Food for Thought- #SyrophoenicanWomensLivesMatter

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I am a lectionary preacher. This means I use the proscribed 3-year cycle of texts (with readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles each week) designed to allow a preacher and worshiping community to encounter most of the Bible in three years. I’ve done sermon series. But I like the lectionary. I like the order it provides and how it forces the preacher to encounter familiar and unfamiliar texts. I think it is important to be challenged with hard texts, texts you wouldn’t normally choose to preach because “you like them” or “enjoy them” or “they spoke to you”. This is the basic logic of being a lectionary preacher. It is also why Mark 7:24-37 is on my mind.

It’s one thing to encounter a “hard text” within the lectionary cycle, such as Solomon and his concubines. You force yourself to come to terms with the political realities of the moment and find something within those words which might preach to a contemporary congregation. It’s another thing to be presented a text causing you to question your faith in Jesus. Mark 7:24-37 has always had this effect on me.

Jesus has left Galilee and gone to Tyre. He’s technically out of the country. He’s in a different region where Jews aren’t the dominate nationality. Being constantly bombarded, Jesus wants some time away. This is understandable. A woman, whose child was sick, hears Jesus is in town and finds him. She, we are told is Greek (of Syrophoneican origin). This means she’s native to Tyre. Jesus is in her country. He says, “I can’t feed you. The children (meaning the children of Israel) have to be fed first. I can’t toss it to the dogs.” She replies, “Even the dogs get crumbs.” It’s a solid comeback. Jesus issues no apology.

Jesus went to another region and said to a local, native born resident, your culture isn’t worth a damn. My culture it’s the best. I can’t help you because you’re not one of my culture. Jesus is in another country and lecturing a local resident about how his culture is superior. I have trouble with a Jesus who would do this. Can you imagine that happening? It happens every day. It’s not only with Americans tourists in Europe. Examine the ways United Methodists approach issues of race and faith. How many people from beyond the AME knew exactly what the AME response to the horrific shooting should be? How many straight people want to tell lesbian, gay, and transgendered people how to feel and be Christian?

I question Mark’s judgment for recording these words of Jesus, someone I believe to be loving and nonviolent, words which were of the most hurtful, racist, sexist kind imaginable . Was the whole story made up? It makes me doubt Mark’s version of the man who said them, so willingly as if to test another human being with their ability to respond to racist language. Is the whole purpose of this story to heal or not heal this woman’s child unless she can withstand his racist quips about eating leftovers from the white’s only table?

It makes me frustrated to hear people say, “Jesus is having a bad day”. It’s usually followed by, “we all have bad days. Jesus was fully human, remember? Now go out and have a Jesus approved bad day.” Everyone around Jesus knew his referral to the Syrophonecian woman as a dog was wrong. He didn’t call her a puppy, even though some Greek scholars make the argument. He called her a bitch. How bad does your day have to be to call a minority (Greek) woman (minority) a dog (a bitch)? There are no racist diatribes reported by any of the gospel writers on the day Jesus was executed. That was a much worse day. It has always seemed Jesus is going out of his way to insult this woman. I don’t like that.  A woman, begging for her child’s health, in order to be heard by a man with privilege isn’t a feel good story.

The Jesus of Mark 7 isn’t the Jesus we want to let into and flow through our lives. We want to keep the Jesus from Mark 7 as far away from our lives and churches as possible. But here’s the thing, my fear is we have more of the Mark 7 Jesus on the loose than we realize. The Mark 7 Jesus is in our churches, right now and you may not know it. Hiding behind the coded language of xenophobic patriotism, race, and theology, we’ve learned how to insult each other, all in the name of Jesus.

#SyrophoenicanWomensLivesMatter

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Food for Thought-Every Good Gift (James 1:17-27)

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What was the greatest gift you ever received? For me, it’s hard to pin down one specific thing. When I had hair, someone gave me a long, black comb. It was the kind preferred by barbers, the ones which usually rested in a jar of antiseptic. I took this gift for granted. I was unable to fully appreciate the ability to style, move, and adjust the hair on top of my head. Now that I am bald, I see it as one of the greatest treasures ever to be placed in my hands.

Maybe the greatest gift I received wasn’t the comb. Perhaps it was the Batmobile. I remember the Christmas when mama and daddy got me a decent size replica of the Adam West-era Batmobile. I’m telling you this car was identical to the one Batman drove on the hit 1960’s television show, only considerably smaller. Batteries from Radio Shack and the Batcave were not included. With those small exceptions, it had everything else. There were seats for Batman and Robin, a phone to call Commissioner Gordon, and a big jet engine to blast out of my yet to be built Batcave.

