Monday, August 25, 2008

Who do you say that I am?

8/25/08 Message

     "Who do you say that I am?" It is a question that Jesus put to His disciples this past weekend which leads to Peter's wonderful confession. But it is also a question which He puts to each and every one of us who calls Him Lord and Savior. "Who do you say that I am?" So often, we "modern" Christians listen to the voices and testimony of the world and believe that we have not right to claim that our Truth is correct. At the old St. Catherine-St. Mark Episcopal Day School (now Rivermont Collegiate), I was approached a couple weeks ago by another parent of a differing faith and reminded that the world (and naturally the old Episcopal School) does not accept Christian claims to know the Truth. And, as the France's Time Magazine letters to the editors this week reminded us, such opposition to the Gospel is not limited to our own community. As our Gospel lesson pointed out this week, though, such claims by the world are not "modern" at all. These pluralistic claims to truth existed as much in Jesus' day as they do our own. In fact, Pilate is reported to have asked Jesus during his examination "What is truth?" This post-modern understanding is not a new discovery or evidence of humanity's progress, as many would like to claim. Nor is it any more of a challenge to the proclamation of the Gospel message than it was in Jesus' day.

     "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asks the question in the town of Caesarea Philippi. To us, the town has no special theological significance. It is just a small town north of the Sea of Galilee located in the Golan Heights that has been renamed Banias. It is simply another collection of ancient temples and houses which only an archaeologist might find fascinating. Yet, the location of the question speaks to the world's claims about multiple truths and its criticisms of Christianity's claim to exclusive revelation. Caesarea Philippi had been refurbished and rededicated by King Herod Philip to honor Caesar. The location had a special significance. Caesarea Philippi was built on an enormous rock in the shadow of Mt. Hebron. Mt. Hebron was significant in antiquity because it was believed to be the birthplace of the god, Pan.
Pan was significant to the cultures of the Ancient Near East as he was viewed as being the god of shepherds, the god of fertility, the god of lust, the god of the hunt, the god of music, and the father of a number of other members of the ANE pantheon. A number of temples existed in this town, and King Herod Philip had refurbished the town and added a temple to Caesar to cull favor with the Roman Emperor. One can easily imagine this setting. Beautiful marble edifices erected to Pan and his offspring, a magnificent temple erected to the honor of Caesar, the great mountain in the background, and this sheer rock upon which it all had been built. And Jesus chooses this location to ask of His disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"

     And, lest we think that to be the only geographical significance, another birth occurs in this wondrous town. The headwaters of the river Jordan are located at this town. The same Jordan through which God had led His people into the promised land originates in this place where Jesus questions His disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" It was an amazing location to ask such a question.

     It is often easy for us who have been raised in a somewhat Christian culture to forget that such was not always the case. We face a world which claims that all faiths lead to God or that whatever "feeds" us must be valued by everyone. And we Christians tend to accept that complaint that we should not expect others to accept the exclusive claims of Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as a somehow civilized notion. Yet our story from Matthew reminds us that such has ever been the case. The world has always testified against its rightful King. The world has always argued that pluralism is somehow better or more important than the Christian Mission. In the midst of these magnificent buildings and an area with an amazing history, Jesus asks His disciples "Who do you say that I am?" And it is in this unlikely of all locations that Peter confesses Jesus to be the King, the Messiah, the Christ! In the face of overwhelming testimony, Peter is given the grace-filled insight to see that Jesus is the rightful King, the magnificent prophet, and the ultimate priest who has come to restore God's Kingdom. In the face of "small t truths" Peter confesses the Truth. And millions of faithful disciples have followed in Peter's footsteps ever since.

