The plot thickens! Matthew’s gospel opens today with ominous words: “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.” Can’t you just feel the hostility? And don’t you just love the flattery that opens this up: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” Last week, our vestry had a mutual ministry survey with Dan Webster and we watched a video of Rabbi Edwin Friedman. He was talking about self-differentiated leadership and having a non-anxious presence. In that context, he spoke about sabotage. He said it comes in two forms: passive-aggressive attacks or seduction. Seems the Pharisees and Herodians are taking the second approach here.
What we often lose in the translation of time and culture is that the Pharisees and the Herodians really hated each other. The Herodians were the extended members of King Herod’s family whom the Pharisees and observant Jews likened to traitors. They were Jewish converts and were skilled at playing both sides of the field – loyalty to Rome when it suited them and loyalty to the Torah when necessary. The Pharisees, in their quest for purity, preferred to avoid the Herodians at all costs. But … politics and religion have always made strange bedfellows!
So these two camps, generally representing Rome and the Jewish people, are now out to ensnare Jesus in one of the most controversial issues of the day: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Again, in our current culture and context we just cannot wrap our heads around why this is such a big deal. Nobody likes paying their taxes … but you do it right? Well, of course you do; however, in ancient Rome paying taxes was more than just paying for the roads and the aqueducts. It had a deep religious significance that we don’t normally associate with taxes. The Roman emperor was thought to be an incarnate god and so was to be worshipped among the pantheon of gods. In the eyes of a Jew, to pay taxes to Rome was to support a false religion in violation of the first commandment to have no other gods before the God of Israel. Having coins with Caesar’s image on them was a violation of the second commandment prohibiting graven images. Framing this question as to whether it is “lawful” brings the forces of Torah law to bear. Answer “yes” and you’ve violated Torah so the Pharisees have you on blasphemy. Answer “no” and the Herodians have you on treason. This is the ultimate loaded question!
Jesus, with the crowd around him, sees this sabotage by seduction ploy for what it is! He calls them out as hypocrites and asks for a coin. You can imagine just a bit of irony here when he gets the denarius and examines it closely. “So, whose face is this?” “The emperor’s.” “OK … give it back to him … and give to God what is God’s.” I can imagine the crowd snickering at the elites and religious guys getting their comeuppance.
When we hear the phrase, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things which are God’s” it is tempting to start parsing out what belongs to Caesar versus God. The problem with that is we miss that Jesus is actually using a false dichotomy to flip the question of the Pharisees and the Herodians on its head. He’s really addressing their hypocrisy in this response, not making a statement on where our money should be directed … and here’s why. As a Jew, Jesus believes in the sovereignty of the God of Israel and that there is no distinction between what is of this world and what is of God. After all, God created the world and all that is in it, right? And God, the God of Israel, even created the emperor … right? So what exactly belongs to Caesar and not to God? That’s right … nothing! Absolutely nothing!! It all belongs to God no exceptions.
With this in mind, there are implications for our own stewardship. What if we really lived like absolutely everything belonged to God? Not just our money or possessions, but our bodies, our thoughts, our creative energies and impulses – absolutely everything belonging to God and what has been given is on loan to us temporarily. How would that concept change you? Let me give you a practical example. From time to time, we have to buy a car. Not my favorite activity, I confess, and there are a myriad of options out there. While I can go into debt and purchase a fancy car with all kinds of “bells and whistles.” If I forget that all things belong to God first, I could get caught up in the idea that I can purchase whatever I want just because I want to. This is the mentality of a consumer rather than one centered on God. But when I acknowledge that everything, absolutely everything, comes from God and is only on loan to me, then my duty is to make as light a footprint on the planet and on my finances as I can. No question this will influence my purchase decision.
Stewardship also has implications on our own bodies. If they are on loan from God, how should we take care of them? If my intellect is on loan from God, how do I use it to build up the Body of Christ? If I am engaging in habits that hurt my body or mind, how does this grieve God and how can I commit to change? How do I use my time and where am I giving it to God’s mission – both in the Church and in the world?
Keeping our focus on the reality that God is the source and author of all that we have and all that we are reminds us to place our commitment to God first. This doesn’t mean we don’t “render unto Caesar” … but it does call us to question all the “Caesars” which try to claim our time, energy, and money. If we think about it, we live in a society where there are a myriad of activities and causes which can fill our schedules and cause us to forget our commitment to God. Busyness is a temptation which will present many “Caesars” which will try to claim us. But when we keep our eye on God first and commit to that relationship before all others, it puts us in a position to evaluate all other commitments and prioritize them so they don’t become tyrants which enslave us.
In baptism, we are claimed as Christ’s own forever. Our gratitude for this new life can transform us into people who put God first and, in so doing, find the joy of a life centered in God. Render unto God … first and foremost … and Caesar will take care of itself.
I have a confession on behalf of my clergy colleagues to make. Most of us really don’t like doing weddings very much. Now there are exceptions, and I’m really looking forward to Nancy Smith & Dale Hughes’ upcoming wedding in November … and I’m not saying that to suck up either. The reason I’m looking forward to that one while many others invoke dread, is because Nancy and Dale are both grounded in what it means to be married in an Episcopal Church where Christ is the central focus of the nuptial liturgy. The same was true for the solemnization service I presided over for Mike & Michael last year in their home. When people who have a strong root in the Christian faith come to the Church seeking its blessing for their marriage, there is a totally different dynamic from those who have no faith grounding and who for mostly sentimental reasons feel they have to get married in a church. The latter often do not understand that getting married in a church is not about living out the “prince and princess of the day” fantasy … which often comes into conflict with the church’s theology of marriage as an incarnation of Christ’s love made known in the world. These brides and grooms (and often their parents) want to do things their way and really have no intention of having God play much, if any, role in the matter whatsoever. So this presents a particular challenge for me as a priest because while we are warm, welcoming and hospitable, that doesn’t mean “anything goes” in the Church.
Today’s gospel reading is set within the context of a wedding banquet and admittedly is a difficult reading full of judgment – and some annihilation, death and burning of a city. But I will submit to you that it is a story full of grace – even though it doesn’t sound like one. It is a story about a king who wants to throw an awesome party … and it is an illustration of how grace is offered and also what it demands of us. This parable follows on last week’s and is still directed at the Pharisees during Holy Week. Its parallel is in the Gospel of Luke, but unlike Luke whose telling of this has a much more grace filled tone, Matthew’s rendering has ominous warnings of judgment and violence along with the grace. There is again a temptation to allegorize this as a story of Israel being the invited guests who blow off the king’s invitation and the Gentiles as the “great unwashed masses” who are brought into the party and accept the invitation. But that is a narrow view which limits the parable’s meaning to some kind of Gentile/Jewish conflict which robs it of its power for our day and time.
In his book Kingdom, Grace and Judgment, the late Robert Farrar Capon, Episcopal priest and author, invites us to see this parable as a reflection of the final marriage supper of the Lamb which John writes about in Revelation and in so doing it begins with the premise that all are invited to the banquet. That’s right … all are invited to the party. The question is whether or not we will say “yes” to the gracious host. The first group invited are the “A listers” – the beautiful people who can essentially take it or leave it … and who, well, choose the latter. Not only do they completely rebuff the king’s invitation to an awesome party, they have really lame excuses for rejecting the king’s hospitality. And notice they get more than one chance to accept the invitation – there are two rounds of slaves come as messengers. With the second round of invites, those invited become violent – beating and killing the slaves. Admittedly, this is a pretty harsh reaction to a party invitation, but this is a story and it is a continuation of the “kill the messenger” motif we saw in last week’s story.
