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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

Can Jesus Learn? Can We?

Can Jesus Learn? Can We?
Matthew 15:21-28
August 17, 2014
Jennifer Browne

Just like many other professionals, it’s easy for pastors to become content with what they already know, to rely on what they learned back in grad school and avoid the hard work of learning something new, challenging old ideas and stretching to grasp new ones.  Most churches, therefore, require their pastors to take time every year for continuing education.  The hope is that their spiritual leaders will come back not just refreshed and re-energized, but with new learning that will help them lead the church into the future.

Many years ago I spent my continuing education time in Montreal, Canada, attending a week-long course that coincided with the Montreal Film Festival.  Along with viewing many of the films being premiered at the festival, we also heard from and engaged in conversation with theologians and film critics. Together we reflected on the films we’d seen and on the ways they conveyed theological ideas and social commentary.  It was an exciting, inspiring week…except for Barry.

Barry was also a pastor; a small man, thin and wiry.  Barry seemed to need to make up for his size with a loud voice and a grandiose manner.  In every group session, Barry dominated the conversation with his opinions about the merits and demeritsof the films we had just seen…whether or not we asked him, or someone else wanted to speak, or he had just finished doing the same thing in the last group session.

I was not fond of Barry.  

A few days into the week, in one of our group conversations, Barry forgot my name.  But having to refer to something I’d said, he pointed at me and said, “y’know, the Methodist over there.”  That did it.  I told my conference roommate not to leave me alone with this guy.  There would not be a happy ending.

But the worst came to pass.  After lunch one afternoon I found myself walking to the next film showing…with Barry.  Lunch had been rushed: sandwiches and chips in the fellowship hall of our host church.  I had eaten half of my sandwich and left the untouched second half, still wrapped in its cellophane, on the table.

Walking down the street, Barry and I passed a panhandler sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the wall of a skyscraper, holding his hand out for change.  I kept walking.  I’m a city girl.  I know better than to encourage that kind of behavior.  I know where most of the money dropped into outstretched hands goes.  So I kept walking.

Barry slowed down.  He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a cellophane-wrapped half sandwich.  My half sandwich. He knelt down in front of the panhandler and gave him my sandwich.  “Enjoy it, my friend,” he said.  “God bless you.”

I learned my lesson.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus learns a lesson.  It seems strange to say that, doesn’t it?  Can Jesus learn a lesson?  The Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Son of God?  If Jesus learns something, we might ask, does that mean he’s not perfect, or complete, or sinless?  You may worry that soon you’ll hear the footsteps of the doctrine police, marching down the long corridors of our minds.

The traditional reading of this passage is that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said to the Canaanite woman.

‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

Surely Jesus couldn’t have been that dismissive, saying that he was ministering only to the Israelites.  He couldn’t have meant that she was a dog.  This must have been a test, a way of bringing to harvest the faith that God had already planted in her. Or maybe he was testing his disciples – seeing how much they really knew.

But both of those interpretations require a fair amount of added assumption to make sense.  The woman comes to Jesus with her faith already strong.  There’s no indication that the disciples learn or don’t learn Jesus’ message; there’s no added explanation of the lesson afterwards, as Matthew so often provides.  

The other possibility is the simplest and most straight-forward one: Jesus learned a lesson.  His own understanding of God’s kingdom was challenged, stretched and made new by his encounter with this fierce, faithful woman.

She is a Gentile, this unnamed woman.  Jesus has traveled from the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee into Phoenicia and Tyre – a Gentile, non-Jewish area.  He crosses a geographical boundary; she crosses a religious and cultural one. Her daughter is so sick that she’s willing to throw herself at the mercy of an itinerant Jewish healer and teacher.  And it’s clear that, having found Jesus, she’s not going to let him go until she wrestles a blessing from him on behalf of her sick daughter.  

Parents with sick kids are like that - they won’t let anything get in the way of taking care of their child.  Not unsympathetic doctors, not health regulations, not lousy insurance, not even a messiah who has something to learn.

Because, if you’re walking this interpretive path, Jesus does learn.  He starts out telling her that his mission is to the Jews, the children of God.  “Let the children be fed first; it is not fair to take their food and throw it to the dogs.”

The woman’s response is remarkable.  Even in the face of this apparent rejection, she comes right back at him.  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Jesus had used the diminutive form of the word for dog, “doggette,” if you will.  Now she uses the same form for the word “crumbs”: even the doggettesget the little crumbettes from the master’s table.” She has grit and grace and even wit. She has what we would call these days, an “attitude.” “Go ahead and try to push me away.  I’m not going anywhere.  By all means, feed the kids.  But I bet you have a crumb, even for me.  I bet you do.”  She just won’t give up.  

