When we get it wrong (because we do)

by susan on August 21, 2017

This message was shared on Sunday, August 20th as part of a series in preparation for our community’s celebration of baptism. We have explored how baptism symbolizes our “second birth” & our participation in Jesus’ death & resurrection. This week, we considered baptism as going public with becoming a life-long learner of the Way.

10Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding?17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. – Matthew 15:10-28, NRSV

Jesus’ disciples still were not getting it.

Even though they had made some radical decisions, even though they had left behind some things & even though they were physically following Jesus from place to place, they still were not getting it.

How do we know that they’re not getting it?

Because they still don’t understand why Jesus is coming into conflict with the fundamentalist religious leaders of his day. They are still concerned that Jesus is offending the Pharisees. They are still oblivious to just how radical a shift Jesus’ way really was from the dominant cultural & religious narrative of his time.

Like many times before, Jesus is engaging in conversation with his disciples (or students). This particular conversation is in response to Jesus declaring that it is not what a person puts into his or her body that pollutes his or her life, it’s what comes from us that pollutes. Clean hands do not mean a clean heart.

This was a complete contradiction to what was being embraced by the religious fundamentalists of Jesus’ day. They were focused on staying sterile & on staying separate from anything or anyone that might keep them from being clean & pure & right.

Of course the Pharisees are offended by Jesus &
they were going to keep getting offended by him.

The disciples, though, could not understand this. They still were not getting it.

And, Jesus is not amused. He’s especially not thrilled with Peter. Not even Peter, the one who prided himself on knowing it all, was mastering the Master’s way.

After arguing his point, Jesus we are told, leaves for another place. I can’t help but wonder if he leaves because he’s tired. I can’t help but wonder if he leaves because he’s disappointed, burnt out & feeling like he’s getting nowhere.

Whatever his reason, he leaves for a different place & it’s there that he encounters a woman & not just any woman. As if being a woman did not already brand her as unworthy, she is a Canaanite woman which made her the despised enemy of Jesus. Jews & Canaanites had a long history of hate.

And, even though this might start off like a lot of the other Jesus stories (Jesus meets stranger or outcast and despite all odds, he heals him or her), it takes an unexpected turn.

Take a minute to pause at this point in the conversation. Can you feel the tension in this moment?

Here is Jesus tired & disappointed, trying to get away yet still surrounded by his followers. Here he is surrounded by expectations & a cultural tradition of staying separate & even mistreating enemies.

Can you sense the power of this moment? Can you identify with moments when you had to decide whether to step more fully into the kingdom of God or to step back into the dominant narrative of division or disregard or disrespect?

(During our gathering, we paused to share what have those moments have been like for us.)

Jesus is not his normal compassionate self.

We can tell from the moment he meets this woman that he’s just not feelin’ it. He doesn’t want to be bothered. And who can blame him? Not only are Jesus & this woman from two different worlds & two different races, she’s acting Canaanite. She’s not one of those well-polished Canaanite women, the kind who talk really well & blend in so easily you almost think she’s Jewish.

No. She’s beside herself. She is desperate & she’s showing it. She comes out yelling at Jesus.

I imagine her screaming loud enough to draw a crowd as she begs:

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David;
my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

It seems obvious that this woman is in dire need of Jesus’ help (or she would not be crossing gender and racial boundaries to seek his help). But, it must not have been that obvious because Matthew tells us that when she came to Jesus begging for help, he did not answer her at all.

The Message translation says he ignored her.

I want us to take that in for a minute. Jesus did not answer this woman in her desperate time of need & his equally annoyed disciples egged him on. In fact, he even goes so far as to say that he is only here to help Israelites. His kind of people were the only ones worth saving.

Man, he is really having a bad day.

There have been several interpretations to try to save Jesus’ reputation: One is that Jesus is tearing her down to build her back up. Another is that Jesus is just using this woman to test the disciples.

Honestly, does using a desperate woman as an object lesson or kicking her while she’s down really paint Jesus in a better light?!

There’s another possibility though.

Jesus, we believe, was fully Divine & also fully human. To be human is to be conditioned by the culture of the day. To be human is to hear day after day a narrative, a story. It’s to hear enemies declared, to hear it’s us vs. them, there’s good vs. bad. It’s to hear talk of “those people” and “help us not to become like them”.

