Sunday, January 28, 2018

When Jesus comes into your church

Mark 1:21-28
The Devil made me do it.
It’s a famous catch phrase from Flip Wilson, an icon in the comedy world. This phrase became a part of our American culture very quickly. When he talked of a woman buying a dress at the store, the third one that week, she used the excuse “The devil made me do it.” And we laughed.
It has become a very common theme in our thoughts, comedy, even children’s cartoons. You all remember the angle and devil siting on Tom or Jerry’s shoulders influencing their behavior? Would they listen to the saccharin sweet voice of the angel or the gruff fun-loving guy in red? And we laughed.
Because its easier to laugh at those things that make us uncomfortable. Because we deep down don’t want to admit that evil is real, that bad things happen to good people, that demons don’t always dress in red. To quote author Tucker Max “The devil doesn’t show up dressed in a red cape with pointy horns.  He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for.”
In our world, yes even in the world of the church, it is easier to poke fun at evil than to address its reality. We Presbyterians like to do things decently and in order, we don’t have time for this “supernatural stuff.” I remember discussing whether spirits/demons still existed with a fellow seminary student. He told me that demons or unclean spirits were just the way that ancient people dealt with things like epilepsy, cancer, migraine headache and mental illness. It was a catch all to explain the unexplained. After sitting there for a while I asked, “Then why does Jesus waste time talking to them?”
In the gospel of Mark Jesus spends a good deal of time dealing with these unclean spirits. Specifically casting them out of the people they have held captive.  And while I do believe that some of these instances are probable explained by some of our modern medical issues, that doesn’t make them any less real. And I think we still encounter them today.
In our scripture this morning, Jesus has gone into Capernaum and is teaching in the synagogue. Mark moves his narrative of Jesus along very quickly, with a heavy use of the word immediately. In Mark Jesus’ public ministry only lasts a year, so he keeps things a quick pace.
We are not given the details of his teaching, this teaching with authority. In Matthew and Luke, we get detailed notes on Jesus’ teachings, like the sermon on the mount and sermon on the plain, but Mark doesn’t take time to do that. Instead he tells us Jesus taught with authority. Then he shows us what that authority looked like.
Jesus is on the synagogue, the center of worship and faith for the local people of Israel. This is where they came to learn, to discuss, to worship, to celebrate, to mourn, to question. It was the place where the faithful gathered to hear the word of God interpreted and to seek guidance. Sound familiar?
It was the church, the local community of believers doing the best they could to follow the rules of the faith in a world oppressed by the romans and filled with all sorts of potholes. SO, the faithful gathered, in theory, to keep one another accountable, to encourage one another. But the leaders of the day had gone from encouragement to perfectionism. It had become a museum for saints instead of a hospital for sinners. It became a place to show how holy you were, instead of how holy God is.
I can’t imagine the wonder people would have felt to hear Jesus teaching, a new teaching, with authority. He wasn’t quoting the past leaders of the synagogue, or the great former priests. Instead he spoke with his own level of authority- interpreting the scriptures directly. If this was a shock, what happened next was unbelievable.
There amid the people of God, immediately, Mark says, there is a man with an unclean spirit that cries out "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."
Take a step back. There is an unclean spirit possessed man chilling in the synagogue? Say what? There were so many rules and regulations about who could and who could not worship, where people could sit, or stand, how they washed their hands, feet, even whole selves, so how did a known demon possessed man get into the synagogue?
I read several commentaries about this lesson and without fail they said that someone with an unclean spirit, even a suspected demon possessed person, would have been ostracized. They would have been shunned, considered unclean. People, respectable people at least, would not associate with them. They speak as if this well-known demon possessed man just happened to sneak into the worship service without notice.
That doesn’t ring true to me, or to my reading of the scripture. I think something much different, and perhaps more disturbing is happening here.
The man is in the community, a part of the community. Possibly even an upstanding part of the community of faith. From the outside he looks pulled together, righteous even. But within him is an unclean spirit, a spirit contrary to the will and works of God. Faced with the real honest truth of the word of God he can no longer hide his possession. The unclean spirit is threatened and cries out "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."
When Jesus shows up in church it is challenging. When Jesus shows up at church it is life changing. When Jesus shows up at church, even there he exposes the spirits that are contrary to the work and will of God.
Throughout the remainder of the Gospel of Mark Jesus will encounter unclean spirits, demons. He will call them out, he will cast them into the abyss or into the swine herds. He will not let the people of God to remain infected with these spirits. But the first one he calls out is in the house of worship. This is important to Mark, and important to us.
When Jesus comes into your church he comes to set you free. This is good news, but it is not always welcome news. The liberating power of Jesus rubs against the powers that be in such a way as to cause disruption, fear, and push back.
"What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."
Have you come to destroy us? The answer is a resounding yes, and step by step in the Gospel of Mark Jesus goes about destroying any and all unclean spirits that come into his path, whether they be in the church, or in the political sphere, in homes or by tombs.
What does this have to do with us today? Plenty. You see there are still unclean spirits around today. And just like in Jesus’ day they are not always easy to spot. You don’t always find them in expected places. They lurk in places that from the outside appear healthy, clean, even good- like places of leadership and power, schools, capitals, and yes, even churches. They can hide because as a society we have reduced them to a joke, a punch line “The devil made me do it.” But let me assure you all, they are not a punch line, they are real.
They manifest in many different forms. I don’t think that any of us can look at the current addictions crisis in the USA and honestly think there is not something more than meets the eye. These are not isolated individuals who were born bad and therefor some how deserve the pain and anguish caused by addictions.
I hope that none of us can look at the increase in mass shootings and school shootings in this country and think there is nothing more than bad parenting and poor security at its roots.
I hope that in this city, where just this month, at least 4 people have been killed and 4 others wounded by gun violence, one of whom is a member at our sister church, Church Street, and think that there isn’t more going on then living on the wrong side of the tracks.
Institutional demons or racism, poverty, sexism, they are real. I believe at my core that they are not just policies and procedures that have become bad or harmful, but that at their root there is an unclean spirit, a spirit against God and the will and work of God.
Demons are personal as well. Individuals face demons, created by others, created by hate or loss or pain of course. But also, those with an honest to goodness spiritual component.
I know, its not something we talk about, but its real. Just look at this scripture.
Jesus, who just verses before is confirmed as being possessed by the Spirit of God comes into the place of worship and the Spirit of God is so powerful it causes the demon to cry out, to expose itself.
If I could talk to each of you, one on one, I could tell stories of encounters with unclean spirits, with demons. Those where I have witnessed the power of the holy spirit to cast them out. I could tell you of places where you walked in and knew something was not right. I can tell you of thin places, where the space between heaven and earth seemed to all but disappear.
And my guess is that many of you have these same stories, you just don’t talk about them in polite conversation because our modern world is somehow above all of that spiritual non-sense.
But here is the truth, and we will hear it a lot in the gospel of Mark, just like the line between sacred and secular doesn’t exist, everything every aspect of our lives is sacred. Likewise, every aspect of our lives is spiritual. We are not just flesh and bone, but spiritual beings. To deny that reality is to enter into a type of dualism that winds up denying the power of God all together.
As Ephesians 6 v 12 tells us “12 For our[b] struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

