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Vengeance and Forgiveness
“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on” (Phil 3).
Imagine it is July 1, 1751. You live in the farmlands below the Holyoke Mountain Range, near the great Connecticut River in Northampton. Eventually this will be called Western Massachusetts, but now it is not far from the frontier of European settlement. On this warm Sabbath day you sit on wooden pews in a Puritan church. The pastor, in his late forties, has served here for twenty-four years.
As a young man, he led this church when it became the birthplace of the Great Awakening. The books and pamphlets he wrote about this extraordinary revival of spirituality became international bestsellers and put this remote town on the map. You do not realize it but the Reverend Mister Jonathan Edwards will have the reputation as the New World’s greatest theologian for the next three hundred years.
This fact would probably astonish you since your church has voted to fire him and this is his last sermon as your pastor. Northampton has been growing. Escalating land values and trade have led to greater inequalities than the town has yet faced. Edwards angered powerful people in this community because of his uncompromising opposition to the pressures of materialism. Furthermore, some young men in the town have found an anatomy book and are using it to taunt women about their private parts. Edwards has been outspoken in demanding discipline even for these children of prominent citizens.
His grandfather was the pastor before him and Edwards has reversed one of his most distinctive policies. Edwards now demands a testimony of faith before anyone can become a member of the church. This theological conviction is the stated reason for his removal.
Edwards has baptized their children, married them, buried their loved ones, and counseled them when there seemed like no hope. He now stands to say farewell. He says, “we live in a world of change, where nothing is certain or stable… a little time, a few revolutions of the sun, brings to pass… surprising alterations, in… persons, in families, in towns and in churches, in countries and in nations.” He points out that despite all the
change we see in this world, God will bring together pastors and their congregations on the Day of Judgment. Then, “every error and false opinion shall be detected; all deceit and delusion shall vanish away before the light of that day.” Then “all shall know the truth with the greatest certainty, and there shall be no mistakes to rectify.”1
I think in almost all of us (even preachers of predestination) there is a longing for this kind of Judgment Day. That is when our divorced spouse finally gets what he deserves, when a parent has to face what she has done, when the boss who fired us or the friend who betrayed us receives the full force of God’s justice. “Then they’ll know how I feel,” we think to ourselves. This is the fantasy of being justified by someone who really understands. It is one of the most appealing aspects of believing in God’s omniscience.
Jesus tells the story of an investor, a landlord who builds a vineyard with a fence, winepress and watchtower. He plants vines but during the five years that it takes for them to begin producing wine, the tenants there begin to think they own this place. At harvest time, the owner sends his representatives. The tenants beat one, killed another and stoned another. They do this again. The owner then makes the fatal mistake of sending his own son as his legal representative. They kill him. Jesus asks the religious leaders who are persecuting him, “what will the owner do to those tenants?”
At first the point seems obvious. The Pharisees condemn themselves when they say that the owner, “will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants.” This story has been used to claim that God has taken the kingdom away from the Jews. Among Protestants this reading was probably used to suggest that God would take away his kingdom from the Roman Catholics. Maybe there are Mormons somewhere using this same parable to claim that God was taking the kingdom away from the Protestants.
Our reading from Isaiah shows where Jesus got the story. Isaiah criticizes leaders of his own society. He suggests that their work is not bearing productive fruit and that as a result God will permit the vineyard (as a symbol for the people of Israel) to be dismantled. Jesus personalizes and intensifies the story. His version is not merely about failure, but about greed, theft and murder.
In the vineyard owner, Jesus chooses an odd character to make as his example. Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) conquered almost the whole known ancient world three hundred years before Jesus’ time. His conquest brought Greek culture and language to the Holy Land. The Greek-speaking kings who governed after his death would expropriate land and either grant it to their strongest supporters or sell it to
wealthy foreigners. Jewish people deeply resented these absentee landlords and foreign overseers who would often claim between 40 and 50 percent of the produce.2
This introduces new complexity into Isaiah’s simple story. Who are you meant to be? Are you a greedy tenant, or someone unfairly oppressed by a distant tyrant, hoping to finally own the full fruits of your own labor? Are you the distant owner initially feeling frustration because of your dependence on nameless serfs and then through your own tragic miscalculation, bearing some responsibility for endangering your son? Can you feel some of the rage that follows this realization? Or are you the son, proud of your position and responsibility, an elite who suddenly and tragically discovers his own vulnerability?
