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.
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.
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.

Monday, August 11, 2014

August 10 Sermon

Matthew 14:22-33  
22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Well, school starts back tomorrow for Dekalb County, and about this time every year, it seems, as I take note of the school calendar, I have to suppress a panic attack. I don’t know why that fear of a new school year is still in me. I got my Master’s degree in 2008, over six years ago, now, so there have been six first days of school since I’ve actually had to go. Our daughter Emmaline is just a year and a half old, and her day care is year-round, but for whatever reason, about the time school starts, I start to feel the anxiety start in my toes and climb up my legs until I’m just about in full freak-out mode.
And I have been reflecting on this strange feeling as I’ve been meditating on the story of Jesus walking on water, of the disciples crying out in fear, of Peter becoming frightened and sinking. And I am starting to realize that fear is universal, that it exists now like it did back in Jesus’s day, and that this is a particularly important dynamic for me to talk about because it is the case that I am scared of everything.
Are there any scaredy cats in the room? I’m not saying I never take risks, that I live in a padded room and only drink clear broth or whatever. I’m just saying that I have come to the realization that I am driven by fear. And it is no wonder. Fear drives the world. It’s one of the most powerful forces the world has, fear. It drives our politics, it drives our economy; fear drives the world.
It is no surprise that fear is so strong. It is part of our biology. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, it was good to be scared all the time, you know, that the lion that lived outside your cave would maul you to death. But now, well, let’s just say that society has evolved a lot faster than our biology has, and the politicians know it. It’s a lot easier to get votes by making us scared of the other candidate than it is to talk about your own virtues, particularly when the list of your own virtues isn’t all that long. It’s not much of a leap from that kind of fear to the kind that can rule your life, that can leave you unable to move, that makes you want to pull the covers over your head and try again tomorrow.
And so it is that I find myself scared a lot. Maybe that surprises you, since it isn’t the case that I keep my mouth shut very well, since I sometimes kick up hornet’s nests. But that doesn’t mean I don’t totally stress out before I open my mouth, before I take on a problem. It doesn’t mean I get a great night’s sleep the night before, as I worry about every possible outcome, as I fear what people will think of me, or what this will mean for the church, that sort of thing.
Fear is so powerful that six years later, even when I’m not in school anymore, all it takes is remembering how scary it was to go to school each year to nearly give me hives. I think it is one of God’s greatest practical jokes that I was called into ministry, considering the fact that I am totally and completely painfully shy. So each year, as I geared up for school, I’d try to sort of walk through the first day in my head, where I would sit, who I would talk to, that sort of thing, because I’m really that shy. There were few scarier things than being thrust, once again, into the concrete jungle of the schoolhouse, and as I think about the biology of the whole deal, it makes sense that fear drove me since I don’t know of many places that survival of the fittest applies more than a middle school classroom.
So it does my heart good to know that I’m not the first person to feel the weight of fear, and even if I started every school year scared, at least I wasn’t like Peter, making a fool of myself in front of Jesus. In the story we heard this morning, Jesus went away to pray and sent his disciples out in a boat. It was very early in the morning, some time between 3-6am, that Jesus came down from the mountain, only to discover that a storm had pushed the disciple’s boat far into the lake, tossing them about and making it hard for them to stay afloat.
Now, you’d think that Jesus would see this situation, say, you know I sent them out on the boat, this is getting dangerous, and I’m Jesus after all, so let me just calm the storm. And yet that is not what happened. Instead, he walked out to the boat on top of the water like some ghoulish apparition, so you can understand why the disciples are so scared, why they assume he is a ghost. It isn’t every day that somebody walks on water, so I’d probably think the same thing. In fact, it was ancient legend that evil lived in the depths of the water, so as strange as it sounds, a ghost was the most likely explanation.
But it wasn’t a ghost, of course, it was Jesus, and he walks calmly over to them and says, “Take heart, It’s just me, don’t be afraid,” not that he did anything about the storm. So when Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” maybe it was less about Peter wanting to walk on the water and more about him wanting to get out of that rattrap of a boat.
And so Peter gets out, but the storms don’t stop. I mean Jesus is there, and you’d think that by this point he would have calmed the waters, but the storm didn’t stop, and Peter got scared, which is something I cannot blame him for, and he starts to sink. Now, the Bible doesn’t say that when Peter started to sink, Jesus reached out and let him keep walking on water. The Bible says that Jesus caught him. There’s a subtle difference there, because, friends, the things that cause us fear do not go away.