This new teaching with authority that Jesus brings about shook the foundations of not only the synagogue, not only the Roman empire, but the whole of the world. Its still shaking the powers that be, be they earthly or spiritual. The good news is that we know who wins, that the darkness cannot and will not put out the light of Christ. SO, let us carry that light with us into the darkest of places, casting out the demons, the unclean spirits, the things contrary to the work and will of God in Jesus name. Amen.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Image Matters

Matthew 22:15-22
Who do you look like? Who do you favor? It’s one of the first things we ask about newborn babies. Whose eyes do they have? Whose chin? Whose hands or feet? I remember praying that my oldest might resemble me in some small way when we were expecting her. Zanna has my feet by the way.
At any family reunion we compare relatives to one another, looking for similarities. Searching for Aunt Wanda’s nose or Uncle Tony’s hair, we comb the room trying to find what characteristics hold us together, unite us, identify us as belonging to one another.
Where you are a chip off the old block, a carbon copy, or a doubleganger a generation removed, there is comfort in finding a similar trait. Even in adoptive families there is a need to identify with a personality trait or habit that ties you together.
Image has a different connotation in our society. People cultivate their image. They want to make sure that what they present to the world sheds the best light. When we post a selfie online we rarely pic one that makes us look bad. We cultivate, pick and choose, what we will show the world, and what we keep to ourselves. We have family friends in Memphis and Steve often says to me “I wish I had the life Will and Angie have on Facebook.” It’s not their real life, their real life with two full time jobs, one serving a church, and three kids in High school, Junior High and Elementary is complicated, messy and hectic. But the image they have cultivated is enviable.
In our Old Testament lesson reading from Exodus, Moses asks to see God’s glory. He doesn’t ask to see God’s image, that would be too much for anyone to handle, so he asks to see God’s glory. And the image the writer of Exodus gives us is one of Moses standing in the cliff, covered by the very hand of God until God walks past and Moses can see God’s back.
It’s an odd picture, Moses seeing the back of God. What good does it do to look at something from behind? It doesn’t do too much good, unless you are following them, then its exactly the view you need. Moses was going to return to the people and tell them to follow his lead because he was following God’s. Behind God was exactly where he needed to be so that he could follow faithfully.
The Gospel Lesson has Jesus dealing with an image problem as well. He is still in the temple, teaching and preaching. This is still Holy Week and his death is looming large. He has been very clear about the fact that the religious leaders and political leaders of the day were not acting in the people’s best interests. They were not helping the people live the lives God was calling them to live.
This had upset those in power, as speaking truth to power often will do, and so they began to plot to harm him. The Herodians, supporters of Rome, came and stood among the crowds. The Pharisees sent their disciples over to listen. Politics makes strange bedfellows, doesn’t it? The leaders of the temple in cahoots with the biggest Roman nationalists you’ve ever seen, uniting to get rid of this teacher, this Jesus. This guy whose image has gotten to big.
They begin to ask questions in order to trap him in something. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”
That seems like a fairly straight forward question. It’s a yes or no answer. Or is it?
Jesus is in the Temple, a place set aside for the worship of God. A place where you were to give your offerings, your sacrifices and acknowledge that God has first place in your life. That whole first commandment thing was a big deal.
It was such a big deal, in fact, that you had to change your Roman money for Temple money when you came through the gate. You gave sheckles to the Temple, special coins, not Roman ones. Why? Because Roman money had other symbols on it, other images.
So when Jesus asks what coin is used to pay taxes he is handed a Denarius, a Roman coin. He asks “Who’s head is this, who’s title.” He actually asks “Who’s image is this? Who’s title?”
The people responded, “The Emperor’s” It is an image of the Roman Emperor, with the inscription “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Devine Augustus.” A claim of deity. An idolatrous coin, there in the Temple.
“Give to the Emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s” The Emperor can have his Roman money, it is printed in his own likeness. But what then will be given to God?
Hypocrites, Jesus has called them. Why? Because they are so concerned with image that they forget the most important image.
Genesis 1:27 “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.
God’s concern is not with earthly wealth and the power that comes with accumulating that wealth. God’s concern is for how those with wealth treat the people made in God’s own image. God’s concern isn’t that taxes get paid or tithe’s get paid, but that the people made in God’s image give themselves back to God.
Give to God what is God’s. We are made in God’s image, every one of us, and we are to see and recognize that image in others. But too often we choose instead to see the cultivated image. Whether its one the individual has crafted, like the images we post on social media, or an image that our prejudices have created; we have a hard time seeing past them to the God-image inside.
Sometimes we have such a deep belief in the images other’s share, that we don’t even realize we are blind to God’s image, in us and in others.
A woman told me a story about one of her son’s this week. I’ll call her Laura. Laura and her husband have two biological children, boys, Jack age 9 and James age 11. They love these boys with their whole hearts. Through some interesting circumstances they are also raising two other boys, mixed race, Michael age 9 and Patrick age 11. These boys have made their way into their home and into their hearts. And while they are not biologically or even legally related, they are family.
One day Michael the younger of the boys not biologically theirs, came home upset from school. He had heard another little boy talking about his church and how his pastor had said that God was black. Michael disagreed with the boy. He told Laura “I don’t think God is black. I think God is just regular colored.”
TO this little boy “regular color” meant white. Something he was not, and would not every be. He couldn’t imagine God looking like him, he was other, different, not regular.
This is what comes of praising images that are not God. This is what comes in a world that values what is the emperor’s over that which is God’s. The world becomes a place that can dehumanize an entire group of people because of their skin color, their gender. The world revolves around commodities to the point where even the people we see are reduced to commodities.
Think about it. We rank people’s looks on a 1 to 10 scale.  We send aid quickly to one section of the population, but delay sending it to other citizens who don’t have the same voice or power to be heard.
It’s a powerful thing. You and I are made in the image of God. So is everyone else. What might it look like to live into that image? What might it look like to truly give to God what is God’s?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Fallacy of the Bootstrap Gospel

