Monday, September 26, 2011

A Questioning Faith: Matthew 21:23-32

How is electricity made? What are black holes? What is infinity? Why is the sky blue? Why do we have a leap year? How do birds fly? Why does cutting onions make you cry? Where does the wind come from? Why is the sea salty?

Children ask questions. Children, ask these questions. In fact, you have probably been asked some of them. According to a recent poll, these are among the top twenty hardest questions children ask the grownups in their lives. These are the ones that leave us stumbling over our words, and fervently wishing we’d paid better attention in science class.

How big is the world? What happens to us when we die? What is a prime number? What makes thunder? Is God real?

Not all the questions are the stuff of science textbooks, though. Children have a way of asking the big questions, too, questions pertaining to ultimate things, unseen realities, the world that PhD’s won’t necessarily help us to understand, and these questions can stump us just as easily. But questions are beautiful. Questions are good. Questions are one sign of a mind that is awakening to the world outside its own boundaries. Questions are the things that keep us growing mentally and spiritually. Questions are good.

Of course, there are questions, and then there are questions. By which I mean, some questions are pure and trusting and open to the truth. And some questions are wily. Some questions are tricksy, as Gollum would say. Some questions are not friendly.

Jesus is asked lots and lots of questions in the gospel of Matthew.

Both the Baptizer and Pilate ask questions about Jesus' identity; John asks if he is in fact the one they have been waiting for (11:2-3), and Pilate asks if he is the king of the Jews (27:11). The Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, chief priests and elders asked questions to try to trap Jesus; why the disciples break "the traditions of the elders" (15:1-2), for signs or proofs (12:38; 16:1), about divorce (19:2), taxes (22:15-17), resurrection (22:23-28), and the role of the commandments (22:24-26), by whose authority do you do the things you do (21:23). The disciples asked him questions; who is the greatest among us (18:1), what good deed do we have to do to receive eternal life (19:16), for a sign concerning Jesus' coming at the end of the age (24:3). And for every other question someone else following Jesus asked, Peter would ask another; "How often must I forgive?" (18:21), "We left everything for you, what do we get?"(19:27).[i]

One working preacher has said that, of all these questions, only those asked by John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate are asked without ulterior motives. Everyone else who asks Jesus a question has an axe to grind, a point to make, a position to secure. “Those who ask Jesus questions want to trap him, or impress him, or get something from him.”[ii]

Take the chief priests and the elders. In this morning’s passage from Matthew’s gospel, they ask Jesus where he gets the authority to do the things he does. What things, exactly, you might wonder? And then we look back a bit in the chapter to see what Jesus has been up to lately, and when we do, it becomes immediately apparent exactly why he is being asked this question. Throughout the gospel, Jesus has been teaching, and healing, and freeing people from the demons that have been possessing them, and sitting down for meals with people from all walks of life—the kinds of people the chief priests and elders would positively run from. But here, in chapter 21 of Matthew’s gospel, we’re getting near the end of the line with Jesus, and what he has been doing lately has really shaken things up. First, he entered Jerusalem with nothing less than a splash—he received a pretty nearly royal welcome from the people. And then, he promptly went to the temple, where he drove out all the people who were buying and selling, and turned over the tables of the people who were changing money and who were selling doves for ritual sacrifices. He quoted words from a psalm as he did these things. He said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

This was a shocking thing for Jesus to do. The Temple was considered to be the holiest place on earth by Jesus’ people—the Temple mount is still considered holy to this day by all the children of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. But Jesus was angry about what was going on there. It’s not really that it was commerce—Jesus wasn’t against buying and selling, per se. It was simple, really: the system of sacrifices left the poor out in the cold. If you need to have sacrifices made on your behalf in order to be forgiven for your sins, and if those sacrifices cost money, guess who’s never going to have a chance to get right with God? The people without money, of course. And there he goes again. Jesus, siding with the poor over the elites. That’s what Jesus has been up to—and not just lately, throughout the entire story of his ministry.

