Sermon for Pentecost 11A

Matthew 15:10-28

“It’s hard to like Jesus when he’s being snarky.”  This is what my preaching professor at Gettysburg said when we encountered this text in her preaching class.  “It’s hard to like Jesus when he’s being snarky.”  This text is uncomfortable for us because it challenges all of our ideas about Jesus always loving everyone and welcoming everyone to be with him.  It’s hard to like Jesus when he calls the Pharisees, who were widely regarded as the good religious folks in Jewish society at this time, blind guides who are leading the blind.  And it’s hard to like Jesus when he throws his hands up in the air and asks Peter if he’s stupid.  It’s hard to like Jesus when he names the sins that come out of our hearts.  And, finally, it’s hard to like Jesus when he calls someone a dog.  Today’s Gospel is part of our Scriptures, and we must deal with it.  But how?  Was Jesus just having a bad day?  Or is there, perhaps, something more going on here?  Because this text is so difficult for us to understand, there are several different ways that interpreters have looked at it.  Each way of interpretation raises questions even as it answers some. But today I am going to speak from my heart as I interpret today’s Gospel in light of what is going on in the world around us, and here is what I think: We confess that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. And today is a day when I think Jesus was letting his human side come completely into view.

Now, let me explain what I mean by that. We give Jesus a pass on a lot of things because we emphasize his full divinity over and against his full humanity. Today, though, I want to talk about Jesus’ full humanity and try not to give him a pass, but to wrestle with him in all of his humanness. And here is what I think is going on: as a human being, Jesus was raised in a first-century Jewish culture. He was raised to believe that, as we hear throughout the Old Testament, the Jewish people were God’s special, chosen people, and those who were not Jewish were outsiders, others, somehow not as special as the Jewish people were. Jesus would have heard the stories of how the Israelites fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down, and he would have heard how the Israelites were commanded to kill all of the Canaanites so that they could settle in the land. And then let’s add this to the mix: in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is a refugee; a survivor of the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem, some of whom were his cousins, and he was brought up in Egypt and in the town of Nazareth instead of his hometown of Bethlehem. Because of this, his psyche has developed into putting people in categories: those who don’t get what he’s saying and those who do; those who are in and those who are out. When the Pharisees are offended by what Jesus is saying, he quickly calls them “blind guides leading the blind”. That’s part of the particular human being who Jesus was, according to Matthew.

But then it gets worse. Jesus goes off into a retreat and encounters a “Canaanite” woman. Now this is one of the odd things about the Gospel of Matthew. The Canaanites had not existed as a people since Old Testament times. The Gospel of Mark calls this woman a Syro-Phoenician woman, which would have been more accurate to the peoples who lived in that area in the 1st century. But no, Matthew calls this woman who calls out after Jesus a Canaanite. Hold on to that thought for a moment, because it’s important and I’m going to come back to it. Let’s look at what happens: first, Jesus ignores her, then he says, “It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus, the Jesus who we say loves everyone, just called this woman a dog. And even though we try to soften it—yes, the Greek word for “dog” here can mean “little dog,” like a lapdog or a puppy—it’s still pretty bad.  Think of this:  even though our culture loves and spoils our dogs today, so that they are members of our family, we still have a very insulting word that we often call people which means a female dog.  I ask your forgiveness and indulgence here, but Jesus has just called this woman a bitch.  There is no getting around this insult, and there is no getting around the fact that it has come out of Jesus’ mouth.

This is Jesus in his humanity, coming out with a racist attitude that should make all of us cringe. And this woman knows that she’s been insulted, too. But she is so desperate for her daughter to be healed, and she is so convinced that Jesus can heal her daughter, that she goes along with the insult and she persists: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” I don’t think we fully appreciate how clever this woman really is. If someone called me a dog, I think I would be angry and resentful and maybe go off and tell my friends what a jerk this guy was being. Some Savior these Jewish people have! But that’s not what this woman does. She demonstrates faith that, even though Jesus has just insulted her to her face, he could change his mind and help her daughter. And so, she persisted, and she followed his insult to its logical conclusion.

