Sunday, August 24, 2014

11th Sunday after Pentecost

Pentecost 11 2014a

Trinity Lutheran Church (NALC)

Isaiah 51:1-6 & Matthew 16:13-20

                When I was a boy, I thought that I had a pretty unique name: Michael…  Micha-el… it means “He who is like God.”  Awesome!  And I noticed that there were a couple of other boys in school who also had the name Michael. But I didn’t realize that when I was born: Michael was the most popular name for male children.  Today we live in a neighborhood where the man in the house next door is named Michael, and the man in the house across the street if named Michael.  When one of our wives calls us by name, it seems like half the neighborhood turns to see who is calling.  It turns out Michael isn’t as unique a name as I thought!  We can become confused by the names we use, even the names we use for God.
If you read the entire Bible cover to cover, some scholars claim we can find over 7000 terms for God.  Jesus alone is called by over 200 names. We know many of them, don’t we?  Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Lord of Lords, King of Kings…
Over 200 different descriptive names for Christ alone.  Yet, even though we have all those names for the Messiah, we can still get confused sometimes; even in church…
A woman named Julie Loomis writes that her church has a very elaborate Christmas program every year that features a live nativity scene right there in the chancel.  One year she was sitting in the balcony with her 5-year old nephew, Curtis, on her lap, and they were watching the procession enter the church below them. The boy was fascinated by the sheep and the goats and especially the camel.  But when it was just the people coming in he quickly lost interest.  Julie tried to spark some excitement. As one of the Wise Men began walking down the aisle she whispered, “Curtis, look!  Here comes the king!”  And the little boy leaned over the balcony railing and he said, “That’s Elvis?!”
All of the descriptive names we have for Jesus can be confusing sometimes. But if we are going to be followers of Christ, how we call Christ is very important.  Because the titles that we have for the Messiah define our relationship with God through Him.   This is what the disciples discovered in our Gospel reading this morning.
In this passage, Jesus is traveling with his disciples through the region of Caesarea Philippi.  Once again (like in last week’s Gospel) he is ‘out of bounds’ for the Jewish people.  Caesarea Philippi was about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee, and it was a region loaded with negative religious implications.  The area was littered with old temples to the pagan Syrian gods, including the one the Yazidi people under attack in Iraq still worship today.  A newer, marble temple was also located there: it was the temple built by the evil King Herod the Great… the same king who tried to murder the infant Jesus and instead wound up killing all of the infant boys in Bethlehem.  Caesarea Philippi also had a lot influence by the Greek and Roman gods; in fact, some of the people there worshipped the Roman Emperor as a living god.  Frankly, Caesarea Philippi was probably a pretty unlikely place for Christ to make Himself known.  But one of the messages we have to hear in this Gospel reading is that the Lord makes His presence known in both the holy temple and the profane world.  There is no area of earth or of our lives that are beyond his touch… or His authority.
As he walks along, Jesus turns to his disciples and he asks them a question.  “Who do people say that I am?”  Now, He’s not taking a poll like the president or the politicians do.  If 51 percent of the people get it wrong, He’s not going to change His public image to gain their approval.  Jesus KNOWS who He is, but He knows it is important for those who follow Him to know who He is.  So He asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”
The disciples begin sharing the rumors that they’ve heard along the way. “Well, some say that you’re John the Baptist reincarnated.  And others say that you’re Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets brought back to life!”  The rumors, apparently, are rampant. But Jesus cuts off the recounting of rumors.  He has something important to ask.