I loved that car. I loved the idea of having that car. Batman and the Batmobile belonged to me. On good days, we were in partnership together. On other days, I was in charge of the whole operation. We would be, at my discretion, fighting crime in the place where I lived. Before I received the Batmobile, we could only fight crime at certain times of day, usually in the late afternoon at my grandmother’s house, when the show came on television. Between homework and snack, I would fight crime with Batman for about half an hour.  With the Batmobile, I wasn’t bound by the limits of a television show. Batman lived with me in my homemade Wayne Manor. We were friends.

Every facet of Batman’s life, work, and car were mine to look at, recreate, and enjoy. If I wanted to make the car drive up the side of a tree, we drove vertically over bark and limbs. If the car, which had never flown in a single episode, wanted to fly; we would launch ourselves through the air. What I had watched the car do on television didn’t matter. The untapped crime fighting potential sitting in my hand, that’s what mattered most. I didn’t need to see under the plastic hood or kick the tiny tires to know the car would fly. I could simply tell. These unrealized and unseen powers were the most obvious and self-evident qualities of the Batmobile I received as a gift. There were connections, waiting to be made, once I received the gift. I didn’t see the many connections until they were staring right back at me.

Eventually the best gifts we receive, no matter how much we love them wear out, die, fade, and lose their luster. The impact they once had on our lives is no longer there. They no longer matter as they once did. James, in today’s scripture, advances an idea that gifts change our lives on multiple levels. He says, we become emotionally and physically different after receiving gifts we enjoy. Our lives change. We do things differently than before we possessed the gift. The gift impacts what we do and how we live. If you give a middle aged man a convertible Corvette, he will put the top down and reignite his passion for Guns and Roses.  It will change his outlook on life and how he sees himself and those around him. Gifts come with certain inherent and implied responsibilities; especially when the gift comes from God. What are you going to do with your gift from God? Are you going to play with it until you are bored, until it breaks, or your attention wanes and you want to move on to something shiner and offers more thrills? What are you going to do with your gift from God?

The problem is, when you’re talking about gifts from God, you’ve got nowhere to run. James says everything is a gift from God. When he says everything, he means everything; starting with the air we breathe and the bodies we inhabit. Life itself is a gift. If life is a gift from God and gifts change the life of the person who receives a gift, then we need to ask: how does being gifted by God change how we encounter the world with our gift. How is our life different because we received this gift?

James says we see the evidence on multiple levels. Firstly, it’s witnessed in extremely practical ways. You interact with the world in a way that’s not unique to Christians but without this gift it seems much harder for so many people. James writes, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow in anger.” If that’s not the best advice you’ve ever received, raise your hands? That’s wonderful advice. It’s sage wisdom if I’ve ever heard any. As I said, it’s not unique to Christianity by any stretch of the imagination. However, if you believe God has gifted you with life and everyone else around has received the same gift, you’re going to want to treat them in a manner befitting the gift and the giver.

James is writing his letter to 1st century Christians; people who are in the process of forming the early church. At this point in human history, people aren’t sure if church is a good idea. Many of James’ audience already had a default religious practice.  Their status quo (Judaism) was protected by Roman law. No one is being executed for being Jewish. The social pressure to go along and get along with the Roman religious system is enormous. Much like today, people are asking the question, “Who needs church?” The people James is writing to are probably accustomed to hearing, “Why are you going to church?” I’m sure there were more compelling options for their time and resources. James wanted to address this question directly.

Once you’re here, James states, “you must be doers of the word and not only hearers of the word who mislead themselves.” The way to counteract the “Who needs church?” question is to fuse listening and doing. “Who needs church, because all they do is to go there and sit on Sunday morning?” The way to answer this question is to do something as individuals and as the body of Christ. It’s like the front of the bulletin says, Don’t Come to Church-Be the Church. Hear, connect, and apply the Gospel. Make the connections. Hear the word then do the word. Do the word, what does it mean?

“Doer of the word,” notes James. That’s a loaded expression. The “word” is a big book and what James knew as the “word” and we call the “word” are a little different. At the end of today’s reading, James gives us a hint. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is to care for orphans and widow in their distress.” For me, that’s always been a good place to start when talking about “doing the word.”

