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When tradition must be broken

When the Pharisees enter the story, I see the religious establishment. They are the truth police, arresting those who compromise their view of the world. You are doing what we tell you not to do.

Seeing them, I see the church today. In every skeptical comment the Pharisees make and every philosophical trap they try to set for Jesus, I hear the voices of televangelists, Internet trolls, and certainly many of the people who join with me in worship on Sunday.

I am tempted to turn to the people around me and shout “Listen, this is our part of the story!” We, the religious establishment are much more like the Pharisees than we are imitators of Jesus. By virtue of being in church we are made part of the establishment.

A recent survey by the Barna group attempts to openly name this problem. They surveyed self-described Christians and asked them a set of questions they crafted to see if they are more like Pharisees or Jesus in action and attitude. The results did not surprise me in the least.

how we are way more like Pharisees than like Jesus

Photo Credit: Barna Group

The study is far from perfect, but its methodology is strong and its findings are really quite clear. We are more like Pharisees than we are like Jesus; in behavior or belief. By a lot.

Pharisees, as we know, saw themselves as the rules-lawyers or the purity police. They didn’t necessarily have authority to actually police their own people, they just took on that responsibility.

A persistent problem

Going back only the last thousand years, we can see a problem in the church with our own purity police.

In the Romanized church of the post-Schism world (11th through 15th Centuries), we saw a church of central authority. It’s increasingly prominent critics of the time could see how that authority was wielded to punish the poor, exclude those they declared sinful, and enrich itself from selling sacrament. The great universal church saw rule-following as its most important attribute to maintain order.

In the Great Reformation, we see the Protestant reformers latching on to a different kind of purity policing. Burning the books, vestments, and symbols of Catholicism, breaking stained glass windows and pipe organs, reformers sought to rid the world of what they declared was evil through destruction and violence. Of course, the Roman church retaliated in kind.

The Protestant ethos, however, did not question the central problem of Roman authority, just how it was manifested in a central figure. Protestants continued to create a new breed of purity police, in some ways even more like the Pharisees. They were decentralized and were, for the first time in human history, large populations of newly literate people gaining access to the Scriptures. Protestant theology, based on sola scriptura (scripture alone [as the authority]) allowed the newly literate to declare themselves enlightened and police one another.

In the U.S., our religious forebears were the Puritans, whose cuddly story of fleeing religious persecution makes us feel better than the truth of their actions. More restrictive, more condemning than your average Protestant, the Puritans maintained strict rules, placing the rule of law (as they wrote it) as superseding the command to love their neighbors as themselves. Reading about the Puritans makes me wonder if they ever read the gospels–for their actions and attitudes were so unlike Jesus’s.

Then, in the late 19th Century, prominent evangelicals gathered to create a list of beliefs that would be known as fundamental to the Christian faith. Without publicly assenting to these beliefs, they contested, one could not be a Christian. They produced a magazine The Fundamentals, and those who read the magazine became known as fundamentalists. They embody this classic Christian trope of declaring the boundaries of Christianity and judging those that don’t fit inside their laws or rules. Which is a lot of people.

All so very like the Pharisees.

Nicaea

Precedent for this was set early on. Christians in the first part of the 4th Century were neither unified nor systematic. What you believed was determined best by where you lived and by who was teaching. Christianity was regional.

Then the emperor ordered a council.

The historians reading up to this point would now love to wade into the weeds, exploring the power players of the time and hypothesize why Constantine ordered a council. That distraction is for another time. What I am interested in is not what they were trying to “correct”, but what they chose to do.

In gathering for this first council, the churches of the world developed a precedent, repeated several more times, of gathering to better define Christianity. And each time, they did so at the expense of minorities. The councils became increasingly contentious and violent in the succeeding centuries, leading to mob rule and labyrinthine twists in theology. Less the purely “Spirit-led” endeavor that many modern Christians describe, these councils were divisive, disorderly, and increasingly, discriminatory.

In the end, whole regions of churches, accounting millions of Christians were expelled from the church and rejected like wilted flowers. This dark time in Christian history is papered over because we are so comfortable with the remaining flowers allowed to bloom in the end; the lives sacrificed and crushed be damned.

These flowers were, in the end, a collection of rules. Rules that could be used to enforce who is in and who is out. Rules about, not just what we believe, but the precise words we use to describe these beliefs. Words that often lead us into political traps if we stray from their formulation and attempt to actually reason them out.

