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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How to identify an elephant

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 16:13-20.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

There is a great fable from India that tells the story of 3 blind men who are tasked with understanding the what an elephant looks like.

The first man grabs hold of the elephant's tail and asserts, "An elephant is like a rope".

The second grabs the trunk and says, "An elephant is like a snake".

The third lays hold of a leg and claims, "An elephant is like a tree".

There are different variations, but as the story generally goes, the three men cannot agree with one another on the nature of an elephant based on their own individual perceptions, and actually begin beating one another up because they are so sure of those perceptions.

I get the impression that this is precisely what has happened to Jesus over the years.

Jesus is of course the namesake and role model for our faith as Christians, or at least he ought to be.  But the problem is that we often have such radically different interpretations of who or what Jesus was or is.  This is compounded by the various ways in which Jesus has been understood or appropriated by different groups over the years.  How are we to know who, exactly, Jesus is?

In a sense, it is rather unfortunate that Peter answers the question for us in today's Gospel.  When Jesus asks, "Who do you say I am?", Peter responds, "You are the Messiah".

This kinda closes down the discussion, doesn't it?  It's in the Bible, so it must be true, right?

Not so fast.

Jesus is a pretty versatile character.  The disciples called Jesus rabbi, which means teacher.  They also called him friend.  MLK Jr. portrayed Jesus as the ultimate liberator.  Today, Christians use Jesus as a moral role model by asking "What would Jesus do?" (remember, freaking out and throwing over tables therefore becomes an option).

In reality, you and I need to ask, "Who do we think Jesus is?", because as Christians, we should know who and what he is to us.

There is an interesting corollary to this Gospel passage that often goes unnamed.  Peter tells Jesus who he thinks he is, but then Jesus tells Peter who he think he is.

Rash Peter, who whips out his sword and cuts off the Centurion's ear; reckless Peter who jumps out of the boat and nearly drowns; impulsive Peter who says, "Let us go to Jerusalem to die with you!"; cowardly Peter who chokes and denies Jesus three times when the chips are down.

Now, Jesus was a bright guy and he must have know what Peter was about.  Despite Peter's pretty obvious flaws and character defects, he still chooses Peter as the rock upon which he builds his church.

If Jesus can look on Peter and see that which was good about him instead of his flaws, maybe we need to ask ourselves how Jesus would see us in return.  Would he see our weaknesses and deficiencies, or would he see us simply as gloriously flawed human beings, worthy of love?

And how ought we see ourselves and others?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Saving Jesus

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 15: 21-28.

To download the podcast, click here.

There is a tendency among Christians to want to save Jesus from all criticism, as though Jesus was incapable of error.  It comes from a good place, but I think it is wrong in a few cases, and the Gospel passage for this week is one such case.

This week, we heard the story of Jesus healing the Canaanite woman's daughter.  A little background: Canaanites and Jews were mortal enemies, and so when this woman approaches Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter, he responds by saying, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs".  Earlier in the passage, Jesus claims that he was sent "only to the lost sheep of Israel".

The what these two phrases imply is that up to this point in his life, Jesus believed that his mission, message, miracles and ministry were reserved for the Jews.  Jesus is protesting that he should not have to heal this woman's daughter because they are "dogs".

Even in Canada, this is a pretty mean insult, but if you are even remotely familiar with Middle Eastern culture, you will know that in some quarters, this is one of the worst insults you can level at someone.

Now here is where everyone wants to save Jesus.  Churchgoers, preachers and teachers of all stripes try to turn this into one of Jesus' "teaching moments".  They claim that he is speaking ironically or at least in hyperbole, that he was sharing an inside joke with the woman for the benefit of his listeners, and so on.

I suspect that the exact opposite is actually true.  I suspect that this is a "teaching moment", but that it is actually Jesus that is learning a lesson.

Here's what I think happened: even if Jesus was raised without or managed to overcome the long-standing racial hatred between Jews and Canaanites, he was almost certainly raised with the belief that Jews were God's chosen people, the elect.  So when this woman approached him asking for a boon, his response was that of a typical Jew of his time: disregard and indifference, tinged with open hostility.

But this woman responds "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs from their masters' table".

What must Jesus have felt at her response?

Her response gave witness not only to the love she had for her daughter, but also the humility (and indeed humiliation) she was willing to endure in order to have her healed.

Despite the fact that Jesus was probably taught that Gentiles were, in fact, sub-human, this woman shows the utmost love, devotion and humility.  She shows to Jesus the best that humanity has to offer, the qualities that exemplify humanity itself, regardless of race, creed, religion, politics or colour.

From this moment on in the Gospel, Jesus takes a much different tack: his message and mission include everyone, Gentiles as well as Jews.

And why is this such a bad thing?  Why is it so unbelievable that Jesus had to learn a few lessons along the way like the rest of us?  Why can Jesus not be human an fallible, just this once?

I think the true power and the true lesson in this Gospel passage is that is that if Jesus can overcome centuries of racial hatred, if he can overcome the false lessons he was taught about the people he was likely told to fear and despise, if he was able to see through the insignificant differences that separate groups of people to the things that really make us similar on an individual level, then so can we.