Friday, August 22, 2008

Hey! It's That Guy! (Matthew 16:13-20)

The late character actor J.T. Walsh inspired a website and a book dedicated to the phrase most often used to describe him: “Hey! It’s that guy!”

Walsh played in more than 50 movies and was nominated for an Emmy. The year he died of a heart attack, 1998, he was in three movies. He rarely had a lead role and was often kind of a meanie, but he popped up in so many places people couldn’t help but remember his face, even if they had no idea what his name was. Thus, he became “that guy.”

A little of that goes on when Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah when the group is gathered at Ceasarea Philippi. Jesus ask them, “Who do folks say I am,” and they answer that he’s supposed to be Elijah or Jeremiah or another of the old prophets.” So Jesus asks who they think he is. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter answers. The answer makes Jesus happy and he predicts great things for Peter as the church begins its ministry after he is gone.

Is Jesus happy just because of Peter’s answer? Maybe, but look at what he says about it: “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in Heaven.” I believe Jesus is even more excited because Peter’s answer suggests he’s opened himself up to God’s guidance in a whole new way. Even though he doesn’t stay open to it for very long, he’s made a start and Jesus knows this will be the way the church spreads through the world.

For any right-thinking properly educated Jew of Jesus’ day, Jesus himself was a round peg to fit into a square Messiah hole. We’ve probably heard at least once about how many religious leaders rejected Jesus as Messiah because they looked for a political leader to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel.

It’s more than that, though. The promised Messiah was more than just a king. Many of the psalms describe the ideal king for the nation, and the Messiah was expected to fulfill all these ideals. He would be a great general able to defeat armies on the battlefield as well as a great warrior able to do some of his own smiting if the need arose.

He would be a well-dressed but not flashy guy who presented himself well. The ladies would all love him. The old Israelite kings often had many wives, so the ideal king would be surrounded by well-dressed knockouts and devoted to each of them equally. By Jesus’ day, the custom of polygamy had faded among the Jews, but the idea was the same, only without the physical relationship. He would also be a man’s man, able to hunt, fish, camp out and hang out with the guys, who would all enjoy hanging around him. His wisdom would outshine Solomon himself.

He would support the folks who had it hard, and be on the side of those who didn’t have anybody on their side. They would know he was their protector. And he would uphold the teaching of God so that the whole nation, and through them the whole world, could be blessed and know God’s direct presence – his law “written on their hearts” as Jeremiah would say.

Today, we could say this ideal king would be a man who led the army to victory in battle, thwarted an assassination attempt single-handed, came home to accept congratula-tory yet perfectly appropriate hugs from all the gals, chest-bumped, ooh-rahed and high-fived all the guys, told their mothers that that was the best potato salad anybody had ever sent to a war zone (and of course they’d said grace over every spoonful) and told their dads that even though he and the rest had won, he was pretty sure they didn’t have a patch on those guys back in their day.

Then he’d finish it off by rescuing a kitten stuck in a tree.

This, you see, was what the Jewish people of Jesus’ day expected. Yes, Jesus was wise and compassionate, and he certainly did have a charisma that drew people to him. But he matched few of the rest of their expectations, so no ordinary person who sized him up and puzzled him out would have said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Only a person who allowed himself or herself to be led by the Holy Spirit could say such a thing with true understanding, and somehow Jesus knew that Peter had that understanding when he spoke.

Without the leading of the Spirit, the most anyone could say would be something like what people said when they saw J.T. Walsh’s familiar but un-named face on the screen: Hey! It’s that guy!

I believe that we could see Jesus in so many places today if we would let the Spirit guide us and open our eyes to him. We could see him in the people in need. Didn’t Jesus tell us that as we had done unto the least of these, we’d done unto him?

That’s just the start. He is at work all around us and the evidence is right there, if we will let ourselves be guided to see it, so that instead of saying, “Hey, it’s that guy!” we can say, “Hey! It’s Jesus!”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

You Don't Know Where That's Been! (Matthew 15:10-20)

I freely confess having gotten this passage wrong more times than I’d like.

By that I mean I’ve identified the “what goes into you” part with physical things like food, drink or entertainment. And I’ve identified the “what comes out of you” part with what I say or do. Jesus, I’ve said, was a lot less concerned with what a person said or did than he was with what kind of food they ate. He was more concerned with their spirit than he was with simple physical stuff.

