Sunday, September 13, 2020

Sermon: What forgiveness is not (in racial justice) (Sept. 13, 2020)

Full service (which was outside in the park today, with an actual congregation!) is here.  

Pentecost 15A
Sept 13, 2020
Matthew 18:21-35



         All of today’s texts are about one of the most difficult, but also most central aspects of Christian faith: forgiveness. Both God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others. The first reading is the tail end of the Joseph story. A little recap: Joseph is one of Jacob’s 12 sons, and his father’s favorite, so his disgruntled brothers played a trick on him. They sold him into slavery. He ended up in Egypt, and long story short, he became the chief advisor to the king, and thanks to his ability to interpret dreams, he helped the entire country and surrounding countries to get through a seven-year famine. His brothers came to Egypt, not knowing Joseph was there and not recognizing him when the see him. They ask for help, since they, too, had suffered in the devastating drought. Joseph helps them, and finally reveals himself to them, and in a marvelous moment of reconciliation, Joseph forgives his brothers for causing him harm, and invites them back into relationship.

Continuing the theme, in the Gospel, Jesus tells a challenging parable to answer Peter’s question about how many times we should forgive. The parable tells a story about a man who is forgiven a debt of millions of dollars, only to turn around and demand repayment of a debt owed to him of just a few thousand. Jesus warns that such an unwillingness to forgive, when we have been forgiven so much, leads to pain and death.

         We all need forgiveness for something, from someone. We all have someone we need to forgive. As you listen, pick one of these things or people to hold in mind, and hear how scripture speaks to this challenging aspect of faith. Let’s listen.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

          This week, I attended one of the protests in response to Daniel Prude’s murder. I was told they were asking for more clergy, especially white clergy, to show up, so after a couple of nights of peaceful protests, I showed up, collar on, pectoral cross around my neck. It was incredibly moving to be there, to see people’s passion and their kindness, sharing pizza and bottled water, to see people dancing and smiling at each other, even as we all came together to ask for justice and change, not only for people of color, but also for people who struggle with mental illness.

         On the other hand, I have also heard and read with dismay some of the commentary on what is happening in our streets and our nation. I have heard from many well-intentioned, mostly white people the sentiment that “slavery happened a long time ago, and it’s time for Black people to forgive and move on. As long as they are being framed as the victim, they will live into that perception of themselves. It’s time they empower themselves, by forgiving the past and moving on.” Now, I’m all about forgiveness, don’t get me wrong! I believe forgiveness brings life and freedom. But I also have several concerns about this perspective, not the least of which is what I see as a misunderstanding of what forgiveness is and what it means. So, let’s spend some time today, using our texts, to talk about what forgiveness is not.

         Forgiveness is not a denial of what has happened. The old adage “forgive and forget” is not really very useful, for it closes the door to the possibility of the growth and change that happens when we make mistakes. At the point where the Genesis text drops us down in the Joseph story, Joseph has been sold into slavery, and managed to climb his way, with God’s help, into a position of power and influence. When his brothers first show up at his door, he takes some time to figure out what they are about, even to test them a little. He can’t risk being hurt by them again. In the climactic moment we just heard, the brothers confess their wrong-doing. In fact, they suggest Joseph do to them exactly what they had done to him! “Make us your slaves!” they say. Joseph’s response is to acknowledge, “Yes, you hurt me. You intended me harm. Still, God used your wrong-doing for something good. God was and is more powerful than your sin.”

You see, genuine forgiveness starts with acknowledgement of wrong-doing, of harm done – preferably by both parties, if that’s possible. But even if only from one side, to find forgiveness, we must recognize and name the extent of the brokenness, for only then does it lose its power over us. Not to face sin and its consequences head-on, even sins of the past and of our ancestors, is a guarantee that we will face that pain again. Acknowledging sin and brokenness is what allows new life to start to emerge.

         Second, forgiveness cannot be coerced, nor demanded by the injuring party, but can only be offered by the one who has been injured on their own time. It took many years for Joseph, and even then, it required his brothers’ repentance. Though the brothers do try to trick Joseph again, telling him it was their father’s dying wish that he forgive them, Joseph still does this on his own timeline, not because of their tricks.

But sometimes we do try to demand apologies and forgiveness, don’t we? Even since we are children – say a child has done something wrong (biting, pushing, etc.), we force them to apologize. “Tell your sister you’re sorry,” we say, and the child shrugs and mumbles, “Sorry…” and the other says, “It’s okay…” and they both run off. This doesn’t mean anything; no one is invested in this exchange. The child has not even acknowledged that they know what they are apologizing for, and no one asked the one harmed if they were ready to accept an apology, if it really is okay. A true apology is not flippant or forced, but involves repentance and recognition of pain caused, as we see in the Joseph story, and an expressed hope to do better in the future.

         Forgiveness is not a denial of anger. We don’t hear enough in the Church about righteous anger. Maybe we think good Christians don’t get angry. But that’s not the model Jesus offers – he got plenty angry! Think of him making a whip and turning over the tables in the temple, in his anger with the money changers. Think of his blasting the religious hypocrites who oppressed the poor, calling them snakes. Think of his denouncing the mistreatment of the most vulnerable in his society. Think of even a couple weeks ago, when Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” The landowner in today’s parable, who is pretty clearly meant to be God in this story, certainly gets angry, too. You see, righteous anger at injustice and sin is absolutely a part of faith, and it is not the purpose of forgiveness to subdue that. (I want to distinguish between vindictive anger and righteous anger – vindictive anger is the sort the eats away at you, but righteous anger has positive change as its goal.) There is a time to get angry and even to stay angry, to insist on change, and to say, “Enough is enough!” While it is the task of the Church to preach and practice forgiveness, it is also the task of the Church to take sin as seriously as Jesus did, and passionately call for justice until that justice is achieved. (And by justice I don’t mean retribution – I mean that everyone has gotten what they need.)

         Finally, forgiveness is not the same as healing or reconciliation, though it may be a step toward it. Healing may take longer, and sometimes forgiveness may happen without reconciliation, for example in the case of abuse, when a continuing relationship is not healthy or possible. So sometimes, forgiveness is not the end point, but the beginning, the beginning of leaning into the future instead of being caught on the chains of the past.

