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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Day 99:Scorched Earth and a New Harvest

Joshua 10, 11, 12, and Luke 10:1-24

These chapters of Joshua continue to describe the scorched earth policy of the Israelites. Luke tells of the mission of the 70 or 72 and their discovery of a rich harvest.

Joshua 10

Having a fair sized city with troops like Gibeon scared the other forces in the area and led them to form a coalition to defeat the Gibeon people. Gibeon calls on Israel to help and they honor the treaty by defending the Gibeon people. While they have them on retreat, God sends a massive hail storm which kills more men than the Israelites had killed by the sword.
Joshua seals five kings in the cave where they have taken refuge until the battle is won. Then he returns and they are dragged out, feet put on necks, humiliated, hung, and buried in the cave in which they hid.
The next fifteen verses tell of seven victories Joshua and the Israelites defeated in the South.

Josh 11

The Scorched Earth policy continues leaving death and devastation everywhere. It is hard to read these verses without putting my own context and culture onto them. I feel such disgust at these action, specifically the humiliations and the murder of children, in the name of God. But perhaps, just perhaps, these victories were interpreted later as God’s favor- after all, history is written by the winners and they tend to gloss over the messy parts.

Joshua 12

This chapter is a summary, probably added by an editor, of the former kingdoms of the area, that is: a list of the victories of both Moses and Joshua.

Luke 10:1-24

Jesus sends of the 70 (or 72 if reading the Septuagint). He tells them the Harvest is plentiful. This harvest is probably not one of judgement, but rather a gathering of the people of God together. They are to go without provisions, but not alone. They are sent ion pairs for safety and accountability. They are to go quickly, with purpose. They are not to hang around and find out which house has a guest house and pool, but instead to go the first place that offers hospitality and stay there while they are in town. These people will be blessed by the words and Spirit of God. The towns and places that will not offer hospitality, they will be cursed. Shake the dust off of your feet and move on. God will deal with them accordingly.
The 70 (or72) return. They do not brag on themselves, instead with joy, they claim that through Jesus’ name all submitted to them. Jesus says – don’t rejoice in the powers- rejoice that you are a part of the kingdom of God.
Next we have an inside look at Jesus’ relationship with God the Father. Luke is really the only place we get a glimpse into this relationship.

Day 98: Holy War and The Way

Joshua 7, 8, 9, and Luke 9:37-62

These three chapters continue in describing the Israelites Holy War against the people of the region. We are given accounts of loss and victory in these chapters. Luke speaks to us about discipleship and what it really means to follow the way of Christ.

Joshua 7

We learn that there is one (at least one) individual who has taken things from the most recent battle in this Holy war and kept them for themselves rather than adding the silver and gold to the treasury. We know this, but Joshua has not yet realized.
Israel goes into battle against a small town with a small number of troops. While the NRSV says 2,000-3,000 there are good arguments that they actually sent 2 to 3 muster units which would have been significantly smaller in number. They fail and in the process lose 36 men. Joshua is beside himself and approaches God about the loss.
God tells Joshua that they failed because at least one of the Israelites has sinned against God and that they will not win another battle with this sin in their midst. Joshua begins a practice of casting lots to determine the guilty party. (This feels very Hunger Games to me)
Achan is chosen as the guilty party and he confesses. The messengers find a mantle from Shinar, 200 shekels of silver and a gold bar under his tent. They then proceed to collect everything he has including his sons, daughters, oxen, donkeys, sheep and tents (no mention of wife) and take them to the Valley of Achor. They stone him to death and then burn everything her has, including all he owns and his children, and then cover them with a pile of stones.
This is extreme and violent and I hate it. No doubt this served as a deterrent from taking things in the future and anyone who had stolen goods in their home was much more likely to get rid of them now.

Joshua 8

After the disappointment of his previous campaign, Joshua wisely consults with God before going out and making holy war. They send out 30,000 (again possible other translation is 30 muster units) and set an ambush to attack Ai. Their ruse works with the loss of approximately 150 people and the death of all in Ai.  After this bloody business, Joshua renews the covenant with God.

Joshua 9

The people of the area decide to team up against this new force of invading Israelites. Gibeon, however tries a different approach. They trick and lie their way into a treaty with Israel. Three days later Joshua learns of the trick, but still agrees to honor the treaty. However he adds that they will be second class people, water bearers and wood hewers. Which is a weird way to interpret Deut 29:11.

Luke 9:37-62

Jesus encounters a boy with a demon. His disciples, it appears, were not able to cast it out. (In another Gospel Jesus says this demon can only be cast out by prayer) Jesus here says “You faithless and perverse generation.” Is this a phrase for the father or is it directed at the disciples who could not offer healing? I tend to think the latter.
Luke then has the briefest discussion of who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God. Jesus, aware of their thoughts, tells them that the least shall be first. I’m sure the disciples were not crazy about that kind of order. I know there are many times I’m not if I’m honest.
Jesus begins to teach and as he does it becomes increasingly clear that the Road to Jerusalem and The Way become almost synonymous with discipleship. While on the way, the disciples are upset by someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus says - Don’t worry about what others do- concentrate on what I’ve called you to do. There is a high level of irony here as the disciples were unable to do the very same thing just verses before!
The Samaritans refuse to welcome Jesus because “his face is set toward Jerusalem.” The biggest point of contention between the Samaritans and Jews was where it was appropriate to worship. The Jews said Jerusalem and the Temple mount; the Samaritans claimed Mount Gerissim to be the proper place for worship. The Samaritans were offended that Jesus would be seeking to go to Jerusalem.
Jesus then addresses things that keep us from committing to discipleship. While these do not seem like unreasonable demands to us, they do show how we as humans tend to want to wait for things to be “right” before following God. We still use excuses today. However, the way of discipleship is costly.