The Word on the Street

Matthew 16:13-20

Did anyone else notice that it got kinda dark for a couple of hours last Monday? Why? What? There was an eclipse? It was too cloudy to really see it here but I’m sure there were millions of people who enjoyed it.

But as thought about the eclipse this past week, and why there was so much buzz about it, I began to wonder why? I don’t know.  For me, I think I find anything to do with space fascinating because it makes me feel very small.  If I get to feeling too “high and mighty” all I need to do is look at the stars and boom, instant humility. Keeping this in mind, I think we must approach today text from a place of humility.

In today’s lesson, we encounter Jesus challenging his disciples with the question, “Who do people say that I am?” Now, there are as many answers to that question as there are people in this room today.  So, how do we distill that down a bit? How do we get at the core, the very fabric of Jesus’ identity?  Who is Jesus, really?

Peter gives us a great place to start, “You are the Christ,” he says, “the Son of the Living God.” And he got an “Atta-boy” for that answer, didn’t he?  Peter’s gave the correct answer.  That is Jesus’ identity.  He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

But it’s kinda like Peter was taking a multiple-choice test. A) Just another prophet B) Elijah C) the Christ. Life, however, is seldom that simple. Life is more like an essay test.  Blue book after blue book filled with paragraph after paragraph of real life encounters with the Divine, and with evil for that matter.  Our real-life essays include our struggles and our pain, our breakthroughs and celebrations, aha moments, and our deepest regrets.

Peter eventually discovered this reality. In the Book of Acts, we are told that Peter, the lowly fisherman, became a great teacher and preacher and invited many people to become a part of this fledgling movement. As a matter of fact, he was so convincing that thousands believed and were baptized. And a great deal of Peter’s success came because he retained this core understanding that Jesus was the Christ, and at the same time, continued to develop and deepen that understanding through his own evolving faith.

And the same is true in our generation.  We are called and challenged to continue to develop our understanding of what it means to call Jesus the Christ and how we approach Jesus as the Son of God. But how do we do that? How do we identify with Jesus?

And this is where things get sort of interesting. Notice that Peter’s confession comes in two parts, “the Christ,” and “the Son of the Living God.” Let’s think about those two statements for a moment.  “The Christ” is a divine title. It literally means “messiah” or “the anointed one.” In other words, saying that Jesus is the Christ is akin to calling him God.  Peter is literally saying that Jesus is God. Now, with that in mind, the second part may cause us to scratch our head a bit.  “Son of the Living God” indicates that Jesus is human. So, what gives? Is Jesus God or the Son of God? This is an important question as we attempt to understand Jesus’ identity.

Now, I’m not going to get into all the minutia and word play surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity or the assertion of the early church that Jesus was both fully human/fully divine. Instead, I would like to share with you the words of the Rev. Dr. Norman Pott. He says that, “The disciples first met Jesus as a human being, and were brought to the point of trying to express their extraordinary developing conviction that God was somehow present, active, speaking, giving, healing through this human life. As someone has suggested, our faith is not so much resting on the hope that Jesus is like God, as if we were experts on what God is like, but our faith is resting on the hope that God is like Jesus, that is compassionate, forgiving, accepting, and welcoming.”[i]

“Our hope is that God is like Jesus.”  I love that!  I love that because while we cannot fully know the nature of God, we can look at the human person Jesus, the living breathing man who walked the earth and try to emulate him.  We can read in the gospels about a Jesus who not only talked the talk but walked the walk.

My friends, that’s our calling. We are being challenged. We are being invited. We are being shown precisely what our Creator expects and requires of us. The God of the cosmos is calling us to discover Love; to discover the capacity to live in conversation with others; and to organize our life priorities so that we live with a focus on what matters.[ii]  And I think it’s important that we ask ourselves the question, “who do people say we are?” And this is where the humility part kicks in!

As a congregation, it’s important that we “live-into” our confession of who Jesus is and, with great humility, seize the opportunity to reflect who Jesus is.  Our task is to activity look for ways to reflect the Love of God, to be in conversation with all kinds of people, and to focus and order our lives on what matters most.  Things like attending to and nurturing our relationships. Things like actively working for the well-being of our neighbors, both here and around the globe.  Things like discovering moments when we can be a voice for justice and peace. Moments when we can share our faith by practicing and participating in God’s Love for all humanity, by standing up for equality and non-violence, and by working to protect the environment.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed the change on our church sign out front.  I think a church sign says something about the congregation inside.  Ours is now a field of black with rainbow letters spelling out some of our most important values.  Faith, Love, Peace, and Justice all surrounding our name “Cable UCC”

Now, I’ve had many positive comments on the change.  But our challenge is to live-into what the sign says. We are called to continue to evolve, to make this faith our own in our generation, by finding new and creative, and not-so-new and creative ways to love God by loving our neighbor.

