Sunday, August 28, 2005

Proper 17A (August 28, 2005)

“If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” Have you ever been to a restaurant like that? Usually the menu is in French. The Germans, being sensible, if unimaginative people, may also have unreadable menus but bratwurst and beer isn’t that expensive, and they will at least tell you how much it costs.

Or perhaps you’ve seen the great movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s and remember the scene in Tiffany’s when Audrey Hepburn has to explain to George Peppard why there are no price tags on any of the items in the display cases.

There are many things that life asks us to buy without telling us the price first.

We have to choose a career without knowing how much it will cost us. We know that if we want to be a lawyer, then we will have to go to college and law school, then spend an unspecified number of years putting in 60 to 80 hours a week before we finally become a partner and then go on putting in 60 to 80 hours a week. So far, so good. But there’s no way to factor in the hidden costs – the evenings and weekends we could have spent with our spouse and children or just walking in the park.

If we want to be a doctor, then we have to go to college and medical school and spend many years as a resident and fellow before finally we can hang a sign on our door that says, “The Doctor is in.” But there is no way to determine the toll it may take on our families.

What about something really risky like getting married and having children? Study after study tells us that married people are happier and live longer than single people, but statistics also show that about 50% of marriages end in divorce. When we start out on the path of courtship and marriage we can't know whether we're investing in bliss or heartbreak.

Jesus would have made a terrible used car salesman. He was no negotiator. The sticker price is exactly what you pay. “If you want to become my follower,” Jesus said, “you must deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow me.” Bottom line. No counter offers.

It sounds like a high price to pay, and it is. You must deny yourself and take up your cross. In short, you must let go of everything. And what do you get in return? You get it all back. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

That’s the paradox. If we hang on to things, we will lose them. But if we let it all go and follow Jesus, we get it all back.

What are the alternatives? If we hang on to everything, then we lose it anyway. Do you know the story of the two men talking at the funeral of the billionaire Aristotle Onassis? One asked the other, “How much did he leave?” And his friend replied, “Everything. He left everything.”

When I read these words, I despair. I know just how selfish I am, and how reluctant I am to give up anything. But if we hear these words as a call to run off to Calcutta and join Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and spend the rest of our lives caring for the poorest of the poor, then we have misheard Jesus. He may in fact be calling you to do just that; only you can know. But Jesus calls very few of us to be Mother Teresas. He calls most of us to do exactly what we are doing—to be business people, and lawyers and doctors and teachers and priests and husbands, wives, and parents.

But remember: Just like Aristotle Onassis, you, too, will leave everything.

Fred Craddock once said that some are called to pay the price of discipleship in the lump sum payment of martyrdom, but most of us are called to pay it five and ten cents at a time. We are called to what may be the more difficult task of taking up our cross and letting go of our life every minute of every day.

The Mother Teresas and Dietrich Bonhoeffers and Martin Luther King, Jrs, stand out because of the dramatic way in which they paid the cost of discipleship. Most of the time we are called to exercise discipleship in the mundane business of everyday life and I suspect that it is as difficult and sometimes even more difficult to love the people we share a bathroom with than to love the crippled beggar on the streets of Calcutta.

The Christian journey is not like a fancy French restaurant. There is a price but you find out at the very beginning.

For sale (and not just one day only): Life everlasting and abundant. Price: Empty your pockets. The martyrs don’t even have to call the bank. They pour out everything right there. The vast majority of us, though, are on the installment plan – one day, one hour, one minute at a time.

Is this a deal you can’t pass up? You better believe it.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Proper 15A: Not taking "no" for an answer

There's at least one in every parish -- a difficult person. In every parish I've served there's been at least one (sometimes two or three) person who comes up to me at the end of every service or drops in to see me on a regular basis who never has a good word to say and is always offended by something I've done or said.

The Canaanite woman in today's gospel reading seems to have been that kind of person. The impression I have of her is that she was loud, pushy, aggressive, and obnoxious. And nobody, including Jesus, seems to have liked her.

The text tells us that she "came out and cried, 'Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.'"

Look at this woman from the point of view of Jesus and the disciples. Apparently, they found this woman unpleasant and annoying. Jesus tried to ignore her: "He did not answer her a word." His disciples "begged him, saying, 'Send her away, for she is crying after us.'" Jesus even insulted her, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."

