August 31, 2011
August 30, 2011
I'm guessing that's not what Jesus had in mind as he explained his disciplinary procedure to his disciples. Gossip, I'm sure, was not what he hoped for in the ideal situation.
But, we're human, and we sin, and we all know that gossip happens. It is the reason why prayer lists are closely guarded secrets. It is the reason that HIPPA laws make going to the doctor a matter of national security. It is the (a? probably a) reason why confession has gone out of style in most denominations. It is part of what makes my job difficult - a long history of priests (and bishops) who couldn't keep other people's secrets under the stole.
And, in many ways, it is the reason why we all read these instructions from Jesus, roll our eyes, and come up with Title IV revisions. (Title IV is the portion of Episcopal Church Law that deals with misconduct).
What if, in our conflict averse, gossip-page obsessed culture, we took these instructions from Jesus seriously? What if we, privately and with tact, told people when they hurt us? What if we trusted two or three elders to help mediate? What if the Church, the ekklesia (yes 18:17 is the other place Matthew uses this word, and he uses it twice) the community, was serious about its role in real reconciliation (and not just the white guilt sort of reconciliation that for too long has defined the *former* mainline)?
Imagine the example that would set for the whole world? Imagine how it might impact Washington? Imagine how what it might mean as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11. What if Jesus knew what he was talking about?
August 29, 2011
See, the NRSV translates Matthew 18:15 as " another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one." But alas, this isn't the only other time Matthew uses that great word, Ekklesia, in his gospel. Instead, he chooses to translate Jesus' word as adelphos, brother.
The NIV gets credit for the better translation this time, "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over." The implications are clearly for the community of the faithful, but the word here is not community, not church, but it is about one person sinning against another (all singular), and boy how that changes things.
Or does it.
When members of the body of Christ act as individuals, and not surprisingly, screw it up, how does it effect the community at large? How does forgiveness and reconciliation or the lack thereof affect the larger body? What difference does it make that a brother sinned against a brother?
Jesus seems to make it clear that the first step is one-on-one relationship (re)building. Go and meet with that person alone, point out the fault, and if reconciliation happens, rejoice. But if it doesn't, if it begins to spread like a cancer to the whole community, well then additional steps are needed. More on that tomorrow.
For now, I'm really wondering about that word, brother, and how it impacts the whole issue of sin and forgiveness within the ekklesia.
I find bumper sticker theology to be a fascinating area of study. Somehow, in the space of twelve inches by three inches, hopefully in a font size big enough to be read by the car behind, whole systematic theologies can be spelled out. Take, for example, a few of my favorites, “Warning: In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” Obviously, this is a dispensationalist Christian, who expects Jesus' second coming to not only be soon, but also to involve the immediate whisking away to heaven of all believers. Another classic reads, “If it ain't King James, it ain't the Bible.” Assuming the owner of the vehicle isn't being cleverly ironic, this is a grammatically challenged biblical literalist who understands the only true English version of the Scriptures to be the beautiful, if difficult to understand, prose or the 1611 King James Version. One of the best theological bumper stickers ever made is actually a response to one of the worst. The original bumper sticker read, “God is my co-pilot.” Some wise person, upon seeing all the flaws contained in such a statement, printed another set of stickers that read, “If God is your co-pilot, swap seats!” I can't be certain, but I'm pretty sure this bumper sticker is directed at St. Peter.
Things are looking great for Jesus and his disciples during their visit to Philip's newly updated Ceasarville. They have paused for a bit to regroup after a series of storms, miracles, and a few run ins with the religious and political powers that be. Last week we heard Jesus trying to get a feel from his disciples of the popular opinion, “who do people say the Son of Man is?” Then, in that great turning point moment, we heard Simon Peter declare without question that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the Son of the living God. The passage ended with Jesus sternly warning his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Did anyone wonder about that? I did. Why keep important news quiet? Why not tell the whole world? The disciples had an idea of why they had to keep things quiet, it was the wrong idea, but that didn't much matter at the time. The best way to enter Jerusalem and overthrow the Roman occupiers would be through the element of surprise. Keep the news quiet until an army is gathered, then BAM, strike down the Romans and their sympathizers in the Sanhedrin: the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. Remove them from power before they even know what them. A brilliant military strategy, but a terrible understanding of the way in which God works, for Jesus, you see, had other reasons why things should be hush hush.
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hand of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Let's be honest, none of them heard anything beyond “be killed.” To a man, their brains began to swim with anxiety, misunderstanding, and, most likely anger. And so Peter, as spokesman, takes Jesus aside to explain to him the error of his ways, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” This way Jesus is describing is messy. It is unseemly. It is not the way things are supposed to work out for the anointed one of God and his disciples, and so Peter, as spokesman, as favored son, as the Rock, politely tells Jesus, “why don't you let me drive, clearly you don't have the directions quite right.”
In a lot of ways, I'm a lot like Peter. First and foremost, I'm a terrible passenger, literally and figuratively. As sad as this statement may be, two of my worst nightmares are sitting in the passenger seat for a trip lasting any longer than 30 minutes and sitting in a meeting where the person in charge is running without an agenda. I hate that feeling of being out of control. I hate not knowing the path ahead.
