Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘Matthew’

Well Traveled

Matthew 5:1-10  

Hey, how ya feelin’ today? Blessed? Are ya feelin’ blessed today?

kidquestion
If you were to answer “yes” to that question, what does that mean, to be blessed?

Let’s ask our friend the dictionary. First off, if this word is used as a verb, it is pronounced blest, with one syllable, i.e. “Before the dinner started, grandma blessed [blest] the food.”  But this word can also be used as an adjective, and this case, it is pronounced with two syllables, i.e. “Gerry’s graduation from college was a bless-ed moment.” Of course, you can also say:

“I don’t have a bless-ed clue about what you’re saying!”

In general, though, blest or bless-ed means favored, fortunate, lucky, privileged, enviable, happy. This is the most typical use of the word, at least here in the U.S., where you hear people say “I’m blessed” quite a lot.

But the modern use of #blessed is not really close to the “blessed” said many times in a famous speech attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in Luke’s and in Matthew’s Gospels. Often called the Beatitudes, these words of Jesus are believed to have been said from a hill overlooking the Lake of Galilee, but over time, a collection of Jesus sayings, kind of like a Jesus mixtape.

The_Hamilton_Mixtape_album_cover_2016

These “blessed” quotes had their foundation in the Hebrew wisdom literature, the Psalms and Proverbs. In Israel’s culture, poets and sages used beatitudes to encourage admirable behavior and traditional attitudes towards life. These ancient writings affirmed that blessedness was not about material fortune or prosperity. People were blessed when they were filled with and surrounded by a spiritual sense of well-being—both as an individual and as a community.

Jesus’ blessed sayings, though, are paradoxical. They don’t fit the typical idea of what it means to be blessed. Poor, mournful, humble, hungry, merciful, honest-hearted, peaceful, persecuted, and hated? These states of mind or being don’t necessarily seem blessed, at least according to society. But maybe that’s point. For Jesus,

Being blessed was about being well-traveled—being wise and awake.

Being poor isn’t just about having less material things. It’s about detaching yourself from things and finding freedom, joy, and gratefulness in all that is simple and beautiful. Mourning is about being open and honest when you are sad. Justice-seeking is wanting the best, not just for yourself or for those who are close to you; but for anyone anywhere. Being merciful to others means mercy will find you. Working for peace and not war ends your hate and starts your love.

So, I hear this saying to all of us:

Accept that people won’t like you and will sometimes say bad things about you when you try to do good things. Don’t let that stop you. Instead, find joy in the fact that you even have an opportunity to do good.

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Following Light

John 8:12 [NRSV]
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

I John 1:5-7a
This is the message we have heard from Jesus and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.

Matthew 5:14-16a
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.

diwaliheld This time of year, in the fall, there are a variety of traditions that celebrate the symbolism and presence of light. One such holiday is a big one: Diwali. Also called Dipawali, Diwali is the biggest and most important holiday in India. The festival gets its name from the row of clay lamps that people light outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects them from spiritual darkness. To put it in context, Diwali is just as important to people from India as Christmas is to American Christians. And it is not just Hindus who celebrate Diwali. So do Jains, Buddhist, Sikhs, and many others.

And do did I. On Thursday night, I went to a friend’s place in Philly to celebrate Diwali with a group of people from various parts of India and the U.S. We ate great food [including particular sweets that are famous during Diwali] and wonderful curry with rice. After the meal, we ventured out into Center City to find an appropriate place to light up the world—with fireworks, of course. This is a common occurrence during the days of Diwali. Now because in Pennsylvania “real” fireworks are not legal, one of my friends purchased the PA-sanctioned sparklers, spinning flowers, and grand finale sparking thingys. We found a parking lot. We fired up the sparklers. We were having a great time. And then…

FireworksDiwali

A random person walking by started yelling something at us.

At first, we couldn’t make out what she was saying. She was incensed. Soon enough, we figured out that she was yelling:

“No! You can’t do that. Not here. No! This is wrong! Stop! You must stop!”

Apparently, not everyone embraces the light? So one of the people in our group approached her and explained that we were not harming anyone or anything and that it was Diwali and that these fireworks were legal and that we would clean it all up. But the lady didn’t care. She kept on ranting and threatened to call 911. Well, we didn’t stop. We kept on going. She eventually took her dog and left.

Then, on Friday, I was eating a samosa at a place near where I live, talking to the manager of the café, and she told me: “Yeah, my cousin was shooting off fireworks on his own lawn on Thursday and one of his neighbors called the cops on him.”

I couldn’t believe it. On his own lawn? Thankfully, the cops who showed up told the neighbor that everything was okay. After all, they were using PA-sanctioned fireworks on their own property, no? Makes we wonder if the 4th of July would elicit the same response. I’m guessing not.

So what does this lead me to think? Well, first of all, it makes me sad for those who cannot even for one moment embrace a holiday [even if it’s new to them] that celebrates light. But it also reminds me that not everyone is open and understanding. Not everyone wishes light for everyone, or light for the world. It’s sad but true.

Also, though, celebrating Diwali [and encountering the opposition] reminds me that if we are open to it, we realize that we are all connected. I mean, it doesn’t matter which religion you hold to or don’t. Light is a universal idea. The thought that someone could be in a really difficult time in their life and somehow light breaks through—we call can resonate with that. And I think we all want to think that light lives in each one of us, that light is in the world.

