Jesus, Fully Human

Every week a large portion of churches in the world organize their worship of God around the same couple of Bible passages, picked by some learned folks to cover most of the Bible over a three-year cycle called the Revised Common Lectionary. Since I often preach them and always read ’em, I’m going to blog on the weekly passages regularly. If you have any questions about the RCL, this is a helpful resource. This week’s passage is Matthew 15:10-28. 

The story of Jesus and the begging Canaanite woman is, for many, one of the most disturbing stories of the Gospel. It’s not because of the demon ravaging the woman’s daughter – we’ve seen plenty of those. It’s not because the disciples so callously ask Jesus to send a distraught beggar away – they basically are constantly messing up.

It is difficult because Jesus himself, Savior of our faith, lover of us all, leader of our people, is pretty…mean. It’s just the only way to describe it. A woman begs him for healing and he ignores and then insults her, saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Many have tried to explain this away by saying that he is testing the woman to see what she will do, or demonstrating to the disciples a lesson he recently gave them about hurtful words and unclean hearts. These explanations are available, if we truly cannot abide an imperfect Savior.

But for me, the plain reading of the text is of enormous comfort. The heart of our faith is that Jesus was not only fully God but fully human, and knew what it was to be one of us. He knew what it was to hunger. He knew what it was to weep. He experienced fatigue, and friendship, and puberty, and work, and all the things that make up our rich human existence.

In this story, he shows us that he too knows what it is to make a thoughtless mistake – to be tired (he has traveled much in the last few days), frustrated (every religious brother he meets objects to him and argues with him), and mourning (his close friend John the Baptist was just killed by the government), and let all that malnourishment and exhaustion work itself up inside of him until it’s taken out on someone else. Sound familiar to anyone else?

His anger is taken out in a particularly pernicious way. Scholars have pointed out that “dog” was probably an ethnic slur for the woman’s Canaanite heritage. In his moment of weakness, the racism endemic in Jesus’s society and vocabulary comes out of him, with the potential to harm the woman’s people as well as her soul.

This is how racism often works. It is so much a  part of the structures that surround us, the selectivity of who and what we are educated about, the messages in our TV and movies and books, that it sits inside us, an inevitable and twisted source of interpretation and action, no matter how outwardly compassionate or loving or equitable we believe ourselves to be.

This is a week when we have been thinking a lot about racism in the U.S. In the wake of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the latest in a seemingly never ending string of unarmed people of color being killed by officers of the state, the conversation about whether these officers should or should not keep their jobs, are racist or mistaken, are justified or criminals, has been everywhere.

Many focus on whether these officers were or were not “racists,” as if that is a category of evil person easily identifiable by membership in the KKK, or association only with their own people, or dedication to the forces of white supremacy. But for most of us, that’s not how racism does its deadly work. It lives in us even as we are good spouses and parents, as we form friendships with people of other cultures, as we work alongside people who look different from us.

To have the clean heart and clean mouth that Jesus demands in this Scripture requires constant vigilance, questioning ourselves and the ways in which we have allowed old narratives to hijack our minds and subtly influence what we are willing to do, say, and believe. It most of all requires listening to the people around us, to people who seem unfamiliar, and most of all to anyone who tells us that they have been hurt by our actions, to see how we might grow in spiritual health and accountability to our whole God-created community.

This is how Jesus moved forward from his rare, hurtful mistake. After he dismisses the woman, calling her dog, she says, ” “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

She does not buy into his painful words but reminds him of what he has been preaching and living all over town – that there is enough for all, that the Table is open to anyone, that there is grace to spare for any and all who ask for it. She holds fast to the truth of abundant grace in the face of difficulty and disappointment, teaching even the teacher about what the truth really is in a broken world.

Jesus responds to this reminder, not denying her or getting defensive or explaining his comments away, but saying that she is of great faith and her daughter will be healed. He re-commits himself to the work he has been at for so long, of preaching God’s grace for all people, no matter what group they come from.

If even Jesus, in weariness and grief, can fall back on the poisonous teachings of his culture, how much more vulnerable are we to the siren song of the world’s easy distinctions and hatreds? Let us in this time follow the example of Jesus and listen carefully, be willing to change our decisions, and commit as Jesus-followers to love all people, certain in God’s promise that there will always be enough room at the Table for everyone.

If it is you…

I have a lot of friends and family who aren’t religious. Often (as a Pastor person) I’m one of the most religious people they know. This has led to a lot of wonderful, funny, and educational conversations over the years.

One of the most frequent, and unexpected, are requests to change the weather. Whenever its been cold or rainy for too many days in a row, I’m definitely going to hear from someone, “Can’t you do something about this?” or “Can you talk to Jesus about this situation?”

