Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tales of redemption . . .

     As the e-mails, phone calls and personal visits increased last week, I realized that we perhaps do not pay close enough attention to how God uses our crosses to reach into the lives of those around us and spread His kingdom. I say we because it is a failure on both our parts. Sometimes, I err on the side of caution and do not share particular redemptions because I “know” that the parishioner will refuse permission anyway. At other times, however, people are sometimes slow to share their stories. Perhaps it is humility, perhaps it is fear that they might become a sermon illustration and don't like the attention, or perhaps they really believe that their particular crosses are irredeemable. Whatever the reasons, we tend to come up short when it comes to sharing redemptive stories about ourselves. And that is a terrible loss for this body gathered at St. Alban’s. What better encouragement can be found than in our own stories? Better still, as Jesus instructs us in this week’s readings and the psalmist reminds us (though we admittedly skipped a lot of it in our lectionary this week), God is always at work redeeming His people and their suffering.

     I spoke of Martha’s impact on the soldiers with whom I have spoken, but others among us had a hand in their care. Chief among those others was George. While we may think of him as a father of wonderful girls, a great brew master, or our Senior Warden, George has had another life, that of a career soldier. Among his contributions to the military has been his somewhat critical study and presentations of how troops are deployed and brought home versus how they were in past wars. Whether it was his own “civilian” experiences of waking in the morning in Davenport and finding himself some 30 hours or so later in a combat zone or just his discussions with soldier after soldier, George has been a champion of the need for more “debriefing time” for our soldiers. In wars past, soldiers would spend a week or two in transit together. While outsiders might view their time drinking or playing cards as wasteful, older veterans claimed that was the time they could talk about what each one was feeling or had experienced without judgment. Everyone present had experienced their own horrors. And that time together and the common experiences forged a brotherhood which allowed our soldiers to decompress before civilian life. It can be a challenge taking on the inertia of the military. It might not be good for his civilian career. Nevertheless, George has chosen to highlight the existing problem to improve the “resettlement” of our soldiers into society.  But, if the military continues to listen to such criticisms and acts upon them, think of the benefits!  Soldiers will be helped, military families will be helped, and co-workers will be helped.

     I mentioned Hannah’s words to me, but another parishioner’s words to me were just as comforting. Last Friday, a man called me at home in need of help. He was at the Flying J. To make a really long story short, he claimed to have been abandoned by a trucker. He was an Episcopalian from a church in North Dakota and needed help. Since it was the 19th, Discretionary Funds were spent (and, I explained to him, could have been spent many times over in August). But he was persistent. I reached out to some parishioners that I knew were usually good at prayerful discernment of need and, better still, possessive of the resources he needed. As I shared the story with one of our parishioners, she asked her usual questions. As I was complaining about not being able to meet his need so far and his response, her memory was jogged. “I think it’s a scam, Father. You may have forgotten, but this sounds like a guy from the Flying J when you had been here maybe a year. He called the bishop’s office. He chewed you out unfairly. They both have the same name and are from the same diocese. I think it’s a scam and we shouldn’t be giving him help. Besides, you have already talked to how many parishioners?” I answered. “We may not have a ton of resources, but we’re by no means miserly. That so many have been unable to help with this makes me think this is God’s way of helping us be good stewards. Quit answering your phone. It’s your day off. If he wants to yell at someone, he can call me.” I did not share her number with him the next time he called, but I did share her thoughts about our previous encounter. He hung up and did not call again.  The parishioner later apologized.  She agonized a couple days over what she had said to "the priest."  I" was taught that we were never supposed to speak to priests like that.  Besides, you are the one that is supposed to be able to discern these things best."  I, of course, told her there was no apology owed, but rather a thank you.  Her discernment and her willingness to speak with boldness has saved me some worry and the church some money -- the man never denied what she said.  Plus, whether she likes it or not, in our Lord's eyes, she is a priest in His eternal kingdom, too!