Certainly, Jesus of Nazareth thought this. Jesus taught others that light lived in them and that this light was God and that this light made them a community. Jesus also taught that each person should not keep their light to themselves. They should let their light shine. It’s the idea of God-essence being within you and me.

And while this is a beautiful idea [and one I try to embrace], we cannot ignore the other side of it. The Diwali story and the Christian story don’t just include light, but also darkness. And if you wish to locate the source of the light and the darkness, look no further than yourself. You see, the point of all this is to affirm that we should not judge others.

We are capable of light but we are just as capable of doing harmful and hurtful things.

If ever we think we have “arrived” as a kind and accepting person, we are in danger. We must always remember continually seek light, pursue it, surround ourselves with people who emit light, and in some cases, we must light it up even when others are telling us not to.

So what will that look like for you? How will you recognize the inner light you have? How will you emit light so others can see and connect with you?

 

 

EnTRUST-ed

Isaiah 5:1-7 Matthew 13:42,43

Love-one-anotherOnce again, let’s talk about trust.

In my last post we looked at how authority and trust go together, i.e. we give authority to the things and people we trust. And we focused on the idea that trust is not something we should blindly give; rather, that trust needs to be proven. Now, let’s take that same word trust and look at a variation of the root word in entrusted. If we entrust someone with something or someone, it means we give that person a responsibility to protect, care for, and handle. You give your beloved cat to your friend to take care of while you are on vacation. You entrust that person with your beloved cat. You put some money in a bank account. You entrust the bank to protect your funds, and in some cases, to grow the funds with interest. You send your teenager to college and entrust the professors, administrators, and RAs with your son or daughter.

So when we say we are entrusted with someone or something it is a responsibility to care for, protect, and in some cases, help to grow. I wish to connect the previous conversation about authority and trust to being entrusted. We give authority to political, religious, educational, and business leaders. By doing so we show that we trust them to do their jobs effectively and to serve the people they are supposed to serve. They are entrusted to do so.

And then, I look around. Yes, with social media and 24/7 news we are getting a heavier dose of politics than ever before. The issues, though, are the same ones we have always struggled with since the beginning of the human race. We give authority to political leaders, for example, like the White House Administration, and we expect certain things. We entrust these leaders who were voted in to care for human society, protect people, and serve the community. Sadly, I argue we have put far too much trust in people who since the very start didn’t have much of an interest in caring for or protecting people. And it’s not just in politics. Religion is no different.

How much are religious institutions and their leaders caring for and protecting people?

The issue of self-preservation is obvious among both political and religious leaders. And when you are afraid losing your authority and people’s trust in you is waning, then you will have the tendency to protect only yourself and the people you have around you. And that’s what is happening now.

A government that turns a blind eye to insane violence in places like Las Vegas, an individual who was able to plan out such a terrible shooting because it is far too easy to obtain automatic weapons that even people in the military think are unnecessary. Our own Conference Minister of PA SE the Rev. Bill Worley, stated after Vegas that as someone who served in the military and as someone who is a gun owner, he could not be more incensed and sad about the lack of interest in creating gun control policies that prohibit such terrible events and make it difficult for people to stockpile powerful weapons. It really doesn’t matter what political party you identify with or don’t, this issue is about people. And violence. And our political leaders continue to fail us. And I will also say that churches are far too silent about this. Far too many churches get all up in arms about Black Lives Matter signs or kneeling during the National Anthem and then say nothing after Sandy Hook, Vegas, and other mass shootings. None of us are that obtuse to insist that political leaders are not receiving money from the National Rifle Assoc., right? Those who have been entrusted to care for and protect are not following through.

Likewise, the AG of the U.S., at the same time of this horrible tragedy in Vegas, and during the continued suffering of people in Puerto Rico and Mexico, decides to rescind an Obama administration policy to protect LGBT people, undercutting federal protection, telling agencies to do as much as possible to accommodate those who hide behind so-called “religious freedoms.” So, in other words, it’s a license to discriminate. If that were not enough, the Trump administration issued a new rule that substantially undermines women’s access to birth control under the Affordable Care Act. Protection? Not unless you are white, male, straight, and wealthy.

And all this sounds so very familiar.

You see, in the Hebrew prophetic writings like Isaiah, the same things were happening. Governments were corrupt, self-serving, and refusing to care for the people—particularly those on the margins. Likewise, the religious institutions and leaders were silent and did not deem it their responsibility to care for and protect vulnerable people. YHWH, God, is not pleased with this. The image of the vineyard begins with a beautiful image of God’s good creation—the choice vines, the fertile soil, the potential to grow amazing grapes. But God notices that the beautiful vineyard that was entrusted has been neglected. YHWH expected justice, but saw violence; compassion, but saw indifference and silence.

Jesus of Nazareth knew the Hebrew scriptures and made the connection to Isaiah on various occasions in the Gospels. For Jesus, the vineyard was the kin-dom of God, i.e. the whole of creation, all living things. And this creation has been entrusted to human beings, to you and me. And those who produced the fruits of compassion, of caring for and of protecting, would experience this kin-dom and be in line with God’s great wishes for the world.

Friends, this is a critical time. It’s tempting at times to become overwhelmed with grief, sadness, and even anger over the break in trust that is happening now. So it is essential that we care for each other.

We must. Care. For each other.

Especially those who feel marginalized, vulnerable, lost, pushed down. We must care for each other. Because that is what God wishes for God’s good creation. Because that is what Jesus taught and did and passed on. It doesn’t matter what so-called authorities say or do, if they do not care for and protect people. We can. May it be so.

 

 

 

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

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.

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