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Posts tagged ‘Matthew’

Authority: Listening and Trusting

Matthew 21:23-32

trustFallWhen I was in middle school I went to summer camp once. I remember bits and pieces of my experience there, and one thing I remember distinctly is a certain “game” the camp counselors had us play called a trust fall. Now I’m sure a lot of you have at least heard of such a thing [and maybe some of you where unlucky enough to have actually done it]. I say unlucky, because, think about the concept: the camp counselor asked me to close my eyes, turn my back on the other middle school students, and then fall backwards without opening my eyes, looking back, or catching myself. It is not hyperbole to remark that I did not consider this such a great idea. I mean, I myself was 12 years old, and I thought: Would I even trust my own self to catch me?

nervous-preschooler-boyThe answer in my head was surprisingly no and so this led me to the conclusion that falling backwards and then expecting a group of other 12 year olds I had just met to catch me was not the wisest choice. I mean, even the couple of kids I knew were not really instilling confidence in me, considering that two of them in my cabin had recently stolen candy from my backpack and had threatened to dip my hand in warm water in the middle of the night while I slept. So…the trust fall? I kept my eyes open, and when I “fell” back, I probably waited a mere second before I turned around to see the anxious, uninspiring and nervous faces of my camping partners and I stopped the fall before it even began.

What is trust anyway? Let’s see what Collins English dictionary says. Trust is: the reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, etc., of a person or thing; confidence. Trust can also be a person on whom or thing on which one relies. Finally, trust can be the obligation or responsibility imposed on a person in whom confidence or authority is placed.

Which parts of this definition fit your own definition of trust?

Now do a quick Google search for songs about trust. What you’ll see in the results is that trust is not all that trustworthy after all? I mean, most of the songs written with trust in title are really about mistrust, betrayal, and manipulation! Trust in Me from The Jungle Book is one of the first songs that comes to my mind and it appears first on most internet searches. I mean, Kaa, the snake is singing this song to Mogli in a tree, using the song as a way to hypnotize the poor kid and then eat him.

Junglebook-disneyscreencaps_com-6045Trust in me.

Uh, no. And then the list goes on: I Don’t Trust Myself, Don’t You Trust Me, etc, etc. In fact, one of the most popular song titles is Don’t Trust Nobody.

So it appears we have a difficult relationship with trust. Not hard to see this in society. Recent Gallup and Pew Foundation polls and studies demonstrate the lack of trust we have in what we call the “great building block” institutions of society, to mention a few: religion, marriage, government, banks, public schools, and the media. According to Gallup, less than 32% of Americans trust said institutions.[1] Let’s hone in on religion, more specifically, the Christian church in the U.S. In 1975, 68% of Americans thought the church was trustworthy/they were confident in it; currently that number is at 42% and dropping.

Interestingly, since the current presidential election in 2016, the Pew Foundation found that people’s views of religions and other traditions outside of the traditional Christian church positively improved, specifically Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Jews, and Mormons. Trust in the Christian church, however, is at an all-time low. I don’t say this to be a Debbie Downer or to make any of you hearing this who are Christian to feel sad or hopeless. It’s the opposite. I want to honestly talk about trust. Why have many people lost trust in the Christian institution called church?

If you think clearly and listen to others with an open mind, you will know why. Really, there is no reason to trust, because trust is not a blind faith, falling back with your eyes closed, hoping that you will be caught and kept from harm. Trust is confidence in someone or something because that someone or something has instilled said confidence in you. In other words, we trust someone or something because it has been earned. Proven. Demonstrated. The church institution is not proving this to people.

So to bring this home [and in coming weeks we’ll talk more about trust, because there is no way to adequately address it in one segment], let’s look briefly at an example of trust in a story about Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus was teaching in the temple [a religious institution that people were taught to have confidence in but which had been oppressing women, the poor, lepers, the marginalized, and was also in the pocket of the Roman Empire.] Those present were chief priests and elders [also the religious elites who were supposed to be trusted]. And said elites came to Jesus upset, asking him by what authority did he teach and heal and hang out with those who were considered unclean. But Jesus knew what they were doing. They were trapping him with questions that had no right answers. So he asked them a trap question. Did the baptism of his cousin John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Jesus asked this, because there was an argument among the religious elites about whether John or Jesus was the true prophet, or whether both of them were wrong and just competing against each other’s teachings.

So the religious elites who were supposed to be the trusted role models, were worried about saving face in front of the crowds and maintaining their power; they copped out and said: We don’t know.

