A Lawnmower, Three Questions, and an Exam: Sermon Based on Matthew 5:38-48

     It’s a sure sign of spring when our lawnmower goes to Ace Hardware for its yearly tune-up. I did that last week and soon I’ll get a call that it’s ready and we’ll be set for the summer. I trust the mechanic so I know it will be totally perfect. That doesn’t mean my mower dropped straight out of heaven, or that it’s the only perfect one in the world, or that I’m saying anything bad about your mower. It’s much simpler. My mower’s perfect because it does what it’s supposed to do, what it’s made for. I put in gas, crank it up, it runs smoothly on all cylinders, I put it in gear and voilà, grass gets cut. It was made for grass cutting and that what it does. It’s awesome, perfect. If I described it in New Testament Greek I’d say my mower is teleios. It does completely what it was created by its maker to do, no more and no less. It is what it is: a mower, exactly perfect in every way.
     Which brings us to Jesus’ teaching today from the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew presents Jesus as the authority figure to follow him and give first place in our lives. Matthew does this in some subtle and creative ways. Again and again he calls to mind key Old Testament people and events and connects them to Jesus. Here Matthew wants to link Jesus to Moses, the most important person to Jews. Jesus is on a mountain, like Moses when he receives the 10 commandments on Mt. Sinai. But here Jesus speaks with more authority than Moses. Five times Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…,” and follows with “But I say to you…”
     Clearly this Jesus is more important, a greater authority. His teachings on murder and anger, adultery and lust, vows and promises, revenge and enemies take us deeper – into our hearts and motives in a more radical way than a simple list of do’s and don’ts to stay on God’s good side. And the punch line comes at the end: we’re to be like God, the God Jesus shows us in his suffering love. Listen again, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” There’s that word again: perfect, teleios: reaching your purpose and goal, aligned with God’s will and ways; grown up and mature with excellence in virtue, being all you were created to be. As another translation puts it, “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Common English Bible) or as in Peterson’s The Message, “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you;” or as Luke’s Gospel puts this teaching in somewhat different words, “Be merciful and compassionate just like your Father is” (Common English Bible; Today’s English Version)
     Here’s Jesus’ call to us: we are children of God, so act like it. From the very beginning of the Bible story, that is who we are. In Genesis’ creation story God says, “Let us make humans in our image according to our likeness. So God made us that way and blessed us. And so to be perfectly who we were made to be, we are to be like God – loving, compassionate, merciful. As Leviticus says we are to be holy, like God is holy as we defend the weak and poor and watch out for those who have no one to watch out for them. When we live in the same wild and crazy way as this God who forgives enemies and is gracious and kind to both good and evil, we are perfect. We are who we are made to be: children of our Father in heaven.
     But you say, “Preacher, we can’t do that! We’re not perfect and never will be; it’s crazy even to try.” But then why would Jesus expect this of us? Is he setting us up for some cruel, practical joke, like Lucy challenging Charlie Brown and always pulling the ball away to show that we’re chumps? Or does Jesus really mean it? Does Jesus believe we can be perfect?
     John Wesley believed it. Our father in the faith often preached on Christian perfection or being made perfect in love or growing in holiness. Wesley said God would help us to become what God expected of us. Nothing is impossible for God so God can be trusted to help us become what we were created to be. Now that doesn’t mean that we’ll always do the right thing, or get every answer right on an exam or know the Pick 6 numbers. But with the Holy Spirit’s help and power at work alongside our deep desire, we can in fact be made perfect in love; our every action and desire can be driven by the engine of love for God and others. Even when we mess up, showing love to God and others will be the aim and purpose. That’s what holiness looks like; that’s being made perfect in love. Today every person seeking ordination in The United Methodist Church still answers questions asked of preachers for nearly 275 years, “Are you going on to perfection?” “Yes.” Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this lifetime?” “Yes.” “Are you earnestly striving after it?” “Yes.” In an earlier time every Methodist was asked those questions with the same expected answers. As the bishop who ordained me asked, “If you’re not going on to perfection, where are you going?”
