Scraps (sermon 9/6/15)


Watch video of this sermon here:


From there [Jesus] 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, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

     – Mark 7:24-37


When I was a kid, from the ages of nine through eleven or twelve, I played on a baseball team. It was kind of like Little League, but this was a separate league started by the people in my home town that was in competition with the local Little League. This was the Little Knights League, and eventually, Little Knights became a bigger thing locally than Little League. One of the few differences between the two leagues was that, unlike Little League, every Little Knights player played at least two innings per game. This was a very good thing for me, because up until the last few games in my playing career when something finally clicked, I might have actually been the worst player in the league. I was a guaranteed strikeout, I was guaranteed to not catch the pop fly that was hit to me, literally out in left field. The only reason I played was because my grandfather was a founder of the league and the manager of one of the teams – the Giants – and every other family member had been a Giant before me, so I had to be a Giant, too. Up until that last year, every game was pure hell for me. And it had to be the same for my parents, who had to be cringing as they sat in the bleachers watching me mess up every single game.

One of the best things, though, about Little Knights was that unlike Little League, Little Knights had a concession stand. For a dime, you could get your choice of a bag of popcorn, or a snow cone, or a bottle of pop, and at the end of each game, every player got their choice of a free snack. For me, it was always a bottle of Orange Nehi, and I’m telling you, at the end of a hot, sweaty evening, there was nothing, then or since, to match the taste of that ice cold, sharply carbonated orange pop going down your throat.

And at the end of the evening, as everyone was heading home and the concession stand was closing up, all the kids who didn’t have the money to buy something would gather around the window, next to where Mrs. McCann would be cleaning out the popcorn machine, and they’d all ask her, “You got any scraps? You got any scraps?” You know, the popcorn scraps. The tough, little, half-popped kernels that you get in every batch of popcorn and that end up on the bottom of the machine, that you’d never really want to eat and you certainly couldn’t sell. But if you didn’t have a dime, it was better than nothing.

There’s something like this going on in today’s gospel story. Jesus, who has been going all over the Jewish countryside preaching about the realm of God and God’s love for them. But he’s tired and needs to take a mini-vacation away from things to recharge his batteries, so he leaves there and goes to Tyre, which is not part of ancient Israel but is the neighboring Syrophoenician kingdom. The Jewish people looked down their noses at the people of Tyre, just as they did with all Gentiles. They weren’t part of God’s chosen people; they were disrespectable, unclean, even contemptible; good people aren’t even supposed to associate with them, let alone do them any sort of kindness. So Jesus slipping off to Tyre would be kind of like us slipping off to Canada for the weekend, if we hated all the Canadians and thought they were all filthy subhumans worthy of our scorn; but they had a nice beach and the exchange rate was good, so we just put up with them.

And while he’s here, trying to go off the clock for a bit – trying to do some “self-care,” as pastors are instructed to pay attention to today – this strange Gentile woman seeks him out and asks him to heal her daughter. And in one of the most shocking and seemingly atypical stories we have of Jesus in the gospels, Jesus is downright insulting and rude to her. He says that it isn’t right for him to help her – he’s been sent to proclaim good news and to help God’s children, the Jews, not to Gentile “dogs” like her.

This sounds bad enough to us, in English, today. But in ancient Middle Eastern culture – and even in some of those cultures yet today – to call someone a dog is one of the worst insults you could call someone. This was the first-century equivalent of calling a black person the “n-word,” or a gay person the “f-word,” or similar slurs to others. It really isn’t what we’d expect from Jesus. And then, of course, we heard this woman put Jesus in his place. She’d come, desperate for him to help her daughter, and now, when facing the ultimate of insults, she stands up for herself against him as she continues to claim that she’s worthy of at least some attention and compassion from him. She asks him at least for some crumbs off the children’s table. She asks for some scraps.

This seems to have been a turning point in Jesus’ own understanding of his ministry. The scriptures say that, divinity aside, he had to learn things as he grew and matured – he “grew in stature and knowledge;” and here it appears that he learned something from this woman who wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself and her daughter, and the suffering and injustice they were enduring, to ask for his help. And as we heard, Jesus honored her faith, her trust that he could help her, and her tenacity in standing up for it even in the face of the social and cultural deck being stacked against her, and he healed her daughter.