And then Jesus told a parable, one that was meant to drive the point home. It was a story about authority, and this authority is only granted because of trust. John and Jesus had the same message of love and acceptance to the tax collectors and the prostitutes [the marginalized of society]. Those on the margins accepted this message and trusted the love and acceptance they were shown.

They got none of this love or acceptance from the institutions, from the elites they were supposed to trust.

And this was [and is] the consistent message and good news of Jesus. Trust is not about blind faith in a church or a religion or a person or a thing. Jesus didn’t expect people to close their eyes and fall backwards into his arms. Jesus invited people to receive healing, to join community, to forgive and be forgiven, and to love, and be loved above all else. Trust is, on every level, about experiencing love and respect, commitment and honesty.

Trust must be shown and proven.

It must be lived. So when ministers or prospective members of most Christian traditions are asked: “Do you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ…” what are they are really committing to? A belief statement? A doctrine? A religious creed? Loyalty to an institution? I hope not.

Because trust in institutions hasn’t gotten us very far as humanity. Many in this world [and maybe you too] have been marginalized, manipulated, used, or even betrayed by institutions [whether government, religion or others] because you were vulnerable and someone or something took advantage of that.

This is wrong.

I am sad that this happened to you or to anyone else.

So let us reclaim this word and concept of trust. In my view, Jesus exemplified what it means to love and accept people and proved it.

So may we have confidence in the people who love and accept us as we are, who sit with us in vulnerable times and don’t take advantage; may we also be especially aware of those we encounter who are vulnerable and looking for love and acceptance. May we give them a reason to find us trustworthy by showing them that we are.

[1] http://news.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx

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Generosity and DACA

Matthew 20:1-16

GenersosityWhat are your initial thoughts to this story—the idea that an employer sends out workers at different times all day long, but then pays everyone, regardless of how long they worked, the same wage?

Do you find yourself in the shoes of those who worked all day, who aren’t happy with the employer’s decision? Are you feeling envious?

Or do you find yourselves in the shoes of the workers sent later, feeling grateful for the generosity of the employer?

Whoever you identify with this story, keep in mind what the employer says at the very end to the workers first sent out when they complained: You were happy with the wages I offered. Are you envious because I am generous? The last shall be first and the first last.

As Jesus parables often do, this one challenges cherished values, long-standing opinions, and the so-called “order” of things that we hold to. It’s nothing new for Jesus—he did the same thing with the stories about a hidden treasure in a field, a lost sheep, a pearl of great price. The way we often see the world is turned upside down. But not it’s some pie-in-the-sky, over-spiritualized thing. It’s not something very nice to say but impossible to practice.

We are not talking about fairness at all, or the value of a hard day’s work.

This is all about generosity and the way of generosity, and how that generous way can change people’s lives and bring  more balance to society in general.

And so let’s bring this story and this idea of generosity down to earth. Let’s talk about DACA.

DACAcongressMany of you probably know about DACA or at least have been hearing about it in the news. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was a U.S. immigration policy that has allowed certain individuals who entered the country as minors, and had either entered or remained in the country without documentation, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. Currently, approximately 800,000 individuals—called Dreamers—were enrolled in the program created by DACA. This policy was established by the Obama administration in June 2012. The reason we are talking about it in the past tense is because DACA was rescinded by the Trump admin. this month.

Some of you may wonder why so many people, including the current administration, would be against a thing like DACA. Especially because research shows that DACA increased the wages and labor force participation of DACA-eligible immigrants, and reduced the number of unauthorized immigrant households living in poverty. Further, DACA has increased the mental health outcomes for DACA-eligible immigrants and their children. All told, there are no known negative impacts from DACA on U.S. citizens who were born in this country. U.S.-born people are not losing jobs. And most economists say that DACA benefits the U.S. economy as a whole.[1] And finally, though certain TV personalities and Donald Trump claim that DACA-eligible individuals are more likely to commit crimes, there is no evidence of that whatsoever.[2]

So then, why are we in the middle of a very public and emotional argument about these dreamers, youth and adults who have been here since they were small children, brought here by their parents? This is the only home they know. English is their language. They have been going to U.S. schools their whole lives. Many are productive, tax-paying citizens, contributing positively to society and doing all kinds of skilled work from nursing to business to education. And yet, there are far too many loud voices [and I’m appalled to say that too many of these voices are so-called Christians] that are shouting that DACA is not fair and that these Dreamers should not be given this chance to study, work, and live in the U.S.

Why?

It’s about fear. People fear that if they let go of their preconceived notions about society and nationality and status and economy that they will lose everything or at least something important. Their fear causes them to ignore actual facts; their fear makes them prejudiced; and their fear keeps them from generosity.