This is especially important in the work of seeking racial justice. To forgive past evils like slavery and all the other discriminatory laws that have come since it ended (Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration) – forgiving all that is not this happily-ever-after moment where suddenly everyone is equal. Rather, forgiveness is an unburdening of the heart, and preparing then to begin the work ahead – even better, to maybe begin it together. As one preacher writes, “Forgiveness enables the oppressed not only to survive, but to lay down the cumbersome weight of hatred and bitterness, and gear up for the fight. Forgiveness is the beginning of the hard work of building God’s kingdom – not the end.”

Ultimately, I hope and pray that we do get to a place of mutual forgiveness around racial injustice, including all the steps that will help to bring us there: reckoning with the past rather than trying to deny, diminish, or erase it; taking the time to name and acknowledge the pain; understanding that a bit of righteous anger may still be present, if that is what is needed to move toward restorative justice; and continuing the process of healing for all involved, even after forgiveness is achieved.

When we can do that, then we can find the freedom that forgiveness offers. Ultimately, to forgive another is to let go of our chains – our bitterness and grudges – and, transformed, move forward in love. To be forgiven offers us the same – release from the burden of our sins and being able to live into a new and restored life. But even before we get to the point of this difficult work coming to fruition, we can trust in the relentless forgiveness of our God, who is gracious and merciful, and full of compassion, who forgives debts far larger than we can ever know, removing our sins from us and inviting us into eternal life. May we, unlike the slave in the story, be so transformed by this incredible gift that we are moved to offer grace to one another, living lives of forgiven and forgiving people.

Let us pray… Merciful God, you offer us more forgiveness than we can comprehend. Strengthen us to forgive others, even as we continue to work passionately toward a more just world for everyone. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Sermon: Daniel Prude, racial reconciliation, and the importance of being heard (Sept. 6, 2020)

Full service here. Sermon begins around 27:30. 

Pentecost 14A

September 6, 2020

Matthew 18:15-20



         A couple of weeks ago, Jesus said to Peter, “On this rock I will build my church.” Matthew’s is the only Gospel that includes this addition to that story. In fact, of the four Gospel writers, Matthew is the one who is most concerned about the passing of Jesus’ authority to the apostles, and the establishment of the Church and its moral teachings and practical behavior. Today’s Gospel reading is an example of this interest in the Church, as Jesus shares an important teaching about managing conflict in the church (everyone’s favorite topic to avoid!). Seldom do we get such straightforward instructions from Jesus, and yet, when the opportunities come to follow this sage advice, we often do not take them.

         Our readings today are all about how we conduct ourselves in the face of conflict and wrong-doing. I’m certain there is something in here for everyone today, so listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying to you this day. Let’s listen.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

         This week, while reading about what’s been happening in Kenosha, WI, I found myself wondering, “I wonder when it’ll be Rochester that is in the news for something like this?” It wasn’t long. That very night, I read the article in The Democrat and Chronicle about the killing of Daniel Prude back in March. Since the news broke, protestors have taken to the Rochester streets, demanding justice for Prude’s family. By the end of each night, these peaceful protests have been dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets. What was once something happening in other cities has come very publicly to our own backyard.

Consequently, when I returned to today’s Gospel lesson, I could not look at it with the same eyes. This text is, as it always has been, about reconciliation between individuals in the church. It’s about how to maintain community even in the midst of conflict – conflict that Jesus knew would occur because we’re human, and conflict is a part of being human. But this week’s news has caused me to wonder, what would it look like if we applied it not only to conflict between individuals, but to social reconciliation, and especially, to racial reconciliation?

Jesus’ formula is simple and practical: if someone wrongs you, sins against you, talk to them about it one-on-one. Don’t stuff it and let it fester, like so many of us are so good at doing. Bring it out in the open. If the person who has committed the wrong doesn’t listen, then bring someone along, a third party, and try again. If the message still doesn’t get through, then get a crowd involved, the whole Church even. And if they still don’t listen, Jesus says, let that one be like a tax collector or Gentile – which in Jesus speak, of course, is still someone worthy of love and care and prayer, but who is perhaps not yet ready to be in relationship, or be a more active part of the community.

There are some issues with this formula, of course, not the least of which is that conflict is seldom so straightforward that only one side is at fault. Still, even in its simplicity, can we apply it to racial conflict and reconciliation? As I considered this question this week, I realized that I have always read Jesus’ words as advice on how to handle when someone else has wronged me. Not once have I seen myself in the position of the wrong-doer. But as I have thought about this in light of this week’s news, and the possibility of racial reconciliation, I have found it difficult not to see white folks like me in the position of the wrong-doer in this scenario – if not in the arena of “things done,” then at least in the arena of “things left undone.”

Let me explain. Black folks have been trying to tell white people, and in particular the white church, that wrong has been and is being done to them, that they are suffering. White churches, even if well-intentioned, have for too long not listened. Just as in Jesus’ formula, the efforts Black people have made to be heard over time have escalated. But rather than listen, as Jesus’ formula implies the injuring party ought to do, we just ignore, chastise, or try to quiet those voices.

·      To the march for civil rights in the 60s, the church leaders said, “It’s not the right time.”

·      Protests after various people of color have been killed, often by law enforcement, in the past 10 years or so – well, we say, it was justified because he resisted arrest, or was selling cigarettes, or had a drug problem, or was reaching in his pocket which is threatening. (Though of course none of these things justify killing anyone on the spot.)

·      Ok, then, we’ll peacefully kneel during the National Anthem, to draw attention to the pain we are feeling – no, we say, that’s disrespectful to the flag.

·      Ok, let’s get a crowd to shut down 490 for a protest – nope, that’s too dangerous and a nuisance. What about emergency vehicles? 

·      And, in a last-ditch effort finally to be heard and noticed, let’s start breaking stuff and lighting fires – and the well-intentioned response is, “Stop with the destruction of property. You’re not helping your case. Find a different way to be heard, something more peaceful. Where is your sense of personal responsibility?”

