The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Monday, March 13, 2006

LENT II 2006

Sermon for Lent II 1006 by Fr. Carl Reid, dean of the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa.

In last Sunday’s Gospel reading we heard read the historical events of our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness, an episode of spiritual testing. Insofar as our Lenten Gospel passages are concerned, now from this Second Sunday in Lent and right through to Holy Week, we pass to contemplation of our own spiritual needs.
The Epistle readings, actually beginning with last week’s reading from St. Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth and running through the first three Sundays in Lent, put before us the kind of life that God requires of us – additional contemplation of our spiritual needs.
There is one other common thread in these first three weeks of Lent, from the Gospel readings – a word that appears either in singular or plural in all three readings – devil or devils. Last Sunday, we heard of our Lord’s being “led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil,” and His associated resistances against the wiles of the devil. Today and next Sunday, we hear about Jesus casting out devils from mere mortals such as you and me.
We might tend to gloss over the issue of the Canaanite woman’s daughter being “grievously vexed with a devil” when we come to that apparently awkward phrase from our Lord, “It is not right to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.” But before we consider the profound symbolism of that surprising comment from Jesus, let us spend a moment or two thinking about devils.
What do you think of devils? There is no denying that, for much of western history, starting with the Bible, and in literature and art ever since, devils have occupied a fairly prominent place. But beginning with some rather unfortunate post-Enlightenment thinking, the very idea of the existence of the devil, or devils, began to be pushed out of our minds. After all, was not the devil defeated for all time through the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord? Well, he and his minions, sure enough were defeated there, but that doesn’t mean that they are going to stop trying – the Book of Revelation makes that clear enough.
Still, aided by cloudy thinking coming even out of the Church, the idea of the devil or devils has become very suspect in the minds of most western people, and I daresay, even many believers. After all, we have grown out of such childish beliefs; we sensible, modern, enlightened people are just not going to take them seriously.
But to our own detriment might we look at them as fairy tale or superstition; and, not least through the lessons in the Gospels, we should take to heart the reality and power of devils. What is a word from the pages of the New Testament as it applies to how the devil can make his way into our lives and even our hearts? - subtilty. And indeed he and his are subtle – they have succeeded in disguising their activities so effectively that even many churchgoers are blissfully unaware of said activities. That is one of the primary messages contained in C. S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, in which the target of the influence of Wormwood, a normal churchgoing person was simply unaware of that influence.
Perhaps our terminology has changed very much over the course of history, but the realities of our spiritual lives, our spiritual struggles are very much the same as they always have been. Certainly, we might think of obvious things such as carnal lusts, dishonesty and the like as being under the influence of the devil or devils; however, any spiritual perversion, many quite subtle, some not so subtle, are their work as well. Shall we hear some that John Baillie puts in front of us in his Diary of Private Prayer?
• self-deception or rationalization in the face of temptation;
• applying different standards of conduct to ourselves than that which we demand or expect of others;
• choosing the worse when we know the better;
• blindness to the sufferings of others and slowness to be taught by our own;
• complacence towards wrongs that do not touch my own life, and over-sensitiveness to those that do;
• slowness to see the good in others and to see the evil in ourselves;
• hardness of heart towards my neighbour’s faults and readiness to make allowance for my own;
• unwillingness to believe that God has called me to a small work and my brother to a great one;
• praying that all those with whom we have to do may receive God’s blessing, yet harbouring in our hearts wrongful feelings of jealousy, bitterness or anger towards any of them;
• holding to any undertaking on which we dare not ask God’s blessing;
• seeking opportunities of revenge against those whom we perceive to be our enemies or have done us wrong rather than seeking God’s blessing on them; and so on.
To be “vexed by a devil” can be any one of these things, having our wills and our focus bent on such things; to be absorbed in worldly things, especially those that do not edify, do not further the kingdom of God. Now, to be sure, there are very many things that we do wrong, the Church used to call them “sins,” springing in an instant from our faulty human natures and free will that may not be under the influence of a devil. But, simply to chalk up all such behaviour or thoughts always to an insufficient amount of guidance by the Holy Spirit, or to the faults of human nature (my sinfulness as inherited from Adam), or to day-by-day distractions is exactly what the devil wishes. He is never so successful, nor so happy, as when he accomplishes all of this in us, and we deny his very existence, let alone his influence.
Now, to be sure, the Canaanite woman’s daughter, in being vexed by a devil, might have been exhibiting some much more unseemly, physical behaviour that made her condition more obvious than for the general population, for any of us. Yet I daresay that those of us who do not manifest physically being vexed by a devil in some sort of obvious way are in the graver danger, especially if we persist in the fantasy that we are not under any such evil influences.
