It’s been a rough week.
I’ve been praying for a break from non-stop coronavirus coverage on the news, but this was not what I had in mind.
How do we make sense of all this? And what is our call as Christians – Christians who, as part of our baptismal promises, have promised (and will do so again shortly) to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being?
The only place I know to go is to scripture. What does scripture tell us about God’s desire for Christian community? What does scripture tell us about God’s desire for this world?
Today is the Feast of Pentecost. It’s sometimes called the church’s birthday. We celebrate the moment when the disciples were driven out of a locked room where they were hiding in fear by the Holy Spirit - and moved out into the world.
Now, this story might have been a little hard to understand, because we didn’t hear it today in English. Instead, we heard it read for us in French, Polish, German, Russian, Estonian and Farsi. But what our multilingual reading models for us is what happened on that first Pentecost. Hear the relevant part in English:
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard the disciples speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’
This story of the first Pentecost tells us that from the beginning, God imagined a church that was diverse. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God sent the news about Jesus out into that incredibly diverse gathering representing what we would call today – the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Just a relatively short time after that first Pentecost, Peter is called to the home of a Roman centurion – a leader in the occupying Roman Army. To make a long story short, that soldier named Cornelius could have killed Peter. But, what he wanted was baptism. It’s one of the first instances of this nascent Christian movement spreading from Jewish followers of Jesus to Gentiles - the people good Jews sometimes called dogs. And what does Peter say in response, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality….” In other words, God welcomes you, my enemy.
The apostles and other believers weren’t impressed with Peter’s decision to baptize Cornelius and his household. But Peter says this: And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
By the time of the Nicene Creed, in the year 325, Christianity has spread and could be found across the known world. Buckle up - in: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Asia Minor, Caesarea, Damascus, Greece, Thrace, Libya, Rome, Carthage, Southern Gaul, Italy outside Rome, Aquileia, Milan, Syracuse and Calabria, Malta, Salona, Seville, Roman Britain, Armenia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Mesopotamia and the Parthian Empire, Persia and Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and Nubia. Talk about diversity!
The final book of the Bible, Revelation, also shows us this vision: John of Patmos writes:
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations (Rev. 21:22-26).
Now, lest we think that this desire for diversity is some Christian anomaly, hear this from the prophet Isaiah:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever (Isaiah 25:6-8).
What’s clear to me, reading scripture, is that God’s desire for the world and for God’s people is this: to live in peace (shalom) and harmony (loving-kindness). And to do so in the midst of our God-given and God-blessed diversity.
So, how will we strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being, at this time?
If, like me, you have been troubled by all that has happened to our siblings of color this week, that distress is actually a gift of the Holy Spirit. It means that the Holy Spirit is using this news to speak into your heart, to act in some way, just like she moved those first disciples. Each of us needs to prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit what she is motivating us to do. Holy Spirit, to what are you drawing my attention? Holy Spirit, how are you igniting my passion to act? Holy Spirit, how can I strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being?
Some options might include:
On this Pentecost, we celebrate the diversity of the church. We celebrate the gift of diversity in creation. We celebrate the Holy Spirit, who drove those first disciples out of their locked room and into the world. And we celebrate that same Holy Spirit who calls us to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being, in order to achieve God’s vision for a beautiful and diverse creation. Amen.
Good Friday is a strange day. But its very strangeness offers us a number of gifts. This year, all that is happening in the world brings these gifts of Good Friday into sharp focus.
So, what are the gifts of Good Friday?
First, there is a heaviness to Good Friday. Good Friday marks the day when Jesus is executed on a cross. And he’s executed after being after being betrayed by one friend and abandoned by most of his other friends. He’s tried in a sham trial by a coalition of corrupt leaders from the temple and the occupied government. This is a heavy and painful story.
Right now, the world is filled with heavy and painful stories. I find that I can’t watch the news for long. The stark reports, day after day, of death tolls and inadequate protective gear break my heart. Then, when medical personnel on the front lines describe what they are seeing and experiencing, it becomes too much to bear. I have to shut off the TV. On top of all that, there’s the pain and grief of those who have lost loved ones to this disease.
Good Friday reminds me that Jesus himself experienced pain and suffering that was heavy and difficult. Through the miracle of the incarnation, our God has lived into heavy and painful moments. We are not alone. God is in the midst of this with us. That reminder is one gift of Good Friday.
Another paradoxical gift of Good Friday is the ugliness of crucifixion. Being crucified is an ugly, painful, and gruesome way to die. And, what’s worse, in his gospel, John tells us that those who loved Jesus the most – the beloved disciple and a number of women (including Jesus’ mother Mary), gathered at the cross to witness his ugly death. It must have been horrifying for those who loved Jesus so much to watch his suffering. When we hear this story from John’s Gospel on Good Friday, all that ugliness comes into sharp focus.
On Monday, David and I watched a British SkyTV special about the coronavirus. Reporter Stuart Ramsey went to Bergamo, a small city in Lombardy, Italy. COVID-19 has devastated Bergamo. Ramsey interviewed the mayor of Bergamo and a man who’d lost a family member to the corona virus. Ramsey and his crew shot footage of emergency rooms and ICUs. The pain was absolutely palpable in every scene.
