The Very Rev. Tom Callard – August 16, 2020
Anyone with a pressing need knows how horrible it is when you have a request for information or help that is met with silence. When you’re standing there at the counter asking someone for assistance, and they just stand there staring back at you. Or you are on the phone talking with someone and you just want to get some information, you need something to get taken care of, but you get nowhere. Or when you’re in a difficult situation and you’re looking to someone to give you a hand, but they just ignore you, or even worse, they insult you.
And there are horrible, extreme examples of this like with George Floyd who called out for help because he could not breathe but his cries were met with silence. Or the many experiences of people who are not white or who are immigrants or who are poor or who are women, or who are LGBTQ or who are elderly, or not abled, who have gone to someone to ask for help who were told no, or insulted, and turned away. That happens all the time.
I think of my own person experience from a few years ago when I went to the ER with pancreatitis, which is extremely painful, and it was during this time when we had a flu epidemic so the ER was full, and every was seat in the waiting room was taken. And I went to the desk, and they told me to wait, and I kept going back to the desk because the pain in my side was so strong, and my kids kept going back, but they kept saying now. and I ended up in the waiting room of the ER for 27 hours.
Or another story: A friend of mine was traveling overseas and when he switched planes, he realized that he had left one of his bags on the plane. He realized it after he reached his final destination. So he called the airline and told them what had happened, and they told him it should not be a problem, he just needed to go back to the airport where he switched planes, go to the Lost and Found, and he could claim his bag.
So he was heading home. He landed in the airport and went to the Lost and Found, and he explained to the woman at the counter that he had left his bag on the plane. And he looked behind the counter and there was his bag. He could see it, and he said: that’s my bag, can I just get it? And she said – no, you need a letter from the airline. But it’s right there, he said. I can describe what’s in it. My flight’s going to leave. And she said no. So he had to go home, get a letter from the airline, send the letter to the airport, and it took something like two months to get his bag.
So we all know the experience of requesting help or information and being met with silence, or with a no, or even with hostility. And we know how horrible it can be.
Today in the Gospel, we have the story of a Canaanite woman who has a very pressing need, which is to heal her daughter who is being tormented by a demon. And she is desperate to get help. I can only imagine what a demon does to a child.
So this woman today is like every parent whose child is suffering. And she has come out because of Jesus. She knows he has been healing and curing the sick, those who have illness, and those who have demons. And when she gets there, she sees him and shouts to him and says: Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David, for my daughter is tormented by a Demon. She goes up to the counter and asks for what she needs. But she is met with silence. And she is told to turn away.
A woman I know tells a story about when she was a child in Chicago. She is African American, and when she was six years old, many years ago, she and her family were out in the city walking around. And she saw another girl her age eaiting ice cream, coming out of an ice cream shop. And she wanted ice cream, so she asked her parents for some. And her dad went to the ice cream shop, but suddenly he came back and he told her no. She could not have ice cream from there. And she said that at that moment she realized what racism was. Because the person at the counter told her father to go away because he was black.
So in the Gospel the Canaanite woman is met with silence from Jesus and then there’s this moment of racism where Jesus dismisses her and calls her people dogs because they are Canaanites. Jesus and his disciples are Jews, and everyone knows the Canaanaites and Jews do not get along and that’s how it’s been since the beginning of time.
And so the question we ask today when we hear this in the Gospel is: What kind of Jesus is this? This passage is regarded as one of the most difficult in the Gospels because it paints Jesus as possibly a racist, and even maybe sexist, who is turning away someone who has gone to him in good faith, and asking for help for a child. And it’s kind of shocking to hear.
In part because I think we can all identify with the Canaanite woman who is asking for help only to be met with silence and rejection. And always with these challenging texts I am tempted to say – well we should have the seminarian preach on this, or perhaps I should have asked Linda Taupier to preach today. I’d love to hear what she has to say. But no, I will do my best to describe what I see in this interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.
Well, what I think we see here is the complex story of Jesus Christ who is part human and part divine. The human part of Jesus grew up being taught that the Canaanites are bad, and that they are impure, this woman is impure, and the Canaanites are not deserving of the riches of the blessing of God.
And I think what we see here is a complex portrait of our Lord, as well as a snapshot of God, not as how we want God to be, but as how God actually is much of the time. Because God is, in reality, complex and not simple. And God does not always give us what we want, especially when we go to God or Jesus asking for something to happen in the moment.