     Though the world has often fought against the claims of Jesus, uncounted numbers of people have given up their lives for the sake of His Truth. And, as the Church has gathered for nearly two millenia to make its alleluias at their graves or to celebrate the pledge He has given to each of us in His Word and Sacrament, we are called to continue to proclaim the answer to His question, "Who do you say that I am?" It might seem a simple question. It might seem a hard question. It certainly is a question each of us must answer like Peter if we are not to repudiate the claims of our Lord. When He puts that question to each of us, either through the mouths of others or in our hearts, each of us is required to give Him an answer. "Who do you say that I am?" For us to deny Him and who He is, particularly in the face of such claims of plural truths, is simply to prolong the agony of the dying around us. Our Lord has promised us and all who believe in Him eternal life. And, unlike all these other gods and powers and principalities, He is the only one who can keep His promises. Why would we ever want to hide our faith in Him when confronted by others? Why would we, those who have heard and accepted His Great Commission to go forth into the world baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ever want others to miss the love and freedom which He has offered to all? "Who do you say that I am?" Your fiends, your neighbors, your family, your strangers, and even creation waits to hear your answer. Who do you say that He is?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Over the course of the past few weeks, I was nearly moved to weep at some of the writings of other clergy regarding the Canaanite woman in Matthew's Gospel. A few had the temerity (or lousy christology) to suggest that Jesus' treatment of the woman was the sin of racism present in our Lord and Savior. Others bravely suggested that the woman's role was to teach the Son of God about the need for equal treatment of women and foreigners, as if He needed help understanding the right (holy) way of treating others. And still others are simply disgusted by Jesus' "rudeness." What is more lamentable is that none sought to understand what is occurring in our Gospel lesson this week that would be reflective of a righteous, holy, loving Man who would lay down His life for the sinners and unjust in obedience to the will of the Father. But in the midst of these sad commentaries on our Gospel lesson, I started to wonder how much many of us struggle with this passage. If those that went to seminary and are trained to read the Scriptures are so confused, what of those in our midst who have no such training?

For those of us who think of Jesus as some pre-Gandhi-like figure of peace and love, this piece of Scripture and others can leave us shaking our heads. Why does He call her people a dog? Why does He not answer her right away? And why does He not condemn His disciples for suggesting that He send her away? The context may help us just a bit. 

Keep in mind, Matthew has written this Gospel for the church of northern Palestine somewhere around 40 years after Jesus' death, resurrection, and Ascension. The Church community to which he is ministering is persecuted not only by the Romans but by the Jewish community as well. Further, the Church in northern Palestine was experience the pain of realizing that the very ones through whom salvation had come were rejecting their rightful king and messiah. Certainly, the community had to wonder whether God really was in control of His Church and His people. Matthew has a big problem to address.

So, Matthew relates a story. Coming on the heals of the Pharisee's repudiation of Jesus and His disciple's willingness to eat with "unclean hands" and Jesus' explanation of defilement, we are told that Jesus heads north. Does He head north to escape the crowds? Does He need a bit of a break? Or, is it to remind His followers that the point of the Gospel (since the time of Abraham) is to draw the entire world into the Kingdom of God? Certainly the feeding of the 4000 Gentiles (a mirroring of the feeding of 5000 in the Jewish lands) immediately after our reading this weekend supports the latter understanding, but such was not in our reading.

