Sunday, August 28, 2011

Follow Me...

Thanks today for the generous prayers and suggestions of my Twitter friends, and for the writings of Rev. Linda Pepe, and Kathryn Matthews Huey. This sermon started out as a re-hash of an older one, but went in a different direction completely...

Exodus 3:1-15
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt”; But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.”

Romans 12:9-21
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don't know if it started back in 2000 with Bruce Wilkinson's book on the Prayer of Jabez, but I think it's been going on a whole lot longer; this idea that our relationship with God in Jesus Christ should be a vehicle to personal wealth and comfort. It's a real multi-billion dollar industry, books and videos and seminars by celebrities and television preachers and megachurch pastors, all about how to be happy and successful using this or that prayer or this or that set of principles taken, ostensibly, from Scripture. Some of the titles I found on Amazon include: “Find Happiness, How to fill the void in your life, by Looking, Feeling, and Living better;” “How My Magic Refrigerator Sent Me To Paris Free. 7 Rules To Make Dreams Come True;” and “Spiritual Liberation - Fulfilling Your Soul's Potential.”

Now, there's a place for devotional reading, and some of the titles I saw were for books that really addressed problems like divorce and addiction. And lest we simply shake our heads in disgust or laugh at the rest, it's an indication that we Christians, like every other human being in modern American society, are largely influenced by the standards of that society. We are judged not so much on the content of our character as on our position in the corporation.
We are judged not so much on the breadth of our compassion as on the beauty of our appearance. We are judged not so much on the strength of our generosity as on the value of our possessions.

We are assaulted, like everyone else in our society, with advertising and media messages encouraging us to get the newest, the best, the upgrade, to supersize and go first-class, to get smaller phones and bigger TVs, faster computers and nicer cars, this season's fashions and this week's gadget. We are told that the economy depends on us replacing things that aren't worn out, upgrading things that are fine as they are, and owning things that have no practical use.

So it's really no wonder that this mad rush for wealth and popularity and acceptance would find its way into, and be celebrated by, Christian pop culture. But I wonder how Jesus would look on a book about happiness through being prettier or about magic refrigerators and free trips overseas. How would Jesus view this idea that He exists to make our lives easier?

I think he would say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

But what does that mean? Does “taking up your cross” simply mean doing things differently, thinking about things differently? Is it “taking up our cross” when we strive to pay less attention to what our co-workers think of us and more time working to feed the hungry? Are we “taking up our cross” by working to pay less attention to the price of gasoline and more attention to the nearly twenty-five percent of children on Alabama who live in poverty? Do we attain “taking up our cross” by paying more attention to the plight of the orphans and widows and homeless?

That kind of thing is easy to talk about, and I've done it. But if that were the gist of it, changing our own way of thinking, altering our own way of acting, then, honestly, someone could write a book called “Forty Days to Self-Denial, “ a publishing company could produce a series called “Cross-Carrying for the Soul,” “... for Teens,” “... for Dads,” “... for Busy Moms,” …everybody would read it, a megachurch or two would get started on those principles, and we could all be satisfied that we had done precisely enough to earn God’s favor, we’d have our ticket to Heaven punched, and we could retire.

And in the end, what would have changed?

All of these things, all of these attitude changes and actions, though some of them seem outwardly-focused, are in fact centered on the self: what will it take to ensure my security, to make me better, to get me to heaven?

When you think of it, that was very much what was happening with Peter when he rebuked Jesus. “This must never happen to you” meant either, “no worries, me and the boys will protect you,” or “This must never happen to me! If you’re the Messiah, then you’re the one who is supposed to violently overthrow the oppressive Roman regime, set up your eternal throne in Jerusalem, reign for eternity starting now. I have all my hopes and plans riding on you being who I have decided to make you, and you can’t let me down!”

