Archive for Jesus

Yield to the Elephant

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2017 by timtrue

elephabt and rider

John 4:5-42

At the beginning of last week’s sermon, I observed that for the next four Sundays during Lent in Year A we will encounter four special people from the Gospel of John.

Last week, then, was a man named Nicodemus.  He and Jesus meet and have a difficult conversation about the nature and scope of salvation.

In this week’s passage, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well—and through him we too encounter her.  They have a difficult conversation about social norms and religious expectations.

Last week, also, I observed that there is an overarching theme of light and darkness governing this Gospel, a kind of lens through which we should interpret Jesus’ encounters with Nicodemus and this Samaritan Woman.

But just about there the similarities stop: other than we encounter both of these characters in the Gospel of John and nowhere else in our scriptures; that they have conversations with Jesus about complicated matters; and that the theme of light and darkness should be our lens through which we interpret our encounters with these characters—other than these similarities there’s not much else these two have in common.

Consider:

  • N comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness. On the other hand, Jesus encounters the SW at about noon, in the full light of day.
  • N is a Pharisee, a member of a devout Jewish sect. For him, worship follows a finely tuned liturgy.  He comes from a proud lineage, from a people who see themselves as God’s chosen. On the other hand, the SW is a Samaritan, a half-blood people largely despised by the full-blooded Jews.  The Samaritans look to Jacob as their spiritual ancestor but figure it is acceptable to worship in their own way: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,” she says, “but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  Moreover, the Samaritans are largely forgotten by the Romans, the political rulers of the day.  Together, their despised and forgotten status makes Samaritans the lowest rung on the racial ladder.
  • On the one hand, N is a Teacher of Israel. This title signifies position, authority, and respect.  His people know him and he knows his people. On the other hand, the SW is just that, a woman.  That makes her already in the background of society.  The fact that she is a Samaritan makes it doubly so.  But to come to a community well at about noon says even more: she’s not there with the other women, who came earlier in the day, to gather water for their daily chores before the day grew too warm.  Perhaps her aloneness has to do with her present, somewhat scandalous living arrangement.  Perhaps it’s for some other reason.  Whatever the case, this poor woman is as much a social outcast as N is in the limelight.
  • Also, there’s this, whatever we want to make of it: N seeks Jesus; whereas the SW was found by Jesus.

In this comparison, it’s not just darkness and light: another theme rises to the surface; a theme I want to explore with you today. It’s a theme with which we are all very familiar: head vs. heart.

We think with our heads, our rationality.

We feel from our hearts, our seat of emotion.

These two—head and heart—can work together in beautiful harmony; for instance, in matters of social justice.

My friend Debby, from Texas, works as an adoption lawyer.  Early in her career she found herself confronted by a cumbersome adoption process, difficult to navigate for both the child and the parents-to-be: her heart was moved.  So, she took what she knew, adoption law—her head—and combined it with her new passion, a just adoption process—her heart—and now fights for this cause.

But, also, as we all know from our annual attempts at New Year’s Resolutions—in matters, shall we say, of personal justice—head and heart can work against each other.

January 1st rolls around and you vow to yourself, “Okay, here goes: all year long, you’re allowed only one glass of wine with dinner.”  And—you know the story—the first few days you do brilliantly.  But a week or so into it, your heart begins to tell your head things like, “Why not treat yourself to a bigger glass tonight.  You deserve it.  After all, a bigger glass is still only one glass.”  Or, you’re at some sort of celebration; and your heart tells your head, “Ah, just go ahead and have two tonight.  You can always have zero tomorrow night, to make up for it”—which, you know, may or may not actually happen.

Two brothers, Chip and Dan Heath, have written a book about this very struggle.  It’s called, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard.

They have a very helpful metaphor for the heart-versus-head struggle we all face: it is an elephant and its rider.

Your head is the rider, knowing where it wants the elephant to go and what it wants the elephant to do.  But your heart is the actual elephant, who may or may not want to follow the rider’s instructions.

The rider tries to steer the elephant.  But what if the elephant gets hungry? or decides it wants to cool itself off in the adjacent coursing waterbrook? or suddenly remembers it left something important back at the house?—an elephant never forgets, after all.

You see?  The rational rider will try to direct the emotional elephant; but it’s going to take a lot of patience and discipline to get the elephant to do what the rider wants.

Moreover, the elephant is a heck of a lot stronger than the rider; so, in a battle of strength, who’s going to win?

Keeping our hearts in check can be exhausting.

So, in looking at these two characters from the Gospel of John, one, Nicodemus, is much more like the rider from the metaphor; whereas the other, the Samaritan Woman, is much more like the elephant.

Nicodemus is a Teacher of Israel, a Pharisee, and a community leader.  All his theological and societal ducks are in a row.

Or at least they should be.

But his internal thoughts are in conflict.  Who is this man Jesus?  He stands in contrast to what I represent.  Could he be right?  Could his way actually be the way of truth?

And so, wrestling in his soul, Nicodemus seeks Jesus out at night, under the cover of darkness, in secret.  And, after their confusing conversation, Nicodemus simply fades away, back into the darkness from which he came, just as confused as ever, still wrestling with his convoluted thoughts just as much.

The Samaritan Woman, too, has conflicting thoughts.  We see them in her conversation with Jesus.

We worship on this mountain, she tells Jesus, but you Jews worship in Jerusalem; one day the true Messiah will come and make it clear to us all.

Yet, in the clear light of mid-day, she hears what Jesus says and drops her water jar and runs off in haste to tell her friends and family to come and see the Messiah.  He has come!  In fact, he is here!  And . . .

No doubt she still had questions!  No doubt she still wrestled with conflicting internal thoughts!  No doubt she was aware of the injustices all around her!  No doubt she would still feel the deep injustices done to her personally!

Yet, despite it all, her heart, her seat of emotion, tells her in this moment, in the full light of day, that here is the very Messiah of God.

And she acts on her heart!

***

Beloved, the Gospel of John is clear.  When it comes to matters of faith, don’t overthink it.  When it comes to matters of faith, act on your heart.  When it comes to matters of faith, yield to the elephant.

Jesus is not looking for biblical experts; Nicodemus shows you that.

