Monday, June 30, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 30

Read Matthew 19-23-20:16

Yesterday I took a slight detour - an important one, I think, but more focused on how the religious leaders of Jesus' day are portrayed in the New Testament and what that might mean for contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogue.

So I never really got to the rich young man, whom I think really belongs with today's reading anyway. Matthew follows the story of the man who did everything right except for one thing - he loved his possessions more than he loved God - with this statement about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.

I remember hearing a sermon once from a "successful" pastor in an affluent congregation that totally explained this text away, justifying the wealth of the parishioners as long as they remained generous to the congregation, and by extension helped the pastor to maintain his lifestyle. How hard it is to preach this text in a consumer society such as ours, and how much more challenging among the "haves" than among the "have nots."

Maybe that is the first place to begin. I served my entire life as a parish priest in two relatively affluent suburban contexts. They were great places to live and good people among whom to serve. But it is so easy in such places to fall into the "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality. And then we convince ourselves we really don't have very much after all; at least not as much as our neighbors. We can feel, alternatively, either grateful for what we do have or envious for what we do not have - but we don't feel "rich."

Whenever people would travel to places like El Salvador,where we developed a covenant relationship while I was in Holden, that worldview would be challenged. They would be among the poor, who yet seemed in many ways to be spiritually rich. I think those experiences were better than any preacher wagging any fingers about money.

It's interesting how people twist themselves about what Jesus says about camels and needles and wealth. Some say in Aramaic the word for camel is close to the word for yarn so something was lost in translation from Aramaic to Greek - and that Jesus is not using a mixed metaphor. How hard to get yarn through a needle, to be sure - but at least the metaphor works. Others point to a gate in Jerusalem where called the "eye of the needle" where the camel needed to "unpack" to make it through; again the metaphor works.

But I think humor works at helping people see the truth and maybe Jesus is just being outlandish so we can really reflect on how much we have, and then dare to ask, "how much do I need?" A friend of mine used to be fond of saying, "you can get a camel through the eye of a needle but it makes a hell of a mess for the camel!" Now that's funny!

If we aren't careful, our possessions will possess us. In fact even if we are aware and careful, our possessions can still possess us. It's hard to be really honest about this, but what we need when we think about money is brutal honesty. The challenge for the contemporary church is that Jesus talked a lot about money - and at best we do so only once a year when we are asking for it. We tend to act like it's dirty, but "give us some, please."

Money is not dirty. But it can become our god, and it is a false god because it cannot deliver on its promises. It cannot keep us safe and secure even though we sometimes think it will. What it can do, and like all idols does do, is get in the way of our relationship with the living God.

This is a longer post than I've been writing for this series and maybe I've moved already from preaching to meddling. But there is even more in today's reading, so let me say one more thing and then I'll call it a day.

This story about the workers in the vineyard never seems "fair" to those who are committed to capitalism and feel an hourly wage should be paid for each hour of work. But it seems especially "unfair" to those who are salaried and have health insurance and a nice home and a couple of cars. The truth is that day laborers - migrant workers - know what it's like to live one day at a time on "the usual daily wage." No one who wants to work - even an hour - should have to live on less than the usual daily wage. Just think about what that means!

The parable has lots of levels of meaning for sure; some even theological. But the economics of this story are fairly simple - a continuation of this theme of the last being first and the first being last. If you are the vineyard owner or even the guy who works hard all day in the hot sun then you cry out how "unfair" this is. But if you are the one who couldn't find work until the last hour, and you still get enough to eat and a place to rest your head that night, you know God is good, and generous and your heart is glad.

Our world, where the Kingdom of heaven is meant to break in, is a long ways from where we need to be.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 29


Today, we see yet another conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees - this time around divorce. It's a good time for a slight detour, which is really not a detour at all. I encourage you to read this interview with Amy-Jill Levine, author of The Misunderstood Jew. The whole thing is worth your time; I promise. But if you don't have that time at the moment, at least read this much: 
The Misunderstood Jew examines what many might call an elephant on the table. What does your truth-telling bring to light that, in turn, enlightens readers in ways that other books talking about Jesus the Jew have not?
Jesus was a first-century Jew who, like a number of his fellow Jews, taught love of G-d and neighbor, non-violent resistance to oppression, an openness to the grandeur and the presence of G-d, and a way of seeing the world as G-d would like it rather than as humanity had made it.
It is, unfortunately, easier to talk about a legalistic, xenophobic, misogynistic, elitist Judaism and then divorce Jesus from it than it is to recognize and correct the prejudices that create the stereotypes in the first place. It is easier to talk about how Jesus “frees his followers from the Law,” as if the Law were some sort of straight-jacket rather than the gift of G-d, than it is to proclaim the demands that Jesus placed on his followers: give without expectation of return, love the enemy, visit those in prison, become servant-leaders rather than corporate managers.
The Misunderstood Jew names the stereotypes that both Jews and Christians have of each other—in effect, it fusses at both Church and Synagogue members—explains how the stereotypes developed, and then separates the chaff of prejudice from the wheat of history.
Christians reading the New Testament have a responsibility to develop a sophistication about this, and not just to read Matthew at face-value. For some who have a more literalistic view of Scripture this sounds scary - but it's crucial. The early Church in its wisdom gave us four gospels, not just one homogenized one. Matthew is the most "Jewish" of those gospels but in being the most Jewish that means it also has the perspective of conflict between Jews who accept Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah and Jews who do not. Like all four gospels, it is presented "on a slant." It is at times polemical. 

It is therefore not simply a matter of being "PC" for us to become aware that a "legalistic, xenophobic, misogynistic, elitist Judaism" set up in contrast to an inclusive loving Jesus is hardly a "no-spin zone." The goal as more honest and faithful readers of the text is to become aware that Matthew presents the Pharisees as a foil to Jesus, probably unfairly. Re-situating Jesus in his larger Jewish context helps twenty-first century Christians not only better understand ourselves, but also our Jewish neighbors. To avoid this hard work is to put ourselves into the position of violating the commandment against bearing false witness against our neighbor. 

To say all of this in another way - the portrayal of "the scribes and Pharisees" in Matthew's Gospel (or of "the Jews" in John's Gospel) makes it seem like Jesus has this brand new teaching that is radically different from "legalistic first-century Judaism." That's just not true; and the reality is that Jesus - a good Jewish rabbi - needs to be re-situated within that larger Jewish context to more deeply appreciate his teachings. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 28

Read Matthew 18:15-35.

For two decades I was a parish priest, before accepting a call to diocesan work a year ago. I am still very involved with congregations but it's a more itinerant ministry. During my ministry in one place for fifteen years, I developed abiding ecumenical and interfaith relationships. Along the way I learned that it didn't much matter what congregations professed with their lips about what they believed - that whenever two or three are gathered together there will be some conflict. The question is really about what happens next...and this is as true in independent evangelical congregations as it is in Reform Judaism. People are people. So when clergy get together to talk, it's rarely to debate theology. It's to tell "war stories."

Congregations, like families, can get stuck and mired in unhealthy conflict and hurt feelings. So these verses from the eighteenth chapter of Matthew take us very close to the heart of what it means to be members of Christ's Body and of one another.

First, if you have a problem with someone, go and tell them - not three other people in the parking lot. This includes issues you may have with your pastor. Conflicts that go underground cannot be worked out. So Jesus says, "if you've got a problem with someone, tell them about it. Alone." And only after that, if you can't work it out, go and find someone you both trust (or one that you each trust) and bring them along and try again. And if it can't be worked out, then walk away. Let it go. Life is too short to get stuck there. I think that is what it means to treat that person as a Gentile. To not give them rent-free space in your head anymore. Not every conflict can be worked out. It's just the way it is. Maybe in the economy of God's grace it'll circle back a few years down the road, and cooler heads will prevail. Or maybe not. Either way, allowing your issue with one person to become a divisive issue for the whole community? Not an option.

Such wise rabbinical advice - and so often neglected even by (and maybe especially by) church people who mistakenly believe that the conflict itself is bad. It does seem to me the percentage of Christians who are conflict-averse is higher than the general population - and within the Christian population it's worse among clergy than laity. Maybe that is wrong; maybe it's just anecdotal or just the people I hang out with. But I don't think so. So these words have power to transform unhealthy conflict into healthy conflict - both in congregations and in families, and the two are very often intertwined.

