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Listening Well - September 5, 2021

by Rev. Joan Kessler

Mark 7:24-37

Last Sunday, New Orleans observed the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. To mark the occasion, Hurricane Ida, a category 4 storm with wind speeds reaching 150 mi/hr slammed into the Gulf Coast yet again. The story I want to share with you this morning is that of a hospital chaplain in-training in Knoxville, TN back in late August, 2005. Hurricane Katrina saw some 1.5 million people displaced from their homes and on the move. The hospital in Knoxville where the chaplain worked, was preparing to receive evacuees. There was a coordinated effort from churches and other helping agencies to provide for the needs of those who were displaced.

This particular day, the chaplain attended to a couple of dozen people who had watched their homes wash away in the flooding. Some were part of families, others were on their own. Some had serious health conditions, needing to be hospitalized; others were doing reasonably well and after a shower, a change of clothes and a meal, they were ready to head to the church for shelter. As the day wore on, good things were happening… people were being helped and moved along. All except for a woman and her two teen-aged children. They had remained throughout the day tending to their two elderly relatives who needed to be admitted to the hospital. The woman wanted to stay with her family and ensure they were receiving the treatment they needed, and from experience, we know this takes time. The staff that had been assigned to help the evacuees, were ready to return to their regular duties. When the woman finally came back downstairs to her awaiting children, the chaplain asks if she was ready to go on to the church, a question that had been asked of her several times already.

The woman explained that she had money and was not ready to leave the hospital just yet, wanting to stay and help her elderly family members settle. But patience is starting to wear thin. The helpers are tired and they really just want to help this woman and her kids move along so they can call it a day. A plan and resources were offered to the woman… but she doesn’t want these things. So the chaplain tries again and suggests that this really wasn’t a great place for bored teenagers…and there would be no telling how long it would take her family members to get admitted and placed on ward… was she really sure she wanted to continue waiting this out? She didn’t appear to have anything more with her than the clothes on her back…but she wanted to go upstairs to check on her family one more time. When she returned, she went to the chaplain, and in a defeated tone said, “Fine. Let’s go.” Transportation was called and the family of three was on their way.

This story is played out every day. Caregivers, those in the helping profession wonder… “Here I have this help to give you. Why won’t you take it?” The teller of our story goes on to reflect that others she was working with felt really annoyed by the way this woman seemed to be dragging her feet and not wanting to cooperate with their well-thought out processes and timelines. She remembers the woman saying she had her own money and wanted to see to her family. Upon reflection, the chaplain came to realize that the help she had to offer wasn’t helpful if it didn’t meet this woman’s most pressing need in that moment. She didn’t need food or clean clothes or a place to stay… she needed time and space and patience of the staff to let her be with her sick family members. The woman taught this new chaplain that when someone needs help, she needs to listen to what is being asked for and what isn’t… we all know our needs best and don’t need another to tell us.

We find Jesus this morning in a far off place, outside his Jewish territory… perhaps he is tired and weary and just wants to get away for a while from the needs of the crowds that follow him. And in true Mark fashion, there is an urgency about the place… a local woman, a Syrophoenician we are told, immediately enters the house where Jesus is staying, she just goes on in without being invited and asks him to help her sick daughter. This does not fit with Jesus’ preconceived ideas about who he is there to help; she simply isn’t on his agenda. He refers to she and her daughter as dogs, a very derogatory comment on Jesus’ part, with the hopes she will go away. But she isn’t leaving until she gets what she came for.

If there is a thread that seems to be presenting itself with our stories this morning it is the importance of listening well. When we take time to listen to another with our undivided attention and ask reflective questions back, we gain a deeper understanding of what the person feels and what is might be like to be in their shoes… this is empathy. We are excited to offer a study this fall on this very topic of how can we increase our capacity for empathy through becoming better listeners. There are important conversations taking place where diverses opinions are shared. If we can understand one another through reflective listening, the richer our relationships will be; we can cultivate respect for times when there are differences of opinion.

A woman, an outsider, is our teacher this morning. She taught Jesus something he didn’t know before. She goes toe to toe with Jesus’ harsh assessment of her and changes his mind. Her quick-witted response opens Jesus to see that all are insiders when it comes to God’s love and compassion. No one is left out and this is our Good News. This story reminds me that Jesus wasn’t perfect, that he too was constantly learning about human service…he was opened that day to seeing the perspective of another, a woman in need. He put his impatience aside, his closed view of who she was, and discovered her need of his compassion. This encounter is followed with the unstopping the ears of a deaf man…Mark’s irony should not be missed. Jesus was “opened” by the Syrophoenician woman so that he might be changed and go on to help a man who could not hear.

What things do we need to be open to? What conversations are difficult at the moment to hear and understand? Thinking back to the story of the chaplain I shared at the beginning, I think of those who have been my teachers, the wisdom that has been shared with me and how they have changed the way I see my vocation as a minister. I am learning every day. And maybe you can teach old dogs new tricks after all. So let us be opened to the presence and experience of another… may we be open to listening and understanding what someone else is saying so that we might respond in a caring and compassionate way. Be opened to the Spirit’s presence, the love and acceptance that is made known to everyone when we seek understanding… regardless of our social location, the money in or not in our bank accounts, our vaccination status, our belief systems. Friends, be opened to the good news of this day. Amen.

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