Which is true, but I never connected the two and that’s what I got wrong.

Think about it for a second. Jesus says that the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and if wrong things come from the heart then the heart is defiled and so is the person. So how, we might wonder, do we get the “what comes out” part? Does it spring up whole inside of us? Does it come out of nowhere?

Probably not, I’d imagine. When we say or do things and express our opinions and attitudes, they’ve usually come from something. Maybe we’ve studied and reflected on an issue, or maybe we’re just reacting to something we’ve heard. Either way, what comes out of is affected by what goes into us.

I can’t imagine that Jesus would want us to believe that what comes out of our hearts has nothing to do with what has gone into our hearts. Even the digestion example he uses shows that he’s talking about what comes in, what happens to it while it’s there and what happens to it when it’s gone.

What, then, does go into our hearts? What do our spirits “digest” in our lives?

For one, I imagine, they digest our everyday experiences. The stuff that goes on in our lives, we know, plays a big part in what kind of lives we live. If we have a lot of rotten stuff go on, then we might feel pretty rotten. If we have good stuff go on around us, we might feel OK.

And so, we might indeed see a need to be careful about what we consume, because some things are more likely to produce good than others are. I firmly believe that God can and does work through every circumstance and every possible influence in our lives.

A key for us as Christians is to allow God to be the main part of processing those circumstances and influences. We’re all going to go through hard or rotten times, and they might have a rotten impact on us if we try to handle them ourselves. But with God’s help we can come through them with something of value. We won’t enjoy them, nor should we. But God’s power can redeem them. If he redeemed the senseless death of his Son, he can redeem anything.

In essence, we allow God to digest what we consume or experience to produce something nutritious from it. But we still need to discern what we take in.

I think everything around us carries a mixture of its original created goodness and its fallen sinfulness. But the mixtures aren’t always the same. Some things have less goodness and more sinfulness and vice-versa. Keeping the food analogy, we can be sure that almost all real foods have some nutritional value, but some don’t have much. Twinkies have nutritional value, but it’s really small, meaning we would have to eat a lot of them to gain something worthwhile from them, and that has its own problems.

I love movies, and I watch a lot of them. Some of them offer me things to think about and meditate on, and those thoughts might lead me closer to an understanding of God. Some of them offer very little to think about. Over the years I’ve tried to reduce those, and not because I feel very holy and moral about it. I’ve just started figuring out how much of my life I want to spend on stuff that gets me nowhere.

Sure, I can watch a Saw movie and have a discussion about appreciating life and such, since the killer’s motif is that he only targets people who don’t appreciate the gift of life. But what an amazing amount of garbage I have to consume to get that one little insight, and why would I want to spend two hours with that when I can watch a legion of better movies that would offer a lot more “nutritional value,” so to speak?

What comes out of us, Jesus says, shows people our hearts. But it’s what goes into us that shapes those hearts, and the question we face is what we will give God to use in that shaping – things of worth, or things of worthlessness?

Friday, August 15, 2008

You talkin' to me? (Matthew 15:21-28)

(Actually two different sermons came out of this week's gospel reading, and I'm preaching the other one. It'll go up in a few days)

This, of course, is not always our favorite Jesus story.

Many segments of the church like to emphasize how compassionate Jesus was, how he reached out to the poor, the sick and the rest of the people so-called “decent folks” wanted to overlook. It seems like for a lot of people, the main thing they can call up about Jesus is that he was a nice guy.

But the way Matthew tells this story, Jesus doesn’t sound like a nice guy. Not only does he act like he doesn’t want to heal this poor woman’s daughter, he pretty much ignores her when she first asks for help. When he does finally pay attention to her, he compares her to a household dog.

I’ve heard one interpretation that says this story shows us Jesus was a human being, and like every human being, he sometimes has a bad day. He’s been around the block with the Pharisees again a little bit before this and he probably wants some peace and quiet, when this woman starts shouting at him. So he’s snappish at her, but in the end he remembers who he is and what he’s supposed to be doing and who he represents, so he heals her daughter.

In other words, Jesus is usually a nice guy, and even when he’s not, he has a good excuse, and he does what God calls him to do anyway. We should too.

I’m not sure of this – I feel like I have to be a little bit of a gymnast to follow it, nor am I sure that all Matthew wants me to see is that Jesus is still a nice guy.

