“The Sound of Silence”

During my vacation, the pulpit was filled by seminarian, Elder Laura Bachmann on August 20, 2017. My thanks to her for her energy and leadership. Here is her sermon:

South Presbyterian Church                 The Sound of Silence                August 20, 2017

 

Matthew 15:21-28

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

 

 

Our gospel this morning can be challenging to parse. In a moment that perhaps represents Jesus’ full humanity, we see our Lord refusing to help a person in need. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like that. In fact, I find it deeply troubling. This story seems to contradict everything I know and believe about Jesus. It is no wonder that amid all the sound and fury of this uncomfortable dialogue, we can easily miss the silence that sits at the center of the exchange.

 

Silences, we know, come in all shapes and sizes. There is the easy silence that settles between life-long companions sitting quietly, side by side. There is the awkward silence between two people who’ve just met and have no idea what to say to each other. There is the embarrassed silence of the one who just put her foot in her mouth; and the exhausted silence of a new parent. And there is the silence of fear or anger or cowardice.

 

We employ silences all the time to further communicate with each other. Every parent (and child) knows the silence of disapproval or interrogation. Every sales person knows the silence of the moment before the customer decides to buy. But how often do we embrace silence as a tool of transformation?

 

I think perhaps Jesus has something to teach us about that in this story today.

 

But, before we can delve into the silence, we must first deal with the troubling spoken content of this exchange.

 

It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.

 

As a woman and a mother, I am offended by Jesus’ response to this suffering sister.

 

I find it particularly ironic given this story’s position in Matthew’s gospel, where it immediately follows a scene describing Jesus dressing down the Pharisees for complaining about the disciples who are not following the food purity laws.  Jesus informs these faith leaders in no uncertain terms that people are not defiled by what goes into their mouths but, rather, by what comes out of their mouths. He tells them that what they say and do matters a great deal more to their spiritual purity than whether they follow all the dietary restrictions and norms.  True purity, insists Jesus, rests in how one treats the people around one.

 

Let that sink in for a minute and then consider this: the very next event finds Jesus first ignoring and then speaking unkindly to this woman. How do we reconcile these two things?

 

We cannot avoid feeling discomfort as our incarnate God, the God of love abounding, remains silent in the face of someone in pain and then dismisses her.

 

This hurtful response reminds us too easily of our struggle to understand how God can stand by while awful things happen in the world. Where was God when the captured teenage girls escaped from ISIS, too traumatized to speak or even sit? Where was God when the car plowed into the counter-protestors in Charlottesville or the crowds in Barcelona? Where is God amidst famine, and war, and oppression? Is God saying, I exist only for the people of Israel?

 

The God I worship, does not leave us alone in these circumstances. The Jesus I know extends a compassionate hand, a listening ear, a healing prayer.

 

But this Jesus does not do any of that. This Jesus will not even answer.

 

This Jesus’ first response is silence.

 

What are we supposed to do with that?  How can we find the truth God wants us to hear?

 

Let us first consider Jesus’ context. He is a faithful, Jewish man, steeped in Torah tradition. He likely has entire parts of the Hebrew testament memorized. He knows the rules and he knows his father’s will. He has learned, from an early age, what the prophets long declared, that a messiah will arise for God’s people. This savior will come from and minister to the house of Israel. As a faithful Jew, Jesus would have understood this to preserve the chosenness of his people. A chosenness that has remained unchanged throughout the ages, despite famine, slavery, exile, and war. God remains their God and they remain God’s people. Always.

 

Imagine how overwhelming the job must have seemed to the fully human Jesus. His people live under occupation, they are hurting and marginalized. They must pursue their faith in the context of a robust and strictly applied pagan religion that has no room for a single God and a chosen people that is not Roman. Many of Jesus’ brethren are waiting for a King-David-like warrior to come and throw off the yoke of the Roman oppression. Surely Jesus’ hands felt full enough with the rebellious and disinterested leaders that he keeps encountering in his own faith community; men who don’t view him as the savior he knows he has been sent to become. For Jesus the man, this woman’s request may just be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Maybe truly human Jesus falls victim to fatigue and the limitations of an imagination that, for a moment, cannot see how his work can include those not of his faith.

