Sunday, August 20, 2017


There is a rule of thumb for figuring that out
who the main character in a novel is.
It is the one who changes most.
The main character is not a stable prop in someone else’s drama.
The main character learns things, grows.

King Lear is called “King Lear” because the old king
            eventually sees his own injustice and he repents.
Shakespeare didn’t name his play after faithful Cordelia
            who is good and virtuous throughout.
He named it “King Lear” after the character who moves,
changes, makes spiritual progress – and is therefore interesting.
So, who is Matthew’s book primarily about?

If it’s about Jesus, then instead of taking everything he
            ever said as the final word for all time,
            we might look to see if Jesus ever changes his mind.

His first teaching was the Sermon on the Mount.
Not much grace in that sermon.
Here’s what Jesus says about the law.
        “Not one letter or stroke shall pass away from the law . . .
            Whoever breaks . . . the least of these commandments . . .
                        will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus thinks the Pharisees are soft on sin.
He wants to make the law more rigorous.
Even doing the right thing isn’t enough.
You have to get your heart right. You have to mean it.

 Now fast forward to today’s lesson.
The disciples have just violated a law about hand washing.
The Pharisees cry “Shame. Not one stroke or letter . . .” they say.
“Whoever breaks one of the least
of these commandments . . .” they say.
But now Jesus says, “It’s no big deal.” His position has shifted.

He explains, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles,
            but what comes out it.”
The heart is what matters. Not legal technicalities.
Jesus began to wonder what some of the law
has to do with the heart.
Maybe if your heart was right,
            it didn’t matter if you kept the law perfectly,
            so long of course as you were Jewish
                        and kept the law pretty well.

That teaching drew fire from the Pharisees.
Jesus, being a bright guy, knew when it was time
to get out of Dodge, so he took a little vacation
            in the non-Jewish country of Tyre and Sidon.
He had strictly ordered his disciples
            not to even tell non-Jews about the gospel.
They were the wrong race, wrong customs, “not our sort dear.”
He was in Tyre and Sidon on a vacation, not a mission.

But along came this non-Jewish woman begging him
            to heal her daughter.
Jesus ignored her. She persisted.
The disciples said, “One of the goyim is bothering us.
            Send her away.”
So, Jesus told her he served Jews only.
In desperation, she threw herself down in front of him.
He called her a dog and ordered her out of the way.
But she said, “Even dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.”

That rocked him.
She had called him her master.
It was at once beautiful and a violation of the taboo
            separating Jew and Gentile.
It was so wrong under the law, so right in the heart.
Jesus repented.
He had just recently said to his own disciples
-- right race, right gender, right religion –
 “O ye of little faith.”
Now he says to this foreign pagan
            -- wrong race, wrong gender, wrong religion --
“Woman, great is your faith.//
 Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Jesus is stumbling toward a new kind of religion
This nameless woman had converted him.
And we had better be glad she did,
            because without her there would have been no gentile mission
            and we would still be sacrificing goats to Jupiter.

Matthew’s book still has a long way to go.
Eventually, it ends like this:
            Jesus says to his disciples,
            “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . ..”

“Nations” means the non-Jews.
When Jesus first sent his disciples out to spread the gospel,
 he said, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles
                        and enter no town of Samaria,
            but rather go to the lost sheep of . . . Israel.”
This is for Jews only.
But after meeting this gentile woman,
            he began to change his tune.
In the end, he sent his disciples to baptize all nations.

So, what might we learn from this story?
The first thing we see is Jesus modeling an open mind
            and an open heart.
His faith was a living, growing thing.
It changed. It moved. It morphed.

But he wasn’t so stuck in what he said yesterday
            he couldn’t move on to a new truth tomorrow.
Jesus changed. So how about us?
It’s good to check our faith from time to time
            to see if it has any buds on it, any green shoots.
If not, we might want to fertilize it a bit
            with a new prayer practice, a new book,
                        a retreat or some act of mercy.

Maybe we need to meet someone outside our comfort zone
-- some modern equivalent of a Canaanite woman
– someone to shake up our stultifying certainties.

The second thing we notice in this story
is its ethical trajectory.
Right from the beginning,
            the distinctive thing about Jesus
                        was his gospel of inclusion.

Right from the beginning,
            he sat at table with sinners and social outcasts.
But at first, he was calling them into an even smaller circle
            of stricter rules than the Pharisees had drawn.
Then he extended the circle to include
good hearted Jews who were a bit lax on the law.
Then he took in lawless gentiles if they had great faith.
Finally, he sent his disciples out to gentiles
            who didn’t even have faith yet.

It is an expanding circle of inclusion, an ethic of embrace.
St. Paul kept extending that trajectory of inclusion.
“In Christ, there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female,
            neither Jew nor gentile,” he wrote.

We have our trajectory set in the life of Jesus.
Who might be outside our circle of caring or acceptance?
Who might be the Canaanite woman for us?
 If we keep an eye out for the people we usually avoid,
they may show us the growing edge of our faith.

Not all change is good. But some change is.
And the good change is as uncomfortable as the bad.
When our Church changes, it unsettles us.
But I’ll let you in on something: That’s on purpose.
It’s because we need a little unsettling now and then.

We all deserve to be the main character in our own life.

But we will be that main character only if we are open to change.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Suzanne Verdal is a homeless woman
         who sleeps in a truck with four cats
         in Venice Beach, California.
But in 1965, she was a young bohemian dancer in Montreal,
the wife of a famous sculptor, Armand Villancourt.

Through her husband, she became friends with a poet.
Despite rumors, they were not lovers but soul mates.
They would meet at her home by the St. Laurence River,
         near the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Help.
She would light a candle, serve tea, and talk with him
         about her prayers to Jesus and St. Joan.

