Thursday, August 27, 2020

"Get Behind Me" (Reflections on Pentecost 13, Year A)


Steve Chapman: Barring church services is not religious persecution |  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Get behind me…” (Matthew 16:23) 

Sometimes you have to deliver bad news. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the news lately has been uniformly crappy. As I write this, over 177,000 Americans have died from coronavirus related illness. A massive hurricane is beating the snot out of the Texas-Louisiana gulf coast. California is on fire. Another un-armed black man has been shot by white cops. Riots and protests and vigilantism seem the order of the day. 

Too many examples? Ooops. Forgot the economy is still in the toilet, too. 

Sorry. My bad. I should be trying to uplift you, not remind you of all the downers out there. But, truth be told, I’ve been getting bad news for some time now. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Faith Lutheran’s worship space, our Sunday attendance was going south like a flock of geriatric geese. Things are changing, and not in a way we might like. Sunday youth sports, the gig economy, and the need for many Americans to take second and third jobs or deal with unpredictable work schedules has trashed the idea of a Sabbath in this country. The cost of maintaining church buildings keeps going up, but offerings keep going down. I suspect that I’ll live long enough to see American Lutheranism’s “normal” be the house church with part-time or bi-vocational pastors. Maybe the normal will be virtual church—a worshiping community in cyber space. You think..? 

The passage from Jeremiah in the First Lesson assigned for Pentecost 13 in the RCL (Jeremiah 15:15-21) is one of what Bible scholars call the “confessions.” These are poems of ill tidings Jeremiah has to deliver to folks who don’t want to hear them. Jeremiah isn’t too thrilled about having to say what he says. In fact, he’d rather not, but God insists he deliver the bad news. The poor guy suffers because people hate him for what he is commissioned to share with them. It’s the same story, in a way, in our Gospel lesson (Matthew 16:21-28). Peter really doesn’t want to hear that Jesus must be handed over, suffer, and die. He hates the idea of the sacrifice which will be necessary before Jesus is revealed to be the healer of the world. He wants the gain without the pain. I think of that old bumper sticker: “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die.” 

Jesus has to tell Peter to get behind him.[i] It’s possible that what he’s actually telling Peter is “back me up and be an obedient follower.” Getting behind Jesus means resisting the temptation to ignore the unpleasant and the difficult. It will mean taking up the cross and embracing some sacrifice and loss. We in the church may have to endure a lot of change and loss before we get to our “newer normal.” I suspect that whenever the pandemic restrictions are lifted we will see fewer people returning to in-person worship.[ii] We may have to look into becoming a “virtual church.” This could mean the purchase of new equipment, the acquisition of a new skill set, greater participation from lay members, and dealing with changes we haven’t even thought about yet. 

The question is whether or not we’re willing to get behind Jesus and make the sacrifices necessary to spread the Gospel in a new context. Are all of us ready to become cyber evangelists? Can we get used to creating community with folks we may only see in person once a month? Are we ready to embrace a smaller worshiping community and fewer resources with a greater commitment to discipleship—prayer, Bible study, generosity, and volunteerism? Are we willing to do whatever it takes to further the Gospel?

 Things change. Sometimes the changes suck. All the same, it seems clear to me that if we hold on to old-fashioned notions of what church “should” be, we may lose everything. But, if we’re willing to lose some things, we may find ourselves anew. 

Stay strong. Stay safe. God bless.

[i] The Greek here is Upage opwhich, literally is a command to stand to the rear of the one who commands you. It can also be translated as “get away from me,” but smart Bible scholars note the contrast between what Jesus tells Peter and what he tells the devil in Matthew 4:10.

[ii]Since the start of the pandemic we at Faith have already lost two members to death, one to retirement living, and six have moved out of the area.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Who Are You? (Reflections on Pentecost 12, Year A)

Peter's Confession | Dan McCoig's Sermons 

“But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15b) 

How do you define yourself? What makes you you? Are you your heritage or just the sum of all of your experiences? Do you define yourself by your job? Your nationality? Ethnicity? Religion? Hobbies? If someone asked you to define yourself, what would you say? Or is it that others define us? Do we rely on the people in our lives to tell us who we are? 

In the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 12, Year A (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus asks an existential question: Who do people say that I am? He’s really confronting the disciples at this pivotal point in his earthly ministry. Do people get what this is all about? He’s shown them some miracles, performed lots of healings, and fed thousands of people. Now he wants to know if everyone is getting the message. Clearly the Pharisees don’t get it because they still want to see some magic tricks before they’ll commit to recognizing Jesus’ authority (see 16:1-4). But Jesus won’t jump through hoops for them. He wants them to recognize with their own minds what their experience with him means. He wants them to be open to seeing God at work.

 The important question for us, then, is: Who do you say Jesus is? If a stranger asked you to define Jesus based on the impact Jesus has on your life, what would you say?