This is an important story for us to remember, especially now when we’re continually seeing the protests and demands from various groups in our own culture today that they be treated in accordance with the promises of our country’s founding documents and our legal system. For too long, these groups were considered the dogs. They didn’t even get the crumbs, the scraps, or our society, and then they eventually got at least that, and now, they’re calling for full equality – demanding to be recognized not as the dogs under the table, but as children equal to all the others in our family. In one way or another, we’ve all been complicit in treating these others like dogs, or at best, less-favored stepchildren, in society, and even in the church. And because we’ve all been complicit in this, whether as individuals or just as members of cultural structures that systemically did it, we have an obligation to take an active role in fixing the problem, and making a place at the table for these children, our long-shunned brothers and sisters. This is true whether we’re looking at society, or the church itself. We all have to learn the lesson that the plucky Syrophoenician woman who maybe figured she just didn’t have anything left to lose, taught Jesus on that day so long ago.

Friends, we have to learn this lesson over and over as we come to see the fullness of the realm of God. Jesus, and then the earliest church, had to learn that God’s message of love and acceptance wasn’t meant only for the Jews, and in every age we come to terms with expanding our understanding of who’s inside that “circle.” We need to keep focused on the incredible, extravagant grace that God has given us, and to understand that God has given us the responsibility to reach out and extend that love, and grace, and justice, and acceptance, to all those around us. That’s the simplest, most essential truth of the gospel – God’s good news. And any time you hear someone talking about the gospel in a way that excludes some group or another, you know they haven’t learned the lesson Jesus learned the hard way in this story. We need to learn, and re-learn, that in God’s eyes, we’re all called to share in the abundance and beauty and wonder, and especially the justice, of this world – not just the scraps, but the whole, big, puffy, white kernels, buttered and salted for all of the flavor of God’s great creation.

Jesus had to learn it. And if we learn it, and if we do everything – everything – that we can to open up room at our table in church and society, and to give everyone – everyone – an equal seat, equal respect, equal dignity, equal consideration – equal justice – then in God’s eyes, we’ll have hit a home run. And in God’s eyes, that will qualify us for something even greater than a free, ice-cold, Orange Nehi.

Thanks be to God.

Remember the Giants


The Giants, 1970. That’s me in the back row, far right; Grandfather/Manager’s hand on my shoulder. He seemed so old then. He’s actually 5 years younger in this picture than I am now. Oy. The man in the back row, right/center, is Mikey.

My name is Dwain, and I am a Giant.

I say “am” despite the fact that I haven’t worn a Giants uniform since 1972, because, as the recently started Facebook Page states, “Once a Giant, Always a Giant.”

The Giants were – actually, still are – a team in the Little Knights Baseball League in my hometown, Masontown, Pennsylvania. In the 1950s, Masontown had Little League – in fact, in 1954 they just missed playing in the Little League World Series, finishing third in the country. But the league got to be very selective in its tryouts, leaving lots of kids out of an opportunity to play ball – and even if they did make the team, Little League rules then and now allow kids to be bench-sitters, not getting to play in every, or maybe any, games.

Recognizing this problem, a handful of men – mostly fathers of young kids, mostly coal miners, mostly World War II veterans – decided to start another baseball league in town. This league would have tryouts – not every kid would make a team – but the league rules were that every kid on every team would play at least two innings of every game. And so the Little Knights League was born.

A local fraternal club provided the land, and the field was built. Probably most of the materials for the backstop and the chain link fence around the field were perpetually “borrowed” from the mines where most of the men worked. Dugouts were built, and bleachers were brought in, and a little building just behind home plate was built to house a concession stand and equipment storage. You could get a bottle of pop, or a bag of popcorn, or a Sno-Cone, for ten cents. There were still kids who didn’t have a dime, and at the end of the night, when the concession ladies were cleaning up, those kids would come up to the window for a free bag of the little broken bits of popcorn and half-popped kernels left in the popper, asking “You got any scraps? You got any scraps?”