The last thing James tells us is this: don’t let the gift fool you into thinking you’re someone you’re not. “Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away and immediately forget what they were like.”

I wasn’t Batman. The man in the convertible Corvette, he’s not the most interesting or sexiest man in the world. Sometimes gifts (especially gifts we give ourselves) can cloud our understanding of who we think we are. Hearing the word and doing nothing is like taking a selfie in front of a mirror and immediately forgetting what you look like so you have to do it again and again. You have no identity other than the identity this illusory gift creates for you.

And yet, on the other side of the coin, we have no identity other than the one God’s good and perfect gift gives us. What is the greatest gift you have received? What are you going to do with that gift? Hear about it, talk about it, or do something with it?

Food for Thought-5 Good Ideas on What Love Is (August 28th, 2015)

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1. Love is patient because it is the indefinite fuel of eternal second chances

2. Love is kind because kindness without love is really self-serving narcissism

3. Love is good because it is the epitome of goodness itself

4. Love is peaceful because without love peace is an illusion

5. Love is faithful because it creates faith where none exists

Food for Thought-Don’t Look A Free Batmobile In The Mouth

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What was the greatest gift you ever received? For me, it’s hard to pin down one specific thing. When I had hair, someone gave me a long, black comb. It was the kind preferred by barbers, the ones which usually rested in a jar of antiseptic. I took this gift for granted. I was unable to fully appreciate the ability to style, move, and adjust the hair on top of my head. Now that I am bald, I see it as one of the greatest treasures ever to be placed in my hands. At one point in my journey I received a free subscription to the jam of the month club. Someone thought to arrange for copious amounts of strawberry jam, grape jelly, raspberry preserves and flavors I didn’t know to be delivered to my house on a monthly basis.  I don’t care how you slice it, that’s love. In the midst of enjoying this love, I developed what the great actor Wilfred Brimley calls, “diabetes”. Sometimes gifts aren’t all they appear to be.

Maybe the greatest gift I received wasn’t any of those things. Maybe it was the batmobile. I remember the Christmas when mama and daddy got me a decent size replica of the Adam West-era Batmobile. I’m telling you this car was identical to the one Batman drove on the hit 1960’s television show, only considerably smaller. Batteries from Radio Shack and the Batcave were not included. With those small exceptions, it had everything else. There were seats for Batman and Robin, a phone to call Commissioner Gordon, and a big jet engine to blast out of my yet to be built Batcave.

I loved that car. I loved the idea of having that car. I loved that the Batmobile was now mine. I owned part of Batman. Batman belonged to me. On good days, we had gone into partnership together. On other days, I was in charge of the whole operation. We would be, at my discretion, fighting crime in the place where I lived. Before I received the Batmobile, we could only fight crime at certain times of day, usually in the late afternoon at my grandmother’s house when the show came on television. Between homework and snack, I would fight crime with Batman for about half an hour. Now, with the Batmobile, we weren’t bound by the limits of a television show. Batman lived with me in my homemade Wayne Manor. We were friends.

Every facet of Batman’s life, work, and car were mine to look at, recreate, and enjoy. If I wanted to make the car drive up the side of a tree, we drove vertically over bark, limbs, and moss. If the car, which had never flown in a single episode, wanted to fly; we would launch ourselves through the air. What I had watched the car do on television didn’t matter. The untapped crime fighting potential sitting in my hand, that’s what mattered most. I didn’t need to see under the plastic hood or kick the tiny tires to know the car would fly. I could simply tell. These unrealized and unseen powers were the most obvious and self-evident qualities of the Batmobile I received as a gift.

This is why, when I am offered the gift of a horse; I feel no need to look in the horse’s mouth. I can simply tell whether not I want it. Thanks to the Batmobile, I don’t need to look inside the horse’s mouth to know whether or not I need or want the horse, even if it is free. I don’t need to look in the mouth of anything human or animal. I don’t care who they are, that’s just gross.

Food for Thought-5 Good Ideas on Gaining Perspective (August 26th, 2015)

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1. Take perspective of the world around you. How aware are you of the people, ideas, places and things going on in your general orbit? So often, I see people who are miserable, unhappy, wrapped up in their own anger. Their misery (often self-inflicted) renders them unaware to appreciate any perspective other than their own. Are we living like this?

2. Do the other people in your life believe or feel like you are invested in them as people? To invest in a person (as a human being) you need to develop an emotional perspective. An emotional perspective is more than “seeing what another person thinks”. It’s trying to understand how someone else feels.

