Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon; Proper 16A; Matthew 16:13-20

Today we leave the Old Testament behind (as far as the sermon is concerned) and get back to focusing on the gospel.  And as we have seen time and time again, the appointed lesson seems like it could have been hand picked for the day.  There are two things in this story I want to focus on.

The first has to do with Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah.  This particular story takes place in the district of Caesarea Philippi.  We don't know exactly where in the district this happened, so some of what I'm going to say may be an estimation on my part.  Caesarea Philippi has a long and interesting history.  At the time of Jesus the city was the administrative capital of a Roman territory.  Based on that, I can make the assumption that it was a busy city with a decent-sized population.

By this time in his ministry, Jesus is no longer just another street preacher.  He has become a well-known healer, teacher and rabble-rouser.  People know him and know of him.  So, in the area of Caesarea Philippi, in public, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

He gets four answers:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.  These answers are important because they aren't reflective of a popular poll.  This isn't a Judea's Got Talent contest to determine the next superstar.  Nor is Jesus playing a game of What's My Line.  What Jesus is doing here is setting up a contrast between how the world views Jesus and how faith views Jesus.

John the Baptist was a dynamic and controversial preacher.  Jesus has some of those same qualities, so people identify him with John.  Elijah is to return at the end of the age to signal the arrival of the Day of the Lord.  Jesus has spent a lot of time proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand, so people identify him with Elijah.  Jeremiah was the suffering prophet, and prophets before him spoke with power and authority proclaiming that God is doing a new thing, both of which are often identified with Jesus.

Jesus exhibits a little of each in his personality, but he is not any one of those individuals.  What the people are really saying about Jesus is that he may be exciting, but he is nothing new – same song, different verse.  And in saying that, Jesus is made into their image – easily identified, easily ignored, easily controlled.  But these are one or two dimensional answers.  Jesus is looking for something more, so he asks Peter, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter, in a moment of faith, expresses his opinion based on his relationship with Jesus.  Peter doesn't just cover the basics  – John, Elijah or Jeremiah.  Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, the son of the living God, the Savior of the world.  He came to this conclusion based on his time spent with him, what he saw and what he heard.  And he did it in a very public place.

What this tells me is that if we sit on the sidelines, or if we allow people to tell us who they think Jesus is, we will only get a partial picture.  How do we avoid this?  We avoid it by participating in worship on a regular basis.  We avoid it by being active disciples in our worship and study.  We avoid it by working on our relationships with both God and the church.  As the Collect for Proper 28 goes, we need to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

Today we have gathered to worship in the park.  We gather every Sunday to worship, but this is different.  Today we are out in the open.  We are vulnerable to being told by those passing by who Jesus is.  But by worshiping out in the open we follow Peter's example of proclaiming in a public place that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God.  And if we continue to follow Peter's example of active discipleship, then we will get better at following his example of public proclamations.

The second thing I want to focus on is this whole “keys of the kingdom of heaven” business.  This, and Peter as the rock of the church, is what the Roman Catholic Church uses to justify the papacy as a whole, and Peter as the first pope in particular.  Protestants will point out that Jesus never says anything to Peter about passing on those keys to successors.  Whether or not Peter was the first pope isn't important.  What is important, I think, is the meaning of those keys.

The image a lot of us get when we hear Jesus giving Peter the keys of heaven is Peter, keys in hand, guarding the Pearly Gates.  This is, at best, a highly stylized vision.  Personally I also think it is a simplistic and overly literal vision.  I tend to think that what Jesus gives to Peter is being given to all of us as well.

Think about this:  Peter was a disciple who spent time with Jesus.  As I’ve already said, he watched, listened and learned.  He had his good times (he identified Moses and Elijah on the mountain, walked on water and proclaimed Jesus as Messiah), and he had his bad times (he wanted to stay on the mountain, he sank, and he cut off somebody's ear), but he worked at it.  And it was in that working at it, in that discipleship, where the keys of the kingdom of heaven were found.

For the past two months I have been working with officiating rookies.  We have been going through the rules book and mechanics manual.  We have discussed plays and rulings.  I have shown them how to determine if the play will be a run or a pass.  We have talked about reporting fouls.  In essence, this is a group of disciples learning something new and . . . and I am giving them the keys of becoming a good official.