As I reflected on the reaction of these “A-lister” invited to the party, I recalled meeting Pastor Mike Albro in Frederick a few years ago when I was a member at All Saints. Last I heard, he is still running the Second & Hope Celebrate Recovery group at Centennial United Methodist Church. When I met him, he was with the Rescue Mission working with those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. But I knew of Mike Albro many years before that. I knew of Mike back in 1986 when I was involved in the Race Across America bicycle race. Back then, Mike was the executive director of ABC’s Wide World of Sports who was covering the race. Mike was one of those “A-listers” – a guy with a Hollywood job and a seven figure salary. But one night, in a hotel room in Nashville, he had a conversion and call to serve Christ – like St. Paul being knocked off his horse on the Damascus road. He left that very lucrative position to follow God’s call to ministry … and of all ministries, to those suffering from addiction. In his own addiction to wealth, fame and power, he saw his connection to those who suffered under the addictions of drugs and alcohol. When he spoke at All Saints, he said something that really got my attention. He said, “You all have a much harder job of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ than I do. You see, I work with people who have nothing left but Jesus. They have lost everything – family, home, jobs, health … they’ve lost it all and all they have left is Jesus. They know they need Jesus in order to life a sober life. They have no illusions that they are sober because of anything they did – they know they can’t do it without God. But you have a much harder job sharing the gospel in your lives with your neighbors. You have to try and share the good news with people who live in big houses, with two or three cars in the garage, big screen TVs and all the comforts of life, and good paying jobs. Those people think all those blessings only came from their own personal efforts – what do they need Jesus for? Your job is much harder than mine.” And he’s right … our job is much harder. Many of us bear a strong resemblance to those “A-listers” … those who think they really don’t need the king’s invitation to grace. Under the hashtag of #firstworldproblems, we can fall under the presumption that all that we are and all that we have comes from us and not from God. We fail to see that all of what we are and have, including our intellect and talents, are gracious gifts from God who is the king and ultimate party thrower. So we too can be like the A-listers who just don’t see any real reason to accept the king’s invitation into relationship and a great party. We are tempted to blow the whole thing off too.
Sometimes we blow off the invitation by killing the messengers (which happens in today’s parable). I don’t want to be bothered, leave me alone, get out of my face. Whether we physically kill them or do it emotionally through our words and actions matters not. In the parable, this is an outrage the king will not bear – so he sends in the SWAT team to wipe the A-listers off the map (think Chuck Norris meets Dirty Harry meets napalm … and a small nuclear strike thrown in for good measure). Seems a pretty harsh reaction, doesn’t it? Again, let’s see this as a metaphor of cutting off relationship completely with those who blow off the invitation and go so far as to kill the messengers. The king is severing ties with them, not because he is a ruthless punishing king, but as a reaction and consequence to the abusive actions already taken against him. You know this reaction … it’s the “You’re dead to me!” one. And in essence, the “A-listers” do kill themselves by their own choice to say “no” to grace.
So now the king has a problem. There’s a lot of food and drink, a party waiting to happen, and nobody’s coming! The king orders his slaves to go out and invite everyone they can and fill the banquet hall. So the slaves do this … and they invite both the good and the bad. Wait! Hold on! They invited both the “good and the bad?” Absolutely! The slaves as messengers were not tasked with asking for the pedigree of anyone they invited, they aren’t checking id’s at the door, they aren’t running background checks. Their job is to fill the banquet hall. Just as in other parables like the wheat and the weeds, Jesus makes it clear that good and bad will be living together and walking side by side for some time. It isn’t up to us to do the sorting – that’s God’s job. We just have to say “yes” to the invitation to the party.
But this is where our “yes” response to grace meets with an obligation … the obligation to accept the grace on the king’s terms and not our own. The story takes an ominous twist: the king notices a man without a wedding garment. Now in this short story, we might begin to argue with Jesus about the necessity of a wedding garment and 1,001 reasons why this poor fellow doesn’t have one. Let’s suffice it to say that this guy stuck out … and all the guests were in the same position. Everyone else, presumably, had their wedding garments, on … except this one guy. Somehow I picture him as the guy who shows up with a bunch of piercings, Goth make up, grommets in the ears, Doc Martens boots … among those in their “Sunday best.” Of course … it could be the other way around too! Let’s just say he sticks out like a sore thumb. Essentially, he said “yes” to showing up but the king asks for more than just showing up. I submit to you that the man without the appropriate attire lacked the humility to submit to the terms of the king’s party – show up, but show up on my terms not yours.
When we say “yes” to God’s invitation for relationship, one thing which must die for an authentic faith is our pride. Part of our pride is demanding that we live life on our terms and our terms alone. Doing that leads to selfish, destructive behavior which doesn’t make room for authentic relationships – with God or with any other human being. Grace is always offered, but a “yes” response doesn’t mean we get to continue to live life on our terms – we are called to more than that. We are called into a transforming, life giving, love relationship. God loves us where we are (that’s the grace), but God will not be satisfied to leave us there. Christ loves us enough to want more from us than to just stand still … and demands the relinquishment of our pride and demand for having our way instead of God’s way. The fact this person without a wedding garment was silent in the face of the king’s question says much – he didn’t want a relationship with the king. He gives the king the “silent treatment.” And so our parable ends with the king ordering him to be bound “hand and foot” and cast into the darkness with wailing and gnashing of teeth. While this sounds like a punishment from the king, I suggest this is merely the king allowing this person, who wants life on his own terms, to go back to the life they came from. It is a consequence of refusing to let go of pride.
So this parable is about the offering of grace and how we accept it … or not. Here at Grace Church, we welcome all people to come to the feast every Sunday: to be with God’s people and receive the Body and Blood of Christ at this altar which is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in this parable. But although we welcome people into this community, it does not mean we do not set appropriate boundaries with respect to behaviors. The offer of grace comes with the expectation that those who come will not stay where they are, but say “yes” to both the grace and the ongoing conversion of heart which draws us to become more loving and Christ-like. When those who come want only the grace but refuse the transformation God expects, they are seeking cheap grace. And, when behaviors which threaten the peace of Christ in this community happen, those people who want cheap grace without transformation will be choosing by their refusal of the call to conversion of heart to walk apart from this community. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that grace is never cheap – it is always costly. The cost of grace is the relinquishment of pride and ego so that we may enjoy the party … now and forever.
“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Hardly sounds like good news, does it? Harsh words today in today’s Gospel reading – a troubling text which has a very dark history in Christianity. It follows on the reading from last week where the Pharisees are questioning Jesus’ authority and it is a continuation of his dialog with them. It’s a story that has sadly often been spun as an anti-Jewish polemic over the centuries – one where the temptation is to allegorize the wicked tenants as the Jewish people and the Christians as those to whom the landowner will give the vineyard where the vineyard is the inheritance of Israel. Nice neat package … good guys and bad guys, right? Well … not so fast.
It’s been an interesting week to ponder this story in light of what has been unfolding at the Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary – General Theological Seminary in New York City. For those of you who don’t monitor the Episcopal Church’s “insider baseball,” eight of the ten faculty walked off the job this week in protest against the current dean and president, The Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle. They have leveled allegations of his being overbearing and authoritarian in his leadership, bullying students and faculty who disagree with him and making racist, sexist and homophobic statements. In fairness to Dean Dunkle, many of the things which the faculty demanded of him and the Board of Directors were unprecedented and an overstepping of their roles as professors but which came after many months of requesting mediation and being rebuffed. In the end, Bishop Sisk of New York and the Board of General Seminary chose to interpret the actions of the professors as a mass resignation of the faculty. Now it’s all up to the lawyers…
I confess I really don’t have a dog in this fight. I went to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and frankly it would be easier for me to blow off this kerfuffle and wait for the dust to settle and move on. You know, “Not my circus. Not my monkeys.” But the truth is that the scuffle at General is only bringing to light deeper problems and the shadow of what we hate to admit – that at various times, we ourselves are the wicked tenants in the vineyard!
