Confronting Evil

I was at Our Saviour, Placerville, about a year when a couple told me about the home they bought in south El Dorado County. It was on several acres with a pond and a barn. They then said they were disturbed about some things happening at their home. There were things happening that they could not explain. They told me about a prior owner who did things around the house that are happening at that time without their help. There were other unexplained things as well.


I can’t share the exact details with you, because I don’t remember them. Except for these unexplained phenomena, they really loved their house. They didn’t want to sell it, if they could avoid it. They said their home was haunted or possessed. They wanted my help. They asked for an exorcism.


I had never before had a request for an exorcism and I have not had one since.


There are a lot of things about parish ministry that they don’t teach in seminary. Exorcisms are one of those things. I remembered that there was a page about exorcisms in The Book of Occasional Services. The entire subject was covered in one paragraph. Basically, it reads, ask your bishop. I told them I would have to talk to the bishop and I would get back to them.


So, I called Bishop Lamb. I related their story and their request. What Bishop Lamb told me was to do a house blessing. I thought, “I can do that.” Way back when we lived in Ogden, Utah, we saw “The Exorcist.” I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to do that.


So, we scheduled a house blessing. I said the liturgy and prayers from The Book of Occasional Services, splattering holy water to and fro.


They reported to me a few weeks later (they weren’t regular attenders) that the strange goings on in their home were gone. I served at Our Saviour for 15 years. In those 15 years their home was normal after the house blessing.


I am a skeptic when it comes to supernatural stuff. Yet, there I things I have heard about that I cannot explain and no one else has explained. What happened at this couple’s home, I cannot explain. These are very rational people. I had no doubt that what they saw and what they heard was real.


Like the man born blind in John’s gospel who said, “I could not see and then I could see.” Well, all I know is that there were weird things and then there weren’t weird things. I have no idea what it was. All I know is that it left.


I have never had anyone stand up in church and ask, “Have you come to destroy us?” (Mark 1:24c) I hope it never happens. Now, I have had some schizophrenics tell me some really weird stuff that they think they saw, but nothing like what happened when Jesus went to synagogue. Mark sets up the scene by identifying a man in the synagogue who had an unclean spirit.


I am a little puzzled what constitutes a clean spirit and an unclean spirit. Jews labeled almost everything as clean and unclean. Clean is good and unclean is to be avoided. We might assume that an unclean spirit is evil. Someone with an unclean spirit will not act rationally. Maybe that is why booze is referred to as spirits.


I hope that no one in Capernaum ever had a seemingly crazy person yell out during the service. This man, and they were men in a first century synagogue, stood up and addressed Jesus as Jesus was teaching.  In this early stage in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus is already known as a rabbi or teacher.


The man knows Jesus’ name and where he came from. Whatever Jesus was teaching about, the man took personally. “What have you to do with us?” (Mark 1:24b) The man identifies Jesus as a man from Nazareth, but then he says he knows who Jesus really is, “the Holy One of God.”


Jesus did not ask his bishop what to do. Jesus did not do a synagogue blessing. Remember that in Mark, Jesus’ identity is a secret. Yet, it is the demons who out Jesus. Jesus ordered the unclean spirit to be quiet and to come out of the man. The man convulsed and the unclean spirit left with a cry.


The people who heard Jesus were astounded at his teaching. It was not anything that they had heard before. Jesus’ authority comes from God as was mentioned in the Old Testament reading, that a true prophet “will speak in my (God’s) name” (Deuteronomy 18:19). On top of that, the unclean spirits obey Jesus. The synagogue story spreads throughout Galilee.


This is the first of many people who are to receive an exorcism from Jesus. My rational mind might think that maybe what they considered to be possessions by demons or something else were really physical sicknesses, like epilepsy. Several of Jesus’ exorcisms probably fall in this category.


Yet, this story seems different. This wasn’t epilepsy. It doesn’t sound like schizophrenia. Jesus was challenged by something that had a rational fear for its existence. Jesus does not destroy the unclean spirit. Like the house in El Dorado County, it leaves and presumably goes somewhere else. Some other poor bugger will be possessed. That makes me wonder how many times Jesus exorcises the same unclean spirit.


Evil does not always appear supernaturally. Almost all evil in the world is done by human beings. We state in our baptismal vows that we “will persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever (we) fall into sin, repent, and return to the Lord.” (BCP p.304)


Resisting evil begins with us. We must repent our wrongs. Once that is done, then we can call out the evil around us. Evil likes to live in darkness and the shadows. It likes to do its work in secret and behind the scenes. Only when evil thinks there is a sanction for its work, does evil show itself for all to see.


When evil is made manifest, evil counts on silence. It the duty of Christians, obeying our baptismal vows, to name evil.


I assume that the people of Capernaum ministered to the man who had the unclean spirit. Once someone repents of evil, it is also our duty to minister to that person. We are to forgive and bring people to the light of Christ.


Christmas 2009 It is unfortunate that Larry Nassar refused to take responsibility for his actions. The judge was disgusted with his letter to her. We condemn Larry Nassar and pray that he repents. Even if we did not do anything as horrible as Larry Nassar, repentance is still our duty. Let us pray that Nassar comes to the light and that our institutions will reform themselves and resist evil.