     One of my favorite stories is a reminder to many of you.  Toni the trucker has one of the most amazing stories of redemption.  Toni is one of those parents who has had the terrible experience of losing a child.  In Toni's case, his child was five at the time of his death.  Toni's testimony is out there for the world to see.  You see, Toni took his truck and made it a billboard for the redemption in his life.  After terrible mourning, after cursing God and all sorts of lashing out, Toni recalled God's promises.  As a memorial, he decided to have an angel and note of remembrance placed on his truck.  Those of us who have seen it when he delivers food for Angel Food know it stands out.  One of the gifts that Toni received from God through this terrible experience, though, was an eye to see those in need.  In days past, Toni admits he rarely saw disabled cars as anything but an obstacle to be avoided.  Now, however, he sees those cars, more importantly those people in the disabled cars, as people in need of help.  Nowadays, he stops.  What has truly amazed him has not been the needs:  out of gas, flat tire, broken belt, and etc. are very predictable.  No, what has surprised him has been the sheer number of people who have broken down in his path who have lost a child or baby.  They see his truck, they ask about its meaning, and they hear his testimony.  The last time we spoke with Toni, he had prayed with about three dozen cars for God to comfort them in their loss of a child.  As Toni has prayed to the Father who knows what it truly feels like to lose a Son, amazing windows into souls have been opened.  Toni now knows that his son's death, while still tragic and painful to Toni and his wife, has been used by God to reach into the suffering experienced by other parents bearing the same cross.  Better still, his son's death and Toni's willingness to share his hurt and pain and God's redemption have returned home several prodigal sons and daughters to their loving Father.

     So great is our God, brothers and sisters, that His redemptive acts in the world around us are not limited to just the "Christians."  Many of you know that a lady lost her life on Garfield tragically this summer.  Her boyfriend allegedly ran her over several times.  The shock and anger and other emotions have been evident in those who have come to speak to me.  Part of the redemption has been the neighborhood's increased awareness of domestic violence.  But, thankfully and mercifully, God does not think small.  When He acts, He often goes bigger than we can ever ask or imagine.  One of the victim's family is struggling with her death.  His anger towards the alleged perpetrator, to this neighborhood, to God, to local law enforcement, and to a host of others is palpable.  As he was railing at me this week about his certain knowledge that God does not act, if He exists, and that Christians were just like him--going about their lives ignoring the suffering around them, I asked him to turn around.  I won't ask people to raise their hands, but how many of us hate that never-gone-for-more-than-a-day pile out in the entrance hall?  We get rid of a load, and another appears almost immediately.  It's an eyesore to many of us.  Yet, as I shared with this gentleman, it is also a testimony to God's work in our lives.  Everything in those piles comes from people in our neighborhood.  Almost none is from us right now.  As I explained to the brother, those that have come to talk with me have determined never to assume there is no abuse in their neighborhood.  As an unwritten memorial to the neighbor whom they did not know, they bring items for Winnie's Place, that other women might have the courage to flee situations of domestic abuse and have some items to start their new life.  The brother's angered dissipated almost immediately.  He was incredulous that total strangers would give like that.  "Wow,  maybe they really did not know she was being abused."  Better still, skeptical as He was about whether God exists or acts in the world, he had to admit this was a wild coincidence.  "It gives me something to think about, that's for sure."  It gives me something, too.  A greater sense of awe and wonder of our God.  He takes our faithful service with food, nonmember's and in many cases non-Christian's increasing awareness of a social ill in their midst, the tragic death of a daughter who was created in His image, and reaches into a suffering brother's life and the lives of other women and children who have been largely forgotten or ignored by society.

     Brothers and sisters, how many among us have suffered addictions? How many have suffered divorce? How many have suffered need? How many have suffered disease? How many of us have experienced untimely deaths of loved ones? I could go on and on about potential crosses in the lives of those of us gathered here.  Each of us have crosses; some gathered here have more than one. No doubt they have all been painful and, perhaps, shaming. How many of us, however, have been left to wallow in our grief? How many of us have been left to live with the shame of our failures? Not a one! More amazingly, how many of us have later encountered someone in the exact same condition which we were?  How many of us have had a chance to impart our insights and our hope to those in similar circumstances to those we once faced?  Each of us who gathers in this place and celebrates the Eucharist as a local body of Christ literally gives thanks for the redemption of our lives! True, chiefly we celebrate the salvation of our lives for all eternity. But we also celebrate how each week he uses our failures and our weaknesses to reach into the lives of those whom we encounter daily, how our God is so great that He can take men and women like us, and in our circumstances, and build a kingdom full of saints. To be sure, the crosses are heavy. To be sure, they are always painful and sometimes scary. To be sure, we would often like to put them down before He is finished using them and us. Yet when has He ever let you down? When has He ever been unable to overcome what is happening in your life? Why not think of sharing (or allowing me the privilege) of sharing your story of personal redemption with those of us here? Your story may well be the seed which blossoms into amazing kingdom fruit in the lives of us gathered here or serves as a beacon that calls the lost in the community surrounding us into the loving arms of our Father!



Monday, August 22, 2011

Who do you say that He is?