Let’s check our setting again. Jesus and the disciples are traveling in the district of Tyre and Sidon, which is in upper Galilee. Most of the people in the area aren’t Jewish. Matthew says the woman is a Canaanite, which probably means she is one of the non-Jewish groups of people who live near those cities.

But when she calls out to Jesus, she calls him “Lord, Son of David.”

She probably meant something when she said “Lord,” but “son of David” wouldn’t mean much to someone who wasn’t Jewish, or later, a Christian. Does she say it because she recognizes Jesus and his importance? Or does she say it because she recognizes Jesus and the disciples as Jews and she somehow knows “son of David” means something to them even if it means nothing to her?

It’s likely, after all, that this woman sought the help of many different healers and teachers. She would want her daughter healed and I doubt she’d much care how it happened as long as it did. So she could have called out to any number of travelers along that road or any one of the teachers that had happened by. Maybe “son of David” was a common way of addressing Jewish men when you didn’t know their names, and maybe she figured none of her people had helped so why not ask those crazy monotheistic Judeans?

So when Jesus first ignores her and then points out he was sent to his own people first, he might very well be challenging her. Are you calling out to me, or to whoever happened to be walking by, he might have asked. You called me Lord, Song of David – is that what you say to all of us? Are you asking me to heal your daughter because you believe I can or just because you’re so desperate you’ll ask anyone?

Her answer shows a little of both, doesn’t it? She is desperate, but she knows if Jesus is the man who can heal her daughter, he can do it whether she is Jewish or not. Either he can heal her or he can’t. If he can heal her, then he either will or he won’t. If I didn’t think you could do it, then I wouldn’t be asking you, might be her answer.

If I’m close on this, then that’s why I think Jesus remarks on her faith when he heals her daughter. Yes, you really do believe I can, don’t you, Jesus might have said. I can and I will.

We don’t always live our lives based on faith, even though we talk about it a lot. And maybe that’s the compromise we make in order to get through the day in a fallen world.

But sometimes we remember we’re the people who may live in this world, but we also proclaim the world the way it ought to be – whole and peaceful and reunited with God. And in those times we answer God’s call to live both in the world the way we say it ought to be as well as the world the way it is.

That’s when Jesus might remark on our faith, too.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Happy Feet! (Romans 10:5-15)

OK, waitaminute. Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” But Paul says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” So what’s going on?

Well, maybe the difference is in these two ideas – Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, and Paul talks about being saved. Perhaps there’s some important theological difference between the concept of the Kingdom of Heaven as described by Jesus and salvation as described by Paul. We know that the “Kingdom of Heaven” is an important theme in Jesus’ message and also in John the Baptist’s. We also know that Paul spends a lot of time in Romans talking about the meaning, impact and effect of salvation.

So, is there a sense in which saying “Lord, Lord,” is insufficient for attaining the Kingdom of Heaven, but calling on the name of the Lord is sufficient for salvation?

Beats me. I think there’s a more important point in there for me as a Christian, which is what Paul writes in the last verses of this passage. In order for people to call on the name of the Lord, they will need to believe in him, and they won’t believe in him if they’ve never heard about him, and they’ll never hear about him if no one ever talks about him.

I imagine we’ve all heard at one time or another a church member from somewhere say something like, “Well, I don’t go around preaching at people – that’s the preacher’s job!”

And it is in fact the preacher’s job. But the preacher didn’t get that job when he or she was ordained. They got that job when they were baptized. In fact, if your preacher stopped being a preacher today, their duty to share the gospel would be just as strong tomorrow as it is now.

Now, of course not all of us are called to the same kinds of ministry and not all of us have the gifts to communicate the gospel in the same way. Some people have the gift to reach large numbers of folks with the message and provoke a wide-ranging response. Some people have the kind of mind that can explain some very complex things about God, human beings and the relationship between them in a very understandable way.

And then some of us – a lot of us – muddle through, wondering most of the time if we even understand the gospel ourselves, let alone know it well enough to share it with someone else. We spend enough time asking, “What’s that mean?” that we’re pretty sure we wouldn’t have many answers if people asked us that same question.