The trouble with our tradition

This troubled history is why so many Christians are compelled to look as far back as they can. Specifically to the first few generations of Christians who knew Jesus or knew people who knew Jesus, to see what they shared and wrote about and believed about this newly birthing faith. Long before the Constantinian corruption or the universalizing of beliefs. What did those first followers believe and do? we want to know.

I’m concerned that the rules-obsession is too baked into the tradition of our faith. Luke Timothy Johnson has argued that Greek philosophy and culture is too tied up in our faith to ever remove it, but I am more concerned with Roman philosophy of order. For it is Rome’s belief in peace through might, authoritarian control of the people, and the supremacy of the rule of law that have had a far greater influence on the behavior of Christians, and therefore, the development of Christian tradition.

Our very tradition is corrupt. It was entered into with great intent, but evil action. And I fear that in adoring the flowers we’ve picked, we avoid dwelling on the flowers we’ve trampled underfoot; that they may also be GOD’s creation.

It is here that the theologians will want to wade into the weeds, exploring those particular theological ideas and frameworks that are troubling. Or perhaps some would have us dismiss the whole course of history, that we might instead raise up what we have received as a priceless jewel that is to be protected at all costs. This would certainly distract us from engaging with not only the circumstances of our tradition, but their very corruption.

For, if we take the tradition as we’ve received it, and place that on our desk and then begin to add to that other parts of the scene: the blood and the bodies of Christians who were murdered by other Christians; the artwork, songbooks, poetry, and mystic writings of great beauty that were burned or permanently “lost” to us; the many signs and symbols used by Christians throughout history whose only crime was to seek a better understanding of GOD: we might find the scene spilling over the edges of the desk to cover the floors of our offices and classrooms with whole treasures of love and devotion destroyed by the tyranny of the Pharisees’ Christian descendants.

There are whole avenues of faithful belief revealed to faithful people, whose sole purpose was a new exploring of GOD; better understanding of GOD; better loving of GOD. Lives destroyed, civilizations ruined, enemies created, and evils perpetrated; all for what?

Order. Tradition. Power.

Fixing our faith

I am a deconstructionist. But we make the mistake in believing that our questioning of and taking apart of things is destructive, or that when one takes a thing apart, deconstructing it, we are merely and haphazardly disassembling a thing and tossing it away when the disassembly is complete.

The deconstructionist is looking at the thing as an attempt to deal with its problems.

And a true deconstructionist will tell you that it is in naming the problems, exposing the problems to the light of day, and wrestling with their meaning, that truth emerges. That in finding something lost, we might have what John Caputo loves to call “the event”.

Jesus’s coming was such an event. And all throughout our history, we see small, human events. Each, like the Jesus event, gives rise to the Pharisees, who crucify the human and codify her belief as evil. If you want to explore many of these events, read Diana Butler Bass’ A People’s History of Christianity. Many of these moments, only later, may be seen as violent overreactions to protect doctrinal purity: protecting it from a thing that might make more sense of it.

Tradition born this way cannot be the entirety of the answer. There is more to it. There are whole parts of what is “traditional” that we are not allowed to explore, but have existed throughout history. There are whole parts of our tradition that do not violate Scripture, and certainly do not contradict the Jesus portrayed in Greek scripture, but violate only our inherited tradition. We even have physical evidence of popular scripture, more widely read than some canonical works of the time, that reveal a wider sense of GOD.

Our adoration of our tradition is the adoration of a false idol. It is much like the idol we made of Scripture in the Great Reformation. What Callid Keefe-Perry recently described as the dark joke on a Theology Nerd Throwdown Podcast that, in the 21st Century, we’ve added a fourth part to the Trinity (a Quaternary?): Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and Scripture. He argues that we use at as a fourth part of the Godhead. For many of us, we might call Tradition a fifth.

Tradition is not the way, Jesus is The Way. Tradition only helps us see in GOD what tradition allows us to see. And right now, the tradition we’ve inherited, the tradition which crucifies Christ throughout history, drowns the creatives, burns the heretics, lynches the prophets, mutilates the visionaries, and leaves the weak in the desert to die, forcefully blinds us from actually seeing the GOD we pray to.

