Nevertheless, She Persisted: Words of Hope after Charlottesville

Remarks shared at The Community Lament and Hope Gathering

“We Stand Together: We Remember Charlottesville”
Second Baptist Church, 1717 Benson Avenue, Evanston, IL

If you prefer to listen to some of the service - and I hope you will - this video includes Cantor Susan Lewis Friedman of Beth Emet Synagogue singing "From a Distance," followed by readings from the Holy Writings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  My words follow (14:28-21:33) and then the words of Dr. Nancy Bedford from Reba Place finish out the video. Thank you to Second Baptist Church choir member, Wendy Weaver for the video.
The gospel reading for this Sunday in many of our churches will come from Matthew’s Gospel It is the story of a Canaanite woman –a woman from the region we now know as Syria.  This non-Jewish woman came to Jesus seeking healing for her sick daughter.  But, as the story goes, Jesus ignores her.  She then begins shouting after Jesus’ followers for help.  So, they come to Jesus – not to ask for help on her behalf but to ask for help for themselves.  “Jesus, send this woman away. She is bothering us.” So Jesus tries to do so. Yes, Jesus tries to push this woman aside saying, “She is not one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. She is not one of my people.  She doesn’t look like me, she doesn’t talk like me, she doesn’t have her papers in order, she doesn’t love the right kind of people, her skin is too dark – no, she is not one of mine to care for.”  But she cries out again saying, “Lord, help me.”  Then Jesus calls her a dog – yes, Jesus calls her a dog.  Nevertheless, she persisted and said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  And Jesus answers, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Now this is an odd story isn’t it?  It’s a story that doesn’t show Jesus in a very good light.  Sure, he comes around in the end. . . but not until he has already ignored this woman and then, even worse, hurled insults at her.  Jesus hurls insults at a woman who wants nothing more than the same compassionate love and healing which Jesus offers to his fellow Jews. 
Now, I have a bag that reads, “Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.”  Problematic grammatical construct aside, I think the message is right on.  Rights are not a zero-sum game. And this Canaanite woman knows this.  She knows that if Jesus offers healing for her daughter there will still be healing available for Jesus’ followers – and then some.  What’s more? She knows that all she needs is a crumbs’ worth of Jesus’ healing – she is willing to settle for the scraps-from-the-table healing of Jesus - in order for her daughter to be made well. She knows, she trusts, she believes that there is more than enough of God’s loving compassion and healing available for all.  And this Canaanite woman has the courage to look Jesus in the eye and teach him what she knows to be true.  And Jesus learns.
Now in the Christian tradition, there is one primary thing we are told we should do.  Just one thing.  Follow Jesus.  And what I love about this odd passage in Matthew’s gospel is that it shows us that part of following Jesus is being willing to learn.  Jesus learns because of his interaction with a woman who is completely unlike himself.  And herein lies our hope.  Look around you tonight. There are not two of us here who come from the same circumstances.  We may have more similarities than differences, but tonight I want you to see the differences because those differences are what open us up to the possibility of new insights, new ways of being in the world, new ways of acting and reacting in the world, new ways of creating in this world – creating community, creating beloved community together.
And we can look at what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend and – if we’re willing to be honest – what has been happening throughout our nation’s history -  whether it is through an uprising of white supremacist neo-Nazis, politicians trying to pass transphobic legislation, the words of a President which seem hell-bent on division rather than unity, or the more subtle yet pervasive daily oppression that is the result of deep-rooted systemic racism in our own neighborhoods. We can look at it, we can name it for the sin that it is and, if we are willing, we can listen to and learn from the different voices around us and discover that we all are seeking the same things –safety, love, acceptance, peace.  And like Jesus, we can learn from someone else that these are not limited commodities.  Safety, love, acceptance, peace – not pie – there is enough for all of us.  And there is hope.  Because look around you.  There, in the face of the person next to you, there is hope.  There in the hands and feet of the person in front or behind you, there is hope.  There, within your heart, within your mind, there is hope.
I want to conclude my comments tonight with the words of a 16th century Christian mystic, Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.
You and I. We are the healing, the love and the hope. And we are more than enough.


