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Proper 18, Year A

Romans 12:9-21 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 18:15-20 - link to NRSV text

The Good News that you heard included an invitation: right now, as you are, you can be a part of something -- specifically, a member of the Body of Christ.

The tricky part is that the Body of Christ includes an awful lot of people who are every bit as difficult as we are.

Welcome to the church, folks. We only just encountered the concept a couple of chapters ago (in Matthew 16:18, the only other time in the gospels in which the Greek word ekklesia occurs), and now in Matthew 18, we're being introduced to church conflict.

In this Sunday's gospel, we get some very practical advice on how to handle it when someone in the church sins against us (yeah, I know that the "against you" part isn't in all of the manuscripts, but it does seem like a very helpful addition). The first thing we learn is that we're to approach the person whose behavior hurt us directly, and if at all possible, privately. Without others around, the person you're speaking with has room to reconsider without losing face -- and you have room to reconsider if the other person can point to ways in which your behavior has contributed negatively to the situation.

That's crucial, as at each stage of this process, the goal is reconciliation. The quiet conversation isn't just a necessary preliminary to a wonderfully juicy public drama, nor is it solely an opportunity to try to get one's way. Indeed, any more public confrontations that follow are about getting the parties directly involved to return to the table, where real conversation and real reconciliation can take place.

In other words, church conflict, if we're seeking to follow Christ in the midst of it, doesn't have to be a distraction from the mission of the Church; it can be a training ground for mission. It can even BE mission.

Let me unpack that. As Christians, we believe that Christ is reconciling the whole world and each of us in it to God and to one another. So when two Christians take their conflict as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, what they do in the Church can stand as a visible sign for the whole world of what we believe Christ is doing in the world. An outward and visible sign of a grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world ...

I'm saying that church conflict, as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, can actually be sacramental.

And at this point, I can understand it if you're saying to yourself, "well I could do with a lot less sacrament then." I know what you mean. If you take a peek ahead to next Sunday's gospel, you'll know that Peter knows what you mean too.

The bottom line is that Christian community -- all community, really -- is, as St. Benedict said, a "school for souls," in which we learn not just how to live, but also how to experience abundant life. Jesus knew something that experience has affirmed for me (after long enough -- I'm a pretty slow learner): we understand best and deepest how God loves and forgives when we are, in our limited but growing way, extending that kind of love and forgiveness to others.

So when you meet someone who's really difficult, someone who pushes your ability to stay present with them, stay in touch, and stay focused on God's love, rejoice and be glad in that day: you get to love them, in the process you get a sense of how God loves you, and folks looking on get to see how much you mean what you say about the church being entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation.

Trust me on this one: as long as you need everybody to be happy and agreeable, you'll always be anxious, but once you find and keep hold of the joy and peace the Spirit brings in the midst of working for reconciliation in a tense situation, you'll know a bubbling fountain of energy and freedom that can only further your ministry and the ministry of reconciliation to which your congregation is called.

... love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. ... Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. ... Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
-- Romans 12:9-21

Thanks be to God!

August 30, 2005 in Community, Forgiveness, Matthew, Nonviolence, Reconciliation, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Proper 17, Year A

Romans 12:1-8 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 16:21-27 - link to NRSV text

Last week, I blogged about Peter's confession of Jesus as God's anointed and why he's rebuked in this Sunday's gospel. Peter thinks that Jesus was anointed to defeat their enemies, and that's the star he wants to hitch his wagon to: he wants to share in the victory he anticipates Jesus will win.

Peter is going to share in Jesus' victory, but it's not the kind of victory he anticipated when he first called Jesus God's messiah. It's a victory won not by killing enemies, but by forgiving them. It's a victory won on the cross, and Peter will share it when he's ready to take up his cross and follow Jesus.

But what does that mean, to take up one's cross? It's clearly something that's important to Matthew, as he reports Jesus saying something very like this twice: here in chapter 16, and earlier, in Matthew 10:38-39, and I think the context from chapter 10 can help us figure out what "taking up the cross" means in chapter 16 as well.

