18 Pentecost, Proper 23 (A) – 2014

Dress codes or radical welcome?

October 12, 2014

Exodus 32:1-14 and Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 (or Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23); Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Today’s gospel passage probably requires a bit of translation. There’s a big difference between the cultural expectations of first-century Palestine and 21st-century America. Not only about marriage, of course – but marriage is what today’s gospel highlights.

Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a marriage feast given by a slave-owning king. Now, slave-owning kings were quite common back then. Fortunately, neither human bondage nor absolute monarchy is part of our day-to-day experience now. This isn’t to say we have wiped out oppression or tyranny on the face of the earth – far from it. But at least in this nation, we call it a crime when one person claims to own another, and we do not permit anyone to have absolute power. They weren’t quite ready for “checks and balances” in Jesus’ time.

So – in and of itself – the progress of two centuries will require us to make a kind of adjustment in order to hear and understanding this parable.

So, too, will the whole idea of marriage. There are those who insist that our modern-day, state-sanctioned unions are a sacred institution, implying that this phenomenon is of ancient provenance. One president even called marriage “one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization.” Of course, that is not the case.

Now, marriage is a fine thing. But what do we really know about the history of marriage? What are the facts?

Scholar Kenneth Stevenson, now Bishop of Portsmouth, in England, summarizes marriage in the patriarchal tradition of ancient Judaism in his book “To Join Together”: first, negotiation of contract, then betrothal, followed by consummation.

What may be hard for us to imagine is that the contract negotiated was no Philadelphia lawyer’s prenup agreement; it was a financial contract between two men, the bride’s father and the groom. In the time of Jesus, women were exchanged like plots of land and herds of cattle – just so much property. The men owned them.

The period of betrothal, then, was not so much a time in which two persons got to know each other better and grew closer in love – but a kind of “grace period” in which the groom could cancel the contract – for some justifiable cause, but without penalty.

Remember that Joseph, when betrothed to Mary, chose not to exercise his option to wiggle out of his marriage contract. He could have, because she was pregnant, but he didn’t. And it’s a good thing, too. Had he done so, none of us Christians would exist.

And in the first century, before anything so technological as birth control, women were like human childbirth machines. They would marry at age 11 or 12 or 13, and immediately begin to have children. Typically, a child every year or so for maybe 10 years. Lots of these children died in infancy. And most of these women died by the age of 30.

So the men would remarry – another teenage bride – again and again. It was not at all uncommon for a man of 40 or 50 or even 60 to marry again: each time a child bride, bought from her father.

This, of course, is not a fundamental, enduring institution of our civilization, is it? It’s more of an oppressive mess and a muddle, out of which we humans have managed to climb. And thanks be to God for that!

Now, what of the actual church liturgy for marriage? Although there is mention of marriage celebrations here and there in ancient texts, the formal, standard, official liturgy of the church dates only to about the 12th century.

What appears to have happened is that the tradition of holding a marriage feast was appropriated into the church’s liturgy. The cultural observance became, over time, a religious one.

To say that more clearly: there is no evidence of an official religious rite for marriage in Jesus’ time. Marriage was entirely a domestic and civil affair. If you were very wealthy, you might invite a rabbi or Pharisee or even High Priest of the Temple to attend, maybe even lead some prayers – but this was unusual, not the standard. This is why there are accounts of Jesus performing miracles at wedding feasts, but no record of him preaching a wedding homily. There was no such thing.

So, a man works out a deal with a woman’s father, and she is ordered to go and live with that man – someone she may not even have met. After a period of a year or more, the man decides that this is working out, and he and his contractual partner (not his bride, her father) lays on a feast.

Remember, this was long before clocks and calendars were common household items. You didn’t send out engraved invitations in the mail, or an e-vite to your fellow bloggers. You sent out messengers – slaves, if you were fortunate to own them – to invite everyone to the marriage feast. Come to the feast; it’s happening right now, today.

And pretty much everyone would come. In those days, ordinary people owned two changes of clothing: your regular, everyday work clothes; and a festive garment, a wedding robe – something usually white, that you kept clean and unwrinkled. And most people did not own much more. When the messengers came to invite you to a marriage, or you heard that bell ring – you would just pen up your sheep, drop your weaving, whatever; run home and put on your wedding garment; and go to the party.

And what feasts these were! Not the luxurious, self-indulgent and obscenely expensive extravaganzas we know today, but festive gatherings nonetheless, frequently lasting for days on end.

Same kind of thing, for instance, as when the Prodigal Son returned: roasted fatted calf, music and merriment, giving of gifts, and lots of wine. No evidence of cake, or throwing garters or rice, or making toasts, or even an exchange of vows. And no mortgaging of the homestead to borrow money; the party simply lasted until you slaughtered your last calf and drank the last of the wine.

Much has changed in the sacred institution of marriage, and thanks be to God for that! And much will continue to change. Thanks be to God for that, too.

So, what relevance does this gospel passage hold for us, if marriage is so radically different in our culture and in our church?

This, too, may be hard for us to grasp, as we no longer live in a culture with a lot of clear implicit expectations.

This may have been true in the United States of the 1950s, and it certainly was true in the Palestine of Jesus’ time: Everybody just sort of understood what the standards were – at least with regard to the wedding garment.

If you live in Galilee or Bethlehem, you knew that to come to a wedding feast was to wear a wedding garment.

So this parable, which seems harsh – after all, someone is thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth for wearing the wrong clothes. But perhaps this parable is about participation, or the lack of doing it fully.

There is the first group, who simply decline the invitation. And then there is the guy without the wedding robe, who refused to participate completely.

If you were you the king, you would feel snubbed and insulted by these people, right? If you had the power, you might send those folks who offended you to the outer darkness, right? Or at least, you’d be tempted to. Come on, admit it. When someone offends you, you are tempted to retaliate. We all are.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. This is a parable, remember. An analogy of the Kingdom of Heaven, a story of the way God acts in the world.

God has invited us to be partners in the building up of that kingdom, on earth as in heaven. We are invited to the greatest feast ever imagined. And how many of us fully participate all of the time? Precious few.

And this omnipotent God, who could reign down fire from heaven and smite us where we sit – this God does not act like the king in today’s story, although he could. God does not enforce the dress code or punish us for not participating fully.

Instead, our God invites us again and again, over and over. We are called to that feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. The feast at which the disgrace of the people will be taken away from the earth, when God will wipe away the tears from all faces.

You, me and every person on this planet are welcome at this table.

