Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August 28, 2011

Matthew 16:21-28
21  From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  22  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you."  23  But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."  24  Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  25  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  26  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?  27  "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.  28  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."

As many of you know, I am a bit of a book fanatic.  Maybe it is an excuse for my shyness, but being able to stay at home curled up with a good book is irrefutable evidence of God’s goodness.  Consequently, one of my favorite outings is to the local Barnes and Noble, but my what a strange trip that is turning into.  Lately, I have been doing a bit of cataloguing of the all the section headings, and I think they say something instructive about the age in which we live.  You have your old standbys, fiction, non-fiction, mystery, reference, cooking, etc.  But now, you also have self-help, psychology, Christian, Christian inspiration, New Age, religion, and my personal favorite, and I think we can thank the Twilight series for this, “Paranormal Teen Romance.”  I will leave it up to the many qualified educators and librarians in this congregation to determine whether or not this is actually a valid category of book.  The larger point, though, is that this signals to me the great spiritual unrest of our time and place.  The reasons for this are complicated and require far more than we can devout at the moment, but suffice it to say that this is the water in which we swim, so to speak.  In the language of the gospel, we are engulfed by a great movement to try and find a life, find something of lasting meaning and value, and perhaps it has always been the case.  As these manifold book sections would indicate, ours is a time and place that is open to nearly any suggestion as to what is worth caring about,  no matter if it comes from a new book on brain chemistry to the Denver Broncos Quarterback depth chart.  And it is not that there is anything wrong with any of that; a lot of it the good God-given stuff of creation that we are meant to enjoy, paranormal teen romances notwithstanding, of course. It is just that, this stuff always fails to last in the ways that we need it to, which is perhaps why there are so many book sections.  When we tire of one answer, we move onto to another one, hoping that it will love us and secure us in a way that we can continue to count on. 
And make no mistake, asking these questions about what constitutes a meaningful life, this is an act of profound courage in our time and place.  Being willing to question whether or not the things we commonly look to for meaning, things like money or status or knowledge gleaned from the self-help section of the bookstore, yes, asking if these things live up to their potential, this is an act of utter defiance.  For it calls to question the method by which this cultural search for meaning takes place.  It asks, really, what is the most fundamental issue at stake?  Is it that we have simply not yet found the most helpful answer and should therefore keep searching, or there is something deeply flawed about the way that we conduct this search?
            You see, it is only after we have asked such radical questions that today’s Gospel may begin to make a bit of sense to us.  It is only after we have continued to bang and bang our heads against our own efforts to secure and sustain ourselves that these words of Jesus may be read as invitation and not as a threat.   Yes, when we are in that place, a bit too defensive, a bit too certain that we can do it on our own, a bit too prideful about our chances of creating meaning out of the raw material of our lives, these words of Jesus will remain a terror.  For even if we can admit that we are struggling to create something of lasting value, at least it is still us who are doing it, at least we remain in control of our lives.  There may not be much freedom here, but there is the illusion of control.  The illusion that we can manage the stress and hardship of work or lack thereof, of family life, of growing old, yes, that we can handle all of this on our own. That all we need for things to change is a little bit more information, a new promotion, and then we will finally have things figured out.  This is the great illusion to which we cling.  This is how we lose our lives by trying to save them. 
            And before you begin to question to what extend this is true of your own life, before those lonely questions of whether things have turned out like you thought they would, yes before you head down that road of despair and self-pity, know this: you, dear people of God, you have already been given an entirely different reality in which you live.   Yes, as St. Paul writes, through holy baptism, you have been buried with Christ into death, and not death for its own sake, but the death from which a genuine and lasting life may begin to emerge. Yes, the death of believing that we can sustain ourselves spiritually by our own efforts, a death to the belief that we can do something to earn God’s mercy, a death to believing that this life is composed solely of what we can see and consume.  And finally most significantly, a death to believing that we are in control. 
            And from those deaths, from those loses of life, yes, from those crosses, a most remarkable reality breaks forth.  The reality of Christ’s life in and among us.   At the very moment we think that all is lost, precisely because we have lost control, we are grasped by something, rather someone, whose strong and faithful hands secure us for the first time.  Yes, at the very instant that we watch our control become exposed for the paltry myth that it is, something utterly remarkable, entirely new occurs.  From that lose of what we believed was life in its fullest,  Christ raises us into his life, which is the only true life.  The very instant we think things are over, they have actually just begun.  For when we are confronted by the fact that we cannot earn God’s love, meaning that God remains unaffected by our attempts at manipulation, we are greeted with the more resilient truth that God’s mercy in Christ Jesus has already claimed us and refuses to ever let us go.  Yes, when we have finally thrown up our hands in despair over how frustrating this old world can be, when our myths of self-sufficiency and better living through promotions at work, or better living from finally finding our truest self, yes when we have exhausted all those possibilities, the life in Christ, the righteousness that comes from the cross, takes hold of us and gives us a newness of life that we could have never imagined being real, much less self-generated.
            And as the famed Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote, what God takes away with the left hand, he gives back with the right.  And so, in this life of Christ, in the righteousness that has claimed you from the cross, in the newness of life that has already found you, you are given back to this old world in a new and wonderful way.  In a way that allows you to live as St. Paul has instructed, down in the messiness of daily life.  Having been found by a righteousness that is not your own, you may now find God in activities that previously seemed far too ordinary to be a place where God would call you.  Places like the hungry crying for food, the child needing to be fed, the stranger asking for welcome, the enemy whom you are free to forgive,  or the mourner who just needs someone willing to listen.   These are the places that now thunder with divine and eternal significance.   Yes, these are the places to which God has now called you.  So rise up, then, dear people, for Christ has found you and has given you the righteousness of his cross and resurrection.  And in so doing, he has given you the freedom to live truly and deeply.  Perhaps even for the first time.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