A window from that building looked out at the plate, and just inside the window sat the official scorer and the game’s announcer. I’m not sure how they managed to do it, but the field had lights for night games and a PA system. The Little League field had none of this. The games were always well-attended, but many residents of the neighborhood could sit on their back porches on warm summer evenings and listen to the play-by-play on the loudspeaker.

Little Knights may have originally been seen as a poor substitute for Little League, but over time, Little League faded and Little Knights became the League that most of the kids in town wanted to play in. And in 1969, I followed in the footsteps of my seven-years-older uncle and my one-year-older cousin, and became one of the Giants, coached by “Bones” Baily and managed by my grandfather, Quentin “Queenie” Pontorero, one of the founders of the league. Later, my two brothers would also become Giants, and my father would coach them for a time.

The Giants were a perennial powerhouse in the league, but I freely admit it wasn’t through any of my skill or effort. For most of the three years I played, I was the worst player on the best team. I couldn’t hit a ball to save my life. Any time I came up to bat, my parents cringed, my grandfather cringed, my teammates cringed, the fans cheering for our team cringed, because everyone knew I was going to strike out. And I cringed, because I knew I was going to let them all down. And as bad as I was at batting, my fielding was even worse. Anything hit into left field was pretty much a guaranteed single, at very least. It was like that for the first two years, anyway. The third year, I managed to develop at least minimal hand-to-eye coordination and not completely stink. And one game in my last year, I played amazingly – but that’s another story.

Thinking about those days, I was reminded of all those “Everything I Needed to Know in Life, I Learned in Kindergarten” kinds of lists, and I thought I could prepare a similar list – “(Almost) Everything I Needed to Know in Life, I Learned as a Giant.” Or, if I didn’t first learn it as a Giant, it was reinforced there. So, here’s my list:

1. Character matters.

2. Always work hard at whatever you do. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to always do your best.

3. Never be without a good black leather belt (as you can see in the picture, a required part of the Giants’ uniform).

4. Similar to #1 above, whatever you do, do it honestly and with integrity. Do not be afraid to own up to your mistakes, and be willing to work to correct them. Life will give you plenty of unexpected ups and downs, but live with honesty and integrity through all of them.

5. You are important as an individual, but working well as a team can achieve far greater success than the sum of the individuals.

6. Always be gracious, in victory or defeat, because whichever you’re experiencing at the moment, you’ll be experiencing the opposite soon enough. Plus, the kid on the opposing team that you just beat is your next-door neighbor and one of your best friends. You’ll sit next to him in geography class tomorrow.

7. Whether you win or lose, nothing makes the victory so sweet, or takes the edge off the loss, quite like the ice-cold carbonated sting of an Orange Nehi.

8. Clove gum rocks. So does Beemans. (my grandfather passed out a stick of chewing gum to every player just before the start of every game)

9. The tag in our uniforms said to Wash in Lukewarm Water. When in doubt, always do the same.

10. No matter what you do, there is always going to be someone who does it better than you, through a combination of hard work and practice, and natural inborn ability. No big deal; we all have our particular God-given skills and abilities. Whenever you’re around those better than you, observe them, learn from them. You’ll never be as good as they are, but you will become better at whatever it is than you were yourself, and that’s all that matters. And no matter how modest your skills may be, you will – maybe only once, but you will – at some point, shine like a star. And you will see, smell, hear, and bask in the memory of it for the rest of your life. I do.

11. Succeeding in life will require you to improvise, adapt, and overcome. For example, if Hannah’s dry goods store is out of white felt letter “G”s to sew onto your cap, you can make do just fine with a “C” and scraps of an “I.”

12. There are some people among us who have mental or other developmental disabilities. Often, they are, as Harper Lee might say, the mockingbirds among us: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us..” And anyone who would tease, or make fun of, or hurt, anyone like that is an absolute moron. (our team’s mascot and good luck charm  was Mikey, a developmentally disabled man who almost never missed a Giants’ game)

13. No one – no one – likes a smart alek, even if on occasion they may pretend to. Really.

14. Whatever you do, whatever the chosen game or field, hustle onto it, and hustle off of it.

15. Life may not always be easy, but it is good – enjoy it. Play ball!