Faith and Politics

Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees went out and plotted how they could trap Jesus in what he said. 16 And they sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God in truth, and show deference to no one, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 So tell us, what do you think? Is it proper to pay a tax to Caesar or not?” 18 But Jesus, perceiving their evil intent, said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” So they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” 21 They answered him, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Then give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, so they left him and went away.

Loaded questions.  Gotcha questions.  They’ve been a part of politics forever.  Remember when, as a candidate, Barack Obama was asked why he wasn’t wearing an American Flag pin in his lapel?  His response was that his patriotism ran deeper than a lapel pin.  That should have been the end of it, but, of course it wasn’t.   

Loaded questions are designed for entrapment and today’s gospel gives us one of the all-time great examples.  It’s a political question, designed to put Jesus on the spot.  The really fascinating thing about it is that two political factions that usually wanted nothing to do with each other came together to ask this question.  That’s how much they wanted Jesus out of the way.  That’s how much they wanted to discredit him.

“Is it proper to pay a tax to Caesar or not?” they ask.  The particular tax they’re asking about is the poll tax, a tax of one denarius per year levied on every adult man and woman in the empire.  This tax was relatively new when they asked Jesus this question.  It had been instituted by Tiberius not long before Jesus was born as part of his overall reform of Rome’s taxation system.  

The Herodians, who were big supporters of Rome and all it stood for, were all in favor of the tax as a way to help pay for what they saw as the many benefits of being part of the empire—decent roads, improved trade, aqueducts, general law and order, and so on.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, were not supporters of their Roman overlords and not at all happy about the tax that paid for these conquerors to dominate them and every aspect of their lives in their own homeland.  One of the things that they found particularly objectionable, though, was Roman money.  

Roman currency was not just a reminder that Rome had complete control of the economy, it was also propaganda.  The Roman denarius had on the obverse, the “heads” side, a portrait of the emperor, Tiberius, so every coin was a reminder of who was in charge.  On the reverse, the “tails” side, was a seated woman in the role of Pax, the goddess of peace, a reminder that Rome kept the peace.  

To devout Jews like the Pharisees, the portrait stamped on these coins was a kind of idolatry.  But worse than the portrait was the inscription on the coins: Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus.  The coin proclaimed not only that the emperor was the son of a god, but also the high priest of the empire’s religions.  All of the empire’s religions.  Including theirs.

When the Pharisees and the Herodians team up to ask Jesus their loaded question, they think they have him trapped.  If he says, “No, it’s not right to pay this tax,” he’ll make the Pharisees and a lot of others in the crowd happy, but he’ll be guilty of sedition in Rome’s eyes and the Herodians won’t waste a minute bringing it to Pilate’s attention.  If he says, “Yes, it’s perfectly proper,” then he’ll give the Pharisees ammunition and disappoint the crowd; they’ll no longer regard him as a prophet and he’ll lose these last precious opportunities to teach them about the kin-dom of God.

What he does instead of falling into their binary yes or no trap is brilliant.  He asks to see the coin that’s used to pay the tax, and when they produce one for him he asks, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”  “Caesar’s,” they reply.  I imagine this was a tense moment.  I can imagine him holding that coin in his hand, evaluating the metal portrait in his palm for a long moment before he hands it back to them and says, “Then give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

When they heard this, the text says, they were astonished, so  they left him and went away.

On the face of it, it sounds simple.  On the face of it, it sounds like we can divide life into two compartments: on one side of the line are the things that belong to God, spiritual things, and on the other side of the line are secular things.

But wait a minute.  What really belongs to Caesar?  Does his own likeness?   Don’t we read in Genesis that we were created in the likeness of God?  So in that sense, isn’t Caesar’s own likeness something that, in the end, belongs to God?  Does the silver the coin that bears his picture belong to Caesar?  He may be in possession of it or exercise some control over its distribution, but isn’t God the one who brought both the silver and the man depicted into being?  Long after Caesar has been gathered to his ancestors, the silver will pass to other hands and only God will know where it is.  When all is said and done, doesn’t everything belong to God?

When I was a kid, we always sang a brief refrain as the offering was brought forward: “We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.”  It was a reminder that we don’t really own anything, that everything we have in our hands belongs to God and we are entrusted with it for a time.  

Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesars.  What is that, exactly?  What are those things, if everything really belongs to God?