When God is the host, everyone is invited. Sadly, as in today’s parable, not everyone comes – but everyone is invited.

When God is the host, the food is rich beyond our imagination or understanding. Sometimes it appears to be quite simple – like bread and wine – yet we can be profoundly moved and transformed by this feast. When God is the host, we are nourished not just for the morning, but for the journey. For most of us, this sustenance lasts as long as week, for others it lasts a lifetime. And when God is the host, everyone gets the same gift: the amazingly abundant, undeserved, and inexhaustible gift of love.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Barrie Bates is serving in interim ministry in the metropolitan New York area and as editor of church reviews for the journal Anglican and Episcopal History.

17 Pentecost, Proper 22 (A) – 2014

Tenants in God's Kingdom

October 5, 2014

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Psalm 19 (or Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80: 7-14); Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Any halfway decent real estate agent or commercial property manager could probably explain today’s gospel parable from Matthew in two seconds flat. It is all about landlords and tenants after all. And there is an entire body of business law devoted to them and their all too numerous disputes.

In Jesus’ telling, a vineyard owner contracts with tenants for the use of his land – and then promptly leaves town for another country. At harvest time, the same landowner sends his slaves or agents back to the vineyard to collect the rent – his share of the harvest in this case – from the tenants. But the tenants decide to take matters into their own hands. Apparently hoping to secure the property for themselves, they beat the first slave, kill a second and stone the third. Then they do it all over again, finally even killing off the landowner’s son in the hope of somehow gaining his inheritance.

What are we to make of this graphic tale of greed and mayhem, violence and murder?

At the very least, the landowner in question, we might be tempted to think, ought to have done a more thorough background check before renting out his vineyard – the very source of his livelihood – to those scoundrels who end up murdering his slaves and son. Surely even in the ancient world people knew who was trustworthy or not. Word got around, after all, even before the Internet.

And then the obvious question arises. Why did they do it? The tenants had to have been fairly bright guys. Or they would not have gone into agribusiness in the first place – then as now not an easy way to make a living. Did they really think they could get away with it – get away with murder? Well, apparently they did. Their greed got in the way of their common sense and reason. No doubt not the first time such a thing has ever happened – and not likely to be the last either.

The point of the story seems so obvious to Jesus’ hearers that they leap to it without a moment’s hesitation. The landowner, they declare in moral outrage, “will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants.” The story must have also resonated with the early church community, for it is one of only a very few of Jesus’ parables recounted in all three of the so-called Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Alas, the news these days is sadly still full of just such parables of greed and corruption. We know them too well. We are even now just exiting one of the worse financial crises in our history – by fairly common consensus the result in large measure of rampant materialism and greed. And millions of people have suffered the consequences. So, yes, some people clearly do still think they can get away with it. And some indeed do. The world has not changed all that much in the time since Jesus told his parable.

We might conclude that it simply does not pay to be an absentee landlord. Better to stay home, lock the back door and mind the store. After all, there is no place like home. Surely, that is where one can feel safe and secure. Maybe so, but try telling that to someone whose mortgage is still upside-down or under water and is likely to remain so for some time to come. Let’s face it. Even security at home is sometimes an illusion.

The parable, of course, is about us as much as it is about thieves – about us as much as it is about the “chief priests and the Pharisees” who come to recognize themselves in Jesus’ words. The priests and Pharisees at least deserve begrudging credit, if not for their actions then for their insight into their own motivations. They want to arrest Jesus for his words and be rid of him. They knowingly seek to neutralize his potent message of God’s righteousness and Kingdom. What they do not know – and what we sometimes forget – is that it cannot be done.

No matter where we live or what we have, we are all no more than tenants in God’s Kingdom. Nothing ever truly belongs to us. In the final analysis, everything we have has been lent to us. Everything is borrowed for a time. As the old saying has it, we are living on borrowed time – quite literally. Like the priests and Pharisees of this narrative, we too might wish the world were different, that tenants were owners and servants, masters. But it is not so.

“They will respect my son,” the landowner erroneously concludes as he decides to send his child as emissary after his slaves are beaten and killed. To paraphrase Doctor Phil, television’s favorite pop psychologist, “What was he thinking?” If only the landowner had gone to his parish priest, he might have been set right. “Do not send your son,” he would have been told in no uncertain terms. “Call the police and report the incident. Begin eviction proceedings. Get back home.”

All good advice to be sure, but it is doubtful the landowner would have followed even his beloved pastor’s counsel. For the landowner’s economy is not that of this world. And perhaps it is just as well. He knows something we tend to overlook, that in the end it is not a matter of land, property rights, wealth, possessions or ownership. For a follower of Christ, it is ultimately not even a question of life and death. It is only the Kingdom that matters, a kingdom most decidedly not of this world.

“The Kingdom of God,” Jesus says in explanation of the story, “will be … given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom.” And the fruits of the kingdom of which Jesus speaks have nothing to do with grain or grapes, much less dollars and cents. If we miss that, we miss the point of Jesus’ parable entirely. We miss the Kingdom at work in our lives. For, the Kingdom is, in fact, ours – but only to the extent that we give in turn to others of all that has been so generously given to us. In God’s Kingdom, finally, that is the only way tenants become landlords.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain and area dean at Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary – a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page. Isten hozott!

16 Pentecost, Proper 21 (A) – 2014

Walking the walk

September 28, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Imagine you are watching television and a commercial comes on. The camera pans out over a tranquil beach scene where a family is enjoying the sun and the water. One parent is helping a smiling child build a sandcastle, while the other child runs in the surf, throwing a stick for a bounding, energetic golden retriever. The other parent is sitting in a beach chair under an umbrella with a picnic basket and a drink, waving to the rest of the family. Finally, at the end, the product is advertised. But that’s not all, right? What was really advertised was not just a drink or an item of clothing or sunscreen or life insurance – the marketers were cleverer than that. They were advertising salvation – buy our product and it will save you from your harried, over-scheduled existence and lead you to this “perfect” life.

Sometimes, we are so harried, we are so tired, we are so over-scheduled, and perhaps are so short-sighted and feel so self-centered in our every day existence that we buy into this false salvation. We grumble at our church leaders, “Is the Lord among us or not? We aren’t getting what we want. God’s not leading us to salvation as we imagined it, so maybe we need to look elsewhere.”

Like the Israelites in Exodus, we are wandering through the wilderness of Sin – both a geographical place and a play on words that reminds us of our imperfection and unfaithfulness.

