Sunday, August 17, 2014

Racist?

Matthew 15:21-28

How many of you would help a stranger on the street?

How about someone who came to the door of your home?  Someone who asked not just for some change or directions, but for a serious favor – a home-cooked meal in your kitchen, driving them into the city to visit a hospitalized relative? giving them something important that belongs to your own child?
Raise your hand if the decision gets more complicated here.

Then one more factor: what if the person asking for your help felt really strange, or a little dangerous?
A tall, heavy black man at twilight?
A stranger with a turban and an accent in the airport?
Someone with a robe and pointy white hood?

Do you drop everything to help this person? Or do you hesitate, think about why it’s not your responsibility, or try to quietly slip away?
Regardless of what you’d do, what do you think Jesus would do? 

Maybe we find out what Jesus would do in this situation in the gospel story we heard today:
Jesus is in Gentile territory, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he meets a Gentile woman.  A Caananite woman – member of a race that have been enemies of Israel deep into history – shows up asking – no, actually, demanding – his help to save her daughter. 

And Jesus ignores her.
Ignores her until his disciples have had it, and complain that she’s driving them crazy with her protests and demands.   Then he tells them he’s not responsible for her.  She’s an outsider, not entitled to the help that belongs to the sheep of Israel.
But she bursts through the defenses, kneels at his feet, proclaims his power, and begs for his help.
And Jesus insults her. 
He calls her a dog, and denies her access to his abundance.

How are you feeling about Jesus, now?
Honestly, this story makes me squirm. This isn’t what Jesus is supposed to do!!  Isn’t he the one who keeps pointing out that we’re supposed to care for the needy, the sick, the stranger….?  Isn’t Jesus supposed to help the people we can’t help?
But here’s this gospel story, where it’s perfectly clear that Jesus isn’t nice.
In fact, in this story, Jesus is racist.

It’s blunt and obvious when Jesus calls the Caananite mother a “dog.”  Many of us would object immediately if we heard a white person say that to a black or Hispanic woman; we recognize that as racist and rude.
But in that exaggerated form, Jesus is just expressing the common, subconscious expectations of his people of Israel – that Caananites want what belongs to us, and shouldn’t have it.  They’re dangerous to our well-being – definitely, somehow….

It’s a little bit like the way our US community has been trained to think of militant Islamic groups, or “illegal immigrants.”  We may have personal sympathy for individuals, or want to be non-judgmental and open, but our dominant culture creates a general expectation that there’s something vaguely threatening there.
It’s racist.
Perfectly normal, and still racist.

That word is a deeply uncomfortable one.  Few of us are eager to think of ourselves as racist, and the word seems to have a slippery, ambiguous definition, depending where it’s used.  But “racism” – or the euphemisms we use to get around the uncomfortable word – is getting a lot of play this week with the newscoverage of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the waves of protest and response that have followed.

A black teenager is shot by a police officer.  That happens.  One study suggests that a police officer, security guard, or self-appointed vigilante shoots a black man every 28 hours in the United States.
In some of those cases, the community protests.  Sometimes neighbors stand on street corners with signs, and start to make noise on the internet and the evening news, calling for peace, justice, freedom and fairness.
Occasionally, it becomes national news, and the racism flag gets raised.

The problem with that flag, of course, is that the way racism mainly affects us isn’t really the way it’s portrayed in the news: stark black and white, protests and incidents of violence.
It’s another side of racism that mostly gets us. The not-so-obvious root of the incidents is the cultural expectations that convince us that we have something to lose when people who aren’t quite like us have something to gain. 

That’s the form of racism that affects most of us. It’s not the only thing at play in Ferguson or in the gospel, but that’s the racism that’s at play between Jesus and the Caananite woman.

He tells her that the children of Israel will lose if he gives divine healing to her daughter.
And she tells him he’s wrong.
“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
She tells him there’s enough to spare. That your children don’t lose because mine gain a little.  She doesn’t bother with the insult, with the overtly racist remark. She cuts to the heart of the quiet, vague racism that afflicts us all, the kind that binds the people who don’t want to be racist. 
There’s enough, she says. You don’t lose because I gain.

We don’t lose because Mexican and Central American people cross the US border looking for a safer life with more economic opportunity.  People who believe in the dream and are driven to succeed make this country better for all of us.

We don’t lose because some black teens like rap music and some black mothers need help from the government and the community to be secure enough to raise healthy, happy, hopeful children. We don’t lose when white or multicolored, multi-lingual teens and mothers do the same.  We win when all our kids are safe, and strong and can express their creativity and power.

