Isn’t it interesting that the Gospel portion for today’s reading cuts out what is normally the center of the narrative: the feeding of the multitudes, followed by the episode in which the disciples – after the dinner party – go to cross the Sea of Galilee in the boat and find Jesus walking along the water toward them and they are afraid. Big, sweeping stories with big sweeping lessons for us: the extravagant abundance of God’s provision, and the abiding presence of God in the midst of our fears.
When the lectionary structure performs a miracle-ectomy, it is often an invitation to take a closer look at what remains. Minus the dazzle and drama, what might we notice around the margins?
It is often in the margins that Jesus operates; it is often in the margins that the word and the work of Jesus are most accessible to us; it is often in the margins that we ourselves are most like Jesus to others.
What might the message in the margins have to say to us?
Maybe we are invited into observation: that is, to notice that we find ourselves on the margins.
Not all of life, not all of the ministry of daily living, is the spotlight, the center ring, the grand gesture. In truth, it is usually the small and seemingly insignificant words and deeds that help build a nest of love and belonging in the hearts of those we encounter and in the hearts of the ones we most love.
Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Kim Harris describes going to a meeting of a knitting group purely to get some hands-on help with learning to make socks. As would any of us. But Ms. Harris found herself on the margins of someone else’s life, and there was a message in the margins. She describes a woman standing up and displaying a “little white sweater the size of a Christmas-tree ornament.
“The woman explained that the garment was for a premature baby. Preemie babies can’t be that small, I said to myself. The sweater looked as if it was knitted with dental floss on toothpicks. The woman went on to say that it was for a premature baby who ‘wasn’t going home.’
“Quick intake of air. Slight catch in throat. You could hear the knitting needles stop dead in their tracks. This sweater was made for a baby who would die. Did I hear that right? Yes, that’s what she’d said.
“I suddenly felt ashamed. My face went hot and probably red. I stared at the tiny sweater, made by this woman’s hands.”
The knitter explained that baby clothes don’t come that small. “ ‘We make sweaters for mums and dads so they have something nice to put on their baby.’”
Ms. Harris says, “I don’t remember the rest of what she said. It is hard to look into the face of love and not be shaken, no matter how tough you are. A few years have passed, and I’m still moved by that teeny white sweater; that anonymous knitting done by a sensible woman to warm a baby too small to survive. For her, there would be none of the usual satisfaction a knitter feels – seeing a sweater worn, outgrown and passed on to the next lucky child. Why did she bother with one that would only be worn once?
“I think she did it for the same reason knitters have always made things for homeless people, poor people, babies, kids, elders, soldiers, women with breast cancer, family and friends.
“Could this be true, that every little thing actually does matter? Every stitch, every kiss, every kindness – they all count, they all add up? Maybe love is just a seemingly endless series of very small gestures repeated until you die.”
Is this the message of the margins? That “love one another” does not need to be big and spectacular. That the smallest of gestures, the little ordinary actions we take and the little words we speak … that this is how we might be as Christ to one another.
The Gospel reading for today, the life along the margins, shows the disciples reporting to Jesus of the ministry they have been doing in his name – and Jesus says, “That’s great. Well done! Come away by yourselves for a while; you need a rest.”
And as they try to do just that, people run ahead of them and meet them there, desperate for healing. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
Any time the sheep and shepherd metaphor shows up in Scripture, it’s natural for us to cast ourselves in the role of the sheep, because naturally, Christ is the Good Shepherd.
But notice that today’s reading begins with Jesus’ students telling him how they had been little shepherds, doing what Jesus does, saying what Jesus says, trying to be as Christ to others.
What if that’s the other message in the margins for us today? We are invited, first, to observe that much of what makes a life is not in the spotlight but in the margins. And then, we are invited, we are so lovingly reminded, that even as we are sheep to Jesus’ good shepherd, we are also shepherds. Every one of us is called, every one of us is equipped, to go about the ordinariness of life along the margins just as Jesus does. Because we never know where we might encounter sheep without a shepherd. Sometimes, as Kim Harris tells us, being a shepherd looks like knitting impossibly tiny sweaters for impossibly tiny babies – babies so premature that they won’t be leaving the hospital. “Could this be true, that every little thing actually does matter? Every stitch, every kiss, every kindness – they all count, they all add up? Maybe love is just a seemingly endless series of very small gestures repeated until you die.”