As You Come to Know Him

Ephesians 1:15-23
© Stacey Steck

I spent some time this week walking through the cemetery. As I wandered about admiring the shape of the tombstones, I also started wondering about the shape of the faith of our ancestors buried there. I learned some interesting things on my walk. The first is, that although I didn’t make an accurate count, my best approximation is that one-third of all the women buried in the old section of the cemetery were named Mary. Another third were just named “wife.” The other thing I learned is that the dead do not give up their secrets easily. I asked some of them for help with this sermon but they all remained strangely silent. Maybe I am just not perceptive enough. Maybe the eyes of my heart need better glasses.

What I wanted to know from them was what they thought about us now, here today, this generation of Thyatirans. Did they have any thoughts on the matter. And I also wanted to know what kinds of questions they asked God? What dreams did they have for this place? How did they understand their purpose for following Jesus Christ? What was their experience of grace? There’s a lot of history in this place, but that kind of information is not the stuff that generally gets recorded. What were their hopes and fears when they took the risk to start a congregation that was not under the authority of the English crown or its bishops? What was the spiritual impetus behind the decisions they made? Was it an agonizing decision to build a new sanctuary or was it just so obvious to everyone when the old one had to go? Things like that.

No, the dead do not give up their secrets easily, but there is one old dead guy who does still, upon occasion, illuminate things for us. He is, of course the infamous Apostle Paul, author of those wonderful letters to churches around the Mediterranean, including at Ephesus. And as we are gathered here on Rally Day 2017, and on the eve of Discernment Day, we can give thanks that someone was wise enough to preserve his words for us, and even more importantly, his prayer for us: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” How many of our ancestors fully knew the hope to which God called them? How many of us do today? Did they, do we, receive that spirit of wisdom and revelation? That glorious inheritance?

On Homecoming two weeks ago, I invited you to consider the question, “What is your purpose for following Jesus?” In those lofty words in Ephesians Paul offers a glimpse of that purpose, and he phrases it as “knowing God.” This is knowing in the Biblical sense, having a relationship with. Of course, it’s not exactly the same thing as “Adam knew Eve and she conceived a child,” but there is some overlap. There’s a sense of intimacy. There is a sense of oneness, of sharing, of communing. In that sixteenth chapter of Matthew we heard, Peter is approaching knowing who God is because he is finally beginning to see who Jesus is. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” he says. Peter still didn't understand everything, or know everything, but he was that much closer. He still had to learn that the Son of Man must undergo suffering and be killed and on the third day raised again, as Jesus begins to teach the disciples in the very next chapter. He still had to learn about the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and about God’s plan for the salvation of the Gentiles. He was like all of us, even the Ephesians to whom Paul wrote, “My prayer,” is that God “may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him.” For Peter, and all the saints, for us, and for those in our cemetery, knowing God is a process, a journey, an unveiling, a revelation. “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. For flesh and blood have not revealed to you,” that I am the Messiah, “but my Father in heaven” has revealed it. What we know about God is revealed by God, beginning and ending with Jesus. He is how we know God. The more deeply we know Jesus, the more deeply we know God, and the immeasurable greatness of his power. “As you come to know” Jesus, Paul says, you will know God. That’s our purpose for following Jesus.

So today is Rally Day when we embark on a new year of learning about Jesus and about our purpose for following him. Our process of coming to know Jesus gets a fresh start with new teachers and new curriculum and new workshop rotations. We come asking God to enlighten the eyes of our hearts, to help us focus once again, that we may see the world through the lens of faith. For young and old disciples alike, the process never ends, because there is always more to know about God. That may sound daunting, I know, to never reach the goal. But it should offer us hope rather than despair. You see, our pursuit of knowledge about God isn’t knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but knowledge for relationship’s sake, for experiencing every drop of love, grace, mercy, wisdom and justice God can rain down on us. And which one of us doesn’t need and want more of those things?