And Jesus is suitably impressed with the woman’s faith, and he changes his mind and heals her daughter. Now, remember when I mentioned how weird it is that Matthew calls the woman a Canaanite when the Canaanites had not been in existence as a people for centuries? One interpretation is this: because Jesus, who was Jewish, healed this “Canaanite” woman’s daughter, we can see that he is making a symbolic restitution to the Canaanite people on behalf of the Jewish people for driving them off their land so many centuries ago, when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. And by changing his mind and healing this woman’s daughter, we can see Jesus beginning to reject the racist attitudes towards those who are not Jewish. And by the end of the Gospel of Matthew, we will see a resurrected Jesus commanding the disciples to go out and make disciples of all nations. And when you see the word “all,” anywhere in the New Testament, then all means all.

So now that we have this foundation and an interpretation of the Gospel story before us, I would like to talk with you about events happening today. Last weekend’s horrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have been weighing heavily on my mind. My parents used to live about 45 minutes west of Charlottesville. I did my required chaplaincy training at the University of Virginia Medical Center, and I also did temporary work in downtown Charlottesville. I recognized the streets that the news media took pictures of. I walked some of those streets. And to see the city break out in fighting like that was a very personal thing for me. This week, I have been both angry and heartbroken.

Some of you might think that such a thing could not happen here. I’m here to tell you differently. Not far from where I live, I was told that the building that now houses Gaudenzia once housed the KKK, and in recent enough memory that I might hear it referred to as “Klan Hollow”. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, counts 40 active hate groups in Pennsylvania. Forty. But not even as extreme as all that, I have heard people in this area make racist remarks. Now, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not equating the things I’ve heard with these hate groups. Many of these remarks I think are just attitudes that people have grown up with, like Jesus was probably taught by his human family and friends that those who were not Jewish were “other,” and not to be trusted. But, when confronted with a real human being who was a woman and an “other,” Jesus changed his mind. And that is the good news for us: if Jesus can change his mind, so can we.

Racism is a sin. If we say that God created all people, as the Scriptures teach us, in God’s image, then it is a sin for us to look down on someone who doesn’t look like us and call them “other,” or “not worthy”. And if I say something that I don’t think is racist, and someone else tells me that it’s racist, then I need to have the grace to recognize that I have caused offense, to apologize to that person, ask that person why what I said was racist, and then listen to them. I think that’s part of the controversy that’s going on right now surrounding Confederate memorials. White people say, “Oh, it’s part of American history and there’s nothing wrong with learning from them.” We white people are not listening to the other side of the story: that many of these statues went up in the Jim Crow era, during segregation, and were meant to intimidate African Americans. We don’t listen to their side of the story: that these statues are a visible reminder of their oppression. I heard from my sister-in-law in Florida that there is a park near where she and my brother live named Confederate Park, and some of her neighbors will not go there because the name makes them feel not welcomed.

We all need to get better at listening to one another. We need to not be so fragile and so easily offended when someone tells us we are being racist. And, we all need to look deeper into our minds and hearts and look at the prejudices we hold there, and we need to repent of them. This is work that is not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be long and hard and painful. And it’s going to start with relationships. Jesus didn’t change his mind until he was confronted with someone who was “other” from him and was impressed by her faith. We, too, need to forge friendships with people who are different from us and to work on those relationships. And the good news is, if Jesus changed his mind, then so, too, can we. And in the end, that is what today’s Gospel is about: all means all. And there is enough of God’s love and provision, and more than enough, to go around. So we have no reason to be afraid of others. I will continue to hold out hope that in the end, God’s love wins. Amen.




Sermon for Pentecost 10A

Matthew 14:22-33

I am not a lover of comic books, but I enjoy a good superhero movie. The one that got me hooked into the Marvel universe was “Thor.” I know what you all are going to say: it’s only the fact that Thor was played by such a good-looking guy that got me hooked. I will admit that the fact that Thor is very handsome is a factor in my enjoyment of that movie. However, what got me even more than the way that Thor looked was the story: weaving Norse mythology into the story of a man who gets banished to earth, learns what it is to be human and to empathize with humans, then sacrifices his life so that his new friends might live, and who then is restored to life has definite echoes of the Christian story in it. The superhero movie that got me hooked this year was Wonder Woman: this time, it was a female superhero who wanted to help human beings live because she loved them that dragged me in to the superhero universe. I came out of that movie wanting to be Wonder Woman in my own life. And perhaps that’s what appeals to me and to many others about superhero movies: we all wish we could have those powers so that we could save the world and help everyone to live together in peace. Which one of us wouldn’t, after all, wish that we could go down to Charlottesville, wave our magic wand, and have everyone live peacefully together again?

