Authority’s Paradox

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2017 by timtrue

Matthew 21:23-32

1.

Why did Jesus pick John?

In response to their question, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders about John the Baptist’s authority—whether it is from the people or from God.

But why did Jesus pick John?

Why didn’t he pick, say, the emperor?

This was always a question on the minds of the people: did the emperor’s authority come from the people or from God? The emperors themselves maintained their authority came from the heavens—divine right, they called it.

Yet others, probably most of the common people of the empire, and certainly the temple leaders, disagreed: the emperor’s authority was purely human.

The Jews worshiped the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Whereas the emperor was a pagan; he worshiped a different god—a whole pantheon of false gods in fact. Jewish tradition would have said absolutely and unapologetically no, the emperor’s authority is not divine.

And so I suppose this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of an emperor. He was addressing Jewish leaders, after all.

Still, John was a relatively minor figure in the history of the Jewish people. He was an eccentric person, off doing some obscure work in the wilderness, proclaiming some sort of convoluted message about repentance. And besides, didn’t he eat bugs and wear uncomfortable clothes?

Most of the people of the day, if they’d even heard about this guy named John who baptized people for repentance in the waters of the Jordan River out beyond the edge of the city in the wilderness—even if they’d heard of him, he was weird. Why did Jesus use him as an example?

Why didn’t he use someone like Judas Maccabeus? Yeah! Remember him? He was a true Jewish hero. He took a stand and defied the oppressive hand of the Romans, much like Moses had with Pharaoh. He was fresh in the people’s memory as a messianic figure, held in high esteem by both Jewish leaders and the common people. He was certainly viewed as having authority.

So why didn’t Jesus use him? Why didn’t Jesus ask the Jewish leaders: “Tell me, was Judas Maccabeus’s authority from God or from the people?”

But, then again, Judas Maccabeus’s rebellion had come to nothing. He was killed by the Romans, his army was dispersed, and eventually the whole thing blew over. In the end, I suppose, his authority had not been from God; his mission and movement came to nothing.

And so I suppose this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of Judas Maccabeus.

But, still, couldn’t Jesus have used many other, better known examples to make his point? Why did he use John—obscure, eccentric, weird John?

2.

We’ll come back to this question. But first, let’s look at the real issue: authority. This is the question the temple leaders raise. How can Jesus do the things he is doing? Who does he think he is? What right does he have?

I can’t help but identify with the chief priests and elders in this story, at least to some extent.

They understand their tradition; they’re leaders in their religion; they know how spiritually to direct a congregation of people. For them, a lot of ecclesiastical kinks have been long worked out. They’ve got their bylaws, their articles of incorporation, their canons, and their policy manuals. Their experience in these matters allows them to be efficient and smooth as they run their religious organization.

They place a lot of value in having a codified methodology (to which I—and perhaps every Episcopalian on the planet—can relate).

And so, justifiably, they ask, “By what authority are you doing these things? And by whose authority are you doing them?”

Of course, it helps to know what “things” they’re referring to. This is a very important detail—one we skip over entirely, unfortunately, in Lectionary Year A.

The most recent thing Jesus did, just yesterday as Matthew tells it, was to overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the temple courts.

So, imagine if someone were to come into our building, fresh off the street—we don’t know him; he may have been here a time or two before, I suppose, but a lot of people pass through these doors so it’s hard to tell—and he randomly starts tipping over chairs and other pieces of furniture, maybe even the baptismal font, maybe even the altar! I’m sure we’d have a thing or two to say to this character. Who does he think he is, after all? What right does he have? And, beyond these questions, why even do it in the first place?

No doubt this is something like what the temple leaders in today’s Gospel feel. After all, it is their established policy to allow moneychangers to sell sacrificial animals in the temple courts. They’ve come to this policy after many a long and difficult vestry meeting. So who is this rebel to upset the status quo?

But, actually, come to think of it, they have seen this character a time or two before, or maybe even several. He’s that guy who blasphemed, telling the paralytic that his sins are forgiven. He’s that guy who eats meals with tax collectors and sinners. He’s that guy who casts out demons by the power of the chief demon. He’s that guy who healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath! He’s that guy who supposedly fed five thousand people with only some loaves of bread and a few small fish.

So, rather than simply call the temple police and confront him, the temple leaders formulate a question about authority: By whose authority are you doing these things, Jesus?

3.

But here’s where I hope we’re different than the temple leaders: they approach Jesus with their minds already made up.

Their question isn’t genuine: it isn’t asked from a teachable spirit with the hope of truly learning something. Instead, their question is designed to trap Jesus.

They reason that there are only two possible answers. If Jesus answers, “By human authority,” then he will be acting in rebellion against the authority of divinely inspired tradition. But if he answers, “By divine authority,” he will be blaspheming. Either way, he will be guilty.

They have him cornered—or so they think.

But Jesus turns the tables on them again—mental tables this time.

He doesn’t provide an answer. Instead, he asks them a question: Tell me, John’s authority, was it human or from heaven? And he assures them that if they answer his question, he will answer theirs.

Well, the temple leaders mull it over.

They cannot answer that John’s authority is from heaven, for they do not believe John. How could they? For they had to jump through all sorts of hoops to get where they are today—a discernment process, postulancy, seminary, etc.; but John hadn’t done any of that!

But, on the other hand, they cannot answer that John’s authority is human, for the people believe him to be a prophet; and they don’t want to provoke a violent mob.

Thus, they refuse to answer Jesus. Or, maybe, because their minds are already made up, they cannot answer Jesus.

Whatever the case, Jesus responds: Fine! Then neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

4.

Nevertheless, an answer has risen to the surface. And it’s an answer that, among other things, explains why Jesus referred to John in the first place.

A father has two sons. He asks them both to do some chores. One says, “No, Dad, I don’t want to”; and the other says, “Sure thing, Dad.” But in reality the son who first said no in fact goes and does what his dad asked; whereas the second son, the one who originally said yes, does not.

The first son, Jesus says, is like the tax collectors and prostitutes; the second is like the temple leaders.

And isn’t this an amazing thing!

On the one hand we have tax collectors and prostitutes—sinners.

On the other hand we have temple leaders—the keepers of the religious tradition.

Then there’s John, who came in the way of righteousness—with a divine authority.

Now, put these together: the so-called sinners recognized John’s divine authority; yet the keepers of the religious tradition did not!

And this is why Jesus uses John as his example.

John came with a divine authority. His authority is recognized by the common people, even the lowest rung on society’s ladder. We might call this the work of the Holy Spirit. And yet, ironically, those who proclaim themselves as possessing a God-given authority fail to see the divine nature of John’s authority.

And thus Jesus actually answers his opponents’ question. His authority, like John’s, is divine, whether or not the religious establishment recognizes it; the proof that the HS is at work is seen in the consensus of the people.

Jesus is not like an emperor, a tyrant whom we all obey or else! Neither is Jesus like a Judas Maccabeus, a revolutionary who rose to power from and for the people but whose mission and movement fizzled out.

