Day 26 – January 31st, 2013 – Matthew 9:14-17

I cannot help but think of “The Church”, when I read this passage. In fact, whenever a church or leader is doing something radically different or new, they often cite this passage in justifying the new work they are doing and about which they are receiving push-back. They argue that there is a “new wine” for these new times and therefore there must be new skins. As some one who has worked in churches for the last 15 years, I have been in the thick of these discussions many times.

But I wonder if we throw this “new wine-skins for new wine” phrase around a little too freely. First of all, while Jesus is making a grand sweeping statement, it is done within a specific context: Fasting. I think it’s important to keep that context in mind. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Jesus is saying here, “there is a new wine in the culture, throw everything out and start over”. He cites that there is a time for fasting and now isn’t that time. Generally speaking, however, he does call us to examine the times we’re in and pay attention to what the times call for. I think this passage is a call to relevance more so than merely a call new things. Just as some old traditions might not be relevant anymore, so too could something new not be relevant. New does not necessarily mean good, right or relevant. I think what Jesus is getting at in this passage is that new times are among indeed us, so when guiding people into being disciples of Christ, make sure you do it in a way that speaks to the time, place, and people.

I’m reminded of a wedding I attended in a small fishing village in Belize many years ago. The church was founded by some Mennonites decades ago, but was now run by an indigenous Garifuna pastor. The Garifuna were brought over from Africa as slaves, but escaped during the journey and were never actually enslaved. This village was primarily Garifuna and steeped in Garifuna culture. Over the years, this church was able to operate not so much as a Mennonite church, but as a Garifuna church. It was lively, charismatic, authentic, colorful, and, to me, foreign (that is not to say that a Mennonite church can’t be those things). However, there were still some rules about certain things such as weddings. When I showed up at the wedding, suddenly nothing was foreign. The indigenous pastor was replaced by some one who looked and talked like me, only older. The bride had on a white wedding gown and the groom a black suit. There was a declaration of intent, vows, rings, a unity candle, special music, a pronouncement and a kiss. It was nice. But it was not Garifuna. The liveliness, charisma, authenticity and color were gone. the only thing that remained was the foreignness- it was foreign to the bride, groom and all others who attended. It was an unsuitable wine-skin for this wine, I thought.

I’d like to think this is what Jesus is getting at in this passage. I’d like to think that Jesus is saying to us, “don’t get so married to your traditions that you cram them into places where they don’t make sense. But also, don’t get so enamoured of new times, places and ages, that you throw out some wonderful ingredients.”

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Day 25 – January 30th, 2013 – Matthew 9:9-13

Jesus makes a bold statement here: “I have come to call not the righteous, but the sinners.” If ever there was a statement of opening up the floodgates of the Kingdom of God, this is it. Jesus, the one whom Matthew establishes from the very beginning of his account as the Messiah, calls not the righteous but the sinners. That’s who Jesus is here for. It appears that he is blatantly excluding the Pharisees, but is he?

In this episode, Jesus is seen calling and eating with sinners. These are two things a rabbi would not do. He would not call a sinner to follow him, because a rabbi would only want the “cream of the crop” of the faith. And he definitely wouldn’t eat with a sinner, that it is huge no-no. Yet in a matter of just a couple verses he does both, and the Pharisees call him on it.

Here’s the dilemma for the Pharisees that, I think, Jesus has masterfully set up: Jesus is either the Messiah or he’s not. If he’s not the Messiah, there is no reason to be bothered with him. But if he is the Messiah, then a Pharisee would desperately want to be with him and in his inner circle. The problem is that Jesus’ entire ministry is proving to be a threat to the Pharisees. His inner circle and his following is growing and it is made up of sinners. We have learned that he has taught and acted with “authority”, which means he as that special something, the “it factor” that would indicate that he is from God. His followers are growing, also indicating that he’s for real. And in all of it, the Pharisees can’t seem to find their place. They are losing power, and worse yet, they are finding themselves on the outside looking in.

The question is, “is Jesus’ excluding them?”. This episode seems to indicate that he is, but if you look closely he’s not excluding anybody. He never says, “I’m here for them, not for you” or “you don’t belong here”. He says, “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’ For I have come not to call the righteous but the sinners”. He quotes Hosea 6:6 which is a beautiful Old Testament passage talking about the healing and restoring power of God. There is a lot going on in Jesus’ quoting of this passage, but among them is simply revealing that God is about healing and restoration, not fixing what isn’t broken. God is about bringing dead and dying things to life and humanity, since “the fall” has been a dead and dying thing.

