Monday, August 15, 2011

Good news: did Jesus sin?

My potentially heretical sermon on Matthew 15:21-28 from yesterday.

A  Mexican woman comes up to an American clergyman. She says, in broken English, “Sir, please help me and pray for my daughter, who is sick.” The minister responds, “No, because you don’t belong in this country,” and calls her a slang term for a female dog. 

Did the minister sin?
I would say, “Yes.” He has stereotyped this woman based upon her accent and looks and dehumanized her. He has not loved his neighbor as himself. He has fallen short of the mark. 

So since that’s basically what happens between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in the Gospel this morning, where do we go from here? If this story was about anyone other than Jesus, we would say that the Rabbi in question had sinned, repented because of the woman’s tenacity, and had some sort of conversion experience where instead of seeing a “dog” he saw a mother, a woman, a child of God.

But this is a story about Jesus, the one who we say did not sin. So either: what Jesus does in this passage is not a sin, or Jesus, in his humanity, did sin. Gulp. 

 This is the point in which on something other than a hot steamy summer Sunday, I would bring up Anselm and his work Cur Deus Homo, “Why the God-Man?” which explains in great detail the necessity of a sinless Jesus for our salvation. It’s hot, we’ll save Anselm for another day except to point out that while the church has never actually settled on one single answer to the question of exactly how it is that Jesus saves us—is it his incarnation? His death? His resurrection?—the notion that Jesus must be a perfect and sinless offering is in a lot of them. 2000 years of orthodox Christian theology will agree that Jesus did not sin. In the Anglican tradition, we always point to Scripture, tradition, and reason as the three legged stool on which we base our faith; tradition is clear on the question of Jesus sinning, and the rest of the Gospels are pretty clear too, except for this story (I’ve always felt that Jesus’ sassy response to Mary and Joseph after he hides out in the Temple for a few days in Luke’s gospel to be an expression of adolescent sin). 

But this is one of the sticking points in understanding Jesus to be fully human and fully divine. How human can Jesus really be if he did not know what it was to sin? Is not sin one of the fundamental characteristics of human beings? We all do wrong—from a startlingly early age, as I discovered with Nathan the first time that I realized that he was telling me a lie. If Jesus did not know what it was like to do wrong, and to need to repent and seek forgiveness, could he really claim to be human? Or is it the temptation to sin—which Jesus resists—the fundamental human characteristic, and our inability to resist temptation is what separates us from Jesus in both human and divine forms?

I don’t want the heresy police out after me this week—especially now that all my sermons are going up on the blog and are available for curious bishops to read. But if we do look at the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, and identify that if we saw someone doing exactly this today we could consider it to be a sin, there is actually some very good news for us in that, and the good news is this: 

The church of 2000 years ago did not believe that to dehumanize a foreign woman was a sin, so there was no conflict between this passage and the doctrine that Jesus was fully human except in his sinlessness. Nor did the church of 1000 years ago, or even the church of a more recent era. But today, the church has finally realized that women are, indeed, human, and are indeed a neighbor worthy of love and respect. So while it did not appear that Jesus sinned to the church of yesterday, in the eyes of at least this church leader, it looks to me like he did.
And that is good news for the kingdom of God. We still have a long way to go in recognizing women’s ministry in the church, and in reducing discrimination and prejudice based upon ethnicity and religious heritage. But look how far we have come. A story in which it never occurred to anyone in the Church that Jesus might be doing something sinful comes down to us today and we say, “How could they not see it?” The revelations of the Holy Spirit did not stop 2000 years ago, they continue today, and will continue into the future, as we get nearer and nearer to Truth. 

And there’s even more good news, because look what happens in the second half of the story. Jesus knows he was wrong. How many of us, when confronted with someone who is holding up the mirror and showing us our sin, actually have the maturity and the grace to change? I don’t usually—at least not in the moment. Maybe after a day or two of reflection, I’ll realize I was wrong, but in the moment, I’m much more likely to get defensive. If someone were to accuse me the way the Canaanite woman accuses Jesus, I would disagree—say that she’d mis-interpreted my remarks, or that it wasn’t that she was a Canaanite, exactly, but that she was hitting me up for help in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, or something. Jesus doesn’t do that. He hears her, he sees her, and he realizes he was wrong. And then he makes it up to her. “Woman,” he begins—she’s not a dog any longer—“Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Elsewhere in the Gospels, the disciples ask, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and Jesus teaches them the Lord’s prayer. Today I almost want to ask, “Lord, teach us to sin.” Teach us how to sin and repent and restore that which we have taken away by our sin immediately. What would a world look like in which this was how we handled sin? Where when we have been sinned against we confront it instantly but with humility. And when we are the sinner, we hear the confrontation and respond with maturity and grace and restore that which we had taken away.