Yet, God remains faithful. God is still at work in our lives, no matter what we believe, no matter what we do as we move through the wilderness. We made promises to God during our Baptismal Covenant:

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Always, the answer is, “I will, with God’s help.”

We cannot separate our belief in God from the action it demands. We cannot immerse ourselves in “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” without being stirred to embodying this knowledge and love of God through our actions in the world. Together, they create faith. We can do a whole lot of prayer or a whole lot of serving in a soup kitchen, but an imbalance of one or the other does not exemplify what Jesus is asking. God is faithful in word and deed, and that is the faith that we are called to.

Take this modern parable for example:

There once was a man who came to know Jesus and wanted to be baptized. The whole community supported him and he was baptized along with several others on a Sunday morning. Things seemed to be going smoothly with his newly minted faith. Prayer flowed easily from his lips and heart, he never went by the homeless person who was on the corner of the street where he worked without speaking to him and giving change when he could. He came to church every Sunday, sang in the choir, and went to adult formation classes.

After a while, things started to feel, well, like a suit that was becoming too small, too tight. What he once did with joy was now starting to feel like an obligation. He didn’t know what to do. When someone asked him to pray for them, he said, “Of course!” with enthusiasm and then forgot to. He began to avoid the homeless person by his work by going through another entrance. He attended church and church events less frequently. He considered his life outside of church as separate from his faith, and it was getting busy. He got a promotion at work, started dating someone seriously, and was getting involved in some philanthropic activities through his workplace. He still believed in God and felt love for God, but didn’t know how to integrate these pieces into the rest of his life. It all seemed like it was too hard, too much. Eventually, his church community who witnessed his baptism and vowed to do all in their power to support him in his life in Christ never saw him again.

How many of us have told someone we would pray for him or her and then got distracted and didn’t? How many of us have thought or talked a lot about helping the marginalized in our neighborhood, but haven’t? How many of us have been puzzled when people who were once zealous about their faith faded away, and we intended to contact them but never have?

We all have good intentions. But as Jesus teaches us in our gospel reading today, our intentions don’t really matter. It’s our actions that are grounded in and flow from our relationship with God that count – individually and as a community.

The man in the parable was not the only one who fell short of his promises – the community did, too. All these everyday actions are outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual grace. These are all acts of love – love that God has for us and that we have for God. They are sacraments with a small “s.”

Jesus preached and taught and touched and healed people. Jesus was doing all this non-stop for a few years and then was crucified, died and was resurrected. But it doesn’t stop there. Over and over again, God’s actions prove God’s love for us. We were given an advocate, the Holy Spirit to come and assist us in continuing God’s work in the world. We get to become part of God’s action.

If we take an honest examination of how God has touched each of our lives, we can be surprised by joy. Think back on your life, the ways that the tapestry of threads have been woven to get you to where you are today. Those times where just the right thing happened, those unexpected moments that changed your life, and the spaces in between, all where God was caring for you. How do we respond to this?

Jesus gives a telling example of response to God’s love in his parable today about the two sons being asked to work in the vineyard. The first son tells his father outright that he won’t do it, but then has a change of heart and goes and does it anyway. Whereas the second son tells his father he will and then never does. It’s a pretty extreme example, but it gets the point across. Jesus tells this to the chief priests and elders – who rejected John the Baptist and were rejecting Jesus – in order for them to be caught in their own web of deceit. Jesus asks them, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” and they know they are trapped because the answer, of course, is the first son. He ended up living his life faithfully; he didn’t just talk about it or say things to appease his father.

We often do similar things in our own lives. We say we are Christians, but how do we know? How do others know? God has given us the gift of our lives and we are called to respond. We are to be good stewards of our lives, spreading the love of God that we have received, to others.

We aren’t perfect, but we are definitely called to be different. As political comedian Stephen Colbert put it, “Either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition; and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

If we choose not to walk the walk, then we are just as bad as the chief priests and elders Jesus encountered.

But there is hope for us! We can be like the first son and have a change of heart. We can choose to be obedient to God and live in a wide, loving margin of grace.

As we grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus and each other, may there by clarity and fire in God’s call to us, and may we receive the courage to do something about it.

 

– The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the associate priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, and is completing a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Adler Graduate School.

15 Pentecost, Proper 20 (A) – 2014

An undeserved gift

September 21, 2014

Exodus 16:2-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 (or Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Psalm 145:1-8); Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

How long have you been a member of this church? Or are you a first-timer? Look around. How long do you think those sitting near you have been members of this church? Somewhere in the crowd is someone who has been here the longest. And somewhere is someone who has been a member for the shortest amount of time. Those of you in small churches know these people almost instinctively.

Do you think those who have been members longer should have more benefits? More access to pastoral care? More influence with the vestry? Be first in line for pot-luck suppers?

Of course these are absurd questions. But what if they were not? Wouldn’t that cause us to understand better the sense of outrage expressed by the longer-serving laborers in today’s gospel story who saw their treatment as a matter of unfairness?

Can we fail to feel sympathy for those who worked the longest? These hired hands labored harder and longer and got the same pay. How can we not feel a painful sense of injustice?

Living in community, we inevitably have experiences that allow us to identify with the workers in today’s gospel story, even if the situations were not as serious as economic and social injustice. We may well remember parents who gave up a great deal of time and energy coaching youth sports leagues or teaching Sunday School or leading scout troops, helping children of other able parents who did not volunteer to do their fair share.

How many of us with siblings recall growing up feelings we had to do more than others in the family? How many first-borns eventually complain that their parents let younger brothers and sisters have more liberty than they had at the same age? Isn’t it true that one of the first things we learn in life is to develop a view of what seems fair and what does not?

But as mature Christians, one of the first things we learn from today’s gospel reading is that Jesus didn’t care much about fairness or unfairness in the way we tend to think about it. He was not concerned about the ethics of business or labor management relations or who got to what place first. Through the story in today’s gospel, Jesus turns our normal views upside down, shaking them out, so we can more clearly see the truth of God’s values. He challenges our religious assumptions, affirming a radical understanding of God and our relationship with God that upsets our conventional theological views and the tenets of popular psychology.

Jesus succeeds in shocking us out of our common misunderstandings of God, by affirming a deeper insight into the character and purposes of God. He wants to shake us out of our usual self-understanding by opening us to a deeper awareness of ourselves, and to transform us more into the image of God.

Jesus wants us to experience this parable as a way to learn what lies beyond viewing the events as simply unfair or fair and to catch a glimpse of the utter limitless generosity of God. He wants us to understand that the worth of human beings is not measured by how much we earn in pay or how well we perform or by any of our usual measures – status, popularity, social achievement, productivity, wealth, physical appearance.

