Saturday, September 16, 2017

God Loves Us and Welcomes Us!

God Loves Us and Welcomes Us
Throughout the tales for this week, the Exodus (Ex 14:19-31), Psalm 114, Paul’s letter to the church in Rome(Rom14:1-12), and a story about extraordinary forgiveness (Matt 18:21-35) is the overarching story of God’s love for all humankind, and an invitation to come home to God.

As Moses would later remind the people, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deut 7:6-8) And so we see that during the great escape, YHWH the God of Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, Leah, Rachel and Jacob, shelters and protects them from Pharaoh’s army. And opens and closes the waters to protect and liberate them. All despite lots of complaining and grumbling all through verses preceding (Ex 14 10-18).: Why are you making us leave Egypt? Is it because there are no graves for us in Egypt that you took us out here to die in the wilderness? Yet, God loves them anyway. It turns out God has the patience of Job.

As celebrated in Psalm 114, a mighty act of remembrance and source of hope for the present. It recognizes that this mass escape forged a rag-tag group of slaves into a people – God’s people. It is a psalm that is meant to astound us and make us grateful. As Psalm 115 just after this begins: Our God is in the heavens. He does as he pleases. You don’t have to like; you don’t get to vote on it. What a God! Mountains and hills skip with glee, the seas fled, the Earth trembles at the presence of the Lord, the God of Jacob. There is no more fear of intimidation by any Empire in these people because YHWH has acted!

Then Paul urges the fledgling church in Rome to embrace diversity. Some of you are vegans. Some of you are omnivores. It is the God of the Exodus, the God who can make diverse tribes into one people, who calls you and welcomes you to Christ’s table. Note, Paul does not even attempt to adjudicate whether or not there is a right way or wrong way to come to God’s table. Healthy community takes precedence over “right belief,” whatever that may be. For we all stand before the same judgment seat of God. We look pretty silly passing judgment on one another when in the end we are all accountable to the One God “I Am” who got this all in-motion back at the burning bush instructing a fugitive murderer to confront the powers of Pharaoh and his Empire and lead us all to a life of freedom with God and one another.

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die we die to the Lord…. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be the Lord of the living and the dead!”

To give us some idea what kind of Lord invites us to come home to the Lord’s table, along comes Peter with a question for Jesus. I have served the majority of my life in ministry in two churches named after Peter, so I feel a particular empathy for him in all these episodes like the one today where he asks, God bless his heart: If someone sins against me how often must I forgive? As many as seven times? Now the custom at the time was to forgive three times, so Peter thinks he is going the extra mile. But once again Jesus burns him: seventy-seven times. Or, because the text is unclear, it can even be translated seventy times seven times! Which in the context of the story he tells really means forever! For as it turns out, in those days the ten thousand Talents the man owes the king represents approximately 150,000 years wages for the average worker. No one can ever hope to pay off such a sum in this life time. The king knows this. God knows this. Jesus knows this. Yet, the man in the story is forgiven. That, by the way, is the punch line. The text means for us to realize we are all forgiven sinners invited to the same table, the Lord’s table, open to one and all, vegans and omnivores alike, even to this pathetic creature who clearly does not grasp what being released of his debt really means – that we are to act more like the Incredible Forgiving and Loving King in the parable.

There is a video that shows a woman alone in church saying the Lord’s Prayer. Each time she says a line, God speaks to her. When she gets to, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” she tries to sneak out of the pew and the church. God stops her, and asks, “What about your brother?” “I knew you were going to say that,” she blurts out! “How can I forget what he has done to me?” “I don’t know,” asks God. “How do you want your forgiveness: with or without forgetting?” Long Pause. “How about you just begin to think about forgiving your brother, and I’ll do my best to forget all the times you have forgotten about me?” “You got me again,” she says, and the dialogue continues. As Elie Wiesel often said and wrote, God created us because he loves our stories and loves to continue the dialogue.

We promise in our baptism that everything we say and do will proclaim the Good News of God in Christ. Yet, it’s not clear that we all know just what that good news is. No doubt that is why William Countryman wrote a book titled, The Good News of Jesus. He begins it like this: “What God says to you in Jesus is this: you are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus lived and spoke…. There are other things God could conceivably have said to us. And we may as well face it, most of us know forms of Christianity that relay a message quite different from this one. They say things like, ‘Good News, if you are very very good, God will love you.’ Or, ‘Good News, if you are very very sorry for not being very very good, God will love you. Or, (most insidious of all), ‘Good News, God loves you. Now get back in line before God’s mind changes!’ These messages may be good news for somebody, but they are not good for all of us …. God might have said it more simply, ‘You are loved. I love you.’ This message is true, but it would have been ambiguous. It might have meant, ‘I love you because you’re good.’ It might have meant, ‘I love the nice bits of you, but I really wish you’d clean up your act.’ It might have meant, ‘I still love you and would like to go on loving you, but I won’t tolerate your behavior much longer.’ Instead God says something quite unambiguous: ‘You are forgiven.’ What this means is, ‘I love you anyway, no matter what. I love you not because you are particularly good nor because you are particularly repentant nor because I am trying to bribe you or threaten you into changing. I love you because I love you.’” p. 3-5