The keys Jesus gives Peter aren't tools for opening up or locking down the Pearly Gates.  The keys are what Peter is, and we are, learning about Jesus through discipleship.  Those keys are to be found when we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest what Jesus is telling us about himself.  And those keys aren't only for Peter, but for everyone of us who allows our preconceived notion of Jesus to take a back seat while we learn about this man we claim to worship.

This is the perfect day for today's gospel lesson.  On the day Peter publicly proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, we sit out in a public park making that same proclamation.  And on the day Peter is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, we can be assured that, if we pay attention, we will receive those keys as well.

Amen.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Post sermon thoughts

Yesterday I preached the last of my Genesis sermons and it had to do with Joseph (you can read it below).  In essence, I pointed out that Joseph was the world's first robber baron -- instituting a mandatory 20 percent tax on all produce and the selling what was forcibly collected back to the people for their money, cattle and bodies.

As people were filing out of service, more than one of them said something along the lines of, "I didn't know Joseph did that!  I'm going to have to go and read that story again."

Mission accomplished.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon; Proper 15A; Genesis 45:1-15

Today is our last lesson from Genesis and it wraps up with, as the bulletin cover proclaims, Joseph forgiving his brothers.  But if you read the Joseph story, it's not really clear if Joseph does forgive his brothers; nor is it clear if the brothers accept an offer of forgiveness.  As my New Testament professor often said, “It's more complicated than that.”

Joseph is an interesting character.  We met him last week as a pretentious teenager who seems to have enjoyed tattling on his brothers, was doted on and coddled by his father, and who relished telling others about his dreams of power.  That is a decidedly negative view of Joseph.  We could just as easily say that he was a trustworthy servant of his father, was showered with love to offset the abuse at the hands of his brothers, and dreamed of the time when he would be treated with dignity and respect.

Today's story is close to the end of the Joseph cycle and shows the brothers in an emotional reunion.  What the Lectionary misses between the time he was sold as a slave by those brothers until today's reunion is significant.  He ends up a house slave in Egypt, rising to a prominent position.  There's a false charge of attempted rape, a prison sentence and a reprieve by the Pharaoh because of his interpretive abilities.  Joseph, against all odds, has risen from abused younger sibling and jailed slave boy to second in power over all Egypt.  He got what he dreamed of: he got a power and role reversal, he got treated with respect, and his brothers did bow down to him.

I want to focus in on some of what we don't hear.  He gets tossed in jail because he is accused of attempted rape by Potipher's wife.  After some time in jail Joseph is joined by Pharaoh's baker and wine steward.  They have dreams and Joseph interprets them:  the wine steward will be returned to his position and the baker will lose his life.  The dreams come true and Joseph is forgotten.

Two years later Pharaoh dreams of fat and skinny cows, but his staff is unable to interpret them.  The wine steward remembers Joseph, so he is brought in.  After getting cleaned up, he tells Pharaoh that his dreams mean there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  Joseph is immediately promoted to FEMA Director, overseeing a system of disaster preparedness.

For seven years he taxed and stored 20 percent of all produce.  For another seven years those stores were used to feed Egyptians and any foreigners who were starving.  And here's where Joseph gets complicated; here is where Joseph is shown to be less of the traditional hero and more entitled tyrant.

For seven years he collects a mandatory 20 percent flat tax on all produce in Egypt.  The amount taken in was like the sand of the sea and beyond measure.  And then the famine began.

When people ran out of food, they went to the government for help.  Under Joseph's direction, the supplies that were forcibly taken from the citizens were then SOLD back to them, as well as anyone else needing it.  As the story goes on, Joseph food in exchange for all the livestock in the land and, eventually, sells food for people, making slaves of every Egyptian in the country.  Joseph, who is now on the side of power and privilege, establishes a system that allows him to continue to prosper while everyone else is pushed further down into poverty and dependence.

What Joseph did to the starving Egyptians is what banks are doing today with predatory lending practices, improper foreclosures, overdraft fees and low balance fees.  It's what home supply stores do both pre- and post-hurricane.  It's what company towns and stores did, and do, to their workers.  It's what payday loan centers do to people desperate for money.  Joseph was, in effect, the very first robber baron.

As this great famine spread throughout Egypt, it also spread throughout the known world, affecting Joseph's father and brothers as well.  Jacob, now known as Israel, sends his older sons to Egypt to buy food for the family.  The brothers eventually meet up with Joseph since he is the sole determining factor on who will receive food and who will not.  It's no surprise that the brothers don't recognize Joseph, but he definitely recognizes them.