Well, there are some things we owe to Caesar.   One thing we owe to Caesar is taxes, not just because it’s the civil law, but because as people of faith and followers of Christ it’s ethical to pay our fair share to support the civil contract we live under and from which we benefit.  We’re bound by an agreement to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare.  That’s our civil contract with each other and God calls us to keep it in good faith.

Voting is another thing we owe Caesar.  It is one of our most important obligations in our  government of, by, and for the people.  Voting is supposed to be how we select those who will be stewards of our collective resources on our behalf.  It’s how we select people to make decisions on our behalf.  Our vote is the tool we wield to ensure that the burden of taxes is distributed more fairly.  Our vote is our shield to ensure that justice is maintained, that our laws are applied evenly and fairly, that no group is unfairly targeted by them or excluded from their protection. 

As people of faith and followers of Jesus, though, voting is also something we owe to God.  

As a follower of Jesus, when I prepare to cast my ballot, I have to ask myself bigger questions, deeper questions, than mere partisan questions.  I have to think beyond expediency.  I have to remind myself that political issues and economic issues are also theological issues.  My responses to political and economic issues reflect what I truly believe and impact the world more than my words.  

As a follower of Jesus I am beholden to a deeper loyalty than partisan loyalty.  As a follower of Jesus I am beholden to a deeper loyalty than patriotism.

So as a follower of Jesus, how do I render my vote unto Caesar without compromising what I owe to God?

In 2 Corinthians 5:20, St. Paul calls us Ambassadors for Christ’s reconciliation.  Doesn’t that include reconciliation of our racial divisions?  Doesn’t that mean we should be agents of establishing equity and bringing healing?  Is there a way for me to vote for that?  I there a candidate who is working for reconciliation?

In Genesis we read that we were created male and female in God’s image, equal before God in our creation.  Throughout the Bible we see repeated instances of women in leadership, but in our society we still see women denigrated all too often.  In Galatians St. Paul said There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  Isn’t misogyny a gospel issue for followers of Jesus?  Is there a way to vote that improves the status and protection of women?  Is there a candidate who has a better record in that area?

In both testaments of our scriptures we read that we are supposed to welcome strangers (Matt. 25) and that aliens in our land are supposed to be treated as citizens (Lev.19:33).  Is there a way to vote that moves more us in that direction?

The Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus a politically loaded question.  Instead of giving an answer that would satisfy either party, he gave them an answer that required them to go back and think not only about his response, but also about what had motivated them to ask their question in the first place.  Their question was political and so was his answer, but not in a way they were expecting.  He made them take responsibility for their own stance and their own answers to their own question.

That’s what Jesus asks from us as his followers: to think about what our stance means, to think about what our faith means, to think about how it affects our vote, and to think about how our vote affects the rest of the world.  Jesus asks us to take responsibility.

Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner asked an interesting question in Sojourners magazine: How Would Jesus Vote?  In answer to her question she came up with

“Four Guidelines for Voting While Christian.

  1. PURPOSE: Jesus would begin by understanding his purpose.  Jesus began his ministry announcing his purpose saying, “He has sent me to change your life, God’s kingdom is here.”  Being God’s agent means placing priority on God’s higher spiritual kingdom or commandments than on natural earthly laws or human desires.
  2. POWER: Jesus would use his power to act on behalf of the vulnerable.
  3. PEACEMAKER: Jesus would be a bridge-builder and peacemaker between opposing sides on issues.  Jesus blessed peacemakers, and called his followers to be salt in a decaying earth, and light in a dark and divided world. He defined disciples and followers, saying, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” He taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and others as oneself.
  4. PRAYER: Jesus would pray before he voted.

Jesus prayed about everything. Before every challenge, like feeding the five thousand (Matthew 14:13); bringing the dead back to life (John 11:41, 42); before crucifixion (Matthew 26:42); and even on the cross experiencing a brutal execution, (Luke 23:34), Jesus prayed. The moral and spiritual transformation of America and the election of high-character leaders in every sphere of influence will be produced by prayer. Christ-followers should pray for the wisdom of God in choosing leaders and policies that reflect God’s values. Most of all they should pray for leaders on opposing sides, that they will follow God’s word in all decisions.”

