Monday, September 22, 2014

September 21 Sermon

Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
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“What’s in it for me?” That’s the question I am asking this morning in response to this morning’s scripture reading. It’s a question that haunts my life, in fact, that I can’t seem to get over, and it’s only human. The workers in the vineyard asked it, in a manner of speaking. The ones who worked all day said, great, you’re being generous to the ones who showed up late, but what’s in it for me? Where’s my reward for working hard, for being faithful?
It is only human, and for as much as I ask it, as we ask it, the workers in the vineyard had good reason to ask it, because the class of workers we are talking about were incredibly poor. I hope that when you picture the people in Jesus’s story in your mind’s eye you are picturing the guys waiting outside the Home Depot on Lawrenceville Highway, because that’s about right. And it just so happens that the wage the workers would have received, what the landowner in the story calls the usual daily wage, wouldn’t have even been enough to feed their families for a day, which meant that the workers were forced to beg the rest of the year, survive on scraps and the goodness of others. And these, these are the people Jesus speaks of when he talks about who is first in the kingdom of Heaven. He doesn’t tell a story about rich people. He doesn’t say that there were ten faithful churchgoers or what have you. He talks about the poorest of the poor, those who I would think have every right to complain when they do backbreaking work all day and are left to try to feed their families with the same amount of money given to those who showed up at the end of the day and hardly lifted a finger.
It’s all got me thinking about some of the people who come by the church during the week needing some sort of assistance, usually some food, maybe a night or two at an extended stay motel while they get their things in order. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Anybody who says we’ve solved the problem of homelessness in Atlanta needs to come sit in the welcome center of North Decatur United Methodist Church and meet some of our neighbors who come looking for something to eat or a place to stay. I wish I had a solution to the problem of homelessness, but I don’t, so we muddle through the best we can, try to do well by our cooperative ministries, advocate for a more holistic approach to dealing with addiction and mental illness, and the like, but we’ll never deny somebody food. It’s why the food pantry needs your help.
And so here I am one day at the church, minding my own business, and this guy comes in who is clearly struggling with alcoholism and needs some help, and I tell him that there isn’t a whole lot we can do for him, but that we’ll pay for a couple of nights at the extended stay motel while we work to find some resources for him to dry out, to get connected with AA, for us to see if there was something we could do for him. And he starts to cry, and you begin to understand the power of this upside-down kingdom of God, in which the last is first, because that kind of grace is rare, it’s just so rare.
In fact, when I stop by the motel to pay the guy’s bill, the manager starts yelling at me. Yelling! The manager wants me to know that he’s seen this particular gentleman walk to the convenience store to buy alcohol, as if it were some great surprise to me that a person with alcoholism would be buying booze! And then the manager says something I will carry with me forever. He says: “You know, I’m just trying to save the church’s money. Helping this guy is a waste, because he is a waste.”
A waste. I hesitate to even speak that kind of profanity from God’s pulpit in God’s church. A waste. As if one of God’s children is expendable, as if the throes of a disease like alcoholism makes you less than human. I hope that’s not the case, because while it’s not the case that I struggle with alcoholism, I’d stack my sins up next to anybody’s. A waste. It’s profane, that kind of speech. It’s sickening.
And yet, church, I want you to know, that it’s a pretty common way of thinking to see those kinds of people as a waste. Drug addicts? They just blow their money on booze and blow. No use helping them. . People dying of ebola? Oh, they were probably going to starve anyway. Poor people? They just don’t work hard enough, as if how hard you work had anything to do with your worth as a child of God.
I know these things sound ridiculous—at least I hope they do—but I’ve heard every one of them come out of the mouth of self-professing Christians! It’s amazing, just how good we are as a society at finding reasons not to like people when they don’t meet our standards. Of course, it’s not really our standards that are the issue. It’s our own inadequacy. It’s our need to lift ourselves by lowering others.
That guy, those people, these workers who showed up at the end of the day and barely lifted a finger, well, the Bible is clear about those people. Those people are first in the kingdom of God. You don’t earn your way to salvation. In fact, it might just be the case that at the end of the day the people with the least capital find themselves closest to God’s heart. You know, those people who aren’t talented enough to get hired the first, second, third times. Those people who some see as a complete waste.
Look, I don’t know who those people are for you, but none of us is completely innocement here, because there are many sins that blind us to the way that the kingdom of Heaven works. Those sins have names like racism and sexism and heterosexism and greed. They are sins that manifest themselves in ways that make us seem holier than thou, overly pious, like workaholics, like holy crusaders. And yet Jesus says to us, time and time again, I am not interested in the crusaders. I am interested in the last. If you want to be first, you need to be last.
This is all well and good, and makes for a nice sermon about lowering yourself, about being less pompous and more generous or whatever, but I’ll be honest, I suspect it is not quite this easy, because if I am not like those people, the poor workers in the vineyard or the folks who wander in during the week, I am left to ask: What’s in it for me? After all, if the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right when he called the church the only organization on earth that exists for the benefit of those who aren’t yet its members, what’s in it for those of us who are already here?
But even more than all this: when I read the Bible, when I read stories like the one we heard from the Gospel of Matthew this morning, when I hear Jesus say things like “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” I really wonder, what’s in it for me? Because I can make some sort of half-hearted attempt to look at the Greek and the way the verb is conjugated and the context and that sort of thing to try and say, oh, Jesus didn’t actually mean that the poor will receive the Kingdom of heaven, and if he did, surely somehow he meant to include me in that distinction, but the bottom line is this: I am not poor. I am not subject to racism, or sexism, or heterosexism, or able-ism. I don’t have to worry, when I walk into a room, how people will respond to the color of my skin. At the end of the day, I am really pretty privileged, and while I have my own struggles, while my life hasn’t been a cakewalk, I can’t escape the nagging feeling—confirmed every time I actually open my eyes to the state of the world, to the hunger, the pain, the violence in the world—that even acknowledging my own struggles, there’s no way—no way—to read this story, about the last being first and the first being last, and find myself anywhere other than one of the workers picked at the beginning of the day, one of the people that Jesus ejected from the beginning of the line and sent to the back.
You see, I have my own stuff. My own baggage. We all do. But so often, when I consider how it is that Jesus sees me, when I think about what Jesus is calling me to be and to do, I hide behind that baggage, pull out a bicycle pump and attempt to inflate it until it’s so big that I can say, oh, Jesus must have been talking about me when he said that the last shall be first. He must want to pluck me from the back and put me at the beginning of the line. But I suspect that it may all be a ruse to make me feel better about myself.
If you have been in my office here at the church you may have noticed that I only have one actual photograph hanging on the wall behind my desk. It is a photo of the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, who was the spiritual father of the American civil rights movement, a student of Mahatma Gandhi and a teacher of Dr. King. And so much of what Dr. King believed about the movement and did in response stems from Thurman and a little book he wrote called Jesus and the Disinherited. I’ve probably read that little book twenty times. I discovered it in college and it has haunted me ever since.
The reason is this. Thurman says that throughout the centuries, the oppressed have asked some version of the question: What’s in it for me? And so Thurman looks at the life of Jesus, at the things he says, including this business of the last being first and the first being last, and he concludes that the Bible is clear that Jesus is on the side of the oppressed, the disinherited, the people with their backs against the wall. And as I look at the life of Jesus, at the things he actually said, I can’t see how Thurman is wrong. The words are there in black and white. But what haunts me is this: if Jesus was not joking when he said that blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven, well, what’s in it for me?
I will end with this. I have a ministry colleague, a young African-American pastor from Chicago I met at a conference. He spends a lot of his time working with troubled youth, and we bonded over our love of Howard Thurman. I shared with him once that I was getting ready to teach a class on Jesus and the Disinherited to a group of wealthy, white people.
And my friend looked at me for a minute and just busted out laughing. What on earth are you doing teaching Howard Thurman to that group of people? What could Thurman possibly have to say to them?

