Archive for August, 2008

Discipleship = Losing one’s life?

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Proper 17A (RCL)
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Reading last week’s Gospel, I was struck by the distinction Matthew’s Jesus draws between himself and the Son of Man. He asks, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and then, “But, you, who do you say I am?” Two distinctions: between “people” and “you” and “Son of Man” and “me.” Peter’s confession, of course, is “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” So, for Matthew, Christ and Son of Man are not the same.

This week, Jesus predicts his own passion, and Peter scolds him, “Mercy. Let it never be this for you.” Mercy, meaning “God have mercy.” Jesus in turn rebukes Peter, saying, “Come behind me Satan (which is the same vocabulary just a sentence or two down, “if any wish to come behind me.”). Satan shows up three times in Matthew’s Gospel: here, in 4:10, and in 12:26. In 12:26, Jesus asks, “If satan cast out satan, how will his kingdom stand?” In 4:10, after the three tempations, Jesus says, “Get away, Satan.” The word for “get away” is the same word as for “come” in “come behind me satan,” in 16:23. These two occurences are connected. Peter is tempting Jesus in the same way satan did.

Then comes the teaching on discipleship: if any wishes to come behind me, let that one. Peter is not intending the things of heaven, but the things of earth. And then, Jesus closes out the saying with the statement that there are those standing here who will not taste death before they see the son of man (or the human being) coming in his kingdom. If this is not Jesus, who is it?

The Son of Man means two things in the Gospels: the human being (as in, “foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the human being has no place to lay his head”), or the one like the son of man from Daniel, the eschatological figure who reestablishes God’s reign. Or both things together.

If Peter is tempting Jesus, he is tempting him to understand “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” an identity revealed, after all, by God, in human terms. You are setting your mind on things of earth, not of heaven. So, how do we understand God’s favor, being sons and daughters of the living God?

Jesus, as the Christ, establishes his church on the rock of Peter’s confession, the recognition of him as the Christ. But this is not the same as the apocalyptic figure who gives to everyone their just deserts, who punishes the wicked and vindicates the righteous. The Church is not an eschatological reality: it is a present reality. It’s purpose is here and now, in the interim. It’s not our business to set things to rights (to weed out tares), but to muddle along as best we can, with our eyes on heavenly things, in the meantime. The church’s business is forgiveness, binding and loosing, gathering up the lost and broken. The Son of Man will take care of things at the end — not our deal. But some of us standing here won’t taste death until we see the human being in his kingdom. The Church is to look for the royal dignity of every human being. We catch glimpses. But in the meantime, we are to give our lives to that pursuit. And it won’t look like success, or anything humanly defined for that matter. If we set out for success, for establishing the realm of God the way it is intended to be at the end of time, we will lose our lives, just as Jesus would have lost his if he had accepted Satan’s dares in the wilderness.

Moses encounters God in a burning bush. What a puny theophany! Why not in an exploding volcano? Why not in a hydrogen bomb? Why not in a supernova? A bush using oxygen to produce ash and heat. Don’t all bushes ultimately turn to dust? God is not going to set things to rights in any flashy way, overthrow Pharaoh and put the Hebrews (or Moses) in his place. Instead, God initiates a long process that will culminate in the formation of the Hebrews into a people, the people Israel, their entry into the promised land and eventually the monarchy and its overthrow.

God sets up an interim reality. We want the final reality, and God gives us a way to live together in the meantime — I think that’s what the Romans passage is about. For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s downpayment on the way things are supposed to be, but we have to live in meantime. And it’s not all victorious. There may be a son of man out there yet to come to set things to rights; in the meantime, following the Christ, the son of the living God involves us in looking for the royalty in all.

Moving to new places

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

Proper 15A (RCL)
Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:10-28

I have certainly been having fun reading the stories from Genesis in the RCL now that we’ve switched. Never had to pay close attention to them before. For this week’s lesson, I was caught by the last sentence: “He kissed his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.” Seems a little staged. The Tanakh (New JPS Translation) has, “He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.” I like that.

Joseph was something of an insufferable brat when he had been at home with his brothers, all his dreams of dominating them. He was his father’s favorite. No wonder they hated him. They, of course, sold him into slavery in Egypt. When they showed up needing grain, Joseph decided to get a little of his own back, sending the money back with the grain, and then hiding his cup in Benjamin’s sack. As long as the grievances stood, there was no communication. On each side the shame (done to and by each side) got in the way of relationship. Only grief could restore the relationship. Joseph had to come to realize that his dreams of dominance hadn’t been about him (getting to lord it over his brothers), but part of God’s plan for saving others. The brothers, too, had to figure out what this kind of servant leadership looked like. It was a come down for both sides.

And then, they could talk.

