Thursday, August 17, 2017

Grandma's Racism Isn't Ok


I'm not scheduled to preach on Sunday. If I were, I think I might open my sermon by saying something like, "That blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus sure does know how to put a filthy Canaanite woman in her place." Sunday's gospel lesson is from Matthew 15 and includes the encounter between Jesus and the Gentile woman who begs him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. After first ignoring her and then resolutely refusing to help, Jesus says to the persistent mother, "It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs." Of course, the woman takes Jesus' words and uses them to demonstrate that faith belongs not only to the children of Israel but potentially to all peoples, but let's not celebrate her faith without also questioning Jesus' motives.

I've heard plenty of people use a number of explanations to excuse Jesus' harsh words. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he didn't mean it the way we hear it. Maybe he knew what sort of response the woman would have, so he treated her harshly just to provoke that reaction from her and, through it, make a point to his disciples. Maybe, like a parent who, when asked by his children why he gave one child a bigger piece of cake, responds, "Because I love your sister more than you," Jesus actually meant the exact opposite of what he said. If it makes the preacher and the congregation feel better, we can hide behind any one of those excuses, but, if so, we will not have done the gospel lesson justice nor will we have been faithful to our call to participate in the transformational, unconditional love that God has for the world in Jesus Christ.

We use excuses like that to let our racist grandmother off the hook. She grew up in another era when no one understood what equality was. She only uses that term because she doesn't know the proper, politically correct way to speak about persons of color. She says things like that because no one ever taught her anything else. It's not like she goes to rallies or actively discriminates against anyone; she's just an old, southern lady who is stuck in her ways, and there's not much we can do about that. We say those things to ourselves and to other people because we don't like the alternative. We don't like thinking of our dear, sweet grandmother, who always doted on us and showered us with affection, as a prejudiced, bigoted, racist like the kind we see making Nazi salutes and wearing white hoods and shouting hate-filled things in Charlottesville. But what's the difference between David Duke and Grandma and Jesus?

For starters, let's admit that there is actually a difference. There's a difference between an individual who espouses racist views and a person who passively participates in a racist system. Jesus isn't lining up at the alt-right demonstration, and neither is your grandmother. The transformation that God is enacting in the world isn't facilitated by labeling everyone who has ever failed to call out a friend for telling a racist joke as the same kind of racist as the neo-Nazi skinhead who advocates the murder of minorities. But we undermine that transformation when we fail to identify and excoriate the systemic racism that leads Grandma to think about her African-American neighbors as a threat to her safety and security and that leads Jesus to call this Canaanite woman a dog.

I preached about this gospel lesson at a midweek service last week, before Charlottesville had made the headlines. In that sermon, which you can read here, I discussed the anachronistic label that Matthew uses for the Gentile woman who sought Jesus' help. In short, there were no Canaanites back then. Using that term was a way to remind the readers of those people who, long ago, had literally stood in the way of God's people entering the Promised Land. By bringing us back to that chapter in Israel's history, Matthew is inviting us to see this woman as someone whom Jesus wasn't supposed to help. Her faith, therefore, comes as a surprise to everyone--even Jesus. Her statement about gathering up the crumbs under the table and Jesus change of heart represent the kind of reversal that God is enacting in the world through God's Son. There can be no bigger reversal of fortunes than this "Canaanite" woman receiving salvation at the hands of the "Son of David." In the end, therefore, there must be transformation. The outcome of this gospel lesson--in the story itself and also in our lives--must be the radical equalization of universal and undifferentiated access to God and God's love. But we can't get there unless we embrace the fullness of the racism that otherwise would stand in its way.

Jesus may be sinless, but he is bound by his humanity, and that includes the shortsightedness of systemic, cultural racism. (My friend Steve Pankey wrote beautifully about that on Monday, and his post has been an important part of my prayers and work this week.) To a faithful first-century Jew, this Gentile woman--especially when labeled as a "Canaanite"--is nothing more than a dog. That's just the way it was. And that was as true for Jesus as it was for anyone else. Of course, that isn't the way God's reign looks when it is fully manifest. In God's eyes and in God's kingdom, the Canaanite woman is as beloved as any of God's children. We can see that now in ways that Jesus couldn't see and, perhaps, that our grandmothers couldn't see either. Even in the first century, however, Jesus represented the possibility that God's love could extend beyond traditional cultural, religious, and racial boundaries. It is in Jesus, therefore, that this barrier is shattered in this encounter with the Gentile woman. It is through Jesus that the world begins to see a little more clearly that racism of any kind--personal, cultural, inherited, systemic--stands in the way of God's reign.