We would have to know who we are: beloved Children of God. Perhaps that’s why Jesus is able to respond so quickly to the Canaanite woman’s accusation—he knows who he is. He is God’s son, the beloved, as the voice from heaven said at his baptism. He knows that even if he admits his sin and changes his mind, he will still be God’s beloved son. 

Do we know that in our hearts? Do we believe that if we admit our sins we will still be loved, still find grace, and actually find forgiveness? Or is it easier to keep denying our sins so that we can feel better about ourselves—to believe that we’re not one of those people who sin, we’re one of the good guys. Hear Paul’s letter to the Romans today: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” All are sinful, all require mercy, and all get mercy. Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, Canaanite of the 1st Century, American of the 21st Century. We just have to believe it as much as that woman who confronted Jesus, and it will be done for us as we wish. Amen.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Leap of Faith

My sermon from Sunday, August 7, 2011

My Facebook status update last Sunday night, after all the celebrations for Andrew’s retirement in the morning, was: “The training wheels are off.” It’s a leap of faith for me to be your priest-in-charge, and I know it’s a leap of faith for you as we chart this new course together. I have this sense that if I just keep pedaling and don’t look down and it’ll all be fine.  

Which might have been good advice for Peter this morning. I always think of this as the Wile E. Coyote gospel story—you remember Wile E. Coyote from the old Roadrunner cartoons, who would run out over the edge of the cliff and keep going until he noticed that there was nothing underneath him, and then hold up a sign that said, “Uh-oh!” or something and then plummet to earth. Peter is fine until he begins to think about what he’s doing, and realizes that he’s actually walking on water, and only then does he begin to sink. You really can do amazing things when you don’t know that what you’re doing is impossible. You really can do amazing things when you have your eyes fixed on Jesus—but when you take your eyes off of Jesus, you might start to sink. 

The most memorable leap of faith I ever took was when I celebrated taking the General Ordination Exams while I was in seminary with three of my classmates. Strapped to a large Brazilian man, I got into a tiny airplane with a friend and a pilot, circled up for 10,000 feet, and then jumped out. I was attached to the Brazilian, and he was attached to the parachute. There’s a picture in my office, if anyone doubts that I was so stupid as to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. But when I and my friends—all priests now—landed, we laughed about what a wonderful sermon example this was going to be for all of us. It was an act of faith—in the Brazilian, in the airplane, in the skydiving company, and I suppose in God, tangentially, for good luck rather than bad luck. But I didn’t feel like a person of faith while I was doing it. I was terrified, (there was video of this, but my parents taped over it!) very pale, shaking, and spent the entire plane ride afraid I was going to fall out, and then realizing the irony that I was paying quite a lot of money precisely so that I could fall out of the plane. But once we got out of the plane, especially once the free fall was over and we were floating slowly down to earth held up by the parachute, was exhilarating.

We tend to think that faith is a feeling of peace. I always think of people on TV, saying that they have faith so they don’t have to worry about disease or terrorism or whatever, and they always look sort of holy, very serene with their hands clasped together. And I’m not exempting myself from this—I have been known to say to people, “Have faith.” But faith isn’t something you have, it’s something you do, and acting on faith sometimes feels like and looks like stupidity. Faith is getting out of the boat and walking on the waters towards Jesus. Faith is jumping out of the airplane with only a Brazillian and a parachute to save you. Faith is moving on in the life of a church after a beloved rector leaves. It’s terrifying, and even if Jesus is standing there saying, “Do not be afraid,” the adrenaline and the fear kick in naturally. In my experience, acting on faith is scary, not peaceful.   

Peter is the one who takes the big literal leap of faith today—he’s the only one of the 12 disciples who gets out of the boat. He’s kind of showing off, and then gets humiliated out on the water. That’s Peter’s way. But look at what happens to the other eleven: they stay in the boat and watch Peter and Jesus, and then acclaim Jesus as the son of God when he and Peter return. Seeing someone else act on their faith can give you faith—the guys in the boat do not walk in the water, but what they see happen between Peter and Jesus illuminates who Jesus is for them.  

