When my wife and I first became Methodists back in the early 80s, we worshiped with a small Methodist congregation, aptly named Wesley United Methodist Church. There were only about 50 regular worshipers there each Sunday. The congregation was small but the members were devout and devoted to their expression of faith. Each first Sunday of the month, Holy Communion was celebrated and we were instructed to turn to page 832 in the back of the red hymnal to find the order of worship for Holy Communion. The language contained in it was very old, some of it going back to the Anglican roots of the Methodist Church.
One particular part of the order of Holy Communion was called the Prayer of Humble Access. These are words contained in it that we would pray before we would receive the elements of Holy Communion:
"We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so as to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, and grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen."
After that prayer, we would make our way to the altar rail to kneel to receive the bread and grape juice (never wine in the UMC), feeling pretty unworthy even to accept these tokens of faith from the hand of God. I always liked that prayer, even though the mood of it is fairly dismal at first. I think I liked the idea of gathering up the crumbs that fall from the table, such as a dog may do when small bits of food fall to the floor while the family is eating. That is a very humbling image--one who picks up crumbs that fall below the table instead of eating at the table with others.
This image can be found in the Gospel lesson we will examine next Sunday during worship. A Gentile woman approaches Jesus, asking him to heal her daughter. For some reason, Jesus is hesitant to grant her request. Perhaps it is because of her status as a Gentile and of him being a Jew. He tells her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." The woman was not dissuaded by Jesus' comparing her to a dog; instead, she used that same image to state her case--"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
How surprised Jesus must have been to hear that from this lowly woman. He saw her comeback as a statement of faith in him. "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left your daughter." She received the healing she had desired from Jesus for her daughter because she would not be put off. Her persistence brought about what she desired.
"Crumbs under the table" in this story has to do with humility and lowliness, accepting that our status is not with those in power in society. Perhaps that is why Jesus saw something in this woman that resonated with him. He too was lowly, not part of the power structure or religious class of his day. He could see that she was coming to him in humility but desiring something desperately needed for her daughter.
Humility is something that Jesus stressed again and again as a key to being part of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Beatitudes taught that the meek, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are merciful, those who suffer for righteousness' sake, and the peacemakers were first in God's Kingdom. Those who were servants of others were leaders there. Arrogance and self-righteousness have no part in the kingdom that Jesus established. It was only by coming to God as a child or one lowly in spirit that connected with what Jesus taught about his kingdom.
Some in religious circles substitute "kin-dom" for "kingdom" when they talk about the Kingdom of Heaven. They make this change for many reasons but one of the positive reasons has to do with kinship, with belonging to one another. We all are unworthy to gather up the crumbs under the table, unworthy in our own righteousness, at least. God makes us worthy to be part of God's great Kingdom of love and mercy by accepting us as his own, not based on our own merit but based solely on his grace. And God commands us to do the same for others....to accept them as they are and love them as they are and allow God to work in their lives to become what God would make of them.
We will share Holy Communion this Sunday, all of us sharing the crumbs we can gather as we admit our need and accept the grace that only God can give.