And then, forgiveness. The key to the Kingdom is about letting go and letting God. How many times? Not just seven - and here the text is ambiguous. Is it seventy plus seven or seventy times seven? Either way it's lots and lots of times. Forgiveness keeps us from getting stuck on real and imagined hurts.

I've also noticed this human tendency: when we cause harm to others, mostly we are pretty sure we didn't mean to do it. We spoke too quickly, we were having a bad day, we were reacting out of some old script. We are, after all, only human.

On the other hand, when someone hurts us we tend to assume they spent the day (or week) plotting how to inflict the most pain upon us. In some rare cases, this may be true. But as a general rule, it leads us to believe (mistakenly I think) that we have more reason to work on being forgiving than on asking for forgiveness. Whenever, as a pastor, I'd teach or preach on forgiveness these were usually the conversations I'd engage in afterwards. I am not yet sure I can forgive so and so for the pain they caused me. Far rarer, in my experience, was the conversation that began, it's time for me to ask so and so's forgiveness...

Such, however, is the wisdom of twelve-step programs; see in particular steps four through ten. Before we can grow spiritually, we need to be honest about the pain we have caused others. No where in there is an inventory of the grievances of things done to us.

So Jesus - such a great teacher - gives us this memorable parable that invites us to look in both directions. And he gives us a little Middle Eastern hyperbole (like the splinter in someone else's eye and the beam in our own) to ask us to reflect on how much we need to be forgiven for and how stingy we sometimes are in forgiving others. And then just to sit with that a while and see what comes of it.

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 27

Read Matthew 17:22-18:14.

We are still a week away from the familiar story of Jesus asking whose head is on the coin and then suggesting that people "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's"  - too many folks forget the second clause, but we'll get there in due time! Today's conflict with the religious leaders is about the temple tax. When we reach this point in the lectionary this August we'll skip right over from chapter sixteen to chapter eighteen. And it's only in Matthew. So it's one of those readings that never comes up on a Sunday morning, even if you go to church every week for your whole life.

There's a lot of good stuff here in chapter eighteen, but that stuff does come up and is probably more familiar to most of my readers. So it's worth pondering this strange "fishing story" about the coin in the mouth of the fish. I don't know what it means. It's interesting that only Matthew has it - maybe as a former tax collector he's interested in this kind of thing. Or maybe the other gospel writers found it too fanciful. Regardless of what one does with the story it's pretty clear what the issue is. The disciples are torn - on the one hand why prop up an old system when they are in the new-wineskins business? On the other hand, to not pay the tax is to become cut off from their Jewish heritage and roots.

One thing I notice from the outset is the triangle that is created; I'm getting used to triangles in diocesan work! The tax collectors have an issue with Jesus, but they go to Peter about it. Peter says "yes, Jesus does pay the tax." But that's not the end. As often works in triangles, now Peter and Jesus need to talk about it - except what is interesting here is that Jesus brings it up first. What follows makes it clear that Peter himself is struggling with whether or not they ought to be paying this tax; since they are children of God they should be free. So Jesus comes up with a clever way to pay the tax, but have it not cost them anything. Cool trick!

The process of getting there raises a whole other set of questions. Perhaps Matthew has organized this material about children so it's all together here, but Jesus raises the question (clearly rhetorical) about where the kings of the earth get their resources - from their own children or from others? Obviously from others. Jesus uses this move to suggest that the disciples are children of God - but it's worth lingering a bit on this reality of how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

There are other texts from the prophets and throughout the New Testament from which to talk about economic justice, but this would be an interesting place to start. The world is built so that those in power take from those who do not have power. They find other people's children to fight their wars. What can, or should, the church say about that?

Check out this recent news report from Vermont for one way. (Of course it helps to elect Senators that want to have these conversations!)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 26

Read  Matthew 17:1-20




The photos above were taken on the Mount of the Transfiguration when I traveled to the Holy Land in 2010. Who can say whether or not it is really the high mountain where Jesus took Peter and James and John along and they had this shared mystical experience? But what I learned on my pilgrimage has really stayed with me: while we cannot know for sure, it's not like the Israeli tourist bureau decided last week that this was the place. Since the fourth century, this is where Christians have gone to remember this portion of the life of Jesus: and the Mt. Tabor Church shown above has become a "thin place" where one encounters the living God - even if it is not the exact spot where Peter wanted to build the booths. (Is there irony in the fact that Peter eventually got his wish, or what?) Also shown above is the view looking out on the plain of Jezreel. Notice the "bright cloud." (Although I did not hear the voice of God that day!) Oh, and did I mention that yours truly got to celebrate the Holy Eucharist in which the gospel reading for this day was read at one of the outdoor chapels? (They don't let "Protestants" near the altar inside the Church - but that was fine by my, it was still the experience of a lifetime!)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Einstein: His Life and Universe

I've been "reading" Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe during my commute. It's a really interesting biography although the physics is way over my head. I continue to discover in my driving how much I love being read to; but the downside of not having a paper copy is the inability to check exact quotes.

So with that caveat, what I think I heard yesterday on disk seven was something like this: as Einstein tried to work out the details on general relativity, he got stuck. And part of what he needed to do to get unstuck was to let go of some his previous assumptions, in order to make a "quantum leap" forward. Isaacson writes that part of Einstein's genius was "his tenacity and his deep faith in his own intuition, yet he was not mindlessly stubborn."

This is the key, isn't it, to leadership and "genius" in many different fields? To trust one's own intuition and to be tenacious in follow through. To stick with it when the going gets tough. And yet, at the same time to recognize one might be wrong - so to have the wisdom to know when to let it go and go back to the drawing board. Tenacious, but not mindlessly stubborn.

I think in congregations and relationships how on the one hand people forget to trust their own intuition and follow someone else's formula or script. But on the other, as we do learn to trust our intuition, if we aren't careful we can become so tenacious that we "locked in" - way beyond what is helpful. There is a kind of agility here - of nimbleness in thought that I aspire to, and admire in others.

A Journey With Matthew - Day 25

Read Matthew 16:13-28.

Today we reach the halfway point in our journey and the folks at The 50 Day Bible Challenge have planned well, since we have arrived in Caesarea Philippi. In this confession that Jesus is the Christ, we begin to set our faces toward Jerusalem - where Jesus insists this journey must lead.

I want to share a paragraph from The 50 Day Bible Challenge written in today's reflection by Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves, Bishop of the Diocese of El Camino Real.
"Who do you say that I am?" is a question designed to help the disciples learn something more of Jesus. But importantly, at a critical juncture of the story, perhaps they need to learn something about themselves. Are they ready for what lies ahead? As they ponder all that they have seen and heard, the disciples need to say what Jesus in his fullness is to them personally. This work of salvation has breadth in the ways it may be interpreted. At some point it must become a part of the heart, mind, and soul of the disciples. They cannot remain spectators to all that they have seen and heard. They must understand themselves as part of the story. 
On a more personal note - Bishop Gray-Reeves' husband, Michael, died in a tragic biking accident this past weekend. See the report here.

Please keep her and her family in your prayers. May Michael rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 24

Read Matthew 15:29-16:12.

In a video resource called Countering Pharaoh, Walter Brueggemann does this little "riff" (that's the only word I can come up with!) on the bread narratives that work their way from manna in the desert to the ministry of Jesus. He recalls this anxiety of the disciples about the bread recounted in Matthew 16:5-11 "one of the saddest passages in all of the Bible." As he re-tells the story, Jesus is giving his "seminarians" a critical incident on which to reflect. We've had two feeding stories - of the five thousand and now of the four thousand. There was enough bread. But as Brueggemann puts it, "they don't yet understand that Jesus is in the bread business."

So they get in the boat and think, "oh shoot...we forgot the bread!" And then they get confused and have no idea what he's talking about when he speaks of the yeast of the scribes and Pharisees. They are still worried about having no bread.

