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“Learning Curve”
Matthew 15:21-28
August 17, 2014
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Dr. H. Mark Ashworth

I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the simple fact is that school is about to start. That’s usually where teachers and students groan, and a few parents quietly cheer. In any event, it is a time we start focusing on learning, on what lessons are still out there for us, and how we go about learning them. This morning as we reflect on this somewhat strange story from Matthew’s gospel, I want to raise a couple of rather challenging questions. I came across these questions this week in a commentary on this passage, and I think they’re the right ones to ask.* I won’t blame the writer for what I do with them, though.

As we get started, then, the first question is this: could Jesus learn? For some, the question itself is objectionable. Jesus knew everything, didn’t he? To suggest he needed to learn anything seems to suggest that he somehow wasn’t perfect. But common sense tells us differently. And theological reflection tells us differently. Even scripture tells us differently. Common sense says that when the shepherds arrived at the stable, the baby Jesus didn’t quote the prophet Isaiah to them. He was a baby. And he grew up. And he learned. As Luke says, “He increased in wisdom and stature.”

If Jesus shows us what humanity is supposed to look like, then he shows us a human being who never stopped learning, who never stopped becoming clearer about God’s purposes for him or for the world. Making room to learn is no imperfection. Refusing to learn certainly is. Jesus learns and grows all his life. Hebrews 5 says, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” Jesus kept learning. Learning in all sorts of ways. And I’m convinced that’s what is happening in this story.

A woman comes to Jesus begging healing for her daughter. A Canaanite woman, according to Matthew.  A foreigner. And while she kneels on one side of the scene, desperately pleading for her daughter to be healed,  the disciples form a kind of chorus at the other side of the scene, demanding that Jesus send her away. We may well expect him to rebuke the disciples and help the woman, but that isn’t what happens. When the disciples come to him about her, he says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." And when the woman herself manages to get to him, he tells her, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Ever since the story was told, people have tried to get Jesus off the hook. I think we’re better off simply letting the story stand as told. Jesus seems to be seriously struggling with whether his mission can go beyond “the lost sheep of Israel” as he puts it.

In terms of that comment about dogs, the word he uses is the word for house dogs, which is still not the nicest thing to say to someone. But the woman takes it as an opening. House dogs, huh? Well, you know, the house dogs are in the house, after all, and they do at least get the crumbs from the master’s table. And Jesus is amazed at her faith. Last week we heard Jesus say to Peter, “You of little faith.” Now we hear him say to this Gentile woman, “Great is your faith.” She has shown him something, something he seems not to have expected. She has taught him something by her persistence and by her faith.

This story is situated between the feeding of the 5000 and the feeding of the 4000. In both cases, what seemed like a situation of scarcity wound up with abundance. Not just sufficiency, but abundance. It would have been a great miracle to have fed the last person in the crowd with the last bit of food. But in both cases there were baskets of food left over. I think there’s something there about seeing any limits on God’s provision. Those limits don’t exist. There’s always plenty. There’s always more. For Jesus to see his mission as to the lost sheep of Israel was a huge task in and of itself. Sometimes I imagine he looked at the Twelve and thought, I’m having enough trouble with just you guys. But this is a story about the abundance of God’s grace, about pushing beyond the apparent boundaries and limitations. In the end, that’s exactly what Jesus does. And he learns the lesson by listening to this outsider, this foreigner, this woman of persistence and faith.

Could Jesus learn? Yes, he could and he did. And that raises the second difficult question: can we learn? Jesus learned an important lesson in an encounter with a woman the disciples wanted to send away.  Who do we encounter who may have something surprising to teach us? We could mention a variety of possibilities. But this morning I want to point briefly to three specific kinds of encounters that have been on my mind and heart recently, three encounters that give us an opportunity to learn.

Let’s start in some sense with where Jesus was, that is, in encountering people with a different cultural background. I’ve been thinking about this particularly as we look toward beginning our tutoring program in just a few weeks. I’m excited about the possibilities for real ministry and real help for children in our community. And as Garrison Keillor wisely put it, “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted.” But we’re likely to be in touch with more than just children. We’ll be in touch with families. And we need to ready not just to tell them what we can do for them, but to listen. To hear their stories. To learn about them. To learn from them. We may have much to teach them, but they have much to teach us, as well.