Which takes us back to Moses in Deuteronomy reminding the people why God redeemed them and protected and sheltered them as they escaped Egypt and the iron rod of Pharaoh’s Empire. God loves them. We are all forgiven debtors and sinners welcomed to God’s table. This is the Good News we are given. This news is meant to drive all that we say and all that we do, loving God and loving our neighbor, all neighbors, as we love ourselves. And we should love our selves a lot. God does! Welcome home to God’s table! Amen. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Where Do We Place Our Trust?

While Huston continues to drown beneath record setting flood waters many parts of the western United States continue to burn with 82 wildfires threatening human, animal and plant life across 1.4 million acres so far. Meanwhile, not one but two hurricanes continue to barrel through the Atlantic already laying waste whole Caribbean islands and beginning to make landfall on the Florida peninsula, threatening to wreak havoc for millions of more people. All of which distracts us from the fact of what we consider a small, rogue state exploded a “test” hydrogen bomb this past week and is launching Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles on a near weekly basis. An interview with a Japanese woman who survived WWII as a young girl reveals people in Japan currently reviving duck and cover drills due to the unpredictability of what’s going on between North Korean and the US.

It is no wonder that I find myself singing and whistling this dark and satirical Sheldon Harnick tune (he who wrote lyrics for Fiddler On The Roof and other Broadway musicals), The Merry Minuet, popularized by the Kingston Trio back in what now seems the distant 1960’s:
They're rioting in Africa / They're starving in Spain
There's hurricanes in Florida / And Texas needs rain
The whole world is festering with unhappy souls
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch
And I don't like anybody very much!!

But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud
For man's been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud
And we know for certain that some lovely day
Someone will set the spark off
And we will all be blown away!!

They're rioting in Africa / There's strife in Iran
What nature doesn't so to us / Will be done by our fellow man
     Written by Sheldon Harnick, Sheldon M. Harnick • Copyright © BMG Rights Management US, LLC

The song is meant to make us laugh at our hubris and mis-placed loyalties. Mutually Assured Deterrence may have made sense to some when only two world powers had nuclear capabilities. Once the genie is out of the bottle, however, and more and more countries develop nuclear weapons we find ourselves feeling anything but “secure.” And like the Egypt of Exodus chapter 12, portrayed as a monopolistic Empire that believes in un-checked acquisition, storing up of resources and conspicuous consumption, it seems that there can be no satisfaction with what we benignly refer to as “the economy,” a system that consolidates unfettered wealth among a tiny percent of the populace, a system that is defended as fiercely as any religious icon in ancient Egypt or Canaan, or the various idols that still recall and revere a system of slave labor and White Supremacy as pernicious as any found in Pharaoh’s Egypt.

In Exodus 12 what appear to be a well ordered set of ritual behaviors meant to protect the Hebrew slaves from the impending showdown with Pharaoh’s Empire cannot distract our noticing that the “I Am,” the God of Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, Rachel, Leah and Jacob “forever” is preparing to sacrifice all first-born Egyptians – human and animal – although after the series of plagues it is hard to imagine what is left in the animal kingdom, a dilemma we face as species disappear from the face of this fragile Earth our Island home daily due to unfettered human so-called development and destruction of the eco-sphere.

Yet, this God “I Am,” defined simply as a Deity that slaughters those first-born is to ignore the other attributes of “I Am” as portrayed through the entire sweep of Biblical literature: a God who seeks to demonstrate alternative loyalties to those of the oppressors; the God who loves all the peoples of the Earth; the God in Jesus who teaches us to love not only our neighbor but our enemies as well; a God who forgives Israel and all human kind over and over again.

As some commentators have observed, “That motif which stands forth as being of paramount significance in this regard is, of course, that of God as Redeemer. Thus, the symbol of the slaughtered lamb in this passage is crucial, as it gives substance to the New Testament image of Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29 )... Not only does Yahweh intend to save the Israelites in a physical sense, but Yahweh intends to redeem that special relationship which binds them to Yahweh and Yahweh to them. The struggle with Egypt is not only with its people and its government, but also with its gods (v. 12). Yahweh’s liberation of the Israelites is understood by the text to be a liberation of the people from the power of that which pretends to stand in God’s place…. The error in identifying God as the slayer of the wicked or, worse, as the slayer of those innocent people who are kin to the wicked, is that it is so easy for a nation or a group to put on God’s mantle and to begin to do God’s work for God. The weapons of mass destruction have brought home to the human race more forcefully than ever before the folly of such thought and behavior.” [Brueggemann, et. al., Texts for Preaching, 472]

The next time we hear of “collateral damage” we would do well to ponder just where we place our loyalties, whether as individuals, as a nation, and as the Church: in the powers of Empire? In the securities of monopoly and weapons of mass destruction? Or, in the powers of redemption, grace and mercy?

