Copyright, Yellow Tavern, 2011
Not to be copied for publication, in part or in whole, without proper acknowledgement.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Does God Want?

Pentecost 10A 2011
Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Indulge me for a few moments. Think about one of the best presents you ever received from someone else. Maybe it was an article of clothing, or a book, or a trip, or a musical instrument, or a vehicle. Now, what did you do with that gift? Did you use it as the giver intended, or did you waste it, ignore it, or do something else with it? Turn to your neighbor and briefly tell them what that gift was and what you did with it.
Now, think about a gift you gave someone else, but it wasn’t appreciated or used as you had hoped. Tell each other about that.
Finally, share with each other about a time you gave someone a gift and they loved it and used it well. How did you feel when that happened?
As last Thanksgiving approached, my wife’s brother sent me a message saying he had an extra bike that he was no longer using, and he thought he would give it to me. Eric is an avid cyclist and rides a really nice and really expensive racing bike. He had bought that bike to replace another bike, only about three years old and while a really nice bike, not as state-of-the-art as his new bike. He decided to give the old bike to me because I was the only other person in the family his size.
I tried to beg off. It was much too nice a bike for a fat old guy like me to be riding around once in a blue moon. I suggested he sell it on ebay, but, when Eric and his family pulled into our driveway Thanksgiving morning, there was the bike on top of his car.
Now, this produced a crisis in me. What do you do when someone gives you something ever-so-much nicer than you need or deserve or are going to use? I tried to give Vicki a Porsche to drive back and forth to work and church, but she refused because it was more car than she really needed. What was I going to do with this ridiculously wonderful bike my brother-in-law had given me?
Well, I decided I really had to start riding it. I asked Vicki to give me an indoor trainer so I could ride it during the winter, and when spring came I started riding it in the neighborhood every now and then. As time went on, I rode it more often, and on longer trips. I bought a new, more comfortable seat, some cycling shorts with the padding to compliment my natural padding, and a little computer to tell me how much I’ve ridden and how fast. Yesterday I did my farthest ride so far – 20 miles to Ashland and back. And in October Eric and I are going to ride the Tour Between the Waters on the Eastern Shore – a “metric century” of 62 miles in one day. Next year we want to ride the full century – 100 miles. You see, I had been given this incredible gift, and the best thing for me to do with it was to use it as it was intended. And a strange thing has happened: now I can’t wait to get out and ride the bike.
The magnificent 1998 film Saving Private Ryan is the story of a squad of American infantry, led by Tom Hanks, who are assigned to find an American paratrooper after D-Day and bring him home safely. The first twenty-seven minutes of the film are a blood and gore-bathed portrayal of the horrors of war, featuring the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy. As a child, I could not understand why my father, a veteran of two World Wars, would not watch the war movies and TV shows I so dearly loved. His answer was, “Because it’s not like that.” Saving Private Ryan shows what war is really like, and, as William Tecumseh Sherman said, it is hell.
Private James Ryan is the last survivor of four brothers, and because of the “Sole Survivor Policy,” which protected soldiers if they were the last surviving family member in the war, Hanks is ordered to find him and bring back alive. The squad searches for Ryan, finally finding him at the expense of many of the squad member’s lives, including their leader. Near the end of the film, as Hanks is bleeding to death, he looks at Private Ryan and says, “James, earn this. Earn it.”
The last scene in the movie – spoiler alert if you’ve not seen it – shows an old man and his wife searching through a military cemetery in France. He comes to the grave of Hank’s character, Captain John Miller. With tears streaming down his face, the elderly Private Ryan asks if he’s been a good man, if he’s earned the gift that had been given him. He then salutes the grave, as the camera pans down to a small American flag on the grave.
What do you do with an incredible gift that’s been given you?