1. Let me make two points this morning. First, this story reminds me that ultimately evil does not prevail. In Junior High School I had a friend named Phil. One day Phil’s older brother Steve and his girlfriend were forced into a van at gunpoint in the supermarket around the corner from my house. They drove down to Putah Creek where both teenagers were killed. Years later, DNA evidence linked these deaths to a man who committed a string of murders across the west. Two sweet and perfect teenagers died a terrible death because this man enjoyed the sense of power that killing made him feel. This week the events in Las Vegas brought that terrible experience back to me.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about what he called “Radical Evil.”3 Human beings harm others out of our own self-interest, but we are also capable of completely inexplicable cruelty. Jesus’ story reminds me that there is nowhere for evil to hide from God. Even when everything seems to be spinning out of control, evil does not have the last word.
2. My second point is more subtle and difficult. Jesus’ parable is not just about evil people out there. It is about what happens in me too. God cares about what we do. In fact, that might even be the primary meaning of this story.
Two hundred years ago, the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) wrote that many of our opinions about Christ’s Last Judgment arise out of, “a vengeful desire to enhance the misery of unbelievers, and to exclude them from… the good.”4 For him, the Last Judgment at its best symbolizes the hope that one day all beings will be freed from evil actions to such a great extent that evil will in effect cease to exist.5
Until then we all face an inner struggle. The amazing thing about this story is that Jesus does not really supply an ending. He gives the Pharisees a set of circumstances and they are the ones who say that the vineyard owner will put the tenants “to a miserable
death.” But this is not what Jesus himself says, or more profoundly, this is not how God acts when it comes to Jesus.
When God sends the Son into the vineyard where he is killed, this story is not about how his persecutors are humiliated and put to justice. The story of Jesus is about how life overcomes fear and death. It is about the power of forgiveness, how God brings about healing and wholeness in miraculous ways. In his Letter to the Philippians the Apostle Paul describes the zeal with which he persecuted the followers of Jesus. He even participated in the murder of St. Stephen. God didn’t put him to death but showed him a whole new way of being.
God moved Paul’s heart so deeply that he came to “regard everything as loss” compared to, “the surpassing value of knowing Jesus” (Phil. 3). He lived for this love, because in his words, “Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3). Under God’s care and in the face of this forgiveness he became one of the most faithful of all Jesus’ disciples in history.
In conclusion, Jesus does not tell the parable of the vineyard tenants to give Jews, Christians, Protestants or even Mormons a sense of ancestral entitlement or the right to condemn whole classes of people. Jesus tells us this story both to remind us that God is in charge (that vengeance belongs to the Lord) and that God’s ways of forgiveness and love surpass human understanding. We have the chance to change right now. In our hearts we carry, we are, the tenants and the landlord and the son.
You may have heard an old story that the Chippewa Indians used to tell about a young boy and his grandfather. The old man tells him about the fierce battle within every person between two wolves. One wolf is evil. He is greed, lies, jealousy, anger, condemnation, prejudice, distrust and fear. He feels superior, insecure and self-pitying at the same time.
The other wolf is good. He is strong, gentle, kind, self-sacrificing and true. He has faith. He is at peace and he shares everything with a generous and joyful heart. The young boy asks his grandfather, “which wolf wins?” The grandfather replies “the one you feed.”
1 Edwards’ “Farewell Sermon” is printed in many different volumes. The story I tell here is influenced by Philip F. Gura, Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical (NY: Hill and Wang, 2005), 162-4.
2 Herman, C. Waetjen, “Intimations of the Year of Jubilee in the Parables of the Wicked Tenants and the Workers in the Vineyard,” Journal of Religion and Theology in Namibia, 1, 1999.
3 Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.
