But she persisted: A Sermon for Proper 15, Year A, 2017

I taught religious studies for fifteen years and over that time, although I’m not particularly proud of it, I drove any number of students to tears. Now, many of those I don’t know about—the grades they received were disappointing; the work I assigned too arduous. But there were a half a dozen times that students began to cry during class. Usually, it was because I was doing one of those things I thought faculty in the Humanities ought to do—force students to examine their beliefs and assumptions, to think about why they thought the way they did, to challenge them to examine themselves and their most deeply held values.

One of the first times it happened was when we were discussing the gospel reading we heard today. I offered what I thought was a very straightforward, non-controversial, even obvious interpretation of the text. Jesus and his disciples are walking around in foreign, Gentile territory. A woman comes up to them and asks Jesus to heal her daughter. First, Jesus simply ignores her. His disciples, his security team try to get rid of her, and Jesus adds a putdown: “You’re not my problem.” But she persisted, using language evocative of the language Peter used when he was drowning in last week’s Gospel, “Lord, help me.”

Now, Jesus is really annoyed. He basically calls her a dog, saying that it’s not appropriate for him to share with her what he has. But still she has a retort, and gets the better of him—“Yes, but even dogs get the scraps from the master’s table.”

It’s not a comforting story and I get why the student was disturbed by it. It was probably my summary of his behavior as “Jesus was a jerk” that set her off. Jesus is not portrayed in the best of lights, and in the end a woman, a Gentile woman at that, gets the better of him in a contest of wits. For nearly two millennia, Christians have tried to put a positive spin on this story—Jesus was testing her; his statement at the end, that she had great faith, lets us disregard the difficult elements in the story. But I want to challenge that today. The rather straightforward reading is, I think, the one that opens to us new ways of thinking about Jesus, about the good news of God’s reign, and about our own assumptions and blind spots.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m with Jesus in this encounter. I understand where he’s coming from. It’s hard for me to walk around Capitol Square without being confronted by someone who wants me to help them. Ask our volunteer receptionists. They can tell you how many phone calls we get, or how many people walk into the reception area seeking assistance. And their stories are heartbreaking. They need a bus pass, or money for gas, or to pay their rent, or to buy a prescription. Often, like Jesus, I cut them off before they’re able to tell me their story. If I helped out everyone who asked, I would run out of funds by the end of the week and that would be it for well, who knows how long… And however awful their situation might be, however much they might need help, it’s likely that next week, someone with an even more heartbreaking story would come to me, asking for help.

So I’m with Jesus here. I’ve only got so much time, so much energy, and limited funds, and the need is so great. It’s easier to ignore them to turn them away, to dis them, than to listen and respond. But the thing is, sometimes people are persistent. They won’t be put off; they won’t take no for an answer, and when I tell them to come back next week, they do. Sometimes, they tell me their whole story, and in response I do what I can to help them.

There’s a larger lesson, here, however. It’s not just that Jesus finally responds to the woman’s request; there’s also the whole context to take into account. Jesus and his disciples have travelled outside their comfort zone. So far in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has spent most of his time in his home region of Galilee, visiting the towns and villages along the Sea of Galilee. He’s made at least two trips across the Sea of Galilee. We saw one of those trips in last Sunday’s gospel reading. Now he’s gone in the other direction toward the Mediterranean coast. He’s outside of traditional Jewish territory, beyond Herod’s kingdom, into the Roman Province of Syria. It’s Gentile territory, and while it’s likely there were Jewish communities to which they’re headed, it’s a mixed population.

Another thing to point out. Matthew identifies this woman as Canaanite. It’s a rather odd, even anachronistic designation, because it hearkens back centuries to the period of the Judges and the monarchy, even earlier to the conquest. For then, the native population was labeled Canaanite. It’s not a term used for the non-Jewish population in the Roman period. In his telling of the story, Mark labels her Syro-Phoenician. It’s almost as if Matthew wants to emphasize her otherness—her non-Jewishness, the extent to which an encounter with her would be offensive to an observant Jew.

It’s this woman, by gender voiceless and powerless, by ethnicity and religion, totally other, to be avoided, it is this woman who comes to Jesus in search of help for her daughter, and Jesus first ignores her, then refers to her as a dog. I won’t use it, but you know what epithet in contemporary English would fit this situation.

But she persisted. Her need is so great, the love of her child so powerful, that she brushes off Jesus’ lack of concern and his verbal cruelty and offers a retort. “So you think I’m a dog, Jesus. Well, even dogs are given the scraps from the master’s table.”