Seeing the Forest and the Trees

Feast of the Transfiguration

Last Tuesday evening, a few of us were gathered at the lakefront for Lectionary at the Lakefront. Nothing unusual – it happens every Tuesday: just a handful of people meeting to read the Gospel lesson for the coming Sunday and to discuss the ways in which it speaks to us and to our lives.  And so this last Tuesday, a member of our group was reading this passage from Luke’s gospel and just as they read the verse that says, “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” – just as they finished uttering that sentence, I heard people cheering and clapping and I looked toward the sound to see a man riding a unicycle and juggling.[1]  But cheering and clapping seems to be exactly the kind of response that the transfiguration of Jesus should elicit, right? I mean it’s like the best kind of magic trick there is.  The only thing better might have been if he had disappeared before their very eyes – but then, that’s the Ascension and a topic for another day.  So he doesn’t disappear. Instead, his appearance changes and though Peter and John and James didn’t break out into applause it is clear that at least one of them – Peter – was duly impressed.  Peter recognized that this was something big, something different, something amazing.  And so he pulled out his cell phone, took some photos and was just about to post them on Instagram – he briefly thought about using Snapchat but he wanted to create a memory that would really last.  But just before he tapped the “share” button on his phone, a voice from the cloud interrupted him to say, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”[2] For those of you not quite up to speed on this technology, I’ll go back a few centuries:  Peter saw this amazing sight and said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”[3]
I don’t know about you, but I have a knack for missing the forest for the trees – for seeing or hearing something, sometimes in great detail, but still missing the point of what it is I am seeing or hearing.  The Biblical witness tells us that the disciples were like that too – even Peter upon whose rock the church would ultimately be built frequently missed the point.  Jesus has pulled aside just three of his disciples – Peter, John and James – and invited them to join him on the mountain to pray.  I like to think that Jesus knew exactly what it is that they would see and that this is precisely why they were invited.  And while it is clear from Peter’s comments that at least he – if not all three of the witnesses – didn’t understand what he was seeing and simply wanted to commemorate it with a monument – an historical marker you might see along the road on a summer vacation, what is also clear is that the moment is as life changing for Peter as it is physically transformative for Jesus.  Because what begins as an offer to build monuments, ends with a decision to keep silent and to tell no one of what they had seen.[4]
I imagine if Peter, John and James had shared their witness with the other disciples later the same day or early the next, it would have been met with much the same response as I heard coming from the eye witnesses to the unicycle-riding juggler at the lakefront – oohs and aahs and much applause for yet another amazing feat. They all would have focused on the event and missed the meaning, they would have missed the forest for the trees.  For this event – the Transfiguration of Jesus – like all of the events of Jesus’ life – the healings, the teachings, the miracles – find their fullness of meaning in death and resurrection of Jesus.  Peter, John and James received a clue from that voice from the cloud declaring, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” but they needed yet to witness the rest of the story in order to more fully understand its meaning. 
Most biblical scholars agree that the author of the Gospel of Luke is the same as the author of the Acts of the Apostles.  And while Luke’s gospel ends and the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles begins with the post-resurrection ascension of Jesus, the book then continues with  the story of what the disciples and early apostles did after that.  Specifically, in the 2nd chapter of Acts, we have recorded what is perhaps the first sermon of Peter:
“Listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. . . he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. . . This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. . . Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah.”[5]   
This same Peter – awestruck at the sight of the Transfiguration, ready to build a monument – now, in the days after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, sees the forest for the trees.  This same Peter ready to post photos on Facebook of Jesus in his dazzling white robes now proclaims the Gospel and demands his listeners “Repent and be baptized . . . so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[6]
As Jesus was physically transformed on the mountain with Peter, John and James as his witness; so too each of us is transformed through the waters of baptism, transformed into God’s chosen, God’s beloved.  Will we only take photos to memorialize that moment of transformation in our lives or will we live fully into the promises we made when we entered the waters of baptism to come fully alive “in the power of [Christ’s] resurrection” – “confessing the faith of Christ crucified, proclaiming his resurrection, and sharing” in “his eternal priesthood” through our words and our actions?[7]
I am blessed to serve as your pastor, to serve alongside a people who through your daily work demonstrate again and again your decision to live fully in the power of Christ’s resurrection through your service to St. Mark’s as a part of the team that makes worship happen – lectors, ushers, altar guild, choir members – or as a volunteer in the office or through service on the vestry or teaching our young people.  You demonstrate again and again your decision for being fully alive in the power of Christ’s resurrection through your service to the community by raising more than $1000 to ensure that Evanston school children go back to school equipped with the supplies they need to succeed, by feeding our hungry neighbors, by hosting the homeless in our parish house by your engagement with other agencies throughout this city and beyond. It is a blessing to serve alongside a people who are fully alive in Christ’s resurrection, a people who – more days than not – have the vision to see the forest and the trees.