It’s a natural tendency, isn’t it, to be inwardly focused? It seems to be how we are wired. And these days, who can blame us? You don’t have to spend very much time surfing cable news channels or reading a newspaper or website to begin to get scared. The economy is dragging, we might be on the brink of a double-dip recession, the jobless rate is not getting any better, the middle class has disappeared, whichever government you want to think of – city, county, state, or Federal – is running out of money, not to mention the worldwide economies that are on the brink of collapse, some folks claim we’re being overrun by illegal aliens, and on and on and on. The natural tendency, perhaps the logical conclusion, is to circle the wagons, protect what we still have, build walls of protection, close ourselves in from whatever it is that is to come…

But the Good News always pulls us toward an outward focus. First, of course, our Gospel reading reminds us that the meaning of life – the purpose of our very existence – is found not in self-improvement or, indeed, self-preservation, but in Jesus Christ.

And as a people united in faith in Jesus Christ, our outward focus speaks to the needs of one another, the world as a whole – even those we may consider our enemies. Paul makes this clear in our Epistle reading today: “let love be genuine” “Contribute to the needs of the saints,” “Live in harmony, live peaceably with all” and “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”

Imagine, laying aside not only our fear of lack – the terror that if we share in our possessions with friends and with strangers, we ourselves will not have enough – but our right to seek vengeance for wrongs?

Everything would change!

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

You see, when Paul speaks about heaping “burning coals on [our enemies’] heads,” though it sounds violent, like God taking vengeance on our behalf in the end, he may well be referring to a traditional symbol of repentance. The commitment to act in love and hospitality, with a single mind among one another and with mercy and peace even to those who are against us, can indeed drive out hate. It may well be that personification of grace – unmerited favor – which drives those who might be considered enemies into fellowship, into relationship with the living God!

No wonder G.K. Chesterton said, “The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”

Some may even dare to say, “it has been found impossible.”

And if we were alone in this, stumbling around in the dark with our self-help books and motivational videos and nothing else, there would be no hope at all. It would be impossible. It’s too hard to let go of ourselves, it’s too much for us to figure out what it means to lose our lives in order to find them, too much to expect that we would love our enemies, ridiculous to think we could live peaceably with one another.

If we were alone.

But we are never alone! Hear the Word of the Lord, from the fourteenth chapter of John, the twenty-sixth verse: “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.”

Taking up our cross is thus not a fatalistic view of life, where we toil under our burden in daily hope that we are doing it right. Rather, the Cross becomes a bridge between God and humankind – between God and us – between God and you – so there would be no more separation; nothing keeping us fearful of falling short, terrified of judgment, or worried about being condemned by God. Jesus took up the cross so that we could at last begin to see ourselves as valued and loved and cherished by God… to begin to see ourselves the way God sees us! If, in taking up our cross we indeed follow Christ, we follow that path which leads to, and leads through, the Resurrection!

Thus the cross, an ancient symbol of torturous death becomes, in Christ, a joyous symbol of new life. In losing our life we find it, in dying to ourselves we are born anew. And through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we walk the path of Christ day by day.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Who Do You Say That I Am?

My heartfelt thanks go out to the Reverend Candasu Vernon of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, Alabama, both for her friendship and for allowing me access to the excellent sermon she delivered at a recent Presbytery meeting, and to the Reverend Gene Anderson, who continues to provide inspiration, education, and direction through his "Rucksack Revolution" blog. I also received help on this sermon from Wayne Brouwer and Schuyler Rhodes of "Sermon Suite." Thanks also to Chad Estes for the story behind his hilarious, and too often painfully true, "Jesus or Squirrel" blog.

Before the sermon, let me ask a favor. My dear friend (and apparent twin brother) Pastor Nar Martinez is in need of transportation. He is a constant force for restoration and community in Struthers, Ohio, as well as in the online community of Outlaw Preachers. His car is literally on its last legs, being held together by the expertise (and possible necromancy) of skilled mechanics, but the car's demise is inevitable.

A PayPal account,, has been set up, and I would deeply appreciate you prayerfully considering making a donation to help Pastor Nar get a reliable vehicle. Donations are (at this point in time) not tax-deductible, but they are needed and deserved. Thank you for whatever you are able to do.

