A Deeper Kind of Seeing

John 6:35, 40-51

There are lots of things we can’t see, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.   Ultra-violet rays, viruses, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.  We can’t see them, but if we don’t protect ourselves from them, we’re in trouble.  Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen—we can’t see these things, but we trust that they’re really there because we see the way they act on us and the world around us.   They’re invisible, but we know that we benefit from them.  We say we see the wind, but what we’re really seeing is the effect of the wind as it blows things around.

If you were to stand face-to-face with another person right now and really look at them—I mean really look at that person as fully and carefully and completely as you can—there is a whole lot of that person that you would not be able to see.  And I don’t just mean because they’re wearing clothes.   

For instance, you wouldn’t be able to see their microbiome.  The average person has about 30 trillion human cells in their body and somewhere around 39 trillion bacteria, according to Ron Milo and Ron Sender, researchers at the Weizman Institute of Science.  Even though you can’t see them, those 39 trillion bacteria play an important role in shaping that other person you’re looking at.  A change in the balance of the bacteria in that person’s biome can alter the condition of their skin and hair.  It can alter mood and personality.  A change in their biome can even lead to genetic changes.  Their  invisible biome has a profound effect on the person you’re seeing, even though you can’t see it.

You can’t see their thoughts, either.  You may see hints of their thoughts in their facial expression or body language,  but the thoughts themselves remain invisible. 

Have you ever gone to the refrigerator or the cabinet to get something and, no matter how hard you look, you just can’t find it, but then someone else takes a look and it’s right there in plain sight, right where you were looking?  For some reason, you really could not see it.  You had a mental blind spot.  Those mental blind spots, by the way, have a name.  They’re called schotomas.  

Sometimes we have a schotoma, a mental blind spot, a failure to see what’s right in front of us because we just don’t expect to see it or because it’s not where we think we should see it.  We can be blind to things that don’t fit our preconceived idea of how things are supposed to be.

In John 6:40 in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says a really interesting thing—a thing I didn’t really see for the longest time.  Jesus says, “This is the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”  I think we all catch the part about believing, but it’s easy to overlook the part about seeing Jesus.   

The word that’s used here for see in the original Greek is theôron.  It means “to observe something with enhanced attention; to perceive.”  In other words, to really see as completely and fully as possible.  Jesus wants us to see him.  That makes all the sense in the world, because to really and truly believe,  to trust him, we first have to see him for who he is and what he is.

That’s the problem the religious leaders who confronted Jesus are having in today’s gospel lesson.  They have a schotoma, a mental blind spot.  In spite of all his miracles and the wisdom of his teaching, they are simply unable to see Jesus for who he is and what he is.  Their preconceptions about God and religion and the way the world works just don’t have any room for Jesus as the Son of God, as Immanuel, as God With Us.  Their theology gets in the way of what God is doing right in front of them.

“Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph?,” they say.  “We know his parents!  How can he say he came down from heaven?”   Their skepticism is understandable.   It’s more than a little bit of a leap from “Jesus, the teacher and healer” to “Jesus, the divine presence in our midst who has come to us from heaven.”  It’s such a leap, in fact, that a lot of people try to put Jesus in a category with less outrageous claims.  They think of him as a great moral teacher or an important social pioneer.

But here’s the thing…C.S. Lewis said we either need to take Jesus at his word, or put him aside altogether.  In Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg — or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”  

To really believe in Jesus as the Son of God, first you have to see him that way.  But a lot of people—maybe most—just aren’t prepared to see him that way, and the most brilliant theological arguments in the world won’t change their minds.  Jesus understood that.  “No one can come to me unless the Father draws them,” he said.  And the word “draws” here, by the way, is the same word that’s used for hauling in a fishing net.  People come to faith because God draws them to faith.  Martin Luther wrote, “I believe that I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him by my own reason or strength, but instead, the Holy Spirit has called me.”

God can reel you in, but God won’t force you to believe.  It’s like they say about a horse and water: God can make us come to Jesus, but God can’t or won’t make us believe or trust.  God will lead us to the bread of life, but God won’t force it on us. 

Jesus is inviting us to a faith that’s anchored in love and trust.  Jesus wants us to believe in him because we see him for who and what he really is.  And Jesus wants us to learn to see each other as children of God, too—as persons who are created  in the image and likeness of God—even when it’s a stretch, and the person you’re looking at seems far removed from God or anything like God’s grace, generosity, compassion and love.  

Jesus wants us to really see him.  And he wants us to learn to really see each other.  That requires a deeper kind of seeing.  That requires us to put aside a lot of preconceptions that tend to create a schotoma—a mental blind spot—around Jesus, and frankly, around each other, because so often we seem to be truly blind to each other as children of God, shining in the image and likeness of God.  

Sometimes, in order to really see Jesus, we even need to put aside our creeds and theology.  The problem with them is that they make us think we understand what it means to believe.  They give us a formula to recite, boxes we can check off, things we can assent to in theory.  But that’s not what Jesus has called us to.