Let me start first by saying one thing that it does NOT mean for most of us: it doesn't mean that we're supposed to seek literal or figurative martyrdom. If Jesus' death on the cross was a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, then nobody has any right to demand bloodshed or suffering for sins or crimes. For some of us, the hard part of taking that in and living it out is that we have to give up vengeance; for some, the hard part is to stop punishing ourselves. Paul writes in Romans 12 that we are to present ourselves as "living sacrifices," but that's a very different thing from becoming a kind of living dead. God wants us to live as fully and joyously as we possibly can.

We might be surprised, though, at what the path to that full and joyous life looks like. In Matthew 10, it looks like sons set against fathers, daughters against mothers, persecution from one's own family. And as emotionally painful as that must have been, that wasn't the end of it. In Jesus' culture, extended families lived together; many of those adult sons and daughters set against their parents would be losing their homes. And honor was family honor: cut off from family as rebellious and shamed sons and daughters, Jesus' followers were also cut off from the source of honor that made others willing to be in any kind of relationship with them; they could find themselves with no way to make a living in their community, nowhere to turn except to their sisters and brothers in Christ. In losing their home and family, they lost the life they'd known.

I preached about this in this sermon, when I last preached on Matthew's Beatitudes. Like the Beatitudes, the passages in which Jesus tells his followers to take up the cross implicitly tell the story of what happened to many who followed Jesus. Some were left destitute -- and some ended up on literal crosses of their own. They had heard Jesus' call to follow him, and had left everything they'd known. In some cases, their example was inspiring others. Women sneaked off to nighttime meetings where they consorted with men as freely as they did with their brothers, and they refused to marry those their fathers chose from them; they said they would not be "unequally yoked," and so would marry whom they chose. Slaves were saying that they had only one Lord, and it wasn't the person who'd bought them at the market. They had to be made examples of how the Empire treated troublemakers. Otherwise, they might be seen by other sons and daughters and slaves as examples of how to behave, and the good order of the Empire, which rested on the authority of fathers, masters, and governors, would crumble. Some were scourged; some were executed.

They could have known that the price was steep for the way of life they were choosing. So why, then, did they choose it?

On one hand, it was because they also saw a cost to remaining where they were, to the way of life that would have earned them praise, respect, and/or relative material security. For that reason, it was somewhat easier to choose to follow Jesus for those for whom the price for staying put was more obvious and immediate -- younger sons who might not inherit; young women whose older sisters had died in childbirth after their marriage at age 14 or less, and who feared the same fate when they were married; slaves whose masters mistreated them.

But I don't think that these people chose to follow Jesus because they lacked hope where they were so much as it was because of the hope they found in Jesus. Jesus himself was homeless, and if Mark 3:21 is any indication, his own family thought he was crazy (while the NRSV says "people" said he was crazy, the Greek just says "they" said so, in which case it would be more natural to assume that the "they" in question is his family, who are the "they" of the first half of the sentence), and if Matthew 13:57 is any indication, Jesus saw himself as being without honor in his homeland and family. And still Jesus was known as a "party animal," in the words of John Dominic Crossan, in contrast to the grim figure of John the Baptizer (Matthew 11:16-19). Jesus offered real freedom, deep peace, and abundant joy -- and those who saw him living it believed him.

We've got decisions of our own to make. There are times when there's tension or flat-out contradiction between how our culture defines being a good, patriotic citizen -- or being a good liberal, for that matter -- and following Jesus. It might be at a point when we're advocating forgiveness for enemies and a neighbor sees this as a slight to a son in danger while serving in Iraq. It might be when we're accused of being bad parents as we encourage our children to spend time on their spiritual formation and serving the poor even if that displaces some studying or going to an S.A.T. prep class. It might be when we're accused of betraying "the cause" by working with people on the other side of important and divisive questions. It might come when we let go of needing others to see us as right in service to letting someone else feel deeply heard and fully understoof. There's a price to pay for defying these cultural mandates, and though it's often miniscule in comparison to the price Jesus paid on our behalf -- or, for that matter, the price paid by those murdered for their stance against apartheid, for example -- it's going to feel like a steep one for those of us accustomed to privilege.

But there's a price for staying where we are too. We can give up the rest and play that we need for health so that we can achieve more (at least in the short term); we can give entirely in to our culture's assertion that we are what we accomplish and what we can earn. And if we do, that's what we're going to pass along to our children, who will believe their worth to be at least as conditional as our lives say that our worth is. We can try to protect ourselves by threatening violence to any who would harm us, but we'll find the number of those who would harm us multiplying because of the fear and resentment our policies instill. The bottom line is that the networks of dysfunctional relationship that we think will get us ahead in the eyes of the world will enmesh and enslave us if we don't make serious changes.