Now, to be clear, I don’t like the looting, damage, and violence. I wish it wasn’t happening, and I especially don’t want to see it in my city. But I also understand, that when you’ve tried and tried to get someone who has sinned against you (actively or by way of compliance or passivity) to listen to you, and they still don’t, you start running out of options, and you often start yelling. People want to be heard. They need to be heard. When we don’t feel heard, we often start shouting, right? “You’re not hearing me – I’ll talk louder so you’ll understand!” Because people need to have their needs met, not to be shushed and shoved aside. Adults and children are the same in this. When my kids have a need and I’m not listening (as happens often in these days working from home!), they start yelling, screaming, or acting out until I do listen. Sure, I could close them up in their room, but that wouldn’t satisfy their need, nor stop their pain (in fact, it would likely magnify it, and it would come out more intensely the next time), and it wouldn’t solve the problem except that perhaps I could more easily ignore it. That screaming is what we are seeing play out in the street: a collective cry, asking to be heard. Without the injured party being heard, as Jesus’ makes clear today, we cannot achieve the reconciliation that Jesus calls the beloved community to seek. Let me say that again: until the injured party is heard, we cannot achieve the reconciliation Jesus calls us to seek.

Someone recently asked me, “Ok, so what policy ideas do you have to fix this unrest?” I don’t know. I don’t do policy, and never claimed to. What I do know is something about faithful living, and the gospel. So, let’s look at that: what does the gospel call us to do, as members of the beloved community, to seek racial reconciliation?

Let’s start by putting ourselves in this text in the position of the wrong-doer, the one who needs to listen. It’s not comfortable there, I know, but just try it. This week I have been trying to put my assumptions about people’s experience aside, and ask: what is it that I have been unable or unwilling to hear? What do you think you have not been hearing? What has the Church not been hearing? What is keeping us from hearing it? How can we make the effort to hear it and truly to listen, so that reconciliation might be found?

Next, we can ask ourselves: What would racial reconciliation look like? I can tell you right now, if it involves other people changing what they’re doing, but requires no change on your part, think again. With some exceptions, true reconciliation is seldom reached by one party saying, “I’m the one who is wrong here, and I’ll change everything,” and the other not budging or listening or seeking understanding. As I mentioned before, Jesus’ formula is really too simple, because interpersonal conflict is seldom one-directional, where one party is completely innocent and the other completely guilty. At the very least, it requires both parties to have empathy and understanding for one another. But reconciliation almost always requires everyone to admit some mistakes. So what do you, personally, need to admit? What do we as a church need to admit – where have we fallen short?

My friends, this is hard, hard work. I’ve been at it a few years now and am nowhere close to where I need to be. It is so much easier to ignore, and not have to face anyone telling us we have sinned against them, or participated in or even just benefited from a wrong done against them. But being able to ignore this is itself a position of privilege – people of color do not have the option of ignoring it. It is a daily reality. And now that this racism pandemic has so publicly come to our town, we really can’t ignore it either.

We are tired, I know – with quarantine weariness, with anxiety about school starting, with sadness and grief. It feels at times insurmountable to address racial reconciliation, too. That is when we must draw our attention to the end of this passage, where Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Yes, even when we are faced with our sin, Jesus is there among us. Even when we work through conflicts, both personal and social, Jesus is there among us. Where two or three or even a whole Church or denomination are working through challenging issues and having difficult conversations, Jesus is there among us, leading us ever to the new life that was promised to us in baptism, and which is ours every time we face the prospect of death. Reconciliation on any level is difficult heart work, but it is work that brings about new life. And where there is new life – Jesus is there among us.

Let us pray… Reconciling God, we are a broken people in need of forgiveness for our sins, and in need of your presence as we seek to mend our communities. Thank you for being a God who hears our needs, forgives our sins, and promises to be with us as we seek to be your beloved community. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Sermon: Masks, politics, and self-sacrificing neighbor-love (Aug. 30, 2020)

 Pentecost 13A
August 30, 2020
Matthew 16:21-28
Romans 12:9-21



         Last week we witnessed one of Peter’s shining moments, as he correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Jesus in turn says he will build his Church upon this rock. The shine didn’t last long, though. Today, Peter will turn from Rock to stumbling block, as he rebukes Jesus for saying that the Son of Man will have to suffer and die. And wouldn’t you? Who wants a suffering savior – wouldn’t we rather have a powerful one?

         Of course, we know that Jesus is right on this one: suffering, and self-denial, and sacrifice are all a part of the life of faith. Even all the nice “marks of a Christian” that Paul will outline in our second reading require some sacrifice and self-denial at times. Turns out, Christianity isn’t about serving ourselves and doing what is best for us, but about doing whatever it takes to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ, to take up our cross and self-sacrificially love our neighbor. Our readings today address this head on. Let’s listen.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

         I love that this reading from Romans always comes up in August, because this is the month we were married, and it was one of the texts that was read at our wedding. “Let love be genuine,” Paul writes. “Hate was is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers.” I think it is very good advice for a newly married couple, or even one married seven or 57 years, which is why we chose it for our wedding!

It's not just for married couples, of course. In the NRSV Bible translation we use, this section is called, “Marks of a true Christian.” These are all behaviors and efforts and traits of someone who not only follows Christ in word, but also in deed. In other words, if you call yourself a Christian, then these should describe how you live your life.

         Really, that first line, “Let love be genuine,” is the main point. All those things that follow, those other marks of a Christian, are really just elaborating on what genuine, non-hypocritical love looks like in practice. You wanna love genuinely, Paul says, then don’t just talk to the love talk, but walk the love walk. Say you do these things, and then, actually do them.

This is really the heart and soul of faith, isn’t it? From the very beginning, God has always acted in love: creating the world, redeeming God’s people through Christ, and empowering the Church to service of the world. No one can deny that genuine love is a pretty big part of being a Christian.

         What’s sometimes tricky, though, is knowing just how that genuine love should be enacted. Sometimes it is obvious – we see genuine love in kindness, and generosity, and compassion. We have seen that a lot during this pandemic, from the relentless care shown by healthcare workers, to people who remember to check in on friends and neighbors, or leave groceries on their neighbors’ doorstep.

