Over the weekend, I was walking back to my car in the grocery store parking lot, when I saw a sticker on the back of the car parked next to mine. In the center, it had the letters RR and the outline of a dog on it, and there at the bottom in smaller letters was written, “Rhodesian Ridgeback.” The sight of it sent a shiver down my spine. Unconsciously, I raised my hand and tugged on my left ear.
A decade ago, I spent the summer working as a parish intern in a poor, urban Anglican church in Middlesbrough. Rather than bother to arrange a rotating series of hosts who would have me in their homes, the vicar, who had plenty of space in his own, welcomed me and gave me a room. (Honestly, I learned a lot more about being a vicar from living in his house than I did from working in the church, but that’s another post.) Living in the house were the vicar, his wife, his son (who had moved back in after a brief post-university career and was only there about half the time), their dog, and me. Oh, did I mention that their dog was a Rhodesian Ridgeback—the breed of dog that was bred to hunt lions?
King was, for the most part, a friendly dog. Like many Rhodesians (dogs not countrymen), he was more like a cat than a dog and only played with you when he felt like it. He had been the dog of a professional footballer (think soccer player), who loved to rough-and-tumble with his canine companion. When his girlfriend became pregnant, she drew a line in the sand and declared it was either her and the baby or the dog, so the dog was sent to the RR rescue society, where my vicar, who was looking for a protective dog that would help keep his family safe in their council-estate vicarage. When the doorbell rang, he gave out a nasty bark that made both his and my hair stand on end. And the vicar and his wife both gave me a very clear instruction: don’t get down on the ground with him.
One day, I was sitting in the den rubbing King’s belly—a peace offering on my part for a dog who still wasn’t quite sure why I was in his house—when the doorbell rang. King did his show of aggression, and the vicar, after hissing at his dog to be quiet, got up to answer the door. The dog calmed down and lay back down on the floor, where I continued rubbing his belly. He rolled back and forth on his back, almost purring with joy, but then he rolled just out of my reach. Without thinking about it, I dropped off the couch onto one knee and reached out over him to stroke his belly. It happened in an instant. The dog flipped over and bared his teeth as he jumped off the floor. I instinctively sprang up and turned my face away from his open mouth, and I remember very clearly, as his teeth sank into my ear, wondering whether I should pull my head away or hold still in the hope that he wouldn’t rip my ear off. After that one bite, he let go disappeared down the hall.
I walked to the front door, where the vicar was standing on the steps talking with a woman about scheduling a baptism for her new baby. I tapped on the glass with my right hand since my left hand was clutching my ear, staunching the blood with paper towels. The vicar turned around, thought I was telling him that there was a phone call, waved me off, and then went back to his conversation. I paused for a moment to consider the circumstance but decided that this was indeed a reason good enough to interrupt him. So I tapped on the glass once more. When he turned around with an annoyed look in his eyes, I removed my hand from my ear, exposing the mangled flesh. His frustrated countenance changed in an instant as the blood drained from his face.
We went to the hospital, where the fun really began. First, the attending physician in the emergency department informed me that I had, “a good chance of ending up with a significantly misshapen ear.” His plan was to cut off the bit part to avoid infection. The vicar, who was in the waiting room, cringed when I reported those words to him. As the day went on, I was passed from one doctor to another to another. Eventually, the plastic surgeon—a lovely man from Austria who insisted that he wasn’t a “doctor” but rather a “surgeon”—decided that I could keep my ear and did a wonderful job of sewing all the parts back together. All told, the NHS provided me with a host of nurses, several doctors, a skillful surgeon, a few techs, and—the real point of this post—with two lovely meals. And I never had to pay a dime.
It was the meals that really struck me. They knew I wasn’t going to spend the night, but I was given a “bed” to sit on while I waited for my surgery. And, while waiting, because my anesthetic was only local, I ate a lovely chicken sandwich and crisps. Then, after my surgery, I returned to my bed, where, because I had missed “snack time” both a sleeve of crackers and a sleeve of cookies was waiting for me since I hadn’t had the opportunity to choose for myself. Lastly, because the evening meal is served early in hospitals around the world, I was given a plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and vegetables while I waited on my discharge to go through.
In today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 15:29-39), the crowds follow Jesus for three days, bringing him “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute and many others.” He cured them all, and the witnesses were amazed when they saw those whom he had literally put back together. But that wasn’t enough. Jesus pulled his disciples aside and said to them, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” Even if we can’t quite remember how many loaves and fish were involved, we know how the story ends. Jesus takes a tiny little bit and miraculously provides for everyone. They are all fed with plenty left over.
It is not enough to heal them of their disease or restore their disability. It is not enough that they should be made whole. Jesus feeds them. He gives them what they need to make it through the day. He sees the need below the surface and responds to it. He addresses the daily issue—not just the presenting problem.
So often I hear preachers (me included) celebrating the huge stuff that Jesus did—heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead—but I often lose sight of the little things. The salvation that God provides in his Son Jesus Christ is about the big things. It is about overcoming death and being raised to new life. But it’s also about making it through today. When we look for salvation, sometimes we think only of heaven. Yes, heaven is where we’re headed, but probably not today. Yet today’s needs must be met. And God is giving us what we need—even if it comes on a hospital tray.