Our fascination with the hurricane, I believe, is that we see in it a metaphor for all that we cannot and dare not control. In his volume, Prayers Plainly Spoken, Stanley Hauerwas offers the following:
In The Aftermath of a Hurricane

OK, GOD, Job-like, we feel enough is enough. Is a hurricane Behemoth?
What are we to say to you: Are you in a hurricane?
We fear acknowledging that you may be.
We want to protect you.
We want to think you and your creation are benign.
The result, of course, is to rob you of your creation.
The hurricane becomes “just nature,”
 but “just nature” cannot be your creation.
Do we dare believe that Christ could still the winds?
We want our world regular, predictable,
not subject to disorder or chaos.
So if you are in the hurricane, please just butt out.

We confess we have lost the skill to see you in your creation.
We pray to you to care for the injured, those in shock,
those without housing, those in despair,
but how can you do so if you are not in the hurricane?
We confess we do not know how to put this together.
We want you to heal our hurts,
but we really do not want to think you can.
We want to think you make it possible for us to help one another,
but it is not clear why we think we need your help.

Help us to call for help. AMEN.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Nashville, Jesus and Holy Ground

Nashville, Jesus and Holy Ground
Moses and the burning bush [Exodus 3:1-15]. Moses killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. Moses is now a fugitive on the run. He is tending his father-in-law’s flock. A bush is burning but is not consumed. A voice speaks to him from the burning bush. Moses approaches the bush but the voice says, “Stop and come no closer. Remove your sandals from your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses, the fugitive from the law, is then called to lead an exodus – to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt into new life in a new land. Moses wants to know to whom he is speaking. In perhaps the single most iconic moment in the Bible the bush replies, “I am who I am….tell them ‘I am’ has sent me to you.” This is key to understanding who Jesus is and the entire New Testament.

Jesus repeatedly says to people, “I am….” “I am the true vine,” “I am the true bread that comes down from heaven,” “I am the way….” Remembering all this gives the episode with Jesus and Peter make sense[Matthew 16:21-28]. Jesus tells everyone willing to listen that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed and on the third day rise again from the dead. Peter says, in effect, “No way! God forbid! I just identified you as christos, the Christ, God’s anointed one, God’s messiah, and now you are saying this? This must never happen!”

Do we see what happens in that moment? Peter forgets to take off his shoes. Peter forgets he is standing on Holy Ground? Peter seems to have no idea that he is talking to “I am.”

This is the great scandal of Christianity – Jesus and the voice in the bush are one and the same. This has been a scandal from the very beginning. Peter is not alone. Well meaning Christians, bishops even, are writing books right now saying, “God forbid! This cannot be! Jesus was just a man like you and me. Nothing more, nothing less.”

If those who deny our Lord is Lord of all are right we might as well sleep in on Sunday morning. The only sin greater than idolatry would be the sin of hubris – excessive pride or arrogance. Peter has it. Peter thinks he knows better; only he knows what ‘christos’ means; only he knows all about God and what Jesus describes cannot be God. Those abandoning our experience of Jesus as God AND Man have this hubris. The Church often has it. Our nation often has it. And the moment that I identify someone else as having it, I am in danger of having it. That’s just how pervasive and tricky this hubris business is.

Look at the Church’s history. A long history of Anti-Semitism, the Inquisition, the Crusades, complicity with slavery, racism - the list goes on and on, all founded on hubris. And just this week Christians are faced with something calling itself The Nashville Statement – signed by over 150 “Evangelical Leaders,” the statement declares, in part, "WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness. WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree."  Talk about hubris. Judging and condemning whole classes of human beings, despite claiming to follow Jesus who says, in Luke chapter 6, among other things, "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned."

I agree with Father James Martin who has responded in part: “I affirm: That LGBT people are some of the holiest people I know. I deny: That Jesus wants us to judge others, when he clearly forbade it. I affirm that the Father loves LGBT people, the Son calls them and the Holy Spirit guides them. I deny nothing about God’s love for them.”

I believe we are meant to see that the antidote to hubris is taking off our shoes. We are to honor others, not vilify them. We are to remember we are standing on Holy Ground. Shoes are a sign of affluence, bare feet are a sign of humility and solidarity with those Jesus loves, the poor, the disadvantaged, those who are lonely and isolated due to bigotry and discrimination of all kinds – most especially discrimination declared In His Name.

Taking off our shoes begins with believing that this is God’s world, God’s creation, the earth and everything and everyone therein (Psalm 124). It means accepting that all people are God’s people. Taking off our shoes means recognizing that we stand on Holy Ground on this earth, before God and before one another. Each and every person is holy and also stands on holy ground. Each speck of dust, each cell, each atom, “every little inch – it’s holy ground.”

