Saturday, August 26, 2017

“Carrying Keys” - August 27, 2017

Matthew 16:13-20

            This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and in those five centuries we have made some progress.  It took 450 years, but the Roman Catholics finally conceded that it makes sense for worship to be conducted in the language of the local people.  And Protestants have conceded – most Protestants, at least – that the faith which God looks for in us is one that becomes visible through the good works that it provokes, so that it is not wrong to say that God looks to us to do the works of love and mercy.  We all recognize that no one is baptized a Catholic or a Protestant, but that we are all baptized as a Christian.  There are still things that separate us, though, and it’s only honest to admit that. 

            One of those points is how to interpret this passage from Matthew.  The scene is set with Jesus’ question to his disciples about who people think he is; and they provide a whole range of answers.  Then comes the direct question:

“‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’” [Matthew 16:15-18] 
            The Catholic interpretation is that Jesus here identifies Peter (whose name means “Rock”) as the person upon whose labors and authority the institutional Church will be settled.  From that, and from the tradition that Peter was the first bishop of Rome, it is extrapolated that his successors in that office carry forward his work and, with it, extraordinary powers delineated in this same place:

“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.” [Matthew 16:19] 
So on the papal coat of arms you will see two crossed keys.  One is golden and opens the gates of heaven.  The other is lead and locks them.  That’s why, in cartoons, someone who has just died is shown talking to Peter outside the pearly gates, not to John or Bartholomew or Andrew.

            In the Protestant interpretation, the “rock” upon which the Church is founded is not Peter, but the faith which he is the first to express and to put into words:

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” [Matthew 16:16]
And thus it would apply not to Peter alone, but to all who confess Jesus as Lord, that they have the gift and the duty to make the way clear for others and along with that the fearful and heavy possibility of making it worse.

            So Luther wrote what he saw, as many have seen:

“I believe that there is forgiveness of sin nowhere else than in this community and that beyond it nothing can help to gain it—no good deeds, no matter how many or how great they might be; and that within this community nothing can invalidate this forgiveness of sin—no matter how gravely and often one may sin; and that such forgiveness continues as long as this one community exists.”[1]
One of the inherent purposes of the body of believers is to be those who together carry the keys of the kingdom, not with arrogance but with humility.

            Even more, that power they represent is one that is impossible for us not to exercise.  Just as someone presented with the good news of Christ either accepts it or sets it aside, leaving no true middle ground of “Well, I sort of trust him,” there is no way for the Church to say, “Well, we won’t get in the way if someone wants to find Christ, but we won’t go out of our way to open the door, either.”  We either invite people or turn them away.

            Let me read you a section of a story by Chinhua Achebe about the arrival of the gospel in West Africa, as told from the perspective of someone who remained part of the traditional, non-Christian clan but who saw what happened in his village and how it was handled by a missionary named Mr. Kiaga.

“… It all began with the question of admitting outcasts.
These outcasts, or osu, seeing that the new religion welcomed twins and such abominations, thought that is was possible that they would also be received.  And so one Sunday two of them went into the church.  There was an immediate stir; but so great was the work the new religion had done among the converts that they did not immediately leave the church when the outcasts came in.  Those who found themselves nearest to them merely moved to another seat.  It was a miracle.  But it only lasted till the end of the service.  The whole church raised a protest and was about to drive these people out, when Mr. Kiaga stopped them and began to explain.
‘Before God,’ he said, ‘there is no slave or free.  We are all children of God and must receive these our brothers.’
‘You do not understand,’ said one of the converts.  ‘What will the heathen say of us when they hear that we receive osu into our midst?  They will laugh.
‘Let them laugh,’ said Mr. Kiaga.  ‘God will laugh at them on the judgment day.  Why do the nations rage and the peoples imagine a vain thing?  He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh.  The Lord shall have them in derision.’
‘You do not understand,’ the convert maintained.  ‘You are our teacher, and you can teach us the things of the new faith.  But this is a matter which we know.’  And he told him what an osu was.
He was a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart – a taboo for ever, and his children after him.  He could neither marry nor be married by the free-born.  He was in fact an outcast, living in a special area of the village, close to the Great Shrine.  Wherever he went he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste – long, tangled, and dirty hair.  A razor was taboo to him.  An osu could not attend an assembly of the free-born, and they, in turn, could not shelter under his roof.  He could not take any of the four titles of the clan, and when he died he was buried by his kind in the Evil Forest.  How could such a man be a follower of Christ?
‘He needs Christ more than you and I,’ said Mr. Kiaga.
‘Then I shall go back to the clan,’ said the convert.  And he went.”[2]
            Although formal authority does come into play, and formal decisions do open and shut the door in people’s faces, it’s far more often the overall, general aspect of the community that tells people most clearly what we really believe.  When we are truest, our very being calls out that there is a Savior, and that he has given his life to make an eternal difference for all, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  In large and small ways, both consciously and unconsciously, we go through our days like a watchman goes through his night, opening and closing, locking and unlocking doors.  When we are aware of what we are doing, and who we really are, then by God’s grace we may open far more doors than we close.

