Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Terribly Disturbing Reality

This week’s Gospel (Mt. 15:21-28) ought to be terribly disturbing to most of us, those of us who have come to faith in the God of Abraham and Sarah as Gentiles.  We must never forget that we are included in that family by grace and not by right.  And perhaps we should give thanks to Paul for that (see this week’s New Testament reading, Rom. 11:1-2a, 29-32).   Left to himself, Jesus does not necessarily share the same openness to non-Jews as Paul does. 
Once while traveling in the land of the Gentiles, Tyre and Sidon, he encountered a Canaanite woman, a Gentile, whose daughter was possessed by a demon.  The woman implored Jesus to help her.  Jesus ignored her.  His disciples asked that he send the woman, who was annoying them, away.  Jesus agreed.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he said.
The woman persisted.  Jesus rejected her again, only more harshly.  “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”  That’s right.  He called her a dog.  It is a disturbing picture of what Jesus really thought.
The woman, however, was not deterred by the insult.  In fact, she used it to get the best of Jesus.  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.”
And with that comeback, she not only bested Jesus, she brought him back to his senses. “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’  And her daughter was healed instantly.”
It ought to give us Gentiles pause about our proper place, such special friends of Jesus as we sometimes imagine ourselves to be.  Maybe we could  learn a little about humility in that.  Maybe we could learn a little about the very special place in his heart Jesus had, and therefore must still have for Jews.  There is no reason to think, after all, that the resurrected and ascended Jesus continues his priority for God’s original people, the Jews.  And maybe there are times when that reality bests us and has the possibility of bringing us to our senses.  Terribly disturbing realities often do.

Monday, August 4, 2014


I am the first to admit that I’m not a very spiritual person.  It is for this reason that I’ve always had some difficulty with the concept of retreats, and for that matter, with the word retreat itself.  I shouldn’t have the problem I do, no doubt.  There is, after all, some very good precedent for it.
In the Gospel for this week Jesus takes some time alone to pray, in other words he goes on retreat.  “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.”  (Mt. 14:23)  His retreat follows a particularly difficult time after the beheading of John the Baptist in which Jesus must have been reminded again of the danger of the work he was about. 
The Old Testament lesson (I Kgs. 19:9-18) is also about retreat, this time one taken by the prophet Elijah.  Elijah’s retreat followed a bloody confrontation in which he killed all of the prophets of Baal following which Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah in return.  Elijah, like Jesus, went up a mountain to be alone. 
Retreat, though, is an ambiguous word.  It can mean to surrender, to acknowledge defeat.  It can also mean to fall back in order to regroup for the purpose of engaging again.  One is destructive in origin; the other, strategic. 
Jesus, I think, took his retreat in the latter sense.  He went up the mountain alone, prayed, and came right back to engage again, calling the disciples to courage in the face of strong winds blowing against them.  “Take heart,” he said, and “do not be afraid.” 
Elijah, on the other hand, seems to have had a different purpose, fear rather than courage.  He went up the mountain not to regroup but to get away.  He came to a cave and hid there.  God was not too interested and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  Elijah explained.  God was still not impressed and repeated the question.  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  And then came the instruction:  “Go.”  It is as if God has to remind Elijah that there’s work to be done and it isn’t going to get done while Elijah is retreating.  “Go,” God says.  “Return.”  God’s servants do not retreat in defeat or surrender.  They may retreat to regroup.  They may retreat to rest.  But they always retreat in order to return. 
Retreats in a godly sense, it seems to me, don’t have much to do with escape, with safety, or with refuge.  They may have to do with regrouping for the purpose of reengaging God’s work in the world, which for both Jesus and Elijah had a considerable element of danger, a reality that God has not much interest in keeping us from.  It is what the service of God’s reign of justice, peace, and love always necessarily requires.
So here’s the key question for a godly retreat.  “What are you doing here?”  Retreats are good when they prepare us for the work and not so good when they keep us from it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

How was your weekend?

