Sermon for St Mark’s, 27th August 2017
Pentecost 12 – Who do YOU say that I am?
Did Jesus have all his fingers? When he began his ministry, it was as a travelling rabbi, but until that time Scripture identifies him as a “carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13.55). In Jesus’ day the son followed the father’s trade, so Jesus was a skilled carpenter, a worker with axe and mallet and saw. Joseph probably went out into the land and cut down trees to finish them as lumber for house beams, furniture, and tools, and so would the young Jesus. It is not an easy skill. I have known carpenters and woodworkers, and it is not uncommon for them to have scarred hands and missing fingers, accidents in the trade. Do you think Jesus had all his fingers?
I asked that question of a Confirmation class once. My goal was not the answer, but to get them to think about Jesus, to wonder about him as a person, not just a religious notion. I tried to help them assemble a picture of him as a person who walked this same earth, though a time long ago. Jesus was never a Christian, but a faithful Jew. He was not a white man; did not have blue eyes. He was dark skinned, black or brown eyes like others of his nation, probably around five feet tall, maybe a little more. A carpenter of his time would have been illiterate, reading some words and numbers, but not able to write a letter. Yet Luke indicates Jesus read the prophet Isaiah in synagogue (4.16f). Another fact which may support his literacy is that the word “carpenter” was also a code name for “scholar”. Jesus was radical in some of his teaching (turn the other cheek), brilliant before adversaries (Render unto Caesar) and comfortable with the oppressed and despised people of his day (lepers and tax collectors). He turned his religion on its ear, when he insisted the law of love is higher than the law of righteousness. Jesus was possessed by an intense prayer life, and he had a prayer book, which maybe he read, but certainly knew by heart. There is a copy of Jesus’ prayer book within your arm’s reach. It is the Book of Psalms, and you will find it in the middle of your Book of Common Prayer.
We heard this morning from Mathew that when Peter acknowledged Jesus as “Messiah”, Jesus ordered the disciples not to tell anyone. He was quite serious about that. Jesus knew the danger of exalted titles. Next week we will hear the same Peter called “Satan” for challenging Jesus’ directives. Jesus even resisted being called “good” (Mark 10.17). Nevertheless, Jesus has been misidentified as John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets (Matthew 16.14). He has been described as Messiah, Prince of Peace, and only Son of God. His opponents knew him as peasant, magician, bandit and rebel. We call him Lord, Savior, Redeemer, Christ and Blessed Jesus. Even other religions honor him as prophet, holy man, great Teacher.
The question that matters, though, is the question he put to the disciples. To those who knew him best, his own friends, he said, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16.15) That is our question. Who is Jesus to you?
For me, Jesus has many faces. Through study, I know Jesus by all those names – prophet, holy man, great Teacher; peasant, revolutionary, master of debate and parable, awesome in ability to love. In my heart, I have come to know him as companion and elder brother. Witness to my foolishness, healer of my memories, he is one who smiles at my accomplishments and who speaks through me at holy moments. I believe strongly that Jesus was a man of laughter, as well as tears. Jesus is often silent when I pray to him, but I sense he is listening. And I know he knows my sin. All my desires are known and no secrets are hid, but there is no danger in Jesus knowing I fall short. In my spirit I know him intimately, as he knows me. I experience him particularly at Eucharist, in moments of great beauty or simple tenderness. I see the face of Jesus in my wife, in my son and daughter, and in the wise and loving people I have known. I recognize Jesus in the smiles of infants and toddlers, in the gaze of lovers of all ages, in the eyes of those who are dying, and in the heartbreak of deep grief, tragedy, and human suffering. For me, there is no question: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
And yet, all of that really matters little, except that I do not ask you to answer a question I am not willing to answer myself. So back to you, in this moment, and later in your quiet time. Who is Jesus to you? Does he have all his fingers?
You might be interested to know that one of my young students thought seriously about Jesus’ fingers. At the next meeting of the Confirmation class, she was quite confident that he did have all his fingers. She quoted John’s Gospel that at his crucifixion: “No bone of his shall be broken” (19.36).
The amazing Albert Schweitzer, physician, theologian, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace, (1875-1965) is perhaps best known for monumental historical life-of-Jesus research. The last four sentences in his 400+ page book tell a truth which has resonated in countless souls, and may catch hold in yours, or perhaps is an invitation yet to be accepted. About the risen Jesus Schweitzer wrote:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill in our time. He commands. And to those who obey, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable, mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 1906, p403)
Who is Jesus to you? Come, if you wish, and let’s talk. Amen.
I have begun to wonder how to protect my soul from the sound bytes of our culture. Television now broadcasts news 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. FACEBOOK has become the political engine to share our individual views with our friends. Online news sources send email prompts to open their latest byte of information. And the list goes on. How does one stay informed, and still sustain a love for all people, regardless of their political positions?