So, the temple elites ask Jesus, where do you get the authority to do this? And instead of answering, Jesus plays Socrates, and responds, question for question. It seems that Jesus doesn’t really like the question he’s been asked—probably because it’s pretty transparent. The question was not asked the way children ask, “Why do you blink?” or “Where do babies come from?” It was asked more the way someone asks, “Why shouldn’t I hurt you?” Or even, “Would you like to buy this bridge in Brooklyn?”

Jesus rejects the question. It doesn’t interest him. He says he will answer only if his questioner answers another question, a wily question of his own… “The baptism of John… did it come from heaven, or it was of human origin?” Jesus, of course, knows the answer to this question, but his questioners are paralyzed by it. Why? Because, they aren’t asking questions with hearts that are pure and trusting and open to the truth. They are using questions to trap Jesus, to harm him.

And then Jesus asks another question: “What do you think?” And then he tells the parable, about the two brothers. Their father tries to send them to the vineyard to work, and has a really frustrating time with them. One says, “Later old man. You go to the vineyard!” But later, he decides, well, maybe dad could use my help after all. And so he goes. The other says, “Sure pop,” and then goes down to the pool hall with his buddies.

And then Jesus asks another question. “Which of these two did the will of his father?” And it’s so evident. The mouthy one, the seemingly disobedient one, the one who doesn’t care much about things like image, or who appears to have the authority. He’s the one who does the will of God. While the one who smiles, and says “Sure Pop!” Well. It comes down to what you do, not what you say. It comes down to actually going into the vineyard (or, maybe, into the basement) and rolling up your sleeves.

How do planes fly? What is time? Where does water come from? What happens to us when we die? Is God real? Questions are beautiful. Questions are good. Questions are signs that our minds are awakening to the world outside our own boundaries. Questions keep us growing mentally and spiritually. In the life of faith, questions can help to prepare us to roll up our sleeves and go do the work God is calling us to do, whether that work is taking lunch to hungry flood relief workers, or feeding a church full of people, or even helping one another to answer those big questions. Don’t be afraid of a questioning faith. Let your questions be pure and trusting and open to the truth. Thanks be to God for the questions that lead us towards him. Amen.

[i] Karl Jacobson, “Lectionary for September 25, 2011: Commentary on Gospel [Matthew 21:23-32],”

[ii] Ibid.

The Reason for the Rain: Sermon on Jonah 3:10-4:11

I preached this sermon on September 18.

It happened quickly. It happened on F@ceb00k. (Doesn’t everything these days?) It was just a day or two after the flood, and the internet was filled with images—photographs, videos—all depicting the devastation, the parking lots and intersections turned into lakes, the standing water chest high on the first floors of houses, the stunned looks on the faces of the people. And there it happened, in the comments under one particular photo, a shocking aerial view of downtown Binghamton. A woman wrote, “God sure is trying to send some people a message, don’t you think? I wonder if they got it?” She followed up her comment with a little heart.

And that comment, honestly, felt like a little kick to the heart. I was stunned that someone could look upon the scenes of our lives these past two weeks and say something so callous, so hateful. But the woman was saying something I’ve heard several times recently, each time in response to a natural disaster—the earthquake, the hurricane, and now the flood. On each of those occasions, someone expressed the opinion that this was God’s doing, and God is angry.

Other people in the F@ceb00k community very quickly took the woman to task for her words. And, while I was glad that the prevailing attitude in that forum was one of compassion for the flood victims, the entire episode left me feeling uneasy. Why are some people quick to assume, when disaster strikes, that the victims are sinners in the hands of an angry God? Do we believe that God’s anger is the impetus behind all the bad things that happen to us? Is God’s anger the reason for the rain? I think today’s passage from the book of the prophet Jonah has something to add to this discussion.

Most of us know at least a little about Jonah, whether we grew up attending a church or not. When they were very young my children were involved in a Christian education program designed to give them a hands-on experience of faith and church—acting out bible stories with little wooden figurines, “playing” with items like candles, communion plates, etc. I remember looking through the curriculum and sensing that its creators were really on to something… church for children is so often about what they can’t do, what they are prohibited from doing. How refreshing to find a program that invited and encouraged the very young to have ownership of their spiritual home. I remember leafing through the materials and laughing out loud at the description of Jonah. Jonah was the Backwards Prophet. When God says “Go right,” Jonah goes left. When God says go east, Jonah goes west (quite literally).

