Sunday Sermon: Learning to Listen

The Rev. Matthew Potts at the PulpitThe Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, gives his sermon at the pulpit of the Memorial Church Sancturary.  Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/ Memorial Church Communications. 



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript from the service audio)

In the name of the father and of the son and the holy spirit. Amen. So I was pleased this week. I'm understanding it. I was pleased this week to return to the classroom for my first class meeting here in person on this campus in a long time. And it was a joy to be with students in a room together.

I have to confess one other thing. It was also a joy that it was only a five minute walk from my new home here on Kirkland Street to the Divinity School where I was teaching. We relocated here this summer from Cape Cod and I've been teaching at Harvard for, this is my eighth year. I've been commuting most of that time. And that's a long commute. And I like the new one better.

One thing that we would often do, my family and I, because I worked at Harvard and because we loved Harvard and because we loved Cambridge in Boston. Sometimes the family would come up with me when we lived on Cape Cod. And it would be a family trip. We'd spend the day up here, I'd teach a class, whatever.

Sometimes they'd just come up and we'd spend some time together when I had work to do in the office. And they'd enjoy the place. But it was a long trip, especially for a young family. We'd park at Quincy, and then take the train in to Harvard Square and then have a full day here and then we'd have to go home. Right.

And I remember, this is a few years ago now, before the pandemic, certainly. Probably a couple of years before the pandemic. We had spent a full day here in Cambridge and we were returning to Cape Cod. And the five of us, Collette, and then, Cami, Sammy, and Danny, who you just met were walking back across the yard. To go back and get on the Red Line and go back to Quincy and take the long drive back to Cape Cod. And the kids were tired. You can guess that they were tired and tired of walking.

And all of them wanted to be carried by somebody. Right. I think Cami was probably seven or so, which would have made Sam five and Danny, I guess three. Maybe a little older, eight, six, and four, something like that. All of them could have use a carry. Now, Cami is a very patient and helpful child who is very accommodating. And so, the way she communicates that she wants to be carried is just forlorn resignation. Right. She doesn't say much. She just walks along and accepts her plight.

Sam is a passionate child. Intense and passionate, committed. And so he reacts to not being carried by decrying injustice and letting us know that in a world of rights, someone would be carrying him and he would not have to walk across Harvard Yard after a long day. Danny, I'll tell you how Danny handled it.

We're walking, going, forlorn Camilla, decrying, defiant, Sam. Danny turns to Collette my wife and says, "Mama, would you hold me in your beautiful, precious arms." Friends, that worked. And we walked across Harvard Yard and Danny was peering over the shoulders of Collette down at his brother and sister, giving them a lesson in persuasion.

Today, we have another lesson in persuasion. I told you last week that I would not have chosen last week's lesson to be my first sermon for you. And I'll tell you today, I would not choose today's lesson as my second sermon for you. As I said last week, we're following the revised common lectionary of a series of Bible readings that most Christian churches, many Christian churches at least, share around the world. And that means it's the lesson that was given to me.

And this is another lesson that I would prefer to look past. Because there's really, there's no way to soft pedal it. Jesus insults the Syrophoenician woman. He calls her and her daughter dogs. And if last week I was concerned about last week's lesson because of what I discerned as potential routes and its reception around anti-Semitism and shame-based constructions of sexuality, in this week's lesson, we can see something that is right at the heart of our tradition. That has been part of Christianity for so long, and that's patriarchy and misogyny. And ethno-nationalism.

And when a woman in need comes to Jesus and he says to her, "I'm not going to give what is meant for the children to dogs," there's no defense of those words. Or I'm not going to make a defense of those words. I also am not going to skip past them because to neglect those words would also be to neglect the harm that the reception of those words has done. It would be to ignore the real tradition of misogyny and patriarchy within the west and within Christian churches.

What I do want to do is focus upon her response to Jesus. And I'm going to suggest that we actually cannot understand the second half of today's lesson when Jesus heals a deaf man, unless we pay attention to her response. I'm going to suggest, in fact, that unless we listen to her words, we can't even understand the second half of the gospel of Mark. That these words from this Syrophoenician woman, this Gentile woman, can serve, in fact, as a pivot around which the gospel of Mark turns. And it becomes this important and instrumental moment in the narrative and ministry of Jesus in this gospel.

Jesus is traveling to the region of Tyre and Sidon and the Decapolis. This is Gentile territory. Last week, I told you that Jesus had this lesson about impurity. He says, "Impurity doesn't come from outside you. It comes from within." Right. And to prove that, he goes to lands which are supposed to be impure, to Gentile lands. To the territories of pagans and Canaanites. These are the Canaanites.

In fact, in Matthew, the Syrophoenician woman is named a Canaanite. This is her identity. And when this woman comes to Jesus seeking healing, she fulfills every definition of impure that would have been live at the time. She is a Canaanite, she's a Gentile coming to this Jewish teacher. She's a woman. At the time, women were not understood to be able to approach strange men, let alone able to approach strange men to ask them for aid or assistance.

