The Right Thing To Do

Matthew 20:1-16

  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.  When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;  and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.  When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.  And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’  When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’  When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.  10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.  11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,  12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’  13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’  16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

There’s something about this parable that makes us nervous.  Most of us, anyway.  If we’re honest, we really don’t like the idea that the workers who were only in the field for an hour or two got paid the same as those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  It’s not fair.  It offends our sense of justice even if it is Jesus who’s telling the story.  As Barbara Brown Taylor says, this parable is a little like the cod liver oil that mothers used to give their kids: you know it’s good for you, you trust the one who is giving it to you, but that doesn’t make it any  easier to swallow. 

We have a built-in sense of fair play and fair pay and when they don’t go the  way we think they should, we tend to let people know how we feel about it.  Here’s an actual letter written to the head of a government relief agency: 

Dear Sir:
It seems worthwhile to call your attention to what is going on in nearby Hoboken relative to “relief”…True relief is approved by the people of the USA but merely making loafers out of individuals who don’t want to work is definitely to the detriment of the country and is disastrous to the taxpayers of the country. If the situation as it now exists is not soon changed the voters of the country will give the present administration a thorough cleanout next November. 

Yours truly, [1]

That letter was written in 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression, to Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.  The writer of that letter didn’t feel that workers on local WPA projects were being required to work long enough or hard enough for the money they were receiving.  He didn’t think it was fair that his tax dollars were paying salaries to people he saw as “loafers.”

A sense of what’s fair and what’s not may be built into us.

In 2003, Psychologists Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal did an experiment with female Capuchin monkeys.  They trained the monkeys so that each time they did the “work” of bringing them a granite pebble they got “paid” with a slice of cucumber.  The monkeys really like cucumber, so they learned to do this “work” very quickly.  Then one day Brosnan and deWaal gave one of the monkeys a grape instead of a cucumber slice as payment for her pebble.  Capuchins like cucumber, but grapes are their absolute favorite food.  All the other monkeys saw this and there was suddenly much excitement.  Wow!  Grapes!  But when the next Capuchin came to redeem her pebble and instead of a grape she got the usual slice of cucumber, she went ballistic.  She threw the cucumber back at the handlers and started shrieking at them and violently shaking her cage.  After repeating this experiment several times, the monkeys went on strike and wouldn’t bring their pebbles at all any more unless they got paid in grapes. 

 Not too long ago the Governor of Massachusetts was on a radio talk show outlining plans to provide temporary, safe assistance for some of the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who had been crossing our southern border.  One woman who called in asked,  “Why do we have to spend our money to take care of somebody else’s children?”[2]

A lot of people would ask that same question.  A lot of Christians, concerned about immigration issues, would ask that same question. Why should we take responsibility for this?  Why should we take responsibility for a lot of other things?

Why should I have to wear a mask?  What about my personal freedom?

Why should I have to take responsibility for standing against racism?  Why do I have to learn to recognize white privilege and other systemic and cultural factors that have made life difficult for persons of color?  What does that have to do with me?

Why should we be concerned about income inequality?  

I think the short answer from Jesus, especially as we see him in Matthew’s gospel, would simply be we should do it because it’s the right thing to do.

For Jesus and for his followers, fulfilling righteousness, or, more simply, doing the right thing is a central theme in the Gospel of Matthew.  It starts in chapter 3 when Jesus is baptized.  John the baptizer says, “This is all wrong, you should be baptizing me!”  And Jesus replies, “Let’s just do this for now ‘so that all righteousness may be fulfilled.’”  In other words, it’s the right thing to do.  

In chapter 7, after telling us to treat others the way we would like to be treated, Jesus reminds us that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  In other words, those who do the right thing.   

This theme of doing the right thing is expressed with crystal clarity in chapter 25 where Jesus uses the metaphor of separating the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous.  The ones who enter the kingdom and inherit eternal life are the ones who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, heal the sick and so on.  They’re the ones who do the right thing and in doing it they minister to Jesus, himself.

The parable in today’s gospel is another example of a “do the right thing” story even though our gut reaction to it is that the landowner is doing the wrong thing. 

We usually call this story The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  The problem with that title is that it puts our focus on the workers and the vineyard, the place where they’re laboring all day in the hot sun.  That means that we’re going to have a tendency to be  thinking about this from the workers’ point of view.  But what happens if we call this story The Land Owner and the Marketplace? 

The story starts with the landowner and ends with the landowner, so let’s keep our focus on him.  He goes to the marketplace at 6 in the morning and hires all the laborers he needs for the day.  He goes back to the marketplace at 9 and sees that there are still workers who haven’t been hired.  Now if we’re Jesus’ original audience listening to this, we have assumed that he doesn’t really need any more workers—a smart landowner, and you don’t get to be a landowner without being smart—would have hired all the workers he needed the first time out.  But he sees workers who haven’t been hired by anyone else, so he hires some of them. He goes back at noon and it’s the same thing so he hires some more.  Then again at 3 and finally again at 5, almost at the end of the work day.  

One has to wonder, of course, why those workers are available.  Why are they “standing there idle?”  It’s tempting to make up stories for them, but there’s no need to and it doesn’t really suit the purpose of the parable.  They’re there because, as one of them puts it so succinctly, “No one has hired us.”  There are more laborers than there is demand for labor.  End of story.  

At the end of the day it’s time to pay them.  The landowner had agreed with the first workers he hired that he would pay them each a denarius, the usual fair rate for a day’s labor.  A Roman silver denarius would feed a family for 3 to 6 days depending on the size of the family, so these first-hired workers are happy to make the deal.  It’s decent pay.  When the landowner hired the others later in the day he simply said he would pay them “whatever is right.”  

The landowner pays the last-hired workers first, and it turns out that his idea of “what is right” is a denarius;  a full day’s pay for an hour’s work.  The workers who had been hired first see this and think they’re in for a huge bonus, but when they only get paid a denarius, in keeping with their contract, they’re upset.  “They began to grumble against the owner of the estate, saying, ‘These last worked but one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’”

We sympathize, but the landowner has a point when he replies, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Did you not agree with me to work for a denarius? Take what is yours and be gone. I choose to give to this last man the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’

Okay, so fair enough.  A deal is a deal.  Still, it all seems kind of unfair to those workers who were out in the vineyard all day. So what’s going on here?

Well to really understand this we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the parable where Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  Those words are our clue that Jesus is telling us a story about kingdom values, God’s values.  And it’s important to remember when we think about these values that Jesus isn’t just talking pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.  Jesus was announcing that the kingdom was enngiken, arriving, obtainable, drawing near, within reach.  Jesus was expecting us to embrace God’s vision and then to work to make it a reality “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Amy-Jill Levine in her book Short Stories by Jesus says that this is a parable about economics and righteousness—this world economics and this-world righteousness as God would like to see us practicing them.

Why does the landowner go out repeatedly to hire more workers when he already hired all he needs with his first visit to the marketplace?  He hires the others because they need jobs and he can afford to hire them.  It’s that simple.  

In hiring them, even the last ones hired, he gives them the dignity of earning a wage so they don’t have to beg.  He provides for their families so they don’t have to rely on the charity of the community, and thus he preserves the community’s resources.  He honestly meets the terms of his contract with the first ones hired and he generously goes beyond the expectations of those hired later.  He performs both an act of righteousness and a mitzvah, an act of generosity.  He is focused on the needs of the community more than on his own needs.  He voluntarily distributes his wealth so that the community is more stable.  

At the end of the parable when the early workers imply that he is being unfair he asks them, “Are you envious because I am generous?”  That, at least is how it’s translated.  What it actually says in the Greek is, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

It’s a reminder that how we see things is vitally important.  

