CONSTANTLY CALLED TO CONVERSION
A Sermon on Mark 7:24-30
Have you met Tux? Tux is a new member of Rosa’s family. Tux is young and small and friendly. Sometimes, Tux comes to work with Rosa. When Tux wags that tail, I want to pet Tux. But right now, Tux is teething. That means Tux likes to bite, to nibble just a little All dogs like to nibble.
Are you a dog lover or a cat lover? Do you believe all dogs go to heaven? Even dogs that bite? How about all cats? How about all children? What would it take for you to change your mind about who goes to heaven?
There’s a Church word for changing our minds: conversion. In Latin, the word from which we get “converse” and “convert” means literally to turn…around. To see things differently – and to see different things. Our Gospel story today about Jesus and the woman he meets is all about conversion. But it’s not about the conversion of the woman. It’s a story about a conversion experience in the life of the man called Jesus.
“What (you may be saying to yourself)? Jesus had a conversion experience? Isn’t Jesus the Son of God?” I believe Jesus was fully divine, as much like God as God is. I also believe Jesus was fully human, as much like us as we are. That’s part of what we call the mystery of our faith, isn’t it?
In my first year as a priest, I heard a sermon on this text, with this title: “The Conversion of Jesus.” At first I had a real problem with the preacher’s notion that my Jesus needed to be converted. But he convinced me. He said, in so many words, Relax. This means we’re in really good company. Even Jesus was human. Even Jesus was called to conversion.
My wife, another preacher, says this about sermons: “Tom, what’s the one thing you want to say?” Well, here it is: Like Jesus, we are called to conversion. Constantly.
Last week, in the beginning of Mark’s seventh chapter, Jesus taught about the Jewish understandings of purity and impurity, about being clean or unclean. Today, we move past that teaching on ritual acts of cleansing, on which foods are kosher and which are not. We get a new perspective on what it means that what’s on the outside doesn’t make us unclean inside.
In today’s Gospel text, Jesus appears to be learning something, even having a conversion experience, about the cleanliness and the godliness of human beings called Gentiles. Before his conversion, Jesus responds to the mother with a sick child in this way: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).
What? we might say. Is this the Jesus we know and love? How can Jesus be so hostile, so rude? Might Jesus be, as some people unfortunately do, teaching with ridicule and shame? Or is he weary and worn down by all the Jewish crowds? Or is Jesus just being a normal Jew of his time?
What if this man, this Jewish rabbi, what if Jesus is being set straight by an unnamed, Gentile woman, whom he calls a dog? Actually, he was talking about her daughter, who was sick as a dog, tortured by a demon, crazy with what, today, we would likely call mental illness. But the mother was as Gentile as the daughter. What if Jesus the Jew had something to learn from this Gentile – this tenacious bulldog of a woman, who persisted?
The children Jesus talks about feeding are the children of Israel, the Jews. As they saw it, they were the people Jesus came into the world to save. If Jesus was the King of the Jews, his mission, for them, was with them. The Good News of God, as Jesus sees it, is to be preached first to the Jews – “Let the children be fed first,” he says – then, to others, to the Gentiles, like this mother and daughter.
This means that this non-Jewish girl, sick and suffering, wasn’t typically seen, in Jesus’ day, as a child worth saving, as a Jewish child. But aren’t all children worth saving? Her little life wasn’t as important as the lives of Jewish children, women, and men. She was more like…a dog.
Long before Jesus’ day, children and dogs, even women were lumped together. We may forget, or not realize, how, back then, all creatures other than men were men’s property. To call someone a dog was and is an insult. But…don’t dogs get to have crumbs, too? Don’t all dogs go to heaven?
When Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 2006, pink buttons were immediately passed out on the General Convention floor. “It’s a girl!” the buttons read, marking an historic moment in our denomination’s life. Katharine’s election was a breakthrough for all women in all leadership roles in all kinds of churches. She was the first woman to be elected primate (or prime bishop; that’s “PB,” for short) – the first woman PB in the whole, worldwide Anglican Communion. This was not, and in no way is, a crumb under the table.
Last week, history was made again, this time closer to home. The Rev. Candice Frazer, associate rector at St. John’s, here in Montgomery, was elected by the Vestry of the Church of the Ascension to be your next rector. She will begin to share ministry with you next month. I’m excited! Can you tell?
After Katharine’s election as PB, TIME magazine ran a special “Firsts” issue about women. In it, she said, “The Bible says many things about women’s roles. And the reality is, everybody cherry-picks. We all look for the pieces that affirm what we already believe. If we’re faithful, we keep looking, and hopefully, we encounter things that confront us, that challenge us, that might even transform our view of the role of every human being.”
PB Katherine was talking about conversion. The question today is: What part of my life, what part of your life still needs converting? Where might we look for God, encounter Jesus, be challenged, even transformed? Which child of God here today wants to teach us something? During the announcements, I invite you to listen for opportunities to be converted.
Recently, someone called me a “man of God.” In addition to what I have learned and will still learn from other men, I believe my call as a man of God has been, in large part, just this: to look for, to encounter, and to learn from those women and children of God who confront, challenge, and transform my limited view of humanity, not to mention all God’s creation.
My prayer is that Candice, like Katharine, like Rosa and other women of God in this place, will be Jesus’ bulldog, for you! May you let her and all the other tenacious, persistent children of God who hang out here love you. And may this beloved community known as “the Ascension” continue to be a sacred place of constant conversion, for you and for all human beings – men, women, and children – who come to call this church home.
~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
September 9, 2018