"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Jesus Sounds Like Me

          Proper 15: Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28

          Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

          Ferguson, Missouri.
Iraq … 
"O, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity ...?!"
It seems as if hatred between neighbors has once again risen to the surface of the globe like deadly toadstools on a foggy morning. Race, religion, economic status, and nationality divide us at home and abroad. Such hatred certainly is not new. While on vacation in Geneva, I visited a museum about the Reformation and spent several hours reviewing the violence that seethed between Catholics and Protestants, as well as between varieties of Protestants, for hundreds of years, all over Europe. While the media of the day used the new printing presses to spread caricatures of opposing groups roasting in hell and sprouting demon horns, governments used religious differences to jockey violently for secular power.
          In the Middle East, the Holy Land of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, neighbors have been fighting and hating for as long as we have historical documentation. Our collect encourages us to follow Jesus as an example of Godly life, but what about the Jesus that we see in today's Gospel? Even our Lord Jesus seems to have struggled with our human drive to exclude “the other.” It is hard for me to hear his harsh and angry words in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew. In opposition to the compassion that I admire in him—the compassion that he shows to Jewish women in need—even adulteresses and those who are poor and unclean—Jesus snaps at the Gentile woman who kneels at his feet, even when she calls him Lord and begs for God’s mercy for her sick daughter.
“Dogs!” he names her and her daughter, as he bluntly refuses to help them. Dirty, Gentile mongrels. Dogs in Jesus’ world were not the cute, tame pets that we enjoy today. While Gentiles might have let their dogs in to clean up under the table during meals, good Jews kept their dogs outside. They roamed and scavenged like the farm dogs that my daughter encountered when she lived in Peru. You would toss scraps out the door for them to eat every night, but you couldn’t go outside, she explained to me, without the protection of several hefty rocks to throw at the dangerous and snarling family dogs who prowled around the house.
“I have enough to do taking care of my own people,” Jesus grumbles. “There’s nothing left over for Gentile dogs like you.  My people are ‘children.’ Yours are animals. My people are in. Yours are out.”
It almost looks as if Matthew has made Jesus here an example of the very defiling language that Jesus himself has just condemned at the beginning of our lesson. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and that is what defiles,” he cries. “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder … false witness, slander.” Jesus certainly shares our common humanity with the drive to exclude, lodged within his own heart.
While we might be shocked at Jesus’ language and at his all too human reaction, the twist in today’s lesson is that it is the faithfulness in the heart of the Gentile woman that brings grace to the situation, even enlarging Jesus’ heart and mission. Because of her faith, Jesus learns and grows. What is it exactly, in the woman’s petition, that is able to breach the boundaries that Jesus sets on his mission? What is it in her that so effectively pierces the barriers that we human beings set up between us and those who are different?
Professor Karoline Lewis names all kinds of possibilities: Is it the Gentile woman’s persistence? Her determination not to give up despite the disciples’ rejection and Jesus’ ugly words? Is it that she honestly admits her need before the Lord, kneeling down and humbly pleading, “Kyrie Eleison,” “Lord have mercy?” Is it that she recognizes that Jesus is Lord and God and believes that he can heal her daughter? Is it that she is clever with her words and able to turn Jesus’ insult to win her argument? Is it because she is willing to move past the boundaries that we human beings place on others and on ourselves?[1] The Gentile woman’s faith is probably made up of all of these things, but one thing stands out to me: her lack of fear.
