Mind Messing – at Church of All Places and on a Wednesday of All Times

I went to church today and once again, the Gospel and Jesus messed with my mind and heart.  And of all places, it was at an Episcopal Church and the Word was brought by an old white guy.  Who knew such miracles could happen!?

Each week Bruton Parish Episcopal Church offers a mid-week service of Holy Communion.  It’s about as traditional as you can get: Bruton Parish is located on Duke of Gloucester Street in the heart of historic Colonial Williamsburg and dates back to 1715; the liturgy is from The Book of Common Prayer with its florid language; the meal is wine and those dry communion wafers that have no taste, stick to the roof of your mouth, and sometimes remind me more of styrofoam than the Savior.

Today’s Gospel lesson and the homily (fancy pants word for a sermon) focused on St. Matthew.  In the Christian Church calendar, this is his feast day (the last time I went to Bruton Parish for this service, the focus was on St. Bartholomew’s feast day; I appreciate the Church’s odd sense of humor that a man flayed to death is the patron saint of leather workers – but that’s for another blog post perhaps).

The Gospel reading for today was Matthew 9:9-13.  Here’s the text, just in case you haven’t memorized the Bible yet:

 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.  While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (New International Version)

The presiding priest made the familiar point that as a tax collector Matthew would have been seen as an outsider to avoid, the scum of the earth in the eyes of many, someone not to be welcomed at anyone’s dinner table and definitely not someone whose party you would attend.

But Jesus is not just anyone, thank God.  He sees Matthew, apparently values him, perceives Matthew’s need and ability, and attends his party.  And when the local clergy association has a conniption fit Jesus says he’s come specifically for people like Matthew, and then gives them a homework assignment: learn the meaning of mercy (maybe that’s where Pope Francis learned some of his holy heart lessons).

The point of the story in Matthew’s Gospel?  There are no outsiders; all have value and are beloved; all count; all lives matter, including those we think don’t.  To build his case, the priest referenced today the end of Matthew’s story when Jesus calls his followers to go into all the world (Matthew 28).

And then came the slam dunk that left me reeling: he retold Jesus’ story of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25), which says simply that our eternal salvation depends on how we treat those we think don’t count – the hungry or thirsty, the sick or imprisoned, the naked or the stranger  All those outsiders on the margins matter to God and we more fully reflect the image of God when they become the focus of our care as well.

If there are no outsiders, if we are all in this together, if we are all embraced by God’s arms no matter who we are, then boundaries and borders disappear.  That sounds good, right?  Until it hit me upside the head.  That includes the immigrant, the refugee, the stranger at our border seeking a home, healing, and hope.  “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  Oh, my good Lord.

There Jesus goes again, messing with my mind and heart, calling me to see things differently with new eyes, with God’s eyes.  And it’s Matthew’s fault this time (thanks to that old white preacher who just stood there talking while the universe shifted beneath my feet).  You see, Matthew’s Gospel is the one that tells about the birth of Jesus the refugee whose family must flee for their lives; Matthew’s gives us that sweet picture of Jesus the undocumented family member who shows up at Egypt’s border without a passport fleeing danger and death; Jesus the immigrant who will live in Egypt not knowing the language or customs or practicing that community’s religion; Jesus the suspect outsider.

What if Jesus, Joseph and Mary had been denied entry?  What if the Egyptians had built a fence to keep out strangers like them?  What if the police showed up one day at their house in downtown Cairo (you can visit a church in that city that is built over the traditional site of their home there) and deported them back to that fearful place they fled?

What if Jesus is still standing at our border, at the fence, his life in danger still?  The truth is, Matthew’s Jesus still is.  That thought, that image from today is what haunts me.

No wonder the political and religious leaders of his day put Jesus on a cross.  He didn’t get crucified because he was nice, but because he was a threat.  And today my preconceived notions and perspectives were threatened.  All I wanted to do was go to church and meet Jesus.  That happened, but not on my terms.  That’s why I am still in the process of conversion, still doing the hard homework of learning mercy in order to see with God’s eyes and to love with God’s heart and to let God set the agenda.  I am yet a work in process of transformation.

