Monday, August 21, 2017

"Crisis with faith" rather than a "Crisis of faith"

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA 
August 20, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:  Matthew 15: 21-28

How is your faith doing?  That might be the key question of this gospel text and this week.  How is your faith doing?  [I ask] Because, sometimes it is not that we feel like God is ignoring us, it is more like he is pushing against us, pushing us to go where we do not want to go.  

Before we tackle this gospel passage, perhaps we best listen to a parable similar in nature.  
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge from Luke Chapter 18
Then Jesus[a] told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”[b] And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

A Pharisee would not like the surface of this passage where Jesus compares God to an unjust Judge.  It pushes against everything he has been taught about God and justice.  Important to note that Jesus does not call God an unjust judge, but even the comparison between the two would be problematic to a Pharisee.  Of course, Jesus gives himself some wiggle room.  If even an unjust judge will grant the petition of the persistent widow, will not God who is justice likewise respond to one who is persistent in their call for justice.  Also note, in the parable, Jesus does not promise that God will respond faster than the unjust judge, but has the assurance that God will indeed respond.  The whole parable is about the need to pray always, not to lose heart, to keep the faith. 

Those same themes apply to our gospel lesson today of the Canaanite woman.  Her persistence, her not losing heart in the midst of a crisis, her great faith.  The widow has a crisis, and Jesus doesn’t present her with a quick and easy answer.  Jesus actually pushes against her.  First he ignores her.  Then he openly and publicly dismisses her and consequently her petition.  He will not heal her daughter.  

Just a hunch here, but I am guessing that God does not always give you quick and simple answers to the crises of your lives.  I would imagine it seems like God rarely gives you quick and easy answers.  It may be the challenge of healing or the challenge of dying or the challenge of our nation.  Our lives face crises and God wants you to face whatever crisis is on top of your stack today with dogged persistence in prayer in faith. 

We often make this Canaanite woman stand alone.  [She stands alone] As if she was the only person Jesus offends, the only person that he pushes against.  He also refers to the loss sheep of Israel.  I do not know what you know about sheep, but calling people sheep is not complimentary and calling the lost sheep is even less complimentary.  And the Pharisees are so lost they might not realize that he is talking to them.  But then he has spoken to them bluntly other times.  True also about the Jewish scribes and other leaders of the synagogue.  

Here I offer you two verses from Matthew Chapter 23 where Jesus speaks clearly.
 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup,[f] so that the outside also may become clean.
Woe.  Maybe I should say wow as well as woe.  To be frank, I dislike Jesus’ initial response to the mother this morning.  Actually, I am offended by his rebuke to her.  Now, if I continue to be frank, Jesus [really] does not need me to defend him. Ever.  I am less offended by him calling others lost sheep, probably that should bother me as well. 

The contrast becomes important.  The contrast between the desperate mother and the lost Pharisees and religious leaders.  Jesus presents both with a crisis,  he pushes against their expectations for God.  Both the Pharisees and the woman say “God do this,” and “God be this.”  Jesus wants both to know that God is even bigger.  Both the mother and the Pharisees expect more from God than they initially get.  

For the Pharisees and other Leaders of Israel, this becomes a crisis of faith.  Jesus pushes against their knowledge of scripture, God and faith.  They do not even realize he is calling them lost.  They respond by plotting to kill Jesus.  Not just plotting, they actually kill him on the cross.  Their crisis of faith becomes Jesus’ cross.

Jesus also places the crisis in front of the mother.  He does not respond as she would intend.  He ignores her and dismisses her.  Rather than having a crisis of health become a crisis of faith, the mother responds to her crisis with faith.  She tells Jesus.  “I only need a smidgen of what you got.”  That is obviously a paraphrase.  More literally, “I only need a crumb of what falls for your table for my daughter to be well.”  She is persistent; she does not lose heart.  She keeps the faith.

How is your faith doing?  Faith in your nation, faith in God, faith in one another?  There are forces at work that are pushing us away from one another.  Dividing us into smaller and smaller subgroups and telling us you have no reason to get along.  These forces of division also push us away from Sunday worship and the community of faith.  To that I respond with persistence, with prayer, and with faith.  So we can remind one another that God pushes us for a reason, so that we can grow and become better than what we are now.  And as he pushes us, he also gathers us around the cross, because the cross is what pushed Jesus’ faith beyond his limits.

We need one another right now.  We need the fellowship of faith right now.  To come together rather than to push apart.  This evening there will be a pot luck. Come to it.  We will grill some sausages, some brauts.  Elizabeth, I think is making a fruit salad.  Kendrick has talked about Jello-Blocks.  The meal will start around 5:30 pm.  Around 6 PM we are going to start a movie, so if you don’t get here until 6:30 PM, there will still be food here.  If you want to come for the meal, but not stay for the movie, come for the meal.  You can bring a bag of chips to share or a box of cookies.  This is low key.  Not exactly impromptu but it has the feel to it.  Because right now in this space are some of the most important people (besides family) some of the most important people in your lives.  These are people who gather around the cross of faith with you.  These people are an important part of your faith, who help sustain your faith when God pushes you.  God does not push you away; God pushes you forward and beyond into his grace and mercy.  


