Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Dangers of Protective Love

'Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”'

--Matthew 16: 21-28

Let’s talk about Satan.  Or rather, let’s talk about Jesus’ use of that word, ‘Satan,’ in our Gospel this morning.  Each time this reading shows up, this statement from Jesus feels like it comes up out of nowhere and often startles us.


To give some context, just prior to the start of today’s reading, Simon bar Jonah has just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah.  Being the first of the 12 apostles to do so, Jesus throws some praise his way and gives him a new name, Peter—technically Petros in Greek, or Kephas in Aramaic.  His new name means The Rock, which is a testament to his strong faith in recognizing Jesus’ true nature.  But when Jesus starts to tell the Rock and the other apostles that the destiny of the Messiah is to suffer and die, Simon Peter steps in and says, ‘God forbid it!’  Jesus responds by giving Simon bar Jonah yet another name, saying, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’


Does Jesus really mean what we think he means when he says this?  Yes and no, actually.  No, Jesus is not saying that Simon Peter is the incarnation of the traditional depiction of "the devil." Or, as Ulysses Everett McGill put it:

Courtesy of Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

What the word Satan means in its original Hebrew is ‘adversary’ or ‘accuser.’  So, yes, Jesus really did mean it when he gave Simon Peter this new moniker.  In that moment he was being an adversary, standing in the way of Jesus’ true messianic purpose.  Anything or anyone that seeks to deflect people from the way of God, any influence that seeks to make folks turn back from the hard path, or any power that seeks to make human desires take the place of the divine imperative can all be described as Satans.  In this way, Simon Peter was being a Satan.


Like all of the apostles, Simon Peter had an idea of what the Messiah was suppose to be, and self-sacrificing wasn’t it.  There existed a group within Judaism at that time called the Zealots—even one of the apostles, the other Simon, was called the Zealot.  These were folks who functioned as something like political revolutionaries.  They believed that the Messiah would be a conquering king that would swiftly depose Caesar and expel their Roman occupiers.  Often the Zealots resorted to violent tactics to get their point across, one of which, according to many scholars was Barabas, the condemned man set free instead of Jesus. 


This description about the Messiah’s future, one that would lead to a violent death at the hands of the collaboration system between corrupt religious officials and the empire, was just too much for Simon Peter to take.  So, like any of us would do if someone we loved said that they were headed down a path that would lead to their death, he steps in the way.  One possible translation is that he ‘caught hold’ of Jesus, as if to literally hold him back from continuing this journey to Jerusalem and to the cross.  We can almost see the tears in his eyes as he tells Jesus, ‘This must not happen to you!’


An Eastern icon of Jesus' rebuke of Simon Peter after the latter's intervention.

And then comes Jesus’ response with the infamous Satan line.  Over the years as I have read this sentence from Jesus I can’t help but consider the tone in his voice. I do not believe it was a harsh one, or an angry one, but rather the voice of someone wounded to the heart, with a poignant grief and kind of shuddering horror because in this moment, Simon Peter is doing exactly what another Satan had done in the wilderness at the very start of Jesus’ ministry. 


Remember the days after his baptism, how Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and nights, and according to the text, he was tempted by Satan.  Those three temptations were for power, prestige, and possessions.  This demonic force, attempting to lure Jesus with a method of escape from this hard path of God, promised to make him ruler over all the kingdoms of the world, tried to assure him that because of who he was the angels would catch him if he jumped off  building, and even tempted his hunger by encouraging Jesus to turn the stones into bread.  Power, prestige, and possessions.  And in this moment, looking into his friend’s eyes, Jesus sees the same look he had seen in the wilderness, and the same temptation to be the kind of Messiah Simon Peter and others wanted, not the one that God had in mind.  Simon Peter, like that other Satan, was promising an escape that Jesus could not and would not accept. 

An unknown depiction of Jesus' rebuke of Satan during the wilderness temptations.