August 21, 2011

Matthew 16:13-20
13  Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"  14  And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  15  He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"  16  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah,  the Son of the living God."  17  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.  18  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.  19  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."  20  Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was  the Messiah.

If you will, please take a moment to reflect with me on the way you relate to God.  Now, I am not going to ask you to share this with anyone, so please do be as honest as possible.  I want you to consider, when you ponder the divine, when you enter a still moment of prayer, when you spend sometime reading your Bible, what keeps you from God?  When you encounter voices of opposition, when that cruel voice of the accuser happens upon you, what are the contents of its message?   Please do, stop and consider these questions for a brief moment. 
The reason I ask this, you see, is because today’s reading takes up what seems to me to be the most subtle form of opposition we encounter in our lives as Christians.  Let me do a little explaining.  Often it is the case that we conceive of sin largely in terms of human pride and arrogance.  That the sin common to us all is wanting not to be human, but rather to be gods ourselves.  To want, as it were, the knowledge of good and evil to be ours, so that we may determine right from wrong, in from out in an ultimate way, judging our enemies or even simply those whom do not like with an eternal ferocity.  Now, I am not going to disagree with this.  Obviously, there is a lot of truth there, but I wonder if it is only one half of the story.  I wonder if, deeper than the pride and the arrogance, there is fear and insecurity, which makes us believe that we have to be more than we are.  That part of the reason we want to storm heaven, to take God’s throne as our own, is because we simply do not believe that God will take care of us for any number of reasons.  So, back to those questions: it seems to me that often it is the case that our own spiritual lives are hindered by this little word “too.”  That is, we are “too” whatever for God to actually care about us and for God to use us in the church and the world.  We are too old, too young, too busy, too full of doubt, too clumsy with our words, too broken in our relationships, too selfish, too insecure, too neurotic, too smart, too dumb, too whatever.  The accuser’s voice can be a relentless one.  If you are anything like me, that is the primal fear that lies behind our pride, really, we are just waiting to be exposed for the frauds that we believe ourselves to be. 
Well, if that is the case, as I suspect it might be, it is time to lay down those burdens in favor of entirely different view of reality, a reality in which who we are is a matter of our perceived faults and failings, nor is it limited by that nasty little word “too.”  Instead, our participation in the kingdom of God, our present moments being swept up into the eternal, is a gift given not of flesh and blood, but by our Father in heaven.  Now, as some of you may indeed recall, I am a huge fan of Peter the disciple.  I just think the man is utterly fantastic, but he is not fantastic because he is somehow faultless, actually quite the opposite.  What I love about Peter is his unfailing humanity.  Yes, we could just as easily apply this “too” to Peter.  If we are being completely honest, Peter is probably a bit too talkative, a bit too convinced he has it figured out (stayed tuned for next week to see this in action).  From the perspective of the religious authorities, those Pharisees, Peter is a bit too working class, a bit too unschooled in the law to be a respectable disciple. Yes, a bit too rough around the edges to be tapped as a potential leader of any religious movement.  According to human standards, to the way we judge one another and ourselves, Peter does not exactly pass our tests will flying colors.  A marginal grading would probably be generous.
