Don’t just do something, stand there.

Proper 15, Year A: Matt. 15:21-28. St. Timothy’s, Lake Jackson, Texas.

“Don’t just do something, stand there!”[1]

This guidance is sometimes playfully offered to students in Clinical Pastoral Education — that is, CPE for short.

Fifteen summers ago, in blazing-hot Dallas, I was a CPE chaplain at the nationally ranked Children’s Medical Center. This training is required for ordination in the Episcopal Church – and that’s a good thing! 

Not only does one learn not to be afraid of hospitals, but one also learns not to reflexively do or fix or offer platitudes that serve only to ease one’s own discomfort.[2] In CPE, we learned to listen.

My responsibility at Children’s was the Intensive Care Unit. Day after day, I wouldn’t do anything but stand there … and listen. And pray, when folks wanted me to. 

I listened to nurses, to doctors, to fellow chaplains, and because most of my patients couldn’t talk because they were babies or were in a coma, I listened to parents. I listened to a lot of parents.

And as I listened to parents, a story I heard over and over again, and most always told by the child’s mother, was a story of persistence. 

From far and wide, families would come to Children’s to receive medical care and expertise not available to them otherwise. For many, it was a long and emotional journey from the pediatrician’s office to Children’s. 

“I kept telling our doctor, ‘NO – something is wrong. My child needs help.’”

Each time I heard this, I was deeply moved by how these mothers — driven by love — perceived and persisted.

So while we may be separated by 2,000 years, I recognize the Canaanite woman and her story. She perceived and in faith, she persisted.

The good news in this passage is what God can do with our faith and persistence. Yet admittedly, this is a perplexing text. There’s a lot going on here and a bit of ambiguity.

Jesus and his disciples are far from home, they are the outsiders here — in this conversation about insiders and outsiders. 

Further, ancient Israel conquered the Canaanites prior to and during the time of King David. The title Son of David, potentially evokes this hostile history between their people. But Son of David is a messianic title, and Matthew has made it clear to us who Jesus is … but what does she believe?

The banter that follows, especially the bit about the dog, is most faithfully heard as Jesus speaking what is in the hearts of his disciples. They are first to speak with “dismiss her!” and Jesus articulates what they are thinking, not necessarily what he is …

With all of the contextual, historical, ethnic, gender differences and power differentials swirling around them, he states his well-known, clear-eyed mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

And she respects that. God’s promise is first to the Jews. And if God doesn’t keep that promise, then what does it mean for anyone else?

She doesn’t ask for special status, but she has heard about the healings and the feeding of the multitude and says — surely there are some crumbs for the rest of us. Crumbs are enough when we’re talking about God’s grace.

Last week Jesus said to his disciples — you of little faith. Today he says — woman, great is your faith!

Mercy flows. The woman’s daughter is healed (from a distance). And perhaps so were some of the divisions between his people and her people, the Jews and the Canaanites. 

And salvation history moves forward — in this encounter, driven by this woman’s love for her daughter, and her faith in Jesus, and the graciousness and expansiveness of God’s love she’s heard about in his ministry. 

The inclusion of the Gentiles in Christ’s ministry is the direction Matthew now moves in. All the way to the gospel’s last lines to baptize and make disciples of all nations (28:19).

As one commentator states, “The character of the Canaanite woman changes throughout the story. She is noisy and assertive, then pleading and compliant, then clever and confrontive. Her consistency does not lie in her attitudes and behaviors. She is unified by her mission. She has a demon-afflicted child, and if this Jewish Messiah can help, he is going to. Little things — such as ethnic diversity and hatred — will not stand in the way.”[3]

There’s a time for action. There’s always much to do. And there’s also a time for “Don’t just do something, stand there…” and listen.

Like a CPE chaplain, listen to the mothers. Listen for the love. Listen for the faith … and thank God that they persist!

For so many are in need of healing … in particular, black and Latino children of God are ill and dying of COVID-19 in disproportionately high numbers.[4]

And we need healing of our divisions.

So today — just listen. 

Resist the platitudes that serve only to ease our pain. Listen — because something is wrong

Listen. 

And pray. 

+++


[1] Green, John. The Anthropocene Reviewed podcast, WNYC Studios. I can’t remember which episode because I was riding my bike while I listened to him recall this line from his CPE experience. So, just listen to all of them. They’re that good. And especially #28. You’ll Never Walk Alone and Jerzy Dudek (May 28, 2020). Especially that one!

[2] Brené Brown on Empathy. Empathy drives connection; sympathy drives disconnection.

[3] Shae, John. “Matthew Year A: On Earth As It Is In Heaven,” p. 255.

[4] Inside the Fight to Save Houston’s Most Vulnerable
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/10/us/houston-hospital-coronavirus.html?referringSource=articleShare

The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/05/us/coronavirus-latinos-african-americans-cdc-data.html?referringSource=articleShare

Working Preacher Sermon Brainwave podcast #738, Luther Seminary.

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