That’s what the Caananite mother told Jesus.
And she’s right.
So right that Jesus proclaims her faith and pours out healing, transformed by what he hears.

It’s a hard story to read, this story where Jesus is mean, even racist.
But we read it because of the Caananite mother’s persistence.
She isn’t shut down by being ignored, shoved aside, or insulted.
She keeps praying, and she’s not afraid to argue with God, to make the case for abundance and grace, when even God seems to forget about that.
And we read it because God listens to her, and in that listening the subtle, uncomfortable racism loses its power. It cannot stand against her persistence and God’s true listening, and the barriers break in favor of healing and grace.

This uncomfortable story is incredibly timely. So I’m going to ask you to pray this week with the strong, dogged persistence of the Caananite mother.
Pray for the people of Ferguson, Missouri.  Pray for protesters and police.  Pray for people whose neighborhood and homes have become a public battleground and a media circus.
Pray for them when the news media leaves, and the streets go back to a normal that leaves black teens scared of the cops who are supposed to protect them, and white neighbors scared of the black teens, just because.

Pray for the places all over our country and the people close to home who are affected by that unconscious, vague fear and discomfort about people-not-like-us that makes racism work – and makes racism so hard to fight.

But most of all, pray to be transformed.
Pray for me, pray for you, that we can listen like Jesus; listen and truly hear the experience and the wisdom of those not like us. Pray that that listening challenges us and changes our cultural comfort with division, moves us immediate action, to healing, to grace.
Pray to remember that God listens to all God’s people. Pray for abundance and grace and the end of that subtle, vague fear that divides and binds us.

Pray all that, and listen long and deep, and we’ll be living the gospel.

The gospel which is bitter sometimes, but powerful beyond measure, and healing with a grace that breaks every barrier down.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Chaos

Matthew 14:22-33

Would you like to walk on water?
Seriously – does it sound fun, exciting, and adventurous? or is it really not for you?

Personally, I’d love to walk on water.  I like water – to swim, float, wade – and it’s fun to imagine myself splashing across the top of Lake Michigan or the sunny Pacific Ocean, able to ride up and down waves like escalators. So I get all kinds of positive energy from today’s gospel story, and a happy charge out of Peter walking on the water.

But when I do that, I’m wrong. Pretty thoroughly wrong about this story. Because it’s not really about walking on water. It’s mostly about water, period. Dangerous, chaotic, water. Water worth being scared of.
Is anyone here afraid in the water, or on the water? or gets seasick?
I’ve loved water since childhood, but to my great disgust, I’ve discovered that I myself do get seasick, and sometimes scared, in big seas. 
That’s appropriate today, though, because if we were the first disciples – or any other first-century Christians hearing this gospel story, we’d know very well that we’re supposed to be afraid of water.
At least, of open water.  Oceans, seas, lakes, and certain rivers – any water subject to storms: waves, wind, and floods.

If you remember the very beginning of the Bible, you remember that as soon as there was light, God’s first task in creation was to tame the waters – the chaotic water that came before creation –penning them up to make space for land and safety. 
In the Bible, water represents chaos, an unholy mess of unpredictable forces, battering this way and that, with no refuge or safety to be had.

It’s chaos that you and I can’t conquer. Chaos we can’t rescue ourselves from; can’t tame; can’t control. It’s chaos only God can tame.
But many of us try, anyway.

How many of you would say you’ve experienced chaos in your life? Where do you experience chaos?   At home; at work; email inbox and electronics, traffic, illness, kids…
Who is expected to control that chaos?

We’ve gotten used to trying to control chaos – overcome it, tame it, or just push through – in the world we live in. We even wonder and complain when everything’s not better immediately after a hurricane or tsunami.
But those hurricanes are genuinely frightening.
Or if hurricanes aren’t terrifying to you, maybe for you that fear belongs to war. Or family matters. Or illness. For me it’s fire. Whatever chaos brings you real terror, I want you to get in touch with your own chaotic fear, just for a moment, because that is actually what today’s gospel story is about.

It’s about Jesus’ disciples, sent away from him into a chaotic environment. They’re alone on the water - atop the official incarnation of unholy chaos, and it gets worse and worse around them. The wind builds up.  Waves start battering their boat (literally translated, in fact, the boat is being tortured).
Night falls – the darkness is almost impenetrable.
They’re scared.
And they are supposed to be.  We are supposed to be.