Matthew 20:1-16
“That’s not fair!” It’s something cried out in the playground every day.
“That’s not fair.” Something mumbled at the dinner table when brother gets a bigger piece of the much loved lasagna, or when sister gets a smaller piece of the much disliked broccoli.
“That’s not fair” words tumbling out of the mouth of a student who slaved over a paper only to learn that another student got an extension.
“That’s not fair” thrown about in the breakroom when talking about another person’s promotion, perhaps one you felt you deserved.
To quote my father, and I would guess most of your father’s “Life is not fair.”
Only, we expect it to be, don’t we? We expect to get from life what we put into it, and we expect others to be rewarded the same way. That is part of what our American, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, mentality runs on; the premise that if we work hard enough, do the right things, then we can all arrive at the same destination.
And perhaps that’s what makes this morning’s teaching so displeasing, uncomfortable, down right yucky. I have even heard that there are people who avoid coming to church on the Sunday this story comes up in the lectionary. They dislike it that much!
Jesus is teaching, talking really, to his disciples and he again picks up this theme of the kingdom of heaven is like. . .
We’ve heard these phrases, the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
-the kingdom of heaven is like a shepherd looking for a lost sheep.
-the kingdom of heaven is like a woman searching her whole house for one coin.
- the kingdom of heaven is like yeast
- the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field.
Here we get the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning. . .
With all of these kingdom of heaven phrases we have a tendency to take some literal interpretation. God is the landowner, we are the servants. God is the shepherd we are the sheep, God is the woman we are the coin (or perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch)
There is a huge problem reading these passages in this manner. Not one of these parables, in fact not all of the parables put together, actually describe the literal kingdom of heaven. Not one! Not all! Parables are comparisons, they are stories, and they are used to illustrate an idea, a concept that we really have no words to describe.
When we say March came in like a Lion and out like a Lamb, do we literally mean that the beginning of the month of March started with a lion coming down the streets and ended with a lamb walking away? Of course not. We mean the weather was rough at the beginning and calm at the end.
That is what parables do, they explain an idea or concept, not the actual kingdom of God. A picture is worth a thousand words, and parables give us a picture, a glimpse into the upside down, tables turned kingdom of God.
There was a landowner who went out in the morning to hire workers in his fields. And right off we have something that should cause us to pause. Landowners didn’t hire their workers, managers hired the workers. What was this landowner doing out in the marketplace looking for workers himself? That’s odd. His HR person should be holding interviews for him.
He finds workers, agrees to the normal day’s pay for a normal day’s work and sends them on to his fields. He’s a just landowner, he doesn’t try to cheat them; he agrees to pay the daily rate, not more, but certainly not less. The workers agree and go on to their jobs.
Later in the day the landowner goes out again and finds people waiting for work. I don’t know how many of you have experience with this, but growing up in Lubbock, Texas I remember groups of men, usually Latin American men, would gather outside of the local hardware store that my bus drove past on the way to school each morning. Construction foreman would pull up in their company trucks and load as many workers as they needed into the back of the truck, with promises of a day’s pay.
Driving home past that same hardware store there were occasionally still people standing around at 4pm. They looked tired, desperate, some older, some more frail, but still waiting for someone to hire them.
This landowner goes out at 9 am and hires a group of workers and agrees to pay them what is fair, or right, or just. Then he is out again at noon, then three with the same offer. And then at 5 pm he goes and finds people still waiting to be hired and says “Why are you here not working?” And they respond “Well I slept in too late.” “Well I didn’t feel like working this morning.” “Well, my parents didn’t teach me how to fill out the proper paperwork to get a job.” “Well I’m freeloading.”
No; they respond “no one has hired us.” Plain and simple. They have been waiting for a job and none has been provided. And so the landowner sends them on for the last hour of work. He doesn’t even promise them a fair wage, just an hours’ worth of work. But an hours’ worth is better than nothing, and so they go.
An hour later the owner calls to his manager (he has a manager, so why was he hunting down workers) and has him gather the workers to be paid beginning with the last and going to the first.