Can we really blame Simon Peter for saying what he said?  After all, it came from a place of love.  He wanted to protect Jesus, but in that moment of trying to protect him, Simon Peter tried to control Jesus and take the decision out of his hands.  He seized Jesus’ own personhood.  He could not bear to witness Jesus go down this path, but he also did not understand how his own protective love was doing more harm in that moment than good. 


There are times when love seeks to deflect us away from perils and dangers.  Think of a child going off to college for the first time, whose parent wants nothing but to keep them safe and close and so they hinder that move in some—perhaps that has taken on a new meaning nowadays!  Or consider a woman who tells her partner that she wants to finally quit her job and pursue a career as an artist, only to have her partner discourage her from doing so, not because the partner doesn’t support her dream, but because the partner is afraid that the woman will try, fail, and be devastated.  These are examples of protective love getting in the way of people actually living their lives, or to use church language, actually living into their call.  The real love is not the love that holds people back, but the love that sends them out to listen to God’s call, knowing that there may be painful moments along the way, but that this is the path that God has in store for their loved one.


Protective love doesn’t really protect the other person at all, but rather it protects the one that embodies it.  Simon Peter wasn’t protecting Jesus.  He was protecting himself from having to watch Jesus go down this difficult path.  The parent or the partner in the examples I mentioned usually aren’t trying to protect the other person so much as they are trying to ease their own fears and concerns.  What I suspect really wounded Jesus was the realization that Simon Peter was speaking with this kind of love in his heart, not the kind that wanted only for Jesus to be his truest, fullest self, to live into the mission that God had set before him.  In the same way, we who have this tendency to tell others ‘You don’t want to do that!’ or ‘I know what’s best for you!’ must learn that even if it comes from a place of love, it does not necessarily mean that it is something nurturing and affirming. 

Calling Simon Peter ‘Satan’ may seem harsh, but in its literal form that’s exactly who we are when we get in the way of people living into their fullest selves and being the people God has called them to be.  We become the accuser or the adversary whenever we insert ourselves into the mix and think we know what’s best for someone else, even someone we love.  This is part of the journey of kenosis, of self-emptying, which Jesus invites the apostles on, but which they can’t accept until he has walked the road to the cross and shown them what it really looks like.  May we have the grace to examine our hearts and the motivations and intentions behind those moments of protective love that we express.  May we seek not to catch hold of or rebuke those who choose a path that may lead to some measure of pain, but support and encourage them and seek to better understand the journey God has called them on.  Let us walk alongside them and love them from a place of encouragement, rather than our own self-motivated protection.

Monday, August 17, 2020

If Jesus Can Change: A Lesson on Being Fully Present

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

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just 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.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then 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

Jesus meets the Canaanite woman, and her daughter is healed of her demon by proxy.

We have a very curious and perhaps confusing Gospel on our hands this week.  From Matthew we get two accounts—one of Jesus teaching his disciples about the true nature of cleanliness, and the other of Jesus being confronted by the Canaanite woman.  Oddly, our lectionary leaves the first story optional for us, but we really need it to understand just how powerful the second one is. 


The first story appears simple enough.  Jesus is frustrated by the Pharisees and other religious authorities who seem bound up and guided by tradition more than love.  Something that goes into you cannot defile you on a spiritual level because it just passes through you and into the sewer, which is a natural bodily function and therefore ritually clean. It’s what comes out of a person’s mouth that defiles because it is with our words that we often promote injustice, violence, and oppression of every kind.  These authority figures—who are akin to some of the more rigid, fundamentalist Christians of our time—are concerned with theological fights akin to how many angels can dance on the head of a needle.  

But for Jesus, religious purity and faithful discipleship are not measured ultimately by whether we can come up with the right answer to questions like that, or if we earn perfect attendance in online worship.  Faithfulness, for Jesus, is shown ultimately in how much we are being guided by love.  If love is your guide, then you will see that all the God of love has made is good and pure, and you will let go of this obsession with ritual cleanliness.  This is a teaching of Jesus that, I suspect, we can all get onboard with; besides, how good is it to see Jesus call out the hypocrisy of those rigid religious authorities, huh?