One final thought this morning. Gandhi once said, “We win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.” It seems to me, as I look out across the landscape of our current world, that this kind of wisdom is a rare thing. Maybe that’s our challenge today, maybe that’s our take-away from this text, maybe we are meant to see that Jesus’ identity was all about justice.  Not for himself or for personal gain, but for the betterment of others, especially those who were most exposed, most vulnerable; those on the fringes of society.  Yes, he was the Son of the Living God and yes, he was the Christ, and today, in our presence, the Living Christ continues to live and move and have being.  And the Spirit of the Living God continues to bring healing, compassion, and grace to all of us.  And for that we are so thankful.

Amen.

[i] Reverend Dr. Norman Pott. The Abiding Question.  A reflection on Peter’s Confession (Day1.org) 1996

[ii] Rev. Dr. Ian Markham. How Do We Know What God is Like? (Day1.org) 2008

Engaging the Challenge of Racism

Some Thoughts for September…

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself.”                                                 –Jesus

There have always been challenges to our faith. The trick, I think, comes in how we deal with these challenges. In other words, do we isolate ourselves from the problem or do we engage it? I think history has shown that the latter is the better course of action.  So, bearing this in mind, how should we, as a community of faith and as individuals, engage the challenge of racism?

First, we can pray. Jesus invites us to pray for those who persecute, to love our enemy, and to be persistent in our asking. In addition, we are invited to ask for forgiveness for our own transgressions and to give thanks to God for all the blessings we have been given. And it’s important that we bring humility and these specific invitations with us as we offer the following prayer. A prayer that, as it says in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, calls white supremacists to “…change their hearts and lives.”  This is the essence of repentance.  To repent is to see things from a completely different perspective. Racism causes a person to view the world from a very narrow perspective.  Maybe our prayer should be for a widening of their range of vision and for them to gain the courage to open their eyes and hearts to new possibilities. We can pray.

In conjunction with prayer we can advocate for the gospel.  Jesus is very clear all throughout the gospels that he is on the side of marginalized, the outcast, and the foreigner. Jesus shows us repeatedly that God is love and that hating anyone because of their race or religion or national origin simply isn’t acceptable.  As a matter of fact, the very core teaching of the Bible is Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself.” This is what I mean by advocating for the gospel.

Now, it’s important here to understand that I’m talking about advocating in a micro sense.  I’m inviting you to advocate for the gospel in your everyday conversations, on social media, and if you have the opportunity, in the public forum.  Will you encounter resistance? Probably. Challenging the evil that is racism takes courage.  Remember that hate comes from a place of fear and fear is a strong motivator. Hate groups like the Alt Right and the KKK exist because of fear; fear of diversity, fear of a loss of dominance, fear of change. But fear is the opposite of faith.  Faith, your faith, backed by the gospel and the claim of this congregation, provide you with the support and the encouragement you will need to engage the fear that leads to hate.

But how we engage, the language we use as we advocate for what’s right is just as vital.  The third way we can stand against racism is by employing civil discourse.  All the rhetoric, the partisan name calling, the deep ideological division in our nation has created the space for racism to once again rear its ugly head.

You know, on many occasions you’ve heard me repeat the words of my grandmother.  She said, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” And as usual, grandma’s wisdom transcends time. If you have a political position or are passionate about an ideological perspective, having a civil conversation with someone who disagrees with you will benefit you both.  Yelling and name-calling gain nothing.  But if you truly engage, and listen, really listen to the other person’s points, even if you disagree, then they will feel like they have been heard and hopefully you will as well. Civil discourse is less about being right and more about building relationships with a diverse group of people.

Which brings us back around to racism.  As I said before, racism fears diversity.  It fears a diverse group of people coming together because it requires division to exist. The success of the Alt Right and other hate groups depends upon dividing our nation into small, hostile groups and then pitting them against each other. So, the answer to the challenge of racism is unity.  Unity and understanding. We need to become one people; one people with an assortment of skin colors, religions, national origins, and lifestyles.  Our strength as a nation and as a church is in our diversity.  And we can achieve this by listening to each other’s stories and coming to realize that we’re more alike than we are different. And when we do that, when we unify and say, “no more hate” racism will fade into the background.

