Parting the Sea

All week I have been focusing my attention on the few lines I was struggle with. “Then the waters returned and covered the chariots and chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.” (Exodus 14:28) I’ve been thinking about their families and the people who will miss them. That led me to thinking about all the refugees that have drowned in the sea because they were on overcrowded boats. And then given the choice between returning to their home and getting in an unsafe boat. They choose the boat, hoping for something better.

      I stewed. What to say. How is this a story of liberation? I asked these kinds of questions until I happened to watched a video preview for a new bible study called, “Following a Nobody from Nowhere: A series of videos on the invitation to follow Jesus.” Greg Boyle reminded me that God is always about those who find themselves on the margins. The quote that stands out comes from Richard Rohr, “God is in immediate personal solidarity and union with what I’m suffering right now. That Jesus you will fall in love with. That Jesus you will give your life for.” (theworkofthepeople.com) 

      Then I knew. It was like I was looking through microscope and I was only focussing all my attention on one part of the story. Jonathan Sacks in his book, Not in God’s Name writes “The Talmud records a striking passage in which the angels are portrayed as wishing to sing a song of triumph at the division of the Red Sea. God silences them with the words, ‘My creatures are drowning – and you wish to sing a song?’” (Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name) So we too lament the terrible parts of this story. But we also need to zoom out and remember that God is with those who are most vulnerable in our communities.  We need to remember why Moses was standing at the edge of the Red sea, staff in hand, like Gandalf not letting the Egyptians pass. 

The Israelites came to Egypt seeking refuge from a famine. They were welcomed because Joseph who both listened for God’s voice and was a shrewd planner who saved the Egyptians from suffering during the famine. But then it changed. Exodus beings with these words, “Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and that whole generation. …Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land. Therefore they set task masters over them to oppress them with forced labour.” (Exodus 1:6, 8 - 12) By the end of the first chapter of Exodus, Pharaoh has told the midwives to kill all the boys. When I tell the Godly Play story it is described this way, “When they came to Egypt, the found food and work, but Pharaoh trapped them. They could not go home again. They had to do what the Pharaoh said. They had to live where Pharaoh said.  They had to go to bed when Pharaoh said. They had to eat what Pharaoh said. They had to do the work that Pharaoh said. They had to do everything the Pharaoh said. They were slaves.” (The Complete Guide to Godly Play vol. 2 page 69)

      It was a terrible time for the Israelites. God called a leader, Moses, to lead the people to freedom. This was no easy job. Pharaoh did not want to lose his labour force. Ten plagues came and went and still Pharaoh would not let the people go. Moses would go and beg for his people’s freedom until finally the Pharaoh let them go. It says just before our reading for this morning, “When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; … The Egyptians pursed the Israelites, who going out boldly.” (Exodus 14: 5 – 6, 9)

      They are terrified. Many cried out, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11) In the midst of the fear, God was there. The pillar of cloud was going before them and it followed them, at night a pillar of fire. When it seemed that there was no escaping the wrath of the Egyptians. Moses raised his hand and the waters were divided and they walked to freedom.

      The journey was not easy. At many points along the way, the Israelites were not always sure which way to go. The same is true in our own lives. We do not know where to go or which way to turn or how to live. The good news for all of us is that God is with us in this moments –reminding us of mercy and compassion. The good news for our world is that God is with those who are most vulnerable. It is our calling as a people of faith to help make our community, our country and our world a safe place for all God’s people to live.

      It sounds like a daunting task – changing the world. We do not do this work alone. God will guide us as we show mercy, act with kindness and show compassion for all those in need. Together, by God’s grace we can help shape a future when the most vulnerable in our community are cared for. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Where Two or Three are Gathered

      I have always found our gospel reading for this morning challenging – to the point that I almost didn’t preach on it. There is something a bit scary about two or three people gathering and having the authority to bind things in heaven and earth. It seems so final and it doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the good news of God’s abiding love. Because I know, and perhaps you know, what can happen when two or three people are together. They can bind on earth and in heaven that this one is in and that this one is out. They can loose and on earth and in heaven a variety of terrible ideas.