But sometimes love is less obvious – like the spouse of an alcoholic finally putting her foot down and forbidding her beloved what he craves, or putting boundaries in place to keep your children safe, even if they scream and cry about it. Or on a larger scale, speaking out against an oppressor on behalf of the vulnerable, like Moses did to Pharaoh, or the prophets of old to the kings, or more recently, Martin Luther King to the institutions that kept Black people from getting the rights they deserved. In these cases, while the vulnerable person may feel loved, the one not getting what they want is likely not experiencing that action as loving. You see, love can be complicated, and can look very different in different situations.

         So, as we try to sort all this out, let’s try to understand what genuine love looks like in light of our Gospel text today. Jesus says to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” They are tough words – though no tougher than what Jesus himself does for us. So… if that is genuine love, self-denial and losing our life, then what does that mean for us?

         Let me start by saying what I don’t think it means: I don’t think it means you have to literally leave behind everything dear to you, nor that you have to literally die, lose your life. Though, I do think it means you have to be willing to do those things, if it is in service to the gospel. There are a few exceptional examples in history who have indeed died for the sake of making sure God’s love is known: MLK and Dietrich Bonhoeffer come to mind. But for those of us who are not called to be martyrs, what might it look like to deny ourselves and lose our life?

         There are so many big issues we could talk about, and discuss how love looks amid them, but for the sake of brevity, I’d like to suggest just two timely examples. The first is regarding our response to this pandemic. In the midst of so much loss these past months, maybe you, like I, bristle at the thought of self-denial. What more can we give up, after all – we’ve already given up seeing our loved ones, travel and outings, social events, sports, worshiping together, communion, performing arts, education the way to which we’re accustomed, and more. And the enduring symbol of all of this loss is the mask: the ubiquitous, annoying, glasses-fogging, voice muffling mask that serves as a near-constant reminder that life is not normal.

         Yes, masks are annoying. But they are also the perfect expression of self-denial and neighbor-love. When I wear a mask, if keeps you safe. When you wear a mask, it keeps me safe. It doesn’t so much help the one wearing it; instead, it helps the other. And so we put up with the annoying stuff, we deny ourselves, in order to keep our neighbor safe. On the other hand, when I don’t wear one, it doesn’t say, “I’m okay with getting sick,” it says, “I’m okay with you getting sick” – which, of course, I’m not! When I think of it this way, I no longer groan about slipping those loops over my ears. Instead, I consider it an expression of faith, a way to communicate my care for another. Really, it’s a pretty low bar for self-denial, especially when you consider what Jesus was willing to do for us. But it is an incredibly important one right now, and it does help me, at least, to think of wearing a mask as an act of faithful, self-denying neighbor-love.

         The other example I wanted to mention today is less annoying and potentially more… infuriating, and that is regarding political discourse. We are just off of two back-to-back political conventions, with just 65 days until the election. The slander and lying and attacks are already bad, and they will only get worse, not only from the leaders, but also from their respective ardent followers, on both sides. When I encounter a heated discussion of political issues, I can feel my chest get tight with frustration, and I can very easily find myself slip into fight mode, like I’m out to prove something and argue some sense into people! It’s not a look I particularly like, on myself or others.

So, what if denying ourselves during this election season looked like a willingness or openness to being wrong sometimes? By that, I mean: what if instead of going into a conversation to prove ourselves right and everyone else wrong, what if we instead committed to listening, trying to understand, and assuming we have something to learn, and even leaving the door open to the possibility that we were wrong about something? It’s not so different from the way we come to worship each week, as we open our hearts to God saying, “I sinned again this week, God. I tried, and I failed. I did wrong. I want to do better, and pray that you will help me. Please forgive me.” As Christians, we ought to be pretty good by now at admitting we are wrong!

But no one wants to be caught in being wrong. Very seldom does someone in a heated argument suddenly say, “My goodness, I am wrong, and you are right!” (at least not without sarcasm!), and no one has ever been insulted into changing their mind (like, “You’re right, I am a libtard snowflake, or a deplorable bigot. Thanks for pointing it out. I’ll change my ways straight away!”). So, what if we got ahead of it, working to deny ourselves by asking a lot of questions, and reading a lot of different sources, and spending a lot of time in prayer asking God for guidance?

If we do this genuinely, without hypocrisy, as Paul says, this may well result in having to let go of long-held beliefs, which can feel an awful lot like denying ourselves. But isn’t that what the Christian life calls us to: a life of continual repentance? And don’t we believe that ours is a God who brings about transformation? Isn’t the Christian life one in which we regularly examine our hearts for ways we have fallen short of selflessly, sacrificially, and genuinely loving our neighbor, in which we name those things before God, and pray that we would be able to turn back toward Christ? Isn’t the Christian life one in which we are grateful, again and again, to receive forgiveness? Because that forgiveness, we know, did not come easily for Christ. Christ indeed denied himself, took up his physical cross, and lost his life – so that we would be able to find our new life, a life that is free of the shackles of sin, free of the fear of death, free of all that would keep us from God’s love. It is because we have that new life, that we are able and empowered to deny ourselves and give up our own lives, all for the sake of sharing that life-giving love with those who desperately need it.

Let us pray… God of love, you have shown us what it means to love one another genuinely. Now give us the courage and humility to do it. Help us to see when we are misguided and help us to understand the plight of the other, so that we would be willing to deny ourselves and lose something important to us, for the sake of those in need. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Sermon: Who Jesus is, and who we are (Aug. 23, 2020)

 View the entire service here. Sermon begins at 31:40.

Pentecost 12A

August 23, 2020

Matthew 16:13-20



         Today’s readings will reflect on the question of what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ, not just in the safety of the church community (whether online or in person!), but in the world. “Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul exhorts, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” It’s a tall order! It is so easy to become conformed to this word, and all of its division and brokenness, and to be influenced by so many worldly powers and persuasions instead of the Gospel we proclaim. Isaiah reminds us to remember where we came from, to find our footing in that. And in Matthew, Peter will make a bold claim about who Christ is, even against the backdrop of a city known for its political and worldly influence – making Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, over and against even the powerful worldly leaders for whom Caesarea Philippi is named, all the more remarkable!