And yet, in this extraordinary scene, Peter makes the good confession of Jesus Christ as Lord.  In, with and under all his failings, all of his “toos,” he gives voice to the reality that will defeat the gates of hell.  To this rough and tumble fisherman, God has revealed the very truth by which the creation will be restored and all manner of evil defeated. What exactly is going on here?  Well, a way to begin to answer that question is to note that none of Peter’s “toos” and, let’s be honest, there are plenty, keep God from revealing Jesus to Peter.  Instead, the opposite is true.  Peter is given the confession, the knowledge of Jesus as the son of the living God, and in so doing, has been let in on a little divine secret.  Yes Peter, certainly a guy we would not necessarily be picked as church council president, he is the one who is given the knowledge of Jesus as the Christ.  There is a wonderful bit of absurdity at work here that we are meant to pick up on.  One can almost hear the echoes of divine laughter.  For God’s goodness is so great, his mercy so overwhelming, that God’s word, Jesus the Christ, is enough to bind the powers of evil.  This is not a battle of equals, you see.  For after Christ’s cross and resurrection, the mere mention of Christ as Lord, no matter how weakly uttered or how meagerly acted upon, is enough to bind the forces of evil.  And so,  we are meant to see that God, in Christ Jesus, is going to use this Peter and the rest of the disciples to be the way in which the message of salvation will endure throughout the ages.  Yes, it is not to those who trained with the most prestigious rabbis down in Jerusalem that the Father will reveal that Jesus is the Christ.  But rather to Peter the impetuous, to the brothers Zebedee who cannot stop bickering about which one of them is the best, and later to a man named Saul who begins his career as an apostle by persecuting Christ’s church. 
And it is not just that this is one way that God is active in the world, it is that it seems to be the only way that God wishes to operate.  For God, in Christ Jesus, loves real sinners, you and me included, often much more than we tend to love ourselves.  And this not some Christianized version of self-help; rather it is the renewal of our minds of  sweet St. Paul.  It is realizing that, in the faith we have been given, in the gift of baptism, as my colleague Kevin Maly puts its, the promise of Christ’s unending love has been bound to us.  There is no escaping it.  Regardless of the evils that impede and hamper us, you are and will remain beloved children of God; this much He has promised you.  There is simply no “too” that will keep Christ’s love from reaching us and giving us the new name of beloved child of God, and what a wonderful mystery, that that name glints with the newness of eternity every time we are called it.  Yes, Christ simply loves you too much to leave you be.  Your “toos” are finally indefensible against the fervor of his love and mercy. You may fight it all you wish, but in the end, even those “toos” will be bound so that you, along with all the sainted of God,  may be embraced in the arms eternal of Christ’s forgiveness and care.  And if Peter, the one who rebukes and denies Christ,  is given the confession on which the church is built, there is no excuse that we can marshal in our defense as to why God cannot use us to be of some service in the world that God loves so dearly, to be of use to our neighbors in need, to love as we have been loved, namely in the freedom that characterizes God’s own life.  Against this confession, that Jesus Christ is Lord, even our “toos” are meaningless.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

August 14, 2011

Matthew 15: 21-28

21  Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  22  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."  23  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."  24  He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  25  But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me."  26  He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  27  She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."  28  Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

