Changes


Who do you want to be? What kind of person do you want to be? Do your actions line up with your intentions? That’s integrity: doing what you say you’re going to do.


Now. I’m not here to tell you everything you’re doing wrong. Taking inventory of your life is your job. I’m simply here to report the good news. And the good news today is that change is possible. Change can even be holy.


The one who demonstrates change is Jesus himself. Wait—what? Jesus? Can change? The fully-human and fully-divine Jesus? God who does not change, Jesus? How’s that? This story of Jesus’s encounter with a Syro-Phoenician woman shows Jesus’s ability to consider the specific values out of which he is living.


For one, Jesus values Sabbath time and prioritizes holy rest. Did you ever go out of your way, away from your usual routine and out of your familiar neighborhood, just to have some rest or some time alone? Jesus did. He seems to need a break from teaching and healing in Galilee, the the area where Jesus grew up, a region filled with faithful Jews. So he went away to the region of Tyre—a beach town—a place full of Gentiles. Here, he should be safe. No one knows him. Right?


But here comes a woman who somehow recognizes him. A Gentile woman. As the Reverend Doctor Wil Gafney points out, “Jesus was fully but not generically human. He was a first century Palestinian Jewish man who was religiously observant and a product of his culture, including its biases.”[1] Apparently Jesus didn’t feel any particular responsibility to a Gentile woman. His religion certainly wouldn’t require him to serve Gentiles and might even discourage it. Jesus could keep his integrity within the framework of showing up to serve the Jewish people only, and at first that’s what he does.


So Jesus responds, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”[2] Jesus isn’t calling this woman a cute little puppy. It’s a stronger word, something like a word we still have in our modern-day vocabulary, a word for female dogs. It’s not nice. It’s insulting.


This is not the behavior we expect out of Jesus. Isn’t he supposed to be nice to everyone? Isn’t he supposed to heal everyone who asks? Isn’t he supposed to be the savior of the whole world, Jews and Gentiles both? Isn’t Jesus ushering in the kingdom of God, a kingdom where healing happens, where everyone is welcome, where nationality and ethnicity should not matter?


Well, if ethnicity doesn’t matter, no one told the writers of the Scriptures about that. Ethnicities and nationalities are mentioned all the time, all throughout the Bible, and even here. Why should it matter that Jesus is Jewish and this woman is Syro-Phoenician? Because both of those groups have long histories and deep prejudices against each other.


For this woman to seek out Jesus, she had to overcome her own prejudices, her own pride and her own ego, to advocate on behalf of her sick child. Anyone who has had a sick child might identify with this level of desperation. This woman, who doesn’t even get a name, is living out of her integrity based on love and mercy. She’ll accept the insults Jesus casually throws at her, but because she believes in her worth as a human being, because she is fiercely protective of her daughter, she’ll continue to plead for Jesus’s healing power, even just the crumbs.


Maybe that mention of crumbs is what flips a switch for Jesus. Because suddenly, his attitude changes. Did he remember that he had recently fed five thousand people with just a few loaves of bread, and there were twelve baskets of leftovers? So many crumbs. So much abundance. Why hoard it? Why not heal this woman’s daughter? Jesus hears her plea, he sees her humanity, and he responds with healing.


Jesus could have chosen a different path. He could have remained loyal only to his Jewish background, and this story could ended up very differently, and we’d still be Gentiles here thousands of years later, perhaps still trying to fight our way into a religion that doesn’t want us. But instead of living into the integrity of keeping firm religious boundaries, Jesus lives into an integrity of mercy.


Instead of reinforcing the separations between people—which would’ve been a lot easier and entirely defensible, given the ethnic histories of these people—Jesus chooses a way of mercy. He was there when those loaves of bread became dozens and hundreds and thousands of loaves of bread. He held the overflowing baskets and picked up the crumbs. He knew what that was like.


When was the last time you held the overflowing baskets of God’s abundance? And when was the last time you let that certainty change your outlook on life? Have you ever attempted to live from an integrity of mercy, trusting in God’s abundance of love for creation? Who do you want to be?


It’s hard work to remember the moments of clarity that keep us going, that fuel our sense of hope to light a candle in protest against the darkness. There has been so much about living through this pandemic that has been isolating, and I have struggled.


Early in this year, I was so excited to greet this church—I have to keep remembering that on my first Sunday here, the sanctuary was almost entirely empty! I kept thinking, just a little longer and we’ll get to have everyone back together and have a giant potluck and I’ll finally get to meet the people whose names I have only ever seen on a list, and we’ll gather in Sunday School classrooms again, and on Sunday mornings in worship I’ll get to know the familiar faces and where people like to sit and begin to learn who are the early-service people and who are the late-service people.