This is the same thing that happened in the story about a generous employer and grumbling workers. Think about this—the workers first sent out were guaranteed a full day’s pay. They could rest easy. If the employer chose to offer full pay to others who were sent out later, why would the first workers complain? Because people want to believe they earned something or deserve something, meaning that they are better than others, more deserving It can be applied to immigration status, wages, education, and even salvation. Yes, it can go to that extreme.

Last week, I was at the International House of Philadelphia for a presentation entitled DACA: A Dying Dream? featuring panelists Alicia Kerber, Head of the Mexican Consulate of Philadelphia; Sarah Paoletti, Director, Transnational Legal Clinic at Penn Law, Adam Solow, Attorney with the immigration and nationality law firm Solow, Isbell & Palladino; and Anel Medina, DACA recipient. I met with other Dreamers who were there. If you would have been there, you would have heard the same story:

DACA is not perfect, and another conversation for another time is immigration “status,” but at the very least, DACA is a starting point for opportunity, an attempt to make society better by improving the lives of those around us. I am unsure what will happen in the next few months as Congress is charged with “fixing” DACA. I have no idea what the future will hold for those who were planning to apply for DACA but cannot now. I will continue to work with all those who are on the forefront of this issue and I will continue to listen to the stories of the Dreamers. All I do know is that the majority of the people who speak loudly against DACA are living in fear. And their fear keeps them from seeing facts and their fear paralyzes them and can even lead to hate and prejudice. And those full of fear do not accept generosity, either for themselves or for others.

And I wish they would just meet dreamers like Anel Medina and listen to her. She’s amazing.

Friends, the world is unfair. If you don’t think that is true, just look around. The idea that we always “earn” or “get” what we deserve just isn’t true. So in this world where there is plenty of injustice and unfairness, generosity is needed.

It’s desperately needed.

What if you thought about your job [if you have one], as a gift. What if you thought about your home or apartment as a gift. What if your ability to go to school, eat food every day, feel safe, what if all of this is because of generosity? Honestly, I think this perspective is healthier for you, for me, and for the world. Accept generosity in your own life. Accept generosity when it’s shown to others.

[1] “Fact Check: Are DACA Recipients Stealing Jobs Away From Other Americans?”. NPR.org. Retrieved 2017-09-07.

[2] Nowrasteh, Alex (July 12, 2017). “Illegal immigrant crime wave? Evidence is hard to find”. Fox News. Retrieved September 9, 2017.

Identify Yourself

Matthew 16:13-20

partySo you’re at a party or social engagement of some sort. You don’t know everybody there. Whether introvert or extrovert, at some point in the evening you inevitably encounter someone you don’t know. You make eye contact.

Let the social awkwardness begin!

You: Hello. I’m _________

Person: Nice to meet you, I’m _______

You: Nice to meet you.

[Pause]

Cue more awkwardness. You wait for something distracting to happen. Quick! Someone spill a drink or break a plate. Where’s that random squirrel when you need it? No such luck.

You: So, how do you know _____?

Person: Ah, we used to work together.

And then it comes.

Person: So, how about you? Tell me about yourself.

Tell me about yourself.

And it begins. The conversation moves to “What do you do exactly?” and “Where are you from?” which really, is to ask “Who are you?” You’re coerced, so it seems, into revealing your true identity in a few seconds by stating what you do for your job and where you were born/grew up. If you were given a choice, would this really be how you would identify yourself? I mean, what if you are in between jobs or out of work, what if you’re not sure what you do for a living, and what if you don’t really call any particular place home?

Regardless of how that conversation goes, eventually you will leave the room. You’ll go home and so will everyone else. And the people who have met you [and even some who haven’t] will tell others a story about you. The question, then, shifts to

“Who do other people say I am?”

Inevitably, when we’re not in the room, people talk about us. And they make identity claims about us. Take me for example. Maybe people say, when I’m not there: Josh is a minister. Josh is an actor. Josh is from Iowa and Indiana. Josh is insane. Josh is weird. Josh is…

We do this all the time. We say who other people are. And sometimes, we don’t have any clue who they are. Sometimes we don’t realize how harmful our words can be—when we say who someone is without really knowing them.

In this Gospel story about Jesus of Nazareth, we are looking at identity, but in two ways. First, personal identity—how you see yourself and express yourself. Second, community identity—how others see you and how you express yourself within community.