Truth be told, all the stuff for which Jonah is famous (or infamous) happens in chapters 1 and 2 of this tiny book from the Minor Prophets. His famous reluctance to do what God tells him to do. God’s desire to get Jonah’s attention, causing the storm that gets him thrown overboard like a case of rotten fruit. And of course, there is the matter of his languishing in the belly of the fish for three days. We come upon Jonah after his fishy sojourn, when he is more—shall we say receptive?—to God’s commands. As chapter three begins, God says, “Go to Nineveh,” and instead of lighting out for parts unknown, Jonah finally obeys. He has become, as my grandmother would have said, “biddable.” What follows is a tale full of exaggeration (I’m not sure it would take three days to walk across the 5 boroughs of New York City); a tale full of absurdity (can you say, livestock dressed in sackcloth?) and, ultimately, a tale that has the outcome God is seeking.

Make no mistake. God wants the people of Nineveh to repent. “Their wickedness has come up before me,” God says, and one gets the image of the divine nose wrinkling with disgust at some foul stench. But God, here, is like nothing so much as a parent who dreads doling out punishment to her children, and who does everything she can do to avoid it.

In the book of Jonah, God reminds me powerfully of one particular episode and one particular character from “Desperate Housewives.” For you uninitiated, Lynnette Scavo is the woman who, at the outset of the series, is drowning in the mayhem of life with four children under the age of six. When we meet her, Lynnette is longing to return to corporate America, a place where she was actually able to exercise some power and control over her life. That is most dramatically not her experience as a mother of young children. In one early episode Lynnette has to cope with the embarrassment of knowing that her three riotous boys have stolen from a neighbor, and they must be punished.

In this scene, the boys are sitting at a table. Their mother stands across from them, looking down sternly. Laid out on the table are implements of torture—that is to say, a hairbrush, a spatula, a “hickory switch,” improbably cut from some tree in their Southern California suburb. She then enumerates in disturbing detail how much pain will be inflicted by each item when it is used for the inevitable spanking. The boys protest loudly. Lynnette is stern and immovable.

"Too late. You STOLE. And then you LIED. Even worse, you made me look bad in front of Mrs. McCluskey, who you know is Mommy's sworn enemy." So, she says, “Pick your poison.” Gesturing to the aforementioned instruments of torture: "How about a belt? It's a classic." She runs through the rest of the choices, as the boys continue to wail that they don't want to be spanked. Lynnette reminds them that, "thieves get spanked, that's just the way it works." Unless! Unless they swear never to steal again and write Mrs. McCluskey a nice letter of apology.[i]

Of course, the boys agree to the plea bargain. And of course, they are not spanked. Do you know why? Not because they don’t deserve punishment of some kind—they certainly do. They are not spanked because their mom doesn’t want to spank them. They are not spanked because she cannot bear to make them suffer. And so she devises her own form of psychological warfare to ensure that the boys will escape their dreaded fate. The mother protects her beloved children from her own wrath.

Just like God in the book of Jonah. It is hard to see the Almighty in the story of Jonah as anything except an anguished deity who dreads punishing the evil deeds of the people of Nineveh. The Ninevite king asks, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” But what he doesn’t understand is that God is already doing absolutely everything in God’s power in order to avoid having to carry out the sentence. God has appointed a prophet and given the wicked a chance to reform themselves. And on the strength of just one pronouncement, we have a turnaround so startling that, yes, even the cattle are quickly dressed in penitents’ clothes. God chuckles. And then God relents, because that’s who God is. Just as Jonah grumbles: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…” Jonah is so mad he just wants to die. The world makes more sense to Jonah if God punishes the wicked, period. He doesn’t want to envision any other possibility.

But Jonah, thanks be to God, is not God. What we need to understand is that God is far less like a furious dictator and far more like a wounded lover. God longs for the people to repent, and beneath that longing is God’s desire that the people would love God, and recognize and appreciate God’s love for them. That they would simply wake up to the fact that God is there, caring for them, loving them, cheering them on to new and better life. When we become convinced of the fact that we are “bathed in [God’s] encircling kindness”[ii], there is no question of condemnation. There is only grace.

