Saturday, August 30, 2014

Who's in charge here?

Proper 16-A                August 24, 2014
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Matthew 16:13-20

When my daughter was seven, she went to church with some Roman Catholic friends. The mother explained to Laura that since her friend hadn’t made her first communion, the girls wouldn’t take the sacrament today. Laura, who had been receiving communion since she had been baptized as a baby, Harumphed, and said, “Who’s in charge here?” Her friend’s mother was taken aback, and after the service went to the priest and introduced Laura as her daughter’s friend, who was used to receiving communion in her own church. Then Laura spoke up, “I just wanted Jesus in my heart.”

It seems to me that that kind of authority trumps something that is merely imposed by a set of church rules. Who, indeed, is “in charge” over someone who knows the reality of Jesus in her heart?

Jesus does give Peter such authority over binding and loosing – so much authority that whatever Peter says, goes. I can’t quite imagine what it means that something bound on earth is bound in heaven, but indeed, Jesus gives Peter the keys to this kingdom. And over two millennia this authority has been given to Peter’s successors. To the question, “Who’s in charge here,” some people give a very definite answer.

Rules. We all live by rules. Nations rise and fall by rules, by definitions of who is in charge, and during the centuries when the Egyptians were building the pyramids, Pharaoh was in charge. What he said, went. And when he said, there are too many of those Hebrew children around here; kill the boys – that rule was supposed to be followed.

This is the beginning of the Exodus story, the story of God pulling the Hebrew children out of Egypt and into their own nationhood as Israel. This is the beginning of the most important story in the Hebrew bible – and look at what a fragile and precarious beginning it has. A baby ordered killed is hidden in a basket, floating in the very river in which he should have drowned. And this child is saved because of a conspiracy of women who broke the rules. Who’s in charge here? Pharaoh. But who is in the hearts of the Hebrew midwives, and the baby’s mother and the baby’s sister? God is in their hearts. The God of love, whose love causes them to find a way around the rules to save the baby’s life. And then Pharaoh’s daughter, who sees the baby and wants him for her own. She breaks the rules, too. She must know this is a Hebrew baby, a boy hidden in a basket among the reeds. Who’s in charge here? Compassion rules her heart, and through a marvelous twist, she takes the boy home, along with a woman to nurse him who just happens to be the boy’s mother, and the child of slaves is raised as a prince in Pharaoh’s household. This boy of illegitimate beginnings grows up to be just the leader to bring the Hebrew nation out of bondage into freedom.

Who’s in charge here? It’s not always who we think it is – and if God is ultimately in charge, if we take our authority from these rules of love and compassion and empathy and mercy which God puts in our hearts, then hey: there are often some surprising changes about who is in charge here in earth.

Listen to this story told to me by a friend, a retired priest who once served a parish on the West Side of Chicago.

One morning many years ago I went out of the apartment house where I lived … and found a little
ten year old neighbor, whose nickname was "Boo", sitting in his grandpa's old Cadillac car, with a set of keys in his hands, busily working to get the padlock off the steering wheel. Little Boo looked guilty to me, and he did have a criminal record, for he had swiped an apple from my refrigerator the week before. So I said to him, "Michael, did your Grandpa give you those keys? Does he know that you are out here in the car?" Boo slowly shook his head, No. I at once had a vision of Boo careening around Union Park in this huge vintage Cadillac, his little head bobbing over the dash board. I triumphantly retrieved the keys and took them upstairs to Grandpa's apartment, next to my own. I knocked on the door, and soon learned that indeed Grandpa had not given him the keys, but Grandma had! She had told Michael to go down and get the padlock off the steering wheel and to wait in the Cadillac for her to come down in a few minutes. When I went back downstairs, Michael had recovered his dignity along with his Grandma and the keys. And I had a bit of a red face, for not having recognized his received authority to have the keys in the first place, from another with the power to give them.

“The keys to the kingdom are something like that,” my friend went on to say, “for Jesus has been an indulgent Grandma, who has handed over the keys to the likes of us, and to a variety of others, some of us juveniles too young to drive, but with the benevolent counsel to go ahead and open the vehicle, and wait for the wise ones to come down and accompany us.”[i]

Frankly, I’m not too good with change. When the rules are set, I like them to stay that way. But the world I live in now is not the world as I thought it would be when I was ten years old. Pharaohs and Josephs come and go, and what we thought secure is now precarious. How difficult to imagine that our salvation will depend on a baby in a basket, or the wily, subversive women who hid him there. But imagination is just what we need. With every new age, every change in time or circumstance, with every new Pharaoh, God entrusts us with a new set of keys. But the kingdom those new keys unlock remains the same: love, justice, and the reign of God.