If we pretend that racism only affects those who travel to Charlottesville to "unite the right," we will be guilty of perpetuating the same racist theology of privilege that led white preachers to issue their "Call for Unity," urging civil rights demonstrators to abandon their "unwise and untimely" provocation that had upset Birmingham in the spring of 1963. If we deny the racism that affects the culture and systems that we inhabit, we are guilty of the same racism that led southern states to secede from the Union in order to preserve their slavery-supported economy and lifestyle. If we refuse to confront the racism upon which our lives--our education, our wealth, our access--have been built, then we are guilty of the same exclusionary approach to God's blessings that led Jesus to turn that Canaanite woman away.

In each of those moments, God's kingdom is breaking through, but it is breaking through not in the stories of those who have power and authority and control but in the lives and witness of those who are oppressed, enslaved, and excluded. If we are going to see that kingdom and participate in the transformation that it has brought to this world, we must not remain silent any longer. We must not let passive participation in the unjust structures of society go unchallenged. We must forsake the racism that has shaped our ancestors, our institutions, and ourselves, and follow the one who unites all peoples through his death and resurrection.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Calling Out Sin or Facilitating Forgiveness?


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

If you search the internet for "drunk preacher Easter sermon," you can find an incredibly profane, curse-filled, five-minute audio clip of a made-up Easter Day sermon in which the supposed preacher calls out a dozen congregants for a wide range of sins. From the pulpit, he names a man and woman who have been having an affair. He calls out a Sunday school teacher for neglecting his duties and fires him on the spot. He berates another man for putting a quarter in the offering plate. It's funny because it didn't really happen. It's funny because preachers may think things like that, but we'd never actually say them.

Warning: this clip contains profanity!

Then again, if you look at the other video clips that YouTube suggests when you're listening to that make-believe sermon, it's not so funny anymore. There are actual preachers in actual churches who find ways to weave specific people and their specific sins into their sermons. It makes me nauseated to imagine being in a congregation while something like that takes place. How can any clergyperson charged with care of a congregation ever berate people in public like that? It's spiritual abuse. That makes the old saying about the pulpit being six feet above contradiction pretty scary. Is there ever a good time for a pastor to call out a congregant for his or her sin?

I'm not good at that. Sure, I have no problem telling people that they are sinners in need of repentance. I have a pretty low anthropology. I believe that human nature is fundamentally sinful. I believe in original sin. When it comes to having a meaningful relationship with our loving God, I believe that the first and most important gesture we can make is one of repentance. But looking someone in the eye and saying, "You've got to stop drinking," or "You need to apologize to your sister," or "You have to end that relationship," or "You must stop posting things like that on Facebook," is incredibly difficult. Who am I to judge? Well, actually, who am I not to? And who are you not to?

In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus says, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when you are alone...If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you...If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and, if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." I must admit I find those words to be a bit of a turn-off. They sounds so mechanical, so hierarchical. Perhaps it's worth noting that there was no ἐκκλησίᾳ in Jesus' day--at least not in the institutional setting. The word translated for us as "church" means "an assembly of the called-out ones," and there were assemblies of faithful ones back then but not in the Christian context. This seems to be Matthew's retrojection of instructions for good church order back onto the words of Jesus. Still, whether Jesus said them or Matthew and his community wrote them, they are a set of instructions give to us? How do we make sense of them?

These verses are chosen for today in a daily Eucharistic lectionary. The implication, I think, is that we would have assembled yesterday to hear the passage that comes right before this and that we would come back again tomorrow to hear what comes after it. Yesterday was the feast of St. Mary the Virgin, so we didn't get to hear the beginning of Matthew 18, and tomorrow is Thursday, when we don't have a service, so we won't get to hear the end. So maybe it's worth taking just a moment and recalling the rest of Matthew 18.

Jesus says, "Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones...What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountain and go in search of the one that went astray?" Later, after Peter asks Jesus how many times he should be willing to forgive his brother, "as many as seven times?" Jesus responds, "Not seven times but seventy-seven times." In other words, these instructions are not about calling out sin but about facilitating forgiveness. I don't like pointing out other people's sins, but I do relish the opportunity to invite people into a reconciled life.