“Get behind me Satan! Peter the Rock, you are a stumbling block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In a matter of a few seconds, Jesus finds himself being swept from the room he shared with his disciples in Ceasarea Philipi to the wilderness of his temptation. All of a sudden Satan is back to tempt him. Turn this rock into bread, worship me, throw yourself from the pinnacle of the Temple, raise up an army and take over Jerusalem – you don't have to suffer, you don't have to die, there is always another way. Jesus has had his identity challenged by the Pharisees, the Sadducees and a Canaanite woman, his world has been spinning out of control for some time, and now, in his moment of weakness, Satan returns to tempt him yet again. In five short verses Peter the bedrock of the Church has become Peter the stumbling block of Jesus as he tries to wrestle control away from him, but Jesus is prepared, he knows the directions, he has his mind set on the things of God.
One of the hardest parts about being a disciple is the whole following piece. The rugged individualism of 21st century America predestines us to be leaders, if only of ourselves, and so we find it hard to follow, to sit right seat, and to trust someone else's set of directions. As Peter's encounter with Jesus shows us, our own path, as beautiful and simple as it may seems, is the way of destruction. The way of Jesus, on the other hand, is hard and dusty and fraught with danger, but it is the way of life.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus lays out before his disciples the way of life: set your mind on divine things, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow.
If, as I suggested in a sermon several years ago, the Great Commandments of loving God and loving neighbor are impossibly simple, then this lifestyle of denying oneself and taking up one's cross is simply impossible. Denying ourselves the privilege of taking the driver's seat is hard enough, but to bear our own cross, the feel the weight of our own torture device, to know the pain of the splinters digging into our shoulders – that is just too much to bear. Fortunately, no one uses crucifixion as an execution technique these days. Thankfully we can't really understand the powerful image Jesus is raising in his disciple's minds. But, unfortunately, the act of taking up one's cross has become so trivialized, that we've lost all concept of the life, the way, Jesus is describing here.
If you were with us for our evening service on Ash Wednesday this year, you heard a little bit of what it means, and doesn't mean, to take up your cross. Your chronic back ache is not a cross to bear. Your pain in the neck mother-in-law is not your cross to bear. Your tough work schedule is not your cross to bear. A cross is only a cross when you make the choice to carry it on behalf of someone else. Jesus chose the cross, he chose to die so that he might raise all of creation to new life. He chose to take your sin and mine with him so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. As Keith's friend, Max Lucado says, “He chose nails.” Through the power of Christ living within you, you too can make that choice. You can choose to live a life of self-giving love. You can choose to live a life focusing solely on the will of God. You can choose to live a life that stands up for the outcast and oppressed, the widow and the orphan, the poor and the alien. It may seem simply impossible, but by the grace of God, you too can move yourself out of the way, and gain the life that God had in mind for you from the very beginning.
The battle over who's driving never seems to end. Standing by a charcoal fire, late on a Thursday night in Jerusalem, Peter will three times deny Jesus in a fruitless effort to save his own life. Jesus will take Peter's life back for the kingdom around a different charcoal fire on the shores of Lake Galilee. I continue to struggle with my control issues, wanting God to fit into my plans rather than the other way round. We all struggle to live fully into our identity as children of God, but God, ever faithful, ever merciful, continues to point to the map and say “Trust me, I know a better way.” Is God your co-pilot? Because if he is, you are surely in the wrong seat. Amen.
August 25, 2011
This makes being a disciple very difficult, but don't take my word for it. Peter learns very quickly and very harshly how incongruent it is to be a disciple in the driver seat.
Peter wants to be in control. He is fine with Jesus being the Messiah, but that anointedness comes with a certain set of expectations that do not, in any way, include Jesus being arrested much less killed. Peter is so worked up, it seems as though he can't even hear Jesus finish his thought: the whole, rise on the third day lynch pin to the Incarnation gets lost in translation. Jesus rebukes Peter, "Get behind me Satan!" Or, as I like to imagine it "Follow my plan, my route, my way! Let me sit in the driver seat, Peter, I've got it under control."
As the bumper sticker above says, Peter's in the wrong seat, and often, so am I. A good friend of mine has just been formally accepted into the discernment process for ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. As I talk with him about "the process" it brings back all sorts of memories that are deeply wedged into the recesses of my mind. I'm reminded of the thousand ways I tried to hijack the process from God's hand in order for it to fit the way I wanted it to work. I'm reminded of all the times that I fought to get my hand on the yoke, only to send the plane into a sputtering tailspin while begging God to take over again. I pray he doesn't struggle in the same way.
It is really hard to be a control freak and be a disciple, but, it is possible. Jesus graciously invites us to hand over the reigns and follow his lead. Jesus gracefully leads us forward into the unknown. Jesus mercifully forgives us each and every time we wrestle control away from him (even if that mercy feels a lot like an angry rebuke).
What about you? Are you any good at following?
August 23, 2011
And now he tells them he's going to be arrested, killed, and on the third day rise again.