And to some extent, that superhero language translates into American Christianity. How many of you here today have taken part in a Bible study, or at least heard of a Bible study, about heroes of the Bible? I know that I have. Figures like Abraham, Moses, David, Deborah, Mary, Abigail, and so on and so forth are lifted up to us as the perfect model of human being for us to imitate in the Christian faith. And in our story today, Peter is also often lifted up as a hero. Be like Peter, people say. If you want the ministry of the church to take off, sometimes you have to step out of the boat and walk on the water. Be like Peter—take a risk and try something, and if you fail, that’s okay, because Jesus will be there to catch you. But, unfortunately, we Americans have gotten it wrong. Being a hero and taking a risk is not what this story is about. Rather, it is a story about what happens when you try to take on the role of God instead of staying in the boat like you are supposed to.

So, let’s try to look at this story from the perspective of a 1st-century Middle Eastern congregation instead of a 21st-century American one. In 1st-century Palestine, the sea was a symbol of chaos, danger, and fear. Let’s think back to the first chapter of Genesis for a moment. This creation story starts out with, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Waters, formlessness, void of everything. Then God begins creating with, “Let there be light,” and the rest of the story is about God making order out of the chaos and the formlessness. And that includes separating the waters from the waters. The waters of the Sea of Galilee were part of this unknown chaos, and to sail on the water was to sail on chaos. People died in storms at sea. To sail on the waters was most likely considered an act of bravery, and sometimes, foolishness.

For Jesus to walk on the water, then, was a declaration that he was the master of the chaos. If the disciples hadn’t gotten the message with the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, once they heard Jesus tell them that it was he and not to be afraid, they would have gotten the message then: Jesus was, as they declare at the end of the story, the Son of God. So, what’s going on with Peter, then? Why does he want to walk on the water? If he truly needed proof that it was Jesus, there were a thousand other things he could have asked of Jesus. Why does Peter want to get out of the boat?

Well, here’s another piece of symbolism for us to reflect on. A boat riding the waves has often been used as a symbol of the church. The implication of that symbolism is that it is best to stay in the boat with the rest of the church and ride out the storms that batter the church together. For Peter to want to get out of the boat and walk on the water, then, suggests a couple of possibilities: First, Peter wanting to get out of the boat may suggest that he thinks he would be fine on his own, with Jesus, and that he doesn’t need the church. But secondly, and I think probably more likely than the first possibility, is that Peter wants to be lord over the chaos, too. To refer back to Genesis again: Peter wanting to walk on the water is the same kind of thing as Eve seeing the fruit in the garden and eating it because she wants to be like God. Peter wants to be like God, and be ruler over the chaos of the wind-swept waves.

This interpretation makes more sense to me than the traditional interpretations of Peter being the risk taker. After all, we human beings want to be lords over the chaos. We want to control our fates. We want to be the center of the universe. We want the world to operate according to the rules we set for it. In short, we want to be like God: not only having knowledge of good and evil, as Eve and Adam desired, but also wanting to be that superhero: we want to save the world and control the chaos. Each one of us would love it if we could do it all on our own and have the world worship us and follow us. But what happens when we try to do that is that we realize that we can’t do it on our own, and that on our own we are nothing, and, like Peter, we sink and we cry out to Jesus to save us.

And that, indeed, is the good news. We are not alone in this world. Jesus has reached out his hand and saved us by dying on the cross for our sins. And Jesus continues to come to us through the storms, when we have tried to be like God and when we have tried to make it on our own, and he reaches out his hand and says, “O you of little faith, I am right here beside you. Do not doubt that I am with you through everything that happens in your life, and I will walk with you through the storm.” But you know, that’s not everything that Jesus does. I think he also asks us why we got out of the boat in the first place.

Because the end of the story is this: Jesus, holding Peter’s hand, leads him back to the boat where the other disciples have been rowing all along. And when Jesus gets in the boat, the wind dies down and the storm is over. Remember what I said earlier: the image of the boat symbolizes the church. The storm hits the church, and while one person is trying to be a hero by walking on the water, the rest have remained in the boat, together, and are riding out the storm together. The church doesn’t need superheroes who get out of the boat and try to do everything on their own in order to save the church. There is only one Savior, after all, and that is Jesus Christ. It is he, and he alone, who has done everything for us. What the church needs is people who will stay in the boat and work together with one another to ride out the storms, trusting that Jesus is right there beside them.