     Now it’s true: on our own we can’t be perfect. We are sinners, flawed, imperfect, missing the mark no matter how hard we try. But we’re not on our own. Wesley believed God’s grace and Holy Spirit are always at work in our lives and God’s grace can and will do for us what we can’t do ourselves. So Wesley asks, “ Do you expect to be made perfect in love?” That’s God’s work, God’s promise; as St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). Wesley believed such transformation could happen instantly but for most it was a gradual process; he was convinced he’d met Methodists who were living in a state of perfect love and holiness. I think I attended the funeral of one of those folks; for many years Millie Sunshine Cooper was the Virginia Conference staff person for youth. In the testimony of those leading her service yesterday and in my own personal experience, this humble and dedicated servant of Christ was always motivated and inspired by love for God and love for others on the job and in her daily living up to her last days. Millie may have been somewhat unusual; Wesley thought most believers would be made perfect in love at the moment of death. As I’ve been around dying folks, I’m persuaded he knew what he was talking about; I’ve seen countless folks become one with God in love and mercy at their end.
     But this morning I heard another report of someone who may be living in that state of holiness of life and perfect love. I assume Mohamed Bzeek of Los Angeles is a Muslim, and for the last 20 years he has served as a foster parent to terminally ill children. He has been by the side of nearly a dozen who have taken last breath in his presence. Who does such a thing? Perhaps someone hungry to be like God and to love others with that perfect love. (http://www.npr.org/2017/02/19/516064735/a-foster-parent-for-terminally-ill-children)
     God wants to work this mysterious miracle in our lives. God is on our side, ready to coach and encourage and equip us to become like God, to become love and live in love, to be holy as God is holy. God is not our enemy but a friend; God doesn’t believe we’re just doomed to be what we’ve always been. In high school biology, no matter how long I studied, or how hard I tried I was doomed to D grades. I think the teacher early on decided I was a D student and almost seemed to delight in giving me Ds. And after awhile, I became that D student. I saw myself as that teacher saw me and I gave up, because what was the use?
     I contrast that teacher to one I had in seminary as I studied to be a pastor. Every time I submitted a paper to that professor, there were always challenging questions, and a relentless push to do better. But each time there were also affirmations and encouragement along with new issues raised that made me think more and pulled me closer to excellence. And after awhile I became that student. I didn’t give up; in fact I worked harder, because I knew my professor was for me and saw something I did not see myself and would work tirelessly to get me there.
     That’s the God we see in Jesus, the God who calls us to be made perfect in love, to be the children of God we’re created to be, to do what we’re formed to do – to love God with all we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves with the same mercy and compassion and extravagant grace God has already shown us. It’s a lifetime adventure; we’ll need tune-ups and sharpening and regular upkeep. God will do God’s part; and we have a part, receiving and using God’s sanctifying grace to be transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. My seminary professor tirelessly worked on me week after week, and slowly but surely, with guidance and help I became what I was created to be. In the same way God will work miracles in you and me, with help and guidance along the way. God helps through the church itself with our worship and scripture and prayer and opportunities to love even our enemies and put our faith on the line and into practice. We’re helped by small groups or soul friends who speak the truth in love, and challenge us to holy excellence. Every Christian needs such groups and a soul friend; none of us can make this journey on our own or alone. I didn’t know it then, but nearly 40 years ago here I first met my soul friend who still challenges and encourages me to be better, to be who I am created to be, to be a Christian in word and deed, to be like Jesus. And help can come through the Daily Examen, an ancient form of holy self-exam in the presence of the God who wants nothing for us but life and our good.** In God’s strong and loving arms, at day’s end we can take 15-20 minutes to be still, give thanks for God’s goodness, grace and guidance during the day, look back over a day and how well we lived for Christ or where we fell short, confess our shortcomings and our need for help, and look forward to tomorrow’s opportunities and challenges. It doesn’t seem like much, about as exciting and routine as cutting the grass. But in such ways, miracles happen and sometimes we even learn holiness and perfection, thanks be to God.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.
** To learn more about the Daily Examen as a devotional practice, go to http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen
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When, Not If: Sermon Based on Matthew 6