I want to stop for a minute and acknowledge that in the church throughout the centuries, we’ve sometimes done a bad job of talking about what happens when you become a Christian, when you decide to follow Jesus. We make it seem like if you’ll just come to church and throw a little money in the offering plate and pray a little bit, everything will end up being all cupcakes and unicorns. And sure, it feels really special when you find a faith community like this one that is so open, so kind, so warm and inviting and so intent on helping others on the way. But after a while, the newness rubs off, the business of following Jesus loses some of its luster, and it all just becomes so normal. This kind of thing especially happens when we encounter fear. I don’t know about you, but there are few things that can make me feel worse about my faith than being afraid, because I know the bits in the Bible about Jesus saying “do not fear.” I know that he looks at the disciples and says “take heart, it’s just me, do not be afraid.” And so when I get to the part in this story when Peter starts to get frightened at the weather and starts to sink, the words that Jesus speaks—“you of little faith, why did you doubt?”—well, they feel like a punch in the gut. If I’d been out on the water I’d have been scared, too. To be honest—and you won’t hear me say this very often—I kind of disagree with Jesus here. Peter was right to be scared.
But of course, Jesus knew that. Jesus knew Peter was scared, and if he’d just wanted him not to be scared, he would’ve stopped the storm. But that’s not what he did, because that’s not how life works. As much as I wish that I could sell the Christian life by saying that for the low, low price of your devotion to Jesus Christ, you’ll never be afraid again, it is the case that the things that cause us to be afraid do not go away. Fear does not go away. Jesus does not always stop the storm.
You know, we have some people joining the church each of the next few weeks. I hope that if you aren’t already a member here at North Decatur, you’ll think about joining them. But I can’t make you any promises about bad things going away just because you join the church. In fact, when I accept people into the church, I sometimes paraphrase the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber who tells every person who joins the church the same thing: the one guarantee I can give you as your pastor is that I am going to disappoint you. The church is going to disappoint you, too. And when that happens, you have a choice. You can move on to greener pastures, find somebody who disappoints you less, a better church, a better pastor. But if you do that, you’ll miss out on unbelievable moments of grace that come from persevering through the storm, for while it is the case that Jesus doesn’t always stop the storm, it is always the case that when we venture out of the boat, Jesus catches us. Rather than letting the boat drift off into the middle of the lake, Jesus comes to us, God comes to us, reassuring us, reminding us that there is no place we can go that God is not, that there is nothing we can do to make God love us any less. And when we find ourselves fearful, Jesus catches us, holds onto us, does not let go. The agents of fear are strong, but love is stronger, God is stronger, for God is love. Do not fear does not mean we’ll never fear. It means that when we do, God is with us. We don’t face fear alone, for God is with us always, and fear is no match for love.
So, students, as you gear up to start a new school year, rest assured that while it can be scary to go back to school, everybody, I mean everybody, is just as scared as you are. You aren’t the only one. And as you get settled, and get into your new routine, as you find yourself covered up with homework, if you find yourself picked on, remember that Jesus is stronger than your fear. Yes, life can be scary. But Jesus promises us that there’s nothing we can do to make God so mad at us as to leave us alone. So don’t be afraid. The things that scare us are no match for God, and the church is here for you, praying for you, looking forward to hearing the stories of the great things you will be up to this year.
Parents, as you drop your kids off this year, do not fear. I know, I can barely drop my kid of at daycare some days without crying, but remember that you are not leaving your kids alone, but trusting them to the care of their schools and their God. It will take work, your initiative, your presence in their lives, your help with their homework, but if you will direct them, they will not drift into the middle of the lake. The mystic and poet Kahlil Gibran reminds us that “you are the bow which your children as loving arrows are sent forth. The archer”—this is God—“sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with his might, that his arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness, for even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”
And teachers, you sculptors of learning, you modern-day superheroes, do not fear. Yes it is the case that the world so often expect you to create something out of nothing, but know that it is worth it. On days when it seems like too much, God will not leave you adrift. Not everyone is equipped to accept the calling you’ve accepted, and yet it is among the most important calling from God there is, for there is nothing, nothing so important as sharing the love of God with others. It is the most important thing, and particularly the teaching of children, for Jesus says that children are first in the kingdom of God.