Don't you get it, Jesus says? Can't you see? When we had the five loaves and fed five thousand people, do you remember how many baskets of leftovers you gathered? Or just like five minutes ago when we fed the four thousand with seven loaves - how many baskets of leftovers then? For crying out loud! Stop worrying about what you are going to eat! There is enough. 

From the manna in the wilderness, to these bread stories, we are invited into a counter-narrative - away from slavery and toward covenant. Away from Pharaoh's economy where we are constantly worrying that there is not enough (and if there is not enough then my job is to get what I can and hoard it) and into covenant where we ask for daily bread - where there is enough for today.

Give us this day, our daily bread, oh God. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 23

Read Matthew 15:12-28.

In an earlier post (on day 13 of this journey) I raised the question about Jesus's "clarity" at that point about his mission as only to the lost sheep of Israel. That precise phrase comes up here. Previously he used it to give the twelve - all Jewish men - their "marching orders." Today we see it used as a kind of defense as to why he cannot help this Canaanite woman out. Her daughter is tormented by a demon. But she is not one the lost sheep of Israel. He has to stay focused on the mission, right?

I heard a sermon on this text once, in the Drew Chapel, that began with these words: "In interpreting this passage, it depends on whether you have a high Christology or a low Christology." Only in a seminary chapel can a sermon begin this way! But the preacher's point was that how we see Jesus - whom the church claims as fully divine and fully human - matters. Those with a higher Christology will have a harder time seeing that Jesus has learned something here. But those with a lower Christology, that begins with his humanity, will wonder if Jesus isn't bested by a woman (and a foreigner at that!) in a theological debate here.

I won't dwell on the point, except to say that while we cannot know what is going on in Jesus' head (or in Matthew's as he reports the encounter) it does seem that this encounter expands the mission. No longer are those other than the "lost sheep of Israel" an abstraction. This real woman stands before him, interceding for her daughter. Her faith is indeed real, and great.

The disciples wanted to send her away. If they had succeeded they could have kept their theology intact. But because the encounter happens, the "other" now has a face and a story - even if not a name. I don't care what one's Christology is - such encounters change people. And I don't think it pushes the envelope too much to say that she changes Jesus, for good.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Spare Parts and Broken Hearts - A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Who says you can't go home? Today I was the preacher at the Hawley United Methodist Church - the congregation that took seriously their promises to help raise me up in the faith. The readings for the day can be found here; the sermon is based on the Old Testament reading from Genesis 21:8-21. 

In the fall of 1973, my family moved from Scranton to Hawley. I was ten years old, and about to began fifth grade at the Hawley Elementary School in Mrs. Keefer’s class. Even though my parents had grown up in this town (my dad at Cole Memorial Baptist Church and my mother at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church; and I’d been baptized at St. Paul’s) they’d found their way during the years they lived in Scranton to Elm Park United Methodist Church. So when they moved back to Hawley they decided to stick with that plan, and that is how my family landed here. Gail Wintermute was the pastor and Katherine Bates was my Sunday School teacher. If I may paraphrase a bit, “everything I ever needed to know about God I learned in Sunday School, right here in this building.” Milly Wintermute was my piano teacher, and it was she who first suggested I consider career options other than becoming a concert pianist. She wondered out loud with me if I might be called to the ministry, but I assured her that no way, no how, not ever—no offence. I was going to be a lawyer and then go into the family business: politics.

So here we are, forty-one years later. God has a funny sense of humor. I left Hawley in the fall of 1981 to attend college in Washington, DC and have not lived here since then. I preached here once when I was in seminary and I think the day after I was ordained a deacon at Elm Park, in the summer of 1988. Some time after that I ended up making my own denominational move from the Methodists to the Episcopal Church, but I’ll save that story for the next time I’m invited back to preach. The short version is this: I remain a Wesleyan in my strangely-warmed heart, but found that I could live that spirituality out better in the Episcopal Church.


It’s good to be home. When I told some friends I was returning home to preach this weekend, they reminded me what happened to Jesus when he preached in his hometown and they wished me the best and told me to avoid getting near any cliffs. This trip down memory lane has gone on long enough; I couldn’t get away with this much additional time in the pulpit in an Episcopal Church, but as I remember it, in the Methodist Church it doesn’t even count as a sermon if it doesn’t go on for at least thirty minutes, right?

So let’s talk about this strange reading from the twenty-first chapter of Genesis. I’m pretty certain that we never studied it in Mrs. Bates’ Sunday School class – because most Sunday School curricula cuts out the really interesting parts of the Bible, like David and Bathsheba and the Song of Songs and this complicated triangle between Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. But what I did learn here was a love of the Bible, and that the Word of God is heard there - even though sometimes we have to dig deep. So let’s do some digging.

God had promised Abraham and Sarah descendants numbering like the stars. They trusted God, and left behind everything to pursue that dream. But it didn’t happen. Or at least it didn’t happen on their timetable. And now Abraham and Sarah were getting on in years. According to the narrator, it was Sarah’s idea to ask Hagar to serve as their surrogate mother – you can see already why this story isn’t covered in Sunday School, right? This was in the days before in vitro clinics so they had to go about it the old-fashioned way. 

In any case, Abraham and Hagar have a son – and they name him Ishmael and everyone figures this son will now be the heir. But God’s plan, and promise, was apparently for Abraham and Sarah to have a son together, and they do. Remember that Sarah laughed when she found out she was pregnant, which is why the kid’s name – Isaac – means “laughter.”

As Walter Brueggeman puts it: “the conflict between the two sons...the two mothers...and the reluctant ambiguous father is… complex." Ha! No kidding! You don’t need a PhD in Old Testament or Family Therapy to figure that out! 

So as we heard, Isaac grew and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.  The weaning of a child in the ancient world was a big deal because it meant that the child had made it through the hardest year or so of childhood. Ishmael is now a teenager. And Sarah sees the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.  So she said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac."  The matter was very distressing to Abraham, the narrator tells us. For sure. 

Abraham hears the Voice of God telling him not to be distressed and that everything will be ok. But I think we make a big mistake if we think God just tapped Abraham on the shoulder and said it in a flash. I think that Abraham probably had more than one or two sleepless nights in there where he tossed and turned because this matter was indeed very distressing to Abraham and because how could a father just send his son away like that? But somehow – who knows, in a dream maybe or out for a walk one day or in the quiet of the night—Abraham “hears” the voice of God saying:

Do not be distressed because of the boy…do whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring. And so Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

Ugh. End of story, right? God has just one promise and all of us learned somewhere along the line, maybe in this very Sunday School from Mrs. Bates, that it’s the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then Jacob has twelve sons, the favorite one is the guy who gets that coat of many colors that lands him on Broadway…

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not Abraham, Ishmael, and whoever. So Ishmael and his mother are discarded – thrown away from the pages of the Bible, only to turn up later in the pages of the Koran, as the one through whom Muslims call Abraham their father too.

Except that it is not the end of the story. While the narrative for Jews (and by extension the narrative for us as Christians) continues through Isaac, that story doesn’t continue until we first see God at work in the lives of Hagar and Ishmael. Listen again with me, to the rest of the story as we heard it today:


When the water in the skin was gone, Hagar cast the child under one of the bushes.  Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, "Do not let me look on the death of the child."
She’s in the desert and the water is gone…she knows what is coming next. 
And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.  And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him."  Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.  He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Notice that this "other son" is not so easily dismissed by God. God cares for the outsider whom the tradition wants to abandon. In fact, while this story lingered around in the oral tradition for a long time, I imagine that when the Bible got edited there was someone who probably said, “do we really have to talk about this?”  Why don’t we just leave that part out? Like in families where something unpleasant happens and we sort of silently agree never to speak of it again. But here it is, and yes, we should talk about it because deep inside this text I think there is good news about the living God.

You want to know something really interesting – at least it is interesting to me.  Even this is not the last we see of Ishmael in our own holy book. Guess when he comes back? For their father’s funeral. Ishmael and Isaac, these two half-brothers, stand together at Abraham’s grave. (Genesis 25:9) Ishmael returns home, all those years later and these two sons of Abraham, these two fathers of great nations, weep together. And then before the narrator moves on to Jacob and sons, he tells us that Ishmael had a whole lot of kids himself, a whole lot of children and grandchildren. In other words, there is another story out there – about the God of Abraham, Ishmael, and Nebiaoth.