Text: Mark 1:21–28

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An Inauspicious Beginning

Death and taxes. The earliest use of the idiom was in The Cobbler of Preston by Christopher Bullock (1716), “’Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.” It continues to be quoted by many.

It was true in the 18th century, it is true today, and it was true 2,000 years ago in a backwater province of the Roman Empire. Taxes are the price to pay for civilization. Luke’s mention of a census for the purpose of levying taxes was a way to date Jesus’ birth. There are problems reconciling Luke’s description with historical events, but we are certain that Jesus’ birth took place over 2,000 years ago.

Luke’s purpose, also, was not to say what day of what year Jesus was born. We don’t know that detail. No gospel writer provides that. Birthdays may be important to us, but they were not important to ancient Jews. In fact, birthday blessings were thought to be witchcraft, by ancient Jews. Instead, Luke’s purpose was to say that the birth of this child is very important.

Though from Nazareth, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem. The messiah must be a descendant of King David, Joseph’s ancestor. David’s hometown was Bethlehem where it was expected that the messiah would be born. Luke checked off these important details.

The next detail is embarrassing. Mary gave birth to a child whom our translation says was engaged or betrothed, not married, to Joseph. One of the many criticisms of early Christianity was that the religion’s founder was illegitimate.

However in ancient Jewish custom, once a marriage was arranged and the contract signed, the woman and man were considered married even if they not yet lived together until after the marriage ceremony. It was rare, but a contracted couple could live together. By including an embarrassing detail implies the story of Mary and Joseph’s marital status at the time of Jesus’ birth was true.

Mary and Joseph did not have decent living arrangements in Bethlehem and so the messiah was born where stock animals were kept – not very sanitary. After being swaddled, Jesus was placed in a feeding trough. Not quite a bassinet.

Luke then shifts the story to shepherds in the field. The West Bank may be dominated by Muslims today, but even so, it is has Christian churches seemingly everywhere. There is a church where it was believed the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth kept their flocks. It is called the Church of the Shepherds in the Field. All significant events in the gospels have a church on the site.


Shepherds were very low on the social scale. In a story where the messiah was not even born in a house, stinky shepherds are inserted. The setting is not awe inspiring.


The shepherds were minding their own business when God intervenes on the earth, through the presence of angels. The primary purpose of angels was as messengers. That is what angel literally means. Angels can, at times, serve as God’s enforcers. Angels were not cuddly. They were terrifying.


In the night, a supernatural visage emitting a blinding light appeared before a bunch of lowly shepherds. The angel did not come to smite the shepherds. The angel did have some messages. The first one was to not be afraid. The reason they should not fear is that the angel is bringing good news, gospel, and great joy for everybody. It is unclear how a bunch of social outcasts are to share any good news that is for everybody.


The next thing the angel tells the shepherds is that the messiah was born in David’s city, Bethlehem. The very thing that Jews have prayed for and hoped for has come to pass. Though they were hoping that the messiah would come and free them from the Roman yoke and from Herod’s erratic rule. They probably did not think it was realistic to expect it to actually happen. Yet this message of great importance to the future of Judea was shared with a bunch of shepherds in the middle of the night.


The angel doesn’t say that the messiah can be found in a great room in a great building. Rather, the messiah can be found lying in a manger. Except for a show of force by angels, not one thing about the messiah’s birth makes sense. This is the most important event in Jewish history for centuries. And yet, the messiah is resting in a feeding trough and the birth is announced to shepherds, of all people.


Paraphrasing Obi-wan Kenobi, Luke seems to be saying that this is not the messiah you are looking for. This is not a unifying military leader who will defeat all the foreigners from Judea and maybe Samaria as well. It is a poor child announced to poor shepherds. This messiah has come to free the poor from their misery.


If one angel is not terrifying enough, a bunch of the angel’s buddies show up. They praise God in front of the shepherds, doing something they would do in heaven. The shepherds are given a glimpse of what it is like in heaven. This was not shared with the religious authorities or with King Herod’s court. It was shared with the poor. Social outcasts were given a glimpse of heaven.


After the angels left, the shepherds were probably wondering what they should do with the information they just received. They decided to leave their flocks to fend for themselves and go to Bethlehem. This is a very un-shepherd thing to do. Jesus would later say that a good shepherd would not do such a thing, unless one sheep was lost.


They hurried to Bethlehem and somehow found the place where Jesus was born. Perhaps Jesus was crying, catching the shepherd’s attention. It was highly likely that Jesus was the only baby in a manger.


The shepherds shared their story. It is unknown how many people were there, but Luke implies that it was more than just Mary and Joseph. The hearers were astonished. Some may have thought the story incredulous, except for Mary. Mary treasured the shepherd’s story. Yet, Mary also wondered what it all meant, even though Mary had her own visit from an angel.


After seeing the baby messiah, the shepherds return to their flocks. As they went back, they praised God, perhaps in the same way that they saw the angels do it. After all, the angels probably knew how to do it right.


Luke does not mention that the shepherds told anyone else about the angels and the messiah. Perhaps they thought that once Mary and Joseph were told, their job was done. Though, it is hard to believe that they wouldn’t share such a miraculous story with just about anyone else they encountered. I can just picture some of the shepherds during a day off in a nearby inn and after a few glasses of wine telling everybody about the angels visiting them.