So much about who we are as people of faith is learned in community. So much about the ways I know to measure success in ministry have to do with gathering people together. And it has been profoundly disappointing and disorienting to continually not measure up by the old metrics—sometimes I liked those old metrics! I liked being able to count people on Sundays or count people in education classes or count kids in Sunday School. I liked seeing people in conversation with each other during fellowship times, trusting that God was truly present. I liked putting bread into the hand of each person receiving Holy Communion—it is such a sacred privilege.


And I miss it, terribly. I miss getting to see the people of God gathered together and hearing our voices of praise raise the rafters in the sanctuary. Since I’ve been here at Gethsemane, I’ve never even gotten to enjoy a potluck meal in the fellowship hall. I’ve never seen the whole choir gather to sing in the balcony.


And yet. The church is not dead. All is not lost, not even us. We might be a little disoriented, but it’s because we’re living into a new integrity. The church is going to have to learn new metrics for ministry, and I’m not sure yet exactly what those are going to be, but I can assure you it’ll be about more than counting people in attendance or dollars in the offering plate.


Last weekend, as a congregation, we participated in “God’s Work, Our Hands.” It’s been a tradition going back several years, and we kept it up this year. Throughout the weekend, church members saw what the world needs, and people stepped in to answer those needs. People baked casseroles to feed those who are sick at home. We sent a group to tend a garden in a neighborhood elementary school. Some did deep-cleaning around the church, making repairs and improving safety, and we even had a group renovating the Little Free Library outside while another group built a very sturdy bench for welcoming neighbors to enjoy the shade under the tree. Some wrote cards to homebound church members. Some donated items and put together kits for LifeWiseSTL. Our neighbors stopped by, buying pastries from the Bridge Bread bakery, which employs people without homes, or purchasing items from the Bridge shop, which supports fair trade.


I was with a group that went into the neighborhood, knocking on doors and asking people if they’re registered to vote and asking for ideas about how to make this community even better. I’ve said before that I’m intimidated by knocking on doors, but the more I do it, the more comfortable it becomes. Another member of this group told me that knocking on doors is terrifying, but it was worth it to try, and maybe they’ll even do it again sometime.


What we heard in our conversations with neighbors was that, yeah, they know about this church. They love the sign on the corner; it’s a bright spot in their week. They see our partnerships with neighbors, and they know they can come here to Gethsemane to vote. Our neighbors felt good about these streets, no complaints, but they hear the gunshots not far away; we know there’s a problem somewhere around here. We’re working together with organizers from Metropolitan Congregations United to consider next steps and how to move forward in making this neighborhood, making our city even better.


I was glad there were people taking photos of these various projects—I couldn’t visit all of them, of course. But in the photos I could see the faces, the children and adults working together, doing what we can safely do right now, even while living through a pandemic which limits our activity.


Maybe we are also being changed. Perhaps we have an opportunity to listen and to learn, to live into a new integrity. God is just as much present and active in the world right now as God has ever been. And God still has our hands to do the work of service. God has our hands to do the work of justice. God has our hands to do the work of reconciliation.


If Jesus can meet a challenge and learn something new, perhaps the church can too. It’s not that our ways of relating to each other were wrong. It wasn’t wrong to care about Christian fellowship. It was never wrong to prioritize worship. Those things have always been vitally important, and they will always be vitally important to Christian faith and witness. We’re not about to stop encouraging one another in faith. We’re not about to stop gathering to worship God, in whatever way we are able to gather, whether in-person or online.


Jesus never stopped being a Jew and working together alongside other Jews—it’s just that he didn’t let that limit him. He continued to expand his sense of who receives healing. Is Jesus’s encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman an example of evolution? That expansion of understanding continued among his followers long after Jesus died and rose again and ascended into heaven. Is God’s reign continuing to expand in the world, in our own understandings, and even in the way we measure what’s going on?


Our understanding can grow. When the old ways—perhaps for us the old metrics of evaluating church health—don’t fit anymore, it might be time to find a new measurement. I don’t know how faith will be measured in the world we live in, but I wonder if we’re on to something in counting hours of service to our community.


Last weekend, for God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday, we set a goal of 127 hours of service, one hour for each year of this congregation’s existence. We not only met our goal but we exceeded it! Give yourselves a round of applause—this is life! This is life at work among us. This is the abundance of God’s mercy poured out on us. This is the work of the Holy Spirit keeping us connected even when we are apart. God’s work goes on, and God strengthens us, heals us, changes us, and sends us out with joy.


Who do you want to be? Who does God want you to be? Let’s keep asking that question and finding out just how big God’s mercy really is.


Amen.


Pastor Cheryl

[1] Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, from her sermon “The Woman Who Changed Jesus,” posted August 20, 2017, https://www.wilgafney.com/2017/08/20/the-woman-who-changed-jesus/ [2] Mark 7: 27



 


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