Just last week, we heard Jesus upbraid Peter for his “little faith,” as his fear got the better of him in his attempt to cross the waves to come to Jesus. Remember? It was the blowing winds, those turbulent winds of the world, that unnerved him, and he stumbled. He lost his focus on Jesus, and he sank. The Gentile woman in today’s story, however, is somehow able to push aside her fear. She must have been afraid. Afraid that her daughter would soon die or go mad. Afraid of the hostile disciples and their strange language, clothing, and religion. Afraid of the power and the hostility that she senses in Jesus himself. Crossing the no-man’s-land between unfriendly cultures and separate religions, she must have felt as vulnerable as Peter treading across those waves. She must have felt as battered as Peter by the hostile winds of the world around her. And yet, intently clinging to Jesus as the only hope for her daughter, she is somehow able to push through her fear. “Woman, great is your faith,” Jesus says to her. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” Unlike Peter, the Gentile woman does not sink.
Whenever I think about the faith of people like today’s Canaanite woman, or about the faith of those who defied the Nazi’s in World War II, or about the faith of the Christians in Iraq today who face exile and death rather than abjure their beliefs, I tend to hold my own faith up in limp comparison. “I would be afraid to do that,” I shrug sadly. I tend to forget that courage is not lack of fear. It is acting in spite of fear. The point of today’s lesson is not to start us picking at our own “little faith.” I believe that the point of today’s lesson is to fill us with the courage to venture, ourselves, across the scary, windy seas that divide neighbors not just around the world, but right here in our own community. As the Gentile woman transforms Jesus, she can transform us, as well.
As I was working on this sermon, I received an email from Harvey Roberts. Harvey was one of the many parishioners who attended a meeting on Monday with the principal at Zachary Taylor Elementary about our tutoring program there. Harvey told me that the group was astounded to hear that nearly one in six students at Zachary Taylor this year have English as their second language. Most of these children are Hispanic, but there are a growing number of Arabic-speaking students as well. One in six! Here, in our East End suburb. Harvey writes what I thought as I read these statistics: “I was struck by how God brought this team together.  We may not realize it from our own population [at St. Thomas], but the population of our community has changed.  We are a white suburban parish in a markedly diverse international community.  Does it surprise you that we have a little disconnect here?  Not me, not any more. The Lord is asking us to open our hearts.”
We say as a parish that we want to reach out to the community. We say that youth and young families are the priority for us. But we do we mean youth and young families like us? White, Christian, hopefully Episcopalian? People who will come to church and pledge and make other kids like ours want to come to our parish? We have enough to do helping people like us, right, teaching our own young people, without throwing our resources to people who won’t amalgamate? Arabs won’t increase our average Sunday attendance. Spanish speakers won’t want to sing our hymns. Goodness, we can’t even talk with them. How are we going to reach out if we can’t communicate? We can’t afford to pay for the staffing to meet our own needs …. Why would we want to spend money on helping outsiders? Sounds kind of like Jesus in our Gospel lesson, doesn’t it?
          We may not hate and kill those who are different like they are doing in Ferguson or Iraq or Gaza, but we still fear them. Don’t you feel your stomach churning as I talk about opening up our hearts—and most of all our meager resources—to very strange strangers? I know that mine churns like crazy at the very idea!
And yet-- the Gentile woman finds courage in her confidence that there is enough power and love in Jesus to go around.[2] Somehow, she recognizes that even a crumb of Jesus’ power is enough to save her daughter from the demon. She doesn’t ask Jesus to ignore his own people in order to help hers. She doesn’t make God choose sides. She simply places hope in the never-ending supply of God’s love and grace and power. Can we do the same? God will take care of the success; God only asks us to be faithful.[3]