And if we do answer Jesus' call? What if we did present ourselves as living sacrifices to God, not conformed to the world's expectations, but being transformed in Christ's image? Let's be clear about who this "Christ," this anointed one, is: he's Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified as a threat to the order of families and of the Empire. This Jesus, is the one the God of Israel chose as the Son of Man, judge of the nations, who repays evildoers by calling down forgiveness rather than fire. And so believing that the nations will be judged can bring freedom from fear, when we believe that the judge is Jesus. We can be at peace even when we're in conflict with the authorities of this world when we're in the care of the Prince of Peace. We don't have to prove to anyone, even ourselves, that we're worthy of love if we take in that Jesus loved us without regard for deserving.

As we follow Jesus, things will change -- us, our relationships, our world. Change means losing things as they were, but if we've caught Jesus' vision for how God is redeeming the world, we know that what we gain is of far greater value than the chains we lose. Jesus brings us out of old ways of being and relating that bring sorrow and death so that we can be free for new ways of relating to one another, and in the self-giving love in which Jesus forms us, we find real, deep, and eternal joy.

Thanks be to God!

August 24, 2005 in Atonement, Community, Matthew, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Proper 16, Year A

Romans 11:33-36 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 16:13-20 - link to NRSV text

It's a little ironic, isn't it? Two Sundays ago, we read the story St. Peter walking on the water -- a story often used as an occasion to criticize Peter for doubting when in the story, Jesus is pointing out at least as much that Peter DID have a little faith as he is inviting Peter to deepen it. And this Sunday, we've got a gospel that's often used as an example of faith, Peter's great shining moment, when the story is an example (and perhaps the best one, shy of Peter's later denials that he knew Jesus) of Peter being seriously off the mark.

That becomes clear in next Sunday's gospel (Matthew 16:21-27), when Jesus looks at Peter and says, "Get behind me, Satan!" -- and I wish very much that our lectionary kept intact this single pericope that begins this week and ends next week. Read as a whole, Matthew 16:13-28 shows us that Christian faith is a lot more than assigning the right titles to Jesus. Indeed, the story shows us that sometimes these titles can get in the way of understanding who Jesus is at least as much as they help.

I'm thinking of the emperor Constantine, who underwrote the Council of Nicea, giving him opportunity to decide which bishops got invited and the final say on any statements that came out of that gathering. Legend has it that the statement that the Son is of "one substance" or "one Being" with the Father was his suggestion.

People argue over whether Constantine had truly converted to Christianity -- he wasn't baptized until he was on his deathbed, but that practice wasn't uncommon among Christians of his time; he was a patron of Christian churches, but he also continued to build and worship in temples to Sol Invictus, the conquering sun-god his ancestors worshipped. I have no trouble believing, though, that he really believed that Jesus was the only-begotten Son of God.

Constantine was right on the question of Jesus' titles. Unfortunately, he was wrong on the far more important question of Jesus' character, and the character of the god who is Jesus' Father. Constantine grew up worshipping a god who was all about power, and specifically the power that would help him become powerful, victorious in battle, supreme over his enemies. And he never stopped worshipping that god. He never stopped worshipping power. And so Constantine could confess that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God, and could put an empty throne next to his so he could claim to rule as Jesus' agent, and still murder his children if they posed a threat to his power. He turned Jesus' name, Jesus' God, and even Jesus' cross, into symbols by which he hoped to conquer and rule.

Peter made a similar mistake -- for a moment -- in today's gospel. It's much lesser in degree than the category confusion Constantine made, but it's still there. Peter gets an important point right in this Sunday's gospel: that Jesus is the Messiah, God's anointed. Peter has a huge head-start on Constantine in deciding what this means too, as Peter knows that the God who has anointed Jesus is the God of Israel -- the god who liberated the slaves from Egypt, and who in the desert made them a people, a community centered around God's justice and mercy. In other words, Peter knows by whom Jesus has been anointed, and that tells him something of who Jesus is.