     When I looked up the readings for this week last Monday, I wondered how in the world I could ever illustrate my sermon. A good paper immediately popped into my head, but, as you know, there is a big difference between a paper and a sermon. Sermons should help bring His Word to life! How could Peter’s confession ever come to life? Then the week hit me . . . .

     Each week, those of us who gather for the Rite 2 Eucharist ask God to “sanctify us that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.” Twice in the last couple years, we have looked at our Eucharist in an instructed manner, but have we examined what it is we are doing when we pray these words? Sure, we wanted to be united. Of course, we want peace. But why in the world would we ask for constancy? Why should we care, and why might we ask God to make us, unwavering in our faithfulness? Peter’s confession, I think, gives us at least three reasons.

     I sometimes feel I do Peter a disservice. I feel like I spend too much time highlighting his faults. Peter, Paul, James, and the others about whom we read were those who took up Christ’s mantle and mid-wifed a church into the world. Certainly our Lord birthed the church, but His friends and disciples had to pick up the baton once He had ascended and put His teachings into practice. Yes, this was all done under the providence of God. Yes, this was all empowered by the Holy Spirit. Yes, Jesus knew the men and women He was choosing for these roles. But Peter and the others had a role. We should always remember their faithfulness through which God worked to bring about the church and advance His plan of salvation. But there is a madness to my method. You and I are no different from Peter. You and I have skills which the Lord can use to advance His kingdom, and you and I have moments where we fight Him tooth and nail. We might not be skilled fishermen, as was Peter, but we are skilled. And like Peter, we have chosen by God, redeemed by God, and He has begun amazing work in us. Peter, though, deserves some honor and credit. The lessons that he learns from and the grace that He receives in light of His failures transforms him into an amazing leader, a leader worthy of His teacher’s mantle.

     In our Gospel lesson this week, Jesus takes His disciples to Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was renowned for its temples. It was one of those regional towns where one could go to “get right” with a number of gods, be they Ba’al, be Greek gods, or even the Caesars. In the shadows of those gods, Jesus asks the disciples what people are saying. The answers that the disciples give should not surprise us. Herod himself worried that Jesus was John the Baptist come again to torment him for John’s unjust death. Certainly people reasonably expected Elijah to return with God’s anointed. After all, Elijah had ascended without dying. Given Jeremiah’s own treatment of the Jewish leadership, it is no small wonder that some align Jesus with Him. Jesus accepts these answers but then forces the disciples to make their own answer: Who do you say that I am?

     Peter’s answer is correct. Jesus goes on to affirm that Peter’s faithfulness has resulted in this blessing from God. What Peter has announced cannot be reached by reason. Peter’s pronouncement cannot be handed down through the ages. Yes, Peter has failed at times. Yes, he has sunk in the water and he has thought Jesus a ghost and he has wanted to stay on the mountaintop. But he has also endured. Peter has taken Jesus’ remonstrations grown in his faith. By the time of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, much of the pride and all the doubt will have been tempered out of him. In fact, he will become an amazing instrument of grace. And his faithfulness serves to remind us who calls us and how we are expected to serve Him and of our absolute need for constancy.

     Peter’s confession reminds us that we must be faithful in our spiritual perception and reception. Most of us gathered here are blind to the realities which should guide our spiritual development. What do I mean by that? One of the foundational aspects of our faith is His call, His demand upon us, to gather and worship and praise Him. How many of us here make the commitment to make it to worship daily? Weekly? Monthly? Twice a year? We claim to want to be open to His guidance and to be ambassadors for the advancement of His kingdom (to say nothing of the baptismal covenant in our tradition where we promise to gather), yet we fail to find the time to be able to gather on a consistent schedule. Sorry, God, I have to work. Sorry, God, the kids have sports. Sorry, God, I need sleep. Sorry, God, your spokesperson at my church is boring and I can be bored at home! We want Him to change us, we want Him to transform us, but we want these on our terms, not His. How does our gathering change our spiritual perception?

     As we read these stories and hear of God’s saving grace, we begin to attune ourselves to His work in and around our lives. Many of you know that a diagnosed, self-medicating, paranoid-schizophrenic walked into my office earlier this week. He was tired, so very tired, and angry. Unlike previous visits, he was more focused on killing himself than focused upon killing others. Do you think it’s painful? Do you think God will forgive me? How can I live with the hurt? What many of you might not know is that his sister was killed over here a few months ago. She was a battered woman. She should have been living at Winnie’s. Her husband/boyfriend ran her over (and backed up several times) because he loved her. This gentleman who came into my office this week hates the neighborhood of our church because the people here allowed this to go on in their neighborhood. All it would have taken, he’s convinced, is one person to have reported the abuse. His anger prior to this has been with the neighbors and the cops. Now, he was tired of fighting.