Sometimes we take for granted that the disciples had all the details, and they most certainly did not. Sometimes we take for granted that we know all the details, and we do not.
Jesus is always out there, on the horizon, at the margins, on the edge, calling us to follow him. I wonder, what has Jesus begun to show you?
And as he unveils us, are you able to receive it? Do you want to keep moving forward? Or are you content with where you are? Peter, as I said yesterday, has a set of expectations - he wants Jesus to act a certain way, and as Jesus begins to show him this different way, this better way, it is hard for Peter to get on board.
The same is true for all of us. Change is hard, but when we put God in control, change is inevitable. He loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there.
August 22, 2011
There is a line about midway through the song that struck me as I reflect on Matthew 16:21-28 for this Sunday.
"Put in a prison cell, but one time, he could-a been the champion of the world."
This line made me think of Peter. Peter so desperately wanted (needed?) Jesus do be the champion of the world. He wanted Jesus to overthrow the Romans. He wanted Jesus to reestablish God's reign in Jerusalem. He wanted Jesus to subvert the corrupt religious system of the day.
But Jesus told him that he was fixin' to be put in a prison cell.
And that wasn't OK with Peter. All the couldas and wouldas and shouldas start to race through Peter' mind, and he can't stand the thought of it. "God forbid it!" He says. "This can't, this won't happen, not if I can help it."
But it would happen. It had to. Like in the case of Rubin Carter, sometimes the cards are stacked against somebody. Like Jesus, sometimes, when you act a certain way, live a certain way, call people to account in a certain way, you end up on the wrong side of the executioner. It happens. It is unfortunate, but it happens. In the case of Jesus, of course, the unfortunate events of Good Friday will be transformed on Easter Day. But Peter couldn't hear that yet.
August 18, 2011
Instead, I'd like to deal with a peculiarity in Matthew's version of Peter's declaration, one that I know so well, I forgot it only appears in Matthew - Jesus' renaming of Peter.
"Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
We so quickly skip over that word, church, when we read this lesson. We all know what church is. Or do we? For some, church is 10am on Sunday morning. For some, church is a building with stained glass and a steeple. For some, church is lively worship music. For Jesus, church was ekklesia, and it only shows up three times in the Gospels, only in Matthew, and twice in one verse.
What is the church? Ekklesia, according to the Friberg Lexicon, is "(1) in a general sense, as a gathering of citizens assembly, meeting (AC 19.32); (2) as the assembled people of Israel congregation (HE 2.12); (3) as the assembled Christian community church, congregation, meeting (RO 16.5); (4) as the totality of Christians living in one place church (AC 8.1); (5) as the universal body of believers church (EP 1.22)
Church is people, gathered together, confessing the name of Jesus and, as Acts will later flesh it out, following The Way. It has nothing to do with music, prayer books, vestments, buildings, or, for that matter, going to heaven when you die - it has everything to do with living as a disciple of Jesus right here and right now, to the glory of God.
Peter took his job seriously. He went to the cross, upside down, because of his life of faith in Christ Jesus. Our means of doing, of being Church are a lot less dangerous, but they are just as necessary. Standing up for the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the resident alien. Sharing our resources with those who have none. Lifting up people from the depths of despair. Offering a place of silence in a world full of noise where people can hear the voice of God.
To be that, and do that, you necessarily have to have places and lights and air conditioning and leaders (who may or may not be masters educated, paid, full time staffers, but they should be mature in their faith, which is a whole different post for a different day) and service times and newsletters and discretionary funds. But when that stuff becomes the priority, and the community and the way get lost in a plethora of line items, well then ekklesia, the church is no more.
May God look with favor upon his ekklesia, guard us from getting in our own way, and show us The Way that is life. Amen.
August 17, 2011
Today's Psalm, number 67, we join with David in doing something we rarely do as a community of faith: we ask God for his blessing. Sure, Keith or I pronounce God's blessing at the end of each service, but most of the time, when we come before the Lord, we ask for everything but his blessing. I tend to think of God's blessing being the stuff of prosperity preachers – God wants you to be rich, so send me ten-grand and I will be – but Rolf Jacobson from Luther Seminary really got me thinking this week in his reflection on this Psalm. You might want to open your prayer book to page 675 again as we walk through this poem, verse by verse.
The Psalm begins at the end of the traditional worship service. The blessing of Aaron from the book of Numbers gets tweaked by the Psalmist, and opens this liturgy of blessing by asking God simply to bless his people. “May God be merciful to us an bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us.” The poet then goes on to deal with the crux of God's blessing – something you've heard me say a lot over the years – we are blessed to be a blessing to others. This blessing for which Israel is asking, isn't just for them, but it is to fulfill the promise of God to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12, “You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you... and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” After the Exodus, God reiterates his promise, “You will be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (19.6) “And what did the priest do in ancient Israel? Channel the divine blessing upon the people. Israel was the conduit through which God's blessing flowed to all the earth. When God blessed Israel, God blessed all of creation.
“Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations. 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 the earth. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.” Three times the Psalmist uses the word all – all the peoples, all the nations, all the peoples. God's blessing was not, is not, reserved just for a few, but is the free gift of all. It is given to us so that we might give it away.