But as much as this is our purpose as individual disciples of Christ, knowing God through Jesus Christ is also our communal task, and on this Rally Sunday we celebrate that God has called us to pursue these great gifts together. And more specifically, we are called to celebrate that God gives us the means to live out more fully those “riches of his glorious inheritance.” Yes, today, we want to rally you not only to come to know Jesus through the Christian Education programs of the church, but also to help us collectively come to know him through the discernment process in which all are invited to participate on September 9. Over the last several months, your hardworking Vision Discernment Planning Team has been making preparations for Discernment Day, the day we use the collective eyes of our hearts to know how we are called to fulfill God’s purposes through our church. One of the members of that team, Carly Moore, will conclude our hearing of God’s word today with some thoughts on how God will reveal that vision to Thyatira.

Shout It Out!

Matthew 15:1-20
© Stacey Steck

A lot of ink has been spilled in the press this week about the blood that was spilled in Charlottesville last Saturday. Both blood and ink are notoriously difficult stains to remove, so it’s going to take a powerful stain fighter to clean up the mess. Simple elbow grease will not be enough. No, we need something much more powerful, and I have just the solution. From the archives of my nostalgia, I bring you another installment of Stacey’s childhood television memories: Shout It Out!

Like the olive oil that flowed down upon Aaron’s robe, Jesus was perceived as a stain on the purity of the religious traditions of the elders of his time, a stain which must be shouted out, or shouted down. Some of his disciples had apparently decided their hunger could not wait until they found a proper place to wash up before dinner and they were spotted by the watchful eyes of the Pharisees and some of the Scribes who had come from Jerusalem, the heavy hitters whose interpretation of Scripture was almost as powerful as the law itself. Notice I said almost. Jesus remembers the almost factor and not so gently reminds them, with the words of Isaiah, that they are the ones staining the law and rendering it meaningless.

The scribes and Pharisees were taking issue with the disciples’ violation of one of the safeguards of the law. As always, the defenders of the faith had the best of intentions. They were about the business of helping people to avoid unintentionally breaking the law of Moses, in this case from defiling themselves by eating with hands that may have touched some impure object or person. Since it was not always intention, but also incident, that made one impure, to wash one’s hands would ensure that if you had become impure and did not know it, you would be OK to eat and not defile yourself and sin before God. You may remember the woman who had been bleeding for fourteen years who touched just the fringe of Jesus’ cloak and feared for her life because she had made him unclean in her desperation. On that occasion, Jesus was made “unclean,” at least in the eyes of the authorities, not because of what he had done, but by what that unclean woman had done to him. This cleanliness and purity thing was a very big deal, indeed from God’s own mouth to Moses’ ear.

The Scribes and Pharisees solution was to pull out their interpretive stain fighter and try to “Shout it out” of Jesus and the disciples and restore their system to purity and cleanliness and order. They felt justified in accusing this ragtag bunch of violating the law and used shame dressed up as an innocent question: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” They have asked, of course, the wrong question. A better question to ask, if indeed they really were interested in protecting the disciples and God from impurity, would have been a more open-ended question like, “Are you clean before eating?” Rather, they assume that since the disciples have not abided by the proper traditions, that they are impure, and proceed right to the defense of their traditions, rather than the law itself. A better question still would have been, “Have you helped any little old ladies across the street today?” for in the absence of a life lived for justice and mercy, we are all unclean and impure before God.

What wonderful words from the book of James, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The Law the Jews loved so well was not only intended to keep the people pure before God, but right with each other, and indeed, the two cannot be separated. If you are not right with one another, you are not pure before God, and if you are not right before God, you cannot be right with one another. The impulse to reduce the Word of God to either of these two sides of the same coin is to fundamentally miss the point of the Law. As Jesus so succinctly put it, “Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.” One without the other not only simply will not do, but is impossible. In the same vein we find James’ exhortation to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” and Jesus’ lament from Isaiah that “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” These scribes and Pharisees are not being criticized for their scruples, for their scruples were well-intentioned. They were being criticized for their scruples getting in the way of their Scripture. They were being criticized for being more concerned with the disciples’ hands than the disciples’ hearts.

You see, if this group of people charged with the leadership of the people of God cannot see its way clear to give its attention to what is really important, that is, the stuff inside a person which defiles, it has abdicated its responsibility. What Jesus is asking, in essence, is for them to be as concerned with the character of the person as with their cleanliness, as concerned with the “sins within” as the “sins without,” as concerned with the quality of justice and mercy extended to widows and orphans as the quantity of water used to wash away biological microbes and spiritual contagions. If they were ordinary people questioning the piety of the disciples, the scribes and Pharisees might not have been chastised so severely, but these were the leaders who were trusted by the people in their care, and Jesus cannot let the matter go unaddressed. It is not that the scribes and Pharisees have gone “too far.” Rather, they have not gone “far enough.”