If knowing the GOD we love is what we want, then we have no use for a tradition that cannot open its doors to the breadth of revelation. We can instead embrace a tradition that cares much less for being right, certain, and in control, but one that actually looks like the Christ we follow and the persistent lover He reveals GOD to be.

Photo Credit: -KOOPS- via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: -KOOPS- via Compfight cc

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When a rock is not a rock

rethinking Jesus’s vision of church, Peter, and the love of GOD

We mistake the naming of Peter as reflective of his character, rather than His.

a Homily for Proper 16 A  |  Text: Matthew 16:13-20

 

a kiss on the cheek

Photo Credit: thejbird via Compfight cc

desiring proof

Again the Pharisees. Those ancient ideological evangelicals–obsessed with rule-following–return. This time they’ve brought back-up: the Sadducees. Not normally friends, the Pharisees and the Sadducees represent the religious establishment. They are like rival gangs teaming up to take on the young pup trying to make a name for himself by honing in on their turf.

Give us signs of your power! they say. Prove yourself!

Like Satan’s tempting, inviting Jesus to prove himself, the elites ask of Jesus what He isn’t to give. Because it isn’t about Jesus: what Jesus can do. It is about GOD. What GOD wants for the Children of Israel. There is no proof. No proving. Jesus tells His followers that signs aren’t there to prove, but to mark. To show how GOD already loves. Not that GOD loves, but what love looks like and how we know it.

The naming of Jesus as Messiah and the naming of Simon as Peter is such a sign. It is the revealing of love as it exists, not because it is requested.

demanding love

A parenting tip we read some time ago reminded Rose and I that parents ought not make their children kiss them. Our place as parents isn’t to receive affection from our children as a payment or from demanding that behavior. We aren’t to impose rules that require affection or give our children The Top 5 Reasons to Kiss Your Parents guilt trip.

Our job is to show our children what love is like so they can know what love actually is. That they can feel love before they can know to express it.

So we learned not to force our children to kiss our cheeks, but kiss theirs. It is affection and praise when she wins and when she loses; when he falls and when he celebrates. That love isn’t a reward or an accomplishment; it isn’t something to withhold or legalize. Love is given like a gift and revealed so that it might be known.

Our insecurities or fears or rules or expectations don’t reveal love. Probably they reveal our neuroses.

Jesus warns the disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees right after getting ambushed by them and right before this morning’s part of the story. He warns them because their teaching didn’t reveal love or encourage it. Teachings that are so like our own: about obedience to authority, condemning the outsider, ignoring the plight of the weak, making love transactional.

In all of the ways we as Children of the Living GOD fail to reflect GOD’s love, we fail to teach love itself. We teach obedience and condemnation and selfishness. We reveal nothing like love itself. We reveal the evil of expectation–like Satan and the Pharisees–of certainty and affection, not for people, but for the status quo: for a world ruled by empire; a world more comfortable with the violence of authority than the genuine care for the afflicted. Such as listening to what 50 years of police brutality feels like. Certainly this is nothing like love that we offer. Nothing like GOD’s love.

when a rock is not a rock

All of this colors the way Jesus turns to His disciples to ask them who they think He is. I don’t think this is a test, but a check in. Where are they right now?

Peter’s response, as we know, is like the kid who gets the right answer without doing the right work. He doesn’t reason it or know it or prove that he’s smarter or more faithful than the rest. He gets there, as Jesus points out, because GOD reveals it to him. And this is the point here: it isn’t Peter. It isn’t him. It isn’t his being smart or praying right. it isn’t his dedication or because he has listened to Jesus better. This is something that can only come from GOD.

So when Jesus names him Peter, like Petra (rock), calling him the foundation, Jesus is saying this without regard for Peter’s personal talent or skills. We mistake the naming of Peter as reflective of his character, rather than GOD’s.

In all accounts; before this moment and after; reveal that Peter isn’t sturdy or solid. He is the definition of a flimsy and malleable disciple. He may in fact be like the sand Jesus warns us not to build on. But it isn’t that Peter is like a rock as we know it, but a rock as GOD reveals it in Peter! Peter teaches us what a rock can be to GOD!

We get confused and conflicted and troubled and it is OK! The church can handle it! Because this isn’t about human skill or reason, but the subversive love of GOD.

finding/revealing the love of GOD

This passage is one of the most written about in all of the Greek Scriptures. Often it is used to justify the papacy. Peter, the Roman church leader, regarded as first pope. The cornerstone and rock of the church. So like the disciples, who in verse 16:7 hear about the yeast of the Pharisees and think Jesus is talking about bread. Too literal; not revealed.