Luke chose to be sober when recording this story in writing. This isn’t a birthday story. It is the story of the coming of the messiah, the king of kings, and prince of peace. In this one event, God has changed the course of human history. The messiah’s followers end up conquering the Roman Empire from within.


More importantly, Jesus changes an attitude of indifference to the poor to a concern for taking care of the poor. Jesus gives a vision of a better world, without need or want. Through Jesus, the barriers separating humanity from God are broken. Through Jesus, the human and the divine are united. In the incarnation, we are heirs with Christ and of God’s heavenly kingdom.



Text: Luke 2:1–20 (NRSV)

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Encountering Evil

Sometimes, our brains go haywire. We will do things that we know is wrong, but we do them anyway. Things might come out of our mouth that we suddenly wish it wasn’t said. We might break a speed limit. We might jaywalk. We might buy something that later ends up in a yard sale.


Most of the time, these things we do that we later regret can be rectified by either asking for forgiveness, doing some kind of restitution, or just living with the act and/or consequences. This is normal living. This is being a normal human being. Certainly not ideal, but we are flawed.


Then there are more systemic issues. This is when our brains go really haywire. Some people are psychopaths. Some people are sociopaths. Some people have anger control issues.


God makes it quite clear that killing someone else is wrong. It is one of the Ten Commandments. God declared that all life belongs to God, not us. God said that human blood is sacred and is not to be shed, because it belongs to God. And Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.  You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-45a)


Jesus addresses evil. Jesus talks about people who are wicked. The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is about greed, violence, and murder. It is about a vineyard that is a biblical metaphor for Israel. God is the owner of the vineyard.


It is harvest time. The absentee vineyard owner sends slaves to collect the produce of the harvest. The tenants who worked the vineyard chose not to share the fruits of their labor. The vineyard owner was due his share of the harvest. When the owner attempted to collect his share, the tenants beat one slave, killed another, and stoned yet another. The owner responds by sending more slaves than the first group. There should be safety in numbers. The tenants treated the second group like the first.


So, the owner thinks that they will treat his son with respect and the son will be able gather the harvest. However, the tenants saw an opportunity to seize the vineyard for themselves by killing the son. According to Jewish law, if a landowner died without an heir, the tenants who lived and worked on the land could have the final claim.


The whole story was troubling. It provoked a visceral response of a need for justice. When Jesus asked the authorities what would happen to the tenants when the owner shows up, they reply that owner will kill the tenants and give the vineyard to other tenants who will do their job and give the owner what belongs to the owner.


The tenants forgot that they were guests in the vineyard and not management. We, too, forget that we are guests of creation and not management. The produce of the vineyard is entrusted to the tenants. They do not own it.


Jesus then quotes Psalm 118:22-23. The builders rejected the cornerstone. The capstone completes the building project. Then Jesus gets explicit. The kingdom of God will be taken away from the religious authorities and given to a people who will bear fruit for the kingdom.


The religious authorities likely already knew that the vineyard is Israel. Seemingly, it is only after Jesus connects the dots for them that they realize that they are the wicked tenants. Matthew tells us that they wanted to do to Jesus exactly what the wicked tenants did. They feared the crowds and bided their time.


Our actions are formed by our thoughts and feelings. The main motivation for the wicked tenants was greed. When the owner sought to get his cut, he did nothing through labor to earn any produce. What he did have was the land without which, there would be no produce. The owner was also an absentee landlord. The owner had no apparent access to any enforcement agency. The tenants saw no consequences for exercising their greed.

Once the tenants resorted to the murder of the owner’s slaves, any means would justify their means of keeping all the produce.


The religious authorities, for whom the parable was about, were willing to kill, especially if they were to outsource the killing to someone else, namely the Romans. The Romans were the law. Jesus was a threat to the religious authorities. The authorities were the only source of religious arbitration and teaching. Usurpers were not welcome.


On Monday morning, October 2, as I was watching TV report after report, I screamed out, “Why?” We want to know what motivates people, especially if they do horrendous things. How could anyone think or feel things that would motivate them to kill people they don’t even know. We may never know why Stephen Paddock did what he did. We do know that he planned the killings.


I am assuming that Paddock thought that the shooting at a mass of people was a means to an end. Yet what was done was indiscriminate violence done with weapons of mass destruction. Like the tenants, Pollack may have assumed that he is a free agent and not accountable to our vineyard’s owner.


Though we don’t know Paddock’s feelings, there must have been hate and, likely, anger. Everyone who had contact with Paddock, except Paddock’s brother, knew him as an angry man. It is very difficult to premeditate murder. The tenant’s resentment of the owner and everyone associated with the owner grew to hate. The religious authorities developed a hate for Jesus and everything Jesus stood for.


We may feel helpless in the face of such violence. There were people in Las Vegas who did not feel helpless. They took action and saved lives. In the face of evil, there were people who reacted with hope and helped others.


We are called to be faithful and grateful tenants of the vineyard. We have a message to share. We have the gospel, the good news. The good news is that God loves us and will be with us in this life and the next. Our response to God’s love is to love others. Love is the destiny of the earth and we are the messengers in word and deed.