But even us slowpokes have people we know and we know them better than the people who have all the answers and all the clever phrases and all the right words to say. We know them from work, we know them in our own homes, we know them from school or from someplace else. The key is, we know them. The chair of the church council doesn’t know them. The chair of the evangelism committee doesn’t know them. The youth director doesn’t know them. The preacher doesn’t know them. But we do.

And those are the people who, if we care about them, are some of the ones we most want to know the Lord and have the gift of God alive in their lives. I certainly pray for the unchurched folks around the world who need to know Christ. I hope they hear the word and come to know him. I even support the efforts of some people to bring them that word.

But how much more can I pray and how much more can I do for the ones who I see maybe every day of my week? How much more impact can I have on someone who can trust my words about God because they trust me?

Paul quotes Isaiah in verse 15. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news, proclaim peace and proclaim salvation, Isaiah says, who say to Zion, your God reigns!

To be one who shares the good news with another is to be as wonderful in their lives as would be the person who says, “The Lord has returned!”

And each of us has our calling to be that person in the lives of someone else. Maybe not everyone else, but at least someone else.

My friends, it’s our duty to have feet of beauty…

Sunday, August 03, 2008

You Give Them Something (Matthew 14:13-21)

I've noticed sometimes I will glide past some of the things Jesus may tell his disciples because I know how the story ends. Although they often operate in full dunce mode, they will, following Jesus' death and resurrection, sell themselves out to proclaim the gospel. According to church tradition, only John dies a natural death, and that's after he spent years in exile on a rocky island.

So I tend to figure I don't need to hear what he tells those guys, since they were the cream of the crop and I'm nowhere near that level. I forget, of course, that "those guys" started out nowhere near that level, either, and that Jesus' guidance for them was usually given when they were in that full dunce mode.

Here, for example, I need to pay attention to what Jesus says to his disciples and some of the things that are behind what he says, because I'm pretty sure he'd say the same things to me if he were here face-to-face. We know the story -- the crowd has followed Jesus out to the lakeshore, in what's apparently a pretty rural area. And "rural" in a country with the population density Judea had at the time is saying something. The day is ending, and the disciples know it will probably be something of a walk for the people to get to nearby villages and buy food. So they suggest Jesus wind things up and send the people away. Notice how they're not worried about food for themselves, which may mean they've already got some of their own, or it may not. We don't know for sure.

Jesus demurs and tells them, "You give them something to eat." They say. "Well, we've got a little bread and some fish but that's it." "Sit them down and bring that to me," Jesus says, and when they follow his instructions, he blesses the small meal and begins to pass it around. Not only does everyone get enough to eat, they have leftovers.

First, Jesus doesn't seem to let his disciples off the hook for their responsibility to the crowd. We're the people that brought them out here, he says. They wouldn't be miles away from dinner if they hadn't followed us. We can't go back on our responsibility just because it gets tough, can we?

Second, he understands the disciples don't have the necessary resources to do what's needed. They don't have enough food for a crowd this size. But he also knows that if he uses what they have, then he can make it do much more than they ever imagined.

What does that say to us? Well, I think it's something like this. I know I sometimes have the impulse to say that I've done everything I needed to do when I've brought someone to a place where they can meet Jesus. I've guided them to church, or I've explained things to them in a conversation, or I've prayed with them at camp or somewhere else. Now it's up to God! After all, I had a T-shirt that said, "Fishers of men: You catch them, he'll clean them," and they can't put it on a T-shirt if it's not in the Bible, can they?

But Jesus suggest we still have a responsibility to those whom we've brought out to meet him. We can't just walk away from them now. They're here because of us, and so some of their growth and discipleship is on us too.

Even though it's our responsibility, it's not our burden, because we don't have what it takes to do the work the new folks need done. We can't "clean" them or offer them salvation, because that's God's work. What we can do, and what Jesus asks us to do, is offer God whatever we do have, and let him use it to do the necessary work.

Perhaps you listen well when people tell their problems. That by itself may bring them out to meet Jesus and learn about him, but it doesn't save them or begin their relationship with him. Since you listened to them, though, and you offer yourself as a follower of Christ, God may use you to show them how well he listens to them also, and they can understand that God will take them, too. They may not have believed that before, but because you offered your abilities to God for his use, they can come to understand it now.

After all, when we share the good news with people, we don't stop with the headline. There's a story behind it, and that story includes not only us, but also the people we share it with, and the God who has saved us all.