         Jesus will ask the disciples in Matthew today, “Who do you say that I am?” As you listen to today’s readings, ponder that question for yourself. Who do you say that Jesus is, especially right now in these strange times? Who is Jesus for you personally, for the Church, for our hurting world? Let’s listen.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

         “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. It is about as basic a faith question as you can get – “who is Jesus?” And yet, I wonder if it is one that we don’t spend enough time thinking about it. And not just thinking about it once, but continually, because our answer may change, depending on what is going on in our lives and in the world around us. So although aspects of God are unchanging, God is also so complex and expansive that we might see God differently at any given time depending on what is most needful at that moment. 

         And so, I ask you today, brothers and sisters: who do you say that Jesus is, today, at this time? Who is Jesus, in the midst of a pandemic that still rages in our country? Who is Jesus, when our country is as divided as it has been since the Civil War? Who is Jesus, when even people proclaiming faith in Jesus disagree on what that faith implies, to the point of being diametrically opposed in the actions that stem from it? Who is Jesus?

One reason this question is so important is that our answer to it reveals a lot about who we, then, are called to be as a Church that follows Jesus. Peter’s answer is that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Jesus responds to Peter by telling him, “You are Peter [the word for “rock”], and on this rock I will build my Church.” In other words, Peter’s confession, his declaration of who Jesus is, becomes the basis of the Church of Christ. Who is this Church that proclaims Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God?

 The first thing we can glean about the character of the Church, is that we are a Church that proclaims Christ even amidst conflicting gods. Let me explain. This story begins by saying, “Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi.” This is not a mundane detail of the story. Caesarea Philippi was a cesspool of sin, most of all, abusive political power and back-scratching, and religious idol-worship. It was named for two powerful political leaders, and it was the center of worship of the god, Pan. The city stood at the base of Mount Hermon, right against a large cliff known as “Rock of the Gods,” in honor of the many shrines built against it. In the center of Rock of the Gods was what was called “The Gate of Hades,” because it was believed that this was where the god Ba-al would enter and leave the underworld. Against this backdrop of political power and religious idolatry, Jesus asks his disciples to state, loudly and clearly, who he is – as opposed to all that! When Jesus calls Peter “the rock,” it is over and against this rock of sinful false-god-worship. “YOU are the rock, Peter!” he says, “not all this mess! You [aka the Church] will be stronger than whatever false gods people are worshipping!”

So why does this matter to us as the Church today? Well, because false gods are still very much a threat to our faith. And no, I don’t mean Ba-al or Pan, I mean much more pervasive and sneaky gods – all those things that claim our attention or loyalty, that indeed pull us away from our relationship with God and from our Christian call to love and serve our most vulnerable neighbors. For example, like in Caesarea Philippi, we are sometimes guilty of putting our faith in political powers or politicians. Another common “god” is the god of wealth, putting our trust in money or material things. Another common god is the god of power. We see that especially during an election season, when candidates for office will do anything to keep their position of power, whether that means slandering and making personal attacks on their opponent, or making it more difficult for people to vote. We see it year-round in some politicians’ unwillingness to do what is right for fear of losing support from constituents or wealthy special-interest groups. We even see it in some church leaders who relish more in the size of their congregation and the influence of their position than in actually acting out the mission of Christ.

Other gods I’ve become aware of recently in my own life are the gods of privilege, comfort and safety. I know that white people hold most of the power in this country – in politics, in academia, in the military, in sports, in the media and entertainment – and that my whiteness affords me a lot of privileges I did nothing to earn that I know my fellow citizens of color do not have (like easily finding band-aids in my own flesh color, or the ability to get a mortgage with relative ease). Even though I know that, I have a hard time doing anything to change it because those privileges make me very comfortable and make me feel very safe! Why would I want to threaten that? And yet I know – they are false gods! I know this because if they were true gods they would bring life to all people, not just to white people like me. And when Peter proclaims Christ at the foot of that Wall of the [False] Gods, he is calling upon the Church of today to notice what false gods aim to have power over us – to recognize them, and then to proclaim Christ’s power over them!

The second trait of the Church we can see from Peter’s confession is, we are a Church who speaks up. When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” – if Peter had remained silent, Jesus would not have declared the Church be built upon him. Speaking up was a pre-requisite to forming the Church. Jesus did not build His Church upon silence, or waiting to gather the facts, or weighing consequences – he built it upon boldness, upon willingness to say what is true – even when some of those false gods might have us say otherwise.

And yet since that moment, the Church has often fallen short of this qualifying characteristic. When the Nazis rose to power in Germany, the Church did very little to stop it, aside from a few people speaking out. In fact, some churches even adapted their theology to be consistent with that of the Nazis, and preached their support of that movement that resulted in millions of deaths. The Church was very much complicit in that dark time in history.

A few decades later, during the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not shy from calling out the Church on her silence. To be silent, he said, was to side with the oppressor. In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, he wrote, “All too many have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” In other words, he implored the Church to do what Peter did: to proclaim boldly the mission of Christ into the world, not stay safely tucked away in her sanctuaries or homes, not saying a word about their faith to others and ignoring the plight of the marginalized outside the doors.

Of course, it would be impossible for the Church to speak out boldly, especially against the false gods of our culture, without the final trait I want to highlight today, which is that, we are a Church who forgives and is forgiven. After Jesus informs Peter that he will build his church on him, he gives Peter what we call the “power to bind and to loose.” It is the power to forgive sins or not. Of course, that power ultimately belongs to Christ himself – what is being given to Peter here is the power to announce it, like how I announced it at the beginning of worship. However the logistics work – it is so important that Jesus gives this power, indeed this gift, to the Church. Because being the Church is a difficult calling. It is risky. It pulls us out of our comfort zones. Being the Church is not about coming here each week or turning on our computer to find rest for our souls and sing some songs and chat with friends and pray. Those are all good things, and often that is exactly what we find at church. But the call of the Church is so much more than that. The call of the Church is to boldly proclaim Christ, in word and deed, into a world desperate to know him. It is to look at the political power dynamics, and the false gods, and ways our attention is pulled away from God, and say, “Christ is greater than all of that!” It is to care deeply about the marginalized and the oppressed – the very people that Christ himself cared for – and to serve them, even if it is not in our personal best interest.