This is a time for all of us to be in deep thought and deep prayer about what comes next.  With God’s help and with people following sensible guidelines, this pandemic will end, and then it will be time to rebuild.  We’ll need to rebuild our economy.  We’ll need to rebuild a good deal of infrastructure.  We’ll need to rebuild social structures and connections.  We’ll need to rebuild much of Christ’s church.  And all these things may emerge in a shape don’t yet know or understand.  We’ll need wise, thoughtful, and responsible people in positions of leadership.  We’ll need wise, thoughtful, and responsible laws and policies.  We’ll need the leading of the Spirit and the Grace of Christ.

Now is the time for us to trust that God has a vision for that rebuilding.  Now is the time to ask God to guide us in the first step of that rebuilding.  Now is the time to pray.  Now is the time to vote.

In Jesus’ name.

Turn the World Upside Down

In Acts 17:6, Paul and Silas are brought before the city authorities of Thessalonica with this accusation: “These are the men who are turning the world upside down… They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.”

Turning the world upside down.  Getting into “good trouble.” Acting contrary to custom and law.  Claiming that they answer to a higher authority named Jesus.

For a very long time this was a portrait of the Church:  faithful people turning the world upside down, banding together in beloved community to worship and to take care of each other as a sign that God’s love was at work in them in the name of Jesus.  When the empire was cruel, they protested with prayer and patience and, often, by being its victims so that the empire’s cruelty would be on display.  When the empire showed no compassion, they provided the missing safety nets, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, binding up wounds, caring for the sick even in times of plague.  

In a world that lionized strength, they were led by the Spirit who had said through the Apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”(1 Cor. 12:9)  In a era driven by wealth, they bowed to the one who had said, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)  In a world where their faith and fellowship was declared illegal and their ideas branded as subversive, they quietly grew in numbers and strength.

And then something happened.  After three centuries of being illegal, three centuries of subverting the dominant paradigm, three hundred years of quiet protest as the alternative realm within the empire’s domain, three hundred years of living and practicing their faith sometimes quite literally underground, they did, indeed, turn the world upside down. 

The emperor became one of them.  Constantine Augustus became a Christian.

And suddenly priorities changed.  Suddenly it became vitally important to clarify what they believed to make sure that all these churches in all these cities in this vast empire were seeing things the same way, were talking about God the same way, were teaching the same things.  Because now it was the empire’s church.  

The emperor called for a great council to meet.  Bishops came from all corners of the empire.  After intense debate the first Doctrine was established.  A Creed was written.

In a blink of history’s eye, the focus of the Church shifted.  Now the emphasis was more on what people believed and less on what they were doing.  Now the weight was more on what the faithful thought about Jesus and not as much on how they followed him.  

Almost overnight the world had turned the Church upside down.  And while the empire adopted some of the values of the Church, much more did the Church fall in line with the empire.

And so it has been, more or less, for seventeen centuries.  

Now we live in a time of crisis.  As I write this 200,000 persons in our country and more than 980,000 world-wide have died from the Corona virus.  Economic tensions are high. Political tensions are higher, and sociological tensions are higher still.  Empire is unstable within and without.  And the Church…

If you were to judge by what you see in the media, it would look like the Church has faded into invisibility and irrelevance except for a few noisy, high-profile individuals who get all the wrong kinds of attention.  It’s true that membership numbers are shrinking.  It’s true that there are fewer congregations of all denominations.  It might look like the world has turned the Church upside down to such an extent that it’s all spilled out and become empty.

But it would be a mistake to believe that.  I think, if you look closely and in the right places, you’ll see something else happening.  I think what you’ll see is that the Church is being quietly reformed, reshaped and repositioned so it can get back to the business of following Jesus more than just intellectually believing in Jesus.  I think, if you can learn to see it, you’ll see that the Church is being reshaped to proclaim the kin-dom of heaven by showing examples of that kin-dom at work on earth as it is in heaven.

I think, if you look closely, you’ll find followers of Jesus standing firm in the protests against racism.  You’ll find followers of Jesus working to protect voting rights.  You’ll find followers of Jesus feeding the hungry and trying to stop evictions during a time of quarantine.  You’ll find followers of Jesus in the courts trying to overturn wrongful convictions. 

If you look, you’ll find followers of Jesus like Mitch Teemley making movies like Healing River that show us how to heal relationships without getting preachy.  If you listen you’ll find music from followers of Jesus like Carrie Newcomer and poetry and prose from people like Parker Palmer and Ann Lamott who show us how to reach deep into our souls and touch the hearts of others without off-putting piety.  If you look, you’ll find followers of Jesus in every walk of life bringing light into the shadows and healing into the brokenness of the world.

