Sunday, August 27, 2017

Year A Proper 16 2017 Who Am I?

Year A Proper 16, 27 August 2017
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA
“Who Am I?”

Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Matthew 16:13-20
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “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. 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.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

My life, like all of our lives, has cycles and seasons. The kids are all groaning because they are on the cusp of their new school year. The parents are all relieved that things can get back to “NORMAL,” if there is such a thing. We break our lives up into manageable segments, linking them together like some great train stretching back into the past. And we add cars one onto the rest with each passing season. We break up our lives into these manageable sections to help gain scale and scope. In the course of a lifetime, this makes sense. We add a sense of narrative to all the individual occurances.

Too often, though, we do the same with our daily lives, breaking the areas of our lives into compartments like a cafeteria tray, thinking that we can keep the entree portion from touching the vegetable which avoids the bread that cannot stand being near the milk. We apportion our lives into these bits, thinking we cannot handle everything if they merge and blend. We have our work life, and our family life, and our friendships, and our faith community, and our hobbies. Each with their own parameters and expectations and problems.  

As we separate ourselves into these compartments, we do ourselves a disservice. We think we are making things easier, but we really are not. We need to be our whole selves all the time. As hard as that sounds, and yes, it does even to me, I think that this is what the Apostle Paul was going at in Romans 12. We need to live our whole lives as our whole selves, and we need to bring this de-compartmentalized self to God. This God in whom we live and move and have our being.

Listen again to the beginning of his chapter. (Romans 12:1-2)
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For me these verses so much encapsulate the call of Christ when he talked about having that abundant life in John 10:10.

Paul here is talking about voluntarily sacrificing our bodies to God as living sacrifices. Now this is a strong a powerful metaphor he was describing to the church in Rome when he was writing to them. They lived in Rome. They knew about sacrifices. They knew about the burning of flesh and the slitting of throats. They had seen it, and probably had participated in it at one point in their lives. Paul knew what he was doing. And it still resonates through the ages. We still use terms like sacrifice in a metaphorical sense instead of literal, but the power of what he is saying is still there. Paul takes this image, and moves it to the next level. For us to present our bodies, our whole selves, nothing holding back, we must bring it all to the table. We cannot hold anything back.

Think of someone showing up to join the army, but only bringing two arms and a torso. “I am presenting myself, but I am leaving my legs behind because I do not plan to run.” I am sure a drill sergeant would love to respond to that.

If it is absurd in that situation, why do we do it in our spiritual lives? Why do we hold anything back? Paul urges the Romans to present their whole selves and give it up to God, the good, the bad, the ugly. When you sell your house, you do not get to keep your stuff in storage in the closets and garage. The new owner will want to move in, make upgrades, and make it their own. God is the same way. When we give ourselves over to God and God’s rule in our lives, God gets to sweep out those dark closets where we keep our secrets hidden, and shine the light of love and grace and clean them out. It was true for the Romans and it can be true for us, even in our fast-paced compartmentalized lives.

Our work is given over to God. Our family life is given over to God. Our media feed. Our thoughts. Our worries. Our successes. Our failures. Our wants. Our hopes. Our visions. Our prayers. Nothing is held back if we truly give it over to God.

My favorite translation of these two verses comes from a unique version of the Bible, Eugene Peterson did a translation called The Message. I cannot compliment it enough. Some translations do a word for word translation, looking at translating each word or at most each phrase from the Hebrew or Greek. The New American Standard or the New Revised Standard versions take this approach. In foreign cultures, though, the metaphors or ideas do not ring true. Translators have to do a thought translation, attempting to translate the intent and forget about the words. Peterson figured enough of our culture was unchurched and post-Christian enough that he would try that. And so, here is his translation of Romans 12:1-2:
Romans 12 1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (The Message translation)
Peterson really does get to the gist of the matter, doesn’t he? I think his rambling run-on thought actually matches the feel of Paul in the Greek pretty accurately, as well.