One of the issues underlying this conflict at General is what authority looks like in a Christian context. This question of authority featured prominently in last week’s Gospel and raised the question of to whom do we give authority and why. Clearly, the dean and president of the seminary has authority conferred from the Bishop and Board to accept this position; however, it appears on the surface at least that Dean Dunkle forgot the other source of authority – that of the faculty and students. If the allegations of his unprofessional conduct regarding racist, sexist and homophobic statements are true, he could be tried in Ecclesiastical Court under Title IV of the Constitution and Canons for misconduct – for conduct unbecoming a cleric. If the allegations are true this could be why he has not earned the trust of the faculty and students. Without trust, there is no basis for authority. The alleged statements are not only unacceptable, but they fly in the face of the Baptismal Covenant where we promise to “seek and serve Christ is all persons” and “respect the dignity of every human being.”
From the words flying around social media, it seems that Dean Dunkle has perceived the resistance to his leadership in a very different way than the students and faculty have. It appears he interprets this resistance as a sign of his decisive leadership. After all, decisive leaders are going to be on the receiving end of push back and sabotage – so resistance is a sign he is doing something right … right? Well … maybe … and maybe not. It may just be a sign you are a jerk too. The line between jerk and decisive leader can, admittedly, get kind of cloudy and it’s easy to end up being a decisive jerk. The difference is whether you possess the spiritual gift of humility which will allow you to listen to the dissenting voices and the prophets God may be sending your way to help you see your own functioning more clearly than you can all by yourself.
What has been born out of all this conflict is the raising of old and deep wounds the Church itself has inflicted on its members – in this case, its own leadership. We can sit around and gloat when a megachurch pastor like Mark Driscoll gets taken down over his sexist and homophobic statements … but now that one of our own has now had some pretty damning allegations leveled at him for the same behavior, what are we to make of that?
Laurie Brock, a priest in Louisville KY who blogs at Dirty Sexy Ministry wrote a post entitled “I am not the exception” regarding the longstanding toleration of abusive racist, homophobic and misogynistic behaviors in the Church:
“When I wrote of my experience of institutional abuse in the church, I hoped, likely foolishly, that my experience was rare.
From the hundreds of emails, stories told in hallways with tears, and letters received from women and men in the church who have experienced degrading behavior and harassment, often by superiors, I can tell you I am not the exception.
I am not the exception to being offended when a male superior discussed my breasts or my vagina and, when expressing my offense, being told I was ‘too sensitive.’
I am not the exception to being encapsulated in an atmosphere where sexual orientation, ethnicity, income level, or any other differentiating facet was fodder for jokes, and any conversation as to why those words or phrases may be offensive was disregarded.
I am not the exception for expressing my discomfort and distress to those in authority, only to have my concerns be ignored, dismissed, excused, or turned back on me.
I am not the exception to feeling so weary, so exhausted, so emotionally beaten that when I finally said, ‘Enough,’ I realized I was the one who would slip out the back door with my scars, and the ones whose actions caused the wounds would never be held accountable.”
So what happens when we become the wicked tenants ourselves?
Don’t get me wrong … I love the Episcopal Church and in it I see the promise of refuge for many who have been beaten down in other places. But if we deny and ignore our own darkness and tendency to want to control and dominate, just like the wicked tenants in the parable who want to dominate and control the vineyard and its fruit, then we are culpable of perpetuating a cycle of violence and degradation which flies in the face of Christ’s call to humble service and generosity of spirit.
At varying times, we have all taken the path of protecting our egos and, rather than listening to those who may tell us things we don’t want to hear we kill the messenger. But what if the ones who challenge us, the ones who get under our skin, are being Christ to us? Remember, Jesus often encountered resistance when he put his finger on the spiritual and emotional diseases of others. Who in your life has touched a place of brokenness in you – not as an enemy who is trying to hurt you, but as a friend trying to offer you feedback? Are you open to hearing what they say? Or is killing the messenger to protect your ego, your false self, what happens?
The parable ends with the Pharisees condemning themselves by saying the landowner will put the “miserable wretches to death” and find more worthy tenants. While I don’t subscribe to a God who metes out punishment as is the human tendency, I do see consequences for the wicked tenants … even when they are us. When we fall into the trap of killing the messengers who may very well be bearing Christ’s presence and light to us when we don’t want to hear them, we die. We die at least spiritually and emotionally, if not physically. God doesn’t have to put us to death … instead we kill ourselves and in so doing, we deny the inheritance of the fullness of life offered in Christ in favor of our small, puny egos that demand control.
So what if we give up … give up the need to control and defend these small selves we carry? What if we stop killing the messengers God is sending to us and let them in to help us grow? Yes, it will be hard and yes it will feel like death … it always does when the ego gets stripped down to nothing. But maybe, just maybe, Christ is calling us to risk becoming something more than who we think we are … because underneath every wicked tenant is a beloved child of God aching to be born anew.
In a case of life echoing Bible, I found myself at the gas pump yesterday getting grilled on the same question that Jesus faces in today’s Gospel: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” As a woman priest, there is not a day that goes by where someone doesn’t throw up this challenge to me. Sometimes it is not actually directed at me personally but at women in general, like a blog post from someone whose scriptural interpretation is more literal than mine. But there are times when it is personal … like yesterday at the gas station. I received a call that one of our parishioners was rushed to the emergency room and I had to stop for gas and a big cup of coffee (yeah, it was one of those days!). As I was pumping the gas into my car, a man younger than me was at the next pump and, looking over and seeing me in my clerical collar, he said, “Excuse me … are you … uh … a … uh … minister?” I answered, “Yes. I am an Episcopal priest.” He said, “I have a question for you, if you don’t mind.” I told him I didn’t mind and to go ahead. He said, “What exactly do you make of 1st Timothy 2:12? I mean, as a priest and all, what do you make of that? I’m not trying to troll you or anything, I just want to know.” My first hint of trouble was that he was trying too hard to convince me he wasn’t trying to troll me! Now for those of you not familiar with 1st Timothy 2:12, it reads: “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over men. They are to keep silent.”
I explained that the Bible was written 2,000 years ago in the Roman Empire and my approach to Scripture is that of an historical critical hermeneutic (or lens) which calls me to read it in light of the culture in which it was written and, through communal prayer, discern its application for today. He conceded that we don’t interpret the Scripture passage about slavery the same as we once did … but then went right back to what appeared to be his literal interpretation of 1st Timothy 2:12. It was clear he had his mind made up – who was I to think I should be ordained? By what authority did I dare do this?? When someone comes at us with this kind of question, it might be because we’ve overstepped our bounds but more likely it is meant as a challenge or an attempt to undermine our authority in a given situation.
Chronologically, this reading happens after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem … it is Holy Week and Jesus is on the way to the cross. It is the perfect setting for the questioning of his authority and its origins. This question asked by the Pharisees reminds us of the nature of authority and why it is different from power. Although we often speak of them interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Power is the sheer ability to force something to be done. Authority, on the other hand, is power which is given, directed and limited to achieve certain goals. We might think of authority as power which is granted by others and rightly directed for mutual benefit.
Authority is always given and it comes from two different sources. Those of us who have any kind of credentials know this. As we honor our first responders today, your uniform is a sign and symbol of a particular authority granted you by your local jurisdiction to use your power in a limited, directed way for the benefit of our communities. But your real authority doesn’t lie in the uniform or the badge. Your real authority also comes from the people you serve – the trust of the community for you to act on their behalf. The same is true for me as clergy. I may have the Masters of Divinity degree and be ordained by a bishop in apostolic succession, but if the congregation here doesn’t also grant me authority, then my ability to lead the mission and ministry here is non-existent. Authority, then, comes both from the “powers on high” above us and wells up from below.