 I know what I’d say. The older I get, the less I think of Jesus as the one who suffered and died for me. Rather, I think of him as the one who suffers and dies with me. His frustrations, his losses, his failing body on the cross, his patience with ridicule and misunderstanding—all of this gives my experience meaning. Because the divine Son was willing to share my situation—even to the  point of doing the slave’s job and washing the feet of the disciples—the whole human experience has been made holy. That makes my experience and your experience holy too. And for that I give thanks.

 If we define ourselves by anything, let’s define ourselves by our relationship with Christ. In Christ we have no reason to make comparisons or evaluations. That’s why St. Paul told the church in Rome (Romans 12:1-8) and all of us today to think of ourselves with sober judgment. There’s no scale or measure of worth or importance in the holy life Jesus sanctified. Each of us has a place in it, and that place isn’t to be defined by the world’s standards of success or fame or prestige. We are not conformed to the world, but we are transformed through Christ by the renewing of our minds.

 You can be you because Jesus is Jesus—and he made being you holy.

 Peace be with you!

Thursday, August 13, 2020

A Crumb is Enough (Reflections on Pentecost 11, Year A)

 The Canaanite woman and the Mother of God

I really appreciate the Lutheran pastors (and one Episcopal guest) in my conference Bible study group. Some of them are young enough to be my kids, but I have to say they often seem a lot smarter than me. Still, even with the aid of their magnificent and theologically trained young minds, this week’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 15:22-28) was something of a stumper. You’ve heard the story: Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman with a sick child. He calls her a dog and refuses to heal her little girl. Then, when she gives a pithy comeback to his rather insulting rebuke to her, he changes his mind and heals the child. My young colleagues and I agreed that there were a few things about this passage we found jarring.


First, let’s assume that Jesus intended to heal the foreign woman’s kid all along, but he was using this episode either to test her faith or to teach his followers a lesson about inclusivity. This interpretation might fly in the face of our understanding of grace since the healing seems to depend on the woman giving the right reply to Jesus’ nasty comments about her. Also, the fact that Jesus basically calls her the “b-word” kind of ruffles our image of a loving and compassionate Savior. I mean, this lady is suffering enough with a demonically possessed daughter. Does she need to be insulted, too?


Of course, we could take the opposite tack and assume that Jesus—who was true human as well as true God—was just doing what any rabbi in his culture would do when he denied the request of a gentile. We could conclude that he was won over by the foreign woman’s faith, and so decided to change his mind about the healing. The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t square up with our Trinitarian understanding that Jesus is one with the omniscient God. We’re left with two alternatives: Jesus is either omniscient but rude to the point of being cruel, or he’s not omniscient and is figuring it out as he goes just like the rest of us.


Part of me likes the idea of the human Jesus having an epiphany. It’s kind of like the wonderful moment we have when we discover that someone we assumed was a total jerk turns out to be pretty decent after all.[i] All the same, if I had to pick an interpretation, I guess I’d go with the idea that Jesus was teaching us a lesson about loving our neighbor—even if that neighbor is someone with whom we wouldn’t normally associate. Matthew’s Gospel seems to lean in that direction. He starts his story with a genealogy of Jesus which includes foreign women like Rahab and Ruth. He goes on to introduce a bunch of foreign astronomers who hail Jesus as a king. He depicts the Holy Family as refugees in a foreign land, and ends the whole story with Jesus sending his ambassadors out to make disciples of all nations.


So what does this story about inclusion say to us as we’re trying our best to avoid everyone during a pandemic? With which of the characters in this story do you identify? I’ll bet it’s pretty easy to feel sympathy for the disciples who just want this weird, nagging woman to put a sock in her pie hole and leave them alone. With all the misery and conflict in our world right now, do you really have time to listen to someone else’s problems? Can’t you just hear Peter or Andrew or one of the guys saying, “Look, lady. The Lord has enough sick folks to worry about among our own people. We don’t have time for your foreign brat. So beat it!” In a time of stress, don’t we all have to triage our level of concern? But Jesus is still there for everyone. If we’re really serious about being imitators of Christ, we’re going to have to put up with a lot we think we’re too tired to handle.


In contrast, we might want to identify with the Canaanite woman. It’s not hard. Have you ever felt left out? Have you ever wondered if God was listening to you? Have you ever been made to feel undeserving of God’s grace? Jesus admires this woman for her faith. With a sick child, a hostile crowd trying to get rid of her, and a really belligerent rebuke from the rabbi she’s petitioning for help, she still presses on. What else can she do?


As we start the sixth month of a pandemic shut-down, we watch continued protests in the streets of our cities, and we wait for our government to do something meaningful, we’ll accept any crumb of grace that falls from God’s table, and even a crumb will be enough.


God’s peace, my friend. Take care and thanks for reading this week.


