Today is a special day for a few of us in this congregation. It's Dennis and Holly's 45th wedding anniversary today. Congratulations! Isn’t that fantastic? You don't get to 45 years without lots of hard work and some really strong love. May God continue to bless you, and your marriage.
It’s also the fifth anniversary of my ordination – something that had been on my heart since I was a kid, and finally happened when I was 53. It was an extraordinary day at the church: you all had worked your fingers to the bone getting this place spit-shined and decorated and putting together a magnificent spread and I'll be forever grateful to you all for it.
Becoming a Presbyterian minister is a process that involves jumping through a lot of hoops. There's the Greek and Hebrew requirement for example, very hard on an older brain. And there's CPE, your clinical pastoral education, your chaplaincy preparation. I did my training at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Connecticut, Joe Drago’s old hometown. It was an incredibly intense learning experience – though more often than not, it was an unlearning experience, a setting aside of many ingrained habits before you step into the next hospital room. One of the first lessons was never to say, I know exactly how you feel. We like to say that when someone is hurting, to establish some connection, some common bond. But the truth is you don't. You don't know exactly how I feel. You may have a similar background, you may have similar experiences, you may guess it right. But the only way to know how someone feels is to sit with them, and listen to them, listen to them tell you their story. And when as a chaplain you listen, really listen, you might just have a chance at making some healing happen in that room.
We’re having a listening problem in our nation right now. Amid all the unrest, we’ve all jumped into our ideological foxholes, and are busy lobbing hurtful, hateful, threatening things at each other across the social media divide. I was supposed to be working on a writing project of mine last week; instead I spent my time writing and deleting, writing and deleting Facebook responses, mostly because I didn't I think it was going to do any good anyway. We’re all just sitting in our rooms, looking out on one direction, listening to the echo of our own voices. And to some degree, that’s how it is, right? We have our own lives, own experience, own perspective. But the only hope we have becoming a just society, a just community, a just nation is if we take some time to understand each other's perspectives. To listen to each other stories, most importantly the stories of hurt. The stories that need healing.
There seems to be a listening problem in today's gospel passage as well. One that takes my breath away every time I read it. One that makes want to make excuses for Jesus. Maybe he’s hungry and tired, lonely and impatient.
Jesus has been traveling and preaching and healing all over the place. That's why the woman comes to him. She comes asking for his help in healing of her daughter. First, Jesus ignores her. But the woman keeps yelling, maybe even a little louder, “Have mercy on me.” Then the disciples start complaining, “Send her away, she’s causing trouble, she's disturbing our peace.” So Jesus says to her, “I'm not here to fix your problem.” Then the woman kneels before him, she takes a knee and says, “Help me.” And Jesus says, “It's not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”
You know, the truth is Jesus wasn't some guy with great social standing. He lived in the backwater Judea, a member of an oppressed people under Roman occupation. Jesus had his own problems, and his own people to care for.He was not powerful in the traditional sense.He was a brown man who would soon be killed by way of state-sanctioned violence.
But he did have the power to bring healing to this Canaanite girl. And for 5 excruciating verses, he refuses to offer it.
He ignores her. Rebuffs her. Insults her.
We don’t know why.
Then this amazing thing happens. The woman keeps telling her story, and she keeps insisting that her story is part of this bigger salvation story. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table.” And Jesus listens. He hears her story, a story of pain and trauma and marginalization, and he decides to step into it and bring the healing that he can bring. Jesus Christ, the Messiah himself our professed Lord and Savior allows himself to be schooled, allows himself to learn from this Canaanite woman.
Who on Earth are we to not listen to each other's pain?
The black and brown children of God who share this land with us have asked and shouted and knelt and we have ignored and rebuffed and even insulted and mocked and hurt.
And that must stop.
When someone post black lives matter, they’re not saying only black lives matter or black lives matter more than others. They are saying – please, just stop, and look at this pain. Not your own, not the world’s, not another group’s, but this pain. Because maybe if you do, we can heal it, once and for all. And it all starts with the listening. And it doesn’t end there. We need to listen to other stories, too, other stories of pain and challenge and woe. The stories of our family, our neighbors, the police officers we know and love. This isn’t a one and done. This listening is a posture, a lifestyle, even a holy task.
Jesus knew that all lives matter – but it was in the acknowledgement that this life mattered, that this woman’s life and her child’s life mattered, that the healing was able to happen.
Last week on one of his daily check-ins Marcus Molinaro talked about a letter he received from a little girl, Lyra, and his subsequent conversation with her. She was upset by what she was seeing on TV, and she said it made her sad to think that a classmate of hers might be treated poorly because of the color of their skin. She suggested that maybe if we just smiled a little more and asked, “how are you?” things would get a little better. It may sound simplistic, a child’s easy answer, but there is such wisdom in it.
But what if we put down our defenses, and set aside our own stories for a moment, and just asked another,
“How are you?”
“What's it like for you?”
“What's it like to be you?”
We need to ask, and we need to listen.
And let ourselves be schooled. Perhaps it’s the most Christ-like thing we can do.