Jesus is not looking for perfect piety; the Samaritan Woman shows you that.

Jesus is calling you, now, to act only on what you know.

Yield to the elephant.

By the way, here’s a friend of mine learning (with a friend of hers) to yield to her elephant:

elephants

Divine Human Touch

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

hands_of_god

Matthew 17:1-9

What do you fear?

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world.

Does anyone remember my fist sermon here?  I entitled it, “Making Peace with Ghosts”; and it was all about dealing with a fear I had as a boy of an imagined visitor that lived under my spiral staircase, the Seven-foot Man.  As a boy, I, along with my older brother Andy and especially my neighbor Donny, possessed a great fear of the Seven-foot Man.  We had to learn, as boys, to deal with it.

As I grew from boyhood into manhood, the clothes fear wore became increasingly less fantastic and more realistic.  Questions went from, “What if there’s a zombie living in my basement?” to, “Will I get into the right college?” “What if she doesn’t like me?” and, “How are we going to pay for diapers and baby food?”

More into adulthood now, the fears have increased in scope, becoming more outward in focus: “Why is there such hatred in the world?” “How much more abuse and mismanagement of resources can the earth take?” and, “What if there’s a global nuclear holocaust?”

What are your fears?

Is “Big Brother” watching you?  Are you in jeopardy of financial ruin, or feeling forever enslaved to that harsh taskmaster otherwise known as credit card debt?  Are—or (depending on how you look at it) were—your fundamental human rights of dignity and democracy in danger of being compromised?

What is it you fear?

Today’s Gospel rounds out Jesus’ epiphany. Here, along with Peter, James, and John, we see Jesus in his full glory; that though he is fully human he is somehow, gloriously, also fully God.

Now, that would be something to fear, don’t you think?

Imagine.  You’re walking up a mountain path, following your leader and trail guide, who suddenly is transfigured.  His face is shining like the sun.  His clothes become dazzlingly white.  Two ghost-like figures appear next to him.  And to top it all off a booming voice sounds from the clouds overhead!

These words that tell the story of Jesus’ transfiguration are familiar to most of us.  But a danger here is that their power can get lost in their familiarity.

So, let’s change the scenario up a bit.

Let’s say we meet in the church parking lot one Saturday morning.  Our plan is to hike up Telegraph Pass.  So, since I know the way, it is agreed that I will lead you.

An overcast day, sometime later we pass that last bend in the road near the top, and find ourselves entering and soon enveloped by a cloud.  Then, at the top now—we know we’re there because through the fog we can see the registry box and the bench next to it—all at once you see me with shining white clothes, so bright they even seem to shine through the mist.  And you think, “Man, I’m sure he wasn’t wearing that when we set out!”

And then my face lights up too, illuminating the registry box, the bench next to it, an ocotillo plant, the road, the two other people there with us, even your very arms and legs.  And—whoa!—now there are two more people—Where did they come from?—who by all accounts look just like Thomas Cranmer and Queen Elizabeth—the first!

And then—ah, music to my ears—that voice from above, booming through the clouds, declares to you all, “This is your pastor; listen to him!”

And you think, “Wow, my heart’s beating fast and I’m sweating like crazy and I’m out of breath.  Surely, I must be hallucinating.  This is it!  I’m done for!  Call out the SAR bird!”

Anyway, point being, wouldn’t you be afraid?  At least a little?  For your own health and sanity if for no other reason?

The disciples are so afraid, the Bible says, that they fall down, “overcome by fear” (“sore afraid” in the KJV), with their faces to the ground.

Yet Jesus reaches out and—don’t fail to notice this detail—touches them; and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world.  Yet Jesus touches his disciples and tells them, Do not be afraid.

*****

Jesus could have been like Moses.

Along with the Transfiguration narrative in Matthew today, we also heard a passage from Exodus.  In it, Moses went up on a mountain; the mountain was covered by a cloud; the people from below could see illumination on the top of the mountain, where Moses was; and we all know that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his face shone with such radiance that he kept it covered with a veil.

This Exodus passage is a clear parallel to Jesus’ Transfiguration.  Which led me, in my preparation for this sermon, to read up on Moses, the larger context; and to compare and contrast this story of Moses with Jesus.

There are numerous similarities:

  • Both Moses and Jesus go up on mountains.
  • Both have companions with them.
  • Both are enshrouded by a cloud.
  • Both hear God’s voice.
  • Both are described as radiant in one form or another.
  • And, in both accounts, other people hear God’s voice and are afraid.

But there is a key difference between the two accounts.

And here, in this key difference, Jesus could have been like Moses.

But he wasn’t.

And I’m glad he wasn’t.

And because he wasn’t, this key difference is what stands out above all for me from today’s passages, our take-home lesson.

So then, what is it?  What is this key difference between Moses and Jesus?

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw that the people were afraid—well, let me just read the account:

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”  Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (Exodus 20:18-20).

Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and sees all the Israelites cowering in fear before the might and glory of God and he says, “Do not be afraid.”

Fine and well.

But he doesn’t stop there.  No, Moses has to seize the moment, to capitalize on the opportunity; and thus goes on to say, in effect:

But, well, yes, since you are afraid, it’s for good reason!  God is testing you.  In fact, this is the reason God has come: to put fear in you “so that you do not sin.”

Now, Jesus could have been like Moses.  Jesus could have done this too.

But he isn’t.  And he doesn’t.

And I’m glad for that.

Instead, when his disciples see fearsome, wonderful, and awesome visions and hear the very voice of God, Jesus reaches out and touches them; and says, simply, “Do not be afraid.”

No lecture.  No admonition.  No teaching moment.  Just words of comfort and human touch.

What, then, is the key difference between Moses’ transfiguration and Jesus’?  One offers chastisement; the other, positive reinforcement through human touch.

Which approach do you respond to better?

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world: “Big Brother”; financial ruin; the collapse of democracy; ISIS; terrorism; our own sin.  Why would I ever want to add to all of this an irrational fear of God?

In Jesus, God touches us gently, reassuringly, and humanly.

*****

So, from our starting point of Jesus’ Transfiguration, we looked back to Moses and have learned a valuable lesson. Now I want to look forward, to us, the church, today.

