Yesterday afternoon, as I was struggling to write this sermon, I accidently opened my ipad and facebook came up. In big, bold letters, dominating the screen, was a quotation from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “No one is incapable of forgiving and no one is unforgiveable.” Tutu was Archbishop of the Anglican Church of South Africa during the height of apartheid, and after it ended, he chaired the nation’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that attempted to deal with the violence, injustice, and oppression of that nation’s past. Like a bolt from the blue, well actually, the quotation’s background was violet, that little phrase gets to both the power and the difficulty of forgiveness. Continue reading
Christians are a people of memory. We are a community called together by memory; called to remember. Our central act of worship is a memorial and a re-enactment; but more than that we enter into the story itself as we remember God’s saving acts and participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But as we all know, memory is a fickle thing. In our own lives, there are stories we’ve told ourselves, stories about us others have told us that might not bear up to close scrutiny and as we age, some of those stories fade into mist or even oblivion.
As a nation, we are struggling right now with the story we tell about ourselves—as people of color challenge many of the core beliefs and stories of American history. And as we struggle, we enter into conflict because the stories we tell ourselves are often shaped by narrow perspectives. We see how that struggle is played out in the battle over confederate monuments, and in our own Episcopal Church, the battle over stained glass windows and other monuments to the confederacy.
This week, we have seen another crisis in the story we tell ourselves—Are we a nation of immigrants, welcoming all, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free; or will we turn our backs on young people who grew up here—who consider themselves American and often know no other home.
Tomorrow, many of us will remember the events of 9-11-2001, now sixteen years ago. We remember the shock, the devastation, the sudden silence in our skies and on our highways as for a few days, we reckoned with horrific tragedy. But we are less likely, or unwilling to remember the sixteen years of war that have followed from that event, the violence and suffering that has been experienced across the Middle East and into Central Asia; the extrajudicial killings and drone warfare; the torture.
We see that same dynamic played out in scripture, as the authors and editors tell the story they want preserved. At the same time, they often reveal alternative or counter-stories that raise questions about their perspective. Nowhere is this more true than in the story from Hebrew Scripture we just heard; God’s instructions to Moses and the Hebrews on how to prepare for Passover. This event may be the key story in all of Hebrew Scripture—It describes God’s nature as the Hebrews and then Jews experienced God. It also defines the Hebrews and then the Jews as God’s people.
The story of Passover describes God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from bondage. It’s the story that Jews continue to tell and re-enact each year both because it celebrates God’s salvation of God’s chosen people and because it identifies contemporaries Jews as part of that larger story, part of God’s salvation history.
Passover is a celebration of Israel’s liberation by Yahweh; but it is set in the context of a larger story. We’ve heard parts of that story over the last few weeks—of Moses’ birth and rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter, the burning bush and God’s call to him. Between that event and today’s readings unfold the familiar story of the plagues. The instructions for the Passover come in the midst of the tenth plague—Yahweh’s killing of the first-born of Egypt, horrendous suffering.
One might expect that the mood of Passover is joyous, but in the verses that were read, there is a stress on Yahweh’s judgment as well as on liberation. The joy of liberation is tempered by the reality that liberation came at a horrific price. We haven’t heard these weeks the stories of all the other plagues. But this last one, the killing of the firstborn of all Egyptian families, and their livestock, was the culmination of unimaginable violence and suffering. That violence would continue throughout the story—the destruction of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, and later during the conquest of Canaan, as God demanded that the Hebrews kill everyone whom they encountered. But that will come later.
Back to the story of the Passover. There’s another important element, here. Liberation too is not self-evident. The command to eat while dressed for a journey and to eat hurriedly gives yet another note of urgency. The Hebrews may be free, but their enemies were pursuing them.
The raw emotion and violence of the Passover narrative might tempt us to try to smooth its rough edges, to re-interpret it so as to better fit our world view. That would be a mistake. The Passover is the central ritual event in Judaism; its message and its re-enactment have played the leading role in how Jews understand themselves. The instructions to eat hurriedly, dressed as for a journey, put contemporary Jews back into the story of the flight from Egypt. Today’s Jews become Hebrews fleeing Pharaoh as they eat their lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread.