Instead, we are called to focus on the Canaanite woman. By calling her a Canaanite woman, Matthew is reminding his readers that this woman embodies the very race which led God's people into idolatry so many times in the past. And yet this "enemy of God's people" expresses a faith unseen in the leadership of God's very own people. The Canaanite woman nags Jesus to heal her daughter who is possessed. Indeed, the outsider recognizes Him for who He is, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy upon me." The nagging gets so bad that Jesus' disciples beg Him to send her away. And yet Jesus asks aloud whether it is fair to take the children's bread and give it to the puppies. I know most translations choose the word dog, but the Greek word kynaria is the diminutive dog, a puppy. Most translators no doubt choose dog for their translation because the Jews thought of the Gentiles as dogs. It is likely that Jesus played on this cultural understanding. He has just finished teaching the "leaders" of the Jewish people about the true meaning of defilement. Yet he calls God's people children and the Gentiles puppies. Were the statement an outright repudiation or racist statement, one would expect the woman to "let Him have it." Instead, we can nearly see the upturned lips as she grasps the partly sarcastic but partly true statement and the meaning behind it. And, undaunted, the Canaanite woman responds that even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from the tables of their masters. This woman, who has rightly called Jesus the king of the nation that conquered her people so long ago, who has rightly picked up on Jesus' test or wit, does not object to His reminder that His primary mission is to the people of God. This woman even points us to our own Prayer of Humble Access in which we all state that we are not worthy to eat the crumbs that fall from His table.
The woman realizes that her status is secondary to that of the Jewish people. Yet she trusts that God will have enough power to save all; she trusts that even if the Jews do not reject Him or His ministry, the King, the messiah will rule and care for all people as God as called Him to do. And Jesus, as God always does, responds to the faith regardless of the race of the one professing. Her daughter is healed.

Why does Jesus put her off? Perhaps it is a test. Or, perhaps Jesus is merely reflecting the delay that will be experienced between His Resurrection and Ascension (when the Father glorified Him for His obedience) and the Feast of Pentecost, when the disciples were given the Holy Spirit to go forth into the ends of the world baptizing the nations. Perhaps the story is meant to address the problem facing the Church in northern Palestine. If the Pharisees could reject the good news of the messiah while He walked the earth, it was no small wonder that the Jews would reject the good news that they had to share. Better still, perhaps they should not be surprised at their success among the Gentiles when such stories existed to remind them that faith could be found anywhere. Perhaps, the story is even more literal. Jesus does have enough food for Israel, as the feeding of the 5000 represented, but He also has bread crumbs enough for the rest of the world. Any who believe in Him can be saved; the numbers do not matter. We are required only to repent and call Him our Lord and Savior. It is a pity that so many of us forget or refuse that simple truth.

Monday, August 18, 2008

8/18/08 Bulletin Message
Last week, I pointed out that Jesus really understands our dysfunctional families. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who actually read the stories of Genesis 37 and on. A number of people were shocked at some of the stories. I had a number of "Wow. His family was way more screwed up than my family" comments during the week. Some could not get over the fact that Reuben tried to sleep with one of his father's wives (hey, at least it was not his mother). A couple were shocked at Judah's off-handed use of a prostitute to scratch his itch. One or two picked up on Reuben's willingness to have Jacob kill his own grandkids (Reuben's children) if Benjamin was not brought back safely. And not a few were condemning of Joseph who tortured his brothers during this period. Hopefully, if I did my job Sunday, each of you present recognized that there were even way more dysfunctions occurring. Jacob calls Benjamin his son, as if Reuben and Judah and all the others are strangers. Jacob refers to Rachel as his wife, as if Leah and the others are non-existent to him. There are enough dysfunctions in this family for any family therapist to write a few books.

In fact, the hero of the story is so misled that he first leaves his family to go among the Canaanites. Think of that, Judah would rather associate with and marry the very nation which will later lead his people into idolatry. Such is how he despises his birthright. And then, only after his daughter-in-law demonstrates that she is more righteous than he, Judah begins to understand his relative worth. And then, as he begins acknowledge his behavior before family and friends, God goes to work. Judah has engaged in a number of sins, and yet God is able to turn him into an image of Christ. How does this happen. Think back to last week's reading. Who proposes to sell Joseph rather than kill him? Judah. Judah is so selfish at the beginning of this that he wants to "make a little money" off his dislike of Joseph. He is so selfish that he refuses to give Tamar his third son to continue the line. He is so selfish that he thinks nothing of giving a prostitute his more valuable possessions to satisfy his itch. Even when Joseph's steward puts back the money in the bags, Judah assumes that God is finally repaying them for the sin against Joseph. And though all the brothers agree that God is out to get them, none confess the sin to Jacob.