If you look, I think you’ll find that the followers of Jesus are being repositioned so we can get back to doing what we did in the beginning…turning the world upside down.

Pro Gloria Dei,

Pastor Steve

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

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

The Yoke’s On You

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

So how’s it going for you?  Are you getting a good handle on life in 2020?  How are your stress levels?  I mean, I know Jesus told us not to worry (Matthew 6, Luke 12), but sweet Lord, have you looked at 2020?  So far we have had a pandemic that looks like it’s going to be around for quite a while, we’ve had an economic collapse, and recovery doesn’t seem to be looking all that imminent, the stock market is bouncing up and down like a yo-yo,  ongoing civil unrest and demonstrations for racial justice have rocked our cities and spread across the globe, we’ve seen increasing political polarization as the election draws closer, we’ve stumbled through botched primary elections— All things considered, there’s more than a little to be stressed about.  Even nature seems to be in on the conspiracy of turmoil.  We’ve had record high temperatures in Siberia, Sahara dust storms landing on the American South, we’ve got Murder Hornets showing up in the Pacific Northwest, and now they’re warning that alligators in Florida may be more aggressive because of crystal meth that’s been flushed down the toilets.  Oh, also there’s a newly discovered species of shark in the Australian archipelago that can walk on its fins and briefly leave the water.  Fun times. 

So, in light of all that, how’s it going for you?  

You know, most people I talk to simply say they’re doing fine.  Just fine.

Do you know what fine stands for?  F.I.N.E.  Frazzled, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional.  FINE.  Thank you to Pastor Kevin Mohr for that useful definition.  

Frazzled, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional.  Yep.  I think we’re all just FINE.  And we’ve been FINE since even before the pandemic.  It’s no wonder that the world has developed so many coping mechanisms for reducing stress.  

Aside from guided meditation and mindful breathing and prayer (remember prayer?), here are a few of my favorites.

  • According to The Atlantic magazine, cleanfluencers have become very popular for helping people destress.  You say you don’t know what a cleanfluencer is?  That’s a person, usually a woman, who cleans her house or apartment on social media.  Apparently, thousands of people find it a great stress reliever to watch this.  Many swear that watching one of these 10 to 25-minute videos is just the ticket to help them fall asleep when nothing else will.
  • This next one is a little gross, but I swear it’s true.  Some people, especially younger ones in their teens and twenties, find pimple popping videos relaxing.  Yes, you heard that correctly.  These are videos of dermatologists such as Dr. Sandra Lee, known to her millions of viewers on YouTube as Dr. Pimple-Popper, using the proper tools to correctly extract the goo from blackheads and whiteheads.  According to Time.com there are several theories about why people find watching this so satisfying and relaxing.  Personally, I think it’s the catharsis of seeing something unhealthy and unsightly so quickly opened, and the bad stuff removed.  Problem solved. There’s a theological metaphor there just begging to be exploited but I’ll save it for another day.
  • I think my favorite recent example, though, of people being inventive in dealing with stress comes from Japan.  When Itaru Sasaki’s cousin died he was overcome with grief.  Itaru and his cousin had grown up in the same town and been best friends all their lives.  But with his cousin gone, he missed the times when they would hike to the top of the hill that overlooked the town of Otsuchi and just sit together and talk about anything and everything.  

   Then Itaru had an idea.  At the top of that hill where they had had so many long conversations, he built a white phone booth out of wood and glass.  Inside the booth he installed a chair and an old rotary-dial phone that wasn’t connected to anything.  Whenever he felt the need, he would hike up to the phone booth and dial his cousin’s number on what he called kaze no denwa, the Wind Phone, because his words to his cousin would be carried on the wind.  

   About a year after he had built the Wind Phone, the town of Otsuchi and that whole region were hit by a triple calamity, an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, followed by a nuclear meltdown.  More than 10% of the population of Otsuchi was lost.  A few of Itaru’s friends who knew about the Wind Phone began to ask if they could use it, too, and it wasn’t long until a steady stream of visitors began to make their way up the hill to dial the numbers of their lost loved ones so they could speak to them on the wind, to say the things left unsaid, to make confessions, to just chat about things, or to simply say one more time, ‘I love you.’  Before long, people were not only coming from all over Japan, but from distant parts of the world to deal with the stress of their grief by speaking to the departed on the Wind Phone.