There's been a lot of news lately about calling out sinners. Will the President call the alt-right movement, the KKK, and neo-Nazis the un-American, hate-filled, violence-inspired groups that they are? Is it right to use the same labels for the counter-protesters who claimed to be standing up to hate? Is James Alex Fields a terrorist whose radical ideology led him to drive a car into a crowd of demonstrators? Is Heather Heyer a martyr who was killed because she stood up for her faith? Should we share snapshots of "Unite the Right" demonstrators on Facebook so that they might be shamed by their friends and families and, perhaps, fired from their jobs? If we discover that our own child has fallen into this web of racism and hatred, should we disown him? Is it right to expunge our cityscapes from all statuesque representations of the Confederacy and the slavery it stood for? Should they be left as a symbol of heritage? As a testament to our shameful past? Are those who say that they should remain guilty of sin? Can we have a civil conversation about a legacy of our inhumane history?

It's easy to affix labels like "sinner" and "racist" and "bigot" from a distance. It's easy to preach against the sins that manifest themselves in the headlines and the sinners who stand on what the majority feels is the wrong side of a demonstration. But what happens when that person sits in one of the pews in your church? What happens when that person has a place at your Thanksgiving table? What happens when that person has a bedroom in your house? We don't shy away from calling a sin a sin, but we do so not to make ourselves feel better by declaring our superiority. We approach the sinner as a brother or sister who has lost his or her way. We invite that person to return to our fellowship. We reach out to that person in the name of the church and the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for even a lost sheep like him or her. We yearn for reconciliation. We want to be a path to forgiveness. We are willing to demonstrate the limitless forgiveness of God by forgiving our brother or sister seventy-seven times, which is to say as many times as it takes. As we discuss the sins of our ancestors and decry the sins of our contemporaries, may we never shy away from the totality of that sin, and may we never miss the opportunity to preach forgiveness and reconciliation for all.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Weak Made Strong


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I'm not as strong as I used to be, and I bet you're not either. I suppose my physical strength peaked when I played high school football. I haven't lifted weights since then, but, more than that, age slowly takes its toll on everyone. Sure, it's impressive when 83-year-old Jack Palance does a one-armed push-up on stage at the 1992 Academy Awards to demonstrate to the producers in the audience that older actors might be worth the risk, but no one who lives until she's 83 is as physically strong as she was when she was 23. It just doesn't work like that. Just ask Usain Bolt.



Eventually, human beings give out. Our strength wanes. Our speed retards. Our looks fade. Our memories blur. Our accomplishments, no matter how impressive, whether built of steel or language or insight, will erode. One day, even Robert Frost's divergent roads will slip out of human memory. It is a principle of the universe in which we live that all things--all matter and energy--are moving on a steady decline. But God has something different to say about that.

In the Incarnation, God declares a new law--one that does not replace the laws of thermodynamics but that transcends them on a different plane of existence. In God, the Virgin Mary declares, the powerful are brought down from their thrones while the lowly are raised up; the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty; the lowliness of the humble is regarded as blessed because of what God is doing. That doesn't make sense, of course. In our experience, the weak don't become strong. The humble aren't exalted. The rich and proud may eventually return to the dust just like the rest of us, but our future isn't one of increase but decline. Except that in God our weakness becomes strength, our humility becomes blessedness, because of what God has done for us.

"In the fullness of time," Paul writes, "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." In order for us to escape the limitations of our human nature and the ravages of decline that come with it, God had to become a human being. In order to reverse the inevitability of our weakness, God had to become weak. God had to unite himself to us so that we might be united to him. That which is broken and flawed inside of us is changed when it is united with that which is perfect and complete in God. Because God became man, we become like God.

That's why Mary sings her song of transformation not as if it will happen one day but as it takes place within her womb: he has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things; he has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy. And just as that transformation of humanity took place inside of her, so, too, is that same transformation taking place within us. It has taken place. It is taking place.

As the redeemed people of God, we have to look upon the world the way that God sees it--the way that Mary saw it. We must see how the lowly have become blessed, how the poor have been made rich, how the weak have been made strong. We cannot see that truth unless we look with the eyes of faith. Although we still inhabit this life, we also exist simultaneously in a different realm. Every day, we must die with Christ to this world so that we can be raised with him in the next--not when we die but now. The union of divine and human is not a moment locked in the past nor promised in the future. It is true now. See how God's nature has already been put upon you, and let that transformation, which began so long ago, be continued in you today.

