8-22-17 - Spiritual Intelligence

Jesus asks his closest followers, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter gets the gold star: Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 

It would take more time and space than we have to unpack the layers of meanings and interpretations in these two titles that Peter uses. Messiah was, and is, a mystical figure anticipated by the Jewish people, one who will deliver them from oppression and persecution. One strand of prophetic writings held that the Messiah would be of King David's line, whose kingdom was never to end. Not all schools of thought equated the Messiah with a divine person, and many assumed the Messiah would be a military savior, not a spiritual one.

And what does “son of the living God” mean? It could refer to a divine person, which is how the Christian tradition understands the incarnate Jesus. It could mean a human anointed by God to carry forth his redemptive plan, as some early theologians held before that interpretation was judged as heresy (which simply means outside of orthodoxy). The phrase reveals God as “living,” not a dead idol but a living entity interacting with her creation. And the phrase clearly indicates Jesus as one specially chosen as God’s instrument.

Peter seems to have hit the nail on the head:
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Jesus suggests this awareness is not one that Peter arrived at through reason, but received through revelation. Maybe that should help us to be less concerned when we perceive that faith and reason clash. Reason is a God-given gift for us to use; it is also a human faculty and can only take us so far. It is our spiritual intelligence, if you will, that we are to cultivate – and we can’t do that by working harder or thinking harder. We do that by learning to receive the Holy Spirit, who brings all the gifts and understanding we need.

What does “Son of the Living God?” mean to you?
Is God alive for you? In what ways?
How would you assess your “spiritual intelligence quotient?”

If we want to expand our “spiritual intelligence,” we don’t need to study harder, though study is important for a full spiritual life. We will cultivate an attitude of praise to the Living God, inviting that God to fill us with his life through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Then we will more keenly perceive what God is up to around us. We will find our faith emboldened to believe in the power of God poured out in blessing. We will grow in peace and joy and love and all those gifts promised to Christ-followers.

And we will grow better at articulating the hope we have within us, what – or who – it is that we wait for with eager anticipation. We live now; in the fullness of time we will live in fullness.

8-21-17 - Identity Check

It’s a mid-course check-in. Jesus had collected a community of followers. He had healed hundreds, fed thousands, forgiven, blessed, released and taught. But did anyone know who he really was?

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Next Sunday's gospel reading is here

Jesus used the title “Son of Man” to refer to himself. This mystery has given biblical scholars plenty to chew on through the millennia. It is a title that appears often in the Hebrew Bible, mostly in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, where it does not suggest divine identity. It might be a title of humility, as well as humanity. In effect he was asking his closest associates, “Who do people say that I am?”

Their answers reflected the recent or distant past. Jesus was regarded as a prophet in the mold of, or even as a personification of the great Elijah or Jeremiah or another. Some thought he had taken on the mantle of John the Baptist. Then Jesus probed a bit deeper. “Never mind what other people think – who do you say that I am, you who have lived with me and walked with me trained with me and prayed with me. Do you recognize the fullness of who I am?”

Peter gives an answer that pleases Jesus, which we'll explore tomorrow. Today let’s take the question as directed at us: Who do you say that Jesus is? A role model? A great teacher? A healer? Savior? Prophet? God incarnate? Try to separate your answer from what you’ve been taught all your life.

We could go deeper, ask the question another way:
How have you experienced Jesus? Who is he to you?

If he’s just a character in a book, a figure from a painting or stained glass window with a bubble around his head, I invite you to explore his “living-ness.” It’s a big claim we make as Christians, that our Lord who died over 2000 years ago rose again and is accessible to us through His Spirit. We can know him in prayer and in action and in worship and in sacraments. How do you know him? How would you like to?

Talk to him. Who does he say he is when you ask him?

8-18-17 - A Turn of Mind?

One word I learned in my first year of divinity school was “Immutable.” This is a characteristic of God in the traditional Christian understanding of who God is. It means “unchangeable” or “cannot be acted upon.” It is puzzling, because there are stories in both Old and New Testaments in which God seems to be swayed from an announced course of action by some human input. (A prime example is Abraham’s dickering with God over the fate of Sodom.)