Woody Guthrie wrote this song – a modern-day psalm, really. Singing it may help to bring us back to an understanding of where we are, which may help us remember who we are and whose we are. Peter, like Moses before him, eventually took off his shoes and listened to the Lord. With any luck we may, like Peter, get back to our rightful places behind Jesus and let him lead us in the way to life in its fullest. Or, like Moses, against all odds, strive for justice and peace for all people, leading people out of bondage into freedom – helping the world to be a place where all people are finally recognized and accepted as God’s people.

Take off, take off your shoes
This place you’re standing, it’s holy ground
Take off, take off your shoes
The spot you’re standing, its holy ground

These words I heard in my burning bush
This place you’re standing, it’s holy ground
I heard my fiery voice speak to me
This spot you’re standing, it’s holy ground

That spot is holy holy ground
That place you stand it’s holy ground
This place you tread, it’s holy ground
God made this place his holy ground

Take off your shoes and pray
The ground you walk it’s holy ground
Every spot on earth I trapse around
Every spot I walk it’s holy ground

Every spot it’s holy ground
Every little inch it’s holy ground
Every grain of dirt it’s holy ground
Every spot I walk it’s holy ground

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Gates of Hades Shall Not Prevail

The Gates of Hades Shall Not Prevail
Jesus surprises the disciples with a pop-quiz: who do people say that I am? That’s the easy question: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. Those who remember their history know all three were constantly threatened: Jeremiah was tossed to the bottom of a well and left to die (like Joseph); Elijah was threatened by the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel and by king Ahab, his queen Jezebel, and his son Ahaziah; and John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod and eventually lost his head. Suggesting that the disciples and the people already sense the impending danger in the air surrounding Jesus the Christos. To be God’s anointed is fraught with danger as you challenge the status quo and the powers in charge.

Question number two goes deeper: Who do you say that I am? Peter blurts out, “You are the Christos, the Son of the Living God.” Yes, Peter, Petra – and you shall be the rock, petros, upon which I assemble my community. Jesus introduces a play on words either in the Greek, or the Aramaic: Kepha you are the Kepha upon which I will assemble my community. A moment to laugh, to chuckle at the joke. But then. He says. “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against my assembled community.” The ominous sense of danger reasserts itself. Either, Hades and Death are on the offensive and the community of Christos shall prevail. Or, the community shall storm the gates of Hades and Death liberating those held captive by the Empire of Death. [Matthew 16:13-20] No cheap grace either way.

Surely those first hearing this proclamation in Matthew recall these words: “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” [Exodus 1:8-2:10] With a change of administration comes danger, oppression and ruthlessness. As long as Joseph was there, the people were safe. The new king, however, not only does not “know” Joseph, but is insecure with the number and power of Joseph’s people. Let’s work them to death. Doesn’t work. Let’s make it impossible for them to reproduce by ordering the midwives to kill all the baby boys. Doesn’t work. The new king his assault on one specific gender: all the people are commanded to throw the baby boys in the Nile. Both the future of Israel and the future of God’s plans for all humanity are imperiled. All because of a change of administration and its inherent insecurities and lack of knowledge.

Life is so hard for the people of God such that they have no time to call upon the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Perhaps the ancestors have been forgotten not just by the new king, but by the people themselves. “Yet, uninvited, God intervenes anyway. The mercy of God is not simply reactive, returning love for love. It is proactive—seeing human need even more profoundly than they who endure that need, and benevolently intruding into their lives even when unbidden.” [Texts For Preaching, Walter Brueggemann et al, John Knox Press: CD-Rom Edition, p 454] What appears to be the story of Moses is revealed to be about five women as woman after woman after woman steps forward with courage, passion, ingenuity and acts of civil disobedience to frustrate the commands of the new king.

First up, Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives. What can we say about the courage of these two women and their trust in God? They “do not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.” When summoned by the new king who did not know Joseph, they say, it’s not our fault that these “Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them!” We are told that for their bold deception God gave them families!

Next up, an unnamed Levite woman who bears a baby boy and hides him for three months. Again, an act of courageous civil disobedience. When she could hide him no longer, she makes a basket and floats him on the Nile, thus somewhat obeying the new king. Yet, another deception. Next up, the baby boy’s for now unnamed sister stands by to see what will happen. Along comes the Pharaoh’s daughter who saves the child. “This must be one of the Hebrew children,” she says. His sister cleverly suggests, “Should I find a Hebrew wet nurse for you.” And fetches his mother! Even the “daughters” of Jacob inherit the Trickster gene!

Imagine how divine and at the same time painful it must be for his mother to be reunited with her baby boy, and yet know that she shall not see him grow up. And that he is to live in the palace of the new king who did not know Joseph; the new king who ordered the ruthless oppression of her people; the new king who ordered the death of her child. And then to stand by and listen as the new king’s daughter gets to name him – Moses, “for I drew him out of the water.”

