Thursday, August 17, 2017

Making Judgments, Facing Prejudice

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. Matthew 15:21-28
Where is "that place?" Gennesaret, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is in the early stages of his ministry, and he is teaching in his own proverbial back yard. Where he goes, he deals with local people in contexts with which he is familiar. Accents, culture, way of being are all relatively familiar. The notion of someone being "other," while not unusual at all in this place that is the crossroads between East and West, is not expected around him. He is a remarkable, local phenomenon whose renown has spread just far enough to have people from the "big city" in Jerusalem take notice. Granted, more from what John the Baptizer and his disciples are saying about him, but all the same. So, he engages the cosmopolitan Pharisees toe-to-toe on a matter of doctrine and rabbinic traditions around the washing of hands. The deeper question he poses is "what is clean?" Is it what God has made with intent, or what we determine by our interpretations of the Law and the traditions around it?

The lesson taught to the disciples is a frank warning to all of us who worry about being worthy enough of God and of each other. Taking the Pharisees' question about how many times and when to wash hands (and the fact that Jesus seems to NOT be teaching a stringent enough practice!), Jesus reshapes it into a deeper question: How do we determine who is "in" and who is "out?"  How do we know IF we are in, or if WE are out?

His teaching is that there is NOTHING in God's creation that is "bad" or "unclean." Nothing God has done can pollute. It is only what comes out of us and goes into the sewer AFTER we eat...that is what pollutes. Granted, this does not admit the dietary restrictions of the Torah, but set that aside for a moment as Jesus does. When questions by the disciples, he takes them aside and, perhaps while laying a hand on Peter's chest, tells them that the heart (and its intent) does more to pollute the world than any thing that is "unclean." It is our own distinctions, prejudices and preferential discriminations that forge the pollution he is taking about. This is a hard teaching, because Jesus asks each of his disciples, and us, to look honestly at ourselves in order to willingly engage with our own, inner bits of less-than-clean. God is not there to approve how clean our fingernails are...and clean hands do not mean a righteous heart.

We are challenged by a teaching that reaches deeper into us than we anticipate. We are opened up to realize that our expectations are less malleable and more crystalline that we had supposed; and Jesus is offering to us a way to see and perceive that what we presume to be the "in" might not be that at all, because it means that once we are "in" there is someone who is "out."

...and that is when the Canaanite woman approaches. From the regions to the North, the area controlled by the cities of Tyre and Sidon, a woman approaches the disciples and Jesus while seeking his aid. Her daughter is sick, and she has heard that this teacher is also a great healer. "Please!" she begs, "My daughter!"

She is a stranger woman among strange men. A gentile should not be talking to a rabbi. A foreigner should not be seeking his touch. She is "other" as other gets for them, and Jesus also seems to be of that mind. Why? Because he pays her no attention. They take their cue from his behavior and ask that he send her away. "Othering" begets "othering" and the woman (and her daughter) are now discounted, put off.

And yet, she does something no one else does in context with Jesus' teaching-even Jesus himself if we are to believe the testimony of the evangelist: She challenges the otherness that they have put upon her. She engages Jesus. The result? One of the most shocking and dramatic teaching moments we see in Matthew when it comes to putting the Gospel into real practice. Jesus at first refuses to hear her plea, stating that he is there for the lost sheep of Israel and worse, that what he feeds them shouldn't be given to the dogs.

"Even the dogs have access to the crumbs under the table," she ripostes.

In almost every depiction of the Canaanite woman, she is shown as above. On her hands and knees, she reaches out to men just out of full view, out of reach. In the moment she responds to Jesus, though, I do not see her that way (if I ever did see her on her knees...). She stands, looks him in the eye and challenges him to keep his word and teaching, something she had in all likelihood been an invisible witness to just moments ago. "Even the dogs..."

I am always shocked by Jesus' apparent insensitivity in this story. I am also, always, moved and provoked by the woman's response to her dismissal. SHE is the one who breaks through the judgments and prejudices of the disciples, and Jesus himself is also upbraided for his momentary rejection of her right to ask for help.

If Jesus can awaken us to our own tendencies to "other" people by this dramatic teaching moment, then there is perhaps hope for us. It isn't easy, as we are able to find myriad ways to make an other of people who God gives us to forge the wider Body of Christ that is the inbreaking Kingdom of God.

It's more than just clean hands, or the right accent, or the right anything. It is a willingness to see not the "other" in someone, but rather to see someone who is redeemed and beloved of the same God who has made and saved us all.

"Even the dogs....."

Woman, great is your faith!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Of Storms and Boats: Trusting God

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Matthew 14:22-33
I am not sure which expression of dynamic presence Jesus offers us in this story is more impressive. If it is the experience of Peter, stepping out into seas roiling with swells and foam, then I am focused on a Jesus who tells us that it is ok to get out of the boat. If I focus on the moment when he takes hold of the gunwale and the storm is calmed, then I am dialed in on the ideal that when we commit to God even the greatest chaos can be stilled with a touch.

Either way, I am undone. Why? Because for one brief, shining moment we are given an opportunity to experience in the person of Jesus the sort of divine intervention that we would like to count on. God IS for us, and God is easily and discernibly active in the here and now. There is no doubt that Jesus is doing sometime that is beyond the bounds of normal, physical parameters. He is walking on water, and stormy waters at that. Jesus stills a storm. Anyone who has been at sea in a small boat knows just how terrifying even a small squall can be...and Jesus is able to still that tumult, just by touching the boat.

I think that I want God active like that ALL THE TIME in my life. Don't you? I would like to KNOW that God is present in such a dramatic way. Yes? Life might make a little more sense, perhaps. Life might display a little more clarity.