Text: Matthew 21:33–46

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It’s not Fair!

Jonah and fishMany people are familiar with the story of Jonah and the whale, except there was no whale. A whale is not mentioned in the book of Jonah. In fact, nowhere in the Bible is there a whale. Jonah was swallowed by a fish. I know ancient people were much smaller than we are, but it still had to be a very big fish.


Of course, to be swallowed by a fish, Jonah must have found himself in water and for a big fish, it had to be a sea. You see, God called Jonah to implore the people of Nineveh to repent and turn to God, or else. Jonah refused. Jonah knew that they would repent and God would forgive them and Jonah wanted no part of that. So, he ran.


He didn’t actually run. He took a ship to get as far away from Nineveh as he could. But the voyage didn’t go well. Believing God was causing a potential shipwreck, Jonah told the crew that God was punishing him and that they should throw Jonah overboard. The crew obliged.


God saved Jonah from drowning by having a fish swallow Jonah. I’m not sure how Jonah was able to breath, but that was not part of the story. Jonah is in the fish, undigested, for three days. During those three days, Jonah gives thanks to God and recommits himself to God.


God orders the fish to spit Jonah out. Jonah makes his way to Nineveh, which was in what is now northern Iraq. It was where Mosul is today. Jonah is successful and the king and people of Nineveh repent and God forgives them.


This makes Jonah angry. Jonah knew God would forgive them and Jonah believes that they were too evil to be forgiven. God’s love and grace was extended to the gentile enemies of the Israelites. Jonah knew God was gracious, but wanted the people of Nineveh punished, not forgiven. In essence, Jonah tells God, “I told you so!”


God’s grace appears in various and sometimes unexpected times in the Bible. It’s unexpected, because it appears when our sense of justice is upended.


Chapter twenty of Matthew begins with the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. The context of Jesus telling this parable comes after an anonymous person comes up to Jesus and asks what he must do to have eternal life. (Matthew 19:16-30) Jesus responds that he must keep the commandments. So he asks, “Which ones?” Well, there are 613 of them. The man assumes that neither he nor Jesus believe that all of them are necessary for eternal life. Seemingly, some must be optional. Jesus responds by listing some of the Ten Commandments and adds another law about loving our neighbor. You’d think that would be satisfactory, but no.


This young man seems to be a pain in the tukus, because he is not satisfied with any of Jesus’ answers. He responds, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” I was getting the impression that he was looking for way out of getting eternal life as he adds more conditions upon himself. Jesus’ next response indicates that this man was looking for a way to be perfect and to be acknowledged as a perfect human being. Jesus told him that to be perfect, he is to sell everything he has, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. He went away grieving because he had many possessions.


Peter was upset with this exchange and pointed out to Jesus that they gave up everything to follow Jesus. Peter is told that the twelve will judge the twelve tribes of Israel. He also said that anyone who gives up what they have will inherit a hundredfold and will have eternal life. Then Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30) Jesus illustrates that statement with the Laborers in the Vineyard.


Like many of the parables in Matthew, Jesus begins with, “the kingdom of heaven is like” whatever the story is about. This time it is a landowner who needs laborers for his vineyard.


We are familiar with grape growing in the Sierra foothills as we cannot drive very far without encountering a vineyard. When we drive through El Dorado County, we will often note, “Oh look. There is a new winery.” When the crush happens, like it is now at this time of year, the vineyard owners must find people to go out and pick the grapes. In our country and in our time, it is usually migrant workers who do this work. It is really seasonal.


It was also seasonal in Jesus’ time. There was no such thing as migrant workers in Jesus’ time. There were more than enough poor people everywhere who needed work. More than 90% of the population in the Roman Empire were poor.


workers in vineyardNot unlike poor laborers today who hang out in certain places hoping someone will stop by and hire them for the day or maybe a week, poor people in Jesus’ day would hang out in a town’s marketplace hoping for work. The sun was barely up when the owner found laborers in the marketplace and hired all of them. They agreed to the usual daily wage of one denarius, or about $3.62.


The workers were too few and the vineyard was too large. The grapes won’t wait. The owner returned to the marketplace at nine o’clock and hired more workers. Maybe they slept in that day. They agreed to be paid whatever was right.


Not enough grapes were being harvested. The owner returned to the marketplace at noon and three o’clock. The owner hired more laborers. Maybe they had a long, rough night, the night before. By three, they must be sober. The owner still needed more workers. The owner returns to the market place at five o’clock and lo and behold there are still more laborers. Maybe they were so late because they didn’t want to work, but didn’t want to go home and confess that they didn’t try to get work. “I was at the marketplace all day and no one would hire me!” They were hired also.


As the sun was setting, it was time to pay the laborers. The manager was told to pay the last hired first. The first hired were being set up. All of them received the usual daily wage. Those who were hired after dawn were expecting a bonus for all the extra work they did. They were sorely disappointed. And they complained to the owner. They were envious of the later hires. It wasn’t fair that they worked all day in the heat while the last hired only worked an hour.


