Saturday, August 27, 2011

11th Sunday after Pentecost: What changes?

This has to be one of the fastest reversals in history.  Last week we heard Peter affirm Jesus as the Son of God.  Jesus tells Peter he is blessed, because the only way he could know this is because God has revealed it to him.  Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, because Peter is seeing with kingdom of heaven vision.

This is a turning point in Jesus’ teaching of the disciples.  Up to now Jesus has been making claims about who he is – through healing and parables and miracles.  The healing and parables and miracles continue, the teaching about the kingdom of heaven continues.  But now that the disciples understand who Jesus is, it’s time for them to learn what that means for them.

It’s not an easy lesson.  And Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it one bit.  He dives right in and reveals God’s plan for Messiah.  And the vision from the kingdom of heaven is so unexpected, so outrageous that Peter tailspins from the prime confessor of faith to a tempter from Satan.

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (verse 21).

It’s hard for us on this side of Easter to really get the impact just how outrageous this statement would have sounded to the disciples.  In three phrases, their idea of just what the Messiah would do is turned completely on its head.

Jesus says he “must go to Jerusalem” – nothing earth shaking there.  Jerusalem was where David ruled and naturally the Messiah would take up his new rule in the traditional city of the king.  The disciples would have been excited, “Yes!  No more wandering around the wilderness.  No more travel in Gentile and Samarian lands.  We’re off the Jerusalem to claim Jesus’ rightful throne!  Woo-hoo! Let’s go!”

Once in Jerusalem, Jesus will “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and the scribes” – now things are getting dicey.  Ok, well, Jesus will have to challenge the elders and the chief priests and the scribes.  And maybe they’ll make him suffer for awhile.  They’re not going to give up their power easily and it will be messy.  But eventually, Jesus will win them over or defeat them and everyone around will become Jesus’ followers.

But suffering isn’t the end of the bad news.  Jesus will “be killed” – That shakes them up and totally destroys any dreams of glory they may have had.  “Jesus, you lost us here.  You’re not going to die.  Messiah can’t die. Messiah is going to unite Judea and raise up an army and overthrow the Romans and bring back the glory and justice and peace of the rule of David. Besides, we love you – you can’t die!”

This would have so disturbed the disciples that they probably could not even have heard let alone comprehended what Jesus said next:

 On the third day be raised” Of course, those six little words are what make all the difference.  Those words tell us that God is at work here, that God is doing something - something radically different than God has done before in Israel’s history.  Death will not have the last word and God’s Messiah will triumph! 

Six words that reveal the kingdom of heaven vision of Messiah.  And the disciples totally missed them.

We know the disciples missed those six little words, because they don’t ask, “Wait…what’s this ‘be raised’ stuff?  What do you mean?”


And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you."  But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."  (verse 22, 23)

Peter has some nerve.  He’s just proclaimed that Jesus is the Son of God.  And then he has the audacity to say, “Wait a minute, God’s Son you may be, but you’ve got it all wrong. “

It’s no wonder that Peter corrects Jesus.  No longer seeing things from God’s point of view, Peter hears Jesus’ words and weighs them against a very human vision of Messiah – a vision which limits God’s salvation to a single act of liberating a single people in a single point of time in a single place from a single oppressor.  The disciples can’t even begin to see that this Messiah is here to liberate all people from all times and places from the ultimate oppressor.  Messiah is not here to free the Judeans of the first century from Roman oppression.  Messiah is here to bring liberation to the entire world, everyone that is or has been or will be, from the oppression of sin, death and the grave. 

In seven short verses, Peter goes for the one with the confession on which Jesus will build the church to a stumbling block.  He goes from seeing with heaven’s eyes to looking at things from a human point of view.  And Jesus firmly puts him in his place – behind Jesus, right where a good disciple should be, following the master.

At this point the disciples are in chaos – they are shocked and confused. 

There are more shocks to come.  Now Jesus is going to explain to them how the followers of a Messiah come to die are to behave:

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  (verse 24)

We’re going to unpack this a bit here.  Over the centuries, this verse has lost a bit of its scandal.