But for these risky, courageous and deceptive acts of civil disobedience of five women, the covenant and the future blessings for all humankind would have vanished among the machinations of the new king and his Empire of ruthless oppression and death.
Years, perhaps centuries later, the people reflect in a song, Psalm 124:
If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say;
If the Lord had not been on our side,
when enemies rose up against us;
Then would they have swallowed us up alive
in their fierce anger toward us;
Then would the waters have overwhelmed us
and the torrent gone over us;
Then would the raging waters
have gone right over us.
Blessed be the Lord!
he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler;
the snare is broken, and we have escaped.
Our help is in the Name of the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth.

These songs of Israel are meant to bolster our hope and our trust and fear in the Lord who inspires five women to break the snare of the hunter so we might escape to live in the promises and blessings made first to Abraham and handed down all the way through Jesus and beyond among his gathered community. We are to remember their courageous acts of deception and civil disobedience when faced with the Empire of Death-dealing. We are to re-member these things and live into the promises and blessings no matter what the new king threatens. No matter that the waters rage, no matter what enemies rise up against us. The Gates of Hades shall not prevail. Empires of ruthless oppression and Death shall not prevail. The new king shall not prevail. For our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. And in the women our Lord keeps sending to save us. Amen. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Reconciliation: Two Tales and a Confession

Reconciliation: Two Tales and a Confession
A brother and a mother. Joseph and an un-named Canaanite woman. What can their stories tell us? Can they help us here and now?

Jacob’s youngest son, at the time, Joseph, was sold into slavery by his eleven brothers. He ended up in Egypt where through a series of events he became something like the Secretary of the Interior/ Secretary of State and de facto ruler on behalf of Pharaoh. A shrewd business man, he had accumulated enough agricultural product to get through a long period of famine.

Enter, his brothers. Canaan is hard hit with famine. Some brothers are sent to Egypt by father Jacob to beg for assistance. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not know he is their brother they sold into slavery. Through a series of negotiations, and some trickery on Joseph’s part, no doubt inherited from his father Jacob The Trickster, food is provided over several years and his family is saved from the famine. In Genesis chapter 45 we are told he can no longer play the charade – he makes himself known to his brothers. He weeps so loudly, we are told, “That the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.” He identifies himself, and his brothers are silent in abject fear.

Yet, something has happened to Joseph. Instead of becoming proud of himself in the kind of power and influence he has amassed; instead of being bitter and revengeful against the very brothers who first conspired to kill him and later sold him into slavery. Joseph has come to understand that there is a greater purpose at work in his life and the life of his family: the God of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he says, “sent me before you to preserve life; sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God…. God has made me lord of all Egypt.”

“’Hurry and bring my father down here,’ he says. Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.” This is an extraordinary tale of reconciliation wrought through the mercy of God. Joseph has every right to be angry; every right for revenge; every right to allow his brothers and their families and flocks and herds to be devastated by the famine. But he has been infected with the mercy of YHWH, the God of his forefathers and mothers, the God of the promise, the God of the commandments that instruct on how others are to be treated with God’s mercy. Success like Joseph’s is not a license to do what you want. Joseph understands that God’s mercy spared him and God’s mercy must be evident in how he in turn treats others. It is a story for our time.

Then, in Matthew chapter 15 we find the story of a remarkable woman – a Canaanite woman we are told. A confession: In the past I have taught that a) it was unusual and forbidden for a male to be seen talking to a woman not his wife in that time, b) that Jews at the time of Jesus would have nothing to do with Gentiles, ie non-Jews, and c) that therefore Jesus moves from a place of particularism, addressing his mission only to “the lost sheep of Israel,” to a place of universalism, addressing his mission to all people. A chance meeting, like that between this woman and Jesus, with Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament professor at Vanderbilt University, has removed the scales from my eyes to reveal the kind of hidden anti-Semitism I was unaware that I was sowing. Unfortunately, unlike the seed that falls on rocky soil, implying that Jesus was in some way charting a path against and beyond the Judaism of his time does not shrivel up – and we can see the results of such incorrect teaching in the events of the past week.

A glance at the whole of the Gospel witness and proclamation, one not only sees Jesus frequently speaking with women, we know there were women traveling with him and his disciples supporting the mission. And in chapter 8 of Matthew we have already seen Jesus heal another Gentile child. Dr. Levine also observes that the Genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew includes the names of at least five gentiles among his ancestors: Abraham, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah the Hittite – and three of them are Gentile women. Israel has a long history of honoring righteous gentiles. Perhaps most interesting for us is Rahab, “the harlot.” Rahab had hidden Israelite spies on the promise that when Jericho fell they would rescue her and her family; not unlike our Canaanite woman who will do anything to rescue her daughter from “a demon.”

