September 10 2023 “How Do We Face Change?”
How Do We Face Change?
How do we face change?
Homily for St. John’s Episcopal Church
by Lisa Wiens Heinsohn
given September 10, 2023
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 13:8-14
Welcome back to the sanctuary! It is beautiful in here and your faces are beautiful. Welcome to the beginning of the fall program year at St. John’s, of Sunday School and Wednesday night choir dinners and two services. There are times in life that one becomes especially aware of how precious we are, how precious time is. About ten days ago one of my dearest friends was in a severe car accident that has utterly changed at least the course of the next year, and perhaps the rest of her life. On Thursday, my uncle, my mother’s brother, had a heart attack, and he is now in hospice and will likely pass away soon. He is the first of my mother’s generation, of her siblings, to approach death. And at the same time life in all its beauty and newness thunders on. My teenager became a sophomore in high school and is getting a driving permit. We have beautiful new staff to welcome with their families. Yesterday a number of us from St. John’s went to Good Courage Farm, the regenerative Episcopal agrarian ministry that is still new in Minnesota, and we had a wonderful time harvesting grapes from their vineyard. There was beautiful a capella music sung at the base of the old silo, music that echoed straight up to God. What is happening in your lives? What is helping you wake up to what is really important?
I have become aware once again of how precious this moment is, of what really matters. I have been reminded that in the course of a single instant your entire life can change. And in the midst of all this, Jesus’ words from Matthew’s gospel resound. At first glance it seems he is teaching basic conflict management skills, and they seem pretty helpful. Start by avoiding triangulation and just going straight to the person who hurt you and speak with them privately, he teaches. Sounds about right. But this is one instance in which I think you really need to know what’s happening before and after this passage in Matthew to get the full meaning, in the same way that this morning seems especially precious to me because of the broader context in which my life sits right now.
Earlier in this same chapter Jesus has told his disciples that they should always begin by assuming the humility and open-mindedness of a child. He has urged us to leave the ninety-nine sheep and seek the one who is lost. He says we need to forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times, and to recognize how deeply we ourselves have been forgiven and needed forgiveness. In these sections a theme repeats over and over again like a heartbeat. Everyone is precious no matter what they have done. Let nothing be wasted. Let no one be lost. It’s so interesting what Jesus says after he urges us in today’s gospel reading to go and speak privately with the person who has sinned against you. What does he describe happens if the person listens to you. Does he say, “You will be vindicated!” No. “You will feel better!” No. “Justice will have been served!” Not that either. Instead he says that if the person listens, “you have regained that person.” The one sheep of the ninety nine has been found. Forgiveness has been extended again, and perhaps again and again. A precious human being has been restored to community. To Beloved Community. Because life is short and we don’t have unlimited time to make things right with those we love who are estranged from us. But this is easier said than done. Some family conflicts are so complicated, so longstanding, that it feels they could never fully be healed. How do we gain the ability to follow Jesus’ teachings and restore those who are lost to us?
To do that we have to back up even further to get more context. Matthew’s gospel strongly emphasizes the Jewish tradition and how Jesus fits into it. There are constant parallels between Jesus and Moses, the prophet who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and to the promised land. Matthew’s gospel begins with a genealogy that starts with Abraham, who begets Isaac, who begets Jacob, and on and on to Joseph, the husband of Mary mother of Jesus. Have you ever wondered why this book starts with a family tree?
It starts this way because of when it was written, about three to five decades after Jesus. The Jewish community of Jerusalem had been through terrible trauma. Their Temple and much of Jerusalem had been cruelly, viciously, deliberately destroyed by Rome. Their priestly families had been executed. They had been the victims of terrible imperial violence that they could not stop or do anything about. A majority of the Jews of Palestine fled. Matthew’s gospel was likely written in Antioch, which now had the largest population of Jews in the world. Although they had lost their home, they still knew who they were and who their ancestors had been, Abraham and Isaac down the line to King David and Bathsheba, down through the exile to Babylon and the return to Palestine and now, again, to this moment of exile and anguish.