Everyone who has lined up for kindergarten or concert tickets or Black Friday specials knows that this is NOT how things are done. First come, first served. But that is not the way this landowner chooses to act.
The last shall be first, it didn’t endear him to his workers then, it wouldn’t endear him now.
They workers begin receiving their pay. Those who worked an hour received a day’s wage. The gossip spread to the back of the line. “If they worked and hour and got that much, imagine how much we will get.” They begin to think. And as they received their wages, their faces fell. They received a day’s wage for a day’s work.
It was exactly what had been promised. They had agreed to it in the early hours of the morning. But now it was not enough. Now they felt cheated. Now they felt taken advantage of.
Why? They made a contract and it was honored. Why feel put out, angry, cheated?
The landowner replies “Why are you upset? I paid you what was due. Are you envious because I am generous?”
Yes, they are envious. And yes we often are as well. It isn’t so much that other people get things from God that we don’t get. It’s not that they got more or better rewards. The problem seems to be that they got the same, and they don’t deserve it.
That’s the issue these workers have. They did the work, so they deserve the day’s wage. The other’s didn’t do as much, as hard, as good what have you work and therefore shouldn’t get the same things.
It’s not that they have been cheated, they got exactly what they had originally expected. It’s that others got the same amount. “You have made them equal to us.” Is their response.
Dr. Ira Brent Driggers, an Associate Professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary puts it this way “Even the workers hired early in the morning . . . roll out of bed unemployed. But the owner finds them and gives them work. I imagine they were, no less than the nine o’clock hires ‘standing idle in the marketplace.’ Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t working. There was no real livelihood prior to the owner seeking them out. But by the end of the day they seem to have forgotten this. Or maybe they never really understood. What is clear is that, come payment time, they are thinking only in terms of just reward. Pay must be commensurate with the hours worked – as if the work itself was not the real ‘reward.’”[i]
The workers do not recognize the gift of grace they have received in order to have work in the first place. They have become convinced that they are being treated unfairly because other’s received the same amount. And so the landowner asks “Are you envious because I am generous.”
Rev. Doctor Emerson Powery says the landowner’s question, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (verse 15), is the translation of a Greek idiom which literally translates as “Is your eye evil because I am good?” An “evil eye” (ophthalmos poneros) suggested a deeper problem than meets the eye. As Jesus taught earlier, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy (ophthalmos poneros; so, if you have the “evil eye”), your whole body will be full of darkness” (cf. 6:22-23). In this account, the “evil eye” was the opposite of generosity (e.g., jealousy, greed, stinginess, etc.).[ii]
Viewing someone else’s good fortune as our demotion is ridiculous at best, and evil at worst. We have not earned our place as children of God, we can’t do that. It is grace, a gift, unmerited favor. Yet there are those who would act as if they somehow deserve their standing with God. I think that Matthew shares this parable to remind us that whether we are 7th generation Christian, or just walked in off the street to hear the Gospel for the first time, our status is the same, laborer for God, child of the king, beloved.
Who do you identify with in the parable? The laborers who worked all day, received enough to feed their families, and yet feel cheated? The workers who were only there an hour and yet were blessed with enough to feed their families?
How we see this parable tells us a lot about how we see our role in the kingdom of God. “Faced with God's boundless love for the world, especially when it is lavished upon others, we reveal whether we view our own labor as a gift from God or as benefit to God, as the joyful fulfillment of our created purpose or as the mere endurance of scorching heat.[iii]
The Gospel Truth is that we are all equal recipients of God’s gifts. The truth in our hearts is that sometimes we are jealous when such gifts are shared with others in equal measure.
To quote the great theologian Louis CK,
“The only time you look in your neighbor's bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don't look in your neighbor's bowl to see if you have as much as them.”
The kingdom of heaven, my friends, is like a generous landowner, who went out every hour seeking to give people a job, a calling, a vocation; and never stopped seeking even when there was little time left to work. And then gave them all enough to feed themselves and their families.  Let us not be evil eyed toward the gifts other’s receive. Let us rejoice that they too have their daily bread.