How doe we give our whole selves over to God? In the traditional: be transformed by the renewing of your minds. In The Message: fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.

The best way to give back to God as a thank you for what God has done for you is to be the BEST YOU YOU CAN BE. God does not want sacrifices that make a pleasant aroma, although most love the smell of a good barbecue. God wants you to be who God made you to be. It may be the noble (and easier) route to die for something, but God is calling us to live for something, for God.

When asked about what I want for my daughters, I want them to be healthy and happy. I want them to be their best selves. There are a lot of things that they can do, but there is only one thing that they can be, themselves. And, they find and live out their best selves in who God made them to be. That is what I want for them. And God wants the same for me. And God wants the same for you. We transform our minds, our way of thinking and being, so that we can respond and react in a Godly way. We need to have the Bible such a part of us that we do not have to ask the old question: What Would Jesus Do? WWJD? We do not have to ask it if it is already a part of us.

The glories of the Book of Common Prayer is that there are wonderful riches to discover or keep with you if you pay attention. Proper 28 has a wonderful Collect:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ…
That is what I am talking about, as we grow in Christ and follow him in our Christian walk, it stops being something we do and it begins to become who we are.

In the movie The Karate Kid, the main character, Daniel, is being trained by Mr. Miyagi, the super for his apartment complex, in karate. Mr. Miyagi takes him to his home and has him paint the fence. Paint the fence up. Paint the fence down. The next day he has him wax his collection of cars. Wax on. Wax off. Wax on. Wax off. The next day he paints the sides of his house. Paint the house [left]. Paint the house [right]. Paint the house. Paint the house. The next day he sands the deck. Sand the floor. Sand the floor. Sand the floor. Sand the floor. At the end of the fourth day Daniel loses it because he slaved away for four days, and did not learn a bit of karate. What Mr. Miyagi was doing was putting the basics into his muscle memory, and then they were able to put it all together. Paint the fence, paint the fence. Wax on, wax off. Sand the floor, sand the floor. And once he had given over his body fully to his Master, his Master was able to transform him by the renewing of his mind. What began as Wax On, Wax Off, became karate. Instead of looking at the compartmentalized actions, when he stepped back and put it all together and it became karate. In the Christian life, what might begin as the Ten Commandments and Thou Shalt Not, can become our ability to “discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.” And that is the point of this, isn’t it?

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” It was a most important question for them. They came back with what others were saying. But Jesus came back with what did they, the disciples, say. It was a most important question for them. It is a most important question for us. How we answer it, not with our mouths, but with our lives, is what we are getting at today. Who do you tell the world who Jesus is, by what you say and by what you do? Is going to church something you do? Or do you come here because of who you are, or who God is transforming you to be?

This week the country was obsessed with Totality. On the 21st, if you were in Richmond, you saw what 85.6% of an eclipse was. It was powerful and impressive. But the footage showed, and all my friends who made the trip said, that Totality made all the difference. This distracted and divided country came together for about 2 ½ minutes at a time, and shared a sense of wonder and awe. Imagine what the world would say if the they saw someone give themselves 100%, Totally, to Christ.

In closing, beloved saints of God, I have one more question for all of us. Who do I say that I am? We ask it of ourselves. Who am I? Why am I here? Just like Admiral Stockdale, if you remember him. We can search our whole lives, and never find the answer to that. But, may I make a suggestion. If we want to know who we are, we might want to begin with the one who made us, loves us, and wants us to succeed.

We could even make it a prayer. “Lord, who do you say that I am?” And as we grow in Christ, God cannot wait to show you!

The one who began this good work in you, will be faithful to complete it. Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Year A Proper 15 2017 Feed from the Heart

“Feed from the Heart”
Year A, Proper 15, 20 August 2017
St. David’s Episcopal, Aylett, VA
Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Matthew 15: 10-28
Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 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.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 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.
There are certain passages you do not want to come up in the lectionary. But the lectionary, for good or bad, makes you confront them anyway. But like I have said with other passages from this pulpit, we are hearing this passage with 20 centuries of Christianity between us and them. We hear them with post-salvation ears, instead of the cultural, religious, and class-based ears of those who were with Jesus that day. I read this passage and at first glance, it appears Jesus is being what could be called racist. Or misogynist. Or religiously superior.