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites.and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Matthew 16:13-20
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It was an interesting place for a stroll, this Caesarea Philippi, especially if you were a devout Jew, and more especially if you were a first-century Jew living under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire and its power-hungry minions – people like the Herods, for example. Yes, there was more than one, and yes, it was a family, and yes, they were bloodthirsty, power-hungry, greedy, everything that comes to mind when the name “Herod” is mentioned.

Philip the Tetrarch, one of three Herod brothers that, with the backing of Rome, ruled Palestine during the time of Christ, had not many years before established a city here, at the southwestern base of Mount Hermon, named it after his patron, the Emperor of Rome, and added his own name to keep it from being confused with the other Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. Thus “Caesarea Philippi.”

And what an area this was! Because the waters bubbled and gurgled up from caves at the base of the mountain, area residents had long believed this to be the doorway into the underworld. Here, they thought, the spirits of the deep tried to communicate with creatures on the surface. Sometimes sulfuric gases were emitted, and these only confirmed the presence of other-worldly voices and the breath of Hades.

Over the centuries a variety of religious sects had used the place as a cultic shrine. They cut niches in the rock walls of the mountain just above the burbling caves and set up statues of gods they thought might be resident there. They even gave the place a spiritual name. They called it "The Gates of Hades." Here, they believed, was the doorway between the realm of the living and the abode of the dead. Those with keen faculties would be able to hear the whispers of the departed and the voice of the underworld gods. It was considered to be a very holy place. Over there was a temple to Caesar, and over there was an older temple to the pagan god Pan.

There on the road outside the city, Jesus struck up a conversation. “Hey guys, give me the skinny: What’s the word on the street? Who are folks saying that the Son of Man is?”

This is, by the way, a phrase from the Book of Ezekiel, and signified a human being who is a conduit or messenger of the Divine.

I imagine the disciples glanced at one another, looking to see who wanted to go first. But the responses would have been fairly quick, because it was a subject they were intimately familiar with. They heard, and participated in, these kinds of discussions all the time.

“Well, some folks say you’re John the Baptist,” one said. Another voice, “Yeah, or Elijah, even.” Someone else says “I’ve heard Jeremiah, or one of those kind of prophets.” Any or all of these comments might have gotten a laugh from the group.

Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins, after all. They bore a family resemblance, probably spoke with a similar accent, and as word of Jesus made its way back to Philip the Tetrarch, it no doubt gave that particular Herod the creeps, because he’d seen John the Baptist’s head served up on a platter like a roast pig. In his nightmares, John the Baptist had come back for a public and painful revenge. The laughter would have been soft, because no doubt John’s execution was still heavy on their hearts, but they had seen Jesus and John together; the idea that Jesus was some kind of Zombie John the Baptist was patently ridiculous.

As for Elijah, the Prophet Malachi had written that God would send a messenger before the coming of the Messiah, Elijah, the first of the great prophets, and he would make things ready. Elijah would appear with stern speeches and mighty miracles. The people should get ready, for when Elijah came, God would follow quickly on his heels. Since Jesus spoke with divine authority, and performed miraculous healings, just like Elijah had done, it made sense that Jesus was Elijah, right? Only the disciples had heard Jesus state plainly that it was his cousin John, and not him, who had been the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. Another silly idea they could chuckle at, just like all the other things they’d heard; this or that prophet come back from the dead.

This was an easy conversation, this talk about what everyone else was saying. No pressure, you could make a joke and go off on tangents, just the kind of stuff for a stroll though the countryside.

But then Jesus turned the question on its head. “But who do you say that I am?”

And things got real quiet, and real tense. Jesus was, after all, their rabbi, their teacher, and you can imagine the fear of piping up in class with the wrong answer. That would be humiliating! But what was the right answer?

It’s a lot like the story my friend Chad Estes tells about this pastor who was using squirrels for an object lesson for the children’s sermon. He started, “I'm going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly.

“This thing lives in trees… and eats nuts...” No hands went up. “And it is gray… and has a long bushy tail...” The children were looking at each other nervously, but still no hands raised. “It jumps from branch to branch… and chatters and flips its tail when it's excited...”

Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor quickly called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I know the answer must be ‘Jesus’ ... but it sure sounds like a squirrel!”