What is it we are doing here?

In ancient times—both in the time of Moses and in the time of Jesus—mountaintops were considered a kind of liminal space, a threshold of sorts, between earth and heaven.  They were seen this way topographically—a mountain peak is physically higher than any other place around it—as well as figuratively—places to encounter God.

Moses encountered God on top of Mount Sinai.  Jesus was transfigured on top of a mountain.

We see this concept in other traditions too: the Greek and Roman pantheon dwelled on high, above the peaks of Mount Olympus; and the Delphic Oracle was delivered high on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.

In fact, even in our own day we refer to personal divine encounters as “mountaintop experiences.”

Mountain peaks were understood to be liminal spaces.

Today, here is our liminal space: church.  Here we come, setting aside for a time our cares, concerns, and preoccupations in the world; to meet God.

Now, take it a step further.  In a few minutes we’ll have opportunity to commune together.  Well, what happens when I stand up at the altar and lead us through the Eucharistic Prayer?  Somehow, mysteriously, the bread and wine become Jesus’ own body and blood.

And then, best of all, when we partake here at this liminal space, just like on that Day of Transfiguration when Jesus reached out and touched Peter, James, and John; so Jesus touches us.

God touches humanity in Jesus; God touches us in the bread and wine.

He picks us up from our knees, puts his arm around us, leads us back to our pews, prays with us, and, last of all, best of all, he blesses us and says, “Alleluia, alleluia.  Go in peace, without fear, back into the world, to love and serve the Lord.”

Pirates, Pompey, and the Common Good

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2016 by timtrue

 

pompey

Bust of Pompey

Luke 17:5-10

How about a story? It comes to us from Roman engineering history; from that great military general Pompey, who was for many years a friend of Julius Caesar; and then an enemy.

So, in 66 BCE, about a hundred years before Jesus Christ was ministering in and around Judea, Pompey was given a charge: rid the Mediterranean Sea of pirates; and, especially, protect the eastern borders of the Empire—not far from Judea.

Pirates had been a terrible nuisance in the ancient world since at least the fourteenth century.  They preyed upon coastal towns, often exacting tribute from fearful town leaders or kidnapping residents and selling them into slavery.  Many Greek cities were founded inland, as a matter of fact, to be out of reach of pirates.

It didn’t help their cause at all—if one could say they had a cause—that in the year 75 Cilician pirates ended up kidnapping Julius Caesar himself.  The early historian Plutarch says that Caesar’s kidnappers initially held him ransom for a price of twenty talents of gold; but then raised it to fifty at Caesar’s own request: he was worth at least that much, he said, if not more.

And now, a few years hence, Caesar charged Pompey with the task of ridding the Mediterranean of this menace.

During his campaign to end piracy, Pompey determined to build new harbors in the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and the Black Sea.  There his engineering crews faced the challenge of digging away rugged, difficult terrain—tall cliffs, whole mountainsides, often lined with the durable and hardy mulberry tree.

Soon, one of Pompey’s chief engineers discovered a way to accomplish this challenging task—in relatively short order too!—by spreading mustard seeds wherever the digging was to occur.  The mustard seed planted easily, grew quickly, and spread invasively, sucking nutrients and moisture from the soil.

So effective was this annual plant’s invasiveness that after only a few months an entire hillside, mulberry trees and all, could be dug away and shaped into the harbors Pompey envisioned.  On occasion, digging wasn’t even necessary: records tell (so I’ve heard) that a few hillsides infested with the mustard plant simply crumbled and fell into the water.

Now, why do I tell this story about Pompey?  Because all this happened a century or so before Jesus tells today’s parable about the mustard seed.

Pompey was a very famous Roman military general.  He had spent time in the Palestinian region.  His engineering crews had discovered a way to make fast work of erosion to their great advantage using the mustard plant, so invasive that it could uproot the hardy mulberry tree; or command a mountain to be cast into the sea.

So: do you think anyone who heard Jesus that day might have remembered Pompey?  Pompey’s challenge was how to make new harbors when hardy trees and even mountainsides stood in the way.  For most people, this would have seemed an impossible task.  Yet Pompey believed he could bring it about; and he did.

And his belief—his faith—was about the size of a mustard seed.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

The apostles heard this and—I’m certain!—immediately thought of Pompey and his amazing accomplishment.  We hear this and—I’d be willing to wager—we don’t.  Show of hands: how many of you thought of Pompey’s pirate-ridding accomplishments the moment Pat read today’s Gospel?

Instead, don’t we tend to think of our faith in terms of quantification?  “Lord,” we say with the apostles, “increase our faith!”  We then think that surely our faith must be small, smaller than even the itsy-bitsy mustard seed, for life is difficult and we rarely get what we feel should be coming to us; but, as we see in today’s passage, even if I had a little faith I could do incredible things.

Now, in fact, there’s a whole branch of modern-day American evangelical Christianity that promotes this message.  If you are sick, they say, pray and ask Jesus to heal you; then just believe.  If you stay sick, they say, then it’s only because you don’t have enough faith: you must pray for more.

The argument is just the same with money: if you’re poor, they say, it’s because you don’t have enough faith.  Pray and believe; name it and claim it; and if your faith is large enough, why, anything you can dream of will be yours.

Faith is quantifiable, they want us to believe.  And the more money you send to them, they tell you, the more faith you will possess.

When the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith,” and Jesus answers, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”—what we hear Jesus saying is, “Oh, if only you had even a little bit of faith; but as it is, you really don’t have any.”  The result is that we hear this parable in a modern, American, evangelical, prosperity-gospel, consumer sort of way: faith becomes an individual possession, a kind of talent or skillset that makes me an expert when I find out how to obtain it, to be envied by those who haven’t yet figured it out.

But, instead, when the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith,” Jesus’ response is really more along these lines: “Oh, don’t you know?  You already have faith.  Don’t you remember Pompey?  He believed he could move mulberry trees and indeed whole mountainsides in order to make his harbors.  And he did!  If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and indeed you do!—you can throw this mulberry tree into the sea too!”

With the apostles, we cry to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  And the Lord replies, “Oh, but you already have faith.  And with it you can move mountains!”

So why don’t we?