This leads us to the question of to whom do you give authority and why? Sometimes the answer is obvious. There are people to whom we must grant authority, that limited, directed power to influence us for a particular reason in order to function well in society. However, in many if not most cases, we have a choice to grant authority to another person and sometimes we give authority to people who don’t deserve it! Consider this example: how many of us have told someone in our lives that they made us mad? Yeah, we’ve all done that, right? But think of it this way, when I tell another person they are responsible for my emotional process, I am giving them authority over my emotions instead of taking responsibility for them myself. As a priest, let me tell you there are a lot of people who want to make me responsible for their emotions! This doesn’t mean that we cannot be angry with or hurt by people when they wound us by their actions. What is within our capacity to decide is how we regard this person and their actions over time. If we hold onto those feelings of anger and hurt for so long that they turn into grudges and resentments, then we have given the other person the authority to hold our life hostage. We are giving them the authority to dominate and control our lives and our futures.
This background sets the stage for a deceptively simple yet simultaneously complex parable. A man has two sons and tells them to go work in the vineyard. The second son says he’ll do it and doesn’t – what parent cannot sympathize with that? The first son, who is the focus of the parable, says he will not go and then changes his mind and goes. It doesn’t really matter what his motivations were in refusing to do what his father told him to do. What matters is that he didn’t have to be tied to his original decision – he had the freedom to change his mind and, in so doing, he changed his course of action to be in alignment with his father’s desires. He didn’t let the bad choice of saying “no” to his father’s request hold him back from doing the right thing and in so doing he chooses a different future. In other words, his past action does not determine his future outcome!
This is the nature of the argument with the Pharisees in this moment. The Pharisees are mired in their past – their traditions, Scriptural interpretations, temple worship – which has given them authority. Instead of being bound by their past, Jesus is inviting them into a future which opens the possibilities of life, grace and healing. The Pharisees don’t want to accept this invitation – they have a great investment in the status quo and the systems which conferred their authority. But Jesus knows that the religious and political systems are not working to redeem all of God’s people – especially the down and out who are personified by the reference to tax collectors and prostitutes. Those whom the system has failed are the ones like the first son who do the will of the father precisely because they are not held hostage to a past which has excluded them.
Jesus makes this very same promise to us today. No matter what has happened to us or what we have done, we always have the ability to make the choice to step into a future that is aligned with God’s life giving redemptive love. We are more than the sum total of what has happened to us or what we have done. We need not submit to the authority of those people and situations from our past that are dealing in death and holding us back from a full life and a free future. Letting go of the past, taking back that authority and walking into a free and unknown future is scary … really scary. We often drag our dysfunctional pasts with us precisely because they are familiar. Letting these things go, taking away their authority to tyrannize your future away is a kind of spiritual and emotional death – the death of a dead past and the death of part of your identity. It will take you to the cross just as breaking with the past took Jesus to one too; however, the promise of that open future is the resurrected life beyond the cross.
So I ask you this day to look at your life. Where are you harboring past resentments and why do those people still claim authority over you? Who or what is holding you back from the open future Christ promises you? What do you most regret about what you have done and have not yet released? Is it time to strip all of these things of the authority you’ve given them so that you can walk into an open future in confidence that you are beloved of God no matter what? Lay these down, put them away, give them over to God and trust in the grace and mercy poured out for you at this time, in this place, at this altar. Give them over as your offering and accept the invitation of Christ in Bread and Wine, his Body and Blood, as a pledge and promise for your future … now and always.
A Sufi saint, on pilgrimage to Mecca, having completed the prescribed religious practices, knelt down and touched his forehead to the ground and prayed: “Allah! I have only one desire in life. Give me the grace of never offending you again.” When the All-Merciful heard this he laughed aloud and said, “That's what they all ask for. But if I granted everyone this grace, tell me, who would I forgive?”
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter’s question comes on the heels of Jesus’ teaching from last week which gave a directive about conflict resolution. In it, he told his disciples that if a member of the church sins against you, you should speak to them in private about the matter to settle it. If they acknowledge their fault and you can reconcile well and good, but if they don’t, you are to go with two or three so that you will have witnesses and attempt to resolve the conflict. If that doesn’t work, you take it to the church … and if even that does not work, you are to treat the person as if they are a Gentile and a tax collector – in essence, treat them as utter strangers and walk away. Today we hear the follow up question related to conflict – what is the role of forgiveness?
The problem with Peter’s question is in his approach. Peter has bound up his understanding of forgiveness in terms of legalism, framing the question as a way to find out what he legally must do to cover his bases: “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” You know it’s, “Come on Jesus, just give me a number, tell me the rules, what hoops I need to jump through and I’m in the game.” Jesus’s ridiculous answer of “seventy-seven,” other translations say “seventy times seven,” tells us Peter isn’t asking the right question because forgiveness isn’t about quantity – it is a matter of quality. It’s not “how much?” but “how well?”
The parable that follows goes on to illustrate what Jesus means. He tells the story of a king settling debts with his slaves. One slave owed him 10,000 talents. One talent was equivalent to 15 years of a day laborer’s wages. This means he owed the king 150,000 years of labor – clearly an impossible debt to settle! The second slave mentioned owed the first 100 denarii – about 100 day’s wages. Now this is still no small debt, but one which could reasonably be paid down. So how could this slave, who had been released from an impossible debt turn around and be unforgiving of a relatively small one?
I think the reason is found in our very human penchant for legalism and keeping score – especially of the wrongs done to us. Ever notice how we don’t seem to keep track of the good things done for us but instead we keep a meticulous ledger balance of the hurts and wounds inflicted by others? Some of this is natural – it is our survival instinct. When we are hurt we naturally don’t want to repeat that experience, do we? But our memories often go long beyond the wrong done to us and often turn into seething resentments which are toxic and can spill over into other relationships far beyond the one in which the grievance took place. Left to our own devices, our ledger books become heavy with entries because when we are wronged, we want to get even and punish. This is grounded in our love of legalism.
The law is necessary because it sets the metes and bounds for how to relate to others. But there is something the law cannot do: it cannot require us to love each other. I can follow the letter of the law in relating to another and still hate them with all my heart. The law can never command us to love.
Our Lord’s answer to Peter makes it clear that bean-counting and score keeping isn’t what forgiveness is about because forgiveness is the fruit of love. It is, in fact, the brutally hard work of love. You wouldn’t ask “How many times must I love?” would you? Of course not, because love isn’t about quantity – it is about quality. The question isn’t “how many times must I love?” but “how well can I love?” The same is true of forgiveness. The question isn’t “how many times must I forgive?” but rather “how well and how completely can I forgive?”
This isn’t to say there is no place for boundaries and law when it comes to being in right relationship. Forgiveness does not mean you must be a doormat and allow others to walk all over you committing wrong after wrong, abusively beating you down and robbing you of your human dignity. No! In those cases, you may need to both forgive and simultaneously leave the relationship. This doesn’t mean you stop loving the other person – but it does mean you love from a safe distance. In fact, sometimes the most loving and forgiving thing you can do is to walk away and stop the abusive behavior.
There are always two dimensions of our lives. One is the dimension of law which gives us limits and accountability. The other is the dimension of our being – how we regard ourselves and others as worthy of dignity and love as children of God. This brings us to the rather harsh ending of this parable where the king hands his servant over to be tortured until the debt is paid. I don’t believe this is a punishment from the king. Instead, I believe the king is merely allowing the slave to live in the hell of his own score keeping game until the end of time … or until he can forgive.