That call is so, so hard, and we will definitely fall short. And so Jesus also gave us the continuing promise that in the Church, we would also find forgiveness. He gave us the promise that we could come here, hear words of forgiveness and love and life, and be strengthened to go back out into the world and keep trying. And he gave us the authority to say, “Christ gives this gift to you, too,” to the people who need it the most. All of this – speaking up in faith, speaking out against powers that would draw us away from God, and receiving and offering forgiveness – all of this is who and what the Church is, and we don’t need our building open to do any of it. The Church is open, and it never closed. We are the Church and do these things in faith and hope that all the world would know the love of our living God.

         Let us pray… God our rock, you have called your Church to speak up and speak out against the forces that defy you, and you offer us forgiveness. Give us courage to live out this call every day. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Sermon: Canaanite lives matter (August 16, 2020)

View full service here.  

Pentecost 11A
August 16, 2020
Matthew 15:10-28



         Today’s readings urge us to question what, exactly, makes a person “good” or faithful or worthy of love and grace. (Spoiler, no one is worthy, and also everyone is worthy. That’s what grace means!) More specifically, they bring up the question of whether one’s race or ethnicity, or their adherence to the law, is what wins them God’s favor. Isaiah makes a bold claim that God’s house “shall be a house of prayer for all people,” regardless of their foreign status. Paul’s letter to the Romans astutely points out that we are all disobedient, but that very disobedience is what makes God’s immense mercy such a gift.

         Matthew gives us two stories that illustrate this point in different ways. Once again, we are right on the tails of the last few stories – the death of John the Baptist, the feeding of the 5000, Jesus’ desperate attempts to get a moment alone to pray, and the walking on water. Now Jesus begins challenging some of the Pharisees on laws surrounding cleanliness. In short, he says: it’s not what you eat that matters, but what you say that defiles. A timely message for a presidential election year, I think! From there, though, Jesus moves into a foreign country, Tyre and Sidon. This is a land of Gentiles, non-Jews, people outside of the children of Israel. Yet even in a foreign land, Jesus’ reputation precedes him, and a woman asks for help. And well, Jesus doesn’t at first respond as lovingly as you might expect. So, we will get to watch as Jesus learns something about the very Gospel he proclaims!

         Judgment of others who are different is rampant in our world – usually, but especially right now. As you listen, consider how these texts can help us to reflect on our own human condition, and what they say to our engagement with those who are different from us. Let’s listen.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

         My daughter has a book called, She Persisted: 12 American Women who Changed the World. It’s all about women who broke down barriers, despite so many factors working against them. Grace loves it, and dreams about the ways she will change the world someday. The title, you likely figured out, is based on something Sen. Mitch McConnell said about Sen. Elizabeth Warren, after the Senate voted to silence her and her objections to the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, but after being silenced she kept talking and objecting. McConnell explained later, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” and that line became the new rally cry for the feminist movement, and a pretty effective one!

         The Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel is the quintessential “nevertheless, she persisted” woman. I love this woman. I love her insistence that she is somebody, that she is deserving of care, that Canaanite lives matter! The feminist in me loves this story, and points to it as an example of a tenacious woman of faith!

         Unfortunately, I’m not as delighted with Jesus in this passage. He does not come out of this exchange smelling like roses. She asks for help, and he ignores her – an experience I know many women today can relate to. The men following Jesus complain about her talking too much (yup, been there). And then Jesus finally talks to her, and he calls her “a female dog.” Yeah, we have that same insult, though in this case I’m not sure if it is a general insult or specifically an ethnic slur reserved for people of her particular foreign background. (It’s worth mentioning that Jews and Canaanites were longtime enemies.) The woman speaks up for herself and her daughter once more, cleverly spinning Jesus’ words to her advantage, and only then does Jesus change his tune, commend her for her faith, and heal her daughter. So, happy ending, but… yeah. Jesus does not behave here like I would have hoped from the Son of God.

         This is a challenging text, because this exchange conflicts with the idea that Jesus was perfect. The unblemished sacrificial lamb. He must be, right, if our theology is to make any sense? Many have tried to justify Jesus’ behavior by saying that he was just testing the woman, or using her as a sort of object lesson – but does that really make him look any better, to have used this woman in her hour of need, to make a point? So… is Jesus not perfect then?

I remember asking my pastor dad as a kid if Jesus was perfect, and he pointed out that “perfect” isn’t a very helpful descriptor. Did Jesus stub his toe? Sure. Did he sometimes stink up the bathroom? Probably. Did he feel human emotion? Absolutely. Does any of this make him not “perfect”? Better, Pastor Dad went on, is to say that Jesus is “without sin.” But while I was satisfied with that at the time, this story muddies those waters again. Is this exchange, where he ignores a woman’s needs, then claims she is outside of the scope of his mission, and then refers to her and her people as dogs… is this exchange sinful? Whatever it is, it sure doesn’t seem consistent with the Jesus we know and love, the Jesus who is meant to be a blessing for the whole world, the Jesus who, at the end of this Gospel, will commission his disciples to bring the Gospel to all the nations. What gives, Jesus?

The truth is that while we believe that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, we are often less comfortable when we see him act like a human. And if Jesus truly is fully human, then why shouldn’t he experience one of the most human experiences of all: making a mistake, and having to face up to it. To be clear, I don’t think making an honest mistake is necessarily a sin, but continuing to do it, and not learning from it and using it as an opportunity to grow may very well be. With that in mind, I think the more important lesson to learn from this exchange is not whether Jesus sinned or made a mistake, but what he does when he is called out on it.