Dr. Alexander John Shaia is a theologian who perceives the four gospels to be addressing four universal questions about the human condition:
How do we face change?
How do we move through suffering?
How do we receive joy?
How do we mature in service?
For Dr. Shaia, these four questions represent four spiritual paths, four stages in the spiritual journey of transformation to which God invites us and which are also reflected in many other traditions and spiritualities. Matthew’s gospel is the one that addresses the first question, “How do we face change?”
It begins by locating ourselves in where and who we have been, in the stories of our ancestors. But then arrives a pivotal moment in which we come to accept changes happening that are beyond our control. In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas comes with the soldiers to have him arrested. And Jesus says to Judas, “Friend, do what you have come here to do.” For Dr. Shaia, that means facing change by “receiving the work of this moment.” He reminds us that in Jewish tradition, the new day begins not with sunrise but with sunset. Life begins with holy darkness. God spoke light into being in the holy darkness of primordial time. A baby develops in the darkness of the womb, and seeds germinate in the dark of the ground. Receiving the work of this moment, facing change that may be unwelcome and challenging and painful, is first of all about recognizing that this change is not an end, but a beginning.
Every part of Matthew’s gospel is about how to accept God’s call to the spiritual journey by stepping courageously into a future we cannot yet see or control. One of the hallmarks of this journey is to recognize the priceless value of human community and prioritizing it, as Jesus urges us to do in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew where today’s reading comes from. But it is also to recognize that the Christ is not primarily in the past; he is right here, and Christ is in the future, God-with-us, Jesus saying to the disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel “I am with you always, even to the end of the world,” beckoning us to fully accept the call of God for transformation and change.
In some ways, Matthew’s focus on the question “How do we face change?” is about that first spiritual practice of Jesus’ Way of Love. Remember back in 2019 we were talking about these seven practices? They are: turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, go and rest. The first practice, “turn,” is about change. In the reading from Romans for today the Apostle Paul tells us, “Now is the time to wake up.” In the other reading from this morning from the Hebrew scriptures, God is teaching the people of Israel about how to commemorate and constantly renew the experience of Passover, the meaning of which can be summed up in two words: Leaving Egypt. The word for Egypt in Hebrew, Mizrayim, is derived from the word for “a narrow place.” God is calling us out of the narrow place, out of the present order of things that have become too small, to embark on a journey into the dark, into the wilderness in which we will meet God and be transformed. We will learn how to receive the work of the present moment, to face change. We will learn how to move through suffering. We will learn how to receive joy. And finally, we will take all this into the world and learn how to mature in service, how to be the change we want to see in this world. How to give everything away for the freedom of following Christ and centering our lives on love and regenerative healing for this world.
This is the context in which St. John’s is facing change. We are facing change we did not create and cannot control: the vast exodus of modern- day America from Christendom, and a pandemic that has turned our commitments upside down and caused most of us to think hard about what we really want to devote time and energy to. But in the midst of this change we have the teachings of Jesus, the presence of the living Christ to take us by the hand on this spiritual journey of transformation, and this Beloved Community.
You will have the opportunity this year to join me in studying the four gospels this year at St. John’s, and the four paths of transformation they represent. To begin with I’d invite you to join me tomorrow night at 7pm for the first episode of our new Monday sermon discussion group on zoom, that our deacon intern Colleen Swope has initiated. We’ll talk about these four questions and how they resonate for you. You’ll be hearing more information in the coming weeks about how you can plug into this experience of change and transformation, how to receive the work of this moment and face the dark, not as an end, but as a beginning. Amen.
1 This sermon references, summarizes and synthesizes some of Dr. Shaia’s teachings in his book Heart and Mind: the Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation (Quadratos, 2021). It also represents some of his teachings in the video “Waking and Facing Change: Climbing Matthew’s Great Mountain,” accessed September 10, 2023 at https://vimeo.com/showcase/10143374.