Proper 15 2017

 Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Psalm 67

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Matthew 15: 21-28

 In today’s Gospel reading, I’m struck by this exchange between Jesus and the woman: “Jesus replied, `It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.' `True, sir,' she answered, `and yet the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master's table.'”

Some commentators say that Jesus is using racist language to insult the woman, comparing her with a dog. I don’t view it that way. Jesus asks whether she, a Gentile, should have any share in his work. That is, should he offer this non-Jew the benefits of his ministry; that would be like a parent feeding limited food to a wild dog rather than the child the food is intended for.

At any rate, Jesus is stressing her outsider status. That is disappointing to most of us who like to believe he never cared about such distinctions. Yet dismissive though he may be of her Gentile status, her humanity alone, not her gender or race or religion, makes her worthy of his time. He chooses to converse with her, in the process violating social and religious norms on two counts: she is a woman and a gentile. In doing so, he ignores the segregation his upbringing should have made a reflexive part of him and allows himself to open his mind and heart to new insights.

In the1949 musical South Pacific Rogers and Hammerstein included a song: "You’ve got to be taught."

 The opening lyric is:

 You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,

you’ve got to be taught, from year to year;

it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

That song has become almost a cliche because it captures the dynamic so well. But when South Pacific opened in 1949, World War II and the fight against fascism and hatred had been over for fewer than 5 years. The song was new and incendiary. It addressed prejudice and bigotry in a way nothing had before. It may seem mild today but at the time many southern states wouldn’t allow the show to be performed because of that song and the attitude it represents.

Jesus initially responds to the woman out of his own prejudice. As I grappled with this assigned Gospel reading, inevitably I contrasted it with recent the acts of violence and hatred in Charlottesville.

Many of the disaffected who support white supremacy do so at least to an extent because they believe that every gain others make somehow comes at their expense. That is not so. Our faith is one of abundance. The more people inside the circle instead of being kept outside, the greater the opportunities. It’s not a zero sum game.

The persistence of racist, bigoted attitudes and behavior show we have not learned. By "we" I mean humans, people, throughout the world. America’s history of race relations, for instance, shows that we have not learned from the actions of John Brown who used terrorism to try to end slavery in ante-bellum America; from the failure of reconstruction, with government policies unwilling to show and charity to all and malice towards none;” from lynching and Jim Crow laws, civil rights marches met with violent reprisals, riots in Watts and south-central LA, poisoned water in Flint, Michigan. We haven’t learned.

We haven’t learned in large part because we will not listen or truly engage with our opponents. Jesus engaged with that woman and if his initial response seemed to lack, shall we say, courtesy, his final response was full of grace: “What faith you have!” What faith have ?


Proper 14 2017

1 Kings 19:9-18

Psalm 85:8-13

Romans 10:5-15

Matthew 14:22-33

 In the Gospel reading, Peter gets criticized by Jesus for "how little faith you have." It seems a bit unfair of Jesus to be critical of the only person in the boat with sufficient faith, or at least gumption, to get out of the boat and try to walk on the water in imitation of Jesus.

I think Peter was very brave to try. In the Old Testament reading, Elijah is also brave. These days most people tend to focus on the first part of the reading, when Elijah gets a first hand lesson about God’s presence. We sort of ignore the second part, when God commands Elijah to anoint people to wipe out all but 7000 faithful people. That is such a bloodthirsty passage.

Given situations like the present international tensions over North Korea, I get nervous when Scripture seems to suggest that God endorses violence as a primary solution to our problems. It helps when I remember that the books of Samuel and Kings are historical documents reflecting an earlier and more violent time than our own. Jesus will later urge a more loving approach to our enemies.

The world as Elijah knew it made it understandable to believe God would have commanded Elijah to anoint people to destroy his enemies. From that perspective, the more striking and unexpected part of the reading is the first half. Consider the story.

Elijah has run away from Jezebel’s vengeance. The Lord tracks him down and questions what he is doing there. We’re told "the Lord was passing by" the cave where Elijah was hiding. First there is a "great and strong wind, rending mountains and shattering rocks before him." God is not in the wind, nor is God in the earthquake or the fire which follow.

Then comes "a faint murmuring sound." Other translations call this "a still small voice." God is in that quiet sound. Think about that for a moment. God, the all powerful one, is not revealed in any of the expressions of immense power but in a murmuring, still, small voice.

On the beach here, people can be captivated as they witness God revealed in nature. The capes and mountains and ocean all testify to the grandeur of God. Yet God is not only present in such magnificent sights. God is also present in the sand dollars lying on the beach and in the sea anemones gently floating in tidal pools and in the little children with their buckets of sand.

Most people love impressive shows of power and strength. They like thinking of Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a storm. So when they first hear the Elijah story, they are surprised and a little disappointed that God isn’t in the awesome exhibition of wind, fire, and earthquake. They need to understand that God is often best found in the tiniest, least obvious, quietest moments.

This weekend we’re seeing a display of "power" in the form of demonstrations and counter demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the clash of racists and anti-racists, or however else we might define the factions involved, the crossfire of words and actions between groups continues to lead to terrible, senseless violence.