The reading for today would have us think that this was a happily emotional reunion between long lost brothers.  You might also think this is a story with a happy ending where the long-separated brothers are welcomed into Egypt, given good land, and provided for out of Joseph's massive wealth.  But you would be wrong.

Before Joseph offers any kind of forgiveness or shows any sort of kindness, he will use his power to get revenge for what they did to him.  He accuses them of spying and throws them in jail for three days.  He releases all but one, holding him as hostage, until they bring Benjamin to Egypt.  He sets them up for theft.  He charges Benjamin with a capital offense and keeps him as a slave, forcing the brothers to grovel for mercy.  For Joseph, revenge is indeed a dish best served cold.

But it really isn't.  All revenge does is lay the groundwork for the escalation of violence and mistrust.  That's not to say reparations for bad behavior cannot or should not be made; but reparations must never be vengeful.

Reconstruction in the South failed because, rather than work to repair the war damage, Northerners worked to punish the South into submission.  WWII was caused, in part, by the draconian punishment meted out on Germany after WWI.  In the movie The Black Book, the lead character is publicly humiliated for her involvement with the Nazis solely to satisfy their desire for revenge and to make them feel superior.

Joseph, the least of his brothers and the one with no power, dreamed of the time he would have power and people would bow to him.  That dream came true.  But instead of using his power to establish a system of equity or a system that cared for those most  in need, he used his power to drive the population of Egypt further into debt and slavery.  And instead of looking at all he had been given after being sold by his brothers and saying, “What you meant for ill, God meant for good,” when they first show up, he manipulates and humiliates his brothers in the name of revenge.

We need to be careful with power and role reversals.  We are told that God will raise the valleys and lower the mountains.  We are told there is no more Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. But if we take those reparations and reversals and turn them into revenge, we have missed the point.

Unlike Joseph, we should work to raise up the lowly in a way that none feel the need for revenge.  Unlike Joseph, our goal should be to level the playing field so all are treated with dignity and respect from the beginning.  Because it will only be when we actually strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being, that we will begin to see the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Amen.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Really?

Sometime around 2009, the NFHS (the governing board of high school athletics) approved the use of those black pants with the white stripe to be used in cold weather games.  In 2011 they said that those pants were to be the standard uniform.  This meant that we were no longer wearing those white knickers.

I'm not going to get into whether or not the pants are good or bad or better or worse than the knickers.

This is about the supply companies.  I got an e-mail from one vendor who was advertising a "starter package" for football officials.  It included: hat, two shirts, flag, beanbag, whistle, AND KNICKERS.

Why anyone would pay $95 for a starter package that included something we haven't been wearing for five years is beyond me.

Really?  Does this place think football officials are stupid?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Ferguson, MO

In the wake of a white cop shooting a black teen, this is their response:



That looks appropriate . . . NOT

What the hell are these people thinking?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Everybody gets weird

Yesterday was a decent day.  I came in for half the day to do some desk work and begin looking at the sermon.  While I was here, I had a conversation with a parishioner about her upcoming dealings with the dementia of her husband.  I say upcoming because the long, slow slide is just beginning to be noticeable.  But she's got a good attitude (for now) and a strong faith, and I let her know that we would get through this together.

During the course of the conversation, she had the best quote ever:  "Everybody gets weird individually."

I took the afternoon off for some personal time since I didn't get much of that this past weekend with the two funerals and Sunday services.  I went to the football field to run because it's been too long since I did that, and then I was pretty much a slug the rest of the day until I had to leave for the weekly football meeting.

Things there are progressing nicely, and we had another rookie show up last night.  I think that we have eight or so active rookies (i.e. rookies that are on my list AND show up for the meetings).  So that's good.  Not great, but better than two.

After the meeting the board had a special meeting to discuss a particular individual.  Due to the nature of the situation, I can't go into details; but it was decided that we would invite him to find other interests at this time.

Yep . . . everybody gets weird individually.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon; Proper 14A; Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

August of 1964 was a very eventful month.  Besides the fact that that's when I was born, there were a variety of other significant events that impacted the world and life in the United States.  In no particular order they include:  the Gulf of Tonkin incident and our retaliation; President Johnson began the escalation of the Vietnam conflict; the U.K. implemented capital punishment for the last time; South Africa was banned from the Olympics for their system of apartheid; there were race riots in Philadelphia; Roy Orbison released “Pretty Woman;” and Mary Poppins had its world premier.