Yet, right before our reading, it is Judah who pleads with Joseph for the release of Benjamin. And Judah uses the words of Jacob to beg for Benjamin's life, words which must have surely hurt as much as any wound could. Please, Lord, if I return without Benjamin, I shall bear the blame before my father all my life. I fear the evil which will find my father. Though Jacob has been a horrible father and terrible husband, though Jacob has reduced his sons not born of Rachel to mere strangers, his son still loves him. And Judah would rather finish his life as a slave rather than return the evil to his father. Now Judah belongs to God. The same man who decided to profit off his brother's misfortune is the same man who proposes to spend his life as a slave. The same man who tricks his dad by smearing blood in the robe is that same man who lays down his life that no evil may come upon his dad. And Judah does this despite the fact that his father does not love him as he did Joseph or does Benjamin and despite how his father treats his mother.
We might understand Judah's motivation. He is willing to become a slave to preserve his father and brother, both of whom are more righteous than he. Judah had committed any number of sins, and he was all too away of his guilt because of them. And yet, his actions point to God's true Man, His Son, our Redeemer. Brothers and sisters, so often we are like Joseph's brothers. We think that God is out to get us for our various sins. Yet the whole of Scripture reminds us that everyone pales in comparison to Jesus. While we might understand Judah's motivation, we must acknowledge that Jesus loves us more. Judah was willing to give up his life for family members. Jesus gave up His life for complete strangers, stranger who would do terrible things to each other. And, unlike Judah, Jesus was without sin. Of all people, He had no guilt! He had no need to lay down His life except for His love of you and me. Still, he wondrously, lovingly went to the cross for the sake of all sinners who would repent in His name.

Brothers and sisters, what in your life resonates with the stories of Joseph's brothers? What sin is it in your life that causes you to fear God? If you fear Him, you are not listening to Him or His offer. Jesus came and bore the sins of the enemies of God, the very ungodly, you and me. He has offered you and me and all whom we meet glorious forgiveness. He has offered to bear our guilt and leave us with a light burden. All we need to do is ask Him to forgive our sins and he can transform our hearts just as He did the heart of Judah. Brothers and sisters, Jesus laid down His life that the glory of God might show forth in each of our lives. Accept His offer of forgiveness, and go forth into the world rejoicing in His power to transform the hearts of all!

Monday, August 11, 2008

I was remarking to the congregation this past weekend that I actually had a couple titles for sermons that could be displayed on a bulletin board in front of the church. I had been away from the Old Testament for six weeks running, so I chose yesterday to discuss "dysfunctional -- it's what the Bible thinks of as normal." And I proceeded to highlight a few of the dysfunctions in the holy family. Hopefully, if I did my job well, I also managed to highlight the evidence of transformative grace in the lives of Reuben, Joseph, and even Jacob. Since we all live in normal "dysfunctional" families, our Genesis passage should have spoken to a number of us. And given some of the laughter and nudging elbows as I discussed whiners, plotters, tattletales, bad parents, and the like, I am certain all of us saw family members, if not ourselves, in the descriptions. Our reading from Matthew was also very appropriate for life as a disciple of Christ. So often, we seem to go from mountaintop experiences to nadirs to more nadirs to a mountaintops. As much as we might wish it, we seldom ever get to go from mountaintop to mountaintop in or faith journeys. We should be encouraged by the apostles response this weekend. Each of them has witnessed the feeding of the 5000 men, besides women and children. Jesus has announced to the world that He is the Messiah, He is the King whom the Scriptures have foretold. Only God can provide bread in the wilderness; and Jesus' miracle has announced His relationship to the Father. And Jesus has them get in the boat and row to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. As they are rowing, a storm comes up. Jesus is not with them to calm this storm, and the disciples are able to make little headway under their own power. Then they see the figure walking on the water! Is it a ghost? Are they about to die? And Jesus tells them it is He and not to be afraid. Peter asks that question, "Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water." And Jesus does. And for a few moments, at least, Peter is walking on the water. But then, we are told, he notices the wind and the rain. He realizes what he is doing, and he begins to sink. In desperation he calls out to Jesus to save him. And Jesus does. Then Jesus criticizes Peter for his lack of faith and asks, " . . . why did you doubt?"