It’s a strange story isn’t it? But it’s so real. At least it feels very real to me. I think it has huge implications for us when it comes to interfaith conversations, because it suggests that Jews and Muslims and Christians are all cousins - part of one big extended family. A dysfunctional family to be sure, but still a family where love is possible, and required. And where it is clear that God has more than one promise.  And more than enough love. 

There’s a line from the prophet Bruce (Springsteen that is) that goes like this: spare parts and broken hearts/ keep the world turnin’ around. (I had to work in at least one Springsteen line just to be sure my brother is still paying attention.) It may seem like Hagar and Ishmael get treated like spare parts, literally discarded when the new kid comes along. But with God that is never the end of the story. That may be how Sarah and Abraham get on with their lives, but God’s love is bigger than that. For me this strange story about Hagar and Ishmael is like an old black and white snapshot stuck in a family photo album. And one of the grandkids comes along and says, “who’s that?” And all the old folks take a deep breath. But in the telling of a story like this, there is more than good news for interfaith dialogues, as if that would not be enough and something our post 9/11 world still desperately needs. There is good news for all of us here.

Phyllis Trible says that Hagar is "the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth…the pregnant young woman alone…the divorced mother with child…the welfare mother, the self-effacing female whose identity shrinks in service to others." And I would go even further and say that even if you can’t identify with anyone in that litany, then it may help to remember that even those of us who look most put-together on the outside are not immune from the pain and hurt this life can bring – of feeling like we don’t measure up, that we aren’t good enough, or thin enough, or smart enough. There is some part of all of us, I suspect, that knows this feeling of “spare parts and broken hearts.” 

We may be children of the promise claimed as God’s own, forever, in holy baptism. But it doesn’t mean we feel that way every day of the week. Sometimes we feel a little bit despised and a little rejected and maybe more than a little acquainted with grief. And it’s tempting to think that we can’t bring all that with us to a holy place like this on Sunday mornings. That we need to polish our shoes and our selves all up.

But then we come to church on a June morning and there it is – this story of Hagar and her son out there in the wilderness, down to their last drop of water and a mother who expects that she is about to watch her son die. A desperate mother, at the end of her rope – discarded by the powers-that-be. And the living God is present in that supposedly God-forsaken place, saying what God always says: do not be afraid - 
Do not be afraid. Give the boy a drink. Take a drink yourself – of living water, and know that I will be with you.  
That same God is present whenever we’re lost too. Present when a man says from a cross, “I thirst.” Present in our crazy families and in our crazy congregations, present from generation to generation. Present on the edges, in the places we’re sometimes afraid to look. Do not be afraid. God meets us where we are – and there is more than enough love to go around. God is in the promise-making and promise-keeping business. Do not be afraid. Eat and drink . Taste and see that the Lord is good.  

A Journey With Matthew - Day 22

Read Matthew 14:22-15:11.

To me the miracle is not Jesus walking on water, but Peter trying. Peter gets a bum rap in the gospels - worse in Mark, by the way, than in Matthew who seems to try to clean Peter up a little. But what Peter has in spades, it seems to me, is chutzpah - and the contemporary Church could use a lot more of that.

So, okay, the Son of God is walking on water. Pretty cool trick. But Peter says, "I think I might be able to do that, with God's help." In fact I might be able to do infinitely more than I can ask or imagine - with God's help. But let's start here. I'll try.

So he gets out of the boat and starts walking toward Jesus. And it's going along fine, until he notices a wind, a strong wind, and he becomes frightened. And that is when he begins to sink.

Jesus is a tough teacher. Peter was the only one who volunteered to try, but now he gets, "Ye of little faith...why did you doubt?"

My former parishioners could quote me I'm sure, because I probably said it once a month over fifteen years - that the opposite of faith is fear. Fear paralyzes us. Fear is the enemy of spiritual growth.

Faith is not about what we believe in our heads. It's about chutzpah.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 21



If I'd been organized about this I would have given today's reflection over to my boss, Bishop Doug Fisher. This is his favorite story in the Bible. I hear about it all the time at work; it's right up there with Bruce Springsteen and the NY Yankees for him!

Well, two out of three ain't bad; it's certainly on my top-ten list of Biblical stories as well. One of the things that strikes me the most is where it begins, those opening three words in English: "We have nothing..."

It does not serve the Reign of God when we say this or act like it is true. Because it is almost never true. Have you ever come home from work late and looked in the fridge and freezer and cupboard and seen "nothing?" But you don't feel like going back out. Or maybe heard one of your kids say, "there is nothing to eat in this house!" So you look again.

Actually some of the best meals I've ever made have been the unplanned ones when I thought I had "nothing." Lots of things can be made if one takes a second-look. It's a stone-soup kind of thing; it turns out there is nothing but a few lonely veggies and some frozen broth - and oh, a can of clams or some leftover chicken. And an onion. And a half a loaf of crusty bread that can be made into croutons...

The disciples have nothing. Well, nothing except five loaves and a couple of fish. The miracle here is not of the kind that makes the blind see or the lame walk but it's just as real, even if more "ordinary." In fact I think it is precisely the kind of miracle we need to cultivate eyes for seeing. We need to look again and see that there is not nothing, but in fact there is something. Because God can work with that if we dare to offer what we have. And when it is offered with thanksgiving, in "eucharistic" ways (the verbs in this story should be familiar one, as Jesus blesses and breaks and gives the bread) - it turns out that it is enough. In fact, more than enough...

In my new role of working with congregations, I see this a lot. Sometimes congregations are small, and they don't have the resources they once had - or their neighbors have. It's tempting to say, we have nothing. But in fact, a second look reveals that they have something - and if they dare to offer it, to ask God to bless it, miracles happen.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 20

Read Matthew 13:44-58.

"Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." (Matthew 13:52)

Walter Brueggemann (and I'm sure others) have compared the preaching task in our time, a time of great change, to that of a scribe - and particularly to this kind of scribe "trained for the kingdom of heaven." I find it a helpful descriptive metaphor - not just for preachers but for ministry in this time and place.

On the one hand, so-called conservatives feel that we are in danger of losing that "old time religion" - the "faith of our (mothers and) fathers" that they sometimes forget needs to be "living still." On the other hand, so-called progressives sometimes act as if this is the first time in the history of God's people that we have faced change. Instead of drawing on the helpful and sometimes neglected parts of the "tradition," they sound sometimes as if the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater.

Now I know that I've set this up in a very Anglican way. No one wants to be labeled this kind of so-called conservative or so-called progressive! We all know that the real challenge is to figure out what traditions are worth carrying on and what needs to die - and it is precisely as we become specific that we begin to disagree. But it is, I think, the right way to frame the question (or questions) - out of which may emerge a whole variety of answers and experiments that we live with for a while.

Apparently the height of Constantinian Christianity in the USA was in post-war America, from the 1950's to the 1970's. Especially in growing suburbs "everyone" went to church and the Sunday Schools were full. But as Kierkegaard once asked of "Christian Sweden" - how to be a Christian in Christendom? We speak of the decline of church attendance but it's because we start in 1950! In fact, if one takes the longer view and looks at the Church in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there is a different story. And yet so-called conservatives and so-called progressives get fixated on asking the same questions based on the same data and the same old debates.

The work we have been given to do, I think, is about discerning what from the past will serve God's reign, and what does not. It's about wine and wineskins. We can't just quote Jesus out of context to fit our agendas; we have to follow him and take our lead from him. Being the Church requires more than learning which notes to play - it requires a willingness to improvise - under the Spirit's guidance.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 19

My small group at SCLM; photo by Chris Morrison

A simple word study shows that the word "listen" appears fifteen times in Matthew's Gospel. Today is the third of three times in pretty rapid succession where Jesus uses the phrase, "let anyone with ears listen!" (11:15, 13:9, 13:43)

If you in fact hear the Gospel proclaimed (rather than just read silently) then you notice repetition better than you do in the silent reading of broken-up pericopes. To hear the same phrase three times in two chapters probably means it's kind of important. Let anyone with ears listen...let anyone with ears listen...let anyone with ears listen!

