Sunday, August 23, 2020

Pentecost 12-A: Be like Peter, Son of Jonah

Lectionary: Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Note: This sermon can also be viewed on my website


En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

As many of you know, I co-founded a nonprofit dedicated to enabling churches to be agile and resilient in changing times. When we formed this nonprofit three years ago, my partner and I were addressing the steady decline churches were experiencing.

Even then there was hand-wringing and perturbation about the long-term consequences of downward trending church statistics and the rise of the generation of the “nones.” The future of the church as we have known it has been uncertain for decades.

Then the pandemic hit and now so much more has become uncertain. How do we educate and socialize our children if schools are closed and sports leagues are canceled?  How do poorer children without iPads and internet access connect with online learning? How do parents get to work if their children are at home? How long can businesses survive continued quarantine? As the economic impact continues, how will our society cope with rapidly rising numbers of unemployed, evicted, and hungry people and families?

In the midst of all of this, what is becoming clearer is that the church as we knew it is gone. It isn’t likely we’ll ever return to the way things were in February, but that isn’t a bad thing, just a true thing. I see this moment in our history as church as an opportunity for us to be like Peter, Son of Jonah.


You know, in all of these years studying this Scripture, I never noticed how significant it was that Jesus called Peter the Son of Jonah. I was preoccupied with Jesus changing Simon’s name to Peter and giving him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.


I rejoiced in Jesus’ promise that not even the gates of Hades could prevail against the church he was birthing in that moment - a hope, by the way, I repeat often as a facilitator of church vitality - and as a church leader in the midst of a pandemic.


I’ve was so attentive to Jesus praising, blessing, and empowering Peter for his future ministry, that I missed that each of them had renamed the other.  Peter calls Jesus “The Son of the Living God,” which represents a hugely transformed understanding of his rabbi-friend.


Jesus calls Peter the “Son of Jonah.”  But Peter’s father was named John, not Jonah.


How did I never notice that before? Jesus called Peter the Son of Jonah - you know Jonah - the prophet who refused to bring God’s salvation to the people of Nineveh because he didn’t want God to save them! Jonah,  who sat down in defiance, refusing to respond to God’s call to him to serve by loving the unlovable. Jonah, who eventually acquiesced and did what God asked of him partnering with God for the salvation of a whole community of people.


To be named in Jewish culture is to be claimed, to have a declared relationship. By this encounter, Jesus and Peter have entered into a mutually declared, claimed relationship.  Here’s why that’s significant.


After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Peter used the authority Jesus gave him to keep the door to heaven closed to the Gentiles. It wasn’t until God spoke to Peter in a dream that Peter acquiesced, let go his old way of thinking, and declared that God showed no partiality, and neither would he or the church Jesus entrusted to his leadership.


We are Peter today. In what ways is God speaking to us and leading us to change our old ways of thinking so that we can open wider the gates of heaven in our ministries on earth?


Something else I noticed from this encounter with Jesus and Peter is that Jesus says, ‘you are Peter (Petros - which means rock) and upon this rock (petra which means foundation) I will build my church. For years, I heard that as the church taught me to hear it: as Jesus giving Peter ecclesial authority, hence the church tradition of popes and bishops.


What if this statement wasn’t referring to what Jesus had just said, but to what he was about to say? What if the foundation Jesus was referring to was his giving the keys of the kingdom of heaven to his representatives on earth?


That is the foundation upon which we stand today, is it not? In our sacrament of Baptism, we affirm that we continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers. (BCP, 304) This is the foundation of the church: Jesus, who reconciled the whole world to God by the forgiveness of sin.  He is the key that opens the gate of the kingdom of heaven - and he has given himself to us.


Jesus was not giving ecclesial, institutional power which Peter and the church could wield, he was giving the church the ability and the commission to show forth God’s power among all peoples, as our Collect says.


And what is God’s power? Love. The abundant, forgiving, reconciling love of Jesus, the Christ.


Our responsibility as followers of Jesus is to serve the way Jesus served: forgiving as radically as Jesus did from his cross, and reconciling all to God - even the bandits to our left or our right.


Having the keys to heaven, however, comes with this warning from Jesus: what the church holds bound on earth would be held bound in heaven,  and what the church looses on earth would be loosed in heaven.


The church will be accountable for what it teaches is right and wrong, for what is forgiven and what isn’t - so we must choose wisely and compassionately, in the manner and power of Jesus.