      I know because sometimes when I am gathered with my closest of friends how the conversation can go. Its starts off innocently enough. Perhaps with the question “did you know?” And before you know it, you’ve arrived at “well I never really liked so and so anyway.” It is human. Most of us do it. It happens among friends, in families, in community groups. People think it shouldn’t happen in churches. But human beings make up the church. And sometimes we don’t get along. Sometimes we are unkind with one another. Sometimes we can’t resist the urge to judge. So it makes me wonder, “What was Jesus thinking trusting two or three people to bind and loose things in heaven and on earth?”

      Then I read these words by Stanley Saunders, “The point of Matthew 18 is not that the church or its leaders possess special authority or insight when dealing with disputes, but that whenever it does exercise authority, it must pay ceaseless attention to the least powerful members of the community. Whenever and whatever we bind or loose, the Christian community is called to defend the interests of the least ones in our midst, as well as to create the space and conditions for forgiveness and restoration to flourish.” https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3392 It helps put our reading in the context of everything that happens in Matthew chapter 18.

      The chapter opens with the disciples asking Jesus, “Who get the highest rank in God’s kingdom?” (Matthew 18:1). Jesus answers the question by placing a child in their midst and reminding them whoever becomes like this child will be greatest and if you welcome a child you welcome Jesus. And he doesn’t stop there, if you put a stumbling block in front one of these little ones it would be better for you to be dropped in the lake with a milestone around your neck. In the verses just before our reading, Jesus reminds us what happens when there are 100 sheep in the fold and one wanders off and gets lost. God goes after the lost sheep because he does not want to lose a single person.

      It is only after Jesus reminding us of the importance caring about the well-being of all these, that Jesus begins his teaching for today, “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love. Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.” (Matthew 18:15 – 20)

      This reading is not about binding law. It is about living together in community. It is about how we treat one another and work out our differences. Dr. David Lose writes, “All of which makes me think that this week’s passage is not simply the product of an all-too-legalistic Matthew (as many, including myself at times, have been tempted to read him), but rather is offered by someone who knows that relationships take work to maintain and that community is harder to forge and nurture than we might imagine. Because – think about it – going to someone with your concern or grievance is a lot harder than talking behind his or her back. Bringing others to listen closely to what is said a lot more courage than posting something on Facebook. And working out disputes as a community together rather than simply dispensing judgment can be really, really hard.” (In the Meantime, Wednesday September 9, 2017)

      The good news is this. Jesus knows we are going to get it wrong. That people are going to get hurt. That at some point we are all going to say the wrong thing and hurt another. So Jesus gives a roadmap on how to work it out. Jesus offers us the reminder to care for the vulnerable in our community. Jesus reminds us about the importance of forgiveness. Jesus reminds us that when we are lost God is always seeking us out. And then Jesus shows how to work it. Talk with one another. Listen to one another. Don’t give up on another. Offer forgiveness. This is the hardest work we will do because it means being vulnerable. It means admitting we are hurting. It means admitting we are wrong. Thankfully, we don’t do this hard work alone. Jesus says it so well, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.” (Matthew 18:20) This is the work of the body of Christ and Jesus us entrusted us with binding and loosing all matters in in heaven and on earth.

      David Lose concludes with these words, “There is so much that is challenging in our world just now – from hurricanes to displays of hate, from injustice to intolerance – that the world desperately needs us to be the Body of Christ.  Moreover, there is so much going on in [our lives] – from heartaches we barely sense to hopes we can scarce imagine – [we all] need to be cared for by, and to be part of, the Body of Christ. And so I’ll say it again: authentic community is hard. But also powerful. And healing. And a tremendous witness. And a heck of a lot of work, to be sure, but always worth it. And when we grow weary following the path Jesus set, perhaps we can remind each other that we have Jesus’ promise that each and every time we try, he is there with us – instructing us in the way of love, urging us on, forgiving us, and sending us out to be agents of reconciliation and peace, accompanying us wherever we may go.”  In the Meantime, Wednesday September 9, 2017) Amen. 

Voice of Hope

Our scripture reading today is at once challenging, disheartening and a gentle reminder of what is really important. Jesus and the disciples are in the region of Tyre and Sidon. They are not on home turf. They are in the land of the gentiles AKA – those who are not descendants of Abraham. Not long after arriving, a woman approaches Jesus and the disciples. She cries out“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” (Matthew 15:22) But no one paid attention to her. Jesus kept walking with the disciples following behind him. She is after all a Canaanite woman, a gentile – there was no need to listen to her. But she will not be ignored. Again, she says “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” (Matthew 15:22) Still nothing.