Jesus is God Incarnate. And we know this from the consensus of the people—throughout all ages, from the earliest beginnings of the Jesus movement right on down through today.

The Holy Spirit works and moves not through the religious establishment but through faithful people.

5.

The Holy Spirit is like that. It goes where it chooses—hovering as a wind over the waters at creation, descending as a dove on Jesus’ baptism, overwhelming like tongues of fire at Pentecost. We cannot bottle it up. We cannot codify it, define it in bylaws, or capture it in any kind of methodology.

It’s not that the Holy Spirit won’t work through the religious establishment. It will if it wants to. But the Holy Spirit will not be contained by the religious establishment.

Look at the temple leaders. Their minds were already made up. Their methodology was fixed and rigid. If something or someone came along and didn’t fit within their rigid scheme, it was all too easy for them to conclude that God wasn’t present.

The Holy Spirit could have worked through them; but why?

To have bylaws and policy manuals in place is helpful, sure. And, yes, there’s authoritative weight behind a priest who has been to seminary. Yet the Holy Spirit is infinitely larger than these human-made structures.

John the Baptist shows us this. He heralded Christ’s coming and called the people to repentance not within the confines of the temple, abiding by the temple leaders’ methodologies and otherwise conforming to society’s expectations; but by going out into the wilderness. And there the Holy Spirit blessed his ministry beyond measure.

So, beyond all this, how are we supposed to discern the Holy Spirit?

Granted, this is a tricky arena to jump into. Some people will go to Cursillo, for instance, and declare that the Holy Spirit was most definitely moving through the place. Others will decide that, no, it felt like my emotions were being manipulated. Who is right?

Maybe neither! Maybe both! Maybe each is partly right and partly wrong! Who can say for sure?

But I think that’s the point. With the Holy Spirit, maybe we aren’t really supposed to come to the discussion with our minds already made up.

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Practicing the Common Good

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 20:1-16

1.

The Acts of the Apostles relates that members of the newly formed Christian church shared all things in common:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).

Similarly, other groups in and around early Christian Palestine—and the Jewish sect known today as the Qumran Community—attempted to live a communal life together.

People in these communities worked. At the end of the day they’d return and the community’s resources were pooled. Regardless of how much or how little each individual member of the community brought in, from this pool the community members were able to live lives of relative equality. Each member drew from the pool as he or she needed.

Discussing these communities one day in seminary, and referring to today’s Gospel, my church history professor posited this question:

“Was Jesus’ vision for his new realm one of communism? That’s what this sounds like to me—or something very much like it. Of course, we’ve seen that communism as a political ideal has failed. But the world’s twentieth-century experiments in communism were atheistic, largely devoid of God. What if God were central? Could a kind of Christian communism work?”

I shot my hand up in the air, along with several other classmates. After a few had shared their affirming thoughts—a few younger, idealistic classmates—it was my turn.

“Try raising five kids,” I said, “and you’ll see right away that communism doesn’t work.”

I was thinking of dishes, for example. Nobody in my family wants to do the dishes; everyone sees them as a chore. When it’s their turn, the family members with a lazier disposition (not to mention any names) don’t do a good job, or don’t do them at all, leaving the more industrious family members to clean up after them. Sharing the chore is supposed to be for the common good; and yet the result is guilt, frustration, and resentment. Christian communism is a nice ideal; but the reality just doesn’t work.

Later that week, at a community picnic, my young professor, whose wife was expecting their first child, pulled me aside and said, “You know, Tim, that was a really profound statement: ‘Try raising five kids; communism can’t work.’”

And I said thank you and smiled politely; and silently wished him good luck.

2.

Now, we can bag on communism all we want; for we live in a culture that values free speech and other liberties that are self-evident. But, at the same time, I’m pretty sure Jesus’ vision wasn’t western capitalism either.

Just look at the parable:

First, early in the day, a wealthy land owner hires some workers. The mutual monetary agreement between them is a denarius, a day’s wage for a laborer. It’s not much; but it is enough for daily bread.

Next, three times more, every few hours, the land owner hires another batch of laborers. Each time a wage is not specifically stated; but it will be a just wage, the land owner assures.

Finally, at the eleventh hour, an hour before the sun sets, the land owner hires additional laborers one last time. This time there is no mention at all of a wage.

So, when the workday is done, the land owner has the laborers line up, the last to be hired at the front of the line. When he pays them each a denarius—same as the agreed wage for those hired early in the day—naturally, some expectations in the back of the line surface: the laborers hired last worked only one hour; it seems only fair then that we who worked the entire day should be compensated more for our troubles.

But when those hired in the middle of the day come forward and are given a denarius and no more, these expectations turn to feelings of entitlement: we who were hired early on did so much more for the land owner; don’t we deserve more compensation?

At last, when those hired first are paid a denarius just like everyone else, there is frustration and resentment. They grumble against the land owner. They feel themselves superior. They voice their complaints. “You have made them equal to us,” they say (v. 12)—as if equality is a negative value.

The land owner wonders out loud if these first hirees might be envious at his generosity.

Envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Now, the point of this parable is God’s generosity. God treats all people equally, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or whatever other category we want to place people in. God is generous, benevolent, and good.

Nevertheless, for many of us this parable is unsettling. Dissolved boundary lines aside, it feels unfair; maybe even unjust—like when I end up doing someone else’s dishes.

But I wonder how much of this unsettling feeling has to do with the ideal of western capitalism.

Capitalism teaches us from birth to compete against others, excel, and distinguish ourselves. If we go to the right college, earn the right degree, and work for the right company, why, aren’t we then entitled to receive a higher income than the person who didn’t? And when someone seems better off with fewer credentials, aren’t we prone toward frustration and resentment? Even envy?

And envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

3.

But there’s another option that stands between the human ideals of communism and capitalism: the Christian practice of the common good.

This phrase, the common good, shows up in many places in our Book of Common Prayer. A few examples:

  • In the Good Friday Liturgy, we pray for those who serve the common good, including the President of our country, Congress, and members and representatives of the United Nations.
  • In the Collect for Vocation in Daily Work, we pray, “Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good.”
  • In the Prayers of the People, Form IV, we pray, “Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good.”
  • And in the Great Litany, we pray, “That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good.”

I’ve said it before: our calling in Christ is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus. Christ’s mission and ministry are for the common good; or, in other words, the best quality of life we can experience together, as a community.

And while our community starts with you and me as individuals, it flows outward, like circles after dropping a rock into the still waters of a pond, to our church, city, state, nation, and the world; from Jerusalem to Judea and all Samaria, even to the ends of the earth.

That’s the idea of the common good. Which is a big part of our calling as followers of Christ.

But, of course, our reality is modern-day America, a highly individualized culture. Ideas about the common good are seemingly lost in a vast sea of individualism.

So then, how do we practice the common good in our cultural context?

4.

Well, I’m glad you asked. Our annual Pledge Drive affords us a wonderful, tangible example.

We will be launching our Pledge Drive soon.

