Sunday, September 17, 2017

“My Way or the Highway” (Romans 14:1-12)

One of my favorite theologians is Theodor Geisel . . . better known by his literary moniker as Dr. Suess.  Dr. Suess, especially in his later years, wrote a lot of really cool theological books disguised as children’s books.  On of my favorite is  The Butter Battle Book . . . a cautionary Cold War tale that he wrote back in 1984.

The book is about the Zooks and the Yooks who live on opposite sides of a long curving wall.  They keep on their side of the walls because they do not like each other.  They are different.  The Yooks wear blue clothes, the Zooks wear orange. The primary dispute between the two cultures has to do with bread . . . and, how you butter the bread.  The Yooks eat their bread with the butter-side up, while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter-side down.  This difference, over the years, leads to an escalating arms race to keep each culture on their side of the wall.

The book begins with a Yook grandfather explaining the very serious differences to his grandchild: “It’s high time that you knew of the terribly horrible thing that Zooks do.  In every Zook house and every Zook town every Zook eats his bread with the butter side down!”  He then recalls the escalating weapons race between the two . . . up to the point where the Yooks stand on one side of the wall with their Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, and the Zooks stand on the other side with their Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo . . . facing each other in a nuclear game of chicken.  Each standing there . . . waiting to drop their Bitsy Big Boomeroo to completely wipe out the other’s whole race.  

And, that is how the book ends . . . there is no conclusion . . . only a stalemate.

Does the tale sound familiar?

In our reading this morning the Apostle Paul poses a question to those in Rome reading his letter: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? . . . You, then, why do you judge your brother?  Or why do you look down on your brother?”

The apostle is addressing a serious problem facing the young church . . . by “church” he is referring to the totality, not a particular congregation . . . that of the differences between the two cultures that are coming together to be one body . . . the Jews and the Gentiles. There were definite differences between the two cultures, including dietary restrictions.  Each side in the argument holds that their understanding and practice is better than the other . . . especially on moral grounds.  Those on the other side will rot in hell.  Needless to say, such conflict does not make for good community or chemistry as the body of Christ.  Thus the apostle attempts to deal with the issue head on.

As far as Paul is concerned, that in the end, it does not matter what one side or the other practices when it comes to faith, but rather the relationship that one has with God and other believers . . . whether or not there is love for God and others.  To this end, the apostle proclaims: “For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”  In other words, Jesus welcomes all into the family . . . sinners and saints, or whatever a person might view him or herself as being.  

With that, the apostle declares that everybody needs to focus upon him or herself when it comes to faith to make sure that he or she is living up to what Jesus called them to do.  Take care of your own business and let others take care of theirs.  Why?  Because in the end, says Paul: “. . . each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

The Yooks did not like the way that the Zooks ate their buttered bread.  The Zooks did not like the way that the Yooks ate their buttered bread.  Sounds pretty silly doesn’t it?  Does it really matter how we eat buttered bread?  Isn’t the result in the end the same?  The bread gets eaten.

No two people are created identical.  God creates each and everyone of us as unique and special creations that are in God’s image.  Because we are all created differently, why in the world would we expect everyone to think and do things the same way?  The reality is, we all think and do things differently . . . in ways that make sense to us.  This includes how we view faith . . . our faith.  Whether we want to admit it or not, deep down . . . we want people to be like us . . . to think, act, and believe like us.  And, when they do not . . . well, don’t we get a little judgmental?

When we get judgmental things become a competition and conflict . . . gets a little nasty; and, if we are not careful, it can escalate until we are in a stalemate clutching our own version of the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo just waiting to annihilate the other.  In our minds it is our way or the highway.

In Paul’s mind, this is a waste of time . . . time that could be better spent in doing God’s will . . . of building stronger one’s relationship with God and with others.  It is time that could be spent on kingdom-building.  God will take care of God’s business . . . in the meantime, Paul urges his readers to work on being the body of Jesus.  Put aside the differences and focus on the example of Jesus in which all are welcomed just as they are as pieces of a holy puzzle needing to be pieced together as the Kingdom of God.

In Paul’s argument he says it does not matter what one eats or does not eat, but that the end result brings the same thing . . . that Christ is reflected in that person’s life so that the world can see it.  He states that it does not matter if one person thinks one day is better than the other as long as the result is towards the same goal . . . that Jesus is reflected in that person’s life so that the world can see it.  None of us are the same, so why then do we think that everyone will be like us?

There is one God, but there are many roads that lead to God.

One of my favorite places to visit is Yellowstone National Park.  There are five entrances into the park.  I imagine, that if we took a poll right now, there would be five different opinions as to which is the best way to go into the park.  My favorite way is to go up Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, go through Cooke City and Silver Gate, and enter through the northeast entrance . . . and then to come home via the Beartooth Highway.  In my opinion, this is the best way.  But, do you know what . . . there are people who would not agree with me!  No, they rather go in through Cody and the southeast entrance . . . or zip up to Livingston and come in the north entrance through Gardiner.  Some will argue that the best entrance is the south entrance through Jackson.  Five different entrances with the same goal in mind . . . to get into the park!  Is one way better than the other?  Not really when one realizes that the whole goal is to get into the park.