I like to think it would, anyway.

But I have to be honest. There is another way to look at this reading that is a little more honest. You see, I have to acknowledge that God really is present like that, all the time in my life. I, on the other hand, am the one who like Peter takes his eye off the Lord and starts to sink in the churning waters. I, like the disciples in the boat, choose the questionable refuge of a swamping craft over the promise of safety outside the boat with our Lord. I am like every other witness to this Gospel tale and express surprise when, of course when Jesus touches our lives we find a calm in the midst of tumult that exceeds anything that we could possibly ask for, or imagine.

After years and years of getting tossed by the storms of life, I am just now beginning to understand both the yearning and the confidence (however fleeting) Peter has in Jesus when he asks to be asked to get out of the boat. "God, tell me to trust you." Are we willing to admit that simple need? Today, I am. Tomorrow's storms will have to take care of itself, I think.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Trim Your Wick: Musings on the Transfiguration


I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. 2 Peter 1:13-21
I am over two decades into my tenure as a priest of the Church, and just celebrated my 50th birthday. As Dante offered in the opening of the Inferno portion of his Divine Comedy, ""Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, For the straight forward pathway had been lost.." (Canto I) I am heading into middle age, and sometimes feel like Dante, lost along a forested path where I thought I knew the way. Mind you, this is not a "poor me" musing; nor do I come close to presuming that being 50 and now one of the senior clergy in my Church is some claim to greater wisdom or intelligence. I am still young, by my culture's standards. I am still junior to many of my colleagues in terms of service. Middle is good, though like Dante I find myself a bit perplexed on how I got here. It seems just moments ago I was afire with the energy-laden rush of being the young priest on the block.

Now, though not wiser, perhaps I can claim to be a bit more seasoned. And so begins today's musing and my preparation to preach on Sunday. As I age, and experience more and more as a Rector of a parish and as a leader of peers in the Church, I am becoming deeply attuned to the personality of Peter, apostle and former fisherman. I have made a circuit of his journey with Jesus, seeking to get a leg up on others by being the first to "get" what Jesus is talking or asking about. Blurting out knowledge of Jesus and confusing it with wisdom about his mission, I was in those ranks as a younger man. I, and the people I served as a priest then, have the battle scars to prove it.

I am beginning to find a new friend in an older, more experienced Peter, the Peter of the Epistles General. His is a voice that is worn, patient and while holding high standards of leadership is also able to articulate a forgiving tone. He is a restorer of people to right relationship with God, chiefly because he has stumbled and fallen along his own path and knows what it is like to be given a multitude of second chances...third, fourth, fifth and sixth chances....The Peter we encounter this week, we meet in two distinct persons united in a common experience.

The first Peter is the young and impetuous follower of a radical, prophetic carpenter. He is with his teacher, James and John on the mountain top when Jesus is transfigured. He is the one who tries to stop the moment from passing, who interrupts the council of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, by offering to build shelters so that these divinely touched men can abide together indefinitely. He stumbles, bangs into the proverbial furniture and provides the comic whip that will drive the party back down into the valley and onto the road to Jerusalem, Good Friday and the Easter mystery.

The second Peter we meet is looking back on the man he was, and that man's experiences, from a great distance. He remembers, and holds fast to the testimony he offers about Jesus being revealed, fully and truly, as the Son, the Beloved. These aren't myths, devised to justify. These are not arguments or apologies intended to sway. This epiphany HAPPENED, and he is testifying to that experience. Moreover, he is providing a perspective that the Church needs to grasp, I believe, if it is to prosper in the current age.

You see, with an older man's eye, he is aware that too often in human experience, our testimony to truth (often to THE Truth) grows pale, even stale. Testimony becomes story. Story becomes myth. Myth becomes legend. Legend becomes either discounted or the subject of a conspiracy story on cable television.

But an old man has one thing in abundance. Time to think, and experience to reflect upon. Imagine Peter, an old man now, lying awake in the night watches as older men are wont to do (yes, I am beginning to know what that feels like!), and he finds himself in the darkness remembering what it was like to be surrounded, penetrated by the divine light of Christ, revealed in glory on the mountain top. He wants us to know the memory, to receive and testimony...to hold onto it like he as an old man holds on to the feebling light of a oil lamp that provides an old man just enough light to keep up with his necessities while at the same time allowing the rest of the house some dark and quiet.

Keep that lamp of memory lit, he says. Trim the wick, and feed it enough oil so it doesn't gutter or smoke. Care for that testimony...for that is our greatest legacy, and our greatest tool of witness to the love of Christ doing more through us than we can either ask or imagine.

Long ago, and for a long time, I focused on the pyrotechnics of the Transfiguration of the Christ. I loved the majesty and wonder of a mountain top experience. I let my mouth hang agape as none other than Moses and Elijah show up to confab with the Savior. I laughed out loud at the comic pratfalls of the disciples, who trigger the end of the encounter when they break in and attempt to freeze the moment in front of them, thus limiting a God (and God's Son) whose glory knows no limits. I hung my proverbial hat on the "big-ness" of the event....but now.....

Now, I see with older eyes just how important it is to keep the wick on the lamp of memory trimmed. I can see how failing to hold testimony about God's grace, active in my life (and in yours) as it was in Peter's does not only God but everyone else a disservice.

So, my counsel for you today and always....keep that wick trimmed and the lamp full, for it is often by that light that we are given opportunity to know and see what God is doing in our lives. From time to time there might be fireworks, but the real testimony is being as faithful at eventide as we are at the highest redoubts of the day.