I think that the fact we know the answer, we know who said it, and we know how the rest of the Gospel plays out kind of works against us in a lot of ways.

But there in that moment, surrounded by the temples and trappings of a culture that had too many gods for too many things, these men who had been immersed in a tradition where the answers were finite and fixed and immovable, they were confronted with the most important question that had ever and would ever be asked.

Think about it. So often, and this is especially true in the “Western World,” too many Christians are in fact “practical atheists.” We speak of God, go to church, say our prayers… and then too many of us live our lives as though we don't believe any of it. There’s no real danger in answering that question, it’s as simple as reciting a creed or singing a hymn. As a culture, American Christianity has ceased to be a Kingdom movement – a powerful new covenant which replaces empire with a Kingdom of God which erases barriers and overthrows dominions of power and privilege with love and grace. We are instead, far too often, the protector of the status quo, a symbol of good citizenship and a political catchphrase.

But take away the safety of freedom of religion. Remove the comfort of the pew. Erase the familiarity of family tradition.

Instead, you are a first-century Jewish man, barely out of your teens, if that old. Your whole world can be mapped out on a table napkin – there’s the synagogue in your little town, and the coastline where your fishing boat is moored. You push off from the shore each evening as the sun sets, and spend the night throwing the net into the Sea of Galilee, hoping to catch enough fish to help feed the family and pay the bills.

Then one day an amazing man comes along, with words of life and hope that you’ve never heard before, and your life is forever changed. You leave this familiar life behind, and strike off across the countryside, hanging on his every word, amazed at the miracles, astounded by the teaching, terrified by the challenges, your mind is stretched in new and exciting ways.

You have heard, since birth, that this life you’ve lived under Roman rule, where the taxes are heavy and the freedoms nonexistent, is not the life God intended for his people Israel. That there would be a new King – God’s Messiah – who would utterly destroy the power of Caesar, erase the corrupt Temple system, and restore the Throne of David, establishing God’s eternal kingdom. Jesus’ words give you hope that, at last, the time had come.

But power structures like Caesar’s, like the Herods’, like the Sadducees and the Great Sanhedrin which controlled the Temple do not take kindly to talk of revolution. To proclaim what they all, to one degree or another, were thinking was to face death, unless they were right, and this amazing man was indeed here to overthrow Rome, destroy the Herods, and restore Israel to its former glory.

And Simon spoke up. I don’t think this was a matter, though, of simply saying what everyone was thinking. “Messiah,” or “Christ,” after all, means something, but it only goes so far. With “Messiah,” you have an anointed vessel of God, a divinely appointed person who would bring about God’s ultimate will for Israel, and, by extension, all of humankind. “Son of Man” goes quite far enough as a description.

No, there was more to it. In that moment, Simon no longer heard the sound of the other disciples’ voices. He couldn’t see the Temple of Pan off in the distance, or smell the incense burning in Caesar’s Temple somewhere behind him. He looked at Jesus, and their eyes locked for one of those moments that lasts forever.

And I am not saying that Simon, in that instant, knew everything. But God spoke to him, and he heard. He knew. He knew there was more to the story, more to this rabbi than merely being a prophet or even being God’s specially chosen vessel. From this moment on, everything would change. “You are the Messiah… the son of the living God.”

“Who do you say that I am?”

If a stranger stopped us on the street and asked “What do you believe?” how would we respond? Reciting the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed is nice, but it isn’t an answer, it’s something we’ve memorized. “Who do YOU say that I am?”

Are we satisfied to let those around us think that they know what we believe simply because they’ve seen Christian portrayed on TV or in the movies, or they’ve seen a TV preacher or been confronted by a guy with a Gospel tract?

And what if the act of recognizing and proclaiming Jesus as Messiah and Son of the living God was more than a creedal confession, more than responding as we are expected to respond? How would our prayers change? How would our actions in the world around us be changed? Would our prayers be conversations seeking the will of God, or would they be the usual requests and reminders of things that God needs to give some attention? Would our primary concern shift from arguing over political and human rights issues to really – really – loving our neighbor?