Today, I’m thinking about those scenes again, through the lens of Good Friday. I’m drawing strength and courage from the courage of the beloved disciple and the women who bore witness to Jesus’ suffering from their vantage point at the foot of the cross.
Yet another gift of Good Friday can be found in the liturgy itself. It’s so very different from what we usually do when we gather to worship. The service is beautiful and poignant. It doesn’t follow our usual worship rhythm. I’m almost haunted by its starkness. And this year, it’s even starker than usual, since we are gathered virtually, each in our own home.
When it became clear that we would be worshiping in this new ways for some time, I started thinking about how to translate all of our in-person worship into online worship. Good Friday was the service that gave me the last trouble! It’s already so stripped down. I wonder what we can learn from our Good Friday liturgy as we continue to worship in new ways for the duration of COVID-19.
A final gift of Good Friday is the Eucharistic fast. Good Friday is the one day, by tradition, when clergy absolutely do not celebrate the Eucharist. Some churches, like St. Francis, usually offer communion from the reserved sacrament on Good Friday. St. Thomas, and several other churches I’ve served, have observed a Eucharistic fast on Good Friday and don’t serve communion from the reserved sacrament. While a Eucharistic fast was not part of my tradition growing up, I’ve learned to appreciate how fasting from communion on Good Friday is one more way of experiencing the dislocation that is this day.
I miss being together as a community. And I feel sad that our fast from the Eucharist isn’t just a Good Friday thing this year. And, I wonder how the Good Friday Eucharistic fast might help us to strengthen our spiritual muscles for our ongoing fast from the body and blood of Christ.
I don’t know how you are experiencing this Good Friday. It feels different to me. This year, it’s much easier for me to live into these difficult gifts that Good Friday offers us.
Good Friday gives us the gift of liturgically sitting in the midst of pain and suffering. Good Friday reminds us that Jesus has been where we are: he experienced betrayal, suffering, pain, and death. And our Good Friday liturgy, with its starkness and its Eucharistic fast, can strengthen us for new ways of worship in these days.
On this Good Friday, we have been given a gift. We have been given a liturgical place to sit with all that feels horrible and overwhelming about COVID-19, and any other struggle we might be facing.
These days are hard, friends. Let the wisdom of the church and the experience of our Lord Jesus hold you up in them.
Sermon in honor of the Feast of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, McLean, VA - April 15, 2018
Today, we celebrate and remember Dr. Martin Luther King. We celebrate his life. We remember his death. We give thanks for his legacy of standing up for racial equality and the dignity of every human being. And, we recognize that, just like Martin Luther King, we are followers of Jesus. Therefore, we are called to follow Dr. King’s legacy and to continue to stand up for equality and to respect the dignity of every human being.
The scriptures chosen for the commemoration of Dr. King give us clear guidance about how we can go about this. The section of Luke’s gospel chosen for today is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, and it reminds us that Love is the basis of all our actions as Christians. And the section from the Letter to the Ephesians lays out for us the tools at our disposal to be “proclaimers of the Gospel of peace.”
To begin, I want to give us some highlights from the life of Martin Luther King. I’ll follow with more information about both the Gospel reading from Luke and the reading from Ephesians. And we’ll conclude with what all of this means for us in our world today.
Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, in January 15, 1929. He was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 until his death in 1968. He is best known for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, tactics his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi helped inspire.
King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and in 1957 became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). With the SCLC, he led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
On October 14, 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. In 1965, he helped organize the Selma to Montgomery marches. The following year, he and the SCLC took the movement north to Chicago to work on segregated housing. In his final years, he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty and the Vietnam War. In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People's Campaign, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Summarized from Wikipedia)
As I read and re-read some of Dr. King’s great speeches this week, it was clear to me that the value at the core of Dr. King's speeches was love. Whether he was dreaming of a world where his children would be judged by the content of the character rather than by the color of their skin, or looking out from the mountain top to a promised land where justice and equality would prevail, what motivated Dr. King was love. Love of God. Love of people. Love.
It’s that same love that Jesus talks about our in Gospel this morning in this excerpt from his Sermon on the Plain. It’s important for us to remember that the love that Jesus is talking about, the love that motivated Martin Luther King, and the love that fires our own actions for justice is not the romantic feeling of love. In Greek, there are several words that we translate into English as love, and this one today is AGAPE. One of the best translations of AGAPE is “the love that builds community.” It’s sometimes called Christian love.
AGAPE is not a feeling. It’s an action fueled by choice. If I have to wait until I feel love for my enemy to love them - or I feel love to do good to someone who hurts me, it’s all over. Honestly, I’m never going to feel that. But, I can make a choice to act in a loving way or to pray for someone who hurts me, whether I FEEL it or not.
If we move on to the letter to the Ephesians, we are given some clear direction from the author (who was either Paul, or one of his disciples writing in his name after his death) about how we prepare ourselves to face the challenges of the world. The writer begins by describing the kinds of evil that permeate the world. And then he encourages the Ephesians to prepare themselves, as if for battle, by dressing (metaphorically) in battle armor. And while this imagery sounds like it’s the OPPOSITE of love, we can see that, in fact, this armor equips them (and us) to battle against with evil with love (and remember, this is love that’s an action - love that builds community).