Jesus, throughout the Gospel narrative, seems to be involved in an identity crisis—at least others make it appear so. Jesus spends a lot of time asking the same question of those who followed and those who he encountered: “Who do you say I am?” It wasn’t a literal question, i.e. to be answered: well, Jesus, you are the son of Joseph and Mary, you’re from Nazareth, you are a Rabbi, etc. Instead, it was a bigger question for those who sought to follow Jesus on the way of love and compassion and justice. Because the follow-up questions to “Who do you say I am” include:

What and who will you stand up for? What is important to you? When are you loud? When are you silent? Who do you choose to spend your time with? Who do you avoid?

See, those questions get to the heart of it, do they not? This question of who do you say Jesus is exposes you, puts you out there. There’s no hiding behind theology, religion, the church—if you answer this question honestly. You don’t have to be religious to answer it either. In fact, those who called themselves “religious” in the 1st and 2nd Century were the ones who struggled the most to answer it honestly. It’s a big question, to be sure, but it’s also a simple one that exposes us. For if we answer who do you say Jesus is with cookie cutter responses that we’ve memorized or simply regurgitate, we make it clear that we don’t have our own answer to the question. If we scoff at the question and say things like duh, obviously, I mean Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah, the Savior, duh, isn’t it obvious then we show our inability to grasp concepts beyond absolutism and we display our fear of uncertainty and nuance. In either of these cases, we open ourselves up to silence and hypocrisy—two things that Jesus of Nazareth clearly taught against.

The silence of Christians when Black and Brown people are targeted by racists and white supremacists. The inaction of Christians when transgender people are victimized and scapegoated. The non-commitment comments like “there is trouble on both sides” or “I don’t see color, I’m colorblind; why can’t everyone else be?” Or “I have nothing against LGBT people, but can’t they just use another bathroom and stop causing so much division?” or “shame on those NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem; can’t they just be quiet and do their job; they make so much money anyway…” The pardoning of those who oppress and the victimizing of those who are marginalized. And the silence…

Yes, it is true that our silence and inaction as they pertain to social justice are rooted in our identities. Who do we say we are? But also, if you are a Christian [again, identity!] who do you say Jesus is, because if you limit Jesus to a religious icon, figure, personal savior, then this Jesus won’t move you to stand with those who are on the margins. This Jesus won’t light a fire under you, make you uncomfortable, even tick you off and challenge your assumptions. Your Jesus will just be the nice god-figure that makes you feel comfortable and safe when the world around you is not. By no means am I against feeling comfortable and safe when everything around you is uncomfortable and scary, but we all know that those feelings of security are fleeting. Eventually, that kind of safe Jesus fades in reality and can even isolate us from others.

So what if we seek to answer these identity questions honestly? I’ll do my best, though I’ll fail. To me, Jesus of Nazareth was and is a teacher and activist for the embracing of wholeness in all of humanity. Jesus wanted people to be their whole selves—whatever that meant—and then to take those whole selves out into the world to love people, to help them heal, to show compassion to those who were victimized, and well, to help others be their whole selves. And Jesus was the opposite of silent when it came to calling out injustice against the truly marginalized.

Because, friends, as with Jesus, people [and the world] will try to tell you who you are. If they hear you express your true identity, they may not like it. And so, they may try to pray it away, to fix you, so your identity fits into their categories and makes them less uncomfortable. Others will flat out reject your true self because you scare them—you expose their prejudice, you challenge so-called norms of society. So they may call you names.

Shame on them!

For however you identity yourself, that is your beauty, your uniqueness, your wholeness. They don’t know you. And they are afraid. And in God, in this Jesus, there is no fear of being yourself. There is encouragement to be yourself fully, to be known as a child of God, as you are.

And collectively, community-wise, we don’t have to agree on theology or the Bible or other religious stuff. But we do have to come clean about how we identify Jesus. It’s a lot easier to be neutral about controversial issues and to hide behind hymns and prayers when things are divisive and chaotic. But isn’t that exactly what Jesus taught and lived for those who followed, that this crap called evil and injustice and hate is real? That we are made to join together to work for justice and peace? So wherever you are today, embrace yourself as you are. Don’t let any false narratives that others tell you about your identity stick. You are unique and beautiful. And also, may that identity wholeness move you to embrace others as they are, and to stand up against anyone or anything that calls people names or strips away identity. May it be so.

 

Keep Your Love, Find Your Healing

Matthew 15:21-28

What do you think about miracles? As I mentioned before, when it comes to miracles, I think it is most helpful for us to avoid asking did the miracle really happen? Instead, we ought to ask: what does a miracle story mean? By asking that second question, we will be truer to the story and will also find various perspectives and meanings for ourselves. So let’s do that again now with another miracle story—this time involving a Canaanite mother and her ailing daughter, and of course, Jesus of Nazareth, in the Gospel of Matthew.