If we answer the question “Who do you say that I am?” in the way, and with the spirit, that Simon Peter did, then we must acknowledge that everything Jesus said is, in fact, true. The way he told us to live, the way he told us he will be with us always, the way he died for our sins, is all true. It’s true, and it’s frightening.

Because if we admit that Jesus Christ is God – if he is Lord, Savior, and Friend, then our lives have to start to change. If we as individuals, and as a church, and as a Presbytery confess that Jesus is the Messiah, really and truly is the Son of the living God, then we have to be ready to change everything, must be willing to do anything in whatever direction God leads.

And, like Simon, we don’t know everything. But we know this: Jesus is the son of the living God, truly is Lord, and every bit of his life, every bit of his death, and every bit of his resurrection are still in force, still active, still in the business of transformation and restoration and healing and salvation. He still calls us to identify with the poor and excluded. He still wants to turn moments of despair into moments of hope. He still wants to transform lives and make us whole again.

“Who do you say that I am?” Though Simon answered with words, he ultimately answered with his entire life. I hope and pray that we, too, are ready to answer that question with more than words. I hope that we will answer with our lives, our money, our decisions, our kindness and our humility. I hope that we will answer by our actions, loving instead of just talking about love.

“Who do you say that I am?”

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Canaanite Conquers the Israelite...

I made abundant use of many sources of information in the writing of this sermon. Foremost was the work of Paul J. Nuechterlein, Grant LeMarquand, and "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary." You will notice that I also blatantly borrowed ideas from Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton and Marilyn Salmon, and picked the closing prayer whole from Rev. Gene Anderson's excellent blog.

Genesis 45:1-15
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there: since there are five more years of famine to come — so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.
... for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

Matthew 15:10-28
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it 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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

And it is the Word of the Lord, even when that Word makes us uncomfortable. And I have to confess to you, few passages of Scripture make me more uncomfortable than this account of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman. It’s as if someone has stolen my Bible and replaced it with one where the part of Jesus is played by Archie Bunker! Honestly, calling someone a dog? To their face? This would be a good week to preach on the Old Testament reading instead, wouldn’t it?

I’m not alone in my discomfort, it seems. Over the centuries, commentators and preachers have come up with a lot of explanations about the way that Jesus acts here.

Some say that this is all an acted out parable. That Jesus was just saying what he knew his followers thought and he wanted them to see how bad it sounded so he could then correct it. We can call this the “He didn't really mean it” explanation.

Some say that this is an inauthentic saying, words put into his mouth by the early church and the Gospel writer. For these folks, the key to understanding this passage is to decide why the early church would tell such a story of Jesus. This would be the “He didn't really say it” explanation.

Still others say Jesus was not referring to her as a dog but was simply using an old saying or a village proverb, like saying “The early bird gets the worm.” No one gets their feelings hurt over metaphor or clich├ęs, right? This is the “We don't really get it” explanation.

So… what’s really going on?

I don’t know. I’m sorry, I know I should be able to package this whole thing up in a neat, digestible package for you, say the prayer, take the offering, don’t forget to dance, see you next Sunday, but I cannot simply hide behind an easy explanation for a difficult passage.

One of the most difficult readings I have heard was the suggestion that Jesus was absolutely serious when he said “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” There was no twinkle in his eye, no softening of his voice, nothing to suggest he was playing around, bringing out the depth of this woman’s faith.

This reading of the passage suggests that, in his interaction with the Canaanite woman, it is Jesus who is changed, Jesus who is, in a manner of speaking, converted, Jesus who goes from seeing himself as the Savior of the Jewish people only to truly the Savior of the world.

That is a tough pill to swallow. There is a principle of Biblical translation and interpretation that says the most difficult reading is usually the correct one. And this idea of Jesus being changed by his interaction with the Canaanite woman has a lot of merit. After all, as we too often forget, Jesus, though completely divine, utterly God, was completely human as well. We can comfortably assume that Jesus had to learn how to walk, had to be potty trained, had to learn to talk, had to learn how to feed himself, had to learn how to read, had to learn how to dress himself, and on and on and on.

Is it too great a logical leap to say that Jesus may have discovered the scope and direction of God’s plan for him, the breadth and depth of his earthly mission, in part while he was in the midst of his earthly mission?