[i] Ira Brent Driggers Working Preacher September 21, 2008
[ii] The Reverend Doctor Emerson Powery, Working Preacher September 21, 2014
[iii] Ira Brent Driggers Working Preacher September 21, 2008

Friday, September 15, 2017

Forgiveness, can you imagine?

Matthew 18:21-35
I can see it on your faces: Here we go again, another scripture about conflict. Another word on forgiveness. What is it your trying to tell us pastor?
Let me say that, to my knowledge, there is no big brewing beneath the surface conflict in our church. If there is, someone needs to let me or the session know so that it can be handled and not fester.
To plan and aid in the planning of our worship services year-round we use a tool called the lectionary.
The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of weekly lections used to varying degrees by the majority of mainline Protestant churches in Canada and the United States. The RCL is built around the seasons of the Church Year, and includes four lections for each Sunday, as well as additional readings for major feast days. During most of the year, the lections are: a reading from the Hebrew Bible, a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles, and a Gospel reading. During the season of Easter, the Hebrew Bible lection is usually replaced with one from the Acts of the Apostles. It runs in three-year cycles, year A, B and C. We are in year A, for those of you who are curious.
This tool helps pastors, teachers and churches cover a larger scope of scripture than when relying upon individual presences.
Often themes will emerge in the selected lectionary passages, just as they emerge in the scriptures themselves. Right now, we are in the book of Matthew, where Jesus is teaching about community. As a community, you will deal with conflict and forgiveness.
Today’s passage from Matthew is right after last week’s section, where we heard that there can be a lot of steps necessary to bring conflicted persons together in the body of Christ.
After hearing such an honestly labor-intensive conflict resolution model, Peter asks “How many times do we have to do this? Seven?” Seven is a good biblical number, a number of completeness. It is a generous number. In our society, we often use the phrase, “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Forgiving a third time might be seen as the charm. But forgiving the same person 7 times, that is beyond generous.
However, Jesus says “Nope, not seven Peter, seventy times seven, or seven times seven, or seventy-seven- depending on the translation.” No matter which of those numbers you go with, that’s a lot of forgiving going on for the same person sinning against you.
Jesus says essentially- there is no limit on forgiveness. Then he tells a story, a parable. This parable, called the unmerciful servant points out the contrast between forgiveness received and forgiveness given. There is a lot going on in this story and honestly, it’s never been my favorite. But this week I’ve found a lot of sustaining life-giving content in its words.
There is a king who is looking at his books, so it must be around April because no one does their taxes before then. He notices that there is one particular servant who owes him ten thousand talents. A word on exchange rates. A talent was roughly 130lbs of silver, which would take about fifteen years for a laborer to earn. Just one talent. SO, this servant owes 150, 000 years’ worth of wages to the king.
He would never ever be able to repay this debt. So, the king orders him, and his wife, and his children and all his possessions, sold to pay the debt. The servant begs for this not to happen, and the king relents. He forgives the unpayable debt, out of pity, not because he must, but because he wants to do so.
That is an amazing level of forgiveness. Even with most of our student loans, house payments, car loans etc., none of us can imagine having that debt repaid. This man has just had 150,000 years wages forgiven. And he walks out of the place and bumps into an old friend.
This old friend owes him 100 denarii, or roughly 100 days wages. He grabs the guy by the throat and says in his best mob voice” pay up or else.” The man can’t pay and so, he has the man arrested and thrown in jail for the debt.
Others who witnessed this event were distraught and brought it to the kings’ attention. This was a violent act, and your behavior reflects upon the one you call Lord.
The king’s anger is stoked and he orders the man to be tortured until his original debt is repaid. Until he can literally get his pound of flesh.
Th e Jesus adds an ominous “SO my father will do to each of you who does not forgive from your heart.”
This is a difficult passage to say the least. Difficult to hear, and difficult to follow. I think far too often it has been looked at as prescriptive- forgive everything and if you do then you won’t be tortured in hell. Most of my life I have heard it used to keep people who have been hurt from standing up for themselves. It has been used to say quietly turn the other cheek. It has been used by people who would harm and abuse “You’re a Christian, you’re supposed to forgive.” People have said to me as they intentionally caused harm.
But I don’t think that’s the point of this passage at all. I see two things in this passage that jump out as lifegiving, life affirming, that the unmerciful servant misses.
One, the servant is forgiven an immense debt, more than any of us can imagine. Then he goes out and grabs another debtor by the throat. It’s not just that he won’t forgive his friend, that’s bad enough, but here he has received an amazing gift, grace, unmerited favor- and he seems untouched by it at all. He has no sense of any gratitude. As David Lose says “his whole life changed . . . and he didn’t even notice.”
“As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it occurs to me that Martin Luther’s great insight was simply realizing that righteousness was not God’s expectation but instead God’s gift. It wasn’t his responsibility to be “right with God,” but God’s responsibility to put him right. And once he realized that some of God’s favorite things to do are to forgive those who seem unforgivable, love those who feel unlovable, and make right those things that seem so persistently in the wrong, Luther was not only freed from his fear of punishment, but also freed to love and forgive and care for those around him. So also, I think, with forgiveness – when we realize that forgiveness is not primarily God’s expectation but rather God’s gift, we sink into that mercy and grace and find ourselves more able to turn in mercy and grace toward others.”1
We rejoice together in the forgiveness we have received. Let us also rejoice in the forgiveness we have given.
Forgiveness allows us to begin to heal, even those things that are painful, those times when someone doesn’t want to own up to hurting you, those times that seem to hurt you even more each time you remember; those words or actions that scar you so deeply; even these things can begin to heal once forgiveness is applied.
A great example of forgiveness to heal is Nelson Mandela, the man on our bulletin this morning, who spent 27 years in prison for trying to end white minority rule by violence in South Africa. 20 years after his release from prison, he invited one of his jailers to the celebratory dinner. The two developed a friendship. He invited another former guard to his inauguration. He ate with people who had tried to have him killed. “When a deep injury is done to us, we never heal until we forgive.”
As part of a community, people are aware of our actions. We watch one another, good and bad. In the story Jesus tells the community sees the behavior of the unmerciful servant. The community comes to the throne of the king and says, “this man is dealing poorly with his neighbor.”
As the community of faith, we are to hold one another accountable. We are not to watch so that we may punish, or criticize, after all Romans tells us not to judge. But we watch so that we can remind one another of the grace received. So that we might help one another to reach out with grace, even when it is easier to reach with a clenched fist.
In our country, in our state, in our city, in our church- whenever it is that we see fellow Christians reaching towards vengeance instead of grace- we need to be ready to call attention to it. By prayer and by confrontation, as described in last Sundays’ text.
Every one of us has been given mercy, offered help, grace, and forgiveness. Not one of us could come before God if it was not for the saving death of Jesus Christ. We have been ransomed, redeemed and reconciled only because of God’s grace. None of us can take any credit for these things.
And that is why we should extend grace and mercy, not because of fear of punishment, but out of joy at the forgiveness already in hand.