Much as I want to be Wonder Woman and save the church and the world, it is not up to me to do that. Much as I want to go to Charlottesville, wave my magic wand, and have everyone live peacefully together again, I can’t do that. What I can do, and what I try to do, is to serve you as your pastor and point to Jesus, who has already saved us. We all need to come together to see where Jesus is leading us in the days ahead. It’s going to require intensive listening for God’s will and hard work as we learn to change the ways that we do things. It’s going to require listening to the voices of our neighbors, many of whom don’t look like us, and hearing the pain that they are going through. It’s going to require recognizing that the church as a whole has not always spoken out against the evil of racism, and while we say we love everyone, we don’t always act that way. It’s also going to require deepening our roots in Christ, re-familiarizing ourselves with our Scriptures and with our Lutheran heritage. We have to remember who we are and whose we are so that we are able to tell others about why God’s love is so important to their lives. It’s not going to be easy, but we have the reassurance that Jesus will be by our side through anything that comes our way.

The bishop of the Montana Synod, which is the Synod I came here from, said this in reference to a specific issue that happened in the area when I was serving there: We pastors are not to be Lone Rangers. The Lone Ranger is another type of hero that many of us are familiar with. And the word “lone” is even in his title. Peter tried to be a Lone Ranger and walk out on the water by himself, and it didn’t work too well. None of us are called to be a Lone Ranger, a Thor, a Wonder Woman, a Captain America, or any other superhero that you can think of. We are called to stay in the boat, to weather the storms that we encounter together, and to remember that Jesus Christ walks on the waters beside us and is the master of the storms and the chaos. Jesus is our Savior, and Jesus alone. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 9A

Matthew 14:13-21

One of the more interesting stops on my life journey happened when I went to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in order to become a deaconess. As part of the deaconess training, each woman was assigned a congregation to become a part of and to learn from at the same time that she did her classwork. And the name of the congregation that I was assigned to was Congregation Chai v Shalom. Chai in Hebrew means life, and shalom in Hebrew means peace. This congregation was a member of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. But, they were also a Messianic Jewish congregation; many of the members came from a Jewish background, but they also believed in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. Unlike many of their Jewish brothers and sisters, they did not see this as a contradiction. Rather, they pointed out that the first Christians were Jewish, and that they did not give up their Jewishness in order to believe in Jesus. During the time that I was with this congregation—and there were other non-Jewish people in the group besides me—I learned about many Jewish festivals. And one of my favorites was the festival of Purim, which celebrates the rescue of the Jewish people from the Persian king’s henchman by Queen Esther. Jewish people today celebrate this by reading the story of Esther and having people act out the story as it’s being read, and then they have a feast, where everyone brings a dish to share.

Now, fast forward to the next interesting stop on my life’s journey, which was the year that I spent on internship in Alaska. I decided that I wanted to introduce the festival of Purim to the congregation that I was working with there. I taught the high school Sunday school class the story of Esther, and soon had them acting it out. As the date for the festival drew near, I invited not only the congregation I was working with, but sent out invitations to some of the other congregations in the area. I asked everyone to bring a dish to share. There was some concern expressed about, “What if everyone brings a dessert and there are no main dishes?” But by the time I was made aware of that, it was too late to do anything about it, and we had to trust that there would be enough food of the right kind for everyone. And it turns out that there was: without signup sheets, each person brought the right kind of food for the feast. And we all ate, and were filled, and we had lots leftover.

Maybe this isn’t exactly the same as what Jesus did with the five loaves and two fishes in feeding the 5000-plus crowd that had gathered around him that day. But this story of mine points to something that the disciples worried about that long-ago day, and it points to something that we still worry about so many years later: We worry that Jesus has given us an impossible task to do, and we worry that the resources that he has given us will not be enough to get the job done. And yet, as we see in today’s story, Jesus gives the resources of five loaves of bread and two fish to the disciples, and the disciples hand them out to the people sitting there, and not only is what they have enough, it is more than enough, with much left over.

So, first of all, how is God calling us to feed the communities of Oberlin and Steelton? And what resources has God given us? Well, let’s start with the basics. Dave Daubert, who I’ve mentioned in sermons before—he’s the pastor who consults with congregations as they are working on renewal—talks about God having a dream for the world. Now many of us have probably heard that the point of being a Christian is believing in Jesus so that you can go to heaven when you die. Well, that’s part of it, but when we dig deeper into the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament prophets, we will find that’s not all of it. God’s dream, as Daubert phrases it, is for God’s kingdom to come to fulfillment here on earth. Remember that line in the Lord’s Prayer that we say every week? “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s what that means: God’s dream, and God’s mission, is to see God’s kingdom come to fulfillment on this earth that God created, just as God’s kingdom is already fulfilled in heaven. And what that kingdom looks like is this: a place of righteousness, peace, justice, and love (27). Daubert likes to say that God is already working to bring that kingdom about here on earth. Our choice is whether or not we will participate in it.

