Saturday, August 27, 2011

August 21, 2011 - The Great Confession

Matt 16.13-20
            Question: How did St. Peter, the disciple of Jesus, get stationed at the Pearly Gates? Think about it. We *all* assume that when we get to heaven, St. Peter will greet us at the entrance of heaven to usher us inside. It is commonly assumed even if we don’t take it seriously. There is, in the Gospel according to Matthew, a passage in which Jesus says to Peter,
            18 "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
So, based on this commission from Jesus himself, Peter stands, in our imagination, at the gates of heaven announcing the decision about who will enter and who will not.

I. As everyone knows there is safety in numbers – even at church.
            A. I remember when I was a small boy walking into church with my family: Daddy and Mother, one brother and two sisters. At that first church – not this one -- where I was baptized, walking into that familiar church with my family was never hard. I guess that I just grew up knowing those people and confident somehow that they knew me. My family made it easy to begin in church.
            B. I make it a practice to go to church wherever Celia and I vacation. I encourage her not to come along; I really do. You’re probably thinking that I’m afraid that she’ll discover that she could find a better preacher if she looked around a bit. But no, that is not it. I want to see what it’s like for all the first-timers to walk into a strange church for the first time. We all know that God loves us, but I’m not so sure about those ushers standing on each side of the open door. They step forward to offer a bulletin; most of them even smile in a friendly sort of way. But, I always wonder: do they really mean it?
            My major terror on visiting a church for the first time is that I will sit in some well-established saint’s favorite pew. And even if they are gracious and don’t say anything, every regular in the church will be staring because they know that I’ve taken a pew that has been reserved for that pillar of the church since the first Bush was President.
            Those of us who are regulars should be on the lookout for the first-timers among us. They have taken a great risk. When you see someone you’re not familiar with, I hope you’ll speak that person. If that someone is in your pew, tell them how happy you are to be sharing it with them. You might even invite them back to share it next Sunday all over again.
            C. When you are small, Sunday school works the same way. It’s important to come to Sunday School on Promotion Sunday. You go to your old class. There you discover that your old teachers are somehow misty-eyed; they seem to hug a lot. They are in a bit of a hurry. Then, the time comes that you walk down the hall to your new classroom. On Promotion Sunday, you’re not by yourself; you walk with the other kids to find this new classroom. Even though you’re only walking down the hall, they are just as lost as you are, but you’re together. There is safety in numbers.
            D. Then, Confirmation Class begins. New room, maybe even a new part of the church building, definitely new teachers. Again, you’re with the other kids and it all gets familiar soon enough. Everything is good until the end of the school year. Sometime in the early spring, the teacher warns you that one of the preachers is coming to your house to talk with you and your parents. And you realize that you are going to be alone with questions to answer. The image of the interrogation room in *Law and Order SVU* crowds your mind. You hatch at plan: on the day for the preacher to visit, you’ll just be late getting home from school. But, your parents, in a fit of responsibility, offer to pick you up. No need to walk or ride the bus. You’re going to have to face the music; you are going to be on your own.
            You’re about to be called to the front of the church. There will be questions to answer; the preacher really wants to hear your voice when the answer is given. I remember at the time of my confirmation, I was stopped in my tracks. I think it was first time in my young life that I had made a promise like this to anyone outside my family. Up until this point, I had, like all small kids, done what my parents said we were going to do.
+Showing up at the summer picnic happened because they said we would.
+Being Christians and being at church on Sunday happened because they were already doing that.
+Starting school when I turned five was just what my parents decided so that was what I did, of course.
But, none of these commitments were made because I made them; my parents made them for the family, and I went along – as all little kids do.
            But, at the end of Confirmation, this was the first time that I really *got it*. Answering these vows out loud meant that I was going to keep them, and these vows said something about the kind of person I was going to be. I had to think about it: This was real. Was I ready to say all this?
            I realized because of this step the power of standing up in public to make a commitment. It is one thing to show up because your parents have decided that you are going to show up; it is quite a different thing to stand up and say, “This is what I stand for.”
            B. Actually, we make commitments all the time; some commitments mark us; other commitments are just the price of doing business.
            +I got a new cell phone this week; it came with a two-year commitment.
            +I joined a health club a year or so back; it came with a three-year commitment.
Commitments like these are just the price of getting in. We watch the calendar for the day we finish the contract so we can do something different. But commitments like these don’t have the power to present us to the world.
            Other commitments mark us; they tell the world who we are:
+I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…
+Each person enlisting in one of the armed force takes the oath that begins:
"I solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”

These commitments are bigger and more open-ended; the level of personal commitment is much higher.

C. Now, Jesus asks the disciples: "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" They began to tell him what *people* were saying. They were just reporting what they have heard; they were making no commitment themselves. This sounds like the infamous “they” who say all kinds of things about us.
            15 Then, He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"  Suddenly, the conversation takes on a far more ominous tone. What are you ready to say? Are you ready to stand up in public and make a claim? It is one thing to say something about Jesus that you might have heard; it is a very different thing to say something public yourself.
            At Jesus’ question I can imagine the disciples looking down, suddenly very interested in the grass growing between the rocks along the road. “I’ll have to get back to you on that, Jesus.” Maybe the disciples, while looking down, sneak sideways glances the way school children do, just to make sure the others are trying to avoid answering just as hard as they are. As the seconds add up to a minute and the silence begins to get heavy, they realize that one of them is going to have to say something. They wait to see which one will break the increasingly awkward silence.
            You see, to speak our *convictions* about Jesus Christ goes far beyond a simple description or beyond an overheard report. It says something loud and clear about whom we are.
+If I claim that Jesus is Lord, then I must follow as his disciple;
+If my Jesus went the way of the cross, then I must take up the cross, too;
+If I am confident that Jesus is the healer of souls, then I must search out only Jesus for that healing;
+If Jesus teaches us the way to live as Children of the God of Heaven, then we commit ourselves to live just that way.
Jesus isn’t just asking for an answer; he’s asking for a commitment and a promise. So, Simon clears his throat. The other disciples look up at him in relief; he will go first. He doesn’t waste the moment:
            16 **Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God**."
In Mark and Luke, this moment was one which gave further evidence that the disciples did not get what Jesus was doing and where he was going. They were constantly misunderstanding or trying to use Jesus to put themselves ahead in their narrow world.
            But in Matthew, Simon stands up before all the rest and declares that *he gets what Jesus is* and *what Jesus does* and makes a life-risking commitment to Jesus of his own. When Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” he stated: “This I believe.” He said, “Yes, Jesus, you have a claim on my life.” He promised that he would never turn back. All this was there in the out-loud answer Simon gave to Jesus’ question. Matthew told what Simon had done that day because it marked a turning point in Simon’s life and the gospel.
            What Simon did that day stands as a model for each one of us who also comes to faith in Jesus Christ. The claim he made was no different from what others around us have made:
            “Jesus is Lord.”
            “I have decided to follow Jesus.”
“I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord…
This was no small step for Simon Peter; it is a life-changing step for each of us.

[II.] We talked about this scripture at Bible Study the other night. At this point in our discussion, I was ready to get all misty-eyed at what Simon had done, but I quickly realized that no one else seemed particularly moved by it. So, I asked the group, “What is missing here? This ought to be one of the great examples of coming to faith by one of the giants in the Christian faith. Why isn’t it more important?
            One person pointed out that Peter said this, and that was fine. But just a few verses later, Jesus had to call him down. As Jesus said, “You are a stumbling block to me.” What a devastating criticism – especially since Peter had just made the *Great Confession*. The problem as the Bible Study saw it was that Peter was a giant in the faith when he kept his eyes on Jesus, but he could be a total mess-up, too.
            +Peter denied Jesus on the night he was arrested.
+After Pentecost, Peter argued with Paul about including non-Jewish people in the gospel.
How can we count Peter as a giant in the faith when just as often he acts like a pigmy?
            They were correct, of course. But, then it occurred to me that the problem is NOT that Peter failed; the problem is that Peter is too much like us.
+We have a record of confessing Jesus and a record just as long of denying Jesus when the way gets hard.
+Like Peter, we get some parts of the gospel but don’t understand -- or worse -- don’t like other parts. We assume we have a right to fix Jesus.
+Like Peter, we want to do Jesus’ work in the world in our way, not his.
How can Peter be a hero and a model for faith if he is no better than we are?
            But, think again. If Peter is like us, his is the story of a real person who came to faith in Jesus Christ. He came slowly, awkwardly; Peter made mistakes. Still, he did come at Christ’s invitation. And he did spend his life in the service of Christ.
            It means that as Peter finally came to a life-changing faith and willing service in the name of Christ, we can, too.
            As Jesus said to Simon:
"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,
            but my Father in heaven.

That Simon got it was not the result of his own accomplishment; it was God’s grace which enabled him to see what he could not see before. It was the result of God’s grace giving him courage to claim what he could not claim before. It was the result of God’s grace.

            What are we expecting at the moment we decide for faith in Christ?
+Fireworks to light up the sky?
+A brass band to play?
+The Church Choir follow you around, ready to break into the “Hallelujah Chorus”?
+That Simon will never stumble over himself again?
That’s not a life of faith, that’s finding a place on a museum shelf.
            The Christian life begins as God’s grace is given to us. It continues as we respond to that grace with curiosity and commitment. It grows as we are tested by circumstances and challenges. It grows every time we get back on our feet after a fall. Simon Peter answered Jesus that day when Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” And that same, searching question is pressed upon each one of us daily. “Who do you say he is?” What claim do you make? What stand do you take? Are you and I growing in this faith or stagnant in unexamined convictions? Are you and I allowing Christ to complete his work in you and in me? Are we trying to be make-believe heroes or living, breathing, real-life followers of Jesus?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

August 14, 2011 - Going to School with Jesus

Going to School with Jesus
Matthew 15:21‑28

            There are times when even God is willing to be called up short. There is a story in Matthew’s gospel about a woman who taught Jesus something about the mercy of God. The good news is that Jesus was a pretty good student.

            As the scripture opens, the danger to Jesus and his movement is rising. In the 14th chapter, Matthew tells us that John the Baptist has been beheaded; Jesus, always aware of the politics around him, knows he might be next. Later, at the beginning of the 15th chapter, Matthew tells how the scribes and Pharisees left Jerusalem, found Jesus, and confronted him for breaking the traditions of the elders. It was a meeting that did not go well. Jesus might have responded with a compromise or contrition; instead he challenged them for breaking the commandment of God for the sake of their tradition. Surely, keeping one of the Ten Commandments is higher than keeping the tradition of the elders. In any event, he offered no olive branch. They went away fuming. So, realizing that King Herod and the Jerusalem leadership have had just about enough of him, he decides to exit into foreign territory, where hopefully no one will care about the controversies he leaves behind. Thus, our text opens with the news: “Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon” (15.21).
            Tyre and Sidon are located north-west of Galilee, outside King Herod’s kingdom and the population was definitely not Jewish. The problem with Tyre and Sidon is that it was ethnically Canaanite. In the conquest of the Holy Land, the Hebrews had followed the ancient holy war instructions from God.  Basically, Holy War required total destruction of the people living in the Promised Land. The core of the God’s instruction is chilling: “Show them no mercy.”
            Centuries after the conquest of the Holy Land, these are not the instructions Jesus expected to follow on this trip; it does suggest, however, why Jesus was not inclined to welcome the Canaanite woman when she approached him on the road. Old prejudices die hard. Even the best of us have to watch ourselves that we not fall back into the old racism or sexism of our earlier years.

            So, as they enter the region of Tyre, a woman comes near and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
            Let’s start with what is missing: Where is her husband? Think about it: we are naturally shy around strangers. We are even more shy around foreigners. Thirdly, women of ancient times were taught never to speak to men in public -- and especially groups of men. Tradition held that her husband should approach Jesus and make this request. If her husband was not around, then her son or another male relative should have stepped forward. That the woman approaches Jesus herself suggests that she has no man to speak for her. She may be a widow or divorced; this suggests that she has a very low status in that world. This was true in the Jewish world of Israel; it was true in the Canaanite world where she lived.
            That a mother might approach Jesus on behalf of her daughter is, of course, no surprise to any of us. By speaking up for her daughter, she did what we applaud regardless of her status.
            Now, think about the woman’s cry:
1. This woman is a Canaanite, not an Israelite. People did not worship the God of Israel in any Canaanite land. That she cries out in faith is strong evidence of her willingness to commit to Jesus, regardless of the cost, regardless of the social isolation she will suffer in her hometown.
2. Second, Jesus has just criticized the Scribes and the Pharisees for their poisonous words. As he told them, “It is not what you eat that makes a person unclean; it the words that come out of your mouth that make you unclean in the sight of God.” So, here in the very next passage, this seemingly unclean, low status woman utters these beautiful words of faith in God and loyalty to her daughter.
3. In the instructions to Israel when it invaded the Promised Land, God told the Israelites: “Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy” (Deut 7.1). This woman specifically cries out to Jesus for mercy.
4. Now, Matthew knows that the long standing claim of Israel held that the God of Israel is only for the people of Israel. But, he also knows that Jesus came to save all people – for all time, in all places, in every situation. Because Matthew writes his gospel for a distinctly Jewish audience, he has to make sure they understand that Jesus came to do a new thing. So, this story of the day Jesus met this is precious to Matthew and to every one of us who is not of Israel. This story shows Jesus himself breaking the boundaries, and thus we are invited to break the old boundaries for the sake of the gospel, too.

            According to Matt, Jesus responded three times in ways designed to send her away:
            This Canaanite woman recognizes him and begins to beg for her daughter’s healing. First, Jesus does not respond in any way.
            [APPLIC:] Like any of us being hassled by a panhandler on the sidewalk, the best response is no response. Keep walking; don’t make eye contact. There is no need for confrontation; they will get the message soon enough and stop trying.
            How to respond to the person who calls out to us along the way is one of the most common moral dilemmas we face.
+Should we give them a little money to help them?
+Would giving them money just encourage this panhandling and turn them into full time beggars?
+Should we engage them in conversation to determine what really might meet their need? Giving a dollar when someone really needs diapers really does not help much if the diaper store is 5 miles away.
+Should we get involved in their lives or just give a little money so our consciences will let us move along?
This is the moral dilemma we face every time someone calls out to us on the street. For all of these reasons and all the reasons Jesus did not want to deal with Canaanites, he simply did not respond in any way.

            Well, the silent treatment did not discourage her. She continues to call and continues to follow them. The disciples come to Jesus and urge him to send her away. So he turns to the woman and says: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (15.24).
            “I know my job, and my job does not extend to you. Please excuse me; we have to move along.” Again, it is a perfectly logical and expected response to the woman’s call. Actually…, it is the expected response except for the “Christmas story”. Remember, it was Matthew who gave us the genealogy of Jesus in chapt-1 which included several women. Three of the women in Jesus’ family tree were Canaanites (or Gentiles) and another one was married to a Gentile. In addition, it was Matthew in chapt-2 who told us the well-loved story of the three Wisemen, gentiles all, who came to worship the baby Jesus at his birth. Later, in the 8th chapter, Matthew tells the story of Jesus healing the Centurion’s servant – again a gentile. Matthew is carefully rethinking the ancient debate in Israel over the work of the Son of Israel’s God. Did Jesus come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel? Or was Jesus sent to all people in every place and time with the message of God’s love? I think Matthew is telling us that Jesus tore down that ancient boundary between Israel and the rest of the world.
            [APPLIC:] Again, what boundaries do we keep? Are there places where we are not expected by God to carry the message of God’s love? Maybe in the tough parts of town? Maybe in the nations where we already know that they have another religion?
            Is the day of proclaiming the gospel past that others may come to know the love of God in Jesus Christ? I think it is not past. We who are Christians walk a fine line between (1) respecting the convictions of our neighbors and (2) keeping the call of Jesus to proclaim the gospel. Still, we cannot keep the call of Jesus by our silence.
            Further, we must examine the convenient boundaries we keep to protect ourselves from undesirable people around us. These boundaries tell us who we are by assuring ourselves who we are not. These boundaries keep us out of areas of moral compromise by keeping us where people like ourselves agree on the right course of action. But, we must be willing to examine these boundaries to determine (individually and as a society) whether the old worries that drew these boundaries still hold. Name for yourself the areas where you and society have made great progress over the past 50 years. Name for yourself in the areas where you and society are hearing the call to examine the ancient boundaries. There are boundaries that individually and as a society we must keep for the protection of all that is good. There are boundaries that serve us well; there are boundaries that must be examined

[JESUS’ RESPONSE #3] Now, Jesus 3rd response:
            The Canaanite woman comes closer, kneels before Jesus and makes the most heart-felt prayer that anyone can imagine: “Lord, help me.” It doesn’t get any more basic than this.
            And Jesus’ response, this third response, takes our breath away: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
            There have been many efforts to explain this response away or to soften its insult. I find these efforts lacking. It is simply a very male, chauvinist, distancing response.
+The word “children” suggests the children of Israel – those who live in the land and therefore have the right to worship Israel’s God.
+The word dogs is simply an insult applied to this woman. Having dogs as family pets is a fairly modern practice. In poor countries today and in ancient culture, dogs are present but not loved as pets.
If there are Jewish Christians in Matthew’s world who are uncomfortable with the idea of their Jesus offering a miracle to a Canaanite woman, they are surely satisfied that he has done everything in his power to discourage her. He has compared her to a dog. Now, it is up to the woman to redeem this awkward moment.
            She absorbs this third response and with humility and wit turns it back on him. He said: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." To which she, the great theologian replied: "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Like the pets that inhabit our homes, the dogs of ancient times would snoop around the table when dinner was finished on the chance that they might find a tasty crumb for themselves.
But theologically, she is claiming the crumbs of grace that fall from God’s hands knowing that even crumbs of grace offer a feast to hungry soul. She was a good theologian; she was a tenacious believer. And Jesus, failing to make the case for keeping God’s grace exclusive to Israel, gave in and provided the healing that she asked. I think that Jesus didn’t get it right the first time, but by the time she wore him down, he had learned something about the grace of God from that Canaanite woman.

            This story raises several worries that I do not find in keeping with the whole of the gospel.
1. We worry that only those who are good enough at sparing with Jesus will receive grace. Or perhaps only those who have prayed enough or given enough or witnessed enough will receive grace.
2. We worry that grace is “iffy” – that there really is some condition or status that will let us in or keep us out.
3. We worry that only those with something called “enough faith” can have their prayers answered.
Each of these worries are contradicted by the rest of the gospels. Everywhere else in the gospels Jesus keeps feeding and teaching the crowds, Jesus keeps sharing the table with sinners of every ancient kind. This story is about Jesus’ willingness to extend the gospel to the peoples that Israel found unthinkable. Like the gospel song says:
There's a wideness in God's mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea.

28 Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

The woman -- with the wrong status, born in the wrong country, who began her life worshiping the wrong god, with the evidence of sin in the words of her request, breaking all the rules that said she must not speak to male strangers – went to Jesus, asked a healing for her daughter and received the grace she wanted her daughter to have. She went home to find her daughter whole again.
Now that we get the story, I think we can get the invitation right:
+to you who don’t fit in,
+to you who have messed up,
+to you whose past is written in the deep wrinkles all over your face,
+to you who don’t know the right questions,
+to you who live the wrong lifestyle or come from the wrong nation,
+to you who love the wrong person,
+to you who have never gotten to love any person,
+to you who used to be blessed but suddenly find yourself a stranger,
… to you the Lord Jesus says, “Come. There is a place in my house – there is mercy enough – for you. My invitation is for you, too.”