Indeed, Passover is so important in the life of Judaism that early Christians had to reinterpret Passover as they developed their own rituals and theology. Thus, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is crucified as the Passover lamb; in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples was the Passover meal, and thus our own Eucharist and our Christology borrow heavily from Passover imagery.
But there is a deep problem here. One the one hand, we have the image of a God, who hears the suffering of God’s people, and intervenes on their behalf. God frees them from their slavery in Egypt and promises that they will possess a fertile land. On the other hand, in the course of gaining their freedom, God wreaks vengeance on the Egyptians. The story of the plagues, read carefully raises profound questions about the nature of God and God’s willingness to destroy human and animal life. Indeed, it is not at clear in the story that either Pharaoh or the Egyptians have any power to avoid the horrible fates that awaited them. They certainly were not given a choice to avoid the final plague. At one point, God told Moses that he was bringing this last plague, the killing of the first-born on Egypt so that “my wonders may be multiplied.”
There’s even today’s psalm which praises God’s vengeance against Israel’s enemies and concludes that all of it is “glory for God’s chosen people.”
It is an image of God with which we should be uncomfortable—hearing this lesson with its promise of the destruction of all the first-born of Egypt, not just humans mind you, but even cattle, that language should make us squirm in our pews. We might be tempted, many of us have been, to put that language and imagery down to the Angry God of the Old Testament, and contrast it with the loving God of the new. That is one of the oldest heresies on the books, and it’s flat out misinterpreting both the Old Testament and the New. There’s plenty of wrath and judgment in the New Testament’s depiction of God, and plenty of love and mercy in the Old Testament’s—we see that in today’s reading from Romans, in which Paul says twice that “love is the fulfilling of the law.”
We are gathering on this beautiful Sunday in Madison as Hurricane Irma has struck the Florida Keys and is moving up the Gulf Coast. We have already seen its destruction in the Caribbean Islands, while residents of Texas deal with the aftermath of Harvey. There was an earthquake in Mexico, and wildfires are raging in the west. The extent and number of these events are apocalyptic; they may remind us of the plagues of Egypt
We look at such events and seek explanations. The size of the hurricanes and fires may in part be attributed to climate change, but the reality of natural disasters, earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires cause great damage and cost lives. We want to know why. And sometimes, we want to attribute such events to divine agency; that they are God’s judgment on us, or on the inhabitants of those places where they are occurring. But such attempts are misguided—as Jesus says in Matthew, “the rain falls on the just and the unjust.”
Instead, we should remember another important lesson from our reading of Exodus—God hears and responds to the cries of those who suffer. In the Christian tradition, we see God in Jesus Christ, walking with us, suffering, and dying on the cross. It’s a symbol of God’s presence in the midst of all of the evil and suffering in the world. We should look for signs of God’s presence, God’s love and grace, wherever people suffer, in floods and hurricanes, in the rubble of bombed cities.
As God’s people, we are also called to hear the cries of those who suffer—from hurricanes and earthquakes, yes, but also the cries of the hungry and homeless, the fearful and the hurting. More than that, we are called to respond to those cries, to work to end their pain, to bring justice and liberation to the oppressed, the enslaved, the incarcerated.
And to bring us full circle, we are called by God, as a people and community of memory, to tell honest stories, about ourselves and about God. Yes, we should celebrate the liberation we have experienced; we should remember and give thanks for the blessings God has given us, but we should also remember and mourn the price that was paid for that liberation and those blessings—the people who suffered because of them, the people who still suffer, and we should, when necessary, repent.
Last Sunday, Jesus asked his disciples two questions: “Who do people say that I am?” And “Who do you say that I am?” I invited you to reflect on those questions and am looking forward to hearing from some of you what you’ve thought as you’ve wrestled with them. In today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, Moses asks God a question. At its heart, it’s a simple one: “Who are you, God?” But God’s answer is anything but simple and opens up to us an infinity of questions. In a few minutes I will invite you to follow Moses’ lead and ask questions of God. But first, let’s explore the text. Continue reading
I’ve mentioned before that geography is important to the gospel writers. Each of them uses geographical details in slightly different ways, but paying attention to where events are said to take place, paying attention to Jesus’ itinerary, helps elucidate larger themes in the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus. Continue reading
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?
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
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.