Monday, August 11, 2014

Welcome Home


Do you remember the last time you felt decidedly uncomfortable somewhere? For me the time that is still forged in my memory is when I went away for initial orientation and training for my first job. I was twenty two years old and had just been discharged from Army active duty and was invited to attend my initial orientation for my company in Kalamazoo Michigan. This was a totally new experience for which I was so unprepared in so many ways. Sure, I had the required academic credentials and knew that I was fortunate to have been selected for this sought-after position. But I felt decidedly out of place, being the only one from my area and finding myself seated with a group from a far-away state, who spoke as differently to me as I did to them. Except for the military in which everyone was very young and frightened and “forced” to feel uniform, (the reason for the name of our apparel), I was made to feel different and out-of-place. I can remember the not so subtle aside remarks that were privately shared among the other group. I remember asking myself: what am I doing here? This experience was completely foreign to me. Usually, we feel uncomfortable either when we don't know many of the people around us or when we're not sure of our role, place, or responsibilities. We've all been there -- feeling left out, alone, out of place and unwelcome. It's a lousy feeling. So lousy, in fact, that we'll go to pretty great lengths to avoid it. The Canaanite woman in our Gospel [Matthew 15:(10-20,21-28] today, who I’m sure was made to feel out of place when she heard Jesus say "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," reminded me of my experience so long ago. 

Now, imagine for a moment feeling that way in church. This may be harder for most of us to believe since church is one of the places we feel most at home. But let’s face it, each and every week there are a certain number of people sitting in the pews, listening attentively or only partially to sermons, singing or just mouthing the words of the hymns, going through the motions of the prayers and worship, who do not feel at home at church. They feel like outsiders.

No one sets out to make them feel unwelcome. It just happens. Blame isn't the issue. The issue is what can we do about it? The text appointed for Sunday in Matthew is the quintessential insider/outsider story. Matthew reshapes the belief from some are chosen and some are not to make the case that everyone should feel welcome. Why? Because God says they are welcome!

 Matthew's Gospel is the most "Jewish," in the sense that Matthew is intent on demonstrating that Jesus is the Jewish messiah, the fulfillment of long-awaited prophecy. In that context, listen to Jim Boyce's excellent summary of Matthew as he pits the insider disciples against the outsider Canaanite woman:

 Gathered in one corner are those familiar disciples, for Matthew the true blue representatives of the faithful lost sheep of Israel, Like a gang of watchdogs at the door they are about the checking of IDs and keeping out the non-pedigreed riffraff.  On the other side of the gate stands this outsider, a woman no less, one lone representative of the dogs of religion, pleading for the mercy of the master shepherd. No English translation can capture Matthew's careful orchestration of the painful choral refrain. "Get rid of her," the "lost-sheep chorus" barks back in reply.

And into it all strides Jesus, the shepherd, who not only welcomes this newest and most unlikely of disciples, but praises her great faith! Yes, all are welcome. All. Everyone. All.

Who knows why people don't always feel welcome. Maybe they are present on Sunday as reluctant spouses or for their children…that is, they may be people who would prefer to spend their Sunday mornings in another way, if it didn't matter so much to someone they cared about. Or maybe they've never really understood all the things we say and do at church and it's all just a little confusing. Or maybe they had some bad church experiences as a child and it's hard to ever feel comfortable. Or maybe they just can't figure out this whole biblical-story thing and just wish the pastor would reference a story they understood. Or maybe they're intimidated because all the "regulars" seem to know what they're doing. Or maybe they have a hard time believing that the pastor wants them there if you really knew the problems they have. Or maybe....

But that's the point. We don't know. And we won't......Unless we ask and listen, really listen.

So that's the challenge. We need to talk about these texts in the contexts of what it's like to feel welcome or unwelcome at church. And then ask in our own words: Why do you feel welcome at this church? What is it that makes you feel welcome? What has made you feel unwelcome? What do you love most about being here? What's gets in your way?

 Maybe we can talk about how Jesus has promised to build his church on us, just people and just as unlikely and “qualified” as Peter was qualified. Just people. God willing, he will call upon the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds and help us renew the process of building and going forward. At the very least, we may get some insight into our own people, whom we have been called to love and welcome in the name of Christ. And that alone, will be enough. Reference: Dear Working Preacher, David Lose July 31, 2011

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water...


Have you ever noticed that it’s often in our most challenging times that we sense God’s presence most clearly? I’m not saying it should be this way. Or that God only appears when we most need him. Rather, I think there is just something about significant challenges and trials that clarify our priorities and cut through the many distractions of everyday life that prevent us from seeing God more clearly.

So part of what strikes me in this passage (Matthew 14:22-33is how it reveals something deeply true about our humanity, and I think it is personified in the behavior of the disciples. While I know for sure that I often overlook God’s presence in the peaceful and pleasant times of my life when all is well, I have no problem calling out to him when things take a more difficult turn. Yes, I know it’s all a part of our transformative journey during which we grow in our quest to be more closely united with God. But let’s face it, it’s so much easier to live in the peaceful and pleasant times.

I think part of it is that we spend a fair amount of our time and energy trying to establish a stable, safe, and secure life, both for ourselves and those we love. There’s nothing wrong with that on one level. From the beginning God desires that we flourish, and stability promotes growth. But do we sometimes just sit back and wait for life to happen, or do we step out of our “boat” and make it happen? Either way, we may forget how much we depend on God. All too often we take comfort in our modest success and assume we no longer need God, or at least forget how much a part of our lives God is… and desires to be. Or is it that we confuse the “status quo” with abundant life? Yet, when tragedy strikes in the form of personal loss, illness, the fracture of a relationship, or some mistake we’ve made, our ongoing need for God becomes painfully clear.

And what does this say about Peter? What model does this simple man provide for us? Despite the danger that surrounded him, he was willing to leave the boat and meet Jesus where he was. And when he began to think and tried to take control instead of surrendering his fear to God, he faltered…yet somehow he knew he would be OK as he reached out to Jesus. Oh, how I envy Peter.