“Yes, but who do YOU say that I am?”  The text doesn’t state it explicitly, but we can suspect that there was a moment of embarrassed silence.  Suddenly, perhaps, the men all looked anywhere but at Jesus.  Staring at the ground or the clouds above; all at once working on a hangnail… ANYTHING but confront this question, this question of all questions.  Because this is the question that defines everything.  It is the question that calls for unequivocal commitment, because if they answer that Jesus is just a nice carpenter-turned-teacher then they are saying he is really nothing special.  But if they admit that he is divine, then they are taking an irreversible step of commitment. Jesus cannot be divine and not have authority in their lives.   The disciples hesitate for a moment.
But one of them speaks.  Simon, the rugged fisherman, answers.  He does not answer from his confused human mind, he answers as that still, small voice in his heart tells him to answer: plainly, directly, without embellishment or apology – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Verse 16). And Jesus, the Son of God, seems to rejoice.  Verse 17:  “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” 
The cat is out of the bag, now.  Humankind has come to understand the truth: that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to come into the world to save all believers from their sins.  Simon has been led by God to proclaim the truth.  And Jesus goes on and he does a kind of odd thing: he gives Simon a new name; and not just any name, a rather odd name…
Verse 18: “…you are [now] Peter, [which means “rock”], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Peter had over 200 names to choose from:  Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Lord of Lords…  But God led him to choose the right one – Son of God.  Because only the Son of God could bring the presence of the Father into the world.  In John 10:30 Jesus tells us “I and the Father are one.”  Only the Living God in the world can save the world, and only if he is known by his true identity: the one and only Son of God who has the power to heal and forgive, who has the power to give eternal life… to those who submit to him as Lord.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” Simon says.  And Jesus gives him a new name… because in confessing Jesus as God we are made into a new creation.  But… he picks a pretty odd name, if we think about it.  Jesus doesn’t seem to do a very good job with this naming thing.  He could have said, ‘From now on, we’ll call you Brilliant One because you figured out who I am.’  Or he could have said, ‘Way to go, Simon! From now on we’ll call you Brainiac because you’re obviously a genius.’  Jesus could have come up with a thousand glowing appellations that would have designated Simon as something really, really special.  But instead… he named him “Rock”. And we have to ask ourselves, what’s up with that?  Jesus doesn’t do anything without a purpose. What’s the purpose of calling this faithful believer a “Rock”?  And the answer, perhaps, is in our first reading this morning; this passage from Isaiah the 51st chapter.
God speaks through the prophet.  Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. (Verse 1)” And hearing these words, we have to ask ourselves: who is the rock from which we were hewn?  And the answer is, God; God is our rock and our strength.  The rock where we turn in hope and are always find that hope that we seek.
The hope that we find in God through Christ is a “rocky” hope; not in a bad way, but in a good way that is in contrast with the world.   Because the world leads us into insubstantial hope: false hope that leads us into danger instead of toward salvation.  False hope is dangerous…
You know, over the years I’ve worked with eight different fire companies; I’ve trained with them, gone to a lot of fires with them… Firefighters live to rescue others, and that’s what they train for.  Every firefighter goes through a simulator that is a specially built building that can be filled with smoke.  What they do is they put a mannequin somewhere in the simulator building, then they fill the entire structure with smoke, and they tell the firefighters “Go find it!”
It’s a lot harder than it sounds.  Fire gear weighs so much it’s hard to move, and the air pack you wear has a mask with limited visibility; and even if you weren’t wearing a mask, you couldn’t see anyway – because the smoke is so thick and dark… you can’t even see your hand in front of your face.
So, firefighters are trained to search in smoke filled buildings by touch.  Crawling on the floor, they sweep their hands back and forth in front of them, FEELING for a trapped person.
But experienced firefighters know that when people are panicking, they look for hope in different places.  If you’re searching for an adult, the first place you search is near the doors and windows, because adults know that their best hope is getting outside, so that’s where they often are when smoke overcomes them.  But children… If you’re searching for a child, you feel under the bed, and you feel inside the closets, because children in their fear look for hope in all the wrong places.  Children don’t know where real hope can be found.   People are an awful lot like children when it comes to hope.