This part of Matthew’s story begins with Jesus in the Jewish territory of Galilee but then shifts to the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory, but even more than that, Matthew’s author tells us it’s Canaanite country. Why does that matter and who were the Canaanites you ask? The people called Canaanites were at first those who lived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The Hebrew scriptures [OT] [more specifically Genesis] tell us that Canaan extended from Lebanon toward the Brook of Egypt in the south and the Jordan River Valley in the east. Today that would be Lebanon, Israel, and some part of Jordan and Syria.

Back in ancient times, roughly 200 BCE, the Canaanites were pretty much an enemy of those who called themselves Israelites. Noah, you know, the guy whose ride was an ark—he had a son named Ham, who then had a son named Canaan, so goes the story. Ham did something bad to his dad Noah and that stayed with him; this was passed on to his son Canaan. Eventually, the name Canaanite, particularly in Joshua’s time, was a broader reference to a variety of nomadic, indigenous people, like for example, the Hivites, Jebusites, or Amorites.

That’s from the book of Judges, one of the books of the Bible that many people say they have read but are totally lying to you because most people only last about 5 minutes before they give up on that one.

TruthorLie
To sum this up, Abraham’s descendants, called the Israelites, believed they had a claim to the land of Canaan and so they needed to defeat the Canaanites, who of course wanted to stay in their lands. So there’s history here that’s important to keep in mind. Still with me?

Once last thing before we get back to the main character in the story, a Canaanite woman. Right before she arrives on the scene, Jesus says this in front of a crowd of people, including his followers: “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.”

This business of defilement is important to note. Many times the Gospel writers give us some insight into what is clean and unclean—who is considered outside of God’s kin-dom and who belongs. And then Jesus seems to not only cross those lines but to erase them. In this case, what goes into the mouth is symbolic of rules or purity laws. If someone does not follow certain societal or religious rules that person is defiled, i.e. separated from God. Of course, this idea of defilement allows for people to judge others and even to reject them, based on whether or not they follow certain rules. It may be tempting to assume that ancient Jewish purity laws are thing of the past and not relevant, but not so fast. We too have our own purity laws, agreed ways of behavior.

We too exclude people from society and community, claiming that our way is God’s way, that we are right.

This has led to specific examples of exclusion and marginalization, including but not limited to shaming of and violence against people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender. Hateful rhetoric and sadly more violence against our beautiful friends and family who are black or brown. What we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia is not a one-time event. We may not use names like Canaanite, but we certainly say things like “illegal immigrant,” “alien,” “those people,” the C word for women, and of course all those subtle ways we separate a person or a group form ourselves, referring to them only by their race or nationality, rather than just their name, or calling them friend or colleague. I could go on, but you get the idea. This idea of defilement and excluding people is still happening in this country, in our cities, towns, and suburbs. This defilement happens when we assume something about a person before actually having an experience with that person. Oh, she’s Canaanite? Send her away.

But Jesus turns this idea around, teaching that these rules [and our following them obsessively] is actually defiling us. Instead, we ought to focus on how we behave towards other people. Do we treat others with compassion and love, regardless of who they are or where they come from or what they look like? Or do we reject and expel them so we can feel better about ourselves?

Enter the shouting Canaanite woman. That’s right—she was yelling at Jesus. In the original Greek, the word for her shouting is the same word for the disciples’ shouting when they were stuck in a boat in the stormy Sea of Galilee. Her shouting is exposing her to the crowds; how will they react? She’s also putting pressure on Jesus; how will he react? At first, Jesus ignores her. That’s not a typo. And of course, Jesus’ own followers, just like they did in two other miracles stories [the feeding of 5000+ people and the feeding of the 4000], tell Jesus to send people away. Send the Canaanite woman away., Jesus. Expel her, exclude her.

But the Canaanite woman is relentless. She comes and kneels before Jesus. She is the clear model of what is pure—her love for her daughter and her desire for mercy and healing. No defilement here. One might expect that Jesus’ disciples felt pretty defiled themselves at this point. Then the story takes a bit of an uncomfortable turn. Jesus, up to this point, had ignored this woman hoping for her daughter to be healed. Now, kneeling at his feet, she asks again. And Jesus tells her that he is only sent to the lost of Israel, i.e. NOT her, a Canaanite. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?

Pause for a moment.

