Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 09/09/2018

After spending the month of August with John and the Bread of Life discourse we’re now back in Mark’s gospel and, except for Reformation Sunday and All Saints Sunday, we will be until Advent starts in December. Jesus is, of course, the main character in Mark as he is in all the gospels but naturally there are others and in broad terms one could think of the other characters as belonging to one of three groups. There are the disciples, some of whom get more attention than others; there are the authorities, mostly unnamed but representing the religious and political leadership who are usually set up in opposition to Jesus; and then there are the little people, not physically little like Munchkins, but minor characters who make brief cameo appearances and then disappear.

The Syrophoenician woman in the first part of today’s gospel reading is one of those little people. She’s part of an episode that is a little bit troubling because Jesus doesn’t behave the way we expect him to, at least not at first. The woman comes to Jesus, bows at his feet and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter. The woman however, is Syrophoenician, that is a Gentile, an outsider, not part of the people of Israel, plus she’s a woman so, for several reasons, she has no business approaching Jesus, a Jewish man. There are all kinds of boundaries being violated here; what we’re used to though, is Jesus ignoring such boundaries and addressing the needs and requests of everyone, but not this time.

Instead, Jesus is dismissive of this woman, perhaps even insulting, until she begs for just a crumb: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” At that point, Jesus seems to catch himself and become again the Jesus we expect as the demon is gone from the little girl and…the girl and her mother are gone from the story, disappearing as is the nature of the little people.

I want to talk about the little people, and I also want to talk about the crumbs. One of the things about Mark’s little people is that they quite consistently illustrate in some fashion the values of and the nature of the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced. They wind up being the ones who, through what they do, witness to and thus teach about the kingdom. In this story, you might even say that the mother of the little girl witnessed to and taught Jesus. In asking only for a crumb, she caused Jesus to see the situation differently and because of that, the woman and the little girl got what they asked for, a crumb sufficient unto their need, a crumb that healed the girl, a crumb that turned out to be the whole loaf. That’s the reality of things with Jesus, the reality of things in the Kingdom of God. If we’re open to it and pay attention, the little people and the crumbs do become signs of the kingdom.

In one of the books I have upstairs I found a story referenced that I think helps to get at these things. The title of the story is “The Crumb” written by someone named Sunny Rogers. The title though actually comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson that’s part of the story. She didn’t give her poems titles, but this one goes like this:

God gave a loaf to every bird—But just a Crumb to me—I dare not eat it—tho’ I starve—my poignant luxury—

I wonder how the Rich—may feel—an Indiaman—an Earl—I deem that I—with but a Crumb—Am sovereign of them all—

The story is set in Virginia and the name of the main character is Haber Hill Culpepper, a 57 year old retired law professor who had enjoyed a prosperous, pampered and privileged life as part of Virginia’s upper class. In retirement he was living with his aging and demanding mother, responding to her needs. However, he was somewhat haunted by the feeling that despite his success, despite his prosperity, something was missing from his life. Having time to read scripture and poetry and philosophy as he cared for his mother he was hoping for some insight, divine or otherwise, some kind of epiphany that might give him a clue as to what life was really all about.

One day, it happened to be his birthday, as part of his reading, Haber Hill read the poem by Emily Dickinson, a poem that made him think as Emily Dickinson’s poems are wont to do. Just what was this crumb that she was writing about?

Because it was his birthday, Haber Hill had invited the pastor over for tea and as they sat and chatted in the parlor they heard a crash in the kitchen. When Haber Hill went to check on things he found that Adele, the housekeeper had dropped and broken the teapot and burned her foot. He scolded her, not for breaking the teapot but for being barefoot and her reply was that “If I wore shoes, the food wouldn’t taste the same.”

Haber Hill wasn’t really sure what to do; he didn’t involve himself with the hired help, such people were not his people; his mother had hired this woman years ago. He thought he should do something though, so he found a plastic dishpan, filled it with cold water and ice cubes and told Adele to sit down and put her foot in the pan. After a few minutes of soaking, he knelt down in front of her and said, “Let’s have a look.” He lifted her foot out of the pan and held it in his hand. It was about what you would expect the foot of an old washerwoman to be, cracked and yellow toenails, bunions and corns on the sides of her toes, the heals rough and dry even after soaking.

Meanwhile, wondering what had happened, the pastor went into the kitchen and seeing the two of them said, “Ah, washing the disciples’ feet are we?” With that, Haber Hill had his epiphany. He came to the realization that for him, the “but a crumb” Emily Dickinson wrote about came in caring for an old, working woman’s hurt foot. His life hadn’t been about crumbs, it was always about the whole loaf. He’d never been cold or hungry or poor; his life had been comfortable and successful, he had it all, the envy of many. But in caring for his housekeeper’s foot, one of the little people in his life, his perspective had changed. This person and this crumb were, in fact, what he needed.

The story isn’t overtly religious; today’s story from Mark about crumbs under the table isn’t referenced and who knows if Emily Dickinson had the gospel in mind as she wrote her poem. She might have—she was skeptical about Christianity and the church, but she knew her Bible. In both the gospel story and in The Crumb story though, a little person is the source of insight for characters in the stories and for those who read them. And…in both stories, a crumb is sufficient, it is what is needed.

Both stories can be seen to include a call to pay attention to what might seem to be things that are less significant. I sometimes think that the call to pay attention is a big part of a walk of faith. If you pay attention, wisdom and guidance are provided, opportunities are provided, insight is provided sometimes from unexpected sources, sometimes from little people who you don’t think of as your people. If you pay attention, crumbs are out there, they come your way in the form of small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness both given and received. They are crumbs that, if you pay attention, can be more important than the whole loaf you thought you wanted.

The gospel story is interesting in that it seems to be Jesus himself who is called to pay attention to a little person. That’s a little disconcerting at first and so we try to let Jesus off the hook by saying things like, “He knew all along what he was going to do. He was just testing the woman.” That could be true, but the situation is less upsetting if we remember our theology that says that Jesus took on all that it is to be human in order to save all that it is to be human even if taking on all that it is to be human seems to make him more like us than we want him to be. This is a very human Jesus that Mark gives us in this story, but because of that, it gives the story an added punch. If Jesus is called to pay attention to the little people, how much more are we called to the same thing?

As we pay attention, like Haber Hill Culpepper, it might be those little people that guide us to the crumbs, crumbs that help us to better understand what is important in life and what gives meaning to life. It might be the little people and the crumbs that open our eyes to the Kingdom of God and the way of life to which we are called.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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