We live in a world of false hope, and a world filled with false hope-givers.  The world is becoming a frightening place these days; especially for Christians.  Social structures and cultures are changing, and not always for the better.  People feel like they aren’t controlling their lives, and that always scares people.  And for Christians there are even more threats.  Every day we hear about social persecutions of Christians for their faith; and now – in the 21st century – we hear of a return to Islamic barbarism… cutting the heads off of people… because they won’t deny Jesus Christ as the Son of the Living God.  We live in a world where hope is desperately needed.
Yet, false-hope givers try to get us to hide under our beds like children do.  Are you afraid of what’s happening in the world, they say? Then just shift to this political party or to this political perspective; that will give you hope.  Are you feeling out of control in your life?  Then give up your superstitious religion and put your faith in science; science can answer everything.  Are you looking for hope?  Then wear this crystal necklace, or study astrology, or chant this Hindu phrase… if you do that, then everything will be okay. 
But… those are false hopes. Since the dawn of time neither politics or philosophy, nor science, nor pagan religions have ever fulfilled their promise of hope.  But someone has.  He is the Lord our God, the Creator of Heaven and earth, and He alone is the source of our true hope.  His truth is not just carved in stone, He is the Abiding Rock itself to whom we can cling.
If you’ve ever visited New York City, you know that on 5th Avenue there is the RCA Building.  Near the entrance of that building there is a gigantic statue of Atlas, a beautifully proportioned man who, with all of his bulging muscles, is holding the entire world upon his shoulders.  The artist captured the strain of it all perfectly.  If you look at that statue, it seems like at any moment Atlas will break under the strain. 
Bruce Larson says that sometimes people will come to his Manhattan office, and they’ll tell him that they’re having trouble submitting their lives to God; they want to be in control and they’re having trouble letting go and letting God.  Larson says he takes them to see that statue, and he says, “Well, that’s one way to live, trying to carry the weight of the world on your own shoulders.”
Then he takes them across the street; just a little way’s up is St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  There behind the high altar is another statue – it’s Jesus as a little boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, and in one hand (with no effort at all) he’s holding the entire world.
Larson says he tells those people, “We have a choice.  We can try to carry the whole world on our own shoulders, or we can say, ‘I give up, Lord.  Here is my life… here is my world… I give them to you. You are God and I am not.”
Folks, we can cling to false hopes, or we can cling to the Lord and find our hope in Him.  The first will fail us every time; but the second will never fail us.
When Jesus re-names Simon, he names him for the One who is speaking within him and through him.  He is not naming Simon because he has a good mind or because he won some sort of pop quiz about who Jesus is.  Peter bears the one within him, and it is the presence of the Abiding Rock within that makes it possible for Christ’s Church to form and function in the world… it is because he bears the Abiding Rock of God that Jesus re-names him Rock… a chip off the old block.
And we share that name.  Because each of us, when we stop trying to find hope in ourselves and  proclaim Jesus as the Son of God and Lord of our lives, then we too bear the Abiding Rock within us, and God can use us to do his work if he is present in us.   Martin Luther said that it is only when we allow the Holy Spirit to move within us that we are sanctified; that we are empowered to BE the Church in the world.
There are a lot of names for Jesus in the Bible: Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Lord of Lords.  And, of course, the Son of God. That’s the important one.  And being one with God, he is the Rock to which we can cling. In him we will find our strength, our forgiveness,  our salvation, and our hope… our rocky hope, that stands up against the storms of our lives, and enfolds us in His protective love; now and forever.  AMEN