The white supremacists who started this with their march may have convinced themselves that God is on their side. Yet as Paul says in our second reading, "there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all." God is not in whatever distinctions humans make among themselves. God is in Jesus Christ, who died for us all. No exceptions.

 

Transfiguration 2017

Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

2 Peter 1:13-21

Luke 9:28-36

In the church calendar, the feast of the transfiguration is observed on August 6, which is a Sunday this year. So that’s the focus of our readings. For modern people it may seem like an odd story. Jesus takes 3 of his companions up on a mountain to pray. Luke tells us: "while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white."

The name "transfiguration" refers to this dazzling appearance. In such an impressive visual experience, it’s impossible to miss God’s presence.

The Transfiguration is a big, impressive event. Most of us love such impressive events. Maybe we wish we could have a similar experience. But such things are very rare. God doesn’t cause them to happen except for unusual reasons. For Peter, James, and John, it’s a foretaste, a glimpse, of the glory which Jesus’ upcoming death and resurrection will bestow on Jesus. Just after this incident Jesus "sets his face towards Jerusalem."

While we’re unlikely to see Jesus exalted on a mountaintop, many of us have had what are often called "mountaintop experiences." They don’t have to be literally on a mountaintop. The term is really meant to suggest a moment when we strongly felt the presence of God. My mountaintop experience took place at the altar rail receiving Communion.

Generally, there is an intensity of feeling in such a moment. We sense these feelings will be fleeting. Consciously or unconsciously we often seek some way to preserve the memory so it doesn’t fade away.

I think that’s why Peter offers to build "3 dwellings" on the mountain: to keep the experience close at hand. If we are ever privileged to have our own mountaintop experience, we probably wouldn’t default to building dwellings. Instead we might take a selfie or try to capture it on video; write a poem or enter it into our journal; anything to retain a tangible memory.

Much as we want to preserve those impressive spiritual experiences, our daily connections to God are more subtle and vastly more important in the long run. They aren’t "special," or at least they are not unusual. We can encounter God in many different ways throughout our day and throughout our lives. That is, God offers us encounters we don’t always notice.

An anonymous writer offered a poem that speaks to this:

The man whispered, "God, speak to me."

And a meadowlark sang. But the man did not hear.

So the man yelled, "God, speak to me!"

Thunder rolled across the sky. But the man did not listen.

The man looked around and said, "God, let me see you."

A star shone brightly. But he noticed it not.

And the man shouted, "God, show me a miracle."

And a life was born. But the man was unaware.

So, the man cried out in despair,

"Touch me, God, and let me know that you are here!"

Whereupon God reached down and touched the man.

But the man brushed the butterfly away and walked on.

 

Proper 12 2017

 1 Kings 3:5-12

Psalm 119:129-136

Romans 8:26-39

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

I’ve always particularly liked this thought from our second reading: "We do not even know how we ought to pray, but through our inarticulate groans the Spirit himself is pleading for us, and God who searches our inmost being knows what the Spirit means, because he pleads for God's people as God himself wills...."

Paul seems to encouraging his readers to persevere when something is deeply embedded in their hearts, even if they can’t articulate it. It might be something very personal such as a health scare or relationship troubles; it may be more general such as concerns about our community or fears for our nation.

This past week I’ve been particularly focused on our national politics. Senator McCain’s comments on the floor of the Senate Tuesday express some of my concerns about a breakdown in our representative governmental system. This week I was deeply troubled as I followed the odd trajectory in the health care reform process.

Our prayer book has some very good general prayers about a whole range of topics. For instance our weekly prayers for travelers and the addicted are from a section of prayers in the back of the book. Sometimes, though, I haven’t found a written prayer that quite seemed to fit what I was feeling, what I was concerned about. All I could really do was fuss and fume and feel and try to turn all of that over to God much as Paul describes it: through the Holy Spirit’s intercession.

Turning situations over to God isn’t necessarily the final step. Often it’s the first step. We usually have options to take action. For example, we can write or phone our representatives in Washington DC and Salem. We can choose to march in organized gatherings; sign various petitions; donate to causes that share our values and aspirations.

Yet the call to pray is an important action, also. When we have a sinking feeling about something, when we perceive that the teachings of Jesus would seem to suggest a different outcome than the one we got, when self-centeredness seems to be winning over the good of the whole community; before we can act we really need to pray.

What shall we pray when we’re concerned or confused or frustrated or even simply unsure over what we see is happening? In the political sphere we can certainly explicitly pray for our president, our elected representatives, our courts. But sometimes we need more focused prayers that we can’t quite articulate; prayers about more abstract or niggling thoughts and fears and concerns.

Paul is urging us especially when we don’t have the words to trust the Holy Spirit, to take our deep feelings to God. Maybe as a result the Spirit will inspire us to write a prayer of our own, or a poem, or a hymn, or a lamentation. These days, the Spirit might guide us to post our deep concerns in a blog or on Facebook or Twitter.

Usually the purpose for taking our heartfelt but "inarticulate groans" to God through the Holy Spirit is to seek a sense of peace or at least reassurance from our God. Maybe we’ll also gain some discernment about what action we might take or decisions we might make.

It’s not to tell God something new about ourselves. It’s to help us reclaim our faith in God’s abiding love.