All too often, financial stewardship is addressed from a very individual perspective. We’re asked to be introspective, to look at our personal budgets, to pray individual prayers about what we can reasonably afford to give to God, and figure out a way to give from what is rightfully yours.

But in our financial stewardship, God doesn’t call us just to be individuals, as if stewardship is merely a personal exercise just between me and Jesus.

Yes, personal introspection is a very real part of faithful stewardship; but it is not the complete picture. God also calls us to consider the common good.

Thus, when we pledge, in addition to our introspective, personal considerations, we also need to consider the bigger picture of this church body, its unique and particular makeup; its unique and particular needs.

And we need to consider the biggest picture of all: God is generous, benevolent, and good.

In pledging to the common good, then, we are merely managing what is already God’s: our pledges are acts of love to the Lord our God; and to our neighbor.

And what happens when we pool our resources together for the glory of God? We enable ourselves to live into our common life: we enable ourselves to work together as equals—no competition, no distinctions, no status; no frustration, no resentment, no envy—in order to accomplish Christ’s ministry and mission in Temecula and the world.

Reconciliation’s Fabric

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

Delivered Sept. 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

1.

The church, a lot like broader society, is a community made up of individual persons called to live together in harmony; to dwell with one another in unity, regardless of whatever differences those individual persons may share. Favorite sports teams, alma maters, political parties, Fox News or CNN—as individual persons within this community we are expected to lay all disagreements aside and live with one another happily.

Well, okay, maybe not lay them aside. And maybe not always happily. But we are expected to work through our differences.

Unlike broader society, however, it is easy simply to walk away. When something doesn’t go the way we want, it’s not that difficult for most of us simply to find another church that suits us, in another part of town; or just to quit going to church altogether. In other words, in the church it’s easy not to work through our individual differences.

In broader society, to walk away isn’t so easy. If you have a difference with your next door neighbor, for instance, it’s not that easy just to pack up and move. You have to work through your differences. If your neighbor owes you a debt and won’t pay, why, you can seek restitution through a court of law. And you probably will, especially if the debt owed you is substantial.

But the church is a nice society. When our neighbor in the pew wrongs us, we don’t seek restitution, like we might in broader society. For the church is called to turn the other cheek.

But neither do we want to seek reconciliation.

Someone has wronged us and we’re hurt. So, we simply walk away.

2.

Remember last week? In the church, conflicts will arise. (And, again, to be clear, I’m referring to conflicts outside of the context of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and so on.) And when they do, individuals in this community are not to seek swift restitution; but neither are they to walk away. Rather, first, they are to seek reconciliation with one another.

Continual reconciliation, it turns out, is the key to living a harmonious life together in this community we call church.

But before reconciliation is even possible, something else needs to be in place. And that something else is what we find in today’s Gospel: forgiveness.

Hearing Jesus’ vision for a ministry of reconciliation, Peter wonders how many times we are to forgive church members who sin against us. “Seven?” he asks.

Seven is the perfect number. And so, probably thinking he’s being generous, and maybe showing off a little to the other disciples that he’s got the perfect Sunday-school answer, Peter asks, “Should I forgive the one who sins against me seven times?”

But how do you quantify, calculate, or measure forgiveness? True forgiveness is absolute. And absolute means infinite: it’s immeasurable.

Someone sins against you once. To forgive their sin absolutely is just as if you’ve cancelled their debt completely and entirely. The account is zeroed out! The file is forever deleted!

If that same person sins against you a second time—maybe even committing the very same sin—why, the first record is nowhere to be found; and so—as far as forgiveness is concerned anyway—the second debt is really now the first.

Similarly, a third debt—if the first two have been absolutely forgiven—should be viewed as merely the first.

True forgiveness is infinite; absolute forgiveness cannot be measured.

And thus Jesus answers Peter with, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” or, as some translations say, “seventy times seven”—and, if you’re like Peter, you want to ask, “You mean 490 times then?”

Oh, Peter, how you miss the point!

Forgiveness is the church community’s foundation for a continual ministry of reconciliation; and the point Jesus is making is that true forgiveness is absolute and infinite.

3.

So, what about the master in the parable?

At the end, after he forgives the slave who owes him an absurd amount of wealth; and after that same slave turns around and doesn’t forgive a fellow slave for a trivial amount, the master says he will not forgive the first slave after all.

And the clincher? Jesus says, “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So my heavenly Father? Is there a limit to God’s forgiveness?

Well, that is one of the great questions of all time: it gets into the topics of heaven and hell, grace, mercy, and judgment.

On the one hand, if there’s not a limit to God’s forgiveness, then salvation has already come to the ends of the earth.

God is love. Love keeps no record of wrongs. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

And so, if God is love, doesn’t this mean that God’s forgiveness is absolute and infinite? For forgiveness is simply love applied.

But absolute and infinite forgiveness on God’s part would mean that Pharaoh and his army are forgiven. It would mean that Adolph Hitler is forgiven. It would mean no less than universalism: that salvation has already come to the ends of the earth. Why then would Jesus have needed to die? Why would the church be necessary at all?

But on the other hand, if there is a limit to God’s forgiveness, then Pharaoh and his army deserve what they got; then maybe all that stuff I heard about hell fire and damnation when I was younger is true; then maybe God is nothing more than a harsh slave-master.

Does God really call us to have an attitude of absolute forgiveness; yet God himself has to act in no such way?

Obviously, there aren’t easy answers to these questions. But the parable offers insights.

Jesus, remember, sets out to answer Peter’s question: how many times should I forgive my neighbor when he or she sins against me?

So, first, this is a question about personal forgiveness, one human individual forgiving another; not about divine forgiveness—not about God forgiving humanity.

Second, this parable is about forgiveness within the church (Peter says, “If another member of the church sins against me”), Christ’s divine community on earth.

And, third, the parable is filled with absurd hyperbole.

The slave owes his master an absurd amount of wealth—an impossible amount, really. The master forgives him absolutely and entirely out of mere pity—something an earthly slave-master would never do. Then the slave turns around and asks a fellow slave to repay a petty debt, showing absolutely no pity when he is unable—also an extremely unlikely result.

The point Jesus is making seems to be that our heavenly Father has forgiven us a great debt, a greater debt than we can ever repay; so it really is absurd when we cannot find room in our own hearts to forgive our neighbors of a relatively small debt against us.

4.

But this brings up a good point about forgiveness. For reconciliation to work; for our church community to be characterized by a ministry of reconciliation, forgiveness has to be a two-way street.

Going back to the parable, the forgiven slave’s real issue was that he couldn’t find it in his heart to forgive the other slave of a relatively petty offense after he himself had been forgiven a great debt. That obstinacy caused a stir in the slave community, so much so that other slaves went and reported his obstinacy to the master.

If we don’t forgive those who sin against us, just as God has forgiven us our sins, we become like Pharaoh: people will cry out to God to deliver them from the shackles we put on them. And we all know what happened to P!

When we forgive those who sin against us; and those whom we sin against forgive us, the fabric of reconciliation remains intact. On the other hand, when one person refuses to forgive another, a thread is snagged and the knitting begins to unravel.

