How Big is the Tent We Call Home?
Notes for a Sermon by Suzanne Rumsey
Holy Trinity, August 20, 2017
From “Coming Home,” by Katharine O’Flynn. The year is about 1922; the place, southeastern British Columbia:
Fernie. Cranbrook. Yahk. His excitement grew. Here was a mountain that looked familiar. Could it be Goat? Yes. Yes. That was surely its peak. And here was the siding for the mine. Then the trainman came along the aisle shouting, ‘Creston! Creston is the next station stop. Creston next.” …The train puffed to a standstill, sending out clouds of white steam. The trainman set the nobbled brown stool on the platform, and reached up to give Charles a hand, but the boy was already running along the platform towards outstretched arms. “Gran! Gran!” he was shouting, “I’m home!”
I want to begin this morning by asking you to close your eyes for a moment and hold in your mind’s eye an image of “home.” It might be a physical location, where you were born and grew up, where you live now. It might be an emotional connection to someone. “I am home because I am with this person.” It might be a spiritual conviction. “I feel at home knowing that God holds me in the palm of her hand.” Where and what and who and how is “home” for you?
I have titled these reflections, “How big is the tent we call home?” In the gospel reading this morning, we heard the well-known story of Jesus and the Caananite woman. Up to this point, Jesus ministry has focused almost entirely on “the lost sheep of Israel.” But here is a Caananite woman, a person both culturally and religiously outside the home of his faith, banging on the “door” of his tent, demanding to be let in. And not only to be let in, but to seek the attention that members of the Jewish “family” have been receiving from Jesus; in her case, healing for her daughter.
The context for this exchange is the growing tensions between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. Jesus withdraws to “the district of Tyre and Sidon” – the “home” of the Caananite woman — with his disciples for a time out. One commentator notes that, “Although Jesus has entered her geographical territory, she approaches him on his cultural and theological grounds.” Jesus is in the Caananite woman’s tent, but can he welcome her into HIS?
In 1907 my paternal great-grandmother, Robin’s great, great-grandmother, Mildred Young, emigrated from London, England to Creston, British Columbia, Canada, a recently established town in the West Kootenay region of the province. She came as a 47-year-old widow, bringing with her the youngest of her five children and the modest resources from the sale of her London boarding house. From 1907 until her death in 1959 at the age of 99, she created home and helped to build the community of Creston while longing for home in London. Her story, and that of my paternal grandmother and oldest aunt are chronicled in “Coming Home,” a moving, funny, tragic and entirely human family history that was published last year by my cousin, Katharine O’Flynn.
Not long after arriving in Creston, Mildred Young purchased a small cottage on a large lot with five dollars down and a mortgage of two hundred and ten dollars. She named her home “Rosebank” though there was not a rose to be found on the property. Mildred’s vision for her new home could only be defined as ‘hope-filled’ for at the time she was to all intents and purposes ‘homeless.’ When she purchased Rosebank, Mildred and her daughter, Charlotte, had been ‘visiting’ – today it might be called ‘couch surfing’ – in the home of her niece, Olive, and Olive’s husband, “Alphabetical” (he had a lot of names!) for several months. She had $43.27 to her name and no ready means of earning an income.
In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann, describes hope as,
“on the one hand, an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims that we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.”
The Caananite woman comes to Jesus in hope – hope for her daughter’s healing. But Jesus, caught up in the tensions of his dysfunctional family of faith cannot, as Jane Williams puts it, “formulate an answer for the woman at all. But neither can he turn her away, because surely she is right: she is not asking for the children’s bread, only the leftover crumbs.” Though their conversation about bread and dogs is metaphorical, remember that this story comes between the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand after which there were twelve baskets and seven baskets respectively, of leftovers. God’s math – God’s abundance – is a mystery. And the Caananite woman’s hope calls into question Jesus’ understanding of the “present to which he has made commitments.”
Who welcomed my great-grandmother in their home called Creston? Among those who welcomed this widow and newly arrived immigrant was Fred Little, one of Creston’s ‘founders.’ It was Fred who, learning that Mildred was in need of employment to establish herself at Rosebank, found her a job as a cook at a nearby mining camp. And it was with unassuming generosity that Fred Little sent Mildred off to the mine – where she would be the only woman on site – with Tinker, a dog he purchased on her behalf: “He’s yours now. Keep him by you all the time up at the mine there. Keep him in the kitchen with you in the day and keep him in your room at night. He’ll see you come to no harm.”