Jesus’ manner towards the woman softens; he speaks with kindness and comfort.  “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”  It seems that he has learned something.  He has learned that God’s kingdom and Jesus’ ownmission are bigger than he had initially imagined.  What God intends and the roleJesus plays in bringing that intention to reality are more inclusive, more encompassing that he first thought.  He’s willing (and able!) to learn from someonehe had never considered to be a teacher before.  He listens; he learns; he responds with new wisdom.

One of the films we saw at the Montreal Film Festival was called “Children of Heaven.”  It was made in Iran and told the story of a poor family, living in a tiny apartment in Tehran, from which the landlord was threatening to evict them.  The mother of the family is quite ill, so 9 year old Ali and his younger sister must do the household chores when they get home from school.  Their father serves tea all day long in a large office building.  It is menial labor and he hates it.  One day he comes home from work and berates Ali for failing to help his mother with the housework.  Ali’s eyes fill with tears.  He has spent the afternoon looking for his sister’s lost shoes.  But he can’t tell his father that; it would make him even angrier.

The next time we see tears, they are in the eyes of Ali’s father.  Again he is serving tea, but this time he is in the mosque, where serving tea is an honored part of the religious ceremony.  We don’t know if the tears are from pride in his role, or because he has just been given some used gardening equipment that he can use to start a second job.

Ali and his father set out to the wealthy neighborhoods of Tehran with the gardening equipment.  The houses are surrounded by tall gates, requiring the use of an intercom.  Ali’s father figures out how to make the intercoms work, but once hegets an answer he becomes completely tongue-tied.  House after house, he cannot get out a full sentence.  House after house, he’s sent away without a job.

Finally Ali steps in.  “We’re gardeners.  Does your grass need cutting?  Do your trees need pruning?”  Ali’s father stares at his son.  Ali holds his breath, and so does the audience.  What will this stressed-out, hot-tempered man do to his son?  The father’s stare becomes a smile.  “You did that very well.”  Ali – and the rest of us – exhale in relief.

It was no coincidence that Ali’s father could listen to his son, and learn from him, after his worship time in the mosque.  His faith gave him strength and comfort, dignity and pride.  Having received those gifts, he was able to learn a lesson from a mere child, someone he had never considered to be a teacher before.  He listens; he learns; he responds with new wisdom.

Which brings me to the second question of the sermon title: can we learn?

Not can you learn, as an individual…but can we learn, as a church?  Over the last couple of decades churches all over America have spent a lot of time and energy trying to learn why they are losing members.  They used to be bursting at the seams, now the pews have a lot of room, and the people sitting in them have a lotmore gray hair.  What went wrong? we ask. How can we bring people back to church?  How can we bring young people to church for the first time?

Dr. David Lose says he has had this kind of conversation literally hundreds of times.  But rather than answer that question directly, because he does not have THE answer, he asks them a question back:

•Have you asked any of the people you wish would come to church why they don’t?  •Have you asked them what would get them out of bed on Sunday morning?•Have you asked them what you could do differently that would make church meaningful for them?

The answer, he says, is almost always “no.”  Not “no, we’d never do that.”  But “no, that never occurred to us.”  Our congregational patterns and worship practices work for us.  They’ve worked for generations.  That’s why we’re here.  This is the way we do Sunday mornings; this is the way we do church.  It didn’t occur to us to ask others what they think of it.

But taking a cue from Ali’s father, and from my experience with Barry, and – most importantly – from Jesus and his encounter with the Canaanite woman, maybe we can recognize that in this particular situation we are not the teachers, we are the learners.  And if we want to learn, we first need to listen. Then we can learn.  Then – hopefully – we can respond with new wisdom.

So here is my assignment to you, brothers and sisters, should you choose to accept it.  This week, find someone who doesn’t go to church, any church, and ask them why not.  It will not be hard to find someone who doesn’t go to church, although you may find yourself speaking with someone you had not thought of before as a teacher.  But see if asking that question can get a conversation going, and then prepare yourself to be the learner.  Don’t feel that you need to defend your church or Methodism or all of Christianity.  Just ask and listen.

•Why don’t you go to church?•What would make worship meaningful for you?•What would make it worth getting up for?

I would love to hear what you find out.  My email address is on the back of the bulletin:  Send me the results of your conversations.  I want to hear them, I really do.  I expect that I’ll learn something.






David Lose. “Pentecost 10A: What the Canaanite Woman Teaches.” Posted August 11, 2014 in Dear Partner.