But what if I forgive my neighbor but my neighbor is unwilling to forgive me?

We can’t control our neighbor. So how can forgiveness be a two-way street?

Think of driving. We have lots of two-lane roads around here.

When you’re heading up Highway 79 toward Warner Springs, and Ken and Barbie are coming at you in their shiny new Corvette at an absurd speed, can you control Ken? No! No matter how much you’d like to say, “Hey, buddy, slow down! Hey, my 8yo is in the car with me! Hey, this is a daytime headlight section and your lights aren’t even on!”—no matter what you’d like to say or do—no matter how much you want to control him—you can’t.

Two-lane roads are a kind of dance. You do your part; and the car coming at you becomes your momentary partner, who does his part too. And most of the time it works out beautifully. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, there’s no way you’re going to control your partner. You simply have to let go of your desire to control the other person. You have to trust that the person coming at you at an absurd speed will do the right thing.

Ultimately, the only person you can control is yourself.

It’s the same with forgiveness. The call forgiveness is ultimately a call to you as an individual. The call for forgiveness is a call not to control other people, but to control your self: it is a call for self-control.

5.

Now, over the past few weeks we’ve learned a lot about the church.

Jesus delegated his authority over his mission and ministry to Peter; but not only to Peter but also to his disciples—to all of us. The church’s authority is corporate.

For the church’s authority to work harmoniously, we are called to cooperate through reconciliation.

And the church community’s commitment to reconciliation contrasts with broader society, which cooperates through retribution.

Today, we saw that the core of reconciliation is forgiveness, which ultimately is a call to individual self-control.

So, we began with the general and have come to the specific; from creation to the corporate people of God; to the community of the church; to two or three gathered; to you and to me.

And so I conclude by going back outward, from the specific—you and me—to the general—all of creation.

Forgiveness begins with the individual; an individual attitude of absolute forgiveness expands to mutual forgiveness between two or three individuals; and mutual forgiveness between two or three expands to form an entire community of reconciliation, a. k. a. the church.

When it works, then, a community of reconciliation paints a beautiful picture for broader society; a picture that encourages moving away from restitution towards reconciliation.

So, imagine if every individual follower of Christ were faithful in self-control and absolute forgiveness. Wouldn’t we see everywhere around the world church bodies cooperating through reconciliation?

And imagine if broader society did in fact follow the church’s lead.

Imagine: the entire globe reconciled to one another!

This picture is nothing short of salvation to the ends of the earth.

And that begins with you—not your neighbor but you—possessing and maintaining an attitude of absolute forgiveness toward your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Navigating the Mess

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

Delivered on Sept. 3, 2017.

Matthew 16:21-28

1.

Why is there evil in our world? If God is good, then why do bad things happen to good people?

Of course, this question has been debated for thousands of years, since before even the time of Christ. And, while there have been many attempts at providing answers to this question, at the end of the day we don’t really find incontrovertible evidence pointing us one way or another.

The short answer is, we don’t know.

On the one hand, this not-knowing is enough for some people to give up on faith.

I have a Jewish friend, for instance, named Shay. His is an interesting story that includes growing up in Israel, moving to the US, and being prematurely promoted to CFO of his company because his boss died as a passenger on Flight 11 as it slammed into one of the Twin Towers on that terrible Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

“I am a Jew by heritage,” Shay once told me, “not by belief. With all the horrible things that have happened to my people throughout the ages, how could there be such a thing as ‘God’s people’? How could there be a God?”

Shay has given up his faith because he cannot answer the question of the existence of evil.

But on the other hand, evil in the world is the reason many people of faith turned to God in the first place. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and wars are devastating and leave us feeling desperate. Faith gives us back hope.

Why is there evil in our world? Is it because of Satan? Sin? Global warming?

Why are there wars? How does one person get into a high enough position of power to start a war? Why are some people seemingly predisposed to being jerks? Why can’t we all just get along?

Really, can we answer any of these hard questions?

But here’s the thing: We don’t know the answer to the question of the existence of evil and we never will; but Jesus did become incarnate.

Jesus left the dwelling place of God—where there are no wars and natural disasters; where there is only perfect love expressed in perfect community always—in order to dwell with us, here on earth, where things are messy; where there isn’t always perfect love; where there isn’t always perfect community; where there are wars and natural disasters; where people are predisposed to being jerks; where there is global warming.

Why is there evil in the world? Why are there hurricanes? Why are there wars?

Why did Jesus himself have to face opposition, trial, condemnation, and crucifixion?

None of us, humanly speaking, wants any of these things.

2.

Peter, of course, was very human.

Just prior to today’s Gospel passage—in the passage we heard last week—Jesus hands the keys of the kingdom to Peter; and along with them the authority to bind and to loose: Jesus commissions Peter to carry on the work of his mission; and delegates his authority to Peter to lead it.

Yet then, in the next breath, today’s passage, we see Peter’s first attempt to exercise his new-found authority foiled—by binding Jesus!

Jesus explains that his mission involves standing up to opposition from religious and civic leaders, facing trial, and enduring execution; and Peter reacts, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

Peter’s response is very human. He hears of impending doom. But he sees a way it might be avoided. He thinks what Jesus is predicting doesn’t really have to come about. Does he really have to suffer and die in order for God’s will to come about? Surely there’s got to be another way. Surely God’s will isn’t for Jesus to die!

And so Peter’s first act of authority, to bind Jesus, a very human response, elicits a rebuke from Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan!”

And, dripping with irony, Jesus points out that Peter, the rock of faith upon whom he will build his church, has just become another kind of rock, a rock of stumbling. For Peter, the very leader of the new church, has been setting his mind on earthly things, not on divine things.

And thus the church’s very first authoritative act, to bind Jesus, was a mistake.

And the church and its leaders have been making mistakes and erroneous pronouncements ever since.

3.

Thanks to journalist Kimberly Winston,[i] here are some such erroneous pronouncements I read about just this week:

After Hurricane Katrina struck, well-known evangelical leaders pronounced that the natural disaster was God’s wrath being poured out on the sinful city New Orleans; that it was “divine retribution” due to New Orleans’ acceptance of homosexuality.

Similarly, after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc up and down the eastern seaboard, striking New York and New Jersey particularly hard, a well-known conservative evangelical church leader pronounced, “God is systematically destroying America” because of “the homosexual agenda.”

But with Harvey the rhetoric has been a little different. The pronouncements are of a different sort.

Texas has its sins too, after all: selfishness is more a virtue than a vice; there’s careless stewardship of the earth with practices like fracking; and as for corporate greed! Ever hear of the companies Waste Management and Enron? They’re known for only the two biggest-dollar corporate scandals in US history; and they’re both Houston-based companies.

Could this be divine retribution too, left-leaning pundits have asked?

Yet conservative evangelical leaders have been silent with respect to Harvey being a display of God’s anger. And, thus, isn’t this effectively another pronouncement? Isn’t their silence a loud and clear message? New Orleans and New York, well, that was obviously God’s wrath; for these are modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. But Houston? C’mon! That’s God’s country!

