Monday, August 22, 2011

Trail markers for rocky ground

Proper 16 A, Aug. 21, 2011

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

Over the past few years we have noticed piles of rocks in lovely places in the Adirondacks – along the edge of the Hudson River, on small islands in Indian Lake, even in front of people’s houses. These artful, whimsical creations, are cairns, a word from the Scottish highlands, I believe, where stones had to be used to mark a trail when there were no trees to mark a blaze.

These are precarious things, these cairns, these trail-markers. They look like they could topple over, but they stay in place. They show the way. They use the most ancient things we have to point us the way to the future.

Is this the kind of rock Peter is? Sometimes steady and sometimes a little precarious? Many people have commented on the “rocky ground” that is Peter. Many have noted how curious it was that Jesus seemed to pick a disciple who let his flaws hang out to be the foundational leader of the church. God is like that – using the people who are on hand to do God’s most important work.

And Jesus gives Peter a LOT of power, the power to bind and to loose. Binding and loosing, as the rabbis teach us, has to do with the law. Someone with this power – and with this power of discernment – can decide how strictly to apply the law. This is a small example: years ago we lived next door to a Jewish synagogue, and a family who attended services there had small children, too small to walk the distance from their house to the synagogue. So with the permission of their rabbi, they hired my daughter as a pusher; the parents could not push the stroller – that was work – on the Sabbath, nor could they handle money, nor could they really ask someone else – even a non-Jew – to do work for them on the Sabbath. That is the law. But the rabbi suggested they “loose” the law a bit – arrange ahead of time for Laura to help with the children, let her know that the money would be there for her on the sideboard. The law was still the law – it still bound the faithful Jew to observe the Sabbath – but it was loosed a bit, so they as a family could attend services.

Our reading from Exodus comes, of course, from before there was a law for the Jews to follow. This is the story of the birth and early salvation of Moses, how he was protected as an infant so he could become the one who would receive the law from God and give it to his people. There is plenty of law in this story but it is corrupt and unjust. Gone is the generosity Joseph, who served as the Pharaoh’s steward, was able to show his family. There are now more Jews than the Egyptians want. The world in which the Hebrew people now live is hostile, oppressive, death-dealing. They are forced to choose between death, by following the law of kingdom in which they live, and life, as they subvert the “law” and follow the life-giving “fear of God.”

Where is God in this story? Much later come the mighty works, the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness. Now all God has to work with are the powerless, the vulnerable, the people on the edge. In order to live in this crazy, death-dealing world of Pharaoh, the Hebrew people, in the persons of these courageous women, use deception. These midwives had no rabbis to guide then, to suggest which laws they could loose, which they could adapt. In order to give the Hebrew people a future – this is before, even, they were the “chosen people” – God blesses their deceptive tactics. God uses these women to subvert the oppressive, deadly, and unjust law of Pharaoh.

The roots of the English word “midwife” is “with woman.” Midwives are with-women, witnesses to the future, as they are witnesses and helpers in the birth of a child. These Hebrew midwives, these witnesses to the future of their people as God’s people, present to Pharaoh the face he wants to see, and then they go about living the way God would have them live. All of the women in this story took enormous risks – all of their lives were in danger – the midwives who lied, the mother who pretended her new-born son was a girl, the sister who hid the baby on the riverbank, even the Egyptian princess who knew this was a forbidden Hebrew baby, marked for death – God worked through these powerless, marginal people to save the life of one child, who would grow up to be the leader in the wilderness. They found something as precarious and eternal as a cairn, a secret marker on the way to justice and freedom, a signpost on the freedom trail.

These women did not equate their security in the moment with life. They did not just lie down and die right then, resigned to slavery and depravity. No. They risked all in hopes that God would be there with them. All they needed was a sign, as ephemeral as a baby floating in a basket, as precarious and fragile as a cairn, a sign that came to them from the beginning of time. God blessed them. God gave them everything. God gave them a future.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Giving it all away

Proper 15 A August 14, 2001 St. David’s

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28

The Canaanite woman.

The gospel fairly spits out the words with a tone of dismissal and disdain. Imagine a similar insult today, hurled at someone “other” than us, different than us, someone we do not want to take seriously.

Curiously, by the time this gospel was written, or even by the time of the events it describes, “Canaanite” was a term long out of use. It was an antique insult, used to place this woman among the enemies of Israel’s far distant past. It is a term from the Genesis days, a term those double-dealing brothers of Joseph would have known, like when they sold him to the passing “Ishmaelites.”