The same can be said for those whose outrage over the racist gathering in Charlottesville stops at looking at other people. Condemning neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, and even cops who use excessive force, is easy for most people. But our gospel passage this morning reveals that condemning ourselves is what it’s all about, the much more difficult task of looking at what comes out of our mouths, so to speak, or what doesn’t. If we want to talk about race in America, where is the bi-partisan outrage over gerrymandering which both parties employ to manipulate voting districts for their own political purposes but which never really benefits communities of color? Where is our collective outrage about the well-documented differences in criminal sentencing which condemns minorities more frequently and for longer terms than whites for the same offenses? These are the stains we really could shout out, the things we really could do something about, that would make a real difference in the lives of a lot of people. I could go on listing the sins of our society in which each of us are complicit, but I’d rather not be a Pharisee. You see, I haven’t really done anything about those issues lately either. In fact, the one time when I really could have made an impact, I failed miserably. Many years ago in Pittsburgh, I was called for jury duty, and like most people, I didn’t relish the possibility of serving on a long or even sequestered trial. So as I was sitting there waiting to have my number called, I was running through all the possible reasons I could give to get disqualified from serving all week or even longer. But not even my most creatively prepared excuse could compare to what I ultimately, and shamefully used when the moment came.

You see, when I was finally called to a pool of potential jurors, it was for a capital murder case of a young black man. And since it was a murder trial, I knew it had a good chance of being a long trial, so I was reviewing my list of excuses while other people were being selected or dismissed by the prosecution and the defense. But as I was sitting there, I realized that the potential jury pool was 100% white, and that the chances of this black guy getting a fair trial were pretty slim, or at least slimmer than they demographically should have been. And so, to make a long story short, when I was interviewed, when none of my other excuses were good enough to get dismissed, I played the race card in such a way that the prosecution had me thrown out faster than a Duke fan at a Wolfpack game when they realized that there was someone there who could see some potential injustice looming ahead. The heart of the matter, of course, or maybe the matter of the heart, is that I used my awareness of our nation’s institutional racism not to help that young man get a fairer trial, but so that I wouldn’t have to be inconvenienced for a week. I was precisely the kind of fair-minded person he needed on his jury, that the system needed on that jury, but in the end, I had only my own interests at heart. “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

Listen. Neo-nazis and other fundamentalists are just the tip of the iceberg of racism, and it wasn’t the tip of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. It was what lay beneath the surface, in terms of both ice and hubris, that brought down the supposedly unsinkable ship. And like it or not, feel it or not, know it or not, we are part of that great mass of ice below the surface of Charlottesville, floating along unseen while the tip catches all the heat. But Jesus looks beneath the surface and challenges both the Pharisees and the disciples to focus on what really matters. “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander,” and yes, we can add, institutional racism. “These are what defile a person.” Neo-Nazis and overt racists are the least of our problems. As the comic strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

A lot of the mess to be cleaned up this week has come from focusing on the wrong enemy, or at least that part of the common enemy that is most visible and attention-seeking. But if all we do is shout them down or shame them down, we miss the point in the same way the Pharisees did. I’d like to see the same energy used to analyze the actions and motivations of others, used to analyze our own implicit biases, and our own hidden participation in systems of racism, and how we can change them. Yes, those overt forms of violence and racism must be challenged, but complaining merely about those who would protest in public, without owning what also comes out of our hearts and mouths is the same thing Jesus chastises the Pharisees about. We cannot afford to be that self-righteous.

As much as we would like to believe that either the election of a black president or the elimination of white supremacist ideology would end racism, the iceberg floats on, sinking ships of all sizes. Will it help us to have more elected minorities and fewer Klan protests? Of course it will. But will it not help us more to change those things we can actually do something about, to be, in the words of James, “doers of the word, and not just hearers who deceive themselves?” We deceive ourselves if we think the solution to our problems lies anywhere but within us, and in God’s power to change each of us. It is not what goes into us which defiles, but what comes out. Playing the victim, blaming those things outside your control, lamenting about our sad state of affairs, all that is placing the emphasis on washing your hands of contagions you might have come in contact with. But taking responsibility for how you conduct your life, and how you pursue justice, and what kind of Christian witness you offer to your children and grandchildren is to address the issue of purity, cleanliness, and true religion where it truly lies. That’s how the iceberg slowly melts.