The owner offered a defense that the earliest laborers were paid the amount that they agreed to. Every laborer was paid enough for their families to eat one more day. The owner told them, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Why should they complain because the owner is so generous? Then Jesus concludes the parable with the same statement he made before the parable, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”


When Jimmy Carter was president, he chose to communicate with the American people using the format of a fireside chat. Carter revived FDR’s tradition. I remember one, just one of those fireside chats. It was in maybe 1977. Jimmy Carter said, “Well, as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair … .”


Was it fair that some people in the Houston area had their homes flooded and others didn’t? Was it fair that a family in a Mexican church, celebrating an infant’s baptism, all died when the earthquake collapsed the church? Life is not fair.


When we were young, we expected life to be fair and we protested when we were slighted, “That’s not fair!” Part of growing up was a realization that life is not fair.


It was that kind of protest that Jesus provoked in his parable. The kingdom of heaven is also not fair, because it is a kingdom of grace. Grace is freely given regardless of how much we think we have earned it. It is not fair that the lazy ones, I am projecting here, got paid the same as the industrious ones in the vineyard. The lazy ones were no less deserving of grace. For the rich young man, it is not fair that having the most toys does not get you a win.


Jesus’ disciples were called first, but that doesn’t make them any more special than any other follower. Margaret Shuster said, “The more we insist on our tit-for-tat way of thinking, the more baffled and angry we will be at God’s whole way of dealing with us.”[1]


I believe that God’s love and grace are boundless. Someone who grows up in the church and is reasonably faithful all her or his life is just as deserving of God’s grace as is one who converts on a deathbed. Likewise, because God never gives up on us, I believe that God will welcome dead atheists into heaven, if they choose to go. I think freewill continues in the afterlife. God’s beckoning love continues there as well.


God is a lousy accountant. God is a lousy economist. Jesus challenges our pride and envy. Jesus challenges our holding on to grudges. Just as God loves us and forgives us, we are to love and forgive others.


Text: Matthew 20:1–16

[1] Shuster, M. (2001). Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A. In R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The lectionary commentary: theological exegesis for Sunday’s texts, volume three (p. 114). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

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Watch Your Mouth!

Matthew 15:10 opens after Jesus has a disagreement with the Pharisees, the religious authorities from Jerusalem. Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands before eating, which was counter to Jewish tradition. In Jesus’ time, fingers were made before forks. Except for our parents, we do not have a rule to wash our hands before eating. Our parents taught us that, because it is a really good idea and we stay healthier if we do. Now, I do not want to cast aspirations on the disciple’s parents. They were likely good people. I would blame the disciples for wanton disregard for their parent’s wisdom.


There was already a crowd gathered around Jesus. Having failed to embarrass Jesus in front of the crowd, Jesus sidelines the Pharisees and speaks directly to the crowd. What Jesus says next may not have sit well with Mary. Jesus says that what goes into your mouth does not defile, it is what comes out of your mouth. I can almost hear Mary thinking, “I taught you better than that. Wash your hands before eating.”


There were disciples who must have been close to the Pharisees when Jesus said that. They report to Jesus that the Pharisees were offended by what Jesus said. Jesus responds by implying that the Pharisees are not from God. The Pharisees are the blind leading the blind. If someone blind leads others that are blind, they will fall into a pit. More the pity for them.


Obviously, there were at least some disciples who respected the Pharisees and what the Pharisees said mattered. Now they are faced with an awkward choice: continue to follow Jesus and reject the Pharisees or continue to honor the Pharisees and question what Jesus says or just stop following Jesus. There were likely a few that agonized over which direction to take.


I believe Peter intuited that this was a problem for some and asked Jesus to elaborate. So, Jesus gets graphic. What we eat goes to the sewer. For Jesus’ hearers, latrine would have been a better translation.


Declaring that what goes into the mouth is clean, Jesus says that what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. This is what defiles us. Jesus then lists the things that come from our hearts: evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander. I couldn’t help but notice that Jesus’ list corresponds positively to the Ten Commandments.


I think that Jesus and the Pharisees are on different pages as to what defile means. What is the connection between physical ritual purity and spiritual purity. It seems that physical ritual purity is important to the Pharisees. For Jesus, purity is less concerned by our spiritual practices than it is with our moral code. Purity comes from how we treat others. Defilement comes from our wrong actions and words.


Which brings us to the gentile, Canaanite woman. In Jesus’ culture, she has three strikes against her: 1) she is not a Jew, 2) she is a foreigner, which makes sense because Jesus is in a foreign land and Canaanites are blamed in the Bible for leading the Israelites from God, and 3) she is a woman. In Jesus’ culture, women had no voice. The woman is also unaccompanied by a male, a social taboo.


Jesus ignores her request to heal her daughter. This protects her and Jesus from shame and scandal. Jesus, in this case, is an outstanding first century Jew. Yet she persisted. This is driving the disciples crazy and they demand that Jesus do something about it. When Jesus speaks, it is to reject the woman’s request.


Jesus, at this point, believes his mission is only to the Jews. It is curious that if this is what Jesus believes, why is he in foreign territory? Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26, NRSV) In other words, Jesus’ blessings are not to be taken from the Jews and given to gentiles for whom Jesus refers to as dogs.


In a great rhetorical retort, “she said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’” (Matthew 15:27, NRSV) Jesus was impressed at the faith of this gentile, Canaanite woman and her daughter was healed instantly. Jesus accepted correction from someone below his status.