Even more curiously, the “Canaanite woman” does not play the role assigned to her in the vicious game of insider/outside that the disciples and Jesus have set up. The Canaanite woman knows God’s true agenda and purpose in sending Jesus to the human community. The Canaanite woman knows Israel’s religious language and uses it. “Lord, have mercy,” she says. Kyrie eleison. Even though the Jews’ ancient language was Hebrew, everyone in those days spoke Greek. If we could hear this gospel in Greek, we would hear an antiphonal, and yet dissonant chorus: the woman crying “eleison” – mercy. The disciples crying “apolyson” – get rid of her!

The Canaanite woman knows that Jesus has taken the wrong side in this dispute. A short time before this story takes place comes the story of the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle which showed God’s overwhelming and overflowing abundance. Five thousand were fed from mere loaves and fishes and there were baskets of crumbs left over. The Canaanite woman, in essence, throws these crumbs back in Jesus’ face. She throws the proof of the reality of God’s abundance back at him, and her faith and courage cause Jesus to change his mind. His heart is converted. He returns to his true self. The woman is blessed. The daughter is healed.

These gospel healings, you know, are about more than the physical or emotional healing of the person. Healing, as people understood it in those days, was about restoration. The healed person is restored to the community, to the family, to his or her full functioning; the person returns to being a contributing member of society.

So who is healed in this story? And not only healed, but transformed? The daughter, yes. No doubt the woman; her dignity as a human being, loved by God, is restored; the rest of the community sees that. But is not Jesus healed, strengthened, recommitted to his radical mission of showing people just how abundant God’s mercy is? After this story, he goes out and performs another feeding miracle, and more healings, and more amazing new signs of God’s grace. Eleison – mercy – abounds in a new and vigorous way after the Canaanite woman brings Jesus to his senses.

Our two stories today – that of Joseph reconciling with his brothers, and this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman – bring to mind that troubling question of “the will of God.” Could it really be God’s will that the young Joseph was sold into slavery? And yet, see how it has worked out in such an astounding and surprising way! God’s purposes are hidden, and if we are blessed we may have the opportunity, like Joseph, to look back and see God’s hand at work in the world around us. Walter Brueggemann, the insightful scholar of the Hebrew Bible, puts it this way:

Joseph, man of faith, takes a second hard look at his life. He is willing to host the hidden, inscrutable, unresolved purpose of God for his life that is beyond his control….he is willing to trust a purpose for his life that is larger than his own horizon.[1]

Perhaps Joseph’s brothers, like Jesus’ disciples, needed a sledgehammer to break them open. They were so consumed by their stuff: their possessions, their position in the family, their status – and they hoarded all this stuff so jealously – that they got rid of Joseph, thinking that by getting rid of him there would then be enough of that “stuff” to go around. But the famine, like any other global economic disaster, showed that their hoarding did them no good. Joseph was God’s sledgehammer, opening their hardened hearts to God’s love and generosity. Joseph looked back and saw that hoarding and keeping and resenting did no good. Joseph saw that only by giving away all that he had that he knew the true abundance of God. Joseph was truly the good steward – of Pharoah’s lands and riches, yes, but also of God’s. When his brothers came back, Joseph knew that the only way to keep all the good things that God had given him was to give them all away.

The only way to keep all the good things that God has given us is to give them away.

Joseph’s brothers and Jesus’ disciples had to be tricked and teased and given their comeuppance – in a gentle and ultimately loving way -- to learn this lesson. Think about your own life: look back at God’s hand at work in the world around you. What have you been afraid to give up? What have you hoarded, for fear, or for jealousy? When have you given it all away – taken a risk, lost your heart, emptied your coffers – only to realize that you have everything you need and more, in abundance overflowing?

[1] From "Taking a Second, Painful Look" in The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness; quoted by Kathryn Mathews Huey, in Sermon Seeds,

Friday, August 12, 2011

The "Story" I left out ...

I've gotten a few notes from people (THANK YOU! for reading!!!!) wondering what they missed in the elipses near the bottom of the sermon. In church, I just told the story without notes, but here it goes. It's an old shaggy-dog story about the woman minister who went duck hunting with various groups of parishioners as they were getting to know her. And as the ducks fell in the water, and the dogs didn't retrieve them, the minister said, "Oh, I'll go out and get them," and off she went, walking on the water. You can imagine how amazed they were by this performance, and in various versions of the story, different groups take the minister hunting just to see if this walking-on-water is repeated. Indeed it is, resulting in a shamefaced confession on the part of the new minister. She had left an important point out from her resume and OTM profile: she had just never learned to swim.