It was Fred Little’s neighborliness that enabled Mildred to return to Creston after a year at the mine, establish herself at Rosebank, and create the home – and business – into which she would welcome family, friends and neighbours for the next five decades.
And what about those dogs in the gospel? Jesus seems to be particularly harsh to infer that as a woman outside the Jewish family tent, she is nothing more than a dog. But commentators suggest that the original Greek used the term equivalent to “puppy” or pet dog and that while dogs were not considered pets but rather nuisances by Jews, the Greeks did keep dogs as pets. It is likely that the Caananite woman was in fact Greek. Mark’s gospel names her as being Greek. She would know that Jesus was referring to dogs with affection. But she also challenged him to consider that everyone – children, dogs, Jesus disciples, the 5,000, AND she and her daughter could enjoy the generosity of the same table.
As one commentary put it, “Mindful of her lack of a privileged status, the woman appeals to Jesus’ love and generosity. She ‘grasps what the disciples . . . have not grasped: that even when the ‘children’ have been fed, there is more than enough left over even in the scraps for the outsiders to be fed.’”
In Longing for Home, Frederick Buechner writes,
“We carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home that beckons us… To be really at home is to be really at peace, and our lives are so intrinsically interwoven that there can be no peace for any of us until there is real peace for all of us. It is the same message Isaiah eloquently proclaimed in the sixth century when he invited the exiles home.”
Not only the gospel reading, but also Isaiah and Paul, emphasize how big God’s tent, God’s home, is. Isaiah says that “foreigners who bind themselves to God… these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.” Paul as ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ emphasizes that God’s mercy is for EVERYONE.
There are many wonderful stories in “Coming Home.” One of the most moving ends with the quote that I began this reflection with. At the end of WWI, my great aunt Charlotte (Mildred’s youngest daughter who had travelled to Canada with her) and her husband Andy, died in Creston in the Spanish influenza epidemic. Five children were orphaned as a result. Four of them were cared for by Mildred and, as my cousin writes, “Crestonites would see to it that those four Talbot kids always had a roof over their heads and food to eat. They’d be all right.” 11-year-old Charles however, travelled to England with family to be placed in the care of another of Mildred’s daughters known as “Aunt Boo.”
But Aunt Boo, her husband and son were emotionally unable and practically unwilling to embrace Charles as a member of their family. Charles in turn desperately missed his family and friends in Creston. And so at the age of twelve, Charles’ aunt “made a label of strong pasteboard and tied it around Charles’ neck on a string. ‘Charles D. Talbot,’ it said. ‘En route Southampton, England, to Creston, B.C. Canada. In event of an emergency, please contact Mrs. M. Young, Creston, B.C.” His uncle then put Charles on a train by himself, which took him to the boat at Southampton for the voyage to Canada. At Québec he boarded a CPR train to Winnipeg, then Calgary, Fort McLeod and finally, Creston.
If it had not been for the kindness of strangers, many of them immigrants, twelve-year-old Charles might never have reached his journey’s end. On the initial train journey and sea voyage, a kind family in third-class cared for Charles, young farm hands travelling by train to Regina took him under their wing, and a kindly farmer’s wife made sure he made the transfer at Fort McLeod.
“Soon after he got on the Crow’s Nest train, he could see the mountains with clouds hanging over their peaks. Ah yes. This was the way a country was supposed to look… “What would it be like at Gran’s, he wondered… People came and went, staying for an hour or a day or a week or months… Gran just set another place at the table, found another straw tick or a feather mattress to roll out on the floor at night… She would make room for him. He’d be all right at Gran’s.”
But after such a long journey, Charles was also a little worried that his grandmother wouldn’t know he was coming; wouldn’t be there to meet him. And so when he saw “a little old lady under a huge hat” he ran “along the platform towards outstretched arms. ‘Gran! Gran! He was shouting, ‘I’m home!’”
In Beyond Homelessness – Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacment, Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh write, “If there is to be homemaking in Israel, it must be a homemaking of inclusion, not exclusion. The homeless, the vulnerable, the marginal” – and, I would add, the foreigner, the Gentiles, the Caananite woman and her daughter, the immigrant English widow, the orphan, all of us, everyone – “all must have the room to make home as well.”