[1] Karoline Lewis, “Getting Great Faith,” found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3298
[2] Carla Works, found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2145
[3] “We are not here to be successful; we are here to be faithful.” Well-known phrase attributed to Mother Theresa, among others.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Soccer, Spirit, and Connections


Genesis 25:19-34

Psalm 119:105-112

Romans 8:1-11

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

           In a few hours, many of us baseball-loving Americans will be watching the final World Cup soccer match on our TV sets. So here’s a question for you to ponder as you watch: Is life more like baseball or is it more like soccer?
Columnist David Brooks asks that question in an op ed piece this week.[1] Brooks explains that we often think of the game of life as being more like baseball. We see ourselves as involved in a series of individual activities and achievements. After all, in baseball, a team that performs the most individual tasks well, like throwing a strike or hitting a line drive, is likely to win the game.[2] In the same way, we see our collaboration at work and at home in terms of our own personal wins and losses, in terms of our own straight-line efforts to “accomplish” a day.
Brooks then points out, however, that life is really more like soccer, because life, like soccer, is a game about occupying and controlling space. It is about team formations. It is a collective game with odds that are hard to control. According to Brooks, Germany beat Brazil so lopsidedly this week because Brazil did a bad job controlling space on the field, even though Brazil’s individual players were statistically better than Germany’s. In life, we are constantly absorbing our thoughts and even our life choices from the teachings and utterances of those around us. We depend on our networks of friends and colleagues (on and off Facebook!) We depend for our financial flourishing on the structure of the economy that surrounds us. We see ourselves through the eyes of our loved ones. We live and move and have our being within multiple systems of connection.
Brooks’ article is interesting in helping us to ponder the connectivity of our lives. It struck me, though, that one could pull Brooks’ metaphor a bit further in a theological direction. Perhaps that St. Paul is suggesting in our reading from Romans that Life in the Spirit is also like playing soccer.  In Romans, when we hear Paul talking about “flesh” and “spirit,” it sounds to us as if he is separating body and soul. It sounds as if he is saying that our bodily desires and feelings are sinful and that it is only our disembodied spirits that can communicate with God. But that’s not what Paul is really getting at. For Paul, the “things of the flesh” are not necessarily only physical things. We are in “the flesh,” when we measure reality apart from the way that God structures it, when we forget that the space in which we live belongs to God.  By living our lives in a straight line, consumed with our individual plans and bound by structures of our own devising, we are living “in the flesh.”[3]
In the same way, we are in “the spirit,” not when we play around in the realm of ideas and thoughts, but when we play God’s game, in God’s structures, letting all the space around us be filled with God’s presence. Opposition to God, being “in sin,” is refusing to shape my life in accordance with God’s activity in the world.[4] So what Paul is saying is that life in Christ is kind of like a game of soccer—where God owns the field. We play the position that God has assigned to us, free to use our brains and to make our plays with others, yet understanding that the space that we are trying to control is open to the movements of our Creator. Not only do the networks of people around us influence our thoughts and our actions—God’s Spirit, too, controls structures beyond our comprehension. God’s borders dwarf our borders. Our barriers are no match for God’s pervasive love. Our limitations cannot limit God’s possibilities. The mysterious and uplifting “team spirit” that fills and inspires us as we play, drawing all of our individual efforts together, is the Spirit of Christ. It is that Holy Spirit within us and around us that gives us the power to win the game.
OK, I’ve got to be honest with you. Now that I have the attention of the soccer fans among us, I’m going to have to stop with the sports analogies before I make a terrible blunder and have you all pulling out your hair over my incomprehension of the intricacies of the game. I don’t know much about soccer at all, so I am going to carry our theme of structure and space over into an area that has been concerning ME this summer: gardening.
Plants, like soccer players and like us, live and have their being in a certain context. Root systems spread out into the space available to them. They intertwine with one another. They share water and nutrients from the soil.  It’s no wonder then that the tomato plants that I lazily stuck into some hard, unturned earth full of old ivy vines, tree roots, and invasive mint,  have dropped their blossoms and have produced nothing but leaves. For gardeners, too, the trick is to fill and manage well the space.
Or so it seems on the surface. Did you know that there are fungi called mycorrhizae? They are found everywhere, in almost every ecosystem in the world. They are invisible, living in the soil, and they live in symbiotic relationships with 90 percent of plants on earth. The fungi penetrate the roots of plants and provide them with food and water from the soil. In turn, the fungi receive food from the plants. These fungi even link plants of all different species, as they “run” through the soil from one kind of plant to another, both living plants and dead plants.[5] You might say that the fungi are like soccer players, passing the ball down the field. You might say that the fungi are like the Spirit of Christ, moving unseen throughout the world, sustaining and giving life, filling us with God’s presence, creating connection between the living and the dead. In the flesh, my tomato plants are hemmed in by hot bricks. But underneath, in the spirit, life flows forth like a stream.
In today’s parable, the Sower doesn’t worry much about where he is planting his seeds, does he? It seems as if he is not “managing his space” very well, doesn’t it? He throws those valuable little seeds out everywhere with reckless abandon: into the weeds, onto the path, into the rocks, as well as into the good soil. And yet, despite his wasteful way of planting, the Sower ends up with a harvest of extraordinary abundance. In some places, his grain comes in a hundredfold. I can’t even get that kind of return with MiracleGro! Jesus is showing us a picture of a God who is constantly pouring out God’s Word of Love into Creation—into fertile places and into dead places. God is constantly making connections that we don’t see, molding our hearts, working around and in and through the space that we fill ourselves.
On my same little patio with my blossomless tomato plants, there is another plant that lives “in the Holy Spirit.” Last year, I had my whole patio redone. I had the bricks removed, the gravel underneath scooped out, and a thick slab of concrete poured before the bricks were re-laid on top. Yet, this summer, right in the middle of that new patio, a little weed has sprung up through a tiny opening that is too small for my eyes to see. Unfertilized, unwatered, uncared for by me, this little weed is growing tall and strong through the concrete. The networks of fungi that nurture it must exist somewhere under that concrete, but they belong to the powerful and invisible networks of our Creator.
Assured by Resurrection of the love and power of a Living God, we have no need to burrow down into our hearts, looking for fertile soil. We have no cause to give up, either, when the harvest around us appears lean. We have only to strengthen our connections: our connections with one another and with our world but also our deep, unseen connections with God’s constantly creating Word.
So whether you are gardening or watching soccer this afternoon, look for the connections, the running roots and the running players, and see the unstoppable Spirit of Christ filling the field, ready to erupt in a shout of victory or a green shoot of life.