And blessed we have been. The Psalmist won't let the congregation get away with only asking for future blessing, but instead reminds them, and us, that we have already been blessed. “The earth has brought forth her increase” and here I agree with Jacobson (and almost every other translator) over our Prayer Book Psalter, “God, our God, has blessed us.” As we read stories of children starving to death in Africa or the poverty rate in America increasing, it might be hard to see where the earth is bringing forth her increase, but if we look around, there are plenty of places to find God's blessing in our world, this very day: low humidity, sun shine, health, loving friends and family, the list goes on and on. It is helpful, as we ask God to bless us, to remember that he has and is blessing us already. It runs through my mind time I celebrate that I've already announced that God will bless you for ever more, but I also know it is always helpful to have that constant reminder.
The Psalm ends by asking God, once again, to bless us so that the ends of the earth might be blessed, “May God give us his blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.” We have been blessed to bless others. We are being blessed to bless others. We ask God to continue to bless us so that we might be a blessing to others. Pour it out upon us Father, make us overflow with blessing, to the honor and glory of your name. Amen.
August 16, 2011
[It is always wonderful to stand in the center aisle, surrounded by cute, impressionable children while reading Matthew's account of Jesus calling a women, begging for his aid, a dog.] This is a tough lesson, easily top five toughest in the Gospels mixed in with Jesus turning the tables in the Temple, Jesus cursing the fig tree, and perhaps a few others. It shocks us to hear Jesus act this way. He begins by ignoring the woman's cries – the only time he ignores a cry for help – and then goes so far as to call her a slur, an epithet, a DOG! It offends us, and it should, but as Paul said to Timothy, “all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:16). I'll come back to Paul's useful words to Timothy, but first, a classic Steve Pankey extended metaphor.
After vestry on Monday evening, Cassie and I loaded up the baby and the car to meet some friends way over on Florida's Atlantic coast. We arrived Tuesday evening, and by the time Wednesday afternoon rolled around, everybody was ready for relaxation. Eliza took a four hour nap (as did our friend Josh) and I sat down with the History Channel's special presentation on the wreck of the Britannic three miles off Greece's Kea Island in 1916. The Britannic was the younger sister of perhaps the greatest ship wreck in recorded history, the Titanic. Built after Titanic sunk, Britannic was fitted with several upgrades meant to keep her from joining her older sister in Davey Jones' Locker. All of her upgrades were for not, however, as she sank in what the History Channel called a record time for a ship of her size, a mere 55 minutes. The History Channel had sponsored a team of elite divers, charged with the task of finding out why Britannic sunk so quickly. An ironically long 55 minutes later, it was time for “The Dive.” On the second to last day, a team of divers was finally set to wind their way through the generator room to find out if a key door was open or shut. I watched as they entered the crack in her hull, made their way down the narrow corridor, through the craw space next to boiler number 5, only to find the lead diver's progress thwarted by a wheel barrow wedged in the middle of his path. The show went to commercial showing only cloud of silt and hearing only the radio transmission, “Topside to Dive Team One.... Topside to Dive Team One.”
Finally, the divers responded, “abort” and after four hours of decompression compressed into 10 seconds they arrived on the top disappointed, but safe. Luckily, there was still a day of diving left so they could try the longer route past boiler number 3. Except, the Greek antiquities observer on board says they've violated their permits, and there will be no last day of diving. The show ends with the team, regathered several months later, talking about how much they accomplished in finding that wheel barrow, but honestly, I find it a hallow victory for the hour of my life I invested in their program.
Finding a wheel barrow is not what I had in mind when I started the journey to Britannic. I wanted to know if her double skin filled with water. I wanted to see that door, still opened, spelling her demise. I wanted definitive answers in return for the lazy hour I spent on the couch, but all I got were more questions. As the team leader stared, amazed at the first-ever, 3D rendering of the boiler room, as he stared at another piece of his life work coming into focus, all I saw was a wheel barrow, but he saw the bigger picture.
That, finally, is what this story from Matthew's Gospel is like. If we see the bigger picture, if we recognize that all, A-L-L, all of scripture is inspired by God, then we can understand that this seemingly innocuous healing story, this silly example of Jesus' sometimes dirty humanity, this side note of a pericope has something to teach us. What we find in this story, shocking and ugly as it may be, is a turning point in salvation history, and one for which we, Gentile Christians should be exceedingly grateful.
Matthew describes the woman who seeks Jesus' attention as a Canaanite Woman, but Canaanite was an ethnicity that no longer existed by the time of Jesus. Sure, Joshua had left some folks behind after being ordered to enter the land of Canaan, and kill every man woman and child (a top five Old Testament doozy for those of you who are into such things), but they had become so mixed with other races and cultures that Canaanites proper no longer existed in first century Palestine. Matthew chooses not to follow Mark in calling her Syro-Phonecian and in doing so, he evokes in the minds of his hearers the whole range of salvation history – From the First Adam to the Second Adam, the Re-Creator of all things, Jesus of Nazareth. This woman stands as a caricature of everything Israel believed. They, as God's chosen people, were in, and the Gentiles – of all sorts – including Canaanite women, and you and me, were out.