She will not be ignored or pushed aside. Her daughter’s life is one the line. She knows about Jesus and what he can do. Again, she says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” (Matthew 15:22) The disciples are tired of this nagging and say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” Jesus knew his mission and it was not for her kind. Jesus says to her “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  And he keeps going. We might as well just say it like it is. Jesus is worse than rude. He dismisses her because of her race and keeps walking.

But she will not be ignored or pushed aside or told that she and her daughter’s life are of no account. She puts herself in Jesus path and kneels at before him saying, “Lord help me.” (Matthew 15:25) And still Jesus does nothing. Can you believe it? Our Jesus who heals. Our Jesus who is compassionate. Our Jesus who loves us back to life refuses to help this woman whose daughter is being tormented by demons simply because she is from the wrong place. And then it does not get better as the story progresses. He says, her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26) He calls her a dog.

Most people would have walked away. First ignored, then dismissed and then insulted. But not this woman. She says “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:27) And finally Jesus see her – not where she is from – but her. A mother crying, begging for her daughter’s life to be restored. Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Matthew 15:28) And in that moment her daughter is healed and Jesus mission and ministry changed.

I’ve read and preached on this story countless times. I’ve reminded myself that because of this woman’s persistence Jesus ministry changes – which it does. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “through the Canaanite woman’s faith [Jesus] learns that God’s purpose for him is bigger than he had imagined and there is enough of him to go around. (Seeds of Heaven. p. 63)

Somehow this week I hear this story differently. I remember Jesus pushing the Canaanite woman aside and I think of the riots in Charlottesville. I watch as Jesus dismisses her and I think of the people who show up at protests using the hate filled slogans of KKK and Neo-Nazis. And when Jesus called her a dog and I am reminded of the divisions that are occurring in our own country and around the world. I think of the all the people who’ve been pushed aside because arbitrary lines have been drawn that say “you are in and you are out.” This gospel reading reminds me that racism isn’t new. It’s an enduring problem.

Dr. David Lose in his column In the Meantime writes “It’s way, way too easy for us to assume that God is on our side, looks like us, favors our positions, and endorses our views. Call it sinful, call it human, but let’s be honest: it’s really, really easy for us to imagine God is just like us. …And just as the Canaanite woman teaches Jesus that God’s mission and vision and compassion and mercy are bigger than what he may have initially imagined, so also might the Canaanite woman teach us the same at a time when synagogues are threatened, mosques are being fire-bombed, and neo-Nazis and white supremacists march the streets: every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you will find the God made manifest in Jesus on the other side. (Dr. David Lose, In the Meantime August 15th, 2017)

The good news, is that Jesus is changed by his meeting with the Canaanite Woman. Our Gospel reading, shows us a path that brings hope. A path to wholeness for communities. The Canaanite woman teaches Jesus that his mission is to share God’s love with everyone. No exceptions. The same is true today for us today.

As we watch the news and wonder what kind of world our children will grow up in. Pay attention to the signs of hope – for the signs that our world is changing for the better. There all the people who showed up to say no to racism, violence and hatred. The ministers, clergy, pastors, rabbis and leaders of many faith communities who formed a line of protection at the riots in Charlottesville. The people of Boston who showed up in droves to protest against the right wing free speech rally and whose voices drowned out the ones spreading hatred. The people of Vancouver who showed up to protest the anti-immigration protest and whose words of welcome were the only ones that could be heard. 

This is where hope is found. The everyday people like you and me who gather and use their voices to stand up for a world where all are welcome. As we head into the new week, let our voices be the voices of hope. Let the message of the Canaanite woman who showed Jesus the way of love, challenge us to be hope at work in our community. Let us pray and work for a day when our world will reflect that hope in every place. By God’s grace may it be so. Amen.

 

Wheat and Weeds

As you might imagine, the gospel reading for this morning has inspired me to think about wheat and weeds. Gardeners and famers all know that they don’t want weeds in their flower beds or fields. They take the good nutrients from the soil and they make it harder for the stuff we want to growing to grow. My front lawn, much to Scott’s chagrin, is a testament that very principle. We want grass but there are dandelions everywhere. For several years we even waged a battle with gout weed in our flower beds.