So Jesus leaves that place where he had engaged in this debate about cleanliness with the Pharisees, and he comes to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  What’s important about these places being named in the text is that they are not part of Jewish territory.  Here Jesus is surrounded by Gentiles, non-Jews.  And as if on queue a woman comes up to him, asking for him to heal who her possessed daughter.  This woman, who naturally goes unnamed in the story but whom tradition has given the name of Justa, is a Canaanite, which were the indigenous people from whom the children of Israel seized their so-called Promised Land.  This makes her a Gentile, and therefore unclean.  Here is a chance for Jesus to practice exactly what he has just preached to the Pharisees!  Is he going to be guided by love or by tradition?


When Justa asks for help, the disciples tell Jesus to dismiss her, but he doesn’t even speak to her, instead he emphasizes the nature of his ministry by reminding them that he has come only for the lost sheep of Israel—something he had had said earlier in the Gospel when he directed the 12 apostles to go only to those same sheep and not to any Gentiles.  Nevertheless, she persists.  She comes to Jesus directly and pleads her case.  Here is his chance, again, to do the thing, but this time he tells her that it is not appropriate for the children’s food to be thrown to the dogs; that is, for him—the bread of life—to be given to anyone but his own people. 


Some preachers might say that this exchange between Jesus and Justa isn’t as bad as it sounds.  Jesus was just testing her.  But was he though??  He never indicates it’s a test, nor does the Gospel writer say so.  Still, those same preachers say, he didn’t mean dog in a really bad way, it’s better translated as puppy.  That’s not exactly true, and even if it was, dogs were not valued in Jesus’ culture the way they are now, even if they were small and puppyish.  Dogs were scavengers, which is what Jesus equates this woman—and her whole race—with being.  It’s as if Jesus had a prime opportunity to do exactly what he warned the Pharisees with doing and instead offered up the biblical equivalent of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’  Why would act in such a manner?


The challenge with this story is that it paints Jesus in an unflattering light, and nearly every good Christian is taught that we should never think of Jesus in such a way.  But this way of reading Scripture or thinking about Jesus effectively removes his humanity.  We would much prefer to think of Jesus as the perfect human, but here’s the thing: thinking of Jesus as the perfect human can often take us off the hook for our own errors and moments of hypocrisy.  How many times have you heard: "What do you expect of me, I’m not Jesus, I’m not perfect?!" It isn’t about Jesus being perfect, though, it’s about Jesus being our model, the pioneer of our faith, as the Letter to the Hebrews calls him.  To be a Christian is be be little Christs ourselves, which doesn’t mean trying to be perfect all the time.  It means something much more meaningful, and at times much more difficult—being fully present. 


For when we are fully present, we can hear someone else when they challenge us.  We can better resist the impulse to go to a place of defensiveness, and we can learn and grow.  Yes, even Jesus learns and grows in this moment!  In spite of the fact that he briefly gives in to his own cultural prejudices, Jesus remains fully present and listens to Justa when she turns his own words on him by saying, "Even the dogs eat the food under the master’s table."  

This causes him to pause for a second, as if to say, ‘Well, you got me,’ and Jesus commends her faith—just as he commended the faith of a Roman centurion in Matthew, chapter 8, the only other Gentile to receive healing from Jesus.  Remember last week, how Peter fell when he tried walking on water and Jesus commented on his lack of faith?  Here is a someone who is ritually unclean, who worships idols, and speaks up at a time when women simply did not do that.  This is someone who will not leave Jesus alone, and for that he calls her faith great.  I suspect he does so because, believe it or not, Jesus learns something in that moment, that even he is susceptible to the prejudices of his own culture.