No wonder that when Jesus comes striding across the water at a dark and miserable and exhausted four-ish in the morning, all they can see is the terror of a ghost.
Have you ever felt so exhausted and vulnerable and battered you can’t even recognize your friends? Or ever found yourself plunging even further into chaos because you were trying to grasp for some control, or simply manage your fear?

That’s what gets Peter out of the boat. 
He’s not exercising faith.   He’s trying to control his experience of the chaos – when he’s too stressed and battered to realize he’s plunging overboard.
“Oh, Jesus!! Finally! If that’s you, you’ll help me get on top of this mess, right?” 
(Ever prayed like that? I’m pretty sure I have!)
Jesus agrees to let him try.
And so Peter hops out of the boat, and he actually gets on top of the mess, to start with.  He does, in fact, walk on the water.  But he’s not actually God, even with Jesus’ help.  He’s overwhelmed by the wind, and can’t truly conquer the chaos.
And he starts to sink.
Ever felt that happening?
What do you do then?

Peter yells for help.
And at that point, he’s finally back on track.
“Lord, save me!!!!” is both a desperate plea for help and a confession of faith.  As he starts to go under, Peter falls back into the deep, illogical, powerful trust that life and death, chaos and order are totally up to God – and that God is right there, ready to save.

Sometimes, that’s what it takes to remember that we’re not God: Exhausted desperation, and the gut-wrenching realization that in fact, I can’t do it myself, and you are not supposed to.

That’s why we sometimes need to face into our fears.
Stop trying to get on top of the inbox, the family complications, the needs of the world; stop believing we can protect ourselves from war and loss and grief and pain,
and sink,
just enough to cry out to God from our most honest hearts that we can’t do it ourselves, and need God to save us.

Now, not everybody needs to jump out of the boat.
The other disciples seem to have had quite enough chaos just from the storm, and weren’t even going to chance trying to get on top of it themselves.
And they get the help they need from God, too.
Jesus gets into the boat, and the chaos calms.  They recognize the power of God, and worship. Then the sun comes up over a gentle lake, and they move on to more teaching and healing and holy ministry.

But every now and then we start to think we’re supposed to walk on water, to conquer chaos and be like God.
It’s a failure of faith.
But we fail at faith all the time.
And when we do, God is still there, stretching out a hand to pull us back into the boat and calm the storm.

We’re not meant to walk on water. I’m disappointed, but it’s true.
And it’s actually right to be afraid, sometimes, of the chaos we’re plunged in to. Because that fear can help us recognize the really good news: that we’re not God. That some messes aren’t meant to be conquered, and that God’s always ready for us to yell for help, and all we have to do is really mean it.

So you may encounter chaos this week.  When you do, tread carefully on the water. Enjoy the messes that aren’t scary, but don’t be tempted to conquer the ones that really are terrifying.
Those are God’s.
And that’s when you call on Jesus. 
Let him walk on the water, and pull you out, into grace, even if you don't get to dry land.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Cheaters

Genesis 29:15-28, Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

If you spend much time – well, any time, really – on social media these days, you can’t miss the fact that the internet is full of quizzes.  These quizzes promise to tell you which Star Trek or Game of Thrones character you are; what city you should live in, or the color of your aura.
There are so many quizzes that you can’t take even a fraction of them, but in the last week I happened to notice that many of my friends had been taking a quiz that promised to measure how good and evil you are: 100 percent? 80/20? 68/32?

The multiple choice questions that offer such precise measures of character are along the lines of whether you’d park in a handicapped space, rejoice in a “snow day” provided by a natural disaster that endangers others, break up a street fight, or take literal candy from an actual baby.  (I took the candy purely out of the goodness of my heart and fear of choking – who gave that infant a Snickers bar in the first place??)
It’s entertaining to see the results of that quiz – and particularly the reactions to those results – that people post on Facebook.  But I’d really love to give this quiz to the various characters in our Old Testament story today.

We start with Jacob, the apparent victim of a dirty trick in this story, who has shown up at his Uncle Laban’s house fresh from stealing his brother’s inheritance and tricking his dying father.
Then there’s Laban, taking advantage of Jacob’s infatuation with his younger daughter, plus a little wedding-party drinking, to get the less-attractive older daughter married off first (not to mention gaining 14 years of labor in the household business!)
There’s Leah, even more the victim in this part of story, used as the object of the trick – who goes on to display a fair amount of ruthlessness herself as the marriage unfolds and the family grows.
And finally there’s Rachel, beautiful and romantic, whose perfect match with Jacob turns out to include some dirty tricks of her own including stealing her own father’s household gods to give Jacob extra advantage.