            Here is my problem. I like weeds – well maybe not gout weed. Some weeds have beautiful flowers. A field of dandelions is a glorious shade of yellow. When I come home from work and see that field of yellow, I smile. Queen Anne’s lace has a delicate flower. The thistle is beautiful shade of purple and green. The lilies of the field that Jesus talked about – beautiful red weeds that grow in every crack in the concrete. I’m not alone. The Iona community published a whole book called Dandelions and Thistles. My favourite poem from the collection is called Dandelions and Thistles.

In the beginning

God saw the cheerful unrepentant weeds:

Thistles and dandelions—

They were fruitful and multiplied.

They bloomed on poor soil

And in the barren wilderness;

They brought colour into a solemn world.

God, knowing the secret of life and death,

Created green shouts that spring up after rain,

flowers that follow sun

fruits that will only grow

if they fall in the earth and die.

These weeds – as down-to-earth as you or me

are parables of the wisdom and work of God.

            Jesus parable for us today is as complex as our relationship with weeds. Don’t get confused with last week’s parable of the Sower. This different. Jesus is talking about wheat and weeds. It is another kingdom of God parable. There once was a farmer who sowed good seed but at night while the hired hands were sleeping, an enemy came and sowed weeds. When the wheat started to grow so did the weeds. The farm hands came and asked the master if he used good seed. He says, “An enemy has done this.” (Matthew 13:28) When they ask if they should pull up all the weeds. The farmer says, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matthew 13:29 – 30)

This is a parable of God’s grace. It is easy to miss if we focus the weeds being bundled and burned. Pay attention to some other details in the parable. The person who planted the seed was the boss – the master. In Jesus’ day that was unheard of. The master doesn’t plant, the workers do. Then, the master instructs them to let the wheat and weeds grow together. Elizabeth Johnson says, “What Matthew most likely refers to, however, is darnel or cockle, a noxious weed that closely resembles wheat and is plentiful in Israel. The difference between darnel and real wheat is evident only when the plants mature and the ears appear. The ears of the real wheat are heavy and will droop, while the ears of the darnel stand up straight.” https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=979

Here is the challenge of the parable and for us in our daily lives. You can’t always tell the difference between the wheat the weeds and God looks on things very differently than we do. Maybe we humans are a strange mixture of wheat and weeds; good and bad. Sometimes we do wonderful things and sometimes we turn from God’s ways. The master, God, lets them both grow together because you can’t always tell who is going to be bear the fruit of the kingdom. That’s the beauty of this parable. God is telling is it not up to us decide who is the wheat and who is weeds – who is in and who is out. God is saying – leave that to me. Because sometimes – maybe most of the time – people will surprise you.

 That was certainly true of Jacob. God did not choose Jacob but not because he was perfect or even at first glance a good human being. Jacob is a liar and a cheat. He stole his brother’s inheritance and blessing and now his on the run from his rightfully angry brother. After a long day spent fleeing his brother’s wrath, Jacob find himself alone in strange place. God comes to him in a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder.  As he dream, God makes a promise to Jacob that echoes the one made to Abraham and Isaac before him:

            “I am the Lord... the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Genesis 28:13 – 15)

            Then Jacob changes. Love has a way of transforming lives. Jacob says, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, ... so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house.” (Genesis 28: 20 – 22)

            This is the heart of the good news. It is for all of us. God’s love transforms our lives. God takes the broken or missing pieces in our lives and makes us whole. Jacob was a strange mixture of wheat and weeds and yet God made him the heir to a promise. God says “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” The same is true for us. God is with us no matter what. God knows our hearts. We too can pray Psalm 139, “O God, you have searched me and known me. ...How deep your designs are to me, O God! How great their number! I try to count them but they are more than sand. I come to the end – I am still with you.” (Psalm 139)

            God’s kingdom is beyond compare. God searches our hearts and knows us – the good and the bad – the weeds and the wheat and loves us and walks with us. That is God’s amazing grace to us. We do not need to worry about who is in or who is out. Our calling is simple – follow in Jesus way of compassion and love. Then leave the rest to God’s infinite and amazing grace. Amen.