[1] Luke 9:29.
[2] Luke 9:35.
[3] Luke 9:33.
[4] Luke 9:36b.
[5] Acts 2:22-36.
[6] Acts 2:38.
[7] Book of Common Prayer, 306, 308.


Come to me, all you that are weary . . . . it's not about relaxing!

Sermon for Proper 9A (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”[1]  Oh, how comforting those words are. And how apt for a long summer day in July --- especially for those of us who are privileged to get a little more rest at this time of the year – perhaps heading out on a long vacation or working “summer hours” or having time off from school.  “Come to me, all you that are weary. . . I will give you rest.”  At first, it seems to be an invitation to settle into some Sabbath rest.  Or maybe it’s just that my mind wants to go to that place of quietness and solitude with God. Earlier in the week, I noted Eugene Peterson’s tweet “Sabbath is the time set aside to do nothing so that we can receive everything” and I thought, yes, Sabbath, yes, rest . . .  and I imagined being in that place of restfulness. [2]  Perhaps I was so quick to latch onto his words because in just two days, Andrea and I will leave for vacation, a time that we both hope will be restful, indeed. 
But, back to our text:  for those who want to connect Jesus’ invitation to “come to me . . . and I will give you rest” with the respite that Sabbath offers, we need to stop now because we are taking those words completely out of context.  It’s like reading in Scripture where it says, “Show no pity” and then basing all of your decisions on those three words pulled out of their larger context in the book of Deuteronomy, let alone their larger context in the entire biblical canon![3]  Because here’s the deal: this passage from the gospel of Matthew is not about Sabbath rest.  Rather it is about how one lives one’s life day to day.  It is about a way of doing, not a way of dawdling.
And our first clue is that this section of Matthew begins with a description of how ridiculously obtuse we humans can be.  Even when the facts are clearly set before us, we manage somehow to completely ignore them or to distort them to suit our present needs.  Jesus describes the ways in which the leaders in first-century Israel were doing just that.  When they heard children are in the town square playing dance music, they just passed on by. [4]   When they saw people wailing in the streets, perhaps crying out for justice, they ignored them.[5]  When they saw John the Baptist they ignored everything he had to say and focused instead on the way he dressed, the foods he ate and every other aspect of his non-traditional life style choices and declared “he has a demon! He’s crazy!” and, in that way, tried to persuade others to ignore him too. [6]  When they saw Jesus and the way in which he openly dined with the tax collectors and sinners, they ignored his invitation to do likewise and instead declared him to be a drunken fool because really, who, if sober, would associate with such social outcasts?[7]
Jesus has a strong word for these folks who failed to see what’s right in front of them.  He tells them that God has hidden these things from them and has, instead, revealed them to infants.[8]  And who are these infants? They are the very tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus associates and even more – the sick, the lame, the widows, the orphans - these are the infants who are able to see Jesus for who he is.  And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Because who more than those who “have been made weary by a world that fails to comprehend the burden of injustice” are in a better position to hear and respond to one who reaches out to them and says, God wants you to be well or God wants to give you rest.[9]  But it is not rest from doing – it is not Sabbath rest. No, it is a rest that one finds by following the way of Jesus rather than following the ways of the world.  And that is why immediately after Jesus’ invitation to find rest in him, he says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”  For those of us who are not from rural areas, a yoke may need a bit of explanation.  