Let me send you home with a little way for you to practice what I preach! The next time you wash your hands before eating, I invite you to begin the practice of asking what you can wash from your heart as well as from your hands. As you stand in front of that mirror, take a good look at yourself and ask how you might faithfully live as someone who is a doer of the word and not merely a hearer, as someone whose outer life reflects their inner life, as someone whose actions are “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, that is, to care for orphans and widows in their distress” a great metaphor for caring for one another and living justly, and “to keep oneself unstained by the world;” to shout out of yourself those things that stain and defile. Know that is God’s will and Christ’s passion that you do these things, and in them we will find life abundant, and racism will take care of itself. Amen.

Willing to Sink

Matthew 14:22-33
© Stacey Steck

Maybe you’ve heard of Sam Shoemaker, considered one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, probably the most commonly used method for gaining sobriety from alcohol, drugs, and other addictions. Sam Shoemaker was also an Episcopalian priest who was once the Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh where I too had the pleasure of working many years after Shoemaker’s time there. He was known as a gifted preacher and source of wisdom, who once wrote the following words in his book, How You Can Help Other People: “Faith is like water. It can steal into the smallest openings. When you love someone, when you pray for him, and when God galvanizes your faith that things can be different for him, you have one of the most powerful forces on earth in your hands. Your faith lifts him for a time, not only to a new attitude, but to a new altitude, from which his life and problems seem different.”

“Peter cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’ ” “Your faith lifts him for a time, not only to a new attitude, but to a new altitude, from which his life and problems seem different.” Simon Peter, the rock upon which Christ says he will build his church, sinks like a stone and nearly drowns in waters of doubt, but is saved by faith that steals, like water, into the smallest openings. Jesus’ faith lifts Peter up from the waves to both a new attitude and a new altitude. And he was a different man. Thank you, Sam Shoemaker.

This morning, I also want to tell you about another Shoemaker, this one named Fred, and the two men are very much alike. You see, besides their last names, Sam and Fred have another commonality. They’ve both helped hopeless people. It may seem trivial at first, I admit, but Fred Shoemaker has done for hopeless golfers what Sam did for hopeless alcoholics: he gave them a vision of what life could be. During my vacation, I had the privilege of reading Fred Shoemaker’s book called Extraordinary Golf: The Art of the Possible, and although it has yet to correct my wicked slice, it has helped me to see something important about this morning’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

Golf is a divine sport. It’s divine not only because you get to enjoy a nice long walk in God’s creation, not only because it’s a game in which you can really get to know the people you are playing with, not only because it’s a competition with one’s own self, not against others. No, golf is a divine sport because it takes you so deeply into the mysteries of life, in particular, why anyone in their right mind would try to hit a little white ball into a hole several hundred yards away using a stick. Over and over again. If they’d had golf in Solomon’s time, there would be a proverb about it: “A wise man plays golf only once. A fool takes divots forever.” But seriously, golf is divine because it reveals something to us about ourselves, mostly the stuff we’d rather not admit.

Back in Costa Rica, I once proposed that our church offer a weekly “Worship on the Green,” a church service at the local golf course, because there is no greater den of iniquity in the world than at your local golf course. You’ll find more sinners per square inch at a golf course than anywhere else, at least based on what comes out of their mouths after a bad shot, and wherever sinners congregate, the church ought to be there. So, one day I joined the weekly tournament they held there and introduced myself to the coordinator of the group who asked what I did for a living, and I told him I was a pastor. And I still remember that look in his eye. So after the round was over, I come into the pro shop and find him there listening to another guy tell one of the most offensive, expletive-laden, God-awful stories you can imagine. And he just lets the guy go on and on, while I’m standing right there, until finally he says, “Oh, Larry, I want you to meet the newest member of our club. This is Stacey and he’s a pastor.” You’ve never seen a face fall faster, or get redder, than Larry’s. So, yes, there’s some Gospel work to be done out there on the golf course.