And 50 years ago last Monday, August 4, the bodies of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were found buried near Philadelphia, MS.  They had been in the state as part of the Freedom Summer and were working to register black voters.  The Freedom Summer movement was designed to bring integration into Mississippi, what has been called the most violently racist state in the Union.  The people associated with the movement were met with hatred, stonewalling and murder.

As the story goes, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were arrested and detained by local police long enough to organize members of the KKK.  They were eventually released and, as they drove to get out of town, were pursued and overtaken by those same police and several KKK members.  They were pulled out of their car, driven down an unmarked dirt road, shot dead and buried not far from Mount Zion Church, which had been burned down earlier.  This story became the basis of the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.

One year earlier, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous, “I have a dream,” speech.  In that speech he pointed out that the Declaration of Independence was, in effect, a promissory note that stipulated “all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Martin Luther King saw the urgency of the moment in 1963.  He saw that now was the time to press for full racial equality.  He saw this time as the beginning of the end of segregation.  And he dreamed.  He dreamed that all men are created equal.  He dreamed that former enemies would become brothers.  He dreamed that his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  He would be assassinated roughly five years later in Memphis, TN.

Schwerner, Goodman, Chaney, King, and many others, were killed because the white majority could not abide the thought of treating Those People equally.  They were killed because they were a threat to the status quo and the power structure of the day.  They were killed because it was thought that equality for Them meant inequality for Us.  They were killed because they had a dream that both offered hope for the powerless and anticipated the end of how things were.

Joseph, by all accounts, was a spoiled brat.  Jacob loved him more than any of his other children because, for a time, he was the only child of the woman he truly loved; and later because he was the firstborn of Rachel.  Jacob also doted on him, showering him with gifts; in particular, one very special coat of many colors.

Kids know when their parents treat them unequally, even if the parents don't recognize it.  I think the kids understand this and accept it, even if they don't like it.  But if that unequal treatment is severely out of balance, the kids can become jealous and just might take matters into their own hands.  And this is exactly what the sons of Jacob did.

Not only did they hate Joseph because he was Jacob's “golden child,” but they hated him because he was a pretentious little squirt who tattled on them and had these dreams of people and family bowing down to his royal self.  Those dreams, you may have noticed, were not part of the reading today.  But in one dream he dreamed that he and his brothers were gathering wheat when, suddenly, the brothers' wheat bowed down before Joseph's.  And in another dream, he dreamed that the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed down to him.

Joseph's pompous dreams were too much for the brothers to handle.  When they saw him wandering toward them alone, the brothers conspired to kill him.  Reuben halfheartedly worked to save him; so instead of killing him outright, they pitched him into a dry well.  With no thought of his welfare, the brothers all sat down to enjoy lunch.

As they ate and reveled in how they had finally shut their little brother up, they wondered what they were going to do next.  Judah saw a caravan off in the distance and had the bright idea to sell the kid to the next one that passed by.  This met with approval.  So when a group of Midianites came by, the brothers drug Joseph out of the well and sold him for twenty pieces of silver.

We know the rest of the story.  We know that Joseph will eventually become second in power over all of Egypt.  We know his brothers arrive and do, in fact, bow down to him.  We know that Joseph's dreams come true.

What we need to remember is that Joseph was the youngest of these brothers.  He was the “least of these.”  He was powerless.  His only recourse was to dream.  So he dreams of having power.  He dreams of role reversals.  He dreams of a time far removed from the present and of a time when he will be treated with respect.

To his brothers, those dreams are a threat.  To his brothers, those dreams foreshadow the end of their power, their control, their privilege.  Joseph threatens the status quo.  And it is precisely because the lowly and powerless man dreams a dream that threatens and terrifies the lofty and powerful that the decision to kill him is made.  If they kill the dreamer, they will kill the dream.

With nobody to witness their actions, a group of powerful men ganged up on the powerless dreamer to kill him and his silly dreams.

With nobody to witness their actions, a group of powerful men ganged up on three powerless dreamers to kill them and their silly dreams.

We do not live in the land of Canaan.  We do not live in 1964 Mississippi.  But we do live in a world where the powerful still work to limit the powerless.  And we do live in a world where the powerful still work to kill the dreams of the powerless.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: are we the ones who work to kill dreams, or are we the ones who work to fulfill dreams?

Amen.