And we're told that her daughter is unclean. The text says that she is impure. She is unclean. She has an unclean spirit. This is right in line with Jesus's lesson last week. "It's not things outside you that make you impure." And so Jesus is in this place, proving it's true. But then he speaks to her.

If you'll remember last week, he named slander as one of the things that come out of you that are unclean. And he insults her. "It's not right to take what is meant for the children and give it to dogs," he says to this woman. And she responds, quite adroitly in fact, responds and says, "Even the children are nourished by the crumbs under the table."

This is the exchange I want to focus on for a minute, because some of the sense I think is lost in English translation. The word that Jesus uses when he says children, "It's not right to take what is meant for children," is a Greek word teknon. And teknon is accurately translated as child, but it means descendant, offspring, issue, biological issue. Right.

There are versions of this word, which are more tender and diminutive. And Jesus doesn't use those versions of this word. He says, "Teknon, it is not right to give what is meant for the descendants to the dogs." The woman responds and she says, "But the children still eat." And she doesn't use the word teknon. She uses a different word, which is paidion. And paidion is a more intimate word. It's a word for a child in general, and also a word for children in their vulnerability in general. It's a word that emphasizes the claimless vulnerability of children, especially at this time when children did not have rights within Greco-Roman patriarchy.

Jesus says, "We do not give what belongs to the descendants to dogs." And the woman says, "But what about the children?" And something about this word works. The translation we have today says that Jesus says, "For saying this, you may go." But the Greek says, "Because of this word, you may go." I might be over-reading it a little bit. But for me, that word is paidion, child.

And we know it works because when the woman goes home, it says the child was well. And the word that is used in that moment is paidion. And then Jesus leaves that house and goes out and sees a deaf man who is also a Gentile because they are in Gentile territory. And he heals him. And then in the next chapter, he goes and he feeds 4,000 Gentiles in the Decapolis. Not with crumbs, but with loaves and fishes.

And then in the next chapter, he pulls his disciples to him and says, "Whoever welcomes a child," using her word, the Syrophoenician's woman word. He says, "Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes me." He identifies himself with the Syrophoenician woman's daughter. And then in the next chapter, in chapter 10, he says, "Whoever doesn't receive the kingdom as a child, as the paidion, will never enter it. Because the kingdom of God," Jesus says, "Belongs to paidion." To children, children like the Syrophoenician woman's daughter.

And it is in this state of claimless vulnerability, that Jesus himself goes to the cross at the end of this gospel. The kingdom that Christ declares is not one of sovereignty, but of solidarity. His Kingship is not one of entitlements but of love. This is what I mean when I say that this word from this woman utterly alters the direction of Jesus's ministry. Which had been until this point, primarily restricted to Galilee and to the lost sheep of the children of Israel, as it says in the gospel of Matthew.

But in this moment, Jesus listens to her and it changes the direction and the arc of his ministry. He listens to her and he stops trying to hide from the Gentiles. As the scripture says he was doing. And instead, starts helping them. He listens to this woman and he begins redefining the kingdom of God as a gift to the vulnerable, rather than as an entitlement of the privileged. He listens to this woman and his ministry is changed.

He listens to her, and because of her and because of her word, all of us here who are not Jewish, all of us here who are Gentiles, all of us from whom and to whom Jesus did not first come. All of us too have a home with him. Not because we belong to the holy covenant of God with his people. But because we are beneficiaries of his sacred grace.

Patriarchy runs deep in Christianity and in the west. In our religion, in the Christian religion, women have been marginalized and silenced for generations upon generations. They have been marginalized and silenced in our sacred texts as well. And so, it is no surprise that in our Western culture so deeply shaped by the Christian religion, women for centuries also have been, and continue to be, marginalized and silenced.

Perhaps then, we shouldn't be surprised that today, this day, this very week in the highest places of our federal government, in the nation's highest court and across the states, in the dead of night and in open daylight, we still, and men especially, still refuse to listen to women.

Given what we see in our own sacred texts and tradition, we shouldn't be surprised perhaps that our cultural refuses to listen, refuses to trust women with the most difficult and consequential and sometimes anguished decisions of their lives and in the lives of the ones they love. If we listened to a gospel story like this, we shouldn't be surprised. But if we listen to the woman in this gospel story, we should be indignant and we should be resolute.

In so many things, we Christians seek to imitate Jesus Christ. Friends, that's a mixed bag this week. But there is at least one example of his that some of us could follow from this week's encounter with a Syrophoenician woman. Pray that, like Christ, all people and men especially, might open their ears to women. Pray that we might honor the words of the ones we would rather ignore. Pray that we might listen long enough to learn from their witness. And pray that having heard the challenging truth of their words, we might change.