What is so amazing and comforting to me is that despite all of Peter’s demonstrated thick-headed, dim-wittedness, Jesus chose and trusted Peter. In the same way, Jesus has chosen us and trusts us to serve.


The church is undergoing a huge transformative moment, ushered in by the pandemic and the revelations we have witnessed on a global level, about the destructive nature of the -isms that bind us. We’ve discussed racism, sexism, and classism recently.


Today it is individualism that our Scripture lifts up for our contemplation - individualism that infects our churches and our society like a plague.


Paul addresses this -ism so beautifully and effectively in his metaphor of the church as a body, connected and unified by the Spirit of God into one magnificent, mystical whole.


Paul says, “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” We are members of one another - not the church, not Christianity or our branch of it, the Episcopal Church. We are members of one another.


The sin of individualism is the temptation to believe that “I” matter most, that looking out for number one is morally or spiritually acceptable. It is not.


I have never worried about the survival of the church. Jesus promised that no matter how wide the gates of death open, the church will stand firm bringing life, eternal life in Jesus Christ, to all.


So rather than worry, we who follow Jesus can focus our vision and energy on the opportunities that are emerging for us in this moment. In what ways is God calling and strengthening us right now? What gifts are we discerning in ourselves and in our faith community?


Gifts are given for the purpose of serving God’s people in God’s name. The gifts we have change and adapt as the needs of God’s people change. The church, our church, is the repository of these gifts. The church is where our gifts are discovered, nurtured, and sent out to serve.


The uncertainties we face now are nothing to fear. Rather they are our signal, an alert message that God is calling to us and has a plan for us to implement. This plan, however, may be very different from the one we thought we were supposed to be doing. Like Peter, Son of Jonah, we may have to radically change how we think and act, but also like Peter, we have been chosen by God who trusts us to do just that.


Let us pray: God of love, we thank you for your trust in us, for the gifts you give us, and the call to serve. Help us discern how you are strengthening us right now that we may glorify you by using the keys you have given us to open wide the gates of heaven on earth, ministering to your people as Jesus did - with compassion, forgiveness, and reconciling love. It is in your holy name we pray. Amen.




Sunday, August 16, 2020

11 Pentecost, 2020-A: A boundary-busting ruckus

Lectionary: Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Note: This sermon can also be found on my website  or on my YouTube Channel.


In my family of origin, I am the third of four daughters. Growing up my sisters and I were very close since we moved constantly -  about every 6 months to two years. Our sisterhood was one of the few constants in our ever-changing world.


Like all sisters, we fought a lot, but we also protected each other. The only time I ever beat a kid up, I was 8 years old and I caught another 8-year-old, our neighbor, beating up my little sister. After I punched her out, I brought her home to her mother, blood dripping from her mouth and nose, and told her mother what she’d done and why she was bloody. She got in trouble all over again with her mom.


I hated the experience though. The girl I beat up was a friend. I didn’t know why she was beating up my sister, but the whole thing made me cry. I went to see her the next day and we made up.  It turns out her father was dying and the little girl was just unable to cope.


I never beat up anyone else again.  


In my childhood home we could yell, but we couldn’t hit each other. My parents laid that rule down to stop the cycle of physical violence they knew as children. It was an intentional action on their part, and a pretty remarkable one: two kids who had regular beatings as children choosing to eliminate physical violence from their parenting.


So, yell we did. Two of my sisters were exceedingly talented with hurtful words. One day, my little sister, who was my light and my joy, screamed at me that she hated me.


I was stopped short. “No, you don’t” I said softly. “Yes, I do!” she yelled in her characteristically dramatic fashion. “I hate you.”


My heart broke. The force of the violence of those words hit me harder than any punch ever could have and I vowed right then never to say those words to any other person… and I never have.


“…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”


I became skilled at using the power of words, mostly for self-protection. Words gave me the power to compensate for being physically tiny, female, always the new kid, a brainiac a year ahead in school (so the youngest in my class), and a childhood victim of personal violence.


In my adulthood, I began advocating for other victims of the kinds of violence I had known growing up, directing the power of my words toward the freedom of others instead of using them to protect myself. It was then I discovered the real power of words. What comes out of our mouths has the capacity to transform lies to truth, pain to healing, desperation to hope, even death to life.


Words also have the capacity to disempower, slay, or destroy another. The choice is ours.