Just what does she do? Evidently, she walks out the door to meet him along the way. Then she recognizes Jesus as a son of David and begs for mercy for her daughter. Jesus ignores her plea. The disciples want her sent away. Jesus appears to concur in stating, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This hesitation on Jesus’ part strikes many of us as odd. Perhaps it is a matter of resource allocation – as Paul puts it, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” For Matthew, the launching of the Gentile mission begins at the very end of the gospel with proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection.

Then the Canaanite woman kneels before him and pleads for help once again. Dr. Levine suggests that rather than worship, she subordinates herself to him, but also blocks his way forward. She confronts him head-on. She is determined to have her case heard. Then, he calls her and her people dogs: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This was not some special epithet of the Jews for non-Jews. In fact, in the Sermon On The Mount Jesus uses it against other Jews who will not accept his message. It was a common Mediterranean insult as far back as Aristotle and others. This is utterly unlike what we heard last weekend in Charlottesville: all the chanting of the “unite the right” folks were anti-Semitic – “blood and soil,” an old Nazi slogan, and morphing “you will not replace us” with “Jews will not replace us. No doubt many of these marchers were raised in churches hearing sermons that cleanse Jesus of his Jewishness and set up “the Jews” as the enemy of Christianity. Sermons filled with the very misconceptions I had been taught in seminary and commentaries. Indeed, it was not until Vatican II and Nostra aetate that the church began to admit its errors in this regard.

Then it happens. She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Levine sees this woman as perhaps the only person to get the better of Jesus! And her response puts her in the good company of Abraham, Moses, Job and others in the Biblical tradition who argue with the God of the Covenant! Yet, even in her retort she subordinates herself to him. Jesus says it is because of her “faith.” Yet, she is not required to convert. We don’t know if her faith is in God? In Jesus? In the power of prayer? I will suggest it is a faith like Rahab’s: her willingness to put her body and her life on-the-line, and even risk insulting the man standing before her with her retort to deliver her daughter from her distress. Faith is not necessarily a belief, but a way of acting in hope that positive change can and will come.

As to universalism, the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, can be seen as one long argument of the particular vs the universal. Yet, the covenant from the outset is to lead to blessings for all people, all nations. Jesus already stands squarely in the long standing Jewish tradition of reaching out to all people. Not to mention the risk it took for the Canaanite woman to risk approaching someone outside the safety of her own people. She too demonstrates an understanding of the universal need to reach out to others – Jesus the Israelite is “other” to her.

Really, this is her story more than Jesus’ story. We have seen such faith in action. I recall meeting a girl of fifteen from Afghanistan who was willing to blog about women’s education and empowerment in the face of retribution from the Taliban. And we all saw Heather Heyer step out in faith to confront hate, bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism. Her final internet posting said, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Hearing thunderous shouts of “blood and soil,” and “Jews will not replace us” tells us what the “unite the right” folks are all about. Heather is right – we ought to be outraged. Heather, like the Canaanite woman took to the streets to confront this wrong

Joseph and his brothers were reconciled by the grace of God: those of us who share in God’s mercy need to reflect that mercy in all that we say and do. The Canaanite woman and Jesus were reconciled by her willingness to risk it all for her daughter. Sadly, our nation seeks and desperately needs reconciliation in so many areas of our common life. Our demons are on display. Heather Heyer, like the Canaanite woman, walked out the door and took to the streets to seek justice. To silence the voices of evil. We see what acting in faith looks like. The time has come to act in faith, not talk about it.  

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Unseen Hand of YHWH

Genesis chapter 37 begins the story of Joseph, a story rich with twists and turns and surprising reversals. It is yet another story in which the last becomes first, the outsider becomes the saving agent for people who are in distress. It is a tale that concerns God’s unseen providential care that has the power to transform human circumstance and human prospects. It is a story, as Psalm 105 later reflects upon it, that lays out the hidden ways in which God works through our trials and temptations that largely go unnoticed. Like Israel, and like Peter as he steps out of the boat onto the raging sea in Matthew 14:22-33, the Joseph story invites us to look back upon past events to offer assurances in present circumstances that there is an unseen presence, an unseen hand, shaping the end of the story in ways we can never imagine.

At the time, Joseph is the youngest of Jacob/Israel’s sons, and the first son of the dearest of his four wives, Rachel. Rachel finally gave birth to Joseph after a similar and long period of barrenness like her ancestors Sarah and Rebekah had also experienced. Among the other eleven of Joseph’s brothers it was perceived that he was his father’s favorite. To make matters even worse there are those insufferable dreams of his – and not only his dreams, but Joseph’s insistence on sharing them with his brothers. For these dreams ended with not only his brothers, but even the sun, the moon and the stars bowing down before him. And although Jacob warns him not to share these dreams, it is his father who outfits him with a fine coat, a coat of long sleeves (not many colors!), the kind worn by those who are to be honored and revered.

