Bread for the dogs

Sermon for Trinity 14 at St James

Based on Isaiah 35.4-7, James 2.1-7,14-17, and Mark 7.24-37

To hear the sermon as you read:

She was a little devil from the day she was born. She wouldn’t eat. She wouldn’t sleep. All she would do was scream. By the time she was two years old, she had worn me out with battles and tantrums. Devil’s child, they called her, even then. And no wonder, they said – no better than she should be! What can you expect with a mother like that? Nobody’s child. No father. No family. No friends. No one but the Devil would claim such a child. That’s what they said.

My family deserted her even before she was born. Her Dad would have been no help, even if he’d been around at the birth. As it was, I was lucky to escape being stoned and sometimes I wondered why God had let us both live. There were many times when I’d rather have been dead. And many times when I could have killed her willingly. I own I beat her sometimes. When you are the only one there and there’s no-one to help or give you a rest and no-one to see or tell you what to do, you sometimes let fly. It’s a relief. Not that it made any difference to her. She only fought back harder.

Her whole life was a battle. A battle against normality. A battle against being an ordinary little human girl. You could talk to her, but she never seemed to hear. She never made any baby sounds or repeated your words, like a normal child. She shouted and screamed. She used the wrong words for things and all hell would break loose when you didn’t understand that “sand” meant “water”. She never played. She'd just stare and stare and rock herself and make strange sounds, as if she was singing a language and a tune no normal person could understand. She’d do the same thing over and over again. She’d spend a whole day putting 3 beans into a bowl and then taking them out again – over and over again until it nearly drove you mad. And she never slept much. She’d wander about the hut, singing in that strange way, and moving things, or just stare, rocking backwards and forwards all night. As she got older, I never got much sleep either – I daren’t take my eyes off her, for fear she’d stray and injure herself – or someone else. If she took a dislike to someone, that was it! She’d go for them like a little fury, lashing out and biting and it was the Devil’s own job to drag her off. The Devil’s child indeed!

So no-one came near us as she got older. Even the charitable ones were wary, and you can’t blame them. No-one wants their hand bitten when it’s doling out the scraps. “Stand over there” they’d say, or “Stay in the doorway.” Some tried to be kind, and asked if she was better – as if it was something that could be cured. But they never offered to help, to have her just for half an hour, so that I could get some peace. No, it couldn’t be cured. And it doesn’t get better. But people always seem to think it will. As if some miracle could happen, and the strange, tortured paths of the mind be smoothed out. As if rain could fall in the burning desert of suffering and the thirst for normality be satisfied. Instead I got wearier and dirtier and lonelier and less able to cope. Why didn’t you put her away, you might ask. Why not get rid of her? Put her out, sell her as a slave, and have some life for yourself? People did ask that – loudly sometimes. The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know why I went on, when every day I could have killed both of us for sheer agony and frustration. I just went on enduring. I certainly wasn’t hoping for a miracle, which made what happened even stranger.

Then one day there were  strangers in town. Southerners, come up from near the Lake – Others, the ones who don’t associate with the likes of us. In the normal course of events, I’d have ignored them. We’re used to all types here, everyone goes through Tyre, up and down the coast, trading and marching. A dozen Southerners was no big deal. But suddenly I had an overwhelming urge to shout “HELP!” at the top of my voice. I felt I should yell and wave my arms and jump up and down in the road to get their attention. But I didn’t. What good would it have done? They didn’t even talk to our men. Why should they take notice of me? That madwoman with the mad daughter? The weirdos! The invisible ones. But I was filled with anger and frustration and bitterness. Here was another set of people – nice, ordinary, kindly, God-fearing people who were going to ignore me and pretend that my problems didn’t exist. So I followed them. I don’t know to this day what I hoped to achieve, but I followed them. Inside I was shouting and yelling and demanding their attention, but I never made a sound. I just followed them.

We came to a house, and they all went in. I hung around outside for a long time, trying to stop myself going in, but in the end, the urge was overwhelming – almost as if something had picked me up by the scruff of my neck and dumped me down in front of the table. They didn’t actually leap to their feet and run, but I got the distinct feeling that they were looking at the walls, the floor, the ceiling – anywhere rather than at me. All except the one in the middle. He was looking down at the bread in his hands. He must have been just about to break it and stopped at my interruption. I decided that there was some hope of getting his attention, maybe even some scraps, so I went and knelt down as close as I could get to him. I didn’t feel like being polite – in fact I felt like pouring out all the anger and bitterness and injustice, my weariness and despair, the whole agony, I wanted to demand that he do something, make people understand, make someone help the two of us, not once or twice, but for a lifetime. I just felt like dumping everything on him, right there at his feet. I remember looking at his feet and thinking how strong and tough they were and how the water droplets from the foot-washing gleamed redly in the lamplight like drops of blood.

There was a long silence. I didn’t say anything, but after a while, I made myself look up, to see what he was doing. He was still looking at the bread. He was looking very intently at it, as if he was trying to make up his mind about something. I could have sworn there was some kind of unspoken debate going on, some moment in the balance that could go either way. He said quite quietly “The children have to eat first – how can I take their food and throw it to the little dogs under the table?” Typical, you might think. Just the kind of insult you might expect from one of Them. But I was long past being insulted – what else had my girl and I endured all our lives? Anyway, we weren’t even pet dogs under the table. We were the mangy curs snapping and snarling in the doorway, ready to fight over every scrap that came our way. And a stray dog doesn’t let go once it's got its teeth into something. Neither did I. I wanted him to know that I was going to go on fighting, so I said “We’ll get the crumbs!” Then he smiled and shook his head, and broke the bread and held out half to me: “You don’t have to wait for crumbs.” My hands were trembling as I took the bread, still warm with the imprint of his hands upon it. As I stood up, I felt as if a great weight had fallen from me, and looking down, I almost expected to see my burden lying at his feet. But there was nothing – it was utterly gone. I carried his gift carefully home and woke my sleeping child and shared with her the bread of our new life.