Jesus was willing to admit he was wrong and do the right thing. What came out of Jesus’ mouth in his rebuke of the foreigner was not right and he was caught in an embarrassing metaphor. Jesus didn’t break anything that was on the bad list that he gave his disciples, but his initial response was not a loving one. Yet love won out through the woman’s persistence.


What comes out of our mouths defile us. Jesus rejects and insults a woman in need. Everyone one of us has said things that we either instantly or later regret.


For most of us, there is a filter between our hearts and our mouths. We might harbor, at times, something from Jesus’ list, or least, something milder. For example, we might not have murder in our heart, but we would like to slap somebody. So, we might not give that slap or even mention it because we have that filter. Still, the thought and the feelings are still in our heart.


This filter is very important. The human race might not have a large population now without that filter. But some people’s filters don’t work well. They say and do things that harm others. Please remember, Jesus implied that everyone has defiled hearts. Jesus exempted no one. But what we do and say can escape being defiled if we utilize our filters.


We get angry. Even Jesus got angry. Even Jesus needed correcting, even from a gentile Canaanite woman. There is righteous anger that compels us to right wrongs. And there is destructive anger that leaves people hurt, devastated, and even angry also.


Then there is hate. Hate eats at the soul. It destroys the soul. If not corrected, it leads to evil. Everyone hates someone or something sometime. It is a cruel twist on the Dean Martin song, “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.” Where hate gets out of hand is when people hate a group or groups of people. Most of these people find like-minded others to help fuel their hateful feelings and ideas. It is almost like they know this might not be right so they need others to affirm that their hate is righteous.


I have been a member of the Southern Poverty Legal Center for several years. They send me their publications listing the locations and activities of hate groups. I remember telling my wife last year after one of those publications arrived in the mail that I hate reading it because it makes me angry. It made me angry that there were people who were doing heinous acts against other people. I also felt hopeless and helpless that more cannot be done to stop these people.


The counter demonstrators at Charlottesville decided not feel hopeless. They were going to confront evil and hate. Their righteous indignation against hate was personified by Heather Heyer. She was determined to have a voice. She was persistent. And for that, she lost her life.


I live in politically blue California. Liberalism reigns supreme here. Yet, California has more hate groups than any other state in the country.


Violence solves nothing, whether it be Charlottesville, Barcelona, Paris, London, Turku, or anywhere else.


Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said August 13, 2017, “Through the way of love, he has shown us the way to be right and reconciled with the God and Creator of us all. Through his way of love, he has shown us the way to be right and reconciled with each other as children of God, and as brothers and sisters. In so doing, Jesus has shown us the way to become the Beloved Community of God. St. Paul said it this way: ‘In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” and now he has entrusted us with ‘the message of reconciliation.’” (2 Corinthians 5:19).


We cannot fight hate and racism by ourselves. Community can reign over chaos. This can only be accomplished through the love of God, taught to us by Jesus, with the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. Our weapon against hate is love.


Text: Matthew 15:10–28

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Fathers and Sons, Part 2

King Duncan shares this story: “A substitute Sunday School teacher couldn’t open the combination lock on the supply cabinet. So, she went to the pastor for help. The pastor started turning the dial of the combination lock, stopped after the first two numbers, looked up serenely toward heaven, began moving his lips silently, turned to the final number, and opened the lock.

“The teacher gasped, ‘I’m in awe of your faith, pastor.’

“’Really,’ he said, ‘it’s nothing. The number is on a piece of tape on the ceiling.’

“I wish the answers to all of life’s problems were on a piece of tape on the ceiling, don’t you? Then, when we hit a difficult time in our life all we would have to do is look up.”

(King Duncan, The Idiot’s Guide to Christianity)


What was Abraham thinking when he looked up at his knife before striking his son? They didn’t have tape in those days, but they did have angels. Angels did what tape on a ceiling does for us. They gave important messages. Sometimes, those messages meant life or death.


The emotional impact of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac is lost by just reading the story itself, in isolation to the greater Abraham story. Abraham and Sarah struggled to have any children. In fact, they gave up hope. This in spite of the fact that God promised them descendants who would be too numerous to count. Though Abraham is depicted as having faith in God, there is, perhaps, a sense of Abraham hearing God repeatedly promising all these descendants that it just got old.


So, Sarah gave Abraham permission to lay with her servant so that there would be someone to receive their inheritance. Ishmael was the product of that union. Sarah became jealous and had Abraham cast them out. Arabs claim Ishmael as their ancestor and their connection to Abraham.


When God promises them a child to come in a year’s time, Sarah laughs at something to preposterous for this to happen this very old couple. That’s how Isaac got his name.


God decides to test Abraham. Just the first verse of this passage makes this story strange. God has twice made a covenant with Abraham promising him that Abraham’s descendants will be numerous. Abraham has already proved his worthiness. God should know our hearts without testing, but God is going to test Abraham – even though Abraham’s name means “exalted father.”


Now God orders Abraham to take this son of theirs, their only present heir, because Ishmael was already cast out, and this blessing in their old age, to a specific mountain, slit his throat, and burn his body on an altar. Sorry for being so graphic, but sugar coating this would only hide the impact of the story.