Monday, August 14, 2017

God's Vision: Unity


When I was a kid, our family went to see Saving Private Ryan after church on Easter Day. I am not sure that I'd call it a resurrection story, but it wasn't a bad way to spend the afternoon. There's a scene near the end of the film where the title character is standing in a military cemetery, asking the graves of those who died trying to save his life whether he'd earned their sacrifice. Whenever I see that scene, the floodgates open, and I start crying like a baby. In fact, it doesn't even matter whether I've seen the whole film. If I flip through the channels and happen across that cemetery scene, I can't help but weep.

On Sunday morning in our Track 1 parish, we'll hear the tiniest sliver of the Joseph story (Genesis 45:1-15), but it's still enough to make my eyes well up with tears. Earlier this year, our men's Bible study read the Joseph story. Unlike the lectionary, which skips from yesterday's reading of Joseph being sold into slavery to the moment when he reveals himself to his brothers, we read every chapter and, even though we knew the outcome, wondered whether Joseph would survive, when he would show himself to his siblings, and whether he would ever be reunited with his father. Over and over in our study, I reminded the class that there must be reunification. The patriarchal story, which concludes with Jacob, must end with unity. We can't have one of the tribes estranged until after this part of Israel's history is finished. Still, we spent months enduring the ups and downs of the narrative until, at last, we could celebrate with Joseph and his brothers.

Typically, I would be drawn to Joseph's line about God being responsible for everything that happened: "So it was not you who sent me here, but God." That's a powerful statement of looking-back theology from which contemporary theologians and contemporary Christians shy away. Would we really say that God made that happen just because it ended well? There's so, so much to say about that. Combine it with the NT lesson from Romans 11 about God's promises being irrevocable, and you've got a great mind-spinning sermon about how God works throughout human history. That's what I'd typically focus on. That's where I'd usually be drawn. But not this year.

Today, I find it impossible to read the story of Joseph and his brothers and hear the words of Psalm 133 and not think of Charlottesville, Virginia. When my eyes fill with tears at the thought of Joseph's reunion with the same brothers who sold him into slavery, I cannot see anything but the police barricades that attempted to separate white-supremacists from counter-protesters. When I hear the song about how good and pleasant it is when the brethren dwell together in unity, I cannot hear anything but the loud, clear, dull thud of the car allegedly driven by James Alex Fields plowing into human beings, killing Heather Heyer, who was there to stand up to hatred. This Sunday, a week after the violence, when I hear God's plan for unity among estranged brothers, I will ask myself when that vision for unity will be a reality in this world.

God's plan for this world is unity. We read that not only in this Sunday's lessons but throughout scripture. God's dream, seen by God's prophets, is of a time when all nations will know God and stream together under his protection. Abraham is promised to become a light for all nations. Through Jesus' outstretched arms on the hard wood of the cross, God is reconciling the whole world to himself. So good and godly is that unity that it can be compared with oil running down Aaron's beard--a sign of anointing and abundance. Anything and anyone who seeks to divide the peoples of the earth is, therefore, working against God, and anyone who refuses to say so is complicit in their sin.

When we describe white male murderous car drivers who plow into crowds as "lone wolfs" and not "domestic terrorists," we are standing on the side of Satan. When we fail to make the explicit connection between the alt-right movement and the ethnic cleansing that their forebears enacted upon God's people, we are standing on the side of Satan. When we say that "both sides" of demonstrators in Charlottesville need to refrain from violence and hatred without also distinguishing between those who wear white hoods and use Nazi salutes and those who advocate for dignity and respect for all people, we are standing on the side of Satan. Hatred and violence and bigotry are always wrong. They are never excusable. When we pretend that they are not at the root of what happened in Charlottesville, we are standing on the side of Satan.

God is working to bring all peoples together. Under God's reign, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. In Christ, we are all one. The work of God, therefore, is carried out by those who stand up against hatred and who name bigotry and bigots for what they really are. The alt-right may be a political movement, but it is not only about politics. It is about hatred. It is about violence. It is about everything that stands in the way of God's reign being established here on earth. It is anti-Christ, and followers of Jesus must be willing to say so or else Satan wins.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

If Saved By Grace, Why Faith?


