I have a question for you about lobsters, something very familiar (and delightful!) to many of us here on the eastern seaboard. How can a lobster weighing one pound grow into a lobster weighing three pounds, even ten pounds or more when the lobster has such a hard shell? How can lobsters grow when they seem not only protected but also confined by their hard shell?
When a lobster becomes crowded in its shell and cannot grow any more, by instinct it travels out to some place in the sea, hoping for relative safety, and it begins to shed its shell. This is a dangerous process. The lobster has to risk its life, because once it loses its shell it becomes terribly vulnerable. It can be dashed against a reef or eaten by another sea creature or fish. But that is the only way it can stay alive and grow. Staying trapped in a tight shell would cause the lobster’s stagnation and premature death. And so for us. I’d like to say something today about enlarging our relationship to God, that is, what I’ll call our life-long conversion.
In Jesus, we see how God stoops to us, meets us on our own plane. Jesus comes to us and bids us follow in ways which are familiar and safe and inviting. Jesus waits on us where we are, how we are… and yet Jesus points us to a God who is More: always More, in ways beyond which we could have thought or imagined or experienced.[i] If God is not ever greater, then we run the risk of reverencing only the archives of our experience of God, rather than worshiping the living God who is always More and who creates in us a life-longing for More. God will always leave us with less so that we have space and desire for More. God is always greater.
Consider the experience of Jesus recorded in this Gospel lesson appointed for today: Jesus, callous Jesus, meeting up with the desperate mother of a sick child. How could Jesus possibly respond to this Syrophoenician woman as he did? She comes to him asking for help for her tormented daughter. The mother actually believes that Jesus could help, if only he consents. His answer to her plea: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Fair?! Fair for whom?! How shocking! Jesus as much as calls her a dog. This anguished, courageous, faithful mother responds with such desperate respect: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus is smitten with the truth of her words. Before our very eyes we see here a moment of Jesus’ own conversion.
Here Jesus is confronted by two children of God, he realizes: this mother and her very sick daughter. They do not fit Jesus’ theological framework, and probably don’t figure into his past experience. Here we witness Jesus’ having to let go of a kind of tight theological shell that is too small for his new awareness of the breadth of God’s love for God’s world. Jesus realizes God is choosing to love not just those of Jesus’ own heritage – his fellow Jews – but everyone, including us Gentiles. The breadth of God’s love is dawning on Jesus before our very eyes in this Gospel passage.
Where Jesus ends up in this Gospel story is not where he started. And this may be true for you, also, and your own ongoing conversion. Conversion is about change, life-long change. The English word “conversion” is translated from a word in the New Testament (strepho), which is a foundational change in perspective and attitude towards God and God’s world and the life to which we’ve been entrusted. From this point forward in the Gospels, Jesus is a changing man. And so for us. By God’s plan and design, our own conversion is to be a life-long experience. What about your own ongoing conversion? I’ll take the liberty here to name three areas of ongoing conversion in my own life, thinking you may be able to identify your life story with mine.
I take stock of my own life. I have made a lot of mistakes. I haven’t committed felonies nor been the cause for terrible scandal. My mistakes have mostly come out of my own petty and tedious character flaws. And my proclivity to still make mistakes gives me an increasing pause in my relationships to others, especially toward those whom I find either different or difficult. Simone Weil, the French philosopher and Christian mystic, says that our most profound and reverent posture toward another human being is “hesitation,” of pausing before we judge or exclude or feign we can fully understand another person.[ii] So we read in the Letter of James, “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”[iii] This is to hesitate in life, not out of fear but out of respect for others. I am finding a need to listen a great deal more, rather than to presume that I am right and need to put others in the right. I realize more than ever that I have been born and raised in a superpower nation, where I am a member of the majority race, with the benefit of some education, and that I am a male. I grew up thinking that Jesus looks and thinks a lot like me. I don’t presume that any more. And so for you. Take stock of your own life and the life that surrounds you, and use that awareness to expose your assumptions, humble your perspective, and break open your love for a world Jesus is dying to love.
Secondly, for those of us who bear the name Christian, we recognize that in Jesus we have seen the face of God. This is not to say that no one else has seen God or known God, heard from God, or called on God in another way or time or place or name.[iv] God is always More. Jesus says to us, “the last shall be first.” Those whom we could easily see as the least like us, who are last or lost on us may have something profound to teach us about God, who so loves the world. [v] Why should we feign to think that we who are Christians have a corner on God’s revelation? Surely the conflicts even within Christianity, even the internal conflicts within specific Christian traditions (from the 1st century onward), should humble any claim of our religious super power as Christians. We Christians are responding to God’s revelation as we know it… as are so many others who populate the earth, responding to their own experience of God’s revelation in their own ways. When our theology, our Christian theology, moves beyond describing our own experience of God to prescribing what God may or may not do or be, then we have created a God in our own image, a God who is too confined for this world. God is always More.
Thirdly, we see in this Gospel story that Jesus changes. We also hear in the Old Testament lesson appointed for this evening that God changes. The Prophet Jonah gives a warning to the wicked people of Nineveh that God will execute destruction upon them. The king calls everyone to repentance, a command to which they immediately respond, crying out to God to relent. And…10 “when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” And though we can read elsewhere in both the Old Testament and New Testament that God does not change… we read even more times that God does indeed change, change his mind: God relents or, as the King James’ Version says, “God repents.”[vi] God responds. This is very challenging to take in. If God is omniscient, all knowing, how is it that God could or would change? And yet, where we see Jesus change – convert – before our very eyes, and where we read the record of the God whom Jesus calls “Father” changing, it’s always about mercy. As the psalmist says, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.”
Will God change because of our prayers? I think it is possible. God, in God’s omniscience, already knows about the change that God will make; somehow, in God’s design of things, God is awaiting some collaboration on our own part, through our voice, our action, our availability, our prayer, to make the change that God is already intending to make. We are not just puppets; we are participants in the life of God. We’ve been created in the very image of God. Look within you; look around you: change is hard-wired into all of creation. So pray your heart out. Don’t pray wimpishly; don’t pray politely; don’t pray fearfully. Pray boldly. Pray what’s on your heart, and change will come, absolutely. Either your heart will change or God’s heart will change. Pray your heart out.
- Practice a respectful hesitance toward others.
- Presume God is always greater, greater than your revelation.
- Pray your heart out. Change will happen.
Conversion is about our ongoing invitation from God to change, to grow into maturity in this life, “to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” who himself changed, his own heart broken wide open with love for the whole world.[vii]
[i] “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.” Ephesians 3:20-21.
[ii] Simone Weil (1909-1943), a French philosopher, activist, and religious searcher, died at the age of 34 of tuberculosis and self-neglect in Ashford on August 24, 1943. She refused food and medical treatment out of sympathy for the plight of the people of Occupied France.
[iii] James 1:19.
[iv] This comes from the insight of Joseph C. Hough, Jr., sometime president of Union Theological Seminary, New York.
[v] Matthew 25; 35-45; Luke 9:43-53.
[vi] For example, we read that “because God is not a mortal, God will not change his mind” (1 Samuel 15:29). See also Malachi 3:6, and James 1:17: “ . . . the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” However we read elsewhere that “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14). See also Genesis 18:23-33, Numbers 16:44-50, Judges 2:18; 2 Samuel 24:16; 2 Kings 20:1-7; Jeremiah 26:13; Jeremiah 42:10. We also read of Jesus’ “conversion” coming from his meeting with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:22-28 and Mark 7:25-30.
[vii] Ephesians 4:13.
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