I want you to know I’ve chewed on that question for several years. I’m going to be chewing on it the rest of my life, I think, because I am not disinherited. I am not oppressed. And if it is the case that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and I am already near the front of the line, what’s in it for me? I don’t know that that question has the kind of answer you can neatly tie up a sermon with, but I do have a sneaking suspicion that the answer lies somewhere in following the savior, trying to learn from and be like Jesus, the God who set aside the power and the trappings of that particular job and became like one of us. You could spend a lifetime figuring out what that means for you, that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. May you be haunted by this good, faithful question. Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

September 14 Sermon

Matthew 18:21-35
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
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Forgiveness. Is there anything in the whole world people want more but want to need any less? I don’t know about you—you probably don’t replay conversations back in your head a hundred times after you have them—but it seems like I reflect upon what I have said over the course of a day and continually seem to find myself speaking the most unkind things, the most ridiculous things. It seems like I constantly do things that I should know better than to do, things which seem to be born of some pain deep within myself that comes out sometimes, that manifests itself by my making an unkind remark, or an unfair comment, or not treating someone with the respect due them as someone made in the image of God.
I don’t mean to be self-hating here, because I suspect I’m not alone in this. To be human is to need forgiveness, because it is the case that what God calls us to is love, in all circumstances, no matter what, and yet what we frequently deliver is love, in some circumstances, provided that it’s not too inconvenient. I don’t think it’s worth flagellating ourselves over. I don’t think you’ve got to wear the hair shirt like John the Baptist did, or to splay yourself on the altar or whatever, but even if we need not get stuck on our sin, even if we don’t get totally hung up on the things for which we need forgiveness, we do need to acknowledge that sin. We need to acknowledge that we are built for community, for loving God and loving one another without limits, and that even when we encounter forgiveness that ought to move us to love without limits, that ought to spur us to love without limits, so often, we still manage to miss the mark.
Instead of clothing our entire lives in forgiveness, we ask the same question Peter asks in this morning’s scripture lesson. How often should we forgive? And I guess, it’s a legitimate question, because just like I screw up pretty frequently, I sometimes find myself on the receiving end of somebody else’s sin, somebody else’s screw up, and I need to offer forgiveness, too. And it’s the case that while forgiveness is what we’re obviously called to offer in the face of that kind of thing, that kind of broken relationship, it is also true that it’s not easy! It is not easy to forgive, and it’s not always immediately possible. We sometimes downplay the serious abuse some people have experienced and say, just forgive and move on, as if it were that easy. It’s not, and besides, for as insidious as resentment is, as hard as it is to live with, resentment is actually a lot more fun than forgiveness in many ways, because it takes us and the other person at equal levels and raises us up, so that the person who has sinned against us has to wallow a bit, as if those of us up here are the ones who have it all together and the person who has committed something against us needs to really feel it before we’re willing to forgive.
And so it is this dynamic that makes this morning’s Bible story so interesting, I think. Peter asks Jesus, so, how often should we forgive? How many times do we have to play the fool before we wise up and get past this need to forgive? As many as seven times, seven, which was a holy number to the Jews that at that time, and which represents, at least to me anyway, a pretty reasonable attempt at creating reconciliation? And Jesus gathers the disciples and says, not just seven, but seventy-seven, which is not a literal response but a command to forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive and to never stop forgiving.
And if this weren’t difficult enough, Jesus then tells a story that isn’t technically true in terms of whether it happened, but which carries so much truth in it that it rings true to me today. I suspect it will ring true for you as well. What I mean to say is, this is a fictional story that Jesus tells about someone he makes up, but I know this guy. I know lots of this guy. I suspect you do, too.
It’s the story of a king and a guy who owes the king ten thousand talents, and while we can’t put an exact figure on it in terms of modern equivalency, some sources think that 10,000 talents means that this guy hero owes the king something like the kinds of wages you’d earn working every day for 90,000 years. It’s silly, that amount of money, and so the point isn’t the number, but the fact that you could never, ever, ever pay that kind of money off. It’s the kind of debt that would make Bernie Madoff look like Santa Claus. And the king’s calling in his debts, and he calls this guy in and says, pay me what you owe, but of course the guy doesn’t have the money, I don’t think there would be enough money in the whole world to pay that kind of debt, and so the king says, fine, we’ll sell you, we’ll sell your family, we’ll sell everything you own, and that will at least make up for some of the money you’ve squandered.
And the guy with the debt gets down on his knees and begs, and says, look, I know it’s a lot, but just give me some time, and I’ll pay you, I promise. And the king does something pretty remarkable, which is to say that without so much as breaking the guy’s knee, the king sends him on his way and forgives the man’s debt.
I don’t know if you’ve borne witness to that kind of forgiveness, but it can change a person—should change a person--should put its mark upon your heart and never let you go. I was reading a story this week about two twenty-year-old young women, Meagan Napier and Lisa Dickson, who were hit by a drunk driver, Eric Smallridge. The women were killed instantly. The drunk driver walked away form the accident. I can’t imagine the grief their parents felt, what that must have felt like, but somehow, and I wish I knew how, somehow they managed to channel their grief into advocacy, starting a foundation and working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to teach teenagers about the dangers of drinking and driving. And amazingly, the parents of those young women invited Eric Smallridge, the man who had killed them, to go around with them as they spoke, and judge agreed to grant him temporary release. The grace and the forgiveness that must’ve been involved in being in the same room as the person who killed your child, I can’t even imagine. And then to use that grace to help save the lives of other people’s children, I mean, that’s the power of forgiveness. In fact, when Eric Smallridge had the occasion to petition the judge for early release, the parents of these young women wrote letters to the judge in support of his release.