So, it is understandable that as Joseph heads out to join his brothers who are tending Israel’s herds that they plot to be done with him and toss him into a pit with no water. With no water, life in the Judean wilderness does not last long. Yet, first Reuben, and then Judah, come up with the quasi-moral decision not to leave him to die, but rather to make a profit off of ridding themselves of their arrogant and obnoxious little brother by selling him to a traveling caravan for twenty pieces of silver. The more mercantilist among us might note that by the time Judas conspires to get rid of Jesus inflation had increased the price to thirty pieces of silver. The caravan takes Joseph to Egypt as a slave in fetters.

Were the story to end here one would be hard pressed to imagine that the unseen hand of YHWH, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob is in anyway involved. In fact, there is no mention of God or even an angel to say to Joseph, “Do not be afraid.” The history of our country is ripe with examples of how Joseph must have felt to be betrayed by his brothers and led away in chains to a foreign country to work as a slave. We know this story all too well. Such feelings are unresolved to this day, and daily we are plagued with young girls, boys and women being kidnapped, sold, and transported throughout the United States and around the world to be kept in sexual servitude – nearly two million children alone each year. While still others are being prescribed into opioid addiction. The Baltimore Sun just reported on two doctors who have sold, sold, hundreds of prescriptions from their Mercedes Benzes in Baltimore and Bel Air. And for two days now in Charlottesville, VA, demonstrations and violence by those enslaved to ideologies of White Supremacy. Slavery takes on many different guises, but is very much with us every day.

Joseph’s story continues to the end of Genesis – and as it turns out upon reflection, as Psalm 105 proclaims, it is believed to be the Unseen Hand of YHWH that sent Joseph ahead and raised him to prominence in Egypt placing him in a position to save his brothers and all his family from starvation in the land of Canaan. Remarkably, Joseph fulfills the dreams of his youth, and yet without requiring those who betrayed him to bow down in his presence. Joseph becomes an active participant in God’s saving mercy and grace.

Then there is Peter in Matthew 14. This is now the second time the disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. This time they are alone as Jesus needs time by himself on a mountain top to be with God. They are far from the land, the wind is against them and the boat, once again is being battered by the waves. In the morning, he walks out upon the water and approaches the boat. The disciples are terrified thinking it is a ghost! “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid,” says Jesus. Peter asks Jesus to command him to step out of the boat and onto the water. Jesus says, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, came toward Jesus, but when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink. He cries out, “Lord, save me!” For a moment, his fear must be like that of Joseph being led away in fetters. The power of a roiled sea is fearsome indeed.

At this moment, the unseen hand of YHWH is made visible and reaches out. Jesus takes Peter by the hand and leads him back to the boat. The wind ceases. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  That’s a question for all of us. Yet, Peter does not ask for a miracle so much as he knows that what Jesus and YHWH command, Jesus and YHWH make possible. When Jesus says “Come,” a reservoir of resources opens up without which unusual things often do not happen. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic analysis of Peter’s response is worth citing:

“Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith. The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.”

Bonhoeffer goes on to draw the theological paradox that emerges from this scene: only the one who believes is obedient, and only the one who is obedient believes. “Faith is only real where there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience” (The Cost of Discipleship; New York: Macmillan Co., 1960, pp. 53–60). Had Peter remained in the boat and not taken the first step, his faith would have been worthless.

Every day we face our own fears. Every day we hear of terrifying situations like sex trafficking, opioid addiction, possible nuclear conflict, White Supremacist demonstrations and more. Often times it is a fearful heart struggling to make it to tomorrow in peace – fearful for ourselves, fearful for those we love. If these stories have anything to teach us, it is, like Peter, to call out for help, to reach out to the unseen hand, and to “come” when called. The command “to come” is an invitation to obey YHWH’s commands to welcome the stranger and to help those in need. YHWH cares for the widow, the orphan, the resident aliens, those who are enslaved, those who are addicted, those who are sick, those who are hungry tonight – all those, in short, who need a helping hand. The question at the end of the day would be, Are we willing to let the Unseen Hand lead us, take us by the hand, to help those in deepest need? Peter did. Joseph did. Faith is acting and doing, not believing.  

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Feast of the Transfiguration Revisited

Transfiguration: n. 1.Radical transformation of figure or appearance: metamorphosis. 2. The sudden emanation of radiance from Jesus’ person that occurred on the mountain. Jesus is glowing whiter and brighter than anything ever seen (Luke 9:28-36). There’s Peter acting like a little kid: “Oh boy, you are all here together, Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Let’s build some booths!” Observes the text, “…not knowing what he had said.” Suddenly a cloud. Terror as they enter the cloud. Then the same off-stage voice heard all the way back at his baptism in the River Jordan: This is my Son, the Chosen – Listen to him!

