Sermon: Speak; I’m Listening

“Speak; I’m Listening”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
January 14, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-18
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that God told you.’ So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let God do what seems good to God.’

Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus left [Galilee] and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman…came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

Earlier this week I watched Oprah’s Golden Globes speech – it’s worth a listen if you haven’t heard it already. In it she told the story of Recy Taylor, a young woman who, in 1944, was walking home after church when she was brutally raped by six armed white men. After threatening to kill her if she ever told anyone, they left her on the side of the road and were never brought to justice for their crimes. Oprah linked Recy’s experience to all those who have been victims of sexual harassment and assault. She assured survivors that their truth matters: “What I know for sure,” she said, “is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” (Read the transcript here; watch the video here.)

Today’s scripture readings are both about speaking truth to people in positions of power – and about those powerful people listening. Samuel hears God’s commanding him to tell Eli that God is going to destroy him and his wicked sons. Young Samuel is understandably afraid to speak against Eli, who is his mentor, boss, protector and religious leader all rolled into one. But he does it; and Eli listens.

Then, in the Gospel reading, we have the Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Canaan, you may remember, was the original name of the Promised Land; the Canaanites were conquered by the Israelites, who saw them as idolaters worthy of nothing better than eradication. Thousands of years later, Jesus’ Jewish culture still saw Canaanites as “other,” as less than. So when this outsider – and a low status woman, no less – comes begging for Jesus’ attention, Jesus first ignores her, then the disciples try to shoo her away, and then Jesus refuses to help her! He essentially says “I’m not meant to waste my healing powers on your kind,” and then he compares her people to dogs. I think we can safely say that it’s the only time in the Gospels when you can argue that Jesus comes off looking like a jerk.

Yet the woman is undeterred; she does what no other person in all of scripture dares to do: she calls Jesus out. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She risks speaking what she knows to be true – that she and her daughter are worthy of Jesus’ attention – and thus exposes the attitude that Canaanites are less than human for the hollow, unjust lie it is.

We all have stories we need to tell. And we all have moments where it’s our turn to listen.

Let’s start with telling our stories, with the kind of truth the Canaanite woman and Oprah are talking about. Telling your truth – what you know deep in your bones to be real, the places where you know God has already met you or where you know God is calling you to go – can be deeply liberating, even if no one else validates it at first. Speaking the truth you’ve kept pent up inside sheds light on the murkiness around you, and it shatters false, flimsy pacification so that robust, whole peace can take its place. It’s not about making yourself the center of attention so much as centering yourself in what is so good and real that you cannot be whole and deny it.

Glennon Doyle is a fellow member of the UCC and a truth-teller whose work I regularly read. She has been brutally honest about her experience with addiction and eating disorders. She testifies to the beauty of claiming your story and the struggle to expand beyond the small box society often crams women into.

A few months ago, she described the difficult process of telling her truth. In the middle of a publicity tour for Love Warrior, the best-selling book she had written about how she and her husband had saved their marriage after his infidelity, they split up. Not exactly good PR for selling the book. She was trying to figure out how to tell her audience, so many of whom had found hope in her story of reconciliation. And then, to top it all off, she fell in love – with a woman.

She wrestled, mightily, with whether to speak – let alone live into – her truth. Her three kids had just been through a painful divorce, the first major upheaval in their otherwise “Rockwellian” lives. Could she rock their worlds again – for the sake of her own well-being? And, less important but still looming large – what would this mean for her parents? Her church? Her career?

Glennon lay in bed at night facing one unignorable truth: “[I knew I could not allow] fear to drown out the still, small voice” we all have “that always knows what to do and is always leading you closer to truth, to love. [So] I said to God, to the universe, to myself: I’ve considered the cost of this enormous decision, and I’m willing to pay it. I choose love.”

When she told her children she was in love with a woman, she prefaced it by saying, “In our family, we are honest about who we are, even when it’s scary. I’m about to show you how that’s done.”

Her kids got it. They could hear in her words the same commitment to truth-telling and authenticity with which she and her ex had raised them. But there were certainly detractors, people in her own circle and beyond who were against her decision – the disciples, if you will, trying to shush her out of the way and keep her from bringing her inconvenient, taboo-shattering truth to light.

But, over all, she said, “The next several months were filled with anguish, grace, truth, and transcendent joy. Miraculously, now we are married, which means my children have two mothers and one Love Warrior father, who wrote this to me recently: ‘Thank you for being brave enough to break all of our hearts. All is how it should be now.’ ”

I imagine Jesus, in a quiet moment with the Canaanite woman, saying, “Thank you for being brave enough to stand up to me. Your truth – your insistent faith that I have come for you, too – has healed your daughter. All is how it should be now.”

That is what truth does. It realigns our hearts; it dissolves pretensions; it brings real peace.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this. He did not shy away from bluntly stating the reality of life for people of color in this country. And no matter the opposition, no matter the calls to have patience or to pursue a cautious, gradual integration, he refused to be silent or to accept less than full racial equality because he knew in the marrow of his bones that God has created each person with a dignity and worth that no human institution or “ism” can revoke:

“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. …We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”  (“I Have a Dream,” 1963)

“I will not be satisfied,” I imagine the Canaanite woman saying, “until you have treated me and my daughter as you treat every other person who comes to you asking for healing. I will continue to speak the truth until you hear it.”

Sometimes we are like the Canaanite woman, like Samuel, like Martin, like Glennon, like Oprah – speaking what we know to be true no matter the cost, trusting that the truth will set us all free.

