A sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

One of the hardest things I’ve had to do, at least in the second half of my life so far, is the summer that I spent as a chaplain in training at a trauma hospital.

Being a chaplain is different from being a pastor. You share a common humanity with the people you serve, but you don’t necessarily share the same faith. And in our humanity, we all have spiritual needs. They might not be religious needs, but your job as a chaplain is to find out in a fairly short time under difficult circumstances: what does this patient need spiritually, and what do I have to do to make sure that need is met in order to support their healing.

So I served in a stepdown unit where the patients were very sick, most of them had just come down from the ICU, but they weren’t even ready for regular hospital rooms. And as I stood outside the room of each new patient on that ward, I never knew exactly what I was going to encounter when I went through into the room.

Possibly they would be not awake. Possibly they would be aware but not able to speak. A challenge to find out what their needs were in those circumstances. Possibly they would not want to see me at all. Maybe they were angry, angry at God and wanted to vent. Maybe they did want to pray. And that spontaneous prayer out loud with strangers is something that doesn’t come so naturally to most Episcopalians, so there was that.

But you do it, patient after patient, and you’re there for the staff too, in their needs. It’s hard for them to see people they’ve cared for hurting so much. Suffering, dying.

One of the patients I remember most clearly was a woman who was there with her husband. The first time I met her, she was quite alert. They were very, very nice people. They were a very nice couple. There was goodness in them that you could feel, and the first time I met her when I went in she was busy helping her roommate figure out how to order a meal. And we talked and we prayed, and it was a very good exchange.

I saw them several times more. I ran into them in the emergency room one afternoon. Just in the middle of lunch she’d become confused. They brought her in, she was admitted, her cancer was back, and the rest of the course of the disease went very quickly. The nurses called me and asked me to come and support her husband, because he was having a lot of trouble accepting what was going on.

He kept squeezing her hand and saying, we’ll get through this. We’ll get through this. Well, they did get through it, but maybe not in the way that he would have hoped. I prayed with them. He was both faithful and angry. He told me about different people in his life who had suffered, and he didn’t understand suffering. Why was there so much suffering in the world. And I had a conversation with him in which I said things I’ve said a number of times since. That suffering is a mystery. I don’t believe God causes suffering, but why God allows suffering is something that I don’t understand. But God’s own son suffered, and I do believe that God is there with suffering people.

This man was a little embarrassed that he felt challenged by this, and he wasn’t sure how to pray. I said I thought it would be ok to bring his doubts and his anger, even, to prayer, because surely God already knew, and God’s love was big enough to hold that and hold him, and keep him close and safe.

Well, his wife was gone by morning, and I was off the next day but I did run into him in the lobby a few days later, and he gave me a hug, and he thanked me for the prayers, and he said they had helped. And in some ways we were both changed by that encounter.

By doing those things again and again through the summer, I changed, and became the pastor that I am today, not that the growing stopped at the end of the summer. But I was way out of my element, I was way out of my comfort zone, and I was changed by that experience, into—I hope—a better person.

Well I think that’s exactly what’s happening to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel. He’s way out of his territory. He’s way north, he’s out of Galilee, he’s in Gentile territory, and not only is it Gentile territory, but it is a hostile area. They don’t like Jews there. I don’t know why he’s there. It doesn’t really tell us.

He’s in this house alone. He’s hoping to be left alone. Maybe he needed some time away, far away, but the next thing you know there’s this woman who comes and bows down before him. She’s assimilated into Greek culture, she’s quite possibly very wealthy.

She’s got this daughter with this terrible suffering by being possessed by a demon, and she does—like a fierce mother—what she can think of to do. She asks Jesus for healing. And his response is somewhat rude. He calls a dog, a little dog. It’s not like saying, you cute puppy—it’s really not nice. A little uncharacteristic.

But she’s not stopped. The fierce mother that she is, she comes right back at him. He says, you know, the children are fed first before the dogs. And she says, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table. What she’s saying to him is, there’s enough to go around, for me to have some too. There’s enough grace for all of us. There is room in God’s kingdom for me, too.

And Jesus is changed, and he grants her what she asked for. So we don’t know if he always knew that he was going to do this, and was just putting her off for a while. It doesn’t seem like it. Or whether he was genuinely changed. There’s this gradual change in understanding through the big story in which what starts out being understood as a mission to the Jews is eventually understood as a mission to the Jews first, but really to everybody.

Was he changed his thinking? It depends a little bit whether you favor a divine or human understanding of who he is. His divine nature—could he have known all that was going to happen? Maybe. But we know that he was also human, and we humans do grow in our understanding and change by our experiences. We change by being stretched. Luke tells us that Jesus grew in grace and wisdom. I’d say it really looks like he learned something and he grew in this encounter.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I look back at my life, all of the times when I’ve grown the most have been times that were hard, times when I was really stretched beyond my comfort zone. You know that saying, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There may be limits to that but it’s been true for me.

There was a Sunday morning when I walked up to an Episcopal Church which I’d never done before, and that felt hard, and here I am today.

There was a time when I had an opportunity to host a young Russian boy for three weeks. I didn’t want to do it. There was the discomfort of not sharing the language, of opening your home to a stranger, of being responsible for somebody else’s kid and all the activities for three weeks, but the rest of my family did want to do it. Well, he’s a member of our family now, 24 years later. He and his wife are members of our family. They were at our house for Labor Day weekend.

I’ve been enriched. I’ve been stretched. I’ve grown. And it all begins with stepping outside of your comfort zone.

So here’s a challenge I leave you for the week ahead: Be alert. Notice where life is inviting you to step outside of your comfort zone. To do what seems too hard to do. To serve people who it isn’t your natural inclination to want to serve. Let your mind be opened to new ways of thinking. And I promise you, you will be changed.