Stress isn’t new.  It was just as common in ancient Judea as it is in our modern world.  Everyone was carrying some kind of burden.  Everyone was under some kind of yoke.

According to Rob Bell, when a rabbi in ancient Judea recruited a bright young student to be his disciple, he would drape his stole over the student’ shoulders and say, “Take my yoke upon you and follow me.” If the student was willing to be that rabbi’s disciple and learn his way of interpreting scripture, he would reply, “I take your yoke upon me.”  From that moment he would be a disciple and, for all intents and purposes, a slave to the rabbi in hopes that he, too, might someday become a rabbi.  The disciple would prepare the rabbi’s meals, run his errands, prepare his writing materials, serve as his bodyguard, and carry his belongings when he traveled.  It was no easy thing.  It was a kind of voluntary slavery.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus.  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 

Honestly, I think sometimes we misunderstand what Jesus is telling us here.  I have frequently heard people refer to this saying of Jesus as if he is offering to solve all their problems.  But I just don’t see Jesus volunteering to be our panacea or our get out of jail free card.  I do believe, however, that we can take him at his word.

He is making the invitation to discipleship.  But he is not making us his slaves. He is offering us an alternative way of life, a more peaceful way.  He is offering to teach us his understanding not only of scripture but of God and he has only one interpretive principle: Love.  Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

We can lay our burdens down at the feet of Jesus and rest.  We can shake off whatever yokes we’ve been laboring under and take up his gentler, easier, lighter yoke as an act of love.

We can lay aside the soul-killing burden of always trying to be worthy of love, of always trying to be good enough, because Jesus reminds us that we are loved and invites to live in the community of the beloved.  

We can put down the burden of striving for status because Jesus has told us that we are children of God, and there is no status in heaven or earth higher than that.  

We can stop striving to be visible, to be admired, because Jesus has told us that God sees us and knows us and has given us the kingdom.  

We can shake off the yoke of perpetual penance because in Christ we have endless grace so that we can go about the business of restoring relationships and building new ones.  

We can lay down our addiction to stress.  We can rest in Christ. We can take the yoke of Christ upon us and find rest for our souls.

In Jesus’ name.

Don’t Be Afraid

Matthew 10:24-39

[Jesus said,]   “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 

26  “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.  28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna) 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 

32  “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;  33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 

34   “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 

35       For I have come to set a man against his father,

         and a daughter against her mother

         and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 

36       and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;  38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Standing up for what you believe in, standing up for the right thing, can cost you. 

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter dash in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, they stood on the awards podium with their black-gloved fists raised in what the press called a Black Power salute to call attention to  the ongoing fight for civil rights in the United States.  Tommie Smith and John Carlos called it a Human Rights Salute.  Standing with them on the podium was the silver medalist, a white man, an Australian named Peter Norman.  Norman didn’t raise his fist but he did something else that brought down the whirlwind.   In solidarity with Smith and Carlos, he wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his uniform.  

After the race, Carlos and Smith had told Norman what they planned to do during the ceremony and Norman encouraged them.  They asked Norman if he believed in human rights.  He said he did.  Then Smith and Carlos asked Norman if he believed in God.  He said he believed strongly in God and that what they were about to do was more important than any athletic accomplishment.  And then he said, “I’ll stand with you.” On their way to the medals ceremony Norman saw the Human Rights badge being worn by Paul Hoffman, a white member of the US rowing team and asked if he could borrow it for the ceremony.  He didn’t feel it was appropriate to raise his fist because that particular symbol belonged to the people whose civil rights were being denied.  But he could wear the patch.

That moment of solidarity was costly for Peter Norman.  He never returned to the Olympics.  Back in Australia he became a figure of controversy and got somewhat lost in his own life.  “If we were getting beat up,” said John Carlos years later, “Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”

A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” says Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  In other words, if they’re going to call Jesus himself the devil, don’t be surprised if they call you worse.  

This comes near the end of a long  section where Jesus is sending his disciples out on their first mission to proclaim the Good News—remember the good news?  the Reign of God is arriving?—but  now he’s telling them that this Good News, this news that people have waited for for eons is going to be disruptive, and some people aren’t going to like that.  