By the time St. Paul gets to today’s lesson from the twelfth chapter of Romans, he has laid out for eleven chapters the meaning of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection for Jews, for Gentiles, and for the entire cosmos. The Letter to the Romans is, in many ways, the foundation of all Christian theology forever after. After laying out this grand vision of what God has done in Jesus, chapter twelve begins with a crucial word: Therefore. Whenever you see or hear therefore in a speech, in an article, or especially in the Bible, draw a big circle around it. Therefore is like that moment at 9:53 pm when Dr. House suddenly stops and stares wide-eyed into the distance. Therefore is when all the discussion and argument and conjecture are done, and you’re going to get the answer to what really needs to happen. Here it comes. Here’s the punch line, the bottom line, the instructions. And in this case, after St. Paul has laid out this staggering gift of salvation God is offering to the world through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we’re going to hear, in one sentence, what God really really wants us to do about it.
Therefore, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. What does God want? He wants our bodies.
What? I thought God wanted our hearts. God wants us to feel good feelings and to think good thoughts and, above all, try. Just try to love God. Try to be nice. What’s this body thing? What does God want with this body?
The real sign of commitment, the real sign of love, is not what we feel or think – it’s where we put our bodies. When Eric gave me the bike, I could have thanked him profusely, written him notes, told the whole world about the wonderful thing he did, but what counted was whether I actually put my fat carcass on the thing or not. Thursday my best friend, Jim Hewitt, had some follow-up surgery on his brain. Lots of folks sent best wishes and notes and said he would be in their prayers. Vicki and I needed to drive to Arlington and be there. We needed to put our bodies there in the room with him. It wasn’t enough for Captain Miller and General Marshall and President Roosevelt to send their condolences to Private Ryan and his mother. They needed to get his living body back home safely, sometimes at the expense of their own.
Faith is not, primarily, about what we feel or what we think. It’s about what we do. It’s about where we put our bodies and time and presence and gifts down. It’s about getting down on our knees to pray, it’s about getting our bodies in the pew to worship and in the classroom seats to learn and in the kitchen to cook and on the floor with the children and in the ghetto with the poor and the shelter with the homeless and the hospital with the sick and the dying and in the jail with the imprisoned and in the statehouse with the lawmakers and in the school with the teachers and children. It’s not about thinking about it or feeling about it – it’s about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, as our spiritual worship. God doesn’t give a rip what you think and feel if your butt is not in the seat or on the line.
Look at the next sentence from Paul: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God. First our bodies, then our minds. We get that conveniently backwards all the time. I could have studied about riding the bike (which I did), I could have thought and felt about riding the bike (which I did), and waited until I was in the right frame of mind and feeling the right feelings before I went out to ride. Had I done that, how many miles do you think I would have ridden so far this year? Any parent will tell you he or she doesn’t wait until their child thinks and feels the right things before they teach a child to eat, or walk, or use the toilet, or talk, or read, or say please and thank you. You teach the action, and the mind and heart follow. Do not be conformed to this world means do not ACT like this world. Change the action, and you will change the thinking and the feeling. Every great athlete, every great musician, every great dancer, every great actor practiced right action over and over and over until the mind and heart followed. That’s why “I don’t feel like it” or “my mind’s just not in the right place” are the two most ridiculous excuses in the world. Do the right thing, and your heart and head will follow.
God has given you this incredible gift: forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, love, grace, peace, and eternal life, through Jesus Christ. Just as Captain Miller and his men died for Private Ryan, the Son of God died for you, so you could come home safely, too.
Now, what are you going to do with that gift? What does the giver of that gift want you to do with it?
It’s not about what you think, and not about what you feel. By the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Put your bodies at God’s disposal, and you’ll be amazed at how your heart and brain will follow.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What Goes In, What Comes Out