Jesus, as a first-century Jewish Rabbi was ingrained in that culture, in that teaching, in that understanding of the Kingdom, and so, true to who he is and what he came to do, he's focused on the lost sheep of Israel – the Pharisees among many others – who were so lost in the rules, who wasted so much time washing their hands, feet, pots, and pans, who focused on themselves more than others and more than God. He had a lot of work to do to get their attention.
And the Canaanite woman had a lot of work to do to get his. “Have mercy on me! Lord! Son of David! Have mercy on me! Kyrie Elison. Kryie! Elison!” She shouts and cries and shouts some more, until, exasperated, the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Shut her up! Send her away! Apolyson!” But she is undaunted, until she gets what she wants, until her daughter is healed of her demon, she will not leave, she will not be quiet, she will not be ignored. “Kryie Elison! Have mercy on me, Lord!”
As if he hadn't heard her at all, Jesus only responds to his disciples, “I was sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Suddenly, she sees her way in, as she rushes up to him, and takes on the traditional posture of worship, down on her knees, begging, pleading, worshiping, and hoping that Jesus will hear her cry and be merciful. His response, is filled with thousands of years of hurt feelings, theological squabble, and all out warfare. “It isn't fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman, still undeterred, has heard it all before. She's been called worse, but worse people, for sure. “Yep, dog, that's me, but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the master's table.”
And in an instant, in the bigger picture, everything changes. The walls of Jericho come tumbling down, and everyone – even this Canaanite woman, emblematic of every stereotype, ignorance, and hatred that ever separated any person from another – everyone comes within the reach of God's saving embrace.
“Woman, great is your faith,” is all Jesus can muster, “let it be done for you as you wish.” Her persistence pays off, thanks be to God, and even the Son of God has an Epiphany. In God's Kingdom there is no box, no in or out, just love, grace, and mercy, and that, my friends, changes everything. The Canaanite Woman trusted in that truth, but do we, do I, do you? Do we trust enough to know we've been forgiven? Do we realize that we are loved? Do we accept the grace that we don't deserve, confident in the Master's love?
During the dust bowl of the early 1930s, a preacher scheduled a special prayer service to pray for rain. The church was packed with people from far and wide as the preacher stepped into the pulpit. He scanned the assembled congregation, and told everyone, “Y'all can head on home. This service is over.” The people protested, “But we've not prayed for rain!” “Won't do a lick of good,” the preacher replied, “ain't none of you brought your umbrella!”
The Canaanite Woman brought her umbrella. She believed, fully and surely, despite hundreds of years of history to the contrary, that Jesus would heal her daughter, and because of her great faith, in the great scheme of things, the gates of Kingdom of God were flung wide to include you, me, and every Canaanite Woman in history.
Can you see the bigger picture?
Is it coming into focus?
Have you brought your umbrella?
Do you believe in what God can do?
I do. I believe God has a role for each one of us as the story unfolds. I believe that God has equipped each of you specially for the tasks he has prepared for you. I'm praying for big things. I'm praying for walls to crumble. I'm praying for small things to forever alter the bigger picture. I've got my umbrella. Do you?
So far, they hadn't gotten it.
While the world thinks the Son of Man might be Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah or somebody else, it is becoming increasingly important that the disciples know who Jesus really is. Jesus, as Peter declares, is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
I kind of got on the Church yesterday, accusing them of not being able to articulate who they thought Jesus was. The world does a pretty good job of telling us who they think he was, or at least they're good at telling us what they think of his followers. We're crazy, homophobic, anti-intellectual Bible thumpers. And, we've done nothing to agrue to the contrary but act like crazy, infighting, litmus testing, morons (I'm looking at you on the left and the right).
I think we haven't been able to respond eloquently or wisely because we really don't have an answer we believe in when we're asked, "Who do YOU say Jesus is?" All of our definitions are negative - he's not, we're not, they're not, you're not. But who IS he?
Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Jesus is the perfect example of God's will for the world.
Jesus is the One who turned the world right side up.
Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords.
If we begin to turn our answers around, to become less defensive, less angry, less... well... crazy, then I'm confident we can begin to turn around the perception of Jesus (and by extension his followers).
So, dear friends, Who do you say Jesus is?
August 15, 2011
It is a clunky sentence, that question from Jesus, but it is far weightier than its clunkiness would lead us to believe.
What if you asked that question of your congregation this week? What sort of answers would you get? In Episcopal circles, I suppose some would look to CS Lewis and say he is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. Some might say he was a great teacher. Other would say he was the perfect the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, killed by Pilate, dead, and risen from the dead. And, I'm afraid, some might stare blankly back at you, unable to express, in any way, who they understand the Son of Man to be.