August 13, 2017 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
 
How long has it been since a preacher asked you where you would wake up if you died tonight? For me, it’s been a while—not long enough, but a good while. What if you don’t know the answer to that question? What if you’re not sure? Does that mean that you’re definitely going to hell? How sure do you have to be in order to get into heaven? How much faith does it take? And do you have to believe everything with that much confidence or just the really big things? For example, if you’re 100% committed to the resurrection but only 85% committed to the virgin birth, can you still squeak by? And what about the even less important things like whether there really were 5,000 men plus woman and children who were fed by Jesus with five loaves and two fish that day? And who gets to decide which things are the important ones and which ones are not so important? And is there any way for us to know before it’s too late?

I think it’s funny—as in actually chuckle-worthy—that preachers who are obsessed about heaven and hell seem to talk a lot about faith but not so much about grace. In fact, there aren’t a lot of preachers anywhere who talk a lot about grace. Grace is tricky—a lot trickier than faith. Faith is easier to understand because it feels like faith is something that comes from within us—something that we’re responsible for, something we choose. That makes faith something that preachers can weaponized as they climb up into their pulpits, saying, “If you don’t have enough of it, then you’re in trouble.” Grace, on the other hand, doesn’t lend itself to fiery sermons because grace, by definition, is something that we don’t make happen. It’s a complete gift—unearned, undeserved. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that fire and brimstone preachers don’t talk a lot about grace. After all, how do you convince people to come down for an altar call if you start by telling them that God already loves them just the way they are?

Even in our tradition, where we talk a lot about unconditional love, grace can be hard thing to wrap our minds around. Jack Charlton was a saintly man who knew as well as anyone what it meant to love his neighbor, but he still had a hard time with grace. Before he died, he used to tell me that he didn’t understand it. And sometimes I’d tell him that I don’t understand it either, that I know it’s a good thing, and that I’m sure we need it, but that wasn’t the answer he was looking for. The truth is that it’s a lot easier to believe in a God who gives people what they deserve—that people who reject God and his ways go to hell and people who choose God and his ways go to heaven. But that’s not grace. That’s just a nicer way of saying that you’d better be sure where you’d wake up if you died tonight. Believing in grace, on the other hand, means believing that none of it depends on us—which might be why it’s so hard to understand. But this week, as I read this gospel lesson, I encountered not an explanation of grace but an experience of it, and it made me wish that I had thought of it back when I still had the chance to talk about it with Jack.

It was before dark when the disciples got into their boat and set sail for the other side of the sea. By the time Jesus walked out toward them upon the water, they had been struggling against the wind for hours. Matthew tells us that they were still a long way from shore and seemed to be making no headway. The sky was starting to lighten when Jesus caught up with them, and the sight of him, rather than reassuring the disciples, terrified them. “It is a ghost!” they said to one another because to them a ghost seemed more likely than the truth. After Jesus identified himself and told them not to worry, Peter took the opportunity to test this apparition to see if it really was his master. “If it is you,” he said, “command me to come out to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come,” and Peter put his legs over the side and slipped down onto the surface of the water, and, instead of sinking beneath it, it held his weight.

Soon, however, Peter had stepped beyond the lee of the vessel, and he felt the full force of the wind. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” he thought to himself. Like weights upon his ankles, his doubts mounted, dragging him down below the waves. “Lord, save me!” he cried out. And immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” literally, “You little-faithed-one, why did you waiver?” Then, he led Peter back to the boat, and, as soon as they had climbed aboard, the wind ceased. And the disciples, recognizing the one who stood before them and the power that he had, fell down and worshipped him.

Perhaps the most important thing for us to note in this story is that          Peter tests Jesus not the other way around. Peter didn’t have the faith that he needed in order to get to Jesus. He had enough to get himself started, but, when the force of the wind hit him in the face, he wasn’t so sure anymore. And what was Jesus’ reaction? He reached out his hand and caught him. Jesus didn’t have to do that, of course. Jesus could have yelled back at Peter, “What happened to your faith? You got yourself into this mess. Why don’t you believe your way out of it?” But that’s not what Jesus said because that’s not who Jesus is, and it’s not who God is, and that’s not how salvation works.

