Archive for tradition

Canaanite Confrontation

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

charlottesville_22unite_the_right22_rally_283578027491429

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.

Advertisements

Celebrating Inconvenience

Posted in Doing Church, Rationale with tags , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2017 by timtrue

17th-century_unknown_painters_-_The_Resurrection_of_Christ_-_WGA23478[1]The following article, which appears in the April/May newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma, Arizona, discusses the significance of the historic Easter Vigil worship service.

“The Great Vigil, when observed, is the first service of Easter Day. It is celebrated at a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning.”

So says the Book of Common Prayer on page 284.

To which I ask, “Is there such a thing as a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning?”

Easter is late this year. Sunset will occur after seven o’clock, with real darkness only truly descending after 7:30. The rubrics of the Prayer Book constrain us really, then, to a first “convenient” time of 8pm.

But how convenient is 8pm for folks who cannot easily drive in the dark?

We do have other options, I suppose. “Between sunset and sunrise” means a midnight service would be appropriate, and midnight’s always cool. Or, for those who have trouble seeing in the dark, we could begin the service at 4:30am, timing it so that it would end just before sunrise (which will occur at 6:07am). That way people would only have to drive one way in the dark, and at a time of the day when there is very little traffic.

Still, neither of these options strikes me as any more convenient than 8pm.

The Prayer Book continues:

“The service normally consists of four parts:

  1. The Service of Light.
  2. The Service of Lessons.
  3. Christian Initiation [i. e., baptism], or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.
  4. The Holy Eucharist with the administration of Easter Communion.”

In other words, it’s like a normal Sunday service—which consists of two parts, the Service of Lessons and the Holy Eucharist—with a couple of additions: the Service of Light and baptism.

That “Service of Light” part really does constrain us to the dark—a time between sunset and sunrise—which, let’s face it, really does feel inconvenient, no matter how we look at it.

And it feels even more inconvenient when we think about that other part, that baptism part!

I mean, really? The Prayer Book would rather we baptize at the (dark) Great Vigil than wait for the next day, when the sun is up and the Easter Lilies are smiling along with everyone else who got a good night’s sleep? What if that baptism is of a young child, who’d probably be in much better spirits on a bright Sunday morning than a dark Saturday night—not to mention his parents? Or what if the hoped for godparents aren’t able to make it out at night for whatever reason? Or what if? . . .

Okay, okay, I hear your questions. Yes, they are reasonable. Yes, a nighttime, dark service does indeed feel inconvenient. And yes, we could just as well forget about the Vigil and revert to the way things used to be around here, when we simply waited for Easter Sunday to roll around, stress day.

But if there’s one thing about me you’ve gotten to know by now, it’s that I highly respect our Episcopal tradition. And by “Episcopal tradition” I don’t mean the way we did things last year, five years ago, fifty, or even a hundred; I mean the tradition that goes back before the Reformation, before the marriage of the Roman and English Churches in the seventh century, even before the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. I want to go clear back as far as history will take us. How did the early church do it? That’s the tradition I’m talking about.

The reason I value this tradition so greatly is because many, many saints before us have thought long and hard—a lot longer and harder than any of us have—about how best to worship and glorify Christ. By the way, this is the rationale behind our Book of Common Prayer, leaving little room in our assemblies for novel, innovative liturgies.

And, even more importantly, there’s this: Jesus inconvenienced himself a great deal—when he emptied himself of the glories of heaven and became human; when he washed his disciples’ feet; when he stayed up all night praying fervently in the garden that his Father would take his cup from him; when he stood trial before Pilate; when he was stricken, smitten, afflicted, and nailed to the cross mercilessly; when he eked out his last breath—all for us! We break these dark inconveniences when we come to worship him at the Great Vigil, the fitting end to this drama known as the Passion, where we celebrate new light and life together—something the bright Sunday morning service just can’t replicate.

And thus, when it comes to worshiping Christ as God, the term inconvenience takes on new meaning.

Let’s celebrate this inconvenience—the Great Vigil, the tremendous conclusion to Christ’s Passion—together on Saturday, April 15, at 8pm. There will be a baptism this year; and, immediately following the service, a champagne-and-hot-cross-buns reception!

2014 Lent 23

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2014 by timtrue

untitled

I Corinthians 10:14–11:1

Whoa!  Got some feedback to that last one–my last Lenten post, that is (cf. “2014 Lent 22”)!  Some readers hated it.  Others loved it–picked up a few new followers, in fact.  So I went back over it to see if I could discern why the controversy.

My thinking is that it’s the last line.  There I said something like, “So yeah, Paul, I know you’re the writer of sacred scriptures and all, but in this case reason and experience must rule the day for me.”