In the end, it all depends on how one wants to experience it.

How each of us comes to understand God and our relationship with God and others depends on the choices we make in our individual lives . . . and, the odds are no two of us are going to make exactly the same choices.  Our goal is the same . . . one God, many roads.  Each of us is responsible for ourselves.  As Paul states: “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

It is not “my way or the highway” when it comes to faith.  Each of our ways is valid.  It may seems silly to most of you that I find understanding about God through children’s books by Dr. Suess . . . but, I do.  We all experience God in different ways.  I stand in awe of Marilyn who shares her experience of God through her battle of depression . . . in awe of Bob, who through mathematical calculations experiences the God and the holy in ways that I cannot even comprehend . . . or how Rick in climbing down in deep, dark, damp caves has a sense of God and the Holy in a hole in the ground . . . or Nellie who sees the holy in the world around her and paints it onto a canvas.

With each and every story you and others have shared about your journeys of faith . . . much different than mine . . . I stand in awe even though they are not like mine.  Each and every one of them is as true and valid as mine . . . none is better than the other.  So . . . why judge whether one is better than the other?  All are equal in the eyes and heart of God . . . Jesus showed us that time and time again in his life and ministry.

In the end, it is between us and God as individuals.

In the end, will we have lived up to the potential that God created us to be? Will we have loved God and others as Jesus has loved us?
    When it is all said and done, may each of us have been true to God in who we have been created to be . . . may we each have lived up to Jesus’ understanding of love in our lives . . . and, may we have found the Kingdom of God where we are.  In the end, that is all God wants to know.  May you eat your bread buttered however you want.  Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

“To Understand” (Matthew 18:15-20)

Conflict . . . nobody enjoys conflict.  Unfortunately the world is filled with conflict.

At one of the churches I previously served in my ministry, during the winter months, the women’s fellowship served a monthly soup supper for the whole community.  It was a big deal.  The women took it seriously and had developed a routine in how things were to be done.  Everything was to be done exactly by the letter of the law . . . including how the soup was made and what the ingredients were.  There was no room for deviation . . . none whatsoever.

For many years this was not a problem.  Then one year the church experienced the big “vegetable soup controversy”.  It was an innocent mistake.  One of the new ladies in the church volunteered to “soup sit”--you know, sit in the kitchen all day long and watch the soup cook.  As she sat there, watching all those pans of soup cook, she got an idea.  She decided she would add all the fresh frozen corn she had at home to the vegetable soup . . . and, that is what she did.  She didn’t ask anyone, she just did it.  She dumped all of her corn into the vegetable soup.

Things were fine until one gentleman from the community came up to a group of the women to compliment them on the wonderful vegetable soup . . . he especially liked the corn that made it so tasty.  The women were flabbergasted . . . there was no corn in the vegetable soup!  Jumping up from their seats they ran to the kitchen, looked in the vegetable soup pot and saw yellow kernels of corn intermingled all with all the other vegetables.  Blasphemy had been committed . . . a heresy discovered.

Needless to say, what followed was not pleasant.  The new lady--the corn offender--was called to the carpet and read the riot act.  Not knowing the rules and traditions of the soup supper, she was nearly in tears when she confessed adding the corn.  She didn’t think that she was hurting anything . . . besides corn is a vegetable and deserves its place in vegetable soup.  Which, of course, did not satisfy the women’s fellowship.  In the end it cost the women’s fellowship a member, and nearly cost the church a family.  It was several months before the offender showed her face at the church again.

I guess that is one way to handle conflict.

Though Jesus uses the word “sin” in our reading this morning, I think that he was actually attempting to deal with the issue of conflict and what one is to do when he or she comes into conflict with another.  And, then again, I might be making a broad assumption . . . but, I don’t think so.

Whenever two people do not agree on something, they enter into conflict with one another.  Each thinks that he or she is right, and that the other is wrong.  They let each other know it . . . arguments ensue . . . it is life or death.  The other is committing a “sin” in not believing the correct way.  For example: Was it a “sin” to put corn in the vegetable soup?  Of course not, but you would have thought that someone had spit on Jesus the way the other women reacted.  The offender had committed a sin!  They were more than willing to point that out.

When it comes to what we believe and think is right, we are ready to fight for it . . . especially with those who do not believe or think as we do.  This creates conflict.  In encountering conflict we typically do one of three things . . . we fight, we flight or run away, or we freeze.  To freeze is to be caught off guard and not know how to respond.  None are really helpful when it comes to conflict resolution because nothing gets resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.  In these means the relationship is broken . . . shattered . . . ruined.  Where there is no mutual agreement or understanding, there is no relationship.  Which is wrong, especially for those of us who proclaim to be the followers of Jesus.  With Jesus relationship is everything.