This is what forgiveness does. It unbinds everybody. It certainly unbinds the person who has received forgiveness, and in the case of Eric Smallridge, it helped him help others by sharing his story, by being honest and forthright about the choices he had made the devastation he had caused. But when you find yourself in the position to forgive somebody, don’t think the only person who needs unbinding is the person you are forgiving. Forgiveness also unbinds the forgiver. Resentment may be secretly fun—it may feel nice to feel better than somebody else, even if that’s small comfort in the scheme of things—but resentment ultimately degrades a person, callouses a heart, pokes holes in the soul.
And so I wish the story that Jesus tells were more like this, that it involved the man with the insurmountable debt getting up upon the occasion of his forgiveness and skipping away, running with his arms outstretched to embrace the man who owed him, compared to what he’d been forgiven, a small pittance, but there wasn’t any of that. You’d hope for reconciliation, for the clouds to part and the sun to shine through and birds to sing, but that’s not what happened. What happened was that the man who’d been forgiven for a debt amounting to 90,000 years of work refused to forgive a debt owed to him equaling about a hundred days wages. That’s something 300,000 times smaller than the debt he’d just been forgiven, so you’d think it would all be water under the bridge, but no, no. He has the guy locked up, thrown in prison, tells the jailer to throw away the key.
But the story doesn’t end here. When his fellow workers saw what happened, they were incensed, understandably, and they went to the king and told him all that had gone on. And the king, also incensed, summoned the first guy and said, “I forgave you because you pleaded with me, and then you turn around and do this? You are offered the most unbelievable experience of forgiveness, and this is what comes of it?” And the king sent him away, to be tortured—tortured!—until his debt was repaid, which, of course, it never was.
And this, Jesus says, is what it’s like for God. God will do this to us unless we also forgive.
Now, I want to take a minute and acknowledge that this is really difficult, this idea of God callously sending away to be tortured. In fact, outside of a story that Jesus tells for dramatic effect, I don’t think it quite happens that way. It doesn’t match my understanding of the love ethic of Jesus, the ways he is portrayed in the rest of scripture. I don’t think God does actually does this sort of thing, and so I don’t have a great answer here as to what this is all about. But I do think there are three things we can say about it.
First, I think we can say that we need to confess. You know, here in a few minutes, when I finally get ready to sit down, we’re going to do something we don’t do every week, which is that we’re going to pray the prayer of confession. This is part of our heritage as United Methodists, and I wish we used it more often, so we’re going to do it today. We’re going to confess together that we need forgiveness, individually as people who sin, who break relationship, and as a community, as a church, as a people who haven’t always spoken up for justice, who haven’t always done the right thing, who have sometimes left important words unsaid and important work undone. We’re going to confess together, and I think that’s a fair expectation, because I think we can say that this story reminds us that we need to confess.
Second, I think we can say that we need to accept forgiveness. Sometimes this is easy, like when it means you don’t have to work for 90,000 years to repay a debt. But sometimes it’s not so easy, because we get to feeling guilty about all that we’ve done, and it can overwhelm a person. God doesn’t call us to be overwhelmed, to splay on the altar and never get up again. The message of Jesus Christ is that the work of forgiveness has already been done, if you will just accept it. So I don’t know what you need forgiving for today, but I hope you’ll ask God to forgive you and then move on, not in a way that keeps you from learning, but in a way that pulls you out from underneath its weight.
Third, I think we can say that once we accept that forgiveness, we need to turn around and forgive. Don’t be like the petty man in Jesus’s story. Don’t be that guy. The world is full of that guy already. Don’t be that guy. Recognize that the gift of forgiveness is most powerful when it is shared, and of course, this is one reason why we confess our need for forgiveness. Not so that we will feel better about ourselves. Not just because it’s some command from God. But because it is a reminder of God’s work in our lives, and because it is through the act of forgiveness, of accepting it and sharing it with others, it is through that act that we achieve peace. Now, you’ll see at the end of this liturgy, which is printed in your bulletin, we’re going to be passing the peace. Let me just say a word about that. Passing of the peace is not running across the sanctuary to hug somebody’s neck. It’s not about how’s your momma and them. Passing the peace is a profoundly theological act in which you shake someone’s hand in a sign of fellowship and offer a sign of peace and reconciliation, typically saying something like “the peace of the Lord be with you,” or “peace,” as you shake hands. It’s a reminder of God’s forgiveness, and it’s a sign of forgiveness towards one another. And so let me say that if you are here for the first time, it’s likely that nobody here has sinned against you yet. If you’ve been here for a while and you’re meeting somebody for the first time, it’s not likely that they’ve sinned against you either. But the passing of the peace is not just about individual acts of forgiveness, though those are important and if you stick around here long enough, you’ll feel the need. Passing the peace is not just about individual forgiveness, but it’s cosmic forgiveness, forgiveness on behalf of and in acknowledgement of those who have sinned against each of us and all of us, together. So when the time comes, I hope you’ll really exchange signs of peace with the people sitting near you. It’s a powerful thing when it is done in the name of reconciliation.
And, you know, it’s funny; the people I know who have been the slowest to offer forgiveness, to offer peace, who have not been able to bring themselves to forgive some long-ago slight, some festering sin, those people are the most miserable people I know. They, themselves, have the least peace. They don’t need God to torture them. They do it just fine all by themselves.