And with that response, she wins the argument, beating Jesus at his own game. Now, he is shocked out of his complacency, his eyes that were clouded by prejudice, his heart, cold because she wasn’t one of those he understood to be his mission area, opened to her need. Jesus is transformed by her words and her need and he heals her daughter.

There may be no more appropriate gospel for the time in which we live than this little story. We are living in perilous, troubled times. The fabric of our nation seems to be tearing apart. After Charlottesville and the renewed challenge to Confederate monuments across the country, the growing threat of white supremacy and protests against it, we have become aware of the deep pain felt by People of Color in this nation, especially African-Americans. We have been awakened to their fear, the fear of the LGBT community, the fears of all those who value diversity, a multi-racial, religiously pluralistic society.

Many of us want to say in response to those challenges—This is not America, this is not who we are. Many of us want to say, when Christianity is implicated in racism and white supremacy, those people aren’t really Christian, they don’t understand the gospel; they don’t follow Jesus; the Episcopal Church is different.

Not so fast. Are we walking with Jesus on those roads in the region of Tyre and Sidon? Are we the disciples who want to protect Jesus from a truth-telling foreign woman who is making a scene? Are we like Jesus, who sees that truth-telling woman as an annoyance, a distraction from what’s really important?

Can we see her for who she is, a truth-teller, a prophet, a woman who challenges us to see her in a new way? Can we open our hearts to the possibility of transformation; to see in ourselves the racism, misogyny, and privilege that she is calling out? Can we see the possibilities that an ever-expanding notion of the love of Christ might mean in our world and community today? Can our hearts be opened by the cries for justice and mercy that surround us?






“Lord, Save Us!” A Sermon for the Sunday after Charlottesville

I am struggling. I am afraid.

As I’ve watched events unfold this week, I’ve struggled to make sense of it all. I’ve struggled to find a way from our world and our lives into the gospel. It’s not that the gospel doesn’t speak to our situation. It most certainly does. it’s that the situation keeps changing and each day brings new horrors, new fears, new challenges. In this week when we observed the 72nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we seem to be on the brink of nuclear war—closer to that catastrophe than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. All week, I kept thinking back to what it was like for me as a student in West Germany in 1979-1980; where scars from World War II were still present, and all around were reminders of the threat of catastrophic, nuclear war.

By the end of the week, the president was threatening to go to war with Venezuela.

We learned this week that 2016 was the hottest year in the recorded history of our planet.

This weekend we have witnessed in Charlottesville the hatred and violence unleashed by white supremacists, emboldened by a national culture that seems unwilling to name and reject hate and white supremacy. We have seen a young woman murdered by one of the white supremacist protesters. Views that might have been unthinkable a decade ago have become mainstream, and people who hold those views are embedded at the heart of our political and civic culture. While I was heartened to see the Episcopal bishops of the Diocese of Virginia and other priests, among whom several I know personally, standing witness against that violence and hatred, the reality is that many, too many, white Christians equate Christianity with whiteness, white supremacy, and with American nationalism. These are sins we need to call out and name as evil. While it is easy to point fingers at others, it is important that we examine ourselves, to see where those views are embedded in our selves. Continue reading

Being Transfiguration in a time of violence: A Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, 2017

Today, August 6, in the church’s calendar is the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s one of the major feasts of the life of Christ and because of that, when it falls on a Sunday, it supersedes the regular lectionary readings for the day. That explains why we are reading lessons from Exodus, 1 Peter, and the Gospel of Luke, rather than the Gospel of Matthew and the readings from Genesis and Romans we’ve been having.

It creates something of a problem for the preacher because there’s another Sunday each year when we always hear the story of the Transfiguration, the Last Sunday after Epiphany (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). So it was only a few months ago that we heard Matthew’s version of this story. That we read this story each year on the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent is appropriate because the themes of this story are a fitting transition between the season after Epiphany and the beginning of Lent and reflect the story’s position in each of the synoptic gospels. It comes immediately after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, after Jesus’ first prediction that he will be crucified and his invitation to his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. Luke deepens the connection between transfiguration by stating, just a few verses later, that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, after this mountaintop experience, Jesus begins his final journey that will end on another mountaintop—Calvary—with his crucifixion.