It is a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to a plow or a cart that they are to pull.  In other words it is a tool one puts on animals to help them do work – work that the farmer wants for them to do.  It is not a tool to help the animals rest!  So in this passage, Jesus is telling his followers – especially those who have been cast out by the world - to take off the yoke of the world – a yoke that for some is forced upon us through abuse and injustice and a yoke that for others among us is gladly accepted – even pursued - as we fall for the promises of a quick-fix to happiness, to health, to wealth, to independence, to popularity.
So Jesus says, let that go.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.” Put that all down.  And accept instead the yoke of Jesus:  a yoke that binds us one to another, a yoke that in the hands of Jesus will guide us in the ways of Jesus, a yoke that will give us the strength and the stamina to work alongside God and one another to bring about God’s reign on earth.  Rev. Lance Pape describes this yoke as “a purpose that demands your all and summons forth your best.”[10] Pape goes on to say that putting on the yoke of Jesus means working “to see God’s Kingdom realized . . . toward a certain future in which all of God’s dreams will finally come true.”[11]  Accepting the yoke of Jesus means working from wherever we are to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.  Accepting the yoke of Jesus means persevering in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord.   It means proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. It means seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  Putting on the yoke of Jesus means striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.  In other words, accepting the yoke of Jesus is what each of us has done in our baptism.  And all of this, to be sure, is a far cry from the rest that many of us may have been thinking of when we first heard this familiar passage. 
And so while the temptation to hear this passage as an invitation to enjoy the long days of summer by relaxing at the beach with a good book, the rewards of choosing once again to take on the yoke of Jesus are far greater and will last much longer.  The promise of the yoke of Jesus is a new freedom and a new happiness that is not fleeting.   The promise of walking in the yoke of Jesus is certainty about our purpose in the world because we will be acting out of the very purpose for which God created us.  And we will come to know peace and serenity and rest for our souls.[12] 

[1] Matthew 11:28.
[2] Eugene Peterson (@PetersonDaily), July 5, 2017, 6:16 AM.
[3] Cf. Deuteronomy 19:13a, 19:21a, 25:12b.
[4] Matthew 11:16b.
[5] Matthew 11:17.
[6] Matthew 11:18.
[7] Matthew 11:18-19a.
[8] Matthew 11:25.
[9] William Goettler, “Proper 9 (Sunday between July 3 and July 9 Inclusive): Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), Kindle edition, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), location 7697-7701.
[10] Lance Pape, “Proper 9 (Sunday between July 3 and July 9 Inclusive): Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, Homiletical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, location 7795-7799.
[11] Pape, location 7800.
[12] Some may find here a similarity between the Promises of Alcoholics Anonymous as found on pp. 83-84 of The Big Book and the promise of putting on the yoke of Jesus. This is intentional on my part.  The chapter “Taking Action” in The Big Book in which The Promises appear outlines steps 5 through 12 which take an Alcoholic through the steps of letting go of the world’s ‘yokes’ (including the yoke of alcohol dependence) and taking on the yoke of God. The easily remembered 12-step phrase “Let Go, and Let God” was never about not doing the legwork.  It was and is about letting go of the world’s yokes (including our dependence on alcohol) and putting on the yoke of God which will guide us to a new way, a new path, “a new freedom and a new happiness” as “we will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”