There may be some major Scriptural and religious ramifications to the idea that Jesus can learn.  To paraphrase David Lose, a cadre of theological police would patrol the long corridors of our imaginations if we dared say such a thing!  But if it’s possible for Jesus to learn and grow and move beyond his own culture’s shortcomings around who is and who is not clean or worthy of the bread he offers or fit for the kingdom, then can’t we too be reformed?  If Jesus can go from being unclean by his own definition—that is, by spewing an insensitive and derogatory remark toward Justa—to being clean—that is, healing her daughter and commending her faith—then aren't we capable of the same kind of transformation? 


And how does Jesus do it?  Be being fully present and listening to Justa’s needs.  He doesn’t cut her off, tell her what she really wants, or try to explain how he didn’t mean the comment as an insult because he has three dogs at home and loves them very much.  He just listened to her.  She offers him the pain and grief of her heart and the hearts of her people, generations of institutional prejudice, and he doesn’t get defensive.  Instead, he hears her when she comes back to him because in the moment he manages to stay present to her and her needs.  

This is a practice in which we are all being called to participate, each and every day.  Who is it in our lives that needs us to be fully present?  What kind of cultural prejudices do we, like Jesus, need to move beyond?  How are we putting tradition ahead of love when it comes to dealing with folks who are not like us, and might we, again, like Jesus, keep ourselves open to the constructive criticism or feedback offered to us, so that we can be changed?  This is what it means to be little Christs, to embody Jesus’ full life—yes, even the parts that are hard for us to consider—and realize that if Jesus can do it, then, yes, so can we.  We can be fully present. We can listen.  We can realize our faults.  And we can change. We need only  eyes to see those who are hurting, ears to listen to them with the intent to learn, and hearts eager for transformation. 

Saint Justa the Canaanite Woman, pray for us.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Being Fed In the Wilderness

'Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.'
--Matthew 14: 13-21

So the question on many people’s minds when they hear this story is: did Jesus really feed 5000 people?  I tend to respond to this kind of question with something the late spiritual author Rachel Held Evans once said, which is that I don’t know for certain if such a miracle DID happen, but I believe in a God through whom such a miracle COULD happen.  Whether we believe that the feeding of the 5000 literally happened this way, or whether we believe it is some sort of allegory, the story has a lot to teach us, particularly those of us who have felt cut off from being fed by our rituals and our communities during this pandemic.

An Eastern icon of the feeding of the 5000

It’s helpful for us to put this miracle in its context—and yes, it is a miracle, and I will get into why a bit later.  We don’t get the context in our selection this week, but this event takes place just after word has reached Jesus of the death of John the Baptist, his cousin and fellow proclaimer of the Good News that the kingdom of God had come near.  Several of Jesus’ own disciples—and maybe even Jesus himself—were followers of John, and no doubt many believed that the two teachers and prophets would bring end the Roman occupation and restore the land to the people of Israel.  The first indicator that this isn’t going to happen the way they think is John getting beheaded by King Herod.  We can imagine how such an event would affect those who had put so much faith and hope in John.

The crowds who were following Jesus no doubt included such folks, whom it can be assumed likely wanted to leave and isolate themselves in their grief.  Consider that for a moment:  an event of such great distress and heartbreak, which no doubt caused fear and panic, has occurred, and it has left a large number of people feeling helpless and uncertain about what their future holds.  All the while, these folks out in the middle of the wilderness are getting hungrier and hungrier. Doesn’t that sound a bit familiar?

We may not be able to point to one single event as the marker for the beginning of our suffering—such as the beheading of John was for these folks—but how many of us over the last 5 months have isolated ourselves in our grief?  There are folks who have cut themselves off from online church worship or given up on maintaining connections through platforms like Zoom because these efforts are not only boring and exhausting, but they aren’t providing a whole lot of hope that things will be different. 

This sums up our situation quite well.

This pandemic is an event of great distress and heartbreak, and it too has caused fear and panic, leaving so many of us feeling helpless and uncertain about our future.  Every day the numbers go up, or at least that’s the case here in North Carolina, and every day we just get hungrier and hungrier as we stay out here in this dessert.  We have more in common with that crowd today than we might have first realized.