Here we are, having spent roughly a year together, a year that has included baptisms, confirmations, funerals and one famously broken water pipe.  However, it seems to me that, during this year, there has been no more difficult a task than trying to squeeze a childrens’ sermon out of the gospel reading we just heard.   Indeed, if the movie-rating system were around during Jesus’ day, this reading would probably merit a PG-13 rating.  This simply put, is not the stuff of Sunday school curriculums.  So then, let’s get right to it, shall we? Jesus and the Canaanite Woman, take one: Jesus and the disciples are in Tyre and Sidon, that is, Gentile territory, the territory of the impure and the unwashed.  As if that weren’t bad enough, a non-Jewish woman comes shouting after Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter.  The disciples, though not exactly all-stars at keeping the law, know well enough to try and keep this woman from Jesus, men and women don’t exactly talk openly in public, after all.  All good and well, thus far.  Up to this point, the scene feels familiar.  We have seen Jesus break all sorts of social boundaries, including those that would separate Jewish from Gentile, male from female.  None of this appears all that novel.  Then, things take a turn for the scandalous.  Jesus rebukes not the demon who has possessed this woman’s daughter, but this woman herself, saying that the ones to whom he was sent do not exactly include her.  So, she tries again, and it is only after being insulted by Jesus and sticking with it nonetheless that this woman gets what she wants, and more.  And end scene.  
The questions, here, far outpace the answers that are immediately present, and like one of my seminary professors said about the prophet Jeremiah, if hearing Jesus portrayed in this way does not make you uncomfortable, odds are you are not paying attention.  And that is perhaps what is so frustrating about the text; we are given absolutely no justification for Jesus’ behavior which does not exactly strike us as inviting.    It is not as though Matthew tells us that Jesus had a massive headache, or that he had just gotten into a fight with one of the disciples, or even that he was simply having an off day, even the Messiah should be allowed as much.  What we are given, instead, is a Jesus who insults a woman and appears to be manipulated into healing her daughter.  Anyone uncomfortable, yet?
But it is, I think, precisely that discomfort that can lead us to joy and consolation in the face of this story.  For let’s reset the scene, this time from a wider perspective.   Jesus and the Canaanite Woman, take two.  First of all, the question needs to be asked, if Jesus is not interested in attending to the Gentiles, at least not yet, what exactly is he doing in Gentile territory?  Also, while we are at it, why, then, has he healed the men of Gerasene, that is Gentile men, of their demon possession, and further more, what about the soldier’s son?  All three Gentiles, all three cured.  Also, how exactly is it that this woman, this woman who refuses to take no for an answer, understands who Jesus is well before the disciples will get to this point? How is it that a Gentile, not one of the lost sheep of Israel, sees and understands that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah? She, after all, calls him “Son of David” and “Lord.”  All of which is to suggest that she knows Jesus to be the Son of the living God, while the disciples, who now consider themselves to be part of Jesus’ inner circle, part of the privileged few, are yet to come to this understanding in a lasting way.  In short, she, this gentile, this outsider, this, to quote a phrase, “dog,” understands who Jesus is, and this, perhaps, is the way the story turns. 
For in understanding who Jesus is, that he is in fact the Messiah, the son of the living God, the Christ, she embodies a radical reversal to which Jesus himself has given voice.  Spiritual purity is not a matter of what you eat Jesus has just told the disciples, but rather a matter of who you are as a person, and if you think that eating your way into purity is somehow not a contemporary issue, I would ask to take a stroll through the magazine aisle at Whole Foods sometime.  Regardless, though, the point is that what Jesus has just said, has said about righteousness being a matter of the heart, and not a matter of belonging to an ethnic group, a political party, a particular tax bracket is embodied in this woman.  This woman cannot approach Jesus with anything but her desperation and her faith that he is capable of doing something about her situation.  She comes to him knowing that she is an outsider in basically every conceivable way, but this does not stop her, for she knows this fact desperately, that Jesus is the Messiah of God.
And while we are not given the answer as to why Jesus treats her as he does, this question we must leave unanswered, painful though that may be, what we are given is a commendation of faith, in its most raw, most honest form.  What we are invited to see in this story is not some speculation on whether Jesus was some sort of racist or given to the occasional fit of grumpiness.  Rather, what we are invited to see is the singularity of his purpose, of his mission, and that is creating faith in him as the Savior, as the Messiah, first to the Jew and then to the Gentile.  The twist, then, is that the woman catches on a bit quicker than was expected.   While the disciples continue to fumble around and the religious authorities continue to despise and reject, the woman sees Jesus for exactly who he is: and she will not let him forget it.  That, dear people, is why he calls her faith great, for ironically enough, in the great Jewish tradition, one that includes Abraham, Jacob and the psalmists to name but a few,   this outsider has faith to argue with God, to get into a bit with him, to, in a sense, remind this Jesus of who he is.  Great faith, indeed.
And when you get right down to it, what is true of this sainted woman is true of us.  When it comes to the divine, no matter if we have been Christians since birth, have wandered in and out of the faith for years, or have just now decided to come to the church, we are all, in a sense, outsiders. We are all utterly dependent on the mercy of God, or in the last recorded words of Martin Luther, “we are all beggars, it is true.”  And this is not cause for desperation, but rather a source of deep and abiding peace.  For to admit that we are outsiders is to hurl ourselves finally on the one place where certainty may be found, Jesus the Christ, and to know that he has accepted you and made you his own, and has given you the strength and kindness to welcome all those who cry desperately for a word of hope or a bit of peace.    And it is with this knowledge that you may enter into this unknown woman’s boldness of faith.  In your baptisms, Christ made you his own and, through the power of the Holy Spirit,  gave you everything that he shares with the Father.  And in so doing, he gave to you the right to pester him as much as you please.  Indeed, he gave you the right argue and berate, to take all that troubles you and, just as this woman of great faith, to shout after him until a response is given.  I do not know how long that will take or how deep the silence will be until an answer emerges.  But I do know this: the boldness of faith you were given, indeed the boldness that Christ asks of you, will not take no for answer.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