     Our conversation turned, however, when I pointed out the stuff in the entrance. As you all know we help Winnie’s as much as possible. What you may not know is the neighborhood’s response. In the days and weeks following the murder, our neighbors have come to visit. This is Iowa. This is a neighborhood with a church. We should be safe here. How can God be present and loving and allow this to occur? Over and over I have had these kinds of conversations. The result has been a commitment on the part of our neighbors to help save others. They are too late for our visitor’s sister, but they will do their best to make sure it never happens again. Everything in the hall came from outside my flock to help other abused women in memory of your sister. From the moment he heard those words out of my mouth, the conversation changed. Seeds that had been planted in his youth about God’s redeeming love began to germinate. Is this why you gather your people every week? It is part of it. Why else would you gather? To thank Him for all that He has done for us. You know. He’s seemed so far away from me for so long. Do you think maybe it’s me that drifted from Him? And do you think He’d take me back knowing who I am today and where I’ve been? You can fill in the rest of our conversation.

     Part of why we pray for constancy, however, is so that we can recognize His hand at work in our lives. That is not to say that we ignore our lives. Yes, we go to work like others to pay our bills. Yes, we have good things and bad things happen in our lives. Yes, we have neighbors that we like and dislike. Yes, we can catch bad diseases. Yes, we can get fired. Yes, we can become addicted. Yes, we can even become so selfish that we destroy our relationships. The difference is that, usually over time, we become attuned to recognizing His grace and power in our lives. And that attunement allows us to look for the hope that He gives us. If He is the messiah, the kingdom has come near. We need only to look for it where we are. Perhaps He will use us and our condition miraculously to reach others. He might cure a disease that thwarts doctors, He might bless us with a winning lottery ticket, He might give us the opportunity to say “I am sorry” to one we have hurt, He may even use our faithfulness in the midst of suffering to speak directly into the suffering heart of another. As long as we are attuned, we have His hope. It’s when we drift away that our cares and disappointments are used by the enemy to convince us that He really is not close, that we really are not worth His love or time.

     We also pray for constancy, however, because we need to get to know Jesus on His terms rather than our own. Peter’s confession follows the Jewish leadership’s demand for a sign. Jesus knows their hearts (and the number of signs He has already given) and so refuses. And a simple fisherman gets the honor of proclaiming Jesus the messiah rather than the chief priest or others who should have known. The “wise” in the world are made to look very foolish, indeed. It is a trap into which we can all fall. How many of us made the mistake in our youth (or early spiritual journey) of picturing Jesus as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Savior rather than the Jewish messiah that He was and is? How many of us have convinced ourselves that He would be just like one of us, were He to appear in our midst. That He’d understand the pressures of the world, that He’d know our stress and bless who were are rather than remake us in His image.

     This point was driven home at our Ward 2 meeting yesterday. The question of the homeless came up. They stink. They look terrible. They are kinda scary. Can’t we ship them out? I pointed out the dearth of facilities in our area and the fact that all the homeless have names and stories. The priest speaking against the dehumanization of the homeless tempered the discussion for a bit, but only for a bit. After the meeting, I was asked repeatedly to assert that God would ascribe to this group’s plan or that group’s plan to deal with the homeless in our midst. He’d agree with my plan, right Father? Imagine their surprise when they, at least those that claimed to be Christian and followers of Jesus, had forgotten the basics in His eyes. A few obstinate wanted to know if I thought He’d agreed with my plan once the homeless had been fed, given a place to wash, given a safe place to sleep, given medical attention, and given time to be known. But most went away sheepishly because they wanted Jesus on their terms rather than His.

     Related to the constancy in attunement and in knowing Jesus on His terms is our need to live with His cross as both instruction and invitation. For those of us who accept Him as the messiah, the Son of the living God, whose death reconciled us to our Father, the cross is a reminder of the cost of our salvation. When we reflect upon His offer to us, His willingness to die for us, and His love of us to see us safely through, we cannot help but fall to our knees in thankful joy and adoration. You would do that for me? His offer reminds us of His demand to follow Him and to bear crosses of our own to His glory. And our crosses are not meant to be born seasonally. They are not picked up in Advent and Lent as devotions. Rather, our crosses are gratefully accepted in our daily life and work as the means through which others learn of His saving offer. Our crosses are, in a sense, the tools of our lives. When we are asked why we serve for seemingly no benefit to ourselves, why we are joyful in the midst of hard times, and how we can sing alleluia even in the face of our own death, we know that we have served Him well and extended His invitation to others. Better still, we rejoice as we recount to those who have asked it of us the account of saving grace within us. At those blessed moments, we know we have lived into our baptism, truly died to self, and have been raised to life in Him! In those wonderful moments we know ourselves to have been sanctified by Him.

