Sunday, August 24, 2008

Peter Gets the Job

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 24, 2008: The Baptism of Matthew Patrick Maurer

Year A: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16)
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Matthew 16:13-20

Peter Gets the Job

I know some of you have had the experience of hiring people. As unpleasant as it is to interview for a job, I think it’s even more difficult to be on the other side – deciding which candidate is best for the job. No matter how carefully you interview people, you can still make the wrong choice. You can still end up getting burned.

I experienced that a little when I was the History Department chairperson at St. Peter’s Prep. I would interview people for positions in the department and often the candidates would dazzle me in the interview. They said – and seemed like – they were passionate about teaching, creative in the classroom, committed to young people. And sometimes that turned out to be real. But in other cases later I’d find myself sitting in their boring classes, wondering what happened to that passionate, creative person? It’s hard to know for sure if we are hiring the right person. It’s hard to know if the right person is getting the job.

But, in the case of the disciples, for better or for worse, Jesus knew exactly what he was getting. Sometimes I love how so often the disciples provide a kind of unintentional comic relief in the New Testament. The disciples usually don’t understand what’s going on; they ask stupid questions; and often they drive Jesus to exasperation.

In Mathew’s gospel, just before the passage we just heard, there’s a great example of the disciples’ unintentional comedy routine.

Jesus is still in the middle of his dispute with the Jewish religious leaders that we talked about last week when he says to the disciples in all seriousness: “Watch out and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” I imagine the disciples blinking and staring blankly at Jesus. Or maybe they stand there and their eyes shift nervously side to side. Matthew then writes about the disciples, “They said to one another ‘It is because we have brought no bread.’

Jesus hears this and lets them have it. I imagine him slapping his forehead or covering his face with his hands. “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not talking about bread?”

In my imagination I can see the disciples looking down at the ground – embarrassed and sad that they had let down Jesus again. But also still confused, scratching their heads – what is Jesus talking about? “You ask him.” “I’m not going to ask.” You ask.” But no one has the courage to speak up now.

So, yes, the unintentional comedy act of the disciples is funny. Jesus, of course, doesn’t seem to find it very funny – more often he’s just disappointed and exasperated. And maybe we shouldn’t find the foibles of the disciples too funny either – since the disciples are really stand-ins for us. Just like them we don’t always get what Jesus is talking about. And just like them we make big mistakes.

And out of all the disciples the biggest bumbler – the one who usually doesn’t seem to really get it – is Peter. I bet many of you have a soft spot for Peter. He’s a lovable character, all heart, sincere. He’s a working man – think of all those long hours out there on the boat, hauling in the nets, reeking of fish, always living on the edge. If the catch isn’t good he won’t be able to provide for himself and those who depend on him.

And, Peter, this seemingly simple fisherman, throws his lot in with Jesus. And Jesus knows all about Peter’s flaws and weaknesses and yet Jesus chooses Peter to be the leader of the disciples. Peter gets the job. Peter’s there at the big moments, like the Transfiguration. He’s often the spokesman for the other disciples. His name appears first on lists of the disciples.

And, yet, Peter gets a lot wrong. Despite his special position usually Peter doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about. Like the others he takes Jesus literally, doesn’t get what the parables are about.

And Peter doesn’t just get things wrong. Peter does wrong things. Near the end of Jesus’ life Peter can’t even stay awake to keep Jesus company in the garden. Worse than that, Peter deserts Jesus in his greatest time of need – he’s nowhere to be found as Jesus hangs in agony on the cross.

And worst of all, as Jesus predicted, Peter denies Jesus three times to save his own skin.

Jesus knows all about Peter and yet Peter still gets the job. Jesus knows that Peter can be dense. Jesus knows that Peter can be a coward. Jesus knows that Peter is capable of betrayal – is capable of evil – and yet Peter gets the job.

The sad fact is that all of us can be dense, all of us can be cowards, and all of us are capable of evil – betrayals of God and one another, betrayals both large and small. I don’t know if any of you caught Rick Warren’s interviews last week of Barack Obama and John McCain. I didn’t see them myself but I’ve been reading about them and in particular the questions that Warren – pastor of a well-known megachurch and author of The Purpose Driven Life – asked about evil. He asked the candidates if evil exists and, if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? Do we contain it? Do we defeat it?

An interesting question and it provoked very different answers from the candidates. But as I’ve thought about it I wonder about the premise of the question. Warren seems to assume that if evil exists it exists out there somewhere. And evil is out there. But, unfortunately, evil also exists in our hearts, just as it existed in Peter’s heart.