“Deny yourself” - “Deny” is not strong enough.  “Disown” yourself, “repudiate” yourself.  The New Living Translation says “turn from your selfish ways. 

“Take up your cross” – After 2000 years and myriads of crosses in art and stained glass and in gold and silver and on t-shirts and bumper stickers, it’s hard for us to hear in these words the pain and blood and humiliation and repulsion the disciples would have heard. 

It’s become part of our language – we’ve reduced ‘taking up your cross” to a cliché.  We talk about unpleasant tasks and minor inconveniences as ‘our cross to bear.’ 

“Take up your cross” – this was the most shameful, agonizing, atrocious way to die.  Today Jesus would have to say something more like, “Go willingly into a terrorist camp and offer yourself up for a public execution broadcast on the internet.” 

“Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”  Not a great motivational speech.  Not a great recruiting slogan.

But then Jesus redeems this awful instruction by applying kingdom of heaven vision.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?  (verse 25, 26)

There’s a lot to unpack here.  To start with, ‘life’ means much more than your physical life from birth to death.  The Greek word is ‘psyche’ which would correspond with the Hebrew word ‘nephesh.’  Both mean more than just physical life (Greek ‘zoe’) – they mean the whole of being, the soul, the self, mind-heart-strength.  We’re talking about far more than life and death here.

“Save” is the Greek word ‘sowso.’  It means ‘to save’, but it also means to “heal, rescue, liberate, preserve, keep from harm.” 

“Lose” means much more than misplace, it means destroy, ruin, kill. 

“Find” means “discover, come upon”; also, “obtain, be found, find oneself.”   
The Greek word is ‘eurisko” – the word that ‘eureka’ comes from. 

Jesus is telling us, “If you try to heal-liberate-save your whole being, your soul, by your own actions, what you’re really doing is destroying your life and killing yourself.  But if you give up your preconceived idea of who you are and what’s important in life to follow me – I’ll teach you to kill off that kingdom of earth way of thinking in favor of kingdom of heaven thinking, and then - Eureka! - you will discover your real self, that person that you were created to be, that beloved child of God.”

Note that you ‘find’ yourself, not ‘save’ yourself.  We follow Jesus in the way of the cross, but he is the one who suffered the cross to bring salvation.  Jesus saves our lives and makes it possible for us to discover our true self.

Jesus asks “What would you give in exchange for your very being?  What price do you put on your soul?  Is there anything – money, power, a relationship, the latest must-have consumer product, education – really worthy of your life?” 

Jesus has already given us God’s answer to that question:  this is why he must suffer, die and be raised.  The Son of God on a cross shows us how much God believes we are worth.  His death declares God’s love for us, his resurrection proclaims God’s resounding “yes!” to abundant life and renewed relationship. 

When writing this sermon, I was reminded about discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, cheap and costly grace, faith and obedience in a class.  I went back to my notes and found the following:

What changes in our lives if we are Christian and take this stuff seriously?

Cheap grace is the denial of all that, that nothing changes, grace as a principle; we go to church and learn we are forgiven and then we go back and live as if nothing ever happened. !!! Amazing – we get forgiven and act like it makes no difference. 

Cheap grace liberates people from following Christ.  It diminishes life abundant.  Cheap grace is the grace that people bestow on themselves and locks them into sin.

Costly grace is this treasure for which we are willing to let everything else go. It comes as a gracious call to follow Jesus.  It might cost everything.[i]

Costly grace is taking up your cross and following Jesus. It’s what you do in response to knowing who Jesus is and know what it means that he died and rose again.  

Following Jesus is not always easy.  In fact, the life of faith is a hard road to hoe and sometimes God asks you to do tough things, things you’d rather not do.  But there are great rewards for sticking it out and not taking the easy ‘world thinking’ road.  Those who continue to embrace world thinking will be paid for it.  Those who embrace kingdom thinking will receive kingdom of heaven rewards, joyous life in relationship with God now and eternal life to come.

So, I’ll ask it again:
What changes in our lives if we are Christian and take this stuff seriously?

[i]Quoted from my class notes, Lutheran Spirituality, Dr Lisa Dahill, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Sept 9, 2009

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Thank God for Canaanite Women and Dogs!

