A Sermon about Change and Being Changed
St. Philip Lutheran Church
16 August 2020 + Lectionary 20A
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
Maybe you’ve seen the popular meme online: A man casually sits behind a table, a cup of coffee in his hand, and a sign on the table that reads: [fill in the blank - some provocative statement] … Change my mind. I’ve seen this image used in ways both humorous and serious, on both sides of a variety of topics, as a “mic drop” moment. As if to say: “I’m right, you’re wrong, I’m not changing my mind.”
But the truth is that we do change our minds - all the time. In ways big and small. As we grow and learn new things, our beliefs change over time. We meet new people, have new experiences, and we change.
Does Jesus change? It’s hard to imagine the fully divine embodiment of God changing his mind - being moved to new beliefs, as though he could somehow be wrong. But the flip side of Jesus’s identity is also fully human - capable of human experiences, including the capacity to change and be changed by new experiences.
That’s where our gospel story takes us this morning - this encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. We don’t get her name or anything else about her background, besides the fact that she has a daughter. All we know for sure is that she is a Canaanite woman - an outsider and a foreigner, most of all to Jesus, a Jew and an insider.
Often I think we dwell in a mindset of how the past has formed us into who we are - the beliefs and presuppositions we hold deep within us, taught to us by our families and cultures. Surely there is nothing wrong with some of those things, but left unquestioned, I think we can become unaware of what is happening right in front of us. All Jesus could see was a Canaanite woman, a Gentile outsider, someone he was supposed to have nothing to do with.
We also have a tendency to consider the consequences of what we might do and how we might act - wrapped up in imagining the theoretical consequences of our actions before we even act, what might happen, how we might be perceived, that we might get it wrong, that people might get upset by what say or do. For Jesus, to interact with this woman, let alone grant her request, would break social convention and deter from the scope of his mission to his own people who look and act and believe like himself.
Far from being preoccupied with the past or future, this story calls us back to the present moment. Here, right in front of Jesus, is a woman who is in agony over the suffering of her daughter - an agony that compels her to risk challenging social conventions and cross ethnic and cultural barriers to plead with Jesus to heal her daughter. You can even hear a little sass in her response to Jesus’s initial rejection: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And just like that, this woman snaps Jesus back to reality, back to the present moment. By all accounts, she appears to change Jesus’s mind.
Megan Phelps-Roper was just 5 years old when the first protest sign was put in her hands as she joined her family and other members of the Westboro Baptist Church - a congregation based in Topeka, Kansas, known around the world for its provocative signs and public protests of military funerals, concerts, conventions, and virtually every other mass public event - convinced that bad things that happen in the world are somehow God’s “punishment” for our “tolerance” of the LGBTQIA+ community, among other things they view as “sinful.”
Megan was one of the church’s most vocal members and became one of the first to take to Twitter as a new platform to spread their message. Coincidentally, it was through encounters on Twitter with complete strangers that her mind began to change, until she finally left Westboro in 2012.
In a recent interview, Megan talks about one such Twitter encounter where someone tweeted a photo essay from The Atlantic about the famine in Somalia. Looking at the first image of a small, emaciated baby moved her to tears … while her mom, another more active Westboro member, saw the story as another opportunity to link this famine to divine punishment. It was then that Megan began to see the disconnect - between the encounters she was having with virtual strangers on Twitter and the beliefs she had been raised with.
In that same interview, Megan reflects on the way these Twitter strangers reached out to her - some mocking her family’s beliefs, but many others taking a genuine interest in her as a person, being willing to engage and listen. It’s not always easy to engage people we find ourselves steeped in disagreement with - that’s the story of our times, isn’t it? But, Megan reflects: “The idea is that we should try. Empathy is not agreeing, and listening is not a betrayal of your cause. You’re not endorsing the idea just because you’re hearing it. And in fact, if the other person understands that they’re being heard, they’re going to be more willing to listen to your perspective and to hear and to be curious about what you have to say.”
Engagement and listening and being open to what others have to say and teach us are valuable - and it can change hearts and minds. It was true for Megan Phelps-Roper. And, I think, it was true for this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.
This is more than another healing story. This is a story about the widening of the circle - who gets to be included - that draws us out of our presuppositions about what we think we know and our concern for what might happen - that instead shows us a grand vision of what is possible when we are opened to the vision of the world as God longs for it to be. A world where all belong and are valued for who they are - regardless of gender, ethnic origin, race, religious background, or orientation. A world this community at St. Philip aspires to in the welcome statement you crafted when you became a Reconciling in Christ congregation.
Can the church change? Yes - the movement toward wider and fuller inclusion is proof. And it is a continuing journey. We will mess up … and that’s okay. Jesus did. It’s what we do when we mess up and how we respond in those moments that matters. We could dig in our heels and stubbornly refuse to change. Or we could, like Jesus, open ourselves up to listen and see what is right in front of us - open to what God is inviting us to notice - open to being changed by grace.