Pentecost 9A 2011

Matthew 15:10-28

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

One of the most notorious – and hilarious – episodes of the iconic TV show Seinfeld is called “The Bubble Boy.” On their way to vacation in a lakeside cabin, George and his girlfriend, Susan, stop by a house to visit a young man who, because of an auto-immune deficiency, lives in a plastic bubble. His father, a fan of Jerry’s comedy, plays upon their sympathies, telling them of the sad, isolated life his son lives. When George and Susan arrive at the Bubble Boy’s house, they discover he is a rude, selfish lecher. They try to play “Trivial Pursuit” with the Bubble Boy but get in an argument about one of the answers. George and the Bubble Boy start trying to choke each other and Susan accidentally punctures the bubble, sending the Bubble Boy to the hospital. Trust me – it’s hilarious.

Like the Bubble Boy, some – not all – of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day wanted to quarantine themselves from the world’s messiness. In the passage immediately before today’s lesson, Jesus is accosted by some scribes and Pharisees who ask why Jesus and his disciples don’t observe the tradition of scrupulously washing their hands before they eat. Much of first-century rabbinical literature is preoccupied with ritual holiness. Surrounded by a Roman army of occupation and an increasingly politically and religiously diverse culture, the Pharisees were trying to recall Jews to their distinct identity as God’s holy people.

It’s customary for Western Christians like us to ridicule the Pharisees for their attempts to call their people to distinctive patterns of holiness by emphasizing cleanliness, but we need to look in our own mirrors. This nation is little more than a generation removed from separate bathrooms, schools, and even water fountains for Anglo and African Americans. It was not long ago that people with terminal but non-contagious diseases were excluded from general society. People with handicapping conditions were kept separated from “temporarily abled” people. We have our bubbles, still. We live, and work, and learn, and play, and worship, for the most part, with the “right kind of people:” you know, people like us.

Jesus, as usual, went to the heart of the matter with the Pharisees. Instead of obeying the commandment to honor and care for one’s parents, Pharisees were declaring that because they were giving money to the Temple they were no longer under obligation to care for their elderly relatives. That, Jesus said, was hypocrisy. Then Jesus went on, in this morning’s reading, to talk about where sin comes from. It doesn’t come from the outside, he said – from eating the wrong foods or not washing hands or listening or looking at the wrong things. Just as the Bubble Boy in Seinfeld was free from outside germs but was an obnoxious and dirty-minded jerk on the inside, Jesus knew where sin came from. The snake didn’t make Adam and Eve sin in the Garden of Eden – the snake only brought out the problem that was already there.

Two monks were walking down a road one day and, approaching a town, a naked young woman was lying in the ditch, bruised and unconscious. The first monk immediately veered to the other side of the road and hid his eyes. The second monk went to the young woman, wrapped his cloak around her, picked her up and carried her to a doctor in town, leaving her there with money for her care. The two monks resumed their silent journey through and out of the town. About two miles on the other side of the town, the first monk broke his silence and said to the second, “I can’t believe you touched that naked woman and carried her into town. You will have much to repent of when we get back to the monastery!” The second monk said, “I took her into town and left her there. You’re still carrying her.”

The episode that follows Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees perfectly embodies Jesus’ teaching about what comes from without and what comes from within. He heads into pagan territory north of Israel – modern day Syria. A Caananite woman confronts him, shouting at him to heal her daughter from demon possession. Multiple taboos are broken in this scene: women were not supposed to approach men; she is an idol-worshipping, pig-eating pagan asking favors from a devout Jewish rabbi; demons were to be avoided at all costs. In an amazing give-and-take, Jesus first refuses her demands, saying that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. She insists, kneeling before him and crying out, Lord, help me – not incidentally, exactly the same words Peter used last week when he was drowning in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus, incredibly, calls her a dog. It’s not right to take the children’s food – the message of salvation intended for the Jews, God’s children -- and throw it to the dogs. Forget, for a moment, that our pets eat better than millions of children around the world. Forget our cute and cuddly puppies. Jews didn’t keep dogs as pets – dogs were unclean animals. Jesus is calling this woman and her daughter dogs. It’s a stunning comment from gentle Jesus, meek and mild. The Quaker writer Elton Trueblood tried to excuse this by suggesting that Jesus is being funny.[1] I’m not so sure. I think something else is going on here – I think this pagan woman is going to help Jesus expand his understanding of himself, of his mission, and of God.

Rather than run from this shocking insult, the woman, for the love of her possessed daughter, throws Jesus’ insulting analogy right back at him: But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. Jesus, you said it’s not what comes from the outside that makes us who we are. Don’t measure me by my nationality, by my history, by my diet, or by my gender. I’m not asking for a banquet, Jesus, I’m asking, for the love of my daughter, for just a crumb of love, of hope, of healing. Three times in three sentences she calls Jesus Lord, and then refers to him as Master. If it’s not what goes in that makes us what we are, but what comes out of us from our heart, then this woman, kneeling at Jesus’ feet begging for mercy is a child of God and a disciple of the Savior. No wonder Jesus, amazed, exclaims Woman, you have great faith! Let your wish be answered! Isn’t it possible that Jesus, not just real God but real man, learned and grew from this encounter with this remarkable woman? If we can’t change God’s mind, why do we pray?

