Sunday, September 7, 2014

Reconciliation

Matthew 18:15-20

Anyone here have a brother or a sister? Or maybe cousins; other family members your age who you spent time with growing up?
Did your brother or sister or cousin or whoever ever, say, knock over your sand castle? Steal your toy? Hit you, destroy a valued possession, call you names or anything else like that?
What did you do?
yell for mom / get back at them / ignore etc…

Now let’s fast forward a bit. Have you been hurt by anyone in the more recent past?
Been let down by someone you counted on? betrayed? physically hurt? undermined at work or in family relationships? Lost a valued possession or relationship to someone else’s carelessness or destructiveness?
What did you do then?
talk it out/ complain to someone else/ let it go?

Did you ever bury the hurt, smooth it over?
Did that make it go away?

There are a lot of reasons I give myself when I bury or ignore a loss or hurt: I’d just get hurt worse, it would upset the people around me, my feelings don’t matter as much as getting along….
So I let it go.
I leave it alone.
Maybe I forget. Or maybe I don’t.  
But even if I forget the incident, I’m a little less welcoming, generous, happy, or open around the people who hurt me, or in the place I got hurt. Sometimes – believe it or not – those people and places are the church.

That ever happen to you? in the church or anywhere else?
Did you happen to hear what Jesus said about that, today?

“When a sister or brother sins against you,” he says, “you have to do something about it.”
First, you take that person aside, privately, and you explain what went wrong.
“What you said really hurt me.”
“When you didn’t show up, it undermined something I’d been working on for months.”
“The way you’re using the classroom/car/coffeepot is destroying it for others.”

Doesn’t work?
It might not, Jesus knows.
So you stop worrying about privacy, and you get some witnesses. Not to condemn the wrongdoer or defend you, but so that your community knows you had this conversation, that you opened the door for reconciliation with honesty and hope.

Doesn’t work?  You’re still not done.
You bring it to the whole community.  And if that doesn’t work, the community is obliged to cast the wrongdoer out. “Let them be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.”
(But you remember how Jesus treats outcasts and tax collectors, right?)

Jesus talks about bringing the sin to “the church” – to the tightly-bound community of belief in Jesus after his death and resurrection; the community that represents Christ in the world when Jesus himself is not here.
That’s why he tells us that if you ignore the sin, try to be nice, and forget, and not rock the boat, that’s like sending the offender down the beach to kick down everyone’s sand castles, whether they’re part of the family, or not.  In fact, it’s like kicking down a few defenseless and unrelated sand castles yourself.

If the church doesn’t confront hurt, work intentionally and proactively for reconciliation, then just by inaction, we feed the hurt and the destruction that can damage the world around us and handicap our relationships with one another.

It’s disturbingly easy to point to a generation’s worth of betrayal, hurt, and cover up in the church. There’s a lot of news coverage of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church, but no one’s innocent. We’ve had abuse and cover up in the Episcopal Church, too – and in most religious organizations. 

That matters because abuse of trust, cover up, and denial within the church not only send out offenders who can get away with it again, but also victims who hurt other communities because they are too burnt and betrayed to trust again, and brothers and sisters who spread anger and rejection, whether they mean to or not.

The same pattern happens in the neighborhood, nation and world, when we deny or cover up hurts from institutional protection of racism, greedy business practices, or to maintain the “niceness” of our community or church.  “Business as usual” and smoothing things over have left you and me uncomfortable in conversations about race, wary about your mortgage, watching for air or water or food quality alerts, uncomfortable sharing your faith, or unwilling to trust leaders we’ve elected and appointed.  All sorts of little ways we close ourselves off or are afraid. So distrust, fear, silence, or simple exhaustion spread from you and me.
When you think about that, it’s a little scary how much Jesus empowers us. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,” he says, “and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Anyone else’s shoulders sagging under all this responsibility right now?
Take a deep breath and remember that Jesus isn’t expecting us to fix this all at once. Instead, he’s reminding us that we have to work on it all the time.

It starts with – and continues, every day, with – confronting the ways you get hurt by the people and the communities that matter to you.
Not the person on the street who you’ll never meet again. You don’t have to ritually confront and forgive the person who cut you off in traffic.
But your brothers and sisters: your co-workers, your in-laws, your dear friends, your Calvary community, the village of Lombard, and your literal siblings – the people who will still be around tomorrow, like them or not.

Hold yourself and each other accountable for what hurts.
Solve it privately if you can.
Get witnesses if you need to – others who will see that you’re working toward resolution.
And don’t drop it even if it means going public.

Because you can’t have reconciliation without engagement.
You can’t get to healing by forgetting.
And God knows the world needs healing and forgiveness, beginning with you and me.

So what can you do this week?
What hurt or sin or pain have you ignored, that you need to speak out about? What chance for reconciliation have you brushed off?
There’s an opportunity in your life and in mine to practice reconciliation right now.
Put it on your calendar. Seriously.
Because you’re not doing it just for yourself.  You’re doing it for God.

Trust, generosity, welcome, and hope in the church and the world really do depend on you and on me. On you and me seeking reconciliation one hurt at a time, and on wholeheartedly responding when someone seeks reconciliation with us.

We have to do it, so it might help to remember Jesus’ promise today “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
In every hurt we try to heal, Jesus is there.
We’re doing this for the world, yes, but you never have to do it alone.
Are you ready? 

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.