August 7, 2011

Matthew 14:22-33

22  Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.  23  And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,  24  but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,  for the wind was against them.  25  And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  26  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear.  27  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."  28  Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."  29  He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  30  But when he noticed the strong wind,  he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!"  31  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"  32  When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  33  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

There is, in these troubled times, a need for ceaseless innovation.  Call it a need to escape our present realities or the manifestation of a utopian dream in which progress promises a tomorrow which will eclipse the trauma of today, but I don’t think it is too profound an observation to suggestion that we believe deeply in the salvific power of the new. New medications, new smart phones, new computers, new books, new theories, new, new, new.   That we believe that with every latest gadget or scientific development, we are somehow one step closer to at last, feeling like a whole person, invulnerable to life’s inevitabilities and struggles. And it is not that innovation is an inherently evil reality or anything like that, it is just that purchasing the new Iphone when it comes out in September (?) is actually not a great way to solve a personal crisis, regardless of what Apple’s marketing department, and what a talented bunch they are, would have us believe. 
Yes, in this process, this attempting to find a meaningful and coherent existence, often we become ashamed of those answers which have heard so many times, fearing that they do not have the gravity, the existential umph, to reach our present pains. In this, we believe ourselves to be a part of a time and place where those old answers just do not work anymore.  What, after all, would a phrase like “I love you” mean in a time when we have mapped the human genome? What does a phrase like “I am thinking of you in your grief” really mean in an era of high speed internet?  Can the old stories really help us make sense of this brave new world of ours?  Regardless, though, of that deeply held dogma that innovation can save us, in times of deep suffering, in times when we become intimately aware of our own limitations and frailty, or even when the newness of that latest gadget or thought has worn off, we return, with that deep intuition of what is really valuable, to those old stories, to places of love and comfort, where we know truth resides. Places like a child’s smile or the embrace of a loved one; oh yes, these things lack innovation, but that might just be the point.  In the words of late author David Foster Wallace,   “in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death significance.”
Nor is any of this some sort of idle speculation, but rather this is precisely the lesson that we see Peter learn: the importance of familiar words and learning to trust their goodness and truth.  You see, when these disciples, forced back in the boat by Jesus to return to Herod’s territory, the same man who, you will recall, has just beheaded John the Baptizer, all manner of chaos ensues.  For these Israelites, being in the middle of the sea at storm would have been something like being the very grips of the evil one himself.  For the sea was the place of dark and chaotic forces, a place marked by God’s absence.  It is no wonder, then, that Jesus had to force them into the boat, for being on land meant much more than not having to worry about sea-sickness.  And so, deep in the midst of a spiritual and physical terror, fighting for their very lives, Christ happens upon them with these words: “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”  Now, there is a significance to these words that this particular translation simply misses.  For this phrase, this “it is I” is actually “I am,” certainly one of those deeply familiar phrases for these disciples.  For that phrase, “I am,”  is one of the central ways that God identifies himself in the Old Testament.  This is, to Peter’s Jewish ear, one of those old familiar phrases.    Later on, Jesus will also be charged with blasphemy for using it; for this phrase, this “I am” means that Jesus is in fact the Lord of the Cosmos.  The Christ, the “I am” enfleshed, has come right into the midst of chaos, just as he did at the beginning of creation, with the power to rule over that chaos and speak it into order.
But you see, Peter, like us, wants a little bit more than this “I am,” a touch of innovation to this old, familiar phrase, a little evidence that the statement that carried so much meaning in days past could still be of some use today.  So Peter, with a bravado that is both charming and a bit troubling, tells Jesus that, if that is true, if he is the “I am” walking on the water, the Word brooding over the chaos, then surely he will bid Peter to come to him.  Now Jesus grants Peter this wish and all seems to be going famously until Peter realizes what is actually happening.  He is on the water, no buffer between him and the powers of darkness and the very sight of the wind kicking up waves is enough to begin to sink Peter.  Yes, it was a decent enough idea to innovate on the “I am” from the safety of the boat, to update Christ’s eternal presence with Peter’s own initiative, but like any such efforts, all that Peter really comes up against is his own powerlessness, his own limits. 
But all is not lost for Peter, for the failed innovation of one phrase simply leads him to steadfastness of another: “Lord, save me!”  And make no mistake, dear people of God, there is no more honest, timeless an expression as that, but there is also great difficulty with saying such things; it is a blow to the ego, a death knell to our myths of self-sufficiency and endless progress towards that brighter tomorrow.  “Lord, save me!” that one batters the ego until there is nothing left at all.   We would, I think, love to believe that we have progressed beyond the need for such phrases, that we, little by little, become masters of our destinies to the point where any such statement is a relic of past generations who had neither the wit nor wisdom that we possess, and this is where Peter is so very instructive for us.  He, too, believed he had enough, enough courage, enough faith, enough whatever to conquer the chaos by his own efforts and this he meets with predictable consequences.  But he also does not hesitate to call the instant that the darkness begins to overwhelm, to indeed call on the God who, as St. Paul writes, is so very near to us.  In that one cry, in that “Lord, save me!” we hear our own fragility, our susceptibility to powers both great and small that threaten our destruction and we see the meagerness of our attempts to conquer those forces.  All this is true, but in that cry, issued just before the water level rises above our lips, we see the graciousness of a God who extends his hand, plunging deep into the darkness and despair and then lifts us out.  In that cry, that old familiar cry, we are greeted by a God who conquers darkness and frees from the burden of attempting that which is unthinkable.  Yes, take heart, dear people, for the great “I am” has come among you, has dropped his strong and steady hands in the water of chaos, into the depth of despair, and his grip holds you even now.  Is it an old story, one we have heard before?  Indeed it is.  But in a way that even David F. Wallace could not have imagined, it is the story that conquers death, the grave and hell itself.  To be sure, the storm remains and chaos threatens us in this old world.  But fear not, for your good confession, the confession of Christ as Lord, seeing in the broken body of a Jewish man the “I am” of the cosmos, none of that will not lead to shame.  Instead, it is the Word that flings wide eternity’s joyous gates and hoists you up into the presence of God almighty.  And though it might lack innovation, that is a story worth telling.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

