Sept. 5, 2021 Sermon: The Good News of Change by Rev. Loraine MacKenzie Sheperhd

Mark 7:24-37

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

What was the most common topic Jesus preached? Was it morality? No. Judgement? No. Gender-justice? No. Although it did have to do with justice in a broader sense. A just distribution of wealth was his second favourite topic. But the one he preached about the most was the Kingdom of God, or, as the Gospel of Matthew says, the Kingdom of Heaven. When he described this reign of God, he referred to the least of all being worth their weight in gold. This reign of God was a place and time when pain and suffering would be no more, when everyone would have enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, and love for one another and for the stranger in their midst. Prepare for the Kingdom of God, he would say. We often think of God’s reign as a future era when justice and peace embrace. But in Jesus’ teaching, he was talking about a reign of God that begins right now and leads us into the future.

How do we enter this time and place of God’s reign? The first step is to recognize it in our midst—not an easy task. And the second is to have a change of heart and mind that opens ourselves to holy mystery in our midst. Jesus often said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is in your midst.”  The Greek word for repentance in our scripture is metanoia, which literally means to change our mind.

The traditional meaning of repentance is to change our beliefs—to convert to a belief in Jesus and to change our behaviour and become morally upright. This is how most believe that we must prepare to enter God’s reign—to be converted in what we believe and to be reformed in how we behave. But this is not the focus of what Jesus meant by repentance. He was asking people to set aside ego’s defenses enough to be able to open one’s mind to an alternate reality. It was more than believing certain things or acting certain ways. It was a total mind-shift that could look at the world with new eyes and new understanding. It was a transformation of consciousness that no longer looked at the world dualistically as good or bad, right or wrong. “Love your enemies,” he urged. Don’t divide the world into for or against. This new way of thinking honoured the complexity of life without reducing it to in or out categories.

This is quite challenging—so much so that Jesus himself had to grow into this new way of enlightened thinking. He was born a Jew with a clear message of repentance or transformation for his Jewish community. But it took a few encounters with Gentiles to help him break out of his own limited thinking. Our gospel lesson describes one of those encounters.

This story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is a difficult one to understand. Why would Jesus call a woman a dog simply because she was a foreigner asking Jesus for healing? Some interpreters dismissed this as a euphemism which simply meant “pet”—but that is just as problematic and not accurate. Jesus clearly insulted her with a derogatory term. Why was Jesus so upset with her request?

Biblical scholar Mary Ann Tolbert explains that the woman, who is given no name in this story, was a Gentile and was pushing Jesus to turn his attention beyond his own people to those of other ethnicities and faiths. Even more, as a woman she was transgressing protocol by initiating conversation with a man. She had crossed two forbidden boundaries. Another biblical scholar and United Church of Christ minister Sharon Ringe suggests that the woman crossed a third boundary of class. She explains that in Jesus’ day, the Gentiles in the region of Tyre were largely wealthy, while the Jewish residents were largely poor peasants. So the woman was challenging Jesus to think not only of the poor but also of the rich, who also needed healing.

Maybe Jesus got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. Maybe the coffee had run out. But he was not his usual equanimous self that day. When the Syrophoenician women transgressed three boundaries of class, race and gender, he snapped back at her. How is it that Jesus, fully God, could be triggered and ill-tempered, rude and insulting? We might recall another time when Jesus took a whip and drove the money-changers from the temple. There were many other occasions when Jesus insulted people with derogatory names.

I would like to draw your attention to a small verse in the second chapter of Luke: “Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favour with God and with people.” (Luke 2:52) Jesus’ human nature meant that he was limited by body, place, culture and time. For me, his divine nature was most illumined when he was able to acknowledge and learn from his mistakes and to continue to grow in wisdom and knowledge. Luke 2:52 tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom. We are also told that, as a youth, Jesus spent hours in the temples, learning from the elders and the scriptures. He grew in knowledge. In this gospel lesson, we learn that Jesus also grew in compassion. This was the day when he fully realized that the reign of God is for everyone, not just for his own people. Jesus’ divine nature was able to help him turn on a dime and acknowledge the woman’s wisdom, even when she had crossed three serious boundaries.

God is not interested in perfection. Our greatest sin is not that we make mistakes, are triggered or treat others badly. Our greatest sin is when we don’t realize our mistakes and ill-treatment of one another. Our greatest sin is when we do not keep our minds and our hearts open to learning from one another, open to admitting when we’re wrong, open to compassion that refuses to take sides, open to repentance, and transformation.

I’ve often been puzzled with the word transformation. The United Church uses this word a lot. How are we supposed to be changed? From what to what? Others use words such as salvation, conversion, reformation, enlightenment, awakening, walking in a good way—or the newest term “woke”. All of these terms from various faith traditions and generations describe a similar process. Richard Rohr’s book The Naked Now helped me realize that transformation has to do with metanoia—a change of mind that requires a change of focus on a daily basis to what truly matters in the big picture of God’s reign. I fail miserably, but I fail only for that moment. I still have another day ahead of me. I’m realizing that transformation is not a one-time event, but a daily, minute by minute re-orientation that slowly teaches us to de-hook from our triggers and from our ego-driven blindness.

In Cynthia Bourgeault’s book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, she recommends a practice called Welcoming Prayer, which helps us not get hooked and led astray by interruptions, frustrations, incompetence and ill-treatment. As soon as we become aware that we have been triggered by something, we are to welcome our body’s response, whether that be a headache, stomach upset, flushed face. Simply observing the sensation of our body helps us step back as an observer instead of a reactor. Once we welcome the body’s response, we move to welcoming the emotions behind the trigger—anger, fear, embarrassment, pride. After we have identified and welcomed the emotions, we can then move to the third step of letting them go. The following litany, written by Mary Mrozowski, who developed Welcoming Prayer, helps us let go of that which blinds us to the reign of God in our midst:

I let go my desire for security and survival.

I let go my desire for esteem and affection.

I let go my desire for power and control.

I let go my desire to change the situation.[1]

Welcoming Prayer is one tool that helps us “repent” by keeping our minds and our hearts open to what some have called the “kingdom values” and not get bogged down or be led off track by the frustrations and upsets of the day. It is in these moments when we are able to let go of daily interruptions that we are set free, transformed to see with new eyes.

Possibly inspired by our second gospel story of Jesus helping someone deaf and mute to hear and speak, Alexander Graham Bell was trying to develop hearing aids for deaf students. In the midst of disappointing failures, he was determined to keep an open mind, which helped him  stumble on the possibility of electrically transmitting sound—which eventually led to his invention of the telephone. Quite a few favourite recipes are the result of cooks moving through frustration at running short of ingredients to an open mind of imagination. Caesar Salad was created by Caesar Cardini in Tijuana Mexico in 1924 when he ran short of supplies in his restaurant. Instead of sheepishly presenting his scrounged-up salad that lacked any vegetables besides lettuce, he decided to present his lettuce salad with flair, personally tossing it at table-side with his newly created dressing.

Learning how to “repent” or open our minds to change is particularly handy when we’re in the nebulous threshold of liminal time, as we are today. When we learn to encounter frustrations or limitations with an open imagination, we may find breakthroughs. Who knows what we’ll discover when our churches open up again—but we must keep an open mind to change, even welcoming disappointments and setbacks. We will find ourselves transformed if we can set ourselves free from the entrapments of triggers and keep our focus on kingdom values of the reign of God. Amen.

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Cowley Publications: Lanham, MD, 2004), p. 147.