I started reading "Almost Christian" a few months ago. It is an academic book based on the results of a study of the religious habits of youth and young adults. It was too dense for me. Impractical. The stuff of seminary. So I put it down and bought "Missional Youth Ministry" instead. This is a book I can get behind, a book with feet, a book with heart. Anyway, the gist of both books is this - For 50 years we've taught a bastardized version of the Gospel, and our students are so ingrained in this false message, taught to them by parents who learned it from their parents, who learned it, by example, from folks whose lives were marked by two World Wars and a Great Depression, that they can't speak, intelligently or otherwise, about their faith because all they know is 1) be nice and 2) God's there when you need him.
Tomorrow, we'll look at Jesus' more pointed question, "who do you say that I am?" Today, I'm wondering, how has the Church failed to share the Good News? How have we missed our chance to express who the Son of Man is to a culture hungry for faith? Who do others say Jesus is? Are they right? Or have they hijacked the faith from us all?
August 10, 2011
Can we make a deal? Can we agree to quit watering down the stuuff that makes us uncomfortable? We don't like it that Jesus turns the tables in the Temple. We don't like that Jesus curses the fig tree. We don't like that Jesus calls the Canaanite woman a "dog."
So we try to soften it to make us feel better. "He was just joshing her, trying to teach the Pharisees and the Disciples a lesson." "He didn't call her a dog, he called her a puppy, it was cute not racist and condescending."
Oh come on!
This stuff should and does make us uncomfortable. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. He lived in a culture that looked with contempt upon certain outside groups. He carried the same prejudices that we all struggle with. He had to deal with that universal question, "who's in and who's out?"
And he decided, learned, grew to understand (however you want to say it) that even the dogs, even the most outside, a Canaanite woman, was inside the realm of God's kingdom. Her persistance paid off. Her daughter was healed of her demon, and we, us gentile types, are now the predominent followers of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.
It makes us uncomfortable, and that has to be OK. So what do we learn from our discomfort? What do we learn from Jesus?
August 8, 2011
Food laws and Jesus comparing a woman to a dog?!? Are you serious? On a short week of sermon prep?!? Oh Come on!
Let's start this week with the optional reading from Matthew. It contains one of my favorite lines in all of Scripture - a sentance that is almost a mission statement for me. "Do you know the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you siad?". Appeasing the powers that be was, at this point in Matthew's gospel, second to last on Jesus' list of lifelong goals. He had been sent precisely because what the religious leaders of Israel were doing with the will of God.
God saw that they were bending religion to suit their own political and financial goals, and God was angry. A flood didn't work, slavery didn't work, the destruction of the Temple didn't work, exile didn't work, and so he tried again by sending his only Son to bring grace. And contrary to the current prevailing opinion, grace only comes through judgment. You've gotta know you need grace, i.e. you have to know you are sinful, for grace to work.
So, when Jesus ticks off the powers that be, he isn't doing it all willy-nilly, but in order to offer grace. The Pharisaical obsession with purity had taken the focus off of God and placed it squarely on them. Jesus says, get over it, and focus on what matters, the stuff of the heart, the place of God.
In contemporary life, we've probably gone the other way. Ignoring all calls to purity, both external and internal, and focused instead on "I'm OK, you're OK." In reality. This says, God, we're good, we don't need your grace. It puts the attention squarely on ourselves and places us in the role of the Pharisees as we use religion for our own self interests. Jesus calls us to a higher standard. "I'm broken, but God is faithful and his grace is sufficient for me."
Now, what to do with that dog stuff?
August 3, 2011
Lord God, You have placed me in your church. You know how unsuitable I am. Were it not for your guidance I would long since have brought everything to destruction. I wish to give my heart and mouth to your service. I desire to teach your people, and long to be taught your work. Use me as your workman dear Lord. Do not forsake me; for if I am alone I shall bring it all to naught. Amen.
Over in the office, we are in the throws of fall planning. Liturgy, Sunday school, EYC, five15, lifelong Christian formation, special events – I feel like it is the first week of a seminary semester all over again. The list of things to do seems so long and the list of available time seems so short, and I can't even keep a printout of a prayer from disappearing off my bulletin board.
O God, you know how unsuitable I am. And while my brain won't believe it, I know in my heart of hearts that it really isn't all about me. The programs, the music, the liturgy, God will provide. But in the meantime, my blood pressure is through the roof. Thankfully, God hears the prayers of his people and does not leave us alone, to bring it all to naught. He hears our cry, “Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church...” and he put it on the hearts of the Revised Common Lectionary Committee to appoint these lessons for Proper 13a. They were tailor suited for church staffs stressed at the prospect of another program year speeding down the pike because they are all about God's abundant provision.
In Isaiah, we hear of God's gift being offered to everyone: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Even the unfaithful, even *gasp* the nations that don't know the LORD are invited to come and find sustenance in God.
In the Psalm, we listen in as David sings praises to the Lord. “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. The LORD is loving to everyone and his compassion over all his works.”
Matthew's telling of the feeding of the 5000 is THE PERFECT LESSON for this time of year. The disciples, with whom I can readily associate, feel like they are running out of time and there just isn't enough to go around. It is getting late, and all we've got is five loaves and two fish, what on earth are we going to do Jesus?