And then I want to turn to some encounters that have for so long been taboo even to mention but simply can’t be ignored or avoided in 2014. And I’m speaking of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Whatever your beliefs may be, the simple reality is that we have family and friends and co-workers and fellow students and neighbors who are gay and lesbian. Some of them are devout and serious Christians. As long as join the disciples’ chorus of “Send them away” or “Keep them away,” we will do two things. We will send a clear message that God cannot love them. And we will cut ourselves off from what we may learn by listening. Again, by hearing their stories. By going beyond labels and getting in touch with our common humanity. We’re experts at dividing the world into us and them. But God is always in the reconciling business. And we are called to do the same.

The third encounter I would mention this morning has been on lots of our minds this week with the passing of Robin Williams, and that is the experience of mental illness. Sadly, the church has too often not been a place where mental illness is recognized as the illness it is and where words of grace and compassion are shared. At times, we have reflected our culture more than the gospel, choosing to ignore the reality or worse, to treat it as a reason for shame. If you have cancer, we’ll pray for you. If you have depression, well, snap out of it. Sometimes that’s what we have joined the culture in communicating.

I’m not going to give you a long list of statistics, but just consider this. In any room that reflects the general population, 1 in 4 adults are dealing with a diagnosable mental illness and 1 in 5 children are doing the same. That doesn’t mean all of them are equally severe, but it does mean we’re not immune. I think we all actually know that. But we don’t talk about it. And we don’t make space for others to talk about it, either. We have no problem talking about everything from high blood pressure and digestive problems to cancer and heart disease. But somehow mental illness isn’t OK to talk about.

I read a piece this week from a psychiatric nurse entitled “How Clinicians Should Respond to the Death of Robin Williams.”** I want to share just a short excerpt. He wrote:

Cultural changes happen from one individual to another. Acceptance of previously stigmatized issues in American culture…did not change writ large but rather with small, incremental changes in attitudes that were passed, person to person until acceptance became a new norm and intolerance became stigmatized.

What if, when we speak of Mr. Williams’ suicide, we speak not of something that happens to other people, but to people that we know and care about? 

Part of the force of shame is to make people feel like they are separate, that they are an “other.” What if feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide were viewed as something that can happen to us and to those who we love, not just to “other” people?  

Again, dividing the world into us and them is both completely unrealistic and profoundly unhelpful.

Now let’s be clear. The church will not solve mental illness anymore than we will solve cancer. But we can provide a place of safety and hope and grace and welcome, a place where we can be honest about our struggles and know that our honesty will not be met with shaming or scorn. Again, that means we learn to listen to each other, to hear each other’s stories, and to see in the face and experience of another a new glimpse of how God’s love and grace may be at work.

On that long ago day in northern Palestine, Jesus learned by listening, by hearing what this foreign woman had to say. Her persistence and her faith amazed Jesus and moved him to action and her daughter was healed. We will learn as we are open to listen to the people around us, especially to the people who don’t simply echo what we think and how we talk. We will learn as we move beyond just talking about people or talking to people or worse, talking at people, or as we often do, talking past people. But we will learn as we talk with them, and most importantly as we listen to them.

Let’s listen to those with different experiences than ours.

Let’s listen to those with different backgrounds than ours.

Let’s listen to those who share both their own struggles and their own faith.

Let’s listen and learn. Learn that God’s love and grace are broader than anything we can imagine. And learn that we don’t have to fear that God would have to choose between us and them.

One of my favorite hymn texts is by Frederick Faber. We don’t sing it often, but just listen as I read the words.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.

There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in His blood.

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more simple,
We should take Him at His word;
And our lives would be more loving
In the likeness of our Lord.

May we rejoice in the wideness of God’s mercy and may we learn and keep learning day by day to be more loving in the likeness of our Lord. God grant that it be so. AMEN.

* Two questions taken from “In the Meantime” at www.davidlose.net

** Andrew Penn, “How Clinicians Should Respond to the Death of Robin Williams,” http://www.psychcongress.com/blogs/andrew-penn-rn-ms-np-cns-aprn-bc/how-clinicians-should-respond-death-robin-williams

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