August 1, 2011

Matthew 14:13-21

13  Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.  14  When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.  15  When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves."  16  Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."  17  They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."  18  And he said, "Bring them here to me."  19  Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  20  And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.  21  And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Like you, I watched in horror this past week as the story of the Norway attack that left over 90 dead continued to pore forth.  This is the sort of thing from which we find it impossible to turn our heads, even as continual coverage just makes us feel more and more helpless.  You can gauge our helplessness by the amount of analysis that is attached to any such event.  The more helpless we feel, the more analysis, political, psychological, spiritual we will see.  This is just how we cope with events of untold cruelty and utterly pointless evil.  This is how we put a buffer between these sorts of acts and ourselves, a little distance that will somehow keep us from feeling so helpless in our response.  In the end, though, the helplessness and lack of control remain, which is why all that can really be said, is “Lord have mercy.” All that can really be done is a hurling ourselves on the mercy of God and one another, knowing that there is a darkness within and without us that exerts itself in some terrifying ways. 
From an observer’s perspective, one of the most interesting elements of this whole gruesome saga was the response of the Norwegian people.  Last Sunday, you see, the Cathedral in Oslo was brimming with people who turned out for a service of mourning, the Cathedral being so packed that those outside outnumbered those who were able to get into the service.  There are pictures of the streets outside the Cathedral in which the streets literally appear to be paved with flowers and notes of mourning and remembrance.  Now this is a very interesting response, given that we tend to think of Northern Europe as an increasingly Post-Christian region.  In the face of numbing tragedy, in the face of illogical evil, the good people of Norway gathered together to sigh and grieve and find each, find God, in the midst of tragedy.  The early 20th century Spanish theologian Miguel Unamuno said it well, “the chiefest sanctity of a temple is it a place to which people go to weep in common.”  This is a truth that we have again discovered, watching our Norwegian brothers and sisters struggle with this tragedy.
That crowd, that gathering of the poor and unwashed, that riff-raff that chased Jesus into the desert, they too were a group who had just suffered an unexpected tragedy.  While the lectionary begins our reading with this miraculous feeding in the desert, the story actually begins in the first verses of Ch. 14 and will the grisly political execution of John of the Baptizer.  The Baptizer, you see, got caught up in the games of the politically powerful and was executed for speaking truth to that power.  In one of the most terrible and terrifying texts in all of the New Testament, the poor man ends up with his head on a platter, simply so that Herod will not disappoint the guests who are, perversely enough, “reclining” at his banquet, a banquet whose air was thick with lusty cruelty.   And it is precisely this news that sends Jesus back to the place of temptation, the desert, presumably so that he can be alone with his Father, after having heard of the baptizer’s death.  