Jesus knows all about Peter and yet Peter still gets the job.


Peter gets the job because Peter is open enough to God to get the big thing right. No matter is other mistakes – both past and present – Peter gets the big thing right. No matter the evil that exists in his heart – Peter gets the big thing right.

When Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter is open enough to God that he gets it. Peter tells Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Despite all his bumbling and mistakes and betrayals Peter gets the big thing right. Peter recognized who Jesus is. And so Peter gets the job – a job much bigger than I’m sure he ever bargained for.

“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

And here this morning, on behalf of Matthew Patrick, his parents Rob and Cheryl are open enough to God to get the big thing right. On behalf of their son they are saying to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

And all of us gathered here, despite our own faults and imperfections, our bumbling and our betrayals, we have the chance to be open enough to God to once again to get the big thing right. As we say these prayers, as we renew our own Baptismal Covenant, as we pray for Matthew Patrick as he begins his Christian life, really we are like Peter. We are getting the big thing right. In front of everyone we are saying to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ritual is Easy

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 17, 2008

Year A: Pentecost 14 (Proper 15)
Genesis 45: 1-15
Psalm 133
(Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32)
Matthew 15:10-28

Ritual is Easy

Today we have two gospel lessons for the price of one. First, we heard a bit of a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees about ritual purity. And then second we had this interesting and unusual encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. If you’re thinking that two gospel lessons in one morning is too much, maybe I shouldn’t tell you that I had the tempting option of deleting the ritual purity part. But, I thought the creators of the lectionary included both of them, so, you know, in for a penny, in for a pound.

Both of these passages are challenging and it might be helpful to put them into some context. Although similar stories appear in Mark’s gospel, these of course come from Matthew. And Matthew and his community had particular interests and themes that are clearly reflected in what we heard this morning. Most scholars agree that Matthew’s community was made up mostly of Jewish followers of Jesus, although there were at least some gentile Christians too.

Matthew is very careful to present Jesus as first and foremost the Jewish Messiah who ultimately offers salvation for the whole world. Matthew probably drew from the earlier gospel of Mark. Much of the wording is the same. But it’s not exactly the same. For example, Mark boldly declares that Jesus “declared all foods clean.” Matthew and his Jewish community are not prepared to go that far and so that bold declaration is deleted in Matthew’s gospel.

So for Matthew’s community the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees about ritual purity is a debate taking place within Judaism. It’s not a debate between Jews and Christians! And it’s probably a debate that continued between Jewish followers of Jesus and other Jews throughout the First Century. So for the first readers and hearers of the gospel, this exchange about ritual purity is not a history lesson and it’s definitely not an attack on the Jews. For the first readers and hearers of Matthew’s gospel the debate about ritual purity is a current event.

For Matthew this debate about ritual purity is part of increasing hostility between the Pharisees and Jesus and probably hostility between the Pharisees and the early followers of Jesus. I know we’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth repeating that although we don’t know as much about them as we’d like, the Pharisees probably get a bad rap in the New Testament. At heart, it seems like the Pharisees were interested in making sure that the everyday lives of Jews were holy. So you have this idea of a ritual hand washing before meals – which is not included in the Torah, but apparently was seen as a ritual to make everyday life holy.

Not a bad religious practice and of course it’s simply good hygiene. As a matter of fact, we even do a little ritual hand washing here in church, just before Lauren or I celebrate the Eucharist. Nothing wrong with it at all.

And, we’re a long way from those early debates among Jews who did or didn’t follow Jesus. But we’re still big on ritual, aren’t we? The Episcopal Church is known for ritual – which is all well and good. But in today’s gospel Jesus reminds us that the danger with ritual is that we can allow the ritual to become more important than what’s going on in our hearts. The danger with ritual is that because we’ve done the symbolic action – we’ve gone to church, bowed and kneeled and blessed ourselves - then we think there’s nothing more to be done. We decide that we don’t have to worry that our lives and our hearts don’t quite match what we’re doing symbolically.

We come here for our ritual each Sunday not as the end of our Christian life but as the beginning. We come here each week to be fed, to be strengthened, to hopefully be inspired, for our Christian lives out there in the world.

To the Pharisees and to us, Jesus says ritual is fine and important enough, but it’s nowhere near as important as the content of our hearts and the way we live our lives.

Ritual is easy. Dealing with what’s in our hearts and the way we live our lives is the challenge.

Which brings us to our second gospel lesson, Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. Since the gospels are usually interested in depicting Jesus’ power, wisdom and even divinity, it’s rare that we see Jesus learning and growing. But if we hold on to Jesus the human being then there must have been countless moments of learning and growing for Jesus. And here Matthew captures a rare moment of growth for Jesus – moment when Jesus has to match up his words with the way he lives his life.