The Canaanite woman certainly comes out of this account as the one with the upper hand. It is she, and not Jesus, who models the most admirable human behavior. She shows willingness to be vulnerable by seeking help from a longstanding foe whom she knows despises her because of national and racial divisions. She asks for help for her daughter, not for herself. She is persistent in the face of insults and rejection, for her daughter's sake. The Canaanite woman has the best lines in the story, especially her last one. "Call me dog," she says, "but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table." She is the clear underdog (pun intended) who wins the prize of highest value for any mother, Jew or despised Canaanite – her child's health and well-being.

And Jesus appears to go from, frankly, acting like a jerk – a staunch nationalist, a good Jew who won’t have anything to do with unclean Gentiles – to one who is amazed at the faithfulness of someone from outside the Jewish faith, and convinced that God is indeed actively pursuing, constantly calling every human being, no matter their nationality or original belief system, into relationship and into the Kingdom of God.

Or… could there be something else at work here?

Why on earth is Matthew insisting on calling this woman a Canaanite? No one in the first century used that word to describe anyone. It would be like calling New York “New Amsterdam,” or describing a trip to Haleyville as a visit to the “Free State of Winston.”

And besides, what in the world is Jesus doing in Tyre and Sidon anyway, if he’s “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” like he says? He’s in Gentile country, for cryin’ out loud! Guess what, Jesus, the house of Israel is back the way you came, bro!

Well, Canaan had a history with Israel, you see. Back in Joshua’s time, when they were crossing the Jordan to take the Promised Land, God specifically instructed the Israelites, in no uncertain terms, to utterly destroy the Canaanites – if you will, to commit genocide on the entire race. Here it is, from Deuteronomy, the seventh chapter, verses one through four:

“When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than yourselves, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.”

The Canaanites were not just pagans. Not just Gentiles. They were the God-ordained enemies of Jewish people everywhere!

So why is Jesus there? Remember, a couple of weeks back, we read about Jesus’ Feeding of the Five Thousand. That was smack-dab in Jewish territory, and everyone who as fed was, presumably, of the Jewish faith. There were enough leftovers, you will remember, to fill twelve baskets. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the connection to the Twelve Tribes of Israel in that gathering, does it?

Immediately following our reading today, Jesus travels along the Sea of Galilee for a bit, climbs a mountain, heals everyone who is brought to him, and feeds four thousand people with seven loaves and some fishes. There is enough left over to fill seven baskets this time… and is it much of a stretch to connect those seven baskets to the seven nations that God commanded Joshua and the Children of Israel to annihilate roughly fourteen centuries before?

I want to suggest to you that we do not have to choose between a Jesus who is playing games with the Canaanite woman, or a Jesus who is taught a lesson by the Canaanite woman. There is a third way, one that does not force us to see Jesus as either the conqueror or the conquered!

The third option is to see him as both: Jesus is first and foremost a conqueror by purposefully letting himself be 'conquered'. By this way of thinking, Jesus does enter into the conversation foreknowing that this woman's faith is up to the test. But instead of flaunting this foreknowledge, or intuition, he lets himself look like an abuser. He lets the tables be turned so that, in an act of faith, the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite.

The point is this: In Deuteronomy, God commands that the Canaanites, and the six other nations mentioned there, receive no mercy, be granted no covenant. What does the Canaanite woman ask for, on behalf of her daughter? Mercy. What, ultimately, does Jesus give the Canaanite woman? Mercy, and healing.

I do not believe it is an accident that the breaking of the bread there in the Gentile lands, like the breaking of the bread in the Jewish land, seems to foreshadow the breaking of the bread at the Lord’s Supper. If the bread and the cup symbolize for us the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, how much more does the breaking of the bread and the feeding of the four thousand symbolize a covenant with a people whom God had commanded, some fourteen hundred years before, there be no covenant made?