4 Frierich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, Tr. H.R. Macintosh and J.S. Steward (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1928), 715-7.
5 Being part of a twenty-first century democracy makes us partly responsible for a lot of terrible things. The Arctic ice cap continues to shrink. Scientists agree that this is mostly because of emissions from our smokestacks and tailpipes. Although the science of global climate change proves that we need to act immediately, ordinary self-interested people refuse to change. The twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich points out that the Greek word for truth aleithia means literally to unveil something. For ancient Greeks truth is discovered, the opposite of truth is opinion. For Christians, the opposite of truth is a lie. Truth is not something that is known, but something that we do in relation to others. Tillich writes, “You cannot have an opinion about the Christ after you have faced him. You can only do the truth by following Him, or lie by denying him.”
5 For Jesus himself truth is a form of action. He says, “Anyone who hears my words and acts on them is like the wise man who builds his house on a rock” (Mt. 7:24).
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
Canon Bachmann’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
“Your words… became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts” (Jer. 15).
You might remember Calvin and Hobbes the comic strip about a little boy and the stuffed tiger who in his imagination comes to life. In one Calvin’s teacher says, “If there are no questions, I’ll move on to the next chapter.” Calvin raises his hand and the teacher calls on him. He says, “What’s the point of human existence?” The flustered teacher snaps back, “I meant about the subject at hand.” Calvin replies, “Oh – frankly, I’d like to have the issue resolved before I expend any more energy on this subject.”
Before going about your business you too may want to have this issue resolved. Although it might not initially look like it on the surface I believe that our gospel today addresses this very point. The meaning of human existence is at stake when Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 16). Questions about meaning have been at the heart of our conversations with each other since the beginning of humanity.
Ancient Greek philosophers (like the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics) formed rival schools to guide their students, to help them learn how to live. They shared in common a goal described by the Greek word eudaimonia. It means flourishing, happiness and joy. They believed that we accomplish this through ataraxia, which is a kind of detachment, a freedom from anxiety. You could define it as imperturbability, or having an even keel. They hoped to find a middle way between life’s highs and lows so that the world would not exercise too much power over them.
These ancient teachers believed that two things prevent us from enjoying life. First, we cannot control our emotions. Second, we fail to pay enough attention to the present. We suffer because we live in the past through our regrets and nostalgia. Or we miss the present because of our worries about the future.
Unfortunately we cannot resolve this problem merely by knowing about it or through a form of intellectual knowledge. Instead we have to change our habits of thinking. Ancient Greek philosophers dedicated themselves to thought experiments; these served almost a kind of self-hypnosis to change their view of the world.
One of these is to imagine that this is the last day of your life. How would you feel? What regrets would you have, in what ways would you feel satisfied? To keep himself in this frame of mind a wealthy ancient Greek named Pacuvius paid for a funeral ceremony for himself every day. The slave next to the Roman general in the victory parade would say, “Memento mori. Caesar remember your death.”
There are many other examples. Imagine losing all of your possessions. Imagine that life is really just a theatrical performance. Imagine that everything that happens in every moment of your life, every thought that crosses your mind and every stranger your passes you on the street will be repeated exactly for all time. Through exercises like this ancients hoped to cultivate amor fati, a love of fate. With Spock-like equanimity they hoped to look at their life and say, that if they had to do it over again, they would change nothing.
Jesus offers something very different. At first it might seem scary. I know people who really did take up the cross and follow Jesus. They worry me. At my old church we had a young couple with two babies under the age of five. They gave up everything to become Christian legal missionaries. They moved to Rwanda where they risked their lives on a justice commission rebuilding society after the genocide.
When something fell through in our rotating shelter, my friend Alice, a pragmatic and clear-minded widow in her eighties, welcomed homeless people into her own house. We have people like Alice here and frankly they scare me sometimes. You want to say something to them like, “Don’t you know that you could be killed?”
This same dynamic lies at the heart of today’s gospel. Jesus tells his friends that it is necessary (dei) for him to go to Jerusalem, undergo much suffering (polla pathein), be killed and on the third day raised. Peter often speaks for the disciples and, for that matter, us. He goes to Jesus and says hileos soi kurie literally “Mercy to you Lord!”