This week's scripture: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
We just got a dog last week.  He’s a lovely Shetland sheepdog named Myles.  Now I haven’t had a dog since I was a child and have never had an indoor dog.  So this last week has been an opportunity for me to do a lot of learning.

We were sitting down for dinner and had decided that we would try leaving Myles out of his kennel during dinner.  He was fascinated with the events at the table.  He ran from seat to seat, following the dishes being passed. He would bounce from Tim to Bryce, to me, eyes intent on each bite of food.  He watched eagerly, body quivering with anticipation of a dropped morsel.

So, we decided that he needed a distraction during dinner.  We decided that it would be a good idea to feed him just as we were sitting down at the table.  We’d have our dinner and he could have his.  Problem solved.

Not really.  Next dinnertime, we set out his food just before we sat down.  Myles stayed in the dining room.  He wasn’t interested in his food.  No, he wanted the good stuff at the table.  Kibble just doesn’t cut it when there’s hamburger or chicken on the platter.  He remained intent on our table and ignored his bowl.

There’ no way he was going to be consigned to the kitchen either. 

Myles has a new trick.  He will go to his bowl and get a mouthful of kibble, bring it into the dining room, drop it on the floor, and eat with us – at least for a few bites.  I guess he figures he’s one of the family and belongs at the table, so if we won’t share our food, he’ll bring his own.  Once the edge is off his hunger, he’s back to intently watching every our every move to make sure not a single crumb misses his notice.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 

She’s well aware that these men consider her a dog – even less than a dog.  They are Jews, slumming it in this region of Gentiles.  Matthew calls her a Canaanite, a term that evokes a centuries-old hostility.  The Canaanites were the ones the children of Israel were supposed to eliminate and drive out in their occupation of the Promised Land.  In their eyes, she’s not just a Gentile; she’s the gentile-est of all gentiles.  An enemy, outsider, hopelessly unclean.

If her ethnicity wasn’t bad enough, she’s a woman.  A woman who has the nerve to breach social customs to approach and initiate conversation with a strange man.  Who knows what kind of woman she is – such behavior doesn’t speak well of her upbringing or her morality!  But of course what would one expect from Gentile dogs?

And to top it all off, she’s a persistent, nagging, loud woman.  She won’t go away, she won’t be silenced.  She is intent on her mission, whining, barking, begging for attention.

No self respecting man would even notice such a woman.  To notice her, to engage her in conversation, would be to suggest she was his equal – or to suggest that he was no better than her. 

The disciples beg Jesus – send her away.  Jesus responds to their pleas by reminding them of his mission – he was sent to become the Messiah for the children of Israel.  Jesus ignores her, not even acknowledging her existence.

Unmannered dog that she is, she keeps begging unashamedly. “Lord, help me.” 

Finally, Jesus scolds this dog, reminds her of her place.  “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” 

Jesus may be scolding her, but the very act of engaging her in conversation gives her a crumb of dignity and a scrap of hope.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 

This Canaanite woman, this desperate mother, could glimpse the grandeur of the kingdom of God and she wanted it – now.  She wanted the good stuff from the master’s table, not the kibble in her bowl.  She didn’t want to wait for the blessing to trickle down, like crumbs falling from the table.  She took Jesus at his word when he said, “The kingdom of heaven is here among you now.” 

And her kingdom vision that day enlarged Jesus’ kingdom vision.  Jesus knew his mission – to the children of Israel.  He is training his disciples, who will, someday, carry his mission beyond Jerusalem, beyond Judea, to the very ends of the earth.  But, right now - it’s not his time and she’s not his people. 

But the kingdom of God will not be denied – it will break out in unexpected places.  And in this enemy territory, this place of gentile dogs, a place seemingly so remote is exactly where God is present.  Now is the time, now is the kingdom, and now all are healed, now all are fed, now all belong – especially a pushy Canaanite woman and her demon possessed daughter.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 

The scolding ends at her words.  Jesus is amazed at her faith, her vision of the kingdom of God.