So my thinking is that maybe this sounds like I’ve just elevated my own reason and experience over scripture in the authority department.  Is that it?  Am I actually suggesting that, even though the scriptures are authoritative for me, my reasoning capabilities and personal experiences are nevertheless somehow more authoritative?

No.  That’s not what I am suggesting.  My heart beats a certain way; my mind follows the laws of logic as I know them.  But I am just one person, extremely limited, who is keenly aware that individuals are almost always poor assessors of self.

So I offer a clarification.

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians to address division in their congregation.  In his letter, he brings up some causes for division revolving around the matter of liberty.  How much liberty should a believer in Christ be allowed?  Should a believer in Christ have to follow the Jewish custom of circumcision, for instance?  No!  What about Jewish dietary laws?  Are Christ-believers allowed to eat ham and shellfish?  Sure!  So, what about matters of sexuality?

Here Paul seems to waffle a bit.  He argues that marriage isn’t really that good–and by implication neither is family–that such relationships burden the Christ-believer with unneccessities (my cool new word, by the way).  But, for the sake of controlling lusts, marriage is allowable.  But when a man sleeps with his stepmother, that’s going way too far!

But Paul also believes that the end of the world is near, perhaps to come even in his lifetime.  In other words, he has an apocalyptic worldview.  In this scenario (indeed, just watch an episode or two of The Walking Dead), marriage and family certainly would be a burden.

But we’re not facing an imminent apocalypse.  Or even if we are, we don’t know it and therefore shouldn’t live like it.  Jesus himself says, when charging folks to remember Lot’s wife, that in the days of Noah, right up until the very day of the flood, they were eating, drinking, living, carrying on business, and marrying and being given in marriage.  Even before a worldwide cataclysm, people were carrying on life as normal.

Now Paul says not to since the world’s about to end.

I resisted this idea a little.  It was just a few posts ago if you want to see, something like “2014 Lent 18.”  Point is, I argued with the apostle.  And it felt good to do so.  After all, he and Jesus are making contrary points here; they can’t both be right.

But that post generated little response.

So why now, when I disagree with a method Paul uses to argue a point do I sense such resistance?

Paul makes a great point in I Corinthians 10:14: “Flee from the worship of idols.”  I totally agree, 100%.  Any time something becomes more important to me than God, it’s ugly.  But getting to this point Paul says we shouldn’t eat meat sacrificed to idols if doing so would cause someone to stumble in his or her faith.  Huh?  He also uses fear tactics in his argument:

“Remember all those Israelites who died in the wilderness after God delivered them from Egypt?  Well, they died because of God’s judgment.  Do you want to die under God’s judgment too?  I didn’t think so.  Therefore flee from idols.”

So my point yesterday was not that I disagree with a great truth, but that I disagree with Paul’s methods to get us there.

We are so far removed from Paul that we don’t even really know what meat sacrificed to idols looks like.  So we have no problem with his statement about that.  Why then can’t we remove ourselves from using fear tactics in our moral teachings?  In judgment, he says, “Twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.”  This is a huge number.  Certainly, I’m not about to make a brazen statement about Hurricane Katrina, for instance, being a demonstration of God’s judgment.  But isn’t that the idea behind what Paul does in chapter 10:1-13?

So here’s another statement that some of my readership might disagree with: Paul was a product of his times.  My reason strongly suggests this anyway.

Yes, he wrote a good chunk of our sacred scriptures.  And yes, there are many moral truths from his writings that transcend cultural contexts and are thus broadly applicable.  But he also shows some inconsistencies, such as vilifying pagans in one breath and then condoning their actions in the next (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-2), not to mention that bit above where he disagrees with Jesus.

So I’m learning to argue with Paul.

He’s used to it.  He himself was raised in a tradition that values discussion and debate.  Indeed, arguments continue to this day between Rabbis and the Torah.  It’s part of Midrash.  So what if I come along and question Paul’s methods?  According to Paul himself, I have liberty to do so.  Why then should the concluding statement of Saturday’s post be so rankling for you?

Interestingly enough, Paul ends today’s reading with another timeless charge: “Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”

No argument there.

Nevertheless, I have taken upon myself a serious discipline this Lent to give substantial consideration to a passage of scripture daily as evidenced by my writing about it.  And this daily consideration includes engaging Paul in argument.  Following his charge, then, I am thus arguing with him for the glory of God.  That’s how I see it anyway.  For the remaining skeptics, however, I offer this: at the last day, after all the arguing and wrestling and rankling is over, I will say, eagerly, “Not my will, Jesus, but yours.”

Now, how in the cosmos is that putting my reason and experience’s authority above that of the scriptures?