And so as we prepare to pray together, let me confess something. As I have lived with this story, as I have struggled with it, I find myself just a little bit giddy at the idea that the first guy, the one who was forgiven and then wouldn’t forgive, I’m just a little too happy that in the end, he gets his come-uppance. Is there a part of you that feels this way when you hear this story? Do you like that he ends up tortured? And if so, does that say anything about you and your own need to live a life of forgiveness?

Monday, September 8, 2014

September 7 Sermon

Matthew 18:15-20
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
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To be human is to have conflict, within ourselves and with others, and while this is obvious, probably, it is hard to accept, because it requires admitting that things don’t always go as well as we’d like; not all our relationships are going well; not all of our growth has happened peacefully. I was reading a piece about the poet Christian Wiman this week, who writes about faith and experience, and he says that if you believe the same thing at fifty that you believe at fifteen, you haven’t lived, and so to live is to have conflict, conflict between what you once learned and what you now experience, between who you are and who you want to be, between how you act and how others act.
This may sound weird for me to say, but I count it as one of the main reasons that I believe in Jesus, that I take him seriously, that the Bible, the primary revelation of truth about who God is and who we are . . . the Bible does not tell us to avoid conflict. So much of what passes for popular religion these days is all about avoiding conflict. Just go search the religion section in a bookstore and you’ll find all sorts of nonsense about avoiding conflict, and I think that comes from this feeling deep within us that while we all have conflict, we wish we didn’t. That’s not to say that we wish we were more wishy-washy, that we don’t want to believe things very deeply. It’s to say that we wish everybody else would be more wishy-washy and willing to change their very experience and understanding of the world to bend to what I believe, who I am, what I have experienced to be true.
We do not like conflict because it reminds us that the world does not revolve around me. When I have conflict, I am reminded that my beliefs about the ways that the world works, understandings which I hold to be deeply true and important, are not the only beliefs and—this might shock you—they might not be the only true beliefs.
The church deals with this kind of thing just as much as anybody, maybe even more so. We’re not immune from conflict, because while it is true that we are the body of Christ, we’re also fundamentally human. And I have discovered that when it happens, when conflict happens, humans respond in one of three ways, only one of which is at all holy, at all faithful.
The first way is to say, “I don’t have a problem with conflict; I just disagree,” and leave it at that, as if simply disagreeing with someone and leaving it there does anything but make conflict worse. It is true, of course, that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but it is decidedly not true that saying to someone, “I disagree” without making the effort to understand what it feels like to wear their skin and walk in their shoes, does anything to diffuse conflict. It just makes it worse. And all that sort of thing does for you, spiritually, if you’re interested in growing spiritually, is that it builds a wall between you and everybody else. It keeps you from being in authentic relationship, of course, but worse than that, it worsens conflict, makes it cut more deeply, without any possibility of resolution because, well, you just disagree and that’s all there is to it. That’s not faithful, because it isn’t the kind of thing that can be worked out, not that you wanted it worked out. I’m not saying you need to give up your beliefs. I’m just saying that if you hold so fast to your understandings of what it means to be a person of faith, a follower of Jesus, that your own stubbornness gets in the way of the Holy Spirit, you’ve created an idol out of your own beliefs that keeps God from working in your life. It isn’t righteous to live that way, because it’s all about you and your beliefs, not about anybody else, and if you haven’t caught on yet, let me very clear that one of the central messages of the Christian Gospel is that it’s not all about you.
Now, the second way some of us react in the face of conflict is to say, oh, it’s fine, everything is just as right as everything else, nothing is more important than anything else, all viewpoints, no matter how destructive or graceless or embittered are equal, and this is a particularly insidious response, because it disguises our intolerance in something that looks like tolerance, clothes our unwillingness to admit that we might be wrong in the false idea that what you believe doesn’t matter as long as I am allowed to believe what I want. Do you see the problem? By refusing to have conflict under the guise of living and letting live, I don’t have to change. I don’t have to be challenged. And then when I am called on it I get to act like Captain Tolerance, and while tolerance is good, and true, and virtuous, it is not the same thing as running away from conflict so that I don’t have to be challenged, myself. That’s cowardice, not tolerance. And it’s not what Jesus calls us to, either.
What these two ways of being have in common, of course, is that they protect me from having to change, from having to reconsider anything, and it’s not long before you’re fifty and you realize you believe the same things you did when you were fifteen. There’s no growth there, and the life of faith is about growth. Shoot, life in general is about growth. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. And yet growth is so difficult that we build these walls around us to keep us from having to change, to reevaluate, to acknowledge that even difficult people may have something to teach us. Sometimes, the reason we find people to be difficult is that they have a word for us that we don’t want to hear, but know that we should. Every time I am in one of these situations with difficult people I remind myself that Jesus was a difficult person, so maybe I ought to get past my own stuff and try to listen. It’s not easy.
And so the third way, like most third ways, is the hardest, but it is the most faithful, and the most productive, and it happens to be exactly what Jesus lays out for us in this morning’s scripture lesson. If someone sins against you, Jesus says, go and work it out when the two of you are alone. If the other person listens, you’ve preserved a relationship. If not, take someone with you to work it out. And if the person with whom you have a conflict still doesn’t listen, get the church involved, and if even that doesn’t help, let that person be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Shake the dust off your feet, brush your shoulders off, and move on.
Now, this is all very hard for a number of reasons. Mostly it’s hard because there’s no provision here for gossip. You don’t get to say, listen to what Dalton did to me the other day, even if all you are trying to do is blow off some steam. The line we so often use is “I just need to vent,” and venting is ok, but when you’re talking about somebody specific, you don’t get to spread that around like a virus. You go directly to the person. Some days I wish it weren’t so, because I don’t like dealing with this stuff head on either, but my experience is that when you do it, when you follow Jesus’s words here, healing can be born. It doesn’t happen every time, and it doesn’t happen right away, but you’re certainly not going to save a relationship by gossiping about it, whether the sin is legitimate or not.
Which brings me to the next thing, which is that you don’t get to do any of this anonymously. Jesus doesn’t say, write it all down and leave your name off. It doesn’t matter how mad you are, or how embarrassed, you don’t get to do this anonymously. You are not going to find Jesus offering a provision for sending a nasty, anonymous email. That’s not how we are to behave. Now, I recognize that putting your name to criticism takes guts, but I want you to know that as a professional Christian and a semi-professional receiver of complaints, I have a very strict policy about this stuff, and it’s been born out of experience. When I receive a letter, the first thing I do is to see who signed it. If the answer is “nobody,” I throw it away unread. I do this every single time I open a piece of mail. Maybe this seems harsh, but if we are to act as Jesus calls us to act, we have to be willing to go to the person with who we have a conflict and deal with it right there, face to face, name to name, and that’s all there is. Yes it takes guts to sign your name, but nobody ever said the Christian life was easy.
I’ll end with this. I realize it seems like what Jesus is telling us is to do one of the hardest things we can imagine, which is to face someone who has caused you heartache, pain, hurt. But none of what I’ve already mentioned is the hardest thing, however. You want to know the hardest thing? Jesus says that if you go through all these steps, you go to the person, you bring somebody with you, you use the church for its intended purpose of reconciliation and you still can’t get resolution, you are to treat someone as you would treat tax collectors and Gentiles. I’ll be honest, that sounds like great fun, like if you go through all these steps you finally get to treat the person who has sinned against you like they ought to be treated, like a wretched, crooked tax collector, like an outsider, and that’s all well and good until you remember who Jesus was, how he ate with sinners, how he counted tax collectors and prostitutes among his friends. You don’t go through the steps of conflict so that you can get to the fun part. You go through the steps because in the final analysis, unless you are open to learning from others, unless you are open to acknowledging that there may be some areas in which you need to do some growing, you aren’t really living. And if it is true that resentment is allowing somebody to live in your head, rent-free, maybe we all ought to take a page from Jesus’s playbook and find ways to love, at all times, in all places. It’s not easy, but it’s a whole lot cheaper than having to keep up maintenance for a renter who will never, never get caught up on his rent.

 In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

August 31 Sermon

 Matthew 16:21-28
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.”

