Monday, September 15, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Readings for 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/21/14:
Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

Exodus 16:2-15:
  • "rain bread from heaven for you" I'm mindful of the famine in Africa. If we can't take care of each other by feeding our neighbors, perhaps God could rain down some more manna. Sadly, we seem to need that help.
  • the people must learn to depend on God day by day, trusting for each moment in God's guidance. They aren't great at it, but they learn that God can be trusted, their faith put in God. Could you live in such a day-to-day way? We like to have our plans all laid out.
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45:
  • Here we go - this Psalm showing up for the 4th time this summer. Of course, parts of this Psalm have been following along with our Exodus story. But still...
  • Verses 1-5 are right on target for me: Remember to praise God all the time, because God has done some pretty amazing things for you. It is amazing how easily we forget God's role in all that we claim as our own goodness.
  • I do like verses 39-45: the people ask, God responds. God tries to meet every need.
  • 45b makes a nice end, while skipping many verses: "praise God!"
Philippians 1:21-30:
  • the dilemma - living in the world or retreating to a spiritual place where we are 'safe' - this isn't exactly Paul's dilemma - he's talking more literal life and death. but we can related to his dilemma maybe, by thinking of the "in the world" or "of the world" tug of war.
  • "live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" - yes. The hard thing about sharing the gospel is when the sharers aren't living the things they're sharing! We try, we are imperfect. But we need to try!
Matthew 20:1-16:
  • this is one of the hardest parables for us, I think. It goes against everything about our values - American work ethic and all. You work hard, you get rewarded proportionally. The idea that someone else could do less than us and get the same pay is totally frustrating, isn't it?
  • Fair. This isn't fair, is it? Fairness is something we prize, but not mentioned as something Jesus exactly values!  
  • This is the side of grace we don't like to hear about, I think. We struggle with whether or not we can accept grace for ourselves, but when it comes to who else gets God's grace, and how they get it, it becomes a lot trickier, and we wish there were more rules about it...

Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Out of Egypt: Surrounded, " Exodus 14:19-31

Sermon 9/14/14
Exodus 14:19-31

Out of Egypt: Surrounded

            Last week, we learned about the first Passover, as God instructed the Israelites how to prepare to leave Egypt, and not only that, instructed them in how to prepare to remember, every year, how God had rescued them. Today, in our text, we skip ahead a little bit, and find the Israelites preparing to cross the Red Sea, with the Egyptians chasing after them. The threat of being caught is imminent, and the Israelites are in a panic. As I mentioned last week, God knew the Israelites would need to be reminded of why they were leaving Egypt, and indeed, already, just before our text begins, they are complaining bitterly to Moses. They say, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses responds, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
            And then, they cross the Red Sea, Moses’s arms outstretched in a gesture of parting the waters, a path made clear for the people. It seems to take them all night to cross – this isn’t just a group of twenty or thirty fleeing Egypt, but a whole nation of people. But when the Egyptians pursue, Moses stretches out his arms again and the waters come crashing back together, and the Egyptian army is tossed into the sea. The Israelites are saved. Now, this text brings up many questions. How could Moses perform such a miracle? Did he really part the waters? Can we find some scientific phenomenon to explain what happened? And what about all those Egyptians? Was it fair for them to all be killed? Weren’t some of them just doing their job – part of an army? I’m a great fan of asking a lot of questions of the biblical texts we read. Seriously. There’s no question you can put to the Bible, no question you can ask God that is crossing some kind of line. God is strong enough to hear your questions. But sometimes, if what we’re doing is seeking understanding, it’s helpful if we know what are the best questions to ask, and which questions are distractions to figuring out how the text is important to us as people of faith.
Some people have speculated when talking about the crossing of the Red Sea that the Israelites happened to cross the Red Sea at a spot where, if the winds were right, dry ground would be exposed for a time, because the waters were shallow. You can see from the map that most think the Israelites crossed the sea in this narrow section up here. These folks speculate that miraculously favorable winds allowed the Israelites to pass by, and that the winds changed when the Egyptians followed them, causing the waters to rush back together and drown the Egyptians. In this way, a sort of quasi-scientific explanation for the crossing of the Red Sea is offered. Others, however, read this text and simply see a miracle. Moses raised his arms, and with the power of God, literally moved the water into columns so that dry land was created. Which point of view is right? Or is there another explanation? To this issue, I would respond that it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t the point of the text. It’s an interesting conversation. But figuring out an “answer,” if we ever could, to that question, isn’t really going to help us learn anything useful about this passage. It might sound strange to say, but actually, I don’t believe it matters how the Israelites made it safely across the Red Sea. It only matters that they did, and it matters why they were able to make it across. However it happened, they crossed the Red Sea because of God’s intervention, because of God’s presence with them. That’s the important part.
            That other nagging question – what about all those Egyptians? Did God just kill a whole army of people? Those are the kinds of questions that follow us throughout the Old Testament, as I mentioned last week. And they’re important to ask, especially because we have a habit, even today, of claiming that God is on “our side” and not “their side” whenever we face a conflict – personally, in our communities, in our denomination, across the globe. Whose side is God on? In our Bible Study, we’ve been trying to remind ourselves to ask about points of view. Whose point of view is being shared in the biblical text? Even in a book meant to record history, the author has a point of view. If you read an account of the Revolutionary War written by an American, and then one written by a British person, I bet they’d sound quite different, even though they described the same event. The text we read today is written from the perspective of an Israelite, someone who saw God at work in their successful escape from Egypt. How does that point of view shape the story? We can’t know, of course, but we can wonder. I can tell you though, that throughout the scriptures, across the works of so many different authors of the books we read, when it comes to whose side God is on, there is a great deal of agreement. God always seems to be on the side of the most vulnerable. God is on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted, the abandoned, the pushed-to-the-sides. This is their story. We don’t stop asking hard questions. But if we want to know what this text means, we can’t forget to ask and focus on questions like these:  Can God save the Israelites? Will God keep God’s promises to them? Is God strong enough to protect them from the threat of the Pharaoh and the Egyptians? I think answering these questions in a resounding affirmative – yes, yes, yes! – is why the author shares this story in just this way. Yes, God will save the Israelites. Yes, God will keep the promises made to them. Yes, God is strong enough, even to conquer those who had made them slaves. Let’s look at the text more closely.
I was struck reading our passage by all the directional language in the text – the mentioning of where exactly things were. The author here takes great pains to paint us a picture of this dramatic event. Listen: “The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them.” “The pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel” “The Israelites when into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” And again, “But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” The picture created for us is one of the Israelites being surrounded, before and behind, left and right. But instead of being surrounded by the Egyptians, as one might have expected given that men, women, and children, young and old are being pursued by an army equipped with chariots and able-bodied soldiers, what surrounds the Israelites is God’s presence – present in pillar of cloud and fire, present in an angel of God guiding them, presence in the absence of water in their path, that instead has formed into safe walls on their sides.
As I was trying to picture this – a path being cleared, and yet protectively surrounded on all sides, I thought of seeing the President of the United States or some other important world leader. When someone that important walks through a room, a path is completely cleared for them. Yet, at the same time, they are entirely protected, and so, whether you can spot them all or not, the president would be completely surrounded by secret service agents. The president’s path is completely cleared and the president is completely surrounded by people ready to give their lives to keep him safe. It’s in this way that God leads the Israelites through the Red Sea – both clearing a path for them, and surrounding them on all sides. What do we learn from that?  
A few weeks ago we talked about stumbling blocks – traps laid by an enemy to ensnare us, things that prevent us from following God. As I read this text, and think about God saving the Israelites, and God clearing this path through the sea, I think we learn that there is nothing, no obstacle, no stumbling block, no snare that can prevent God from rescuing those who need it. God creates a path to us in order to get to us. And God creates paths for us, clears the way so that we can leave behind those things to which we’ve been slaves. Last week I encouraged you to think about what it was you needed to leave behind in Egypt. This week, I encourage you to look for the ways God creates paths for you to leave. Sometimes we overlook the opportunities, the openings that God creates for us. Like the Israelites, we’re convinced for some reason that it was better back in that place of slavery. Don’t miss the path that God is clearing for you. Clearing to get to you. Clearing so  you can leave Egypt behind.
And then, don’t forget that God surrounds you. If you think of that image of secret service agents again, think of how these men and women are willing to give their lives, willing to literally throw themselves in harm’s way to protect the president. Surely, they do this out of duty, and love of country, among other things. But most of the time, what might motivate an everyday person like you or me to do such a thing? Of course, only love! Remember when we talked about our desire to keep our children safe from all harm? Why do we seek their safety? Love, of course! We act to surround and protect when what we are protecting is important beyond all measure. The president gets an entourage because he’s the most important person, by many measures, in our society. We protect our loved ones because they are the most important things in our lives.
So what does this story of the Red Sea tell us about God and God’s people? Well – these people – these people who have been slaves, oppressed, mistreated – these people are important beyond measure to God. And why? We can find no explanation for their importance other than that God loves them. And so I read this text as God proving God’s self, God’s promises, God’s good intention, God’s love and faithfulness, proving it all to the people. What a strange thing – that God would want to prove God’s self to us! And yet, that’s what I find in this passage. The people doubt God’s intentions, suspect God means them harm, or at least, can’t really bring them to safety after all. And God shows them, proves to them, by clearing a path, and surrounding them on every side. This is nothing less than a demonstration of total commitment, love, and faithfulness, that God gives to us.
And so if the living God, who created us and everything that is, will clear a path for us, and surround us on the journey, what can prevent us from leaving Egypt behind? Not a thing. Not a thing. I want to leave you with the word of a section of the prayer of Saint Patrick, as you meditate on this gift from God: God who clears your way, God who surrounds you on every side, God who loves you beyond measure.   
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.