I cannot perfectly translate this and no one else probably could either. He wants to find a way out for Jesus, some other plan to get this done. But despite the nobility of his concern and his love, he wants Jesus to deviate from the mission. In doing this he offers a genuine temptation to Jesus. To me it feels like Jesus wants to believe him but then comes to his senses. This is the source of his vehemence, as he exclaims, “Get behind me, Satan!”
The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says that Satan “from the beginning of time has offered humankind alternatives to the will of God.” You have surely felt similar temptations to do and be something other than God intends you to do or be.  Peter asks Jesus to be the Lord, but without suffering. Since this is impossible his recommendation amounts to asking Jesus to abandon his mission.
Perhaps Jesus sees that the disciples need help with this so he explains further saying, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”
When Jesus talks about going to Jerusalem, his humiliation at the hands of the people’s leaders, his great suffering and death we shut down. We fail to hear the last part about being raised up again. Like the Greek philosophers Jesus is talking about a way to live.
Taylor goes on to say that in this teaching Jesus refers to what she calls “a deep secret” which is that fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy and cautious way of living that is not really living at all… [T]he way to have abundant life is not to save it but to spend it, to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and saved any more than a bird can be put in a shoebox and stored on a closet shelf.”
We all know ways to save our lives. We know how to be so very careful never to say the wrong thing. We can avoid risks by not ever sharing ourselves, by leaving people far outside of the parts of our lives that matter to us. We can save our lives by never seeking or offering forgiveness. You probably have your own way of saving your life. And if you are sitting here you are likely to also have realized that this life we spend so much energy saving is not one of great joy.
In the face of the temptation to save ourselves Jesus instead insists that we live a life that matters. This means pouring out our life in whatever unique way that God calls us to do it. Through prayer, service, listening, worship and encountering the Holy at this table we can meet the One who directs us toward joy. What Jesus offers is not so much a frame of mind as a relationship with a person, God. Before going further I want to try to describe what this encounter feels like both in a technical way and a more evocative one.
In 1917 the German philosopher Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) published a book called The Idea of the Holy. He believes that human beings encounter something beyond ourselves. He calls this “the numinous.” He writes that it is a, “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling… whose object is outside the self.” He also describes it as ganz Andere, as wholly other. It has different elements. There is the mysterium tremendum which evokes a sense of fear (for instance as when we hear about taking up our cross), and the mysterium fascinans, which he calls the mystery that fascinates and attracts.
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was deeply influenced by Rudolf Otto. His series of children’s books describe many encounters between the children and the Christ-like lion Aslan. In his book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the children learn about Aslan while visiting in a talking beaver’s lodge. Beaver tells them that, “Aslan is on the move.” Let me read a passage directly from the book.
“And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning – either a terrifying one which turns the dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each of the children felt something jump inside.” We all meet God in our own way. For some of you it may be a little like this.
When it comes to the meaning of life each of us has to decide. On the one hand we have the thought experiments of the ancient Greek philosophers. According to them life is most often a hardship to be endured. Life is an energy to be conserved. For them we live by fearing death and using this fear to protect our emotional life. They choose ataraxia to never be fully invested or attached, so that they can with honor rise above their emotions. In doing this they become a kind of slave to the idea of enjoying their life.
On the other hand we can choose to be with Jesus, to follow his way. He recognizes that the world will try to manipulate us through our fear and that sometimes we will be called to choose a path of suffering. Sometimes we may have to go out beyond the limits of where we feel safe.
However Jesus does not invite us into death but into real life, free life, joyful life. For him, life is a gift and there is always more of what is being given. God never runs out of life. The more we share, the more we receive.
If there are no more questions I’ll move on to the next chapter.
 Daniel Heischmann, “Seeing Our Students,” National Association of Episcopal Schools Weekly Meditation, 28 August 2017.
 Sarah Bakewell, How to Live or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (NY: Other Press, 2010) 109-117.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Risking Life,” The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) 78.
 Ibid., 79.