3. To get an emotional perspective, ask someone how they feel.

4. Listen actively. Don’t listen to respond. Don’t listen with the intent of saying something smart, witty, or keeping the conversation focused on what you know. Listen to understand what the other person is saying.

5. Listen for shared experiences which can be found within your dialogue partner’s point of view. Don’t let their words go to mental voicemail while you think about what you’re going to say next.

Food for Thought-The 14th Amendment to the Torah-Mark 7:6-8

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Jesus at work among the people of his day casting out stupidity demons

In the seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel, a group of lawyers have gathered around Jesus. These Pharisees, legal scholars. and avid constitutionalists are starting to bat around the idea of changing the 14th amendment to the Torah. Do you know about the 14th amendment to the Torah? It’s the one that says, “no matter where your parents are from; be it Persia, Rome, Cyprus, Ephesus, Cappadocia, Egypt, or Guatemala City, if they make it across the borders of Israel and are born here, you’re part of God’s kingdom.” The lawyers gathered around Jesus, the legal scholars, those who understand the fine points and nuances of scripture do not agree with, like, appreciate, or enjoy Jesus’ open ended interpretation of the 14th amendment to the Torah. “It’s got to be harder to get into the kingdom of God,” they say. “Eternity can’t handle all self-righteous people who’ve gone in ahead of us!”

To the lawyers, legal scholars, and avid Torah constitutionalists a working knowledge of tradition mattered. The rules which governed religious and social practice formed the intricate web belief only they understood. To the newcomers, new arrivals, and new kids in town the kingdom of God was an ever expanding expression which seemed to include the whole world. For Jesus’ nitpicking observers, it was about washing your hands. It was also about mortal flawed people, deciding who God loves and who God hates.

The lawyers, legal scholars, and Torah constitutionalists observed Jesus’ disciples on many levels. They saw them heal the sick, preach, and how they remembered the fine points of religious and social etiquette. When you can’t condemn someone for their ability to heal and preach, you can call them nasty. Jesus’ disciples came from the rough and tumble world of Galilean fisherman. These utensil rules, while “old school” and rooted in interpretations of Biblical tradition, matted not at all to these guys. If they were going to eat, they were going to eat.  Even if it meant eating with their hands in front of ultra-religious people who were certain to deem their actions sinful.

Jesus calls the lawyers, legal scholars, and Torah constitutionalist out on the dusty carpet. He says, “You ignore God’s commandments while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.”

In other words, you are creating religious rules (attributing them to God) which make it harder for people to worship and serve God in authentic, loving ways. You’re changing rules as you go along, to fit the needs of your unique and narrowly defined understanding of God. If the Kingdom of God is too big, let’s make it narrow again; that’s what man made rules like these suggest.

The Pharisee’s argument is simple: if you’re not washing your hands correctly, according to our standards, dipping your dishes in the water, or born in the right place at the right time, you do not have a claim to God’s love or a place in the kingdom of God. This is what Jesus means when he says to the Pharisees, “You ignore God’s commandments while holding on to rules created by human hands handed down to you.” When we honor God’s commandments, widows, orphans, and immigrants go first.  When we honor God, common sense, love, and compassion should override the desire to be cold hearted, minutiae obsessed bigots.

When we remember the words of Ezekiel 47:22, “You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel,” we hear a call to honor God’s commandments. Each time you hear someone use the word “anchor baby”, read the words of the Ezekiel. When we honor God’s most basic commandments, there are no border crossings or national boundaries in the Kingdom of God.

Food for Thought-5 Good Ideas about BBQ Sauce (August 25th, 2015)

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1. Start with something which will give every bite a memorable kick. What is the unique variation of spice that will define your “life BBQ” sauce as unique?

2. Will you be vinegar based or tomato based? Apart from regional tastes, there are too many people marinated in vinegar.

3. Good BBQ sauce has a mix of sugar and spices. One flavor shouldn’t over power the other. It shouldn’t be too sweet but you should know the sugar is there. Is the sweetness in your life obscured?

4. Sauce that is too sweet will jelly and stay in one place. The right mix in the right sauce marinates the entire piece of meat. Is only one are of your life well flavored?

5. Don’t get caught up in marketing. Good sauce comes in simple bottles. Focus on flavor of life, not the packaging. Substance matters more than the labels. People and their stories matter more than superficial appearances.