It’s here that I want to say that I get it.  I’m with you.  All this time I have had to preach and hold church meetings virtually, and talking to a screen is really, really hard.  I don’t know when the pandemic will end, when we can come back together to worship publicly, and like many I see the rhetoric spewed from our leaders and the cries for change to our broken systems, and I want to do something, but I don’t know what that it is, which leaves me feeling helpless, as well.  It’s very easy during these times for me, for all of us I imagine, to just want to cut ourselves off from all of it, retreat into our self isolation, and let the grief and despair consume us.  What is the answer?

For us it’s Jesus.  And because, as the great mystic Teresa of Avila reminds us, Jesus has no hands or feet but ours, the answer is the Body of Christ, the beloved community that Jesus began; that is, each other. We lean on Jesus in our moments of distress, and we lean on each other, who are the very Body of Christ in the world.  And in these moments, we find comfort, strength, and hope for our future. 

This is what Jesus does in the story of the feeding of the 5000.  Looking out upon the grieving and hungry multitude, Jesus told his apostles, ‘You give them something to eat!’ And when the loaves and fish were brought to him he took them, blessed them, broke them, and gave them out, enough to feed everyone.  The distress and pain that had been felt after news of John’s death begins to fade, and to paraphrase Amy-Jill Levine in her Women’s Bible Commentary, the perverse image of John’s head on a platter is replaced by a banquet for the poor in spirit. 

Caraggio's Beheading of John the Baptist

Out of what looked like scarcity, Jesus brought abundance.  When the apostles distressed that they didn’t have enough and the people were so filled with grief, Jesus gathered them together and fed them.  He provides sustenance when all anyone around him can see and feel is deprivation.  That is a miracle, no matter which explanation we choose to believe.  

It is possible, I believe, for such a miracle to still occur.  If we were in a church building together, I would remind you that the actions of Jesus—taking, blessing, breaking, and giving—are reflections of the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, and that when we say that great prayer of the Church, using those same verbs in our remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper as we share a morsel of bread and sip of wine, we are fed and made one with Jesus, and in that moment a miracle occurs. 

Saying that right now rings pretty hollow begins we cannot share Eucharist together.  Like that crowd, we are getting hungrier and hungrier the longer we are apart from each other and can’t share that meal.But here’s the miracle, brothers and sisters. I believe that such a feeding can still take place, though it may not look like what we are used to.  If you remember another version of this story—the one in John’s Gospel—you’ll recall a young boy who gives the loaves and fish—all that he has—to help feed the people. In that version the boy’s offering, which passes through Jesus’ hands, feeds the people.  

In the same way, each of us can feed one another whenever we bring whatever we have and let it pass through Jesus’ hands.  When we who are the Body of Christ feed others—both in actual food and in spiritual nourishment—it is eucharistic.  When we are able to support one another in our grief and distress and accept the call when Jesus says to us, as he said to his apostles, ‘You give them something to eat!’ then we can be healers and repairers of the breaches.  Out here in this wilderness we’re all just trying to get fed.  While we may not have the rituals to which we are accustomed, those that have nourished us for so long, we can still feed one another, and when we do, miracles happen. 

Mary of Egypt, one of the dessert mothers, never received Communion until the last day of her life, and said that while she was wandering around in the dessert, she was nourished each day by the Word, by Scripture and the presence of Jesus, the Living Word.  So how can we feed one another while we are out here in this wilderness? 

Saint Zosima gives Saint Mary of Egypt Holy Eucharist on the last day of her life.

We all have COVID fatigue and we miss our old routines, but rather than run back into them blindly or retreat into our grief, maybe we can consider how we, the Body of Christ, can be eucharistic people, who take what we have, bless it, break it open, and give it to someone who needs the love, forgiveness, and grace of Jesus in their lives.  If we can do that, then we will absolutely make miracles happen and transform our world.