It’s in jest, but it’s also revealing of how people think about God, prayer, and power. In the popular imagination one version of God is basically a big Storm from X-Men – a being of great power who does stuff for the people he likes the best or his own mysterious reasons. This is decidedly not a being with personal relationships, a greater vision and intention, or relevance to those who haven’t chosen to follow God.

For some, that’s the God on display in this week’s lectionary tale of Jesus walking on water. It’s a display of miraculous power, pure and simple, a demonstration of Jesus’s abilities with an added reminder in Peter’s attempt to join him to KEEP THE FAITH OR ELSE. My non-religious friends didn’t get their ideas about God out of the ether. They learned them from people of faith.

But there has to be more than that shallow vision of God in this incredible story of the stormy waters, one of the few contained in all four Gospels. The God in Jesus here is known not through the ability to manipulate nature (although he of course can do that too) but through the way he calls and comforts the people he loves.

When the frightened disciples see Jesus’s form walking on the waves, and they worry it is an evil spirit, Peter says to him, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Peter knows the being is powerful through what it does on the waves. He will know it is Jesus if he is brought into Jesus’s work, if he is invited to follow and to share, as he always has been before.

When the wind rages and Peter’s feet and faith stumble he cries out, “Lord, save me!” and immediately Jesus reaches out and catches him. It is this act of support, of mercy, of loving friendship, that convinces the rest of the disciples that the powerful man before them is “truly the Son of God.”

Powers and tricks are great. And God’s omnipotent sleeve is full of them. But they aren’t what makes God God. They’re not why I’m a Christian, and they’re not why I worship. I worship God because I have been called into the middle of raging storms while deathly afraid, and found more there than I ever would have asked for. I worship God because I have been caught just as my face began to sink into the waters, by a hand so gentle and so firm it never once felt like rebuke.

I serve a God of more than weather – a God of mercy, of justice, of creation, of newness. A God of all.


Demand a Blessing, Receive a Feast

Every week a large portion of churches in the world organize their worship of God around the same couple of Bible passages, picked by some learned folks to cover most of the Bible over a three-year cycle called the Revised Common Lectionary. Since I often preach them and always read ’em, I’m going to blog on the weekly passages regularly. If you have any questions about the RCL, this is a helpful resource.

At first glance, this week’s Genesis story of Jacob’s wrestling with God and the Matthew tale of Jesus’s miraculous feeding of five thousand from a handful of bread and fish have little to say to each other.  At worst, they confirm the stale and shallow stereotypes of a Hebrew Bible God of struggle and New Testament God of gentle compassion.

But in a Christian confession, the God of Israel and Jesus Christ are one. And to any reader of the Bible, there has always been more miraculous mercy in the God of Israel, and more confusion and anger in the incarnated God, than the easy (and often anti-Semitic) stereotype gives credit for.

For one thing, when Jesus feeds five thousand people from just a handful of bread and fish it is in part because of their persistent pestering. Matthew tells us that just before this event Jesus had gone to “a lonely place” after hearing of the murder of his cousin, fellow faith leader, and childhood friend John the Baptist by King Herod. He wanted to be alone to grieve, or talk to his Father, or whatever it is you do when you’re the savior living on Earth and you still keep losing people you love.

But five thousand people, also reeling from the news, had followed him in his escape attempt. They needed comfort. They need an explanation. They were filled with grief and confusion. And so, like wrestling Jacob, they just wouldn’t leave God alone. And at the end of the day he responds to their persistence with a meal, simple but completely filling, showing the persistent crowd that God’s love and miracles would continue even in the face of terrible events.

From the other direction, God’s very willingness to appear to Jacob and be wrestled with is an act of extraordinary grace and compassion.

In this story Jacob too is “alone.” He is trying to return home after an almost  fifteen-year exile for stealing and tricking blessings from his brother and father. He hears that brother Esau, his long ago victim, is coming to meet him with an army. So he sends his family ahead and waits by the river to try and think of some way, any way, to get out of this terrible situation.

In his well-earned desperation, as seeds he planted long ago are ready to be reaped in misery, God appears to Jacob in the form of a man. In one of Jacob’s worst moments, God comes to him. God knows Jacob so well that God doesn’t come in the form of a gentle hand on his hair, but a challenger to be fought, the only situation in which Jacob has ever felt comfortable.

Sure enough, by morning when Jacob seeks a blessing, as the people sought a meal, God offers it to him. God lets Jacob know that his blessings don’t come from his tricks and strivings, but from the grace of a God who doesn’t care who we are or what we’ve done but loves and gives to us anyway.

There is enough food for all of us. There is enough blessing for all of us. There is enough time, and attention, and love, and purpose. It has always been so, and so it will always be. We just have to be like the five thousand, to be like Jacob, and not leave God be when God is right there to show us abundance.