Well, we’re talking about Resurrection today, and I can’t think of a better way to start talking about the Resurrection than to have a baptism, than to remind us that when we accept the call to follow Jesus, we die to ourselves and put on Christ. Emory University’s celebrated teacher of preaching Fred Craddock tells the story of a baptism he once participated in in south Georgia. He says:
It was not unusual for me to be a guest preacher in small rural churches pastored by my seminary students. On this occasion I was in a United Methodist Church in southeast Georgia. The service ended, but before the benediction the pastor announced a baptismal service to follow at Nelson farm. I could ride out with him, he said, and requested that I read Scripture for the service. The candidate for baptism had requested immersion rather that the usual sprinkling. By the time we arrived a crowd larger that the worship attendance had gathered at the farm pond. The pastor placed me at water's edge while four men walked out into the water and formed a line. The pastor waded out near them holding the hand of the candidate. A hymn was sung, the pastor asked me to read, he prayed, and the candidate was immersed in the name of the Holy Trinity. Al those in the pond came to the shore; the four men were last to leave. "Nice service," I said to the pastor, "but why did those four men form a line in the Pond?" "There is an alligator in that pond , and they are the watchers. They add to the seriousness of the occasion. Don't you agree.”
Now, there’s an idea! You know, something to add to the stakes, to pull the occasion out of the mundane, the every day, and turn it back into a situation of life and death, which of course is what it is. In baptism, we remember the gift of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our belief that Jesus was killed as an enemy of the state, hung on a cross in the manner of execution of common criminals, but that on the third day he rose from the dead, and in doing so he showed us that nothing—not even death—was stronger than the love of God. For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but gain eternal life. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an event which splits the world open, cracks it like an egg so that love may be poured out.
And here so many of us treat it like any old thing, instead of as the central moment in history. It is almost too bad the we mark BC and AD time based on Jesus’s birth rather than Jesus’s resurrection, because while it’s obviously true that Jesus’s birth was super important, it was his resurrection that divides time, that means that everything—everything!--after is different than everything before.
Everything is different, but perhaps that’s just too much to bear when we have our own interests to look after, so instead of using the Resurrection as proof of God’s all-encompassing love and power over death, we spiritualize the whole deal and turn it into something that is just about Heaven. Now, this is important, listen up, write this down, post it over the doorpost of your heart—the Resurrection is not just about going to Heaven.
Now, maybe that’s a surprise. I don’t want to remove Heaven from the equation—it’s an important part of our theology, that we believe that death is not the end for those of us in relationship with Jesus. But it’s not all there is. In fact, it’s not the most important thing, because we don’t follow Jesus just to get to Heaven. The life of faith is not about an arrangement with God that says I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine. In fact, Jesus says in this morning’s scripture lesson that following Jesus is not about what we get at all. If anything, it’s about what we give up, namely, our lives. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty terrible selling point, and it is a miracle that the church exists nowadays at all. You know, welcome to church, glad to have you, you can see the coat check guy by the front door; he’ll be happy to hold onto your life for you because you won’t be needing it anymore.
You understand why Peter balked at Jesus’s description of how things were going to go. What Jesus is asking for—is everything—for to be called a follower of Jesus is to deny yourself. That’s not about what you get. It’s not like working hard so that you make more money. It’s not like saving here and there so that you can retire. Following Jesus is not about you at all—it is about something much greater, and it’s true that we are promised Heaven, that we are promised that death is not the end. But Heaven isn’t the gift you get for being a good person. You can’t earn that kind of thing, because it’s not about you and me. It’s about Jesus.
So if the Resurrection isn’t just about going to Heaven, then what is it? That’s a little harder to say, because it’s bigger than words can really describe. I mean, we’re talking about the defining moment of human history, because until the Resurrection, until the thing that Jesus foretold in this morning’s scripture passage happened, death was the most powerful thing. And in Jesus’s day, the Romans knew it. They used death and threats of death just like they are used now, as deterrents, as ways to keep people subjugated, because when death is the final thing, when it is the most powerful thing, well, you understand why it was such a powerful weapon. And it is still powerful. I need only mention the case of James Foley, the American journalist who was murdered on camera by extremists in Syria a couple of weeks ago. That’s about power. It’s people who think death is the most powerful thing using it as a weapon. The knife isn’t the weapon. Death is the weapon.
And so when the resurrection happens, when Jesus is killed as an enemy of the state because the state realizes that what Jesus is selling is more powerful than they expected, and then three days later when Jesus rises from the dead, that most powerful weapon the world had is supplanted by something even more powerful. Death is no longer the final word. It is powerful, but it is not the most powerful. It is real, but it is not final. There is something stronger, and that strength is made manifest in the Resurrection, in the love of a God who was willing to die rather than fight back against his captors, who was willing to be raised rather than stay dead.
Can you imagine what this means? I mean, my God, can you imagine? Here we turn the Resurrection into one of those little precious memories figurines, a hallmark card about oh, how wonderful, we’re all going to Heaven. When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there. And I don’t want to discount it because Heaven is important and yes, it is for real, but my God, if the most powerful weapon the world has is no longer the most powerful weapon, and if we are in possession of something stronger—the Gospel of Jesus Christ—can you imagine what this means? It means that there is nothing that can stop us. When the apostle Paul says in the book of Romans chapter 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, this is what he is talking about, because in the Resurrection, love wins. It defeats death.
So yes, the resurrection is about eternal life, but eternal life doesn’t just happen when you die. It happens when you agree to follow Jesus, so the eternal life you’ve been promised has already begun, and so I’d say it is time we started living like it! That isn’t to pretend there aren’t things in life that keep us down, that cause us stress and worry. It’s to say, death has already been defeated. Love has already won. Even on days when we get so bogged down in the much of life that it is hard to believe, love wins.
But my frustration isn’t that we get bogged down. My frustration is that even in the church, even in those high, holy moments where we lift and break the bread, or when we pour the water over the newest member of the family of God, or when we go out and serve the needy in the name of Jesus Christ, even in those high moments we forget that love wins, and we act like this is any other day, just another task for the to-do list. We forget that love has won, that the love of God is the most powerful force in the world, that we are participants in the most important, most effective, most powerful social force ever to grace the face of planet earth! Greed, racism, sexism, homophobia, broken relationship, violence: none of these things can stop the reign of God, if those of us in the church will just act as if we believe that love has already won, for the Resurrection has already happened.
Can I end this way? Can I just share that those of us who work to ensure that the church has space for everyone get knocked sometimes for supposedly acting like you don’t have to do anything but show up to be a Christian? As if there’s really not anything you need to believe or anything you need to do or any changes you need to make to be a more authentic sharer of love in the world? You’ll not surprised that I think this charge is totally bogus. Being a church that says you’re welcome here if you are rich or poor, young or old, gay or straight doesn’t mean we don’t, that God doesn’t require anything of you. It’s just that we actually believe that the Resurrection has already happened, that fear has already been defeated, that the things that divide us are no match for the God who reconciles all things to himself who has defeated death, that last great separator. Just because we believe the church should be open to everybody doesn’t mean we’re all here just sitting around on our high horses refusing to pray and work for greater faithfulness, greater love, greater compassion, for the message of the resurrection is that each of these things, faith, hope, love, each of these things is possible, for nothing—not even the strongest thing the world can throw at us—nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. In fact, maybe this sounds crazy, but I am convinced that if you believe in the Resurrection but act like nothing’s changed, you don’t actually believe in the Resurrection. You just think it sounds nice to say.
That’s not to suggest that it’s easy, to live like the world has broken open and poured out love, when it seems like love is in awfully short supply. That’s not to suggest it’s easy to live like love wins when it seems like death is all around. It’s just to say that since the Resurrection has already happened, maybe we could at least try acting like we actually believe that love is greater than fear. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Thus says the Lord. Amen.

