Sermon: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15A, The Very Rev. Randall Hehr
“Can we talk?” I love hearing these words! Someone is issuing a gentle invitation, and if the answer is “Yes,” there is an opportunity for communication, for discovery, and for sharing. If listening takes place and respect for one another, the conversation can lead to deeper understanding. John Savage, who has written about communication, teaches us that when someone wants to talk, they may go through more than one stage of sharing. If they feel comfortable, eventually they may share reflections they were not consciously aware of when they initiated the conversation.
“Can we talk?” This can be an invitation to go deeper, seeking healing for older wounds or misunderstandings. When we hear these words, we should be ready to listen. I remember the occasions when my adult children have phoned me and they needed someone to listen. I remember these words when someone was in the midst of discernment regarding medical decisions.
“Can we talk?” You and I know that sometimes the answer to this question is “No.” Or, at least, “Not right away.” Now let’s think about these dynamics this morning, particularly in light of our Gospel passage, Matthew 15:21-28. And to set the stage for this interesting passage, I want to capture the pace of the ministry described in a short period before this passage.
In Matthew 14:22f, we find the story of Jesus walking on the water in the midst of the storm. Then he travels to the district known as Gennesaret where many sought his healing. Immediately after this, Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees and scribes who came from Jerusalem to confront him. Our text for today tells us, “Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” He is now leaving familiar territory, going outside the acceptable communities according to Jewish teaching. He’s going to a place where the outcasts live.
A Canaanite women seeks him for healing because her daughter is tormented by a demon. We hear her determination as she calls to him, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” But he did not answer her. And the disciples sound like a chorus of traditional Jews, saying to him, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” Jesus answers them with a very narrow description of his mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Now watch her body language, for the text says, “…she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’” He still holds the traditional teaching of Judaism, saying harshly, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She answers, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith!” And her daughter was healed instantly.
A great deal has been written about this passage. Commentators tell us the story has been shaped by a very traditional Jewish community. This perspective helps us understand why Jesus responds to the Canaanite woman in a harsh manner. Another view is to see Jesus as the exhausted healer who is trying to pull back after such a demanding time. Others see Jesus’ evolution through his encounter with the Canaanite woman. She teaches him, and they both teach us. I believe the story helps us think about how we will respond to others today.
This past week I was reflecting on how harshly divided and closed off the world can seem. “Can we talk?” On the level of international diplomacy, often the answer is “No.” From a chorus of hate groups and organizations, the answer is “No.” From those who take the law into their own hands, causing harm or injury or death through violence, the answer is “No.”
In the midst of such trying dynamics, let us be inspired by the persistence of the Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter. She is bold and brave. She has such focus! No matter what barriers she encounters, she is still looking to Jesus for healing. And Jesus teaches us about listening and evolving. He teaches us about staying open to new discovery and being willing to change old patterns.
This story speaks about the ever expanding love of God. In a world that so often seeks violence and hatred, let us always look to our ever expanding God to show us the way to listen and to understand.
I close with a story I heard this week. It is found in a documentary called Accidental Courtesy. The story is about a musician named Daryl Davis, who several decades ago started playing piano with a group that played frequently in venues where he was the only black man in the room. When the set ended, and Daryl walked over to get something to drink, inevitably a white man would engage him in conversation. Eventually the white man might say, “I’m a member of the KKK, and I have never talked to a black man before in my life.” And Daryl learned to answer, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” Over the years, those conversations with strangers became conversations with friends, and today Daryl proudly says that many men have left the KKK and have given him their white robes. They had a change of heart because they came to know Daryl Davis.
“Can we talk?” The answer is, “Yes.” And what follows with careful listening and mutual respect may bring healing and peace.