The open question, though, is what Jesus has been anointed to do -- and the biggest problem that Peter has is that he thinks that part goes without saying. Jesus is God's messiah, God's anointed. He's going to be victorious, which (in Peter's view) pretty much precludes his being tortured and executed as a shameful criminal. Peter rightly says that Jesus is God's son, and he is blessed to have that much revealed to him. But only after Jesus has died on a Roman cross and been raised by the God of Israel can Peter bring together that God's blessing and anointing doesn't preclude dying. Peter's attachment to victory and what he believes is and is not associated with it is threatening to override his trust in Jesus. Once he lets go of being victorious in the world's terms, though, he'll be open to God's victory, which defeats even death.

There's a timely lesson for us in Constantine's confession and Peter's, in what they get right and where they fall short, and it goes back to the discussion we were having two weeks ago about faith. Faith isn't about assenting to a proposition; it's a relationship of trust with a person. Faith in Jesus isn't primarily about saying or thinking correct things about him. Faith in Jesus is following him, serving those the world despises; it's not a guarantee of earthly glory and success, but willingness to share the scorn that the proud heap upon the humble.  Faith doesn't found empires, but frees us to live as sisters and brothers of all nations. Faith in Jesus doesn't tell us that we will defeat our enemies; it moves us to love, forgive, and be gracious toward them as Jesus was toward his.

The height and depth and richness of that grace is beyond description, and almost beyond comprehension. Small wonder that Peter didn't perceive it at this point as he would come to perceive it later. The moment described in the gospel passages for this Sunday and next were a turning point, though -- not because of what Peter did understand, but because of Jesus' graciousness when Peter didn't understand.

At this moment, Peter is stuck in all-or-nothing thinking: if Jesus is messiah, it's got to be the whole glorious picture, and the cross doesn't fit in with that. Our lectionary, in dividing Peter's confession and Jesus' praise of it from Peter's "surely not!" to the cross and Jesus' stinging rebuke, unfortuantely plays into the same kind of thinking: in a lot of minds, Peter gets to be pure hero this week and pure cluelessness next week. But Jesus doesn't treat Peter like that. Peter's confession, especially if his current understanding of it becomes the substance of what he proclaims about Jesus to the world, has some deeply problematic dimensions. But Jesus receives what Peter has to offer that came as a gift from God. Most importantly, Jesus receives Peter himself, with all his flaws, as sharing in the victory he will win on the cross -- even as Peter tries to set a path for Jesus that would preclude that victory.

I opened with pointing to this moment as the second best example of Peter going seriously off the mark. The best example is probably Peter's denials that he knew Jesus in the hours following Jesus' arrest. And I suspect that as Peter looked back on these disappointing moments in the full light of Jesus' love for him, they became deeply powerful experiences of grace, inspiring a life of self-giving love that testified more profoundly to what Jesus was anointed FOR than any words could.

Thanks be to God!

August 17, 2005 in Faith, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

new page: Dylan's digest

This week's lectionary blog entry is below, but I wanted to shout out to y'all about a new page that's gone up on SarahLaughed.net: Dylan's digest. Why the digest? Because the time has come for me to admit yet another dimension on which I am a huge dork (albeit hopefully a lovable one):

I am an Anglican polity and politics wonk. I read every scrap of news I can on the subject, and I often find myself forwarding articles and URLs to friends, family, and co-workers -- good articles to get good journalistic work a little more of the attention it deserves, and flawed articles to clear up or offer comment on a point or two. And I thought: what the heck. Y'all are my friends, and co-workers, and brothers and sisters in Christ; why not share with y'all by blogging it?

So, if you're not the sort of person who reads everything that's out there, but you'd like to get the highlights of what's going on, or if you're curious about one biblioblogger's take on current Anglican events, pop by Dylan's digest (which now appears in the site navigation menu in the left-hand sidebar).

As always, thanks for reading, and commenting, and emailing. I'm energized by discussion in this little corner of cyberspace energizes me, and I hope you find it a blessing too.

August 10, 2005 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Proper 15, Year A

Isaiah 56:1-7 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 67 - link to BCP text
Romans 11:13-15,29-32 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 15:21-28 - link to NRSV text

In my experience, three forces running counter to discernment tend to pop up a lot -- especially where theology and politics (by which I mean power systems, not just party politics or civics) intersect (and isn't all theology really about politics too, if you think that God is the source of all legitimate power and authority?).

