs to seek after.  At this point, Jesus’ tone changes.  “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  Then the woman’s daughter was healed.  It is as if, like Jacob wrestling with the strange figure in the desert, she will not let go of Jesus until she comes away with a blessing.

If nothing else, this story shows us that Jesus doesn’t always conform to the way we think he should act.  Jesus’ actions in this, while surprising to us and difficult to sort out, would have been typical for an Israelite. They were the chosen people after all.  And because of that, Israelites often forgot that their chosen-ness was for the purpose of the blessing of the nations (e.g., Genesis 12.2).  Thus, even though Jesus was an Israelite, “sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” his movement still is directed towards the world, as we see by the end of Matthew where the mission has extended beyond Israel to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

This story illustrates the way that Christ’s presence bursts the bounds of pure and impure.  A woman who any good Israelite wouldn’t want to go near, ends up included in the scope of Jesus’ ministry and kingdom.  A woman who no good Israelite would touch has her daughter healed by an encounter with Christ.  The last person in the world anyone thought would have a share in Christ’s family suddenly appears to be a member.

We hear this story, and then we look at our own fear of contact with one another.  Think about it.  We are even afraid of contact with people who don’t think are dirty.  The “Purity Host Communion Dispenser” was created because of this.  It was created for use in a context where we likely think most everyone has pretty good hygiene.  The Great Thanksgiving is often punctuated in many congregations by the squirt of what I like to call “holy hand sanitizer.”  We are afraid of contact with one another.  We are afraid of contact with one another, even in a meal where we are sharing body and blood, where we are experiencing the holy contact of the human and divine.  This contact is found in the Word assuming flesh.

If we are afraid of each other, what happens when we encounter with someone who we really think is dirty?  What happens when we come up against people we think are impure?  What happens, when, as our young adults who went to Mozambique described to us, we encounter a foot to wash of a person who has never worn shoes, who has to drag herself around because of her broken hip?  Christ’s encounter with this woman calls us.  He calls us to consider that in the midst the Holy Spirit’s of cleansing our hearts, we might just need to get our hands dirty.

One final story that one of my professors in seminary told us:  There was a church that had a member who had contracted HIV. This created a lot of questions for the church about how they would take communion because they shared a common cup. The church decided that before they would make any decisions, they would pray and fast together for a given amount of time. When they came back together, they realized that the most faithful act would be to all the person with HIV to receive Communion first because that person was the one who was in the most danger.  This is Christ’s grace operative in the life of the church, his very own body and blood.


[1] Cokesbury, 2010-2011 Cokesbury Catalog, (Nashville:  Cokesbury, 2010), p. 94.

[2] Amy Laura Hall, Conceiving Parenthood:  American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2008), p. 69.

[3] Jae Won Lee, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, p. 359.

[4] Dock Hollingsworth, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, p. 361.

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