Monday, September 08, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Readings for 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/14/14:
Exodus 14:19-31, Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Exodus 14:19-31:
  • OK, I'll admit, I feel for all the Egyptians here who were just doing there job. At the camp I've attended growing up and as an adult, one of the favorite songs is "Pharaoh, Pharaoh," which includes the line "and all of Pharaoh's army did the dead-man float."  I just can't get into the spirit of it...
  • Also, I'm afraid this passage also now brings to mind images of Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, parting his bowl of tomato soup.
  • Well, I guess what that says is that this "parting of the Red Sea" is perhaps the 'classic' example we think of when we're talking about God's power. God's ability to protect God's people in God's plan at all costs? Hm. Still can't warm up to it!
Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21:
  • This passage takes the typical place of the Psalm in the lectionary, as here we get the brother-sister act of Moses and Miriam giving thanks for successfully escaping the Egyptians.
  • "at the blast of your nostrils" - ew. I don't mind some anthropomorphic descriptions of God, but God's nostril blast?
  • I understand Moses' and Miriam's relief at their safety. But I can't cheer with them at these delighted images of God killing their enemies.
  • "the prophet Miriam" - take note of strong if under-written women in the Bible. A woman. A prophet.
Romans 14:1-12:
  • "Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions." Great advice for churchy types, no? Sometimes I think we like arguing with each other in the church and in politics more than we care about what we are arguing about.
  • Before you get excited and think this is a passage about vegetarianism being for the weak (vegetarians rock), put it in context. Paul is talking about the then-current practice of Romans who would eat meat that had been sacrificed in worship of the gods. Some Christians took part in eating the meat afterwards, but others thought it was wrong to eat meat used in other religious rites.
  • Paul says somewhat "to each their own" but that whatever our own way is, our purpose, and our reasoning, ought still to be in giving praise to God. And Paul reminds us that we've got enough to worry about thinking about our own decisions without worrying about our neighbors' choices.
  • "Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's." Comforting words - no matter what happens, we belong to God. Check out hymn 356 in The United Methodist Hymnal to match this text.
Matthew 18:21-35:
  • This text is so important on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. 
  • How often must we forgive? How much do we hope God forgives us? Jesus urges us to see the questions in similar ways. Forgiveness is a great gift, and those who receive it hopefully show more gratitude than the slave in Jesus' parable.
  • Forgiveness is personal. When have you been forgiven? Have you received forgiveness without asking for it? When have you forgiven? When have you given it without being asked? When have you withheld forgiveness and why? How does it feel to give forgiveness? Receive it? Withhold it?
  • Do you think, as Jesus suggests, that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others?
  • Like Peter, do you ever wonder "what's the least I can get away with doing?" He seems to want to know - how much do I have to love? Is this enough? Jesus' answer is predictable and always the same: "More." 

Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Out of Egypt: First Annual Exodus," Exodus 12:1-14