Forgiveness is a decision we make about the past. It is both an acknowledgement that we cannot change the past but also that the past will not hold our future in captivity to the rancor and bitterness of resentment. When you forgive, you release your past and are able to face the future in freedom. When you do not forgive, you hold your future in captivity until the end of time. But make no mistake, this doesn’t mean forgiveness can be forced or compelled. Forgiveness, like love, is a gift. We can pray for it and for the ability to forgive – especially for those from whom we are estranged or who have died – so that we may face an open and free future of a resurrected life in Christ.
All of us struggle to forgive and each of us has at least one person we find it hard, even impossible, to forgive. Of our own power, we cannot do it – it is a gift of the Spirit, just as love is a gift. And it isn’t a question of “how much?” or “how many?” but rather “how well?”
“For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out … at the old ball game!” Any baseball fan knows the Seventh Inning Stretch song, right? It’s so ubiquitous that the concept of “three strikes, you’re out” has translated into our language – and even into the judicial system with “three strikes laws.” The basis for the idea of getting three chances comes from our Gospel reading today – which is really about a process for conflict resolution.
Jesus speaks about what happens when a member of the church sins against you. Now the word “sin” in this context is best understood as when a member violates your boundaries. This isn’t about giving members of the church permission to be judge and jury over the behavior of other regardless of whether it personally affects them or not. Too many people have used the Bible as an excuse to think it’s their job to sit in the judgment seat – and that in itself is the sin of self-righteousness. What he’s really talking about is when someone does something to you which causes real and serious emotional, spiritual or physical harm - the kind of stuff that breaches trust and threatens your wellbeing.
Jesus gives us an outline of conflict resolution with the hope of reconciliation embedded within it. He says if a member of the church sins against you go to that person in private and talk to them about it. If that doesn’t work and the offense continues, then go to the person with two or three others as witnesses. If that doesn’t work and the offense continues, then you take it to the Church. Finally, when all else fails, walk away from the relationship and they are to be as a “Gentile and a tax collector” to you. Now admittedly words like “Gentile” and “tax collector” don’t have the same meaning to us as they did in first century Palestine. Gentiles were not “bad guys” with whom Jews never interacted. Rather the term Gentile is synonymous with “one who does not know God” and tax collectors were the extortionists and shake down artists of their day who exploited the people. So Jesus is essentially saying you can walk away from the person abusing you and consider them as one who is inappropriately exploiting you and does not know God.
Notice that Jesus recommends starting off with a one-on-one conversation to see if the amends can be made in private. That is an ideal. I can tell you that, in my experience, going alone to confront someone who has sinned against you isn’t always advisable – especially if there are physical or emotional threats to your safety. I had a work situation in the past where I had to confront a fellow chaplain about his open hostility towards me and my ministry (he didn’t believe women should be ordained). He was over six feet tall and muscular, weighing in at about 200 pounds. I’m five feet five inches tall and, although I am in good physical shape, 115 pounds of me was no match if he blew up at me. Given his hostility and behavior towards me, I did feel a sense of personal threat. In that case, I insisted my supervisor be present for my meeting with him and the issues were resolved. Clearly, if you have been in an abusive situation, Christ would not recommend putting yourself in harm’s way! But the point is that Jesus advises a process with appropriate and measured escalation. He wouldn’t tell us today, “If a member of the church sins against you go out and tell everyone in town what that jerk did and make sure you post it all over Facebook and Tweet it for good measure.” No … we are to start small to re-establish our boundaries.
Paul’s wrote to the Romans that all we owe one another is love and that love is the fulfillment of the law. Love does not wrong others. But we are human and we screw up. We do not act in loving ways and we hurt each other. Ideally, when we hurt others we seek forgiveness and reconciliation that we may be one which is our hope in Christ Jesus. But we know this doesn’t always happen. There are those whose egos cannot admit their wrongdoing and who persist in inflicting wounds on others. Jesus’ words to us are not meant to be a punishment.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are our common hope in Christ. But repentance, a turning around of the mind and heart, are necessary for reconciliation to take place. Three strikes and you’re out sounds punitive but remember, in another part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is asked about how many times one should forgive – and the answer was “not seven times but seventy times seven.” Episcopal priest and author Dennis Maynard in his book Forgive And Get Your Life Back describes the process of forgiveness and reconciliation in three steps: forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. Forgiveness is the first step and is necessary for us to let go of the wrongs done us and move on without rancor or bitterness. Therefore, forgiveness is to be without limits. But, this does not mean that you must re-establish a relationship with a person. That is the next step of reconciliation – re-establishing some kind of renegotiated relationship with the person who harmed you. The relationship is never reset back to where it was before the offense occurred. In the case of a person who harms you and does not acknowledge their responsibility, you may forgive them and not reconcile. Again, Christ does not demand you tolerate abuse. The final step is restoration which is typified in the parable of the Prodigal Son. You may forgive and reconcile with someone but you may or may not restore them to their prior place in your life.
We are broken human beings and Jesus’ words to us today remind us we live in a sin-sick world where people will hurt you. Living amidst this mess is something we all face and setting boundaries is necessary for us – for our personal safety as well as the safety of the community. But our true hope is that Christ’s crucified Body is able to hold together and reconcile all of the broken and bleeding pieces of our lives and our relationships, even when we cannot.
"Please de-baptize me," she said.
The priest's face crumpled.
"My parents tell me you did it," she said.
"But I was not consulted. So
Now, undo it."
The priest's eyes asked why.
"If it were just about belonging to
This religion and being forgiven,
Then I would stay. If it were just
This list of doctrines and upholding
This list of rituals,
I'd be OK. But
Your sermon Sunday made
It clear it's
About more. More
Than I bargained for. So, please,
The priest looked down, said
Nothing. She continued:
"You said baptism sends
Me into the
Love enemies. I don't. Nor
Do I plan to. You said it means
Being willing to stand
Against the flow. I like the flow.
You described it like rethinking
Everything, like joining a
I'm not rethinking or moving anywhere.
So un-baptize me. Please."
The priest began to weep. Soon
Great sobs rose from his deepest heart.
He took off his glasses, blew his nose, took
Three tissues to dry his eyes.
"These are tears of joy," he said.
"I think you
Are the first person who ever
Truly listened or understood."
"So," she said,
"Will you? Please?" – Brian McLaren
Strange how a last minute glance at Facebook this morning says so much! Brian McLaren's words this morning ring especially true – there are times I wish I could be “de-baptized” too. This morning’s Gospel about the real cost of discipleship, taking up your cross, denying yourself, losing your life and all is just one of those moments when de-baptizing might just seem like an option.Last week we heard the reading of Peter declaring Jesus as the Christ of God and being commended for getting that right. Immediately following getting it right, he gets it all wrong in projecting onto Jesus his vision of what the Messiah would be. Jesus rebukes Peter with some pretty harsh words and continues on to speak about denying yourself, taking up your cross and following him. He speaks of losing your life for his sake, in essence laying down your life for Christ, in order to gain real life.
This whole idea of taking up our cross is admittedly a bit alien in 21st century America. We do not execute criminals by crucifixion like the Romans did. The cross has become a fashion statement – many of us wear crosses around our necks and we see them in our homes and churches. It’s almost as if the cross has lost its offensive meaning.
What also troubles me is how the cross is used to legitimize our own suffering. I think this comes, in part, from atonement theories that case suffering as redemptive by using Jesus as the example. This is rooted in the idea that Christ “suffered for our sake” and died for our sins. Yes, this is in scripture, but I often find the meaning can get quite twisted as people equate their own suffering as somehow necessary because Christ suffered for them. This often gets couched in language of “it’s my cross to bear.”