         I can tell you what I would do in his situation. I would immediately start thinking of excuses to save face. “I didn’t mean that the way you took it.” Or, “I just didn’t know my mission was supposed to include Gentiles yet.” Or, “I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night – you see, I was walking on a tumultuous sea.” Or, I might even admit that the calling out was justified, admit my mistake, but then try to frame it in such a way that still allows me to have some power, like, “I’m sorry I ignored you – I was distracted by all the other things on my plate right now. You see, my cousin just died, and I just fed, like 5000 people, and then there was this incident on the sea, and the Pharisees were all getting on my nerves… Anyway, sorry I was short with you, I just have a lot going on.”

         But Jesus doesn’t do any of this. And if I’m being honest, even though I know that I do that, I’d be even more disappointed in Jesus if he did. If I were that woman in need, and he started feeding me all kinds of excuses and justifications, I would feel utterly unseen and unheard, which is often the far more painful offense. I mean, don’t you hate it when someone makes an excuse for hurting you? It’s like saying, “Your pain, and our relationship, is less important to me than my own ability to save face and maintain my position of power. My comfort matters more to me than your pain.” But Jesus doesn’t do that. He puts this woman, and the relationship, first. When the woman uses his own words to focus his attention on a part of his mission he had previously not addressed, his mission to those beyond the children of Israel, he hears her, and sees her. He receives her objection with grace, recognizing that Canaanite lives do matter, just as much as those of the children of Israelites. He even commends her for pointing it out. And, he heals her daughter. In this story, we get to watch how Jesus turns what could have been a very embarrassing moment for him, into an opportunity to learn and grow and expand his mission.

We all have such opportunities, though we may not handle them quite as graciously as Jesus does. They happen when we make mistakes that hurt people, when our narrow world view doesn’t allow us to see or hear the pain of a person in need (or to impose our own version of their story upon them), when we get stuck in doing things the same old way, when we are faced with a reality that we have been, willfully or not, unaware of. (For myself, I’m thinking of my growing awareness of racism and white supremacy in our society, and the pain of recognizing the role white people like myself have played and continue to play in it, even if that role has largely been passive complicity.) Becoming aware of, or even being confronted with our own limited perspectives, and the mistakes we make because of them, can be a painful and uncomfortable experience, and it is about as human an experience as there is.

And thanks to this story, we see that Jesus, who was himself fully human, did not escape that very human experience. He had it, too. Yet when Jesus is confronted with a challenge to the way he had always done things, he doesn’t use it as a chance to double down and prove himself right. He uses it as an opportunity to widen his vision, and expand his mission. He uses it as a chance to learn and grow – another beautiful, though sometimes very difficult and painful human experience. When faced with something he wasn’t ready for, Jesus adapts, and his willingness to do this allows him to see that God’s vision is bigger than what he had been seeing. He is better for the experience, and so are we.

         2020 has brought one painful challenge to our previous ways of doing things after another. Many of these challenges may make us want to curl up in a ball and shrink our view of the world, focus only on ourselves. I have certainly had days like this, when I have so much on my own plate that I can’t possibly bear anyone else’s pain, and I can’t un-learn or re-learn how to do one more thing, and I certainly can’t completely overhaul yet another of my cherished routines, traditions, perspectives, or expectations.

That is why I’m so grateful for this story today. Because Jesus shows us that he had to do this, too. He had to face up to his blind spots, accept the criticism of another, learn and grow from his mistakes, and in doing that, enter into a new life, a new way of being, a new way of living out God’s mission. No doubt the experience was painful – healing, growth, and new life often are. It always requires the death of old ways, the death of old perspectives, the death of our egos, and for Jesus, ultimately, death on a cross. But from those deaths will always emerge new life – for the tenacious Canaanite woman who persisted in faith, for you and for me as we persist in faith through this challenging year so full of death and loss, and for our very God who died upon a cross to show us the glorious new life that God will, every time, bring about.

         Let us pray… Dear Jesus, both human and divine, thank you for showing us how to handle our mistakes, how to respond to the challenges to our world view with grace, how to learn and grow instead of stick to our same old ways that do not bring about life. Grant us the grace to learn and grow from our mistakes, that they would direct us toward your kingdom ways. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Sermon: Fear and doubt in a life of faith (Aug 9, 2020)

 Pentecost 10A
August 9, 2020



         In today’s readings we will see an emotion that is all too familiar to us right now: fear. In our first reading, we’ll see Elijah who is running for his life from Queen Jezebel, who has sworn to take his life. He’s at his wit’s end when he hides away in a cave and encounters God not in wind, earthquake or fire, but in the “sound of sheer silence.” The Gospel carries on that fear, with a storm on the sea, and what the disciples believe is a visit from a ghost.

         Since we missed last week, let me set this one up for you, because this story about Jesus walking on water immediately follows last week’s story about feeding the 5000 – and in fact, it does in all three of the Gospels in which it appears. Those stories are always together. So last week, a tired Jesus was trying to get some time alone. He’s just learned that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been killed by Herod, and he needs some alone time to process. But the crowds follow him, and they are hungry. Jesus pulls off one of his most famous miracles: feeding 5000 men plus women and children with a mere five loaves and two fish. But he is still exhausted, perhaps even more so now, so he sends his disciples ahead of him in the boat, and he goes up a mountain to pray. That’s where our story today starts.

         In both stories where fear is palpable, God shows up in unexpected ways. Imagine as you listen what it would feel like to be there, encountering God in these ways, and think of what unexpected ways you have seen God show up in your life. Let’s listen.


Walking on Water by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1817-1900

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

         To my great dismay, but not necessarily my surprise, the current division and partisanship in our country has somehow made even a global pandemic into a partisan issue. And sadly, because gathering for worship involves some particular challenges with this virus, it has also driven a bigger wedge through the already wide divisions within the Church. While many churches did as we did back in March – immediately closed the doors and hunkered down, following the advice of medical experts and scientists to limit the spread of the virus – other churches balked in the face of these recommendations. Some of this was based on a fear that the recommendations infringe upon our first amendment right to worship freely, a concern which I understand (though, frankly, we would have chosen to close the building even without these recommendations, so it’s really a non-issue). The other, more troubling argument for ignoring the recommendations, was to say, “I trust God to protect me from the virus. If it’s my time to go, it’s my time. But I have faith, so I do not fear this virus.”