Creeds, professions of faith, theology, doctrine and dogma—these all have their place, and once we come to faith they can help us see more deeply the life we’re experiencing.  But it’s important to remember that God did not write a creed for us in words that can be debated or that change their meaning.  Instead, God gave us a living example.  God gave us a life that we can see—a mirror to show us how we are to be in the world and with each other.  Theology can be argued about.  Faith, as a life, can only be lived.  

Jesus is the bread of life who not only sustains us in a living faith, once we learn to see him, but who opens our eyes so that we can see him and each other more deeply—so that we can see God With Us, in him and in each other.

This Moment

Thoughts Along the Way…

I came across a meme today on Facebook that really made me stop and think.  The heading was Ancestral Mathematics.  Here’s what it said:

“In order to be born, you needed:

2 parents

4 grandparents

8 great-grandparents

16 second great grandparents

32 third great-grandparents

64 fourth great-grandparents

128 fifth great-grandparents

256 sixth great-grandparents

512 seventh great-grandparents

1,024 eighth great-grandparents

2,048 ninth great-grandparents

For you to be born today from 12 previous generations, you needed a total of 4,094 ancestors over the last 400 years.  Think for a moment—How many struggles?  How many battles?  How many difficulties?  How much sadness?  How much happiness?  How many love stories?  How many expressions of hope for the future?—did your ancestors have to undergo for you to exist in this present moment…”

Some of my cousins connected me to a website called Family Search.  I’m not nearly as involved in exploring our family tree as some of them, but I do find it interesting to trace things back a few generations.  I’ve become curious about the lives of these people to whom I am directly related.  I’ve heard bits and snatches of some of their stories, but I know nothing at all about most of them.  I’ve been surprised by all the surnames that I didn’t know even though their DNA is part of me and their story is part of my story.  Beckham, I know, of course.  But there is  also Curtis, Casey, Owen, Whitely, Moody, Maynard, Wayne, Stapleton, Lawrence, Malmgren, Davidson, Larm, Carlson, Andersdotter, Flykt…  The names take me on a journey not only back in time but to other parts of the continent and other parts of the world.   I have inherited something, however small, from each of them.  

As I thought about all of this, I realized two things.  First, the universe, and Christ who is in, with, and under everything the universe does, has worked long and hard to bring us here.  All the generations before us with all their struggles and all their joys have brought us, you and me, to this place and this time.  That’s got to mean something.  And if it doesn’t mean anything existentially in and of itself, then we can bring meaning to it.  We can bring love to it.  We can see the moment and we can love the moment.  And we can love each other in the moment.  We can love God in the moment.  That’s part of what being the Beloved Community is all about: honoring the moment and honoring everything it took to bring us here.

And that brings me to the second thing I realized.  We have inherited our faith, too.  Whether you grew up in a home where faith in Christ was part of the atmosphere or whether you came to faith in Christ in some other circumstances in some other context, by some unexpected path, faith was handed down to you by others.  It was a gift of grace.  It has been passed down to us in a steady succession of believers all the way back to the apostles.  “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,” wrote St. Paul to the saints in Corinth (1 Cor 15:3),  and they in turn handed it on to their children and their friends.  And so on through the ages.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)   But first, let’s take a moment to appreciate all those who have given us this moment.

We Would See Jesus

John 12:20-33

“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”  Some Greeks had come to the week-long festival of the Passover in Jerusalem and were hovering at the back of the crowd thronging around Jesus. This was just days after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and only one day after he had entered Jerusalem in the chaotic procession of Palm Sunday.  In John’s text, this was right after the Pharisees said to one another, “Look, the whole world has gone after him.”  That’s when, right on cue, these Greeks come to Philip and say, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”

It makes sense that they would come to Philip.  Philip is a Greek name.  They probably overheard him speaking to someone in Greek, which would come naturally to him since he was from Bethsaida, a Hellenized town on the northeastern side of the Sea of Galilee.  Philip consulted with Andrew, another Greek name, incidentally, also from Bethsaida, and the two of them went to tell Jesus.

Andrew and Philip are among the earliest disciples named in John’s gospel and they are the first two disciples who bring others to Jesus.  Andrew, having just met Jesus, himself, ran to find his brother, Simon Peter and blurted out, “We have found the Messiah!”  Jesus invited Philip to follow him, and Philip immediately went to find his friend Nathanael and bring him to meet Jesus, too.  And now, very nearly at the end of the gospel, Philip and Andrew are once again bringing people to see Jesus, but this time it’s because they have asked to meet him. 

So.  Philip and Andrew are good models for us.  They bring people to meet Jesus.  There’s a clue in there about effective evangelism, I think.  They didn’t invite people to join their discipleship group.  They brought them to meet Jesus.  