We don’t always have to be the person getting out of the boat or jumping out of the plane to inspire our faith in God. Sometimes we just have to be watching for others. What are the faithful acts you’ve seen that have helped your own faith to grow? Who are the people of faith who inspire you—who in-Spirit you? 

Thinking this week about people who inspire me, one who came to mind was the Rev. Altagracia Perez in LA who was sent to St. Phillip’s church in South Central LA basically to close it down, but who revitalized it and bridged the elderly historic African American congregation who commuted in from Compton and the Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants who actually lived in the neighborhood. She never gives up when fighting for the poor, sometimes sounding like the persistent widow in the Gospel in her confidence that Jesus came to liberate us from poverty of spirit as well as poverty of pocketbook. When I want to give up, and say something is impossible—Altagracia reminds me to keep fighting; and she reminds me of the communities in which I found my calling to the priesthood which is so very different from the comparative safety of the Upper East Side. The Rev. Rob Schwartz and his wife, Jeanne, are out on the Standing Rock reservation in the Dakotas, leading churches that bear no resemblance at all to ours beyond the name “Episcopal” as he preaches hope and good news in the midst of a community rent by poverty, addiction, and suicides—which at the same time is obviously a community he loves deeply and finds incredibly beautiful. I think of Pastor Noah Daudi in Tanzania, a priest to a parish, a husband, father, and grandfather, and the man who runs the Carpenter’s Kids—and the Diocesan retreat house. All with grace and gentleness—I can’t imagine being in charge of three institutions at once, but Noah does it with God’s help. 

These are real examples, now, of what’s going on with the Gospel today with people acting on their faith. People who have gotten out of the boat, and are walking towards Jesus, confident that if they start to sink, Jesus will immediately grasp their hand and pull them up again. “Immediately” is a big word in the Gospel—Jesus does a lot of things immediately, one of them today. The second Peter cries out for help, help comes immediately. “Lord, save me!” I’m sure that Altagracia and Rob and Jeanne and Noah have all cried out those words. They’ve all needed to be saved.  

We need to be saved too. We cannot save ourselves—no matter how hard we try, no matter how fast we pedal to try to just keep going. It takes Jesus to hold our hand and pull us up. It takes Jesus to get into our boat and still the storm so that we can go where he is leading us. And to let go and let Jesus save us takes a lot of faith. It takes trusting God as much as I trusted that Brazilian who jumped out of a plane with me. We will doubt, we will be afraid, we may look crazy.. but if we act on our faith, we will be saved. Amen.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The "Ernie Hunt" Martini and other discoveries

The just-retired Rector has left most his books here; I'm going through them, keeping what I want, putting significant items in the parish library, and putting  the rest on tables in the back of the church. Epiphany has been transformed into an outpost of The Strand for a while, with miles upon miles of mostly theological books free for the taking. 
I am now a huge advocate for e-books.  This explains why most parish libraries are about 44 years out of date, and makes me realize that my love of books is going to end up someday, like Andrew, adding to a huge recycling pile.

But there are treasures--a 19th Century folio of Shakespeare's works; old Prayer Books; biblical commentaries...

...and the Epiphany Family Cookbook.  I'm a big fan of parish cookbooks because they're always full of recipes with bacon and cream and canned goods--things I would never cook without a history lesson to guide me. 

No one bothered to put a date on the cookbook--no doubt, everyone who got one knew when it was published, so why waste the ink? (The same people who carefully labeled the photos of retired rectors except for the 2nd and 3rd most recent--everyone knows who they are, so why give them a name?) It was sometime durign the tenure of Ernie Hunt as rector, though, because he is the one man to have a receipe in the book. Page one, under "Appetizers and salads," the Ernie Hunt martini. (Do the olives make it a salad, or is it an appetizer?)

And it's weird.

Two jiggers of vodka.
1/2 ounce gin.
Drop or two of Dry Vermouth.
Lots of ice. 
Shake.  Do not stir. Add lemon peel or three olives.

A martini with vodka AND gin?  Heresy.  I know Dean Hunt--he preached here just two weeks ago--and I would never have thought it of him.  But I'm a little curious. Some evening, when I have no where to be the next morning, I may test this out.  An innovation from the 1980s Episcopal Church--the era when Epiphany had its first woman priest.  It's just research, after all!