And this is the choice Jesus is clarifying for us in today’s gospel. You can wash your hands all day long in keeping with the “law,” he says, but you still aren’t clean if what comes from your heart causes sadness, division, and unfair burdens for others - which is what the word “evil” really means.


Our gospel has two stories that seem disjointed: one on the law and ritual cleanliness, the other a story about healing for a Gentile. But in Jesus’ inimitable way, these stories are closely connected by his main point. The first story being a theoretical discussion, the second being the manifestation of his point.


When Jesus went way out of his way to take his disciples north, where the Gentiles lived, he invited the encounter with the Canaanite woman by his presence. When she sees him, the woman, from whose mouth a ruckus was heard, pursues him. So annoyed were the disciples by this foreigner, this woman, that they asked Jesus to let them send her away.


What came out of the disciples’ mouths was selfish and exclusionary. They wanted only to shut her up and restore their peace. But Jesus used the moment to make his point.


The story tells us that the Canaanite woman cried out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…”  Here is this despised person speaking Jewish terms of respect and acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah of God.


But the next thing she says is equally as important. “…my daughter is tormented by a demon.” What she was asking for from Jesus was not for herself but for her child. Love motivated her to risk being humiliated and even violently pushed aside.


What came out of her mouth was faith and love - and it sounded like a ruckus. This sounds so sadly familiar to us, doesn’t it?


Voices among us are crying out making a ruckus today We might imagine the Canaanite woman as a Mexican immigrant mother crying out for her child still being held in a cage on the border. Or it might be the family of a person addicted to opioids. In both cases, they cry out, “Have mercy Lord, Son of David, my child is under the power of an evil force.”


These are today’s voices of faith motivated by love. No matter how annoying they are or how much they disturb our peace, Jesus demonstrated that we must engage them.


Now, the way he engaged the Canaanite woman seems, at first glance, like one of the most horrible things Jesus ever said to anyone! It hurts our hearts to hear him say such awful words.


But he says those particular words to demonstrate how evil tradition can be. In his culture, and in ours, people recognize what it means when someone is called a dog. I promise every female everywhere knows what it means and how it feels to be called the word that means “female dog.”


Humans tend to stratify ourselves placing one group at the top then organizing others beneath them. This is classism and it lives in cultures throughout the world - including ours.


Here in the US, we believe that anyone can improve their lot with hard work (our Protestant work ethic) and an entrepreneurial spirit. And that’s true to some degree. But a few instances of upward mobility don’t threaten a classist system. Freedom and equality for all do.


When the disciples encountered the Canaanite woman creating a ruckus, she was not a threat to them or their tradition. She was just one.  In the same way, having a few black or brown successes doesn’t threaten our overall system of classism.


The problem happens when everyone seeks to have access to the same opportunities and benefits. That’s when we see the upper echelon put up boundaries and close doors, excluding those they believe are beneath them or at least, heaping such burdens on them that advancement is very difficult if not impossible.


When Jesus responded to the Canaanite woman’s ruckus, he used words that reflected the traditional understanding. The Messiah came to bring salvation to the Jews - not to her. It wouldn’t be fair to give the children’s food to the dog.


Notice, not a single person among Jesus’ band of disciples spoke up about the insult. So common was this understanding that Jesus could call her a “dog” with impunity.


Undaunted, the woman argued with Jesus - and won! Her argument didn’t return insult for insult, but rather reframed the discussion using humility. Kneeling at his feet she said, ‘You say I’m a dog. OK, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from the Master’s table. Give me the crumbs - that will be enough.’


To which Jesus replied, “Woman, great is your faith!” You can almost see the shock on the faces of Jesus’ followers.


Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees, followed by his encounter with the Canaanite woman, demonstrate his Messianic message of salvation for the whole world as prophesied, by the way, in Isaiah 49:6 where God said, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."


The law and our traditions are meant to be guides that lead us to love. They are not boundaries around love meant to exclude anyone, and violence is never justified.


Changing our habitual understanding and practices is hard, but it can (and it must) be done. But we must be willing to raise a boundary-busting ruckus. That is our tradition too!


There is no violence and no classism in heaven. Where it exists on earth, whether in our traditional religious understanding or our practical application in cultural systems, we must, like Jesus, bring those boundaries down and let the love of God flow freely to all, for all, for ever. Amen.