Why do we do this? Like Peter, why do we humans tend to make pronouncements about God’s will? Why are our actions so often misguided?

Really, how could we humans ever presume to know the mind of God?

4.

The question we need to be asking is not, “Why is there evil in the world?” but, “How are we to respond when evil strikes?”

More specifically for today, what does it look like in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to set our minds on things divine, not human?

Well, I don’t think it looks like sitting around in committees or Bible study groups to discuss it. Imagine this exchange:

  • “How should we respond to Hurricane Harvey?”
  • “Um, well, let’s make sure to get that on the agenda for next month’s Bishop’s Committee meeting.”

And I’m pretty sure it doesn’t look like making pronouncements of divine wrath, confidently asserting that we have a handle on the truth—the mind of God—that others do not.

Instead, it looks like action. It looks like providing food, clothing, and shelter for those in need.

And out here in California, 1,500 miles away from the disaster zone, I know, very few of us are able to get out there and do something about it in person. (By the way, if you are able, please let me know. I have a few friends out there, Episcopal priests mostly, who are in great need at the moment; I’d love to get you in touch with them.) For the rest of us, how do we provide food, clothing, and shelter to those in need?

The best way is to send cash to a trusted organization. Episcopal Relief and Development is one such organization; and has people there, on the ground, as I speak. See p. 12 of your bulletin for more information.

And, of course, the other thing we can do about it is pray. For prayer, above all things, aligns us with the mind of God.

Our world is messy. There are many trials and challenges that come our way—that come the church’s way. Christ left us with a mission: to navigate our way through these messy waters, not to know why they happen, but always to seek his mind and heart as we do so.

 

[i]               Cf. http://religionnews.com/2017/08/29/where-are-the-condemnations-of-harvey-as-gods-punishment/

Dealing with the Drama

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

Delivered on Sept. 10, 2017

Matthew 18:15-20

1.

A couple weeks ago we encountered Jesus telling Peter that he was handing the keys of his kingdom over to him. In this statement, Jesus delegated the authority over his mission to Peter, the rock, upon whom he would build his church.

“And,” Jesus told Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

In today’s Gospel, a few chapters later (in case you’re wondering), Jesus tells his gathered disciples, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Huh. This sounds familiar. Like, verbatim familiar!

But this time Jesus is not talking just to one man, namely Peter. This time Jesus says you; and the you here is translated in the south as y’all; or in the deep south as all y’all. In other words, it’s plural!

And just in case you’re dubious, Jesus goes on to illustrate the plurality of his teaching by clarifying:

“Again, truly I tell you, if two of you” (two is plural) “agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three” (again, plural) “are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus delegated his authority to carry on his mission not just to Peter, but to Peter and the disciples. Jesus’ authority is a collective authority.

And so, as I argued two weeks ago, the church is the only place on earth wherein we find Christ’s inherent authority.

Jesus didn’t leave his authority with parachurch organizations. He didn’t leave it with a political party. He didn’t leave it with individuals—with you or me or your favorite author or musician or Christian leader.

Jesus left his authority with the collective body of believers around the world, also known as the church.

Like it or not, Christianity is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus. Like it or not, Christianity is a community effort.

2.

But, Father Tim, what if I’m one of those people who likes to be by myself? What if I’m an introvert? What if I’m a little, well, socially awkward? What if I don’t like to make small talk? What if I don’t really need other people? What if I’ve learned how to be an island—a self-sufficient and independent person who stays out of everyone else’s way just as long as they stay out of mine?

To which I say: Yeah, so, you’re independent. You probably wake up most days to an alarm clock on your phone—a phone made by someone else. You then use electricity to charge your phone, turn on your lights, and keep food chilled in your refrigerator—electricity provided by someone else. Then you get in your car—made by someone else—and drive on smooth, paved roads—again, made by someone else—fill up your gas tank with clean, highly refined fuel; and on to the grocery store, where you buy fruit and vegetables, meat, cheese, and eggs—all harvested, butchered, aged, and collected by other people. So what’s your point?

We all know the old story. In the beginning, God created Adam. Adam was given stewardship over all creation. He named the animals, he worked the land, and he dwelled with God. But, the Bible tells us, it was not good for the man to be alone.

It was not good for Adam to live by himself, in solidarity, as a ruggedly independent island of a man. He needed community. For he was created in the image of God; and God has always dwelt in Trinitarian community.

So God created Eve.

And the first couple then dwelled together in community.

But then—and here is where the hang up regarding community seems to be for a lot of people—drama entered the scene.

The crafty serpent tempted. Eve listened. She tempted. Adam listened. And together the community of Adam and Eve shared the forbidden fruit. Next, God confronted. The community shuffled their feet and shifted the blame. And so their once enjoyable work became all manner of toil and labor and sweat; and their children argued and fought, until one day their angry and angst-filled son Cain reached out his hand and struck down his own flesh and blood, dead.

Yes, drama entered the scene!

Nevertheless, the community of Adam and Eve continued on. And God worked his good will through this community. Soon a new son, Seth, was born, from whose line would come the Savior of the world.

God created us for community. And, despite all the drama that comes along with it, the community of Christ is God’s only authoritative means of spreading salvation through Christ to the ends of the earth.

3.

But this brings up a very good point: What about the drama?

First off, let me just put something out on the table: In the church there will be drama.

If you’re tempted to romanticize and idealize, to say that, of all organizations out there, the church ought to be the shining, drama-free example to the world, forget it. That’s a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream.

The church is a community that is both divine and human. It has been divinely established by Jesus Christ, upon whose authority we stand. But at the same time it is being maintained by humans.

And it’s the human part of that equation that means there will be drama in the church. We are human. We will make mistakes. Disagreements will surface. Conflict is not a matter of if, but when.

Okay. Now that that’s out there—now that we’re being realistic about our life in community together—secondly, let me offer a qualification.

There are times when it is necessary to circumvent the method of confrontation Jesus sets forth in today’s Gospel. I mentioned abuse, neglect, or abandonment in my sermon two weeks ago. And, sadly, the reality is that there have been cases of abuse, neglect, and abandonment by the church.

If you ever experience something traumatic along these lines—in the church or anywhere else—I urge you, go straight to the authorities who are able to help you confront and conquer the situation.

But, as serious as these matters are, my focus today is to go where the Gospel takes us. Jesus knows there will be conflicts in his church. And these conflicts, by and large, are really quite petty: they have to do with one person offending another; and usually without even knowing it.

One person says something impulsively and another person overhears it and takes offense. Or one person loves a particular ministry—feels a kind of ownership over the ministry—and another with an interest in the same ministry comes along and frustrates the first person’s plans.

One person steps on another’s toes, probably unknowingly, and thus a conflict arises between two persons, the offender and the offended.

And in today’s Gospel Jesus tells us very plainly just how to deal with the drama.

“If another member of the church sins against you”—then what does he say?

  • Wait until she’s out of earshot and then call your best friend to gossip about her.
  • Take it straight to the priest.
  • Or, even better, forget the priest; take it straight to the bishop!

No!