When the crowds, the same crowds who followed John out in the wilderness, for they regarded him as a prophet, yes, when they hear of John’s death, they immediately go and search out this Jesus.  What exactly, then, were they expecting as they sought out Jesus in the desert?  To what temptation were they willing to succumb?  Though one cannot be certain of this, it is my guess that they were hoping that this Christ, this one powerful in word and deed, this one who had already clashed with those who controlled the Temple and their political allies, well, perhaps the crowd was hoping that he, too, had finally had enough.  That in spite of those earlier sermons about forgiveness, turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies, maybe, just maybe, he had seen enough of the cruelty and indifference that had ground them down for years.  If this is what was expected, how to make sense of what actually happened?
For right in the midst of this anger, this hope for revenge for the death of a righteous man, indeed a prophet, something else entirely is given.  Yes, for when Christ sees the crowds, sees them milling about without direction or identity, his first response is one of compassion: in the Greek, his guts literally go out to them.  The King James Version of the Bible says that Jesus responded with tenderness to them.  Yes, rather than succumb to the mob pressure that would have probably burned down a city if given the chance, Jesus stands in their midst, full of tenderness, ready and willing to heal their bodily sickness, but perhaps even more significantly, heal the sickness that believes revenge will result in peace.  Yes, here in God, right in the midst of temptation, indeed in the time of trial as we have been taught to say, offering not vengeance, but compassion, not blood thirsty revenge, but divine tenderness. 
It is no wonder, then, with this unexpected turn of events that everyone forgot about that inconvenient matter of food.  Thanks be to the disciples for interjecting a little prudence back into the story.  The hour was indeed getting late and being stranded in the dark, in the desert, well, that would be indeed be a dangerous situation.  The disciples attempt to appeal to Jesus’ common sense: it is dark, it is late, we are in the desert and these people are hungry.  But to these clearly correct observations, Jesus responds with a statement of pure gospel, “they need not go away.”  For what they need, instead who they need, is right there with them, and what is more, this Christ will not let them go.    And it is here that the story comes full circle.  For Jesus himself will line up a different sort of banquet, his guests will recline not in securely monitored banquet halls, atmosphere choked with importance, but rather in the desert, right in the midst of temptation and human vulnerability.  And this host, this Christ, will not offer up the vulnerable for the sake of political expediency, but rather will offer up his own body, will have it hoisted upon the cross, for it is in this that the vulnerable will be protected and the weary given rest.  Yes, in this banquet, this Christ will give his own body, his own blood, and that will be enough to feed the masses and indeed to feed masses more.  For the gift he gives is the life eternal, and no amount of baskets can contain the leftovers.  And what is more, Christ gives this gift, throws this banquet, right in the midst of human sufferings; of fears of questions and doubts.  Yes, the gift comes to us in the desert, in those places of lonely temptation when this old world feels stale and inert. In those famous words of Psalm 23, a feast has been prepared for you in the presence of your enemies, in the presence of all that which haunts and troubles you. Yes, the gift is given as a nation watches on in disbelief at the farce of its elected leaders, and as another nation mourns the indescribable tragedy of senseless death and horror.  The gift that Christ gives meets us in our grief, and takes our deserts and makes of them a holy banquet that spills over with its abundance.  Yes, for this why the temple may be made holy by tears, because Christ has not left us alone in them, and instead meets us there and promises that he will not send us away.  So then, lift your voice, be in praise or lamentation, in joy or in sorrow, or in that strange combination which attends our living.  For Christ has set a place for you at his banquet and from there, you will never be sent away.  In Jesus’ name, amen.