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.