To be human is become so deeply entangled into that dominant story & that pervading rhythm of life that we buy into it, we live by it & we even stake our lives on it.

Is is possible that as a human being, in this moment, Jesus struggled to see & to choose the right path?

Is it possible that even though Jesus had been called & baptized & confirmed by the Spirit, he too was capable of learning some things along the way?

It took this woman three times of pleading for help on behalf of her daughter before Jesus finally looks into her eyes. He even calls her a dog before he sees her as a human being, really hears her cry & heals her daughter.

We can’t underscore what a pivotal moment this is in Jesus’ journey. We can’t underscore what a pivotal moment this is in scripture. I’m not sure what changed Jesus’ mind, but all I know is he moved from apathy to embrace. He moved from disregarding her to responding to her demands. He moved from inaction & into acting on her behalf.

And we still don’t get it. We, too, get it wrong.

Right now there is a movement going on around our country to tear down monuments that honor & celebrate the Confederacy. These statues honor those declared war heroes & there is no way to also not see them as celebrations of our past failures to condemn slavery. There is no way to not see them as symbols of White supremacy. There are passionate arguments to take them down & to let them stay.

If we decide to take them down & I hope we do, let’s also put something in their place.

Let’s put up a sign that reads:  We were wrong.

And let’s add some questions to that confession. Questions like:

How are we getting wrong right now? Who are we failing to love? Who are we mistreating? What other habits & harmful ways of life do we need to overturn?

Let’s take down monuments that celebrate the way we’ve gotten it wrong before & replace them with spaces to consider & confess the ways we are getting wrong in the present.

As learners of the way of Jesus, maybe Jesus is actually our object lesson here, reminding us that we too need to be ready to change our hearts & minds. We, too, will need to be ready to be awoken from our biases & our flawed ways of seeing. Awoken from our apathy & our complacency. Awoken from our greed & our narcissism. Awoken from our ingratitude & our pride… because we all get it wrong sometimes.

Pivotal moments like these come along in decisive ways in history & they also come along everyday. Everyday, we are confronted with opportunities to stick to the script that has been handed to us or to choose the way of Jesus:

moments when we can choose to confront injustice or look the other way,
moments when we can choose to forgive hold a grudge,
moments when we can respond out of fear or anxiety or out of love,
moments when we can work toward reconciliation or moments where we can choose to stay stuck in our own heads or stuck to our screens where the real work of reconstruction rarely happens.

Whether he meant to or not, Jesus models what he was trying so desperately to teach his disciples – that this life of faith is not about a set of rituals, it’s not about a script we stick to or staying separate from what we have decided is sinful. It’s about entering a new way & a new rhythm of life & that takes practice.

Baptism is the beginning. It’s in the midst of the craziness & the mundaneness of life that we live out our faith. It’s in the classroom and the board room, in our homes & our friendships, in traffic & in the grocery store. It’s when we are faced with decisions, enemies, struggles & stresses that we practice the way of Jesus.

We get to begin & thanks be to God, we get to begin again.

What is waking you up right now? How have you gotten it wrong & what are you learning? How are you & I being invited to step more fully into the way of Jesus as individuals & as a community & as a country & yes, even as global citizens?

Another Beginning & A Second Birth

by susan on August 10, 2017

Throughout the month of August, we are reflecting on the meaning of baptism & preparing to celebrate baptism together. These “Words for the Journey” were shared on Sunday, August 6, 2017 & are based on Genesis 1:1-2 & John 3:1-8

I have had the privilege of celebrating baptism with several people in my short life as pastor. While some of those baptisms have gone off without a hitch, others have produced some rather awkward moments – like the time I baptized a teenager at our church in Atlanta.

Kelly was part of our youth group. I was her youth minister & I was super excited when she asked if I would baptize her. She’d been through a lot & her choosing to be a learner of the Jesus way was no small step.

I was a little nervous as I climbed down into those chilly baptismal waters (the heater wasn’t working!) wearing a robe several sizes too big. The robe began to float to the surface the deeper I walked into the water. Everything was off to an awesome start – I looked more like a giant water  balloon than a minister about to baptize someone.

Despite my trembling knees and shaky voice, I remembered to say the right words. I remembered to ask Kendall who she was choosing to make Lord of her life & to do all the little things I was supposed to do to keep her calm & to keep us both from drowning.