This rock doubts. He rejects Jesus three times. He struggles to stand up to Roman authorities after Jesus is gone. He isn’t monolithic or hierarchical. Neither is the church as GOD knows it. Neither are we.

We doubt and struggle. We long to make our children love us or impose rules on them rather than freely offer our love. Our faith is chaotic and troubling. But it is supposed to be. From Jacob to Jonah to Jesus, we see wrestling with and running away from and doubting the very existence of GOD’s love. We see struggles and pain and it is from that place that we race to simple solutions and weak authorities to tell us how to make the pain go away. And every time we could stop and listen to the voice who says Don’t be afraid! Over and over. Don’t be afraid! The Messiah who calms the storm and encourages us to feed the multitudes in the midst of scarcity, who says that signs are all around if we would just look at them.

Signs that show us how to love and respect and give and hope that in our darkest time we can live again. Signs that reveal how to reveal love to others so that we both might learn. Signs from the most unlikely of places.

May you know the love that GOD has for you, see the love GOD has for every human being, and may we learn to share that love, respecting every person as a blessed, loved, and cherished child of GOD.

 

What war on faith actually looks like in America

You might be under the impression that there is some kind of war on faith in our country. From the talk of many Christians, one could be easily confused by the annual declaration of a War on Christmas and the recent cries for religious liberty from those seeking to diminish ours. You may think there is some kind of serious conflict going on.

Well, you’d be right. But not from these sources. That’s lunatic posturing.

And not from those easily demonized atheists. Or those frightening teachers with all of their talk of “science” and “literature” and “critical thinking”.

The source would be our militarized police who think they are waging a war.

I cannot think of any reason why a church would be treated the way the St. Louis County police are treating Greater St. Mark Church in Ferguson, Missouri as if it were the second season finale of The Following.

They raided a school full of children armed with assault weapons and stealing medical supplies used to give healing to those residents suffering from the chemical weapons used against them. Now they are raided a third time because, apparently, it is illegal in the county to give shelter to someone. As in, our youth group couldn’t sleep in the nave of the church on a mission trip because it is illegal.

Illegal to give comfort, to heal, to give sanctuary.

This strikes at the very heart of our faith.

From Ferguson to the Washington Football Team

The one thing that can describe everything in my Facebook feed today is this: all of our news right now involves victims of racism. We can call it something else, because we white folks want to feel better about ourselves than we deserve to feel, but systemic racism is the source of everything right now.

Ferguson, MO and the shooting of Michael Brown

5 children we deported to Honduras were murdered.

Gaza

Compton School Board so fears its students, it arms its cops with assault weapons

White people whining that they can’t use the Washington Football Team’s racist nickname

My feed at this very moment is full of examples of systemic racism. And yet virtually none of the conversation is actually about race. It’s about the police or immigration or war or guns or political correctness or militarization or detention centers or zionism or school shootings or football or traditions and all the while we are being told that people deserve it or we need to not be so sensitive.

A boy who was shot 6 times had to deserve it.

Native Americans must love the Washington Football Team.

All of this is just political correctness. Right.

"racist mascots suck"

Photo Credit: SarahDeer via Compfight cc

The favorite pastime for those of us in the privileged white America is to wade into the weeds and talk about the intricacies of each of these things, asking each other “what would you do?” if you were in that situation.

But only from the white guy’s point of view.

We never reflect and carry the burden of being the target of abuse. Or we spend our time complaining how ridiculous it is to be asked not to be racist.

Seriously, considering all of this other stuff; all of these conversations we’re avoiding about our role in some really disturbing things done to minorities; it is objectionable to be told that we should stop being racists? There is a long history of our Native peoples objecting to the Washington Football Team’s nickname. And yet, we can’t be bothered to respect a whole nation of people we massacred centuries ago enough to listen to how they feel?

Our indifference to the very dignity of every human being means many of us consistently break our Baptismal Covenant. We are sinners and must repent. And it is this sin of racism that underlies it all. This isn’t just about a nickname, but the very respect we show to other human beings. Especially the ones left out to bake in the hot, Missouri sun for hours. No ambulance, but caution tape. Don’t help him / keep away from him. And whatever you do, don’t record what we’re doing to other people who look just like Michael Brown. Oh, and tradition!

