All Our Stories

All Our Stories

Homily for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

August 20, 2023

All Our Stories

Homily for August 20, 2023
The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 15:(10–20) 21–28

On the morning of Christmas Eve, 1944, the troopship SS Leopoldville left Southampton, England, bound for Cherbourg, France, with over 2,000 soldiers of the US 66th Infantry Division being sent to reinforce US troops at the Battle of the Bulge.  Just before 6:00pm, about 6 miles off the French coast, a German submarine torpedoed and sunk the Leopoldville.  Though nearly 800 soldiers drowned, and though it was one of the worst naval losses of the war, almost nobody has heard of the sinking of the SS Leopoldville.  Almost nobody has heard of its sinking because, believing that to speak of it would be bad for morale, the military ordered survivors to say nothing. Not until more than 50 years later—in the late 1990’s, when pertinent documents finally were declassified—could survivors speak up and tell their story.  Nancy Russell, the daughter of one Sgt. George Atkerson (a survivor) said, “Not once did [my dad] ever mention the experience.  Not until 1996 [after the documents were declassified] did he ever even mention the name ‘Leopoldville.’”

What must it have been like for the survivors to say nothing of their harrowing experience, to not be able to tell their story?

The Canaanite woman of today’s Gospel had a story to tell.  She was a Canaanite, one of the peoples native to the land, whose ancestors had been displaced by the Hebrews.  She was likely a pagan and, as Canaanites tended to be, despised by the Hebrews.  She was also a woman.  She knew the risk in speaking to Jesus, but she had a “story” to tell, and so she kept shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord.”  No one seemed to expect that Jesus need answer; she was a Canaanite, after all: “Send her away,” Jesus’ disciples told him; even Jesus himself at first “did not answer her at all.”  But she persisted and “came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”  At which point Jesus (finally) said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Yet the Canaanite woman had a story to tell: “Lord… my daughter is tormented by a demon… Have mercy on me.”

What must it have been like for the Canaanite woman, “pregnant” with the story of her daughter having a demon, not being heard—not even wanting to be heard—by Jesus and his disciples?

Like the Canaanite woman, like the survivors of the SS Leopoldville, all of us have a story to tell. Like theirs, our stories are not “clean” and “tidy” but often filled with suffering, heartbreak, anxiety and fear.  What do we do with our “stories,” these often difficult and painful narratives that we carry, perhaps for years, without telling anyone?

With Jesus, there is no military order to keep silent; from him we need not hide; with him, nothing need go unspoken.  Rather, as did the Canaanite woman, we can share our stories with Jesus.  If at first Jesus seems indifferent (as he did in today’s Gospel lesson), Jesus seems so (says Augustine) “not in order to refuse us his mercy but rather to inflame our desire for it” (Sermo 77, 1: PL 38, 483).  Jesus wants us to come to him.  Jesus desires that we hide nothing from him.  Though we may think so, Jesus does not think our stories ugly or unworthy or shameful.  Jesus loves it when we come to him and open our hearts and say, “Have mercy on me,” or, “Lord, help me.”  Of Jesus’ love and his ability to hear our stories regardless of how “ugly” they may seem, Pope Francis once said to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square,

There are always ugly things in a story, always.  [But] let us go to Jesus, [and] knock on Jesus’s heart and say to Him: “Lord, if You will it, you can heal me!” And we can do this if we always have the face of Jesus before us, if we understand what Christ’s heart is like, what Jesus’s heart is like: a heart that feels compassion, that bears our pains, that bears our sins, our mistakes, our failures. But his is a heart that love us like that, as we are, without make-up: He loves us like that. (Angelus, August 16, 2020)

I wonder, what is your “story?”  Is there part of your story you have not told?  Where in your story might be pain or suffering, or shame or fear?  And I wonder: do you know how Jesus can hear the entirety of our “story”; how he can hear all our pains, our mistakes, our sins, our failures—all of it?  Jesus can hear all of it, and he still loves us.  Why not knock on the door of Jesus’ heart and with the Canaanite woman say to Him, “Have mercy on me,” or “Lord, help me”?  And maybe try to better understand what Jesus’ heart is like, perhaps by (as the Pope suggests later in his same remarks) carrying a small Gospel around in our pocket or on our phone and reading a little each day?  There, better coming to know Jesus, we will find that all are invited, that Jesus can hear all our stories no matter how “ugly” they may seem.  And we will discover, too, that Jesus can bring hearing to stories that long may have gone unheard, and healing to wounds that long may have troubled us.

I will leave us with a quote from the Pope about carrying scripture around:

Always carry a small pocket-size Gospel and read a passage every day.  There you will find Jesus as He is, as He presents Himself; you will find Jesus who loves us, who loves us a lot, who tremendously wants our well-being.  Let us remember the prayer: “Lord, if You will it, you can heal me!”  A beautiful prayer.  Carry the Gospel: in your purse, in your pocket and even on your phone.  May the Lord help us, all of us, to pray this beautiful prayer, that a pagan woman teaches us: not a Christian woman, not a Jewish woman, a pagan woman. “Have mercy on me, Lord”; “Lord, help me.”  (Ibid.)

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