The writer describes this armor, in the order a first century soldier would have put it on:
In many ways, our world is very different from the world that Jesus faced. It’s different from the world that Paul and his companions in Ephesus faced. It’s even different from the world that Martin Luther King faced. Our country has made some great strides in equality and in fighting injustice. However, if you read the news, or watch TV, or listen to NPR, it doesn’t take long to see that we continue to face real battles against what I would call the forces of evil.
People of color still face discrimination in our country. Perhaps you heard this week about a story of two young African American men in a Starbucks in Philadelphia. They were waiting for a third friend to arrive. Six police officers came and removed them from the Starbucks because they were not buying coffee (coffee their friend was planning to buy). How many of us here today have waited in Starbucks for a friend who was going to buy our coffee and have been removed by police because we haven't bought anything? Anyone? I thought not. Privilege and discrimination. We have a long way to go.
In addition, our government seems to be in disarray. In Syria and Sudan and countless places around the globe, people are being slaughtered. We hear about wars and rumors of wars. In our communities, opioid use is on the rise, people are being trafficked, and kids go to school hungry every day.
Dealing with so much of this is well above my pay grade. It’s easy to feel discouraged. And I don’t know about you, but I know that I’m not Jesus and I’m not Martin Luther King!
But, I do know that I am a Christian - a follower of Jesus. We are all Christians - all followers of Jesus. I know that our call is to love - with the love that builds community. We are called to love with the love that is an action - a choice. And our call is to fight evil in whatever way we can by equipping ourselves with those armaments - things like Truth, Righteousness, Peace, Faith and the Word of God.
Let me tell you what I am doing these days to fight despair. I'm to telling you this because I'm some kind of exemplar. I'm sharing this because I hope it might be helpful.
What I’m trying to do these days is to choose one or two areas where I feel the Spirit nudging me - local things right in our own community and some with a broader scope. I focus on them in my prayers. I donate what I can. I take action when I am able. And I fight the discouragement I sometimes feel about how far we still have to go by wrapping myself in that armor and choosing to love.
In the name of Jesus, with the memory of Martin Luther King fresh in our minds, I invite you to do the same.
Sermon: 18 Pentecost, Proper 22A, Preached on October 8, 2017 at Grace Episcopal Church and St. Mary's Memorial Church, Berryville, VA
Text: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
I have a bit of a confession to make. You see, I had a perfectly adequate sermon on today’s Gospel reading practically ready to go. And then, last night, as I was working on my Bible study for this coming Wednesday, the Holy Spirit gave me a shake. She may have actually whispered, “You need to preach on the 10 Commandments,” in my ear!
In both the section of 1st Samuel that I was working on last night - and in the introduction to the 10 Commandments, God reminds the people that he brought them out of slavery in Egypt. In fact, I learned last night that God (and God’s prophets) remind the people of Israel that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt a whopping 125 times in the Old Testament. It’s why Samuel is pretty sure that it’s a bad idea for the people to have a king. (You’ll need to come to Bible study on Wednesday to find out more!) It’s the basis for so many of the reminders about God and God’s love for the people of Israel.
And today, it’s given as the reason for those words we’ve come to know as the 10 Commandments. It can be difficult when we get a passage of scripture like this one that is so well known. We think we know everything about it. Show of hands - how many of you had to memorize them as a child? I remember being asked to memorize them in the 5th grade. Don’t steal. Don’t covet. Be nice to your parents. Blah, blah, blah. We think we know them. But then, we stop hearing them.
To counter that today, I want to back up a bit. I want to start with the opening line about them. Why is it significant that these commandments come out of the Exodus from slavery? How does that help us to understand them? And then, what is it that they are actually asking us to do?
Since the summer, we’ve been hearing the story of how the Israelites spent a period of time living in Egypt. Eventually they were enslaved and Pharaoh treated them brutally. They were forced to work harder and harder - and they cried out to God for help. God heard their cry, saw their suffering and sent Moses to deliver them. After many travails and a bunch of plagues, they fled Egypt. Eventually, God delivered these Commandments to them to guide them in their new lives as free people.
And that’s important. Here’s something else important. Just before giving them these commandments, God calls them to be a holy people. That word holy isn’t only an adjective that describes God. It has come to be a word that is defined by itself - we think of holy as meaning, well… holy. But the word holy really means separate and distinct. God is holy because God is separate and distinct from humanity. And God’s people are called to be holy - that is separate and distinct - by behaving in ways that are separate and distinct from our surrounding culture.
Ultimately, the 10 Commandments call God’s people to live distinctly from the Egyptians. To live distinctly from the other cultures that surround them. In our own place and time, we are called to be holy by also being distinct from our culture. And the 10 Commandments can help.
I was taught to think of them as a rule book. Do this. Don’t do that. Really really don’t do this other thing. In fact, God doesn’t want us to have fun - so God made up some really hard rules - and we have to live by them, or else. Now, doesn’t THAT sound like a ringing endorsement for being God’s people?
I want to invite us to think about the 10 Commandments in a new way. And I want to start in the middle. I want to start with the Commandment about the Sabbath. The Israelites came out of Egypt as slaves. There was no Sabbath there. It was all work, work, work. The Sabbath commandment invites God’s people to take a rest. To enjoy the freedom of NOT being enslaved. The Israelites were to extend that freedom to those who worked for them and to their beasts of burden.