Jesus wants us to know that our worth as human beings is absolutely affirmed by God, who guarantees our value as human beings – not because of anything we have done or can do – but because of God’s creative and life-affirming love for us. Jesus wants us to know that in the face of our limited, worldly understanding of what is fair and what is unfair, God works with a different reality, in a different direction, and by different standards.

God gives us chances to realize our potential – each in our unique way, restricted, of course, by our own limitations, but empowered by our individual talents and gifts.

Jesus wants us to know the overwhelming reality of God’s love in this world. Jesus especially wants us to recognize the power and presence of God in the life of each and every one of us. Jesus wants us to know that God calls us to respond positively to what he has given us. He wants us to work in his vineyard with happy hearts and willing bodies.

Jesus wants us to know that working and serving in God’s world is a great privilege and opportunity. The reward for our service is the joy of knowing that we are part of a great adventure that gives meaning to our lives. The reward for serving others is found in knowing that we are part of a Christian process of laboring to leave the world a little better than when we entered it.

In telling this parable of the laborers in the vineyard – the ones who worked different amounts for the same pay – Jesus wants us to know that God would have us concentrate on our own spiritual condition, not spending time and energy considering everybody else’s spiritual condition, and to accept our ultimate worth and our ultimate purpose without comparing our contributions to those of others.

Today we have heard Jesus turn one of our normal, worldly views upside down. In so doing, according to our faith, he actually places those values right-side up. Today’s parable teaches that life is from God’s point of view, not a matter of fairness or unfairness. It is not a matter of deserving or undeserving.

Through today’s parable, Jesus reminds us that whatever we have is, after all, a gift from God. Whatever we have is more than we deserve. God is overwhelmingly generous. It is enough that we have the profound privilege of laboring and serving in God’s vineyard.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of ”John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

14 Pentecost, Proper 19 (A) – 2014

Forgiving 70 times seven

September 14, 2014

Exodus 14:19-31 and Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21 [or Genesis 50:15-21 and Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 and Psalm 114]; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Five Amish schoolgirls killed, 11 wounded, by a shooter in Pennsylvania, the headlines cried in 2006. The Amish community not only comforted the shooter’s wife and children, they forgave him. The Amish were reviled by many in the press because they forgave even as they mourned the death of their own innocent children.

In 1948, Pastor Yang-Won Sohn’s two teenage boys were shot for being Christians by a rioter in Korea. Sohn not only forgave the shooter, but arranged his release from prison and adopted him.

Were these people crazy? How can people forgive such heinous crimes against innocents? It messes with our minds. Yes, Jesus said forgive, but there must be a limit, and these crazy people crossed it.

We want killers punished. But Jesus said, forgive not seven times, but 70 times seven. OK, let’s count it up; we must be way beyond that limit now. But if we’re honest, we know when Jesus said “70 times seven” he was using it to mean “always.” You must always forgive.

And then Jesus told a parable about the wicked slave who is forgiven a huge sum by his master, but then goes out and throws a fellow slave in prison for being owed just a fraction. We hear that the wicked slave then gets his just punishment. “Good,” we may say. He surely deserved that! We might forget that he was punished not because he owed money, but because he didn’t forgive. Jesus is very serious about this forgiveness thing.

Paul reminds the Romans about another side of forgiveness. His take on it was about how we treat each other because of our differences. Some eat anything, others are vegetarians; they must not despise each other. Well, that’s easy enough. We can do that.

Some may worship God on one day, some on another; do not despise one or the other. Another easy one – we can do that!

But then Paul asks, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” meaning, why do we pass judgment on all others? Perhaps because we so often see immense hurt and evil in our world and we want to see justice done. We cannot imagine why people maim and kill innocent people. We cannot understand the sickness of domestic abuse, trafficking of young men and women and children, the horror of genocide. These evils need to be dealt with. They need to be eradicated from the earth and humanity deserves to live in peace and safety. Forgiveness? No! Maybe Jesus in his humanity couldn’t imagine the kind of evil that infects our world today. Maybe his “70 times seven” would have been tempered a bit.

But we must remember the heinous things that happened in Jesus’ time. They were actually not that much different from today – slavery, war, murder, genocide, abuse. It almost seems hopeless, as we have not learned a whole lot from Jesus’ time until now. But Jesus makes it very plain that we must forgive or we, too, will suffer punishment.

So, how do we start? We might look once again at the Amish. Their ability to forgive came from the center of their theology, which is the Lord’s prayer. They believe it when they say, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Over and over, Amish leaders tried to explain that to journalists and others who could not believe the parents of the dead little girls could forgive. What we may tend to forget, however, which the Amish people also made quite clear, is that forgiveness did not take away the burning pain of loss, the near despair of losing children. There is the crux of the matter. This is where we might find the ability to begin learning to forgive. That old cliché “forgive and forget” just doesn’t work.

Forgiveness doesn’t numb our minds and hearts to the pain we feel. Forgiveness doesn’t mean justice does not need to be carried out. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that perpetrators must not be stopped just because our hearts have gotten all warm and fuzzy with our forgiveness of them. Sadly, our world is not yet the fullness of the Kingdom. The wars going on in the Middle East, the genocide taking place in the name of God, the evils done to men, women and children because of lust – all need to be eradicated, the perpetrators punished. The victims will be forever changed, and that breaks the heart of God. The perpetrators may not even want our forgiveness. And many of these issues may not have touched us here. We might pray for conversion of the evil ones. We might pray that they are found and brought to justice. We might begin our practice of forgiveness here. We might offer the difficulty of our forgiveness to God. Pray that we might be able to hold the hurt of others in our hearts while we place those we need to forgive into God’s.

Then we might look at forgiveness closer to home. This, perhaps, might be harder. When we are the ones who have been hurt, we may find forgiveness even of family members difficult. How many stories have we heard about brothers and sisters not speaking to each other for years, or churches being divided over small incidents? Hurt goes deep.

Being the first to seek reconciliation is hard, but that’s what Jesus means when he says, “70 times seven.” The good news in all this is that we are not alone when we are called to forgive or to seek reconciliation. In it all, God is with us. God has shown us the ultimate image of forgiveness when Jesus died on the cross for us all, taking our sins upon himself and promising us resurrection. Forgiveness is only possible if we remember God is within and God is our strength. That promise upholds us even when our willingness to reconcile with another or forgive is rejected. God knows our heart – God is our heart. God has even promised that when words fail us, the Spirit will give us words.