The first force is the conviction that you're already fully aware of what God wants. Give in to that, and you won't even start a process of discernment -- why bother, if you already have full access to everything God has to say on the subject?

The second force is the conviction that there's a person or group you don't need to listen to, as s/he or they couldn't possibly have anything valuable to contribute. Just think about what that would have done for the early church if, say, Ananias had decided that Jesus would never appear to someone who was an avowed, practicing, and notorious persecutor of the church, let alone call such a man as apostle to the Gentiles.

The third force is the conviction that if you knew what God was up to before, no further discernment is necessary. I think this last one just might be the most insidious for Christian leaders. After all, Jesus is Alpha and Omega, incarnation of the god who is the same yesterday, today, and forever -- right? And furthermore, changing course implies that the first course was a mistake. God doesn't make mistakes, and if you want to be seen as a trustworthy Christian leader, you won't let anyone think that you've made a mistake either.

These temptations are particularly strong for leaders who, in their heart of hearts, feel both that authority is about knowing a great deal more than others in the community and that they don't really know enough to justify being in a position of leadership. Parents and priests are prone to it; while neither giving birth nor being ordained confers miraculous infusions of knowledge or maturity, congregations and families often have vastly inflated expectations for what three years of seminary or three decades of living will do for you, and we're often afraid that any course corrections will cause us to lose face, and will confirm what they probably already expect: we're not Jesus.

But how well does that picture we have of the ideal, unwavering Christian leader, the one who doesn't need to grow because s/he's already a spiritual giant, the one who treats engaging with other points of view as a sign of undesirable weakness, match the canonical picture of Jesus? Not well, if this Sunday's gospel is any indication.

In it, Jesus is confronted by a woman who calls out to him demanding his help. It's not at all surprising that Jesus doesn't answer her. I've blogged many a time about Jesus' culture being an honor/shame culture. In such a culture, answering someone who confronted you like that would register for all onlookers -- and for anyone who heard the gossip from the onlookers, which would spread like wildfire especially if anything unconventional happened -- as an admission from the person who responded that the challenger was at least an equal. Once Jesus responds to the woman, that's what everyone watching things thinks -- that Jesus is no better than she is.

Unless, that is, she's appealing to him in the proper way, as a subject to a king. Her address to him as "Son of David," and by extension king of Israel, might suggest that -- if, that is, she were an Israelite. Perhaps -- and I'm speculating wildly here -- that was on her mind when she cried out, and she'd hoped to pass as such -- anything to bring mercy to her daughter. But Jesus' reply to her makes clear that even if he's king, she's not his subject. In other words, Jesus took away his one face-saving excuse for what's about to happen.

What's about to happen is that Jesus is going to give in to her. She challenged him, and by answering, Jesus made her his equal in the eyes of the crowd. But then, after acknowledging that she is not an Israelite, Jesus engages her in more argument ...

... and Jesus gives in. He loses the argument. He changes course at a woman's word, and commends her for challenging him. I've heard people say that Jesus didn't really mean what he said in this story, that he knew precisely what he was doing, and he was testing the woman's faith to see whether she was worthy of the miraculous healing she requested for her daughter. And I don't buy it, for the simple reason that this isn't how the crowd who witnessed the historical evidence would have interpreted it and more than Matthew's readers would have, and I don't believe that Jesus would play mind games with a woman desperately seeking a cure for her daughter to score a point so obscure that nobody in his culture could have gotten it.

I think we're on more solid ground in thinking that what was going on was this:

Jesus was changed in that encounter. He chose to listen to someone whom others would have ignored, and he chose to act in compassion in a situation in which no one would have faulted him for moving on. His choosing to listen and to heal, to change his mind when doing so would cost him honor in the sight of others, demonstrated for us how a true leader discerns mission.

The kind of discernment we're called to exercise is not about certainty -- especially not when certainty threatens to trump compassion. As Rabbi Sheila Peltz said of her visit to Auschwitz, "As I stood before the gates I realized that I never want to be as certain about anything as were the people who built this place."