And we are invited to do the same. The sabbath isn’t about not having any fun. (I still remember the horror I felt as a girl reading about sabbath restrictions in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books!) The Sabbath is meant to give us a break - to encourage us to enjoy creation and freedom from bondage.
Today, I think it’s not so important that we take a certain day as a Sabbath, as much as it’s important that we find some time for Sabbath. If all we do is work, work, work and run, run, run - then it’s like we are still enslaved in Egypt, making bricks for Pharaoh. Instead, we are called to intentionally step off that particular treadmill and rest.
The commandments that come ahead of the Sabbath commandment are, primarily, about our relationship with God. They ask us to make God what we love and worship and to avoid misusing God’s name. Misusing God’s name can be done in more ways than just cursing. I’d say that using God’s name to put forth our own agendas is as egregious as cursing. Worshiping idols isn’t just about a carved statue. An idol is anything we worship that isn’t God.
These commandments about worship matter - because it’s in worship of God that we are formed to be people who can live out the rest of the commandments - the ones about our relationships with other people.
These are the commandments that come after the Sabbath commandment. They describe how we relate to others. Each of these commandments describe actions that harm another person. It’s certainly true that I do you less harm by simply coveting your iPhone 8 than I do if I kill you to get it. The reality is that coveting objectifies another person and robs them of their personhood.
It all comes back to Egypt. The people of Israel were harmed by the Egyptians in so many ways. The 10 Commandment are God’s way of calling God’s people to live in community with God and one another - in ways that are separate and distinct from the Egyptian culture of slavery. Think about it. The commandments call us to love God and love neighbor. Sound familiar? When you think of them in that way, you can see why Jesus said that on those two commands hang all the law and the prophets.
I want to close with some words from Elizabeth Webb. She’s an Episcopalian and a theologian. She writes:
“The Ten Commandments, and the books of the law that follow, are meant to form Israel as a sacred community, a community rooted in right worship of God and in justice and peace with one another. The Israelites are to live as neighbors to one another, the foundation of which is knowing the God to whom they belong... . It’s as if God is saying, ‘This is what you were made for. You were not made to wander, to be afraid, to hunger and thirst, to be lost. You were made to live in this community of justice, in right relationship with your God. Stay true to these commandments.’”
The same is true for us, as well. This is what WE were made for. WE were not made to wander, to be afraid, to hunger and thirst, to be lost. WE were made to live in this community of justice, in right relationship with OUR God. Stay true to these commandments. AMEN.
Quote from Elizabeth Webb, “Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17,” found here.
Sermon Preached at Grace Episcopal Church and St. Mary's Memorial Church - 11 Pentecost, Proper 15A, 08/20/17
Text: Matthew 15:10-28
Note: I most often preach without a manuscript. I typed this up on Sunday afternoon, after several requests. It's close to what I actually preached, but I'm relying on memory. Also, this explains why I can comment on the congregation's audible response at one point in the sermon.
This morning, we heard a portion of the 15th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. In this portion, Matthew describes two scenes to us. However, there are actually three distinct scenes in Matthew 15. In order to make sense of what we just heard, we also need to know what was in the part we didn’t hear.
This morning, I will walk us through all of Matthew 15, and help us to understand what’s happening in this section of Matthew’s Gospel. And then, we’ll talk about how what we find there can help us to understand how to be faithful in these challenging times.
The first scene in Matthew 15 finds Jesus being criticized by the Pharisees because his disciples are following the proper protocols for washing hands and vessels before eating. This is not a critique about germs or proper hygiene. This isn't about using hand sanitizer. Rather this is a critique about how one follows a religious ritual. First century Jewish people followed a number of procedures for washing before eating. Jesus’ followers could be a little lax in those ritual observations and these religious leaders were unhappy. They confronted Jesus about it.
In the second scene, Jesus responds by saying: it’s not what goes into our mouths that defiles, it’s what comes out of our mouths. Jesus goes on to name a number of things that can come out of our mouths - things like evil intentions, slander, false witness, and adultery. What these things all have in common is that they are things that come from our hearts, and out of our mouths. They cause great damage to the souls of other human beings. Don’t worry about what goes in, says Jesus. Worry about what comes out. And gosh, haven’t we seen that in the last weeks? We’ve seen lots of damaging things coming out of people’s mouths, causing harm to the souls of others.
Matthew 15 closes with a third scene. And it’s a hard one. When I was proclaiming it just now, I actually heard some of you catch your breath when you realized what you were hearing. In this third scene, Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a horrible name. It’s one we might use to name a female dog - a word that rhymes with “itch.” It’s horrible. Take a moment to just sit with that before we move on.
Now, we need a little background. Jesus traveled to the region of Tyre and Sidon, north of the geographic boundaries of ancient Israel. One commentator I read described Tyre and Sidon as a “toxic waste zone.” It wasn’t a safe place to go for Jewish people. And, the woman who needs Jesus’ help with her ill daughter was a Canaanite. Those of us who have been studying Joshua and Judges in our Wednesday Bible study know that there’s been a long history of bad blood between Jews and Canaanites. Those Canaanites were the ones the Jews had to boot out of the promised land to settle in the nation of Israel.
Jesus is in dangerous Canaanite territory, he meets a woman who needs help, and he calls her a racial slur. Wow. Just wow.
As you might imagine, scholars have spent a lot of time trying to make sense of this part of the story. For the most part, scholars fall into one of two broad camps as they describe what might be happening in this part of the Matthew 15. I’m going to share both viewpoints with you.