The Reverend M. A. Greenauer 2014
Permission is granted to reproduce this work in whole or in part if the glory for its content is given to the Lord

Sunday, August 17, 2014

10th Sunday after Pentecost

10th Sunday after Pentecost 2014a

Trinity Lutheran Church (NALC)

Matthew 15:21-28

A man took his dog into a movie theater one afternoon to watch a film.  It was a romantic comedy, and the dog sat in the seat right next to the man and when there was a funny scene the dog laughed out loud, and a little later on when there was a sad scene the dog wiped its eyes with its paw as it cried.  This went on all the way through the movie: the dog laughed and cried in all the right places.
Another man was sitting a couple of rows back watching this, and he was just amazed.  After the movie he followed the dog and his owner out into the lobby and he said to the owner, “I was watching you, and your dog really seemed to like the movie!  That’s truly amazing!”
And the owner said, “It certainly is, because he really hated the book!”
Of course, dogs don’t really belong in movie theaters unless they’re service dogs, do they?  People are people and dogs are dogs, and dogs have to keep in their place.  Unless… something makes the dog acceptable.
When she was a child, Gail Ricciuti says that dinner for her family followed some fairly rigid rules.  Hands had to be washed before you sat down, napkins on the lap, and never feed Farley, the family dog, from the table.
 But as time went by, Farley became a part of the family and the table rules got bent a little. Eventually at breakfast each morning Farley got a bit of toast with peanut butter (one of his favorite things) and at the end of dinner, Gail handed down a bite of meat or fish from her plate. And if she waited too long before giving it to him, suddenly she’d have this hairy chin resting on her leg—just a reminder.
Farley lived a happy life for eight years; that’s when the cancer came. By that time he wasn’t a dog anymore, he was part of the family.  When he lost his appetite for the dog food, the rules became irrelevant. Mealtime became an inventory of the refrigerator. Whatever he would eat, he could have: tuna, yogurt, steak. When he became too tired to bend and eat from his dish on the floor, then he got it from Gail’s hand. And when nothing else appealed any more, he got premium baby food—strained meat—eventually fed a teaspoon at a time from a medicine syringe as he lay on his pillow.
Looking back on Farley, Gail says that she understands now how much he taught her about "table rules," because Farley belonged at the table, not because of his manners, but despite them… he had a place at the table because of something that he had inside of himself: love for the family… love that they also had for him. 
          Now why are we talking about dogs and table manners this morning?  Because in our Gospel reading today they both appear.  In fact, Jesus uses both of them to point out just what it is that gets us invited to God’s table.
Perhaps one of the keys to understanding our Gospel today is to listen to the very first words here.  In the verses before today’s reading Jesus is in Genesserat, on the eastern shore of Galilee.  Now as we begin today’s passage he has passed through the nice, safe Jewish region of Galilee, and for some reason (or maybe some purpose) he leads his band of followers off toward the northwest: into Tyre and Sidon… these are not Jewish areas. In fact, Tyre and Sidon was a region that faithful Jews would normally avoid as being religiously unclean.  
But that’s where they went: Jesus, his twelve disciples, and probably a couple of Pharisees, because the Pharisees (we’re told) were constantly watching Jesus to catch him up if he violated the laws of Moses.
So, they’re walking along the dusty roads when suddenly a Canaanite woman comes running out to them and begins yelling… wailing… following them along the street.  “Have mercy on me, Lord … a demon has ahold of my daughter!”
Now, this reference to a “demon” can distract us if we’re not careful.  In the 21st century we think of demons as belonging in bad horror movies, not in reality.  But let’s not be distracted here, because the message is not about demons.
We don’t know what was wrong with the daughter, whether she had a fever or whether she had been born lame, or whether she was acting like a teenager possessed by disobedience or behaviors that were harming her.  We don’t know.  What we do know is that the girl was suffering… and her mother was so desperate that she went running after this prophet that she’d heard so much about.
Now, to the disciples and others walking with Jesus this woman was wrong in so many ways.
First and foremost she was a Canaanite. The Canaanites were the original inhabitants of Palestine, and in the eyes of the Jews, God had taken the land from them and given it to the children of Abraham.
To the Jews, the Canaanites were filthy squatters… the gypsies of their day, doing incredibly horrible things over the years like ritually worshipping the pagan god Molech who demanded child sacrifice. In the Jewish mind, the Jews were ‘in’ and everybody who wasn’t a Jew was ‘out’… and no one was farther out than the Canaanites.  And this woman was a Canaanite.  No good Jew would even acknowledge her.
In this passage she calls out to Jesus three times, and each time Jesus responds differently.
The first time he is silent.  Verse 22: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Jesus gives her no response at all… as if he didn’t even hear her.  But he had to have heard her.  Clearly she’s being pretty loud.  A moment or two later the disciples ask Jesus to please send her away. “Make her shut up, PLEASE, she’s giving us a headache.”  “Come on, Jesus.  Peter’s telling us this great fishing story and we can’t hear the punchline because she’s caterwauling so loud.  Come on, make her shut up and go away.”  But Jesus… is silent.  He won’t condemn the woman out of hand just because of her ethnicity.  He is just silent.  There is more to come in this story, and He knows it…