But Jesus’ initial response was what his disciples would have expected, and to be honest, the woman in the story would have expected this as well. His response, if he bothered to give one, is exactly what he said at first.

Before we get too far, let us recognize the setting. Jesus was out of his normal area, wandering over to the Mediterranean town of Tyre, the Phoenician cities Tyre and Sidon being another culture, an unclean culture of the Greek and Roman Mediterranean world instead of the Jewish villages where he normally travelled and taught. While there, a woman recognized him and pestered and needled, begged and cajoled, pleaded and prayed until she got what she wanted.

Now who amongst us would do anything for our kids? Raise your hands. I am amongst you as well. I would do anything for my kids, and if one of them were sick NOTHING would keep me from doing WHATEVER it took to save them. I would beg, borrow, and probably steal if that is what it took. And this woman broke the cultural and religious barriers that would normally keep her from having any interaction with Jesus. But those invisible, but very real, boundaries were not going to stop her.

I do not care the culture or the situation, there are certain things that hold true. One of those truths is this, “If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” It was true then as it is true now.

And there is only one thing that was going to make this Momma happy. She cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  Now she was a Canaanite woman here in Matthew, in Mark Syrophoenician. Both are peoples who lived in this area and were not Jewish. Canaanite being a more general term, and Syrophoenician being more particular, living in long established cities along the coast. Called Philistines among many names. In fact, the people of Gaza that we often call Palestinians are the same ethnicity of the woman in our story today, the sea trading people who invented our alphabet. And being a woman, culturally she COULD NOT TALK WITH JESUS. As a Canaanite, ethnically she COULD NOT TALK WITH JESUS. As a non-Jew, a Gentile, religiously she COULD NOT TALK WITH JESUS. But love will make us do a lot of things that we would not normally do, and what greater love is there than between a mother and her child? She comes to Jesus and pleads.

The disciples had had enough of this troublesome woman, and wanted Jesus to settle it once and for all. They were tired of her single-note song. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” In ministry we run into a lot of people who would be easier to say to, “Go away.” After 30 years of being in the ministry, I have to admit that I still have to remind myself that there are EGR people, and there always will be. EGR? Yes, EGR. Extra Grace Required. Sometimes that EGR person is me. And here this woman is the EGR one, but Jesus does not start there.

Jesus starts with what everyone expected, the cultures, the disciples, and even the woman. Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

And remember, he was not in Israel, but over in Tyre on the Mediterranean. 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.”

Now there is not the sense of female dogs implied here, it is more like pets. He is recognizing her humanity, but definitely second-class, less-than, not-equal about what he says here. EVERYONE who was with him would have expected this. As a Jewish male, he would have no need to recognize her existence. In fact, any interaction with the woman would have made Jesus ritually unclean. This is just like the woman at the well in John.

The expectation of EVERYONE would be for the story to stop here. But we all know better than that. Matthew is the most Jewish-oriented of the Gospels. But every so often we see the promise from Isaiah that the Israelites (Isaiah 9:2) would give the world a gift, and Matthew quotes this in chapter 4.

The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
   on them light has shined.

And here Jesus steps outside of his primary mission and does the EGR thing, and responds to the need at hand. One of the hardest things for me to figure out when I first went into fulltime ministry was that my agenda was often a joke. I might have my agenda for the day, but sometimes, often, ministry gets in the way of my plan. That happened to Jesus that day.

[The woman] 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.

And what does this have to do with us? I could stop here, and say that the racist Jesus or the misogynist Jesus that we might see at first reading is not entirely accurate. But in light of what happened last weekend a bit more than an hour away, I feel that we have to go deeper. Deeper into the call of Christ, and deeper into the culture that we swim in every day.