The first view says that Jesus uses this encounter with the Canaanite woman as an object lesson. He’s just told his disciples that it’s what comes out of your mouth that can defile. And then - BOOM - he defiles someone with what comes out of his mouth almost to prove the point. BUT, he is coming to a new understanding of his mission to bring about the Kingdom of God - and wants his disciples to have that new vision, as well. So he has to meet them where they are.
What do I mean? Today, Jesus says that he’s only here for the “lost sheep of Israel.” But, by the end of this Gospel, Jesus will be teaching that his disciples need to “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations…” [Matthew 28:19, emphasis mine]. And, in the book of Revelation, the vision John receives of heaven is one where “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” [Revelation 7:9].
So, in order to move his disciples to that understanding (after all, they were all complaining that this Canaanite woman dared to ask something of Jesus), he needed to help them to see her humanity and help them to understand the spreading of the Gospel beyond Judaism.
The other view is more controversial. That view understands Jesus as a product of his own place and time. Like any first century Jew, from the time he was “knee-high to a grasshopper” (as my grandmother would have said) he was taught to disdain Gentiles. He was taught that they were no better than dogs. When this Gentile woman called to him for help, his first inclination was to ignore her and when that didn’t work, to belittle her.
But, nevertheless, she persisted. She refused to allow Jesus and his disciples to silence her and she kept pleading on behalf of her child.
I don’t know what it is about prejudice. Maybe at some point it served an evolutionary purpose, but it does seem to be something that we all struggle with as human beings. I struggle with it. And, it helps me enormously to see Jesus struggling with prejudice too. If even Jesus struggles with seeing the humanity of this Canaanite woman, well, maybe that helps to explain what’s happening in our world right at the moment.
These days, when racist thugs, and Neo-Nazis, and the KKK are out in the streets, and don’t even feel the need to mask their shameful behavior with hoods, we’ve got some work to do. And it is particularly important that those of us whose skin is white reach out to others and work to stop this travesty.
One of the ladies from St. Mary’s told me this morning that she’s been feeling very anxious this week. She said, “I can’t believe it’s 2017. I haven’t felt like this since the 1950s.” Our Jewish brothers and sisters are also afraid. Those hate-mongers in Charlottesville were openly anti-semitic, using language that the Nazis used in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
It is imperative that those of us with white skin get a handle on our own prejudices and act for the change we wish to see.
And, if I’ve got a model for this reaching out, it’s Peter. Peter moved from being one of those that called for Jesus to silence this Canaanite woman, to being a missionary. We hear that story in Acts 10. Peter was called to the home of a Roman centurion. This centurion wasn’t just any Gentile. No. He was a soldier in the occupying Army. Can you imagine Peter’s surprise when he arrived at Cornelius’ home and discovered that the Holy Spirit was already there? He baptized Cornelius and all his household on the spot. And then, he took some real heat from the other leaders in the early Christian community. This story is so significant that it’s repeated more than once in Acts.
Those first followers of Jesus needed to learn to move beyond their prejudices in order to extend the love of Christ to all people, from every tribe and language and people and nation. May we learn from their examples and do the same.
Get out of the Boat - A Sermon preached at Homecoming at Wickliffe Church, Berryville on Sunday August 13, 2017
1o Pentecost, Proper 14A - Matthew 14:22-33
In the midst of a storm on the sea of Galilee, Jesus calls Peter to get out of the boat. Peter and the other disciples had gone out fishing in the evening, when a storm blew in. Storms like that could happen suddenly on the Sea of Galilee. They’d worked hard all night and were far from shore. Early in the morning, when they were exhausted, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea.
The disciples were terrified. Of course they were. I’d be terrified. Wouldn’t you be? Jesus offers assurance, but still they are afraid. Then Peter – I love Peter – impetuously says, “Jesus if it’s you, call me to come to you.” And Jesus calls Peter, “Come.” So Peter does. He gets out of the boat and begins walking towards Jesus on the water. And all is well, at least for a moment or two. Peter walks towards Jesus on the water. And then, Peter notices the storm around him, and he panics. He starts to sink. And Jesus reaches out to Peter and lifts him up, and they get back into the boat.
Now this storm that surrounded the boat was a literal storm on the sea of Galilee. But it could also have been a metaphorical storm. Following Jesus is a bit like that – it seems that there’s always a storm brewing. This story that we heard this morning is a literal storm right in the midst of two metaphorical ones.
Right before this story, Jesus feeds 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. He fed 5000 men – along with women and children, so we don’t even know how many people really got fed! And that act causes some trouble for him. And, the very next story that Matthew will tell after this one, is a story of Jesus getting into trouble with the religious leaders of his day because they don’t agree with his attitude towards the Sabbath laws. Things get stormy for Jesus and his followers because they pick grain on the Sabbath. Things are regularly stormy for Jesus and his followers because of who they hang out with and what they do.
So, this storm, the one that Jesus calls Peter out into, is a literal storm. But as followers of Jesus, the disciples encounter some metaphorical storms, as well.
Friends, it’s been a rough week. Can we just sit here for a moment and acknowledge that? It’s been a rough week.