It is unfortunate that our news commentators continue to align our political freedoms with terrorists and murderers. I call this lazy reporting, where the driving force to sell advertising is held in greater value than sharing the basic facts with their listeners and readers. I can’t change the multitude of sound bytes entering my little world, but I can change what I do with that information. I can begin to listen.
I can LISTEN TO SCRIPTURE. I can LISTEN TO THE STORIES OF PEOPLE. I can LISTEN TO MY OWN HEART.
LISTEN to our Scripture lessons today. To gain a context to our scripture lessons today, we must start back in Matthew 15:1, where you find the Pharisees and scribes challenging Jesus about Jewish norms and rules. Jesus handles them with ease, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Jesus doesn’t try to argue with the Pharisees over Jewish dietary laws, instead, he strikes to the core of the issue, and tells them that their hearts have strayed from God. By pointing out that the real problem stems from a wayward heart, Jesus gives us a clue on how to live with our neighbors, those we like, and those we don’t like. Jesus tells the Pharisees and scribes, along with his disciples, to listen to their hearts.
Jesus does not mince words with the Pharisees and scribes. He bluntly tells them they are blind guides leading the blind. The words of Jesus are dangerous statements, and the disciples themselves challenge Jesus by asking him, “Do you not know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” Jesus finally explains to the disciples, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” It’s not eating the right food or living in a certain way that informs a person about a true measure of their holy life. Jesus is asking a more rooted question, “Do you know what lies in your heart?” Are you listening to your own sound bytes? Don’t be surprised if you struggle to answer this question for yourself, because Jesus, himself, wrestles with knowing his own heart in later verses of our Gospel lesson.
JESUS LISTENS to the Canaanite woman. I think most of us believe that when Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism, he has it all together, that his seeking, questing, yearning, and struggling moments are behind him. But the story of the Canaanite woman shows us that Jesus still struggles with his spiritual life. We get a glimpse of the human Jesus, where a woman’s plea for help reveals a healer who becomes bogged down in cultural restraints he has yet to break out of. We see two healers, the woman and Jesus.
In Matthew his disciples’ response to the Canaanite woman’s plea is to beg Jesus to send her away. Then Jesus announces to the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Can you believe Jesus really said this? But it gets worse. The woman kneels before Jesus and pleads, “Lord, help me.” Jesus answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” We find from reading this Scripture text there isn’t a way to make Jesus look like the wise, loving healer. The true healing takes place in Jesus when the woman quickly responds, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Can you imagine what must have shot through the heart and mind of Jesus? Frustration with this pesky gentile; embarrassment that he was being upstaged in front of his friends; anger that he was losing control of the moment; probably all these feelings and more … but I believe he also experienced a rush of incredulous amazement which overwhelmed his Jewishness and his maleness and his cultural restraints, causing his eyes and heart to respond to the plea of this mother. “O woman, great is your faith!” Jesus finally hears the soul of this woman, her faith and her cry for help. JESUS LISTENS to her story, and heals her daughter.
LISTEN TO YOUR HEART. If you need to choose between these three categories of listening, then please choose this one. During this last week I have found myself listening to the words of others as they tried to make sense of the tragedy in Charlottesville, Barcelona, and Finland. I thought if I listened to more people, there would be a way to make sense of what happened. But I was seeking my answer in the wrong place.
The truth is, I need to listen to my own heart to find those places that still need healing within me. I need to feel the pain of those families who were struck helpless by people who want to do harm to others. I need to call these tragedies what they really are, “hate-filled murder.” Why hedge our words in meaningless rhetoric. I imagine that Joseph, at the age of 17, spent many years searching his own soul, or he could not have broken down in tears before his brothers. Joseph suffered, but his suffering turned into love for others. The passage in Genesis says, “He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.” After feeling betrayed, sold into slavery, sent to prison, and feeling the unending loss of family, Joseph, somehow, learned to listen to God and his heart. He broke out of a family system that supported lying, secrets, bullying, hatred, and special treatment. It doesn’t say how he broke away from those character traits embedded in his family dynamic, but somewhere along the line he learned to forgive.
When you enter a circle of suffering with God and others, and if you are not broken by it, you will be made holy by it. You will find the presence of a God who is waiting to heal and hold you close. If you are willing to listen to your own failings, and point to your own doubts and mistakes, you will encounter the holy in your suffering. If the failings of mankind have not brought you to tears, then begin to listen more carefully. Jesus will be found in the midst of your tears.
So we listen. We listen to Scripture. We listen to the stories of our friends. We listen to our own hearts. Jesus says, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” We must choose our words and actions carefully, knowing that ultimately it is right and good to denounce violence and hatred and idolatry. To do otherwise stops love from having power over evil. Amen.