[1] David Brooks, “Baseball or Soccer,” The New York Times, July 10, 2104. Found at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/11/opinion/david-brooks-baseball-or ....
[2] Ibid.
[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2001),  130.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 20-21.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Who will save us from this body of death?

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Psalm 45: 11-18

Romans 7:15-25a

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sometimes it feels better not to know, doesn’t it? Reading the newspaper or watching the news can be dangerous to one’s happiness. I was happier before I knew about those immigrant children whose dreams for a better life are propelling them into the desert to die. I was happier before I knew the nasty and inhumane conditions in which most of my favorite chicken meat is raised. I was happier before I knew that companies in my investment portfolio take advantage of child laborers in Bangladesh or spill oil in pristine seas.  I’ll never forget the day when, as a teenager, a friend’s parents drove me back to my nice home by a new and different route, returning from the airport after a wonderful, amazing, expensive trip to Europe. The freeway overpass took me for the first time over the dilapidated shacks hidden in one of Houston’s many “wards,” or barrios, and guilt spread through my veins like poison. I was definitely happier before I saw the underbelly of my hometown. As a Christian, I want to follow Jesus, and yet finding solutions to any of these problems is totally overwhelming and fraught with costly re-evaluation of the values by which I like to live. How do we live with the burden, once we’ve seen? “Who will rescue us from this body of death?”
St. Paul was once a happy Pharisee named Saul. He immersed himself in God’s Teaching, in all of the wisdom and insight of the Torah, the first five books of our Old Testament. For Saul, the Torah was a glimpse of God, a light to those in darkness, and the place to find the rules by which human beings can live in blessed relationship with God. For Saul the Pharisee, the renegade rabbi Jesus lived the life of a sinner. Jesus broke the Torah’s rules time and time again, flouting the holiness of God and hanging out with criminals and prostitutes. His death on a Roman cross was good riddance, a death cursed by God himself. But then--after Saul the Pharisee experiences God also in Christ and becomes Paul the Apostle, he is able to use his own experience of cognitive dissonance as a way to explain to others the grace that he found on the Damascus Road. For Paul, the effect of the law on our behavior is like the effect of the news reports on my own life. It can make me aware, but it is powerless to change my heart. The law can tell me that I am supposed to love my neighbor as myself, but it can’t force me to change my unloving behavior. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can change us, says Paul.
Right before Paul describes our common human bondage to the grip of sin in today’s Epistle, he uses the example of the sin of covetousness to explain his point. To covet is “the need to have, possess, or acquire in order to secure being and worth.”[1] It is the pervasive, human “desiring disease,” and it is a stealthy sin, born from the God-sized hole in each of our hearts. When you kill someone or steal from someone, the evidence of your act is visible to the world. Yet you can hide your covetousness quietly inside your heart. Covetousness is insidious—so much so that, like Saul the Pharisee, it can be manifest in you as you covet God’s favor by leading a scrupulously upright life![2]
Several years ago, Eastern Area Community Ministries gathered the pastors of the area to take a stand against the “payday loan” companies that are proliferating in our area of town. In my privilege, I had never heard of payday loan companies, yet there are two payday loan storefronts in this country for every Starbucks, plus you can find even more online.[3] I learned about people like Susie, a working single mom who borrowed just a little money to get her children some Christmas presents. When she couldn’t pay it back, the company began to garnish her wages and to apply huge rates of interest on the unpaid debt. Two years later, with the debt still churning and no end in sight, she and her children were holed up in her sister’s basement and relying on temp work to pay off the loans.[4] They had become slaves to their mounting debt.
Payday loan companies lure the poor by appealing to our human desire to possess instantly and magically the things that we cannot afford, the things that we think we give us worth and happiness. These companies entice us to covet. Yet we who invest in these companies and allow them to flourish in our communities without regulation are also breaking God's law against covetousness, for we also greedily desire the profits that we can make on the backs of the poor. We covet the power that these companies give us over other people’s lives.
For me, the payday loan scandal is a perfect metaphor for the all-pervasive power of Sin that Paul is lamenting in our Epistle—Sin not as individual infractions but as a destructive power in which we all participate against our wills. It is a power that entraps us, that enslaves us, that garnishes our hard-earned wages of virtue and creates an ever and ever larger debt toward God. When we start to incur the debt, we tell ourselves that we are managing our lives just fine, that we have this thing under control. But the more we “manage,” the more our lives spiral out of control. Moreover, like the owners of the payday loan companies, we’re constantly trying to control the gift of Life that God freely pours out on God’s Creation.[5] We try to control God’s reaction to our behavior by claiming: “Hey, God, I obeyed these five laws, so I get a reward.” Or “Hey, my neighbor broke this law over here, so he is going to hell.” Like the hypocrites that Jesus addresses in our Gospel lesson, we are still sitting like clueless children in the marketplaces, calling down judgment on one another, except now the marketplaces are online. “He has a demon,” we type, when our political opponents offer a solution to the world’s problems. “He’s not following scripture!” we whine, when our religious opponents take a stand. All the while, our own guilt and powerlessness churn in our guts, as we drift further and further from the gift of love that God offers us. “Who will rescue us from this body of death?”
          There is perhaps no place as guilt-inspiring to us rich Americans as the slums India. One of my seminary professors used to be a Roman Catholic monk and worked for a short time with Mother Theresa there. One day, he saw a young nun bathing and massaging the decaying bodies of the beggars who were dying on the streets. She would clean the maggots from their wounds, rub shriveled limbs with oils and soothing medicines, and change dirty rags, all while speaking softly to the dying and holding their hand. The young nun committed herself each day to a routine of seeing Christ himself in the slum dwellers, loving them as she loved Christ. She worked not to rack up points with God, but saw herself as God’s slave, her existence itself shaped by a pattern that she had seen in the life of Christ. One day, a law-bound visitor challenged Mother Theresa on the wisdom of seeing Christ in sick Hindus who were not part of the Kingdom of Heaven. Mother Theresa pointed to the young nun who was standing there holding a beggar’s hand. She answered that when that beggar died and stood before Christ at the gates of heaven, he would look up right away into Christ’s loving face and say in awe,
“Hey, I know you! You were just washing me and loving me as I was dying. I want to go with you. Please take me into your Kingdom!”
As the young nun served God, taking on the gentle yet all-consuming yoke of Christ, she was transformed. She was in Christ, free from a life bound by the sinfulness of the world, free from guilt, and her transformation opened the way to the kingdom of God, not just for her, but for all those whom she touched.
St. Augustine writes in his Confessions that his conversion to Christianity happened when he heard God’s voice saying, “You will not change me into yourself like bodily food: you will be changed into me.”[6]
          “Who will rescue us from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” That is news that brings the only true and lasting happiness.

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth &Helwys, 2001), 121.
          [2] Ibid., 122.                                                                        
          [3] http://kansaslegalservices.org/node/1554
          [4] Ibid.
[5] Luke Timothy Johnson, 116ff.
[6] Augustine, The Confessions, John E. Rotelle, ed. (New York: New York City Press, 1997),173.