Recently I had an opportunity to participate in a continuing indaba event sponsored by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music on the topic of same-sex blessings. See more here. The deep conversations we engaged in required a commitment from all "to listening and being open to hear other perspectives, without pressure to change position."

In everyday conversation, most of us are not very good listeners. We listen for a pause or a break so we can interject our thoughts. It is not always as extreme as that old Saturday Night Live Point/Counterpoint routine but we live in a point/counterpoint culture, and much of what passes for conversation is about speaking.

But when we are really heard, when we feel truly listened to, something happens. In my experience it is always holy, but it requires intentionality. In Matthew's Gospel we see a lot of point/counterpoint - and a lot of reactivity from the religious authorities. Jesus heals on the Sabbath, and they are outraged. But in their anger and in their "defense of the tradition" they stop listening.

We are called, as the Church, to preach the Gospel - sometimes even with words. Spoiler alert: Matthew's Gospel will end with the Great Commission to share the good news "to the ends of the earth." But we get two ears and one mouth for a reason, and I think that the practice of listening is critical before we open our mouths to speak. Listening to God, to our neighbor, to our enemies, to the beating of our own hearts. Listening as a holy practice that leads to reconciliation and peace.

Let anyone with ears listen!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 18

Read Matthew 12:46-13:23

Jesus here makes the claim that water is thicker than blood. Well, not exactly, but that's not a crazy hermeneutical leap. He says that blood ties - familial relationships - do not trump the the baptismal community that is living into the commitments and promises of discipleship.  

This is a radical claim. It is counter to the society in which he lived, and counter to the claims of our own context where the religious right preaches "family values" that draw lines around who is in and who is out. It is a claim that challenges the claims of small, tight-knit congregations that say, "we're just like a family." The "family" that Jesus desires are those who continue in the apostles' teaching and break the bread and share the good news (with and without words) with others and who do justice and love mercy and who "respect the dignity of every human being." No exceptions.

The family into which we have been claimed means we belong to each other. This shapes our politics. Those who think a casino would be entertaining as long as it's in Springfield but "not in my back yard" need to be careful here. If I don't want to fund public education because our kids are going to private schools,or it's too bad if our foreign policy hurts Latin Americans or Palestinians - well, that's just the way it is. We take care of us.

Our tendency is to make decisions, especially political decisions, based on self-interest: on what is good for me, and mine. Jesus breaks down those markers of the old order that say blood is thicker than water, and points us to new relationships created by water and the Spirit. Our love is not limited to other Christians - but it begins there and our "family" is not just the people who look like us in our own congregation. To grasp the meaning of these verses we need a bigger vision, and we need to share one another's burdens.

Pray for our sisters and brothers in Iraq.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 17

Read Matthew 12:22-45.

What does Jesus mean in his response to the Pharisees when he talks about "binding the strong man?" (Matthew 12:29)

The work of Biblical hermeneutics (i.e. interpretation) is notoriously difficult. It's difficult in part because what something may have meant in one context is hard enough, but that's only step one since it may not directly correlate into a very different cultural context. This work is made even more difficult by the fact that highly symbolic language rarely means just one thing (in either setting!) So interpretation can take us in many different directions. As Walter Brueggemann likes to say, "texts are polyvalent."

One of the best Biblical commentaries I own is Ched Myer's Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus. Yes, I know we are reading Matthew. But as one of the three synoptic gospels, Matthew takes Mark as one of his sources - and this encounter is also found in Mark. Here is a link to a review of Myer's Commentary which may whet your appetite. And here is a link to chapter two of the commentary itself. (Go buy it if you don't own it because next up in the lectionary, come November, is Mark!)

Myers makes the claim that this "binding of the strong man" is symbolic/coded language to describe what Jesus himself is trying to do over and against the colluding power Roman imperialism and the temple establishment. That Jesus' revolutionary non-violent strategy is about overturning and "ransacking" the "house" in order to bring about a new socio-political order that he calls the Reign of God.

I'll leave it to you whether or not you accept the interpretation. But I cannot read this text without referencing Myer's interpretation, which I find compelling. And if Myer's reading is right, then it raises the question of where we see the Church: are we more like the temple establishment or more like those who are called to help Jesus "ransack the house?"

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 16

Read Matthew 11:25 - 12:21.

A friend of mine talks about climbing up hills of Assisi and feeling like you aren't getting anywhere, and putting one foot in front of the other and then noticing how steep it is and how far you have to go. But then stopping for a moment to look back and realize how much progress you have made. It is, she says, a metaphor for the spiritual journey. Sometimes it feels like we are on a treadmill, walking in place. It helps every now and again to pause and reflect on the past - not as a matter of nostalgia but to embrace how far we have come, and take heart for the journey that lies ahead.

So, too, in this journey. We are almost a third of the way through Matthew's Gospel. We still have a long way to go. But whether or not we've ever read Matthew from beginning to end, we know where this is headed: to a cross on a hill outside of the holy city. And beyond that, to the empty tomb.

Too often, however, we skip through the stuff that leads to that event. Our "theology of the cross" must never be disconnected from what led to that death sentence. Why did the religious leaders feel so threatened by Jesus? What caused that breakdown in communication, and those irreconcilable differences? It's worth noticing because it happens in our own lives, and in congregations - where people find themselves entrenched in their "positions."

Today's reading is only in one sense about healing on the Sabbath. It's about a conflict that has been escalating between those whose job it is to protect the order and Jesus who keeps pushing against the status quo. We have to be careful here, however. It is too easy for us to caricature the scribes and Pharisees as people focused on the "letter of the law" and Jesus on the "spirit of the law." That adds fuel to Christian anti-Semitism; it's also just not historically accurate. We need to learn how to see the polemics in the text and not simply read it at face value. One of the best guides I've found on this is Amy Jill Levine.

This is not about being "politically correct." It is about seeing how religion works - and what we tend to do to the prophets. So it's worth asking, "what's at stake here for the Pharisees - and what are they so scared of?" Asking this may help us deal with our own fears, and with navigating Spirit-led change in the Church.

But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. Whatever the reasons, they find this rabbi to be a threat.

And notice one thing more - it seems a turning point for a new sense of clarity about the Gentiles. Jesus said not too long ago, "only the lost sheep of Israel." But now Matthew is quoting Isaiah and pointing us to the Gentile mission, and a bigger vision.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday


I am once more with the people of St. Andrew's in North Grafton on this Trinity Sunday. Below is my sermon manuscript for the day. 


In the name of the one God, the three-in-One – creating, redeeming, and sustaining. Amen.

This first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost is called “Trinity Sunday.” It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the Holy Trinity. The Bible itself doesn’t formulate a doctrine of the Trinity. The closest we come is to something like the words we heard today in St. Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Clearly that is liturgical language for Paul and it’s a terrific blessing that references Christ, Creator, and Spirit. Maybe we should have just stopped there. But it was left to the Church to figure out what that meant as time went on. And here is a newsflash for anyone here who may not know how quickly the church moves on anything: discernment takes time! And the speed at which the Church does this kind of work is nothing close to warp speed!

It wasn’t until the fourth-century, when Emperor Constantine converted to the Christian faith, that it all came to a head. Overnight, the Church’s relationship with the dominant culture changed from being a persecuted, counter-cultural sect to becoming the official religion of the empire. The Church, which had from its inception stood over and against the culture, now faced new challenges as a cultural force to be reckoned with—and with social responsibility for helping to shape public policy.

There is no way to overestimate the radical shift that required as the Church adapted to those new circumstances and a whole new set of challenges. The resulting Trinitarian faith of the Church is outlined in the Nicene Creed—which grew out of a meeting of the bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Constantine called that meeting. One of the odd new things, then, as those bishops gathered at Nicaea is that they had been summoned there by the Emperor—who wanted the matter settled once and for all on what the Church was teaching about God. Kings like things settled, and don’t do well with open-ended theological questions. It’s no accident that the Church became more dogmatic as it became more and more established. Is God one or is God three, Constantine wanted to know? In the end the bishops responded by saying yes to both questions.