The poet was Leonard Cohen.
And his poem about her became a song.
Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river . . ..
And the sun pours down like honey
         On Our Lady of the Harbor
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers . . ..”

It was the most mystical of love poems
         about a relationship that was never a romance.
In Leonard Cohen’s characteristic fashion,
         a certain religious element is set
                  in the midst of the relationship.
So we find the lyrics,
         And Jesus was a sailor
         When he walked upon the water
         And he spent a long time watching
         From his lonely wooden tower
         And when he knew for certain
         Only drowning men could see him
         He said, ‘All men will be sailors then
         Until the sea shall free them . . ..’

Today’s Gospel lesson captures our attention
         if for no other reason than because
         in 1965, by the St. Lawrence River in Montreal,
                  this story was on the minds and perhaps the lips
                  of Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Verdal.
Those of us who remember 1965
         remember it as a year of war and riots.
But here was this song about
         The sun pours down like honey
         On our Lady of the Harbor
a song of serenity in the fearful time.

The gospel lesson is such a fearful time.
Jesus had just learned that his teacher,
         John the Baptist, had been executed,
         so he withdrew to a lonely place.
He even sent away his 12 disciples in a boat.
He wanted to be alone.
Jesus climbed the mountain
and spent the whole night there praying.

Then when the disciples found themselves tossed about
         by a violent storm on the lake,
Jesus came through the storm to them with his most common message,
         “Take heart. I am here. Do not be afraid.”

When they completely trusted him,
         Peter was even able to walk on the waters of chaos himself.
But when he doubted, he sank.
Jesus didn’t abandon him because his faith was weak.
He lifted him up to safely anyway.

We all know life gets stormy.
We are sometimes tossed about by the chaos
         and the uproar of the people and events
         who make up the sea on which we sail.

In truth, life is manageable.
Even death is manageable.
Millions of people have been doing life and death
         for thousands of years and the world keeps right on turning.

The storm that threatens to swamp our boat is the fear.
When fear takes over we don’t do so well.
We freeze or lash out or fumble.
We lose our balance and sink into the chaos.
That’s how we drown.

The philosophers all tell us this.
The Stoic Seneca said in 50 A D,
         “There is nothing fearful except fear itself.”
Montaigne said in 1580,
         “The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear.”
Thoreau said,
         “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.”
What makes fear such a problem?
300 years ago, economist Edmund Burke answered,
         “No passion so effectively robs the mind of its power
         of acting and reasoning than fear.”

In 1938, the whole nation was pushed into a stark panic
         by Orson Welles reading The War of the Worlds
         on the radio.
Our wiring for fear  makes us putty in the hands
of fearmongering demagogues.
As long as people want power, as long as they want to dominate us,
         there will be fear mongering demagogues.

Their job is easy because fear is so contagious.
We catch it like a cold.
Poet laureate Charles Simic wrote,
         Fear passes from man to man.
         As one leaf passes its shudder
         To another.
         All at once, the whole tree is trembling.
         And there is no sign of the wind.

We feel fear that isn’t even our own.
We feel the fear of our neighbors.

What are we afraid of?
The shadow on our CT scan,
         our child’s drug use, immigrants, ISIS,
         North Korea?
There are an infinite number of hooks
         where fear can attach itself.
If we ever run out, we will invent more.
Fear comes in waves like the waves on a stormy sea.

The Bible tells us those are precisely the moments
         when Jesus comes to us.
That’s when he’s present, saying,
         “Take heart. I am here. Do not be afraid.”
Leonard Cohen says that Jesus appears
         only to those who are drowning.
That fits my experience.
My connection to Christ is pretty casual
         until I am in trouble.
That’s when my prayer gets serious.

So when we are drowning, that’s precisely when Jesus is present.
When we trust him,
         the fear subsides and we can walk on the waters.
We can negotiate the chaos around us.

The hard part is that our very fear keeps us
         from seeing him.
We are blinded by all the scary things – both real and imagined.

The objective truth that Jesus will show up
– we can take that to the bank.
The fact that he will save us whether we have faith or not,
         just like he saved Peter,
         we can count on that too.
But whether we notice him, whether we take heart
         and overcome our fear,
                  well, that part’s up to us.

Remembering to keep an eye out for Jesus
         Isn’t easy when we’re in a dead panic.
It takes some discipline.
We have to make a habit of looking for him.

Everyday without fail,
         I pray the 1st Song of Isaiah,
         Surely it is God who saves me.
         I will trust in him and not be afraid.
         For he is my stronghold and my sure defense
         And he will be my savior.

One old bishop used to look in the mirror each morning,
and say,
Whatever happens to me this day,
I am baptized.
Some make habit of praying constantly with their breath,
         Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God
         Have mercy on me a sinner.

It doesn’t matter how we do it.
We can get a Fit Bit to vibrate each hour to remind us
         that God loves us so it’s going to be ok.
We can pick whatever reminder works for us.
The key is to somehow remember Jesus saying,
         Take heart, I am here. Do not be afraid.

The Bible tells us not to be afraid.
It says “Do not be afraid” 365 times, once of each day of the year.
So, we can check in on that assurance habitually.

1st John says,
         There is no room for fear in love
         for perfect love casts out fear.
So when you hear the voices of fear,
         you can know right off those are not the voices of love.
2nd Timothy says,
         God has not given us a spirit of fear
         but of power and of love and of a sound mind.
So when you sense the spirit of fear,
         you know right off that isn’t from God.
God fills us with spiritual power and love and sanity,
         common sense.

And whenever someone tries to scare us,
         whether it’s a fire and brimstone preacher
         or a fire and fury politician,
         we can remember Jesus saying,
         Take heart. I am here. Do not be afraid.