Sermon 9/7/14
Exodus 12:1-8

Out of Egypt: First Annual Exodus

I went to seminary at Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. Drew is a University, so aside from the theological school, there was also a graduate school and an undergraduate school. My first year on campus, I saw signs for an undergraduate event called “The First Annual Picnic.” I didn’t think much of it, until I heard people talking about how much they always looked forward to “The First Annual Picnic.” What? Turns out, the event was always called The First Annual Picnic, even though it had been happening for many years. I don’t know if it started out that way – if they intended from the start to create a new event, or what. I've certainly known that to happen in church events – you try something one year with an unspoken understanding that if it goes well, you will do it again, year after year.
I couldn’t help but think of The First Annual Picnic as I read this week’s scripture text. Today, after spending the summer in the gospel of Matthew, we’re shifting gears and heading into the Old Testament. In particular, we’ll spend the next few weeks journeying with the Israelites as Moses leads them out of Egypt, an event known as the Exodus. It’s a word that means literally: the road out, and that’s why the second book of the Bible is so named – it’s the story of the journey of the Israelites as they literally and figuratively leave the life they knew as slaves in Egypt and head, eventually, for the Promised Land.
You may be familiar with the story of the Exodus – although you might have more images stuck in your mind from the Charlton Heston movie then from reading the actual text. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt. They ended up in this circumstance because Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham – Joseph made a deal with the Pharaoh to feed his family, his elevenbrothers who would be the starting points of the tribes of Israel – when Israel suffered a great famine. But eventually a Pharaoh arose in Egypt who didn’t remember Joseph, and the Israelites became poorly treated slaves, rather than friends rescued from starvation. The Pharaoh treats the people harshly, eventually ordering death of Israelite male newborns, lest the Israelites increase in number and power and overthrow their captors. God calls Moses to speak to Pharaoh and persuade Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Pharaoh, of course, will not agree to do any such thing, even after a series of plagues. Finally, God tells Moses there will be a plague killing the firstborn of all the Egyptian households. But God will spare the Israelite families, passing over their homes. Then, the Israelites will flee to safety across the Red Sea.
It is this Passover – the passing over of the home of the Israelites, this plague of the first-born sons – that our text for today describes. God tells Moses how each household should prepare for this first Passover, describing the meal they should prepare, a meal meant to be prepared and eaten with haste, with bags packed and shoes on and staff in hand, and ready to go. But blood on the doorposts and lintel from the lamb eaten for dinner will be the sign for God to Passover that home, keeping the firstborn safe. And then the passage concludes with “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” In other words, right from the start, before the first Passover takes place, God lets the people know that this will be an annual event. It’s the First Annual – and God already knows this action, this event, will be so important to the identity of the Israelites that they must remember it every year.  
            Indeed, the Passover is a significant event for the Israelites. It’s significant in Jesus’s life, and he makes it significant to us when, long after this first Passover, Jesus uses a celebration of Passover, an anniversary Passover just like God promises there will be, to share what we know now as the Last Supper – the first celebration of what has become Holy Communion for us. But as significant as it is, I’m also mindful of what a hard story this is too. Regardless of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, and the enslavement of the Israelites, a story where firstborn children are killed – Israelite or Egyptian – and where God is guiding the action – is hard to reconcile with the God of love we talk about so often. I wish we could spend more time on that now. This is something we’ll be talking about in our Wednesday night Bible Study in the weeks ahead. But for now, for today, let me try to point you to what I think are the key parts of our text. Why is God so sure already that the people will need to celebrate Passover again and again? Why will they need to remind themselves of this day, the day they left Egypt and slavery? Was there a chance they could ever forget such a significant event?
            As we think about this text and our own lives, I think there are two key points here. First, we have to know why we’re leaving Egypt, and second, once we leave, we have to remember why we left. That might sound pretty simple. And it is – simple to say. But the story of Exodus that we’ll follow this month will remind us that it is apparently quite difficult to do. The Israelites left Egypt because they had become slaves. They left because their living conditions were worsening. They were facing abuse and oppression and loss of life. I hope that our own situations are not so dire. But in these weeks that we think about what it means for God to call us out of Egypt, I do want us to seriously examine our lives and ask ourselves what we need to leave behind. What are the situations in our lives that are not life-giving? What about our lives is in conflict with what God hopes and dreams for us? What in your life is preventing you from responding with your whole heart to God’s call? These are the reasons God calls us from Egypt. Whatever keeps us from experiencing God’s abundance, and whatever keeps us from offering our whole selves to God – these are the reasons why we risk a journey into the unknown. That’s point one. Know why we’re leaving Egypt. What we’re leaving. Do you remember point two?
            Point two is: remember point one! Remember what we’re leaving and why we’re leaving. This is why God institutes a First Annual Remembrance of the Passover and Exodus before it has even happened the first time. God, who created us and loves us also knows how prone to forgetting even the most important things we are. The farther we journey from what Egypt means to us, the harder it will be to remember how much Egypt kept us from experiencing the life God wants for us. That’s what happens with the Israelites, as we’ll see in the next weeks. Think about it. This week is the thirteenth anniversary of the horrific tragedy of 9/11. How could we forget? And yet, I work with our conference youth, and my oldest youth, those who are seniors this year, were four or five years old when 9/11 happened. They don’t remember! And my youth who are just starting middle school – they weren’t born yet on 9/11. So this huge event that shapes our national identity still in significant ways – people who are now becoming legal adults – they already don’t remember. The farther we journey from Egypt, the less we remember why it was important to leave the things that were keeping us from drawing closer to God.
            And so, before the Israelites even leave Egypt, God sets them up with a plan to remember. Remember always that they were once slaves in Egypt, oppressed and abused, and that God led them to freedom. Remember that they had the courage, once, to follow, and to leave behind what was awful, but still known and so, in a way, comfortable. God starts them out with a way to remember. Of course, this shouldn’t surprise us. God is trying to help us in our discipleship all the time with ways to remember. With a rainbow in the sky. With the waters of baptism and renewal. With the bread and cup we will share today, remembering Jesus calling us to remember!
            God is calling us, even now, to leave Egypt, to leave our crutches, our addictions, our struggles, our excuses, our grudges, our settling for less than the Promised Land. I want you to think hard, in the weeks ahead, about what it is that you need to leave behind in Egypt. And even as you recognize what’s keeping you from offering your whole heart to God, plan to remember. Today we gather at the table: the table of forgiveness, the table of invitation, the table of reconciliation, the table of hope and life, the table of remembrance. We remember the whole story of God and God’s people. We remember the Passover. We remember Jesus transforming this meal into an offering of his life poured out for us. We listen for God’s call. We prepare for a new journey. We acknowledge what God is asking us to leave behind. Christ invites us to leave it there. And when we gather at the table again, we’ll remember. Amen.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Readings for 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/7/14:
Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

Exodus 12:1-14:
  • God describes to Moses and Aaron the Passover, which is the festival that centers Jesus' meal with his disciples - this reading also appropriately shows up for Maundy Thursday.
  • "this is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly." Ready to go. Ready to move. Prepared. Imagine if this was always the way we were, in terms of readiness to respond to God's call.
  • The Passover is a hard one to stomach (no pun intended). It is hard to imagine a plague of killing firstborns all through the land, isn't it? But it is a festival, a 'remembrance' that becomes so crucial in the identity of Judaism, and even in the events that shape Christ's last days. Death, blood, lamb, sacrifice. The ways the symbolism of the Old Testament and New Testament events overlap and tie in here is important.

Psalm 149:
  • Verses 1-3 talk about the juncture of praise and music. I’ve been blessed with musical abilities, and they certainly are tools I value very much in leading worship. But if music isn’t your thing, other gifts also can be used to worship – how do you use your gifts to worship our Maker?
  • “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people.” I like this sentiment a lot – do you believe it? God takes pleasure in you individually and in all of us as a people.
  • “Let them sing for joy on their couches.” That’s a funny image! Praise from couch potatoes…
  • V. 6 – Let the praises of God be in your mouth at the same time you are getting ready to kill some of those people that God takes pleasure in – nice sentiment, eh?
Romans 13:8-14:
  • “Owe no one anything.” Sigh. I wish someone would negotiate a deal for me with my student loan lender…
  • But we do owe one another love. I like that way of phrasing it – love is what is due from us to our neighbors. Have we paid up?
  • “The commandments . . . are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Plain enough, right?
    Love fulfills the law. In this, Paul shows that the law is not abolished but fulfilled in Jesus’ teachings, just as Jesus said.
  • "you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep." There is such urgency in this statement and in this passage. I dislike our obsession, in Paul's time and today, with the end times. But i do like a sense of urgency. What are we waiting for to get going with doing God's work? We know what time it is: time for peace. time for justice. time for grace. Now is the moment to wake and work.
  • "make no provisions for the flesh, to gratify its desires." No provision? Poor Paul - so black and white sometimes in his thinking - body or spirit instead of body and spirit.
  • "salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers." - this is a good verse to plug John Wesley's idea of sanctifying grace - grace that grows in us as we become disciples. A time of conversion (justification) when we first come to 'be believers,' however we might define that, is not the end and all of our relationship with God.