[i] Grant Gallup, Homily Grits, 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 16;

Sunday, August 24, 2014

God shakes it up

Proper 15         Aug. 17, 2014
Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Matthew 15:21-28

We are never quite sure who we are supposed to forgive. Or who is supposed to forgive us. Joseph’s brothers are flipping out when they realize who the generous Egyptian is, all wealthy and powerful, standing before them. Jesus himself gets caught up short by that feisty foreign woman who calls him out on his vaunted declarations of God’s abundance. Joseph forgives his brothers even before they ask for it. And does Jesus even beg the woman’s pardon? Or is it all ok now, that her daughter is healed?

The stories in the Gospel of Matthew we are reading for these several weeks have this in common. The action in each of these stories is set in motion by what happened when Jesus fed those thousands of people with a little bread and some fish. Matthew, the one who structured how these stories appear in his Gospel, shows that the ramifications of that miracle travel far and wide. The way the world itself is ordered is now changed: God’s grace is so powerful that human beings can walk on water. God’s abundance is so overflowing that even Jesus underestimates its power – it takes a foreign woman with her shocking challenge to teach Jesus that God’s generosity extends even to her and her ailing daughter.

We never know who God will use to get that point across to us. The people of Ferguson, MO, have been at each other’s throats over who is responsible for the death of a young man. Who would have thought that a career state policeman would walk among the angry mobs, shake their hands, hear their stories, and disarm the most heated conflicts? The situation got tense again over the weekend, but on Friday, this highway patrolman brought hope:

Captain Johnson, a burly and plain-spoken Missouri native, cited the Bible, preached tolerance and simultaneously represented both law and order and the fear and anger of seething residents. He turned a news conference into a town hall meeting, waded into the crowd and seemed to listen as much as he spoke … [i]

This is no quick fix, but Captain Johnson surprised everyone, police and citizens alike, the way the Canaanite woman surprised everyone around Jesus, the way Joseph surprised his scoundrel brothers. That intervention of surprise shook up what was going on, and introduced the possibility that God had other ideas about those situations. Joseph’s brothers had to come to grips with their grievous wrong-doing. Jesus had to realize that God’s grace extends to more people than he had imagined.

Don’t we all wish that life would just settle down and be normal? That there would be a reliable status quo? We yearn for that stability so much that we are willing to sacrifice justice for it. We are willing to harbor grudges, to hide our fears, to bury our angers, to silence our longings, stifle our objections, just to keep things on an even keel. Like Joseph’s brothers, we have kept all sorts of bad stuff inside for so long, that the love of God is almost unrecognizable to us when we come upon it. We have lived that way for so long: why would we ever want to change?
But God knows when that even keel that we desire so much is out of whack. That’s when God intervenes, shakes things up, destabilizes the status quo. God comes in the guise of angry demonstrators and brave police captains, in the guise of snarky mothers who want the best for their children.

Watch on when you think you have it all figured out. God may have something else in mind.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


Proper 14 A     August 10, 2014
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Matthew 14:22-33

There is an old cartoon in The New Yorker which shows two men watching another person walk across the top of the water. One observer says to the other, "It's been a long time since that has been done well!"

In fact, walking on water is one of those things that seem to belong to Jesus alone, and ever since Jesus, people, try as they might, have had difficulty following Jesus' effortless performance. Like Peter, we attempt the impossible -- we go out too far and find ourselves sinking, because we do not know or we forget that deliverance comes only from God, not from our own cleverness or strength or luck.

Relying on self alone, we sink, and struggle to get back to where we wanted to be all along: safe in the boat. Shivering and wet maybe, but in the boat, with its well defined boundaries and its protection, however feeble, from the stormy seas.

This can happen to us at any stage of our lives, when challenges beckon and we think we can meet them on our own, unaware that we are woefully unprepared – that we have not, after all, assembled the right tool kit for this task. Any of those change points of our lives can feel like venturing out onto stormy seas: leaving high school for college, leaving college for some kind of career, and now, as is the case for nearly everyone, finding that career upended and we are back in the water again, floundering. It can be the time the children leave home, or when retirement is reached, or a spouse or a parent dies, or grandchildren are born. We think we are ready to walk smoothly across those waves, but we are not. We are not.