Years ago when a number of players for the Yankees were renegotiating their contracts there was scuttlebutt that a number of them were unhappy with the terms they were being offered.  A reporter happened to catch Yogi Berra as he was leaving the owner’s office and asked him if he was happy with the terms of his contract.  Yogi replied, “I’m gonna get to play baseball again next year for the Yankees, and would you believe it, they’re gonna pay me besides!”

We live in a time that’s ripe for change, Kairos moment, and so much of what happens next depends on how we see the world.  Is our eye evil because God is generous?  Or can we see God’s astonishing generosity and learn to emulate it, to copy it, to practice on earth as it is in heaven?

In our rite of baptism and in our affirmation of baptism, we have vowed “to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.”

In other words, we vowed to be like the owner of the vineyard, to see the world with God’s vision of generosity.  Because it’s the right thing to do.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu

[2] Paul Santmire, Preaching On Creation, https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/sunday-september-18-24-year-1-santmire/

Let It Be

Matthew 18:21-35

When I was turning eleven, the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world was a gas powered model plane, the kind with its own little engine and propeller and a control grip with strings that connected to the elevators so you could make it take off and land and climb and, if you were really good at it, make it do loop the loops.  So when, on my 11th birthday, I unwrapped a large box to discover a balsa wood scale model Piper Cub (some assembly required) with an 18 inch wingspan, I was over the moon!  

Over the course of the following weeks I stole time from my homework and from practicing my clarinet and piano to carefully put the plane together, paint it a deep cherry red, then meticulously place all the decals so it really did look exactly like a miniature version of the Piper Cubs I had seen at the Long Beach Airport.  This was hard work for me because at that time in my life meticulous was not my strong suit.  Finally, though, my beautiful little plane was ready to fly. 

To prepare for the big first flight, I read the accompanying instructions over and over again.  I practiced holding my hand firm and steady on the control grip, rocking my wrist in small, steady movements just like it said in the booklet.  I waxed the control lines with beeswax so they would move easily through the guides in the fuselage.  I checked and triple-checked that they were properly and tightly connected to the elevators.  And then I told my dad she was ready to go.

Here’s the thing.  It took two people to get one of those planes off the ground.  This was 1964.  Radio controlled planes existed but they were rare and expensive.  What I had was the kind where the “pilot” held a control grip 25 to 30 feet away from the plane.  Two strings went from the grip to the plane.  By rocking your wrist you could make the elevators on the tail of the plane go up or down, which made the plane go up or down.  All of that was a one-person operation.  But once you got the engine started, somebody had to hold onto the plane and keep it in one place while the pilot took control at the grip.  If you tried to start the engine then run back to the grip, the plane would be likely to zip off to its own destruction before you could get control.

Dad had already convinced me that it would be best for him to start the engine which was done by twirling the propeller.  His argument was simple: the blade of that propeller could do a lot more damage to my smaller, fingers than it could to his if said fingers didn’t get out of the way in time.  So fine.  Dad would start the engine on my plane’s maiden flight.  That seemed reasonable.  

What didn’t seem at all reasonable to me, though, was when he insisted that I hold the plane while he ran back to the control grip so he could take the plane up for its first flight.  He pointed out that he was an aerospace engineer who designed fighter jets and spacecraft for a living.  He reminded me that he had piloted a B-24 during the war.  Yeah, I said, but it’s my plane, my birthday present!  I’ve read all the instructions!  Didn’t matter.  I was overruled. 

Dad started the engine.  I held the plane in place.  Dad ran to take the control grip.  He gave me a nod, I released the plane, and it was airborne almost immediately, lunging upward at a steep angle.  Then, just as suddenly as it had leaped for the sky, it plunged straight back into the ground, burying its propeller in the dirt and breaking the wing.  Apparently the skills required to fly a B-24 didn’t translate well to flying a scale model of a Piper Cub. 

I was heartbroken.  And furious.  Dad mumbled that he would fix it then disappeared into the house without another word.  No apology.  

That plane sat on his workbench in the garage for a long time.  I started to fix it myself once but Dad stopped me saying angrily that he would fix it.  At some point it got moved to a shelf above the workbench.  It was still there when I went off to college.    

Forgiveness is hard.  It’s especially hard if the wound is deep or if the person who wronged you doesn’t acknowledge what they’ve done.

We have close friends whose daughter was murdered.  Her husband deliberately drove their car into a wall, killing them both.  The fact that he died, too, doesn’t lessen the pain for our friends.  The fact that their son-in-law was mentally ill doesn’t reduce their grief or make it any easier to forgive him.  And they know they need to forgive him.  They know that holding on to their anger and their desire for retribution only keeps them shackled to the pain and ugliness of what happened.  They know this in their heads.  But it is oh, so hard to let go of it in their hearts.

We should be careful when we talk about forgiveness.  When we quote Jesus telling Peter that he needs to forgive seventy times seven, we need to remember that behind the hyperbole, Jesus knows forgiveness is not easy.  It’s not our default mode.  We need to make sure we don’t wound people who are already hurting by making something so difficult sound trifling or easy.

Jesus tells Peter a story about two servants who are in debt.  It’s a good metaphor, because when we’re wronged or when we wrong someone else, it creates a kind of debt.  There is a new imbalance in the relationship.

Our natural desire is to balance the scales.   We want the wrong acknowledged.  At the minimum we want an apology.  Usually we want a price to be paid, and if that doesn’t happen, we dwell on it.  We hold on to the wrong done to us.  It gets magnified.  We pick at the wound inflicted on us.  It gets inflamed and festers.  Interest gets added to the debt. 

The problem with all this is that even if we get the vengeance or retribution we want, it doesn’t change what happened.  It doesn’t heal the wound.  It doesn’t repair the relationship.  What happened still happened.  The debt can’t really be repaid.  The scales can’t be balanced because they’re broken.  And you can very easily end up in an endless exchange of tit for tat and spend the rest of your days keeping score.

 “Not forgiving,” said Anne Lamott, “is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”[1]

Forgiving is hard.  But it’s the only way out.

Anne Lamott also wrote, “Forgiveness, means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare… forgiveness means you’re done.”[2] 

The Greek word that’s translated as forgive in the New Testament is aphiemi.  It means to release, to let go, to let it be.  Forgiveness is a decision to let the past be the past.  To quit dragging it into the present.  It is a decision to move forward, to release both yourself and the other party from whatever chains bind you to that episode of wrong.  

Lewis Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

When Jesus tells the story of the two indebted slaves in Matthew 18, he uses outrageous hyperbole.  The first slave owes the king ten thousand talents.  That’s a staggering amount of money, equivalent to the national debt of a small country.  As Peter and the disciples listen to Jesus telling this story, the only thing more shocking than the size of that debt is that the king simply forgives it.  But even more shocking than that is that the forgiven slave refuses to grant the same kind of grace to his fellow slave who owes him only a hundred denarii.  

The traditional interpretation of this parable goes something like this: we should always be mindful of how much God has forgiven us, so we should forgive each other.

Okay.  Sure.  But let’s go back to that staggering number.  The ten thousand talents.  Sixty million denarii.  What if, instead of thinking in terms of all the ways known and unknown that we’ve offended God, that number represented all the ways known and unknown that we’ve offended each other.  Especially the unknowns.  The forgotten promises.  The stinging remarks.  The things left undone.  The unkind things said behind the back in the company of others.  The slow death of relationships by a thousand paper cuts. And then one day there’s a come to Jesus moment and we have a choice.  Do we forgive?  Do we let the past be the past?  