“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” We don’t know anything about the Greeks who make this request. Are they Greek-speaking diaspora Jews who have come to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to complete the obligations of Torah?  Are they Gentile proselytes preparing to convert to Judaism?  Are they Gentile tourists in town to see the temple, one of the wonders of the world during the time of one of its great festivals?  Have they heard about his miracles and are maybe hoping to see one for themselves?  Have they come to offer themselves as disciples?  We don’t really know anything about them or their motives.  But we surely can understand their request. 

We would like to see Jesus.  I would like to see Jesus. Wouldn’t you?  Oh, I know I see him all the time in a Matthew 25 way.  I see him in people in need.  I see him in people enduring injustice.  I see him in people pushed to the margins.  I see him.  I do.  And I see him in a 1 Corinthians 12, Body-of-Christ way.  I see him in the kindness of friends and strangers.  I see him in the ways we support each other and lift each other up and work together to dial up the love and grace and dial down the anger and fear and hate.  I see Jesus in you.  I see Jesus in you and that keeps me going.

But sometimes I would like to see Jesus the way Philip and Andrew got to see him, face to face. Debi Thomas put it this way:

 I know what it’s like to want Jesus in earnest — to want his presence, his guidance, his example, and his companionship.  I know what it’s like to want — not him, but things from him: safety, health, immunity, ease.  I know what it’s like to want a confrontation — a no-holds-barred opportunity to express my disappointment, my sorrow, my anger, and my bewilderment at who Jesus is compared to who I want him to be.[1]  

It stings to read that, but it’s so honest.  “I know what it’s like to want—not him, but things fromhim.”  It reminds me of that African American spiritual we sing sometimes, I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.  “I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”  “In my trials, Lord, walk with me; when my heart is almost breaking, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”  “When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

I want to see Jesus.  That, right there, is a pivot point of spiritual growth.  Why do I want to see Jesus?  How do I want to see Jesus?  Do I want to see Jesus because I want something from him?  Do I want to see Jesus because my faith is wavering?  Do I want to see Jesus because I want to surrender to him?  Do I want to see Jesus just to sit in his presence?

Those are the kinds of questions we need to ask ourselves when we feel that powerful yearning to see Jesus.  And let’s be clear.  There are no wrong answers here except dishonest answers.  

We don’t know why those Greeks at the Festival wanted to see Jesus.  What we do know is that as soon as Philip and Andrew came to Jesus with their request, Jesus began to talk about the cost of discipleship and about his own coming death.  We might be singing “I want Jesus to walk with me,” but Jesus responds with, “Fine.  This is where I’m going.  You might not like it.”

Peter and Andrew told Jesus that the Greek visitors wanted to meet him.  “Jesus answered, ‘Time’s up. The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’”[2]  That’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message Bible.  Time’s up. 

The time for sightseeing is over.  The time for spectator discipleship is over.  Now the Human One will be glorified.  Glorified.  As in martyred.  

“Listen carefully,” he says. “Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.  In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”[3]   

Jesus is once again telling his disciples, then and now, a message that disciples are always reluctant to hear.  If you hold on to life just as it is, you will destroy it.  If you let go of it in reckless love, you’ll have it forever.  Reckless love of God, yourself, and others is eternal. 

“If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me,” said Jesus. “Then you’ll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. The Father will honor and reward anyone who serves me.”[4]

I want to see Jesus.  Yes.  But there’s that question again:  Do I want him—or do I want something  from him?  And have I given any thought to an even more important question: what does he want from me?

Do I want to see him so I can serve him?  Do I want to see him so I can learn to be a better follower?  Am I willing to be that seed that is buried?  

The language that Jesus uses here as he talks to the Greek visitors and his disciples and the crowd is all imagery and metaphor.  The time has come to be glorified. When a seed is planted.  When I am lifted up.  But all that poetic language is euphemism for a horrifying reality.

Beginning next Sunday we will observe again the events of Holy Week, a week that ends in the brutal torture and crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday.  Attendance at worship on Good Friday is always low.  We want to see Jesus…but we don’t want to see Jesus on the cross.  We don’t want to see Jesus die, especially not in such an ugly, helpless, brutal way.

We don’t want to see Jesus willingly take the hatred, the contempt, the violence, even the sheer indifference of this world into his own body.  We want to see Jesus, but we don’t want to see Jesus there.  Like that.  We want to see Jesus in a hundred other ways—muscular super-hero Jesus, miracle-worker Jesus, wisdom Jesus, justice radical Jesus, social worker Jesus.  But Jesus on the cross?

That’s where reckless love takes Jesus.  That’s what he is saying in all the poetic language.  The seed will be buried and dead to the world.

If I want to see Jesus, really see Jesus, I need to look to the cross… where, in reckless love, he opens his heart and his arms to you.  And me.  And the whole world.


[1] Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus, 14 March 2021

[2] The Message, John 12:23

[3] The Message, John 12:24-25

[4] The Message, John 12:26

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 the 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.”  Had he 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.

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