          Last week life pretty much slid to a halt here with the gift of God’s special snow Sabbath. But in tens of thousands of churches around the world, other Christians gathered in worship focused on the story of Jesus’ baptism. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, many United Methodists, and other Protestants who follow the lectionary’s three year cycle of Bible readings were once again told Matthew’s story of Jesus’ baptism, how John the Baptist at first didn’t want to go through with it because he thought he was worthy and Jesus told him to do it anyway because it was the right thing to do, how after it was done Jesus saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend on him and everyone heard a voice saying, “This is my own dear Son and I’m pleased with him.”
          What happens next? That same Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, “where the wild things are” and the Devil’s waiting to test him, waiting to see what Jesus’ really made of, and if he’s really able live up to God’s expectations. In that 40-day exam period Jesus fasts and prays. I think that’s so weird: Jesus needs the most strength and to be at his absolute best, and he decides to go without the one thing we count on to fuel ourselves and keep us strong. He steps away from one source of power to be sustained by a greater food and a greater power.
          If that’s good for Jesus maybe it’s good for us, too. If we want to follow the Jesus Way, it’s wise to follow Jesus’ ways. He knows specific practices that help him stay true to God and live out God’s will and purposes. So those practices are going to be helpful to us as well, unless we think we’re smarter than the Teacher. Unless we think we’re stronger and truer to God than Jesus and don’t need his help, then we should stop, listen and learn.
After Jesus comes from the Wilderness testing time he begins to call disciples to follow him and learn from him what real life looks like; in Matthew, Jesus’ first big lesson plan is the Sermon on the Mount, which brings us to today’s scripture. Jesus himself fasts and prays and helps people in need. He’s always in the business of helping others; he prays regularly and at great length; he begins ministry by fasting and praying and at the end, at his final meal with his friends he says he won’t drink again until God acts in new and powerful ways. He’ll face arrest, torture, and execution dry as a desert, trusting God to satisfy his deepest thirst.
          So it’s not surprising that Jesus teaches us pupils how to fast and pray and help others in need; he assumes we want to be closest to him and will pay attention and do as he says. So Jesus says, when you do something for someone else, when you come before God, when go without food or practice some appetite-denying discipline; as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, when you give alms, when you pray, when you fast. Did you hear that? When, not if. Jesus knows from his own experience that if you want to build a life on a lasting foundation, helping, praying and fasting are essential interlocking building blocks. In this new year, you’re digging deeper into this teaching of Jesus so you can practice walking more closely with him and following his steps on the Way of life he sets before us.
          I want to give a shout out Lynne Baab, the author of the book Fasting you’re reading and discussing. She’s provided a very readable resource with good biblical and historical background, and lots of helpful suggestions and guidance. What I especially appreciated was how she helped me to see the how important fasting is inn the global church, especially in Africa, Asia, and South America. Not surprisingly, those areas are also among the most spiritually alive. And even here in the US, congregations and small groups and individuals growing powerfully up into Christ are also deeply committed to fasting and prayer and helping others in need.
          As I prepared for today I looked back on some of my own experiences of fasting, both good and bad, the helpful and what crashed and burned. Bob was the guy who first challenged me and introduced me fasting as something more than a Bible topic to read and discuss. I was working with the youth at Centenary Church in downtown Richmond and Bob was a 20-something, working for CROP, a Church World Service-sponsored ministry committed to feeding hungry people. He’d recently graduated from college and spent his summer working at a refugee camp somewhere in Africa; now he was back home organizing CROP fasts to raise money to feed folks. He was totally passionate, and after 40 years his story that day still haunts me. In that Church World Service sponsored refugee camp, Bob and others distributed food, but sometimes there just wasn’t enough; so over a period of weeks Bob helplessly watched two parents starve one child to death so their other children would get enough to eat. Each day they received enough for four but not for five, so the death of one brought life to the rest. That’s when I decided the church youth and I could go a day without food so a child could have a life.
          As has often been happened for me, those young folks challenged me to be discontent with a C average faith and to keep moving further in and further up into Christ. For years our group fasted and raised funds to feed the hungry and support other local work in keeping with the ways of Jesus such as housing the homeless or serving those in jail or showing gratitude to first responders. Later in life other young adults inspired me to fast for 30 hours with World Vision to feed the hungry; each time I saw Bob, those wretched parents and their starving child.
There are many ways to fast faithfully: a water or juice fast for one to three days; with an Orthodox fast or Daniel fast with a diet limited to fruit, vegetables, or perhaps dairy products, fasts can last up to three weeks. The longest water only fast I ever did was for 60 hours in 2003, when we were on the cusp of war. I fasted with others, which is often helpful, and it aimed to be an act of humble and faithful repentance and sorrow and a hopeful prayer that we might turn from violence. It was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.
          Then there’ve been the busts, the times I failed miserably. I gave up on the fast too easily or got nothing from it because I was doing it for the wrong reasons or just to lose weight. In thinking about those experiences, I had an important insight: There’s a reason Jesus teaches about helping others, praying, and fasting together. These disciplines help support each other and are especially beneficial when woven together to craft a stronger faith and discipleship. Fasting clears a space so in prayer I can listen better to God to receive guidance about best ways to help others. The fasting removes the clutter and clears the background static so I can get a truer reading on what really matters and focus more fully on where God wants me to be of help and service to my sisters and brothers in need.
          Think about this: when you go for an annual physical and the necessary tests associated with it, you fast so your doctor will get the truest and best picture of what’s going in your body. The fast allows for an uncluttered, clear picture of who you truly are, where you’re healthy, where you’re at risk, where you need help to be the best you can be. Fasting does the same thing for us spiritually. Trust me, if you fast you’ll quickly learn where your besetting sins are and where you need help to grow up into Christ.
          A year or so ago after I retired, I talked with my family physician about going off a medication I was taking to deal with anxiety. He thought it was worth a shot and I could go back on it if needed. When I asked how I would know, he said, “Oh, your wife will tell you.” And she did 🙂
          Fasting’s like that – it’s a way God tells us with love where we need help and repair for a whole and holy life. In the prayer that goes with fasting the Great Physician shows us the health of our soul and where we need change in order to spiritually healthy and whole; the Healer helps us move forward in a life focused on what really matters and where our help is most needed so this world looks more like what God intended all along.
          Last week I talked with a William and Mary Wesley alum getting ready to lead a study on the Sermon on the Mount. As we talked she wondered why the Sermon is put together the way it is. Is there a plan or purpose to the way Jesus organizes his thoughts and topics? It’s a great question at least in part because I wasn’t sure there’s a right answer. Her question stayed with me all this week as I prepared to preach on this part of the Sermon. And that’s how the Spirit spoke to me with the hint of an idea.
          You see, after Jesus speaks about helping others and praying and fasting, what follows in the rest of chapter 6 is a series of sayings focusing on trusting God and realizing what truly matters, what’s deeply and eternally important. Jesus talks about storing up heavenly treasure and not earthly riches; he describes our eyes as the body’s lamps concluding, “If the light inside you is dark, you surely are in the dark.” He tells us bluntly that we always have to make choices about whether we’re going to invest in money or God, because we can’t do both; and teaches us to stop worrying because it does no good, and ends with the challenge to make our #1 priority to be about God’s business and to serve God’s purposes, and everything else will take care of itself. My hunch is that Jesus wants us to pray and fast and help others to get clear about all of this, to see things we might otherwise miss, and to know truly and deeply what really matters and to walk that Way, thanks be to God.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