In this week’s story about the Canaanite woman who implored Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus seems change his mind. Let’s review the conversation: She asks for healing for her daughter. Jesus replies dismissively, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She reminds him that, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”

The notion that Jesus – God – could change his mind is troublesome for those on the “predestination/everything-is-preordained” end of the theological spectrum. From this view, Jesus must have planned all along to accede to the woman’s pleas, and was somehow testing his followers or setting up a miracle. That scenario does not work for me. Not only does it clash with the story as both Matthew and Mark present it, it makes Jesus look manipulative and cruel in addition to rude and uncaring. That does not square with the way he is portrayed in most Gospel scenes.

I go for the plainer sense of the words as we have them. They appear to show Jesus making a transition. While we cannot know why he at first rebuffed this woman, he is clearly moved by her persistence and faith and pronounces the healing of her daughter. Perhaps he recalled his own teaching that even a mustard seed of true faith Is sufficient to move mountains. Perhaps he was moved by her calling him “Lord.” Perhaps he truly looked at her for the first time. We don’t know. We only know he arrived at a different place than where he started.

This should not surprise us. Exercising free will is intrinsic to what it means to be a human being made in the image of God. That, according to our Genesis story, is what got us into trouble in the first place. And it is our also our will which allows us to accept God’s grace and forgiveness. If it is both human and divine to exercise free will, then we can rejoice that Jesus displayed this quality. It gives us yet another point for connecting with him, and enlivens our relationship as we interact with him in prayer through the Holy Spirit.

Though it is comforting to know that Jesus was capable of a turn of mind, I dare say it is more often our minds that will be changed as we seek God’s wisdom. We are invited to share the mind of Christ. (“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” – Phil 2:5), to allow our wills to be united with the will of God.

Are there issues in your life in which you feel you and Jesus want different things? Have you brought that up in prayer? Are you willing to be shown God’s view on that matter? Can you tell God yours? That’s a rich prayer conversation.

If we leave this story with nothing else, I hope it has given us a renewed awareness of how lively our relationship with God in Christ can be. It’s not a stiff, stale historical drama – it’s up-to-the-minute eyewitness news. So let’s keep our eyes open, and our minds as well, and bear witness to the healing love of God, which is never too late.

8-17-17 - Even the Dogs

Is there a greater example of humility in our scriptures than this unnamed woman, persistently asking Jesus to heal her daughter? In the face of his rejection, his insinuation that giving her the gifts of the kingdom of God would be like throwing food to dogs, she does not flinch, she does not protest, she does not argue. She simply comes back with a statement that shows she is not about to put her pride before getting what she needs from Jesus:

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

What faith, what humility. “If you’re going to compare me to dogs, fine – let me tell you about dogs. They eat too, maybe on crumbs and scraps, but they get fed on what falls from the table. Surely your power is so great that even a crumb of it can heal my poor little girl?” Clearly Jesus was moved, for with this comment she finally got his attention.
Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

In her gentle refusal to be thwarted, this woman models faith for us. Do we ever think Jesus isn’t paying attention to our prayers? Do we turn away – sometimes walk away for years – because we don’t sense a response? Do we conclude that “God must not really care about me," when we don’t perceive an answer?

This mother held nothing back. She was willing to beg, to cross religious and ethnic lines, to compare herself to a dog cadging crumbs under a table, to get the help her daughter needed. And how did she know Jesus had the power to help? Without knowing him, she believed whole-heartedly in what was said of him – that he was the Holy One, the Messiah, the Son of David. She knew no one else could help. She gave it her all, not only her best shot, but every shot she had.

Let’s not respond to this story by thinking, “Oh, I didn’t beg enough, I didn’t pray hard enough.” We don’t always get what we pray for; there is still mystery. Even so, we can approach Jesus the way she did, no holds barred, arguing our case until we are satisfied we have been heard, or have received the grace to release it into God’s will. We can go back and forth with Jesus in prayer, not walk away empty-handed and disheartened. As Wayne Gretzky famously said, "You miss 100% of the shots you never take."