Later, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer together, take the words “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” into your hearts. Only then, can we begin to understand what forgiveness is all about.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

13 Pentecost, Proper 18 (A) – 2014

The power to bind or loose

September 7, 2014

Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149 (or Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Psalm 119:33-40); Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Church conflict is nothing new. Sometimes people think there should be no conflict in church, as though by virtue of being Christians we can and should cover over all disagreements with niceness. Jesus in his teaching in our gospel lesson today seems to proceed on the baseline assumption that conflict in Christian community is normal and natural, and should be dealt with honestly and with compassion.

As we all know, honesty and compassion are all too rarely the watchwords of our church conflicts. Many times anger, hurt feelings and lack of clear communication drive us toward either sweeping everything under the rug to keep the peace, or openly hostile entrenched positions that lead to explosions and people leaving the church permanently. The result is either a Body of Christ pristine on the outside but riddled with the disease and rot of resentment on the inside, or an openly dismembered and bleeding Body of Christ hemorrhaging members and vitality. There must be another way.

Jesus provides us another way in our gospel lesson today. First, he asks us to use direct and respectful communication. If we are struggling with something a church member has said or done, we are not to talk behind his or her back. Nor are we to stage a dramatic public confrontation at coffee hour. We are to take time aside, after the initial rush of emotion has subsided, and engage in dialogue with that person one-on-one.

If that conversation does not yield fruit, we create a small group of all parties involved to discern and pray together. If no progress is made, then we let transparency be our guiding principle and search for a solution as a whole church community, bearing one another’s burdens and seeking reconciliation.

Some disagreements are so deep that even these steps cannot ease them, and so Jesus says, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Now we breathe a sigh of relief. If we’ve checked all the boxes for responsible church conflict and still have gotten nowhere, we can shun and push aside these troublemakers. Hooray!

But it turns out that we are not off the hook at all. Why? Because of how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. What can we learn from his words and actions toward them that we can then apply to our fellow church members?

When Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple, he emphasizes the Pharisee’s showboating pride and self-satisfaction versus the tax collector’s pained and private acknowledgement of his own sin. To treat a fellow church member like a tax collector would then be to realize that beneath the outer façade of combativeness, that person might be hiding a great deal of pain and regret over his or her own actions in the conflict. Jesus says this tax collector went home justified or forgiven. Could we not look for the hidden self of the person with whom we are in conflict and have our compassion awakened? Could we not realize that we ourselves might be in danger of praying like the Pharisee, proud and certain of our own righteousness?

Zaccheus was not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector and filthy rich. But he is so eager to see Jesus that he climbs a tree to get a better view of him. Jesus calls Zaccheus down and invites himself to dinner at Zaccheus’ home. How then can we treat a fellow church member crosswise with us like Jesus treats Zaccheus? We can invite this member to share her gifts with the church in some way, just as Jesus did with Zaccheus. And most importantly, we can share table fellowship together, in the parish hall, at the altar, in one another’s homes.

That is how Jesus treats tax collectors – with mercy, with invitation, with curiosity and with an eye toward their potential for growth and service to the Kingdom. Matthew, one of the 12 apostles, was a tax collector, and Jesus called him right from his money table to follow him. When Jesus tells us that we are to treat our most stubborn and contrary church members like tax collectors, he is telling us to treat them like members of his inner circle, disciples who are key to the spreading of the Word.

What about gentiles? If we are to treat church members with whom we disagree as gentiles, how does Jesus teach us by example to behave toward them?

One of Jesus’ most famous encounters with a gentile was the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. He initially refuses, saying that the food for the children of Israel cannot be given to the dogs. Her clever and persistent response, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” convinces him to change his mind. If our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was perfect and without sin, can be persuaded to soften and gentle and change his mind about someone, can we not do the same? Are we really paying attention to the argument our opponent in the church is offering? Jesus was not afraid to really listen and be changed by what he heard. We have the opportunity to do the same.

We see Jesus’ relationship with gentiles in another story: the healing of the centurion’s servant. The centurion seeks Jesus out, admits that he is not worthy of Jesus coming under his roof, and says that he knows that if Jesus says the word, his servant will be healed. Jesus immediately extends healing to the servant, and marvels at the depth and purity of the centurion’s faith. Notice that Jesus heals the servant not in person, but over a distance. For the church conflicts in our past, the ones that drove us or our neighbors to leave the church, this story proves that healing can occur over distance, a geographical distance or the distance of time. All it takes is, like Jesus, recognizing the faith of the gentile. And so it is worth revisiting old broken relationships with our brothers and sisters and spending time in prayer for our faith and the faith of those from who we are estranged. It might be a path to healing we never expected.

And so we see that this gospel lesson, in fact, does not give us license to get rid of people we don’t like, to ostracize troublemakers and let silence and distance be the arbiters of church conflict. Jesus’ instruction to treat the ones who seem to be the most far gone and uninterested in reconciliation like tax collectors and gentiles opens to us a whole array of creative and surprising paths toward reconciliation, toward seeing the best in one another, toward achieving healing even years after we no longer remember what got us so angry in the first place. In the imitation of Christ we find that treating others like tax collectors and gentiles is a path of gentleness, hope and potential.

All of this is so important not just because of the simple reality that there is no such thing as church without conflict. It matters because of how Jesus concludes his instructions:

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

How we choose to treat one another when the going gets rough has consequences that far outlast this question of the theology of sexuality or that knock-down drag-out over the carpet color in the nave. We have the power to bind and to loose.

With the choices we make, we can bind each other even tighter into our separate camps and polarized positions. We can loose each other out into a world without the benefit of Christian fellowship, driving each other from the church with wounds that bleed for years to come.

Or we can loose ourselves from our pride and our ever-present need to be right. We can loose one another from assumptions and stereotypes and bitterness. We can loose our church communities from the fear of church conflict. And then we can bind ourselves together with the unbreakable love of Christ, a body tested, refined, healed and flourishing with new life.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind.,  in the Diocese of Indianapolis. She blogs at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

12 Pentecost, Proper 17 (A) – 2014

The paradox of faith

August 31, 2014

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

[NOTE TO READER: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is pronounced “EH-hyah ah-SHARE EH-hyah”]

“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

These words from today’s reading from Matthew are Peter’s impulsive response to the devastating news that Jesus – his friend, healer and teacher, beloved and more than beloved, his divine Lord and savior – would suffer. Must suffer, be killed and be raised.