It is not easy, resisting fear. Some days it seems like a fool’s errand. But let us never forget that while fear is nearly the most powerful force in the whole world, it is only nearly so, and thanks be to God for that.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

August 3 Sermon

Matthew 14:13-21
13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
It may surprise you to learn that in this story, Jesus does not just feed 5,000 people. We call this story the feeding of the 5,000, but it is actually much more than that, because in the Bible’s typical patriarchal worldview, Matthew tells us that Jesus fed 5,000 men PLUS women and children, so I’d have to think that a number like 10,000 is more like it.
I have to tell you: I read this story, and miracle stories like it, and I struggle a little bit. I’m a pretty practical person. I have trouble with the miraculous, with those things that defy rational explanation. I am a person, I hope, of deep faith, but that doesn’t mean I accept everything that is thrown at me at face value. And, to be clear, I consider my particular way of being a good thing—we can’t accept everything that is thrown our way. There are enough suckers in the world as it is.
We need reason, we need to reasonably engage the stories Jesus tells, that we read in the Bible, and it’s not sinful to admit that. It is important, I think, to acknowledge that we are supposed to use our brains: that God would have made them removable if there were no expectation of our bringing them to church. It is one of the reasons that in the United Methodist Church, we talk about engaging truth through what we call the Wesleyan quadrilateral: through scripture, through tradition, through experience, and through reason. It is the case that scripture is primary, the main way we understand truth, but I hope you didn’t check your brain at the door. If you did, you might need to go pick it up before somebody runs off with it.
So that’s all to say, I struggle with the miracle stories, because I don’t regularly happen upon miracles in my everyday life. Oh, I’ve seen them. I have seen people healed who didn’t seem to have a chance, I’ve seen God at work in churches, I look around this place, to be honest, and feel the excitement and the passion for God and it’s nothing short of miraculous. It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles; I just have been around the block enough times to know that this kind of thinking can be dangerous, because it is all well and good when the healing happens, but when it doesn’t, well, where was God? And I’ve had times, in my own life, just like you have, when I desperately wanted a miracle, when I needed one, and yet .. . nothing. You understand why I struggle.
I don’t think I am alone in this struggle. I mean, just look at the feeding of the 5,000 that were actually 10,000. This story just seems so foreign. Jesus is out on a boat, alone, and he comes back to shore and greets a great crowd who have gathered to hear him teach, and they stay all day listening to him. And as the sun starts to set, the Disciples start to get hungry and they realize that everybody else has got to be hungry too, and so they go to Jesus and say, look, this has been a good day, but it’s over, so send everybody home so we, I mean, they, can eat.
And Jesus looks at them and says, all right, so they’re hungry. You go get them something to eat.
Let me pause right here and just acknowledge that this is certainly not what they wanted to hear, and who could blame them? The disciples had their own problems, their own issues, and besides, they’d been out all day in the hot sun helping Jesus with the business of finding those people who needed to be healed and bringing them forward, with making disciples and answering questions about Jesus. They were tired, and so when Jesus said You go get them something to eat, I can imagine more than one of them rolled their eyes.
And you know, I think I would have done the same thing. I think about the number of times in my life when I have prayed, Come, Lord Jesus, when I have said, you know God, please take care of this for me, please bless this poor person I see on TV or that I am passing on the side of the road, only to have God say to me, in one manner or another, You go get them something to eat. You do what you can to help that person. You get moving, and then we’ll talk.
I will be honest. I don’t like this kind of response one bit. When I go to God for help, I expect help. I don’t expect God to turn it around on me and say something like, “all right? You want to help this person? You go get them something to eat.” I’d much rather let God work a miracle and then stand back and ooh and ahh with the crowds, rather than actually having skin in the game, rather than actually doing something myself. I’d rather leave it up to God.
But this is not what Jesus does in what many consider to be the greatest miracle story in the Gospels, shy of the Resurrection itself. The disciples say, Jesus, these people are hungry, and Jesus says, fine, YOU find them something to eat.
In college, my roommate and I would wait to search the couch cushions until we had a serious craving for fast food, and then we’d ransack the place looking for enough money for a burger. And I kind of imagine this is what the Disciples did, went scrounging for anything they could find, and all they could come up with was five loaves of bread and two fish, not nearly enough. And to their credit, despite it being a joke, the idea of feeding all of those people with that small amount of food, the disciples took it to Jesus and said, here is what we have.
And I had been Jesus, I would probably start laughing or something, you know, this paltry five loaves of bread and two fish, because it’s not nearly enough to feed 10,000 people. Even if we’re talking party subs from Subway, that’s one loaf for every two thousand people. I think I did that math right. It’s just not enough.