Forgiveness is a gift, one we cannot afford to keep to ourselves. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus offered forgiveness from the cross. Let us rejoice, celebrate, live lives so filled with the acknowledgement of this act of grace that we must be grace-filled with or brothers and sisters.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Saving Scraps; a sermon from Matthew 15:10-28

Matthew 15:10-28
The Old Turtle and the broken truth. I asked Beth to read this book as the children’s message this morning specifically as an introduction to this morning’s scripture. The story of a world holding up the mantra You are Loved, sounds amazing, sounds peaceful, sounds Holy, and it is, but it is not the whole message.
You are a child of God. It’s an amazing, peaceful, Holy thing. But it’s not the whole truth, not by a long shot.
Let us listen for the word of God.
Read Matt 15:10-28
10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand:  it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”  He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.”  Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
The Word of God, for the People of God.
I have struggled and wrestled and fought with this scripture so much this week that it has seeped into my relationships with other people. I’ve talked about this scripture with friends and family. I’ve fought about this scripture with my Mom, and blessed the truth of these verses and found agreement with my brother. I even considered naming this sermon “Going to the Dogs” but couldn’t bring myself to be bold enough to put it in the bulletin.
I love and have loved this passage of scripture. It is an honest, clear theological debate between Jesus and a woman. And, like most of us in this world, my ears perk up when someone I perceive as “like me” is mentioned in scripture. I’ve had an affinity with this persistent, loud mouth woman who refuses to give up. I’ve admired her tenacity, her spirit. This woman, who gets in a theological debate with the Messiah, has always been my hero.
But there’s been a part that is unsatisfying about her story. Most of my life I have heard it interpreted in this manner.
Jesus is with the disciples, perhaps tiered in spirit if not physically, and this annoying woman makes her plea. Jesus ignores her, then denies her to test her. If she passes this litmus test of faith, her daughter will be healed. If not, well, let’s not think about this too much.
When viewed from this perspective, the woman, and her sick daughter, are turned into an object lesson with little to no actual value of their own. And that bothers me.
It bothers me because it doesn’t jive with the way Jesus acts in the Gospels in general and in Matthew specifically. It bothers me because it dismisses the experience as nothing more than a training exercise. It bothers me because the langue of test is nowhere in this scripture. It bothers me because it isn’t true, to the character of Christ, or to the witness of scripture.
Too often this story is read in isolation, which is why I choose to add verses 10-20 to our reading today. Context is key.
This section comes at the end of a discussion about the Pharisees and their purity culture obsession. They were so concerned about remaining pure and clean that they created an entire system of dos and don’ts and ins and outs. These laws and systems had become oppressive, rather than life affirming. They had been twisted and turned to keep people down instead of uniting God’s people under a shared identity. They had become tools to harm rather than signs of holiness.
Jesus argues against such systems, using words that would make any little boy giggle, saying that it’s not what you put into your body that makes you unclean, it’s what comes out of you that is unclean. Jesus’ potty humor here may make you smile, or may offend you, but it has a purpose. He goes on to say that it’s what comes out of the mouth, the words you speak, that show the cleanliness or uncleanliness of your heart.
Immediately following this we have the Canaanite woman calling out “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David.” This is shocking and unexpected. Why?
Well a couple of reasons. One, Canaanites had not been around for many, many years. The promised land had been the land of Canaan, and the region had been “cleansed” shall we say by the Israelites as they moved in.
There were not a group of people who called themselves Canaanites at this time, it was an ancient label meant to evoke a feeling, an image. “Outsider, other, Gentile.”
This woman was not Jewish, she was not of the family of Abraham, she was not a part of the family of God.
She however, has heard of this Jesus, this Lord, this Son of David, and as a mother, will do anything, even speak publicly to a man she is not related to in any way shape or form, for the sake of her ailing child.
And Jesus ignores her.
Perhaps he is exhausted from the crowds. Perhaps he doesn’t hear her. Perhaps he thinks one of the disciples will step up. These are all arguments I’ve heard, but they go in the face of what is on the page. He does not answer her at all.
He couldn’t have missed her crying out, described as squawking, and to be sure he doesn’t miss it, the disciples beg him to send her away. Send away this gentile, loud obnoxious women, Jesus. Her begging for mercy is getting on our nerves, we are sick of it. She needs to be quiet and go back where she comes from.