Peace and Blessings,

Pastor Phil

 

 

 

Bold Moves

Matthew 15:20-28

“’Shady is dead.” Shady had lived in a tank in the den of Martin Copenhaver for a year and-a-half, as close to family as a frog can be.  Martin shared the following story in a devotion I read this past week. “How do we break the news to our daughter Alanna, just five years old at the time, who referred to herself as the frog’s “master,” who gave Shady her name, and even informed us that Shady was a girl, because there’s some way to tell? When Alanna woke up I told her, “I have some sad news.  Shady died.”  Alanna immediately responded, “How can you tell?”  I had to suppress a smile because, in truth, the frog was the picture of death, lying belly-up with her webbed “hands” positioned as if to hold a lily.  I said, “Come downstairs and see.” Alanna stared at Shady for a long time and said, “She’s dead,” then added matter-of-factly, “We should bury her.” Alanna knew the very spot to bury her.  When the hole was deep enough, I slid Shady’s body into the ground and we covered her with a blanket of earth. “Let’s sing a song,” Alanna said.  I asked if she had any suggestions.  “Let’s sing ‘Silent Night.'”  With the rain beginning to fall around us, seeming to water the seed we had planted in the earth, we sang a homely duet.  Then Alanna said a prayer: “Dear God, thank you for Shady, who was a great frog.  We hope she is all right.  Please take care of her.  Amen.”  We placed a couple of evergreen boughs on the grave and then went inside for breakfast.[i]

The story of Shady’s demise is one perspective on faith, here’s another.

Many years ago, in Europe, between Austria and Italy specifically, there was an impossibly steep, very high part of the mountains. Now, these two nations wanted to connect Vienna and Venice, so they laid train tracks between the two cities across this steep part of the mountains. The rub was, however, that they built these tracks even before there was a train in existence that could make the trip. They built it because they knew some day, the train would come.”[ii]

These are two examples of how most of us, myself included, tend to view faith.  We view faith as believing in (or acting upon) something without proof. Alana had faith that God would take care of Shady and the people of Vienna and Venice had faith that a train would someday cross the Alps. But is that the extent of faith? Is faith simply a belief in God that doesn’t require proof?  Well, I’m going to challenge that definition today; not throw it away, but rather use it as a “jumping off point” to a deeper understanding of faith.

To accomplish this, we must first understand that faith is multifaceted. It’s wider and deeper and broader than we can ever imagine. But at the same time, faith is also small.  It can be as tiny as a mustard seed.  So, what does this tell us?  I think it tells us that faith is as individualized as well as universal. Faith can be as individual as the woman in this story.

As I began to study this text for today, I started to worry that I might be tempted to view the Canaanite woman’s faith in an overly simplistic way. It would be easy to say, “have faith like this woman and you will experience healing too.” It would be like ordering faith with a side of healing off the Jesus menu.  Do you see what I’m getting at here? I think Jesus wants us to understand that the Canaanite woman’s story represents a much deeper and complex faith; a faith that is as unique as it is broad.

With this in mind, let’s look at today’s narrative. Jesus says that the Canaanite woman’s faith is great.  But why is her faith great? There’s that pesky “why” question again.  Why is her faith great? Is it because she’s persistent? So, if I am more persistent will my faith be greater? Is her faith great because she names her plight, she’s honest, she names her need? Is her faith great because she asks for help? Is her faith great because she gets Jesus to change his mind? Is her faith great because she recognizes who Jesus is? Is her faith great because she thinks Jesus can do something to help her daughter? Is her faith great because she rebuts societies boundaries? The boundries separating the classes, races, religions, and genders.  Or, is her faith great because of her willingness to transcend these boundaries? Is it some combination of these things or perhaps, all of them?[iii]

The point here is that faith is both unique and dynamic. It’s not a static statement of status quo confessions, or doctrines, or dogmas, but rather, faith lays claim on how we are in the world, how we choose to be, how we decide to live and love and reach-out beyond ourselves, in each specific moment of our lives.[iv]

And this is important to understand.  It’s important because we need all the faith we can muster to face the state of our world today.  We turn on the news and we see white supremacist groups like the KKK and Alt right mocking the gospel by openly spewing their hate-filled message in the streets resulting in a domestic terrorist attack in Charlottesville Virginia.  We see images of people lying motionless in a Spanish street, the result of yet another ISIS terror attack. We hear about shootings and violence in our inner-cities and we see very little prospect for change. We find ourselves bogged down in the Middle East, stuck in a war with seemingly no way out. And more recently, we find ourselves under a constant threat of missiles being launched from the Korean peninsula.

All these things challenge our faith.