There’s no shortage of mountains in our world.  You all know this.  Right on our doorstep, for instance—right here in Yuma County—we have one of the lowest percentages in the country of high-school graduates who go on to college.  We also have one of the highest rates of unemployment.  Trader Joe’s won’t even open up a store here.  These are big problems.  They can feel like mountains.

But Pompey moved mountains and cast mulberry trees into the sea and thus built his harbors with a faith the size of a mustard seed.

How so?  He didn’t rely on himself—his own knowledge and talents and expertise or whatever.  Instead, he called on his chief engineers—to think creatively, to experiment.  And also he relied on his army—his employees, if you will.  This was his community.

And why did he do it?  To rid the Mediterranean from the pirates that controlled it, for the sake of the common good!  This was his mission: the common good.

And so, Plutarch writes, “Thus was this war ended, and the whole power of the pirates at sea dissolved everywhere in the space of three months” (Dryden’s translation).

But—and I think here is where we find our answer—Pompey’s faith was not our modern-day, American, evangelical, consumer understanding of faith.  For Pompey—and, more importantly, for Jesus—faith was not understood as something to be individually possessed; a thing to be stocked up, hoarded, and stored away as some kind of commodity; so that if we’re ever sick or suddenly encounter financial ruin we can somehow pull it out as a spiritual antibiotic or divine debit card.

Rather, Pompey understood the mission set before him; and he knew he couldn’t accomplish it on his own.

Jesus Christ understood the mission before him; and he knew he wouldn’t accomplish it on his own.

Jesus came to earth as God incarnate; and lived and died and rose again.  But he didn’t ascend to the right hand of the Father until after his disciples understood their mission.

And their mission is our mission.  We have been called to transform this troubled, confused, mixed-up, bewildered world into the very Kingdom of God, for the sake of the common good.

And how is this mission ever going to go forward if our focus is on our individual selves and how much of a consumer-faith we can acquire?  Or not!

Instead, we must bind together, put our heads together, call on our chief engineers to think creatively, to experiment with new ways of thinking; in order to rid our seas from the pirates that now control them.  For the sake of the common good!

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and you do; you do!—you can move mountains.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on May 1, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 14:23-39

Do you know what I mean by the term breaking the fourth wall?  It’s a dramatic term, to refer to an actor who momentarily breaks out of the story itself in order to address the audience.

So, for illustrative purposes, imagine a movie we’ve all seen, The Wizard of Oz.  Do you remember that scene where the wicked witch flies over Dorothy and her cohort and writes a message in the sky?

We, the audience, hear the witch coming—a sound something like a whistle to represent an accompanying wicked wind, I suppose.  We then see what Dorothy sees—a small speck up in the left corner of the sky, a speck that we can only guess is the wicked witch—if we squint our eyes really tightly and tax our imaginations.  We then hear the witch’s cackling laugh, followed by some foreboding words, something like, “I’ll get you, my pretty; and that little dog of yours too!”  And then we see Dorothy’s terrified facial expression as she clutches Toto ever so tightly.  And, finally, we see the sky again, this time with the wicked witch as a small speck on the right side of the screen; and written across the sky is the message, “Surrender Dorothy!” skywritten magically from the tail of the wicked witch’s broom.

Do you remember this point in the movie?

My father in-law does!  The way he tells it, it was just here, at this point, just when the wicked witch wrote these words in the sky—little Jeffy was about four years old—“where I lost it,” he tells us.  “That’s when I just knew Dorothy was a goner!  Up to that point I’d held it together.  But at seeing the words, ‘Surrender Dorothy,’ I just couldn’t take it anymore.  And I began to cry.”

Poor little Jeffy!

But what if—let’s imagine for a moment—what if, right at this point, right at the height of all this serious, scary drama—what if Dorothy all of a sudden comes to her senses, looks straight into the camera, and says, with a snarky expression on her face, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”

Now she doesn’t do this, we all know—perhaps my father in-law best of all.  But if she were to do so, that would be to break the fourth wall.  She would come out of her story and into the audience’s.  Get it?

It’s not soliloquy.  For in soliloquy the actor never actually leaves his or her story and comes into the audience’s.  But neither is it narration, for a narrator is in the audience’s story, always removed from the story being viewed.

Nevertheless, breaking the fourth wall accomplishes what soliloquy and narration accomplish—temporarily taking the audience out of the story of the moment and simultaneously moving it forward—usually to great, and often very humorous, effect.

Like the recent movie Deadpool.

I haven’t seen it personally, but I understand Deadpool succeeds marvelously here: the story of a Marvel Comics character, Deadpool, ever aware he is trapped within the medium of a comic book.  Throughout the duration of the movie, time and again he stops whatever he’s doing to face the screen and offer the audience some snarky commentary; often producing explosive laughter.  Those who’ve seen the movie are left to wonder if perhaps Deadpool’s frequent success at breaking the fourth wall is in fact his only real superpower.

Anyway, that’s what I mean by breaking the fourth wall.

So, why do I bring all this up?  Because, a lot like Deadpool, St. John the Evangelist frequently breaks the fourth wall.

Do you know this about the Gospel of John?  Perhaps you’ve heard this, or studied this in a Bible study.

The Gospel of John was written last of all the Gospels, sometime between the mid-80s and the year 100 or so.

Mark was written first of all, probably around the year 70, around the time when a Roman commander named Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem.  We know this because there are echoes of the destruction of the Temple in Mark’s Gospel.

Matthew and Luke probably wrote their Gospels a few years later, for they offer more echoes of Jerusalem’s fall; and some subsequent echoes.

But none of the synoptic Gospels—nothing in Matthew, Mark, or Luke—suggests that Christians had begun to congregate and be persecuted as a sect or group.

Yet these echoes abound in John’s Gospel.

John 9:22, for instance, says (emphases added): “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

Again, John 16:2 says (emphasis added), “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

And again, John 20:19 reads (emphasis added), “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”

In other words, there is a threat of excommunication that shows up commonly in John’s Gospel; but such threats nowhere show up in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  The logical conclusion is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke must have been written before Christianity was recognized by the Jews as a contrary sect.

