Sunday, August 17, 2014


I am here an extra time this year
            because Trinity is in a time of transition.
Transition means change
and change comes hard to Church people.

It starts early.
At my first congregation we started a children’s service.
Small children took turns carrying the processional cross.
But it was too heavy for them and they could barely keep it upright.
So I got them a lighter wooden processional cross they could manage.
There was an immediate outcry among the children.
I quote: “They’ve taken away our cross.”

I do love the Church.
I love Church people.
My favorite Church people are Episcopalians.

 But sometimes I see folks who’ve spent years in our pews
            calcifying into a stodgy nay-saying resistance to anything new
                        that makes our faith boring and worse still
puts a sour face on the gospel.  
Speaking of the gospel, we might learn something
            about flexibility and openness
                        from today’s lesson in the Gospel of Matthew.

When we read a novel for a literature class,
            the professor will usually ask
                        “who is the main character?”
There is a rule of thumb for figuring that out.
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.”

He thinks the Pharisees are soft on sin.
He wants to make the law more rigorous.
His main point is that doing the right thing isn’t enough.
Dotting every i and crossing every t is not enough.
You have to get your heart right.

 Now fast forward to today’s lesson to see where that leads.
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.
So Jesus, being a bright guy, knew when it was time
to get out of Dodge, so he took a little vacation from his mission
            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.”
So 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.”
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.

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
            with a sick child
– 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 by disregarding
            laws that kept people outside
                        even if their hearts were faithful.
Then he took in lawless gentiles if they had great faith,
            and finally sent his disciples out to gentiles
                        who didn’t even have faith yet.

It is an  expanding ethic 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 are tempted
            to 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.

Monday, August 4, 2014


Many people have a simplistic notion of the Christian faith.
That includes a lot of the people who believe it and most of the people who don’t.
The formula goes that you believe there is a God,   
            be reasonably nice, go to church some,
            and ask Jesus to forgive your sins.
Do that and you go to heaven when you die.
In the meantime, don’t worry about things over much
            since whatever happens is God’s will.

They often think that is what the Bible says.
Such people should be careful about reading the Bible.
It is actually a very strange book.
Christianity is a strange and wonderful religion.
The God we worship is a strange and wonderful God.

Take, for an example of strangeness, our Old Testament lesson.
Jacob had spent a lot of his life on the lamb.
As a young man he had swindled his brother Esau
            who understandably set out to kill  him.

So Jacob ran away to live with his Uncle Laban
            in a far off country.
Laban and Jacob spent several years trying to outfox each other.
Eventually, Jacob had to run away from there too.

He was escaping from Uncle Laban
            when he heard that his brother Esau was coming to meet him.
That was not entirely good news.
In our lesson for today, before Jacob confronts Esau,
            he crosses the River Jabbok, a rapidly flowing mountain stream.
It isn’t easy to cross at any point or at any time,
            but Jacob crossed it at night
            with his two wives, two concubines, 11 children,
            all his livestock and all his possessions.
Then he came back across to where he started
            and he spent the night there alone.

 It isn’t clear what Jacob was up to.
Probably he was moving his family and possessions
            across the river to keep them safe from Esau.

But that night he ran into trouble bigger than his brother.
In the dark, beside the River, something attacked Jacob
            and fought with him until sunrise.
They fought to a draw, but before the attacker left,
            Jacob demanded a blessing from him.
The attacker blessed Jacob by changing his name to Israel,
            which means “struggles with God.”
And Jacob renamed the place of the fight Peniel,
            because he said, “I have seen God face to face and yet I live.”

This isn’t a moral example story.
Do as Jacob did because wasn’t he a good man.
Jacob wasn’t a particularly good man.
He wasn’t a hero of the faith.
He didn’t do anything right here.
He was running away from someone he cheated
            about to face up to someone else he cheated.
Jacob was just scrambling for his life
            when he found himself alone, in the dark, in a strange place,       
            attacked by a powerful stranger.
So he fought.

A strange story.
I don’t know what it’s doing in the Bible
            except that it tells us how the people of Israel got their strange name.
But there are a couple of things we might learn.

The first is that we don’t really encounter God
            until we are in trouble.
Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th Century said this.
He called it “crisis theology.”

Barth said it works like this.
Human nature and the way of the world don’t mesh.
So sooner or later, we all find ourselves in hot water.
What is the way out of the hot water?
There isn’t one.
We cannot save ourselves.

That’s when God shows up and saves us by his grace.
We talk a lot about spirituality these days.
We like to pray and meditate, listen to uplifting religious music,
            and feel very good about everything.
Isn’t God nice and it’s a wonderful world.

That’s fine until our life falls apart
            as Jacob’s life had fallen apart that night in the darkness.
Then God shows up with a blessing.

I have done major league spirituality in most of its forms and styles.
I have done contemplative serenity and charismatic joy.
I have degrees and certificates to prove it. It was all a rush.
It felt really good and I was proud of how spiritual I was.

But I didn’t meet God until I was in the kind of panic Jacob felt.
And I can tell you this.
God may be in the lovely sunrise and the babbling brook.
But we connect with God in the dark night of despair.

When God showed up for Jacob,
            it was not as a kindly comforter.
God came to Jacob like a mugger.
This is not a nice God, but a fearsome God.

So Jacob struggled. He fought tooth and nail.
There is a point in that too.
If we take God seriously, we don’t just smile and nod politely.
If we take God seriously, we don’t just sing songs
            about how sweet everything is.
We struggle.

There are several ways to struggle with God.
We might not be so sure God exists,
            and might want to say “Why don’t you just show yourself?”
We might not be so sure God is good,
            since the creation seems pretty harsh.
We might not get how Jesus dying on the cross
            does any good.

 We might not like worshipping God
            since it makes us feel small
                        -- as if God might be better than we are.
Who does he think he is, anyway?
Or we might just want God to do something for us,
            and God might not be coming through.
After all, what good is a God who does not obey our commandments?

We don’t get to know God until we struggle with God.
That’s ok because getting to know God
            isn’t actually that high on our priority list
                        – not until we need God desperately.

A young man went to see a Zen master and said “I want to learn Zen.”
The Master grabbed him by the neck, pushed his head into a stream,
            and held him down.
When the young man came up gasping and coughing,
            the Zen master said,
            “When you want Zen the way you just wanted a breath,
                        then you will know Zen.”

That’s when we know God – when we need God like our next breath.
Then, and only then, do we get honest.
Then and only then do we struggle with God.
Remember what God named his chosen people,
            not the beautiful and the good people,
            not the nice and the moral people,
            not the people who always obey God like children,
            but Israel – the people who struggle with God.

And struggle they did. Read the psalms and the prophets.
For centuries, Jacob’s descendants continued to fight with God.
The honest spiritual life is not all flowers and valentines
            anymore than the honest marriage is.
It’s a struggle.

 Oh, there’s a final point.
Jacob did not come out of the struggle unmarked.
God blessed him and dislocated his hip.
So Jacob walked with a limp after that.
We can know God and still live in the world,  
            but we will never be the same, never quite at home here.

Honest religion isn’t about getting our spiritual sunshine vitamins
            and smiling all the time.
It’s facing reality without blinking.

After that we will be stronger, wiser, saner, but not the same.