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  • The Rev. Arianne Rice

Stories That Are Hard to Hear

A few weeks ago I was talking with a doctor who was telling me about a meeting dicussing patient satisfaction surveys – you know when they ask people at discharge to rate their experience. Apparently – hospitals who have strong chaplaincy programs also have better, more positive results in patient satisfaction surveys.

This makes intuitive sense to me – and I know its true from my own chaplaincy and from colleagues who work in hospitals. When spiritual and emotional health are valued in the same way physical health is valued it makes a difference. And chaplains – what they do is very simple and very hard. They say hello – and offer to listen. Sure they pray. Sure they stand with families who are making life-changing decisions and walking through life-altering events. But the majority of the time is spent simply listening. Being present and paying attention to a person – to a family – inviting them to share the story of who they are – the story of why they are there – the story of what matters in their lives – of who matters in their lives and why.

And regardless of the physical ailment – if you listen, letting go of your opinions and judgements and instead listen with your whole heart to the story that is shared – they will tell you the healing they are longing for.

If this morning’s story happened in a hospital room - and Jesus was the chaplain he would’ve been fired. Don’t worry, I’m not being blasphemous and I’ll cut him some slack eventually – but this is not the good shepherd lovingly draping lost sheep over his arms. This is Jesus being human - – just like you and me. Yes, Jesus is God – and yes – God sent his Son into the world – to share our human nature – which includes living and dying as one of us – but also everything in-between. It’s the most revolutionary and unique aspect of the Christian faith tradition without which the resurrection is meaningless – God became one of us. And part of human nature – is not getting it right all the time.

I think that’s hard for us to believe. I think its easier thinking Jesus is God and therefore very different than you and me. But incarnation is a a central claim of our faith – God made us for God and then God became one of us so we could see how much we are loved – and how much good we are capable of. Embracing the humanity of Jesus is how we move towards lives that practice Christ’s divinity.

Jesus and the disciples are wandering through a neighborhood where they don’t belong. They have left the familiar neighborhoods – and are strolling through Syrophoenicians and Canaanites streets. And those neighborhoods are meaningless to us – so we have to make an analogy – I’m perfectly comfortable strolling through the streets of Ruxton and Riderwood – I am not perfectly comfortable strolling the city blocks of Pigtown or Sandtown. The names aren’t important – every town and city of every time and place has different versions of Ruxton and Pigtown - what matters is placing ourselves in the story.

And Jesus does what, I don’t like to admit I would do. This woman – who is not Jewish, not one of them – comes running, asking to be seen and heard and shouting for help. Actually – she shouts for mercy. Mercy is what you ask from someone who you know has more power than you do. Mercy is defined as compassion or forgiveness toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. The woman knows who has the power – and she asks for mercy.

But the disciples yell at her – and Jesus ignores her. Nevertheless, she persisted. (and yes, for those who asked post-sermon this is a reference to #neverthelessshepersisted)

Maybe Jesus was tired – he had just fed the 5,000 and then done that whole boat thing with the storm and Peter walking on water. Maybe Jesus was a little scared – that’s human enough. I don’t think that Jesus was “acting” for the benefit of anyone – that’s really reading something into the text that isn’t at all there – and in Matthew’s gospel there are plenty of times when Jesus is not at all warm and fuzzy and I’d rather hang out with the Jesus in Luke, honestly.

But hey – and I think we can all relate to this – we all get compassion fatigue. We all get tired and want the problems to go away. We all know what it is to think – aren’t we over this by now? Can’t we move on? That’s literally what the disciples want this woman and Jesus to do – they just want to move on.

I saw Dunkirk last month – have you all heard of that movie. I’m giving it a thumbs up. It’s a WWII movie about an evacuation north of Normandy on the beaches of Dunkirk in France – where the British, French and some other allied troops were rescued by a lot of

ordinary people in ordinary boats. The movie is good on a lot of levels – but what I thought about the most afterwards – having learned – yet again something new – about a fairly recent chapter of our past – I thought about was just how many movies – so many movies are about the world wars. And I’m sure more to come. Why? Well I think one reason is that we need a lot of time to process those stories.

We need literal time. We need distance from the literalness of what happened – to give ourselves permission to own mistakes. Permission to acknowledge the tragedy of war, regardless of the victories. Permission to acknowledge the amount of time and loss it took before institutions – like the church – named the evil of what was happening. We all know the value of learning the stories of our shared history - even though we’ve moved on – we are who we are now – because of who we were then.

Jesus at first – tells this woman that it would not be fair to help her. That the power he has is not for her – its for people like him. Jesus – is so like us in this moment – of forgetting that the power is to be shared – that the power is to be used for just mercy. Through biblical history God speaks asking- where are the voices that are crying for mercy? Who are the people who have the power to answer that call? And can followers do as Jesus does – if at first we are overwhelmed – we want to look away – ok. But at some point can we listen?

Jesus’ compassion fatigue – turns to amazing grace – when he realizes the Cannanite woman matters and is exactly who he came to serve. Her faith – her persistence – turns his heart. And the disicples are empowered by Christ’s example – just as we are – of Jesus’ self-awareness. His ability to turn towards the larger mission of God’s purpose – that power is shared with those who have none.

Whenever a Christian community gathers for worship – anywhere in the world – all we do is listen to our history – some of which includes very difficult stories to reckon with. Stories of brothers selling one another into slavery – like Joseph. Stories of men sending women and their children into the desert to fend for themselves – like Abraham and Hagar. Stories of wars – of monarchs – of people abusing power – and people risking everything for the sake of a person with none. We listen to these stories and find ourselves – because in every single one – God’s purpose is inevitably made known. There may be death – but there is always resurrection. There may be darkness – but it never conquers the light.

Scene from the film "12 Years A Slave"

In our time and place – there are stories that are hard for us to hear. That require more listening than talking – more curiosity and less judgement. That require a willingness to do what Jesus does this morning – when brothers and sisters persist in saying – have mercy – there are demons that need to be healed – we can choose to be like Jesus – and let ourselves be surprised and changed because of their faith.

We prayed in our psalm – oh how good and pleasant it is when we live together in unity. If that’s what we want – and believe – we – the people who have the power - have to listen – so that we can hear what really needs healing. Amen.

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