Who do you say that He is?



Thursday, August 18, 2011

Feasting on the crumbs . . .

     Sometimes the lectionary editors get it right. While I often scratch my head and wonder what they were thinking when they paired particular readings, this was a week where I was able to laugh all week. Matthew’s telling of the faith of the Canaanite woman is paired with the periscope on the teaching about the “garbage” that comes out of the mouth is that which corrupts and that with Jesus’ reminder that the blind lead the blind into big pits. You may wonder why I find these pairings amusing. Put shortly, I have been able to read on our listserv the nonsense that is being preached in many of our churches around the country this weekend. For many, this is a weekend when Jesus is “cured of His racism.” From this weird perspective, Jesus has a particular failing. He is a racist. And the woman shows Him just how blind He is to the plight of other races. So, through her perseverance, He learns to love others than Himself. Those of us who are accustomed to believe that Jesus was without sin may well wonder how one can avoid sin and still be a racist. Of course, even more basic than that, those of us who believed that He died on the cross while we were yet His enemies have to scratch our heads at the idea that He needed to learn to love others. And, what kind of God needs to be taught something? Do we really want to worship a God who makes mistakes or has errors in judgment or was once racist? Yet that is what a number of others in our faith tradition are hearing this week. Truthfully, I understand the need to paint Jesus as a racist. This week’s Gospel account asks some hard questions. Jesus initially acts in a way which seems to be inconsistent with what He preaches. Why?

     On a week when we celebrated the life and death of a wonderful Anglican theologian John Stott, a theologian who often lovingly demanded of his students that they not be sloppy in their understanding nor sloppy in their doctrine nor sloppy in their service of God, it seems appropriate that we tackle this reading head-on. Jesus has travelled intentionally to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is a journey of some fifty miles. By foot! Yes, Jesus and His disciples have walked quite a distance. There is a great teaching about to occur, but Jesus is the one who is teaching. He has led His disciples and us on a long journey with a purpose in mind. We are told that the first person He encounters is this Canaanite woman. She cries out in supplication “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” At first, Jesus is silent. He ignores her plea. We can well imagine her increasing desperation. Certainly, the disciples got sick of her voice. They ask Jesus to send her away. She will not stop crying after them. Finally, Jesus stops to acknowledge her need.

     Those of us expecting Jesus immediately to heal her have to be very disappointed. He tells her that He was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Certainly, His ministry has born out the truth of Isaiah’s witness in chapter 53 among other places. The people in Galilee have earned judgment which would make Sodom and Gomorrah cringe. They have rejected Jesus, and their lack of faith caused Him to do no miracles and to move on. The religious leaders of the day have stood opposed to Him from the very beginning, earning His condemnation right before our reading this week that their worship is in vain because their hearts are far from Him. The very people who should have recognized whom Jesus was have rejected Him. Yet this lady of Canaan has correctly identified Him. She may not understand the theological-speak as would we, but she knows Him to be the Son of David. She knows Jesus is heir to the rightful King of Israel. She is a trespasser in His land. She is not of His people, so all she can ask for is His mercy, His undeserved mercy.

     So great is her faith in Jesus, by the way, that she as turned from the societally accepted place of healing to Jesus of Nazareth. Outside the city of Sidon existed a temple to Eshmun, a Canaanite god of healing. For this lady to approach Jesus means that she has rejected her own peoples’ teaching. Perhaps she has taken her daughter there and learned that the idols have ears but cannot hear and lips but cannot speak. Perhaps she has simply heard of the healings done by Jesus. Certainly, her kneeling and persistence indicate that she was certain that Jesus could heal. The question is whether He would heal her daughter. All we know is that she turns from her gods to Jesus.

     Rather than take injury at Jesus’ words that He was sent to Israel, the woman is emboldened in her faith. She kneels before Jesus and asks Him, begs Him to help her and her daughter. There is no recrimination. There is no charge that He is being racist. If anything, her position as supplicant reinforces the idea that she knew of the covenant made with Abraham. You remember that, right? We read about it a few weeks ago. God promised to make Abraham and Sarah’s offspring number greater than the stars, and they, in turn, would become a nation of priests, a light unto the world. Jesus is not being racist. He is simply fulfilling His role. He was sent to Israel, that Israel might claim its inheritance and live into its covenant with God.