Grace is being caught by Jesus even when our faith fails us. Our faith isn’t what saves us. If our salvation depended upon our faith, we’d be as sunk as Peter was as soon as the first doubt crept in. We are saved by God’s grace. God does all the work. God is the one who reaches out and catches us even when we’ve forgotten that he can. So what does faith have to do with it? Faith is the recognition that God alone is the one who saves us. As the apostle Paul wrote, “By grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Faith is the vehicle or lens through which we see that God is the one who saves us. It is the blindfold coming off, the look over our shoulder to see that it’s God who has been with us all along. Faith is the confidence we have that God is the one who has saved us and who will always save us. But even when that faith falls apart—even when we forget who it is that has promised never to leave us or forsake us—God’s salvation is still assured.

God doesn’t love you because you believe in him. God loves you because that’s who God is. God doesn’t save you because you’re 100% sure that what the preacher says is true. God saves you because that’s who God is. Grace is what our religion is built upon—not a life well lived or a conviction thoroughly held. God doesn’t care whether you believe in him or not. He loves you just the same either way. But doesn’t knowing that and seeing that and believing that make life so much fuller and richer? Isn’t it a blessing to go through life knowing that you are not alone—that there’s nothing you can do to cut yourself off from God’s love? You don’t have to be sure of that in order to be saved by God, but being sure of that—having faith like that—gives us the comfort and confidence that come only when we recognize that we belong to God.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Worn Down


Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote about the time of day when Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 14:22-33) about the walking on the water takes place. In a way for which I am often grateful to Steve, he identified something that I hadn't really noticed. Not only did he help bring the story to life by filling out more completely its setting but also helped me perceive another aspect of this story related to time--how long it takes.

When the passage begins, Jesus orders his disciples to get into the boat and begin making their way across the sea, while he stayed behind and dismissed the crowds. Keep in mind that they had just been fed with the five loaves and two fish, which Jesus miraculously multiplied in order to satisfy 5,000 men plus women and children. Maybe you remember how that miracle begins. The disciples are worried that evening was approaching and that the crowd needs to be dismissed or else they will not have a chance to buy food for themselves in nearby villages. I don't know what time shops closed in first-century small-town Palestine, but it seems likely that they closed pretty early.

That helps us fill out the chronology a little more fully. It was early evening when the people were fed, after which Jesus immediately sent the disciples across the sea in a boat. I think they left before dark--maybe after sunset but before twilight. At that point, Jesus sent the crowds on their way and went up on the mountain to pray. It seems that he prayed all through the night because, as Steve reminds us, it was the fourth watch of the night--sometime between 3am and 6am--when Jesus went out to meet the disciples on the water.

That's a long time after they started sailing. A quick Google search suggests that a normal crossing of the Sea of Galilee might take a few hours. The disciples had been in the boat from evening until morning--seven or eight hours or perhaps longer. Not only that, the fourth watch is the last watch of the night. Although I like Steve's suggestion that we recover that detail and help the congregation see how the darkness was starting to lighten, the NRSV translation of "early in the morning" helps us know that the time when Jesus met them was the time when night was passing into day. In other words, they had been struggling all night long. That's hard work.

It's into that context--the struggle all night long context--that Jesus meets them. It's after an exhausting, struggle with the wind and waves that Peter asks to come out and see Jesus. Don't forget that Jesus made them get into the boat. Jesus "ἠνάγκασεν" or "compelled" or "constrained" them to get into the boat. He was a carpenter's son. His fishermen disciples may have looked up at the sky and thought, "This isn't a great time to get into the boat and try to sail across the sea. Can't he see that a storm is coming?" But Jesus didn't give them a choice. He didn't "invite" them to go ahead without him. He made them do it.

Sometimes we've been battered by our own wind and waves so long that we're ready to give up. Sometimes it feels like God has led us right into that place of struggle. What are we like in those moments? What sort of response to we have when salvation appears? Do we have the same incredulous reaction that the disciples did? Are we likely to step out onto the water and then change our mind when another gust of wind blows?

So much of this story gets lost in its brevity. There are hours worth of struggle in this passage that are easy to miss. I'm grateful that Steve helped me see them because that kind of hard, long struggle seems pretty familiar to me and those around me. Maybe this appearance of Jesus walking on the water will feel a little less fantastic and a little more real when we remember how the disciples struggled through the night.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Humility Unites Us All


One summer in college, I went to visit a friend and her family in the middle of Illinois. I went in order to rekindle that friendship, but I also went to see a part of the country I know almost nothing about. I remember driving out into the middle of a field, turning off the truck's lights, and seeing more stars than I had ever seen before. I remember eating buckwheat pancakes--something the father made every single morning whether anyone else ate them or not. And I also remember learning about Scandinavian culture, visiting a museum of Swedish immigrant history, and hearing one Scandinavian joke I'll never forget.