Sermon for St Mark’s, 13th August 2017
A Fascinating Library
Sermons recently have been intense, or serious in topic, sermons about our transfiguration, about unconditional love, conditional forgiveness, and assurance that when we die and make our journey home, Someone knows we are coming. This morning we might lighten up a bit, pull back from intense scrutiny and wonder together about a familiar story from Matthew.
Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him after a dramatic feeding of 5000 people on the shore of the Galilean Lake. He had a desire to pray, and as he preferred prayer in solitude, he sought privacy. The disciples, no surprise, got into the boat Jesus had been teaching from before the feeding miracle, and set off for another shore. The Galilean Lake, also called Sea of Galilee, is an inland, freshwater body 13 miles long and 8 wide, and is shallow enough that it is famous for intense storms which arise quickly. Jesus spent most of his ministry on its shores, and the disciples, as commercial fishermen, knew well its rules and temperament.
Sailing along the shore towards Genessaret, then, a storm did come up, and the boat was in trouble. This story is similar to another (Matthew 8.23f) in which Jesus is in the boat with the disciples when such a storm came up, and in that danger, Jesus calmed the storm. In our story, Jesus is recognized and offers encouragement, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then Peter, who is willing more than the others to trust Jesus, tests what he is seeing, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Not a bad response to what might be mistaken in a threatening, storm-tossed night around three in the morning. Peter recognized Jesus, and at his bidding stepped out of the boat. You know the conclusion – he became frightened, and Jesus reached out and helped him back in the boat. Not surprising, the disciples were amazed, and worshiped Jesus.
So as we wonder about what we have heard, you might ask, “Is there any explanation which might make the story more compatible with our 21st century minds?” Two thoughts from the scholars might interest you. One is that the boat is closer to the shore than the dramatic painters depict, and that Jesus is walking in storm-tossed surf. Peter sees him just visible, and Jesus says “Come”. Peter does fine at first, but then in the undertow begins to sink. Matthew’s point is that Peter trusted Jesus enough to venture out, and that stands solid regardless of whether the boat is near shore or farther out.
A second observation is that this story may be a misplaced resurrection appearance. You remember that after the disciples heard the story from the women that they had seen Jesus on the third day after crucifixion, Peter, overwhelmed with this wonderful, barely believable news, decided to go fishing, perhaps to sort it all out. While out on the lake, they saw Jesus on the shore, and Peter rushed to him. The poignant moment in the story is that on the shore with the risen Jesus, Peter was forgiven for three times denying Jesus. Today’s story might fit the post-resurrection narrative.
What if we compare the two storm stories?
The popular interpretation for contemporary spiritual life is that spiritual persons should be confident to “step out of the boat”. We are encouraged to “think out of the box”, “go the extra mile”, and that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, so some of this wisdom had translated itself into the secular consciousness. Be bold, dream big, take risks – hence the title of a book by John Ortberg, If You Want To Walk On Water, You’ve Got to Get Out Of The Boat.
The opposite seems true in the other storm story. I remember John Dominic Crossan teaching about the story of Jesus asleep in the boat with the same disciples, same lake, and a similar storm. When they were at the end of their ropes with fear, they woke Jesus, and he calmed the storm. Again, the message is “Be not afraid”, but trust in Jesus. “Be not afraid” is the most commonly repeated one-liner in the Bible. The implication, though, in this first story is “You better get in the boat”. Dr Crossan believes it is a message to Christians in Matthew’s day who were going astray to remain with Jesus, with the young Church, and not be distracted by persecutions and diversions of their times.
Here is a spiritual observation which might not readily occur to western-thinking Christians: one does not always have to think in an “either/or” frame. Often the Spirit moves in the world of “both/and”. Sometimes the best answer is not singular. Perhaps there is learning from more than one possibility. Once I had a conversation with an apprentice native American shaman, and asked if God is a notion contained only in our heads and hearts, or is there a reality outside our imagination and distinct from it, which we name God. His answer was “Yes”. The Spirit of God is larger than any frame which says there is only one right answer. In the practice of medicine, the search must be for the one source of a problem (either/or). In the unraveling of history, the story is more complicated, depending on getting all the facts, and whether the accounts are written by the victors, or by the victims. In the world of Spirit, the answers may often be “both/and”. God certainly dwells in our hearts and minds, but God is also larger than our hearts (I John 3.20) and exists outside and beyond our best imagination.
Are there not times when we as Christians should step out, risk our energy for the Gospel, for the helpless and oppressed? Are there not times when conscience demands we swim upstream and challenge the way things seem to be going? And are there not times for us to come together, to bless and heal and strengthen the church, to protect its wholeness, even circle the wagons, and hear again the message of hope and confidence in Jesus? Times to get out of the boat. Times to get into the boat. Both/And.