Matthew 18:15-20:
  • What a passage with great potential for preaching in a congregation, eh? This passage talks about how to settle disputes in the community of faith. Do we ever put it into practice? Check out the policies in our Book of Discipline. Do our church trials follow the format Jesus suggests?
  • "whatever you bind" - note that these words are the same Jesus says to Peter after Peter proclaims him as Messiah in Matthew 16. Here, the authority is expanded to the whole group of disciples.
  • "if two of you agree," and "two or three" - Jesus is talking about the power of working together for the same godly purposes. 

Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "From That Time On," Matthew 16:21-28

Sermon 8/31/14
Matthew 16:21-28

From That Time On

            Today, we continue immediately after our text from last week, where Peter proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, in response to Jesus’ question, “And who do you say I am?” Remember, we talked about how Peter claiming that title meant that he understood that Jesus, even though he wasn’t the typical picture of a king like David, an anointed one like the line of kings from the Hebrew scriptures, even still, Jesus was truly the anointed one, the messiah, ruler of the realm of God, this unexpectedly ordered way of God on earth. Jesus entrusts to Peter and the disciples the mission of continuing this reign of God. Today, our passage opens with the words, “From that time on…” These little seemingly throwaway phrases in the scriptures, especially when we’re reading the scripture in little pieces at a time, can feel so unimportant. But this phrase is important because it actually tells us: What happens next is directly related to what just happened. What’s coming next is a direct result of what happened most recently. So, we read, “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.” In other words, Peter naming Jesus as Messiah is almost like a trigger, the cause. Because Peter correctly calls Jesus Messiah, from then on, Jesus talks to them about the fact that he’s going to head to Jerusalem, where he will suffer at the hands of the religious authorities, be put to death, and rise on the third day.
            Peter, so on top of things in last Sunday’s reading, rebukes Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, this must never happen.” Of course, it seems like rebuking Jesus is probably always a bad idea. Chances are if you find yourself in the position of rebuking Jesus, and telling him, “God forbid it” in response to something he says, it’s not going to work out really well for you. On the other hand, if the person you loved most in the world told you they were about to suffer and be put to death, even if they said they would be raised on the third day, how could you do anything but say, “Absolutely not! I refuse to let that happen!”
            But Jesus is not sympathetic in his response to Peter. Peter, just named as the Rock, is now called Satan. “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus says, “You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” For Jesus to call Peter a stumbling block was a pretty significant criticism. In English, “stumbling block” sounds like you accidentally left a child’s toy where someone might step on it. In Greek, the word for stumbling block is skandalon, where we get our English word scandal, and it means more literally “a trap or snare laid for an enemy.” It’s an intentional action. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Stumbling blocks weren’t just bad luck. They were obstacles placed by an enemy to prevent a person from completing whatever path they were travelling on. And in this case, the enemy is Satan. And the path is the path to the cross, to the crucifixion, but also to resurrection. It is Jesus’ mission. And anything that stands in the way of that is an enemy laying a trap. In fact, Jesus’ language takes us back to the beginning of the gospel, just after Jesus was baptized, when he was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness – and do you remember what happened? He was tempted by Satan. And every temptation focused on a stumbling block, a snare, a trap laid for Jesus that would lure him into believe he could do God’s will without actually … doing God’s will. For Jesus, these words from Peter, from one of his own disciples, don’t just represent someone upset about what suffering Jesus will face. Peter’s words are echoes of the temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness – the temptation, the powerful idea that he could somehow complete his mission … without all that awful suffering and death stuff.
            It does sound tempting, doesn’t it? But Jesus has already faced that temptation. And Jesus knows that the only way to show what it means to be truly the messiah – not a conquering, ruling by force and might messiah – is to demonstrate to the uttermost how mixed up we’ve got things. Jesus’ authority will be demonstrated even in pouring out his very own life for others – and then showing that even death can’t conquer God’s reign, God’s ways, God’s vision. Even death is powerless in the face of God. But Jesus must face it to demonstrate that.
            And so, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers,” if we really want to claim Jesus as messiah, if we’re sure we know what we mean by that, we demonstrate it by picking up our own cross and following where Jesus is leading. “For,” Jesus says, in his upside down way, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Under Roman rule, those sentenced to death would have to carry their own cross beam to the site of their crucifixion. Jesus is asking us to carry not a traditional symbol of power – no sword, no crown of gold, no other symbols of status. Instead, to follow him, we too take the cross. A sign that we are pouring out our own lives in order that we might have room for God to fill them up.
            Jesus is trying to tell us that we don’t get to choose just part. We can’t call Jesus messiah without the part that happens “from that time on.” They go together. They’re inseparable. Trying to separate them is a stumbling block. More than that, it’s a trap laid by an enemy, trying to convince us we can follow Jesus without actually following Jesus.  
            In some ways, then, what Jesus says is quite simple, quite straightforward. If you want to follow me, you have to follow me. And you can’t follow Jesus without following Jesus. When you put it that way, it sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it, to think anything else! It’s a package deal. If Jesus is the Messiah, then from this time on, what goes along with that is knowing that Jesus’ path leads to the cross. And if Jesus’ path leads to the cross, and if we’re followers of Jesus, if he is our messiah, well then, from this time on, following Jesus means we take up the cross too. A package deal. We can’t take it piecemeal. It’s not even possible. Trying to convince yourself or anyone else otherwise is a stumbling block. Are you a follower of Jesus? If you are, then from this time on, there’s only one thing left to do: Follow Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Readings for 12th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/31/14:
Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

Exodus 3:1-15:
  • "Here I am." These are three of the bravest words in the Bible, don't you think? And yet, so simple, such easy, uncomplicated words. Will we utter them? Dare to say such simple words to God?
  • "the place on which you are standing is holy ground" - What places in life have you come upon holy ground? What makes it holy? How do you act when you are on Holy Ground?
  • "Who am I that I should go out to Pharaoh?" Moses asks God. So much for his initial brave response ;) - who do you think is better equipped to judge your abilities - you or God? Do you question what God has called you to do? What would it take to convince you?
  • "I AM WHO I AM." Maybe the best name for God - the one God claims for God's self. We like to describe God, paint God into corners, but God into boxes with our theological language - but God says I AM WHO I AM.
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c:
  • This Psalm is appearing for the third time this summer - showing up in some variation three and five weeks ago. It has corresponded to some extent with the Old Testament lesson, though this week, it is less directly related.
  • Verses 1-5 are right on target for me: Remember to praise God all the time, because God has done some pretty amazing things for you. It is amazing how easily we forget God's role in all that we claim as our own goodness.
  • "whose hearts he then turned to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants." I don't warm to the idea that God makes us hate, or hardens our heart, a theme in the Moses story we'll follow in the Old Testament. Why would God do that?
  •  45b makes a nice end, while skipping many verses: "praise God!"
Romans 12:9-21:
  • This is a great passage of little bits of advice that work together separately or together
  •  "Outdo one another in showing honor" - Wouldn't it be great if humans' competitive natures worked for good this way?
  • "do not claim to be wiser than you are" - great advice for pastors, theologians, and church-people in general.
  • "so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" - words for today. And it does depend on us.
  • The heart of this passage - the most words are spent on advising us to love our enemies, even at cost to ourselves.
Matthew 16:21-28:
  • Just before this, Peter had named Jesus as the Messiah. Now Jesus names Peter as Satan. What's happened here?
  • I think Peter has said the right words (earlier), but he doesn't yet understand what that means for Jesus, or doesn't want to believe it.
  • Choices. Jesus tells us we have to make some hard choices, big choices, life and death kind of choices. The way he phrases his questions, the answers should be obvious. But our actions suggest otherwise, don't they?
  • "who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man . . . " Lots of people have theories about this verse. I don't have a good theory. I think - it's not the point of the passage, and if we focus on that verse, it means we're not paying attention to all the meaty stuff before it.  

Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Messiah," Matthew 16:13-20

Sermon 8/24/2014
Matthew 16:13-20


            Who do you say Jesus is? Today, we’re continuing on in the gospel of Matthew. Since last week’s text, when Jesus met with the Canaanite woman in the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus healed more people, fed a crowd of 4000, plus women and children, again, with a small amount of food, and spent some time debating with Pharisees and Sadducees, who demand “signs” from heaven. Jesus says to them, in essence, “you’re smart enough to know that when the sky turns a certain color, it’s about to storm. How come you can’t read the signs of the times?” In other words, he’s already showing them all they need to know. Jesus also gets frustrated with the disciples when they still don’t seem to understand what’s he’s been doing either. They don’t seem to be able to connect what they’ve been witnessing with who Jesus is, with the significance of their experiences.
            Our text opens today with Jesus and the disciples arriving in the district of Caesarea Philippi. When he gets there, he asks them, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” “Son of Man” is title Jesus uses for himself in the gospels, and it sort of means “the person of persons.” Who are people saying I am, Jesus wonders? The disciples answer that some say he’s Elijah or John the Baptist, others says Jeremiah, or another of the prophets. Now, this doesn’t mean that they thought he was one of these people come back from the dead. Rather, the names they mention represent more what kind of role Jesus has come to play, to fulfill. Is he like a second Elijah, critiquing the religious leaders of the day? Like a Jeremiah, speaking of suffering to come? Like his cousin John? Some other prophet?
            Then Jesus is more specific, more direct: And you, who do you say that I am? Simon Peter answers “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus responds by blessing Peter, and making a play on words with Peter’s name, which means literally, “rock,” naming Peter as a rock on which the future followers of Jesus will eventually be built. He speaks of the authority that Peter and the disciples will have. But, he tells them not to tell anyone that he’s the Messiah. Not yet, at least.
            Sometimes I think the passages of the scripture that are the trickiest for us to really understand are the ones that seem the easiest up front. I think we can read this passage and ask ourselves, well, Apple Valley, who do we say that Jesus is? And we might respond, “The Messiah, duh!” And then we’ll pat ourselves on the back for our excellent answer, and move on to the next passage. Only… What does that even mean? What does it mean to call Jesus Messiah? To say he’s the Christ? What do those labels mean? It doesn’t do us much good to call Jesus Messiah or to call him Christ, just because we know it’s the right answer, if we don’t know what we’re actually saying when we say it.
            Before we figure out what we mean when we say it, maybe we can figure out what Peter meant. The word messiah appears throughout the scriptures. It means “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, anointed ones were those who were named as Kings of Israel or Judah. To be an anointed one, a messiah, meant to be the ruler of Israel, chosen, essentially, by God. You might be most familiar with the story of David’s anointing by the prophet Samuel. Samuel had previously anointed Saul as the first king of Israel. But Saul was no longer following God’s ways, so God told Samuel to anoint David, the youngest son of Jesse, a sheepherder. David turns out to be a great military leader though, and eventually, he is able to replace Saul as king. Kings were anointed-ones. Messiahs, with a small m.
            In the gospels, as we’ll hear about again from time to time, we see that many of the crowds do indeed think Jesus is a messiah like this – a potential king, like King David was, who will be a great ruler of the Jews, who will conquer the occupying Romans, who will be a political and military great king. In fact, they want Jesus to be this kind of Messiah so much that they try to force him to become king, and more than once, he has to slip away from the eager crowds to avoid this. Eventually, when Jesus is about to be condemned to death, and he still refuses to take up a sword and fight back, some who wanted this kind of Messiah get pretty angry and turn on Jesus. What kind of Messiah lets himself get crucified?
            But Jesus has made it clear again and again that he’s not here to be this kind of leader. We’ve talked about the kingdom of God – the reign of God on earth that defies expectations and turns upside down the usual notions about power, and being first and best and strongest. Well, Jesus is the anointed one, the messiah, the King of this upside down realm of God: servant of all, humbling himself, putting himself last, washing feet, eating with sinners and the unclean and the people on the fringes, turning the other cheek, submitting to execution as a criminal. Jesus demonstrates real power through pouring his life out as an offering for others, and then, then, inviting us to do the same, as his followers. When Peter says, “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” Peter is agreeing to no less than this – that the true Messiah comes not to conquer and vanquish and beat others into submission, even the hated Romans. Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed one, comes to serve, to heal, to love, and to give his life for others. When Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, he’s not just saying Jesus is in charge. He’s embracing the whole kit and caboodle, the whole message. No wonder Jesus reacts with such words of affirmation for Peter. With passage after passage of the disciples missing the point, like we do, they finally seem to get it!
            Do we? I think we don’t have any trouble claiming Jesus as our Messiah. But I wonder exactly what we mean by it. What do we mean when we say Jesus is Christ? Rev. David Lose, a pastor whose sermons and notes I particularly like, suggests that we have to ask ourselves not just what words we say about Jesus as Messiah, but we must also ask ourselves what our lives say about Jesus being messiah. “Who do you say he is?,” Lose asks, “Not just say when repeating the Creed, but say with your lives; that is, with your relationships, your bank account, your time, your energy, and all the rest. Who do you really say Jesus is?”
            His question made me think of the book In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? by Charles Monroe Sheldon, written in the late 1800s. You might be familiar with this work because it became very popular for a second time around when, in the 1990s, Sheldon’s great-grandson published a contemporary retelling of the book and “What Would Jesus Do?” became a popular phrase for bracelets and t-shirts. I read the original work when I was in high school, and it’s pretty powerful. In it, a pastor encounters a destitute man who he more or less brushes off. The man disrupts the Sunday worship service, calling the pastor and congregation out on their hypocrisy. He dies a few days later, and the pastor is deeply shaken. He vows, and urges his congregation, to try, as seriously as possible, to only do what they believe Jesus would do in any given situation for the year ahead. The story follows the transformation that occurs in peoples’ lives when they commit themselves fully to doing what they believe Jesus would do.
            I think this is what David Lose is wondering, challenging us to wonder about. We say we believe Jesus is Messiah. What do we mean by that, and how, then, do our very lives show that we believe Jesus is Messiah? It isn’t as easy as we might think, when it comes down to it, to put into words what we mean by this title for Jesus, but here’s what I think, with the benefit of crafting my sermon ahead of time: When I say Jesus is Messiah, I mean that he is the embodiment of God’s hope in the world, the embodiment of God’s love and grace and vision for the world. When I say Jesus is Messiah, I mean that I choose to offer my life to serve him, rather than money, or ambition, or status, or being well-liked, or being comfortable, or any number of other things I’m tempted to spend more time thinking about than about Jesus. When I say Jesus is Messiah, I mean that he’s the living in-the-flesh version of God’s reign that flips everything upside down into God’s right-side up, which is always on the side of the least, and most vulnerable, and on the fringes. That’s just a glimpse, an imperfect attempt at what it means for me to say Jesus is Messiah. But I think in that faulty attempt I still have plenty to work on. Does my life say all these things too? I’m working on that.
            Lose says that Jesus wants to know who we say he is not so that we can pass some test and get the answer “right,” but so that we can experience the transforming power of being rooted in the love and possibility that Jesus offers us. Imagine, if we lived in such a way that every part of our life, every bit of the way we lived, was a demonstration of what we believed. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Who do you say Jesus is? The Messiah? What does a life based on that claim look like? What do our lives, centered on that claim, look like? Let’s find out.