Discernment isn't about knowing who not to listen to either. Conventional wisdom would hold that someone who took counsel from a strange woman, a Canaanite woman, a woman who shouted out in the marketplace when she should have been home caring for her daughter, was not a good person from whom to take advice. And yet, Jesus, who compares himself to Wisdom herself in Matthew 11:18-19, is still open to hearing wisdom from the Canaanite woman.

And once we've discerned a genuine call, that doesn't mean it's what we're called to do at all times and under all circumstances, let alone that it's a call for all humanity. As I've blogged about before, I don't think that Jesus was blowing smoke when he talked in Matthew's gospel about a call to go to the House of Israel, even when there's persecution coming from Israelites. I don't think he was blowing smoke or playing mind games in this passage when he says that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel either. But I think that Jesus had a deeper sense of call, a deeper sense of what it would mean for him to be faithful, and that it included entering into relationship -- real relationship -- with others. That's what love means. And real relationship, loving relationship, changes everyone involved. Christian leaders are called to "keep the main thing the main thing," as they say, and the main thing in Christian community is that quality of relationship.

Thank God for that! Thank God that, as our scriptures testify, God is Love, and God is changed in loving relationship. God saw that humankind was inclined toward evil, and resolved to blot out evil people from the earth (Genesis 6:5-7). After the great flood, God sees the inclination of the human heart toward evil (Genesis 8:21), but God resolves nevertheless to hang up God's bow, God's weapon, forever (Genesis 9:12-17) -- never again to try to destroy evil by destroying evildoers. Jesus sent his disciples to the House of Israel, where he said he was called to gather lost sheep -- and then a pushy Canaanite woman unveils something more -- something that leads the risen Jesus to commission an apostle to the Gentiles. Just when we thought we'd seen the limits of God's love, that love grows.

Thus says the Lord: "Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed." Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant -- these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
-- Isaiah 56:1-7

Let your ways, oh God, be known upon earth, and your saving health among ALL nations. Let ALL the peoples, upon whom you have poured out your mercy and your blessing, praise you, and honor you by extending that mercy to all.

Thanks be to God!

August 10, 2005 in Discernment, Genesis, Honor/Shame, Inclusion, Isaiah, Leadership, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Women, Year A | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Proper 14, Year A

Jonah 2:1-9 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 29 - link to BCP text
Romans 9:1-5 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 14:22-33 - link to NRSV text

I remember when I was an undergrad, this story bothered me. It seemed to me that Peter was getting chewed out for not having enough faith, and I didn't see why he deserved that. My college chaplain proposed that Peter was getting chewed out because, despite Jesus' directing them to go to the other side, none of them should have been afraid that anything ill would befall them on the way. After all, Jesus didn't say, "go on ahead ... there's an evil ghost who's going to attack you, and I don't want to be around for the carnage," right?

At the time (before I'd taken any New Testament courses, among other things), this seemed like a perfectly good reading to me -- so much so that I repeated it to many others, with the moral of "if you get a word from Jesus to do something, you can anticipate success."

Let me start this week's blog entry by apologizing to everyone to whom I said that, or anything like it. That's the sort of thing that only very young (or young in the faith, anyway) people and people in frenetic denial can say with a straight face. Or maybe I'm just talking about myself when I say that just about every week between then and now I've had plentiful opportunities to fail, and many times to fail in spectacular fashion ... and I'm not one to squander opportunities.

So I can identify with Peter, and especially with that sinking feeling (literally!) he must have had just before he cried out to Jesus to save him. But I don't think that my natural sympathies for Peter form the only reason to think that he's been given rather a bad rap by many interpreters of this passage (e.g., my college chaplain). After all, what does "faith" mean anyway, and how much of it does one need?

The first thing I think it's important to clear up is that "faith" or "belief," at least in the biblical sense of those terms, doesn't connote belief in a particular outcome or intellectual assent to a proposition so much as it suggests trust in and allegiance to a person. Believing in Jesus does not mean believing that we'll be "successful" (however we define that!) in a particular enterprise if it was Jesus calling us to do it, and having faith IN Jesus doesn't imply signing off on a list of statements ABOUT Jesus. Having faith in Jesus means, in my view, a willingness to follow Jesus -- not because we believe that we've already got the rest of the story plotted out once we've made that decision, but because we take seriously that Jesus is Lord, and the ultimate in good ones. As I've preached on before, having faith doesn't mean convincing ourselves that we're convinced of something. Faith isn't an activity of the brain so much as of the heart, and then I mean it not in the sense of drumming up some kind of feeling, but of pumping blood to ones feet and hands.