The woman isn’t discouraged.  She calls out to Christ again.  “Lord!”  This time he responds.  “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Did he REALLY say that?  Is he REALLY calling her a dog?  Certainly, that’s how the disciples thought of her… certainly that’s how the Pharisees thought of her.  In fact, everyone in Israel and Judea had been raised to believe that Canaanites were not a human as the Jews.  In the narrative of Noah and the Ark at the end of that story: the Canaanites are cursed by God. To the disciples and the Pharisees, the Jews are the purebreds… and the Canaanites are mongrels.
But the words that Jesus speaks here are the words of the Pharisees.  Scholars indicate that this phrase about dogs and the children’s’ bread is probably an aphorism; a well-known folk saying among the Jews that reinforced a cultural stereotype. 
It was probably something that the Pharisees had repeated a hundred times as they discussed how ‘those other people’ weren’t as loved by God as the Jews were.  Now they heard their own words thrown back at them so that they can hear what it really sounds like. But they’re not appalled, they approve:  nodding their heads as they hear Jesus recite the old saying.  Now he’s put her in her place!  Now she’ll hang her head and just crawl back to whatever filthy hole she belongs in.
But Jesus knows she won’t go away.  That’s the whole point.  He knows what’s going to happen. 
So instead of slinking away like a whipped dog, the woman humbles herself even more, and still trusts in him.  She speaks to Him a third time.
Verse 27: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
THIS is what Jesus has been waiting for.   Suddenly, the cast-off becomes an example to the Jews.  Suddenly the person who was only fit to be the butt of cruel jokes becomes a model for others to follow. Suddenly, Jesus reveals that to the Lord our God… it’s not the table manners or self-worthiness that gains someone a seat at the table of God’s grace.  It is nothing that they do on the outside; it’s a quality that they possess on the inside.
Verse 28: “Woman!”  he says, “GREAT is your faith!  Let it be done as you wish!”  And instantly… her daughter was healed.   
Folks, our Father in Heaven has arranged a banquet of mercy and grace for us.  It is a table that is prepared for us even in the presence of our enemies.  God desires us to feast on his goodness and love.
But, we can’t earn a seat at that table.  We don’t get an invitation because of how we dress, or because of what we do… we don’t get invited because of how we hold our hands when we pray or whether we kneel or not or whether we avoid this sin or that sin.  Those things may be important, because they demonstrate our obedience and submission to God.  But they are the fruits of our life with God in Christ,they are not the cause of our life in Christ.
We are invited to God’s table of life not because of what we do, but because of what God has given us: faith…  And we are to nurture and protect that faith, because it is faith alone that is our ticket to the banquet.
Romans 3:28, we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
It is faith as a gift from God that gives us a seat at the Lord’s table.
The story is told of how back during the Napoleonic Wars, a British General once invited an enlisted man to dine with the officers for a dinner.  In those wars, after the British had managed to blow a hole in the wall of a fortress, they would send a small group of volunteers into the breach to test out the enemy’s defenses.  The group of volunteers was called the “Forlorn Hope”, and they almost never survived.  If the sergeant leading the group DID manage to live through it, he was given a commission as an officer.  It was the only way for an enlisted man to become an officer in those days.
The man the general invited to dinner was a sergeant who had survived the Forlorn Hope.  He was to be commissioned the next day, so to celebrate the general hosted him to the dinner, and it was a disaster.  The enlisted man had no table manners:  he guzzled his wine, he belched and he slurped his soup, and at one point he gave up trying to use his fork and he picked up his meat in his fingers to eat it.  The other officers whispered to each other and shook their heads. One finally leaned into the general and whispered, “That man is offensive, sir!  He has no place at this table!”
The general laid down his fork and smiled, and in a voice that everyone heard he said, “I did not invite the sergeant here tonight because of his table manners.  Those will improve as he lives among us.  He is here because of what he bears within himself: courage, and hope, and faith that we will win this campaign.  Those qualities are why he is at our table.”
Romans 3:28, we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  It is faith that is our admission ticket to the Lord’s table; faith that comes to us as a gift from our Father in Heaven, and we are to share that faith with others.
You see, we live in a world of people who are spiritually starving.  They seek peace, they hunger for hope and meaning, they crave real love.  These things can only come from a relationship with God in Christ Jesus.  There is no other source of hope of mercy and forgiveness; anything else but faith in Christ that is offered as a hope of salvation and life is a lie.  1st John 5:11-12 tells us this “And this is the testimony that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
Let us give thanks for the faith we have received from the Lord; faith which sets us free from sin and death through Christ our Lord despite ourselves.  And let us commit ourselves to share that faith with those who are spiritually hungry.  In word and deed let us draw them unto God, so that they, too, may share in the banquet of God’s faith; and join us in the banquet of salvation and life that comes to us through Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN

The Reverend M. A. Greenauer 2014
Permission is granted to reproduce this work in whole or in part if the glory for its content is given to the Lord