Instead of a God who shows no mercy through the first Joshua, we meet a God of mercy through a new Joshua (and, in fact, the name “Joshua” and the name “Jesus” are exactly the same in Hebrew!), who shows forth that mercy, first of all, through the willingness to suffer violence rather than inflict it, and then, second of all, as the true power of life itself, rather than of death -- namely, through the power to heal the sick and nourish a crowd.

Like the walls of Jericho, the wall between Jew and Gentile have fallen. And the walls are still fallen! Look around you in this place, and look around you, really look around you, when you leave this place today. Look around you everywhere, all week, all the time. We will not, at any point, in any context, in any place, find any person who is too different or too bad or too wrong or too anything to be out of reach of the love and mercy and forgiveness and reconciling grace of God!

Oh, this is not to say that we won’t see people that we are not comfortable imagining being loved by God. We have our own walls – walls of prejudice, walls of sexism, walls of class pride and class envy, walls of privilege and walls built by pain and injury. “For out of the heart,” Jesus said, “come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” Out of the heart comes racism, out of the heart comes jealousy, out of the heart comes pride. “These are what defile a person…” and it is high time we call these things what they are, and begin the hard work of setting them aside.

We can choose to be like the disciples who complained about all the noise the needy Canaanite woman was making, or we can choose to be like the disciples who eagerly distributed the broken loaves and fishes to the hungry Gentile crowd. The difference is this: are we willing to see the walls come down?

Let us pray:

Lord, grant us the wisdom of the Canaanite woman,
To know our need,
To acknowledge your power,
And to share your love with others.
Open our ears and our hearts to the real needs
Of all your children
For Jesus’ sake…

Sunday, August 7, 2011

“Hey, cheer up! It’s me, don’t be scared.”

Special thanks to Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman, who showed me a completely new way to look at the account of Jesus walking on the water, and to Scott Hoezee, whose work I borrowed heavily from in completing the sermon.

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” — that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

Romans 10:5-15
Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Gospel Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

We’re picking up, in our Gospel reading, where we left off last Sunday. Jesus has spent the day touching, healing, and ministering to the thousands of people who met him when his lonely boat reached the shore, and he had multiplied loaves and fishes and fed the five thousand. Now, as the shadows lengthen, Jesus sends the disciples back across the Sea of Galilee in the boat, and sends the crowd home with full bellies.

And Jesus went to pray.

Jesus prayed a lot. Sometimes he prayed all night. And with his heart still heavy over the news of the execution of his cousin John, perhaps this was his chance to finally be alone with his Father, to finally have a moment to as “why?” Perhaps he finally had time to ask his Father, “what’s next?”

Hours pass, and for the disciples, a little solitude and “alone time” with God would have been a welcome relief from the frenzy of rowing, bailing, and worrying as they fought against the Sea of Galilee. Our translation does very little to convey just how bad things were for the Twelve, there in that little boat. The Greek tells us that, in fact, the waves tortured the boat, and the wind fought against them, opposed their every move! The Sea of Galilee is well-known for how quickly the weather changes there, and as the night went on, the disciples were literally fighting for their life!

And in the midst of all of this chaos, Jesus took a stroll, and like to have scared the disciples half to death!

Now, I need to back up a bit and say a word about superstitions. Just as there are American superstitions like the one about walking under a ladder, or specifically Southern superstitions like the one about rocking an empty rocking chair, the Jewish people in the first century had superstitions. For example, there was the one about large bodies of open water. They said that the open water was filled with demons. So it isn’t hard to imagine that these worn-out and terrified disciples, seeing, in a flash of lightning, a figure coming toward them across the open water, might not have had, “oh, cool, it’s Jesus!” as the first thought on their mind.

Now, if you’re like me, you’ve heard a lot of sermons about Jesus walking on the water, and I am betting you’ve heard some where Peter is praised for his faith, congratulated for having the courage to step out of the boat and walk toward Jesus. I know I’ve preached that sermon at least once.

But something has always bothered me about that. Peter stepped out of the boat, successfully walked on the water, at least for a few steps, and Jesus called him “You of little faith?” Really? Not even a “good effort, Pete, let’s try it again from the top.” or “Hey, nice try, buddy. Better luck next time.”