Peter, like most of us, reacts to the fact of suffering with fear and denial.

Jesus famously replies: “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter has reacted out of fear of suffering and loss in the short term, in a human reckoning of time. He has focused on the fact that Jesus must suffer and be killed. Jesus continues:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

“It” refers to eternal life. A great and glorious future. Jesus instructs Peter to focus on divine things, the promise that his Lord will be raised and in the last day, we shall all be raised.

In fact, Peter knows this. Just prior to the conversation in today’s passage, in Matthew 16:16, in answer to the question “Who do you say that I am?” Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God. Jesus has complimented him on his great faith and offered him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Peter has just demonstrated one of the paradoxes of being a faithful and human Christian. We believe that suffering will be vanquished for all time, “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”

At the same time, we live in the world and are committed to alleviating suffering where and as we can. Indeed, Jesus is our model in the work of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, blessing the dying, loving God and our neighbor. It seems that we are to set our minds on both human and divine matters. Jesus is, after all, in his incarnation the point where the reality of God enters the reality of this world. Where human and divine purpose are united.

In today’s reading from Exodus we have another moment where Holy Mystery meets the reality of this world. God declares, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings.” Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flocks, going about his daily business. The reality of the world, suffering and hard work, is in the forefront.

By appearing in a bush that blazes but is not consumed, God reminds Moses of the Holy Mystery of the divine. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground,” he commands Moses. The first response of the human to the divine encounter must be reverence. As God makes clear in this passage, reverence is to be followed by action. Moses’ given task is to go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of bondage.

In the passage from Exodus there is a magnificent linguistic device that juxtaposes the imperative of the now, Moses’ task of leading his people away from suffering, with the great mystery of eternity. Moses asks God for a name, so that he can tell the Israelites who sent him. “I am who I am,” says God. The Hebrew Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is an impressively God-like answer, for in Hebrew grammar there is no verb tense. Rather the placement of the personal preposition indicates whether the action has concluded or not. Ehyeh asher Ehyeh can be interpreted as both “I am who I am” and “I shall be who I shall be.” God is now and God is eternal. By calling on God’s great name, we acknowledge that we live simultaneously in the moment and for all eternity.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. In today’s passage, Paul gives instructions to the community in Rome for living a faithful life. When Paul speaks of rejoicing in hope, he is speaking of a truly biblical hope for the awaited day when the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of God and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. Be patient in suffering because on that day suffering will cease. Persevere in prayer because this is the reverent response to the divine. Prayer that leads always to action: Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Serve the Lord with vigor, ardor and zeal. Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

And do it now. Jesus reminds us that we do not have much time.

“Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

In the early Christian communities to whom Matthew and Paul wrote, there was a strong sense that the Kingdom of God was coming soon. The familiar blessing paraphrased from the Swiss philosopher and poet Henri Frédéric Amiel synthesizes Jesus’ admonition and Paul’s advice: Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel this journey with us, so be quick to love and make haste to be kind.

Jesus, in revealing that the messianic era is imminent, also explains how the disciples are to live in the intervening time: They are to live with the paradox of faith. One of the great paradoxes of Christianity is that the Messiah must suffer and die before he is raised to eternal life. This paradox makes a concrete statement of the Christological idea that Jesus is the embodiment of both the reality of the divine and the reality of this world. Jesus even issues his instructions to the disciples in the form of a paradox: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

We are to live the way of the great “I Am” and the glorious “I shall be.” We are to live a life of reverent prayer and a life of faithful action. We are to live as if we have not much time and as if we have all the time in the world.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, as he faced suffering with great faith:

“What remains for us is only the very narrow path, sometimes barely discernible, of taking each day as if it were the last and yet living it faithfully and responsibly as if there were yet to be a great future.”

This is the divine way. It is also the human way. This is the mystery and the paradox of faith.

 

— Susan Butterworth is a candidate for a Master of Divinity degree at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., where she is working on a special competency in Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies.

11 Pentecost, Proper 16 (A) – 2014

Can you keep a secret?

August 24, 2014

Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124 (or Isaiah 51:1-6 and Psalm 138)Romans 12:1-8Matthew 16:13-20

Ask a group of people to keep a secret, and you’re looking for trouble. More than likely, somebody will let it out. Especially if the secret is astonishing.

Simon Peter is the first disciple to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah. He’s the first to discover that this man he knows so well is the one anointed by God, the Messiah sent to deliver Israel from bondage. Peter says as much when Jesus asks him, point blank, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter’s answer marks him as the star student, and he receives his reward. Jesus promises to build his church upon the rock foundation of his faith. He gives Peter executive authority; promises to support him. Here Peter stands for the whole church. Jesus entrusts his mission to all who recognize him as the Messiah.

What a glorious development! Now should be the time to call in the media, get out the word, let everybody know that the Messiah has come and is setting up his organization. But it’s not time for press releases, for photo opportunities, for sound bites. Far from it.

Did you notice the ending of today’s gospel? Here it is again: Jesus “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” Nobody. Not a one. Mum’s the word. Can the publicity. Keep the secret.

Why is Jesus intent on keeping his being the Messiah a secret? Why not let it out? And now that he has admitted who he is, and the disciples all know it, does he really think that this secret can be kept? Won’t it travel from mouth to ear with the speed of novelty? The voices that ask, “Have you heard?” will multiply rapidly across the land.

It’s not just this once that Jesus wants his identity to stay a secret. Repeatedly, throughout the gospels he tries to keep from becoming the talk of whatever town he’s in. Yet when he performs such deeds as healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, when he fulfills the messianic job description, how are people expected to keep his identity to themselves? And why should they? What he does in one community after another is a publicist’s dream. The guy’s got the makings of a star. He’s going to be big, really big.

There’s a name for everything Jesus does in an effort to pass unrecognized for who he is. Students of the Bible call this the Messianic Secret. What’s behind it?

The most convincing explanation is that he does not want to be acknowledged as the Messiah outside his death and resurrection. Only in the light of those events can people begin to recognize what his being the Messiah really means.

If they hear he is the Messiah before he even gets to the cross, they are sure to misunderstand him.

Rather than being a messiah of sacrifice and triumph, they will see him as someone who has come to solve their problems, a Mr. Fix-It from on high.

Rather than recognize him as the one who calls them to their own death and resurrection, the crowds are likely to view him as a messiah sent to pamper their egos, to make their lives comfortable.

Jesus does not want his ministry to be seen in the wrong light. For this reason, he prefers that only his immediate circle know that he is the one God has sent. The opportunity will come later for them to announce that he is the Messiah. That opportunity will come once the crucifixion takes place and he returns from death.