It’s been pretty stormy out there. There’s fear internationally on a number of levels, but most particularly with the situation in North Korea. And then, yesterday, unspeakable things happened right here in our beloved Commonwealth of Virginia, in Charlottesville. Not to mention that some of us are experiencing our own personal storms – things like the death of loved ones or surgeries and illnesses for ourselves and members of our families. There are positive storms as well, things like weddings and the start of a new school year. Those are great things – but there’s often a bit of storminess when we enjoy big events or embark on new things.
Friends, it’s pretty stormy out there. And Jesus calls us to get out of the boat. Jesus calls us to leave the relative safety of the boat we are in and to step out into the storm.
When I look out at all of us here this morning, I don’t know how Jesus is calling each of you individually. But I do know this. Jesus is calling each of us to get out of the boat.
Particularly when we are faced with an event like the one that happened yesterday in Charlottesville, we are called to get out of the boat.
Perhaps for some of us, getting out of the boat means being persistent in prayer. For others of us, getting out of the boat may mean showing up and standing up for peace. The Bishops of VA called on Episcopal clergy yesterday to come to Charlottesville and stand with them in peaceful protest of those evil hate mongers. My guess is that for most of us, getting out of the boat will be somewhere in the middle.
But, especially for those of us who are white, the time is past when we have had the luxury to sit silently while these things are happening. Jesus calls us to get out of the boat. It’s important for us to stand with our brothers and sisters. Jesus calls us to get out of the boat and stand alongside our African American, Muslim, Jewish, and GLBT brothers and sisters. Many of them are afraid. And they need to know that we are with them. Jesus call us to get out of the boat.
Friends, there’s much that I don’t know this morning, but I do know three things.
First, Jesus calls us towards love. Jesus centered his ministry around the call to love God and to love neighbor. Love. Jesus calls us to get out of the boat and love. If it’s not about love, it’s not about Jesus.
Second, Jesus calls us towards justice. From the beginning of scripture and throughout the Bible, there is a call towards justice. We’re called to care for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the widows and orphans, and the strangers among us. Justice. Jesus calls us to get out of the boat and do justice. If it’s not about justice, it’s not about Jesus.
Finally, Jesus calls each and every one of us to get out of the boat. Jesus calls you. Jesus calls me. Whoever we are, Jesus calls us to get out of the boat.
In this morning's Gospel reading, we hear one of the hard sayings of Jesus. He tells us, "Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword."
This isn't exactly comforting news. After all, I thought that Jesus was supposed to be the Prince of Peace. And here he is telling us that he's not coming to bring peace but a sword. And then he goes on to describe all the family strife that's going to transpire because of him. What the heck are we supposed to make of THAT?
Well, first, I think that a little bit of context is helpful. Jesus' words this morning are to his closest followers. The 12. They are the ones we heard about last week - when Robin York reminded us that they were ordinary folks, sent on a "mission from God." They were sent to the folks Jesus called "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" and their task was to "cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons."
We get a sneak preview of this problem of "no peace" in last week's readings when Jesus says, "If they don't welcome you, shake the dust from your sandals and leave that town." There is clearly something about Jesus' message that some will find threatening, if the 12 need an escape plan!
So Jesus tells his closest followers that it's not going to be all sunshine and roses, following him. He warns them that the message that they bring won't always be welcome. That some people, on hearing it, will not call them heroes, but Beelzebul - Satan. He tells them that it's possible that their families, their parents, their children will turn away from them. It's possible that the Gospel message will not bring always bring joy and peace, but strife and discord.
This family strife happens to Jesus on more than one occasion in the Gospels. Members of his family, fearing for his sanity, come to try to silence him. Jesus responds to those telling him that his family has come to try to dissuade him from his ministry by saying that his family are the ones who do God’s will.
You can see this lack of peace in some of the stories about Jesus. Jesus treated vulnerable people, those shunned by society, with great compassion. Remember the story of the woman who was caught in adultery? She was about to be stoned to death when Jesus came upon her and her accusers. Rather than joining the crowd, he suggested that those without sin should be the first to throw stones.
But, in an exchange typical of Jesus, he also held her accountable. When her accusers had vanished, Jesus said to her, “Now, go and sin no more.” This compassion for sinners created conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders.
Other “no peace” moments in the early days of the church had to do with the question of who this “Jesus movement” was really for. Were Jesus’ teachings meant to be solely a reform of Judaism? Or, were they intended for the wider Gentile world, as well? Following Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the birth of the church at Pentecost, the question of who was really welcome in the early church became a HUGE one.
No one wrestled with this question more than Peter. Initially, he saw himself as a faithful Jew - and looked at Gentiles with disdain. But following a dream in which God revealed that nothing God made was unclean, Peter was invited to the home of a Roman centurion named Cornelius, and discovered that the Holy Spirit had preceded him.
Peter became a passionate witness for a mission to the Gentiles, despite the fact that many other followers of Jesus disagreed with him. The Acts of the Apostles relates the many conversations and councils held to decide the question - and how contentious they were.
It’s clear from reading the stories of Jesus’ own ministry, and of the early church, that striving to faithfully follow Jesus can lead to strife and division.
So, what do Jesus' words this morning mean for us? I think that there are two messages. One message is a caution and the other is an encouragement.