“If another member of the church sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Jesus tells us that when someone has offended you—and here he is talking about you as an individual—you (singular), the offended, are not to take it to other people. That’s called triangulation. And triangulation is messy, so messy that the people who get caught in its webs sometimes decide to leave the church altogether.

Don’t triangulate! Instead, you are to go alone to the other, the offender, and point out how and why you are offended.

And if it works out—if the two of you are reconciled to each other—well, that’s as it should be, isn’t it? You’ve communicated with each other. The mission and ministry of Christ will continue to go forward, with the added benefit that you two can now work together in greater harmony than before. And whatever passed between you two will forever remain your little secret. End of story!

Oh, but, Father Tim, what if it’s such a small matter that I don’t feel comfortable pointing it out to the person who has sinned against me?

Well, that’s part of the deal. If you feel it’s too small a matter to bring to the offender’s attention, then it’s time to examine your own heart. Maybe you’re actually the one in the wrong here. If it’s too small a matter to mention, then why is it a big enough matter to bother you in the first place? And, certainly, if it’s too small a matter to bring to the offender’s attention, then it’s certainly too small a matter to bring to someone else’s attention!

Only when the two of you, the offended and the offender, are not able to reconcile—only then do you bring in others.

But even here, when others are involved, it is an exercise in humility. For bringing other, objective minds and hearts into the conflict means opening oneself to the possibility of being told by others to drop it, to move on already.

Do you see what Jesus is asking us to do here? We are to dwell in community with each other in humility, seeking to live in harmony with one another, being gracious to one another, and giving one another the benefit of the doubt. Incidentally, some people call this “The Golden Rule.”

4.

Now, prior to my ordination, my spiritual journey meandered significantly. I spent some time in a church that interpreted today’s Gospel passage not for reconciliation but as a guideline for discipline. And, in case you don’t know, this is not a unique interpretation. In fact, it’s quite common.

The church, the pastor said, has been given the authority to bind and loose. Obviously, he said, this refers to membership and excommunication.

And so, when a young woman began dating a young man who was not a church member, several people took it upon themselves to go to her in private, one-to-one, and point out her fault.

Sometime later, when she became pregnant, well, since some of the church members had already gone to her individually, why, the matter of her unrepentant sinful choices was brought before the elders. Meanwhile, the young man, who was feeling in over his head, skipped town.

So, since the matter was already public, the elders presented this young woman with a choice. She could either stand before the entire congregation during a Sunday worship service and publicly apologize to the offended congregation; or face excommunication, i. e., be treated as “a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Well, she chose the public apology; and made it on a Sunday morning with a tear-stained face; and I’ve recalled with sorrow the scene in my mind’s eye many times since.

But doesn’t this interpretation miss the whole point?

This young woman didn’t need discipline and the threat of excommunication. She needed a community who would love her through the tough times ahead.

Jesus in fact sought out Gentiles and tax collectors. If we, the church, are to treat an obstinate offender as a Gentile or tax collector, it seems to me we shouldn’t ban them from the assembly but rather seek them out, like the good shepherd does when one sheep wanders away from the ninety-nine.

Jesus has not called us to a ministry of discipline—of who’s in and who’s out—of us vs. them. Jesus has called us to a ministry of reconciliation. As the church—the heavenly community here on earth—we seek not to be divided from but reconciled to one another.

Jesus says that when two or three are gathered, whatever we bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven. Well, there are two or three (and more) of us here. So I say let’s loosen up on discipline and bind ourselves instead to the ministry of reconciliation.

The Housesitting Experiment

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2017 by timtrue

vintage-key-clipart

Matthew 16:13-20

1.

Authority is a curious idea.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say, for example, that Holly, the kids, and I are going away for a week on a family vacation. It’s June; the kids have just finished school; and we decide it’s a good time to get away for a spell.

Now, let’s say, too, that there’s a parishioner named Ulysses. (Is anyone here named Ulysses?) And Ulysses has a son, Virgil, who has just graduated from high school.

By this time I’ve been in Temecula long enough so that Ulysses and I have struck up a good friendship. So I ask, “Hey, Ulysses, would your son be interested in housesitting for us while we’re away? We need someone to take care of the dog, get the mail, water the plants, and so on. I’ll leave the fridge stocked.”

So Ulysses brings Virgil into the conversation, we discuss logistics, and agree to this housesitting experiment.

The day comes. We’re about to leave. Virgil arrives. I hand him the keys to the house, the mailbox, and the community pool. And we say goodbye.

Now, in handing over the keys, I’ve just given this kid a certain amount of authority. In exchange for feeding and walking the dog, getting the mail, and watering the plants, he has the place to himself for the week. The fridge is stocked with user-friendly meals and stockpiles of beverages for the underaged. TV, sound system, video game consoles, baby grand piano—they’re all his for the week.

But somewhere about midweek the cogs in Virgil’s mind jam. He’s been given authority over the house by me; so he decides to use this delegated authority—or, should I say, to abuse this delegated authority—by throwing a wild party for forty-two of his closest friends and associates.

Now, you and I—and Ulysses—all know what happens when forty-three fresh high school graduates get together for an evening of unsupervised fun. (For we were all fresh high school graduates ourselves once.) But Virgil hasn’t thought it through too well. The cogs were jammed, remember?

For starters, the dog didn’t get her walk that night. Instead, she somehow was fed or got into some substances that didn’t agree with her stomach. “I thought I cleaned it all up,” Virgil admitted later, “but, yeah, I guess the kitchen still smells pretty bad.”

Then, two of the Wii remotes ended up broken and somehow—“Don’t look at me!” Virgil said—the satellite dish had gone out of alignment.

There were footprints on top of the baby grand piano too, like someone had been dancing on it.

And, maybe worst of all, seventeen of the kids ended up in the community pool and hot tub, many of them freaking out the neighbors and otherwise calling attention to themselves because of their improvised swimsuits.

I said maybe worst of all because we’re allowed only six pool guests: now I’m in trouble with the Homeowner’s Association!

Finally, the cops showed up at about midnight, due to noise violations, they said; and the kids all went home, leaving Virgil alone with his thoughts and to clean up.

Needless to say, yes, Virgil abused the authority I’d delegated to him.

Now, let’s tease this scenario out just a little more.

We’re going to be having a conversation about all this, yeah? Virgil and I—not to mention Ulysses, members of the Homeowners’ Association, several neighbors, and maybe even the police—are going to sit down together over some beverages for the underaged and talk it out.

Maybe I expected too much of Virgil.

Maybe I should have been clearer in my expectations.

Maybe Ulysses should have talked through things a little more with his son ahead of time.

Or maybe, just maybe, Virgil should have acted with more maturity and prudence.

Yes, Option D, we all agree, is the best one.

Finally, let’s say a year rolls by—time has a way of healing past wounds—and Holly and I plan another weeklong family vacation. Do we ask Virgil to housesit again?

2.

Now, how do you think Jesus felt when he handed Peter the keys to the kingdom?

Peter! He’s that impulsive apostle.