It is all about relationships . . . about creating unity . . . about being one in God’s love.  Jesus affirms the power of relationships when he states: “. . . I tell you that if two of you on earth agree on anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three come together in my name,there I am with them.”

Relationships begin with understanding.  To resolve conflict there must be understanding.  Understanding is the foundation from which intimacy and growth take place . . . from which new possibilities abound . . . and, from which community--common unity is discovered.  To this we are called as the followers of Jesus.

In our reading this morning, in each of the situations Jesus shares, he suggests that conversation take place . . . where ideas, thoughts, beliefs are shared . . . where listening is vital.  If you are in conflict with another, go and have a conversation with that person.  Conversation is a back and forth sort of thing where one person speaks while the other listens.  Questions are asked.  Clarification is sought.  And, there is also silence . . . silence to consider what is heard, to discern, to clarify, and to discuss some more until there is understanding on the part of both.  This is where you begin when it comes to conflict . . . you begin with conversation.

You begin with conversation and you continue in conversation until there is understanding and agreement.  This is reconciling . . . there are no winners or losers, there is a common agreement and understanding that is acceptable to all involved.  This is what Jesus is referring to in our reading this morning.  This is why he states that if two can agree on anything, it can be . . . God will grant it.  Why?  Because this is the way God wants it . . . it is God’s way.  This is what Jesus would do.

As the followers of Jesus we are called to be the presence of Jesus in the world . . . to walk in his footsteps . . . and, to love and minister as he did.  We are to have conversation . . . we are to seek understanding . . . and, we are to arrive at reconciliation.  We are to do all of that with those who we are in conflict with.

Putting corn in vegetable soup seems logical to me . . . and, like the gentleman who started the whole fracas, I agree that the corn did make the soup even better.  There were a lot of angry women in that kitchen, and one poor lady who was scared to death.  Her reasoning for the corn in the soup was well intentioned, but skirted the tradition and rules of the women’s fellowship soup supper protocol.  Kind of got nasty there for a few tense moments.  Both sides had their reasons, but the women were not going to hear the reasoning behind it.  Was the conflict resolved to everyone’s satisfaction?  

Not hardly.  The women chose to fight and in fighting nothing was resolved.  The fellowship lost their newest member . . . the church nearly lost the woman and her family . . . she ran.  So what would have happened if they had been willing to sit down and talk . . . to have conversation . . . to seek an understanding of what could be done?  I believe that resolution would have come about . . . reconciliation would have occurred . . . that the women’s fellowship would have grown stronger.

But, we don’t know because it never happened that way.  For my last couple of years there, there was no corn in the soup.  Rumor has it that the matriarchs of that church hung on tight to their traditions and rules concerning the soup fellowship . . . and, that they still don’t allow corn in the vegetable soup.  If only they understood . . . if they understood Jesus and his call to come to relationship . . . to be one through him and his example.  Then maybe they would have discovered God’s unity and oneness as the children of God . . . they would have been in the presence of Christ.  But, no . . . they rather have their vegetable soup without the corn.

If we all only understand one another, imagine what a wonderful world this would be.  Amen.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Duplicity . . . the Emptiness of Faith” (Romans 12:9-21)

In order to keep things simple . . . Jesus commanded his followers to do two things: to love God and neighbor.  In the Gospel of Mark, he stated it this way: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.”

Over in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and all your mind.’  And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

In answering a question about which is the greatest commandment in the Law, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus answers: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In the words of Jesus, himself, we have our task set before us . . . to love God and others.  That’s it.  I doubt if there is anyone who follows Jesus who would disagree that this is what the followers of Jesus have been tasked to do.  It is written in black and white . . . or maybe red if you have a Bible that puts the words of Jesus in red . . . for all of us to see.  There is no denying it as Jesus said it.

Also, Jesus never promised following in his footsteps and doing this task would be easy.  Again, I doubt if there is anyone who follows Jesus who would argue with that statement.  Faith is hard . . . or at least parts of it is hard.

The task of loving God and others is an inward and outward sort of thing.  In the first step we enter into an intimate relationship with God . . . we love God and God loves us.  And, that it great, but that is not enough for either Jesus nor God.  No, there has to be an outward expression of that intimacy and love; which brings us to the second part of that expression of faith.  We are to take that love and enter into relationship with others . . . we are to seek that intimacy with others.  Inwardly we love God, outwardly we love others.  To have one and not the other is not to fully realize faith in its fullness.

Again, I do not think there is much argument in this idea . . . love God, love others.  Having observed the “church” and “faithful” as a pastor for well over thirty years now, it is my estimation that for most it is easier to love God than to love others.  I think that for the most part we are good at loving God, but we have a more difficult time loving others.  We are good at the inward part, but not so good at the outward part.  Therein lies the problem.