Pope Francis has called on all Roman Catholic institutions to sponsor at least one refugee family.  Maybe he’s assuming that if such hospitality is offered, Jesus will be there, too.  What if all of us who claim to follow Jesus were to take up that holy calling, and Protestant and Eastern Orthodox congregations, campus ministries, colleges and universities, hospitals and retirement facilities also offered their open doors, open minds, open hearts?  What kind of transformation and blessing would transpire, not only for the welcomed but for us standing at the door?    I think part of the appeal of the Pope is that he seems to take Jesus seriously; he is the fragrance of Christ (to borrow a New Testament image) in a stuffy, stinky world.  What might happen if the world saw Francis joined by legions of Jesus’ lovers, also open to seeing and serving this refugee Redeemer, the immigrant incarnating the Holy One, the stranger Savior?

When Jesus was crucified, it happened outside the city’s walls.  Ultimately, even to the end, Jesus himself was the outsider, the outcast, and cast-off.  And if I am going to find him today, I better go and stand there, too.  This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, thanks be to God.

 

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Table Manners: Sermon Based on Mark 7:24-27

 Following the murders in Charleston, SC, of nine Christians engaged in Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church, the bishops of that denomination called on people of faith across our land to focus the weekend of September 5-7 on Confession, Repentance, Prayer and Commitment to End Racism.  As is often the case, the lectionary of readings for this Sunday provided a providentially apt set of readings relevant to this prayerful call by the bishops (which was echoed by Young Jin Cho, my own United Methodist bishop here in Virginia.  Here is what the Spirit brought me to say as I sought to bear witness to God’s Word yesterday at Highland Springs UMC in Highland Springs, VA.  

I have a confession to make – in 42 years of ministry I’ve never preached on this text. I avoided it because quite frankly, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Jesus. His table manners might’ve been socially acceptable in his day but they’re still rather crude and rude. If we like gentle Jesus meek and mild, always caring and kind, he’s not here. It’s troubling and unsettling and takes us where we’d rather not go.

In Mark’s story Jesus is traveling in the area of modern day Lebanon. He needs to recharge his batteries and doesn’t want anyone to know where he is. But here comes this woman looking for help. Poor Jesus can’t get a break or a day off.

Mark describes her as Syro-Phoenician, a Gentile. The Greek says she’s a Hellenist; inMatthew’s gospel she’s even worse – a Canaanite. In other words she’s the worst kind of outsider. In the Bible Canaanites are always the bad guys; in Jewish history the Hellenists caused some of the worst persecutions Jews ever faced. And Jews weren’t really sure Gentiles were human, so Jesus’ harsh attitude toward this woman fit right in with his time and culture.
Add to that, she’s a woman. In Jesus’ day women and men who aren’t family just don’t deal with each other; women know their place and stay in it. But here she is, uninvited into the house looking for Jesus out to ask a favor.

Now she is respectful and humble; Mark says she falls atJesus’ feet to beg him to heal her little girl. Who could turn away and not feel pity for her? Apparently Jesus can.

And he does it in a rather crass and cruel way. In our reading Jesus says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s as if Jesus says, “Don’t bother me or waste my time. I’ve got better things to dothan deal with people like you.” Ouch.

One more thing really stings and hurts here. We see dogs and puppies as cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy. We love them. That’s not how they’re seen in Jesus’ day. They’re wild scavengers; curs to be kicked aside and chased away. Dogs are more trouble than they’re worth. Basically Jesus calls this woman and her daughter dogs, female dogs. At its worst Jesus may be guilty of using the B word on them. Truth be told, Jesus sounds like a sexist racist.

But there is good news here. I love that Jesus’ is so human. We Christians claim a great mystery: Jesus is both fully divine and fully human.   Sometimes we want to smooth the raw edges in our picture of Jesus, but scripture says he was like us in every way, except without sin. He’s a creature of his own day and time; a first century Jew, part of a culture that sees women and non-Jews in a particular way. There’s no sin in that. The sin would be to stay that way when given a better, wiser way that’s more like God’s ways.