Jesus isn’t excluding the Pharisees in this passage. He is forcing them to admit that they too are sinners. While they can’t say it aloud, their obsession with Jesus shows that they believe deep down that he is likely the Messiah. And that is the one person they want to be with. But Jesus, the Messiah, calls the sinners. It’s as though Jesus is looking straight at them saying, “I, the Messiah, am here for the sinners. Come join us.” Remember in Matthew 5 Jesus said, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”. He did not say, “blessed are those who are righteous”. To follow Jesus, to be with Jesus, to sit with the Messiah, is to admit that you are no different than anyone else in this world. So come, let’s pull up a chair, let’s sit with Jesus together.

Day 24 – January 29th, 2013 – Matthew 9:1-8

At first glance this story seems like another typical story of Jesus doing the good work of recognizing some one’s faith and healing them. And in many ways, that’s exactly what it is. But there’s also a subplot going on that we have seen a lot of and will begin to see even more of: Moving the Scribes and Pharisees’ cheese. This story really isn’t a healing a story as much as it is a scribe story.

It begins with Jesus noticing some people carrying a paralyzed man and Jesus says to him, “take heart, son, your sins are forgiven”. Think about that for a second. Imagine being paralyzed, having your friends take you to a man known for the miraculous power to heal and having him say to you, “take heart, your sins are forgiven”. Really? In Jesus’ time it was believed that any kind of ailment was a result of some sin, whether your own or generational, so this make some sense from a cultural standpoint; but does it make sense from a Jesus standpoint? We don’t really know, but I think it’s far more likely that these people brought their friend to Jesus to be healed, not forgiven. So why does Jesus say this? I would feel hurt if it were me, like I would have rather not come to him at all. But it’s important to note that Matthew doesn’t tell us how this paralytic or his advocates respond. He tells us how the Scribes respond.

Isn’t it possible that Jesus says this not for the paralytic’s ears but for the Scribes? He’s trolling the Scribes. He’s laying a little bait out there and then gently pulling it along hoping they’ll bite, and they do: “This man is blaspheming”, the Scribes say. At this point Jesus yanks up on the reel, waits for the fish to pull, and he’s got ’em: “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…”

He then looks to the paralytic and says, “stand up, take your bed and go to your home”. And the man is healed. All of this is done as a way putting the Scribes in their place. He not only wants to heal this man, he wants to say something to the Scribes through it. Pay attention to this word “authority”. It’s not the last time it comes up. One of the key themes that I think Matthew is trying to communicate is the authority that Jesus has; it is an authority that the Scribes and the Pharisees know he has, and it is for that reason that they are constantly questioning it. If this man, this defender of the weak, the poor, the least of these, has the authority he says he has and appears to indeed have, then the religious system from which the pharisees draw their authority is in trouble.

Matthew wants to establish that this man, this Jesus, is more than a good man. He is the Messiah. He is the one who has come to make all things right. He is the Christ. Before he literally asks it, his work and his ministry have already been asking us, “who do you say that he is?”

Day 23 (Part II) – January 28th, 2013 – Matthew 8:28-34

As I went back to read this story, I noticed something I had once scribbled in the margin. It reads, “this is a horrible story”. And it is. Jesus gets off the boat where two demoniacs meet him and command him (αποστειλον is the imperative) to send the demons to the pigs if Jesus indeed casts them out. And Jesus does. This then leads to the pigs running down a steep bank to meet their death in the water. PETA would not pleased, and rightfully so. I suppose to a Jewish audience, who at the time would see pigs as something “unclean”, the wanton death of a herd of swine would be no big deal; but isn’t Jesus concerned with wastefulness, with life, with respect for “all creatures great and small”? And furthermore this herd was some one’s livelihood. In Three Months With Matthew Justo Gonzalez sees this a move of social justice, as though Jesus is offering affordable housing in the midst of a crooked developer. But that’s not what’s happening here at all. It’s not as though Jesus set up shop with more affordable swine who are treated more humanely. No his exorcism simply led the pigs to their death. Furthermore, do we have any evidence that the owner of the heard was exploiting people at all? it’s possible, perhaps even likely, but all we have speculation. I’m not sure where Gonzalez is seeing this. I like his point, but I think it’s stretch in this context. He says, “Note that quite often when good is done to some, others are disturbed and even protest” (48), and then he follows it up with hypothetical examples of like affordable food pantries and the like.