If someone were to come to me and tell me that God told them to kill a child of theirs and ask me if they should obey God, I would think they were schizophrenic. That is not the God I know. And I would be convinced of the mental illness, if they told me the details of how God wants it done.


It is hard to continue this story without empathy for Isaac. His father, whom must really adore this almost only child, tells him to go on a journey to make a sacrifice to God. Isaac obediently obeys.


Three days later, they arrive at the place with two of Abraham’s servants. You see, Abraham is really wealthy. I suppose the other servants were left behind.


To add insult to injury, Abraham has Isaac carry the wood he is going to use to cremate his son. Isaac might be getting nervous or at least confused, at this point. They have everything they need for the sacrifice, the wood, the knife, and the fire. The only thing they lack is the lamb. Isaac is looking around and there is no lamb or any other animal to be used for the sacrifice. Abraham assures his only beloved son that God will provide.


They arrive at the place God pointed out to Abraham. They build an altar. What this would involve would be piling up stones into a structure where an animal would be slaughtered and burned.


Once the altar is constructed and wood placed on it, Abraham ties Isaac’s hands, likely behind his back and puts him on top of the wood, which is on top of the altar. Abraham then takes out his knife and raises it to slit Isaac’s throat.


I believe Abraham stalled during the construction of the altar. God must have a change of mind. When will God intervene? Just as the knife reached Isaac’s throat, an angel calls out, “Abraham, Abraham!” Abraham replied, “I’m here – I’m here!” There is urgency to stay Abraham’s hand, which I might add was at the last second. The angel told Abraham not to touch the boy. The test is over. Abraham’s faith is confirmed. The angel acts as God’s messenger to give Abraham his grade and to stop a horrible act.


Instead of God saying, “I was only kidding,” God was satisfied that Abraham was worthy of being the progenitor of God’s people. This certainly questions God’s omniscience. But I think that human beings are way too unpredictable.


A ram was caught in a thicket and Abraham offered the ram instead of Isaac, probably to Isaac’s great relief. I can’t help but wonder how Isaac felt about his father after that event. There was no such thing as psychology in those days, but how messed up would Isaac be after that trauma?


Abraham names the mount, “God will provide.” Jewish tradition believes that this is place that Solomon built the temple. The place certainly has a tradition of sacrifice. Muslim tradition is that it is near the Kaaba in Mecca. Many scholars put the place near Shechem in northern Israel, which would have a symbolic connection to John’s story of Jesus encountering the woman at the well. In other words, we don’t know where Mount Moriah is.


After the sacrifice is made, the promise of a multitude of descendants is once again repeated and it is added that the promise will be met now through Isaac.


The Canaanites practiced child sacrifice. There were times when the Israelites also took up the practice. The prophets railed against them for doing so. They could argue that the Bible says that all first born belong to God, animal and human. But the Israelites engaged in child sacrifice because they adopted the Canaanite gods. It is hard to know if this story was meant to stop the practice of child sacrifice.


This story is one of the stories read during the greatest liturgy of the church year, the Great Vigil of Easter. There are parallels with Jesus’ sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Jesus is crucified not far from where Isaac would be sacrificed, if Jewish tradition is correct. Isaac carried the wood. Jesus carried his cross. Except, Jesus is not crucified by God. Jesus is crucified by pagans. Granted, Jesus willingly goes into their power, except their power turns out to be no power. Jesus didn’t stay dead.


Back to the person I referenced earlier who believed that God wanted him or her to kill their child. We hear many voices in our lives, some internal and some external. The recent trial of the young woman who encouraged her friend to kill himself is a tragic example.


How do we know what is from God or what is consistent with God? The answer is love. If what we are being asked to believe or to do is not consistent with love, then it is not from God.


This is what Jesus commands us, to love. St. Paul wrote, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Romans 8:32) Jesus died on the cross for our sins out of love for us. That horrible act of violence was turned into one of love. Such is the power of God.


The power of God’s love is greater than we can understand. Where we might see death, there is life. Where see despair, there is joy, or least a joy to come out of the situation. Abraham was promised countless descendants whom he would never see.


God’s power of transformation is love. We show our love to others whom we never know through our gifts to our communities. We show our love in caring for one another. It is this power of love that will feed us and keep us whole. Negative thoughts, despair, feelings of giving up are not acts of love. Love is life. May you always be in a place of life.


Text: Genesis 22:1–14

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Fathers and Sons, Part 1

There are many instances in non-fiction, fiction, and film about mother and daughter relationships, both positive and negative. The movie Terms of Endearment comes to mind about a mother-daughter relationship. There are fewer father and son writings and film examples, though the Godfather comes to mind.


The Bible, on the other hand, has few mother-daughter relationship stories, though Ruth is a mother-in-law-daughter relationship. There are many father-son relationships in the Bible. This reflects the patriarchal society in those times and the complexity of those relationships in that society.


I am writing about two father and son relationships with this being part one. Both involve Abraham and they are not particularly pleasant stories. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. This Old Testament story is mainly about Ishmael and his mother Hagar.


In Genesis, God often tells Abraham that he will have so many descendants that it will be impossible to count them. God says Abraham will have more descendants than the stars in the sky. And back then without all the light pollution, they could see a lot of stars. God says that Abraham will have more descendants than the sand on the sea shore. Only the hardiest bean counter would make the attempt to make these kinds of counts.