 

I’ve long appreciated the musical treatment of the subject by Atom & His Package.

When evolution begins and our Civil War ends

a man before a transcendent sky

Photo Credit: Magdalena Roeseler via Compfight cc

There is something fitting that this date in history would be momentous. That August 20th would, in 1858 usher in the modern world and eight years later close our bloodiest chapter.

Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species was published 156 years ago today. The work is credited, as we know, with the birth and popularizing of the scientific concept of evolution. It also ushered in the modern era. The era of great scientific discovery that escalated beyond the Enlightenment and brought crashing down the archaic beliefs about the world as a permanent, unchanging place throughout time.

The discovery and explanation of evolution leads directly to Einstein, half a century later, discovering further truths about the world and about our pipe dream of stability. The discovery of entropy further arrested the human fiction that we are as GOD created long ago: and that we may always be the same. That the world can plateau and achieve a stasis. That we could ever be tomorrow exactly as we are today.

But we can’t. We grow. Or we decline. We never stay the same.

Considering also the violence, built by race and fear, occurring throughout the world (in alphabetical order Gaza, Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine), each displaying not only deep ideological divides, but even deeper racial discord and even systemic racism, it seems auspicious that we should also acknowledge today the end of the Civil War 148 years ago. Our own internal conflict, deeply racial and disturbingly revealing, is typified by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the inept police response to the case of his death, and the militarized response to the protests over that response. We are living in one long period of trouble with race. Not one begun by the Civil War, nor one that the War ended. The injustice of slavery was replaced by separate and unequal and Jim Crow.

Only days before Michael Brown, it was John Crawford, the good guy with the (toy) gun: shot and killed by police in a Wal-Mart while talking on the phone. Days before, then days before, and ever days before was another. Ever more.

The evils of racism didn’t end nearly a century and a half ago because the War is not about racism directly. Slavery, yes. My time in the South taught me that. It isn’t even the Civil War down there. It’s The War of Northern Aggression.

So the War isn’t about race (apparently) but about rights, property, and who gets to say which is which. By virtue of losing, that right went to the federal government of the United States, rather than the Confederate States. States don’t get the right to choose for themselves who gets to be property.

It only took another century for us to codify that African-Americans are fully human.

Maybe today, the day the world gave birth to modernism, will be the day in which we usher in a new revelation. A day in which we finally bring racism to an end and wrestle with our  part, all of us, with the continued violence and dehumanizing nature of our relationships. That we bring an end to the suffering and fear and selfishness of the modern condition.

Perhaps today we might prove that we have, in fact, evolved in the last century and a half.

 

What you don’t understand about Sacraments

happy girl

Photo Credit: Ryan McCullah via Compfight cc

The old argument goes

children need to understand the sacrament before they receive it.

I am still surprised to hear this. As a priest, I hear it from people of all sorts. When they do suggest such a thing to me, I simply ask them

Even after they were baptized as infants?

The look I receive tells me that they don’t get it. They don’t get that the children they’re talking about have already received a sacrament without “understanding” it. Then I like to tell them a story. It usually goes like this.

Back when I was first ordained, I had the pleasure of serving with a man who worked with our youth. He was the primary caregiver at the time for his 3 year-old granddaughter, while his son was just learning how to be an adult at 18 and the granddaughter’s mother wasn’t really able to. Every Sunday, I would hear her race through the door and down the hall saying “I’m here to see Jesus!”

Now, I think she pretty much summed it all up right there. Is there something you are struggling with understanding?

Teaching

I can’t fault people for not understanding the sacrament. We developed a system of teaching long ago which refused the experiential part of formation to our children, but discouraged anyone over the age of 12 from continuing to wrestle with the intellectual part of formation.

What many of those 12 year-olds were taught came from what the Book of Common Prayer calls “An Outline of the Faith: commonly called the Catechism”. In the section outlining the Sacraments, it answers the question “What are the sacraments?” this way:

The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

A lot of us remember that first half pretty easily and rattle it off:

Sacraments? Yes. They’re…uh..oh yeah…the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

See, we get pretty close, most of the time. It’s the Prayer Book, you know. Helps the rote memorization.

