The following sermon was preached by Rachel Wind, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, September 10, 2009.
So, the Syro-Phoenician woman. The only scene in Mark, and correct me if I’m wrong, the whole New Testament, where Jesus is bested by another person using his own metaphor as ammo. Yikes. Here Jesus shows himself to be human. Really human.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus seems to have a really short temper. He seems anti-social and bound by societal laws, and all of this comes to a head in this scene. Jesus must have been tired after the journey to Tyre. He had just proclaimed a parable that the disciples still didn’t understand. He just seemed a little agitated. And here comes this woman. A woman who by societal rules was not of the chosen people. She was a Gentile, not a Jew, and Jesus seemed to see her actions as an annoyance. He dismisses her with a metaphor that likens her and her daughter to dogs.
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”.
If you’re anything like me, I immediately get on the defensive side for team Jesus. Maybe she said it in a mean way. Maybe she did something really disrespectful. Maybe he was just really really tired. Maybe we just don’t understand the metaphor...like the disciples, yea yea! That’s it! We just don’t get it.
Well, unfortunately, all signs point to a Jesus who is being short and dismissive with a woman who is in need. And that’s kind of annoying. Kind of makes us shift in our seats. Our Beautiful Savior, acting in a sort of ugly way.
Well, that’s not the end of the story, thank God. We see this woman, this Syro-Phoenician woman, this desperate and different Gentile turning the metaphor around in a way that reminds Jesus of who he is supposed to be, who he has come to be, what team he is playing for.
“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Crumbs. All she wants are some crumbs. And she asks for them in a way that shows her respect and love for Jesus despite what he has said, how he has treated her. How is Jesus to respond to this? Things are getting a bit crumbly.
The last time I heard this text preached on was three years ago in this very chapel. I was a Junior and wondering what on earth I was doing in seminary. Maybe some of you can identify with that feeling. Maybe not. I believe it was the first Wednesday Eucharist, and the preacher was none other than Ralph Klein. For those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to meet Professor Klein, he was and is an amazing Old Testament professor who just recently retired. I can’t remember all the details about the sermon - just bits and pieces, but there was one point where Klein reenacted the scene between the Syro-Phoenician woman and Jesus. But like a crafty movie director, Klein tweaked the story a bit. Instead of Jesus telling the man who was deaf that we hear about later in the story to be open, Klein turned the tables and had the Syro-Phoenician woman make the paste of spit and stick it in Jesus’ ears and proclaim EPHPHATHA to the holy man.
I hope I’m not butchering the sermon, but that’s how I remember it. Three years can make things a bit hazy, or crumbly if you will, but what I really remember now, three years later is what happened after the sermon.
Fifteen minutes of a sermon, countless hours of preparation, a whole life of experiences in Klein’s world, yet all I remember is a short piece, a feeling. When I went back to the text after hearing Klein’s interpretation, something had shifted. A scholarly professor had done something I’d never seen before, he had brought the text to life in a new and remarkable way. He had opened my ears like the Syro-Phoenician woman did, like Jesus did , and I could hear the text in a new and living way. The crumbs that God, who was working through Prof. Klein, had left for me after that sermon nourished me in a new and amazing way. Those are pretty powerful crumbs.
We as a society look at crumbs in a negative way. Crumbs mean mess. Crumbs on the floor can attract bugs, roaches, mice, you name it. Some churches take crumbs so seriously that they will pick up the crumbs off of the floor after a Communion service and eat them to make sure that not one crumb is left behind of the holy sacrament. So often we see crumbs as a threat, something that taints the perfection of cleanliness or of holiness. Certain situations even elicit the expression “this is crummy.” But I believe this text is asking us to take that thought a little further.
On my final Sunday of internship in Huntsville, Alabama, I decided to try something a little different. I figured I wouldn’t have many opportunities that would allow me to try something different and then leave that afternoon without having to face the repurcussions, so I went for it. (Any of you with weak liturgical stomachs might want to cover your ears for this.)
I had gone blueberry picking with a member of the congregation during the week and as I was picking, an incredible connection came to me between blueberries and my upcoming sermon. So, I decided to bake blueberry bread as our communion bread. Then, to add even more excitement, I had all of the members of the congregation pull off their own pieces of the bread instead of me doing it for them.
Now, if you want to discuss the liturgical appropriateness of this act, we can do that at another time, but what I truly remember about that Sunday were all the crumbs. There were crumbs everywhere. On the floor, all over the altar, all over me. In between services the altar guild person for the day came up to me and was a little frustrated with the mess. But the crumbs were what I remember, and it will always be how I look at my internship year, my time at seminary, my life. We can never fully remember all the details of everything we experience, we only can remember and use bits and pieces, crumbs, and that is what makes up a meaningful and rich experience.
And that is what God is doing here to us and with us today-- nourishing us with crumbs for our individual journeys. Every single person in this room is connected to LSTC in some way and desires meaning from this place. Whether that be through our employment, our interaction with our professors, or our interactions with students-- we desire meaning. And for many of us, we only have a short period of time to do that. But all of us are desiring a crumb or two or three to take with us on our journey after we leave this place, to sustain us on the way. Sure we may not remember every conversation we have with a friend here, or the words in an email may fade away, and of course we won’t remember everything we learn in every class, but that’s okay, because life is made up of tiny crumbs, tiny pieces. And the great thing about this Gospel text is that Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman show us that God blesses even our small crumbs with meaning, with life, and with grace to sustain us.
We all need these crumbs. Not just the crumbs that push us forward, but we also need to leave crumbs behind us to show us where we have come from. In the story of Jesus’ life, one crumb is the interaction he had with the Syro-Phoenician woman. God fed and nourished Jesus through the honesty and persistence of one woman, and he was forever changed by that singular interaction. God was moving through someone as small as a woman with a sick child, and that crumb sustained Jesus for the journey ahead. It may be too much speculation on my part, but I have to say that I don’t think it is a coincidence that Jesus took the time to heal the man who was deaf immediately following his interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman. Who knows what would have happened if she had kept quiet. Jesus needed that crumb of wisdom that the Syro-Phoenician woman blessed him with. She, too, was changed by that crumbly experience, her daughter was healed. And so, when God blesses our crumbs, we are reminded that those crumbs become a two-way street. We bless others because we have been blessed by God.
We are here to be fed. Fed by books, by classes, by students, by teachers, by staff, by each other, by God. There will be times this upcoming year where we will feel famished. Like we are running on fumes. Where we feel like all that we need is one bite, one taste, one crumb of the sustaining love of God--those moments where we fall to our knees with anguish and hunger and beg for something, anything. And at that moment we will find exactly what we need.
The path of crumbs behind us has shown us where we have been and will lead us home, the path of crumbs surrounds us, feeds us, and will lead us through the hours of starvation. Maybe crumbs aren’t such a bad thing. In fact, let me rephrase that, crumbs are the best thing anyone can hope for in a life. Each week we are fed by just a crumb at Holy Communion, and just a sip of wine, and that is sufficient for a lifetime. Even just a sprinkle of water on a baby’s head will sustain that child of God for eternity.
One individual, one human with flaws, was all it took for God to save the world. Crumbs make us who we are, show us what team we are playing for, and remind us that our God can do wonders with the tiniest bits and pieces -- with just mere crumbs. And those crumbs are more than enough.