Matthew specifically names her as a Canaanite to make sure we get that she is not a Jew – she is a pagan. So there are two strikes against her – she’s a woman and she’s a pagan. But despite that, like so many others, this woman calls out to Jesus asking him to cast out a demon from her daughter. And although she’s a pagan, she does address Jesus as Lord, Son of David.

The disciples simply find her annoying. And Jesus acts in a very un-Jesus way towards her, doesn’t he? We’re used to Jesus crossing all sorts of boundaries, but here at first he ignores her. That doesn’t seem like Jesus. And then he falls back on boundaries, telling the woman that he had come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Again, not very Jesus-like. But this woman is persistent and Jesus says maybe the most un-Jesus thing in the entire New Testament when he tells her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Some commentaries point out that the Greek word used for dogs might be better translated as puppies, and that does soften it a little. But isn’t it shocking to hear Jesus equate this woman (who has addressed him as Lord and who has a disturbed daughter) with a dog?!

But the Canaanite woman responds to the insult with a clever line, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
And at least in my imagination I see Jesus having an “a-ha” moment. Jesus is reminded that God is God of all and he may be sent to the Jews first, but his ministry and message is for the whole world.

Ritual is easy. Dealing with what’s in our hearts and the way we live our lives is the challenge. Our task is to live our lives in a way that matches what we say we believe and who we say we are – to live our lives in a way that matches our rituals. If Jesus had to learn and practice living that way then for sure we do too.

I was reminded of how far I have to go to get my life to match what I say I believe just a few days ago in San Francisco. Many of you know I was away with the six young people and two other adults on the J2A pilgrimage to some of the Spanish missions in and around San Francisco. After the pilgrimage was over I stayed behind in the city for a few quiet days in that beautiful place.

My plan for each morning was to get up early, go to Starbucks, spend some time on the New York Times crossword and then head up to Grace Cathedral where the have a daily 7:30 morning Eucharist.

On Monday everything went according to plan. Starbucks was deserted, the crossword was easy, and it was feast of St. Clare. It felt appropriate and meaningful to celebrate Clare’s feast in the city named in honor of her great friend, Francis of Assisi. I was on kind of a spiritual high.

The next morning it was back to Starbucks but this time things didn’t go quite according to plan. I went at the same time but there were more people including one rather distinguished looking man who was talking to a woman in a fairly loud voice about singers and movie stars. At first I thought they were friends, but when he got up to leave she was visibly relieved. His last words to her were “When you’re in Vegas, just mention my name and you’ll have carte blanche!”
That got my attention for a moment and then I went back to my crossword and immediately forgot about him.

Five minutes later I looked up and he was standing above me. All I wanted was to be left alone. But he says to me that he went outside and asked “the Big Guy Upstairs” who he should turn to and God told him he should choose me. My heart sank. So much for my solitude, so much for the crossword, plus I needed to leave soon if I wanted top get to the cathedral by 7:30. He sat down and began to tell me his story.

Looking more closely at him, although he was clean and neat I noticed that his finger nails were broken and dirty. He told me a fantastic and convoluted story. I’ll spare you most of the details. (I had trouble following it all anyway). But the gist of it was that he was fabulously wealthy, a generous donor to charities, the subject of an upcoming Robin Williams movie and would soon be touring with Frank Sinatra, Jr.

There was just one problem. He needed $28 to get his maroon Bentley out of the garage around the corner. If I gave him the money he would reward me with a cashier’s check for an enormous sum. Although fascinated by his story I was mostly annoyed at being interrupted and I was getting stressed out that I was going to be late for church.

I told him I could only give him $5. He was disappointed and suggested that I must be an alcoholic, a drug addict or a narcissist to turn him down.
I could have given him more money. I could have bought him something to eat and drink. Instead I got away from him as quickly as possible and raced into the cathedral, gasping, just as the service began.

Tuesday was the feast of Florence Nightingale. The gospel that day was from Matthew 25. You know it. Jesus says about those who are condemned, “for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me…”

That familiar gospel reading hit me with new force. I was in such a rush to get to church that I had neglected Jesus right there in that fascinating and disturbed and annoying man.

So I had an “a-ha” moment Tuesday morning at Grace Cathedral. My ritual did not match up with the way I was living my life.

Today we get two gospel lessons for the price of one. But the message is the same. Ritual is easy. Dealing with what’s in our hearts and the way we live our lives is the challenge for all of us.