People are funny.  We can pray week after week, day after day, year after year “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  But when it gets down to actually working to make that happen, people get cranky because then we actually have to change things—our politics, our religious practices, our structures and systems…even ourselves.  “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” makes a lovely needlepoint but it can turn everything upside down when you actually put it in practice, especially the do  justice part.

Don’t be afraid, says Jesus. Do not be afraid of opposition.  You know it’s coming so just face it.  If you trust me, if you believe in what I’ve been teaching, then live by it.  Proclaim it.  Act on it.  Shout it from the rooftops. What’s the worst they can do to you?  Kill you?

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna)

Okay, two things here, and I’ll take the last one first.  Hell.  Hell isn’t hell. The actual word here is Gehenna which was a valley just outside Jerusalem where all the city trash was dumped and burned, including the carcasses of dead animals. It’s not the Hell of popular imagination.  Think city dump.  So, fear the One who can toss your whole self into the trash heap.

The second thing:  Soul.  The Greek word here is psyche.  Soul is one translation.  It can also mean life.  In this context, though, maybe think of it as your true self.  Jesus is saying don’t be afraid of those who can only kill your body.  Save your fear for God who can completely undo you.  Remember in Isaiah chapter 6 where Isaiah stands before the throne of God and says, “Woe is me for I am lost.”?  The Hebrew word there which we translate as lost is nidmeti.  It can mean lost or silenced.  It can also mean unmade. It’s the same idea here. 

Fear the One who can destroy both body and soul.  Fear the One who can destroy your true self.  God is one of only two entities in the universe who can unravel your true self.  And, spoiler, God won’t.  God will not.  God loves you with a passion.  God may work furiously to reshape you, to rid you of poisonous thoughts, ideas and attitudes, to smooth certain rough edges, but God will not destroy you.  

God may, however, let you destroy yourself.  God loves you enough to give you free will.  And you are the only other entity in the universe who can destroy your soul, you should be careful and thoughtful with that gift.  

One of the reasons, I think, that Christ gives us the high honor and calling of announcing and building the beloved community is to help steer us away from the numerous rabbit holes of self-destruction we could dive into, and also to give us trustworthy companions for the journey of life.  But, to take us back to where we started, Jesus knew that doing this, announcing that it’s time for a systemic do-over, would bring opposition and confrontation.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” 

There’s a similar passage in Luke 12 where Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled.”  I don’t think that Jesus is saying in these passages that he is intent on creating conflict.  I think he is simply acknowledging that conflict is inevitable when we proclaim the kingdom and work for it because the whole and healthy society that God envisions, the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God is very much at odds with business as usual in the earth of empires and economies.

There will be opposition.  There is opposition. And some of it is brutal.  That’s why Jesus said, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Scholar and theologian John Howard Yoder points out that the cross was “the standard punishment for insurrection for the refusal to confess Caesar’s lordship.”  The phrase ‘take up your cross’ was commonly used by Zealots when they were recruiting.  It was a call to stand in defiance and opposition to Rome and the systems of empire that perpetuated oppression.  

But there was another dimension to it.  Roman citizens could not be crucified.  If a citizen was guilty of a capital offence, even insurrection, they would be beheaded.  Crucifixion was reserved for those of lesser stature, the invisible non-persons of the empire who opposed it.  “Take up your cross” was not just a call to stand in defiance of Rome, it was also a call to identify with the people on the margins.  It was a way of saying “Stand with the poor, the downtrodden, the nobodies.” 

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  And here we find the word psyche again in the Greek text, this time translated as life.  Life. Soul.  Self.  This is such a cryptic saying from Jesus.  Here’s how I understand it:  If you go looking for yourself, you’ll lose yourself, but if you lose yourself in the life of Christ, you’ll find yourself.  

I think maybe Jesus is saying stop worrying about the meaning of your life or what, exactly your soul is, or even who you are deep down in your soul.  Let go of all those esoteric questions and lose yourself in the business of the reign of God.  Work for equality and equity.  Feed the hungry.  House the homeless. Take care of the sick.  Bring hope to the hopeless.  Stand with those who need you to stand with them.  Act on your faith.  It may cost you.  There will be opposition.  Don’t be afraid.  The reign of God, the kingdom of heaven is in reach.  In Jesus’ name.