(David Lose’s comments can be found here:  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Lectionary Notes for 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 16, Ordinary 21)

Readings for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, 8/24/11:
Exodus 1:8-2:10, Psalm 124, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

Exodus 1:8-2:10:
  • "Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph . . ." This is a great opening to explain how people once joined to Egypt under Joseph's protection because slaves of those same people - history was forgotten. We forget history, even today, even with all of our technology and archiving and ways to preserve - we forget what has happened, and act in ignorance.
  • Could you be like the midwives? I admire their bravery. Perhaps we think it would be easy to refuse to kill these newborns, but commanded by the King? They were disobeying orders from the highest level - that takes courage. 
Psalm 124:
  • "If it had not been the Lord who was on our side" - whose side is God on? Is God always on our side? Is God always on the winning side? We want God to be on our side, but we'd do better to seek to be on God's side of things...
  • this psalm is in thanks to God for escape from enemies. I've never had to literally flee from enemies, but I can relate, figuratively, to what the psalmist is feeling. From what dangerous persons/situations have you escaped by God's grace?
Romans 12:1-8:
  • "Do not be conformed to this world" - so many ways to take that, aren't there? We're called to be somehow different than others who have not known and embraced the grace that God offers all of us. What difference has God's grace made in your life? If your life is no different than anyone else's, what does that say?
  • Many gifts, one body of Christ. What is your gift? Are you using your gifts? How are you helping others find and use their gifts? Do you let others know how valuable their gifts are?
  • Not only are we members of the body of Christ, but we are "members one of another" - I've never noticed that phrase before. In Christ's body, I'm a member of you, and you are a member of me. Do we live like we believe that?
Matthew 16:13-20:
  • "Who do you say that I am?" When all is said and done, Jesus cares more about how each of us answers that question individually than he does about how others answer that question from our viewpoint. Who is he to you? What is your answer?
  • In a way, answering this question is the sign of mature faith. We can't let others answer for us, let others' answers stand as our own answers. We have to decide, we have to say it and claim it and live who Jesus is. It's powerful, answering for ourselves.
  • Jesus shows us the power of knowing in the power he gives to Peter. Why not tell others he was the Messiah? Perhaps it is because we all have to come to that answer on our own - we can't be told - we have to find our own answers. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Case in Point," Matthew 15:10-28