     Now that she is kneeling and persistent, Jesus has to honor her supplication, right? Nope. Once again, Jesus confounds us. He tells her that it is not right to take food from children and give it to the dogs. In a day and age of Westminster Dog shows, we might not get the insult here. I know I wouldn’t mind living some of the pampered lives of dogs I have seen on television. I know I wouldn’t mind winning some of the prize money! Yet Jesus’ words should have been taken by the woman as an insult. Jesus is clearly labeling the nation of Israel as God’s children and her among the dogs. Dogs, remember, were usually thought of as animals which ate dead things. To interact with a dog was to become impure. Naturally, Israel did not think kindly of Spot or Old Yeller. Dogs were animals which forced them to be unable to worship. Worse, the image of such dogs were used to describe the enemies of God and His people. 1 Samuel, Proverbs 26 and even Psalm 22 all use the image of a dog to describe those outside His covenant people. Jesus has even used the image before in the Sermon on the Mount to describe those who reject or fail to recognize His offer of salvation and the nearness of the kingdom of God.

     Rather than being offended, she recognizes the truths of His claims. He was sent to Israel. But another truth is clearly imbedded in her thinking: salvation of everyone else is of the people of Israel. She takes Jesus’ imagery and twists it to suit her needs. A few dogs were domesticated and fed in the house. They were certainly the exception rather than the rule. But it happened. And taking that image she offers her understanding of God’s covenant. Yes, they were the initial recipients of God’s offer of grace. They were, however, not to be the last. Israel was called by God to bear witness to His love, His mercy, His hesed (covenantal faithfulness) that others will receive His blessings through them! Thus, she sees the rightness of Jesus’ answers. He was sent to Israel. He is their king. But God has promised that others will be blessed through them. As their rightful king, as their rightful messiah, she can ask Him for His crumbs. And He has it within His power and His authority to grant what she asks!  Yes, Israel comes first. But all will have a chance to become His children. A Canaanite woman understands God’s promises and presence far better that Nazareth, than Jerusalem, and much of Israel.

     Jesus now proclaims her faith. In fact, such is her faith that He honors her for having great faith! And her need is answered. Immediately, we are told, her daughter is healed. There is no formulaic administration; there is no laying on of hands. Jesus commands that her request be granted, and it is! It is that simple. The crumbs of God’s table are enough to satisfy all who seek Him. And she is exalted among those who recognize Jesus for who He was. Those who use Rite 1 to worship are reminded of her perception of God’s truth and her great faith every time they gather and recite the Prayer of Humble Access. We are not worthy to eat His crumbs. Still, He is merciful to all who seek Him.

     How does this play out in our lives? Why is this teaching important? This past week, I was reminded of its centrality in our lives and to Matthew’s Great Commission in our service at the Community Meal. There was, I confess, some ungratefulness at our gathering on Wednesday. Some of the newcomers were complaining about the food. Who wants barbeque? Who wants meatballs? You guys are the best and this is all that you do? It was then that a big black hand appeared on my shoulder. I looked back, and one of the regulars said “I got this, Father.”

     “Why are you here?” he asked her. “Because I am hungry” she replied. He snorted, “Not hungry enough.” She went to argue but he raised his hand and told her to shush. “You are not really hungry. You do not even have to be here,” he asserted. “What makes you say that? She asked. I wondered the same thing myself. “If you were truly hungry, if you had truly gone some time without food, you’d be grateful simply for the fact that some was in front of you. And if it had been a while since daddy kicked you out or you left in a spat, you’d know that we don’t get barbeques or to even choose what we want to eat in this world. These people asked us, asked us, (pointing a big finger at himself and then gesturing to encompass the room) what we most desired. They could have brought us anything, and we would have been thankful. You see, we need the food or we starve. Until you understand need, you will never be thankful for anything in this life. Why don’t you run home and tell daddy you’re sorry. That way, you are not taking what so many others need.”

I don’t know his name. It has taken me months to get him to say hello, let alone have a conversation. I used to think he was a mechanic—that’s what his clothes said, until Charlie pointed out that he seemed always to have a different name on those clothes. Sometimes I would ask him if any of his clothes were correctly named. He just smiles and shrugs. I do know he is a huge fan of the Big O and Bill Russell. When the “kids” start talking about the newest star, with the possible exception of Kobe, he’s very dismissive. When I agreed with his comparison of Lebron to Wilt, he decided I might know a little about basketball. Our relationship is, as they say, a work in progress.