First, our world these days is one filled with strife and conflict. After our recent presidential election, I saw people from both political parties declaring that they could no longer interact with a parent or a child, a friend or an old college roommate, because of their political views. We call the people with disagree with idiots or snowflakes, extremists or libtards, hatemongers or commies. The words Spawn of Satan were even bandied about. We are seeing a rise in hate crimes and violence against those who are seen as different.
Let me be clear: Jesus is not encouraging this kind of behavior. I don't think he's telling us that it's OK to demean people or break relationships because we disagree on political points. He's certainly not encouraging violence. Jesus called his first followers to love one another - and to pray for those who might be considered enemies. Dismissing those we disagree with as snowflakes or extremists doesn't fall within the call to love.
Jesus warned his followers, "Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword." What he didn't say was that they should take up arms and fight. (In fact, he said, "Those who live by the sword die by the sword.").
But he did warn them his followers that following him and being faithful to him could lead to division. Here's how that might play out for us living today.
Jesus is encouraging us to take faithful stands. As we’ve already seen in my examples this morning, much of what Jesus taught: welcome for the stranger, acceptance of the sinner, healing for the sick, and food for the hungry, wasn't particularly popular in his own day - any more than it is now.
Jesus is calling us to be faithful. Be faithful to Biblical teaching. Be faithful to his call to love. And to do that whether or not we think it's going to be popular with our friends and family.
There are currently some pretty contentious debates happening in our country: What's our national responsibility about health care? How do we assure that every child in our country is fed? Who is really welcome here? How do we treat people who are different from us? Do black lives really matter?
How do we decide where we stand on these issues? How do we make sense of the ferocious debates currently going on?
As Christians, our call is faithfulness to Jesus and his teachings. We are called to return again and again and again to the words we find in scripture. And then we are called to use those words to inform our views and plans for action. Even if those views aren't popular with our friends and family. Even if those actions create tension in our relationships.
Let me be clear - Conflict isn’t ever the goal! Unfortunately (and this was Jesus’ point), it might well be a byproduct of our faithful and prayerful discernment and action.
At the end of the day, our highest calling as Christians is to follow Jesus and his teachings. Our mission from God is made clear in His teaching: love God and love neighbor. Treat the stranger with compassion. Welcome the sinner. Heal the sick. Cast out demons.
This morning’s teaching from Jesus isn’t an easy one. It’s frankly a passage I’d rather forget was in Matthew’s Gospel! But it’s an important one that serves to guide us in our discernment and in our decision making. And if others disagree - well, we’re to (metaphorically) shake the dust off of our sandals because our highest loyalty is to Jesus.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the word Gospel means Good News. And there are, alongside this hard teaching, words of comfort and consolation. Jesus reminds his disciples of their value in the eyes of God. God has numbered the hairs on our head. God values us more than many sparrows. And when we take up the cross of proclaiming our Gospel values, we might lose something in this world, but we gain new life in Christ.
My friend Christine at Brave and Reckless has posted a poetry challenge. While I'm not usually a poetry writer, this one spoke to me. Our instructions were to write about a life experience using only 10 objects. Immediately, I thought about celebrating the Eucharist. Here's my poem:
Brown pottery plate, with spiral center
Freshly baked bread and sweet port wine
Ancient words, spoken aloud
Hands hold bread and bless
Text: Matthew 5:38-48
This morning’s Gospel passage concludes with what sounds like an impossible command. Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I don’t know about you, but I know about me. I am far from perfect – and if perfection is the goal, I’m in big trouble!
I have good news. While there is no doubt that what Jesus asks of us is difficult, it’s not impossible. What Jesus is asking us to do in this passage is to love as God loves. This this morning, I’ll walk us through what’s happening in this passage and then, we’ll explore together what loving as God loves looks like in our own lives.
To begin, we have a translation problem. The word that our Bible translators give to us as perfect is the Greek word telios. And while perfect is one way to translate this word, it’s not the best or the only way. Telios can mean complete, mature, and having full integrity, as well as perfect.
There’s a version of the Bible called The Common English Bible. It translates this last phrase this way: Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also must you be complete. Each and every example that Jesus gives in this short passage, from going the extra mile to lending to those in need, to praying for and loving one’s enemies all stem from that command to love as God loves.
We have been invited, in our own relationship with God, to experience God’s love first hand. Whoever we are, whatever we have done, God’s love and grace is extended to us. Through Jesus’ life, ministry, example, death and resurrection, we have been offered life-giving grace and forgiveness. We have been offered God’s unconditional love. In this passage, Jesus asks us to take that unconditional love and grace that we have been offered and to extend it to others. That’s how we love the way that God loves. That’s what it means to be perfect, to be complete, to be mature, and to have full integrity.
One of my favorite passages from scripture comes from the First Letter of John. In the 4th chapter, we read: Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8, CEB)
I don’t know about you, but I was raised to think of my life of faith as a win or lose proposition with no middle ground. It was either success or failure. Either I got it right, or I failed colossally. I eventually realized that God doesn’t operate this way. God is love. And God extends love to us again and again. As I walk through my own life, I am given many many opportunities to learn the lessons of love – and to extend love to others. If I get it right – good. If I fail, I have an opportunity to return to God’s love for me, receive God’s grace, and then try again.
Living and loving this way isn’t easy. The scenes that Jesus describes at the beginning ask us to receive being humiliated with non-violent opposition. Then he asks us to show compassion by giving and lending when we are asked. He concludes with asking us to pray for our enemies and to show them love. This is tough stuff. In my own life, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. But, then I get up, return to God’s love and grace, and try again. And again. And again.