And other times, we are like Jesus, like Eli, like Glennon’s loved ones who were afraid of her decision, like the power-holders who, intentionally or otherwise, silence the Recy Taylors, the abuse victims of the world. The status quo is familiar, and even if we acknowledge that it needs to change, we shy away from the discomfort that accompanies such transformation. We’re worried it means we’ll have to let go of long-cherished beliefs, that we’ll have to reimagine our entire way of being, that we might even be called upon to relinquish some of our power or admit our complicity in upholding injustice.

Thank God, then, for Jesus.

His response to the Canaanite woman is definitely harsh – perhaps even cruel – but I am so glad it is included in the Gospel narrative, because through it he models for us how to listen to the truth when it’s someone else’s turn to tell it. At first we may close our ears; at first we may reject what we hear; but ultimately, along with Jesus we listen, we acknowledge the truth of the other person’s experience, and we open our hearts and our minds to a new way of seeing things. “I was wrong. Yes, your story is worthy of my attention; yes, your truth is worth my discomfort. Yes, I am willing to change so that we all may heal.”

Maybe it’s listening to someone’s story of assault or abuse, confronting those gross violations of personhood even if it means the disruption of family or workplace peace. Maybe it’s accepting that a loved one or friend is transgender, even though you stumble over pronouns and you’re uncertain they’re doing the right thing. Maybe it’s accepting a friend’s story about being unjustly followed in a store even though you can’t imagine it really happening, because it doesn’t ever happen to you. Maybe it’s letting a child or sibling take a very different religious journey, even if it’s one you’d never choose for yourself and you’re worried they might be crazy.

I’ve noticed that people who have gotten good at telling their own truth are often also good at listening to others’. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when Glennon Doyle spoke a truth I needed to hear.

Her organization Together Rising does these awesome things called Love Flash Mobs, where everyone is invited to virtually donate whatever they can to a feel-good cause over a 24 hour period. So far these love flash mobs have built a birthing center in Haiti and bought a specially equipped van for a mom with a disability to drive her kids to soccer practice and kept homeless LGBTQ youth off the streets and sent diapers to Syrian refugees, because they believe that there is no such thing as other people’s children. Seriously, y’all, it’s like the kindom of God in action. You should try one.

For their latest Love Flash Mob, Together Rising chose Hope on Haven Hill, one of only two residential treatment programs in the state of New Hampshire for pregnant or new moms who are homeless and recovering from opioid addiction. Glennon spent a few paragraphs describing the amazing work of Hope on Haven Hill, sharing videos of residents with their utterly adorable babies, and detailing how the money raised would buy a home for mothers who have transitioned out of the program but still need extra support. She beautifully made the case that these are some of God’s most vulnerable children who need our support.

As per usual, I was feeling really good about donating. In our Christmas letter every year we give to a cause in honor of our loved ones, and this was shaping up to be a great one-liner: “In your honor we helped homeless recovering moms stay with their babies and off the streets! Merry Christmas!”

And then.

And then Glennon called me out.

She shared, lovingly but firmly, how America has been here before. Instead of mostly white, rural and suburban opioid users being portrayed as victims of a public health crisis and benefitting from police and social workers’ laudable work to craft treatment-oriented responses, in the 1980s crack cocaine users (mostly African-American, poor, and urban) were portrayed as thugs and criminals and became the targets of a War on Drugs and the legislated recipients of sentences 100 times harsher than mostly white, wealthier users of powdered cocaine. The law that mandated that discrepancy, by the way, was only repealed 7 years ago.

That incredible disparity decimated whole communities and swallowed up an entire generation of young people of color, and it certainly deserves a spot on Dr. King’s laundry list of racial injustices.

Having listened to the truth-telling of African American women still working to pull their community out of that first crisis, Glennon and her organization decided it was not enough to help current victims, who look like so many of Glennon’s readers. They also decided to raise an equal amount of money for Martha’s Place, an inner-city Baltimore non-profit started during the crack epidemic to give recovering and homeless African American moms the exact same support their white, New Hampshire counterparts receive at Hope on Haven Hill.

Digesting all this, I went from feeling really awesome that I was going to help some struggling mamas and their babies to feeling like a jerk that I hadn’t even noticed how differently we were treating white people with drug addiction vs. black people with drug addiction… to feeling grateful that someone had had the chutzpah to speak that truth to a whole bunch of people, including me, who needed to hear it. I got out my wallet and donated twice as much as I had planned, because speaking the truth is worth more than money.

Friends, we have a choice. We can choose to root ourselves in fear: fear of the consequences if we tell the truth, our truth; fear of how listening to someone else’s truth will require us to change. Or, we can choose to root ourselves in love: a love that does not clutch tightly to what feels safe and known but that opens us to what is life-giving.

Did you notice how this morning’s Gospel passage began? “Jesus left [Galilee] and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” Jesus left Israel and traveled to Tyre and Sidon, the historical heart of Canaanite country, only to appear miffed that a Canaanite woman would dare ask for his help. “I came only to the lost sheep of Israel,” he demurs, except that you just came to Canaan, Jesus!

I wonder if that little geographical detail is a wink meant to clue us in that Jesus knows exactly what he’s getting into, that he took his disciples on this roadtrip so that they – and we – would have front row seats as he modeled what it looks like to listen to someone’s truth and to let go of even our most deeply seated beliefs about how the world is in order to make room for justice and for healing.

“In God’s family, we tell our truth even when it’s scary, and we listen to others’ truth, even when it means we need to change,” I imagine Jesus saying. “And I’m about to show you how that’s done.”