What on earth? Well nothing of earth can help this situation. Left to your own devices, yes it would all come to an end, but in the Kingdom of God, where abundance is the name of the game, there is plenty of time and plenty of food and all will eat and be satisfied.
I often comment that most of my sermons are written for me, but today that is more true than ever. You might not be planning a program year, but all of us know what it is like to feel like there is not enough time, energy, money, food, whatever to go around. We all find ourselves at that point where our rope has run out, but God is so good. His mercy IS everlasting. His love IS for everyone. And thankfully, when our rope ends, God's is there waiting for us to grab hold. There is more than enough in God's economy: more than enough time, talent, money, space, whatever. We just have to invite him in, let go of our own stuff, and grab a hold of God.
O Lord, you open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature. Help us to see your abundance and to be thankful. Amen.
"If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved"
But that gem is rarely understood. We simply don't have working definitions of the key words in this verse. What does it mean to confess Jesus as Lord? What does it mean to believe that God raised him? And, perhaps most importantly the question that is most urgent for the future of American Christianity, what does it mean to be saved?
I sound like a broken record, but if being saved means "I get to go to heaven when I die," then we've got it all sorts of backwards. If we are just waiting for our just rewards because we said the right prayer and (looked like) we did the right things, then we are setting ourselves up for a serious disappointment.
If we have our ticket punched and are waiting for Jesus to come, like Calgon, to take us away, we would be well served by going back and really looking at what it means to confess and believe, because, dear friends, these things are not passive, past tense activities - these are life changing and ongoing activities.
Confessing that Jesus is Lord isn't something you tell God. He knows it already. It is something you tell your family, friends, co-workers, bosses, politicians, news reporters... it is something you tell by word and deed to every person, power and principality within your circle of influence.
Believing that God raised Jesus from the dead isn't an intellectual assent confined to the recesses of your mind. If God did raise Jesus from the dead, and the Kingdom of God has started to invade the kingdom of the world, then you have a part to play. You are called to work alongside God in the restoration of his Good Creation from the power of sin and death. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then you have a lifelong task - help God raise the rest of us too. When your whole life is turned toward God, well then you are saved, and heaven will be a nice reward, but in the mean time the work is never done.
Confess, believe, and be saved. Simple enough?
August 1, 2011
@JimGaffigan - Last night I explained to my 5 year old son that the dark is not nearly as scary as your wife bringing home a pregnancy test.
The fears that we carry often change over time. I remember FBC's pediatrician explaining to us that for a while, she would freak out every time we left the room because her brain had not yet learned to process the fact that we returned every time. She was afraid we deserted her, every single time.
I have not idea if there are studies to prove it, but the fact that more people are afraid of public speaking than death has been quoted so often, it has to be true.
In Sunday's Gospel lesson, the disciples are fear-mongers. Matthew doesn't name it, but I'm guessing they were anxious all night as the waves battered the boat and the strong wind pushed against them. They were terrified when they saw "a ghost" walking across the sea. So scared they cried out in fear! Cried out! When was the last time you did that? At a haunted house? The latest installment of Final Destination? When your wife brought home a pregnancy test? Peter is afraid of the wind and the waves as he tries to walk to Jesus. He is afraid when he sinks. And he's probably afraid when Jesus declares him "you of little faith."
Fear is an interesting thing. It is a strong motivator. It is a powerful adversary. It is on my go to list of reasons we all seek God. Twice! (Fear and Anxiety)
What are you afraid of? What is the Church afraid of? Fear... an interesting thing to ponder.
As the calendar prepares to roll over to August, September is already looming large. Back in May, the Bishop reminded his clergy that the tenth anniversary of September 11th will fall on a Sunday. My preaching resources, twitter feed, and facebook news are already teeming with resources on how to handle that delicate day. Because of the constant reminders, I've relived September 11th dozens of times over the past few months, and will certainly do so again in the coming weeks. Like many in my generation, September 11th is a defining moment and I remember the day vividly. Hearing the first reports of a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers on the radio as I drove to class. Standing in front of the hastily wired TV in the Student Union with others, slack-jawed as the details unfolded. Cassie calling me as the University of Pittsburgh dental school closed after flight 93 crashed less than 90 miles away. Staring at CNN.com in my office at the all but shut down for the day RR Donnelley plant. Finding my parents at St. Thomas Church and giving them huge hugs because, as I said to them, “today is a day that you just want to see your parents.” We all handle bad news differently. Some reach out to others. Some get to work on mindless tasks. Jesus, as we will see, sought out a deserted place.
Chapter 14 of Matthew's Gospel should be subtitled “A tale of two dinners.” The first, which we skip in the RCL, is a dinner of great opulence served in the comfortable setting of Herod Anitpas' palace in honor of his birthday. Out of sight, but not out of mind, sitting in the basement dungeon was John the Baptist who had arrived there for getting in the way of ugly family drama. Herod had taken his brother's wife as his own and John stood up and said, “No! This is unlawful.” Now Herod, at the urging of said wife, Herodias, wanted to put John to death, but he feared what the people might do to him, and so, John sat in prison awaiting his fate while Herod and his friends got plastered upstairs. Herod got so snockered and found his step-daughter's dance routine so pleasing that he offered to grant her whatever she might ask. And so, the young girl, at the prompting of her mother, asked for the head of John on a platter. Which she got.