At Nicaea, there were on the one hand those who wanted to stress the notion that God is One. If they had carried the day, then Christianity would be very much in line with the theology of the other branches of Abrahamic faith: both Judaism and Islam stress that God is one. Moses and Mohammed are seen as great prophets and leaders and visionaries—but no Jew or Muslim ever claims to worship them, or pray to them, or ever say of either of them that they are “very god of very god.”

The problem with that approach for Christianity, however, is that the witness of the Church was and is that Jesus the Christ was more than a young and fearless prophet—more than Moses or Muhammad. The experience of the Christian community over centuries of proclaiming the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and living more fully into that reality was like that of the Johannine experience: that the Word that was with God…that the Word that was God…had become flesh to dwell among us. In other words, that we have seen, in Jesus, the face of the living God.

So at the other end of the spectrum were those who wanted to stress the three-ness of God’s Being—precisely because they were so clear that they had experienced the presence of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But in stressing the three persons, it sounded to some like polytheism—which contradicted the monotheism of the Scriptural witness.

What a conundrum! And so they argued and prayed, and they argued and prayed some more. I suspect that the bishops who gathered at Nicaea felt at times much like we are feeling in the Church today in the midst of what seemed to be irreconcilable differences. Is God three or is God one, they asked. Someone had to be right and the other side clearly had to be wrong. Right? No. They eventually concluded that everyone was more or less half right and that none of them had the whole truth. Yes, God is one. But God is also three. Sometimes when you ask a really good question sometimes the answer is that both truths need to be held together in a creative tension—because if left on their own, then both sides are wrong.

The real miracle of Nicaea to my mind is that they hung in there with each other—arguing and praying—until eventually they began to hear one another. Until eventually they began to listen again for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Oh yeah, remember Her? The promise was that the Spirit would guide us into all truth. So the doctrine that did emerge was “One God, revealed in three persons”—as outlined in the Nicene Creed that follows the sermon every week. Today’s collect is a nice summary of that teaching: our confession is to “acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity” even as we worship “the Unity.”

Now if we turn this simply into a matter for our intellect to grasp, we will miss the point and that is the danger of this sermon to this point, which perhaps seems too much like a lecture and not enough like “good news.” If we use this (or any other church doctrine) as a “weapon” to decide who is in and who is out then we misunderstand the meaning of “orthodox” faith. Literally that word “orthodox” is not (as is sometimes asserted) about “right belief” - as if one side has the “right” answers and the other side is “wrong.” Rather, when we sing the doxology—

                   Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
                   Praise God all creatures here below!
                   Praise God above ye heavenly host!
                   Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

we are singing “words of praise.” Orthodoxy/doxo-logy; these two words share the same meaning—literally. It’s not about belief; but about praise. So if we mean to help people more deeply praise God, then we need to learn that the doctrine of the Trinity is not a math problem to be solved, but a mystery to be embraced in love.

Admittedly, the creed itself is a pretty “left-brained” document. This is one reason that for me, more than any other part of the liturgy, I prefer that the creed be sung, so it's more than just words. The creed is like a snap-shot taken halfway around the world almost 1700 years ago. So it has it's limitations. Many Protestant congregations simply don’t use it; feeling that it's outdated for contemporary congregations. Maybe they are right, and I confess that on some days I’m a bit envious of them. As a pastor, I see the harm that is caused to growth in faith when people get “stuck” on the creed. People aren’t sure they believe all that, and then they wonder if they are really Christians at all. So I get why some people wish we didn’t use it. But in the end I’m convinced that the hubris of thinking that what we do not grasp fully should be discarded is even worse. If we discard what we aren’t sure of from the faith, then I’m not sure what would be left. I’d rather leave it and keep wrestling with it. In fact, a wise teacher of mine once told me that when a young parishioner of his said she wasn’t sure what to make of the Creed, the teacher responded: “that’s ok…the Church will keep it around for you until you do!”

So it is of great comfort to me that our faith is communal—and that the creed begins with the word “we.” It truly is “the faith of the ecumenical Church”—even if on some weeks you or I aren’t sure what we believe as individuals. It reminds us that we are part of a larger body, and that our faith is deeper than what we can intellectualize. As much as I value scholarship and learning I take comfort in that.

Perhaps as we ponder and contemplate the Trinity it is more helpful as we make the move from head to heart to draw more on the right side of our brains—that is to offer images and poetry and to sing Trinitarian hymns, rather than limiting ourselves to left-brain logic and reason. Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity! Sheer praise!

Some have offered the image of a three-leaf clover or of a tree that has roots, a trunk, and branches—to try to get a picture of the Trinity. The problem with those is that while they help us begin to embrace the notion of how Three can really be One and One can be Three—the images are too static and too flat. More helpful perhaps is the image of water—which has the same chemical make-up whether it is a solid ice-cube or a liquid that quenches our thirst, or a gas that we breathe in. You can even play with that one a bit in terms of scripture—the first person of the Trinity as the solid rock of our Faith, Christ as the living water that quenches our spiritual thirst, and the Holy Spirit that is as close as our next breath—filling our lungs with the gift of life itself.

Another image, from the realm of music. Imagine the sound that a “c” makes. I don’t mean the string on the guitar or the key on a keyboard or the fingering on a saxophone. All of those are too material. I mean the sound itself that “c” makes as it moves through time and space. Now add an “e.” And then a “g.” Three distinct notes; one harmonic chord. Imagine, then, the song of the Creator brooding over creation or the lullaby being sung every time a child is born into this world, male and female God creates them – in God’s own image we are created. And then add the song of Christ – born to the song of angels singing Glory to God in the highest and peace and goodwill on earth and rising to new life as even at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Finally, add the song of the Spirit—comforting the afflicted and sometimes afflicting the comfortable, always toward the end of renewing the face of the earth. And again, and always, for the sake of love. Three distinct notes—one “chord.”

Eventually all of our images will fall short. But we can ponder such images as faith seeks understanding—as long as we remember that the song God sings is Love, and the Trinity is all about how the love the three persons have for each other and for the world. The unity and diversity of God bear witness to the unity and diversity to which the Church is called—for we too, though many, are One.

The true marks of “orthodox” faith—on Trinity Sunday and on every Sunday of the year—are not about what we think in our heads or proclaim with our lips, but about how we share in the work that the Triune God has given us to do. The marks of true faith are made manifest in communities where God’s holiness is made known, and faith, hope, and love become palpable. Where you see those fruits, you will surely also see God the Holy Trinity at work.   

A Journey With Matthew - Day 15

Read Matthew 11:1-24

John, who prepared the way for the one who is the Way - wonders if he got it right. Was his life-work meaningful, crying out there in the wilderness? "Are you the one?"

Jesus' response has always made me smile. Of course he doesn't answer such a question with a simple "yes" or "no!" That's not his style! Instead, he tells the disciples to bear witness to what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears.

  • The blind see. 
  • The lame walk. 
  • The lepers are cleansed. 
  • The deaf hear. 
  • The dead are raised. 
  • The poor have good news brought to them.

Oh, and one more thing: Blessed is anyone who isn't offended by all of this. Say what?

These words aren't frozen in time, but living words for each generation. How do we know that Jesus is the one? Not by words but by what we see and hear. These things continue to happen, both literally and metaphorically, in the name of Jesus. And where they do, we see Emmanuel, God-with-us.




Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 14

"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me." 
"True Christian hospitality requires a giving of ourselves, an opening up of who we are, a willingness to stretch our sometimes-narrow lives to step outside of our comfort zones. If we truly try to follow Jesus, our outlook on the world - especially its strangers, its poor, its homeless, its helpless, its needy, even its enemies - will be forever changed." (Brother David Vryhof, SSJE, in Brother, Give Us A Word.
Like all Christian practices, hospitality requires intentionality. In my itinerant ministry as a member of the Bishop's staff I am usually in a different congregation every week. All of them claim to be friendly and welcoming and some of them truly are. Almost all of them are welcoming to me, of course - I come there in "uniform" and with some level of authority. But sometimes my wife along, although we almost always travel separately. Unlike me, she arrives as a stranger - and a "single" one at that.

My observation is that some congregations do make an effort to welcome her and some do not. This is not an indictment of anyone; simply an observation that actions don't always match the desire to be welcoming.