As surely as Monday follows Sunday, I know that Joseph, our security guard, will greet me with a friendly smile when I walk in the door at the beginning of the week, and ask, “How was your weekend, Bishop?”  I usually respond in a vague, non-committal way.  “Fine, Joseph, how was yours?”  This week, though, I’m going to be more enthusiastic.  “It was great, Joseph.  I hope yours was.”

Now, to tell you the truth, I was not looking forward to this weekend very much.  Ginger is away for the summer so the weekends she isn’t here are not ones I look forward to.  Plus, this weekend was a work weekend, a fairly heavy work weekend.

I was in Omaha to meet with a network of Sudanese Episcopalians who are struggling to find their place in the church they grew up in (although, admittedly, with a lot of differences).  I knew that would be interesting and probably inspiring (it was), but I did not see it as the stuff of a great weekend. 

What made it one anyway was church on Sunday.  Now, every Monday on which Joseph asks me how my weekend was has been preceded by church on Sunday.  So it is obviously not just any Sunday that makes for a great weekend.  This one was different.

Church is often, maybe usually, good.  This one was no exception.  The liturgy was well done.  The congregation sang with sincerity.  The pews were well populated.  The congregation reflected something of the reign of God—people of all ages, lots of children, multiple races.  

Worship at All Saints, Omaha on Sunday went beyond the usual, though.  It didn’t have to do with a different worship style (the worship was fairly traditional) or an outstanding sermon (the preacher, after all, was me) or the fact that some of my favorite hymns were included (although that always helps). It had to do with three particular people and the Sudanese congregation itself, each of whom made it easier for me to recognize that the Lord was present in our midst.

One was a woman, shall we say of mature years (by which I mean older than I) who sang the offertory—“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  She sang it with great feeling.  You could tell she had practiced diligently.  She had given a lot of thought to her interpretation, which was both traditional and personal.  Every cell in her body reverberated with the words, “Comin’ for to carry me home.”  It could not have been more beautiful if it were the Metropolitan Opera. 

Then there was a man who had, I would guess, Cerebral Palsy.  His communication was difficult.  Every word was a struggle.  The effort to produce each one frequently took longer than the rest of the congregation.  He was not deterred.  I could hear him clearly, a beat or two behind everyone else, and not easily understood.  But he was in there, every step of the way.  He gave meaning to the words of the psalm:  “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!”  (95:2) 

And if that weren’t enough, there was a little boy seated (well, not so much seated) in the back of the church with his family, parents, grandparents, and sister.  I noticed him as soon as the procession entered.  He was moving his arms ecstatically in great arcs to the music as if he were orchestrating it all.  I watched him back there from the altar.  It was the same during every hymn, at the offertory, at every opportunity for congregational singing.  He was particularly enthusiastic at the Sanctus:  Holy, Holy, Holy.  When the procession left the Church, I couldn’t resist joining him.  We conducted together (although he took the lead).

His parents told me as they left that he is autistic.  I had suspected as much.  They also told me how much their nine-year-old autistic son loved coming to church.  And they told me how proud they were of him.  I don’t doubt it.  He was having more fun than most church-goers I experience.  Being in God’s presence, if it is anything, ought to be fun. 

And if that weren’t enough, the Sudanese service followed.  Like the earlier service, which was enriched by a smattering of African Americans and Sudanese, the Dinka service was enriched by a number of white Americans.  And it was majorly enriched by the drums.  There was no piano, no organ—just drums.  They were more than enough.  And they produced some wonderful, and highly infectious, singing.  More joy.  More fun.

It was a day of joy upon joy, a lot of fun, coming from people conventional wisdom would tell you could not be joyful—a church matriarch, a very sick young man, a boy locked inside himself by a mystery, and a people who have suffered things we cannot begin to imagine.  Still, it was there.  Joy.  Abounding joy.
It is what I would wish church would always be.  It is what I would wish every weekend would be.
It was a great weekend, Joseph.  Thanks for asking.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Reduced to Tears

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”  (Rom. 8:15)  The spirit of adoption is something I know a little bit about.  Here’s how I learned.
Thirty-one years ago Ginger and I were in the process of completing the home study process for the adoption of our first child.  We had had all the interviews.  The social worker had come to visit our house.  (It was, by the way, one of only three times in my adult life that I’ve cleaned the oven.  I don’t know why I thought our case worker would be checking to see if our oven was clean, but that is what the words “home study” conjured up in my mind anyway.) 
The final interviews had come.  These were to be with Ginger and me separately.  I assume the reason for that is that if one of us had not really wanted to go through with the adoption we could bring a halt to the process without having to reveal the complete truth to our spouse.  In our case, we were both as committed, and anxious in every sense, as ever.
I was to have my interview first, and I promised to stop at a pay phone (before the days of cell phones) to call Ginger and tell her what the social worker had asked on my way back to the office.  I did.  Ginger, in turn, was to call me when her interview, scheduled late in the afternoon, was complete. 
The time of Ginger’s interview came and went.  There was no call.  I waited and waited.  No word.  I began to get concerned.  My anxieties ran rampant.  I feared that the social worker had completed Ginger’s interview and said something like Ginger would make a wonderful parent but that I was a complete Bozo who had tried to trick her into thinking we had a clean oven.  I imagined Ginger crying because of the disappointment and too upset to call me. 
Finally at about 5:30 Ginger arrived at my office door.  She had red, puffy eyes.  She had clearly been crying.  I thought my worst fears were confirmed.  Instead, however, she stepped in and said, “You have a son.”  And she pulled out a picture of a Korean baby boy.  We know him as Andrew.  At that point I started to cry.  It was all I could do.  People from the office came in to see if I was alright.  It was very embarrassing. 
It turns out that the social worker’s last question to Ginger, as it had been to me, was, “So, are you ready for a baby?”  When Ginger responded, “Yes,” the social worker had said, “Good, because I have a referral for you,” at which point she pulled out a file and a picture.   Ginger had, of course, met this news with tears of joy, and in all the excitement she couldn’t remember exactly how to get to my office.  She had been driving around a long time hoping to recognize something and be able to find the way. 
Now, here’s the rest of the story.  Ginger is the emotional one in our family.  She could cry at the drop of hat.  Happy or sad made no difference.  Tears were appropriate for any occasion.  Not so for me.  Up until that point in our lives together, I had never cried.  Not once.  I didn’t think I had it in me.  But when the news of Andrew came, the floodgates broke open.  I started to cry, and try as I might, I couldn’t stop.  I would think I had myself under control, and we would try to call someone to tell them the news.  I would be prepared to speak, but when someone answered the phone, I would start again.  I would have to hand the phone back to Ginger.  I was reduced to nothing but tears.
People come to the United States from faraway places for many reasons.  Some come to escape persecution.  Others come in search of freedom.  Many come in search of a better life.  Some are oppressed.  Some are displaced by war.  Our son Andrew, and later his brother Matthew, came to complete a family. 
At the moment hundreds of children from Central America are risking a long, dangerous trip without adults to come to the United States to escape oppressive poverty, violence, and exploitation.  They are receiving a mixed welcome, sometimes with compassion and sometimes with hostility.  Paul’s words seem relevant to me.  “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”  Now we all have an opportunity to learn what that is all about.  It may well reduce us to tears.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Parable of the Sower

I’ve always loved the Parable of the Sower (Mt. 13:1-9, 18-23).  I realized this week, though, that I’ve been loving it for the wrong reason.
Up until this week, I’ve been focused on the ground where the seed landed, which represents those who hear the word of God’s reign.  Some of the seed landed on the path.  The birds came along and ate it.  Some landed on rocky ground without much soil. The seedlings sprang up quickly, but when the sun came, they withered away “since they had no root.”  Other seeds fell among the thorns, which choked them.  Finally, some fell on good soil and brought forth abundant grain. 
As a product of the Bible belt, although one distinctly out of step with it, I’ve always found that comforting.  Of course, I was finding it comforting in a judgmental and somewhat self-righteous way since, of course, I saw myself and those more like me as the good soil and the evangelical fervor around me as shallow, rocky, and thorny.  Perhaps it was all those visits during college from Campus Crusade for Christ, who I learned had me on a list of back sliders.   (I think it must have been my defense of infant baptism.) 
The antidote to my defensively judgmental view, though, is not to concentrate on the soil or even on the seed.  It is to concentrate on the sower. 
What I now see in the Parable of the Sower is the way the sower casts the seed with abandon.  The sower holds nothing back and is content to let the seed fall where it may and yield what it may.  When I concentrate on the sower, I am more inclined to see reckless generosity with the seed and unbridled hope in the result.  Perhaps I ought to see scarcity and risk of waste.  Still, what strikes me is the complete confidence that the good soil will yield more than enough to carry along the soil that was not able, through no fault of its own by the way, to produce a harvest.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Red Rover, Red Rover

It’s a game from our childhoods.  One side calls to the other, “Red rover, red rover, let [fill in the blank] come over.”  And a child runs across the field trying to break through the line of the callers.  And so it goes until everyone is called across.
Children are the same, first century or twenty-first, ancient Palestine or modern North America.  Jesus alludes to such a game in this week’s gospel.  “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’”  (Mt. 11:16-17)  You can almost see the children running and laughing, bouncing between the groups—flute players who do not dance and wailers who do not mourn.  It’s a game. 
Jesus can certainly be serious when he wants to.  This week, I think he’s playing a game, and in encouraging a little playfulness in light of what could be a very serious situation.  After all, John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said he was a demon.  Jesus came both eating and drinking, and they said he was a drunkard and a glutton.  You can’t win.  You can get all serious about it or you can just laugh.  Laughing is better.
So, when it all seems to get too serious, just remember it’s a game.  Lighten up.  Relax.    Don’t be so uptight.  It’s just like Jesus said.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Monday, June 23, 2014

That’s Bogus

My twenty-something son uses the word bogus in a curious way.  It’s hard to define.  There is much more to it than false or counterfeit, the standard dictionary meaning of the term.  For example, when told what I expect about responsibility with regard to paying bills, living in our house, what I’m willing to help with, and the strings that go with me helping in terms of making decisions, his response is, “That’s bogus!”  I think it means something like unjust, unfair, or maybe even hypocritical.  I feel like the dad who sent along some fatherly advice to his daughter and received a text message, “LOL.”  He thought it meant “Lots of Love.” 

Yet I’m pretty interested in my son’s use of bogus.  It’s a complex idea that he’s trying to express, misguided though he may be.  Somehow, bogus seems to fit it.

It’s like the New Testament’s use of the term righteousness, which is likewise a pretty complicated idea.  Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament goes on for over 50 pages about what this word means in scripture.  I think my son would describe that fact as bogus. 

Nevertheless, here’s the basic idea.  It refers to relationship, the relationship between humans and God, and the conduct that follows from such a relationship.  In the Old Testament, it is defined by the law.  In the New Testament, it is defined by the grace offered to humanity in Christ.  It is about the term of relationship, a covenant if you will.

That’s the sense in which righteousness is used in the epistle and gospel for this Sunday.  “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.”  (Rom. 6:13)  The issue is how to live out a relationship with God, to align with God’s purposes in the relationship, the relationship with ourselves and with the world.

It is likewise in the gospel.  “Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”  (Rom. 10:41)  In other words, our relationships with each other reflect the status of our relationship with God.

Bogus to my son is also a relational word.  What he was trying to express about my plan toward encouraging responsibility and self-sufficiency is that he didn’t like what he thought (incorrectly, by the way) it was saying about the relationship.  Bogus is to break, or perhaps to change, a relationship.

Here’s what the theological term righteous means.  It means the opposite of bogus.