What do you want Jesus to do for you? Don’t dredge up all the things you’ve wanted before; what do you want now? Tell him – in as personal way as you can. Either imagine talking with him, or speak aloud in a private space, or write him – but listen to what he says. Talk back if you need to. Jesus never gave us a “no talk-back” rule.

It is a delicate balance – to pray boldly, because we know God is generous and powerful beyond our imagining, and yet to pray humbly, without feeling entitled. Let’s try to match the Canaanite woman in both the passion of her asking and the depth of her humility before God.

Maybe we should think of ourselves as many dogs we know – loved and pampered, and willing to feast under the table as well as at it.

8-16-17 - Bad Mood Jesus

A read through the Gospels makes it plain that Jesus held the full range of human emotions; he was not above sorrow or sarcasm, anguish or anger. In the event we explore this week, though, he appears rude, even mean. His dismissive response to this woman and her plea is unlike any other recorded encounter. Where usually he went out of his way to connect with the needy, lepers, blind people, tax collectors and prostitutes, here he seems to push someone away.

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Is this Jesus “staying on mission,” as we might say nowadays, wary of getting off schedule again? Was he having a mood swing? Why would he define his boundaries so narrowly here, when he engaged with and offered healing to Gentiles elsewhere? When the woman presses the issue, he gets even more tactless:  
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Whoa. This goes beyond, “I’m tired, I’m busy, leave me alone.” Jesus seems to say that this women and her demon-enslaved daughter are unworthy of his Father’s love, power, healing. I have often noted that the promise written into our Baptismal Covenant in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer – “Will you respect the dignity of every human being?” - is not explicitly biblical. But it is consonant with the overall arc of God’s redemptive action, declaring the likes of you and me, the poor, unclean, and lame, the successful as well as the most broken worthy of extravagant, sacrificial love. Why not this poor mother, so desperate and full of faith?

Is Jesus frustrated at the lack of response to his ministry among so many of his own people, who don’t seem to receive the power this outsider recognizes and craves? Whatever his motivation, the resulting words and attitude seem to clash with the Jesus we see at work elsewhere.

I don’t think we can explain it. We just need to sit with it, to receive it as part of the record. This odd and troubling vignette invites us to expand our picture of Jesus, let it become more rounded, more layered and shaded, more flesh and blood. It is oddly comforting to know that Jesus shared our humanity so fully that he too could be stressed and snappish (yet, without sin!).

Perhaps today we might sit quietly in prayer for a time, reflecting on the last time we said or did something unkind or inconsiderate, found ourselves acting out of a bad mood instead of our best self. Might we call that moment up in our mind, and rather than beating ourselves up for it, invite Jesus to sit with us in it? Might we draw near to him in that “bad mood moment,” if that’s what it was, and so make space for him to draw near to us in ours?

The rest of the story makes it clear that the seeming put-down was not the last word, that the fullness of Jesus included an ability to let another person in and adjust his settings according to new input. And at every moment, God loved him – and so it is for us. As we accept that love, I think we’ll find our “snappish” moments become fewer and our moments of regarding the Other with love increase.

8-15-17 - Pushy Women

She had no business bothering Jesus. She was a Gentile, and a woman. She was loud – and pushy:
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

As Mark tells this story, the woman is Syro- Phoenician, from the nearby coastal region called Phoenicia, part of the province of Syria. But Matthew, writing later, uses an archaic term, “Canaanite.” There was no Canaan in Jesus’ time, and hadn’t been for centuries. Canaan was the name of the Promised Land that God promised the Israelites, the Promised Land Moses led them toward and Joshua led them into - amid much slaughter of local populations and suppression of local religions and customs, as our Hebrew Bible tells the tale. Some Canaanites may have gone north into Phoenicia when the Hebrews came into their territory. This is the history Matthew stirs up, linking this woman with those long-ago enemies of Israel. She has no status with the Jews, no connection. So what is she doing calling Jesus by the Messianic title, “Son of David,” and asking for his help?