 

Into this context, Jesus drops his unreadable silence followed by a response we don’t like. Is he really completely dismissing her – a nonperson, gentile, woman, unaccompanied by the requisite male to make her presence socially acceptable? Or does his silence contain something else?

 

In the end, it is the disciples who insist that Jesus take action.  They clearly find this woman annoying and, rather than feeling compassion for her distress, they just want her to go away.

 

“Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” Only then does Jesus answer, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” I wonder if he is thinking about his latest argument with the Pharisees, feeling discouraged that they did not listen to him. Some interpreters even believe this sentence was added into the story at a later time to stress the primacy of the people of Israel in God’s plan; to indicate that God remains true to God’s Old Testament promises of a special place for the particular children of Israel; to recognize that Jesus’ first task is to this chosen people which has fallen away from God’s promises and to whom God now calls, longing for their return.

 

It is not clear from the passage whether Jesus’ initial response is heard by the woman or simply directed to the disciples. We don’t know if it is his explanation for why he has remained silent, a simple thought voiced for himself as much as for his disciples, or an implied order to do as they suggest and send the woman away.

 

Regardless of Jesus’ intent, this woman does not give up. A second time, she calls to Jesus, “Lord, help me,” this time falling on her knees before him and using a form of Jewish liturgical prayer that he would have recognized; calling him Lord – a name only his disciples have used for him. Here is a gentile woman who appears to understand who Jesus is in a way many of his fellow believers do not.

 

Now Jesus does reply directly to her. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

 

And here it is.  A response we find deeply offensive. Every time we celebrate communion we welcome all to the table and we offer the bread of life, but here is Jesus saying it is not right to take this bread and feed it to the dogs. I can feel my own anger and outrage rising at this reply. I don’t recognize this Jesus. In my modern day body, I hear the echoes of centuries of those in power refusing to acknowledge those they oppress. Sometimes it is too much for our faith to hear such a thing.

 

Perhaps many of us would have given up at this point but this unnamed woman does not. She persists. And instead of arguing with Jesus she takes his own statement and, in a classic turn-it-upside-down Jesus move, she hands it back to him as a reason for him to act.

 

Yes it is [right], Lord,” she says. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

 

And just like that, Jesus changes his mind. “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

 

This seems like an abrupt about face. Again, how do we explain an all powerful God, incarnate man, who willingly reverses his decisions at the behest of a mere woman – an unclean, gentile, member of the decidedly NOT chosen race of non-Jews?  The whole story seems capricious and out of character and I suppose that is why so many interpreters just choose not to even try explaining it. They focus on passages before and after this story and just gloss over this conflict by discussing the unnamed woman’s great faith.

 

Certainly, we should stop to appreciate this mother’s unwavering commitment to obtaining healing for her child and her absolute certainty that Jesus possesses the ability to offer her just that. She has no doubt heard of the miracles he has performed for the people of Israel. In fact, she appears to know something that the human Jesus did not – that God’s love, represented in this man, extends to all people, not just to the house of Israel, but to all of God’s creation, now, in this time and this place.

 

As I consider this story, I am drawn back to Jesus first reaction to this woman: silence.  Silence can hold many things. It can hold true innocent ignorance in that one simply has not heard someone speaking. It can hold a malicious power that refuses to acknowledge the presence of another human being. It can hold cowardice when we know we should speak up but do not want to risk becoming a target ourselves. It can hold a listening presence that hears the words of another and considers what they mean.