We have to be pester-ers, and keep on seeking the glorious more-than-enough even when we find the world a frightening place of scarcity. Because God will always be providing it.


Eggs in Flight

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. – C.S. Lewis

This summer the Art Institute of Chicago has an exhibition of Rene Magritte’s art called “The Mystery of the Ordinary.” As the painting above, La Clairvoyance, shows, the title is an apt one. Magritte’s surreal but simple paintings make you look at old things anew, and see the indelible strangeness and wonder in all we take for granted.

I have always loved this piece, and the way it makes me think of the accompanying quote by theologian C.S Lewis. One of the first jobs of any faith or spirituality is to cultivate within us the ability to hold fast to hope for a future of wonder and possibility, even when what is directly in front of our eyes seems broken or limited. That is what I see when I look at this work.

In my own tradition of Christianity, we are very much worshippers of flying eggs. We look at a peasant who preached for three years and was executed as a criminal, and see a life-saving Messiah. We look at a world (and a church, let’s be honest) where people are selfish, and mean, and unjust, and see a Kingdom full of beautiful creatures, whom God made and declares good.

But as important as this clairvoyant vision is to our faith and life – seeing the hope in the hopeless, naming the possibilities of the present – it cannot be where we stop. We cannot be like the painter who looks at an egg and paints a picture of a bird, skipping over the in-between. That is the practice of false hope, which ignores how hard it is to break through our eggshells, bravely unfold our wings, and poke our beaks into a world of risk and unpredictably.

Skipping the hatching of discipleship is the un-Christ-like message of, “Oh, just pray harder, things will get better, it doesn’t require any change.” It is preaching the resurrection, while forgetting the pain and injustice of Good Friday, and the slow and simple relationship building of Jesus’ time on Earth.

From the vision comes the work, where we don’t just hold onto hope but live into it. We start food pantries and afterschool programs and campaigns to change laws, even if we don’t know where the money for next month’s work is coming. We show up at the mourner’s house to walk with them, even if we have no words to heal their wounds. We pray everyday, even in the moments when we’re not sure God is hearing us or if devotion matters at all.

Fly, eggs, fly! Break out of your shell, live beyond your capacity, imagine the air even as you are contained on the Earth. It will not be easy. It will not happen immediately. But God will be with you. And one day we will all fly together, carried on the glorious, wondrous, and mysteriously ordinary power of God’s grace.

Faith in the Visible

We often talk about faith as something you have in things you can’t see with your eyes. Hebrews holds that “faith is the assurance of things unseen.” Martin Luther King, Jr. defined faith as “taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

But in most human lives, the hardest moments of faith aren’t about what we can or can’t see, but what we can or can’t be sure of in the things we do see. I know my boyfriend shows up to our dates, and says the right things – but can I have faith that he really loves me, and only me, and won’t betray me? If someone has committed a crime against me, do I have faith that telling the police will lead to more safety, and they will treat people fairly, as I’ve been told, or will it make things worse, as some have experienced?

Because of the eternal “Does God exist?” question, we tend to frame lots of spiritual questions as real/not real quandaries. But in our lives, most major dilemmas of faith are not about whether something exists or not, but about whether we truly know the nature of something that undoubtedly exists, is right in front of us, and needs us to respond based on our understanding.

I’m thinking about this because of the persistence of a question which seems, to me, nonsensical – “Do you believe in Jesus?”

‘Believing in Jesus,’ for the most part, has nothing to do with being a Christian, and nothing to do with anything. On a literal level it’s sort of like asking “Do you believe in Lady Gaga?” or “Do you believe in Charlemagne?” No one would seriously deny that some dude named Jesus existed, approximately 2,000 years ago, and had some friends who wrote some stuff down about him.

Even if you take it as I think it’s meant – “Do you believe that Jesus as described in the Bible is your Savior, and have you said that out loud in some way?” it’s still a woefully insufficient question for getting to know about someone’s faith, and about whether or not they are a Christian.

In the Great Commissioning of disciples, Jesus does not say “Teach them to believe in me, and to say that I am awesome.” He says “Baptize them” and “Teach them to obey what I have commanded you,” because “I am always with you.” (Matt. 28)

He’s not concerned with us continuing to believe he’s there after he’s gone, but with us continuing to act like he is next to us now (because he is). It’s about what we do, how we respond to a continuing relationship with God, and how our faith drives us to behave in the world we inhabit.

Faith is not about saying, “Where I see nothing, there is something.” It is about saying, “Where I see something, there is even more, which moves me and guides me and shapes me as I relate to it.” Hebrews, after all, says that faith is the substance of things unseen. As we bump up against the substance of anything we have faith in we are inevitably changed, for better or for worse.

Do you have faith? What in and, more importantly, how do you know? What does your faith in and beyond the visible cause you to do, as you are living your life in the world?