But she was unfazed, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

Why did she keep pestering Jesus? I believe that she was driven to this behavior because of three things: she was a woman; she was a Gentile; and she was desperate.

The first century world was dominated by men. In the normal course of things Jesus and his disciples would have had nothing to do with her, would not even have exchanged greetings with her. For a woman to speak to a man without being spoken to first was a serious breach of decorum.

Secondly, as chapter four of John's gospel tells us "Jews have nothing to do with Gentiles". Matthew tells us that she was a Canaanite woman; other gospels speak of her as a Syro-Phoenician. She was one of the original inhabitants of the land who had been conquered by the Israelites. She was not even a respectable Gentile, such as the Greeks and Romans.

Finally, she was desperate. Her daughter was possessed by a demon and in desperation she turned to a wandering Jewish miracle worker.

In other words, the woman's behavior was a strategy for getting Jesus' attention.

Do you know anyone like the Canaanite woman? Who are the difficult people in your life? Who are the people that nag you, who are constantly asking for your attention? Who are the people that you try to ignore and wish would go away?

Are there people in our lives who are trying to get our attention? Will they have to take extraordinary measures to get us to hear and respond to them?

Maybe the story of the Canaanite woman should prompt us to listen and watch and learn from those around us. Someone may be trying to say, "I'm hurting; I'm in need. Help me."

Now, Look at her behavior in a different light. Instead of doing what Jesus and the disciples initially did and ignoring her or trying to send her away, think of her behavior as praiseworthy.

She was persistent in the face of discouragement. When Jesus ignored her, she continued to plead for his help. When the disciples wanted to send her away, she came back. When Jesus dismissed her, saying, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs", she ingeniously turned his rebuke to her advantage: "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

It takes real courage and determination to behave as this Canaanite woman. What do we want as badly as this woman wanted healing for her daughter? For what cause or task will we labor persistently day after day, pleading and speaking out? What is that will make us willing to endure being ignored and rebuked?

Many put that kind of courage and determination into their careers. But what if we were willing to be as persistent and outspoken in God's service as this woman was in seeking healing for her daughter? What if we were to divert some of the energy we spend in self-advancement into the advancement of God's kingdom?

In conclusion, I want you to remember two things about this little story. First, be faithful. In the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, how many people do you think Jesus singles out for their faithfulness? Any ideas? Only two. And who do you think they were? Peter? James? John? Mary Magdalene? No, the two persons whose faith Jesus commends were Gentiles: a Roman centurion seeking healing for his servant and this Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter. Both of them were outsiders. What do you think Jesus was trying to tell us? Sometimes it’s easier for those on the outside to see the truth and have faith than for those on the inside.

Faith is more than believing. Faith is belief plus behavior. John Wesley said that we are saved by faith alone but not by such a faith as is alone. We are saved by the kind of faith that the Canaanite woman had, a faith that made her willing to push beyond the bounds of propriety.

And that brings me to the second point I want to make. Like the Canaanite woman, be willing to be difficult for God’s sake, for the sake of compassion and justice.

Like her, we are to have compassion for those who suffer, the courage to try to change things that are wrong, persistence in trying to change things, and faith that God can change things. When we seek comfort for those who suffering or relief for those who are oppressed, we are not to take "no" for an answer, even when the “no” comes from the highest human authority and even when the “no” seems to come from God.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Transfiguration: In a new light

“Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.” (Luke 9.28-29)

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... and God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light”. Have you ever thought about the fact that God created light before God created the stars, the givers of light?

A thread of light connects all three readings. There was the mysterious light shining from Moses’ face that frightened the Israelites. In 2 Peter the author speaks of the “prophetic message” he delivers as a “light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”.

And finally, there is the story of the Transfiguration, the story of Jesus’ journey to the top of a high mountain, accompanied by Peter, James, and John. While there the disciples saw Jesus transformed into a being of light: “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white”. And they saw Jesus talking with the long-dead prophets Moses and Elijah.

I am inclined to think that the transfiguration of which we speak today was not so much in Jesus as it was in Peter, James, and John. The light that they saw pouring from Jesus had always been there; they just had not seen it before.