But what does it mean?

outward and visible signs

We hear in this something external, but also something moving. It is outward, it is pointing or moving from inside to outside. You can see this thing. It is tangible and recognizable. It isn’t imaginary or inconceivable.

Signs are markers and illuminators, telling you what is inside the building or which direction to drive down the street. Signs reflect what is there and stand as symbols to elicit understanding.

of inward and spiritual grace

As signs mark what is within, they remind us that there is something inside. There is a spiritual, non-physical grace that is within. The sign, which reflects what is within, pulls it in an outward direction so that it may be seen and known, but now draws the viewer inward, so that we can see past the sign and toward the grace itself.

given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

All of that sign and symbol and reflecting GOD mumbo jumbo aside, the devout Christian needs an answer to the physical. We eat a wafer. It’s all just symbolic, right?

A sacrament, as an outward sign of an inward grace then is virtually the only way we can confidently and honestly allow ourselves and one another to receive grace. It is the way we know that grace is given and received.

So the question (for the good Anglican/Episcopalian) is not whether or not the wafer is the literal body of Christ or a symbolic act using only a wafer, but that what we receive is the very grace of GOD. It is the outward, knowable, acceptable, tangible thing that we can receive and know bears the grace and love of GOD.

On its head

The sacrament, then, is not about the bread and the wine and what happens to them, but what happens to you when you receive it. It is about the giving and the receiving of grace. It is not about a magic trick or the theology surrounding the act, or the memorizing of a formula that you can rattle off when a person asks you what a sacrament is, it is the experience! It’s getting your grace on!

In other words, sacraments are almost entirely about the experience and have virtually nothing to do with understanding. They are the vehicle by which we receive and know the grace of GOD. They are our means of knowledge. The grace cannot be understood without the experience of receiving.

That means a child can never understand the sacrament until she receives it.

And I’d further postulate that one achieves a deeper understanding of the sacrament through the giving or presiding at the sacramental moments. When one participates in the distribution of communion, baptizes another person or stands as support for one seeking confirmation, joins a collective laying on of hands, or hears a confession, one is able to better know that grace. So a parent or instructor that denies a child communion and herself does not actively seek her own experiences as the giver of, or participant in, a sacramental moment with another, is doubly depriving and wholly misunderstanding the nature of the sacraments. As the late Bishop Gordon might have said: She’s got it backwards: her daughter needs to be in church and she needs to go to Sunday School!

Loving Communion

That girl, running into church, looking to see Jesus understands. She gets it. You know how I know? Because she’s running. She isn’t walking. She’s running. Running to see Jesus.

Like Peter and the Beloved Disciple to the tomb, she runs. To see. To be with. To know and to love Jesus.

She does that, not by showing up to church and sitting like a lump in the back pew.

She loves.

And I see my son, who is doing the same thing; who can’t wait. He runs to the altar rail. He slips between people who haven’t intended to leave room for anybody, and he shakes with anticipation. He grins at me and he reaches up to receive. And when the cup comes by, he dips and eats and jumps along back to his seat.

And if Mom hasn’t gone up yet, he takes the opportunity for seconds.

I’ve come to believe this is true: only people who understand the Sacraments try to get seconds.

 

I’ve written before about the Sacraments. I’d love it if you checked yesterday’s post and the links at the bottom of the page.

You aren’t supposed to understand the sacraments

happy boy

Photo Credit: jameschew via Compfight cc

Each Sunday I am privileged to worship and share in Holy Eucharist with a people committed to serving GOD. It is an awesome responsibility and brings feelings of great joy, humility, gratitude, and occasionally frustration every single time.

We gather in word and song and prayer, lifting our bodies and our hearts and voices to GOD announcing that we are giving our thanks and praise.

We say that it is a good and joyful thing that we give thanks, joining with the angels, singing

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We remember our relationship with GOD: all that has been done for us and with us and to help us; how we’ve squandered and fought and rejected the very love of GOD. We remember Jesus in teaching and in sacrifice.

Then we, together, call the Holy Spirit to be with us, blessing these instruments of bread and wine and to bless us as servants–the descendants of a long line of faithful people.

We, together, pray and bless and bring ourselves up to the holy mount and we praise GOD’s holy name, giving great thanks, and proclaiming, at the end, AMEN!

And in what should seem like a great dramatic letdown after all of this lifting up, we come together to share from a plate and a cup the same food and drink. Each of us, so very different, but when we come forward, we are one, sharing, giving, receiving.