Duplicity is in the dictionary as  “deceitfulness in speech or conduct, as by speaking or acting in two different ways to different people concerning the same matter.”  To help understand its meaning a little better, the dictionary also shares these synonyms: deceit, deception, dissimulation, fraud, guile, hypocrisy, and trickery.  I think that we all have run into situations in which we have experienced duplicity . . . especially if any of us even have an inkling of politics in the last five to ten years.  Politics seems to be an area where duplicity is widely practiced and accepted with no consequences.  

Whether or not duplicity is an acceptable practice . . . of which I say it is not, as the followers of Jesus duplicity is wrong.  For the followers caught up in the act of duplicity . . . knowingly or unknowingly, I contend that it is nothing more than an expression of the emptiness of faith for those individuals.

I think that the Apostle Paul was attempting to address this issue in the reading we heard this morning.  I think Paul was admonishing the followers of Jesus to be consistent in their faith . . . that what was a part of them on the inside was expressed in the same manner on the outside.  He wanted a congruence between word and action.
In the first five verses we hear Paul speak about love, and that that “love must be sincere.”  Love is the key . . . love God and love others as you love God and yourself.  In this understanding of love there is no room for “ifs, ands, or buts” . . . no reservations, restrictions, or excuses.  Everyone is to be loved . . . everyone . . . including those who treat us poorly.  Instead of reacting in the same manner as those who treat us poorly, says the apostle, we are to treat them with love.  In doing this, says the apostle, “. . . you will heap burning coals on his head.”

The Apostle Paul does not believe in solving differences with attitudes and actions that go against the goodness of love.  He states at the end of our reading this morning: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

As the followers of Jesus we should heed the words of the apostle . . . we should live a life of consistency when it comes to our faith . . . our words and actions had better mean the same thing to whomever we speak.  We should not be saying one thing to one person, while saying something else to another.  We should not be qualifying our statements about loving God and others with “ifs, ands, or buts.”  If we are going to proclaim that all are welcome into the fellowship and family of God . . . into the sanctuary of this church . . . to a place at this table; then we are going to have to do it with no reservations, restrictions, or excuses.  

We cannot allow the practice of duplicity to infect our faith as it is practiced, because it is not faith . . . it is an expression of the emptiness of our faith.  And, I realize that this is easier said than done, after all, we are human.  As humans we want to loved, received, and accepted by others . . . and, sometimes that means we place ourselves into situations in which we are not alway congruent in our faith.  Situations in which our words and actions do not always jive.  We are trying to protect ourselves from getting hurt.

To which the Apostle Paul tells us to love . . . just love, love, love . . . even those who would hate you, hurt you, even kill you . . . love.  If you are going to say it as your belief, then live it as your belief.

In this day and age of duplicity we must make our faith consistent with the call to love God and others . . . all.  Anything less would be to join the ranks of the duplicitous.  In an adaption of the words of the psalmist in Psalm 19:14: “May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts and the actions of our lives be pleasing in your sight, Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.”  Amen.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

“Pieces of the Puzzle” (Romans 12:1-8)

I imagine the story has been told and shaped for a long time to fit the needs of the audience that is hearing it.  The story is about a child who wants some playing time with her father, but the father has other interests occupying his attention.  In order to give himself some time to focus on his interests he grabs a magazine with a picture on the cover . . . rips it off . . . tears it up into lots and lots of pieces . . . and, then tells the child that the two of them will play once she gets the picture of the world put back together.  The father figured this would give himself a couple of hours of peace and quiet.

Quite satisfied with himself, the father set out to attend to his business.  After a while though, he was surprised to see his daughter standing before him with the picture of the world put back together in one piece.  Shocked that the child had done this so quickly, he asked, “How did you do this so fast?”

“Well,” replied the little girl, “it was hard at first because there were so many pieces and I wasn’t sure how it all fit together; but then, I remembered seeing a picture of Jesus on the back side when you ripped it off the magazine.  I turned all the pieces over and put the picture of Jesus back together.  When I put the picture of Jesus back together I was able to put the world back together.”

Whether this story is true in this form or any form, I do not know.  What I do know as a follower of Jesus is that there is a whole lot of truth in the statement of that little girl.  A truth that the Apostle Paul knew and understood.  We see that understanding being expressed in our scripture reading this morning as Paul addresses the congregation in Rome.  In Paul’s letter to the Romans he lays out his understanding of the good news or gospel of Jesus.  Paul also uses this understanding in other letters that he writes to congregations, in particular the church in Corinth.

The apostle sees the “church” or fellowship of followers as being the “body of Christ”.  Each is a separate piece . . . each has a separate function, but when these pieces are put together they form the presence of Jesus and serve only one function.  That function is to do God’s will of bringing about the Kingdom . . . of restoring that intimate relationship with God.  It is a relationship that is expressed in the way that the followers relate to one another because of their relationship with God.  The picture is put together when all the pieces come together to form that picture of Jesus.