We are all variously-abled, are we not? As Jesus seemed to know, sometimes you just have to walk on water to get your point across.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Lost in the desert - in peril on the sea

Proper 14 A August 7, 2011
St. David’s
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

You may not hear this very often from me, but this spring I found myself in agreement with a ruling by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. There was a case befo
re the Supreme Court about violent video games, and whether to prevent the sale of them to young children. His ruling, I believe, was there could be no restrictions.

I paid attention to this case because I know something about these games. I have children. They have video equipment, and yes, some of these games can get pretty gory. And yes, there are some sadistic people who seem to be “inspired” by some of the things they see depicted on various kinds of screens before them – video screens, tv screens, movie screens. And yes, of course, we want to shield our children from seeing horrific things depicted before their eyes.

But this is where I found myself in agreement with Justice Scalia, the Italian American father and grandfather of many. Most people – children even – know the difference between these cartoonish depictions and real violence. I was a little girl when I watched the road runner drop an anvil on the not-so-wily coyote; in the next frame, up jumped the coyote and the antics continued. In his ruling, Justice Scalia mentioned the Grimm’s Fairy Tales which we read to children – stories full of murderous mothers, abandoned children and death by all sorts of brutal means. And how about all these stories from Genesis we have been reading in church this summer? Just today, a story of vengeful brothers, deceptive sons and polygamous patriarchs. Like Justice Scalia, I am afraid that no amount of social engineering can prevent the dark side of human nature from creeping in to our consciousness.

The two big stories we read today are unsettling; the characters are full of fear. The jealous brothers throw Joseph in a pit, and then sell him into slavery. The disciples do not know what to make of Jesus, out on top of the water in a rough sea. The passage from the letter to the Romans urges us to tie all this up in a neat bow: "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" Ay yay yay. Neither Jacob nor his sons can claim such beauty, and the disciples think Jesus is a ghost. Everyone here is angry, fearful and confused. We have caught these two stories in the middle; we, too, are confused, and left hanging.

Our story of Joseph comes from the part of the book of Genesis where God does not seem to be present. Certainly God does not speak, or get involved in any direct way. It is only through dreams that God begins to creep back into human consciousness – Jacob, who as a young man wrestled with God; Joseph whose dream of his brothers bowing down to him made them so murderously angry and jealous. Where will those dreams lead the people of Israel? Will they find God’s redemption, even through famine and wilderness and slavery? How do these primal, Old Testament dreams speak to us, when we feel lost or confused or betrayed? We, whose own life stories are no more “finished” than the Joseph we read of today?

Lost in the desert – in peril on the sea: our gospel story has inspired Christians to think of the boat as an image of the church. In some decades of the church’s life, that boat floated securely on a serene sea. We would set sail for Jesus and everyone would come along, pledge cards in hand, eager to volunteer, all hands on deck. It was easy to jump right to the end of today’s passage. Ah, yes, everyone would nod; we are not of little faith. We all knew just what it meant “to go to church.” “To follow Jesus.” “To be a Christian.” And especially, “to be an Episcopalian.”

In “the old days,” like when I was in Sunday school, the lessons read in church would have never included this story of the abandoned Joseph. Such vivid “tales of terror” would be reserved for the children; “church,” as our parents knew it, was calm and serene. Now, it seems, everything is topsy-turvy. We give our children happy stories, while we sit here in church, quaking in our pews, and wondering if our little boat of a parish church – or a diocese – or a whole nation-wide Episcopal Church, or global Anglican Communion -- will run aground.

My old friend Beverly Messenger-Harris, who preached at my ordination, used to tell the story of the woman minister who was new to her church. This was a rural church, where everyone seemed to like to go duck-hunting. …

I don’t think I can walk on water. But I am happy to get into this boat with you, whether the seas ahead are stormy or calm. I am so glad that Jim picked that Leonard Bernstein song to sing this morning, one of my favorites. The days ahead will be like that song. Some of it we will know; some we will make up as we go along. We pray that it will be simple, but sometimes it might be hard. But it will all be beautiful, and it will all be well.