That may well be. There are times when we suffer in life because of something we absolutely cannot control. However, people often take on crosses that are not their own. In essence, they act as Simon of Cyrene – the one who carried Jesus’ cross for him. When an abused spouse/partner thinks their suffering at the hands of their loved one is their cross to bear, that is not true – they are taking on the cross of violence another puts on them. When the spouse/partner of an addict suffers because of the active addiction of their loved one, they are taking on the cross of their addicted loved one and acting as Simon of Cyrene. Remember, there was a point where Simon put down Jesus’ cross because it was not his to bear to the end in death. I don’t believe that taking on a cross of suffering that someone else forces on you is what Jesus is talking about in this passage. I do not believe in a God who requires your suffering abuse at the hands and actions of another. Jesus died for that, you don't have to!
So what does this mean then, to lose your life for Christ’s sake and take up your cross and not someone else’s? I suggest it begins in identifying what in your life is standing in the way of your living fully and freely for God and others. There are plenty of attachments we have which can get in the way of our relationships with God and others. Some of these are truly addictions – and I’m not just talking about drugs or alcohol. Addiction to money and possessions is probably one of the most insidious and powerful addictions in our culture. Remember, addiction requires habituation and an increased desire of more of whatever we are addicted to. Think about that with respect to money. No matter how much money we have, don’t we all think we need more? No matter how many possessions we have, wouldn't that new iPhone or tablet computer or big screen TV be really nice? Another addiction we have is to being busy because it makes us feel important because we know the busier you are, the more important you must be. Or how about the obsession many of us who are parents have over making sure our kids are enrolled in all the right classes, playing all the right sports, involved in all the right activities so they can get into all the right colleges? If you have been playing Simon of Cyrene to another person and on the receiving end of abuse, maybe the relationship has become an obsession all its own.
These are the individual attachments and obsessions we have … but there are also the communal ones which lead to deep systemic sin and oppression of others. What about our obsession to get the absolute lowest price on everything? How many jobs have been shipped overseas to third world countries with oppressive working conditions and child labor so that we can get our clothing at rock bottom prices? How many people in our own country earn much less than a living wage because we demand things like cheap fast food? How many immigrant workers get exploited because employers know they can pay them substandard wages, if they get paid at all? Our addiction to cheap goods causes us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others precisely because it is out of our immediate sight.
What if we were to take a close and honest look at our obsessions, attachments and addictions and be willing to deny ourselves those things we think we cannot live without so that we might lose our life for the sake of Christ and the Kingdom of God? If you've been carrying a cross that doesn't belong to you, it may be time to put it down and leave that relationship so you can free yourself to live for the Kingdom of God. If you see yourself in those attachments and addictions I've mentioned … and there are many more than what I've stated … perhaps this would be a starting point to lose that life.
When we let go of obsessions, attachments and addictions, it is a way we take up our cross to follow Christ. It demands we die to our way of living so that we can find a fuller life in God. When we do, it will feel like death – make no mistake. Giving up obsessions and addictions always feels like dying because it is. But we are a people not just of losing life, but of transformed resurrected life too. When we hand over our life to God by denying our obsessions and addictions, we open a way for the Spirit to resurrect us and transform us into a totally new creation – both individually and collectively. Christ invites you today, in this community, to lose your life for his sake, take up your cross and follow him into a resurrected life. He awaits your reply ... the response is up to you.
This morning’s collect from Prayers for an Inclusive Church speaks of an “Unclean God” … a God that gets into our mess. This past Friday was the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin and this morning we are singing lots of Marian hymns in her honor – remembering a God who crossed boundaries of propriety to be born of an unwed teenage mother from some hick town up yonder. And now this same Jesus, son of Mary and Son of God, whose parentage is questionable at best, dares call a Canaanite woman a dog! Wow … unclean God indeed! There’s much disturbing about this story. Jesus begins by entering unclean Gentile territory and this woman, desperate to help her ailing daughter, crosses the cultural and gender boundaries to get his attention. And Jesus’ first reaction is to ignore her. But she won’t take “no” for an answer – she shouts all the more. The disciples ask Jesus if he wants them to shut her up. Jesus responds by essentially telling her he didn’t come for “her kind.” He attempts to put her in her place. But she is undeterred! She kneels before him and begs his help. And that’s when Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” It’s nothing new that women get called a “dog” when they refuse to be put in their place! She pops off with a snappy comeback: “… even the dogs eat the crumbs under the master’s table.” Jesus commends her great faith (in contrast to Peter’s little faith from last week’s reading) and says, “let it be done for you as you wish.”
There is much which troubles me in this story; however, the ending is what is sticking with me this week, perhaps due to the events which have unfolded. One could come away from this reading with the impression that if we just nag Jesus enough, whatever we want will be done for us as we wish. And there are plenty of people who will tell you if “you just have enough faith” and “just pray harder” God will hear you and answer your prayers. There are even hints of this in scripture itself. It’s as if God is some kind of indifferent parental figure that needs to be harangued until he gives in to our desires or some kind of benevolent sugar daddy doling out favors capriciously. My life experience tells me this isn’t true and I suspect deep down you know it too.
This story brings up the issue of what it means to be healed. It is a difficult question in our time and place because we often confuse healing with cure. The strides in medical technology have led us to believe that we can cure anything. We often read into the biblical narrative that those who are healed are cured when that isn’t necessarily so. Cure is the reversal of illness or disease and restoration to a non-diseased state. If you get strep throat, it is caused by bacteria. If you take an antibiotic, it will kill the bacteria causing the infection and support your immune system to clear your body of the disease. For the record, antibiotics don’t cure the infection – they provide support to your immune system by killing enough of the bacteria that your body can finish the job of clearing out the infection. There are some illnesses for which a cure is possible.
But more often than not, we suffer from diseases and infirmities which cannot be cured: infirmities are of body, mind and spirit. Many of these are just conditions – they are what they are. These conditions and infirmities can be managed, perhaps, but not cured. We have been painfully reminded of this in the death of Robin Williams this week. Mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia, addictions to alcohol or drugs, chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s, dementia, COPD, diabetes, congestive heart failure, many forms of cancer are not things for which there are cures. Treatments exist to help manage these chronic conditions. These treatments can bring us with a quality of life. But to expect a reversal, a cure, of this kind of disease is as unrealistic today as it was in Jesus’ time.
Diseases of body, mind and spirit can and do claim the lives of people we love and sometimes this happens in what seems to be tragic and untimely ways. We seem to be able to accept when people die from physical illnesses. If someone dies of cancer, we don’t blame their deaths on not “trying hard enough,” do we? But we often struggle to understand when the cause is addiction, mental illness, or even the deep spiritual diseases of our human condition. I think deaths from spiritual disease are the hardest to talk about because these infirmities are so deep and often hidden from us. This week, we have watched violence explode in Ferguson, Missouri over the death of Mike Brown – a young black man who was unarmed and gunned down by a fearful police office. The spiritual disease of racism and fear runs so deep that we find it easier to couch this as police abuse or criminal behavior. But it is a disease of a spiritual nature. When young black men have to get “the talk” from their elders about how not to provoke the police, that is the spiritual disease of racism! When a trans or gay person dies at the hands of an angry mob, that’s the spiritual disease of heterosexism. Yes, it is criminal behavior in the taking of a life, but that is a symptom of deeper spiritual illnesses which only God knows whether or not they can be cured – but I do think they can be healed.
Chronic emotional illnesses are also places where we can hope for healing, but cure is impossible. Those who do not suffer from drug or alcohol addiction can quite wrongly stand in judgment of addicts and alcoholics and blame them for “taking that first drink” or “choosing to use.” These beliefs stem from a complete lack of understanding of how addiction binds our will and destroys our freedom – it impairs the ability to choose freedom. People who stand in that judgment seat are in denial of the fact they have their own addictions – even if only the addiction to self-righteousness. There is healing for addiction, but there is no cure.