But here’s where our text for today really speaks to us. In the narrative of the Canaanite Woman’s faith, we see the woman’s faith lead to healing.  And like faith, healing is also multifaceted. Just as faith is individual and communal so is healing. Healing comes to us as individuals, as a congregation, as a nation, and as a global community in a countless variety of ways.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  I’ve shared before that I went on a mission trip several years ago to North Carolina.  Our job was to replace a leaky roof on a house.  No small task with a group of unskilled high school kids by the way.  But the roof is an aside here.  The real story is the healing it brought to this family.  A family that consisted of a great-grandmother, a grandmother, a mother, and two children.  There were no jobs to be had, no child support coming in, and in our conversations the great-grandmother, clearly embarrassed, said that she had no choice but to accept food stamps.  The grandmother quickly added that they sold apples and berries when they were in season.  That was the extent of their means.  I suddenly became aware that I had truly encountered poverty.  As our conversation continued the great-grandmother said, “I just can’t believe ya’ll are doing this for us.”  “I can’t believe ya’ll came all the way from Wisconsin to help us out.”  “God bless ya.”  We were only there for a week, additional teams followed us and in the end, they had a new roof, the mold was removed and the damage inside from the leaking was repaired.

As I sit here today and reflect on that trip however, I realize that healing came to that family because of the faith of those young people.  Believe me, living in an elementary school in rural Appalachia, showering under a garden hose behind make-shift stalls made of tarps, was outside the comfort zone of a group of kids from a University town in Wisconsin. But they were led by their faith, their individual faith, to follow God’s calling to reach out beyond themselves and connect with some folks who were struggling.  And through the relationships established during that week in July, healing, real healing took place.

My friends, this same kind of healing can still take place. Healing can take place when we demonstrate our faith by engaging the challenges of our lives and the world through things like serving our church by serving those in our community and across the globe who are struggling to make ends meet.  We can participate in God’s healing by practicing civil discourse; by not demonizing those who different than ourselves; by listening to each other, really listening; and by living out the Great Commandment by loving God and neighbor as best we are able.

One final thought today.  Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As we, as a people of faith, find ourselves amid troubling times, I think it’s important to hold onto these words.  I don’t know. I think there’s a certain reassurance, a calm, a healing even, that comes from knowing that these challenges are but a blip on the radar of time.  And that morality, like the attraction of steel to a magnet, always moves, bends, in the direction of justice.  Maybe that’s the overall lesson of the Canaanite woman’s faith? Maybe our faith should transcend the mundane, and bend toward the knowledge that healing; real healing for individuals, for communities, for all nations; finally, comes from God.

May it be so.

Amen.

[i] Martin Copenhaver.  A Funeral for a Frog. (Still Speaking Daily Devotional) August 18, 2017

[ii] Quote from “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Touchstone Pictures) 2003

[iii] Karoline Lewis. “Getting” Great Faith (workingpreacher.org) 2014

[iv] Ibid. Lewis

God Provides

Matthew 14:13-21

It was his very first time serving communion.  Jim had been assigned by the Methodist Bishop in Iowa to a student pastorate while he attended seminary.  And on this first Sunday in July, Jim stood before his new congregation eager to share the Lord’s Supper.  There was a problem, however, it seems that someone thought it was a good idea to pour the grape juice into the challis the night before and place it on the altar.  Remember now, in this small church communion was done by intinction, a method in which the congregation comes forward, is given a small piece of bread, and they are to dip it in the challis. Anyway, everything was going along just fine until Jim noticed that the grape juice had become moldy.  Not knowing what to do at this point, he quickly announced that they would be taking only bread this time because the juice was, in Jim’s words “not good.” He continued, but here’s the kicker to the story.  Suddenly, from the perspective of the congregation, a disembodied hand slowly came out from behind the curtain next to Jim, holding a new challis of juice.  The point here? God provides.  Even if it’s through the magical, floating hand of an elder. God provides!

Another communion story.  Many years ago, before I was a pastor, I was helping with communion on Christmas Eve.  It was my job to hold the challis and say, “the love of God poured out for you.”  And again, communion in this congregation was by intinction.  The other piece of this story that you need to understand is that, like our church, everyone was welcome to participate in the sacrament, including children.  Well, one young man, about 6 or 7 years-old come forward with his mother.  He received his bread and before his mother could stop him he popped it in his mouth.  She quickly corrected him saying, “no, you’re supposed to dip it in the cup first.” And before any of us could react, he removed the bread from his mouth and dunked it in the juice.  I like to refer to this incident as “holy double-dipping.” But here’s best part of the story.  No one got mad.  No one shammed the woman or the boy.  The provision in this case was the presence of a loving community. A community that chose to have a good laugh rather than get angry.