Today’s story of Jesus multiplying the five loaves of bread so that 5,000 plus people ate their fill and were satisfied is the only miracle story of Jesus that appears in all four Gospels, so we know it’s pretty important. I think it appears in all four of the Gospels because it is the best example of what God’s kingdom come on earth looks like: everyone full, not only with bread, but full with Jesus’ teachings and full with the health that Jesus brings when he heals people. But even though this story appears in all four Gospels, there are still minor differences from Gospel to Gospel. And one of the minor differences in Matthew is that the disciples are the ones who provide the bread and give it to Jesus, and after Jesus gives thanks and breaks the bread, the disciples are the ones who give the bread to the crowds. This detail shows us that while Jesus works the miracle, the disciples get to participate in showing the people a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven on earth. God, through Jesus, does not like to work alone—he likes to bring his children into his work to bring the kingdom of heaven into being on earth.

And yet we, like the first disciples, worry that the five loaves and the two fish that we have are not enough. We find it difficult to trust that God will make the limited resources we have to be enough, and more than enough, to participate in bringing God’s kingdom to being here on earth. And today I want to talk about a concrete example in the lives of our two congregations: that example is Family Promise.

Family Promise is a group that exists in cities across the country to help families who are homeless by giving them shelter and food and by helping them get back on their feet. Most shelters for homeless people are segregated by gender, with men in one shelter and women and children in another. This arrangement can lead to the separation of families who are homeless, and puts a further unnecessary burden and strain upon the family. Family Promise works with local churches and volunteers to help keep those families together. What the churches do is to take turns during the year at providing overnight housing, an evening meal, and a breakfast to go for the families. During the day, the children in the families go to school, while the parents, if they have a job, will go to their place of work. They will also go to the day center in LeMoyne, to look for housing and for work if they don’t have a job. At this central location during the day, the staff workers render assistance in helping the families find housing, work, and they help them to develop a budget, among other things.

Shortly after I arrived here in Pennsylvania, I was approached by a board member of Family Promise to see if St. John and Salem would be interested in becoming host churches for Family Promise. We started with a presentation to the council at St. John, and a group from St. John went over to Our Saviour’s to see Family Promise in action. This group felt it was a worthwhile endeavor, but was concerned that St. John alone did not have the resources to make it happen. So, the group brought Salem in on it. Salem’s council also thought this was a good and worthy thing to do, but again the concern was that we did not have the resources to see it through. So, tomorrow night, at our 4 churches cooperative meeting, we will bring Family Promise once again to the floor to expand the potential pool of resources and hopefully make this come to fruition.

Folks, it feels like God is calling us in the direction of working with Family Promise. The concern we have about resources is a legitimate one, but in the end, if this is indeed the direction that God is calling us to go, then God will give us, and in fact has already given us, all that we need to make this work. All we need to do is to look around with open eyes and to see that, what seems like small and limited resources and what seems like it is not enough to do the work is, in fact, enough, and more than enough, to participate in this glimpse of the coming kingdom of heaven. For in fact, something like Family Promise—a group that helps to make sure families have shelter, food, and assistance in getting back on their feet—is God working through God’s children to make God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

So I invite you all to come to the 4 churches cooperative meeting tomorrow night. We start at 6:00 p.m. with refreshments, and the meeting itself starts at 6:30 p.m. Family Promise is only one of the items on our agenda, but it is an important one. Between now and then, I would like to ask you all to be in prayer for the leading of the Holy Spirit. If you feel led to be a coordinator of this effort, or to help in any other way, please speak up and volunteer. As your pastor, I believe that the resources that we need to answer this calling from God are right here, among us, and I am praying that those resources would become apparent, so that we can participate in the coming of the kingdom of heaven here on earth. For although God has the ability to work alone if need be, God’s love for us means that God wants to include us in the coming kingdom. I believe that’s why Jesus had his disciples help in distributing food to the crowd that numbered 5000-plus on that long-ago day. And I believe that’s why God calls us to be God’s hands and to participate in the coming of the kingdom today. Amen.