         It sounds pious enough, right, but there are numerous things wrong and, I would argue, unchristian about this approach, starting with the fact that slowing community spread of a deadly disease is at least as much about caring for one another as it is about our personal health (and to say, “I’m not afraid of getting sick” is to deny that each sick person puts many others in the community at risk - and we're about loving our neighbor!). But there is another issue with that argument that borders on spiritual abuse, and that is this: that to say, “I am not afraid because I trust God,” implicitly accuses the other of not having sufficient faith, as if to say, “If you have fear [in the midst of legitimately fearful things!], then you are not being a good Christian. Your faith is lacking.”

         There are Christian traditions that preach this message. Unfortunately, the effect is often that, instead of inspiring courage or trust, that message burdens believers with guilt, shame, and hopelessness, while also not really assuaging the fear at all.

         Thing is, fear is a completely natural human emotion. And while the scriptures are replete with imperatives to “fear not,” there is nothing in the Gospels that calls upon us to prove our faith by taking pointless risks that threaten our lives, or doing reckless things. As one preacher observes, “Whether we’re talking about respecting the power of the sea during a vicious storm, or heeding expert medical advice during a global pandemic, the same caution applies. Recklessness is not faith. Stupidity is not courage.”[1]

         So, as your pastor, let me be clear: having fear in a fearful situation does not mean you lack faith. It means you are human, and that you have a functioning amygdala, the part of the brain stem that makes us feel fear. If you are seeing a ghostlike figure walking on water, or you’re drowning in a storm, it is appropriate to feel fear. You are no less a Christian for feeling it. If you feel fear as you face… sending your child to school during a pandemic, or social isolation, or a failing economy, or systemic racism, or political brokenness, or a strained marriage, or illness, or job insecurity or anxiety or depression – if you feel fear in the midst of those things, you are no less a person of faith, and no less a deeply beloved child of God.

         No, the issue is not feeling fear. The issue is where that fear leads us. Look at where Peter is led. While many-a sermon has interpreted Peter’s reckless act of jumping out of the boat and into the storm as a faithful one – to the tune of, “Get out of the boat and step out in faith!” – I’m not so sure it is an act of faith. Listen to how this plays out: the disciples are in the midst of a storm in the middle of the night, and they see someone who looks like a ghost walking toward them on top of the water. They are understandably freaked, and they shout out. Jesus consoles them, saying, “Have courage. It’s me. No need to fear.” And Peter’s response is, “If it is you, Lord… prove it.” Does that sound like another famous identity test? Remember when Jesus was being tempted in the desert by the devil? “If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, and then gives him several tests to prove his identity. And here Peter says similar, “If it is you, command me to do the impossible, and walk out on the water toward you.” You see, his response was not one of faith, but of skepticism and distrust. Even though Jesus has just identified himself, he can’t believe this is really Jesus. So he seeks proof. (It’s worth noting that in just a couple chapters, Jesus will call Peter Satan: “Get behind me, Satan!” further solidifying this connection!)

         I admit I’m guilty of this, of letting my reptilian brain lead me to distrust. Going back to that amygdala, that reptilian brain of ours that causes us to feel fear – it is what allows us to survive (fight or flight), but that response also drives me to respond to fearful situations sometimes with suspicion. I’m inclined toward a transactional relationship with God: “God, prove to me that you are here with me and that you care for me. I’ll do this, but you had better do your part in return.”

         Thinking of Peter’s action this way totally changes then how I interpret Jesus’ question to him. “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” I’ve always assumed that the moment of doubt Jesus was referring to is the moment Peter looked around at those huge waves and had that fear response again and started to sink. He doubted, so he sank. But now I think Jesus is talking about the fact that Peter questioned Jesus’ legitimacy! Peter’s true moment of doubt and faithlessness was when he asked Jesus to prove his love and care. Jesus’ question then is, “I told you who I am, Peter. Why didn’t you believe me? Why did you doubt that it was truly I who was coming to you? After all this time, why did you need me to prove it to you?” And this, to doubt who Jesus is and what he is about, strikes me as a far more egregious doubt than a simple fear of the storm.

         The place of fear and doubt in a life of faith is one that comes up in many conversations I have had as a pastor. It’s one that comes up in my own life of faith. It comes up a lot because fear and doubt are such natural human emotions, and because we’ve given into the narrative that these things are the opposite of faith. And so, we seek consolation by looking to Peter, reckless, impetuous, suspicious, eager Peter. Even in his fear, we say, Peter had the courage to step out of the boat and into the storm. We should be like Peter. But while Peter is a useful mirror for our own human condition, our faults and our follies, our consolation cannot come from Peter. It can only come from Jesus. Notice that, while Peter’s actions are all over the place, Jesus never falters. From the beginning of the story, Jesus comes to those he loves. He comes to them when they are in a storm at sea. He comes to them when they think he is a menacing ghost. He comes to them when they shout out in fear. He comes to them when Peter sets out to test him. He comes to them when Peter starts to drown and calls out for help. He comes to them when a soaking wet Peter regrets his rashness. He comes to them when they suddenly realize who Jesus is, and make the confession that Peter, in his fear, was unable himself to believe: that Jesus is the very Son of God.

Jesus never stops coming to this fearful, doubting, suspicious bunch of disciples, and he never stops coming to us. He never shames us for our fear. He never tells us to just try harder. He comes to us. He loves us. He saves us, beckoning us when we are unsure, grabbing our hand when we start to drown, helping us to stay afloat when the waters come up over our heads, and climbing with us into our wind-battered boat. As always, this story is not about us, or about Peter. It is about Christ, and his saving action. It is about Christ, calling out to us, over the tempestuous winds, and into our tempestuous hearts, “Have courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

Let us pray… Steadfast God, the storms of life swirl around us and often lead us to fear and doubt. As we feel these human emotions, bring us your assurance that you are who you say you are, and that with you, we need not be afraid. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Debie Thomas, “Out of the water,” 2020,  Journey with Jesus.