Monday, August 25, 2014

August 24 Sermon

(To listen to a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Matthew 16:13-20
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And 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. 18And 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. 19I 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.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
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Who do you say that I am? Seven words, eighteen letters, an enormous question that takes a lifetime to answer. You could seriously spend a lifetime on that one, and I’m not even just talking about Jesus; I’m talking about each of us. We’re all on a journey of figuring out who we are, learning about ourselves, especially in the church, and whatever you think, if you’re breathing, you’re learning, you are discovering who you are as a child of God.
It is an especially important question for the church to try to answer about Jesus, because who we say Jesus is matters. So this is what we are going to talk about today, who Jesus is, how Jesus works, what Jesus expects of us.

And like many important conversations, it begins with a question: Jesus asks, who do people say that the son of Man is? That’s a Biblical phrase, son of Man, but Jesus is talking about himself. And the disciples tell him, oh, they see you baptizing people, so they think you are John the Baptist. Or, Elijah or Jeremiah come back from the dead, the ghost of Christmas past come to call people to account for their sins. Or, perhaps, some people think Jesus is just a prophet, like Amos, calling people to love one another, reminding them to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
And the trick is that Jesus is all of these things, in a way, much bigger than just one or another. It’s why I get frustrated when people tell me they know exactly how to be a proper Christian, as if you just have to follow these simple steps, these seventeen points, believe these hundred and twenty-seven things and suddenly you’ll have it figured out! No! Jesus is much bigger than this. It’s why I love the title of the author Jonathan Merritt’s new book, Jesus is Better Than You Imagined! It is why none of these things, the baptizer, the prophet, the sage, none of these words are sufficient to hold within them all of who Jesus is. Yes, they are true words, but they are not big enough.
So Jesus asks the Disciples, Ok, so this is what other people think of me, but who do YOU say that I am? And it gets quiet, because you can tell it’s the question for all the marbles, and Peter, who is notoriously the first to speak up in situations like this, sometimes to his own embarrassment, says, “You are the messiah. The son of the living God.” It’s the first time one of the disciples has figured it out this way, has verbalized that which has been in front of them the whole time. You are the messiah. You are the son of God. Yes, yes, yes. Finally. Finally, someone has worked it out, here we are, thou thousand years later, still talking about what it all means. Jesus is so much more than we imagined. He is so much more than just what he does. He is who he is because of that which is in his being. It is why when I ask you who you are, and you tell me that you’re a teacher, or a lawyer, or what have you, you’re telling the truth, but you’re not giving me the whole answer, because you’re also a person of deep love, of deep pain, of deep conviction. All of these things are true, but there is no one word large enough to contain within it all of your being. It is the same for Jesus, and even more.
But that’s not to discount Peter’s answer, because while it is true that we’re more than our professions, it is also true that the question Jesus asks—who do you say that I am—it’s an incredibly important question. I mean, how would you answer? Beyond just parroting Peter, what would you say? Who is Jesus to you, anyway? Just a moral teacher, somebody who tells us how to live good lives, but that’s it? Or maybe a miracle worker from the past who did some great stuff but who doesn’t have much relevance for us today? Or is Jesus this cosmic figure, this divine being who expects us to talk about him and share about him but whose teachings on issues like dealing with the poor, the marginalized, don’t really matter?
Of course none of these things are good enough, none of these understandings robust enough to fully explain how we understand Jesus, and as much as I think we should each have our own answers to this question, in our own words, based on our own beings, the answer that Peter gives is, in the final analysis, the correct one, the one that matters, for him and for us. Jesus is the messiah. The Son of the living God.
Now, this will seem elementary for a lot of us, but I want to make sure we’re all on the same page, and even those of us who have been here for decades can use a reminder. When we talk about Jesus being the messiah, we mean that Jesus is the one to deliver us, all of us. It was an ancient Jewish belief, prevalent in Jesus’s day, that there would be someone who would come and defeat those people that kept the Jews marginalized. There would be a political leader. But then Jesus shows up and offers an entirely different kind of saving, forthe path that he’s offered for us is much greater than any political leader could dream for, because in Jesus, death has been defeated. It’s lost its power. It’s a reality, but it’s not the last thing. For those who accept Jesus’s call on their lives, eternal life is the last thing. Try finding a politician who uses that as part of his or her platform. This is who Jesus is; he has come to save us, from the world, from death, from our sin, from ourselves, and thank goodness, because my friends, humanity does not have such a great track record. Not even this week.
And when we talk about Jesus being the son of God, we don’t mean that he’s just really special, or that he’s the best person ever to live, or that he’s less than God. When we talk about Jesus as son of God, we mean that Jesus is God, that he is fully human and fully divine, and no I can’t explain the math to you of how that works, but thank goodness it is true, for Jesus’s humanity connects us in our humanity to God, and God’s divinity. Because of Jesus, there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. What’s more, Peter says, Jesus isn’t just the son of God; Jesus is the son of the living God, who lived then and lives still and is with us when we rejoice and with us when we cry. This is who Peter says Jesus is. This is who we say Jesus is. It is, I hope, who you say Jesus is.
And because Peter has answered correctly, Jesus gives him a reward. He says, Peter, on you, on this rock (which is what the name Peter means), on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you keys to the kingdom of Heaven, he says.
Let me stop for a moment and be very clear that if anybody here is in possession of the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, don’t think for a minute that I have any interest at all in possessing them. My God, can you imagine the pressure? That this person, that you, are the rock on which Jesus will build the church? That you hold the keys to the kingdom, not the kingdom in some far off, fluffy, metaphorical kind of way, buy the keys to the actual kingdom of God? We have the benefit of history, of course, but as I think through the state of the church now, and the problems of the last two thousand years, I am reminded of the burning of heretics at the stake, and of the crusades, and the subjugation of women, and on and on and on, up to and including the way it seems some Christian clergy have forgotten of their sacred calling to care for the least of these, God’s actual children, instead of preying upon them like a spider on flies. With the benefit of history, we can see just how much Jesus was putting on Peter, what kind of weight he was setting on Jesus’s shoulders. If this is the reward, I’m out.
It’s funny, you know, to think about, the fact that Jesus declares that he is Lord, that he’s in charge, that he’s the. guy. And then he immediately gives Peter the keys to the kingdom. It doesn’t make sense in some ways, that Jesus takes responsibility and then shares it, but that’s what he does, and he doesn’t just give Peter the keys. He says that whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever is loosed on earth will be loosed in Heaven. What this means exactly, nobody knows—it is Jesus doing the thing he does where he speaks sort of cryptically, so that the rest of us have to spend a lifetime figuring out what it means. But I think it is safe to assume that when he says that what Peter binds on earth will be bound in Heaven, that what he looses on earth will be loosed in Heaven, means that the church, built on the rock, you and me and the rest of us, what we do matters. We can’t say, oh, Jesus is Lord, isn’t that nice, let’s eat drink and be merry because death has already been defeated and nothing we do matters.
It’s why the phrase “God is in control” only tells half the story. It’s true, of course, in the sense that God is in charge, but it’s not like God is running every little detail of the world, and thank goodness, because if God is causing some of the evil things I’ve been watching on the news these last couple of weeks, I’m out. Yes, God is in control, and Jesus promises us in this morning’s scripture lesson that nothing, nothing, not even the gates of hell will prevail against the church, against us. But that doesn’t remove our responsibility. In fact, it adds to it, because if what we bind here will be bound in Heaven, if what we loose here will be loosed in Heaven, it the decisions we make and the actions we take have eternal consequences, we’ve got work to do.
We can’t just assume that God’s going to prevail and what we do doesn’t matter, because God is relying on us! You can’t separate the work of God from the work that we do, here on this corner and out in the world, because the church is the body of Christ, for Heaven’s sake: not some club, not some social organization, some weird fraternity where you are asked to give gobs of money as dues to the society, but as the body of Christ, as the people of the living God. What we do matters, and so it is the case that if we are to proclaim Jesus as Lord, which I hope we are, we also have to proclaim that we take that claim so seriously that we’re willing to, you know, live like we actually mean it. And that’s not just speaking prayers and wearing t-shirts with Bible verses on them. It’s not just putting the little-f fish on your bumper and the big-f Fish on your radio. Saying that Jesus is Lord means that we acknowledge that what we do here, what we are doing right now in this very room, the business of following Jesus is the most important thing in the entire world, more powerful than our own personal preferences, more powerful than the politicians who use the church as a pawn in their cynical game, more powerful than our preconceived notions about what church is and why we go.
It means that we must accept the high and holy responsibility God gives us to truly love one another, to spread the good news, to be God’s children who understand that the responsibility for caring for the world is not something we give up when we accept Jesus as Lord and savior, but rather a responsibility we take on as followers of the messiah, the son of the loving God.