Monday, August 14, 2017

"Aid in the Restoration of Peace and Harmony"

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA
August 13, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:  Matthew 14: 22-33

Introduction to the Gospel

I have spent the week in conversation and prayer around the issues of race and intolerance and love and freedom.  I have had an education about Virginia’s history from people who have lived here longer than I have.  I have read about the Hampton Institute now Hampton University over towards Virginia Beach and Newport News.  I learned about the lost generation including white and black children and youth whose schools were closed for five years in Prince Edward County in the early 1960s.  (Five years, no public education, one whole county.). I have followed the activities this week in Charlottesville and most especially what happened yesterday in Charlottesville.  

And in the midst of this time of prayer and learning, we have this gospel passage about winds and storms and faith.  A passage selected decades ago assigned to be read on this Sunday every third year.  We hear winds and storms battering the disciples around and they are reminded that people died on the sea of Galilee, These disciples on the boat in the storm know that only too well.  

The Holy Gospel according to Matthew, the fourteenth chapter.

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[a] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Sermon Text

May the words of my lips and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.  (Psalm 19:14)

“I think it the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.”

I believe these words to be a rather important quote, and especially a rather appropriate quote for today.  [They are] Important enough to say again.  

“I think it the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.”  Robert E. Lee, August 24, 1865 in a letter to the Board of Trustees of Washington College in Lexington.

And I risk beginning my sermon with a quote from Robert E. Lee to make one thing perfectly clear.  What happened Saturday in Charlottesville is not about the Civil War and General Lee.  What happened in Charlottesville happened because of hate and intolerance that exists in our nation today.  This is sin--this hate, this intolerance.  Robert E. Lee died in 1870.  People have forgotten a lot of what he said.  This is not about him.  It is about hate groups who are using his statue to justify their intolerance towards blacks and hispanics and others, today.  They do it today in the nation we live in.  And yesterday they created a violent storm of humanity.  We may disagree on how to stand against hate and intolerance, but I know we agree we need to stand against it.  

I will come back to the Lee quote, but first some background about the storm in our scripture.  

The sea of Galilee had a violent reputation.  The Sea of Galilee is about 64 miles square in size, so only about double the size of Smith Mountain Lake.  The sea is shallow, for a sea, 141 feet deep at it’s deepest point.  The shallow depth of the sea means that wind can create quite a bit of chop in the waves.  Waves can get several feet high on this small body of water.  Those of you who have been to Smith Mountain Lake, or Lake Anna or Claytor Lake, probably have never seen waves that tall on those nearby lakes.  Powerful storms, with lots of moisture and energy would roll off the Mediterranean Sea, and pound Galilee, and the waves would get high.  Maybe not all the time, but often enough.  Many tall hills surround the Sea of Galilee, some hills as high as 2,000 feet.  And the tall hills, mountains in some cases, often hid changes in weather until the storm was right on top of the boats of Jesus day.  The sea of Galilee had a notorious reputation, a violent reputation.  People died on the sea.  

Here comes the fury of the sea to these poor disciples who have been sent out by Jesus.  Some of them fish for a living, cast nets, they know the sea.  They know the predicament that they are in.  Trouble and they think “I might die.”  And they see a figure of light walking on the water towards them.  And now they are really scared and they think a ghost is coming to claim me as another victim of the sea.  They have a reason to be afraid.  Thinking Jesus is a ghost is part of that fear.  They also have Jesus Christ, which is a pretty good reason, actually a great reason, not to be afraid.  

Sometimes he has to remind them of that.  I am here with you.  You can even walk out on the water if you want to.  I will keep you from sinking even when you start to flail and sink.  I will catch you.  Jesus does all in his power to aid the disciples and restore their peace.  He has that power.  He has to remind them of that.  Sometimes Jesus has to remind us of that as well.  

That is their storm then.  We have our own storm (we have our own storms) now.

I have held in prayer Pastors Lauren Miller, Sandy Wisco and Victoria Parvin who serve the Lutheran Church in Charlottesville.  As well as Bishop Mauney, Bishop-Elect Bob Humphrey, Pastors Brett Davis, Dave Delaney and Paul Pingel who I knew planned to be in attendance.  I have also held in prayer law enforcement officials in Charlottesville.  I did not go to the event yesterday.  I had a previous commitment, so I let others march for me, but I wanted to be there in Charlottesville, with my colleagues and those who march for peace.

I spoke with Pastor Pingel yesterday afternoon.  He described to me their peaceful march yesterday morning at about 8:30 AM from Jefferson School to McGuffey Park.  I heard later from Bishop Mauney that about 900 to 1,000 people participated in that march.  They stopped in McGuffey Park and listened to a half a dozen religious speakers and then went to a Methodist church about a block and a half from Emancipation Park.  They could hear the chants and the energy building at the park, but they made it to their sanctuary without incident.  They gave witness yesterday to what a peaceful gathering looks like.  Many of them had also gathered Friday night for a worship service as well.  I thank God for their safety.