Jesus and his ministry did not change. He does, however, see that her needs and his mission do intersect and he heals her daughter and she gets what she came for. But God’s dream for this world, what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God, calls upon us to stop drawing lines where God does not want them, and for us to stop putting periods where God places commas.

My wife and I watched the footage of the riots in Charlottesville and the heartbreaking reality of the hate and violence could not be hidden. If God were not here, and if Jesus had not come, then the lines of division and separation *might* make sense. But I believe there is a God, and in Jesus I see a call for a new way of life. And the change in this new way of life is not about making us feel good. It is about making the lame to walk, the blind to see, and the dead to rise again. We are talking about Capital-T Transformation, not change. We change our clothes, but a Caterpillar transforms into a Butterfly. We are called to nothing less, and any Gospel that does not call us to that is the spiritual equivalent of a cup of warm milk or a snooze in a hammock.

Jesus was steeped in a culture, just like we all are, and broke free from it here. I am sure his disciples were aghast. We know they were. How? If not, WHY ELSE WOULD THEY HAVE INCLUDED IT? This was a radical and transformative story for them. And we are called to live lives much the same.

I jumped right to the narrative part of today’s Gospel, but we must see it in context of the teaching that Jesus gave right before his trip to Tyre on the coast. He spoke of the things that go in, the Jewish ritual and kosher dietary laws are not the things that make us clean or unclean.

“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”
What the disciples and Jewish culture were so quick to condemn, a woman, a GENTILE woman at that, who was in the way and noisy, Jesus addressed and responded to her. She was not something to brush aside, but a someone, a beloved child of God. We all are. But it too often takes Kingdom eyes to see that. This woman was not unclean, and neither was Jesus for the encounter. What came out of her heart was a plea for love of her daughter. What came out of his heart, was an expansion of what the Kingdom of God could be, both for them then and for us now.

When people see us, they need to see a life changed. It would be easy to hang out and associate with those who are like us, what EVERYONE expects, but if Jesus can go to Tyre and Sidon, we can go to the other side of the tracks or the wrong part of town. And God only knows who God will place in our path. It might be the EGR person that calls me to be a better Christian than I planned or wanted to be when I got up. We are called to care for those whom God brings us into our lives, like the Good Samaritan, like Jesus here with the desperate mother.

God may call us to break bread with the alt-right, or the alt-left. God may call us to be in relationship with the least of these, whether that is monetarily or culturally least-of-these. The last time I had to preach on this passage three years ago happened to be the weekend after the riots in Ferguson. That three years later, we are probably in a worse state than then breaks my heart. But it also shows me one thing, the world needs the light of Christ’s Gospel all the more. When we see torches in our streets, we need to bring Christ’s light in response. When we hear racial slurs, we need to cry out with our actions that ALL are the beloved Children of God. When we are struck for being loving and kind, we turn the other cheek. And as they yell and scream and strike and spit, and we take it like Jesus, they will eventually see that that God’s love is greater than the fear that drives them to such hate. It will not be easy, it will be long and hard in this struggle against Evil, for let us name it for what it is. But I have read God’s word, and no matter how you interpret the final chapters (literal, metaphorical, or figurative) one thing is resolutely clear. OUR SIDE WINS. And God’s KIngdom has been growing and expanding for 2,000 years, like yeast spreading through a dough. That is the very reason this story strikes us as so odd and offensive after the Kingdom’s influence on this world, and our culture.

And God wants as many on the Kingdom side as there can be. He healed the girl immediately so that it was abundantly clear, God’s Grace is for all, NOW. There are no second class citizens, or less-thans in the Kingdom of God.

When we come to Christ’s table, we can leave the labels behind. Will we? When we come to Christ’s table, we are fed from the very heart of God, and we are called to do the same. When we break the expectations of this world and feed from the heart, the world is transformed as are we. Thanks be to God! Amen.