Which brings us to dinner number two, and our Gospel text for this morning. When Jesus heard the news of John's death, he hopped in a boat and sought out a deserted place. We all handle bad news differently, but no matter our actions, most us, in tough times, try to God. When life doesn't make sense most of us find ourselves most hungry for God. That's what I did as I sought out contact with loved ones on September 11th. In their words and hugs they were God to me. That's what others do when they got lost in the millions of details, they seek God in the mundane – a place where he is easily found. Jesus sought to fulfill his hunger for God by getting out into the wilderness, in the peace and quiet. He needed some time to talk to His Father and sort it all out. He needed to hear, probably for the millionth time, that God's plan is good and perfect even though people are often flawed and terrible. He just needed some space, but the crowd was hungry too. They had a lifetime of bad news to process, and their way of handling it was to seek out Jesus. The crowd needed him, and so as soon as they heard that he had taken off, they began to search for him. Like paparazzi looking for the perfect picture, they sought him out from every surrounding town, until they found him, still in his boat, just offshore.
Jesus returns to shore, after a break that I can only guess wasn't nearly long enough, some how ready, willing, and able to reach out with compassion to the crowd swarming around him. The way Matthew tells the story, the miracles begin almost immediately, “Jesus went ashore, he saw and great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Jesus came back from his brief respite ready to share God's gift of compassion and he did so with vigor, but let's be honest. You didn't come here today to hear about Jesus healing some folks. As you flipped through the bulletin before the service started and you glanced at the Gospel lesson, most of you thought, “Oh good, The Feeding of the 5000, I love that story.” It is The Miracle of Jesus. It even has its own action figure play set.
As the last of the sick came forward to be healed and evening approached, the disciples, weary from a long day, approached Jesus with a problem. “This place, where you tried to escape, is deserted, and the hour is growing late, we should send everybody back to the towns so that they can hit the drive-thru or pick up some take out before everything closes.” Jesus, as usual, has other plans. Here, in the wilderness, in the place where God fed the Israelites manna from heaven, where Elijah was nourished by ravens, where Elisha fed a hundred men with twenty loves of bread, where John the Baptist set up shop, and where Jesus was tempted for by the devil to turn stones into bread, in that very wilderness, Jesus is going to perform one of his most powerful miracles. He's going to feed these five thousand men and every last woman and child there too. Just as he healed the sick, Jesus could have miraculously placed a happy meal, cooked their way, right away, in every persons hand, but this miracle of sharing is one to be shared. He looks at his disciples and says, “There is no need to send them away, you are going to give them something to eat.”
“Us?” They reply, bewildered, “Us? No way. Impossible. We've got nothing but five loaves and two fish.”
“Bring 'em here,” Jesus responds. Then, in language that should be very familiar to Episcopalians he took, blessed, broke, and gave the bread back to his disciples who distributed it to the throng of tired and hungry people. They ate until they were filled, and then the disciples went back around, collecting twelve large baskets full of left-overs.
The Gospel writers rarely give us glimpses into what is going on behind the scenes with Jesus. We hear about his sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion. We hear about his anger in the Temple courts when he turns the tables. We see him weep for his friend Lazarus, but most of the time all we get to know about Jesus is what is on the surface. In its proper context, however, this story of the feeding of the 5000 shows us Jesus in all of his human vulnerability. From the midst of his own mourning, fear and uncertainty – from one of the Son of God's most human experiences – we find Jesus reaching out with supernatural compassion. As the story opens, we find Jesus in the same position as the crowd: lost, sick, and wandering. I imagine him looking out from that boat and feeling the same way the disciples did when they looked in their picnic basket. “There are thousands of people who need me, and I barely have enough energy to keep myself going. From a lifetime of experience, however, Jesus knows, beyond the shadow of a doubt “that wherever there is plenty of God, there will be plenty of everything else.”1 There was plenty of God in that otherwise desolate place and there was plenty of compassion in Jesus. There was plenty of God in the crowd and there was plenty of bread and fish to go around.
Maybe you've come here this morning feeling run down. Maybe you are looking for a place to hide. Maybe you are hungry or thirsty or tired or scared. In a few moments, Keith will step behind this altar and take what little bit we have to off and ask God to bless it, break it, and share it with everyone. There is plenty of God in the bread and wine we share at this table and there is plenty of grace to go around, plenty of healing, plenty of restoration.
We all handle bad news differently, but in his Son, God with us, the Father invites us to share that pain, that sorrow, that fear, that anxiety with him. He invites us to receive his compassion and mercy. He offers us the bread of life that sustains us beyond overflowing. But then, like the dumbfounded disciples, he expects us to pick up a basket and go forth to share the abundance. God's gifts are not ours to keep. They are only given in order to sustain us so that we can continue passing them along. So come, you who are weary and burdened, receive the sustenance of God and go forth renewed for his service. Take your part in God's miracle of abundance. Amen.