Editorial: How to listen
I love preaching, for many reasons but mainly, I suspect, because I like the sound of my own voice. As I write, though, I’m preparing a sermon for the 11th Sunday after Trinity and simply dreading it.
The text is the story of the Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. He refuses because of her race. She pleads, and he says it is wrong to give the children’s food to the dogs. She says, ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.’ Impressed by her response, he heals the girl after all.
I’m hardly the first person to be troubled by this story, but troubled I am. Is this Jesus using a racial slur? Is this Jesus excluding people and leaving them to suffer because of their race?
Commentators have made many suggestions about how to make sense of this passage, but they don’t feel much use to me. That’s because half of our congregation are from ethnic minorities, and many have personal experience of the deep hurt and damage done by exclusion and name calling. I can’t see that it is my place or business to try to explain to my brothers and sisters, who have experienced things way outside my experience, that what may seem like racism isn’t so bad, or how they might more helpfully understand the story.
And yet I also can’t simply avoid it, or just not turn up. This is the word of the Lord, and I’m not about to tell my spiritual family it has nothing to say, or that we have to run away from it. Whereof one cannot speak, or stay silent… what does one do?
While I was stewing over this, I interviewed Kathryn Mannix for Reform (‘How to talk’, page 12). We had a bad Zoom connection and I couldn’t always catch her words well enough to respond, but pressed on because it had taken a long time to arrange and I couldn’t put it off again. Ironically, the subject was how to listen.
I thought of bad conversations, where I’d been quick to talk and slow to listen. Good conversations where a challenging voice gave me unexpected insights. It occurred to me there’s one thing I do get about this story: Jesus listened. He stated his position, she challenged him, he changed course.
I wonder if I can make this sermon, instead of an opportunity for me to bang on uninterrupted as normal, an opportunity for us all to listen to each other. Hmm, tricky. But I reckon if Jesus could listen and learn to someone who saw things differently, I should be able to too.
This article was published in the September 2023 edition of Reform