These are the people we honor as ancestors of our faith, God’s particularly and especially chosen agents of blessing for the world.

The Bible records that on his way to Uncle Laban’s house, Jacob hears God promise that “Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants…I will protect you everywhere you go, and…I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you."  (Gen 28:14-15) Jacob’s family of cheaters and tricksters is the family God chooses, nurtures, and blesses as the core of God’s chosen people.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

It’s not just one or two episodes, either.  The entire story of Jacob and his family, birth to death, is filled with manipulation, deceit, cheating, rivalry, generous blessing, and hedging of bets.  Jacob would have parked in the handicapped spot. And he’d probably have taken that candy from the baby.
Is that what you were taught about the Bible in Sunday School?
Is that how Godly people are supposed to behave??

There’s actually quite a bit of that kind of behavior in the Bible, frequently among the favored and chosen of God.  In fact, there’s even a bit of underhanded maneuvering in the gospel parables we heard from Jesus today. Remember the one where a man plowing someone else’s field discovers treasure?  What did he do – alert the owner of the field (who is presumably the owner of the treasure)?
Nope. Kept his mouth shut, hid the treasure, hurried to sell everything he owned to buy the field and claim the hidden treasure for himself.

Cheating, tricks, and self-interest are deeply rooted parts of the holiest story in the world.
If you come to church to escape that, or turn to faith for relief from the messiness of the world, I’m sorry to break it to you, but it’s not going to work out so well.
We confess our sin every Sunday, and we pray to God to guide us in justice, right choices and actions, care for our neighbors and those in need, and good and holy behavior. But we can’t forget that the kingdom of God, and God’s agents of blessing, are tricky, unexpected, messy and manipulative. Nothing in the kingdom of heaven can be described as rule-bound, and nothing in the kingdom happens “decently and in order,” (in a favored phrase of Episcopalians and other mainline protestants)!

Forty years ago this Tuesday, at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, eleven Episcopal women and four bishops deliberately broke the rules.  They made a lot of people angry and left some friends feeling betrayed or frightened. And now the anniversary of this subversive act is being celebrated with prayer and joy all over my Facebook feed (in between the quizzes!) and at the highest levels of the Episcopal Church today.

Those bishops ordained those eleven women as priests in the Episcopal Church, against our canons, which restricted priesthood to men.  The ordinations were promptly declared invalid, and it took two years and four more “irregular” ordinations before The Episcopal Church formally approved the ordination of women as priests.

We look at them differently now, but it was quite clear at the time that those women and bishops were rule-breakers, “cheaters,” and troublemakers – and called by God to be agents of God’s blessing.  That makes them Jacob’s heirs, and the kind of people we like to think don’t hang out in the church.
But we know the world is full of them.

You watch the news – I’m sure you can easily name some of the people in our world today who are cheaters, manipulators, and rule-breakers. [People respondedPoliticians, doping athletes, Vladimir Putin, Rosa Parks, Hamas, the NSA…]

Just because someone’s good at dirty tricks doesn’t automatically make them God’s chosen – but what if we prayed for those people and groups today? 
What if we prayed for Putin and doping athletes  this week, and asked God to show us the blessings that they might spark, even by accident, in our world?  What if we prayed for God to work through politicians, Hamas, and the NSA, inviting us into the kingdom of heaven through odd and possibly illegal doors?

The good news -the best news - of the gospel and of God’s messy blessings, is that God doesn’t judge us on whether we park in handicapped spaces, take candy from a baby, or break the laws of church or state. 
God judges us, invests in us, and rejoices in us on the basis of how readily we take risks for a gospel that doesn’t always seem fair.  God invests in us and blesses us on the basis of what we’ll do for freedom and love – and how willing we are to pursue that freedom and love for everyone in spite of custom and rules.

So you might spend a few minutes on the internet today: Take a quiz about good and evil, just to laugh at the result.  Read a story about how the church changed one July day in 1974, and look at the messy, shocking, manipulative stories in the news today.

Then pray for the cheaters, the tricksters, the rule-breakers, and for you and me – pray that God works through us, that the dirty tricks spark generous blessings, and that none of us are afraid to take risks on the coming of the kingdom of heaven, now and always.