For me, the most powerful moment has just begun. For it is here that we open ourselves and I am giving and seeing mouths move in song or embarrassed eyes diverted to the floor. But my favorite are the excited giddy faces of children elbowing in; too excited to wait their turn, but too gosh darn cute to be mad at. Each time I am reminded that in my hands is something worth elbowing to the front of the line for. In my hands is not the just deserts of a righteous life, but the very manifestation of GOD’s love and grace.

We all should want to elbow up to get a crack at these things.

And I am constantly amazed that anyone would want to wait. Or would make their children wait. To take a class. Or get to the right age. Or get mature enough to understand it.

The sacrament isn’t for understanding, it is for experiencing.

Tomorrow I’ll explain why I believe that is true.

 

And if you want to go a little deeper into the sacraments, check out my three-part series, which begins by defining a sacrament, wrestling with the historic questions about sacraments, and describing how we have always been forced to make hard choices about our sacraments.

The Water and the Land

Jesus’s response to the crowd, Pharisees, and the Canaanite Woman reveals how hard it is to be perfect and how ridiculous the pursuit really is

a Homily for Proper 15 A

Text: Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Photo Credit: jonycunha via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jonycunha via Compfight cc

on the water, on the land

Jesus is walking along while some crazy woman is shouting at Him. Shouting. Running to catch up to Him. She’s making such a commotion that the disciples start to think that they need to get rid of her. This woman has obviously heard about the people who were healed when Jesus came across the sea and she is asking the same for her daughter. And Jesus calls her a dog; dismissing her with a racial slur. Canaanites are lower. A good Hebrew Jew might say worse.

But let’s back up. From before the coming ashore, before the big storm and the walking on water, before the feeding of the five thousand, there was some bad news. Jesus heard about John the Baptist’s execution and he tried to get away; to be alone. He tries to find some seclusion by boat. And the people won’t let Him. They follow Him to a deserted place.

The elements of this story come from this moment–Jesus going into the water to a deserted place. It is from this deserted place that the multitudes are fed and from this deserted place that the disciples are sent across the water. So Jesus can climb the mountain alone.

On the water, a great storm tosses the disciples and on the water, Jesus comes to them. The sea, serving as a metaphor for chaos and danger–so far from the security of land and the elevation of the mountain. It is in the sea they might drown. It is on the sea that Peter’s “little faith” allows him to walk on the water’s surface in spite of the danger.

But the land isn’t really safe. It is on the land that Jesus faces the Pharisees. They despise Jesus for breaking their rules–rules they show no remorse in breaking themselves. They are the liars and abusers.

It is on dry land that Jesus faces the Canaanite woman, the ancient adversary and occupier of the Holy Land. Canaanite women are the people the Patriarchs were to avoid and never marry. That’s the rule. GOD’s rule. And this woman has “great faith”.

afraid

These two chapters in the middle of Matthew push the danger of the sea against the danger of the land. The wished-for seclusion of the sea is stolen by the demands of the crowd. The wished-for safety of land is stolen by the punitive outrage of the Pharisees. Even the places themselves: the sea and the land: embody a natural tension. For it is on the sea that GOD has control and it is on land that people are in control. Perhaps the only real danger comes from here.

Our minds are captivated by the fierceness of nature; the danger embodied by nature. It is Shark Week after all. The stormy sea makes a powerful metaphor for our tormented hearts, wrestling with forces well beyond our control. Like the waves of the sea, our own sense of community is just too big, too powerful. I can’t do anything! we shout at the world.

We want to trust Jesus when He tells us “do not be afraid.” But fear creeps in anyway. Fear that brings the Pharisees to attack Jesus. Like the fear that led police to trade uniforms for combat fatigues and treat the people standing outside their homes like enemy combatants in a war zone in a town much smaller than Port Huron.

Fear that launches rockets into Gaza and fear that leads ISIS to terrorize their own people. Fear mixed with judgment equals violence. So it is also fear that leads to retaliation. Fear of being abused and victimized.