Waiting

“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”– Frederick Buechner, Advent

Waiting.  It’s about waiting.  It’s about holding your breath as you pause for what’s coming.  It’s about remembering to breathe so you’re awake to see it arrive.  It’s about closing your eyes so you can hold on to the dream of what is possible, what might be.  It’s about opening your eyes to the beauty and pain and joy and sorrow and harshness and gentleness and passion and peace of everything that already is and everything about to unfold.  It is the excited pins and needles of anticipation.  It is the queasy uneasiness of suspense. Waiting.  We live in a season of waiting.

waiting“The thing I love most about Advent is the heartbreak. The utter and complete heartbreak.” –Jerusalem Jackson Greer; A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting, and Coming Together

Yearning.  Feel the yearning.  Let yourself fall into it for a moment.  Wallow in it for a moment.  Let it break your heart that the world is not yet made whole.  Let it break your heart that the promise is not fulfilled.  Let your eyes well with unshed tears for all the tears shed in this world. Stare hard at the reality that our species seems to be forever a painful work in progress. Feel the weighty disappointment of our failure to be what God made us to be and balance it on the sharp pinpoint of the promise we, all of us, feel—the promise of what we could be, the promise of what we’re supposed to be.  Let yourself feel that deep knowing that things are not now as they are intended to be. Let it break your heart.  Then understand that it is through the broken heart that God enters the world.  It is through the broken heart that the promise is revived.  It is through the broken heart that the vision of what should be moves forward toward what will be.  It is through today’s broken heart that we see tomorrow’s vision of the world God is calling us to build together.  It is the light aglow in the broken heart that illuminates the faces of those around us whose hearts are also breaking.  It is in the yearning of the broken heart that we find the Advent of Emmanuel, God With Us.

“Advent is the time of promise; it is not yet the time of fulfillment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.…Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.”–Alfred Delp; Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944

 Arriving.  But not yet.  Almost.  Get ready. It’s coming.  It’s arriving.  But we are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.  Keep moving toward the moment.  Keep moving toward the encounter.  Keep still in the not-yetness of it all.  Decorate. Decorate your house.  Decorate your heart.  Decorate your language.  Decorate your greetings, your symbols, your understanding.  Decorate your soul—from decoratusin the old poetic Latin that still connects our thoughts and words with those who decorated before us, who handed down their most important and enduring ornaments.  Decorare – the verb that tells us to adorn, to beautify, to embellish.  From decus—to make fit, to make proper so that we might be ready with decorum.  And yes, we need to decorate.  Yes, we need to fill the space around us, to fill our homes, our souls, our hearts with brighter things to see, more solid and enduring visions than the shadow parade of destruction and annihilation.  We need to fill our ears with more stirring melodies than shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, songs that lift the heart above the drone of lamentation, the weeping of despair and helplessness.  We need to keep moving toward the music and the light.  We need to lift our eyes to that first mild light of radiant fulfillment to come.  We need to fill our ears with the first notes of pipes and voices no matter how faint and far they may seem.  We need to hum and sing and play the old familiar songs that move our hearts to that softer, readier place where the True Song will be born.  We need to light the ancient candles one at a time to guide our steps down the corridor of waiting, the pathway of arrival.  We need to bring each flame to the heart until the soul is aglow with the depth of its meaning and power.  We need to reignite the flame of Hope to show us our way through the numbing fog of sameness.  We need to internalize the flame of Peace to quiet our anxieties and give us patience. We need to swallow whole the flame of Joy to whet our appetite for the feast to come.  We need to embody the flame of Love to warm us as we journey together, to show us again that we are walking arm in arm and our fates are intertwined, to illuminate the purpose of life, to lead us to the Light of the World.

“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.”–Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

 Arrive.  But understand in your arriving that even after the meaningful journey of Advent we don’t arrive at Christmas.  Christmas arrives to us.  The Gift comes to meet us on the road to take us to a place we could never attain on our own. We celebrate.  We ponder. We dance and revel in the laughing lights of Hope and Peace and Joy and Love that we carried with us, that brought us to this place.  We gaze amazed at the Gift before us, almost comically humble and plain, artlessly displayed and wiggling inside its wrappings, laid out on a bed of straw in a manger, and yet more artistically subtle, more beautiful and precious than the Magi gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And if you take a moment to think about what this Gift really is, what this baby really means to the world and what this baby means to you, in particular, you may just hear the voice of Emmanuel saying, “Now the journey begins in earnest.  Be not afraid.  I am with you.”