There’s another detail in the story that points ahead to the crucifixion. There’s only one other time that Luke says the disciples fell asleep. On that later occasion, as he faced crucifixion, Jesus asked his disciples to stay and watch with him while he prayed. Luke tells us that after praying, Jesus came back to them and found them sleeping, “because of grief.” This time, the disciples were “weighed down with sleep but they stayed awake and saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”

Whatever positive spin we might put on the disciples’ behavior here is likely negated by Peter’s response to seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah. He says, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make booths…” No doubt, you’ve heard sermons criticizing Peter’s response, his lack of understanding, his desire to prolong the experience. But there other ways to think about it. “Booths” is an allusion to the Jewish Feast of Sukkot or Tabernacles, which was in part a commemoration of the Hebrew experience of the Exodus.

And there are all sorts of echoes of Exodus here. Not just in the presence of Moses, the location on a mountaintop. There is also the presence of the cloud and the bright light, which were associated with experiences of divine revelation, including at Mt. Sinai. The word “Exodus” also appears, in Luke’s description of what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah—his “departure”—the same Greek word, eksodon is used. In the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition, “exodus is one of the primary examples of God’s mighty acts on behalf of God’s chosen people, and it’s likely that Luke wants his readers to understand Jesus’ departure or exodus in similar terms, as God saving God’s people.

It may be, then, that Peter’s desire to erect booths is not an example of his misunderstanding, but that he wants to worship in this place, to be present with Jesus here, to learn from all three of these men. While the primary point of this story is about Jesus, a confirmation of his ministry, his calling, his identity as the Son of God, the Chosen One, this story may also be about discipleship, about following Jesus.

Jesus took his three favorite disciples, in Luke, the first three disciples he called, Peter, James, and John, up this mountain to pray. They had been with him all along his journey. They had seen his miracles, listened to his teaching, his first prediction of his suffering and death, and his call to them to take up their crosses and follow him. Now on top of this mountain, they saw his glory and wanted to prolong it. Whatever it meant, whatever they experienced, there was more to do; they could not tarry, but the four of them went back down the mountain and soon began that last, fateful trip to Jerusalem. And they kept silent about all that they had seen that day.

We, all of us, are called to follow Jesus. We are called to be his disciples. In our complicated world, with our complicated lives, it’s never quite clear what discipleship means. Is it enough to come to church from time to time and worship, to experience the beauty of God, to catch sight of God’s glory, if only momentarily and partially? I was speaking this week with an elderly couple who are unable, because of health issues to attend Grace. They expressed their deep sadness about missing services, for it was not just the community they lacked, it is the experience of awe and transcendence that they miss, and can find in no other place in their lives.

Worship, the experience of God’s glory is an important part of following Jesus but there is more to discipleship than that. When Jesus came down the mountain, he returned immediately to his ministry of teaching and healing, of proclaiming and bringing into being, the reign of God. And that is precisely what we are called to do as well. Our experience of God’s glory transforms us as well as we do those same things proclaiming the coming of God’s reign, and in our actions and lives, being agents and examples of God’s glory in the world.

The mount of Calvary looms over the mountain of Transfiguration; the cross casts its shadow on Christ’s transfigured face. Our observance of the Feast of Transfiguration occurs in a divided city that has experienced unprecedented violence in recent months. We have seen, as I’m sure you know, 10 homicides already this year, tying the record for the most murders in a year in Madison. Our city is more divided than ever. Our elected leadership is quarreling over what to do in response to this crisis and community leaders are frustrated and angry. Meanwhile, residents of the neighborhoods most affected by the violence are living in fear everyday and mourning the deaths of friends and family.

We, most of us, watch the news reports, read about them in the papers or on social media, but few of us have experienced the ripples of that violence ourselves. Oh, we may know where the events occurred, we may have stopped at the gas stations or convenience stores where incidents took place, we may even live within earshot. But most of us live in a completely different world. There’s a map on Madison.com that plots all of the significant incidents of gun violence in the city since May. Only one of the some 50 total occurred in the downtown, near westside or near eastside. It’s another piece of evidence showing how divided our city is.

As followers of Jesus, called to share the good news of the coming of God’s reign, called to break down the barriers that divide us, we are called to be agents of Christ’s reconciling love in this world. A group of us, the Creating More Just Community task force, has been engaging on issues of racism and inequality for the last several years. We are working on a new initiative to build relationships with our neighbors across the street at the Capitol, and shared information about that effort with you last week.

Now, I am calling us to engage in that reconciling work in our city. The violence we are witnessing is a symptom of something much deeper, of hopelessness and despair, of broken families, broken lives. In the coming weeks, I will be taking part in conversations with clergy and community leaders to see how we at Grace can work with others to heal our divisions, to bring an end to violence, and to spread the glory of Christ’s love in our city.