That’s what this woman does for Jesus. She opens his eyes wider to see more clearly. She’s the only person in the New Testament who gets the best of Jesus in an argument. I love that. Jesus rudely dismisses her; but she’s a Momma in need and won’t take “No” for an answer with her little girl’s life on the line. Jesus tells her, “It’ not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she comes right back, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Take that, Jesus. Even Gentiles, Syro-Phoenicians, Canaanites, women and dogs have a place at God’s table of grace and mercy and healing and hope.

Just before this story, Jesus has a huge slap fight with Jewish religious leaders who are too focused on doing everything just so. Jesus rants at them, “You are so busy holding on to human traditions that you let go of God’s commandments.” And here’s this woman holding Jesus’ feet to the fire challenging him for doing the very same thing. Whoa.

Jesus is like us in every way except sin. The sin would be for Jesus to hold onto the human tradition of treating some better than others, as if there are 1st and 2nd class citizens. Thanks to this woman, Jesus’ very human eyes are opened to see that God’s ways are even greater and broader and wider than Jesus first thought. And Jesus changes his ways and his mind and his heart to match up to God.  He is converted and tells the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

Typically Jesus connects healing with faith; here it’s the woman’s reasoning that produces the miracle. Her logic brings the change not only to her daughter, but to Jesus, too.

I love the way Mark tells his tale. In chapter 6 Jesus feeds 5000 Jews with bread and fish. In this chapter Jesus says the children’s bread shouldn’t be given to dogs but his mind is changed. That’s what conversion is. And in chapter 8 Jesus again provides bread to a crowd., but this time it’s Gentiles he feeds because he has compassion on them. Even Jesus can grow to see God’s ways in new ways; he’s blessed because of this woman God uses to make it happen.

That’s good news for us, too, because we’re Gentiles. We’re the outsiders Jesus might have missed without her opening his eyes and heart.

And there’s more good news. If the Son of God can grow in his understanding of God’s ways, so can we. If Jesus can be blessed through the honest wise words of another, so can we. We need each other; we need church folks to be open and honest with us to challenge and stretch us to live more fully for God.  That’s what it means to be church, the Body of Christ together.

Some of us grew up in a time and place and that was deeply racist and sexist. There’s no sin in that. The sin is to stay there. Jesus doesn’t stay with his limited attitudeafter his encounter with this woman in need, and we don’t have to stay tied to old, small ways, either.

Our world still doesn’t fully reflect God’s broad bright ways; Jesus still groans as he heals. Racism and prejudice are alive among us, maybe in our own hearts. Some say we have to say “Black Lives Matter” because in many ways our culture says they really don’t matter.

After the racially hate-filled murders of nine of our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Carolina, African Methodist Episcopal Church bishops asked Christians across US to join today in confession, repentance, prayer and commitment to end racism. Our own Bishop Cho made that call to us as well.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can’t stay deaf and mute to this cancer still eating at our soul. Healing comes as we listen and learn from those who are different, with different life experiences. Blessing comes as we allow ourselves like the Lord Jesus to be challenged and changed by truth heard in unexpected places.  In my own life I thank God for the honest hard words and the humble life of a guy named Ben Nelson, my pastor during my teen years. God used him to convert and change this narrow-minded racist boy toward the better way of Christ. It’s true – the gospel really is that powerful and wonderful.

This winter I talked with some Randolph-Macon College students of color about their life on that largely white campus. It wasn’t easy to hear what they said, but I’m glad they told me the truth. I told them not to stay silent, and one woman said that’s hard: white folks can feel guilty and she didn’t want to hurt our feelings. But I said I hoped she’d speak up anyway because that’s how healing and conversion and better days come.

Today we come to be fed today at this table where the Lord is again present. Let us confess and repent of whatever keeps us from walking God’s wide way of grace for all; ask for healing so we won’t be deaf to the stories of our brothers and sisters and silent no more in the face of racism or prejudice. Like the woman long ago let us fall on our knees and ask for mercy for us and our land and make a new commitment to the loving way of Jesus; then our table manners will be worthy of the One who calls and heals and welcomes us all, thanks be to God.