The life of Jesus had already shed a radically new light on the world. The poor had been regarded as unloved and unwanted by God, but in the light that Jesus brought they came to be seen as special objects of God’s favor. “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Tax collectors and prostitutes were shunned, but Jesus cast an entirely new light on their status when he shared meals with them. “He receives sinners and eats with them”. (Luke 15.2)

To the learned Pharisee Nicodemus, who came to him “by night”, Jesus brought light. “Very truly, I tell you, Nicodemus, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3.3). “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light...” (John 3.19) Jesus saw that Nicodemus’ real need was not a theological discussion but a radically new way of seeing. And Nicodemus, who arrived in the dark, left amidst God’s blazing light.

And then there was the “man blind from birth” (John 9.1) that Jesus and his disciples encountered in Jerusalem. But even the disciples were in darkness, for they saw this sightless man as nothing more than a theological dilemma: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.2)

However, Jesus saw the man and his blindness as an opportunity to do the work God has been doing ever since the first chapter of Genesis: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”. (John 9.3) And taking the dust from which God had made Adam and the water with which he makes the new Adam, Jesus gave that man blind from birth God’s first creation and gift to the world—light.

Today’s gospel retells the story of a moment when Peter, James, and John suddenly saw Jesus for who he was—a man filled with God’s light, the light that God created even before he hurled stars and moons and planets into the inky void.

The New Testament speaks of a world hovering between light and darkness. According to 2 Peter we are in that dim moment just before “the day dawns and the morning star rises” (2 Peter 1.19).

According to John’s Gospel Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 9.5). The darkness has not overcome the Light, but neither has the Light quite overcome the darkness. There are still those who, like Nicodemus, prefer to do their business by night. There are still those who saw not a great and wondrous miracle when Jesus healed the blind, but merely a sinner violating the Sabbath rules.

The light of which the New Testament speaks is not so much about heavenly bodies or luminous filaments; it is about opening our eyes and stepping out of the shadows. It is about taking the risk of adopting a new perspective.

There is darkness in every life. There is an unwillingness to see in each one of us.
A child who awakens from a nightmare may see the face of a monster on her wall, but when Mother switches on the light, it becomes the laughing face of a clown in a picture.
The Bible tells us of Saul who became Paul, blinded on the road to Damascus, who had seen the followers of Jesus as enemies, but suddenly came to see them as brothers and sisters.
By eerie and unsettling coincidence August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, was also the day on which a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The overwhelming light generated by that nuclear explosion was quite different from the light that shone from Moses’ face or the light of Peter’s message, much less the light that frightened Jesus’ disciples atop the Mount of Transfiguration.

My father served in the Pacific, and I am deeply grateful that the destruction of Hiroshima prevented an invasion of Japan in which he would have fought. But even though the bombing of Hiroshima brought a terrible war to a quick end and probably saved the lives of thousands of troops, both Japanese and American, nevertheless it took the lives of thousands of men, women, and children.

For over forty years men and women saw the world in the light of nuclear destruction. The light that Jesus brought invites us to see the world in a radically different perspective.

Years after the end of the war between the U.S. and Japan American veterans of World War II returned to the sites of mighty battles and so did their German and Japanese counterparts. Peace sheds a new light on those battle fields. Men who once saw each other as enemies, now see each other as neighbors.

A little over a hundred years ago here many in this country saw black people as slaves. But the civil rights movement opened our eyes, so that we learned and are still learning that black and white people alike are “created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...”

According to the Talmud, a Jew must pray at dawn. But that begs the question, when is dawn?
It is said that a young student came to his teacher and asked, “Rabbi, when is dawn? Is dawn the moment when the last star fades from the sky, or is it when the sun creeps above the horizon?”

The wise old teacher replied, “No, my son. Dawn is the moment when you can look at the face of another and see not an enemy but a friend.”

In the light of Hiroshima we came to see half the world as our enemies, dedicated to our destruction. And we saw ourselves as their enemies, and dedicated ourselves to their destruction.

But in the light of the Transfiguration God invites us to see the poor as heirs of heaven; to see sickness not as divine punishment but as an opportunity to do God’s work; and to see each other as God’s beloved children.