The Messianic Secret helps us understand what goes on in the gospel story, why Jesus sometimes behaves in a way that seems incomprehensible. But the Messianic Secret is more than that, for it has a contemporary application.

People in his own time were ready to misunderstand Jesus because they wanted, indeed expected, a messiah of a different kind to be sent to them from God.

People today are also ready to misunderstand Jesus. We want, we expect, a messiah different from the one sent to us. We expect someone who saves us easily and asks from us nothing much at all. We want a Jesus who doesn’t die, or at least doesn’t expect us to follow him in doing so. While we hope for something easy, what the gospel offers us is a scandal.

What does this scandal involve?

First, we can know God best through this one human being, a single life where the Word becomes flesh. But this particularity is only the start of the scandal.

The gospel goes on to insist that we know him most completely not through the notable events of his life, but by his gruesome dying and his incomprehensible resurrection.

The scandal becomes even greater. His cross and triumph do not adequately reveal him until we become participants in them and accept them as our own. With Jesus, we must die and rise if he is to be our Messiah.

In our time, the Messianic Secret has changed. Once it meant not announcing Jesus as the promised one until his death and resurrection revealed him completely. Now it means not announcing Jesus without the cross and the empty tomb, not announcing him unless we are ready to die and rise together with him.

There are plenty of versions of Jesus abroad in the world today. Once again he has become a star; he is big, really big. Some of these versions are authentic; many of them are not.

What makes a version authentic is not a denominational or cultural label or any other marking likely to set us at ease. What makes a version of Jesus the real thing and not human fantasy is whether it invariably returns us to what is most important, what reveals divine love completely. We can welcome no Jesus without the cross. We can welcome no Jesus who remains dead. We will accept no easy messiah whose hands remain unwounded.

If we are to call ourselves Christians, members of his church, then we will accept the Messiah crucified and risen not only 2,000 years ago, but crucified and risen inside our own life as well. Then, and only then, are we dealing with the real Jesus.

Moreover, we will not keep the Messiah a secret. The world, the one where we spend our days, still waits for him. That world is dying to meet him – through us.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

10 Pentecost, Proper 15 (A) – 2014

Who are the chosen?

August 17, 2014

Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 (or Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67); Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

In today’s passages we encounter the prickly theme of “choseness.” Does God have favorites? Is there really a chosen nation, a chosen people? If God is the Creator of us all, how can this be? Not easy questions to confront or to answer. Not when we now know what terrible acts have been perpetrated by those who believe that God is on their side – and that includes both Christians and non-Christians.

In the extraordinary New Testament story we read this morning, we encounter a side of Jesus that affronts our modern sensibilities and certainly our political correctness. The words Jesus uses to argue with the Canaanite woman are not ones we expect from his mouth. What is going on here?

Let’s look at the story and its setting as Matthew describes it. Jesus has been teaching and walking across the country followed by large crowds. He heals the sick, forgives sins and challenges the established thinking on God. To everyone who thinks that God is satisfied with external piety he brings the enormous challenge of his spirit and his personal knowledge: God looks into the heart. God is not pleased with mere observances; God requires a new way of thinking, of praying, of being. And now tired and needing to escape the crowds, Jesus moves north out of Israel into what we know as Lebanon, the ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Mark tells us that Jesus entered a home, probably belonging to friends, and asked them to keep his visit secret. In Matthew we see him entering the region, probably followed only by his disciples, and immediately a woman accosts him, not with a polite request, but with shouting.

There are many characteristics of this woman that fill us with admiration: She must have heard about him even before he entered her city because she is ready. What she heard about him, she believed. She is not a Jew, yet she is using language that is familiar only to Jews of the time. She calls him “Son of David.” She is absolutely certain that Jesus is who he says he is. Unlike his own people, who doubt him and try to trip him at every conversation, she takes it as a given that he alone has the power to heal her little daughter. And because she loves her daughter she will beg, ask and shout until his power gives her what she wants: the healing of her child.

In her pleading, her shouting, she asks first for mercy and then for healing. Apparently Jesus keeps on walking, but she follows. She doesn’t give up. Jesus, however, is silent. Even his disciples, embarrassed at her shouts, ask him to respond, to send her away. They, too, are certain that because she is not a Jew she doesn’t have the right to ask him for anything.

Now Jesus says something not to her or to them: It’s obvious that he is examining a question in his own mind: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This is his mission as he has known it up to this moment. And he has worked at it every moment of his days – to bring his people back to God.

The woman hears his words, but she is the kind who is not deterred by national and religious differences. She will not let them keep her from seeking help. Now Jesus uses language that separates those who think they are God’s chosen from those whom they consider outside God’s grace. The Israelites are the children, and the outsiders are the dogs. In our age and our culture this is heavy language. We don’t exactly know what it meant at that time and in that context, but we know it was not complimentary. The bread is the essence of life. It must be given to the children.

The mother, however, does not budge. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” This poor outsider understands that God’s mercy is so great that even the tiny bit that escapes from the chosen ones is enough for healing and for doing good.

This is what faith means. She knows who he is and she knows that only Jesus can heal her daughter. The rest does not matter: She is a supplicant. She is not proud; she is determined.

And Jesus responds to this faith instantly. In those few minutes, he recognizes that his mission has expanded. A poor woman has shown him this much: He did not come just for the children of Israel. His mercy extends to everyone. Full of admiration, he responds first to her great faith, and then to her wish for her daughter: “Your faith is great. Your daughter is well.”

Thus it is that we all benefit from that woman’s faith. An outcast becomes a catalyst. This is the wonder of the gospel stories. The Good News comes from unexpected places. A woman ignored and considered a nuisance becomes an object of admiration by Jesus himself. Instead of sending her away, he expands his mission from the limits of Judaea to the rest of the world. The encounter does not happen within the land of the chosen but outside it, in the pagan realm of Tyre and Sidon. Once again, God brings good out of what has seemed evil. The dogs enter the same realm as the children. They now eat from the table and not just of the crumbs that fall from it. We owe this woman a great deal. And the prophecy of Isaiah concerning foreigners is fulfilled: They, too, can minister to the Lord.

The Incarnation is vivid in this story, as is the theology of kenosis – the ‘self-emptying’ of our will to become receptive to God’s will. Jesus learns something from a humble woman and from a mother’s love. This is a story to be honored, to be proclaimed and to fill us with gratitude. “Lord have mercy on me,” she cries. And the Lord shows mercy to one considered an outcast.