In other words, faith is about doing. A faithful person eventually gets to the point at which s/he can say to God, "I don't know where you're going, but I know that wherever it is, I'd rather be drowning with you than be crowned by somebody else." That kind of trust in Jesus, in my experience, comes from experience with the person of Jesus. The kind of trust I have in Jesus has come as I've experienced Jesus' generosity and mercy, so much that I'm pretty sure that if Jesus is involved, then following Jesus is where I'm going to experience the most of the goodness and mercy God has to offer. That process of building confidence, of getting to know Jesus such that I'm understanding more deeply just how much I can trust Jesus is a major ingredient in what I call the journey of faith.

But when I say that faith is like that function of the heart that gets blood to hands and feet, what I mean is that faith starts with action, with taking a step, with taking a risk. The best intentions in the world don't do much without action, but taking that step, even with the worst of intentions, just might give you the experience of meeting God on the road, on (or in) the sea.

There's no better evidence for that than the story of Jonah. Jonah just might go down as the whiniest prophet in history. He had no intention of saving anyone. He didn't even intend to follow God's direction, but when the seas got rough, he knew that it was time to step out of the boat. Just about everything that Jonah has said up to this point indicates no faith, no trust that God's will could mean anything good for him, but when his life is at stake, he calls out to the very god he's been running from. That suggests to me that despite all his protestations of how much God's will means only ill fortune to him, underneath all that is both a trust that God will take care of his fellow travellers (as Jonah 1:11-12 indicates) and that God will deliver him (as Jonah's poem in this Sunday's readings indicate). By the end of the story, we understand that every step he took, even Jonah's whiny rebellion, came in some sense from a deep sense (and sometimes an unwelcome sense!) that God will extend mercy, that God's mercy will be the final word.

That trust, that willingness to risk stepping outside the boat, is how I think of faith. And Peter has that. So why does Jesus address him as "you of little faith"? Not because of the faith he lacks, but because of the faith he has. Peter has a little faith. Jesus addresses his followers as people of "little faith" repeatedly in Matthew's gospel (e.g., Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, and 17:20), but following the last of those, he says, "if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20).

So how much faith do you need to make a difference in your life, or even to change the world? Not much, by some ways of reckoning. You don't have to talk yourself into absolute confidence that anything in particular will happen. That's a good thing, since none of us -- not even, or perhaps ESPECIALLY not those who shout most loudly about knowing exactly what God's specific plans for everyone are -- really knows the future, or even the heart of another person. Faith isn't about knowing, though.

Faith is willingness to risk. It's willingness to take that step out of the boat, whether you think you'll sink or skate. It proceeds from the kind of love that, despite all of the butterflies in one's stomach, makes a person willing to be the first to say "I love you" in a relationship -- not because of a certain expectation of a particular reply, but because of the possibilities that saying "I love you" opens. Reading a biblical expression of that kind of faith makes me think of a passage (one I've used in preaching before) from Sara Maitland's short story "Dragon Dreams" (found in her collection Angel Maker):

When [you] died I knew that there was no safety, anywhere, and I will not sacrifice to false gods. There is no safety, but there is wildness and joy, there is love and life within the danger. I love you. I want to be with you. ... I refuse to believe that we only get one chance. This letter is just a start. I am going to hunt you down now in all the lovely desolate places of the world. ... there I will be waiting for you. Please come. Please come soon.

And that's why I take hope and not condemnation away from reading the stories of Jonah, and Peter, and the rest of God's reluctant prophets and Jesus' wavering disciples. They didn't have it all together, and they didn't fully understand or consistently appreciate what they eventually would proclaim. But the steps they took, however cluelessly or clumsily, made space in which they and others could encounter God's mercy, giving rise to generations of risk-taking and faith arising -- the kind of faith, shared across the Body fo Christ, that could not only move mountains, but turn mountains and valleys to plains.

Thanks be to God!

August 2, 2005 in Call Narratives, Faith, Jonah, Matthew, Miracle stories, Ordinary Time, Year A | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack