I’ve Got Nothing

Matthew 15.21-28

This is a passage preachers sweat over for the simple reason that right here in black and white, Jesus is being a Jerk. Meeting with a mother who is frightened for the health of her child, Jesus ignores her. When she gets in his face, he condescends to her and essentially tells her that she’s not worthy of mercy. When she refuses to shut up, he’s rude but she wins the honor challenge (an aspect of Middle Eastern Honor/Shame culture) and Jesus gives in. All in all, this is absolutely NOT the Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild we were taught to idolize in Sunday School.

But that may, in fact, be kind the point, we were taught Gentle Jesus when we were kids, in other words, when we needed our explanations to be reeeeeeealy simple. With our limited understanding, some complexities were glossed over. But if our image of God hasn’t grown up with us, when we’re confronted with This Guy we don’t know what to do.

Some folks taco the text, trying to make Jesus not be a jerk. Maybe he was testing her, or inviting her to show (and see) the depths of her faith, or proving to the disciples that their prejudice was against the will of the kingdom. Perhaps he was learning that women too have power and that they are a valued part of the community, in direct (and correct) challenge to the idiot notions of patriarchy so common in society. Possibly it’s a story of the honor challenge with Jesus coming off the loser but Becoming a Better Person for it. It might even be a story of female empowerment. (Before you ask, I’ve heard most of these explanations from pulpit and study groups, I’m not just making them up on a whim).

At this point, I’m not even going to try to explain it. I’ll just say “I’ve got nothing on this one” and see what I can find out poking through the text. If I am absolutely required to give an explanation, I’m going to plead the answer of Job “God is big and I am small, I cannot encompass God within my understanding.” In other words, I plead the mystery of a God I cannot completely understand but who is still present in the midst of this chaotic, beautiful, painful world.

What I noticed going trhough the text this time is something important about who this woman is. Her first words to Jesus are a kyrie eleison “Lord have mercy” (yes, this is what we say in the morning liturgy each Sunday ‘Lord, have mercy on me because I am small, the journey is too much for me(cite) and you promised never to leave me alone(cite).’ This kyrie is easy to see in the Greek where it reads eleson me, kurie uios David “have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” It’s a prayer I’ve prayed before, it’s a prayer we use in the church pretty much every week. It’s a cry for mercy in the face of the merciless forces in this world. It’s a cry Jesus ignores.

He doesn’t ignore a casual, polite “oh, if it isn’t too much of a bother” request, the verb describing what the woman does is krazdo “to cry out, clamor” some folks might even say “holler.” It’s a loud cry for mercy, and Jesus ignores it. No, I don’t know why he does this, it doesn’t make sense, but I will trust that there is something true in the mystery and keep going in hope of understanding. [faith seeking understanding, y’know]

She keeps hollering and the disciples beg Jesus to “tell her to shut up and go away.” He answers with a total non-sequitur “I was sent to the lost/destoyed/ruined sheep of Israel.” [The Greek word here is apollumi which includes the idea of destroyed/devastated/laid waste to/utter failure]

There’s ethnic hostility and history here and again, I’ve got nothing on why he does this. Oh, there are valid justifications here, just as there are valid self-justifications for all the stuff we do, but nothing to explain his answer and make it neat and nice. (Then again, perhaps we’ve spent too much time trying to Be Nice, maybe it’s time to consider and accept the messiness and conflict of life a bit more).

Finally she comes up and falls down (proskuneo) at Jesus’ feet. In this time and place, this is how a low status person greeted a much higher status person. It’s also the word we translate as “bowed down in worship” so a pretty abject position. Her request is much more direct now kurie, boethei moi “Lord, help me!” Surely Gentle Jesus will help now. Nope, they get into an argument about dogs (a socially unclean animal of the time).

And then she wins the honor challenge of the dog dispute and Jesus says something very interesting: O gunai, megale sou he pistis “O Woman, great/giant/huge the faith that is yours.” This is in particular contrast to what he said the chapter before when he called Peter little-faith.

The Greek word for faith is also translated “trust,” this is because faith is more than simple assent to intellectual propositions, it is the power that drove the hemorrhaging woman to touch the hem of Jesus robe. It motivated the woman with a spirit of weakness to go to Jesus for healing. The four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus did so for the same reason. They did not know why or how but they knew that there was something powerfully beautiful and loving in this Jesus and that he would heal. In all their cases, the trust was rewarded.

So where does that leave us then? I’m not really sure.   

Jesus is indeed acting like a jerk here, ignoring the woman and calling her a dog, but he’s impressed at her trust and does heal her daughter. In fact, he says genetheto soi os theleislet it be to you as you wish/will,” which is a lot more broadly generous than our translations usually make it out to be.

So Jesus ignores prayer but still heals, God turns away and yet comforts, life is a mess and yet it is still “in His hands.” And in the middle of this mixed up mess, here is a woman with mega faith. She clings to Jesus “like a burr to a topcoat” (as another famous woman put it) and she has mega trust. And before you ask, mega is the English word we get from megale.

“Gigantic, magnificent, is your faith” Jesus says and in the chaotic world of nobody knows what tomorrow will bring, that may well be enough. In fact, because the trust is rooted in Jesus, because it is anchored in the One who is the Way God Loves the Cosmos, I am sure it is enough.

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I Renounce Them

A thoughtful young lady commented recently “Whatever this “white power” is, I renounce it. I rebuke it. To me it is nothing but the power of fear and death. And I will do whatever I can, God give me the strength, to hasten the day when we are more adamant about one another’s living than we are complacent about one another’s dying.”

This reminded me of something we do (and probably don’t even think about) during baptism.

Presider: “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?”
Candidate: “I do”

While we can treat it as some kind of empty comment, a silly “it’s in the rite so we’re doing it” holdover from the Dark Ages of Ignorance, there’s more of a point than our modern eyes can see. This is because as we are reminded in Ephesians “our fight [of life in Christ] is not against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities of this current age.” This means that part of what we are dealing with in life is not just our personal sin or our inclination to sin, but the wider entrenched network of sin, death, and the devil which binds social systems as well. We are also at war against the ideas that pervert our hearts to believe that somehow We are better than Those People.

The early thinkers and writers of the church dealt extensively with the important issues which faced them. Many of those topics were quite closely bound to what was happening then but one topic has endured because the reason for writing it has endured. They wanted to know how to grow deeper in faith and what the pracitices of life were which would increase their spiritual life. The earliest writers (called the Desert Fathers and Mothers) dealt quite rightly with what we do to and with one another but even more, they dealt with what we think.

They had found that the biggest chink in their armor was not what they did (being angry or selfish or vindictive) but rather in their thoughts. Great volumes were written to help us pay attention to, sort, and tame our thoughts because they (rightly) saw that our thoughts were the origin point of our deeds. They did not presume to create external ‘thought police’ to enforce ‘right thinking,’ instead they sought to create an internal sniff test to determine what thoughts should and should not be accepted in our hearts.

They understood thoughts as free floating notions which would drift in and out of our minds. The sniff test of the practices of faith was intended to distinguish our thoughts in order to decide which we were going to entertain and which we were going to ignore. This is because once a thought is entertained, once it is given space in our head, it begins to have life and, if malign, leads us into evil.

What this means then, is that part of what we are renouncing in baptism is the evil structure of ideas that drift into our heads from outside bearing sin, death, and the devil on their wings. We test our thoughts with Scripture, we test them against the lives of our mentors, we test them in the light of Christ and then we keep the good and reject the evil. This is the goal of the askesis (lit. “personal practice/athletic training”) to which we subject ourselves as part of our spiritual growth.

Part of that askesis is testing our thoughts and ideas. So let’s test the notions of “white power.” At its most basic, it flies in the face of God’s creation of the world. You see, if there is one God who made all of humanity in the one image of the one God then there is no reason for one to be genetically greater or lesser than another. Period.

But wait, some say. What about the Curse of Ham? What about it? Have you read the actual text of the curse instead of lazily relying on what someone else told you? Because if you had actually read it you’d have noticed that Ham is not cursed. It is his son Canaan  who gets the curse and Canaan did not settle in “the Land of Ham” (i.e. Africa), he settled in the land of, wait for it… Canaan.

So if anyone in the cosmos is to be a slave to the children of Shem and Japheth, it is the decendants of Canaan. So sorry, the Curse of Ham does not actually exist and all the turgid sermons preached about how Black People Were Made To Be Slaves are (let’s be polite now) Bovine Butt Byproduct. (Also: since the land of Canaan has been invaded, deported, and in- and ex-migrated from for thousands of years, good luck with finding those decendants of Canaan).

What do we say then about the argument that God has specifically chosen the white race for great things. Well first, that idea comes from British Israelism, a supercessionist notion that the people from the UK (and US) are descended from the Ten Tribes (who were somehow Truly Faithful to God as compared to the Apostate Jews, can you say anti-semitic and violates Scripture I knew you could).

There is also a notion that since Adam (earth creature) and Adom (red) have the same consonants, that the true sons of Adam turn red. (Note; this does not mean the “red man” but actually people who can blush because we can’t have “them injuns” being the chosen people now can we). This notion comes from the (I am, sadly, not making this up) Church of Jesus Christ-Christian (Aryan Nations) a group that is exactly as misguided and heretical as the name sounds.

So having gone the long way around the barn, turning over every dank and stupid rock along the way, here’s what we have learned: there is a biblical warrant for everyone being made in the one image of the one God, and thus equal before God by nature. There are positive mentions that we “all are one in Christ” and that the whole cosmos comes to God through Christ. Furthermore, the idea that blacks were uniquely fitted by God to be slaves is… wrong and that alternate theories to support white suppremacy are… frankly heretical. So where does that leave us?

It leaves us with the reality that the notion of white power is, in itself, one of the “powers and principalities” of evil which sadly hold sway in the world. It means that this perversion of Scripture can and should be renounced as the evil that it is. It also means that these evil notions will still be poked at us by the demonic forces which infest the world and that we therefore need to keep testing our thoughts in order to see if they are trying to sneak the notion of racial superiority into our head under the guise of lamenting how Those People are just Not Our Sort.

Thus they young lady was quite right to renounce ‘white power’ as a work of the devil. It is a perversion of creation to serve sin and death and thus, heresy.

In the Name of God, I renounce them.

(And before anyone asks about misogyny, it too is part of the forces we renounce in baptism and I’ve explained that here).

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Participial Christianity

Romans 10.5-15

The Greek philosophers were big fans of immutable, unchageable perfection. In their view, the ultimate and glorious cosmos was full of platonic solids and shaped like an unblemished sphere. It was a glorious place for fans of unmoved movrs and unchanging changers. It celebrated the immortal soul, unemotional mind, and bodiless reason. In one sense, it had given in to what Robert Capon calls “the temptation to lie down with meanings which cannot break your heart.” But, as he further explains “that, it seems to me, is neither human nor Divine” and Scripture proves him correct.

This fascination with unchanging perfection has carried over into the church, sadly enough. Back in the enlightenment we started to describe God with all those immaterial omni- words (omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient…). Along the way, we gave up on a bit of Greek grammar that takes our static understanding and turns it into powerful action.

You see, Greek uses something called a Participial Phrase. In this kind of structure, a particple (an -ing verb) is used as the subject of the sentence. In essence, the subject of the sentence becomes “the ones doing…” we have however, developed the bad habit of translating this as “the ones who…” In doing this, we have moved the sentence from one of action “all the praying ones” to a static etheriality “to each one who prays.”

For instance the NRSV has verse 11 read “The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame’.” The underlying Greek however, is more clearly “For the scripture says “All the ones believing upon him will not be ashamed’.” This moves our understanding of the text from an etherial “no one who believes” to the much more concrete and active “all the ones believing.” This kind of participial phrasing (and participles in general) show up all over the Bible but our habit to think of Scripture in terms of whispy statements of being rather than sweaty, active, living words continues to color our reading.

Jesus is out on the water going walkabout (peripateo the root of our word peripatetic). The disciples, seeing him (participle) on the water, are becoming afraid (yes, that’s a participle too). Pete gets out of the boat and he too is going walkabout (a participle again) on the water, but seeing (participle) the storm he starts sinking (participle). Jesus, stretching out (participle) his hand, grabs Pete and says “oh Little Trust in what (for why) you doubt/waver/hesitate?” (and yes “little-faith” is one word, it’s descriptive of what Pete is doing right now rather than an invocation of Who Peter Is). There are participles everywhere in these stories and yet we usually don’t make a point of them because all this action verb-ing makes for cumbersome English.

But when we go for the more static, conventional reading, we miss the active, moving, breathing part of the story. And in missing that part of the story, we miss our own part.

It is easy to put “God stuff” over there in a static cabinet from which we can take it out once in a while (perhaps even every Sunday). This is a very convenient way of facing The Holy. We get measured, etherial doses without any of that blood, toil, tears, and sweat nonsense. But then, when we are in the crazy ourselves, trying to hold our mud pie life together while it oozes and dribbles through our fingers, an etherial “there, there” kind of God is pretty useless.

For that matter, an etherial “there, there” kind of God is downright unbiblical. This is part of why the incarnation is so important for the salvation of the cosmos. God chose to be and eat and weep and bleed and die in this real and concrete world in part to prove that our lives matter. Not only do our lives matter, all of matter matters as well. He came into this messy cosmos in order to unite it all with himself and raise it all into new life.

He came as an embodied participle, to do a lot of participial things with us and in us so that we too in all the moving, breathing, be-ingness of life could find a moving, living place in Him. In other words, He became part of our participial life so we can have participial being today, tomorrow, and forever.

And sure, it sounds like a lot of grammar laden purple prose, but the point in it is deadly simple: the God who passionately loves the cosmos is with us in our living, breathing, dying, and rising because God too lives and moves. Therefore, our static, etherial, no-really-caring vision of God is… mistaken.

Thank God!

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Oh Little-Faith

Matthew 14.31

We read this comment to Peter (after his getting spooked by actually Walking On Water in the Middle Of A Storm) as Jesus doing the eye-roll thing. Imagining him saying something like “Golly Peter, are you really this ineptly stupid?” Our imagination is helped along by the powerful cadence of the King James translation as “O ye of little faith” which continues to echo in all subsequent English translations. But really, is Jesus being that mean? No.

The Greek word is actually just one word although we translate as two separate ones because “oh little-faith” sounds really weird in English. Jesus is really calling Peter little-faith as if it were a nickname like “bubba(oh yes he is).

Furthermore, since the question he asks later “in who/what/why have you doubted (i.e. hey, can’t you trust me)?” is more affectionate than condemnatory, I’m going to argue that it’s like the way close guy friends rag on each other rather than some existential condemnation.

Jesus is using little-faith (oligopisits a compound of oligo -little and pistis -faith/trust) in a descriptive rather than condemnatory style (like calling a good friend ‘ya big lummox’). Note f’rinstance that he never kicks out any of the people he calls little-faith, something we’d expect him to do if this was some carnival ride “you must have this much faith to ride this” situation. The comment is tied to a specific incident and has the mood of ruffling a kid’s hair before saying “c’mon Roscoe, let’s go home.”

This is not some existential “you have been weighed in the scales and found wanting” moment. Nor will it soon be followed by “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Instead, this is a faithful friend, an (if you will pardon the stretch) passionate lover, who is sad that “you still don’t trust me.” This is not ultimate defeat, it is a description, a slightly snarky nickname, and a word of grace to us as well.

You see, we have the advantage of knowing how the story ends and yet… Hi oligopisis it’s good meet another one of the gang. It’s also good to know that size really doesn’t matter (mustard seeds anyone?) what matters is Jesus and his faithfulness in and through us. So when we “want to give out and we want to give in” we know that there is more to this life than being the big ones. And yet… here we go again.

There we go being little-faith, falling in the mud pit we promised ourselves that we’d miss This Time Around. I’m glad that Jesus is big enough that the often shredded threads of faith are still enough because it is Jesus himself who is enough.

So hello Little-Faith, it’s nice to have company on the journey.

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The Crops of That Place

If anyone lives in a place but does not harvest the crops there, the place will drive that person out for not having done the work of that place.

This is another saying of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those people of the early church who bravely went out into the wilderness to wrestle with what it means to be human beings in relationship with God. It is also an excellent antidote to the treacle inherent in the variations on “Bloom where you are planted” which are so popular these days.

We use the “bloom” saying as a way to tell people who are uncomfortable where they are that they just need to hang on. But the focus of the saying is on us, on simply ignoring what chafes us about a place and focusing ourselves on being super cool as who we are. To a point that is good advice because we can focus on what annoys us outside in order to ignore what is gnawing at our hearts from within.

At the same time, the bloom statement assumes an agnosticism of place which is just a little too chirpily certain that we can do whatever we want because our place doesn’t matter. This is part of the corrosion of reality brought on by the very placelessness so amazingly captured in the prologue of Robert Capon‘s An Offering of Uncles. In it he tells the parable of the Man on the Thruway an anonymous everyman who is worn away by the anonymous, infinitely replaceable, environment around him. Because there is no particularity in his life, no place in which to root, he is gradually worn away into an empty suit and ‘buried’ in that same anonymous emptiness.

In contrast to this placelessness, the fathers and mothers made a point of the very There-ness of our place. They assumed that each place had its own particular work to do, its own crops to harvest. In some places in the country we harvest corn, others do soy or wheat or even sugar beet. In each place then there are plants that grow well and others which are simply not suited to the soil and climate. While we can grow cotton in the desert, it is a spectacularly thirsty crop that strains the water of the land. While wheat can grow south of the Mason-Dixon, there’s a wheat rust that tends to kill it before harvest. Trying to force the ground to grow what it cannot is as foolish as refusing to plant what actually will grow.

Ultimately, each place, each life, each heart, has a crop, a fruit that it can grow well. To have this heart, this life; to live in this place means that we have a fruit to bear and a crop to seek. Far from being a blithe, place ignoring command to “bloom where you are planted,” this is a declaration that our best life is found in seeking the crops of this place and bring them  fruition.

Thus far, it’s a good starting place for our lives “your place, the place you are in, has a crop to grow so seek it out and grow it.” What do we do next?

First rejoice that we have the power to be part of raising the “crops of this place.” Be glad that the melody of our life has a purpose and is itself a gift. Then look for the crops of the place, the things that are unique to this place and uniquely part of what you can bring forward from this place. Then begin working to bring those crops to harvest.

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Unfurling the Word

Psalm 119.129-136

Part of the work of a preacher is to open doors and invite people to walk through. In one sense then, what we do is unfurl the word just as this psalm says.

The Hebrew word is petach (to open) and the associated noun means both “tent flap/opening,” and “mouth.” There’s even a pun in this verse because the ones given understanding (translated as ‘the simple’ in the NRSV) are the p’tayim who are opened to God by the opening of the word.

Using “unfurl” for this opening is on one hand a rather poetic bit of translational work but it is also a true word because on one hand we unfurl a scroll (the word keeper of the day) and on the other hand when understanding is shared to another, it is “unfurled” before them. Those who have had that “now I get it” moment will remember that it is like the clouds rolled back and a bright light went on. Eureka moments are like that, a sudden, glorious revelation that seems to blind us with its intensity.

So the opening of the word opens the understanding the way a banner unfurls. It’s a nice and uplifting image and I guess we can hope that at some point our lives too might unfurl. sigh. Anything for us today?

Just this: in 1 Kings, Solomon’s life unfurls because of the word. He has just gotten to the throne and is just smart enough to know he’s out of his depth but not smart enough to carry the whole thing off with assurance. So when God says “what do you want me to do for you?” Solomon’s reply is “give me wisdom to do this work.”

When people win the lottery, they know exactly what they want to spend their money on. They have a long list of things to do and the enthusiasm to do them. Stopping to reflect on what this will mean to them is very low on their list. But Solomon knew that knowing how to do what needed doing was key to doing anything well.

So he asked for wisdom and God unfurled his understanding. Further, through Solomon’s work, God unfurled the nation of Israel to what is generally accepted as its largest extent culturally and geographically. While David’s reign is mostly a list of who he defeated (or lost to) in battle, Solomon’s reign is full of economic prosperity and boring building programs (which sound boring to a bloodthirsty eight year old boy but think of the tranquility of life needed for the building of a highway overpass to be Big News).

There’s another unfurling in the Gospel. Jesus is telling parables and asks “do you get it?” The disciples (who are either experiencing a sudden moment of inspiration or simply want to make the teacher happy) say ‘you bet, we got it all!’ Ignoring what may well be a bit of foolishness on their part, Jesus goes on to say that for a person who has come to understand God’s way with the cosmos, their lives are like that of a housholder who can bring out (unfurl?) from their stores both new and old.

And now we come to the real fun in this text. You see, the Hebrew word davar (translated “word”) also means deed. This is because the words perform what they say (the technical name for this is “the performative word“). This is part of why blessings and pronouncements are so powerful, saying “the LORD bless you and keep you” is itself the unfurling of the blessing into your life.

So the unfurling of God’s Word causes light to shine in dark places, it causes the uninformed (“the simple”) to gain understanding. And what is the other meaning of The Word when used in a Christian context? “In the beginning was the WORD…” So Jesus is himself the Word of God that unfurls into our lives, gives light, and causes understanding (for the grammar nuts, yes, both verbs in this sentence are causative, the word causes light and understanding to come to be).

This short verse then points to a key reality of spiritual life, that it opens, it unfurls in us through the word of scripture, the word which is also the deed of God, and the Word who is Jesus among us. Knowing these unfurlings are going on around us, it is worth our time to see and appreciate that the word really is unfurling in us. Even now it is growing and giving light to us. It is as welcome as water in the wilderness and certain as the dawn.

Hooray.

And just because I love techno and this particular tune, here is a secular interpretation of what God is doing and unfurling within us. Caress the Hardest Heart by Blank and Jones.

 

 

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