You often hear it said that the only constant in life is change. The corollary to that of course is that a fundamental characteristic of being human is resistance to change. We don’t like it. We are uncomfortable with it. We don’t want to go from the known to the unknown. Things are just fine the way they are. Even when they’re not! Now, the Church can be particularly resistant to change. I mean, you know how many Episcopalians it takes to change a light bulb, don’t you? “Change? Change? You can’t change that light bulb. My grandmother gave that light bulb!” And when a new rector of the parish shows up, they do well to remember the old caution, “Don’t move any of the furniture for at least a year.” On the other hand, we can also be resilient in the face of change. It’s been my experience that whenever we do something at least twice in the parish, it immediately becomes a tradition!
Yes, we do love tradition in the church. There are some of you here today who are old enough to remember, as I do, the controversy that raged around what was then called the “New Prayer Book” back in the ‘70’s. New Eucharistic liturgies were being introduced and many feared that the old familiar 1928 Prayer Book was going to be replaced and forgotten by these newfangled liturgies. So it’s interesting to note that while the Eucharistic liturgy in the ‘28 Prayer Book written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer dates back to the 16th century, the so called “new” Eucharistic liturgies are far more ancient and have their roots in the early church, a thousand or more years before Cranmer. These so-called “new liturgies”, which we now refer to as “Rite 2”, have today become the principal and much-loved liturgies in most parishes, including right here at Epiphany. And of course we still use Cranmer’s liturgy, which we call “Rite 1”, every Sunday at 11:00. That great change, so fiercely resisted by so many, has now become part of our tradition.
There’s an aphorism by the great church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, that captures this interplay between tradition and change. “Tradition is the living faith of the dead,” said Pelikan, “while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” So let’s unpack that. Tradition is organic. It’s a principal fertilizer of growth and new life. Rooted and grounded in the faith and wisdom of our ancestors, we can live confidently in the swirling tides of chance and change in the present moment, allowing the ancestors’ wisdom to speak to us and inform our decisions and actions as we resiliently adapt to this life, not some imagined life from 40 or 50 or a hundred years ago. Traditionalism, on the other hand, is inert. It is inorganic. Cast in marble. Traditionalism is actually the worship of tradition, which is nothing more than idol worship. The clock won’t ever be wound back to 1963 or 1953 or 1853 and thank God for that. As C. S. Lewis once observed, the only prayer God never answers is “Encore.”
So why am I banging on and on about tradition and traditionalism and change and new life? Let’s take a look at this morning’s gospel. These are back-to-back stories about tradition and change, the interesting way in which Jesus approaches tradition and change in these two contexts, and what that means for those first hearing Matthew’s gospel and for us today. In the first story we find Jesus in the middle of a discussion with the Pharisees. They have challenged Jesus to explain why his disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat as the tradition of the elders requires. Pointing out their hypocrisy, Jesus turns to the crowd and says that it’s not how or what one puts into the mouth that’s important, it’s what comes out of the mouth, the words that come from the heart, a heart that might bear evil intentions, murder, false witness, slander and more, that defines a person. The Pharisees’ traditionalism, their idolatry of the Tradition, in other words, has blinded them to the deeper concerns of human life.
This isn’t the first time that Jesus has had a run in with the Pharisees about how their worship of traditionalism has blinded them to real human need. Earlier, they have twice accused Jesus of violating Sabbath Law by allowing his disciples to gather food for the hungry and to heal the sick on the Sabbath. Jesus responds by reminding them that the Sabbath, the day of rest, was created by God for human beings and for human flourishing. Human beings were not created by God for the Sabbath. Get the point? God’s response to human need, as discerned through the lens of tradition, will always trump the constricting boundaries we try to create for God by our traditionalism.
While that’s all pretty straightforward, the story that follows is more complicated, isn’t it? Immediately after this latest encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus and his friends head off to Tyre and Sidon located in present day Lebanon. It’s Canaanite country, the country of the Gentiles, who are the traditional enemies of the Jewish people. In fact, their enmity was so bitter that Jews often referred to Canaanites as “dogs”. Now it’s important to note here that Matthew is writing to an audience of Jewish Christians, that is, people who are grounded in the Law and in Jewish tradition and who are now following this new Messiah, and they are grounded in a particular tradition that they are God’s elect. Jesus of course was himself a Jew; born a Jew, raised a Jew, worked and lived and ministered as a Jew, died a Jew just like his disciples. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has said, “I did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, I came to fulfill them.” The disciples didn’t see Jesus as coming to start a new religion, in other words. That happens later. As far as the disciples were concerned, Jesus came to fulfill God’s promises to Israel and after that, to the world. Remember the covenant God made with Abraham? God said to him, “I will make of you a great nation, and through you, all the nations of the world will be blessed.” God’s promises were to be delivered first to the people of Israel. For the disciples, that’s the premise, the mission statement, that Jesus is operating under on the day he meets this Canaanite woman with a sick daughter. Not surprising then that when she begs for Jesus’s help, the disciples impatiently urge him to turn her away. “We aren’t here for you, lady.” But as we will see, Jesus apparently has other ideas, which must be why he came to Canaanite country in the first place. This is going to become what we might call a “teachable moment” for his disciples. Let’s see how it happens.