Thankfully it wasn’t me—it was Jesus—and he very graciously says to them, bring me what you’ve come up with, your offering. And Jesus broke the bread, blessed it, gave it to his disciples and said take these to the crowds so that they may be full.
And just like the act of Communion, in which the Holy Spirit enters the bread and the wine, is a holy mystery beyond our understanding, we don’t know the logistics of how is happened that five loaves and two fish somehow multiplied so that 10,000 people were fed. We don’t know the precise moment, or what it looked like, but then, miracles defy that sort of explanation anyhow. By the time the people had eaten their fill, there were twelve baskets leftover. It doesn’t add up, and yet it’s there in the black and white, and so here we are two thousand years later trying to figure out what it all means.
I can’t explain it. I doubt you can explain it. And yet there it is in my Bible, in black and white, so it’s not like we can ignore it. We can’t say, oh, it’s too difficult, let’s skip past the miracle stuff and move on to the business of loving your neighbor, as if that is any easier.
It’s there, so we have to deal with it, and I will tell you, I may not have seen a miracle like this, but in the face of what seem like insurmountable circumstances—on a scale far larger than 10,000 people who haven’t eaten all day—I’ve seen some pretty incredible things.
I look at Emory University and take stock of the gaggle of news trucks surrounding the hospital, now that Emory has accepted two patients with Ebola, and I am reminded of the great lengths Christian people will go to in order to care for the sick. And as I have been following this story, I want you to know that I made a big mistake this week. It was a rookie mistake, and I should have known better, but I got on Facebook and read some of the comments. Now, it takes a lot to render me speechless, but I am absolutely amazed at the hatred, the fear. Here are just a few of the comments:
I hope the guy gets well but I think the CDC and our government are both full of idiots for bringing that virus over here.” “I guess the government wants this to break out over here to lower the population a little.” “Just great, we are importing death. First kids from South America and now Ebola.”
And in the face of that kind of thing, Emory does what hospitals do: they care for the sick. Now, those of us in the church should know that in Matthew 25, when Jesus gives us the answers to what will be on the final exam, he says that when we get to Heaven, we’ll be asked if we gave water to the thirsty, food for the hungry, clothes for the naked, whether we cared for the sick. Jesus will not ask, “did you care for the sick, unless they had a communicable disease?” Jesus will ask, “did you care for the sick?” For when we care for the sick, the Bible tells us, it is as if we care caring for Jesus himself. There is no escape clause. There is no way out. This is who we are called to be as children of God.
And yes, fear is strong, but the message of the Bible is clear: do not fear! Do not be anxious! Fear is powerful, but it is the devil’s greatest tool. It keeps us from one another, from doing God’s work, from stepping out in faith, from being faithful to the call to love all people, no matter what. And besides, the Resurrection has already happened. Death has already been defeated. Fear has already been overcome. To give into the agents of fear is to say that the Resurrection is not strong enough, that we don’t trust in Christ. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that fear isn’t powerful, or that true Christians never feel the pull of doubt. But what I am saying is that if you give into fear, you are missing out on the great riches of the Christian life. This is who we are. You want a miracle? You go get them something to eat. And if it’s just five loaves and two fish, fine. God will do the rest.
In the midst of all of this craziness, did you see the story about these two patients and the experimental serum? One of the patients is a doctor, Kent Brantly, and the other is a missionary, Nancy Writebol. And before he was transported to Emory, Dr. Brantley was offered a promising, experimental ebola serum but he passed it up so that Ms. Writebol could have it. Can you imagine, fighting for your life, having this promising treatment coming to you and turning it down? As one of my clergy colleagues said of this story, it is true that perfect love casts out fear. And the Writebol family said this: “Dr. Brantly has demonstrated once again how Jesus sacrificed for us.”
I may not see a lot of miracles. I may not see bread magically multiplied in front of my face such that five loaves and two fish feed ten thousand people with 12 baskets full leftover, but I have seen what happens when people really look at Jesus and take him seriously when he says, “You go get them something to eat.” And what they come up with be woefully inadequate, but, as Mother Teresa, another facilitator of miracles has said, small things done with great love can change the world. You come up with what you can, and God can use it. God can use it.
I will end with this. We’re gearing up to do something pretty remarkable at North Decatur United Methodist Church. Jesus used the meager resources of the Disciples to feed 10,000 people. Here at North Decatur, we’re going to do the exact same thing. You heard me say during the children’s sermon that we’re aiming to feed 10,000 kids on September 14. These meals cost money, but the good news is that for only a quarter, you can feed a child for a day. Ten dollars feeds forty kids. A hundred feeds four hundred kids. We’re already a good ways down the line, but we need more, for if you want to be a miracle worker, Jesus tells us, you go get them something to eat. Give of yourself. Search the couch cushions. Do what you can. God will do the rest.

Here is the good news. God is already at work. Let us join him. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.