This is the kind of kingdom he’s been preaching and teaching - where five loaves and two fishes feed a multitude of families with 12 big baskets left over.  The Father’s house big enough for not only the children, but the foreigner and the weary traveler. A place where the outsider finds himself at home. A community of blessing and mercy, of healing and grace.  The kingdom of God, where all are included, all are loved, all are whole.

A Canaanite (that ancient enemy), a woman (the inferior sex) understands more about the kingdom of God than the disciples who learn at Jesus’ feet.

Jesus responds to her kingdom vision by bringing a morsel of it near to her right then – her daughter was healed instantly.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 

If the dogs eat crumbs from the master’s table, how much more so is there enough for all people at the table of the Father!

I look at Myles dancing around my table and wonder if the world around us is also so eager and so intent, longing for crumbs of God’s blessing to fall their way.

I wonder who are the ones who feel like dogs instead of children?  Who are the ones who feel unwelcome at the table?  Who looks with longing from the kitchen and wishes they were part of the family?

Could it be someone here today, who comes to worship but never really feels as if she belongs?  Could it be someone we chat with at the mailbox or over coffee?  

Who do we know that think the good things of God are denied them?  Who is content on a bowl of kibble instead of the meat of God’s grace?

I watched Myles at dinner last night and thought again about the persistence of the Canaanite woman claiming her place at the table as a beloved child of God.  

Sometimes it takes a dog to teach us about welcome at the Father's table. And sometimes we need a persistent Canaanite woman to beg us to look past the surface and see the child of God hungering beneath the fur.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Walking on water - our job or Jesus'?

A priest, a rabbi and a Lutheran pastor went fishing one day.  They’d been on the water only a few minutes and the priest looked around at his gear and exclaimed, “Rats!  Forgot my bait!”  And he jumped up, ran across the water, got his bait bucket and ran back across the water and got into the boat.

A few minutes later, the rabbi started searching through his tackle box.  “For crying out loud!  I left my new lure in the car.”  And he jumped up, ran across the water, got his lure, ran back across the water and got into the boat.

The Lutheran pastor was new in town and it was her first time fishing with her new colleagues.  She watched in disbelief as one after the other effortlessly skimmed the surface of the lake.  “What in the world?  How on earth are they doing that?” she thought.  “Well, I’m sure they’re no better than me.  If they can do it, so can I!”

She announced, “I forgot my coffee!  I can’t fish without coffee!”  And she jumped up, stepped out of the boat - and sank.

She climbed back into the boat, shook herself off, looked at the priest and the rabbi, stood up and stepped out of the boat again – and promptly sank.

As her head went under the water, the priest leaned over to the rabbi and said, “You think we should tell her where the stepping stones are?”

You gotta wonder what Peter was thinking.  There they are in the middle of the Sea of Galilee – a lake about 13 miles long and 8 across.  They set out for the other side right after Jesus fed those 5000 families.  Jesus sent them ahead, but their way has not been easy.  It’s late, they should have gotten there by now.  They got partway across and now they’re stuck - the wind and the waves are so ferocious that they are making no headway – none at all.  They have rowed all night, and have nothing to show for it.  They are hours away from dawn.  They are holding on for dear life. 
To the ancients there was nothing more feared than the sea.  It’s more than wind and waves and water.  It’s a force of nature, a barely constrained agent of chaos.  It’s a place where mortals fear to go, but it’s a mark of God’s power that God controls the sea and keeps it in its boundaries. 

To be out on the sea at night, to be battered by wind and waves in the dark – that’s a battle of life and death.  Who can save them from the sea?  They are at the mercy of God.

Out on the waves, they think they see something.  No, maybe not.  Wait. Yes.  There’s something out there.  It looks…looks like…a…a person?  No it can’t be.  It has to be a ghost.  Mortals cannot tread on water, but spirits can. God can.

The figure comes into focus.  It’s Jesus – striding across the waves, showing mastery over the elements.  “Peace, courage – I am here.  Don’t be afraid. It will be alright.” 

Great!  They are saved.  Jesus can calm this storm just like he calmed the last one and they can get to shore and rest.

So what is Peter thinking? 

IF it’s really you, call me to come to you.”