Jesus encounters this pesky woman (or better, she encounters him). She cries, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” She addresses him as a suppliant entering the presence of a sovereign, and uses royal titles (same ones used by Blind Bartimaeus). Jesus answers not a word, a sovereign’s right. The disciples want her dealt with: she is shaming them and Jesus with the commotion. Jesus shames her in return: no one takes the children’s bread and throws it to the dogs. She accepts the rebuke and points out to Jesus the unreasonableness of his position: even dogs. He replies, “Woman, great is your faithfulness.” That’s an attribute of God (Great is thy faithfulness).

Paul is trying to broker a peace between Gentile Christians, who think they are all that, and Jewish Christians.

The Diocese of Missouri and the Diocese of Lui find themselves in similar positions; or the Episcopal Church USA and the Episcopal Church of Sudan. Archbishop Daniel issued a press release in which he condemned homosexuality. People who love him, and who care deeply about ECS, and about Lui have been hurt deeply. Bishop Wayne says that the Sudanese bishops want us to understand, they wouldn’t have issued such a statement if they didn’t love us. They could only say those things to someone they cared about. Doesn’t feel like love. Some of us have wanted to cut off the relationship with Lui. ECS says its hard to evangelize in their circumstance being known as the “gay” church. They say we don’t understand how deeply we have hurt them.

So, there are Joseph and his brothers facing one another. There is grain in Egypt. Can they be part of God’s plan to save the family of Israel? It’s a dicey business. Both could claim the hurt was too deep, and rightly so. Instead, they weep. And only then can they talk. We need to express our griefs to one another (ECUSA and ECS) and recognize our brothers and sisters. It would be so much easier to walk away. We wouldn’t have to acknowledge how deeply we have been hurt and how deeply we have hurt the other. That’s not comfortable.

Jesus has his encounter with the Canaanite woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon. He is off his familiar ground, in Gentile territory. We can only “get it” if we go there. I’m glad Matthew chose to portray Jesus (following Mark’s example) as clueless and even cruel, before his own conversion. The christian community, telling its story as Jesus’ story acknowledges that moving to a new understanding of the Gospel is costly work. Gives me encouragement when we don’t “get it” right away, that we are in good company.

Sinking like a rock

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

Proper 14A (RCL)
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm: 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Last night, Fr. Nathaniel drew some wonderful parallels between the story of Joseph and the story of Jesus, besides the obvious of going down to Egypt. Joseph was sold for twenty pieces of silver; Jesus for 30. Joseph later saves his brothers and family from starvation; Jesus saves his household. It is clear that the writers of the story of Jesus had before them the story of Joseph. We noticed a couple of other parallels as well. Judah sells Joseph; Judas (the Greek spelling of Judah) sells Jesus. The caravan of Ishmaelites was carrying gum, balm and resin — frankincense and myrrh.

Reading through this great saga, we are coming to the portion of the story in Egypt, which will culminate in the crossing of the Red Sea. The Gospel story of Jesus walking on the sea bears many parallels with the story of Moses leading the children of Israel across the sea. Moses is on the mountain alone, watching the progress of the people; Jesus is on the mountain alone watching the progress of the boat. All this happens in the night watch (Exodus 14:24); and in the fourth watch of the night (Mt 14:25). There is a strong wind (Exodus 14:21; Mt 14:30). And so it goes. Clearly the writers of the story of Jesus walking on the sea had before them the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea, most likely in the Septuagint.

But, then an interesting thing happens. Peter asks Jesus to command him to walk on the waters (not the sea; Jesus does not walk on the waters, but on the sea; Peter walks on the waters). Mark’s account does not have Peter walk on the waters. Matthew is telling us something new. This episode is also a resurrection appearance. The disciples think they are seeing a ghost, an appearance of one dead. When he enters the boat, they worship. Peter doubts (literally, is of two minds). When the disciples see Jesus on the mountain in Galilee “they worship, but doubt (are of two minds — the only two occurences of this word in Matthew). Jesus then instructs them to make disciples of “all the nations” baptizing them in the name of the Trinity.

In Galatians 2, Paul recounts the encounter between himself and Peter in Antioch. Before certain men from James came down from Jerusalem came down to Antioch, Peter used to eat with Gentiles (in the mixed community in Antioch). But when those men arrived, Peter drew back and separated himself, “because he was afraid of the circumcised.” In what follows the story of Jesus walking on the sea, the Syro-Phoencian woman will approach him and ask him to heal her daughter (remember Jairus?). He will refuse, because she is a Gentile: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” She will retort, “True, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” So, this episode is about table fellowship; do Jews and Gentiles eat together? Jesus is shamed by her response, and heals her daughter. Peter’s sinking in the water is Matthew’s way of telling us the story of the Antioch incident. Peter’s small faithfulness prevents him from stepping out over the waters of baptism into the mixed Jewish and Gentile community.

It has always been terrifying for the church to go to the new places Jesus asks us to go. Jesus, after Peter’s confession of him as the Christ, gives Peter the keys of the kingdom, and a new name, “Rocky.” But for his fear, Rocky sinks like a stone.