First, Jesus tells this dear mother that his mission is only “to the lost sheep of Israel.” Then he tells her that the food for the “children,” that is for the people of Israel, should not be thrown to the “dogs” –that is, to a Canaanite like her. Whoa! What? On its face, this story paints Jesus as being steeped in traditionalism which is what his disciples would expect. He seems to be privileging the divine election of Israel ahead of immediate human need. Not very pretty to us, is it? And yet—and yet—the mother persists. She can see something larger in Jesus and his ministry, she can see that his grace is even for one such as her, for one outside the bounds of Jewish tradition, and so she cries out for mercy.
Mercy! Lord, have mercy. Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy. The cry for mercy rings down through the ages, whispered in hospitals, cried out in agony and despair on battlefields and amidst fires and floods and earthquakes and every other imaginable disaster. Lord, have mercy. It’s the cry from the depths of the human soul in travail. Yet even as Jesus at first remains silent in the face of this cry, we know that mercy is central to his ministry and to God’s care for the human condition. On two occasions earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has quoted the prophet Hosea who in turn quotes God who says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In other words, mercy–mercy for suffering human beings–is more important than all your religious rituals, all your laws, all your doctrines, all your traditions. So where, as here, the doctrine of the election of Israel has been so twisted by the religious authorities into one of prejudice and exclusion and contempt, we now see that the woman’s cry for mercy to the one she calls “Lord” shatters this edifice of traditionalism. God is a merciful God beyond all human knowing, beyond the barriers of the traditionalism we humans erect. In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian testament God has said, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15). This is the way God has chosen to reveal God’s essential nature—through mercy. The woman’s cry for mercy touches the divine nature of the One who is the Son of God, the One whose very nature is to have mercy. And so he does. Kyrie Eleison. Christie Eleison. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. The Canaanite woman’s desperate vulnerability, her confession of unworthiness, her complete humility, her utter devotion to her sick child, her trust that this man about whom she had heard so much, could save her suffering daughter, her “great faith” as Jesus puts it, breaks through the rigid barriers of traditionalism and God’s healing mercy flows down like cool spring water. The sick little girl is made well. God’s healing mercy is to be taken to the whole world. Even, perhaps most especially, to the ones who the in group, like the disciples, look upon as strangers or as unworthy. There’s the “teachable moment” for the disciples and for us. Jesus commends the woman to the disciples to show what “great faith” can accomplish. God will tear down all the barriers that we might erect, including the barriers of traditionalism and privilege and exclusion which stand between suffering humanity and God’s healing mercy.
There’s a wonderful song by the country artist, Mary Gauthier, called Mercy Now. Do you know it? It’s autobiographical. In the first verse she says her father, with whom she’s had a difficult and conflicted relationship and who’s now dying of Alzheimer’s “could use a little mercy now.” In the second verse, her brother who has a terrible addiction “could use a little mercy now.” In the third verse, her church (she’s Roman Catholic) and her country, as they “sink into a poison pit” could use a little mercy now, and so on. The final verse is haunting.
Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it but we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
And every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Do you need a little mercy now? Are you like the Canaanite mother with a sick daughter who comes to Jesus crying for mercy? I’ve been there. I sure have. I’ve been awake at 3:00 in the morning looking for some mercy now. So I’ll share something that’s helped me. It’s an ancient prayer. A prayer grounded in the Great Tradition. You may already know it. It’s well known in the Eastern Church, and if you don’t know it you should. It’s called The Jesus Prayer and it’s very simple.
Lord Jesus Christ
Son of God
Have mercy on me
Say it with me on the rising and the falling of the breath. Now say it again. And again. You’re bringing to God your deepest human need. The need for mercy. Say it again and again at 3:00 in the morning when it seems like the walls are closing in. Say it again and again as you sit by the bedside of a sick child. Say it again and again as you reflect on the awful fight you’ve just had with your spouse; as you walk away from the office with the news you’ve just been laid off; as you wait for the call from the surgeon with the results of the biopsy. Say it as you lay dying, breathing your last breath.
Lord Jesus Christ
Son of God
Have mercy on me
Yes, every single one of us could use a little mercy now. And mercy is what we get, healing mercy, from the God who offered mercy to our spiritual ancestors in the faith those thousands of years ago. We stand on their shoulders today, we stand on the Great Tradition, as we ourselves cry out for mercy. Lord, have mercy. Kyrie Eleison. And in receiving God’s mercy, we’re empowered to pass it on, to be agents of God’s mercy in our families, in our church and in our neighborhood, in our city, in our divided and hurting nation. We are called to be agents of God’s healing mercy. That is at the heart of our tradition, yours and mine. And, yes, even a stranger, even an outsider, even a sinner, can stand before the Throne of Grace and cry out for mercy.
Lord Jesus Christ
Son Of God
Have mercy on me—even me