There was just one other glitch.

She may have been younger than me, but she was not smaller, so getting her all the way under the water was a tough task. As she was coming up from going down, I noticed something. There was a not-so-small dry & fluffy patch of hair still sticking up. Apparently, she had not been fully immersed.

I hoped no one noticed, but of course I would not be that lucky. Her older sister could not wait to tease me – she told me we needed a do-over, and that next time, I should also probably stand on a step stool. It was hard to even see me from where she was sitting.

Thankfully, baptism is not so much about the logistics, although Christians throughout the ages have certainly argued those to death. Baptism is not about getting it right or getting everything figured out before you take the plunge.

It’s about the beginning that baptism represents.

But just what kind of beginning do I mean?

Am I talking about an extreme-home-makeover kind of beginning where everything is suddenly shiny and new? Or something more like the beginning of a journey or the beginning of life itself?

Scripture has lots of stories about beginnings,
starting at the beginning with Genesis,
a word that not only means “beginnings”,
but that tells us about our beginnings.

Picture this.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, we are told the earth was a formless void, and that darkness covered the face of the deep.

Things were dark & desolate & seemingly unproductive until a wind (or Spirit) from God swept over the face of the waters. This is our first introduction to God: God is a Creator. Out of chaos & darkness, water & Spirit, God creates life. That’s Genesis.

As scripture unfolds, everything seems to hinge on this image of God. Story after story depicts God as maker, builder, author and giver of life. God is all about birthing something new.

Fast forward some 1400 years later to the time that the gospels were written. That’s skipping over a lot – a lot of time that humans both participated in God’s love, justice & beauty and a lot of time that they rejected God altogether. Scripture tells us that the people God was forming, the Israelites, had moments of connecting with God’s purposes & moments of rejecting God in favor of their better ideas –
like when they demanded an earthly king like the other nations,
like when they worshiped other gods,
like when they rejected prophets who demanded they share their wealth and care for the poor.

Fast forward through all of that though, and we get to another creation story.

The beginning of John’s gospel tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:1, 14). This is how John introduces Jesus. He then tells stories of how Jesus invited people into a new way of being in the world. He called this new way the kingdom of God & even more often, the way that leads to eternal life.

In short, Jesus was inviting people to begin again – people like Nicodemus.

John’s record of this encounter is full of imagery – starting with the detail that it was night when Nicodemus comes to Jesus.

Coming at night means it was not only a secret, but according to other stories in John, it was the time when barely anything productive was happening (think Peter fishing at night 21:3); it was the time when betrayal was at hand (think Judas, 13:30); and, it was a time of stumbling around unable to find our way (Jn 11:10).

During the day, Nicodemus may have had things figured out, but at night he’s not so sure. He’s in the dark, as we say. Perhaps even his work, accomplishments and status in society have lost significance.

Does that sound familiar?
Can we relate to feeling that our status and striving are not enough?
Can we relate to our religion feeling empty & not pointing us toward anything new or significant?

Darkness, though, is fertile ground for God’s creative work – at least it was in the first beginning. Let’s see what happens here.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee – he’s a religious leader. If he were like his friends, he’d be criticizing Jesus, but instead he comes at night in search of answers. He knows there’s something God-like about Jesus. He’s not coming to criticize – he’s coming to find out more. Perhaps he also comes at night because as curious as he is, he’s also scared. In Jesus’ radical teachings, he hears about the costly, counter-cultural nature of life in the kingdom of God. Following Jesus may cost him his reputation, his wealth, his status and he has no idea how he can make that kind of shift.

It is in the middle of a conversation with Nicodemus that Jesus introduces an analogy that has troubled Christianity since the beginning.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:5)

Nicodemus, like the church today, has no idea what to do with Jesus’ words, so he takes them literally.

So, what, do I go back in my mother’s womb?
How can I be born a second time?

We, too, have struggled with these words of Jesus, haven’t we? We’ve so often heard the phrase “born again” used to manipulate, coerce or condemn, that even hearing the words “born again” causes us to cringe.

That’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because these words hold a central claim for Jesus followers.

The words “born again” speak to a radical new beginning in which we conceive of the world differently.

To enter the way of Jesus is as radical a shift as being born.