Jesus and Peter got in the boat, the seas were calmed, but no one patted Peter on the back, not even the writer of the Gospel acknowledges that he did something praiseworthy – Jesus is the one being worshipped, for the first time in the Gospels. Poor old Peter! He walked on water, man! Give him some credit!

Or… maybe not.

When the disciples saw that shadowy figure doing what no human being can do, move across the open face of the water, they were absolutely certain that they were going to die – that a demon was coming to finish the job the sea had started.

Imagine their relief, even joy, when Jesus called out to them, “Hey, cheer up! It’s me, don’t be scared.” No doubt they remembered the time, on this very body of water, when Jesus had stood in the boat and had calmed the wind and the waves with a word. Finally, they thought, everything is going to be all right.

Well, almost all of them thought that, anyway.

It’s easy to miss what Peter really says to Jesus. It sounds like a harebrained request in any light, and the sheer audacity of Simon Peter, getting out of the boat and walking off, captures our imagination. But is Peter acting in faith?

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Does that sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound like exactly what Satan said to Jesus while he as testing the Lord in the wilderness?

“If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread… throw yourself down from [the pinnacle of the Temple].”

Doesn’t it sound exactly like what the Pharisees asked for constantly: proof? “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

The lesson we are most often taught about Jesus walking on the water is that Peter had the right idea, stepping out of the boat, and would have been A-OK if he’d just kept his eyes on Jesus! And while there is, I suppose, merit in that teaching, I would contend that Peter’s error started long before he stepped out of the boat. Notice that Jesus asks Peter “Why did you doubt?” But that word for doubt doesn’t refer to the loss of faith which caused Peter to sink. Nor does it refer to the fear brought on by the surrounding storm. No, that specific Greek word for “doubt” refers specifically to doubt about the person of Jesus Christ – Peter’s doubt was that Jesus was who he said he was!

Jesus could well have been asking Peter, "What are you doing outside the boat in the first place?" Jesus had just shown them how much he could do with no more than simple bread and fish, he had fed well over five thousand people, with more than enough to spare! But Peter wanted something more as a way to test out Jesus' true power and identity.

Many scholars and commentators note that the feeding of the five thousand, our Gospel lesson from last week, has very strong connections with the Lord’s Supper – the breaking of the bread, the fact that so many were fed from one loaf, and so on. Since the only other time that Matthew’s Gospel makes mention of the disciples worshipping Jesus is when he appears to them after the Resurrection, it is arguable that this act of walking on the water is a parallel to the Resurrection appearances of Christ.

In walking on the water, climbing in the boat, and making the sea instantly calm, Jesus is demonstrating that he is who he has said all along that he is. He is demonstrating, decisively, his lordship over all of creation, his mastery of everything that exists, no matter how powerful, daunting, or dangerous. In demanding that Jesus prove himself, in stepping out of the boat, sinking, and requiring help, Peter not only endangered his fellow disciples by delaying Jesus, he made it all about himself.

It’s been said that if you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat, and that’s right. And there are times and situations that call for the people of God to step out boldly, to act out their faith in heroic and dramatic ways for the cause of Christ.

But there are times when we don’t need to act like Simon Peter. We don’t usually think much about the eleven disciples who stayed in the boat--you know, the ones who didn’t jump over the side of the boat and try for some fancy footwork on the waves. Those disciples just pulled on their oars against the wind, steering their way toward Jesus for no other purpose than allowing him to get on board along with the rest of them. Sometimes it's enough just to be in the boat, awaiting Jesus' presence among us, believing that winds and waves or calm seas, he is surely with us, even to the end of the age.

Even if this story is about what people have always thought--that is, the need to do heroic and dramatic acts of stepping out on faith--even so, there is something to be said about faithful, low-key, non-dramatic work in the boat, too. There's something to be said for just believing the power of Jesus' word when he claims we need not fear because he is the Great I Am. There’s something to be said for pressing on in faith not because we’ve tested Jesus and found that he lived up to all the hype. Not because Jesus has enabled us to get attention for ourselves by doing something spectacular. No, we press on because you believe Jesus when, through the Spirit, we hear him say , “Hey, cheer up! It’s me, don’t be scared.”