She asks for help once again and Jesus tells her that it wouldn’t be fair for him to give her the blessing [food] of Israel’s children and then compares her to a dog. Are you shifting in your seat now?

But she is smart. Even dogs eat crumbs from their master’s table. She wasn’t fazed, being solely motivated by the love she had for her daughter. This moved Jesus to praise her, a Canaanite woman, the one whom others told him to send away. Let it be done. Let the healing come.

What does this miracle story mean?

For me, I’m hearing loud and clear [especially as I consider our context today], that Jesus exposed the societal prejudice and injustice of our religious and societal rules, in the public square; Jesus didn’t ignore it or try to explain it away. Jesus called out the privilege we hold over each other and then gave up his own privilege, choosing to include rather than to exclude. Jesus chose to focus on the way of compassion and love.

This is the kind of way we should follow; this is the kind of behavior we should exhibit. In a world full of privilege, prejudice, defilement, and exclusion—we can choose to give up our privilege out of compassion and love for another, we can choose to include, we can choose to keep our love in an age of hate. And then healing can come.

A Hand Reaches Out in The Storm

Matthew 14:22-33

walkingonwaterLet’s talk about miracles and metaphors and how the two can actually be friends or coexist–let’s talk about miracles. All religious traditions have miracles stories—things that happen and cannot be explained by science, biology, or empirical evidence. People turn into animals and vice versa, an entire sea parts in the middle and then closes up, someone blinds an entire army with a handful of dust, someone lifts a mountain and saves an entire village, someone rises in the air and divides his body into pieces and then rejoins them, someone walks on water. Those are just a few examples of miracles in folk religions, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.

For the sake of our exploration, I choose to use the definition of miracles presented in Kenneth L. Woodward’s book, The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam.

Woodward defines miracles as:

…an unusual or extraordinary event that is in principle perceivable by others, that finds no reasonable explanation in ordinary human abilities or in other known forces that operate in the world of time and space, and that is the result of a special act of God or the gods or of human beings transformed by efforts of their own through asceticism and meditation.

Woodward also argues that miracles are best understood through stories and should not be seen within the framework of the laws of nature or “proving” something.

Each specific religious tradition defines what a miracle is according to the context of the religion. As Woodward states, when it comes to miracles, we shouldn’t ask: did it really happen? but instead what does it mean?

So let’s do that.

Let’s look at this specific so-called miracle of Jesus, walking on water, not asking whether it happened or not, but what it means.

Jesus’ followers were in a boat in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had gone up to a mountain to be by himself. When evening came, a storm started to rage the waters and the boat was tossed about violently. Morning came, and Jesus came walking towards the boat, seemingly on top of the water. The people in the boat were terrified and thought he might be a ghost. But Jesus reassured them and told them to not be afraid. Peter then got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus, on the water. But he noticed that a strong wind was blowing and he got scared again and started to sink. He cried out for help. Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter.

So what does this mean?

In many ancient cultures and religions, including Christianity, it was normal to compare the difficult times of life with a stormy sea or some sort of choppy waters. So the people on the boat are us. They are life, and then the stormy sea represents the trials and tribulations of our lives. Jesus of Nazareth, walking on this stormy sea, represents the ability to rise above the difficulties of life, internally transcending the external. Jesus offered this ability to the people in the boat. Peter took Jesus up on his offer and was initially able to rise above the stormy sea. Eventually though, the wind distracted him and he was afraid. Fear then, was the thing that sunk Peter.

So by asking: what does this miracle story mean, I hope that you can glean some meaning for yourself. What stands out to me is that the story does not paint this life as an easy, pleasant experience. There is acknowledgement of the difficulty and suffering in life. We all face stormy seas; we all have moments when we feel that we are stranded in a boat in the middle of stormy waters, with not land in sight. This is human. This is real.

What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia recently was real. White supremacists caused violence and spread hatred. One of those white supremacists drove a car into people–into people. Heather Heyer was killed. Two state police troopers were killed in a helicopter crash. Others were injured. “Unite the Right” organized the hateful rally. I cannot imagine what Heather’s and the two officer’s family and friends feel. I cannot imagine what African-Americans feel when these things keep happening. This is not new. This is consistently awful. Makes me think that those affected by racism and white supremacist violence and hate crimes feel like they are in a boat in the middle of a raging sea, but their boat has capsized and there is no end in sight. Where is the shore? When will this end?

resistHateCharlottesvilleThe rallies, gatherings, and protests since Charlottesville tell a different story, don’t they? People are together, standing up against hate, against prejudice of any kind. You see, it’s one thing to retweet things and post on Facebook, but it’s another thing to walk side by side with people and to stand in solidarity with those who feel targeted and marginalized. This is rising above.