Now Paul acknowledges that this is easier said than done.  Paul understands that each and every piece of the puzzle has been created uniquely and individually by God . . . that each piece serves a particular role as given by God.  And, he acknowledges, looking at the pieces strewn across the landscape of faith, that it sure looks like a mess that might not ever be solved and pieced back together.  Yet, at the same time he knows that if the pieces are never put together to form that picture of Jesus . . . he knows that the world can never be put back together.  Thus it is that he pushes for the followers to pull together as one to be that presence of Jesus in the world.

Well, if Paul thought the situation looked difficult back in his time, he would probably be flabbergasted at what  he would see today.  What he would see today is a world that is terribly fractured and divided . . . a world in which there is very little that points to a wholeness or holiness in its present state of being . . . a world that is marked by separation, ignorance, violence, hatred, and an unwillingness to come together as one family created by God.  I do not think that I need to give to any of you examples . . . read the newspapers, listen to the radio, or watch your televisions.  On a daily basis we are reminded of the brokenness of the world in which we live . . . we are reminded of the divisions that separate us . . . reminded that we are far from the purpose of Jesus in restoring God’s creation as God intended it to be.

Right now, it looks like we are a long, long ways from being that”one body” that the Apostle Paul calls us to be.

Long ago, Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  

The idea of individuality is at the root of how many of us see ourselves . . . we are individuals who are unique, special, and have our own talents, gifts, and quirks.  We have our own way of being, and with that being said, we also have a desire to be accepted for who we are . . . we want to be seen as individuals.  We see that manifested in our society and the world in which we belong . . . individual this, individual that . . . that is my individual right.  There is no denying that individuality is well grounded in us as people, as a nation, as a world.

And, that is great.  All of us should come to know who we are as God created us . . . after all, we are all created in the image of God.  We should know who we are, what we are good at, what we are weak at, and how it is that we function in the world in which we live.  Yet, we need not to stop at this point and go no further.  We are individuals, but each of us is a part of the puzzle . . . a part of the bigger picture.  Remember Aristotle’s words: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  As we claim our individuality, we must also claim the greater responsibility of seeing how each of us fits together to form the “whole”.

The apostle writes: “Just as each one of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to the others.”

In forming “one body” we become more than we ever could as individuals or small groups . . . we become the body of Christ . . . we become the Kingdom restored.  But, to do this, we have to move beyond claiming our individuality as the end result and begin contemplating how we fit together to make the whole.  This is the prelude warning that Paul places before he pushes for the people to consider being the “one body”: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”

It is in our coming together as one body that we fulfil God’s desire to be the presence of the Kingdom . . . to be the presence of Jesus . . . where we are.  Jesus came not to destroy, but to build . . . not to get rid of what was, but to enable what was meant to be.  Nowhere did he ever mean for it to be an individual thing . . . it was always meant to be one.  The key is putting all the pieces together to create the picture as it is meant to be.

I think that we as individual followers of Jesus, and we--as the body of Christ, the “church”, have entered into a challenging time.  A challenging time that confronts us in light of what we are witnessing in the world around us . . . what we see in the world, our nation, our state, our communities.  We are not the only community of the faithful in which the concern for how we see one another and treat one another has been raised . . . or have questioned how we got to this point.  No, we are not the only ones struggling with this dilemma of faith.  All the followers of Jesus are in the same boat, and this constant concern and question only points to this challenge we are facing.

How do we put this puzzle with its millions and millions, even billions, of pieces together?

I am not certain how we do that, but I am certain that this table that we gather around each week probably shows us the way.  This table represents a place where all of God’s children . . . all of God’s creation . . . can gather.  At this table we set aside our individuality . . . set aside our differences . . . and, we begin to listen, understand, and accept one another--not so much as individuals (even though that is part of it), but as a “whole” . . . understand how we fit together for the common good and benefit of all.  At this table we become one . . . one body in Christ Jesus.

I think that is where begin . . . at the table.  We begin to examine our lives as individuals and see who we have left out from taking their place at the table . . . and, then, we invite them to join us at the table.  Together the conversation begins in exploring how to become one.

I believe that the only picture of Jesus is the one that comes together in our unity as God’s children.  It comes together piece by piece . . . may we all discover our place in the wholeness and holiness that is Jesus and his desire for the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

“Sometimes We Just Need to be Reminded” (Matthew 15:10-28)

Sometimes we just need to be reminded . . .

. . . even Jesus.

It has been said that God uses many things and people to get a point across to the faithful . . . to teach a lesson.  All of us can probably vouch for that statement.  So then . . . why wouldn’t God do the same for Jesus?

