This sermon is dedicated to both Dr. Amy Laura Hall and to Charlie, who gave me new glasses to see the abundance in the one crumb.
April 8, 2008 • Duke Divinity School
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.27 He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’28 But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’29 Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter.’30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mark 7:24-30)
Have you ever read Scripture over and over again and still not had a clue as to what it said? This little pericope is such a text for me. The story starts with “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Most of us, especially at this time in the semester can relate — we could easily change this Scripture to “she entered the library and did not want anyone to know she was there.” I want to be left alone. I neeeeed to be left alone. I have papers to write — finals to take — and books to read. And yet it seems those are the moments that I have a neon sign over my head that says “please interrupt me!”
Jesus entered the house and for a moment wanted to be left completely alone. He needed just a little bit of time to himself. This is the only time, by the way, where we see Jesus entering a house to get off by himself. Instead, across the Gospels, it is in the house that Jesus eats with sinners. It is in the house where he raises the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue from the dead. It is in the house that he heals Peter’s mother-in-law of her fever. It is in the house that Jesus shares intimate moments with the disciples teaching them and sharing the Last Supper with them, and it was in the house that the woman pours the perfume over his feet. Houses are busy places filled with people. And yet, this one time Jesus goes into the house in order to be alone.
Mark goes on to say, “Yet he could not escape notice.” Tiger Woods cannot escape notice. Elvis Presley could not escape notice. And certainly Jesus — the healer, the deliverer, the teacher, the compassionate one — could not escape notice even though he was in the house, possibly even in an inner room where he was lying down. And Jesus was certainly not going to escape notice by a mother desperate to find someone to cast out the demon in her child.
This mother — this Gentile woman, this woman of mixed race — had according to Scripture “immediately heard about Jesus.” What had she heard? Where did she hear it? As a mother, I know how to listen intently to every last bit of information in every corner in order to find hope.
I am sure most of us know mothers and parents whose children are sick. They comb the Internet — they set up Care Pages — they travel to Costa Rica, India, or Thailand, wherever they need to go, they go, to see whomever they need to see. They have “heard” that there might be hope. The Scripture is mute on what exactly the woman heard. But we know she was listening — intently listening. For once again, in true Markian form, this mother “immediately heard.” It was as if Christ had just stepped his big toe into town, she heard the news of the miracles he had performed, and that was enough for her to race to Jesus, bow down, and beg for a miracle for her child.
This mother does not know that Jesus is on a much needed retreat. She does not know that he is worn out and is longing for a few moments peace. She is a mother on a mission, and no cultural norm — no socially acceptable convention — is going to sway her from her mission. No amount of being in the “out” crowd was going to dissuade her, and no amount of “please, I need my rest” was going to deter her. She desperately needed Jesus. It was as simple as that — a desperate need. Or as Dr. Chuck Campbell, who used this passage to talk about Hebrews 5 in his April 2, 2009, sermon, said, “It was a desperate hope.”
And what is Jesus’ reaction to this woman begging at his feet? Is it compassion and love? Is it kindness and sympathy? No. Instead we hear one of the most shocking statements made by Jesus.27 He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
Do you feel the slam? Do your eyes well up with tears? What? Is this ministry that we are to mimic? Are we just hearing a very tired and grumpy Jesus who has had an exceptionally crummy day? Is he trying to test just how much faith this mother has? Oh my, our questions seem endless. And so we read the text over and over again: “He did not just say that, right? This is the Son of God, after all. Does someone who is “fully human and fully divine” say that?” And, yes, Jesus said that.
But this mother knows something about God’s economy. In God’s economy the crumb under the table is more than sufficient for a miracle. The minuscule touch on the robe was enough. So she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’”
Every time I read this line I can’t help but think of my first dog. Brandy was a hefty 175-lb. Saint Bernard who learned that on liver night he would cash in if he was “stealth dog.” And “stealth dog” he was. Without sound, he moved under the table to each of our four hands to receive the morsel of liver.
Yes, indeed, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s food — and yes, indeed, this is enough. Maybe we all have visions of our childhood dogs. But this woman is obviously going much deeper than that. She is seeing the reality of God’s economy even if she herself is being called a dog. She is realizing that even those crumbs can be enough for the miracle that she is seeking.
I used to minister to the men incarcerated at the federal prison. I tell people often that if they want to see the face of Christ they need to go to prison. For it is within those stark gray walls, surrounded by barbed wire, that I saw Christ and the truth of Scripture most clearly. One week I visited with one of the inmates, Charlie. He and I were talking about this Scripture and the crumbs under the table when he said with big tears in his eyes, “The one crumb is more than enough for me.”
The one crumb is more than enough for me.
The Scripture talks about crumbs under the table — and yet Charlie lets me know that even one of those crumbs is more than enough. From my white upper class perspective on the world, the entirety of the crumbs was NEVER enough — only the slap was felt when I read this Scripture. And yet Charlie turned this Scripture upside down for me, and I started to cry as well.
In the next chapter of Mark we read that the disciples were complaining and moaning about the fact that they had “no bread.” In actuality, as Mark 8:16 will tell us, they had one loaf of bread. The exasperated Jesus reminds them of the feeding of the 4,000 and 5,000 where the apparent lack was abundance. Had they not seen and been an eyewitness to the abundance in the few loaves of bread and fishes? Had they not learned from this woman the miracle of abundance in the crumbs?
They do not see the miracle in the one loaf of bread to the point they say they have “no bread.” And yet this inmate tells me, “The one crumb is more than enough for me.” This inmate understands that in God’s economy one crumb is indeed more than sufficient. No one has to tell him that — he knows it because he has experienced the abundance of God’s grace and mercy from just the one crumb.
And in our Scripture we see that the crumbs were enough — the desperate hope of this mother became miraculous deliverance for her daughter — the sought after healing happened and the daughter was restored. There is abundance and blessing in just the one perceived crumb.
Take out a yeast packet. These tiny pieces of yeast don’t look like much. What could they do? If one of you blew even the faintest of breaths at this gathering of yeast, it would scatter. And yet this little amount is enough to add leavening to a lump of flour in order to make bread rise.
Take out a mustard seed. What about this little seed? It is so small that you could easily dismiss it as having no importance. And yet this tiny seed is the one that Christ himself will say turns into the largest shrub of all.
At times, maybe you think, who am I? I am just little old me. What can I do?
Maybe you are the crumb under the table that is enough of God’s presence in the world to make miracles happen. Maybe the deacon who consistently gives you a difficult time, and who walks into your pastoral office just as you are studying for Sunday’s sermon to talk about starting a garden ministry with the homeless, is enough to feed the hungry, reclaim the land, and reclaim broken lives.
Maybe the shut-in you forget to visit week after week, an elderly women who wants to start a prayer ministry because she realizes one of the few gifts she has is prayer, is enough to make miracles happen throughout the church.
Maybe the ratty looking teenager who has been caught twice with drugs — who has single handedly turned your pastoral hair gray — now wants to start a skate boarder’s ministry for the youth. Maybe he is enough to be the hands and feet of Christ in a place where few churches have gone.
Maybe what looks to an exhausted pastor like a crumb, or a dog, under the table is neither. Maybe this crumb — this little piece of Christ’s presence — is enough to transform lives, providing healing in lives and places where Christ longs to be.
And maybe Christ wanted all of us future pastors to see — when we are burned out, hanging onto our last thread and desperate for a moment to retreat and reflect — that it may be the interruption in our day that is the miracle we need and long for. We can either think of it as a nuisance to our day, or we can see it as the miracle that it is.
May Christ give all of us his own eyes to see the abundance and miracle in the crumbs.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.