Let us now come to the episode as recorded in today’s Gospel. This is one of those historically recorded incidents in the pages of Holy Scripture that, quite aside from the face-value lesson, has profound dimensions far beyond the characters involved.
At face value, we can certainly see another miracle of healing as performed by our Lord, thus further manifesting His divinity. We also see that, in this episode, the words spoken by Simeon when he took up the infant Jesus in his arms some 30 years earlier, “a light to lighten the Gentiles,” begin to be fulfilled. And this, even after Jesus had commented that His mandate was primarily to call back to God “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But what of that even more awkward statement of Jesus, “It is not right to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs?” If here we might be thinking of the rather derogatory practice that the Jews had of referring to Gentiles as “dogs” then surely, based not least on the woman’s almost cheerful response to such a slight, we might guess that Jesus must have said that to her with a twinkle in His eye, or a smile on His face. But the episode is less confrontational than that. The word that Jesus used was the diminutive, referring to a family pet as opposed to some unclean beast, which might better have been translated “puppy.” Recognizing that, the woman’s response makes more sense.
Yet, there is a much deeper symbolic significance to the whole episode, and not just the woman’s response. Matthew tells us that she was a Canaanite. Now we might recall from the Old Testament that, upon entering the Promised Land, the Jews attempted to drive out the pagan population – the Canaanites. Those Canaanites who remained, stayed as despised outcasts.
So, in the eyes of a Jew, the Canaanite woman, one quite outside of the covenant between God and His chosen people, is as far as possible from having any claim upon the “children’s bread.” Yet, nevertheless, she comes in humility and trust: “The little dogs,” she says, those who have no claim neither by covenant nor by simple basic rights of any sort, “The little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” She came to our Lord as an outsider, not trusting that whatever faith she might have had was worth anything, but rather placing all of her faith in Him. She could not plead any merit, let alone any right; and the grace of God is not withheld: “O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee as thou wilt.” This Canaanite woman is the symbol of all of us, who have no natural claims upon God’s favour. Jesus’ gift to her stands for the free, unmerited grace of God.
It has been observed that, aside from earlier medieval Collects, this episode, along with the healing of the centurion’s servant, were the source for the first half of Thomas Cranmer’s Prayer of Humble Access which we pray just before we receive the precious Body and Blood, before we partake of that heavenly Food from the Lord’s Table. “We do not presume to come to this thy table … we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”
How many of us, perhaps indignantly, would reply quite differently than the woman if someone, even our Lord, were to call us a dog, or even a puppy? Rather than saying that she is not, as any of us might in the same situation, she agrees, “Yes I am a dog; I have no rights, I am not worthy, but might I, like a dog, at least eat some of the crumbs from your Table?”
There is a closely related part of the episode for which we must also acknowledge levels of symbolism, and that is the healing granted to the daughter of the woman. Quite clearly, God’s grace of healing was granted in relation to the woman’s faith. Insofar as the healing was from being vexed by a devil, we see that it is only in recognition of, and with complete faith in, the true and living God that we are delivered from false gods, from the distractions of the world, the flesh and the devil. And in a close connection with next week’s Gospel reading, we must always be aware that, while we can, with God’s help, cast out one devil, we must always be on guard against seven other devils, worse than the first, rushing in to take his place.
I also mentioned earlier that, at face value, we witness another one of Jesus’ miracles of healing. The circumstances of this particular healing – that the woman recognized that she had no merit or right to insist that God do anything for her – is also very symbolic, as it relates to our Lord’s healing miracles.
There is a tendency to misunderstand His miracles by viewing them in an earthbound literalistic sense. People sometimes think that this episode, along with others where faith is a component, suggest that, so long as we possess a true and lively faith, we should never get sick, that faith should be able to overcome all earthly ills – to heal the sick and even raise the dead. A complete reading of the New Testament will reveal that this is not the point at all. We must always acknowledge, in humility, that God indeed makes miracles, when He wills, with whom He wills, and as He wills, but there is nothing in His teaching or promises that indicate that His will is that we should live forever in perfect health in some sort of earthly paradise. Like the Canaanite woman, we must acknowledge that God owes us no miracles. She did not presume to come to His table trusting in her own righteousness, but in His manifold and great mercy.
As real as they were, and as they continue to be today, God’s miracles of healing are, most importantly, symbolic acts – signs that He can heal grave physical ills, that He can cast out the devils that vex us, that truly humble acceptance of His will can make our spirits whole. And that is after all the most important point, as it is our spirits, our souls, not our bodies, that exist through all eternity.
And so we come to His Table as did the Canaanite woman, without presuming to be rewarded based on our own merits, without any claim or rights to God’s grace. And yet come we must, as He told us to, burying all pride in whatever faith that we think we have developed through our own efforts and rather acknowledging that faith is a gift from Him; seeking, if we might somehow, be able to partake of even one small crumb; but that is enough. As He did for the Canaanite woman, He need speak the word only…