The disciples are uncomfortable. This Gentile woman is making a scene with her asking/demanding for mercy and healing. She should know better, she should know her place.
And Jesus doesn’t seem to disagree. “I was sent to the lost children of Israel.” That’s it. Jesus was sent to the people of Israel and everyone else is just out of luck.
She however, she persisted. She did not give up. She hit her knees in the dirt before him and again cried out “Lord, help me!”
Jesus looks at her there on her knees and says, “It’s not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”
Yes, this is Jesus here, calling a woman, an entire group of people, dogs. And not in the cute and cuddly, I love that puppy kind of way. Dogs were not pets. They were utilitarian at best, used as living alarm systems. But more often than not, they were scavengers, roaming the outskirts of town and launching missions into populated areas in search of food.
 Jesus say his mission as being to the children of Israel. The chosen people. God’s people. This gentile woman did not fit into the picture. She complicated things, perhaps even made him as uncomfortable as she made the disciples. She didn’t fit into how Jesus saw this whole thing working out.
And that’s a hard thing for many of us to hear. Jesus had to learn. As Jill Duffield points out perhaps at this point, “How can this be? He is Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God, Son of David, divine, Jesus!
But he's fully human too, remember? Without sin, but fully human, and being fully human encompasses grief, frustration, desperation, fatigue, love, compassion and indifference. And I find this messy display of Jesus' complex discernment a relief. If Jesus has these feelings they are not only allowed, but sanctified and holy. It is also a relief to know that our circumstances today, no matter how dire or seemingly intractable, are not destined to be our circumstances forever. God is, after all, always doing a new thing, and Jesus in this story proves that truth.”[i]
The woman does not give up at this point, but instead says “Even the dogs get to eat scraps.” And with those words, in that moment. Jesus learns more about himself, recognizes more about his calling. He sounds joyful to me as he is honestly surprised by this gentile woman’s faith. His tone is celebratory as he agrees to heal her daughter and to step into this part of his mission, as a savior to not only Israel, but to the world.
It is as if she showed him the other half of that truth, you are loved, and so are they.
That is the truth that Jesus, for lack of a better word, learns in his encounter with the Canaanite Gentile woman. There is a wildness in God’s mercy. It spreads farther than we can imagine and is deeper than we can fathom.
Sometimes I am guilty of forgetting that truth. Sure, I know God is no made in my image. I know that God is reflected in the eyes and faces of all nations, races, genders. But it’s not always easy to see.
Jesus didn’t take the easy road here, and neither should we. We need to speak out against the things that are sinful, that harm God’s people, like the sin of While nationalism, the sin of Neo-Nazi attitudes and actions. These things must be condemned in the strongest of ways.
At the same time, we must not become that which we condemn. We must pray for, love, seek to teach those whose sins lead to actions and words of hate. We must not fight fire with fire, because if we keep doing that, the only thing that will happen is the whole world will burn.
The woman could have yelled at Jesus to treat her better. She could have spat in his face, called him racist and shook the dust off of her feet. She could have led a group of demonstrators against him. She could have called for Jesus and his people to be attacked. But instead, she humbled herself before him and honestly spoke of her need.
We need to humble ourselves before God and ask for what we really need. Healing, forgiveness, unity. We must listen when our brothers and sisters tell us what their lives are like. We must acknowledge that, in the words of Will Wheaton “It is a privilege to learn about racism instead of experiencing it your whole life!”
We must be willing to open our eyes, minds and hearts, just like Jesus. And have faith that the God in whose image we are all created, will heal us all.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Fear Not: a sermon based on Matthew 14:22-33

Matthew 14:22-23
I have many fears, some might say phobias. They are not all rational, although some are very rational. I am scared of moths. I know there is nothing they can do to me; but their fluttering close to my person gives me the absolute willies and I cannot keep from hyperventilating. Perhaps it’s because they unnerve me, their tendency to fly into a flame, or perhaps it’s because a babysitter let me watch Mothra versus Godzilla when I was a young child. 

Whatever the reason, I fear them.
That is a little fear, one that I manage fairly well day to day. But I have much bigger fears, most of them centered on the wellbeing of my children in those moments when I am unable to be a physical barrier between them and something that might cause them harm.
I would be lying if I said that the recent uptick in talk of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles hasn’t cost me some sleepless, fear-filled nights. I fear for our nation and our world, specifically of what will happen if my generation doesn’t step up and step out. What kind of legacy will we leave for our kids?