I don’t see this in the text anywhere. It assumes that the only way for Jesus to heal or exorcise those men was to cast them into swine who would then be led to their death; as though Jesus’ only option was two human souls or a herd of swine. Not so. There were infinite ways in which Jesus could have cast out those demons. Gonzalez makes a giant leap here. I don’t see his point in the text, but then I am left to wonder, “if not that point, then what is the point?” All Jesus does here is upset an entire town. If this was truly some kind of social justice move, wouldn’t there be a section of the town grateful for his work as we usually see when acts in social justice? The text says, “the whole town… begged him to leave”. I wonder if when Jesus walked away with his disciples, if he kind of skipped out, shrugged his shoulders, looked at his disciples and said, “oops.”

So what is the point of this story? I am going to go on record with saying, “I honestly don’t know”. If I were to go all “Thomas Jefferson” on the Bible, this would be one of the first stories to go. I honestly don’t get it. I go back to my note in the margin: “This is a horrible story”. Time to wonder further. Time to interact with the Spirit of God asking, “God of mercy and justice, what IS going on here?”

Any thoughts?

Day 23 (Part I) – January 28th, 2013 – Matthew 8:23-27

So a couple of summers ago my grandfather died. I wasn’t particularly close with him, but always thought fondly of him and decided I should head down to Florida to honor him. I even secured a Bart Starr jersey that I would wear to the service, which is a big step for a guy like me, and a site many of my “east of the river” friends would love to have seen. The trick was that I had a memorial service back in Rosemount I needed to officiate the day after my grandfather’s service in Florida. Normally in a situation like this Pastor Karen would do the service for me (because she’s just that kind of gal), but she was away on a much deserved vacation. So I had to be very strategic: I would fly out Wednesday, go to my grandfather’s memorial service Thursday, fly back that afternoon and be home Thursday night in time for the service I was officiating on Friday.

So I take off on time from Minneapolis to fly to the purgatory known as the Atlanta airport. When I get there my flight is delayed because of grass fires in Daytona. As it seemed the fires were clearing a bit, a wicked storm rolled through Atlanta delaying and ultimately canceling flights, mine included. Let’s just say the airline handled this situation poorly, was utterly helpless and showed no grace or even effort to one just trying to get to his grandpa’s funeral. By about midnight, I realized I was not getting there, since the next flight out would get me there after the service would end. At this point it was time to just turn around and go home. As I booked a flight back to Minneapolis, I was a frustrated and sad customer. Without getting into details, they could have gotten me to Daytona but they simply chose not to. Because I was not going to reach my destination in time, I asked if I would at least be refunded for the ticket. “Sorry sir, we don’t do refunds for ‘acts of God'”.

“Acts of God? Do you really want to go there with me? An act of God would actually be a little grace, here, a little understanding, a little compassion, don’t you think?” I was livid. The fires and the storm were not “acts of God”. Why is it that we so often refer to such events in this way? I suppose it goes back “the flood”, but wasn’t part of the covenant that God made with Noah that God would never do that again?

As we see in this story, God does not cause storms, God calms them. The text for today says that a “windstorm arose on the sea”. A more literal translation would read, “a great earthquake [σεσμοσ, seismos] came about on the sea”. The storm just happened. This was not an “act of God”, it was an act of weather. But Jesus gets up to rebuke the wind, to put it in its place. The NRSV treads that there was then “dead calm”, but here’s a place where I think the King James gets it’s right. Most translations strip this passage of its poetry and, in so doing, I think its power. It’s just a nice story of Jesus calming a storm. In Greek the text essentially reads, “a great earthquake [tempest is the word used in the King James] came about on the sea”; and then upon rebuking the waves, Jesus creates a “a great calm”. The word for “great” is used to modify both “storm” and “calm”. We move from “a great storm” to “a great calm”. To use a different modifier for “storm” and “calm” strips this passage of its comparative elements, which is, I think, Matthew’s intent with the story. We don’t serve the God of great storms. We serve the God of great calm.

God is sure to blame for a lot of mayhem in the Old Testament, but things change when the Messiah shows up. Things change with “Emmanuel, God With Us”. Our God is a God of calm. But if you read closely, the “act of God” is not the storm nor is it the calm, but the calm in the storm. While Jesus calms the storm, he does so only after chastising his disciples for having little faith. That does not mean it’s not okay to be afraid. There are great storms to be afraid of in this world. But it does mean, that even in our fear we know and cling to the truth that the God we serve is not the God of the storm swirling about us, but the God of calm. You see, it was in calming the storm that the disciples were amazed, not in the creation of it. Calming chaos is much more amazing than creating it. So let’s stop with blaming God when lightning strikes denominational gatherings, and bridges collapse, and earthquakes strike impoverished nations, and hurricanes level casinos. We don’t serve a God of storms, but we serve a God of calm. May we all dig deeply enough to find the great calm of the Christ even in the midst of life’s great storms.