After that peaceful march in morning from 8:30 to 9:30 am.  Somewhere close to noon, between 10:30 and noon, the storm clouds started gathering.  Groups started gathering each with a different agenda.  A whole variety of groups showed up at Emancipation Park.  I don’t need to repeat that story here.  

I will repeat, however, the quote from Robert E. Lee.  He wrote this in a letter 4 months after the end of the Civil War.  In this letter to the Board of Trustees, he conditionally accepted the presidency of Washington College.  He placed two conditions on his acceptance.  First, he asked be excused from teaching responsibilities so that he could focus on administration.  Second, he didn’t want to bring hostility against the college by his presence there.  My interpretation is that he was worried about the reputation of the college and gave the board an out to remove their offer to him.  So he accepts the presidency.  In accepting the presidency, he talks about the importance of educating young people and setting for them a proper example, and he offers these words about our nation and her citizens.  Lee has many admirable qualities and, regardless of what you might think of him, his words speak to us today.  (Actually his words may be prophetic as well.)  Here is a larger portion of that quote.  

“There is another subject which has caused me serious reflection, and is, I think, worthy of the consideration of the Board. Being excluded from the terms of amnesty in the proclamation of the President of the U. S., of the 29th May last, and an object of censure to a portion of the Country, I have thought it probable that my occupation of the position of President might draw upon the College a feeling of hostility; and I should, therefore, cause injury to an Institution which it would be my highest desire to advance. I think it the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony, and in no way to oppose the policy of the State or General Government directed to that object. It is particularly incumbent on those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority, and I could not consent to be the cause of [censure] upon the College.”  Robert E. Lee, Former General, College President, West Point Graduate.  

How do you think the person who wrote that feels about the hostility that took place around his statue yesterday?  I can see the tears in his eyes.  I can see the tears in Jesus’ eyes as well.  To be succinct racism and intolerance is sinful.  Our interpretation of scripture on this point is clear.  Not just violence is sinful, racism and intolerance even without violence is sinful.  If you question that point, Bishop Gohl of the ELCA’s Delaware Maryland synod has a sermon this morning addresses that point.  Find it and read it.

There are some people who petitioned for the right to gather around Lee’s statue yesterday that have no idea that their supposed general wrote what he did to Lexington.  And if they did know it, I guess (sadly) they did not care.  “Aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.”  What does that look like?  What does peace and harmony look like?  That is what it looks like after Jesus calms the storm—the big storm or this minor storm.  Peace, be still.  The seas become calm like the silence that Elijah experiences.  What does “aid in the restoration of peace and calm look like?  You see that in Peter stepping out of the boat.  Jesus calms the storm for the disciples but he also does something else.  He teaches them, prepares them, for other storms that will come in their lives.  He shows them the power of faith to calm storms.  The disciples will face other storms and worse storms: violence caused not be elements of the sea, but by people opposed to the hope and peace they will teach the world about.  Jesus prepares them.  He gives them power to remain peaceful.  He also prepares you.  In our gospel passage, Jesus calms the storm and the wind and the chaos, but he also gives you the power of peace to calm the storms around you.  You can bring peace and harmony into your community.  But I will tell you right now, it takes prayer and patience and the willingness to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.  It involves stepping out of the boat.  We can call that community building.  I know of people who gathered in Charlottesville yesterday for the right reasons.  Community building is what happens next.  The Christian church stands against racism and intolerance, and we also aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.  We participate in the building back up of community.

This is what I did yesterday.  I spent 10 hours in a room with a dozen teenagers and an instructor 18 years my senior so I could help a fledgling soccer start-up organization.  They want to make quality soccer instruction affordable.  That’s what I did.  Maybe I should have been in Charlottesville.  If you think so, I will have that conversation with you.  I will probably agree with many of your points, because I think my presence in Charlottesville would have been important.  But I believe my presence where I was yesterday also gave witness.  I hope this year and in 10 years what I did yesterday meant something.  Because children and youth of all ethnic backgrounds play soccer.  Just like children and youth of all ethnic backgrounds worship Christ our savior.  I have been a spectator in the game for three years, it is time again for me as a pastor to be back on the field to say this is important for our youth, our children, and our future, one future for all of us.  
Community building happens here in this worship as well, but it happens best and serves Christ best when you take what you are given here--peace, grace, harmony--and go out and share it in the community.

And you will fall down, a lot.  Just like Peter.  You will make mistakes.  But somewhere out there when the winds of change are pushing you, and you fear the winds are winning, then know this: Jesus is the one coming to claim you.  Jesus is the one lifting you up.  Jesus does not expect you to calm the storm alone.  What does Jesus say, "Peace, be still."  "Don’t be afraid."  "Do not lose faith."  "I say to you love your enemies, be kind to those who hurt you, pray for those who persecute you."  "Remember I am with you always, to the very end of the age.   Jesus gives us power in these instructions, and that power brings peace in our own hearts."  We have that peace and harmony and more to spread around our communities.  

Peace be with you.  Amen.