     He looked at me and asked, “Was I too harsh, Father?” as she huffily left the meal site. I laughed, “You’re asking me?” “Why you laughing?” he asked. “Because you probably saved me from saying something unpriestly like ‘if you don’t like it, there’s the door,’” I replied. “Truthfully though, we do not know why she left home. She could be abused just as easily as she could be a spoiled brat.” “Nah” he said. ‘Why’s that?” I asked. “If she were abused, she would have never complained to you like that. She would have been too afraid to speak to you like that now. Abused girls are far too timid.  Maybe later, were she. But not now.” I wished I could be as certain as he was in the assessment. “If it makes you feel better,” he offered, “I’ll keep an eye out for her. If I see her on the streets, you might be correct that she’s not a brat, just scared. She’ll need a friend or two . . . “

     Unless you have experienced need, you cannot be thankful. His words expressed the sentiments of the Canaanite woman. You and I, we will learn as we progress through Matthew, are a sent people. We are sent out to the ends of the earth to proclaim God’s love and salvation to all whom we encounter. So often, we pray “Please, God, don’t make me speak or give money to that bum. Please, Lord, do not drag me overseas for mission. Please, God, don’t open my eyes to the need in my midst.” And yet, as His redeemed people, you and I ought to know the joy and relief that comes from met need. While we were His enemies, He went lovingly to that cross. Our response to His offer ought to be to shout it from the roof tops, to be overwhelmingly joyful in our lives, to be a thankful people in the midst of so many cares and concerns. Best of all, brothers and sisters, we should feel honored. Honored. For reasons known only to Himself, God has chosen you and me as His ambassadors and sent us into the world to proclaim His love. Could there be a greater job? Could there be a more important work? No. Ours is to remind people that they are loved by their God and saved by their God, if only they will admit their need and seek Him. Ours is to identify the persistent seeking in others and to steer them to the One who saves, the One whose crumbs are more satisfying than any of the feasts of our own creation!

     One last note on the Canaanite woman and what we learn:  Scripture does not occur in a vaccuum.  There is a Paul Harvey moment to this narrative which we will, unfortunately, skip as we progress next week to Peter's confession of Jesus as the mesiah.  Jesus leaves this region and returns to the Galilee region.  Mark recounts that He specifically returns to the Deapolis, the mostly Gentile region on the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee.  It is there among the Gentiles where Jesus performs healing miracles and another feeding miracle.  True, He only feeds 4000 men, besides the women and children, but think of the imagery!  His mission is not complete until the Gentiles are drawn into that feast He initiates!  Brothers and sisters, His crumbs do satisfy needs, just as our heroine reminded us today.  But our Lord calls everyone, every single person in this world, to His feast.  Right now, in this world, the crumbs from that feast give us the slightest touch of His blessings.  And those crumbs, and His invitation, ought to remind us that His kingdom has come near.  And one day, one glorious day, we and all those who have responded to His call will share in that marriage feast when heaven is joined to earth and His purposes truly become our own!



Monday, August 8, 2011

Walkin and sinking in water . . .

     The story of Jesus walking on water and Peter going out to Him and then sinking is well known. I daresay it is a story which is fairly well known by those outside the Church. Admittedly, one of its primary purposes was to teach the Apostles, disciples, and us that Jesus really was the Messiah. His ability to walk on water in the midst of a storm teaches us about His authority and His power. Plus, given the ANE’s association of chaos with water, the story would have likely evoked an even greater appreciation of His power: He treads on chaos. Part of the danger for a pastor of being on vacation is the potential disconnect between the pastor and the people. As most of you know, I am often blessed to get amazing illustrations during the week leading up to worship. Better still, I get a sense of where people are struggling in their daily lives and am able (hopefully) to teach where Scripture speaks into our lives, both collectively and individually. But that is precisely where I found myself this week. We had some great readings, but I had no idea which story was speaking most strongly to us as a congregation or to you as individuals.

     As I was considering the story of Peter getting out of the boat and sinking, though, I was reminded of some other lessons taught in this story. Admittedly, we live these lessons well as a congregation, but I believe we are well-served to remind ourselves of their truths.