Quarantine, whether for religious or biological reasons, is far less effective than immunization. Recent medical research seems to show that overuse of antibiotics and underexposure to normal allergens and bacteria in infants actually increases the likelihood of them developing allergies and asthma during childhood. The presence of dogs and cats in an infant’s home decreases the chances of children developing allergies to pets, ragweed, grass, and dust mites. [2] Exposure to small amounts of bacteria, allergens, and viruses – as when we are inoculated against smallpox, tetanus, measles, chicken pox, polio, whatever – helps us build up resistance. The same is true spiritually. That’s why we need to talk to each other and with our children about sin, evil, temptation, and things that go bump in the night. It’s like Halloween: when children dress up as ghosts, goblins, monsters, vampires, or congressmen, it helps inoculate them against their fears. It gives them some sense of control over things they don’t understand. It tells them what Jesus said is true: it’s not what comes from the outside that makes us dirty and sinful – it’s what’s in our hearts that really reveals who and what and whose we are.

Don’t live your life, or your family, or your church, in a bubble, terrified of all the bad things out there. Let’s talk instead about the real fears, the real hopes, the real darkness, and the real dreams that are down inside each of us. Way down there, Jesus says, is where God knows us and loves us.

Many years ago I was invited to a Bible study and prayer group, and at the end of the evening, the group leader led us in prayer, and asked us all to raise our hands as we prayed. That’s just not the way I pray. If you want to raise your hands when you pray, I think that’s fine, but that’s not how I pray. The leader noticed I wasn’t raising my hands, and launched into a mini-sermon about how if we really loved God we should feel comfortable raising our hands to bless God. He went back into prayer, and I didn’t raise my hands. He stopped again, and repeated his insistence that everyone should raise their hands. A friend of mine in the group interrupted him and said, “I think God is much more interested in where our hearts are than where our hands are.”

It’s not what comes in that defiles – it’s what comes out.

[1] Trueblood, Elton, The Humor of Christ, Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1975