I don’t think there is any formula for “relying on Jesus” at those times. God’s saving help to us must take different, completely unexpected forms each time we need it. If we think the same old words, the same old faith, the same old patterns that got us from high school into the work world, or when we were newlyweds, or through problems at work, will apply to our stormy seas now, we are mistaken. We’ll sink like a stone. In the words of the old hymn, “New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient truth uncouth.” As new challenges appear in our lives, and we find our selves out on that stormy sea, we have to find some way to stop and listen to what God is saying to us now – not just march on and think we have it all together, not just do those same old things and expect different results, and certainly not just think that the old way forward is to get back into the boat. God is with us in those terrible places, calling forth new things, new strengths, new faiths, new abilities, that we never thought we had – that we had never even imagined before. “You of little faith,” Jesus says to Peter. The “little faith” that Peter relied on was the old way of thinking and being and doing. Jesus called Peter – and calls us – to the new, the uncharted, the unimagined and unexpected – and is there with us all the way.

You know this is true in your own life. It is just as true in church life. This parish, the Episcopal Church, all churches, will go nowhere if we think all we have to do is to stay in our safe – albeit wet and leaking – little boat. Jesus calls us, in the words of a contemporary English theologian, to “journey out,” to find mission and ministry not in this safe place but out on the margins of the community. Our initial impulse might be just to try to fix our status quo – to “do church” a little better, or even just to do the things we have always done with more energy and vigor. But that is like rowing backward against the current. It is undeniable in these times that something powerful in the culture and wider world around us is pushing us quickly into uncharted waters – and just to keep this maritime metaphor going, it is very likely that the boat of the institutional church will break apart on the shoals.
Nevertheless, journeying out is exactly what Jesus is calling us to do. It is an anxious time. It feels crazy, but we hear it again and again through these ancient scriptures: God calls us to transformation – to take on God’s new life as individuals, and as individuals to be part of an ever new, ever transforming world.

Ann Morisy is the English theologian and church worker who wrote her book Journeying Out about 10 years ago – an eon ago in this rapidly changing world. But she has some pithy quotes that still ring true: the church is not a “waiting room for the hereafter.” “The church, if it is to honor the gospel, has to journey out, embrace strangers, work for social peace and justice and partake of God’s gracious gift of salvation.”[i]

That is so hard for “we of little faith” to hear, even for those of us who have heard these stories all of our lives. But knowing who is calling us to journey out, what are we waiting for?

[i] Ann Morisy, Journeying Out: A New Approach to Christian Mission (Morehouse, 2004), p. 5

Two weeks of baptisms: water and rest

Proper 8-A + baptism           June 29, 2014
Genesis 24:1-2,10-27
Psalm 13
Matthew 10:40-42

I remember driving through a part of the city that was run-down and gritty, on a hot day in the early summer. I saw a boy sitting at his lemonade stand. His hand-written sign said a cup of lemonade was 25 cents. I almost stopped. Seth and Laura used to do lemonade stands, and one year – when they said they were raising money to give their parents an anniversary gift -- they made almost $100. (Lesson here: people give to people with a cause.)

Normally, though, lemonade stands don’t make a lot of money. After getting someone to front the initial investment, the young entrepreneur can be on his or her own, replenishing supplies out of the profits. But the profits will be modest.

The street corner where the little boy had set up his stand was not the tree-lined university campus where Seth and Laura made their killing in the lemonade market. This was a place of cracked pavement, car exhaust, weeds in the hedges, that sort of thing. It was a hot day. You could say, then, that that little boy was a prophet: he saw that his block was the sort of place where people would need a cup of lemonade. He saw his street corner, not as we would see it, as a dusty, God-forsaken no man’s land that we speed by, but as a place where people would stop and drink some lemonade, and he’d get a quarter and maybe a nice conversation out of it. That little boy saw hope on his street corner. He saw his street corner the way God sees his street corner.

No one sets out to be a prophet; prophets can only be recognized from the outside, when people see their prophet-nature in what they say and what they do. That little boy didn’t set out to be a prophet; he just set out a lemonade stand. But he is a prophet. He sees his neighborhood as it is going to be. The little boy is a prophet of the resurrection.

Our story from Genesis is another story of water and hope – of water and hospitality as investments in the future. As we continue the story of Abraham and his descendants, we see that the hospitality shown by Rebekah to the stranger is a sign of her blessedness – and that her hospitality brings a blessing to Abraham’s whole family. Rebekah will marry Isaac, and the promise that God made to Abraham – that his descendants would number as the stars in the heaven – takes one step closer to coming true.