     (1) Jesus loves me, this I know. Sure, we all know the song, but do we ever inwardly digest its meaning? One of the dangers of human thought is that we tend to view blessings as signs of God’s approval or favor. If our bills are paid, our relationships are solid, and life seems generally good, we often think that we are favored by God. The problem with that thought, as we are reminded in Job and elsewhere, is the corollary: if things are bad then He views me unfavorably. The truth is, of course, He loves us no matter our circumstances. Whether things are going well or terribly, He loves us. Whether we are His disciples or His enemies, He loves us. We know this because He chose to die for our sins and restore us to our Father in Heaven. In fact, He loves us like no one else we know ever will.

     How do we know that? Place yourself in Jesus’ shoes for just a second. You have just fed 5000 men, besides women and children and had 12 containers full of leftovers after everyone was satisfied. Now, you come walking to your followers on the water. One asks you to call him to you. As he approaches, he loses faith and begins to sink. Better still, you know that he will deny you three times. In fact, you know all his strengths and failings. Would you reach out your hand to save him? Or would you be tempted to start over with someone else? Over and over and over, though, Jesus reaches out that saving hand even when we are “of little faith.”

     (2) He really is with us. I know it is tempting sometimes to view these stories as events that happened in a mythological past. “Ah, if only I would have -- seen the empty tomb/been the one walking on water/seen the Transfiguration/witnessed the Ascension/fill in your favorite miracle – then my faith would move mountains, indeed!” Sometimes, we act as if we do not believe that He is risen from the dead and, better still, with us until the end of the age. But He made that promise, and He answers our prayers. We do well when we remember that He really is with us and ready to stretch forth that hand just as He did for Peter.  That hand may not seem miraculous as Jesus' in this story, but it will support you all the same.

     (3) When the storms of life seem overwhelming, when we feel like we are drowning in our burdens, we need to keep our focus on Him. When Peter focused his attention on Jesus, he walked on the water just fine. It was only after Peter began to notice the wind and the waves and the “oh my gosh I am really walking on water” that Peter began to sink. But where you or I would be wondering whether we could tread water or make it back to the boat before we drowned, Peter returned his focus and attention to where it needed to be:  On Jesus. And even that little faith and that call for help was enough. Jesus, once again, redeemed him.

     How do these truths play out in our lives? I mentioned that we already live them. For 40+ years we have been feeding the neediest in our community. Better still, you have not just been going through the motions but giving them things you lovingly prepared. Whether it’s Charlie’s meatballs, Pauline’s ambrosia, and countless other favorite menu items, you have called upon His power and attacked hunger with a feast. How many times have we made enough to serve 50 and served 100 or more? And who has ever gone away unsatisfied?  Do you really think that we, as messed up as we are, are that good at planning?  No, we depend upon Him to stretch the food that all might be blessed.

     How many times have our intercessors called upon Him and He answered in amazing ways? Sandy’s ability to return home from her mission trip to die is just the most recent example. Much of what they do in behind the scenes and in confidence, yet each one cannot stop with just one story of His miracles among us. Ask them, and a list begins to form.  The dead have been raised, the sick have been healed, the broken have been made whole, and all this simply because they dared to lift their voice and ask Him to act.

     These truths are such a part of this parish that they may not even be noticed by you. I remember an amazing conversation after my second Annual Meeting here. For a second time there was little bickering, little fighting, really very little angst. It seemed weird to me because we had no real money.  My last church could at least depend upon its endowment when the pledging came up short.  Here, there is no endowment, no safety net.  I was worried whether people understood the budget and how tight things really were. Jan heard me griping and worrying and said “Father, we have never been blessed with a lot of money. We have never had a ‘rainy day’ fund or excess to put away. We consider ministries, and then we pray for God to provide whatever is needed: money, people, expertise, whatever. Amazingly, He always provides whatever it is that we need. And, when He does not provide, well, then, we know that we probably are not doing the things He would have us to do. So relax. If it is something God wants, He will make it happen.”

     Flash forward three more years. You have done amazing things in His name in the few years that I have been privileged to serve here, and He has met our needs, in ways beyond ours (or at least my) wildest dreams. We are a vanguard in the burgeoning movement to wipe slavery from the face of the earth. We have helped provide clean drinking water for two villages overseas. We have inoculated villages whose residents we will never meet. We have helped more than 5000 families in our community to eat well, at least for a time. If I had a dollar for every gas card we have distributed, I would have money for a few more gas cards – lol. We have lived as if we believe He is risen and as if we believe He is with us and as if He will answer us. And look at what we have done in His name! Brothers and sisters, you are already out of the boat and walking. Just remember, keep your focus where it needs to be, that He might be glorified in us and in our service of Him, that others might reach out their hands to Him and experience that same love, that same strength, that same power to save.