And of course this is when people come into the buildings that we want them to enter! The real question of hospitality is where we are willing to go to meet the stranger - going into prisons, and hospitals, and homeless shelters takes even more work.

But it does keep coming up in Matthew, doesn't it? Maybe it is a word we need to hear.



Friday, June 13, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 13

Read Matthew 9:27-10:15

Jesus sent the twelve out with the following instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

I wonder what a Biblical literalist does with this text? For me it raises all kinds of questions, since the Christian community obviously became a Gentile more than Jewish Church and Jesus uses a Samaritan as a hero to one of his parables (at least in Luke) and crosses himself into Samaria where he talks with a woman at a well (at least in John.) Even though the most "Jewish" of the Gospels, clearly Matthew knows this. And of course we know that by the time we get to the early Christian community at Jerusalem, the walls are being broken down and there is a place for Samaritans and Gentiles at the table. (See the Acts of the Apostles.) So why doesn't Matthew revise Jesus' remarks to get them in line with what happened?

Jesus gives the disciples an exclusive mission here and he's quite clear: only to the lost sheep of Israel. It raises the question, what changed his mind? And it also raises the question: what changes ours?


Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 12

Read Matthew 9:1-26.

An observation about this journey so far is that we cover a lot of ground each day! In the confirmation program I used to run in the parish, I asked confirmands and mentors to read the entire Gospel of Mark in one sitting OR to watch a video performance of that gospel. Either of those took about two hours or so, as I recall. Matthew is longer than Mark but I'm sure you could get through Matthew in less time than it takes to watch a nine-inning baseball game. In contrast, the gospel readings in church on a Sunday morning are much shorter. It's like we get snapshots in church, and the gospel is written more like a feature film or Broadway show.

I am reminded of that these past few days because the pace of our journey captures something of the movement better than our normal division of the gospel into pericopes.Today we get four distinct pericopes, namely:

  • The paralytic man who takes up his mat and walks;
  • The call of Matthew, the tax collector; 
  • The disciples of John coming to Jesus and the teaching about new wineskins for new wine;
  • The healing of Jairus's daughter/the woman with the hemmorrhages

I point this out because I am the sort of person who could preach a fifteen-minute sermon (easily!) on each of these four sections. I'm used to coming closer and lingering on the details. But in this "journey" we are on it feels a bit more like being on the road, and passing something and saying to the other folks in the car, "did you see that deer?" And maybe they did and maybe they didn't, because there was something else to see ahead, or on the other side of the road...

In this larger section of text one of the things that is clearer to me is to notice what is happening with the religious leaders and with the crowds as Jesus does these things. It becomes cumulative. The crowds are literally like spectators, and I think distinguished from the disciples. The religious leaders are threatened; their authority is being challenged and they feel threatened by every new thing Jesus does. So our attention is on him, but he is not alone on the stage and one can feel how "report of [these things] spread throughout the district."

These "reports" get further and further from what has happened, because they are filtered through the perspectives of the crowds and the religious leaders. Gossip and distortion and all the rest creep in. We know where this is all headed, of course. My bullet points above are, I think, accurate "headlines" and summaries but the point is this: other headlines can be written. Each of these episodes is complex and will be reported (as report of these things spreads throughout the district) in different ways by different news sources. Other headlines could be written, and are even built-in already to Matthew's narrative
  • Scribes Accuse Rabbi of Blasphemy! 
  • Teacher Eats With Sinners and Tax Collectors!
  • Jesus Calls Tradition "Old Wineskins."
  • Hemorrhaging Woman Breaks Through Crowd to Accost Jesus! 
So where are we in this story - and on this journey? In what ways does Jesus still threaten the "institutional Church" and it's leaders? (Of which I guess I am one!) In what ways do we hang back in the crowd and watch it all, rather than taking up our cross to follow him?  Where are we in the story, and how is this all "good news?"

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 11

Read Matthew 8:14-34.

Another rich text: Peter's mother-in-law; the calming of the sea; the demoniac and the swine headed over the cliff. So much rich material and such a little blog...

But in the midst of it all, here is the line that always catches me up short:
Another of his disciples said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."
I have often thought that Jesus would have failed a seminary class in pastoral care. We all know that what he is supposed to say to that disciple is "I'm so sorry, how does that make you feel?" And stop what he is doing to be fully present to the grieving disciple.

I don't say this to be cute, or flippant. As I read it, the point here and in other similar places is the urgency of Now for Jesus. The Reign of God is breaking in and it's about new life - and so if one is more interested in death then that's a choice one makes. But you can't have it both ways. You have to choose.

I see it more often in diocesan ministry than I did in the parish but I saw it there too. We prop up ministries, or congregations, and sometimes even clergy long past their expiration date. And we play the pastoral care card - even as we claim to follow Jesus. We can't just leave the dead to bury their own dead. It wouldn't be nice. What would Jesus do, or as the case might be what would he say?

It turns out that discipleship isn't about being nice. I find it interesting that as long as Jesus is preaching great sermons and healing people the crowds build. But there is another side to Jesus - it's about the hard, narrow path, about taking up one's cross to follow him, about choosing life and meaning it. Now. Not tomorrow or the day after that, but Now.

Ready?






Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 10

Read Matthew 7:21-8:13

What do we mean when we say "Matthew's Jesus?" (Or the Markan Jesus, or Lukan Jesus, or Johannine Christ?) We mean that the four gospels don't give us access to the "historical" Jesus from first-century Palestine. As in all relationships, what someone tells us about someone else is shaped by them. Ask four different people to tell you about a potential new employee, or someone you are thinking of dating, and you will get four different perspectives. Hopefully consistent with each other and coherent but nevertheless distinct. The same is true about the four gospels, written down in distinct communities with their own history and experience of the risen Christ three or four decades after the resurrection.When teaching this notion to people in a parish or an undergraduate classroom I always asked them to try to imagine what happens in a faith community over forty years or so. You could go into an evangelical, mainline, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox congregation and ask them all to tell you about Jesus but what you would get in all four cases is their "spin" on Jesus - the testimony as they have received it.

Why is my brain going into this "rabbit hole" today? I'm thinking about Martin Luther - who was not crazy about the Epistle of James. And I'm wondering which of the four gospels was his favorite? I'm not sure I've ever read anything about that, but I think of the four, the "Matthean Jesus" is the closest of the four gospel portraits to that of James' epistle.

In other words: you can't just hear the Word but need to be a doer of that Word. You can't just say, "Lord, Lord" with your lips - you have to hear these words and act upon them. 

This is not the last time we'll hear this kind of talk from Matthew's Jesus. In chapter 25, how are the nations to be judged? Not by dividing them into those who proclaimed Jesus as Lord with their lips or claim to be "Christian nations" and those that are not. That is very clear in Matthew. They are judged, instead, by how they acted, and in particular how they treated the poor.

All this said, there is so much more here. Sam Portaro (who always makes me think) has a good discussion on "authority" in his reflections in A Journey With Matthew for today. One might also ponder how when they come down from the "sermon" on the mount - what is being said is modeled because Jesus starts to do this work by healing people. Who gets healed and why not everyone? But this is just a reminder that the world cannot contain all the books of the places where Scripture can lead us, and why a fifty-day journey is just a beginning.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 9

Read Matthew 7:1-20.

Wow, this is surely a densely packed twenty verses! So much here about the spiritual journey. But the verses for me that simply ring true again and again and again in my life inside and outside of the church is this human capacity to see the speck in our neighbor's eye, while missing the beam in our own. I think that most people I know, including myself, could spend a lot of time in prayer on that one.

How often does an arrogant person complain of someone else's arrogance? A bossy person, about someone else being bossy? A withdrawn person about someone else being withdrawn...the list is long. The shrinks call it projection - denying certain unpleasant attributes in ourselves and placing them on someone else.

By whatever name one calls it - spiritual maturity, growing into the full stature of Christ, or just plain "growing up" - when we become more self-aware of the beams in our own eyes, the Reign of God is very near indeed.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost


Today is the Feast of Pentecost, when the Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit. If you do not know the story, you can read about it here. I am celebrating this Feast Day at St. Andrew's Church in North Grafton - my second of four weeks in June there as the rector begins a sabbatical. 