And it is with these fears and worries and anxieties that I approach this text this morning. And perhaps because of those very things that I find such hope here.
Matthew’s Gospel takes us through some of the more dramatic moments of Jesus’s life. His birth, his greeting by the Wisemen, the proclaiming of his identity as the Messiah when he was only 8 days old , his healing of the blind and the paraplegic, to the feeding of the 5,000 we heard about last week. Jesus was certainly drawing attention and making a name for himself. But all of these things, this standing up to powers and principalities, it’s a dangerous thing. It had cost John the Baptist his head. Jesus needed some time to think things through, to pray, to be alone and recharge.
He sent his disciples ahead of him on the boat. Ahead where? Towards Capernaum, back into the region where he had faced persecution before. He compelled them to go and told them he would be along later. The road weary group loaded into the boat and began the journey to the other side, leaving Jesus to trek up the mountainside alone.
And while they were sailing along a storm came up, with wild winds and crashing waves. It is said that storms pop up on this lake even today in unexpected fierceness, catching many a sailor unaware. This is where the disciples found themselves that night. Riding out a storm, in a boat, on a lake. It must have reminded them of the storm they had encountered on this same lake, not so long ago.

In chapter 8 of Matthew we have the story of Jesus and the disciples crossing the lake to get to the other side, which by the way was toward Gentile country, when a storm came up that shook the boat and rocked their courage. At that time Jesus had been in the boat with them and calmed the storm by rebuking the waves. They had been afraid and asked each other “Who is this that even the wind and waves obey him?”

I can almost see Peter and John looking at each other, realizing the storm is coming, but knowing Jesus isn’t in the boat this time. They do not have a sleeping savior to wake. They are on their own.
In our darkest times we often feel this same way. Alone. We cannot see Jesus, we cannot feel Jesus and we are convinced that we have been left to deal with crisis using the every man for himself mentality. And when this happens, fear sets in.
“Whether it’s the fear of a return of an illness, the stability of a fragile relationship of loneliness after loss, of not being accepted by those we esteem, of whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives, of what future our congregation has, of the direction of our country…. You name it, there is a lot in our individual, congregational, and corporate lives that can make us afraid. And that fear is debilitating. It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward at all, let alone with confidence. Fear, in short, is one of the primary things that robs the children of God of the abundant life God intends for us.”[i]
While the disciples were struggling, full of fear, wondering what might happen, Jesus was already on his way to them. Jesus went to them across the storm, walking on the water, he sought them out in the darkest times of their lives.
Jesus didn’t wait for the wind and waves to calm, but instead walked over them to the people who needed him the most. There are no circumstances that can separate us from the love of Christ, not even a surprise gale!
When the disciples saw him approach they thought he was a ghost. Who else would be out on a night like that? They had no frame of reference for someone walking on water. This was not like the scene from The Shack where Jesus and Mac have a fun foot race across a lake! 

In their fear they were convinced that this was a malevolent force that had come to add to their terror.
Sometimes the solution to our fears, the answer to our darkness, seems threatening and scary. An abused woman, feeling with her children in the middle of the night, that’s a freighting thing.

 A little girl surrounded by US deputy Marshals to go to her first day of school, that’s a scary sight. 

A lone person standing up against a tank; that is the stuff nightmares are made of.

But these are also moments when Christ is present. Standing up against injustice, walking the path toward freedom, loving in a place of hate. And in this moment of fear, where they were convinced a spirit or ghost had come along, they were immediately comforted by the voice of Jesus saying “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
They were saved! Jesus had arrived and as he had proven his power over the wind and waves, they all knew everything would be okay. Well, that’s how the story should have gone. But as we all know, past experiences don’t always increase our present understanding.[ii]
Peter asked for proof. This is a time when I relate to Peter so much. I’ve prayed the prayer asking for a sign, even when I’ve already received one. I’ve asked for confirmation, even when Jesus has offered everything short of a certified notarized engraved invitation to follow him. Peter asks for just a little bit more.
And instead of shutting him down, instead of lecturing him about how you should not put the Lord your God to the test, Jesus obliges and extends his grace to Peter, inviting him to stand upon the waves.
And here is where we usually hear the expression that we must be like Peter and “Step out of the boat.” Only, I’m not going to tell you that. I’m also not going to tell you to “keep your eyes on Jesus” to keep from sinking after stepping out. Quite honestly I think the other disciples made the right choice by staying in the boat. No one but the creator of the seas should be standing on them.
What I want to focus on is Jesus’ reaction to Peter. When Peter began to sink he cried out in fear “Save me Lord.” And immediately, instantly, without pause, Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter’s hand, saving him and leading him back to the boat.

That is the most compelling thing in this scripture for me. Jesus doesn’t hesitate to reach out even when our own stupid curiosity or pride got us into this mess. Jesus saves Peter, and all of us! Jesus will not let go! He will grab a hold and pull us back from all of our failings and restore us to our rightful place at his side.
For me, this is the heart of Matthew's Gospel, of our faith. God does not give up on us. God does not leave us alone, God will do for us what we cannot do on our own. “And this promise is the one thing I know of that helps us cope with and transcend fear. Transcend, not defeat. Fear is a part of our lives, and we should take care that being fearful is not equated with being faithless. Courage, after all, isn’t the absence of fear but the ability to take our stand and do what needs to be done even when we are afraid.”[iii]
We can face our dark nights of the soul, our fears, knowing that Jesus does not let us go. We can walk through the storms that will pop up, some unexpected, others that we have seen from far off, knowing that God does not leave us without hope. Take heart my friends, do not be afraid, for Jesus is with us, even to the end of the age.

[i] David Lose, In The Meantime. Pentecost 10A: Something More
[ii] Jill Duffield, Looking into the Lectionary 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
[iii] David Lose, In The Meantime. Pentecost 10A: Something More