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.