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you forget.  Forgive and forget is not a thing.  Human beings are not at all good at forgetting their injuries.

So forgive and remember, but don’t let that memory bind you to that injury.

Forgiving doesn’t mean you trust the person who wronged you.  But it may mean you give them an opportunity to earn your trust again.  Maybe.  Forgiveness means you release them from that old injury.  It doesn’t mean they automatically get a chance to injure you again.

Forgiving doesn’t mean you make yourself available for or vulnerable to more wounding or abuse.  

Forgiveness is hard.  It may take planning.  It may take time.

Forgiveness also takes understanding.

It took me a very long time to forgive my dad for wrecking my Piper Cub, especially since he never apologized for it.

It took me a long time to understand how he must have felt about crashing my plane.  Sure, it broke my heart and infuriated me all in about fifteen seconds.  But Dad was a pilot!  He was an aerospace engineer, a designer of supersonic aircraft and flight systems!  And here, in a moment of patriarchal arrogance he had destroyed his son’s toy plane!   And along with it more than a little of his own self-esteem.  

It took me a long time to appreciate that he had wounded himself at least as much as he had hurt me.  It took me decades to realize that the cloudy look I saw on his face as he stomped back to the house, the look I had thought was anger, was actually shame.  

My dad, was so capable of so many things, but putting his emotions into words, especially emotions that troubled him, was not one of them.  No wonder he never wanted to talk about that plane ever again.  No wonder it just sat there for years, untouched, on the workbench, a mute reminder of the day he failed to be both the father and the pilot he wanted to be.

The parable of the two indebted slaves ends this way:  the king is furious that the slave whose enormous debt he has forgiven has shown no such mercy to his fellow slave who owes him only a pittance, so he hands the greedy slave over to be tortured until he can pay his entire debt.  Jesus then says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So, forgive each other or off you go to eternal debtors prison?  Is that the message?

Well, maybe it is.  Because if you’re not forgiving, you’re shackling yourself to old wounds and grievances.  You’re locking yourself in a past where the script is engraved in stone and the players always move through the same blocking and say the same lines.  The same scenes repeat endlessly just on different stages. 

Better to let it go.  Let the past be the past.  Let it be.

Move on.

Forgiveness is a decision to love.

“You can’t forgive without loving,” said Maya Angelou. “And I don’t mean sentimentality. I don’t mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, ‘I forgive. I’m finished with it.’

I eventually forgave my dad for crashing my plane.  I’m finished with it.

I wish I had told him while he was still alive.


[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

[2]Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Time to Wake Up

Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

At the end of August in 2018 in the small town of Actlán, Mexico, a message began pinging from phone to phone on WhatsApp:  “Please everyone be alert because a plague of child kidnappers has entered the country. It appears that these criminals are involved in organ trafficking. In the past few days, children aged four, eight and 14 have disappeared and some of these kids have been found dead with signs that their organs were removed. Their abdomens had been cut open and were empty.”  

No one knew exactly where this grisly story came from or if it was even true.  

On the 29th of August, as this horrid rumor about child abduction was sweeping through the area, Ricardo Flores and his uncle, Alberto, came in to town to buy supplies for the cinderblock water well they were building on Alberto’s ranch in the countryside.  Since Ricardo and Alberto did not live in town, the local rumor monger did not recognize them and began spreading the word that they were the feared child abductors.  Francisco Martinez began livestreaming into his phone saying, “People of Actlán de Osorio, Puebla, please come give your support, give your support. Believe me, the kidnappers are now here.”

Ricardo and Alberto quickly found themselves surrounded by a mob. The police arrested them for disturbing the peace, but since they had no real reason to hold the two men, they let them go.  Sadly, the moment Alberto and Roberto walked out of the police station they were seized by the angry mob who beat them, doused them with gasoline and burned them to death.

It turned out, when it was all over, that the rumor about child abduction was fake news.[1]  

Terry Pratchett wrote, “A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.”[2]

Rumors can be fiercely destructive.  Even deadly.  Rumors can even be weaponized.

Because rumors and misinformation can be so destructive, in 1942, as World War II was utterly transforming life in the US, psychologists Gordon Allport and Robert Knapp set up the first Rumor Clinic at Harvard University.  Their goal was to stop pernicious rumors that could undermine the war effort or upset public morale, and, in the process to try to understand why rumors are so attractive to us.

Knapp noted that rumors arise to express the public’s feelings in a time of crisis or instability.  Rumors supply the illusion of information when real information is unavailable or unsatisfying.  They can give a sense of having some measure of control when things seem out of control.  

Knapp identified three kinds of rumors and the psychological functions they serve.  The wedge driver rumor expresses hostility in a time of frustration and allows us to find a scapegoat.  The current rumor about the Corona virus originating in a Chinese lab is an example.  Pipe dream rumors express our hopes and wishes.  The debunked rumor about hydroxychloroquine as a cure for Covid is an example.  Bogie rumors express our fears.  For instance the rumor back in April that hospitals were not going to treat anyone over 60 was a bogie rumor.

When we’re living in highly uncertain circumstances where even day-to-day decisions can have unforeseen outcomes, rumors will be rampant.  They provide an outlet for our collective emotional life.  But they can have dire consequences.

One of the most common negative consequences of rumors is that they can damage relationships.  Let’s say Gomer tells Wanda that he heard that eating bleu cheese can keep you from getting the flu.  Two weeks later Wanda is in bed with the flu, feeling miserable, despite eating bleu cheese every day since she first heard about it from Gomer.  Now she’s going to be skeptical about anything Gomer tells her.

Or let’s say Wanda doesn’t buy the idea of the bleu cheese cure for a minute.  Now she’s going to wonder if Gomer’s elevator goes all the way to the top floor since he passed along this crazy idea.

The easy way to avoid the mistrust and skepticism that inevitably arises from this kind of thing is simple: don’t pass along anything unless you are absolutely certain that it’s true.

There’s a simple rule that has been attributed to Socrates or sometimes to the Buddha: “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates.  Is it true?  Is it kind?  Is it necessary?”  For those of us who are followers of Jesus, who are trying to live in and maintain the beloved community, I would add one more gate:  Is it loving?

We’re living in a very conflicted time.  Information and misinformation is flying around us at lightspeed—information and misinformation about the pandemic, about science, about political candidates, about political parties, about nations, about issues, about factions.  A lot of that information and misinformation is sent out with an agenda.  And some of those agendas are destructive.  

If ever there was a time when we needed to double and triple check the truth, the agenda, and the sources of the information that comes to us, this is it.

I think we know that not everything we hear is true.  But we’re not always diligent about taking time to verify sources and facts before we pass things along.

As St. Paul says in today’s epistle reading from Romans, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”  There’s a lot at stake—in our country, in our communities, in our church, in our personal lives, in our relationships.  We need to be wide awake and thoughtful about what we hear and what we share.

But as St. Paul also says in that same passage, the one thing we owe each other above everything else is to love each other.  All the commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Loving each other with agape love means that we tell each other the truth.  No rumors.  No fake news.  No gossip.  It means we check our sources.  If necessary, it means we check our sources’ sources.  

As Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:14-16)

But what do you do if something does happen to damage your relationship with someone else in the community, if some rumor or misinformation or half-truth or something worse insinuates itself between you?

Fortunately, in Matthew 18 we have a formula in the words of Jesus, himself, for dealing with exactly that situation.

The first step in Jesus’ formula for reconciliation is to go to the person who you feel has wronged you one-on-one, alone, and talk about it.  Speak your truth in love.  If that person listens to you, all well and good.  Your relationship can begin healing.  I should note here that the Greek word translated as “listens,” ἀκούω (akouō) implies not just listening but understanding.  So the hope is that you will come to an understanding.