The Feast of Pentecost is the third great feast day of the liturgical year, after Christmas and Easter. Yet its meaning may seem more elusive to us than those other two feast days, and its observance is definitely a distant third. In all my years as the rector of St. Francis in Holden, I don’t ever recall needing to set up chairs in the narthex for Pentecost like we did for Easter and Christmas, even when we had a lot of baptisms.

But here we are! Even if this is not your third largest attendance of the year at St. Andrew’s, I think that the Feast of Pentecost is a great celebration without all the cultural “hoopla” to sort through, and an opportunity for us to reflect on the sending of the Holy Spirit and what that means for our lives as we seek to open ourselves to the work of that same Spirit.

In today’s reading from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke is suggesting that we encounter God’s Holy Spirit when we encounter the other – the one who is different from us. Today marks the beginning of that theme but it’s a thread that runs all the way through Acts, in stories we’ve been hearing throughout the fifty days of Easter: that initial group of Jews from Galilee reach out to Gentiles and centurions, eunuchs and persecutors of the community, and ultimately to the ends of the earth.

What is amazing is that all of these people are speaking different languages, but hearing in their own native tongues. They are in Jerusalem for the Jewish Festival of Booths. But this story isn’t limited to Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; or even by extension to Germans and Mexicans and Zulus. As a metaphor, I think this day reminds us how difficult communication is: and how even people who speak the same “mother tongue” can face challenges in communicating. Sometimes that’s because we come from different generations. Other times it’s because we’re shaped by different socio-economic and cultural values. Other times it’s because some of us are from Mars and others are from Venus. But no matter how you slice it, communication is hard work! And without communication, community is impossible.

If you aren’t sure about that, then try putting a group of randomly selected Episcopalians together from across our diocese to discuss casinos or gun violence or public education. Even if all are speaking in English, many factors will influence that conversation.  It will matter whether they come from and live in a small town, or in the suburbs, or in the city. It will matter what they know or think they know and who they trust for information and who they are willing to listen to, and who they don’t hear. We literally inhabit different worlds! And all of these factors impact what we believe (and think we know) and therefore what we say and don’t say.

Our reading from Acts says that “they were all together in Jerusalem.” So if it’s complicated with Episcopalians, add in some Lutherans and Methodists and Roman Catholics and evangelicals and some Pentecostals as well and start having those same conversations. And since we live in a pluralistic world why not invite some Jews, and Buddhists, and Muslims and Hindus and some “spiritual but not religious” and some of the “nones?”

Now you don’t have to imagine that conversation, because it’s the world we live in every day. It’s where we work, it’s our neighborhoods. It’s in the signs you see out on people’s lawns – “no” and “yes.”  We inhabit different worlds even when we are all speaking English—worlds as different as those from which those gathered in Jerusalem came from. “Hearing” requires listening and most of us are not particularly good at deep listening.

It is not a natural instinct to see “the other” as a gift who can lead us into truth, but rather as someone who stands in our way—and in my experience so-called liberals are as guilty of this as so-called conservatives. We tend to see “the other” as a barrier to our getting what we want, or what we think we want. When we fear the other, very often our bodies tense up and that influences both what we can say but even more importantly, what we are able to hear. And far too often this is where conflict potentially escalates and authentic communication is hindered.

The Pentecost story makes the bold claim that “the other” is a gift who helps us to discern a deeper wisdom than we are able to discover on our own. That it is how God changes hearts and minds. So as you can tell, I don’t think the Pentecost story is just about what happened one day a long time ago in Jerusalem. I think it is a never-ending story about how the Holy Spirit continues to work even now, so that, by the grace of God sometimes people do listen to and even hear one another—and when that happens, community becomes possible. Nelle Morton, a twentieth-century Christian educator at my seminary (Drew) used the phrase “hearing another to speech.” That is to suggest that when we really listen to another person, it is not a passive exercise.

The greeting “Namaste” also captures, I think, what this kind of deep-Spirit listening is about.  Literally it means “I bow to you.” It also means that I honor the divine spark in you. Do we really believe that about each other? Can we honor the Spirit of God that is in the person whom we initially feels stands in the way of what we want?  The Baptismal Covenant points to this same truth when we promise, with God’s help, that we will respect the dignity of every human being. When we treat others as holy and beloved children of God, there is nothing passive about it. We really do, quite literally, hear the other to speech as we empower one another to speak the truth in love. And where that happens, whether in first-century Jerusalem or twenty-first century Grafton, the Holy Spirit is unleashed and at work and all are enriched and amazed in the process.

Truth—the whole truth and nothing but the truth—is never something that any one of us can possess on our own. It requires community and discernment. It requires of us that we be present to the Spirit. “In Christ,” St. Paul insisted, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female.” That is true. But not because they are the same. Males need females and Greeks need Jews – and the other way around, to see and hear what we may otherwise be blind and deaf to. On the great questions, one side never possesses the whole truth; and I believe that it is the Spirit that pushes us into acknowledging that hard reality—until we are able to hear one another to speech, each in his or her own native tongue.

So as it is empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Church becomes an icon of what is possible in this world: an image of abundant life animated by God’s Holy Spirit. I think that is what we glimpse in the second chapter of Acts but we also see it from time to time in our own context as well. When we truly love our neighbor, we build up the neighborhood. And that is at the very heart of what Pentecost is all about, Charlie Brown: the Church as the Church, showing the world what is possible when the Spirit of God is trusted for guidance, and wisdom, and comfort.

Lord knows, this does not mean there will be no conflict. The rest of Acts is filled with brutal honesty about just how difficult it is to be the Church. Luke wants to make sure that we don’t fall into a false kind of idealism that any of this is easy. Acts is not at all na├»ve about the work we are called to. But it does insist that with the Holy Spirit, infinitely more than we can ask or imagine is possible. Trusting that the Spirit is sent to guide us into all truth, we dare to ask: what is God’s preferred future? Where is God luring us, and sometimes prodding us to go?

Let me share with you two very practical experiences I’ve had in the past two weeks of Church that involved what I am trying to talk about with you today and where I saw the Holy Spirit at work, and then I’ll sit down. Two weeks ago I was at the Seminary of the Southwest for a program sponsored by Lutherans on Spanish Language and Hispanic Culture. So did you hear that: Lutherans and Episcopalians were “all together” and learning how to reach out to the Spanish-speaking population in this nation. Part of the week included a presentation by a thirty-two year old Mexican American who came to this country without papers. Her mother fled Mexico because she was being abused by her husband with her two daughters; our speaker was ten at the time. She excelled in school and her mother worked in Austin as a nanny and told her that someday if she worked hard she could go the University of Texas. Well guess what? She did just that! And she is a U.S. citizen today. But it was not a straight-line journey, as you can imagine.  She told us about being scared and how difficult that path was. Whatever you may think about immigration reform, here is the point I want to make with you: it’s not an abstract question. Listening to the stories and experiences of Dreamers like my amiga, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is part of the work God gives us to do.

And then this past week I was at the cathedral in Kansas City as a follow-up to our last General Convention and as preparation for the next one – to discuss what we are learning as a Church that offers blessings to same-sex couples. There were literally people from around the world there – from Africa, South America, Britain and Europe and New Zealand. And there were ecumenical guests there – Presbyterian and Lutheran and Moravian and United Church of Christ. As well as our Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies and members of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. We used what is sometimes called the "continuing indaba" approach to listening that strengthens relationships for mission which comes out of South Africa.

There is lots to say but let me just say this: I was exhausted by Friday when I returned home, because listening is far more tiring than speaking, and because these are challenging conversations. But let me be really clear about this: it was a holy and life-giving experience and a visible and outward sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence.  

So here is the last thing I want to say: I don’t think the Spirit is done with any of us yet. I think that day in Jerusalem was just a grand entrance, but that the Spirit continues to show up, sometimes in loud ways and other times in quieter ways. And we need to cultivate the practice of paying attention. We do that by listening to each other and for that same Spirit. And as we do that we embrace a way of life that recognizes that we do not all speak the same language, but through the Spirit we can become more multilingual and more culturally aware. We can, with God’s help, become an intentional listening community that practices hearing one another to speech.