So Jonah is royally ticked that his preaching worked and the people are saved. And God pulls a splendid little practical joke on him, the bush growing up, the bush being eaten by the worm, and then God’s unassailable logic, “You cared more about that bush than about 120,000 people. AND animals. You silly, silly man.”

My answer to the woman on Facebook is much the same as the comments of the others who responded to her: God is not the reason for the rain, except insofar as God created a universe and a world that are governed by natural laws. God is not vengeance personified. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God is love. We truly are surrounded by God’s encircling kindness. Indeed, our only comfort, in life and in death, in storm and in flood, is that we belong, not to ourselves, but to God, who loves us.

The final picture we have of Jonah is, in itself, an object lesson in how not to experience the love of God. I have an image of him, all curled in upon himself, head down, arms folded, eyes squinting shut. Exactly the opposite of how we are invited to come to God—open. Hearts open to God’s healing touch; arms open to God’s loving embrace; eyes open to God’s wonders, ever unfolding. By all means, have a look at the backwards prophet. And then, do just the opposite of everything he does. Open yourself to God. That’s all God really wants. That’s all we really need. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Jessica Morgan, Television Without Pity (

[ii] Norman Fischer, Psalm 145, Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Sermon for 9/11 on Romans 14:12

Let me be honest with you: I stand in this pulpit today with some trepidation. In the book of Job, the main character loses everything he has through a series of disasters, and the very best thing his friends do is to stay silent for seven days. They simply sit with him, for a full week, while he mourns the loss of his children and all his possessions, a kind of silent ministry of accompaniment. It’s when they start to talk and interpret for Job, try to tell him why this has happened, that things get very bad, and they get it badly wrong. Sometimes silence is truly our best response in the face of disaster.

Still, you know me: I do tend to prefer to process things out loud. So I’m going to stand here this morning, and try very hard not to get it badly wrong.

The other day I heard someone on the radio say, “Every year when the summer is coming to an end, and the days are getting a little cooler, I know it’s coming. The anniversary. And I don’t want summer to end, because I don’t want to remember that anniversary.”

What does it mean to remember? Years ago someone pointed out to me the fact that the word “remember” is made by putting together re- and –member, that to “re-member” is to “put things back together again.” When we remember, we are putting things together for ourselves. So, I will make this claim: at the heart of what we are doing when we remember, is the act of putting ourselves back together. Who are we? Who we are is intimately tied up with the things we remember.

This week remembering has been unavoidable. Early in the week it began—last Sunday, in fact. The radio and internet and newspaper and television coverage of that anniversary, this year, the tenth anniversary of the day we call 9-11, which so conveniently also happens to be the number we dial on a phone when we have an emergency. We had a great national emergency ten years ago today, and none of us who are over a certain age can forget what that day was like. We remember. Where were we when we heard? What were we doing? Who did we call first? How did we spend the rest of that day and the day after, a day on which we learned that our nation was under attack?

One radio program this week interviewed people to find out what they were doing on September 10. I tuned in towards the middle of that program, so I didn’t hear what the rationale was for hearing stories of September 10, but I’m going to guess it had to do with putting that frightening day in perspective… what ordinary things were we about that we might be inclined to forget? Our days tend to be made up of ordinary things, and it just might be that these are the things we value, so it might be good to remember them, especially at times of great crisis.

Now those of us in parts of New York and Pennsylvania have another horrible day, or collection of days, to remember. In 2006 our area suffered what was then called a 500-year flood, which I suspect will soon be renamed, as we have suffered an even worse one now, just five years later. One thing I have learned in my life is this: trauma brings up trauma. As we have been going through these last days, wondering whether our loved ones and homes and businesses and places of worship and places of commerce would be affected, and then learning the sometimes devastating answer to that question, most of us couldn’t help remembering that other flood. I stood near the Court Street Bridge in Binghamton the other day talking to a woman who had been rescued from her home five years ago, and even though the home she now lives in was bone dry, she was still shaking. Her body, her soul, her whole being remembered that other flood. While her rational mind was telling her she would be alright, the rest of her was putting it together that, well, last time she wasn’t alright. And who knows if it will be alright this time?