Whatever you faith background [or lack thereof] I think it’s clear that Jesus stands with those who are oppressed, targeted, and on the margins. And Jesus points all of us to the possibility of being at peace even when life is full of storms. Being at peace does not mean ignoring the problems or suffering of life [and certainly not ignoring white supremacism or hatred of any kind], but rather, not letting those stormy seas take over our lives or keep us from being our whole selves.

In short, if we realize that it is human to go through these storms and we couple that with the thought that we are capable of rising above, of walking on water, then the storms aren’t the end of our stories.

There is shore somewhere.

And lastly, it is important to note that Jesus, in all of the miracle stories of the Gospels, is not supposed to be presented as a supernatural force performing magic tricks, but rather, a person who broke down societal norms and worked towards bringing more balance to the injustices of the world. He sought to change the narratives of those who were marginalized, teaching them and leading by example, that they too could rise above stormy waters and find wholeness.

Whom am I to say any of this? I’m no one. I’m someone with way too much privilege. But this will not keep me from helping others rise above the storms, extending a hand when needed, hoisting a sign in protest, speaking out against racism and prejudice, and stepping back when other voices need to be heard. This will not keep me from believing that being widening my circle of friends and colleagues to include more and more people who don’t think or look like me. I keep thinking, praying, meditating, hoping–that there is shore somewhere. But we will have to face these storms together.

P.S. Dear friends, family, colleagues, whomever who is experiencing racism, prejudice, discrimination, targeting–it’s evil and terrible. It’s inhuman. It’s the opposite of what the world is supposed to be. We won’t be complicit. We won’t be silent. We love you. You are us and we are you.

Forming Community

Matthew 14:13-21

rainbowgathering1What does the word/concept of “community” mean to you? It can seem a broad term, community, right? If you move into a suburban neighborhood, does that mean you are in a community? If you to the Community Center Shopping Mall does that mean you are in a community? What if we get more specific and say, as intentional community organizers do, that a community is a network of social and economic relationships and the places where those relationships interact. This means that just living near each other doesn’t mean you’re in community. There’s no economic exchange, and, for most, little social engagement. Community must be tangible and cohesive; it should bring people together in ways that allow them to do things they could not have done on their own. And then, there is such a thing as an “intentional community,” one in which there is a shared purpose and set of values, the people in that IC are entwined to some degree both economically and socially; and that being part of that IC means something.

I don’t think it’s surprising to say that many people in the United States want more community in their lives, because they often feel isolated and dissatisfied with everyday life that tends to be focused on work, consumption, and entertainment. If our interpersonal relationships within a community give us joy, meaning, or satisfaction, we can expect less of a focus on material and superficial things that leave us feeling empty.

Congregations, churches, communities of faith, are at their core, supposed to be intentional communities in which people find meaningful relationships, interact socially, share resources, and accomplish things they could have otherwise. Of course, just because someone puts up a steeple with a cross and places a sign that says “church” does not mean that it will be a community. I’ve spent significant time in my career visiting various churches, synagogues, temples, and other religious communities. Not all of them were communities. Some were merely buildings with signs; others were institutions. Forming and nurturing an intentional community takes time, cooperation, and the acceptance of the commitment community requires—active listening and sharing.

The type of community Jesus of Nazareth was intending to form and build was focused on gathering those who were marginalized in society and left out of communities. It is easy for us to forget that Jesus did not create nor establish a religion or even a church. Jesus was building community. And in Matthew’s Gospel there are various stories that illustrate what Jesus meant by community. In this particular story Jesus and his small community of followers came upon large crowds of people who were in need. After some healing and caring for them, Jesus’ followers were ready to leave. After all, there was not enough food for these people to eat. So they suggested to Jesus that he send the crowds away into the villages to get their own food. In other words, go to the market and leave us alone. But Jesus refused. Instead, Jesus told his followers to give the crowds something to eat.

But the followers of Jesus only had food rations—bread and fish that would most likely feed only 13 people. Jesus took those rations and gathered the crowds in a field of green grass, though it was a wilderness, far off, isolated. The fish then seem to disappear. Only the bread is divided among everyone. This is Matthew’s storyteller changing the story a bit from the original version in Mark, to make a point. The bread, offered to the crowds, was the sign of Jesus’ presence and the sign of the new community—one which would continue long after Jesus’ death. Because this feast was egalitarian. It was for all. It was a feast started because of compassion. It was a feast that created community intentionally. And in that community all were filled—people were made whole.