Unfortunately, instead doing that, our typical way of dealing with such things often is to triangulate, to find someone else to hear our grievance.  As Brian Stoffregen describes it, 

“When we have been wronged, we often don’t confront the person. Instead, we create triangles. We go and tell two or three or more of our friends, ‘Do you know what so-and-so did to me?’ Jesus did not say: ‘Go tell everybody what that stupid jerk did to you.’ Jesus told us: ‘Go and talk to that stupid jerk about the hurtful actions s/he has done,’ although Jesus didn’t quite use those words. We are to go and talk to the person, not to go around telling everybody else. We are to be so concerned about the breach in the relationship, that we are willing to do whatever is possible to restore it.”[3]

So that’s the first step.  Go talk to the person.  If that doesn’t work, try step two.  Bring two or three others into the conversation.  Listen to what they have to say about it.  And here’s a caveat:  Be prepared to be told that you’re in the wrong.  And if that happens, be prepared to be gracious about it.

Remember, this is the ideal way of dealing with disagreement or injury within the beloved community as Jesus described it.  This part with two or three witnesses is also completely consistent with dispute resolution as it described in Deuteronomy.

If you’ve tried steps one and two, the additional witnesses think you’re in the right, and the other person still won’t listen or try to understand, then Jesus says to take it to the whole congregation.

This may seem a little radical to us, but it really is wise in two very important ways.  First, it brings everything out in the open and puts a dead stop to any scuttlebutt that might be circulating.  It stops the rumor mill dead in its tracks.  Most importantly, though, it acknowledges that relationships are important in the beloved community, that, in fact, the community exists because of relationships.  One fractured relationship can collapse the community as surely as one fractured beam can bring down the roof. 

So you’ve tried to resolve your differences by talking one on one.  You’ve tried with one or two others sitting in.  You’ve tried with the whole church.  But you can’t seem to reach that other person.  Now what?  

“If the offender refuses to listen even to the church,” says Jesus, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  

That sounds so harsh.  But is it?  On the one hand, it seems clear that at this point the offender is separated from the rest of the church.  An outsider.  On the other hand, it’s important to note that Gentiles and tax collectors were a special focus for outreach in Matthew’s gospel.  

So yes, that person is now on the outs for a while.  But you—and the you here is 2nd person singular—you have a new special focus for outreach.  You have a mission to find a way to bring that person back into the fold.  You don’t get to wipe your hands and say good riddance.

In a world and a time where so much is falling apart, now more than ever the beloved community needs to do everything we can to hold it together.

We need to remember that we owe each other love.  Love that is patient and kind.  Love that is not arrogant or boastful or rude.  Love that is not irritable or resentful or self-seeking.  Love that rejoices in truth.  And speaks truth.

We need to remember that, as much as we might like to have everything spelled out, as far as God is concerned, the entire law is spelled out in “love your neighbor as yourself.”  

We need to remember to speak the truth in love.  To pass our words through the three gates—is it true, is it kind, is it necessary—before we run them out of our mouths our through our typing fingers.  

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;  the night is far gone, the day is near.  In Jesus’ name.


[1] BBC News, 12 Nov 2018, Marco Martinez

[2] The Truth, Terry Pratchett

[3] Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes, Matthew 18:15-20

It Is To Laugh

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” – Psalms 126.2

The heat has been oppressive.  The news mostly so.  The pandemic continues and working from the spare bedroom is losing some of its charm.  Since Meri and I both read a good deal for our work, we watch TV to unwind, but since we have a penchant for whodunnits, especially the British variety, our TV viewing isn’t always relaxing.  So we decided that, for the sake of our mental health, we need to be intentional about laughing.  To that end we have begun deliberately mixing comedies into the mysteries and jokes into the day.  For the sake of our souls.  I firmly believe that Jesus loved a good joke and even told a few, though they may have lost something in the translation.  Did you hear the one about the camel trying to squeeze through the eye of the needle?  

A boy asked his dad, “Where did people come from?”  His dad replied, “Well, Adam and Eve had babies, then they grew up and had babies, and so on.”  The boy then asked his mom, “Where did people come from?”  She replied, well, a very long time ago apes and humans broke off from a common ape-like ancestor. Apes went one way, people went the other.”  The boy ran back to his father and said, “You lied!  Mom said humans come from apes!”  The dad calmly replied, “She was talking about her side of the family.”

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” 
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

My friend thinks he’s so smart.  He said that an onion is the only food that can make you cry.  So I hit him with a coconut.

“I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” 
― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, the Whale

Two cowboys own a ranch.  One night someone steals their only bull.  They need to buy another bull but they only have $500.  One cowboy says to his buddy, you stay here and mind the cows and I’ll go to the market to see if I can find another bull for under $500.  Well, he finds one for $499.  He goes to the telegraph office to send a telegram to his pal so he’ll bring the trailer to take the bull back to the ranch, but discovers that telegrams cost $1 per word and he only has the one dollar left.  After a lot of thought he tells the telegraph operator to send the word “comfortable.”  “How’s that gonna tell him to bring the trailer?” asks the operator.  “It’ll work,” says the cowboy.  “My partner reads real slow.  He’ll have to sound it out.  Come for ta bull.”

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning do to do afterward.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

In a Catholic school cafeteria, a nun places a note in front of a pile of apples, “Only take one. God is watching.” Further down the line is a pile of cookies. A little boy makes his own note, “Take all you want. God is watching the apples.”

“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” ― William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

A husband and wife were driving through Louisiana. As they approached Natchitoches, they started arguing about the pronunciation of the town. They argued back and forth, then they stopped for lunch. At the counter, the husband asked the waitress, “Before we order, could you please settle an argument for us? Would you please pronounce the name of the place where we are very slowly?” She leaned over the counter and said, “Burrr-gerrr Kiiing.”

“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.” ― Maya Angelou

A boy with a monkey on his shoulder was walking down the road when he passed a policeman who said, “Now, now young lad, I think you had better take that monkey to the zoo.” The next day, the boy was walking down the road with the monkey on his shoulder again, when he passed the same policeman. The policeman said, “Hey there, I thought I told you to take that money to the zoo!” The boy answered, “I did! Today I’m taking him to the movies.”

“I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.” ― Audrey Hepburn

Robert Frost said that if we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.  This year, 2020, I think that may be true.  So hold on to your humor, beloved kindred in Christ.  If that goes, you know we’re in trouble.

Pro Gloria Dei,

Pastor Steve

“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.” ― W. H. Auden

Between a Rock and the Devil

Matthew 16:21-28

Once upon a time there was a jester.  His job, of course, was to amuse the king, to tell him jokes and funny stories or even to find some comedy in affairs of state within reason.  Unfortunately, this particular jester loved puns.  Simply couldn’t resist them. “What did the grape say when it got crushed? Nothing, it just let out a little wine.”  “You should see my collection of candy canes.  They’re all in mint condition.”  “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”  That sort of thing. 

The king, for his part, hated puns.  Hated them.  And one day when there had been one pun too many he told the jester, “If I hear even one more pun out of you you’re a dead man.  I’m serious.  I’ll have you hanged.  Do you understand me?”  The jester could see that the king was serious,  so he simply said, “Yes, majesty. No more puns.  I promise on my life.”  

Just then the smell of smoke came wafting into the throne room through the open widow.  The jester looked out into the town and cried, “Oh no!  The bakery is on fire!”  Then without thinking added, “The poor baker.  His business is toast.”