Two young Swedish farmers ran into each other at the feed store. One of them said to the other, "I heard a good joke the other day. Let me tell it to you. Two Norwegians were walking down the road and talking with each other..." At that point, the other farmer interrupted and said, "You can't tell that joke. That's politically incorrect." "What do you mean?" the other farmer said. And his friend replied, "You can't tell a joke about Norwegians. That's impolite. You can tell the joke, but don't make it about Norwegians or else someone will be offended. Instead, make it about a nationality that doesn't exist anymore--like Hittites or Amorites. They died off long ago. You can tell a joke about them and no one will be upset." After a lengthy pause, the first farmer said, "Ok. Two Hittites, Ole and Sven, we walking down the road and talking with each other..."

I didn't get it. The farmer of Swedish ancestry who hosted me had to explain to me that Ole and Sven were distinctly Norwegian names. Even thought the farmer had called the two men Hittites, by naming them "Ole" and "Sven," he hadn't really changed the joke at all. I think about that joke whenever I read Matthew 15:21-28 and the story of the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter.

There were no Canaanites in Jesus' day--at least no one thought of them that way. Canaanites were an ancient people who had inhabited the Promised Land when Moses and the people of Israel moved in. We hear about them in Numbers 13, when Moses sent spies to survey the land of Canaan to see whether it was a good place to settle and whether God's army could defeat the tribes who already lived there. So, when Matthew uses the label "Canaanites," he's sending us a signal about the sort of person who approached Jesus. He could have called her a "Gentile woman," but, by labeling her as a Canaanite, Matthew is bringing back to mind an ancient ethic, religious, national separation that was defined by armed conflict, bitter rivalry, and pure hatred.

This is the person that came to Jesus and asked him to heal her daughter. Jesus had entered the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile area north of Galilee, Jesus' hometown. Just then, a Canaanite woman came to Jesus and said, "Have mercy on me, Son of David." Isn't it interesting that this foreigner is able to identify Jesus as the descendant of Israel's greatest king? She gets the words right, but words aren't enough. Jesus ignored her. The disciples tried to chase her away unsuccessfully. They asked Jesus to take care of the matter quickly, but he refused, saying, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"--another anachronistic reference to a kingdom that had disappeared centuries earlier. Undeterred, the woman flung herself at Jesus' feet, imploring him to help, but Jesus said to her, "It is not fair to the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Those words are shocking to us. They aren't the words of the tenderhearted Good Shepherd. They sound like a curt statement from a diehard bigot. But the truth of this passage is that they aren't the really shocking part.

Matthew calls the woman a Canaanite in order to show us that she shouldn't have been helped. She was, by definition, the enemy. She represented those who stood in the way of God's conquest. She was reckoned as one who must be eliminated before God's promise can be fulfilled. Jesus wasn't supposed to help her. As strange as it sounds to us, Jesus wasn't supposed to heal her daughter. But the woman showed Jesus and us something no one expected--not even Jesus himself. After being rejected by Jesus a third time, she said to him, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." And what was Jesus' reply? "Woman, great is your faith."

There is something about humility that transcends even the most bitter separations. As St. Thomas tells us, the word "humility" comes from the Latin humus, which means "dirt." It is that which is beneath all of us. It is that from which all of us are made. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. All we go down to the dust, from which we were made. The act of total emptying, total humility, is the most basic expression of this Canaanite woman's humanity. It thus unites her with all children regardless of her ancient ancestry. As one who lowers herself even to gather up the crumbs under the table, she becomes something more fundamental than a nationality. In humility, she becomes God's creation. She becomes God's child.

What labels do we use to define ourselves? Mother, father, brother, sister, doctor, lawyer, teacher, student, college-graduate, high-school-dropout, Swedish, Norwegian, Scots-Irish, English, Caucasian, African-American, Arab, Jew, trust-fund-baby, welfare-recipient, Republican, Democrat, American, Episcopalian, Christian? What are the labels we place upon ourselves? What are the labels that others place upon us? Rarely are we defined by our humility. Rarely are we defined as God sees us. God looks upon all of us as his creation, as his children. Anything else we hold onto is pure hubris. All we are is dirt. All we are is the dust from which we are made. May our response to God be 100% humility so that we might truly know the indiscriminate nature of God's love.