Further Reflections on Dressing for Church

A good sermon engages the listener so s/he continues to think about it long after the final hymn, the benediction and postlude, and the drive home.  Such was the case for me today.

The text was Colossians 3:12-17:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

The preacher rightly and wisely noted that in our baptism, we are clothed in Christ and Christ’s ways, and these virtues should be our attire at all times and in all places – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, gratitude, and above all, love.

For me, the belt that holds all this together is love, and the concluding  injunction summarizes it all: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

The name.  Names define us; they shape us, tell us who we are, identify us both as unique and part of a larger community.  We know ourselves by name; we are known to others by that name; we know we belong when we are known and called by name.  We are no longer strangers, but friends; no longer alone but in community.

The name of the Lord Jesus.  When we act in that name, live in that name, are known by that name, we are defined, formed, self-aware, identified with a particular people – the Body of Christ, the followers of the Jesus Way.  And when we speak or act in the name of the Lord Jesus, we are confessing that Christ has first place in our lives; his is the voice we heed above all others; we act and speak on his behalf; and we re-present him and incarnate him afresh in the world where we live for him.  When we act in that name, live in that name, are known by that name, we are defined, formed, self-aware, identified with a particular person who lived a particular way – Jesus – a first century Jew who put God first in his life; loved God above all else; loved his neighbor recklessly, extravagantly, prodigiously, widely, deeply, passionately, boundlessly, and graciously in the Name of God, i.e., the way God loves us, thereby living up to HaShem, the Name above all names.