 On an almost daily basis since coming here to Grace Cathedral I have felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I feel so thankful that God created in me such strong desires to do this ministry (chapter meetings, sermon preparation/delivery, pastoral care) along with this perfect way for me to realize them.
 Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013) 288-9.
 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, illustrated by Pauline Barnes (NY: Scholastic, 1950) 67-8.
“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6).
We have a three-year cycle for Sunday readings. That means we listened to the exact same readings in 2017, 2014, 2011, 2008, 2005, 2002, etc. Like me you probably often don’t really hear the readings. Perhaps they go over your head, or you are not really paying attention, or you have a hard time feeling the emotions describe by the words.
But at other times they sink so deeply into our consciousness that they become part of us. This reading about the armor of God has this meaning to me. I remember exactly where I was when I first really heard it.
It was a ferociously hot August day and I was playing high school football. Back then we didn’t know how dangerous concussions were, but we fully understood that what we were doing was risky. We knew that a serious injury could change the course of our life, maybe even end it. It felt like going into battle.
Our helmet, shoulder pads, thigh and knee pads, the pads on my forearms that made it possible for me strike hard – these protected us. We respected this truth. As we got changed in the locker room we knew that the equipment was one thing that stood between us and serious injury.
That’s why this list of armor, which you may have passed over without thinking, really meant something to me as a teenager. Life is dangerous. The stakes are high. The world can be a kind of battlefield.
In the same way that you wouldn’t take the field for a kickoff without a helmet or shoulder pads, you cannot neglect any part of the whole armor of God. Let me remind you what this entails. There is the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes for proclaiming the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit which is the word of God.
Behind all this lies the idea that a life without truth or righteousness, or for that matter the word of God, is a vulnerable life. When we build our existence on lies, when we ignore what is right, when we neglect to nurture our faith, we put ourselves at risk.
Our frame of mind, the way we look at things can, endanger us. Our lives are morally hazardous. You could join a group bullying a kid here at school in a way that could harm that person forever. The lie you tell on the job could have disastrous effects.
Last night in the newspaper I read about the ESPN sports commentator Ed Cunningham. He is a former pro football player whose college team won the Rose Bowl in his senior year. Cunningham knows that he has one of the most desirable jobs of anyone in America. He does his work well. He is famous on TV. And yet he recently resigned.
Cunningham loves football but he felt that he had to speak the truth about the damage it is causing to players. He could no longer just go along with things that he recognized were wrong. His friends were suffering, taking their own lives, their bodies are damaged and he knew that he had to do something about it.
This is what is at stake when we put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith. At times it may be hard for others to understand you. You may have to give up something that you love. People may not like you for it.
But making these decisions is ultimately what protects us from the real danger, that we can lose our self. Through unkindness and dishonesty we can lose track of who we are. We easily can become exactly what we hate.
When you leave this holy place today you will go back out onto the battlefield. As we did in high school football I pray that these words may become part of you too. I pray that you will respect your equipment and take care of it. I pray that you will cling to the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness and the shield of faith. For in Paul’s words, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but… against the spiritual forces of evil.” So, “keep alert and always persevere… make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6).
 John Branch, “ESPN Football Analyst Walks Away, Disturbed by Brain Trauma on Field,” The New York Times, 30 August 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/sports/espn-ed-cunningham-football-concussions.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad&_r=0
“Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug” (Isa. 51).
What do you say? What do you say when someone asks you the question? On Friday a reporter from CNN interviewed me. She began by describing religion as a taboo topic in Silicon Valley, how an anti-child pornography hacker she knew felt embarrassed to say at a conference that he was motivated by his faith. Then she went on about Artificial Intelligence, robots, and what she called “humanoid things.” We talked about moral issues that my friends in technology face and about social media which she called our new “hyper-connected reality.”
After a delightful conversation she finally asked me what was on her mind. She pointedly said, “do you think technology will eventually replace religion?” It is related to a question you may be asked yourself. What do you believe? Why do you believe it? How does all this make a difference in your life?