The next morning as the jester stood on the gallows and the hangman slipped the rope over his head, a messenger came galloping up frantically.  “The king has decided to be merciful,” he called out to the jester.  “If you will swear never to utter another pun for as long as you live, he will spare your life.”

The jester looked out at the crowd who had come to witness his hanging, then with a wry little smile said, “Well, no noose is good noose.”  And that was the end of him.

I love that story because even with all its silliness it illustrates an important point about human nature:  we find it hard to change.  Even when the stakes are high, life-and-death high, we don’t like to change.  The jester in the story couldn’t bring himself to make a simple change even though his life was on the line.

We don’t like to change the way we do things.  And we are especially resistant to changing the way we think.  The way we think about ourselves.  The way we think about others.  The way we think about the world.  The way we think about God.

In this week’s gospel lesson, Simon Peter is having trouble changing his understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah.  Jesus had asked him, “Who do you say that I am?”  In a flash of insight, Simon Peter had responded, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!”  That’s when Jesus in a play on words, a kind of pun, affirms that Simon is Petrus, a Rock, and that he will build his church on the petra, the bedrock of Peter’s confession.  

For a glowing moment, Peter is the star.  He had the right answer.  He’s A Rock.  But then things turn sideways for him. 

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

This absolutely does not fit with Peter’s idea of Messiah.  Messiah may go to Jerusalem, but it won’t be to suffer and die.  Messiah, in Peter’s understanding, in is a conqueror.  Messiah will ride in at the head of an army, kick out the Romans, and restore the Kingdom of Israel.  Messiah will lead a revolution!  That’s how Peter understands it.  So he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

I can sympathize with Peter.  I think we all can, at least to some extent.  He had this picture in his head of how he thought things should be and how he thought they should go.  But it wasn’t what Jesus had planned, what God had planned. 

Peter needed to change.  He needed to change his understanding of Messiah.  He needed to change his understanding of Jesus.  He needed to change his understanding of how God was working.  He needed to change his understanding of how the world works.  He needed to change his understanding of himself and his role in what was happening. 

We don’t like to change.  It’s not just that we don’t like it, we have all kinds of ways of resisting it, especially when it comes to changing our ideas, our understanding of things, the way we think.

We have all kinds of ways of resisting information we don’t want to hear.  Often we immerse ourselves in echo chambers so we only receive information that is consistent with our way of thinking.  We only watch certain news channels, only read certain papers and periodicals.  Surround ourselves with social media friends who think like us and screen out those who don’t.  Some simply close their minds and refuse to take in any new or different information. 

And then there’s what writer Julian Sanchez calls Epistemic Closure.  He describes it this way:

“An ‘echo chamber’ just means you never hear any contrary information. The idea of ‘epistemic closure’ was that you WOULD hear new and contrary information, but you have mechanisms in your belief system that reject anything that might force you to update your beliefs.[1]

Peter needed to update his beliefs.  But he resisted.  He pushed back.  “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

It must have cut Peter to the heart when Jesus turned to him and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.  You’re setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  

 How often do we try to get Jesus to follow our plans instead of committing ourselves to him and his plans? 

I wonder sometimes if we—and by we I mean a large segment of white American Christianity—I wonder if we haven’t created an epistemic closure version of Christianity.  We call ourselves Christian because we believe certain things about Jesus—that he’s the son of God, that he died for our sins, that by his cross and resurrection he saves us.  And if someone challenges our claim to the Christian label because of the way we treat poor people or hungry people or immigrants, or people of color, or people of differing sexuality, or because of our infatuation with firearms, our because of our less than generous politics, or simply because we’re not really doing much to change the world into something that looks more like the kin-dom of heaven, we  crank up the defense mechanisms of our epistemic closure to shield us from any pointed new information or hard questions.  We point to the creed or our church attendance or our giving to certain things.  We point to particular passages in our Bibles.  We point to our baptism.  We point to our claim that we’re saved.

 We forget sometimes what Jesus said in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Jesus had to shock Peter into the fact that he needed a makeover of the mind, heart and spirit.  He had to call him Satan.  The cosmic opponent.  Lord, that must have hurt.  Going from Rock to Devil in nothing flat.  Jesus had to shock Peter to get him to simply stop believing certain things about him in his head and to get him, instead, to start following him with all his heart.

What would he have to say to you to get through your defenses?  What would he have to say to me?  What would he have to say to turn us from mere believers into followers who carry a cross?

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

There is so much in life that fragments us.  Not just things that fragment our unity with each other, but things that fragment our individual souls.  We try to wear layers of identities that don’t always fit well with each other.  The patterns clash.  They chip and chafe our psyches if we ever give half a thought to them.  It’s hard to love when you’re trying to hold the pieces of your soul together.  Better to let your self—your selves—fall away into the love of Christ.

That’s exactly what Jesus is asking us to do.  Deny ourselves—let go of our false selves—put down the beliefs and personas that don’t really fit well with the identity of follower of Christ.  And quit trying to make Jesus wear a costume that fits our ideas of who we might prefer him to be.  

Lay it all down.  Pick up a cross.  And follow.  That’s where we will find our lives, our souls, and be saved.  That’s where we will be made whole.  In Christ’s healing work.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] Julian Sanchez@Normative

Questions in the Key of Rock

Matthew 16:13-20

What was it like for them I wonder?  What was it like for the disciples traveling from place to place with Jesus?  Did Simon the Zealot argue with Matthew the tax collector every step of the way?  Who assigned the chores when they camped somewhere?  Was Jesus responsible for all that or did he delegate that job to someone else?  How many of them were there?  Was it  just Jesus and the 12 when they were on the road or were there more?  At one point Jesus sends out 70 on a mission; were they all part of the touring company or did that larger group stay behind at Capernaum?  Luke’s gospel mentions a number of women; did they travel with Jesus, too?   

Have you ever been to a place that both frightened and fascinated you?  A place that filled you with both awe and maybe a little bit of dread?

About ten years ago I was backpacking in the Sierras above Sequoia when we came around the bend of the trail onto a broad, open space of bald granite like a great, slightly sloping observation platform.  The view was nothing short of stunning.  In front of us the cliff dropped away into a yawning canyon that opened into an expansive valley.  Off to the north we could see all the way to Half Dome in Yosemite.  It felt like we were standing quite literally on the edge of the world.

As I said, the view was stunning.  And part of me wanted to stay there as long as possible just to soak it all in and marvel at the beauty of it all.  But another part of me was mindful of the sloping granite beneath my feet, some of it loose and chipped and slippery beneath my boots.  I was a good safe distance from the edge where the granite curved over then plunged into the emptiness, but I couldn’t help noticing that there was nothing that one might be able to grab onto if one happened to find oneself sliding toward trouble,  because, you know, life is uncertain.  Teenagers horse around.  People stumble.  And even geology hiccups from time to time.  A slight fear of heights makes you think about these things. 

So I was fascinated, but also a bit uneasy.

I imagine that’s how the disciples felt when they came to Caesarea Philippi.  

Fascinated but uneasy.

They’re in foreign territory, a little more than twenty-five miles from the Galilee.  They’ve walked there, of course.  And now here they are, good Jews, every one of them, standing on the hill overlooking the city, and the most dominant buildings they see are the temple to the god Pan and the temple to the emperor.  The divine Caesar.  

The temple to Pan was built around the entrance to a natural cave called Pan’s grotto.  It was also called the Gate to Hades.  Pan was regarded as a fertility god.  The pagans believed that the fertility gods slept through the winter in Hades then reemerged in the spring to bring new life to the world.  They believed that this grotto was Pan’s passageway to and from Hades, the realm of the dead.  Inside the grotto there was also a gushing spring—it was gushing in ancient times but now it’s barely a trickle—that was one of the sources for the Jordan river. 