A few weeks ago, on the Mount of Transfiguration, he’s the one who spoke first. Something absolutely mind-blowing had just taken place—Jesus turned bright as the noonday sun before the disciples’ eyes—and Peter, uncomfortable and awkward, broke the silence, speaking before thinking. The Bible even comments: he did not know what he was saying.

Two weeks ago—remember?—he was panic-stricken one moment and walking on water with Jesus the next.

And looking ahead, right after today’s Gospel, right after Jesus hands him the keys to the kingdom, Jesus actually calls him Satan!

Handing Peter the keys to the kingdom surely must have been something like handing the house keys to Virgil for a second time.

Yet Jesus does it anyway: Jesus delegates the authority of his very kingdom to Peter, the rock on whom he will build his church.

Peter will carry on Jesus’ mission. Peter will possess the power to bind and loose. Peter will begin a kind of apostolic succession that continues to this day.

And that’s because Peter is a rock. Peter is a solid foundation. Peter is nothing like the sand, unstable and uncertain. Right?

He would never do anything like deny Christ, right?

3.

Authority is a curious idea.

Was Jesus leaving his church in good hands when he delegated his authority to St. Peter the Impulsive?

But let’s think about the idea of authority.

What mom has ever acted perfectly in her inherent authority as a parent?

Did your mother always make the right decisions? Did she always allow you just the space you needed—not too little or too much; but just the right amount—to grow and mature from child to adult?

What about your dad? Like moms, dads possess an inherent authority over their children too, simply by nature of being a parent. Does that mean dads act perfectly, always and everywhere, as dads?

Or look at it this way. After becoming a mom or a dad, does a parent always make perfectly right decisions for her or his children? Do they never say a word to their children out of frustration, anger, or impatience?

Why, it’s ludicrous even to suggest it! We all know that such perfection is humanly impossible.

Nevertheless, each mother or father since time began possesses an inherent, God-given (if you will), authority.

It’s the same with bosses and employees; and teachers and students. Do bosses or teachers always make good and right decisions simply because they possess authority over their employees or students?

What about deacons, priests, and bishops? The road to spiritual authority, for most clergy I know anyway, is long and hard. Once they’ve earned it, does that spiritual authority then guarantee that they will lead and guide Jesus’ flock as faithful shepherds?

Not at all!

In fact, it’s kind of the other way around. Mistakes are the norm, not the exception. We humans are wired to grow and mature; and we make a lot of mistakes along the way. If wisdom and maturity were prerequisites, there would never be any parents, bosses, teachers, or clergy.

But someone’s got to carry on the mission.

And in the case of Jesus’ mission, that someone was St. Peter the Impulsive.

4.

Which brings up a very important point.

Earlier this summer my family did in fact take a vacation. (And, in case you’re wondering, yes, we did have someone take care of the dog; but, no, there were no wild parties.)

This vacation was a family reunion at Lake Tahoe.

Mealtimes were very revealing. I sat with different extended family members at each meal; and I never brought it up; yet, somehow, at each meal, the discussion would turn to religion.

That’s one of the byproducts of being the token family priest, I suppose.

Anyway, more often than not the person on the other end of the conversation would say something like, “Well, I don’t go to church anymore—gave that up a long time ago! But I am a Christian. I do believe Jesus is my Lord and Savior. And according to the Bible that’s enough. So why should I go to church?”

Have you heard these kinds of statements too? Statements like:

  • What gives the church the right to tell me how to live my life?
  • Pastors are just after my money anyway.
  • Who needs church at all? I’ll just go spend some time at the beach. That’s my church. That’s my Sabbath rest.
  • I’m spiritual but not religious; I worship God in my own way.
  • Besides, organized religion has done a lot more damage in the world than good: there have been far more wars fought over religious differences than for any other reason.

Well, the answer to this question—Why should I go to church at all?—is because church is where we find Jesus Christ’s authority on earth.

Of course, people today like to question authority. People don’t trust the church’s authority anymore. People want to question Jesus’ decision to hand the keys of the kingdom over to St. Peter the Impulsive.

But is it worth it?

To walk away from organized religion is to abandon the only institution that inherently possesses the spiritual authority of Jesus Christ. To walk away from organized religion is to make oneself a spiritual orphan. And who wants to abandon Mom and Dad?

Jesus did not delegate his authority to Christian radio; or to Christian authors; or to 501(c)(3) non-profit religious corporations; or to public education; or to a political party; or even to individuals like Paul, Apollos, Peter, the Pope, Michael Curry, Billy Graham, you, me, or any other single person. Jesus Christ’s authority rests only in his church, collectively; for the church is his body: where he has chosen to dwell on earth.

5.

But this brings up another very important point.

There are times when a family becomes so dysfunctional that intervention is necessary: abuse, neglect, and abandonment—to name a few examples.

Maybe church decline is a sign for our family, the family of Christ. Maybe people are leaving the church—maybe they do not trust organized religion anymore—precisely because the church has abused, neglected, or abandoned them.

Fair enough.

I have two things to say in response.

The first is to those who are thinking about running away: Don’t give up.

Yes, the church family is full of annoying siblings, moms and dads, teachers and bosses, and many other people who are growing and maturing and making mistakes all along the way. Nevertheless, the church is the institution on earth where Christ’s authority rests.

Jesus was patient with Peter, so much so that he handed the keys of his kingdom to him. You can be patient with Peter too. Don’t give up on your spiritual family.

The second response is to those who have already left the church: to those who feel the church has in fact abused, neglected, abandoned, or otherwise failed them; to those who feel they would rather be orphans than a part of our spiritual family. And it is this: Maybe you’re right. The church has fallen short. But why walk away? Can’t we at least talk about it?

This is my response to those who have left the church. But, of course, they’re not here! Because they’ve already left!

Which brings it all back to us, doesn’t it? We are left with something of a challenge, aren’t we? This challenge is called reconciliation.

How can we go out and find those who feel abused, neglected, or abandoned by the church? And once we find them, how do we begin the process of reconciliation with them? They’ve left the church already; so how do we get a conversation going with them?

Well, I don’t really know.

But I have a hunch about where to start.

Why not begin with Virgil, Ulysses, the neighbors, the offended members of the Homeowners’ Association, and the police? Why not begin with those we already know?

And so, yeah, Virgil will be housesitting for me again this summer.

Canaanite Confrontation

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 15:10-28

1.

What’s going on in today’s Gospel? Was Jesus a racist?

I mean, he comes across as fairly harsh, doesn’t he?

A Canaanite woman approaches him, shouting for him to have mercy on her and her daughter. And at first he doesn’t answer her at all.

Why not? Why doesn’t he at least turn and acknowledge her? If he can’t help her, why doesn’t he at least let her know?

Instead, nothing.

But she doesn’t leave.

We know this because the disciples start to pester Jesus. “Send her away,” they say, “for she keeps shouting after us.” She’s embarrassing us, they say. Do something to make her stop, they plead.

So Jesus responds—not to the woman but to his disciples—“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Only to Israel? But I thought God sent his Son to be the savior of the world. At least that’s what it says over in the Gospel of John! Why does Jesus focus on the exclusive race of Israel here in Matthew?