For those who do not suffer from mental illness, we can fall into the mistaken idea that if those suffering would just “snap out of it,” “get on meds,” or “get some help,” they could be cured. This isn’t true either – there is no cure for mental illness. There is treatment and management, there is healing, but there is no cure. If there were a cure, our brother Robin Williams and our sister Sophia Schmidt would not have succumbed to death by suicide from end-stage mental illness.
If we look closely at this story, we hear in the end the woman’s daughter was healed … not cured. What that healing looked like is unknown to us. Perhaps she was cured … and maybe not. Maybe she received some relief from her torment or perhaps she received just enough grace to go on for one more day.
Healing is something we all need and we all seek. Every single one of us has something which cannot be cured – a dis-ease of body, mind or spirit. Healing is gift from God which brings a sense of serenity and wholeness in the face of what cannot be cured. I am persuaded that healing is something which happens in community – it does not happen in isolation. At our best, the Church is a conduit for the healing grace of God. It comes through our worship, the sacraments, how we are sacraments to each other by the giving of our very lives, and from the medical resources with whom we partner to address the physical and emotional components of infirmities. Faith plays a role in healing, to be sure, but God also wants us to avail ourselves of therapeutic treatments too. It’s not either/or … it is both/and.
This community of Grace has been a means God has used to bring healing to others. It doesn’t mean that those who come here are necessarily cured, but it does mean we are called to show the love and care of Christ to all who come through the door. It also means we run the risk of our hearts being broken. In my life, I have found this is a risk worth taking because only when my heart breaks can God’s grace flow in to heal me too.
Have you ever come close to drowning? I mean really close … like you really thought you were going to die. It only happened to me once when I was 16 years old. I was body surfing at the Wedge in Newport Beach – thus named because of how the beach came up against the Newport Harbor jetty. The formation there made the waves pretty big and with a great shape for body surfing. While other beaches had 4 – 6 foot surf, the Wedge would have 10 foot waves or more. I was out there one day and trying to get into shore after riding a wave. Walking up the beach and out of the surf, I suddenly felt all the water pull out from around my legs … and looked over my shoulder to see about a 10 foot wave about to crash on my head! It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I took a deep breath and before I could tuck down the wave crashed and pinned me face down and prone in the sand. I could not move! In that moment, I thought to myself, “Well, this is it. I’m going to die.” But then I heard another voice, “Hang on. The ocean always lets you go.” It was my father who taught me this and it’s true – eventually the pressure releases and the ocean will let you go. While it seemed like forever, it finally did release and I was able to get my feet underneath me and propel myself to the surface. I was shaken and sputtering, but I lived to tell about it. I am convinced that the reason I made it was because I remembered my father’s words and followed his instructions.
Today’s gospel talks a lot about water; but not just water … darkness and wind are part of the story too. It is a story which, if you want to take it seriously, absolutely cannot be taken as a factual, literal event – it’s just too weird! This idea that the Bible is 100% factual is really a belief which has only been around for about 150 years – it’s not how we’ve viewed scripture for most of Christian history. I think there are some things we need to take literally – that whole “love your enemies” thing … there just isn’t any real way to see that as a metaphor! But the problem is when we take everything as literal – like the Bible is some kind of newspaper account. That’s a problem because the weird stories leave us with only two options. The first is we must completely turn off our knowledge of physics and science. Somehow Jesus, and Peter (at least for a few minutes), become magically able to suspend the laws of gravity and not plunge into the water. Somehow the laws of nature and physics don’t apply to Jesus. If that’s true, it would stand to reason he could have suspended natural law in any number of other situations – like when he was on the cross, he could have just not died. This also contradicts what Paul said about Christ in his letter to the Philippians – “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Jesus was Son of God – but he was a flesh and blood human being … the laws of physics still apply!
The second problem in taking this as a factual account is that we cannot ignore science and so we discount this story as some kind of Christian fairy tale. This could lead to the thinking that if this story isn’t “true” (meaning factual), then nothing in the Bible is “true” and we can discount the whole of the Christian faith. Both of these conclusions are the result of having a literal/factual interpretation of the Bible.
I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally all the time. So today, instead of shutting off our brains and ignoring science or discounting the Gospel text as a fairy tale, let’s look at a third way – that of image and metaphor where water, darkness, and wind tell us more about a much deeper truth.
The story follows on the heels of the feeding of the 5,000 (which we heard last week) and it’s a story where the original language of Greek is more colorful than our translations can render. Jesus compels his disciples to get into a boat and go to the “other side” of the lake – or as the Greek says he tells them to go “into the beyond.” “Go into the beyond!” – sounds like the Gospel according to Buzz Lightyear, doesn’t it? The “beyond” he is referring to is Gentile territory – where the known comfort of a world bound by Jewish rules and customs gives way to the unknown world of … bacon eaters. The “beyond” already sets the stage for a rising anxiety of facing the unknown.
The disciples set out, Jesus dismisses the crowd and goes off to pray, he comes back down to find the boat a long way off shore and the disciples being battered by waves and opposed by the wind. The Greek gets kind of colorful here: the disciples were “tormented by the waves” and “opposed by the wind” which carries a note of hostility in it – they are opposed by a hostile wind! Notice that fear isn’t in the equation at this point in the story – but water, darkness, and a hostile wind are.
In the Biblical imagery, water, darkness and wind have deep symbolic meaning. Water and darkness are the twin powers of chaos and calamity – the two deep things we fear. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “wind” is also the word for “spirit” or “breath” (we have three words, they have one!). These three words take us back to the beginning … as in the first creation story in the Book of Genesis (and yes, there are two stories that don’t match … so much for factual accounts!). Genesis 1:1-2 reads:
“At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters …” (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses). Notice the language from this Jewish translation: darkness, waters and “rushing-spirit of God” – or “wind” or “breath” of God. When these elements are coming together in a Biblical story, it is a sign of God’s power and presence – we call that a “theophany” or a revealing encounter with God. In this Gospel text, God is moving over the face of the water in the darkness again in the person of Jesus. The imagery is that of the chaos being under the feet of Jesus – God in Christ claims dominion over the chaotic waters in the middle of darkness and in spite of a hostile wind/spirit. A powerful image to Matthew’s community being persecuted in Antioch!
The disciples now become frightened when mistake Jesus for an apparition. His response was to tell them: “Have courage! I am. Fear not!” The words recorded in Greek are highly symbolic too. Whenever “I am” shows up in the Bible, it is reaching back to the voice which came out of the burning bush to Moses on Mt. Sinai when God said, “I am who I am.” Jesus, who claims dominion over the chaos and calamity, essentially says, “have courage, God is here, don’t be afraid.”
Now Peter, being who he was, shouts back a challenge: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus responds “Come” – and Peter steps out onto the chaos of the dark water himself. And notice that just for one brief shining moment, the chaos and calamity are beneath his feet too! Not because of his own strength and might, but because he had his focus on Christ. But then he saw the hostile wind/spirit and was distracted from his focus on God’s dominion over the forces of chaos and he begins to sink. He cries out, “Lord save me!” knowing full well his salvation didn’t come from his own ability. Jesus picks him up and doesn’t really rebuke him – he chides him a little “O you of little faith! Why did you doubt?” – doubt also means “hesitate” here. Why did you hesitate?