She is one of the outliers we find in the Gospels who name Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah while the people around him don’t seem to get it. This unnamed mother stands with the Roman centurion and blind Bartimaeus and the Samaritan woman at the well. She gets who Jesus is, and knows he can help her little girl.

But Jesus does not seem to “get” her. He dismisses her brusquely, refusing to hear her request (more on that tomorrow...). Though in this story he is the foreigner – he is in her territory – he notes the ethnic and religious difference and seems disinclined to cross that line. Given that he has just declared that we should be judged by what comes from within us, not the external, he seems quick to categorize her and her daughter as “not his problem.”

We live in a world full of children who are not our problem – unless we open our eyes and claim them. Anti-immigration protesters, even some wearing crosses, carry signs saying, “Not our children. Not our problem.” Some people condemn “those Muslim terrorists” or “that bully Israel” or “those dangerous refugees,” as though they are then free to wipe their hands of the world’s problems. Some say, “We have hunger right here. We should feed our own.”

But some go out to where the Other lives and bring food, education, medical care and friendship. My friend Tom Furrer, an Episcopal priest in Connecticut, is back from his 18th medical mission in northern Nigeria, where his parish and other partners have built clinics. Each year for two weeks they see thousands of patients, including many Muslims in a region where Christian-Muslim violence is horrific (this is the area where Boko Haran operates.) Tom has written that one of their goals is to show love and respect to Muslims “and so to demonstrate an alternative narrative to the one of the terrorists now plaguing this country.” More than one Muslim treated at the FaithCare mission said, “I had heard that Christians hate us. Now I see that is not true.”

Who is calling your name from the margins, asking for help? Maybe someone you don’t want to see? What if you engage?

This outlier woman had something to give Jesus – and eventually he became open to what she offered. The most amazing things can happen when we turn and see what it is those loud, pushy people want.

8-14-17 - Inside Out

This coming Sunday’s gospel reading has two sections. Most of this week’s Water Daily will focus on the second section. But today let’s look at the first part. It appears to be a technical discussion of religious law, but in it we see Jesus radically reinterpret the religious understanding of his people, and dismiss the leadership of the teachers and leaders. No wonder they wanted him gone.

It begins with a seemingly harmless statement: T
hen he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” What’s the trouble with that?

Well, his disciples tell him, the Pharisees, chief upholders of the Law, took offense at that, presumably because it undermined rules about food and ritual cleansing. Jesus responded by further insulting them: He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”

Now he’s in deep – not only are these leaders not authorized by God, he says they are the blind leading the blind. When the disciples ask for further clarification, Jesus explains that the impurity that should concern us is not whether our food is kosher or our hands ritually clean. Rather, he says, the negative and destructive thoughts, words and actions that come from inside our hearts defile us. He is not dispensing with the Law of Moses, but he is reinterpreting it and, if you will, spiritualizing it.

This is key to his message of Good News, that the realm of God is not about rules and rituals, but is an invitation to dwell in the reality of God, in relationship with our heavenly Father. The human heart is a complicated place – capable of great love and generosity and grace, and also the source of such pain and petty, mean-spirited behavior toward ourselves and others. It’s our hearts that matter in the long run, more than bodies or behavior – and if we align our hearts with God, our behavior and bodies will reflect that alignment at our core. The movement is inside out, not outside in.

What does this ancient debate have to do with us? Perhaps it’s not so ancient, as our ongoing “morality wars” remind us. It is human nature to privilege rules and rituals that make us feel ordered, when what God asks is a reformed heart and a renewed spirit.

This passage tells me to look at my own heart to discern my motivations before I adopt “behavior modification” techniques to help me better regulate my life. It invites me to connect with God early in the day so that what I do flows out of that renewed relationship. It reminds me to notice when I seek external “fixes” instead of internal renewal.

This teaching also reminds us as a society to treat the whole person with honor and dignity, even if he or she is a “problem,” rather than treating symptoms and trying to impose regulation from without. Then each one can function out of their wholeness and we get a more whole community.

It’s not what we eat that’ll hurt us – it’s the distaste we harbor for our neighbor and the disrespect with which we sometimes treat ourselves. And Jesus can help us with that.