In this church we believe and embrace Jesus’ call to be welcoming to all . . . to be inclusive.  We believe that Jesus came to save the whole world . . . to re-establish God’s Kingdom for all of God’s children.  Thus it is that each week we issue the invitation to all to come and take their rightful place at the table . . . not at our beck and call, but at Jesus’.  All are welcome.

If that is true, then what do we do with the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman?  Canaanites are not one of Jesus’ people; no, they are an enemy.  She is not considered “clean”.  Yet, she has the gumption to approach Jesus and demand that he “have mercy on” her as her “daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”

Jesus’ first response is to ignore the woman.  But she is persistent . . . persistent to the point that his disciples implore him to send her away.  Having his chain jerked from both directions he finally responds . . . responds in words that might have hinted at some frustration on the part of Jesus.  He tells the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  

I imagine that every person who heard those words, including the Canaanite woman, understood their implication.  In that brief outburst Jesus let it be known that this woman was not welcomed to the table . . . she was not wanted . . . she was not a part of the “in” crowd.

But, the woman is persistent.  She challenges Jesus . . . “Lord, help me!”  To which Jesus tells her that “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”  Again, a reference to the “us” and “them” argument.  The woman is argumentative and throws a trump card on Jesus’ response . . . “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Unfortunately the writer of Matthew’s gospel does not go into much detail about how those gathered reacted to the woman’s challenge of Jesus.  No, we are not given any clues at all.  We are not told if Jesus was taken aback . . . we are not told if the room fell into silence . . . if there was hesitation and tension.  We are told nothing more than Jesus telling the woman, “Woman, you have great faith!  Your request is granted.”  And, we are told that within the hour the woman’s daughter was healed.

Sometimes we need to be reminded.

In this story, Jesus is reminded.

What happens in this story takes place in the shadow of the story that preceded it in this reading.  In that story Jesus is explaining that it is not what goes in the mouth that makes one unclean, but what comes out.  Jesus explains that it is what is in the heart that really matters, and when one speaks it reveals what is in the person’s heart.  It has often been said that words reveal intentions.  In the shadow of this knowledge Jesus is confronted with what is in his heart and what his words are portraying . . . there is an incongruence here.

Which brings us back to that original question I posed earlier:  what do we do with this passage in light of what we believe as the followers of Jesus . . . that all are welcome?  

Well, I guess we can rejoice in the fact that Jesus saw the light and responded by granting the woman her request . . . he healed his daughter.  He healed the daughter of his people’s enemy . . . the daughter of an “unclean” person.  In this way, Jesus welcomed all.  We could do this and let it be, or we could look at the bigger issue . . . that Jesus needed to be reminded.  Jesus needed to be reminded of his call to bring “all” the children of God back home . . . reminded that he was to restore God’s creation . . . to re-establish the Kingdom of God.  That kingdom included all of God’s creation . . . all of humanity . . . after all, everyone is created in the image of God as God’s children.

So it is that we see Jesus is reminded in this encounter with the Canaanite woman.  We see him reminded in her challenge as the words of his previous conversation of clean/unclean echoed in his ears.  What was coming out of his mouth . . . his actions . . . we not consistent with his message and intentions as given to him by God.  In this terse conversation we see the shift in Jesus . . . we witness the cleansing of his words . . . we see him move from the exclusive to the inclusive.  

Yes, Jesus gets reminded.
The truth of the matter is that we all need to be reminded from time to time.  We all need to be reminded of the words that we speak at the Lord’s table . . . that all are welcome.  Reminded that our actions often speak louder than our words . . . and, that sometimes our actions and words are not congruent.  Yeah, sometimes we need to be reminded of who we represent and follow.

Our actions and words reveal our hearts . . . Jesus said so.

Right now, in the world in which we exist, those actions and words that we are witnessing should be scaring us to death.  In the words and actions being witnessed in our nation and in the world, we are not seeing much that correlates to what one might consider to be a “clean” heart.  No, what we are witnessing is great hatred, violence, civil unrest, protesting, separation, and ugliness.  What we are witnessing is far from the peaceful kingdom portrayed in the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the messiah’s vision for God’ creation.

These are scary times that we are witnessing and living in . . . a lot of brokenness and division.  In the presence of this brokenness and division, how are we to respond as the followers of Jesus who believe that all are welcome?  How are we going to deal with the uncomfortableness of this moment of brokenness and division?  This is our moment of confrontation with our Canaanite woman . . . our moment of pondering whether the words of our mouths are “clean” or “unclean” . . . our moment of stepping up and living that which we proclaim.  What are we going to do?

It is a scary proposition.