We all have moments like this and yet we still don’t know exactly what to say. It sure would be surprising if we responded by reciting the Nicene Creed (I wonder if our hearer would be polite and listen to the whole thing). I guess we could say that, “Jesus is Lord.” But what would that even mean to the people around us? What does it mean to us?
Questions do not function merely as a way of gathering information. At the right moment, in the right context, with the right people, a question can be a kind of gateway into a new relationship.
This morning, like my new friend from CNN, Jesus is asking questions. The disciples have been traveling a long road with him. They probably feel disoriented by all the miracles like the healing of lepers and a man’s withered hand (Mt. 8, 12). They have seen massive crowds fed and watched as Jesus walked out to them over hills of water through the chaos of a storm (Mt. 15).
He has trusted them to share his power and mission, to tell his story of God’s love even for the most broken and damaged people. He has taught them with all his might using any symbol or story at hand, through parables about lamps, leaven, brothers, mustard seeds, sowers, weeds, wheat, pearls and treasures.
After all this I can imagine a certain tension when Jesus sits them down to review what he has taught, to see where they are on their journey toward really becoming children of God. He asks two questions.
First Jesus says, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” This is the relatively more comfortable question, the safer one. It is easy to share what other people have been saying. It does not involve either committing oneself to a particular position or even showing just how little we really know. You can imagine each one chiming in to answer, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets” (Mt. 16).
Then Jesus asks the tough question. “But who do you say that I am?” This shifts the conversation. It is no longer about something outside of them. I can picture it, the disciples’ uncomfortable silence, their effort to avoid eye contact and yet still look normal. It reminds me of standing in the old locker room of Memorial Stadium during half time in college. We were not playing well. Our rugby coach Jack Clark stormed into the room, slammed the door and let the silence just sit there for a few beats. Then he said, “What do you think you were doing out there!” It was that kind of silence.
And we were smart enough not to say anything. But apparently that was not Peter’s style. Of the disciples Peter is famous for not understanding, for being impulsive and then not following through. He is the one Jesus addresses in saying, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41). At the Transfiguration Peter offers to build tabernacles in such an inappropriate way he has to be corrected by God. Peter is the one who asks to get out of the boat but then fails to walk on water. At the Last Supper Peter promises to never desert Jesus and the next day denies his friend three times.
In this case Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus responds, “blessed are you… for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven…. on this rock I will build my church. I will give you the keys of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.”
This has to be one of the most misunderstood biblical passages of all time. Too often it has been read as entitlement, as if Peter, or now the church, has the keys and will determine who gets in. How we read this passage in worship contributes to this mistake. To understand we need to hear the whole story.
Only a few verses later Jesus warns the disciples that he has to fulfill his mission and be killed in Jerusalem. Perhaps emboldened by Jesus’ earlier praise Peter rebukes him. Jesus replies saying, “Get behind me Satan… you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mt. 16:23). Peter is not the judge of all people at the pearly gates. He is more like the teenager who gets the keys and immediately goes out and wrecks the family car.
But my hunch is that this boldness is one of the things Jesus loves about him. Peter does not worry so much about getting everything right. He stands out not for his wisdom, compassion, or gifts as a speaker or leader but because of his willingness to try, to jump right in. He is blessed not because he is perfect or has nothing to regret, but because something makes him get out of his own way. He is not afraid to be wrong or embarrassed. At his best he is led not by his ego but by the Spirit.
Brothers and sisters we find ourselves in the midst of disorienting times. We were horrified by the Charlottesville images of neo-Nazis chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans and the martyrdom of Heather Heyer. National business leaders resigned commission posts because of the president’s, at best, ambivalent response to racism. Then far right groups received permits for a demonstration in Boston last week and then one for yesterday here at Chrissy Field. We had to check the news every few hours as plans changed.
Daily life at the Cathedral turned upside down. We have been writing letters, sermons, newspaper articles, planning prayer services, participating in marches, gathering at Temple Emmanuel with two hundred people overflowing out of the Chapel of Grace – expressing our deep faith that God loves all people without exception.