But John—whether on purpose or by accident—breaks the fourth wall.  He breaks out of the story being told, the story of Jesus’ life, in order to give his audience some commentary regarding their very specific plight: of being excommunicated from their community’s synagogue.

We just heard three examples of John breaking the fourth wall.

And here, in today’s passage, we see a fourth example.  Judas (not Iscariot) asks Jesus a question; and John breaks the fourth wall in Jesus’ answer to Judas’s question.

“Lord,” Judas asks, “how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?”

Judas is looking around him and scratching his head, just like John’s audience was looking around them, scratching their collective head.  How is it, Judas wonders (how is it, John’s audience wonders), that only a few of us—only a small group of us—seem to know the actual truth?  I mean, there are all these other people around us, all these Jews hanging out in the synagogue (or, if you will, the mainstream church) week after week.  Well, why is it that they’re not getting it, that they’re not recognizing you, Jesus, as the Messiah?  Why is it that only a few of us seem to be understanding what you have come to teach and to offer the world?

Does this question ever bother you?

Let’s cut to the chase here.  The present day Christian church is in a tight spot.  Quantifiable evidence has tracked incontrovertible decline over the last four decades.  Why is this?  Why is the church in decline?  If Jesus is the true Savior of the world, then why is the church shrinking?

But it doesn’t stop here.  Why is it that the group of people least represented in the American church today is the twenty-somethings, the millennials?  If Jesus is the truth, and no one comes to the Father except through him; if he is the way and the truth and the life and all that; if he is in fact the true Word of God, then why isn’t it obvious to the millennials?

But it doesn’t stop here.  For, if Jesus is the true Messiah and Word and Way and Truth and Life, then why are there so many other religions around the world, religions that either relegate Jesus as just a good man or teacher or flatly reject him altogether?  If he is truly human and truly divine—God, very God—then why don’t more people see him for what he is?

But it doesn’t even stop there.  For, if Jesus is the answer to all the world’s problems, then why has more unjust violence been done in his name than good?  Why the Crusades?  Why the longstanding violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants?  Why all the warfare in the Middle East?

If Jesus is truly the Messiah; if Christ truly is the way to the Father; if Christianity’s main message is love, the first and great commandment, then why aren’t more people seeing it?  Why is it only the few?

These were the fears of the Johannine Community, John’s original audience.  And—guess what—these are our fears too!

So, John breaks the fourth wall here and provides an answer to his audience: he provided an answer to the Johannine Community, his audience back then; and he provides an answer to us, his audience today.

  • Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
  • But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

When my father in-law was a little boy watching The Wizard of Oz and he lost it—when he began to cry, right when the wicked witch wrote that terrifying message in the sky—imagine what his response would have been if Dorothy had broken the fourth wall; if she had stopped her panic, looked right into the camera, and said, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”

One thing’s for sure.  Little Jeffy would have been shaken out of his immediate context, out of his fear.  Little Jeffy would have been jolted out of the scary drama that was Oz and into a greater reality.  Little Jeffy would not have lost it.

And maybe even—I don’t know—maybe he would’ve laughed.

Today, John has done for us what Dorothy did not: he’s broken the fourth wall.  And he’s done it for our benefit.

The world’s a fearful place.  It’s full of serious, scary drama, like Oz: drama we can get so caught up in that we fail to see beyond the fourth wall to the greater reality, to the audience, that great cloud of witnesses.

But today, even if for but a moment, John has broken the fourth wall.  See beyond it!  Catch a glimpse of the Greater Reality!  And let it to shake you out of your fear, out of your immediate context, out of the scary drama of our world.

And maybe even—I don’t know—maybe you will be able even to laugh.

Awed Possibility

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on October 19, 2015 by timtrue

31012.dng_109_1_edited-2

Mark 10:2-16

What a difficult Gospel passage!

I mean, it’s got it all!  Marriage, divorce, adultery, children—we might say this passage is pregnant, just waiting to give birth to all sorts of conflicting opinions and hasty judgments from family and friends.

There’s the uncle whose mind is already made up.  No matter what, the parents always seem to be doing something wrong as they raise their child.  They’re either too controlling, on the verge of being helicopter parents; or too permissive, producing a child who is a law unto himself.

Then there’s the aunt who’s twice removed.  At family gatherings, she looks on the child from across the room only as a spectator.  The child is interesting to her, but as a lizard in an aquarium is interesting, only to observe, never to engage.

Then there are the parents themselves.  That’s us, you know, the mainline Episcopal Church.  Our child is growing before our eyes and has begun to form her own take on the world—and it’s not always the same as ours!  In fact, sometimes we catch ourselves wondering if she is deliberately choosing the other side of the debate, just to spite us!

Whatever the case, it’s left us uncomfortable.  Why does she think the way she does about divorce, marriage, human sexuality, adultery, and children?  Doesn’t she know better?  Doesn’t she understand and value what Jesus teaches?

Still, some of what she’s saying seems to make sense.  It’s not what our parents taught us, no way, no how.  But—we’re second guessing ourselves now—maybe they didn’t know everything either, just as we know we don’t know everything.

Well, what does Jesus teach about divorce, marriage, and children—and maybe even human sexuality—in this passage?

A lot, it seems!  On the surface anyway.  At least there’s a lot in here about divorce.

But, then, why does the narrative about little children follow right on divorce’s heels?  Is it because children are the most innocent of victims in a divorce, as more than one commentator has noted?

While this may be true in general, and certainly has been so in specific cases, no, I don’t think this is why Mark brings children into the immediate context—at all!  Instead, this exchange between Jesus, some Pharisees, the disciples, and the little children runs much deeper than just wise instruction about marriage and divorce: this exchange is about worldview.

Are you familiar with this term, worldview?  It’s how we see things.  It’s our perspective.  It’s the governing lens through which we as individuals interpret all that goes on in the world around us.

Now, you’ve been to those scenic viewpoints with the coin-operated viewers, right?  I think there’s one on the rim of the Grand Canyon.  So, let’s say we’re on a trip together to the Grand Canyon and we stop to use this viewer.  You walk up to it, put a quarter in, and look through.  Then, when you’re done, I have my turn.

Now, despite the fact that we use the same viewer, you and I don’t see exactly the same things through it.  Right?