I don’t know what happened in Jesus between the moment where he was denying the woman and that moment he changed his mind to heal the woman’s daughter.  All I know is that something happened that suddenly made Jesus congruent once again . . . that made his actions fit the words he truly believed in his heart.  In his willingness to heal the woman’s daughter . . . this outsider’s child . . . Jesus revealed a willingness to not only heal, but to also walk with those who have been healed and need to be healed.  From a closed table to an open table . . . Jesus welcomed.  Jesus welcomed even though it went against his religion, the mores of his culture, and the opinions of those who were closest to him.  In the end, Jesus did what God had sent him to do.

Because of that, we are in a scary time considering a scary proposition.  How are we to live our faith in the light of what we are witnessing in the world in which we live.  How are we to respond to the division and brokenness of our world as those who proclaim to be the followers of Jesus.

In this time we are being reminded.

We are being reminded that we are a broken and divided people.  We are reminded that God desires a close intimate relationship with all of God’s children . . . a restoration of the kingdom.  We are being reminded that we are to follow in the footsteps and witness of Jesus’ words, but more importantly his actions.  And, we are being reminded that this uncomfortableness is a push for us to examine our faith . . . to examine our words and our actions, whether or not they are congruent.  We are being reminded to examine our hearts . . . we are being reminded to love.

Sometimes love takes the harder, more difficult way.  But it is that effort that makes one stronger.  Sometimes love has to go through a lot of dirt to become what it is meant to be.  As the followers of Jesus we are called upon to do the “right thing” . . . and, sometimes we need to be reminded as to what the “right thing” is.  If we are going to be a people who believe and proclaim that all are welcome . . . then we need to pay attention to this reminder we face today.

May the words of our mouths and the actions of our hands be acceptable in the eyes and heart of God.  Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

“Dreamcatcher” (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28)

Based on Earl Hammer, Jr.’s book, Spencer’s Mountain, it was the story about a family in the mountains of rural Virginia between the years of 1933 to 1946.  From 1972 through 1981 we witness this family’s life as it unfolded before our eyes.  The Waltons graced our lives and entertained us on a weekly basis for nine years.  There was John and Olivia Walton, the patriarch and matriarch of the family; Grandpa and Grandma Walton; there was John-Boy, the eldest son and narrator, and his six siblings . . . all living on Walton Mountain.  On a weekly basis we gathered around the television and looked in on the lives and adventures of the Walton family.  

I loved the show!  I couldn’t wait to see what was going in the lives of the Walton family each week.  I loved the stories . . . the lessons taught . . . and, being fourteen, I loved the character of John-Boy’s oldest sister, Mary Ellen.  Yet, at the same time, it really wasn’t the sort of show a young teenage male of the mid-1970s was supposed to be watching . . . it just wasn’t macho enough . . . not tough enough.  It was something my sister was supposed to like, not her older brother.  It was a show that made an impression upon me . . . made me long to be a writer.  And, it gave me a nickname that I did not get rid of until I was out of college . . . John-Boy.  I heard that nickname forever!

Imagine living in a house with your parents, your grandparents, and six other siblings.  It would be pretty crowded and tough to be an individual.  In one of the episodes, Erin--the fourth of the Walton children, and the second of the daughters, pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the family--is moping around acting all sort of depressed.  Makes it pretty difficult to stand out in a family eleven.  When she is confronted by her grandmother about what is eating at her, Erin replies, “It’s hard to dream in a crowd.”  Especially when you are a middle child trying to compete against your older siblings who seem to have it all together, and your younger siblings who are cute and can do no wrong.  

Erin wants to stand out . . . she wants to be an individual . . . she wants to be somebody.  She dreams of being somebody.  And, don’t we all?

I imagine that Erin is not the only person to have ever felt that way . . . that she is not the only person who dreamed.  I think that Joseph, the central character in our scripture reading this morning, could tell Erin a thing or two about dreams.  Joseph is the youngest of Jacob twelve sons.  Jacob, who last week was renamed Israel after wrestling with God, loved all of his sons, but he especially loved Joseph . . . loved him “more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age.”  He loved Joseph so much that he gifted him with a richly ornamented robe . . . what we like to call his coat of many colors.  This did not make Joseph real popular with his brothers . . . nope, they hated him and treated him poorly.

Add into that mix the fact that Joseph was a dreamer.  He had vivid dreams . . . and, he was not afraid to share them with his father and brothers.  In particular he has two dreams in which the symbolism of the dreams has his father and brothers bowing down to him.  Again, probably not something a person wants to share with a group that already hates him; but, he does.  The dreams only make matters worse between Joseph and his eleven brothers.

While his brothers are out with the flocks, Joseph is sent by his father to check on his brothers and to bring them back home.  So off Joseph went.  Upon seeing their brother approach, the brothers plot to kill him . . . but, they couldn’t do it.  Instead they sell him off to a band of Ishmaelites.  Upon returning home they tell their father that Joseph has been attacked by ferocious animals . . . torn to shreds . . . and all that is left is the blood-stained coat of many colors.

Sometimes your dreams will get you killed . . . especially if they are dreams that no one else cares for.