Perhaps I’m the only one but I feel manipulated and a little confused. Who are these fringe groups? How many people are we talking about? What do they stand for? Are they going to harm my Jewish friends? Is it becoming even more dangerous to be an African American, or an immigrant, or a GLBTQ person?
The Internet made it possible for many of the right wing groups to meet. It probably had a determining role in last year’s election. It certainly gives us a daily picture of what our president is thinking. In the twenty-first century technology forms our identity in a totally new and dizzying way. It mixes up the personal and the public. Pictures of our family arrive on social media feeds along with images of world leaders, who for that matter do not seem very different from television celebrities.
You may not like it, but you also have a different voice today. The question, “what do you believe?” is coming at you in a new way. So what are you going to say? What are you going to say about human dignity, the meaning of America, your encounter with holiness?
In the interview with CNN I had to explain that religion is not some kind of deficient form of science. Science and religion are two totally different categories like tennis racquets and saxophones, each good for different kinds of projects. Over two hundred years ago the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote his book On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers because his audience believed that religion was dying out. It didn’t.
Faith still exists because God does and because we are fundamentally religious beings. We use symbols and stories to orient and shape our desires. We believe in the sanctity of moral laws. At a certain level we remain a mystery to ourselves. We are creatures who dream. We are attracted to mystery. We long for the Transcendent.
Let me close with two answers to “the question.” During a period of terrible disappointment in the Civil Right’s Movement, the African American novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987) was asked what he would teach if he had students.
He said, “I would try to make [them] know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger – and that it belongs to [them].” What will your message be?
A sentence from the Apostle Paul became my message last week. He writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you will discern the will of God” (Rom. 12). Last week I said goodbye to our oldest son at the airport as he was leaving home for the first time to college on the East Coast. During that last embrace I whispered in his ear, “Don’t forget who you are.”
I meant do not forget that you are a child of God. You are a holy one, a saint whose voice could be the way others come to experience God.
During the chaos of the storms do not forget that questions are not merely a way of gathering information. They can be doors into something new. This week I pray for your willingness to jump right in. With the boldness of Paul, on the hyperconnected reality of the Internet and in person, tell someone what you believe. You have something so precious to offer. Take the risk.
 Selena Larson, “Unpublished Interview,” CNN, Friday 25 August 2017.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “God’s Rock,” The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) 70.
 Professors teach law students to never ask a question in court that they do not already know the answer to. There are abusive questions, leading questions, loaded questions and Socratic questions. See the introduction to 10 Pent (8-21-11) 16A.
 Quoted in a letter from Yale University president Peter Slovey called “Reflections After Charlottesville,” 16 August 2017.
Pentecost 11 2017
There’s a nasty little ditty that speaks to the casual embedded antisemitism of much of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s this – ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews’. Like much casual racism it’s meant to be funny while containing a barbed and cruel dismissal of a people. It did, however, receive a rebuttal that goes like this: ‘But not so odd as those who choose a Jewish God yet spurn the Jews.’ How is it that, over so many centuries, Christians have chosen a Jewish God and yet shown such hatred and violence towards our Jewish sisters and brothers?
A lot of this comes down to bad theology. In fact this bad theology even has a name – supersessionism (try saying that three times quickly!). It comes from the same root as supersede and has the same sort of meaning of an improved replacement. In theological terms it means the belief that the Church has replaced the Jewish race as God’s chosen people. It has allowed Christians over the centuries to despise Jews as a people who failed God, who did not live up to God’s special calling, who have been left behind in the story of God’s interactions with the world.
We got it so wrong! In the early days of Christianity we were so busy competing with Judaism for followers that we set up a pointless, cruel hostility that lasted down the centuries. If we had paid closer attention to today’s scriptures we might not have strayed so far from the path. Listen to Isaiah: ‘Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’ Those already gathered – the Jews – are to be joined by those outside the first covenant – us gentiles, not to be replaced by them. Listen to Paul: ‘I ask then, has God rejected his people? By no means!’ and again ‘the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.’ The Jews are God’s called and covenanted people then and now and always.