 

I think it is this last kind of silence that Jesus initially offers this woman. Perhaps he is thinking about what she represents and contrasting it in his mind with recent events within in his own faith tradition, remembering the bruising argument with the Pharisees over what constitutes purity. It is into this silence that Jesus’ exchange with the woman takes place. Unlike the silences that shut down the one being ignored, Jesus’ silence precedes a dialogue. We are uncomfortable with the harshness of it, to be sure, but it is through this dialogue that Jesus himself learns something new about his ministry. Perhaps the earlier arguments provide a backdrop conducive to Jesus taking in this information and coming to a turning point in his own work. I wonder if this is the moment when he realizes that God’s promises for the house of Israel don’t extend to the rest of humanity only at the end of days, when the Israelites have provided a beacon of light to call all of creation back to God. Perhaps Jesus realizes that his incarnational mission to all of Abraham’s descendants starts now and extends over a much wider area than he initially understood.

 

It takes the voice of a persistent, brave, outsider to speak the truth to Jesus and to demand that he offer her the good spiritual food he distributes to the others who cry out to him.  It takes the heart of God to listen to these arguments and reverse a hasty decision that did not honor the compassionate nature at the center of the divine.

 

Today, I wonder what the content of our own silences is. When we refuse to speak, is it because we are simply unwilling to entertain ideas that do not coincide with our own or unable to find the courage to speak out against injustice? Or is it because we are listening to voices that differ from our own, taking in points of view that do not coincide with our cherished beliefs and wondering whether they might perhaps have some merit after all? Are we extending compassion as our first response while we also lend a listening ear that desires to understand the reason for our neighbor’s distress? The meaning of our silences says so much about how we pursue our faith in action.

 

Because, you see, silence is never neutral.

 

What happens when silence misses the opportunity to transform and instead creates a space for injustice to reign? What happens when our silence over the small injustices slides into silence over larger acts that dehumanize and target the “other” amongst us? What happens when we fail to speak in the face of bigotry and hate acted out in violent ways? What happens when silence leads to Charlottesville and Barcelona?

 

I wonder what happens to our ability to find creative solutions when our elected officials silence those around them with whom they do not agree; what happens to the fabric of our communities when our leaders witness a terrible injustice and remain silent. What happens to our ability to govern ourselves when we cannot break these silences to call out oppression and violence and bigotry?

 

What do we create when we are so interested in winning that we do not care who is shut down in the process?

 

As people of faith, I wonder how we are called to employ or break our silences. When we hear someone speaking in a way that cuts down another person based on their gender, race, political ideology, sexual orientation, religion or profession, what should we do? When we see our elected officials declining to speak against injustice or our government enacting policies that favor one group over another and create barriers for the already marginalized, what should we say? If our silence in the face of oppressive language or discriminatory behavior allows it to continue, then it creates a complicit silence that destroys the humanity, not only of those being targeted, but also of those speaking those words and those standing silently by.  Such silences are not the silence of Jesus.

 

But when we employ our silences to first listen and understand where the person uttering the words we find offensive is coming from, then we begin to use our silence to promote a possible peace. When silence is followed by an engaged response that invites dialogue, encourages understanding and offers a different point of view, then that silence holds a rich promise for wider inclusion and a more just world. When we employ our silences with an open and curious mind, one willing to see another side and possibly come to agree with that position, what might we create in our communities?

 

Jesus and this unnamed woman model for us a way to engage each other in transformative ways. Despite a deep power imbalance, Jesus’ silence and engagement combine with this woman’s persistence and faith to create a new vision for Jesus’ ministry and to serve as a model for us today about engaging with those on the outside whom we may think have no place at the table. Much can be gained from all sides when we speak out against injustice and when we do not silence or dismiss any voice; when, like Jesus, we are willing to consider that we may be wrong; we never know when the one we overlook may in fact have the kernel of truth that will transform our world.

 

Jesus’ perfect humanity, while perfectly fallible in sometimes deeply upsetting ways, remains also perfectly humble and open to changing his mind in transformative ways.  We need to read the whole story of Jesus and this woman in order to move past Jesus’ first unkind response to the culmination of the exchange when healing and transformation are made manifest for both parties.

 

What do our silences say about us? What would Jesus invite us to do with them?

 

 

 

 

 

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