God’s mercy covers all of us.

 

— Katerina Whitley, a retreat leader, is the author of “Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Biblical Women” (Morehouse, 1998) and “Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus” (Morehouse, 2002). She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.

 

 

9 Pentecost, Proper 14 (A) – 2014

Our faith inside the boat

August 10, 2014

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28and Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b (or 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Psalm 85:8-13)Romans 10:5-15Matthew 14:22-33

Sometimes today’s gospel lesson is interpreted along the lines of the title of a book by John Ortberg, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat.” The interpretation goes like this: Peter had the right idea when he got out of the boat, quite literally stepping out in faith. Peter, like all of us, is invited to step out into the storms of life where Jesus calls us to take courage, leave the safety of the boat, and come to him. If we have enough faith in Jesus and keep our focus firmly on him, we will not sink, despite the wind and the waves. If only Peter had not become distracted. When he kept his eyes on Jesus, he could walk on water. When he got anxious and sidetracked from keeping his focus on Jesus, Peter, whose name means “rock,” went down like a stone. Jesus wants us to be bold in our faith. Jesus wants us to walk on water, dream big, take risks in our lives. And if we can just be faithful enough, we will succeed.

Walking on water has come to be synonymous, even outside the church, with the idea of stepping out in boldness, taking a risk. If you do an Internet search on “walk on water,” you’ll get links to business consulting firms, fashion companies, science projects – all of them proponents of going the extra mile (another biblical phrase that’s gone mainstream). It has become another phrase along the lines of “thinking outside the box,” “The early bird catches the worm,” and “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

No doubt Jesus wants us to take risks for the sake of the gospel. No doubt Jesus wants us to keep our eyes focused on him and his mission. No doubt Jesus wants us to have the gift of faith. He’s the one who reminded his followers, in Matthew 19:26, “With God, all things are possible.” He’s the one who told some fishermen to leave everything to follow him. He’s the one who tells us to take up our cross, to lose our lives for his sake, that if we have faith even the size of a mustard seed, we could say to that mountain, get up and move, and it would. When the resurrected Jesus stepped out of the tomb that first Easter morning, he really outdid himself in thinking “outside of the box,” didn’t he? No doubt, Jesus wants us to take risks, be bold, do outrageous things for the gospel, step out in faith and follow.

But is that really what Jesus really wants us to hear in this particular gospel lesson? One thing that’s true about Matthew’s gospel is it’s interested in community. It’s really interested in figuring out what it means to be the church, the body of Christ in the world, the gathering of people who are trying to follow Christ together. Matthew really isn’t interested in great heroes of the faith, singular individuals who go above and beyond. If, like Peter, they go swinging their legs out over the side of the boat, leaving the rest of the disciples behind trying to row and manage in the storm, we’re likely to see such an individual take a few steps and then plunge beneath the waves, surely to drown, if not for the grace and love and forgiveness of Jesus who always, always, reaches out to save, even when we get confused and fearful and full of doubt.

So I wonder if when Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” the meaning isn’t, “Oh, Peter, if only you had more faith,” but is, instead, “Oh, Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”

The boat has, from very early days in the Christian community, been a symbol for the church. And no wonder. Think of a ship, a vessel large enough that it takes a number of people doing diverse things to get it to move. A ship is a great symbol for the church. Moving through the waters on a gorgeous day can be simply glorious. When wind and water and sailors cooperate, the journey is grand. Sometimes, though, life on the ship can get routine. The same chores need doing every day. The wind doesn’t always do what the sailors want. A large crew means a variety of people, which means a variety of ideas and personalities. The ship’s mission can be jeopardized by those who are tempted to set sail alone, or mutiny, or jump overboard. But any problems on the ship have more to do with the sailors than the Captain – with a capital C, as in “Christ” – because the Captain has provided for the ship. The Captain gives Word and Sacraments, the community of sailors, and even gave them their seaworthy ship to guide them into the ultimate safe harbor. Christians have long treasured this image of the church as a ship: beautiful, but vulnerable; seaworthy, but subject to storm and winds and waves.

In today’s lesson, Jesus makes the disciples, those who would follow him, get into a boat, and head out across the sea. The gospel says, “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side.” Jesus would meet up with them again. First, he was going to take some time by himself to pray.

But a storm blows up, as storms do in our lives, and Jesus doesn’t wait for them to get to the other side. He comes to them, walking across the water, the very picture of God that they knew from their scriptures. Psalm 77 says, “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. … Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” In Job 9:8, God overcomes the powers of chaos, pictured as a stormy sea. It says, “God alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.” Jesus would not leave his disciples alone in the boat to perish in the storm, but comes to them, and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

And then there’s Peter. And while we usually just skip right to impetuous, enthusiastic Peter, faithfully thinking outside the box, jumping overboard and pulling off an amazing stunt, if even just for a moment, what Peter actually does first is say something. He says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “If it is you …”

If.

There are only a couple of other times in the whole gospel when someone addresses Jesus with “if,” and they’re not pretty. The devil does it three times to Jesus when he tempts him in the desert, “If you are the Son of God,” make stones into bread, call down special privileges from God, worship me. When Jesus is hanging on the cross, people mock him, calling out, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” And here, Peter, beautiful, real Peter, joins his voice, “If it is you, Jesus, command me to come to you on the water.”

If.

Jesus doesn’t chide Peter for being afraid. Of course you’re afraid in the midst of a storm. But why did you doubt? Did you really think I wouldn’t come? Did you really think I wouldn’t save you? Did you really think, when I told you to get into the boat and go on ahead, that I would ever, ever leave you alone?

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Jesus and Peter get into the boat. The wind ceases. “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”

Matthew’s whole gospel ends with the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples. The resurrected Christ himself appears where he said he would meet them. And Matthew tells us, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Some doubted. Even then. Even with the risen Jesus standing right in front of them. They worshiped. But some doubted.

That’s not where the story ends, though. Even still, in the midst of their worship, even to those who doubt, Jesus gives a command and a promise. The command is this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” And then he gives them a promise – all of them: “And remember,” says Jesus, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Storms will blow up in all of our lives. But Jesus has not left us alone. The one who calms the storms and makes the winds to cease is still with us. He still has work for us to do. And yes, it will mean stepping out in faith, but not getting out of the boat, not going it alone, not leaving the community of disciples. The purpose of a ship is to set sail, not to stay at the dock.

There are plenty of adventures ahead, and Jesus will bid us follow. And he will say to us, in the midst of any storm, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.