Sermon 8/17/2014
Matthew 15:10-28

Case in Point

          In our time together, as I’ve mentioned, you will no doubt hear a lot about my 7 year old nephew Sam (and my on-the-way niece, due next month!). Sam’s one of the great joys of my life, for sure. Sam is getting to be quite grown up. He and I have “fun day” outings together pretty regularly, and we often head to Destiny USA. We see a movie, or go mini-golfing there, or play in the arcade, and eat at Johnny Rockets, but we always hit the Carousel. Sam’s a little guy for his age, so I help him onto the horse of his choice, and then stand next to him while he rides the Carousel. At least, that’s what we did. The last time I took him to the Carousel, he let me ride with him the first time, but for the second time, he said to me, so sweetly, “Aunt Beth, why don’t you go stand down there so you can wave to me when I go by.” Sweet kid was trying to gently say, “Aunt Beth, I don’t need you to stand next to me anymore!” I actually felt myself tearing up a little bit, to hit this “milestone” of sorts. But as requested, I went and watched and waved from the sidelines. It made me nervous, though, to have him even that far away from me in a busy mall. I had to count for myself the number of seconds he was out of my sight on every go-around of the carousel. Six seconds. I could handle that, right?
I know I’m overprotective of Sam. I know my brother and sister-in-law want me to take good care of him, but they probably don’t realize the poor kid only gets to be out of my sight once I put him to bed when I babysit. I want to protect him from everything. I know, though, that since what I really want is for him to be happy and to enjoy life, I can’t protect him from everything, or I’ll still be standing next to him on the carousel when he’s sixteen. Somehow I don’t think that will go over so well. I know I’m not alone, though. Many of us remember childhoods where we were more free to go off and play by ourselves outside for hours on end, with our parents perhaps only vaguely knowing that we were in the neighborhood somewhere.
Are things really so much worse now, so much less safe? Are we smarter now than we were then? Safer? Or just more protective? It’s an interesting question, actually, that some of my pastors friends and I were discussing a few weeks ago. My friend Richelle read a news story about a playground in Wales called The Land. (1) It looks kind of like a junk yard. It’s meant to. There’s a lot of broken things there, dirty things, even a fire burning. There are some adult staff who hang out at The Land. But they only intervene in children’s play if absolutely necessary. So far, children have gotten some scraped knees, but otherwise fare pretty well. The author of the article had a hard time watching his five-year old son try some crazy things on this unique playground, but he was just fine. In the author’s research, he’s discovered that conditions in the world aren’t really more dangerous for children. Abductions, for example – our attention was captured by the abduction and return of two Amish girls this week. The number of abductions by strangers has stayed pretty stable over the years, actually. The only increase has been in abductions by family members, likely a result of increased custody issues when parental relationships end. And we’re more litigious. If a child gets hurt on a playground, someone will probably sue. But is the world more dangerous for children? It doesn’t seem so.
Believe it or not, I had all this on my mind as a read our gospel lesson for this week. Our reading from Matthew continues on a bit after our passage from last week. Last week we saw Jesus walk on water to meet the disciples as they crossed the sea of Galilee. And I mentioned that when they landed on shore, people came from all around to be healed by Jesus. Just before today’s passage opens Jesus is being questioned by some scribes and Pharisees. Scribes and Pharisees tend to get a bad rap as the bad guys of the Bible, because they spend so much time arguing with Jesus, and because Jesus has some pretty harsh words for them. But at their best, the scribes and Pharisees were those who tried to interpret the writings of the law of Moses and figure out how best to uphold the commandments handed down from generation to generation. They were the religious leaders of the day. In a church context, they would be the regular attenders, people who were on committees or teaching Sunday School or always showing up to help at events. Kind of like most of us. They had confronted Jesus, asking why he and his disciples didn’t uphold some of the rituals of cleanliness practices by the religious elders. Jesus responds to them saying, “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake or your tradition? … For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God!” And then, finally, in that context, we get to today’s text:
Jesus calls the crowd together and says, “Listen: It isn’t what goes into the mouth that makes someone unclean, but what comes out of the mouth.” When the disciples are confused by this, he further clarifies: What goes in – like foods that would have been considered unclean, or things eaten without the benefit of special hand-washings or other cleanliness rituals – all that ends up in the sewer eventually, Jesus says bluntly. But what comes out of the mouth – what comes from our hearts – when evil intentions are in our hearts – that is what can truly make us unclean.
Immediately after this, Jesus travels to the district of Tyre and Sidon where he meets a Canaanite woman. This isn’t surprising – the region Jesus travels to – for no specific reason named in the scripture – would be where many Gentiles – non-Jews – lived. He could only expect to run into Canaanites and others that Jews would normally avoid. There was great animosity between different religious and ethnic groups, and Jesus’ actions could make him ritually unclean. The woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter who is being tortured by the presence of a demon in her life. Jesus says, “I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” But she persists, “Lord, help me.” He says, “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and give it to dogs.” And she persists even still, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” Jesus tells her her faith is great, and he’ll do as she wishes. And her daughter is healed instantly!
This passage is often hard to read. No matter how we twist it, it seems like Jesus compares this woman to a dog begging at a table, and like he’s really reluctant to extend healing to her child. But context, and what comes before and after a passage, is always so important in our understanding of the scripture. Jesus was just telling us that it is what is in our hearts, not the external stuff, that makes us clean or unclean, defiled or set right before God. And then he immediately goes to a place where he’s likely to encounter someone who every faithful Jew would consider unclean, defiled, outside of the limits of God’s grace and promises. And with a quick exchange, he extends grace and healing to her and says that her faith, the faith of a Canaanite woman, is great. What’s more, if you search the gospels for times where Jesus tells someone that their faith is great or their faith has made them well, the majority of these encounters are with a person who would be considered unclean in some way by the law. It’s a pattern. And it’s a pattern, and a specific scenario here that illustrates the case in the point: It’s the stuff inside, in our hearts, that makes us clean or unclean, not the stuff outside.
So what does that all mean for us? Believe it or not, all this is why I was thinking about playgrounds. The article I read said something like: if statistics show that things aren’t really anymore unsafe than they used to be for our children, we must conclude that we’ve let our fears conquer us. Between the 24-hour instant news cycle and viral sharing on social media and our litigious culture, we’ve become afraid, and we’ve let our fears overtake us. And so we make protection and safety major priorities. It’s really even part of our national ethos, isn’t it? Desiring safety above almost everything else.  
Sometimes, I think this is how we operate in the world as Christians, too. We’ve gotten confused about our purpose in the world, and we’ve somehow concluded that the best way to be “Good Christians” is to protect ourselves from bad influences, from the awful, crazy world around us. And so we spend our time trying to eliminate bad influences around us – especially the influence of people that might be bad influences – or we end up withdrawing from the world altogether. We isolate ourselves. We spend time with other Christians – which isn’t all bad, for sure – but when we only want to hang around with people who think like us and dress like us and behave like us and believe like us because it makes us feel safe and comfortable, we’re in a bit of trouble.
Jesus says our efforts are futile! It isn’t that external stuff that corrupts our souls! It’s what’s inside of us that has that potential! It’s what inside of us that needs tending and nurturing. And if Jesus says that loving God and loving one another is the best way to tend our souls, to make sure that what comes out from hearts is good, then protecting ourselves from the messiness of interacting with people who are different from us, who we don’t understand, who don’t live like we live – that’s the exact opposite of what Jesus wants for us. Jesus isn’t particularly interested in us playing it safe. That’s sure not the example he sets for us. Instead, he’s crossing boundaries and bending rules and breaking down walls and talking to the people on the fringes and reaching across cultures and traditions and religions and practices and saying: here, in the place you’ve least expected, is where I’ve found great faith. Ultimately, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were so threatened by Jesus’ boundary-crossing, rule-breaking ways that they sought to put him to death. He threatened the safe, comfortable way of life they were trying to substitute for deep faith.  
This week, I encourage you to think about how much of your time each day you spend with people who are basically just like you. And how much of your time do you spend worrying about being safe and comfortable? How many people will you have conversations with in a typical week that are from a different faith tradition than you are? Or have a different color skin than you do? Or are from a different economic class? How many boundaries do you cross in a typical week? How safe is your playground? Jesus says we can work to surround ourselves with the most perfect, sterling, pristine conditions – and it will all just still be what’s on the outside. What’s in your heart? That’s what Jesus is interested in. Where have you found great faith? That’s what Jesus wants to know. Enough playing it safe. What’s in your heart?


Monday, August 11, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 15, Ordinary 20)

Readings for 10th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/17/14: 
Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Genesis 45:1-15:
  • This is a great story of forgiveness. Is it a story of redemption too? After all, though Joseph is quite moved to see his brothers, the only word we get about how they feel is "dismayed." OK, he did trick them over Benjamin and stealing, but they sold him into slavery and said he was dead! Overall, Joseph's forgiveness seems quite impressive, and it is never asked for by his brothers.
  • Anyway, I think that forgiving those we love the most, or we had expected the most form, is the hardest kind of forgiveness to give. But the most needed. What enables you to be ready to forgive, even when those you must forgive aren't ready to repent?
Psalm 133:
  • Short and sweet?! Check out Chris Haslam's notes on this Psalm. The image of Aaron's beard dripping with oil signifies total consecration to God.
  • Haslam also notes the connection between this Psalm and our Genesis text in that verse 1 here declares, "how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity."
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32:
  • "for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable." That is a powerful verse. irrevocable=irreversible, can't be taken back, or taken away. That means that God does not un-gift us or un-call us. We are gifted, and we are called. We can wish we were not connected to God in this way. We can reject our gifts, ignore our call, but we can't get rid of them.
  • "so that [God] may be merciful to all." Paul's logic here is ... interesting. He suggests that God 'imprisons' us in disobedience so that God can show us mercy. I'm not sure I agree with Paul on his take of God's motivations. But I like his inclusive vision of God's mercy - it is for all.
  • Paul is interested in showing God's continued special relationship with Israel (the irrevocable relationship) at the same time as he wants to convince his Gentile audience that they can have a special relationship with God too.
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28:
  • What comes out of our mouths and not what goes in that defiles. We forget this one, even today. We may not follow kosher food laws today, but we are worried in different ways. Sometimes Christians want to shelter themselves from the 'evils' of the world, and especially from others judged unclean, instead of examining themselves for right hearts.
  • The second part of this text is one we have a harder time dealing with. "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs," and "he did not answer her at all." - These are hard sentences to construct in a way flattering to Jesus. I don't have good answers. I don't want to explain away Jesus' words by trying to translate the Greek differently. Was Jesus just joking with the woman? I don't see it. What I see is a woman who is as persistent as the widow Jesus tells a parable about elsewhere in the gospels, and she receives her reward. And what I see is a Jesus who is focused on the mission he sees: to the Jews - who lets his own vision be expanded. The woman shows him a way to spread more grace. 
  • Even with his resistance, we can be comforted that Jesus heard her out, despite his apparent skepticism: the disciples wanted to send her away, but Jesus heard her, and really listened, until he recognized great faith in one whom he did not expect to find it.