Well, this is like the worldview Christ calls us as Christians to have.  You and I look through the same lens.  But we don’t always focus on the same things.  And when we do, we often interpret them differently.  You might shop at Albertson’s while I prefer Fry’s.  You might vote for a different presidential candidate than I.  Or, coming closer to today’s passage, you may not have experienced divorce as a child; but I did.

Nevertheless, despite our differences in interpretation, Jesus calls us to a common worldview.  As followers of Christ, we should agree on perspective.

But all too often we don’t. We answer questions differently, questions like:

  • Is it ever okay for Christians to divorce?
  • If so, when?  Is it only okay to divorce in cases of abuse or neglect or adultery?  What about incompatibility?
  • Are Christians allowed to drink alcohol?  And, if so, is it ever okay for a Christian to get drunk?
  • Is it permissible for a man to marry a man?
  • Is it okay to ordain a woman?
  • And—a question from this summer—is it okay if a young woman going through a transgendering process is my son’s counselor at camp?

We tend to fixate on—and argue about—what’s permissible.  We like lists of dos and don’ts.

But isn’t this just what the Pharisees are doing in today’s passage: asking what’s permissible?

Verse 2 tells us they come to Jesus to test him with the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Already, there’s a negative tone.  The Pharisees’ question is focused on the dissolution of marriage, not on the purpose of it or the blessings to be found in it—not on the positive.

At its core, their question is about what’s permissible.

But Jesus masterfully avoids the Pharisees’ trap by reframing their question.  After asking them what Moses says—an assent to their recognized, mutual authority—Jesus turns from what is permissible in marriage to marriage’s potential.

God created Adam and Eve in God’s own image.  Marriage is thus a divine joining of two people into one flesh.  It is based on mutual respect and shared dignity.

For Jesus, it’s not what is permissible but what is possible.  And this is the lens through which Jesus calls us to interpret the world.

So let’s return now to our viewer. We’ve been looking through it for a while now.  It’s still helpful, sure.  We wouldn’t trade it for another one.  And every now and then, still, we catch a glimpse of a new vista that brings a renewed excitement to our walk with Christ.  But, let’s face it: it’s starting to feel, well, I don’t know, normal.  Routine.  Status quo.  Ho hum.

And so you and I start to compare notes.  We like the way that particular bend in the canyon wall looks, especially when the light hits it in the early morning.  And we like the noises, the music—most of the time anyway.  But haven’t you noticed how crowded it’s getting lately?  And what kind of riffraff is the leadership letting into this place now?  Why, just last week someone left a banana peel on the ground and I hear it adversely affected a bear’s digestion.  The nerve!  Someone around here ought to get a list of rules together and enforce them before things really get out of control.

But then we see an unfamiliar, young child mount the steps and look through the viewer for the first time—the same viewer we’ve been looking through for so long now, about which we’ve begun to feel ho hum.  And—do you see?—a huge smile overwhelms his face and he lets out a sound of wonder: “Wow!”

And I am cut to the heart as I remember Jesus’ words: “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

It’s not about what is permissible but what is possible.

So, how do you look at marriage? How do you look at divorce?  How do you look at issues surrounding human sexuality?  How do you look at the kingdom of God?

Maybe you’re like that critical uncle.  You’re a part of the church, sure: you’re a Christian.  But in your opinion the Episcopal Church is either too controlling or too permissive and will never be quite right for future generations.

Maybe you’re like that twice removed aunt.  You like to view the goings on in the Episcopal Church as a spectator, aloof, not really engaged.  Yuma’s a good place to do so, because, after all, we are rather isolated out here.

Maybe you’re like the parents, caught in a tug of war, second-guessing yourself and the traditions to which you’ve grown so accustomed, not sure how to make sense of all the various voices that vie for your attention; not quite sure if you’re bringing up the next generation in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Or, maybe, just maybe, you’re like that small child, lost in wonder, love, and praise at the glories of the kingdom of God; not at all burdened by what is permissible but awestruck by what is possible.

In Jesus Christ, it’s not about what is permissible but what is possible.

Some Sunday School Scenario!

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2015 by timtrue

Mark 9:30-37

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,

Look upon a little child;

Pity my simplicity,

Suffer me to come to Thee.

 

Fain I would to Thee be brought,

Dearest God, forbid it not;

Give me, dearest God, a place

In the kingdom of Thy grace

 

Lamb of God, I look to Thee;

Thou shalt my Example be;

Thou art gentle, meek, and mild;

Thou wast once a little child.  Etc.

Nothing against Charles Wesley, who penned the words of this hymn; but these words demonstrate well my starting point today: we like to think of Jesus as meek and mild.

On his way to Capernaum, Jesus notices some of the disciples arguing among themselves.  So, rather than pointing out their pettiness, in his meek and mild way Jesus waits until they’ve reached their destination.

There, really knowing what the argument was about all along—because he’s Jesus, after all—rather than sternly rebuking these disciples openly, Jesus calls a little child to himself, for an object lesson.  And we all say, “Aw!”

Aw! because, well, there’s a child involved; and aren’t children just so precious!  And Aw! because Jesus is just so meek and mild and wise precisely because he does not rebuke his disciples openly but instead chooses to teach them through subtlety and persuasion.  And oh! don’t we all want to be just like him now?

But let’s look at this passage afresh. Is Jesus being meek and mild here?  Is this the Sunday-school Jesus here we’ve come to know and love, the Jesus who takes time to notice the small joys of life that others take for granted?  Is this the Jesus here who exercises wisdom through gentle persuasion and compassion?

Not to discount any of those traits!  Jesus is, at times, meek, mild, and gentle.  He does take time to notice the small joys in life.  He does exercise wisdom through persuasion.  He does all this—but elsewhere!  Not here!

Notice that the disciples are actually afraid of him.  Yeah, afraid!  Along the road Jesus teaches his disciples that he must be betrayed and killed; but that he will rise again.  Then v. 32 tells us, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

A little later, after Jesus asks them what they were arguing about amongst themselves on the road to Capernaum, they do not answer him but remain silent.  This time we’re not told directly that they are afraid, but the silence strongly suggests it.

Afraid!

Of Jesus!

Who then calls over a little child!

And we’re thinking, “Aw!”

