Sunday, September 12, 2021

Sermon: "The Righteousness of Second Thoughts", Exodus 32:7-14/Mark 7:24-30 (September 12, 2021)


This week, Idaho made the national news. Unfortunately, it was for an incredibly bleak reason. On Wednesday, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare activated “Crisis Standards of Care” for the Panhandle and North Central Health Districts. As far as I know, we were the first state to do so in any capacity. While this declaration hasn’t yet reached the southern part of the state, it is, quite frankly, terrifying that this is happening at all: that health care providers are being put in the position of having to determine who gets care and who doesn’t because our medical resources are stretched impossibly thin. While I maintain hope that this state of affairs will be short-lived and won’t reach our corner of the state, I have to admit that I’m not terribly optimistic.

I first heard about this on NPR. (These days, that’s where I get most of my news, because it reports the news from an unbiased perspective without inducing an anxiety attack for the sake of ratings.[1]) I was listening to the lunchtime program, “Idaho matters”, and they had a panel of experts on to talk about the pandemic (as they do every Wednesday). The different doctors and health officials have the same message every week, but THIS week, in light of the declaration, it was especially pointed—this crisis was completely avoidable. They reiterated that every eligible person should get vaccinated as soon as possible (if they haven’t already) in order to prevent this from getting any worse, and everyone should be wearing masks in public until the situation is back under control, especially those unable or unwilling to be vaccinated.

Now, this all seems pretty straightforward as far as guidance goes; blunt, even. And yet, a year and a half into the pandemic and nine months into vaccine availability, many people still aren’t willing to follow it. They say, “First, they told us not to wear masks and that they don’t help. Now, they tell us we HAVE to wear them. What are we supposed to believe? How should we trust them when they say the vaccine is safe?” Their reasoning assumes that for someone to be worth listening to, they must never be wrong. Changing your mind is a sign of weakness, of unreliability, of disingenuity. It makes you a deceptive flip-flopper, undeserving of the public’s trust. So, much of the pandemic advice we’ve been given recently has fallen on deaf ears.

I suspect that this line of thinking may also have contributed to the cleaving of our entire society in two. The nation currently seems to consist of two sharply divided, deeply opposed factions with irreconcilable perspectives on the pandemic. Early on, each of us formed an opinion about COVID-19 (and they were ALL opinions at first, since so little was known about the virus). But as more information became available, far too many people refused to revise their position in light of these new facts. Far too many of us embraced whichever talking head supported our initial opinion, regardless of their qualifications, and clung to information that has since proven to be demonstratively false. All because being wrong and changing our minds feels too much like losing.

And I get it. I hate being wrong, too. It’s even worse when changing our minds means we have to admit that someone else—someone we formerly saw as our adversary—was RIGHT. It’s quite possible that “I told you so” are the four most unpalatable words in the English language. Worse still, there are some circumstances in which we’re NOT wrong at all, but changing our mind is the right thing to do (like in situations requiring compromise, or where our personal experience isn’t universal). It’s no wonder we associate having second thoughts with such negative characteristics—it’s really uncomfortable to do it!

But if we think about it objectively instead of emotionally (or even politically), changing your mind isn’t a sign of weakness, unreliability, OR disingenuity. It can’t be, or else 4.5 billion people[2] in the world would be following a weak, unreliable, disingenuous God—including us. And I don’t think any of us would say that we do.

The fact is, our God—our omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God— changes God’s mind all the time. And it’s a good thing, too, or else humanity would have been destroyed hundreds of times over by now. After all, we’re a bunch horribly depraved sinners who can’t help doing the wrong thing, and God has every right to be angry with us. We all know the story of the Golden Calf: God had JUST delivered the Israelites out of slavery, but the first time Moses left them alone, they decided to make an idol for themselves. God was understandably furious. The people were stubborn and fickle, and God was ready to destroy them and build the great nation promised to Abraham from Moses’ lineage alone. But Moses intervened on the people’s behalf, making a compelling argument, and God’s justifiable wrath was stayed. Scripture literally tells us, “…The Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.”