Sermon for 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "If I Keep My Eyes on Jesus," Matthew 14:22-33

Sermon 8/10/14
Matthew 14:22-33

If I Keep My Eyes on Jesus…

            Have you ever heard the expression, “Whatever you do, don’t look down?” This is a picture of my brother Todd and his girlfriend Andrea on the Skydeck of the Willis Tower – once known as the Sears Tower – in Chicago. The view is pretty impressive, isn’t it? But if you’re afraid of heights, it might be a little much. Not long before their visit to the Skydeck, some other folks were visiting this attraction and standing on the Skydeck when they heard a loud cracking noise. Needless to say, they scurried off rather quickly. It turned out the cracking noise was from a crack in the protective plastic over the actual glass – the glass was never in danger of giving way. But I can imagine how unsettling it would be to hear the cracking as you are standing so far above the ground. “Whatever you do, don’t look down.” I hear this phrase often enough in movies, and of course, as soon as those words are uttered, the person to whom they’re said – looks down! They may have been doing just fine – conquering their fears, traversing some great height – but somehow, as soon as they look down – they’re paralyzed in fear. They aren’t any higher or more unsafe than they were before they looked – but somehow looking, realizing, makes it so much worse.
            I had this phrase in mind this week as I thought about our gospel text and about Peter, trying to walk on the water, stepping out of the boat and heading toward Jesus. Our gospel lesson from Matthew is a story that appears in some variation in all of the gospels – Jesus either calming the storm after having fallen asleep in the boat with the disciples, or Jesus walking on the water and inviting Peter to walk on the water as well, or a combination of similar events. Walking on water, calming the winds. In Matthew’s gospel, this story appears right after the story we know as the feeding of the five thousand. We read that immediately after the meal is finished, Jesus gets his disciples into a boat and sends them to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while he remains to dismiss the crowd, and to spend some time in prayer by himself. Immediately is always a word to pay attention to in the gospels. It tells us that things are connected. It’s important that these events unfold immediately after the feeding of the five thousand. They’re related in some way.
            After praying, Jesus looks out onto the lake and sees that the disciples are having a hard time navigating the windy weather. He begins to walk out onto the water towards them. The disciples see Jesus, and they think it is a ghost walking towards them. I’m not sure if this is because the storm makes it hard to see Jesus, or they are so thrown by his walking on water that they assume he must be a ghost, or what. But they see him, and are not calmed by his presence, but terrified. Note, it isn’t the wind that causes them to cry out in fear – after all, several of the disciples are fishermen, who are familiar with the sea. It isn’t the storm that causes them fear, but the sight of Jesus walking on the water that fills them with terror.
            Immediately, we read again, Jesus speaks to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Those are words we hear frequently in the scriptures – upwards of 80 times, more than a dozen of which are spoken by Jesus. Do not be afraid. Peter says to Jesus, boldly, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says to him simply, “Come.” And Peter does – he gets out of the boat and starts walking toward Jesus. But then, it’s as if one of the disciples yells out to him, “Whatever you do Peter, don’t look down! Don’t pay attention to the fact that you are walking on the water in the middle of a huge storm!” Peter looks around him, and terror seizes him, and he begins to sink. “Lord, save me!” he calls. Immediately, Jesus reaches out and rescues Peter. He doesn’t praise Peter’s courage, but instead says, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” When they get into the boat, the storm stops, apparently an act of Jesus which causes those in the boat to worship him, saying, “Truly you are God’s son.” Just after this, after the passage we read today, the disciples and Jesus finish crossing the sea. People recognize Jesus right away, and people come from all around to be healed by his touch.
            I don’t know about you, but I’m always a little surprised, reading this text, by Jesus’ reaction to Peter. Ok, Peter got scared, and starting sinking. But he got out of the boat, right? I think that’s more than I’d be ready to do. Why is Jesus so hard on him? What does Jesus expect of us? So let’s zero in on what Peter says and does for a minute. He’s in the boat. He sees Jesus walking toward him. He thinks it might be a ghost, and is afraid, whether Jesus is too far away to see clearly, or the image of him on the water is just too shocking, we don’t know. But Jesus tells them, “It’s me, don’t be afraid.” And Peter says, “Lord, if it is really you, command me to come to you.” And Jesus says, “Come.” But here’s the thing. Peter and the other had just come from watching Jesus feed 5000 men plus women and children. And beyond that, so far, in Peter’s time with Jesus, he’s witnessed him cleanse a leper, heal people’s paralysis, cast out demons, still a storm – before this storm, restore the sight of the blind, restore speech to a mute person, and even raise a child from the dead. Peter has seen a lot. And his words here suggests he knows very well that this “ghost” is Jesus. He says to him, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come out to you.” Every word that Peter says is infused with the knowledge that who he’s seeing is Jesus, and Jesus, his Lord and master, a person whose commands he will follow since he is a disciple, a student of this teacher, this Jesus is calling him to get out of the boat, to step out in faith. Peter knows already, as do the other disciples, that this is Jesus, son of God, the Christ, who he’s been following, and who he’s certainly talking to now, amazing as it is.
            Peter knows this. And yet, he sinks. And I think that’s what causes Jesus to say, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” Because Peter and the disciples know who Jesus is – and that is what fills them with fear – not the storm. It is knowing that the person they are following is exactly who they think he is – the messiah – that fills them with terror. And so, like the religious leaders of the day who are constantly asking Jesus to answer questions and prove himself to them, Jesus’ very own disciples are doing the same thing, in their own way. They’re seeking proof after proof, sign after sign that Jesus is the One. And then, then, when they’re convinced, they pledge, they’ll be all in. They’ll follow without hesitation. But they’ve had sign after sign after sign. How many more do they need?
            Here’s what I think: the disciples don’t need more signs. The signs are an excuse for inaction. The confirmation they seek that Jesus is really Jesus is an expression of fear. They’re not afraid that Jesus isn’t the right one to follow. They’re afraid that he is the one to follow. Because if they have to admit that they’re 100% sure that Jesus is the messiah, then they’ll have to be 100% committed to following him. And as much as they’ve seen Jesus’s miracles, they’ve also heard Jesus’ teachings. And so they know that committing to following Jesus doesn’t mean Jesus lets up on you. Goes easy on you. Focuses on getting others to commit instead. No, committing to following Jesus means that Jesus just keeps expecting more. Jesus wants it all. I think the disciples know that if they let go of their fear and just follow Jesus, he’ll keep asking more of them. To the point where Jesus says things like, “take up the cross and follow me.” And “if you want save your life you have to lose it.” And “the road is narrow.” And so if they admit they believe already, totally, they’ll have to move beyond looking for signs, and on to following the one they know to be God’s son. And so Peter tries ask for another proof: Lord, if it’s you… Who else would it be?! No wonder Jesus seems so exasperated that Peter sinks!
            Friends, we may be telling ourselves that we’re waiting to be more sure, to be more confident in our faith. We might say we need a sign, a proof, a burning bush, a storm to be stilled in our sight, and then, then, we’ll put our whole selves in to this discipleship thing. We’ll really follow Jesus 100%, when we’re 100% sure. But Jesus called Peter’s bluff. And eventually, though certainly after many more attempts at playing the, “if it’s you, Lord,” card, Peter committed his whole life. And I think Jesus is ready to call us out too. If you already know it’s me, then what are you waiting for? Step out of the boat already! What will it be? Do we need another sign to tell us what we already know? Or are we ready to step out on to the water? Whatever you do, keep your eyes on Jesus.