We read this twice every year in the Episcopal Church: the last Sunday after the Epiphany and today, August 6, The Feast of the Transfiguration observed at least since the 9th century, codified on this date by Pope Callixtus III recalling the Raising of the Seige of Belgrade (1456). Little did Callixtus know that warfare would be inextricably linked to this feast and this date, for almost 500 years later the 393d Bombardment Squadron B-29 Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets would drop Little Boy, the first Atomic bomb, on the city of Hiroshima in Japan.

Suddenly the sky was brighter than “a thousand suns,” according to one pilot. A cloud that threatened to engulf the plane came over that city of 350,000 some people, mostly civilian. Terror overcame the population instantly, or at least for those who were not immediately incinerated in the first few moments. It is estimated that some 90,000 died that day, with the total five months later being some 200,000 altogether from the effects of radiation sickness, burns, and other injuries, not to mention the psychic and psychological damage done to those few who did survive. Contrast this with only 2 civilian casualties in the three days Battle of Gettysburg, a battle pitting approximately 200,000 soldiers that resulted in 46,000-51,000 deaths. I recall a quiet, early morning visit to Gettsyburg in 1975, the parks closed, no one else around, pondering only two civilian casualties in all that carnage while considering Hiroshima, Nagasaki and what we euphemistically call “modern” warfare with its “collateral damage.” I still weep at the very thought of it all.

To say the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were transfigured, to say Japan was transfigured, to say modern warfare was transfigured does not go far enough. Humanity was transfigured in ways that directly contrast with the events the feast day of August 6 means for us to recall: the glory and holiness of God to be reflected in the lives of people – all people, human beings. Since August 6, 1945, humanity has lived under the cloud and specter of Mutual Assured Destruction should these weapons ever be used again.

Strangely, some good has tried to emerge from what August 6 represents to many people around this fragile Earth, our island home in the vast reaches of the cosmos. A devastating World War was brought to an end; out of a deep human desire for world peace the United Nations was born; many people abandoned a view of security based in military might for a view of security based in peaceful co-existence; and the Right Reverend Bennett Sims, the late Bishop of Atlanta and former rector of Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, developed a theology of Servanthood. This theology might be summed up by saying that our future depends on how we take care of the Earth and how we take care of one another – all others. Mutually Assured Servanthood.

Bishop Sims visited Nagasaki eleven weeks after our military instantly incinerated that city’s 39,000 civilian non-combatants, a death toll that eventually reached 64,000. After viewing the nuclear wasteland, Bishop Sims was returning to his naval destroyer by way of coal-fired steam train across Japan. A young man of fifteen was the conductor, cheerfully roaming the aisle, punching tickets in his badly worn and patched conductors jacket and cap. He sat down opposite Bennett and in sign language asked for a cigarette. Bennett offered up one of his Old Golds. Then the lad gestured for a light. Writes Sims,

“The act of lighting another’s cigarette, with wind blowing through the open windows of a moving train, brings people’s faces very close. His eyes and mine met only scant inches apart. Unbidden in that moment tears welled up, for both of us. Until a few minutes before we were total strangers. Until a few weeks before, we were sworn enemies, separated by war, propaganda, language differences, and distant geography. But in one swift removal of all barriers, two human beings drew close in a meeting of souls. On August 14th of that fateful year the war ended.
Better still, on October 25th peace came to two of us.” Servanthood (Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA:1997), p.170.

From this experience, Bennett Sims drew several conclusions that would shape his life and ministry until his death in 2011: 1) humanity is created to be a community of kinship in peace, 2) the best things in life come by surprise, 3) the planet will support the human enterprise only as the human enterprise supports the planet, and 4) new life arises from the death of the old. “The human odyssey cannot continue without a quantum advance in consciousness that will build new structures of care for the earth and for one another across all boundaries.” Ibid, p.168

Bennett Sims and the young Japanese man on the train were transformed and transfigured in the blink of an eye. Just as Peter, James and John were transfigured before Jesus on the mountain top, their lives changed forever. The voice from the cloud implores us to listen to Jesus. This Feast Day of August 6th means to ask us, have we listened? We are meant to stop everything we are doing and reflect on such questions as: What will it take to transfigure our church? Our nation? The World? Where do the cycles of violence end? In what can National Security truly be based?

On another mountain top, on another day, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” Bennett Sims concludes that the Transfiguration of Christ and the World is based in a kind of servanthood in which “great power functions as an exchange of power, never as coercion by superior forces. The universe is built this way. As the revealer of the Power that blew the cosmos into being and keeps it evolving, Jesus never coerces. Instead, it is his concise insistence by word and deed that greatness lies in giving – that superiority is embodied in serving. Persuasion is the posture of God.” Ibid, p. 173

The history of the past few generations on Earth has given us ample images of Transfiguration, both tragic and good. Jesus stands up on the mountain issuing the invitation to be transfigured for the good of the world into his servant people – to care for our planet and one another across all boundaries. To recall the last verse of one still sadly relevant song, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn….” (Where have all the flowers gone? Pete Seeger, Joe Hickerson – Fall River Music, Inc.)  Amen.