Matthew wrote this Gospel for new Church that was being heavily persecuted in Palestine. His audience would have been seen as fools by their brother and sister Jews. The man, Jesus, who had been hung on the tree was the Messiah? You really believe He rose from the dead? Yes, it is likely that Matthew's audience was teased by those in the synagogues who had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Furthermore, the Roman authorities would not have been kindly disposed to the new Church. Unlike the other storm on the sea in the Gospel, Jesus is not present when the storm blows up. The message to the early Church would have been clear. Storms will blow up, and it seems as if Jesus is no longer with us. Yet, Jesus comes striding to the apostles walking in and on the storm. Such is Jesus' power and authority that He can always rise above the storms. We know already that He can calm then, but now we learn that He can use them. Better still, when Peter challenges Him, Jesus commands Peter to walk on the water to Him. And Peter does! Despite the raging storm around him, Peter is able to walk to Jesus. Then Peter notices what he is doing. He becomes afraid and begins to sink. Peter recognizes what is about to happen, and he calls to his Lord to save Him. And again, He does! Our lives are not dissimilar to those of Matthew's time. Sometimes, you and I may feel that Jesus is absent from us. At times, stormy seas will blow up in our lives. Yet Jesus' power and authority is the same today as it ever has been! Such is His redemptive power that He can get us through the storms of our lives, be they literal, financial, work-related, or personal. And when our eyes are fixed upon Him, we too can walk on stormy seas! You and I can be called by our Master to do amazing works, works which may seem far bigger than we can ever do. And, like Peter, when we stop to think about what we are doing while in the middle of the work, we might get overwhelmed by what we are doing. And when we measure our abilities against the task at hand, we might well "begin to sink."

But Matthew's story is a story of faith and of unbelief. Peter, before he drowns, calls out to Jesus. The minute he realizes he is sinking, Peter calls upon the name of the only one who can save Him. And merciful, gracious Jesus does. This story should comfort us the way it no doubt comforted those in the early church. It is our job to trust Him. It is His job to save. Sometimes our personal storms might seem overwhelming. Sometimes, the threats from the storms in our lives can even lead to a physical death. Yes Jesus' job and authority is the same as it ever has been. Better still, He is a God who has promised to save and to redeem. And if He has risen from the dead and you truly believe that, what in your life can He not redeem? What could be more difficult that rescuing you from death? If He can keep His promises on the big storm, imagine what He can do in the other storms of life that blow our way!

Monday, August 4, 2008

I work and work for His Kingdom, and what do I have to show for it? I am so insignificant, how can I ever make a difference? The world’s problems are so big, how can I solve them when I cannot solve my own problems? --No doubt at least once in the last few weeks, each of us has wondered about the sovereignty of God in questions like these, or at least very much like them. Often, when we are in those dark moments of life, we wonder whether God is really in control of our lives. We may accept that He is "with" us, in the sense that He is rooting for us; but we can sometimes find ourselves questioning whether He really is in control and able to redeem whatever we perceive to have gone wrong in our lives.

This week’s reading from Matthew should speak to us whenever we find ourselves questioning our role or significance to His plan of salvation as Matthew was writing to a Church that was very much hounded by the powers and principalities of the world. When Matthew wrote his Gospel account, both the Roman pantheon (which was supported by the state) and the Jewish faith (which had existed for a few thousand years) dwarfed this seemingly new faith. Talk about a church in need of encouragement! The first two parables told by Jesus are told to the crowd. And, no doubt, the parables must have seemed strange. If the Kingdom of God is such a wonderful place, why do we not see it clearly? Why does the Kingdom of God, who is all-powerful, not blow the earthly kingdoms away with its beauty and redemptive promise? In other words, why does the Kingdom of God seem so insignificant? Jesus simply reminds His audience of something with which many would have been familiar. Jesus uses the mustard seed as an example of something which seems insignificant, but turns into an amazingly large shrub. Another item in the parable with which Jesus’ audience would have been familiar would have been the image of the birds resting in the branches. Both Ezekiel 17 and Daniel 4 would have taught Jesus’ audience that the Gentile "birds" would eventually be drawn into the family of God. Jesus is claiming that the Kingdom He is ushering into the world is fulfilling that very promise of God. And yet, it starts from the seemingly tiniest, most insignificant seed!