[i] A 1999 made-for-TV movie by Trimark simply called Jesus took the interpretation that Jesus changed his mind when moved by the faith of the Canaanite woman. A church member said she really liked this depiction as it made Jesus seem more relatable.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Take Heart! (Reflections on Pentecost 10, Year A)

Fear Not, It is I by Jorge Cocco | Altus Fine Art

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27b)


There’s a hard and fast rule for dealing with a crisis: if you panic, you die. During the Great Depression Franklin Roosevelt told us the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. That’s because people do stupid things whenever our sense of the normal becomes unhinged. We’ll run from a wild animal, thereby encouraging said beast to chase us, when we should be backing away slowly. We’ll hit our brakes in a skid when we should be taking our foot off the gas and steering into the skid. We’ll pull money we don’t even use out of our investment portfolio when the market goes south, effectively realizing the loss and incurring tax penalties, rather than waiting patiently for a turnaround.


Fear is a pretty strong tool of the devil. It makes us forget we have an all-powerful God. In the First Lesson in the RCL for Pentecost 10, Year A (1 Kings 19:9-18) even the prophet Elijah—the superstar of prophets who’ll make a special guest appearance on the Mount of the Transfiguration—starts to freak out. This guy has just slain 400 prophets of Baal, but when the evil Queen Jezebel puts a hit out on him he panics and high-tails it for the wilderness. Even after God provides him with food to sustain him for forty days and forty nights, he’s still overstating his case, whining and crying that he’s the only one left who loves the true God. God has to jerk his chain a little. God sends forth a tornado, an earthquake, and a brush fire[i], as if to say, “Now that I’ve got your attention, Elijah, let me give you the facts. This isn’t as bad as you think. There are still 7,000 in Israel who are faithful to me and have not bowed to Baal. You’re not the only one, Buster, so get over yourself.”


We see Peter acting the same way as Elijah in our Gospel Lesson (Matthew 14: 22-33). We‘re told the boat the disciples are in is being “battered by the waves” (v.24). Some Bible scholars see the boat as a metaphor for the church and the water as an ancient symbol of chaos. The interpretation here is that Matthew’s early Christian community is getting the crap knocked out of it by the chaos that surrounds it. This chaos could consist of lots of things in the ancient world, but most probably included a family-sized load of persecution.


Fortunately, the church still has Jesus. Jesus can walk calmly through the storm and angry sea, serenely telling the church, “Don’t freak out! It’s me!”[ii] Of course, ol’ Pete has got to have some reassurance, so he asks Jesus if he can come to him on the water—a pretty unsafe move under the circumstances if you ask me! But Jesus is never one to pass up a good teaching moment. He lets Peter do a pretty dumb thing. Peter looks at the waves, gets scared, and has to beg Jesus for help. Isn’t that just the way? Whenever we try to combat the chaos on our own, we always end up turning back to Jesus.


I’ve heard some people look at the COVID-19 pandemic, the civil unrest in the US, the economic troubles, and the intensity of weather events and conclude that the world is coming to an end. I’d agree that some aspects of our world may be on their way out, but I’m not sure it’s all over. And even if it is the end of civilization or humanity, would that really be so bad? Aren’t we still the children of God promised a home with God forever?


Uncertainty is no fun. We’ll fear what we don’t understand, and we’ll grow to hate what we fear. We can easily fall victim to frustration, anger, doubt, and—ultimately—despair. The last mentioned is what Luther called a “great and shameful” sin. So let’s remember who we are: children of the Heavenly Creator. Let’s try not to overstate our current situation like Elijah or jump ship like Peter. Even in the midst of the battering waves of chaos we can be imitators of Christ. We can be loving, self-sacrificing, grateful, and evangelical—preaching to others by the way we bear our own hardships and disappointments. Yeah, I’m sure there will be some who fall away and won’t return to the church when this is all over, but I prefer to have faith in the ones who will not bow the knee to disappointment or kiss the idol of bitterness. Remember: we don’t have to suck it up forever—we just have to trust for today and keep tomorrow’s troubles for tomorrow. Personally, I like to pray in the words of that great old gospel hymn:


Precious Lord, take my hand,

Lead me on, help me stand.

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.

Through the storm, through the night,

Lead me on to the light.

Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.


‘Til next time, may God give you peace and comfort. Thanks for reading.

[i] Just FYI, all of these natural disasters were believed to be caused by Baal, who was a sort of pagan weather god. The Bible says that God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. See 1 Kings 19:11-12.

[ii] The Greek here is one word Qarseite! (tha-ra-seet-ay) which is variously translated as “have courage,” “take heart,” “be of good courage,” “be of good cheer,” etc. We don’t really have an equivalent word in English, but you get the idea. When Jesus introduces himself, he just says Ego eimi (Ego em-ee) or “I am.” I guess he just had to remind everybody that he is God by using the divine name found in Exodus 3:14.