What does it mean to remember? It means to put things together, the pieces of our lives, and the lives of those around us. Remembering helps us to forge our identities, who we are, what our lives mean. This is why conditions and diseases that affect the memory are so devastating to us. Who are we without our memories, even the terrible ones? “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a film about intentional forgetting, and the title comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, in which a lover’s only comfort following a tragic love affair is the ability to forget. In the film, a scientist has invented a process by which memories can be removed, and the people who tend to take advantage of that process are people with painful memories. Without giving away the ending, I think the movie makes the case that it might be better to remember nevertheless.

Our reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome concerns different ways people have of remembering who they are. Paul’s community is made up of people from disparate backgrounds, and so they remember who they are in different ways. Some remember who they are by worshiping God on a particular day, while others believe that all days are equal when it comes to worship. This probably refers to the tension between Jewish followers of Jesus, who were strongly inclined to worship on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, as commanded by Torah, while those who came to follow Jesus from other religious backgrounds wanted to worship on the day of resurrection, the first day of the week. Another way people had of remembering was the eating of or abstaining from particular foods, and this debate also cut to the divide between Gentiles and Jews. Jews abstained from certain foods as outlined in Torah, as well as from meats that had been used in Gentile religious ceremonies. Gentiles did not have these restrictions, but considered themselves to eat what they wished.

They have different ways of remembering, yet all these folks are followers of Jesus, committed not only to him, but also to their faith community. And they have a responsibility not to let their differences in remembering harm either of those commitments. And so Paul does the equivalent of saying, “Hey, remember this: what were you doing on September 10, 2001?” Paul reminds them of the essential truth of their identities, the one that both undergirds and overrides their differences in remembering. He says,

Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. ~Romans 14:6-8

It is not enough, sometimes, to remember who we are, Paul reminds the community. Sometimes we need to remember whose we are as well: If we live, we live in God. And if we die, we die in God. So, eating or abstaining, Saturday or Sunday, fire or flood, living or dying, we belong to God.

We belong to God. So we gather to worship God together, even when the pumps are still running in the basement. We belong to God, so we spend all day and all night (running on cookies and caffeine), caring for the gifts God and our forebears have left in our charge. We belong to God, so before we go home to nap we help our elderly neighbors to get their furnace started again. We belong to God, so the minute we are on our feet again—no, even before we are on our feet again—we start trying to figure out how we can serve the devastated community all around us.

After the September 11 attacks, David O’Brien, an historian from the University of Dayton, Ohio, became obsessed with reading the stories of those who had died. He was astonished at what he found. He wrote, "There were so many stories of self-sacrifice, not just by the first responders, but by people fleeing the building. There was this revelation of goodness… Our people, my people, were tested and, for a shining moment ... they were found worthy." [i]

The eyes of faith cause us to remember in certain ways, to put things together not only through events but also by their meaning. The historian David O'Brien looked at the events of 9/11 and saw an Easter story—good rising out of the ashes of evil.” Unlike certain politicians, I wouldn’t ascribe meaning to events such as hurricanes or floods beyond the information science can provide. But I will join O’Brien in saying that our responses to these events have great meaning. As I read in a poem this week,

In those days,
we finally chose
to walk like giants
& hold the world
in arms grown strong with love
& there may be many things we forget
in the days to come,
but this will not be one of them.[ii]

If we look back at disaster, we can also look ahead at what our response tells us. And if our response is soaked in the fact that we belong to God, then we can look forward with confidence… we belong to God. In fire and flood, in national emergency and calm peacetime, in waking and sleeping, in working and resting. In the ordinary things that make up most of our days we belong to God. And so we gather together to worship, to sit at God’s table, to gain strength for the work ahead. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Image: Jonathan Costello, Press and Sun-Bulletin.

[i] John Blake, “Four Ways 9-11 Changed America’s Attitude Toward Religion,” CNN Religion Blogs, September 3, 2011,

[ii] “Story People,” September 11, 2011