What might this look like? Here’s an example.
Perhaps you remember the story of the school shooting in the Nickel Mines Amish Community in Lancaster County, PA in October of 2006. A man named Charles Carl Roberts IV shot ten Amish school girls, before killing himself. Five of the girls died and five were critically wounded but survived. The Amish made the news almost immediately because of their incredible acts of forgiveness. An Amish neighbor named Henry visited Charlie’s parents on the day of the shooting to offer forgiveness. Thirty Amish community members attended the funeral for Charlie Roberts, shielding his family from the news media.
One article I read about this event said that “not holding grudges” is a core belief for the Amish in living out their faith. Many outsiders were quick to judge the Amish for rushing to forgiveness too quickly. The father of one of the girls opened a window into what this experience of forgiveness is like. His daughter Roseanna was not killed, but permanently disabled. She cannot walk, speak, or communicate. He said that every day as he watches her struggle, he has to fight back his anger. Every day, he says, he has to forgive again. Several people described this decision to forgive as an active choice.
Another part of this story that you may not know is the story of Charlie’s mother, Terri. After she was shown forgiveness and care by her Amish neighbors, she began to reach out. She has developed a special relationship with Roseanna and her family. Until a recent illness forced her to slow down, she went to Roseanna’s house once a week to bathe her, spend the evening with her, and give her family some respite from her ongoing care.
What I hear in this story is a whole group of people who chose to love as God loves. It would have been easy for those Amish families to shut out their neighbors. It would have been easy for Terri Roberts to turn away from the pain her son caused. Instead, in that small community, neighbors reached across a huge chasm of pain to love one another as God loves.
Our world is growing ever more polarized. We disagree about so many things. We’ve lost our capacity for civil discourse. It’s so much easier to be snarky and dismissive than to engage in the actual work of love. We live in an age when we hang out in echo chambers that reflect our own views. Social media makes it easier to unfriend someone than to engage with love across our differences.
Jesus calls us to love as God loves. To resist violence with non-violence. To care for those in need. To forgive our enemies and to pray for them. We are to do it because God is love and God loves us. Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also must you be complete.
This morning, our Scripture readings speak to us in one common voice. And that common voice tells us that God’s values are different from many of our default human values. Let me say that again. The common voice in our scriptures this morning tells us that God’s values are different from our default human values.
Think about it. Our society tells us that the most important thing we can do as humans is to have power. To have wealth. To have prestige. To be successful. To be great again. Listen to the news. Watch a commercial. See a movie. It’s everywhere we look. But, our readings from both Micah and Matthew remind us that those human values are NOT God’s values.
Speaking through Micah, God says to the people – I freed you from slavery. I brought you out of Egypt. I don’t want empty worship. I don’t care about the bulls and the rams and the oil in your offerings. I want you. And I want you doing for others what I have done for you. I want you DO Justice. I want you to LOVE kindness. I want you to WALK humbly with me.
What does that mean? It means that God wants how we live our lives to reflect who God is and God’s love for the world. And we do that through our DOING of Justice, our LOVING of Kindness, and our WALKING in Humility.
The words are tricky. We receive them in English, but because Micah 6:8 is translated from Hebrew, we miss the nuance. Let me try to explain.
Justice is an English translation of the Hebrew word mishpat. To us justice is a legal term, but that’s not its primary scriptural definition. Justice is something we DO to be certain that all the people of the earth have what they need for their well-being. Caring for our brothers and sisters is a scriptural imperative. It’s not optional. Exodus 22 explains it this way: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan…. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
The word translated as kindness is the Hebrew word chesed. It has no direct English translation. It’s related to love, loyalty, and faithfulness. Frankly, kindness isn’t nearly a strong enough word to convey the meaning of chesed. Chesed describes the key element in human relationships – whether that relationship is one of marriage, friendship, or community. It’s also meant to characterize our relationship with God. So, we are to LOVE loyalty, love, and faithfulness in all of our relationships – and to act out of that love. We don’t do it because we are manipulated or afraid, we do it because God loves the world – and we are part of the world that God loves.
And, we are to WALK with God. Our walk should be humble or circumspect (both good translations of the Hebrew), to put God first and live in conformity with God’s desires.
And, if we’re wondering about what God’s desires might look like, we can turn to the Beatitudes for some ideas. Jesus spoke the beatitudes to a crowd gathered around him on a mountain top. We know the whole speech as the Sermon on the Mount. They were Jewish people, living in an occupied country, experiencing daily oppression from their Roman occupiers.
Jesus had good news for those people – and it continues to be good news for us.
Because Jesus tells us who and what God values. Once again, we see that the world is turned upside down: Who’s blessed? Jesus says these folks are blessed: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and those who are reviled and persecuted for the sake of the Gospel.
Since August, it’s been my privilege to worship with you, work alongside of you, and partner with you for the sake of the Gospel. I’ve heard painful stories of how the racism that infects our country has impacted your lives in the past and continues to do so today. And, I’ve watched you hungering and thirsting for justice. I’ve watched you being peacemakers. And, I’ve heard amazing stories of what DOING justice, LOVING faithfulness in relationships, and WALKING humbly with God looks like in real life in our community.