What did the disciples think as they were looking at this assortment of temples to these other gods, these gods who were not their God, even a temple to the emperor—and the administrative buildings of the tetrarchy?   What did the disciples feel as they stood in this place confronted by the structures of religion and politics, but not their religion or their politics?

Did the ground feel, maybe, a little slippery under their feet?   Did they wonder if their nervousness might be the influence of Pan?  After all fear is Pan’s weapon; the word panic comes from Pan’s name.

And it’s here, confronted by strange powers—strange religion and strange government—that Jesus asks his first important question:  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Why would he ask that here?  Why now?  Why not back in Galilee where he’s been doing most of his teaching and working wonders?  Why now in this foreign place?  Is he trying to distract them from feeling so out of place?  Is he showing them what they’ll be up against later when they take the message of the kin-dom out into the wider world?  

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples make it clear that people are impressed with Jesus.  They identify him with the pillars of righteousness and prophetic justice in their tradition:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the other prophets.  They understand that Jesus is someone who is somehow extraordinary.  But how, exactly?

Who do people say that Jesus is?  It’s still an important question for us.  

If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, a representative of Jesus, you need to know how the rest of the world sees and understands Jesus, how they describe him, because that’s where conversation begins.  Who do they say he is?  You need to know that before you can make a good case for who you say he is.  

I imagine that Jesus thought a moment about their answers to his first question before he asked the next question: “But who do you say that I am?”

“You,” said Simon Peter, “are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  

The Christ.  The Messiah.  The Anointed One.  I can’t help but wonder how Simon Peter understood his own words.

In his Commentary on Matthew my professor, the late Robert H. Smith wrote: “As the reality of the Son overwhelms mind and senses, people try to get a handle on him by fitting him into some convenient slot like prophet.  However, the Christ or Messiah is not a prophet but the goal of prophecy, not another promiser but the inaugurator of the promised time.  As Son of the living God his is the bearer of the presence of God and acts in the place of God, not as a renewer of old traditions, but as agent of God’s fresh creative work, bringer of new heavens and a new earth.”[1]

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Do you call him the Christ, the Messiah?  Do you understand him to be not merely a prophet but the goal of prophecy?  The one who was prophesied? 

Is he for you the Son of the living God?  Does he bear the presence of God in your life?  Do you see him not as the renewer of old traditions, but as the agent of God’s fresh creative work, the bringer of new heavens and a new earth?

Or has he become for you the centerpiece of old traditions?  Do the titles of Christ and Son of God simply echo memorized lines from the creeds that get repeated without much thought? 

Jesus is asking us the same question he asked Peter, James, John and the others as they stood overlooking the monuments built to idols and government:  “Who do you say that I am?”

We hear that question as we stare out into a world devoted to those same distractions and others even more powerful:  “Who do you say that I am?”

And it’s oh, so tempting for us to leap straight to the answer we memorized, the answer we have heard all our lives, without really thinking about the question or what our answer means. 

If you, like Peter, confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then you are also acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of his church, the ekklesia established on the bedrock of that confession.  You are acknowledging that you have been called to participate in Christ’s fresh, creative work of making the kin-dom of heaven a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  You are acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of the beloved community and to live by the ethic of grace and generosity that guides that community. 

In 1989, President George Bush was entering St. John’s Episcopal Church to attend Sunday worship when he was stopped by a homeless man, William Wallace Brown, Jr. who simply asked the president to pray for him.  President Bush  replied, “No. Come inside with us and pray for yourself.”  From that day on William Wallace Brown, Jr. attended church faithfully. He would sit in the pews in his street-dirty clothes alongside the rich and powerful and always put a dollar in the offering plate even when that dollar was all he had.

William Wallace Brown had been invited to come in to the beloved community, to encounter Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  And to him that meant everything.

This community, this church built on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, is, in Robert Smith’s words, “well founded, not by human authority or ingenuity only, but by the exalted Jesus, Son of the living God.  This Jesus is not a figure of the past alone.  He is still present in the midst of the community, not as unseen observer only but with his authority and teaching.”[2]  

I would add that Jesus is still present with his love and compassion, and that these keys of the kin-dom will unlock the power in us to change the world.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Robert H. Smith, The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, pp.198-199; Augsburg Publishing House, 1989

[2] Ibid, 202-203

The Problem With Creeds

Thoughts Along the Way

Here we are almost at the end of the season of Epiphany and I can’t help but think of the epiphanies I’ve experienced.  I’ve had my share of “aha!” moments, but most of my epiphanies roll out slowly with the cover peeled back a bit at a time until I realize that I’m seeing or understanding things differently than before. What are your epiphanies like? How do they happen?  What new light of understanding illuminates your world so that you see something differently than you did a month ago, a year ago, a decade ago, a generation ago?  

God won’t be boxed in.

God is almost entirely unpredictable.  I say almost entirely because the one thing we can predict is that regardless of circumstances, God loves us.  God will love us in, with, under and through all things, but trying to predict what that love will look like, what shape it will take, how it will…

View original post 745 more words

The Problem With Creeds

Here we are almost at the end of the season of Epiphany and I can’t help but think of the epiphanies I’ve experienced.  I’ve had my share of “aha!” moments, but most of my epiphanies roll out slowly with the cover peeled back a bit at a time until I realize that I’m seeing or understanding things differently than before. What are your epiphanies like? How do they happen?  What new light of understanding illuminates your world so that you see something differently than you did a month ago, a year ago, a decade ago, a generation ago?  

God won’t be boxed in.

God is almost entirely unpredictable.  I say almost entirely because the one thing we can predict is that regardless of circumstances, God loves us.  God will love us in, with, under and through all things, but trying to predict what that love will look like, what shape it will take, how it will work?  That’s crazy-making.  God won’t be boxed in.  

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called When Jesus Became God by Richard Rubenstein, which is about the fascinating theological and political battle surrounding the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE in which the first prototype of the Nicene Creed was formulated.  The Emperor Constantine called the Council to settle a raging theological dispute that pivoted around several theological questions:  Was Jesus divine?  What did that mean, exactly?  What was Jesus’ relationship to the Father?  And the Spirit?  Was Jesus subordinate to the Father?  Was Jesus co-eternal with the Father or was he created? 

These questions had simmered in the background since the very beginning of Christianity but most Christians were more or less content to live with differing opinions on these matters.  But when Emperor Constantine became a Christian, stopped the persecutions, and made the religion legal, suddenly it seemed important to find official answers and establish doctrine.   

The Council of Nicaea was supposed to settle these matters once and for all, but, even though the Trinitarians “won” the debate and formulated most of the language of the Creed, the Arians continued to push for their interpretation of the faith for more than a century and often were in the majority.  They believed that Jesus was created by the Father and was not co-eternal, that he had a kindof divinity as the son of God, but was not equal to the Father, was instead subordinate to the Father. And so on.  So while the Creed gave language to the first official doctrine of the Church, in practice it really failed to unify the Church in any meaningful way.

Creeds can be useful.  Up to a point.  They are useful to help clarify what we think.  They draw lines that determine the boundaries of what we understand about God and our relationship with God, and help us identify ideas that don’t seem consistent with what we’ve known and experienced of God.  They tell us who’s in and who’s out—who agrees with the official line and who does not. But that’s also part of their limitation.  God is bigger, deeper, wider and more innovative than any boundaries we draw.  God is not a cat.  God does not want to curl up inside our box.  