Murder City Madison–Follow up

I wrote on Wednesday about the rash of shootings and 10 homicides in Madison so far this year. For those interested in the story, I am providing here some updates and additional information.

First, there was another attempted homicide last night.The victim had “non-life threatening injuries.”

There’s a background piece in this week’s Isthmus about the violence and about the conflict among city elected officials and community leaders about how best and most effectively to respond.

Amid all the violence and rancor, there are also signs of hope and success. Selfless Ambition reports on the dramatic changes in one Madison neighborhood over the last few years. One of the city’s poorest communities, the Leopold neighborhood has begun a remarkable transformation. The number of police calls dropped by 25% between 2011 and 2015, thanks to the assignment of a community resource police officer, expanded community programming at the elementary school, and the creation of urban community gardens.

If you want to follow developments in this ongoing story and in the effort to overcome racial disparity in our community, I recommend visiting Madison365 and Selfless Ambition regularly. Both are doing great work!

Murder City Madison

We woke today to learn that overnight another man was shot to death in Madison, the tenth homicide in 2017, the third in the last week. That ties the record with 2007 for the most homicides in a year, on August 2. I took me a while to compile a list of all of the victims’ names (police haven’t released the name of the most recent victim). Here they are:

1 David Edwards March 1
2 Andrew Nesbitt March 27
3 Michael Mederds, May 30
4 Jameel Easter June 10
5 Gerald Moore  June 24
6 Christ Kneubuehl June 26
7 Kub Herr July 2
8 Riccardo C. Simms. July 26
9 Ciara Philumalee July 29

There were domestic incidents (Andrew Nesbitt was killed by his roommate) and Christ Kneubuehl died of a heart attack during and armed robbery at a Culver’s but the most recent killings have seemed frighteningly similar: people gunned down in public. As Police Chief Mike Koval said of the most recent homicide: “This was a brutal assassination.”

The increase in violence has increased tension between elected officials and leaders in the African-American community as they struggle to develop solutions to the immediate problems and the underlying issues. There’s also a knee jerk response that puts the blame on people coming from Chicago or Milwaukee.

Madison.com provides a map that shows all of the serious gun-related incidents in Madison since May. It’s quite revealing. There’s only been one incident in the downtown area, the near east side, or near west side. The remainder of the almost 40 charted on the map occurred in or near largely African-American neighborhoods, along the belt line or near the interstate.

Of course, many of them occurred in places, like a 7-11, where people of all races and classes might come together but Chief Koval has been careful to insist that the most recent killings have been targeted–victims and shooters are known to each other.

Koval has also warned that police will become more proactive, that they will be “rattling the cages” those “creating havoc.” Undoubtedly, this means closer surveillance of African-Americans, arresting people on parole or probation violations. Such tactics will only worsen the already strained relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community.

I’ve got no proposals to make, no great ideas, no possible solutions. I am surprised not only by the spiral of violence but also by the relative silence in the larger community. Perhaps we’re overwhelmed by all of the news coming out of Washington–the healthcare debate, the chaos in the White House, the international crises. The old tagline “if it bleeds, it leads” still seems to be valid. Headlines of the shootings on the home pages of local media, but there is a lot else grabbing our attention, not least the Foxconn deal that has brought the legislature back into special session.

I’ve got nothing to offer, except prayer and an invitation to conversation. We’ll be using a litany this Sunday that I’m adapting from one written by Bishop Stephen Lane of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine. We’ll name all ten victims of homicide in Madison this year in those prayers; we’ll remember their friends and family. We’ll pray for healing and hope and that our city will come together across the divisions of neighborhood, class, and race.

And today I’m praying that there are no more killings, tonight, or tomorrow, or next week, or for the rest of the year.



The Parable of the Weed and the Mulch: A sermon for Proper 10, Year A, 2016

Many of you know that my wife and I are avid gardeners. . We took all of the grass out of our backyard some years ago and planted trees, shrubs, perennials. I made a rock path a few years ago. It’s beautiful but it takes a great deal of work and while I find the work relaxing, it can also be exhausting.

This year, between the wet spring, late Easter, and our vacation, we didn’t really get out into it to work until the end of June. Those of you who are gardeners can imagine the horrors we encountered. Overrun with weeds and mosquitoes, we’ve been spending all of our free time in it. I had eight yards of mulch delivered the Friday before the 4th and finally it looks like I’ll be done spreading it by next weekend. Continue reading