We may not remember it, but we’ve all experienced birth.
We all left the safety & secure world of our mother’s womb.
With water & air, and probably lots of pushing (& maybe even some cussing), we entered a whole new world.

And, what did we have to do to be born?
Did we have to figure everything out?
Did we have to do the pushing & the deep breathing?

Nope. We just had to surrender.
We had to stop resisting and just be born.

I don’t know about you, but I get tired of trying so hard to do everything I think I should be doing. I get tired of re-thinking my faith & my theology & my politics & trying to make sure I’ve got it all right now. I’m wondering if maybe Nicodemus felt the same way. Maybe he came at night because he just couldn’t sleep. All that thinking & re-thinking.

And, while thinking is so important, there’s something that’s even more fundamental.
Jesus said to “be” born from above.

To be born again is to wake up in God’s new world. It’s to become like children who are just learning how to live. It’s to grow into the kingdom.

Now I would like to tell you that at baptism, we get it. That we emerge from the water with our eyes fixed on Jesus’ way of love & justice & compassion, but I know we still lose our way. I know we still revert back to our bad ideas.

So, maybe baptism is not about that one moment in time and is more about surrendering to a life of being born again into the kingdom.

Maybe for Nicodemus & for us, it’s not about getting everything resolved, but about beginning.

Where are you in the birthing process?
Are you curious yet concerned like Nicodemus?
Are you feeling like there is something stirring you toward the Jesus way,
but knowing it will be costly – knowing you will have to leave behind some things that make you feel secure?
Are you tired or troubled or ticked off? Tempted to walk away all together?

Wherever you are, you are invited into this story of beginnings.

You are invited to know & to remember that out of darkness & chaos, spirit & water, God can & God does birth something new.

Father’s day, S-Town & the stories that shape us

June 19, 2017

Father’s day conjures up different emotions for each of us. It can be a hard day for many, particularly for those who’ve lost their dads, have dads that have disregarded them or those who’ve never even known their dads. It can be a day of celebration for many other. I n either case, days like […]

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Why we’re gathering at the new neighborhood brewery…

June 17, 2017

We are so excited about tomorrow’s brunch gathering at Hyperion Brewing Co & hope you plan to be there! Just a few reminders/thoughts/things to consider… 5 reasons why we are hosting brunch at Hyperion: 1. It’s a great way to be present & partnering with our neighbors. 2. We get to support & encourage 2 […]

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No More Outsiders

May 31, 2017

[This message was shared on Sunday, May 29th in response to Acts 15:1-19.] What’s it like to be an “insider”? What’s it like to know the rules of the group, to fit in neatly, to know you belong? On the other hand, what’s it like to be an “outsider”? What’s it like to wonder what […]

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Presence is Everything

May 23, 2017

Sunday, May 21 – – Words for the Journey [The following message was shared as part of our Sunday worship gathering and in response to Acts 8:26-39.] On Wednesday night, we began a new 3D group series and we started our post-dinner conversation with this question: If we are all learners, then what is life teaching you […]

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Can I get a witness?

May 6, 2017

Nafis White is a sculpturist from Ferguson, Missouri. Her piece, “Can I Get A Witness?” (pictured to the right) was intended to bring attention, to inspire action and to illuminate injustice. It was created shortly after the murder of Michael Brown and wherever it is shown, it is accompanied by a growing list of names of people […]

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Awkward Endings & New Beginnings

April 26, 2017

This message was shared on Sunday, April 23rd and was based on Matthew 28:11-20. This is how it ends – the gospel according to Matthew that is. It ends with an interesting image lingering in our minds. However you imagine Jesus’s appearance (& dare I say there’s no way his skin was this white!), the artwork […]

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When Believing is Hard

April 17, 2017

Words for the Journey for Resurrection Sunday based on Matthew 28:1-10. If ever there was a time when resurrection seems like a farce, like fake news, or like some made for TV reality show, it’s now. Bombs dropped. Refugees rejected. Nations divided by war. More gun violence, bad test results & blows to already defeated people… not […]

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Holy Week, Bombs & Being Together

April 8, 2017

Here we are. About to enter another Holy Week. About to enter the suffering of a God who we believe suffers with us. It’s a tough week, if we take it seriously. If we make space to enter the suffering of Jesus, we find ourselves feeling discomfort, powerlessness & loss.   In a culture that resists […]

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