[1] Martin Luther, Works [43:28]
[2] Chinhua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Anchor Books, 1994) pp. 155-157.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

“Care Unlimited” - August 20, 2017

Matthew 15:21-28

            The events in this part of Matthew’s gospel take place in the area of Sidon and Tyre, which is modern-day Beirut.  It was outside specifically Jewish territory in Jesus’ time, even as it is outside Israel now.  What sent him there?  Matthew doesn’t really say, but in both his gospel and Mark’s this episode follows a lot of controversy with his opponents and taking a lot of criticism from the religious authorities, and in Mark 7:24 we read that

“He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice.”

In other words, Jesus needed a break.  Anybody who is a caregiver or who faces a lot of human need on a regular basis knows the feeling of just wanting to get away for a short while.  As one of my social worker friends once said, “You want to go where nobody knows your name.”

            There’s a movie from 1991 called What about Bob? where Richard Dreyfus plays a psychiatrist with Bill Murray as “Bob”, a particularly determined and resourceful patient who will not leave him alone even on vacation.  Bob tracks down his doctor to a small town where he and his family are staying and demands care.  It looks like this:[1]

It’s not all that different from what happened to Jesus. 

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’”  [Matthew 15:22]

Now, this woman’s situation, where she’s looking for help for her daughter, is not the same as Bob’s “Gimme!  Gimme!  Gimme!”  All the same, there may have been times that Jesus felt drained by the constant demands for his help, even the most legitimate.

            Surely you know someone who is kind and caring and who, because of that, makes a contribution to a charity that puts their name onto their mailing list, and then a few months later other charities begin to send request letters and before too long sorting through appeals of one sort or another are part of the daily routine.  If I’m asked about it, and I sometimes am, I generally suggest picking one or two causes that are close to your heart and helping them, while trusting that someone else will cover the others.  Jesus tried to do something like that when he said, 
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” [Matthew 15:24] 

At the same time, though, he couldn’t just close his heart to the genuine and persistent love of this mother for her daughter and eventually that won the day for her.

“But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” [Matthew 15:25-28]

            “Compassion fatigue” is real.  There are recommendations that were put out by a group called “The American Institute for Stress” (you’ve got to love that name!) specifically for medical personnel, for whom it comes up all the time.

Find someone to talk to.
Understand that the pain you feel is normal.
Exercise and eat properly.
Get enough sleep.
Take some time off.
Develop interests outside of medicine.
Identify what’s important to you.
Blame others.
Look for a new job, buy a new car, get a divorce or have an affair.
Fall into the habit of complaining with your colleagues.
Hire a lawyer.
Work harder and longer.
Neglect your own needs and interests.”[2]

All of that is good advice, but I want to add to that another resource that didn’t make it onto that list, one that a certain mother, overwhelmed by her daughter’s needs, was able to find and to access.  That is to seek help from Jesus, who made a general offer:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  [Matthew 11:28-30]
Jesus models for us all the proper and necessary balance between focused care and general care, between rest and work, between prayer and service, that makes teaching and healing and peacemaking and feeding the hungry and parenting and healthy marriages or relationships of all kinds effective.  When things are too extreme, he helps to carry the load; and when the time comes to put things back on us, he knows how to do that, too, in a compassionate way.

            Do you know what happened after Jesus had his time away from things, punctuated by this encounter with a mother troubled for her daughter?  Matthew says that

“After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.”  [Matthew 15:29-31]


Saturday, August 12, 2017

“If It Is You, Command Me” - August 13, 2017

Matthew 14:22-33

            When Matthew shares his account of Jesus’ walking on the water, there are really two miracles going on.

            The first is what the disciples saw Jesus do when he had sent them ahead of him in a boat, leaving him alone for awhile because he needed time to pray.

“And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying ‘It is a ghost!’  And they cried out in fear.”  [Matthew 14:25-26]
Matthew, who knew his Old Testament very well — that was the only scripture that he and the other disciples, not to mention Jesus, knew — also knew, like a great artist, how to show his message, not just how to spell it out.  He knew the words of Psalm 77:

“When the waters saw you, O God,
   when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
   the very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
   the skies thundered;
   your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
   your lightnings lit up the world;
   the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
   your path, through the mighty waters;
   yet your footprints were unseen.” [Psalm 77:16-19]

Here, then, is Jesus, God in the flesh, approaching the disciples in the midst of a storm and

his way was through the sea,
   his path, through the mighty waters;
   yet his footprints were unseen.

As if that were not enough, there’s another declaration that unfortunately doesn’t come across as strongly in English as it does in the Greek that Matthew wrote in.

“But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I;” [Matthew 14:27]

and that “it is I” is the same phrase that God himself uses when Moses asks him his name at the burning bush, “I AM”.

This is one of those moments, like the Transfiguration, when the deep, divine center of Jesus’ being breaks out into view.  At the end of this whole episode,

“those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’” [Matthew 14:33]
            In no way would I downplay this mystery.  In no way would I reduce this to a magic trick.  We are hearing of one of the ways that the disciples came to recognize that they were face-to-face with the Lord of heaven and earth.  Yet for God to walk upon the water, the same God whose Spirit in the beginning moved across the face of the deep, is not beyond him.  We are dealing with the omnipotent ruler of all time and space.  That in itself is frightening and awe-inspiring, but to rule nature in all ways is part of the essential being of the Almighty.

            The second miracle is a different matter.  It’s where, when Jesus announces himself and at the same time announces the eternal and holy One within him,

“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’  He said, ‘Come.’  So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.” [Matthew 14:28-29]
Peter is entirely human.  In some ways, with his bluster and bragging, but also with his loyalty and the way that he just sort of pushes the envelope all the time, even when he has no idea what he’s doing, he seems like one of the most clearly human of all the disciples.  Yet for all his faults, he genuinely wants to be like Jesus.  So on the one hand, he knows that human beings do not just, on their own, go for a stroll on the waves.  But on the other hand, he sees the divine power of God that can do anything at all, and he says, “Command me.”

            Human beings can do the impossible, but not on our own.  Human beings can do the impossible when God makes it happen.  The thing is, however, that if you are going to attempt the impossible, you had better be very sure it is God’s voice, and not your own, that you are obeying.  Peter did not have an easy walk.  I am sure that the first step was the hardest, climbing out of the boat.  I can picture the others either trying to hold him back, or grabbing a rope to throw him as he starts overboard.  Yet he went.  As he went on, though, it didn’t mean that the storm subsided.

“But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” [Matthew 14:30]

If you are going to be like Jesus, and if you’re going to follow him, you may be walking on water, but there will still be wind and waves.  Even on land, if you’re going to follow him, the way to do it, as he clearly said, is to take up your cross.

            Madeleine L’Engle was a great essayist and writer of children’s books.  One of her best, A Wrinkle in Time, is going to be released as a movie later this year.  She was very much aware of the excitement and possibility that God calls his people to experience, in her case as a writer.  But she also knew that to experience the miracles that God works out requires a faith that is ready to follow Jesus into the storms of life and not to hide from them.  She wrote of some of her own experiences:

“In the literary world today, Christianity has pretty well replaced sex as the present pet taboo, not only because Christianity is so often distorted by Christians as well as non-Christians, but because it is too wild and free for the timid.
How many of us really want life, life more abundant, life which does not promise any fringe benefits or early retirement plans?  Life which does not promise the absence of pain, oriole which is not vulnerable and open to hurt?  The number of people who attempt to withdraw from life through the abuse of alcohol, tranquilizers, barbiturates is statistically shocking.
How many of us dare to open ourselves to that truth which would make us free?  Free to talk to Roman Catholics or charismatics or Jews, as Jesus was free to talk to tax collectors or publicans or Samaritans.  Free to feast at the Lord’s table with those whose understanding of the Body and Blood may be a little different from ours.  Free to listen to angels.  Free to run across the lake when called.”[1]
I am not going to presume to tell you what impossible task the Lord may put in front of you.  It could be anything.  It could be a one-time challenge, or it could be a lifetime’s work.  It might be something very public, or it might be some private matter no one but you and he will ever know about.  What I will say is this: if you are already out of the boat, keep going, and if you need a hand, call him.  He’s right there, and if it’s his work, he will not let you sink.  If you’re thinking about stepping out of the boat, make sure that it’s his voice and not your own that you hear, but if it is Jesus, then go and watch the impossible happen.

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Colorado Springs: Shaw Books, 2001) 48-49.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

“We Have Nothing Here” - August 6, 2017

Matthew 14:17

We who enjoy religious freedom (and we do) are often unaware of how dangerous it can be to follow Jesus.  In our country, people trivialize what that means, what with Rush Limbaugh and his buddies inventing a “war on Christmas”.  There is no such thing.  If there ever was, it was led by the Puritans; between 1659 and 1680, anyone in Massachusetts caught celebrating Christmas could be fined up to five shillings.[1] That is nothing, though, compared to what it may take nowadays to be a Coptic Christian in Egypt, where churches have been bombed, or to hold to the gospels in Pakistan, where taking the Bible’s view of Jesus over the Koran’s view means that you could be charged with blasphemy, which is a capital offense.