The parable of the leaven should have likewise encouraged Matthew’s hearers and shocked Jesus’ audience. Jesus’ use of this parable would have seemed somewhat strange to His audience. Those faithful Jews in the midst of the audience likely would have thought it strange that a Rabbi was talking about leavened bread. What’s special about leavened bread? Furthermore, at Passover, the Jews were required to make sure that all traces of leavened flour were removed from the household, so how good can it really be? Matthew likely chose to relate this parable of His master precisely because there is seemingly nothing special about leavened flour. Every household would have had leavened flour. It would have been "common" rather than unique or "Kingdom-like." Yet the very apostles and disciples chosen by Jesus were so ordinary and common. What qualified Matthew for his role in salvation history, he was just a tax collector? Peter, a fisherman? Mary Magdalene? Mary and Martha? Alban? They were so ordinary. Yet each was transformed by the grace of God and used to further His plan of salvation. Each, by worldly measures, seemed inconsequential; yet, God used them to start a church which began to draw in the Gentiles as described earlier. The seed has been planted; the yeast is fermenting the flour; the Kingdom is coming near!

From there, however, our reading from Matthew turns to the inner circle. While the first two parables are told to the crowds, the last two parables are told only to the disciples. The disciples are instructed by the parables that the Kingdom of God is the greatest of all treasures, and the kingdom can be discovered in any number of ways. Like the parable of the treasure in the field, sometimes the Kingdom can be found when one is not really looking for it. No doubt there are some among us who were not looking for the loving embrace of Christ when they first found Him; yet, they recognized the value of His offer of salvation. Similarly, the Kingdom is often sought and sought by people determined to find it until they discover its perfection compared to all other "treasures." It is also likely that there were some among us looking for that love which Christ offers each of us, and they were overjoyed when they first heard the Gospel! One of the lessons of Jesus’ instruction is that the Kingdom’s value is beyond all compare. Life may seem random or very determined, but God’s Kingdom is always to be sought! And when it is found, there ought to be great rejoicing!

Our readings end with Jesus’ parable of the good fish and stinky fish. Once again, He calls us to think of that uncomfortable topic of judgment. In a section of Matthew which begins with the parable of the wheat and the tares, you and I are called to remember the need for perseverance. Jesus reminds us that we are planted in an imperfect world and that we will sometimes seem insignificant when compared with the worldly successes or importance of those around us. This last parable reminds us that we are even sometimes planted in an imperfect church. The question that Matthew and Jesus place before us is whether we will persevere. Will you and I continue our faithful labors, labors which may seem futile and insignificant at times? Or will we give in to the temptations of the world and find ourselves working for treasures of far less value than the Kingdom treasure which we all have been offered? It is a daunting question because of the judgment which is promised. One of the challenges presented by Matthew’s entire Gospel is the need for perseverance. And perseverance for Matthew points to our ultimate judgment by God. Do we want to be good fish, or will we settle for being stinky fish? The Gospel news, of course, is that He really is in control. What the world may mean for insult or injury, God can use to redeem! What society may reject, God can redeem! What seems so insignificant will one day, at the day of the Lord, be revealed to be the most significant treasure in all of history! Better still, He has offered you and me and everyone we meet an important role in that salvation history. The question put to each of us is whether we will trust Him and persevere to the end trusting that He will accomplish through us His masterful plan.