And so if you think of your experience with God and Jesus, and think of the many times you’ve gone to the Divine, like this Canaanite woman, and asked for something. Maybe it’s something small, maybe it’s something big. But think of the times you’ve gone to God, and think about what you’ve usually gotten.
I’d say I’ve gone to God more than I’ve gone to any human being in my life, way more. And mostly, I’d say, my experience has been something like this woman in the Gospel. I’m met with silence. Even right now, I close my eyes and I offer a prayer to God asking for help with some concern, and I’m likely not to get what I want at this second. There’s usually no miraculous moment. There’s no lighting or thunder coming out of sky. There’s nothing like a voice coming down from heaven answering me. There’s just silence. Like in the story.
So maybe this story is true to the experience of Christians who have gone to Jesus and asked for healing or for health or for a miracle, that in that moment you do not get what you want, but you get silence. And maybe this story is more true to our experience than all the other stories in the Gospel where someone goes and the sick person is healed or the paralyzed person can walk or the bed-ridden person can arise. This rare moment where you go up to the counter and the person there gives you exactly what you want.
And I imagine that if I try to explain to a non-Christian, someone who has no sense of God, why I go to Church and why I follow Jesus and why I believe. And I tell them that pretty much whenever I go to God or Jesus with a request, that my request is granted on the spot. That person will come back to me and say: really? You go to God or Jesus and ask for something and right away they give it to you? And at some point I’d have to admit that that’s not really true. That’s not what God is like. God, in reality, is much more complex like that.
Jesus is more complicated than I often want. God is more mysterious and can be frustrating and challenging in ways that I don’t always like. And that’s the truth. We’ve got a complex God. And it’s part of being in relationship with the living God that sometimes you go to the counter and talk with Jesus, like the Canaanite woman, and you get nothing back, except silence.
But then here’s where it gets interesting, because the story goes on. And we see what happen when the woman persists. Because the faith is the persistence. Faith is when you keep going back to God and you continue knocking at that door and you continue asking for what you want, and you don’t get it the first time. Because if you always get what you want right away, there would be no faith.
Faith comes when, like this woman, you go back a second time and a third time, and you keep going back with the knowledge that surely something will happen because you’re dealing with God. And not some random force of life or some chaotic bit of nature. But you’re dealing with the God who made you, who loves you, and who cares for you. And with Jesus Crist who is by all accounts infinitely concerned with your well being. They are complex and mysterious yet nevertheless they have your and my best interests at heart, and their primary relationship with us is one of love.
I know that this part of the story is true to our experience, at least to my experience. Because once you go to God to pray and you go back to pray, and you keep going back, you find perhaps not what you had first hoped for, but you find something, a relationship, with this greater structure that they offer of love. And this is why prayer matters. You enter into relationship.
If the Canaanite woman had just walked away, she would have rejected the relationship that God offered her in Jesus Christ. If every time my wife does not behave the way I like, or she does not give me what I want, and I simply walk away, I deny myself that relationship, and I miss all the good things that come from being with her, all the positive things.
Relationships are complex. They are filled of moments when we do not get what we want, when we feel insulted and slighted and bothered by the other. And yet where would we be without them. Because they offer us so much in return.
The basic unit of life is relationship. Relationship is what makes life possible. It’s what we have with each other in this world, and it’s what we have with God, both in this world and in the next. And perhaps what we see today is really true. It’s complicated. This woman goes to Jesus, she is met with silence and brushed off and like many relationships, they get off on the wrong foot.
My wife, when I first met her, I don’t think she really liked me. She was suspicious. And at the very least cautious. It’s good to be cautious when you enter into a relationship both with other people and with God. But, if you keep trying, a relationship keeps getting better. Because it’s about you and the other finding ways you work together, finding your strengths. There are ups and downs and challenges along the way. Yet in the end you both gain.
You work better with Jesus. And Jesus works better with you. In the course of time you will have ups and downs, you’ll be closer and not so close. You will go through all sorts of twists and turns. But in the end, think of how much more you gain by having God in your life, even though sometimes you walk away empty handed. And think about how much god gains by having you.
Jesus is strengthened by the interaction today with the Canaanite woman. The human part of him grows. And I like to think that God grows every time we go in prayer, every single time we offer, we ask, we plea, we rejoice, God grows because of us. Because that’s what a relationship is.