This is how I understand the two callings of Judaism and the Church. The Jewish people were called out from among their neighbours to be entrusted with a new understanding of God. God as the one creator. God as the author of justice and righteousness calling for right action as much as for right worship. God as the one in dialogue with his people prodding them towards new insights and new responsibilities. These are all things contemporary Judaism still witnesses to as it calls all of us to work for the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam – the healing of the world.
This new understanding of the Jewish people prepared the place where Jesus could come and could be heard. Jesus brought to fulfilment the message of the prophets – that God’s covenant promises were to be for all people. That the whole world was called into relationship with the God of the Jewish people. That we are all her beloved children – Jews and gentiles – that we are all called to responsibility for God’s world. Not in competition but alongside, faith siblings, holding our own candles of divine light to illuminate one another.
And this was a message that Jesus himself had to learn before he was able to embody and proclaim it. Our gospel told us the story of one of the turning points in his understanding. The confrontation with a foreign woman who brings courage, intellect and wit to her encounter with Jesus. This woman who would not be put off by Jesus’ casually racist dismissal but held her ground and asserted her worth. This unnamed hero of the faith opened our beloved saviour’s eyes to the limitations of his love, opened our beloved saviour’s heart to the world outside his borders.
Jesus, the one who was fully human as well as fully God, had to confront his own tribal loyalty so that he could grow beyond it. I remember painfully the moment when I realized my own tribal – racist – views that had been hidden from me till that point. It was when I was 20 and staying in a parish in a non-touristy part of Barbados. For the first time my white skin was the minority colour around me. For the first time black was normal. And it hit me then how my culture had taught me to fear black skin. To see black boys and men as a greater threat than white boys and men. To identify black with crime and violence and riot. Consciously – even then I was a liberal inclusive Christian – consciously I rejected these views. Consciously I thought I was colour-blind or race-neutral – and thought that was a good thing! And it was only then, only in that new environment, that I began to know the subconscious prejudices that were subtly poisoning my view of the world.
Our gospel tells us a bit about those hidden horrid parts of the human psyche. Of the evil that can live in our hearts and defile us. That it is not what we take in from the world that pollutes us but what we bring to the world of our own self-centred viewpoint and behaviour. And we have seen terribly in these last days the violent consequences of these poisonous and abhorrent worldviews. Of an assumption of superiority which sees the other as less than human. Of a continuing denigration of Jews and of blacks. Of racism and antisemitism at its ugliest and most obvious.
And it’s going to take more than one feisty Canaanite woman asserting their humanity to address this defilement in our midst. It’s going to take more than correcting a theological mistake that has infected the church for hundreds of years. It’s going to take all of us white members of the church addressing both our privilege and our prejudices. Let’s be quite clear – racism in America is not a black problem and antisemitism is not a Jewish problem – they are a white problem. Yes, other races can be racist too, but they don’t share the privilege and power that belong to white amercia. And let’s also be quite clear – racism and antisemitism are not just a southern problem, they may be more muted and hidden but they are here in liberal old San Francisco too.
One thing that gives me hope is knowing that Jesus walked this same path before us. It may seem shocking at first to hear him being so dismissive of the Canaanite woman and her daughter. But this story helps turn my shame at my own prejudices into resolve to follow Jesus into open-hearted inclusivity. It reminds me that the Spirit of God is always at work, in every human life, even in the holiest of human lives, even in the ugliest of human lives, at work tugging us towards love and peace and away from bigotry and violence.
Dear Grace Cathedral, dear Church of God, it is beyond time that we step up to address all that defiles us and our society. It is beyond time that we renounce all ideas of superseding Judaism and instead embrace those who hold to God’s first unbreakable covenant. It is beyond time that we follow Jesus in seeing all the ways that our love may be limited and let God’s Spirit break open our hearts to make room for all people. It is beyond time that those of us who are white members of the Church accept the responsibility for change that comes with the privilege of colour.
If not now, when? If not us, who? Let the Spirit of God break us open as the bread will be broken at this table. Let the Spirit of God feed us with the very life of Christ. Let the Spirit of God send us in to the world as agents of love and change. If not now, when? If not us, who?