Jesus, too, was known to change his mind. When the Syrophoenician woman threw herself at his feet and at his mercy, he was initially inclined to deny her plea. He hadn’t been sent to care for the gentiles, he said—and he included an insult for good measure (he must have been having a particularly bad day or something). But the woman turned his own metaphor around and convinced him to change his mind. He heeded her words and healed her daughter. Although he was sent as the Messiah for the Jewish people, this story marks a turning point in Jesus’ ministry: it becomes clear that the Good News is no longer restricted to the descendants of Abraham alone, but is instead offered to all people.

These are not isolated incidences of God having second thoughts. They’re just two examples of many. God changed God’s mind on the ark with Noah,[3] at Sodom and Gomorrah with Abraham,[4] on the mountaintop with Isaac,[5] and in Nineveh with Jonah,[6] to name just a few. In none of these stories is God portrayed as being fickle or untrustworthy. Rather, God’s mind-changing in every one of these stories is motivated by one of God’s most wonderful characteristics: compassion.

God has compassion for the faithless Israelites in the wilderness and decides not to destroy them after all. Jesus has compassion for the Syrophoenician woman and decides to heal her daughter after all. God has compassion for humanity after the flood, for the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah, for Abraham and his only son on the mountaintop, for the Ninevites demonstrating repentance. God is unbelievably, overwhelmingly compassionate even towards those who least deserve it. THAT, not weakness or unreliability or disingenuity, is what causes God to change God’s mind again and again and again.

You know who famously DOESN’T change his mind in scripture? The Egyptian Pharaoh. In Exodus, chapters 7-11, twenty-some-odd chapters before today’s reading, Scripture tells us that the Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against Moses’ entreaties an astounding 11 separate times. No matter what reasoning Moses offered or what evidence of God’s power he presented, Pharaoh remained stubborn and unmoved. He’d made up his mind and was unwilling to change it.

Now, Egypt was one of the most powerful and wealthy nations in the world at that time; it certainly would have survived the liberation of its slaves. The Pharaoh could have agreed to Moses’ terms and created a situation that wasn’t quite what he wanted, but that would ultimately be in everyone’s best interest. Instead, he refused to reconsider. He didn’t want to look weak. He didn’t want to be wrong. He didn’t want to lose. And as a result, many, many people died who didn’t have to.

Changing your mind is an ethically neutral act. It, in and of itself, doesn’t make you weak or strong, bad or good. What gives it moral value is what motivates you to do it. Discovering new information is a good motivator. So is recognizing that circumstances have changed. But one of the best motivators—certainly the most divine one—is compassion for others. When we change our minds out of compassion for our fellow human beings, we can rest assured that it is the righteous choice. It’s the honest answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?” It’s the best way to reflect the image of God in a world obsessed with being right the first time.

As unpleasant as it can be to change our minds, it’s something that we all need to be willing to do. None of us is without sin. None of us is all-knowing. None of us is perfect. But God IS all of those things, and even God regularly changes God’s mind for OUR sake. Shouldn’t we be willing to do the same for each other?

I’m not asking anyone to let others walk all over them. I’m not saying that we should all become martyrs who sacrifice our own lives for the sake of others (we ARE called to take up our cross and FOLLOW Jesus, but we shouldn’t ever try to BE Jesus). What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t remain faithful to ideas that aren’t in everyone’s best interest in the long run. We shouldn’t commit to principles that cause harm to others, even if it’s entirely within our rights to do so. We don’t have to live with hard hearts like Pharaoh. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay. It’s a sign of strength and wisdom. It’s righteous. It’s holy. In fact, it’s divine.

Pandemic aside, we are all gonna be making mistakes in our judgement for the rest of our lives. Hundreds of mistakes. Thousands, even. Probably more. And if we’re not willing to change our minds to better align with God’s will, then we’re in deep trouble. So when a choice you’ve made is challenged, search your heart to see if your decision is grounded in compassion for God’s beloved creation. If it’s not, it may be time for some second thoughts of your own. But don’t worry that changing your mind will make you weak. If you’re doing it out of love, then you can be confident that it’s the right, holy thing to do. Your second thoughts are in divine company—thanks be to God. Amen.



[2] Estimated number of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the world.

[3] Genesis 9:8-16.

[4] Genesis 18:20-32.

[5] Genesis 22:1-18.

[6] Jonah 3:4-10.

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