In that Name, Jesus incarnates for us other ways of God – mercy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, patience, gentleness, forbearance, humility (the Mighty One, blessed be the Name, gives us freedom to turn toward or away, to be in relationship or not, to choose evil as well as good, even when that breaks the Divine Heart), healing, truth, wisdom, and above all, love.  To be clothed in such virtues is to be truly well-clothed in the classic fashion that never wears out, is always in season, and never goes out of style.

When I was a child, as was the case stated by the other pastor during today Children’s Time, I could always count on getting clothes for Christmas.  Like the pastor, that was rarely my favorite gift as a child.  But “now that I am an adult I have given up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11); I know there is wisdom in receiving such gifts; there is Another who loves me and who knows that what is best for me is not always what I want, but what I need.  I may not always be thrilled to be asked – or expected- to put on forgiveness or patience or kindness or humility (especially in a culture preening itself on pride and self-determination) or all the rest, but in the end, this is the apparel that presents me at my best, and leads me to be at my best.  Indeed, when I am preparing to get dressed in my best attire, I may dread it or moan about it or think it is too much work; but in the end, when the tie is tied and the coat is put on, I feel better, special, uplifted; I find the experience surprisingly but deeply satisfying; and in the company of my wife I feel like I am thoroughly – inside and out – honoring her by showing that I want to be the best I can be so she will be pleased to be in my presence and not embarrassed by it.

I think that applies when we are clothed with these Christlike virtues as well.  They transform us and honor the One to whom our lives are wed as Christ’s Bride (the Church) so He is pleased to be in our presence and is not embarrassed by us or ashamed that we bear His Name.

Typically, as a child the clothes I received as gift each year did not fit; but that was OK in my parents’ opinion.  “You’ll grow into them” was both expectation and promise.  In the same way, discipleship is the expectation and promise that while our lives currently may be too small for the virtues given by the Giver, by grace and the power of the Holy Spirit we will grow into them as we grow up into Christ (Ephesians 4:14 ff.) until we are fit to wear them and they fit us well.

Even today, clothing is an issue for me. There are some things that simply do not go together, and I need my wife to tell me what is appropriate and matches; which combinations do not go together; and the ensembles that never, ever should be worn or seen in public.  There simply are some things that clash with being clothed in Christ: hurtful violence in word or deed; keeping grudges; prejudice; complacency in the face of suffering or poverty; silence before injustice or oppression; seeking revenge; indifference to holiness; mindless spending of time or treasure; selfishness; prideful arrogance; hatred or indifference are never in the wardrobe; they just don’t go.

That’s why I need Church, the community of faith and fellow aficionados of holy attire to hold me accountable; remind me of what season it is and what attire is most appropriate to each setting; tell me the truth when I have a wardrobe malfunction; and inspire me to look my best as Christ’s man. “Clothing makes the man, makes the person,” said today’s preacher and he is right.  Clothing makes the disciple, the follower of Christ, so that we are known as belonging to Him, and being clothed in the virtues presented in the scripture define us, make us who we say we are.

In athletics we know who is on our side, working to achieve the same aims and moving in the same direction.  And we also can clearly see who is not, who is standing in our way or seeking to thwart our efforts to achieve the victory we hope to win.  What distinguishes one from the other is the clothing they wear; the uniform apparel with which they are adorned.

“Who is on the Lord’s side?”  (Exodus 32:26).  Those whose uniform, whose one form, is being formed in Christ’s patience, mercy, kindness, gratitude, forbearance, and all the rest.   That is the winning side, the one to which I want to belong:  the arc of history will bend toward justice; faith, hope and love will prevail; mercy and truth will meet, righteousness and peace will embrace; suffering and sighing will pass away.

 

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.

The Meat of the Matter: Musings on the Flag Especially Addressed to My Fellow Southern Family and Friends

I promise I won’t be blogging every day – that would be crazy.  And exhausting.  But just to try this out for fun, here’s something I wrote last week and posted on Facebook.  We’ll see what happens next.

For me, it’s all about the meat.