Peter hesitated for the same reason we do when we venture “into the beyond.” Sometimes we get thrown into the chaos of the beyond against our will – illness, job loss, death … there is a lot beyond our control. But even when we embark on something that we know is good and feels very right, we are still facing the chaos of the unknown which can make us hesitate. Ask any married couple if they had the pre-marital “cold feet” … “I know I want to spend the rest of my life with him/her … but what if I’m making a mistake?” And what about getting that great job offer … isn’t there hesitation when you want to say yes but you still have nagging doubts? Anytime we personally head “into the beyond” we can get distracted by the anxiety of the unknown. I confess I had that moment with our Food Forest project – on Rogation Sunday. When I stepped outside the kitchen with my coffee I thought, “How cool!” and then “Oh my God! What have we done??!! What if nobody shows up to help? Art’s gonna kill me. Where will we get plants? What if I’ve snapped my cap?” We all hesitate and have moments where the chaos gets more of our attention than it should get.
In those moments, I go back to Jesus’ words: “Take courage! I am. Fear not.” The Holy One who claims dominion over all the chaos of our lives and this world invites us to venture into the beyond in spite of our hesitation and fear and tells us we are covered by God’s grace. When re remember those instructions, there really is nothing for us to fear.
Oh the joys of lectionary preaching! Last week it was the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Abraham and this week Abraham is told by God to kill his other kid. Who came up with this progression of readings?? If anything, these two readings in a row should dispel any idea that the Bible is a paragon of family values! But I don’t pick ‘em … I just preach ‘em!
This story from Genesis is known by Jewish rabbis as the Akedah – the near sacrifice of Isaac. It’s one of the more disturbing readings of the Torah. The idea that after Abraham turns out his firstborn son and his mother God would make the demand on Abraham to offer his son, his only son, whom he loved as a burnt offering is just too horrific to wrap our heads around. And the way it is told is absolutely cringe worthy! A three days journey before you leave behind the servants and continue on … Abraham knowing all the while what he was going to do and, from the questions Isaac raises, it’s unlikely he has any idea of what is going to happen. It’s just nauseating! What kind of God would do such a thing?
Needless to say, the difficult scriptures are the ones which generate the most discussion. This passage is right up there with the whole book of Job insofar as the amount of rabbinic commentary. There is much going on here but there are two things which are commonly held about this story. The first is that God is testing Abraham. There appears to be some question as to whether Abraham trusts in God completely or whether he has become overly attached to his son Isaac – in essence making Isaac an idol of sorts. The second objective of this story is to explain the etiology or root cause of why the Israelites did not sacrifice children as was common in other ancient cultures around the Near East and indeed around the world. The prophetic tradition of the Bible upholds the abhorrence of child sacrifice for the Israelites and this story provides the background of why the Israelites are different from their neighbors.
In this story, God has asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. There are two kinds of sacrifices in the Jewish tradition. A regular sacrifice, like the Passover lamb, would be ritually offered to God and also become part of a sacred meal. A burnt offering is giving completely and totally to God – put on the altar and burnt so that you could not take back any of it. It is the latter which God demands of Abraham.
Now the narrative says that at the last minute, Isaac is spared and a ram is offered up in Isaac’s place as the burnt offering. But I think if we look at this from an emotional and spiritual angle, there were other things offered up and burnt on the altar that day. Certainly the trust Isaac had in his father was destroyed that day! Think about it … if you were Isaac, would you trust the old man after this?? Not so much. I can only imagine Sarah asking Isaac how the trip with dad went … “Oh, he just tried to sacrifice me, but other than that, it was fine.”
When you look beyond the end of today’s reading, there are some things which support the idea of the death of the father/son relationship. There is no mention of Isaac leaving the mountain in the narrative – although we know he does because he shows up later in the story. I know if I had been Isaac, I would have bolted off of that mountain as soon as I was freed! The story says that Abraham returned to the two young men he left behind and they went down to Beer-Sheba and Abraham lived there. There is no mention of Abraham returning to Sarah after this incident and the very next part of the story records Sarah’s death. It is said that Abraham went up to mourn for Sarah – indicating he was not there when she died. Abraham buries Sarah in a cave at Machpelah near Hebron … but Isaac is not mentioned at all. It appears he is not there for his mother’s burial. We hear that Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac, but we do not hear any direct communication between Abraham and his son over this – it is all done through Abraham’s servant. Finally Abraham dies and we do hear that Isaac and Ishmael together bury Abraham in the cave at Machpelah next to Sarah. The text implies that something changed between Abraham and Isaac that day on Mount Moriah and their relationship was forever changed … the way they had related to each other was burned on that altar that day. This raises a question for us: What might God be asking you to give up as a burnt offering so that you might grow closer to God in Christ? It’s a difficult question because there are all kinds of things which can kidnap our wills and affections.
Today is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul – the pillars of the Church. Both of them had to make many burnt offerings in their lifetimes. They left their jobs to follow Christ, they left their security that offered, and eventually they were both martyred in Rome for their faith. But there were metaphoric burnt offerings they made – a major one being their prejudice against Gentiles. As observant Jews, Peter and Paul had to let go of the idea that Gentiles were excluded from Christ’s message – and a deeply ingrained prejudice is hard to offer over to God. But it was a kind of burnt offering which was given over so that the gospel could reach to the ends of the earth.
Yesterday at the Frederick Pride Worship service, we heard Frank Schaefer speak. If you've been following church news, Frank is the United Methodist minister who was defrocked for performing a same sex wedding for his son. As he told the gathering yesterday, of his four children, two of his three sons are gay and his daughter is lesbian. He said his youngest son had to “come out as straight!” He shared his journey of how his children led him to become an ally for the LGBT community within the United Methodist Church. He also spoke of his very real fears. After performing the wedding for his son, he expected to be fired from his job. He did not expect that six years after doing this wedding, charges would be filed against him and he would be put on trial and be stripped of his right to serve as a minister of the Gospel. He spoke of the fear of losing his call which meant losing his income, the family’s health insurance, and having no means by which to make a living. This trial didn't just end up about him, his own LGBT children were called to testify and be cross-examined. The whole family was put through a terrible ordeal. Frank knew he would be asked whether or not he would do another same sex wedding. He knew the church wanted to hear some kind of equivocating answer like, “Well, I can’t answer that because it would depend upon the circumstances and context.” That would have been the answer that might have protected his position … but it wasn't the truth. When Frank testified, he put his trust in God alone, threw away his notes and spoke from the heart about how the church has sinned in rejecting LGBT people and that he would never turn his back on this community because of his call to be a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel rooted in love. Frank made a burnt offering that day of his livelihood, his call, and the security of his family. During this time, he was able to sustain the family on his speaking honorarium and, when the insurance ran out he told us, “Obamacare kicked in and we now have better insurance coverage than the United Methodist Church ever offered our family!” Frank offered everything as a burnt offering … and on that mountain the Lord provided.
Not all of us are called to make such dramatic burnt offerings; however, we all have things in our lives which get in the way of following Christ more freely and fully. As a parent, I know the temptation to be overly involved in my children’s lives and over identify with them to the point of obsession. Admittedly, there is a fine line between caring and obsessive parenting. Perhaps Abraham’s issue was an obsession with Isaac – even to the point of rejecting Ishmael. It’s not that I would be offering up my children as a burnt offering so much as it is offering up my obsession with them – giving that completely over to God and taking nothing back.
Maybe what has captured you is your work – an addiction highly rewarded in our culture but one which can destroy significant relationships with spouses, partners, children and friends. When work gets so intrusive that I don’t have time for friends or family, then maybe it’s time for the way I relate to my work to be given over as a burnt offering.
Very early next Sunday, our mission team will be leaving for Indianapolis to work with some of their vulnerable citizens. You all are making a burnt offering in doing this. First you are offering up your time which is a burnt offering of sorts because you cannot take it back! Second, you are offering up yourselves in service and you will be changed in that process. You cannot take that service back and you will be different in some way when you return. That is the nature of a burnt offering.
God does not wrest things out of our hands against our will in order that we might be more like Christ. We have to be willing to give over completely that which impedes our ability to live freely and fully for God in Christ. What will you give over completely as your burnt offering?