It’s a test – Peter wants a sign.  He wants proof positive that it’s really Jesus.  Jesus calls and Peter jumps up and steps out of the boat and…


It’s going good for a few steps and then Peter has a ‘Tom and Jerry moment.”  You know how Tom the cat is chasing Jerry the mouse, and Tom runs off the table and runs in the air a little way and his feet are going and going, and then he looks down and – thud – he crashes to the ground.  Well, Peter does one of those – he’s walking to Jesus and then he starts looking at the sea around him and starts thinking, “What on earth am I doing!  Jesus walks on the water – well, we kinda of expect such things from him.  He’s just feed 5000 families with 5 loaves and 2 fishes and he does miracles.  But me - what was I thinking?”  And down he goes.

As he sinks below the waves, Peter says what he should have said from the beginning, “Jesus, save me!”  Notice that it’s not, “Jesus, if it’s you, save me.”  There’s no test here – this is the cry of a desperate man.

 “Jesus, save me!”

We spend a lot of time talking about Peter in this text. I bet I’ve heard this text explained a thousand times as:  Peter did ok as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, but once he started looking at the storm, he sank.  So keep your eyes on Jesus and you’ll do fine.

Good advice.  But there’s a problem with leaving this as the only way to look at this story.  It encourages us to think that if we just have enough faith, that if we keep our eyes on Jesus, we’ll discover where the stepping stones are.  It makes us believe that if we have enough faith, then we can walk on water, just like Jesus.  After all, Jesus chides Peter for his little faith and his doubts, right?

The irony is that explaining the text this way does exactly what Peter did – focuses us on what we are doing and not on what Jesus is doing.

So... what is Jesus doing in the story? 
·         First, he sends the disciples on a mission – to go across the lake, to make preparations for Jesus to join them in the morning.  That’s typical disciple work, advance set up for the master.
·         Then he prays.  Jesus is in constant communication with the Father, praying for the disciples, the world and all those in need.
·         He comes to the disciples.  Jesus can see there’s a storm and his people need him.  Now we – and the disciples know that Jesus can calm a storm with a word.  He doesn’t choose to do so here.  He chooses to go to the disciples.  Jesus always comes to us.
·         He comforts the disciples – Have courage, don’t be afraid, I am here with you.
·         He saves Peter.
Jesus, save me!

Matthew is a consummate story teller.  There’s something you should know about those words, “Jesus, save me!”  Those words are exactly in the middle of this story[i] - there are the same number of Greek words before and after “Jesus, save me!”  What’s more, that little phrase, “Jesus save me!” is almost in the middle of the entire Gospel of Matthew.

There’s a reason that “Jesus, save me” in the middle of his gospel.  The whole point for Matthew is to tell us that in Jesus, God is with us.  And Matthew wants to make sure we know that God with us (Emmanuel) is life-saving for us.  Matthew goes in from here explain just how much Jesus will do, how much he will give, to answer the cry,

Jesus, save me!

I think one of the reasons that this is such a well known story is that we all get it. Think of the metaphors for troubles in life: drowning in debt, in over her head, the storms of life – we get that the storm at sea and the disciples in the boat are us.  We are trying to follow Jesus and his commands.  We are trying to do what Jesus tells us.  But sometimes, as the saying goes – the boat is so small and the waves are so big!  We get caught up in looking for the stepping stones, in trying to walk on water ourselves that we forget that the Rock on which we really stand is already under our feet!
This story is not about the eleven disciples who stayed in the boat and whether they trusted Jesus or not. And it’s not about Peter walking (or not) on the water.  It’s not about us and our fears and our doubts and the sea of worries that threaten to drown us.

It’s about Jesus, and what he can do and who he is.

It’s about Jesus, walking across the waves, in control of the chaos swirling around us.

It’s about Jesus, being there with us, even if we don’t realize it.  Even if we don’t believe it at the moment.  Even if we can’t feel him here or don’t notice his presence. 

It’s about Jesus, reaching out his hand at that moment when the black chaos of life threatens to pull us under, and grabbing us

It’s about Jesus, Son of God, saving us.

[i] Facts gleaned from Russell Rathburn, The Hardest Question