Shame on us!

This isn’t some saccharine-sweet Sunday school scenario.  There’s raw emotion here.  Jesus isn’t being meek and mild with the disciples.  Rather, he’s challenging them and their views—their selfish, egocentric, pushy views—about who among them is the greatest.

Now, let’s step out of Jesus’ world for a moment and think about the world we know: our world. Who in our world is the greatest?

Just to clarify, I’m not asking the same question as the disciples: I’m not asking us to consider who among us, the parishioners of St. Paul’s in Yuma, is the greatest.  Rather, it’s a question in general.  In our modern-day, independence-valuing American culture, what kind of person gets ahead?  Who rises to the top positions in leadership?  Who wins?

Isn’t it—at least all too often—the pushiest, most self-promoting person?  We all want the underdog to win; it seems almost inherent to our nature.  And there are exceptions to the rule.  But the fact is that most people in positions of leadership get there by being a fighter.  We thrive on competition.  Vying for the top job means competing against others—sometimes hundreds of others—in order to get there.  This requires a certain amount of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and relentlessness.  Even my former seminary dean—one of the meekest, mildest, and humblest men I’ve ever known—admitted to having to do these things in order to become the dean.  It’s how we rise through the ranks in our culture.

Well, guess what.  It was no different in Jesus’ day.

We all know stories, of course, of Caesars who were egocentric megalomaniacs.  But a common Roman citizen might zealously desire to become a member of the equites, or even a senator.  And the way to get there—you guessed it—was through shameless self-promotion and otherwise fighting one’s way to the top.  It was about being the greatest.

But all this relentless pursuit to become something or somebody, to amass more wealth, to acquire more clients, to increase in status, to become more well-known and respected—does a mere child concern itself with these things?  (By the way, did you notice?  Our English translation captures the impersonalized pronoun for the child: it.  This child, It, no doubt, was at the very bottom of the bottom rung of the Roman social ladder.)

The relentless pursuit of self was miles from this child’s point of view.  So, here, today, Jesus is not some syrupy Sunday school caricature.  Quite the contrary, today Jesus is stern.  He’s turning the selfish pursuit for self-promotion head over heels.  He welcomes this child into his arms, and thereby sternly rebukes his disciples for arguing among themselves about who is the greatest; and likewise challenges the dominant values of society.

Leadership in Christ’s kingdom is not the same as leadership in the world.  Leadership in Christ’s kingdom is not about fighting your way to the top.  Leadership in Christ’s kingdom is about being the servant of all.

Which leaves me with just one application for today.

We have a turnover approaching in the leadership here at St. Paul’s.  The term of four vestry members will conclude in January; four new vestry members will be elected.

My application for you today, then, is a kind of homework assignment.  Over the next few months, think about those you know in this congregation who demonstrate the kind of servant leadership Jesus demands.  Then, if someone comes to mind, go and tell that person you’d like to nominate him or her for one of the upcoming vestry vacancies.

And if you’re a person who is approached, well, you have a follow-up assignment.  Pray.  Ask the Holy Spirit to work in your heart and help you discern whether this area of servant leadership is for you.  Then allow your name to be put forward as a nominee; and tell your nominator “okay” and to let me know.

And don’t worry about too many names!  Wouldn’t it be great if ten such nominees were to rise to the surface over the next four months?

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

An Ephphatha Moment

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

Mark 7:24-37

What do you really believe about Jesus?

We believe the Creed; or we imply that we do, every Sunday, when we say it together:

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.”

And, a few lines later:

“By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

So the man Jesus, when he was walking on the earth with his disciples two thousand years ago, was fully man; yet he was also fully God.

Fully man and fully God.

Do you believe this?

It’s kind of confusing.

As a man, was Jesus aware that he was God?  Let’s assume so.  In today’s reading, as he healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter from afar; and as he healed the deaf and mute man, let’s assume Jesus knew he was God incarnate.

Well, when did he become aware that he was God?

Was he aware of it last week when he called the Pharisees hypocrites?

Was he aware of it when Herod beheaded John the Baptist?

Was he aware of it when he went to his hometown and wasn’t well received, when he said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house”?

What about when he was in the wilderness, fasting for forty days, tempted by Satan?

Or what about when he was baptized by John in the Jordan River?

As a man, did Jesus possess an awareness of his full divinity?

Maybe.

So, keep backing up.  We don’t have much on Jesus’ childhood.  Except once, when he was twelve, over in Luke we read that Jesus’ parents were on a journey home from Jerusalem and realized that Jesus was not with them.  Frantic, they retraced their steps only to find him three days later hanging out with the teachers at the Temple.  And Jesus asks, “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  Was Jesus aware as a twelve year-old boy that he was fully human and fully divine?

As a boy, presumably learning on-the-job carpentry skills with his father Joseph, was Jesus aware of his divinity then?  None of the New Testament Gospels relates any miracles done by Jesus as a boy; but the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas does.  (And not all of them are good miracles!)

Was Jesus aware of his divinity as a boy?

What about as a baby?  We can’t reasonably assume that Jesus was born walking and talking and otherwise planning out his human life.

I mentioned last week that I spent a couple of years teaching second grade.  We worked on multiplication tables in second grade.  Well, what if Jesus were in my classroom?  Would he have learned his multiplication tables faster than any of the other students?  If he was fully God as a boy, doesn’t that mean that he knew everything already?  Why would he need to go to school at all?

Yet he was also fully human.  Back in Luke, just after his parents found him, we read that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

No doubt he had to learn his multiplication tables, just as every other child his age did.  No doubt he made some mistakes along the way.  No doubt his first exercises in carpentry were crude and rough, just as every other apprentice begins crudely and roughly.

Jesus was fully human.  He therefore went through the normal human processes of increasing in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor—or, said another way, he grew mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially.

And, just as we grow and evolve in these ways throughout our human lives, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus continued to grow in these ways throughout his life.  It’s safe to say that Jesus was probably aware of his divinity to some extent when his parents found him at the Temple.  He was probably more aware when he was baptized in the Jordan River.  He was probably more aware still when he performed the miracles in today’s reading.  And he was probably even more aware when he stood trial before Pontius Pilate.