We are so fearful. Don’t be afraid He tells us and then what do we do? Fear allows us to tolerate domestic violence, racist violence, and economic violence. This isn’t the work of an outside force; we aren’t on the stormy sea; this is the dry land. It is what comes out of us. We defile ourselves by what we do to one another.

after the storm

After Jesus calms the storm in last week’s gospel, the chapter concludes:

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Here, there can be no seclusion or separation. Jesus is once again with the people. And now the Pharisees get involved. They confront Jesus about the rules and Jesus calls them hypocrites because they say they care about the rules, but seem more than willing to break them. That’s why Jesus turns to the crowd and speaks

it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles

They had rules about what you could eat, but to Jesus what they said and how they said it was the real problem.

This is the space the Canaanite woman occupies, revealing Jesus’s teaching. She comes into the story here because the Pharisees are wrong. Wrong about the rules and wrong about her daughter. She isn’t evil and neither is her daughter. She shouldn’t be punished. She should not be rejected, for neither she, nor her daughter did anything wrong. Even their status as Canaanites isn’t wrong. Their humanity and existence doesn’t make them illegal. The daughter isn’t evil because the demon is in her, but the demon will have to come out.

The demon is not from her, it possess her. it is not from her heart. But the evil in the Pharisees comes from them, comes from within their hearts. Their fearful, fast-beating hearts. A fear that even Jesus deals with in Himself before driving the demon away.

walking unafraid

We fear the sea because we think it is scary, uncontrollable, untamable. We fear the rocking boat and what if…what if we are thrown from the boat. All the unknowables and uncontrollables. Many of us are much better on land. With the Pharisees and the Canaanites and the crowds and the disciples.

But this inevitably brings us back to Jesus and the woman and the avoidance and the slur and the long distance healing and this faith of the ancient enemy that is “great” compared with Peter’s “little” walk-on-water faith and I’ve got to tell you that I am not feeling we are supposed to walk away super excited or to say that this is just another healing story, but to see Jesus’s challenge in doing this ministry and grieving the loss of His friend and teaching His disciples and what keeps coming at him like a storm are these two groups: the Pharisees that condemn Him and these crowds of people with all of their needs and He climbs a mountain again, on the other side of the sea, and this time a multitude of 4,000 men (plus women and children) follow Him into another deserted location for another feeding.

That the storm is not the thing and the rules are not the thing and the identity as Hebrews or Christians or Episcopalians is not the thing, but facing the bigger fear is the thing. It seems as if there is way too much to think about and do and we long for the safety that isn’t ours to have. But instead we watch Jesus face these frustrated Pharisees and say No. Your words are evil. And to this outsider enemy Yes. Your faith is great.

All that we fear is not too much for us. All that is swirling around and confusing us need not overwhelm us. If our faith means anything at all, even if it is microscopic, just the teensy weensy hint of faith, then we can’t let the fear stop us. We can’t let that ridiculous, evil impulse to fear our circumstances be our motivator. St. Paul’s isn’t in the boat, we’re on land. In fact, many of us are far too cozy with the Pharisees. We can’t let the evil cloud our brains and wound our hearts. This is ours and we can do this.

And we must not ignore the plight of our neighbors in Ferguson, MO, in Detroit, and along our borders. This is not their fault. They are grieving. They have lost. They want safety. Don’t judge them as animals.

We are on the land and we are following Jesus and that is what we need to know. That is the truth we stand on because we need no more than that.

Our Side

Our side is the side that sits with the maimed and the murdered.
Our side is the side that sits with the peaceful and the beaten,
the prophet and the martyr.
Our side is the side that sits with the people pained by the world
and wrestles with the pain itself.
Grappling with hate and fear: the progenitors of injustice,
we instead pursue the elusive phantom
of true and permanent safety
like a spectral image late each insomniac night
on a routine refrigerator raid
dancing in the corner of the kitchen.
It’s nightly haunt permanent, persistent
eternally elusive, but the sleeplessness itself sticks,
like a licked sucker on tissue paper.
The waking becomes regular and the expectation
of a visitation
outlasts any true arrivals.

That fiction leads to violence. Not the hope
we are called to possess;
we are always unhappy with the gift we were given.

And that fiction is not for our side.

No, we don’t side with the armored, but the defenseless.
Those whose dignity is found in seeking truth and justice
like a child asking for help, they are given a scorpion.

Those pained are our people. Those tricked are our children.

This tribe:

humanity

is our tribe.

Do not watch or pity or rage.
Do not reason or wring hands blurting out

“what can we possibly do?”

but sit with the pained and face the injustice
and do not, whatever you do, flinch.