It’s not easy, this responsibility. It can feel like a lot of pressure. But while we’ve struggled for centuries to figure out just what Jesus means about binding and loosing, while we’ll fumble forward in faith, the good news is that we can do God’s work, with God’s help, and holding on to Jesus’s promise that when we are faithful, goodness will win. Goodness will win, maybe not today, maybe not in our lifetimes. But soon enough. Soon enough. And thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, August 18, 2014

August 17 Sermon

Matthew 15:21-28
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just 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.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
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It’s been an interesting week to be a pastor, as there has been a lot going on this week that has required my attention. I don’t mean on this campus, here at North Decatur, though last week’s worship service and lunch were obviously very special. I mean that as I have done my usual social media thing this week on the internet, I keep reading clergy colleagues and religious commentators say that the sermon this week, this sermon right now, must deal with the death of Robin Williams and the developing situation in Ferguson, Missouri, or risk being totally irrelevant. The idea is that a sermon should connect the Bible with what is happening in the world, like the theologian Karl Barth said, that the preacher should have a Bible in one hand a newspaper in the other. If you’ve been here for a while you know that it is my style to address things that are happening in the world, but I must say that I have been struggling with how to talk about these two seeming separate but vitally important issues: speaking a message of hope in the face of the suicide, and speaking a message of justice in the face of the shooting death of an unarmed teenager. Add to this that we’re talking about healing this week, which is a really touchy subject when both Robin Williams and Michael Brown have both died, when there’s nothing we can do, no prayer we can pray, that will bring them back.
So I did what I do when I don’t know what to say, I went to the Bible, which is as good as place a start as any, especially, you know, for a sermon, but I have to tell you that sometimes it is the case that the deeper I go into the Bible, the more disturbed I find myself. It was especially that way for me this week as I studied and meditated upon the Gospel story for this morning, the story of the Caananite woman.
Not only does Jesus put off the mother of a poor tormented young woman when she comes to him for healing, his response sounds almost racist when you bring it forth into today’s world. The Caananite woman kneels in front of him, begging, and Jesus’s response is, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, you’re wasting my time and keeping me from other people who need me. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds, when you look into the language of the day, the idioms and what have you, but still, it leaves me disturbed to think that not only did Jesus compare this poor woman to a dog, but he very nearly refused to heal her at all.
It all makes me wonder what we’d do if she showed up here, the Caananite woman from the district of Tyre and Sidon whose daughter clearly had mental health issues, if she showed up at North Decatur United Methodist Church, in the shadow of Dekalb Medical Hospital, down the street from the great Emory University, around the corner from a number of mental health agencies on Winn Way and a slew of long-term care facilities. As I try to understand Jesus’s response, I have to wonder, what would we do? What would you do?
This is not such a foreign situation to us, as we sometimes have folks come in struggling with some mental health issue or another, so I figure you’d do what we always do. Sit with her, offer her some water, maybe some food if she were hungry, ask her some questions about who she is and where she’s come from, and if it were clear that she had significant untreated mental illness, we’d find a way to get her to the hospital, because in our modern world, that is what you do with people who need healing. You take them to the hospital.
But none of this was available to the Caananite woman and her family. None of these options existed. There were no trained nurses and doctors. There were no hospitals. All there was, was Jesus. So Jesus is where she went, to request healing, and so as I try to understand Jesus’s response, I have to remember that the circumstances were awfully different, that Jesus had people begging him all day long to help, because there was nobody to care for them, no antibiotics, no mental health care, no state-of-the-art isolation unit at Emory University. I don’t mean to entirely write off the comment about the dogs; I am just saying, there’s much healing to be done that when this person blocks Jesus’s path I understand Jesus’s frustration. And then she says, even the dogs get the crumbs from the table, and at this, Jesus takes pity on her. He tells her to get up, for she has had sufficient faith to make her daughter well.
And all’s well that ends well, I guess, but it is a problem for us, in 2014, this idea that if you just have faith, whatever demons you find yourself wrestling with will just go away. It doesn’t work that way. It is particularly troublesome when you find yourself feeling like you’ve fallen down the well of depression with no way out, because when you combine a message that says just having faith will make you well with an end result that you are not being healed, well, the only logical explanation to that equation is that you haven’t had enough faith. For those of us struggling already, that kind of idea can be enough to do you in.
I was in a meeting here at the church when Stacey texted me Monday night to share the news that Robin Williams had committed suicide, and I remember coming home and opening Facebook and feeling like it seemed that everyone I knew had lost a member of their own family. If you looked at Facebook on Monday night, you probably had a similar experience. None of my friends actually knew him, and yet people just ached after the news broke, especially because it seems like such a waste, suicide. It robs us of people we love and leaves us without a proper explanation. I’ve not been immune to this in my own life, with my own loved ones, and so I felt like many of you did, that the death of Robin Williams ripped the bandage off a wound deep within our hearts that was just starting to heal.
And so when we talk about issues of health in the Bible, especially about mental health, it is so important to recognize the differences in the times we live. The healing that Jesus does happens in a world without doctors and nurses, at least reputable ones with any training worth speaking of. We can get stuck in a mindset that says, just pray about it more and it will be ok, but that’s not where we are today, thank goodness. We have whole industries connected to health care, to mental health. If you are struggling with depression, first, know that you are not alone, even in this room. And know that while I hope you will pray, the kind of healing that Jesus provides does not preclude you from seeing a doctor. Jesus expects it, I think, that you will get medical help, or else God wouldn’t have given us doctors in the first place. Some of the most devout believers throughout the centuries have struggled the most with the demon of depression, so don’t think you have to do it alone, or that somehow your struggles are between you and God. If you need help, get it. If you need my help, tell me, and we’ll walk this particular road together.