Another problem with creeds is that they emphasize some aspects of our faith over others, sometimes even ignoring things that are vitally important.  In both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, for instance, more and more Christian thinkers are calling attention to what’s being called The Great Comma.

“But have you ever noticed the huge leap the creed makes between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate”? A single comma connects the two statements, and falling into that yawning gap, as if it were a mere detail, is everything Jesus said and did between his birth and his death! Called the “Great Comma,” the gap certainly invites some serious questions. Did all the things Jesus said and did in those years not count for much? Were they nothing to “believe” in? Was it only his birth and death that mattered? Does the gap in some way explain Christianity’s often dismal record of imitating Jesus’ life and teaching?” –Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

Perhaps the greatest problem with our creeds, though, is that they focus on what we think about God and not what we’re doing to live out our relationship with God.  There is nothing in their language about service. There’s nothing about love. There is nothing about hope.  There is nothing in them about helping “the least of these brothers and sisters”, or life together in a family of faith.  Forgiveness of sins is mentioned but there is no actual call to forgive each other as we have been forgiven.  In fact, there is no call to action at all. The creeds are, instead, a historical snapshot of what the men who formulated them (and they were all men) understood to be the most important philosophical premises of their faith. And to be clear, these were the statements formulated by those who won the battles—battles that were sometimes physical and not just philosophical.  One can’t help but wonder how Jesus felt about that…or feels now, for that matter.

Yes, we do believe.  But more importantly, we are called to follow Christ and to live as the Body of Christ.  I wonder… what would a creed look like that focused on that?  What language would move our statement of faith out of our heads and into our hearts and hands and feet?

You’ve Got To Be Taught

Matthew  15:10-28

In 1953, the year I was born, during the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, a Broadway musical touring in Atlanta got the people of Georgia so upset that some state legislators introduced a bill to outlaw any entertainment having, in their words, “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.”  What really got them going was one particular song in the musical.  State Representative David C. Jones said that a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.  Oscar Hammerstein replied wryly that he was surprised by the idea that “anything kind and humane must necessarily originate from Moscow.” 

The musical that caused such a fuss was Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and the song that ignited such political and social anger was You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught. 

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

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

When I was about 10 or so my aunt and uncle adopted a mixed race baby boy.  This was a highly unusual thing for a white couple to do in the early 1960s, especially in the kind of rural areas where my uncle and aunt served as Pastor and Church Organist.  

That baby, Jon, was a truly beautiful child with café-au-lait skin, curly brown hair tinged with blond, and the most unusual blue-green eyes.  I remember, though, that at the big family summer gatherings some of my mom’s and my aunt’s cousins would act a little differently around him—not exactly hostile, but a little stiff and stand-offish.  I wondered if it might be because he was adopted, but my little sister was adopted, too, and nobody treated her like that.  Nobody gave her sidelong glances and muttered little comments when they thought my mom and dad weren’t looking or close enough to hear.  

Then one day one of my second cousins, one of the kids my age, cleared up mystery.  A bunch of us were playing by the barn and Jon wasn’t with us.  I don’t remember exactly why.  What I do remember is that my second cousin said some pretty ugly things about Jon and “his” kind of people.  I remember him using the “N” word to talk about Jon.  Our cousin.

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

“Listen and understand,” said Jesus.  “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.  What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions… These are what defile a person.”

And when those things come out of someone’s mouth, they tend to go right into someone’s ears.  Like, say, a child’s.

What is it about the human mind that makes it so easy to absorb negative, awful, malicious, even untrue things, and so hard to purge those things when you learn better?  Why is it so easy to pick up biases and prejudices and bigotries and so hard to unlearn them?

When my second cousin used that ugly, racist word to describe our other cousin it was there in his vocabulary with all the hideous ideas behind it because he had learned it somewhere.  It was a word he had heard his dad use while talking to other Kansas farmers.

Kurt Stroh, a K-4 teacher and librarian from Grand Rapids wrote in his blog a few years ago about something he observed on a trip to the movies:

“My wife and I decided to go to see The Greatest Showman. It was an afternoon showing and there were quite a few kids in the theater. In fact, there was a lady with her two kids, who looked to be 8-10 years old, sitting right next to us. As always, there were previews prior to the movie. In one of the previews, the teenage boy character was coming out to his parents. The family on the screen was having a loving, understanding conversation. The lady next to us loudly ordered her kids, ‘plug your ears…now!’ The kids looked confused, but did as they were told. Sadly, it didn’t end there. A minute or so later, when it looked as if the boy character might kiss another boy character, the lady actually reached over and covered her kids’ eyes. Ears plugged, eyes covered, she was bound and determined to make sure that her kids did not witness this preview…and quite honestly, make sure those around her knew exactly how she felt.

   As the feature movie started, I couldn’t help but notice that the eyes and ears of the children were not covered during violence. They were not covered during hatred. They were not covered during infidelity. In addition to being angry, my heart broke for these kids. They were being taught to be judgmental …carefully taught to hate.”

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

It’s so hard to unlearn the hate, especially when it doesn’t feel like hate, when you just grew up with it, when it’s part of your culture, the way of your people.  

It’s a constant struggle to silence the vocabulary, those ugly words that float up in your mind, those words you wish you had never heard in the first place, those unkind names for all those other people who are “those other people.”  

It’s a constant internal cleansing to flush out all those insidious bigoted ideas that infested your thinking before you were old enough and smart enough to prevent them.

It’s work. 

It’s work worth doing.  It’s work that makes you healthier and makes the world a healthier place.  But it’s still work.  You have to think about what you’re saying.  You have to think about what you’re thinking.  You have to think about how you’re thinking.

And sometimes, when you’re tired or distracted or both, you forget to do that thinking.  You forget to do the work.  And that’s when your culture, the unedited voices in your head and heart, the voices you grew up with, might suddenly pop up and do the talking for you.

I suspect that maybe something like that is what’s happening with Jesus when the Canaanite woman comes to him and begs him to heal her daughter.

He’s tired from travelling.  He’s in foreign territory.  She keeps shouting and won’t go away.  When he finally does respond to her, he’s abrupt and more than a little rude:

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

For a moment he’s not the Jesus we’re used to.  For a moment he’s not the Jesus who feeds multitudes, heals everyone within reach, chastises Pharisees for their rigid piety, and welcomes all comers.  

For a moment he’s just another Jewish man talking down to a Canaanite woman, one culture and gender speaking disdainfully to the other.  

“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”  He had forgotten his own words.

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

But she knows he’s better than this.  She knows she deserves better than this.

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

It takes work to change the heart.  Sometimes it even takes confrontation.   Sometimes someone has to hold a mirror up to you if you won’t hold it up to yourself.

Sometimes you need to be reminded of your own words. 

It takes work to flush out the bigotry we grow up with and replace it with a broader love and understanding.  It takes work to see the ways the world around us is trying to normalize the ugliness and division and keep us from making our own hearts more expansive.  We may not always get it right.  We may have lapses.  But it’s work worth doing.

After all, what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.  In Jesus’ name.

Fear, Faith, and Foolishness

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately [after feeding the multitude] Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.  23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,  24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.  25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.  27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 

28  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”  31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

How often has this happened to you?  You’re waiting in line to check out at the grocery store and you notice that the line just to your left only has one person in it!  So you push that cart like it’s NASCAR and you’re Bubba Wallace, and BOOM! before that lady who was just in front of you in the previous line has even noticed the opening, you’re offloading your Fig Newtons and frozen Chicken Piccata onto the conveyor belt.  You’re feeling pretty pleased with yourself  until you notice that the new line you’re in is… not… moving…  because the checker and the one customer ahead of you are apparently old friends who haven’t seen each other since the turn of the century, and they have decided that right here and right now at the checkout counter is the perfect place and time to catch up on the past two decades while your ice cream is getting squishy and you fidget behind them.  Oh, also the customer is writing a check…which the cashier has to stamp and initial and slide under the tray in the cash drawer as the customer enters all the details in the check register.  While… you… wait. Did I mention the ice cream?