For those of you wondering about verses 28-34 in today’s reading, stay tuned…

 

Day 22 – January 27th, 2013 – Matthew 8:14-22

This is one of those passages where Jesus just seems mean. Cold. Unfeeling. He is certainly not pastoral here. I tend to gloss over this passage. I don’t like it. But it’s there. Staring at me with a silent scream, demanding that I listen to it, look at it, and deal with it. I don’t want Jesus to sound this way. I want Jesus to have more empathy and patience for his followers, but when he calls, does he ever say, “Hey, here’s a thought? Have you ever thought about following me? Why don’t you take some time, talk to your spouse, and see if it fits with your family’s needs.” No, the text says, “they left their nets and followed him”. Jesus calls us to leave everything, to make him primary, and begin doing his work right here, right now.

In Three Months With Matthew, Gonzalez asks us what obstacles we have in following Jesus. For me, the truth is, my family is the first thing that comes to mind. My family absolutely is an obstacle. Can we pastors just say that out loud? Were it not for my family I could live this itinerant life as freely as I like and as the Bishop calls. That’s true. But I actually don’t see my family as an “obstacle”. They are not keeping me from following Jesus. In fact, without them, I don’t think I would know how to follow Jesus. They have been key players in my spiritual formation. I didn’t understand the discipline of patience prior to having children. I lacked self-control prior to getting married. Having a family forces me to live in real intimacy. It’s like a mirror constantly showing me who I am and what I could become. The obstacle to following Jesus is not my family. It’s me. It’s my pride, it’s my anger, it’s my arrogance, it’s my narrow view. I wonder if Jesus call us not to recklessly abandon responsibility, but to turn away from ourselves- to deny our own self fulfilling desires and to rise up and follow him to a whole new way of living. A way of living that recognizes the formative power of God in our lives. That’s what following Jesus is- living a life fully tapped into the formative power of God’s grace. So perhaps the more clear and appropriate question is, “what in my life is an obstacle to the formative power of God’s grace?”

Day 21 – January 26th, 2013 – Matthew 8:1-13

I’m struck in this passage by Jesus’ response to the centurion. It is a rare moment when Jesus something like “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (8:10, NRSV). We often hear Jesus saying things like, “go, your faith has made you well”, but it appears here that one of, if not the most faithful people Jesus encounters in the entirety of the Gospels is this anonymous centurion. The picture I get is a bunch of students in a classroom longing for this kind of response from their instructor. Isn’t this what we all want to hear? It’s like Ralphy’s dream in the movie A Christmas Story, when his teacher lauds him with honor and praise and his classmates lift him up on their shoulders because of his “theme” that he wrote: “In no one in Israel have I found such faith”. And the crowd goes wild… This is the response we all want, perhaps more, if we’re honest, than “this is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased”. Jesus has just finished with three chapters of laying what it means to be faithful to the heart, not just the letter, of the law, a law which a Roman Centurion couldn’t care less about. And the first person he affirms for their faith is a Roman Centurion. Not just an outside, but the very expression of the enemy. So the question is “Why does he say it? What is it that the centurion said or did that warrants that response?”

He says it in response to the centurion’s faith in Jesus’ power and authority: “…but only speak the word and my servant will be healed” (8:8). He is certain that Jesus can do this, even from a distance, but why is he certain? Because he understands what power and authority are all about. He then likens Jesus’ power and authority to his power and authority as a centurion. It is here that Jesus gives him, what I would like to call, “The Great Affirmation”. The Great Affirmation comes in the likening of a Roman centurion’s power and authority to the Messiah’s power and authority. The centurion is not saying that they are equal, but he is saying that as one who has servants and slaves, he understands how real power and authority work. By Jesus affirming this, Jesus is essentially saying that there is something about the context of a roman centurion’s life that can help form their faith in God to the degree that “in no one in Israel [has Jesus] found such faith”. Jesus does not affirm his faith in spite of him being a Roman Centurion but because of it. It is his work as a Roman Centurion that is the very ting informing the faith that Jesus affirms. This has to send those belonging to the anti-Rome movement through the roof. Jesus is indeed, not breaking the law, but, breaking it wide open. This does not exclude or deny Israel, but forces Israel to expand its gaze. The Kingdom is no longer defined by its borders but by its center. The question isn’t are you inside the borders of the Kingdom. The question is, regardless of where you are, are you moving toward the Kingdom’s center, which is Christ? The walls have come down.

My question is, what does this mean for us, Jesus followers of today, the Church of the 21st century? Do we need to expand out gaze? About whom would it surprise us for Jesus to say, “no where in the Church today have I seen such faith?”