So when I talk about the healing that comes from Jesus, I want to be clear that I’m not saying that we should ignore the need for doctors and nurses. But the question I sometimes wonder is this: given that we have doctors and nurses and MRI machines and chemotherapy, what is the purpose of the healing that comes from Jesus anyhow? It is a modern question, and an important one. If we don’t need Jesus to heal our illness, why bother coming to church at all?
The answer, I think, is in the insult itself, the idea that this woman is no better than a dog, because it’s not like Jesus turned the phrase himself. He was recognizing that this is how the readers of the Gospel of Matthew would have seen her, how society worked back then. She was a gentile, and in the prevailing Jewish culture of the day, she was unclean. She was to be regarded with suspicion, even without opening her mouth. Even worse, she was a woman, and in the first Century, when all of this happened, she was seen as less than a man. And at first, even Jesus seemed to accept this arrangement, as if yes, we’ll put up with the Gentiles as long as they stay in line, as long as they don’t cause too much trouble, as long as they accept their status as equal to the dogs that sleep in the shadows during the day and howl in the streets at night.
The answer is in the insult, because the healing that Jesus offers may manifest itself in physical healing, but there’s not a doctor in Atlanta, not a medicine in all the world that can cure that kind of illness, the disease of prejudice, of broken relationship, of the kind of systemic cultural practice that keeps one group subjugated, that makes the Caananite woman utter what I think to be the saddest words in all of scripture: “yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Her words are so dry, so beaten down, that they carry within them the assumption that it isn’t even worth arguing with Jesus over whether she’s any better than a dog. It’s more effective not to question the assumptions that come with her status, and argue from there.
I’ve been thinking of the Caananite woman this week as I’ve been following the developments in Ferguson. Don’t let the media fool you; the situation isn’t perfectly cut and dry, and the vast majority of police are public servants of great integrity, but we have a problem in this country, and it’s not as simple as it’s been portrayed. I’ve been thinking of the Caananite woman and the assumptions that were made about her, because there’s been no rash of looting. It’s happened, but it’s rare, and by Friday night, the number of protestors protecting local stores and shops in Ferguson, Missouri, vastly outnumbered the opportunistic criminals who wanted to turn their anger into a quick buck. I’ve been thinking of the Caananite woman, because the assumptions she lived with look an awful lot like the assumptions young black men carry with them. I feel a little unqualified to talk about this, as I carry with me what the educator Peggy McIntosh calls the invisible knapsack of white privilege, but I’ve done a lot of reading this week, especially from writers who are black, especially from writers who are black males, who talk about the things they must teach their sons in order to avoid being shot. The thing that grabbed me by the heart this week was the story of a man teaching his son what to do when he got unfairly interrogated by police. Not if he got unfairly interrogated, but when. And I thought of the Caananite woman this week when I came across a piece in the satirical newspaper, The Onion, entitled, “Tips for Being an Unarmed Black Teen.”
  • Avoid swaggering or any other confident behavior that suggests you are not completely subjugated.
  • Be sure not to pick up any object that could be perceived by a police officer as a firearm, such as a cell phone, a food item, or nothing.
  • Avoid wearing clothing associated with the gang lifestyle, such as shirts and pants.
  • Explain in clear and logical terms that you do not enjoy being shot, and would prefer that it not happen.
I don’t mean to rag on the police. They have incredibly difficult jobs, and there are more heroes among that bunch than I know how to count. But then, the problem isn’t the police. It’s us, it is the way in which we carry within us the assumption that there are different levels of people, that whether it’s race or wealth or sexual orientation or nationality or morality or the difference between a clean Jewish carpenter and an unclean Caananite woman who is so beneath the prevailing culture that she can’t even keep her own daughter in line, we assume that whoever gets it deserved what they got. I’ll tell you the difference between the kind of healing you’ll get next door at Dekalb Medical and the kind of healing Jesus offers. You can find a good doctor who can set your bone or help you deal with depression, but good luck finding anybody in the whole hospital who can help heal the rest of us from the kind of thinking that says that any unarmed person deserves to be shot, no matter the color of his skin, no matter what he may have stolen, no matter what he said.
And good luck finding a doctor who can restore the social status of such a woman as this, a woman who is seen as nothing more than a dog, until the Son of God looks deep into her eyes, like the pastor does on God’s behalf, every time a person is baptized, like the pastor did when you were baptized, called your name, recognized you rightful place as a child of God, and echoed those grand words of scripture, “this is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
Friends, it is one of the great temptations of modern life to say, oh, that’s so far away, it’s not my problem, let them fight it out. But what a pity, to feel so separated from others that we feel as if we have no role to play, when it is the case that we are all God’s children.
I don’t know what God is calling you to do, how God is calling you to participate in the work of love, but I guarantee God is not calling you to just give thanks that what is happening is only happening to those people, because in God’s world, there are no more “those people,” for each of us is a child of God. There is no more clean and unclean, but only those of us in need of healing, which is all of us, together.
The Caananite woman came to receive healing for her daughter. But like us, the woman was herself in need of healing, and but for a chance meeting with the savior, she might’ve lived her whole life long thinking she was only good enough to eat the crumbs that fell from the table, and here Jesus comes along and offers her a chair.

Look. I’ve gone on long enough without giving a good answer about the difference between physical healing and divine healing, so let me end by admitting that I don’t have a good answer. The work of God is a mystery. I can’t draw you a diagram of when you need a doctor and when you need Jesus, except to say that the answer is “sometimes” and “always,” respectively. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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