In that light, the account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is one of great hope, because this story isn’t just about the bread.  In our setting, it can be turned into a bedtime story for a child, The Boy Who Shared His Lunch, and that may be appropriate for someone under twelve or so.  But read in context, it’s a lesson about Jesus’ survival, and the survival of his movement.  The ways of God's kingdom are always going to be calling the world's ways into question, and the powers and principalities of the world don't like to be questioned or analyzed and shown to be hollow.

            There’s no question that Jesus and his disciples had connections to John the Baptist, who was a rabble-rouser of the first degree.  The gospels each tell of how Jesus went out to the Jordan to be baptized and that it was there that he experienced the Spirit of God in a new and empowering way that would propel him from that moment on through the following years of teaching and healing and prophetic confrontation with earthly powers that would torture and kill him.  (No, that would not be the end of him, but it was what he would have to endure.)  How close was Jesus to John?  Luke describes them as cousins born three months apart. 

            Certainly they were close enough that when Herod had John executed and, in one account, presented his head on a platter as a gift to his wife and daughter, Jesus decided to get out of the way for awhile.  That is the setting for what happens in the section of Matthew’s gospel that we heard this morning:

“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.”  [Matthew 14:13]

John was dead, and Jesus was in danger, trying to be inconspicuous, but he had somehow inherited at least a part of John’s following, and there they were, looking to him for leadership.  There were things he could do for them.  He looked at them with compassion (not something John was especially known for) and he could and did heal their sick, which was a gift that John didn’t have.  But there were other, practical needs to look after, and Jesus’ disciples weren’t so sure that they would be able to meet those.

“When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” [Matthew 14:15]

And that made sense.  You do not want five thousand people whose leader has just been killed by a tyrant suddenly noticing how hungry they are.  You do not want to keep them around any longer than necessary.  But on the other hand, if you are there in one of the local villages and even a small percentage of the crowd suddenly appeared, looking for food – say even 10% of them – what would you do about 500 people, followers of a politically suspicious religious leader, showing up on your doorstep and demanding supper?

            The people were hungry, yes.  The disciples knew that they had not only hungry people, but potential for some intense crowd problems, possibly leading to riots, that could present a reason for Herod to call in the Romans.  Herod needed little prompting to execute members of his own family.  What did he care about a bunch of rebellious peasants?  He would be better off without them, anyway.  How convenient that they were all gathered together in one place.

            Do you see the position that Jesus was in?  Do you hear how desperate the disciples were when they said,

“We have nothing here”?  [Matthew 14:17]

Five loaves and two fish was as good as nothing standing between them and failure or worse.

            Well, as it turned out they may have had nothing but they did not have no one.  They had Jesus.

“And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” [Matthew 14:18-20]

Twelve baskets, like the twelve disciples; like the twelve tribes of Israel who, when they grew hungry, were fed with manna in the desert when they were being led out of the tyrannical slavery of Pharaoh into God’s freedom.

            When all else fails, that is still where safety and security comes from.  When we have nothing, Jesus himself is everything for us.  When we are at our wit’s end and do not know which way to turn, his wisdom is there to guide us.  When our resources are totally depleted, he provides what is needed.  It may come from some unexpected direction like when, after those Coptic churches were bombed, there were Egyptian Muslims who formed a human chain outside other churches while their Christian neighbors prayed.  It may come in the form of a persecutor like a man named Saul who held people’s coats while they stoned the first Christian martyr, a man named Stephen.  Saul heard Jesus speak directly to him and his life was turned around so completely that, going by the name Paul, he himself preached the gospel at the risk of his own life, and wrote to one of the churches he founded:

“we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed”. [II Corinthians 4:7-9]

No, we don’t have anything here.  We have nothing.  If we think it’s on us to save the world, we are bound to fail, however  

“this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” 
If we are ready to trust Jesus with the little bit of nothing that we hold onto, no matter what, all will be well.

            Of course there is a lot that gets in the way of the kingdom of God.  No kidding.  The words are recent, but the cry is old:

“Through the flood of starving people,
Warring factions and despair,
Who will lift the olive branches?
Who will light the flame of care? …

As we stand a world divided
By our own self-seeking schemes,
Grant that we, your global village,
Might envision wider dreams.” …[2]

But what is far older than that, older than humanity, older than the world itself, is the eternal, loving power of God that brought all things into being.

            From nothing.

[2] from Julian B. Rush, “In the Midst of New Dimensions”, The Faith We Sing (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), #2238.