Fr. Bill Carroll – The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2023

Thus says the LORD GOD, who gathers the exiles of Israel.
I will gather others to them, besides those already gathered.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Recently, I came across a video from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg that explains the meaning of the Hebrew word that we often translate “repentance.”   Like metanoia, the parallel word in the Greek New Testament, the Hebrew word teshuvah lacks many of the connotations of the English word “repentance.”  

Metanoia literally means a change of mind.   It involves a change of heart, a change of values, a basic change of direction.  Like teshuvah, it has to do with a return.  It involves a conversion.    Neither biblical word is really about remorse or punishment, though conversion involves regret.  “Repentance,” however, has the same Latin root as “penalty,” “punishment” and “penitentiary.”   Here’s what the rabbi has to say about “teshuvah” in the video:

Teshuvah, in Hebrew, means “return,” right?   It’s about coming back.  Teshuvah is an answer to a question.  In sort of modern Hebrew (she says) it’s related to (like, you know) you get a bus ticket that’s like a return ticket is your “shuv,” like its coming back to where you have been, that you were supposed to be before you strayed, before you made mistakes, before you did harm, before you left your integrity and your values.   And teshuvah is an invitation to come back to alignment with yourself, with your best self, with God…with the flow of things.  And you have to do work to get back into that place.  It’s not “automagic.”

Today, I’d like to issue an invitation to all of us to return.   But, before I do, I’d like to sit with some things the rabbi said and remember that this is an invitation to come back.   God is inviting us to return to alignment with our best selves–with God and with the flow of things.

That’s one thing I love about the blessed luggage tags we just gave to our children for their school backpacks.  “Be loved.  Be kind.  Be you,” they say.  We did the same thing at the Trinity School of Texas on Friday.   These tags are signs to our children that they are beloved children of God.   

God created our children in God’s own image and likeness.   God redeemed them in Jesus, his Son.   Like all of us,  these children are made for loving fellowship with God (and other people) through the gift of the Holy Spirit.   And we want for them what we want for ourselves–to know God’s love, to share it with others, and to stay true to who we are.  But when we stray from the path, as we often do, we need to turn back to God, back to each other, back to our true selves.   To remember that we are loved, and that we can learn from our mistakes.  They don’t have to define who we are. 

Repentance doesn’t mean beating ourselves up.   Nor does it mean conforming to some external standard.   Often, it does mean saying we’re sorry.  And that’s not always easy.  Repentance is not “auto-magic.”  It involves work.  It means making things right when we can.   But it is fundamentally a return–both to God and to our best selves.

Today’s lessons from the Bible are all about turning back to God.   In each case, the Gentiles–the non-Jewish nations that did not have the benefit of Torah–even us (even us lawless, Gentile sinners) are invited to return.    The prophet Isaiah speaks of foreigners turning back to the LORD–to love his Name and become his servants, to maintain justice and do what is right–and to make God’s House into a house of prayer for all people.  “Thus says the LORD GOD, who gathers the exiles of Israel.  I will gather others to them, besides those already gathered.”  Psalm 67 likewise speaks of the universal reign of God, where God brings even the Gentiles into the fold:  

Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, *
for you judge the peoples with equity and guide all the nations upon earth.

And Paul, writing to the Romans, restates the main thesis of his entire letter, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”

This means that whoever we are, and however far we have wandered or strayed, God still loves us.  God is still preparing our way home.  In the Torah and in the prophets—and in the teaching and example of Jesus—God has shown us how to maintain justice and do what is right.   In a word, he has shown us how to love.   

And, in our Gospel lesson, which is a disturbing story on many levels. (Does Jesus really mean to call this woman’s child “a dog”?   I don’t know what to make of that.)   But in that story as well, we see the value of turning back to God.   For this Canaanite woman, who represents all that is foreign and unclean, turns to Jesus.   And by her faith, her daughter is set free.

But, more than that.   In the story, Jesus himself gives us an example of repentance.   For, at the start of the story, he is prepared to send the woman away.  He won’t even talk to her until the disciples intervene.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel,” he says.   But, through her resistance–through her talking back and wrestling with God–Jesus is able to give us all an example of repentance–of doing the work to remain faithful to his mission.  When confronted by this woman, Jesus rejects any restriction of the scope of his mission of love.  He stays true to his message about God’s amazing grace and boundless love for every last human being.

I’ll be honest, like many of you, I struggle with this story.   I don’t know how to square what Jesus says with what I believe.   I don’t know how to reconcile it with his sinless perfection.   Is he testing this woman’s faith?  Perhaps.  Or does he need to learn from her just how wide God’s mercy really is?   One thing I do know, when he witnesses her faith, he changes his mind and sets her daughter free.   He shows her God’s love and heals her daughter instantly.

He invites this woman, her child, and all of us to return to God.  And so, come back to God.  Come back, come back, whoever you are and however you are hurting.   Come back to yourselves.   Come back to each other.

“Be loved.  Be kind.  Be you.”