We are delighted that we have these two little girls here today, so we can continue our own story of water and blessing and hope for the future. Children are a sign that there is more to come. They are the new life promised by God to all of us. They shake us up, challenge us, teach us new things and bring us to the brink of exasperation. We gather today to bless them as they have blessed us. We douse them with water – that same water Rebekah drew from the well, that same water from which the little boy on the dusty street corner made his lemonade – and welcome them into this household that we dare to call the household of God. We promise to take care of them and support them and hold them close and let them go when they are grown. We promise to teach them about God’s promises to us: that God is always renewing life, that God is always with us, that God is always leading us forth to new pathways and peoples and adventures, and that God will always, always, welcome us home.

Proper 9-A + Baptism           7/6/2014
Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67
Psalm 45:11-18
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Summer is a time for rest and recreation – for sitting with family and friends – for re-connecting with the
beauty of all God has made. God built the desire for rest into our very essence, for in the creation story we know, famously, that God rested on the seventh day. Augustine, theologian and bishop of the church’s early centuries puts our innate longing for rest and for God together:

"You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."[i]

Augustine reminds us that we are part of the creation in which God delights, and that no matter how much we do what God would have us NOT do, God has created us with a homing device, as it were: the true rest we seek we find at home, and our home, our hearts’ home, is with God. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

Our Old Testament and Gospel lessons would seem, on the face of it, to have nothing to do with each other. Matthew gives us some sayings of Jesus; in Genesis we continue the story of how Isaac, son of the patriarch Abraham, and also a patriarch-to-be, got himself a wife.

These lessons do have something in common: they talk about rest, Sabbath rest, rest that leads to salvation.
In the desert lands of the Near East, where one finds water one finds salvation.

A river flows through the garden of Eden, and later splits into four rivers, which flowed to the corners of the earth. For the inhabitants of the arid ancient near east, water is a restoration of Eden. … In the Bible, if you’ve found abundant water, you’ve found your way back to paradise. If you find water, you’ve entered sabbath.[ii]

Isaac, the one God promised to be the father of many nations, is looking for a wife, a worthy partner with whom to fulfill this promise. And where does he (or the servant he sent) find her? At a well. This is not just a story about an ancient version of This is a story of God fulfilling God’s promises with the abundance of flowing water, an oasis in the desert, the living water that leads to eternal life.

And what is Jesus saying? Don’t miss that well in the desert. Don’t miss the signs that point to it. Don’t miss out on your chance for the abundant life! What will it take for us to recognize Jesus for who he is? He points to the contrast between John the Baptist, the forerunner – the ascetic, desert-hardened one who first brought the Good News of this new world. “You called him demon-possessed!” Jesus says. And then he goes on, “And then here I am! I eat and drink, I hang out with sinners and unsavory people. I party with everybody! I bring the same message as John, and yet you pay no attention to me, either! You think you are so wise? Hah!” Listen to how another Biblical scholar interpreted what Jesus said:

… sit out the dance in your pseudo-wisdom if you want to, but the blind are seeing, the deaf are hearing, the lepers are made new, the dead are raised, and the poor have finally heard some music they can kick up their heels to – and that is the essence of wisdom...[iii]

We have two beautiful children to thank today for reminding us of the promises that water symbolizes, and the joy that water brings. I bet you all have been dipping more than your toes in the sacred waters of Skaneateles. We thank you for bringing some of that party here to us. In your baptisms today you are helping all of us re-connect with the springs of the water of life – with the promises God made to us at creation, that we, created in the image of God, are good.

In the waters of baptism we find our salvation. We renew those original promises of creation. We can lay
down our burdens, Jesus says, at the wellspring in the desert, and there we will find rest. We will find eternal life. We will find a terrific party – a feast to end all feasts. There at the well, we can put things in proper perspective. We can leave behind our tortured lives, doing what we know we should not. We can let our troubles just dry out there on the hot sand. We can forget our tension and anger, and take on the gentleness and humility that Jesus offers. We can gather the children in our arms, and see in them that God’s promises for our lives – for life itself – are fulfilled. We can cast off all our restlessness, for here, at this well of refreshment, of easy burdens and light duties, our hearts can finally find their rest.

[i] The Confessions of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo:
[ii] Peter J. Leithart, from Blogging Toward Sunday, July 6 (6/30/2008) in Theolog, the blog of The Christian Century:
[iii] From “Sacred Rest” by Kate Huey, from Weekly Seeds, the Bible study blog of the United Church of Christ: Kate Huey quotes Thomas Long’s commentary on the Gospel of Matthew from the Westminster Bible Companion Series