One of the main themes of the Book of Genesis is this promise of God to create a great nation . . . from Abram to Isaac to Jacob this narrative runs through their lives.  As the Jacob saga of the story is ending, and the Joseph saga is beginning . . . there is still no great nation.  No, there is only Jacob, whose name has been changed by God to Israel, and his twelve sons.  Now, stop and think about this . . . Jacob, now Israel, has twelve sons . . . each of the sons becomes one of the twelve tribes of Israel.  That is the dream.  And, thanks to Joseph and his ability to dream, the story ebbs ever closer to the reality of the dream.

It turns out, years later, that the dreams that he shared with his father and brothers do come true.  The Ishmaelites end up selling Joseph to the Egyptians as a slave.  Joseph works his way up from being a slave to being Number Two, just below the Pharaoh himself in power.  All because he dreams and he can interpret dreams.  Through his dreams he creates an intricate storage system to prepare for Egypt’s survival if there should ever come a drought . . . and, there does come a drought.  A drought that touches the lives of many in Egypt and beyond . . . including Jacob and his remaining sons.

Seeking any aid possible to survive, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to ask for help.  Unknown to them the person they must speak to is none other than Joseph.  In the end they fulfill the dreams that Joseph had told them long ago . . . they bow down to him.  Of course, brothers will be brothers, and Joseph has his fun with them . . . makes them quite nervous for awhile before he invited them to bring the whole family up to live in Egypt.  This gets Israel and the twelve brothers . . . or tribes . . . into Egypt.  From there you know the rest of the story . . . population explosion among the Israelites, slavery, Moses, plagues, the Red Sea, wandering around the wilderness . . . until they eventually do become a great nation among the nations.

Joseph follows his dreams . . . and, God’s story moves further down the line towards reality.  And, Joseph would probably tell folks that it was not easy to hang on to those dreams . . . especially when those dreams did not make everyone happy.  But, he held on . . . he held on because he was a dreamcatcher.  

To me Joseph is what I call a “dreamcatcher”.  Now I know that when many of us hear that term . . . “dreamcatcher” . . . that we think of those hoops on which an intricate net or web is woven, and there are feathers and beads that adorn it.  The purpose of these is a sacred one.  They are placed over the bed as a sort of protection . . . in particular for children.  This is a part of some Native American cultures--especially the Ojibwe and Lakota tribes.  The idea is that dreams and thoughts pass through the hoop and its web . . . the bad dreams and thoughts get hung up in the web, the good dreams and thoughts pass through.  And, the “dreamcatcher” is also seen as a symbol for unity among the greater Native American culture.

Through Joseph . . . as with his father . . . as with Isaac . . . as with Abraham . . . the dream continues on to the children of God.  And, there would be others who would catch and carry that dream . . . there would be Moses . . . David . . . Samson . . . the prophets.  These were the “dreamcatchers” . . . these were the one striving to bring into being God’s desire.  And, that dream passes on up to and through Jesus . . . the apostles . . . Peter and Paul.

The dream is simple.  God desires an intimate and personal relationship with all of God’s creation . . . God desires the kingdom restored.  The dreamcatchers all strived to fulfill God’s dream . . . to re-establish that relationship between God and humanity.  And, ultimately we are shown the way to realizing that dream through the life, words, and actions of Jesus himself.  That is the dream of everyone who is a follower of Jesus.  His dream should be our dream as his followers.  

That is our goal as the followers of Jesus . . . we are to catch his dream and make it our own.  We are to be about kingdom building.  But, remember what Erin Walton said when it came to dreaming . . . it is hard to do in a crowd.  Also, remember Joseph when he tried to share his dreams.  Remember Jesus who expressed and lived his desire to fulfill that dream.
None of them had an easy time.  Yet, the dream lived on and lives on in those who hear and embrace it.

To be a dreamer can be dangerous business.

God’s dream . . . all the great saints before us caught it, attempted to live it . . . because they believed in it.  Jesus caught the dream . . . shared the dream . . . lived the dream.  We have heard his words about the dream.  We have heard the words of the great saints concerning the dream.  And, now it is our turn to catch the dream . . . our turn to live and share it.  We are to become the “dreamcatchers”.

The rest of the world might not understand it . . . but, that is okay, because we do and God does.  When Joseph’s brothers saw him coming from afar, they mockingly said, “Here comes the dreamer!”  We, too, might hear those words as we dream God’s dream of the unity . . . or the kingdom.  But it will never happen if we don’t allow ourselves to dream.  

John Lennon sang in his song Imagine: “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  I hope someday you’ll join us.  And the world will live as one.”

We are not the first to dream, nor will be the last . . . but, Jesus has called upon us as his followers to share the dream . . . to go forth and share the “good news”.  May we all realize our potential to be the catchers of dreams . . . dreamcatchers.  We are not alone for it is God’s dream that we catch.  Amen.