Yet in spite of these promises, God seems to fail at following through. Abraham and Sarah have no children. Abraham and Sarah struggled so much, they gave up hope. This in spite of the fact that God promised them descendants who would be too numerous to count. Though Abraham is depicted as having faith in God, there is, perhaps, a sense of Abraham hearing God repeatedly promising all these descendants that it just got old. “Oh, it’s you again God. A lot of descendants, right. Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before.”


They might have thought it cruel for God to continue to promise descendants and not to give them even one child. How can they have descendants without any children?


Out of desperation, Sarah gave Abraham permission to lay with her slave, Hagar, so that there would be someone to receive their inheritance. Ishmael was the product of that union.


It was common in ancient times for wealthy men to take slaves as concubines. It was less common for such a liaison to be proposed and condoned by the wealthy man’s wife. Of course, jealousy would almost always be the product of such a union. The practice was also common in this country when slavery was condoned, even for presidents of the United States.


When Ishmael was still young, God appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre. God appeared to Abraham as three persons. There are obvious Christian implications here, but it is likely God had two angels as companions. Abraham was told that when they return in a year’s time, Sarah will have born a son. Sarah was in her nineties. Menopause was a long, long time ago.


Sarah overheard the conversation from their tent, for they were nomads. On hearing she was to give birth, Sarah laughed. They accused Sarah of laughing and doubting God. Sarah said, “I did not laugh.” God said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”


Sarah bore Isaac, whose name is rooted in laughing.


Abraham threw a big feast when Isaac was weaned. Isaac is about three years old and Ishmael is about 17. Sarah became jealous of Hagar and her son. Ishmael was older and might inherent. Sarah feared that her son would have to work for the son of her slave. So, Sarah told Abraham to cast them out. Abraham didn’t like the idea. Ishmael was Abraham’s flesh and blood.


God assured Abraham that God would care for Hagar and Ishmael. God will make Ishmael a great nation. Arabs claim Ishmael as their ancestor and their connection to Abraham. Abraham feared for Hagar’s and Ishmael’s livelihood and their very lives in the wilderness. Yet, Abraham trusted that God would keep them safe.


Abraham gives them food and water and sends them out into what the Bible says is the wilderness of Beer-sheba. The wilderness of Beer-sheba is the Negev desert. Hagar is given a few things to eat. Isaac and Sarah get a feast.


The Negev is a very desolate place. It is a place of dirt and rock for miles and miles. Negev in Hebrew means dry. There are occasional wadis where some plant life survives. Beersheba is an ancient city and is one of the largest cities in modern Israel. It’s really hot there.


It is in this desert that Hagar finds herself as she struggles to survive so her son may live. Hagar could not bear to see her son die of thirst so she walked away from Ishmael, about 50 yards, and turned her back on him so she may not see him. Hagar wept tears she could not afford to lose.


God seemed to have been busy with other things and then hears Ishmael. Ishmael means God hears. A messenger is sent to give Hagar assurances and reminds her that Ishmael will be a great nation. It was then that Hagar sees a well and life.


Ishmael grew up to be skilled with the bow. Hagar, the Egyptian, not the Horrible, obtained a wife for Ishmael from Egypt. It is unlikely that Ishmael ever saw his father again. After all, Abraham told them to leave and not come back. Fathers and sons have it rough in the Bible, in Greek myths, in Shakespeare, and on and on.


In spite of being a tough love story of a father and his two sons, this is a story of salvation to those who are outcast. When all hope is lost and death is inevitable, God will be there.


I was recently asked at hospice to call the sister of a patient who was not assigned to me, but I was the only available chaplain, at that time. The sister was distraught at the decline of her brother whose body was being ravaged by cancer. She was a nurse and took over the caregiving needs, assisted by the patient’s spouse.


She was seeing her brother, whom she loved, slowly losing abilities as the tumors spread and grew. She was so deeply grieved that she could no longer feel God’s presence. She felt alone and spiritually adrift in her grief. Her tears kept her from seeing the well that was in front of her.


She confessed that she typically saw the negative. Her brother, on the other hand, would always see the positive. When the tumors in his shoulder took away the use of his right arm, he said, “I still have my left arm.”


By the end of the call, she said she was in a better place than she was when she called the night on call nurse.


Like this caring sister, like Hagar, no matter what kind of wilderness we find ourselves in, God will be there. Sometimes, we just need to wipe away the tears and see what is front of us.


Yet fear can keep us from recognizing God’s presence. We typically call this presence, the Holy Spirit. Jesus tried teaching the disciples over and over again that God will always be with them. What need the disciples or us fear if God is with us? We, too, are Jesus’ disciples.


Fear is, perhaps, the most primary emotion we have. Some might argue anger should be considered, but most of our anger is rooted in fear. God’s love transcends fear. Yet fear is so primal that it is hard to discard. With God’s help, we can mitigate it.


Perhaps this prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola is one we can use to help us in times of anxiety and when we have feelings of being lost:


Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous, teach me to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to seek reward, except that of knowing that I do your will. Amen.


Text: Genesis 21:8–21

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