My hope is you will read your Bible, and enjoy. Read for color. Be surprised when it does not say what you have always thought it said. (Where does it say God helps those who help themselves? That is Ben Franklin, not Jesus.) Look for surprises: did you notice that when Peter stepped out into the water to come to Jesus, that he did not bring Peter to shore? They both got back into the boat, the place of safety for that moment. Your Bible is a fascinating library, often uncomfortably candid. So read, and think, and wonder. Perhaps the Spirit of God will find you there. AMEN.
Sermon for St Mark’s, 6 August 2017
Transfiguration: A Great Love Story
Jesus’ disciples suffer from unfair criticism in the Church. There is a common disdain about these who walked with Jesus but did not recognize from the first that he was Messiah. They saw miracles, heard his teaching, knew him intimately – the New Testament says they still didn’t get it. I have heard preachers point out how ignorant they were, the implication being that we would have recognized Jesus right away. I had a professor in seminary refer to Peter and the others as “dumb bunnies”. Unfair.
In St Luke’s Gospel this morning, at least three of the disciples did see who he was. It was intimate – just four: Peter, James, John with Jesus in a remote mountain place where Jesus went to pray. At face value, these three had a divine vision of Jesus as Messiah; at the least, it dawned on them that he truly was the one sent from God. Prayers answered; hopes fulfilled; huge relief, but little awareness of how it would change them. This moment, this discovery, the Church calls “Transfiguration”.
Come round now to our day, and your own faith practice. Transfiguration is the spiritual process of becoming who we truly are, created in God’s image. The matter is really ours – becoming who we are as bearers of God’s image.
The questions is – will we claim our deepest truth, the essential goodness of a soul of the same substance of God? Imagine you as God’s image?
That is a personal choice. Made in your own heart and mind. It is not about perfection. It is about choosing the grace already in your spirit, and when you waver or go off course, return and claim again that “God-ness” in you.
It is a familial choice – to share that grace with those closest to you, teach and live good news, and if you are raising children, hold that as standard for their quality of life. Here is a place to practice our power to bless.
It is a communal choice. We are to live Christ’s good news in our relationships, in our work lives, among our neighbors, and in the decisions we make as brokers of the common good.
It is about being light in our world, and while we acknowledge shadows and darkness around us, we do not become afraid. Remember St John’s affirmation – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1.5)
A word about shadows and darkness: The Church has marked the Transfiguration of Jesus the Christ, each year on 6th August, today. The Church is annually recalled this day to our conviction that Jesus is the anointed of God, to bring us again into the heart of God and commission us as light for the world. That tradition began in the mid-1400s, and it continues in our worship this morning. August 6th.
There is another observance of 6th August. On the Feast of Transfiguration, a day for Jesus, an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945. That day, and three days later when another bomb decimated the city of Nagasaki, the end of World War II was hastened, at the cost of more than 120,000 civilian and combatant lives.
Trinity Church in Bend used to host, for two weeks in summer, Japanese students who were on an English language immersion program. In March 2013, we suffered an arson attack, and we were unable to host the students that summer. The day of Transfiguration is etched in my memory because that summer after our damaging fire, when there were still burned beams exposed and no roof at Trinity, the principal and the head teacher of the Japanese academy sending students, came to Bend. They brought gifts and pledges of support to our wounded congregation. The day I met the Japanese academics and received their support? It was August 6th, 68 years to the day of the bombing, the Feast of Jesus’ Transfiguration.
Bill Bryson, in his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, remarked that “the human is the only animal that can kill at a distance.” Friends, the shadows are real, and they find root in our own souls, but remember: hate must be taught. Only love is original.
Spirituality means working out your own transfiguration, living your true being. May I offer a few affirmations for your transfiguration?
You are chosen. You are beloved, and your life is part of a great love story. Begin here.
Spirit confirms that Jesus is still among us, as close as our breath.
Only love is original. Hate must be taught. Work toward unconditional love.
The road to freedom begins in forgiveness; but practice conditional forgiveness.
The way of truth and love always wins out. Grief and trouble, like storms, are temporary, and will pass.
The Kingdom of God is among us, even though as yet incomplete.
When you make your own journey home, Someone knows you are coming.
The Church observes Jesus’ transfiguration on 6th August, but it is also the disciples who were transfigured. “Jesus only looks different to his disciples. It is Peter, James and John, who are really transfigured, their eyes now open to see Jesus as he really is, clothed in light and revealed as the Son of God.” (The Rev’d Jason Cox, St Columba’s Church, Washington, D.C.)
May you find and cherish such moments of transfiguration, moments of clarity which allow you to see the world in a new light, as God’s sacred workplace and playground. May your transfiguration allow you to see the creatures of God as beloved. No exceptions. Amen.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.