Now, I share these two humorous communion stories today because in both instances God provided for the needs of the community! And I’m going to make a case today that the feeding of the 5000 is in fact a precursor; a foreshowing of the sacred meal we’re going to share here today and of the abundant provision our meal represents.

Let’s begin with the narrative itself.  Jesus took the bread, he blessed it, broke it, and he gave it to everyone present.  The text tells us 5000 men and an uncounted number of woman and children.

Now, I think it’s important for us to pause here for a moment and consider that this narrative didn’t just fall out of the sky.  There’s a history of miracle stories, demonstrating the provision of God using food, in the Hebrew Scriptures.

First, the manna from heaven. In Exodus 16, the Israelites, newly escaped from their bondage and feeling the pain of hunger in the pit of their stomachs, wondered aloud if leaving Egypt was the right move. But God didn’t abandon them in their wilderness.  God provided manna, nourishment in the desert.

And although it’s less familiar, a second narrative comes to mind when we think about the background of the feeding of the 5000.  There’s a story about the prophet Elisha in II Kings 4 that also features a miracle of abundance

A man came bringing . . . twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So, he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.'” He set it before them; they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord

So, through his actions that day, Jesus renewed, embodied, and fulfilled the consistent call of the God of Israel to feed the hungry.[i] Jesus, out in that deserted place, renewed God’s covenant with God’s people by embodying the grace of God experienced by the Israelites in their wilderness and by fulfilling the promise to provide for their needs.  In this case, food.

But the point of this narrative finally isn’t what Jesus did, but why. Why did Jesus feed the 5000? The answer to that question, my friends, can be summed up in a single word: compassion. Matthew says that when Jesus saw the great crowd that had followed him out into the wilderness, he had compassion on them. What did this compassion look like? Jesus healed the sick, he tended to their needs, and he was present with them. And then, when evening came and they found themselves without food, he fed them.[ii]

And this is where the Biblical world meets ours.  What we now call “food scarcity” wasn’t only known in the ancient world, it was an everyday reality. So, the disciples’ suggestion that these hordes of people go buy food wasn’t just unrealistic – they were, after all, out in a deserted place – it was ridiculous and perhaps even a little insulting.  The “crowds,” as Matthew calls them, probably didn’t have money to buy food in the first place. So, it’s reasonable to assume that Jesus was telling his disciples, in no uncertain terms, to get over their callous self-concern and feed the people themselves.[iii]

And that’s the lesson for us today. Jesus used the disciples to tend the needs of these thousands of men, women, and children. And Matthew demonstrates for us what happens when we move from a worldview of scarcity – “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” – to one of abundance – “thank you, God, for these five loaves and fishes.” Whatever our initial skepticism, or doubt, or self-preoccupation, like the disciples, we are invited to get caught up in Christ’s words of abundance and gratitude and distribute what we have and participate in the wonder and joy that “all ate and were filled.”[iv]

And this abundance of God’s provision extends beyond just feeding the hungry.  When a new college graduate passes on a high-paying job to teach disadvantaged kids, God’s abundances continues. When one student stands up against bullies in defense of another student, the God of compassion is revealed. When a community of faith makes a promise that no one who comes to its doors will be turned away, the voice of the Still-Speaking God carries on, echoing across time and space.[v]

You know, the real beauty behind this narrative is that it continues: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the poor, the immigrant, the hungry – and God continues to use us to care for them and God uses them to care for us.  Because in the end, there’s no difference, there’s no us and them, we are all loved by God and we all stand in need of Christ’s compassion and forgiveness.

And that’s the wonderful thing about the sacrament of communion.  It’s the great equalizer.  We are all invited, we all come before God remembering, celebrating, and asking for forgiveness.  When it comes to communion, there’s no us and them, only we.  We are all under that protective shelter of God’s healing love and no matter who, no matter what, no matter where we find ourselves on this journey we call faith; we do not walk alone.  We have each other and we have God in abundance, in this life and in the next. And that, my friends, is the greatest provision of all.

In the name of the One who provides for all our needs.

Amen.

 

[i]   Alyse McKenzie.  Edgy Exegesis: You Want Us to do What? (patheos.com) 2011

[ii]  Stan Duncan. And It Was Enough. (homebynow.blogspot) 2014

[iii] Ibid. McKenzie

[iv] Ibid. Duncan.

[v] David Lose. “The Real Miracles of the Story., (davidlose.net) 2014