But most of what golf reveals to us is our priorities, or at least that’s what Fred Shoemaker thinks. Shoemaker’s book talks about the mental side of the game, and how doubt and fear and expectations, all the things Peter encountered there on the bow of that boat in the Sea of Galilee, how those things cause us to sink just when we could be walking on water. He talks about how golfers focus so much on how their club strikes the ball that they can’t get the ball in the hole, which is, of course, the whole point of the game. “What is your purpose for playing golf?” he asks in the very first chapter, a version of the same question Jesus could have asked Peter out there on the water: “What is your purpose for following me?” Is it to look good in front of your friends or fellow competitors? Is it to live up to the expectations others have placed on you?

That’s where Shoemaker found himself as a young man, good at playing golf, but burned out on it because he was playing for all the wrong reasons. So, he gave it up and joined the Peace Corps in Ghana in the 1970s and for a few months he forgot all about the game. But sin isn’t extinguished so easily so he called up the US embassy in Accra to see if they could get him a tee time on one of the three courses in the entire country. Now, to add to his credibility, he had mentioned that he was a professional from the US, which he was, a club pro, but somehow that got reinterpreted as him being the US champion, so when he arrived at the course at the appointed hour, he was met by a huge crowd which had gathered to see an international match between the US champion and the Ghanaian champion, a barefooted fellow named Kojo who was carrying clubs that could have been used in the 1930s. You know what happened, don’t you?

Yes, Fred Shoemaker started the round pleased to be a goodwill ambassador of the United States of America, and the grand game of golf, a feeling which lasted until about the eighth hole when Kojo tied up the match. From there on out, it was a downhill spiral of fear, doubt, and expectations, as he tried his best to make sure that he didn’t lose to the barefoot bumpkin. The match was over on the seventeenth hole, where Kojo was carried off triumphantly on the shoulders of his countrymen while Fred sunk slowly beneath the waves of the Sea of Galilee, no Jesus in sight to lift him to higher attitudes and altitudes. Needless to say, that’s not the end of the story of Fred Shoemaker, but it was the beginning of his thinking about the purpose of golf, and how to play the game the right way.

Contrary to popular opinion, Peter didn’t sink because he lacked faith. Peter sinks because he’s supposed to sink. He's not the Son of God. Only Jesus walks on water. When Jesus says to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” he’s not referring to him failing to walk on the water. He’s referring to the fact that Peter asked for proof of Jesus’ presence. It was not enough for him that Jesus came to that sinking ship in the first place, or that he announced “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” No, Peter wants Jesus to prove it by allowing him to walk on the water. And so I picture Jesus saying, “Sure, Peter, come on out. Come on” and knowing exactly what’s going to happen. If Peter were focused on getting the ball in the hole instead of just making sure he hit it, he never would have gotten out of the boat in the first place. He may have sunk, just like Fred Shoemaker, but as a result of the experience, he and the disciples do learn a lesson and are able to proclaim, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

What is your purpose for following Jesus? For being a member of Thyatira or any other church? For being a parent or an employee? On what are you focused? In the midst of the storms of your life, do you believe Jesus is there or do you need proof? The possibility of an extraordinary life, or an extraordinary faith, are found in how we ask and answer those questions. Otherwise, we’re just marking time. Did you that’s what the word “ordinary” really means. It means counting, counting the first, second, third, fourth, whatever of our lives. Those are the ordinal numbers. During the summer, the church is in the season of Ordinary Time, not because it’s plain or common or just average, but because we are marking time between the festival seasons of the year like Advent, Lent, Easter and all the rest. Not that Ordinary Time is ordinary; it’s sacred too, but there is a difference, isn’t there, between ordinary and festive, ordinary and extraordinary? Our lives as disciples go through their ups and down, they have both birdies and bogies on their scorecards, just like Simon Peter and Fred Shoemaker, and here we are at one of those festive moments, Homecoming at Thyatira church, an extraordinary moment in which to ask again and answer again that timeless question, “What’s your purpose for following Jesus?,” that question that leads us to an extraordinary life in the midst of ordinary time. And may the faith of Jesus Christ lift us to not only a new attitude, but to a new altitude, from which our lives and problems seem different. Truly, he is the Son of God. Amen.