And if this isn’t already bad enough, after this woman has been calling after him for some time; after she has embarrassed the disciples; after Jesus says he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel; and after she comes and kneels before him and pleads, “Lord, help me”—after all this, Jesus calls her and her daughter dogs.

It is not fair, he says, to take the children’s food—the food that rightfully belongs to Israel—and throw it to those outside of Israel—to those less than Israel—to the dogs, he says.

And if you’re like me, you’re left to wonder: what in the world is going on here?

Was the man Jesus a racist?

2.

Some folks want us to think so.

Jesus was a Hebrew, after all, God’s chosen race; and this woman was not. She was a Canaanite.

And if you know your Old Testament history, then you know that the Canaanites were one of the people groups that God said to destroy totally.

In Deuteronomy 7:1-2, for instance, God, through Moses, says:

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you—and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them.”

Men. Women. Children. Animals. Totally destroy. In a word, Genocide.

I’m not talking here about terrorists, cults, or hate groups like Neo-Nazis or Skinheads. This is the people of God’s Old Covenant.

What are we supposed to do with scripture passages like this? What are we to do with today’s Gospel?

Was Jesus a racist? Is God racist?

Some folks want us to think so.

I’ve just named a few groups who twist religious beliefs into the fabric of their wicked ideologies—terrorists; Neo-Nazis; Skinheads; religious cults.

And, sadly, just this week the news has shown us crimes related to these ideologies—and even some serious political fallout!

But—this may surprise you—I’m not talking just hate groups. I’m talking Christians too, some of them mainstream Christians, maybe even Christians living right next door to you.

People you and I know—people we may even study the Bible with—believe that God prefers one group of people over another; or, to speak more bluntly, believe that God is racist.

3.

Now, can I just stop here for a moment and interrupt?

I want to make something clear.

Absolutely and unequivocally: I believe racism is wrong.

Is this not a self-evident, absolute, unequivocal truth?

In the beginning, God created humanity in God’s own image. Whatever else this means, here is dignity.

Dignity: being worthy of honor and respect.

Everyone!

Mutually!

Does this remind you at all of the Trinity? It should. For that perfect, divine dance is what God is calling each of us into; into that perfect image of God.

And how can there be any such thing as racism there, in the co-equal Trinity?

Whatever else you may think about God or Jesus; whatever you feel about those men who used cars as lethal weapons in Charlottesville and Barcelona; whatever grudges you might hold against individuals who in your mind represent an entire race of people; whatever bitterness and resentment you still harbor towards the 9/11 aggressors—hear this truth today: God has created all humanity in God’s image.

God’s image, every single individual human being—regardless of race, skin color, creed, sexual orientation, physical capabilities, attractiveness, intelligence, political ideologies, socioeconomic status, or any other distinguishing category you wish to name.

Is this not a self-evident, absolute, unequivocal truth? Racism is wrong.

And thus, no, God is not racist. God cannot be racist. God’s nature will not allow it.

Yet people make god into their image, don’t they? They fashion for themselves idols after their own likeness.

But that’s another sermon for another day. . . .

4.

To return then, what is happening in this episode with Jesus, the Canaanite woman, and her daughter? What do we make of Jesus’ apparent harshness towards them? Why does Jesus refer to them as “dogs”?

Here’s what I think is going on—I’ll just name it; and then I’ll attempt to explain it:

I don’t think Jesus is being harsh with the woman and her daughter at all—or racist, or prejudiced, or bigoted, or arrogant, or whatever.

I think, instead, Jesus is demonstrating just how harsh the Jewish leaders had made their own religion.

Now, my attempt to explain: from the broader context.

This episode in Matthew is the third time Jesus has had some kind of confrontation with the Jewish leaders.

In the first two episodes—both times—Jesus answers his opponents by referring to Hosea 6:6; which says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Two times before, Jewish religious leaders confronted Jesus because he had violated their traditions in some way. And two times before, Jesus had responded with words. It is not your traditions that matter, he said, as much as a heart for God.

Today’s passage follows a third confrontation.

His opponents just asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

Why do your disciples break our religious traditions, Jesus?

Jesus has already answered this question—in the past; twice already, as a matter of fact. God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

So this time he doesn’t answer—not with words, anyway.

Instead, the first thing Jesus does is explain that it is not what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out.

To overlook a human tradition—not to wash one’s hands before eating—is not going to defile or corrupt someone. But to overlook God’s true law of love and mercy—that defiles and corrupts.

Thus, when the Canaanite woman confronts Jesus, he does not answer his opponents a third time verbally. Instead, he shows them that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

When the Canaanite woman first approaches Jesus, shouting, “Have mercy on me,” his silent response shows the Jewish leaders and his disciples how they themselves would have responded.

When he says that he has come only for the lost sheep of Israel, he is espousing well-established Jewish traditions, which maintained that the coming Messiah would save Israel alone.

And when he says the word dogs, he is saying exactly what the Jewish leaders would have said if they were in Jesus’ shoes.

Yet this is not where the story ends. Jesus shows the Jewish leaders and his disciples their folly by demonstrating where their traditions take them.

This is not where the story ends: Jesus then goes on to praise the Canaanite woman beyond anyone’s expectations.

“Great is your faith!” he exclaims. And in an act of divine mercy, he heals her daughter then and there.

Then and there he shows his opponents, those lovers of tradition: God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

God’s infinite and unbounded mercy extends to all peoples. God’s love cannot be bound by race or any other human invention.

5.

So, let’s get practical.

Racism is wrong; we’re agreed on that.

Yet throughout history, people—even in our own day; even some of our very neighbors; maybe even some of us—have utilized religious beliefs and traditions to support their heinous racist practices.

We saw this play out recently in Charlottesville and Barcelona.

Yet if racism is wrong—and it is—then utilizing our religion to support our racism is doubly wrong.

So what can we do about it?

It begins with us as individuals. Each of us must examine his or her own heart. Where do you find yourself expressing subtle prejudicial tendencies? In your words? In your actions? In both?

Look for them. And where you find them, repent.

Next, we must examine ourselves as a corporate body. Do we—and here I mean St. Thomas of Canterbury, and more broadly TEC—do we unconsciously practice favoritism toward one group of people over another?

Again, where we find these tendencies, we must repent.

And a third suggestion is to look around the community—your family, your workplace, your church, local organizations—and confront racism where you see it.

Ugh! Did he say confrontation? But some of us don’t like confrontation.

Yes, I did. And, yes, I know: I’m one of them.

My counsel to those who fear confrontation, including me, comes from last week’s message: Who Needs a Board when your Eyes are on the Lord?

Jesus has left us with a mission. It’s not beyond our capabilities. But sometimes storms arise.

Individual and societal racism is one of those storms. Confronting it is frightening. So frightening, even, that it can wreak havoc on our faith!

Yet what does Jesus say to his disciples?

“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Beloved, through Jesus, we shall overcome our fears; through Jesus, we shall overcome racism.