Today (Thursday, July 9), the South Carolina House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the State Capitol. Tomorrow at 10 a.m. EDT, with surviving family members of the slain at Mother Emanuel AME Church present, the flag will be lowered for the final time from the pole where it was lowered earlier by Bree Newsome as an act of civil disobedience.  The colors will be fittingly retired to a museum where they will be laid to rest, even though the controversy around it may linger for awhile.
Today, I am particularly proud to be a Southerner, and I am particularly proud of my fellow Southerners in the South Carolina legislature who are doing the right thing. It is not all that needs to be done. This single act cannot ease the abiding grief, ache, and loss of the left behind beloved of the martyrs killed for their colorful faith who were gathered in that basement Bible study when the killer stole into their midst. But it is an act of compassion, rooted in a desire to be part of a new and better day for the South, and for all Americans. And as a person of faith from south of the Mason-Dixon line whose ancestor accompanied Marse Robert all the way to the end of the road of rebellion, I am grateful for each small step on a different road of reconciliation.

I suspect some friends and family might be appalled or saddened, or even wondering if I have betrayed the best of my history and heritage. But for me, it’s all about the meat.

Like many Southerners, in addition to my history and heritage as someone hailing from this particularly precious part of God’s creation, I also am a person of faith who pledges allegiance first and foremost to the Lord of all creation, whose face I have seen in Jesus of Nazareth. While I will always be a child of the South, I am also first and foremost a beloved child of God and citizen of the Realm of God, what some theologians these days call the Kindom of God. In my baptism into Christ, I accepted the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression, and promised first and foremost to serve Christ as my Lord in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races (The United Methodist Book of Worship, 1992). And there’s where the meat comes in.

In the New Testament communities formed by the apostle Paul, at least two wrote to him asking advice about whether it was kosher for Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Even for a Southerner familiar with the beauty and wonder of hyperbole (especially when it comes to jokes, tall tales and fish stories) connecting Corinth and Rome to Charleston might seem a stretch; but stay with me.

The burning questions for those first Christians were 1) if I eat meat that has been sacrificed to a pagan idol, am I being disloyal to Christ, or at the very least serving and honoring two masters? and 2) if I believe these idols are false and non-existent, can I eat the meat conscience-free, despite another believer’s beliefs and misgivings about the practice? When in doubt, those early Christians thought it was wise to seek advice of a wiser soul and so they wrote to Paul, their elder brother in the faith. His counsel can be found in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8.

Paul freely confesses that he has no problem eating such meat; like his “more mature” siblings in the faith he knows the idols supposedly honored by the sacrifice that brought the brisket to the table don’t exist at all; they are illusory, and so there’s no harm in benefiting from the food’s nutritional value. In fact, when it comes to eating meat, you’re free to do as you please.

But Paul also knows his perspective is not shared by all, and his view might be a hindering stumbling block to his “weaker” kinfolk in Christ. And so he advises his correspondents to let liberty be trumped by love. All things are permitted, Paul writes; but not all things are helpful. And so he makes a commitment never to do anything that will cause another to stumble.  If that tasty morsel puts another’s faith and discipleship at risk, he won’t do it.  It’s as pure and simple as that.

Whatever we Southern white folks think is the meaning behind the flag, there is no doubt that it is a stumbling block to our black neighbors and kinfolk. Of course technically we are still free to fly it wherever we want on our private property – in our front yard, on the back of our pick-up truck, on our flexing muscles beneath our tattoo. In Christ we are indeed offered freedom.

But that freedom is always bracketed by the higher law of faith: love for our neighbor.  We Southerners can get antsy when someone tries to tell us what to do or we feel like our honor is at risk; but for those of us who have been marked first and foremost by the cross of Christ and not the St. Andrew’s cross on the Stars and Bars, humility and compassion for others are also noble virtues.  They are not to be taken lightly but lived fully as an act of love for our kinfolk and a sign of loyalty to the One who showed us the measure of true and abiding freedom by kneeling and washing his followers’ feet.  After all, the most free person is the one who doesn’t have to have his way but can make way for another to flourish and prosper.

So the meat of the issue for me is this: if that flag is is getting in the way of moving to a new and better day; if it’s a stumbling block to my Southern sisters and brothers for whom it is a symbol of terror, oppression and  even 1960s resistance to the Civil Rights journey toward Dr. King’s beloved community; then it’s time to furl and lower it forever – not simply from a flagpole in South Carolina, but from our hearts and lives so we can move toward a new future for all where we can all meet as sisters and brothers under the banner of love.