But, without doubt, he also made mistakes.  Human mistakes.  He increased in wisdom, meaning he had to learn carpentry through trial and error—stress error.  He made mistakes.

Now the real challenge: did Jesus ever sin?

For the record, mistakes aren’t to be confused with sins.  Writing “3×3=6” on a test is a mistake; looking at your neighbor’s test for the answer is a sin.  Coming into my office and confessing, “Pastor, I made a mistake: I just robbed a bank at gunpoint.”  Well, yeah, that’s a mistake, technically.  But more importantly, it’s a sin because it’s morally wrong.

(By the way, no one has ever come into my office to confess this to me; so stop looking around and trying to determine who might have said this!)

Point is, I ask this question—did Jesus ever sin?—because something unsettling happens in today’s Gospel.  It is so unsettling, in fact, that it has caused some people to conclude that Jesus actually did sin.

He’s fully human, they argue.  And sin is a part of human nature.  So why not?  Why shouldn’t Jesus have sinned?  And here’s the proof!  He calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog!  He insults a person and shows exclusive attitudes towards gender, race, and class.  In a moment of weakness, they conclude, St. Mark has captured an episode when Jesus actually sinned.

On top of all this, they rightly point out, the Creed does not deny it.  Yeah!  Pay close attention to the Creed when we say it together in a few minutes.  Nowhere does it state that Jesus never sinned.  And this is true of both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed.

“But wait!” I want to protest (and I hope you do too).  “He was fully God.  The Creed makes this clear!  And how could God ever sin?  Besides, what about the Bible?”

The Creed doesn’t say that Jesus never sinned, true enough.  But a good chunk of it—about half!—makes explicit statements about Jesus’ full divinity.  And, yes, while the Creed does not say that Jesus never sinned, the Bible does!

To quote just a few verses:

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22).

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

“You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).

The Bible is clear: Jesus never sinned.  In fact, let me suggest that the Bible is so clear on this matter that the writers of the Creed felt no need to put it in.  It was already a foundational truth upon which the Creed was built.

So then—phew!—glad to have gotten that off my chest! Still, we have to deal with this sticky question.  Why does Jesus respond to this woman the way he does?  Why does he call her a dog?  What is going on here?

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The “children” here are Jews; the “dogs” are Gentiles.  The Syrophoenician woman is a Gentile.  Jesus is calling her a dog.

We can’t soften this.  I tried.  I looked up the Greek for dog, hoping to find some sort of idiom or colloquialism to help me out.  And you know what I found?  The Greek word for dog means dog.

It’s an insulting term, demeaning, and exclusive.  She is a woman; she is not a Jew; and she is probably upper class (Jesus is lower).  We might easily read biases into Jesus’ canine statement—biases against gender, race, and class.

But my theology won’t allow me to believe that Jesus would sin.  So, what do we make of this exchange?

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

My theology won’t allow me to believe that Jesus would sin.  But it does allow room for human mistakes; and room for human growth.

Jesus calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog.  She boldly replies that she wants what he has to offer, that she trusts him, that she believes in him.  St. Matthew relates the story adding these words: “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish’” (Mt. 15:28).

Whatever else we want to make of this story, Jesus clearly turns.  He doesn’t want to help the woman; then he does.

Far from being evidence that Jesus is sinning, I find a strong case here for Jesus experiencing growth and maturity in his adult life—on the fly!

Certainly, as a man, he was influenced by his culture—just as we all are.  We buy into ideologies without even realizing it.  Music, media, family, friends, foes—they all influence us in ways seen and unseen.  Why should it be any different for Jesus?

Jesus was tired.  He’d been working hard.  He’d entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know.  He was needing some alone time.

Nevertheless, his reputation had preceded him.  People—non-Jewish people—knew of him and of his capabilities.

Why shouldn’t he have been a little annoyed, then, when this unknown woman approached him?  What if she were merely wanting to see him perform some magic trick?  Was it a sin to respond the way he did?

But then—since my theology allows for human growth and maturity—why shouldn’t Jesus experience a sort of “aha!” moment, on the fly?  When the woman responds in a way that demonstrates faith, why shouldn’t Jesus be able to realize his mistake, to have sudden sympathy on the woman and her daughter, and to abandon his human biases?

It works for me.  And I hope it works for you.

But, if all this is still not enough, there’s one more bit that compels me: the context.

What was Jesus’ point last week?  Hypocrisy.

We shouldn’t live pretend, hypocritical lives; but lives that are honest, authentic.  What made the Pharisees hypocrites was their preconceived ideas, their biases, about washing hands before meals.  Jesus and his disciples weren’t good Jews, these Pharisees said, since they hadn’t washed their hands before the meal.

Isn’t it curious that today’s episode with the Syrophoenician woman occurs just after this lesson about hypocrisy in Mark’s Gospel?  It’s as if Jesus is remembering his lesson on hypocrisy as his conversation unfolds with the Syrophoenician woman.  It’s as if he checks himself, mid-sequence, realizing he’d better put his very words into practice.  He better not be operating by biases, even if those biases are commonly accepted social norms.  Wrong is wrong, after all.  Better to nip a mistake in the bud than allow it to blossom into sin.

So that’s part of the context.

But also, what happens next?

Next, Jesus heals a deaf and mute man.  Jesus goes to the man, sticks his fingers in his ears, spits, touches the man’s tongue, and looks to heaven and says this strange word: Ephphatha.  And the man’s ears are opened; and he is able to speak clearly.

The man, who could not speak or hear before, has an Ephphatha moment.

Could it be that Jesus, who at first had not seen the Syrophoenician woman’s intentions clearly, also just experienced an “Ephphatha” moment?

What about us?

Do we allow socially acceptable ideas to govern our sense of right and wrong?  Do we possess biases about gender, race, and socioeconomic class because we allow society to influence us along these lines?  And then are we so stubborn in our biases that we refuse to change them once we realize our mistake?

Or are we like Jesus?  Are we cognizant enough in the heat of whatever situation to discern what is truly right from what is truly wrong—and then act on it?  Are we able to experience an Ephphatha moment?

Right is right, after all; and wrong is wrong.  Better to nip a mistake in the bud than allow it to blossom into sin.