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Watching the Wind

-->Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
His name was John Gravelle, and he was my Driver’s Education teacher in Summer School my sixteenth summer. Not only was he the primary teacher for the hundred of us gathered in the band room for the classroom part of the course, but he was the on-the-road instructor to whom Debbie Dunphy and I were assigned. He was a wonderful, gregarious, unforgettable teacher.
Mr. Gravelle taught us five principles for good driving, two of which for the life of me I can’t remember. But the number one principle, said Mr. Gravelle, was aim high when steering. Don’t look at the white line to the right, or the yellow line to the left, or ten feet in front of the car. If we would look as far down the road as possible, Mr. Gravelle promised, we would magically stay in the middle of the lane. And, when I took the wheel of that 1967 Buick Skylark that was our instructional vehicle, I looked as far down the road as I could and, to my surprise, it worked.
Where we fix our sights in life makes all the difference. The same rule applies in my sailboat – I pick out a buoy, or a house or a tree on shore, and steer for that. It’s the way I got through math class in school – I looked for the end of the period, the end of the day, the year, or the promise that someday I was going to graduate from college and never take another math class. It may be the way some of you make it through a sermon – you know that somewhere around 9:30 or noon this service is going to end, you’re going to lunch and then watch a ballgame or a movie. Parents, you use it to survive the summer – you know that Labor Day and the beginning of school is coming. Aim high when steering.
Like all preachers, Jesus was always trying to get away by himself for a while. He pronounces the benediction over the congregation, tells the Church Council to take the boat across the Chesapeake, and he’ll meet them on the Eastern Shore. Then Jesus goes up on the mountain alone, to pray. The physical setting of this story is highly symbolic: in the Bible, mountains and hillsides are places where God and people meet. People go up, God comes down. The sea, on the other hand, almost always represents chaos and danger. God creates the world out of the waters of chaos. Noah takes his family and all the animals to escape the flood. Moses leads the Hebrews through the sea. Jonah is cast into the sea to escape God’s call. The disciples are sent ahead of Jesus, into chaos.
A storm pounds the disciples in their boat. All night long they struggle to stay afloat, and as dawn begins to break, the exhausted disciples are desperate for help. They have been looking at the waves, looking at the wind, and they are terrified. They’re looking for the shoreline, and as their bleary eyes stare into the distance, they see someone walking across the water towards them. At first, they think it must be a hallucination, a mirage. But the image grows. It must be a ghost, a demon, perhaps even Death himself. They scream in terror.
Jesus, out across the waters, hears the scream, and calls out to them. The Greek, ego eimi, is the same wording as the Greek translation of God’s words to Moses at the burning bush: I Am. This is no accident, Matthew is telling us. This is no ghost. This is the God who hears his people cry, in Egypt and on the Sea of Galilee.
Peter is crazy with exhaustion, fear, and hope. Master, if it’s really you, command me to come out to you on the water. Go for it, Jesus answers, and Peter climbs out of the boat.
The sequence is remarkable. First, Peter waits for Jesus’ command. Peter doesn’t just jump out of the boat and walk, on his own power, to Jesus. He knows he can’t do this thing on his own. He can only do it in response to Jesus’ command. There are a million good and miraculous things we can imagine to do. The question for us as a congregation, as well as the question for each one of us personally, is not what would Jesus do, but what is Jesus commanding us to do? When I was in Charlottesville, the University church there decided it would be a good thing to start a ministry to the homeless. The problem was that the homeless were largely downtown, not out by the University. It was a good thing to do, but wasn’t what Jesus was asking them to do. I kept saying to them, if you want a ministry to the homeless, how about the 18,000 homeless students across the street? That’s your call from Jesus. They still haven’t gotten the message. Of the million good things to do, what is Jesus calling you, and us, to do?
Second, Peter has to get out of the boat and into the waters of chaos. Ernest Campbell, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York, was once asked why it seems that we see so little faith in our time. His response was that “we are not doing anything that requires it.”[1] We can’t rise above the chaos all around us if we’re not willing to leave the relative security of our foundering little boats. We stay close to home, close to the vest, close to the knitting. Martin Luther King left the safety of his pulpit for the segregated streets of Birmingham; Mother Theresa left the security of her convent for the dying poor of Calcutta; Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan left their Belfast homes to face down Irish terrorists. We will never learn to walk on water by staying in the boat.
Third, Peter can rise above chaos only as long as he keeps his eyes upon Jesus. But when he starts to think about what he’s doing – note, what he is doing – and is distracted by the wind and the water and the danger all around, he sinks into chaos. Aim high when steering. Don’t look at the lines on the road, don’t look at the pretty girl on the sidewalk or the fat guy on the bike or who’s sent you a text message. Don’t be distracted by the chaos – look down the road and keep your eyes upon Jesus. Otherwise, as Mr. Gravelle said, you will steer towards that distraction. We live in a world of nonstop distraction. Don’t watch the wind, or the water. Aim high.
Some of us have to aim high when we go off for another cancer treatment or another surgery or another round of therapy, remembering the long-term goal. We have to aim high when we’re paying the bills, and not be distracted from the goal on the horizon by what might look good at the moment. Would that Congress had the same discipline – and stayed in the middle of the road. We need not to be distracted in our homes and in our jobs and our relationships when the boat seems to be sinking and everything is turning into chaos. We need to aim high as a congregation, glorifying God by giving God and each other the very best we have, making disciples of Jesus Christ, not distracted by cranky air conditioning systems, balky septic tanks, or personal preferences and agendas. And when we lose loved ones for no good reason, when the sin and insanity of the world come crashing over the gunwales, when the questions are dark and deep and threaten belief in anything good and loving and holy, we need to look out on the horizon for the Savior who always hears the cries of his people, who always rises above chaos, even the chaos of death itself, and calls us out of our sinking boats and into his arms.
Don’t watch the wind or the waves. Aim high.

[1] Bartlett and Brown, eds., Feasting On the Word, Westminster John Knox, 2011, Year A, Volume 3, pp. 334-336