And when it’s finally your turn with the cashier, as you glance up from entering your PIN number to pay for your seven items, you notice that the customer who was behind you in that first line you were in is already on her way out the door.

‘One moment of patience may ward off great disaster. One moment of impatience may ruin a whole life,’ says the oldChinese proverb.  

We are not a very patient people, by and large, and Covid-19 has been trying our patience mightily.  Here are a few tidbits from a survey conducted by Wakefield Research for Fifth/Third Bank that show just how impatient we are.  Bear in mind that all of this data comes from before the pandemic:

  • 96% of Americans will knowingly consume extremely hot food or drink that burns their mouth; 63% do so frequently.   
  • More than half of those surveyed hang up the phone after being on hold one minute or less.
  • 71% frequently exceed the speed limit to get to their destination faster.
  • Americans will binge-watch an average of seven TV episodes in a single sitting  –again, that was before the pandemic.  I wonder what it is now.
  • Nearly a third of respondents ages 18-24 wait less than one second before bypassing a slow walker.
  • 72% of us will push an elevator button that is already lit hoping it will come faster.  By the way, it doesn’t.

It’s not just Americans.  A survey by OnePoll of 2,000 people in the United Kingdom found that a large percentage became impatient after waiting…

  • 16 seconds for a webpage to load
  • 25 seconds for a traffic signal to change from red to green
  • 20 seconds for ink to dry on a greeting card
  • 22 seconds for a movie to start streaming
  • 18 seconds looking for a pen
  • 28 seconds for a kettle to boil
  • 30 seconds in a line; 
  • 13 minutes to pick up luggage after a flight
  • 90 minutes for a response to a work e mail

50% admitted they would probably move to another queue if the one they are in appears to be moving more slowly.  45 % confessed to losing their temper when having to wait an ‘excessive’ amount of time.  “Excessive” was not defined.

So what, you might be wondering, does all this have to do with Peter’s attempt to walk on water?  Hang on, I’m getting there.

Impatience and anxiety go hand-in-hand.  Anxiety can cause impatience and impatience can often cause or increase anxiety.  

Anxiety is about control.  

Control is about a lack of trust.

People deal with anxiety in different ways, but since anxiety is essentially a kind of elongated state of diffused fear, our responses to anxiety tend to be diffused or displaced versions of fight, flight or freeze. 

I think this is an important element in this story of Peter momentarily walking on water, and that too often we overlook it.

Most often when preachers come to this story they focus on Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid.”  There is a whole “no fear” theology that has sprung up around this and other “be not afraid” sayings in the Bible.  There are books and websites that will tell you that in various forms there are 365 “no fear” sayings in the Bible, one for each day of the year, and that this is one of the central messages from God to us.  I, myself, have preached that a time or two.

Well, that idea has its merits.  It’s easy to let our fears and anxieties get the better of us and stop us from doing what God has called us to do, or even just what we need to do to live a basic self-actualized life.  Fear can stop us from acting in faith…or acting at all, for that matter.

Some say that fear is the opposite of faith, and sometimes that’s absolutely true.  I would point out, though, that indifference can also be the opposite of faith.  I would also point out that there’s a difference between being fearless and being impulsive, reckless, or just plain stupid.

So, be not afraid.  But also, be not foolish.  Fear is not all bad.  Fear is the built-in mechanism God gave us for self-protection.  It’s our early warning system.  Fear is that built-in voice that tell us to keep our eyes open.  

So let’s run this scene from the top.  

Jesus sends the disciples off in the boat.  He sends the crowds home then goes up the mountain for some much-delayed time alone.  Meanwhile, the sun has set, it’s dark, and out on the lake, far from land, the wind and the waves are making things scary for the disciples out in the boat.  That’s when, in the wee small hours of the morning, they see Jesus walking toward them. On the sea.  Walking on the water, just to be clear.  Something pretty far out of the ordinary.  They think he’s a ghost and their fear meter jumps straight up to terrified.  But Jesus calls out, “Courage!  It’s me!  Don’t be afraid!”

Notice again:  they think he is a ghost.  Layered on top of their already high anxiety due to the dangerous situation they’re in, they now have a very specific fear.  Jesus speaks to them to address that specific fear.  He’s not telling them to adopt a lifestyle.  “Look!  It’s me, Jesus!  Don’t be afraid!”

But Peter goes off the rails.

Peter was anxious.  His anxiety created impatience.  His impatience created more anxiety, which in Peter usually results in something impetuous and rash which is why he says one of the dumbest things yet: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

I can just see Jesus rolling his eyes.  Oy.

Remember when Jesus was tempted by the devil?  How did the devil begin each challenge?  “If you really are the son of God…”  There’s an echo of that here in Peter’s strange challenge.  And do you remember how Jesus responded to the devil at the end?  “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  Why would Peter say this?  The wind is howling.  The seas are roiling.  It’s dark and spooky. They’re all exhausted.  It’s a pretty strange time for an ordeal of faith.  And what if it had been an evil water spirit and not Jesus walking toward them—they did believe in such things, after all?  Wouldn’t such a being take delight in commanding Peter to come and then watching him drown?

Remember what I said about responses to anxiety and responses to fear—fight, flight or freeze?  From what we know about Peter, it seems pretty clear that his go-to response to anxiety is fight.  He’s a physical guy.  In this moment he needs to do something physical to fight his fear—something external to fight the fear that’s internal—and all the better if it can look like faith while he’s doing it.  So, impulsive as ever, Peter asks Jesus to command him to come to him, to walk to him across the water.

And to Peter’s credit, between the adrenaline, and his love for and faith in Jesus, for a few brief steps he manages to walk on water.  But have you noticed that Jesus doesn’t calm the wind and waves for Peter during his self-imposed test of faith?    

But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’  When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

Why did you doubt?

This looks at first as if Jesus is suggesting to Peter that his doubts caused him to sink—maybe doubted himself, maybe doubted Jesus.  But suppose for a moment that Jesus is really asking Peter why he didn’t stay in the boat.  Why did you doubt that it was really me when I told you it was me?  Why did you need to put us both through that dangerous little test?  Why did you doubt that I was on the way to the boat to save everybody?

When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

Impatience breeds anxiety.

Anxiety is about control.  

Control is about a lack of trust.

All over the country we’ve seen churches defying state health restrictions by worshipping in their sanctuaries or in large closely gathered crowds in spite of the still-rising numbers of Covid-19 infections. They claim that it is an act of faith, that they won’t be ruled by their fears.  But is this a faith that rests in and trusts in Jesus who is always coming to us across the troubled waters of our lives or is it an anxiety-driven need to prove faith?

They have claimed that their faith will protect them from the virus.  Sadly, that has too often proven not to be true.

Too many of us in this individualistic culture of ours have been trying to walk on water when all we’ve ever needed to do is stay in the boat.

As we sail on in this windy and turbulent pandemic sea, we need to let our faith, our trust, rest in Jesus who is walking toward our boat.  We need to remind ourselves that he will get here and calm the storm faster if we don’t slow him down with our impatient tests of faith.

In Jesus’ name.

Image credit: Melani Pyke