And let’s briefly mention the number 5000. Is it important? I think it is, because if we skip ahead a chapter in Matthew’s Gospel to chapter 15, we find another story about a feast where there is not enough food but suddenly there is. But this time, only 4000 are fed; Mark’s Gospel contains the 4000 story as well. This is the clue. The story about 4000 being fed takes place on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, Gentile country. But the feeding of the 5000 occurs near the Jewish villages of Galilee. So the 4000 feeding story is about non-Jews. The 5000 feeding story is about Jews. And it’s clear by the 5 loaves and the 5000 fed that the number 5 is important. That number happens to be the number of books in the Torah, called the Pentateuch. And the 12 baskets left over signify the 12 tribes of Israel. The feeding stories are inclusive.

One last detail to mention. In the culture and time of the people of this area, being unclean or touching unclean things was bad news. So people tried to avoid eating or touching anything that might render them unclean according to the law, food included. How were the 5000 to know that the food would be clean? They couldn’t really know. They couldn’t guess if Jesus and his followers kept up with the dietary restrictions. They couldn’t really prove that Jesus and co were clean because they had certainly touched and been with lepers and others who were unclean.

But they still ate anyway. And they were made whole.

They decided to eat together.

They decided to form this inclusive, intentional community. They made a choice. So we have this choice before us. Will we intentionally form and build an inclusive community where anyone can eat and be safe and belong and participate? This doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen on its own. We must make that choice. We must make that commitment. May it be so.

 

Buried Treasure Inside You

Matthew 13:44-46
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in their joy they go and sell all that they have and buy that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, the merchant went and sold all and bought it.

treasureHave you ever searched for hidden treasure? What about buried treasure, pirate treasure? There are treasures around the world that are hidden and waiting to be found, like the treasure of Lima, Peru; the golden owl of France; Lake Guatavita “el Dorado” in Colombia, and many others…

Guatavita-lagoonWhen I was a kid I used to go out into the rural expanse of Iowa and look for treasure in fields and grasslands. Sometimes I found First Nations arrowheads, other times amazing creatures living underground like massive ant colonies, centipedes, chipmunks, and more. At times I found coins or pieces of what seemed like pots or something.

Either way, I always believed that there was more treasure out there, just waiting to be found…

In religious traditions of the ancient worlds the idea of buried treasure within the natural world and within human beings was a common thread. It came to be known as the Divine Spark. The idea of a divine spark is that every human being possesses either a connection with God or a “part” of God. The goal of life, then, is to allow the divine spark to influence us toward love, peace, and harmony. Upon death, the divine spark returns to God. There are current expressions of this in most Western Mystical Traditions such as Kabbalah and Sufism and many Eastern spiritual traditions teach it.

lightinyourheartI know it may seem that the major world religions that dominate the landscape these days [especially in the West] seem to teach or display something contrary–saying that the Divine [God] is far too big and powerful to be close or hidden within these lands, streams, trees, and in the people on the earth. It is true that Christianity as a religion moved away from what was called Gnosticism by some in the time of Jesus, the idea of mysticism and Divine-Human connection. As time passed and as people formulated more and more perspectives about Jesus of Nazareth, they moved towards a more distant God that they chose to express as Creator, Son Jesus, and Holy Spirit. Of course, for many Christians, this is a doctrine: the Trinity. But what if we were to embrace the truth that the Trinity and this idea of God being far away was not a 1st and 2nd century Jesus-taught idea? What if we were to hear these words of the prophet Isaiah, in the Jewish tradition, written so long before Jesus:

I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name (45:3).

And one of the many times that Jesus was believed to have said this in the Gospels, like this instance in Luke 17:21: The kingdom of God is within you.

The idea that each of us contains within ourselves a portion of God, a Divine Spark, is old but also new. It is the idea that each time we quiet ourselves and sit in the grass and look deeper into it, what will we see?

Hidden treasure.

Life we didn’t notice before. When we are patient and look out on the water and pay attention, we see it. The spark is there. When we look deeply within ourselves and realize that we are indeed connected to something more, something deeper, something that is love and compassion and wholeness. It is there. You may not see it today because it may be buried within you for lots of reasons. You may have been told a false story that your life is not life or that your existence is not important. You may have been lied to and told that you are dirty or sinful or unworthy. You may have been hurt, rejected, or isolated because of the way you look, who you love, or how you express yourself. But none of these change this fact—that you have within you a Divine Spark. God has not left you and never will. That treasure, within all of us, is worth looking for, worth focusing on, worth finding and embracing.

 

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