Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Do We Have the Schedule to be Merciful?

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
20 August 2017
Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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This story is not my favorite portrayal of Jesus. I struggle with it because of Jesus’ attitude toward this Canaanite woman, at least initially. She is shouting at Jesus and his disciples, the text says. She is shouting – not being a quiet, submissive woman, as women were expected to be. Her yelling shows her desperation on behalf of her daughter, and her determination in getting Jesus to help. She’s shouting the ancient shout of God’s people: “Have mercy on me, Lord!”

The disciples and Jesus aren’t having it, and that’s what makes me uneasy in this story. Can they not see the woman’s worry? Can they not hear her shouts as desperate cries for help? Why do they have to be so…mean? Jesus doesn’t even answer her right away, and then the disciples want her sent away. Where’s the love? Where’s the mercy?

The woman keeps at it. “Lord, help me,” she says, now at the feet of Jesus. It’s another ancient plea – whispered on sickbeds and battlefields and in classrooms: “Lord, help me.”

So this is Jesus’ opportunity to help, but instead he answers her plea with a rebuttal: “It’s not fair,” he says, “to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” Here, at least, there is no love, there is no mercy.

Nevertheless, she persists. She persists out of her desperation and we begin to see her great faith emerge. She knows Jesus can help her, so she presses on: “Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.”

She is an incarnational (in-the-flesh) reminder to Jesus that God has enough mercy to go around.

And as so often happens in Scripture, there’s a sudden shift. Jesus sees the woman’s humanity and her faith, and her daughter is healed. Finally – there is love, and there is mercy.

For reasons that still escape me, when I began middle school in sixth grade, I was placed into advanced everything for my classes – including math. Now, I’m a pretty smart person, but there’s no way I needed to be in advanced math class, even in sixth grade.

I began struggling pretty early in the year. Our teacher – I’ll call her Mrs. L – was short and stout and loud. She was not a nurturer. She was more like some sort of middle school mathematics drill sergeant. She would give us these packets of worksheets – one each week – and it was up to us to keep up with the work, on our own. She’d check our packets from time to time, but if you fell behind, you really fell behind.

So – I fell really behind. And when progress reports came out – this was in the age when paper progress reports were given to students to take home to parents – I was failing math. Big time failing. It was a terrible feeling – so terrible that I made myself sick with worry about what my mom would say and do.

One evening, I realized I couldn’t take it anymore. I took my progress report into my mom, crying. She wasn’t mad; she was disappointed. She was also determined that we would meet with Mrs. L and figure out a way forward. I was mortified. There was no way Mrs. L would do anything to help me, I figured. She was a short, stout, mathematics drill sergeant, remember?

So, in we went, to meet with Mrs. L. I don’t remember the conversation much. I do remember that Mrs. L gave me time to catch up on my work, even letting me come in to her classroom so I could ask questions if I needed to outside of class. She had mercy on me.

To ask for mercy is a humbling experience, and I think that’s part of my discomfort with watching the scene play out between the Canaanite woman and Jesus. In this story, the woman is already starting from a humble place. As a Canaanite woman, she’s an outsider – she is The Other - and as a woman, she’s “just a humble woman.” Her shouts for mercy take her humility to an even lower place – in this story, we watch her descend from a humble outsider to a humble outsider supplicant. She is someone on the outside – she is An Other - who needs help.

And mercy isn’t always easily given, whether it’s by a middle school teacher or a disciple of Jesus or Jesus himself. Mercy sometimes takes some time and conversation. Maybe that’s partly why our world is so short of mercy – because it takes time and conversation. Do we have the schedule to be merciful? Do we have the time or the energy?

And yet, what the world needs now is mercy. Last weekend at our WELCA retreat, I asked the ladies what parts of our worship services are the most meaningful to each of them. Many answered with Communion, or the prayers, or the hymns. One person quietly answered, the “Kyrie” – the part of the service where, at certain times of year, we sing “Lord, have mercy” – the same words that the Canaanite woman shouted at Jesus.

What the world needs now is mercy, and we not only need it from one another, but from God. It is a good practice for us to say (or sing, or shout) the words asking God for mercy because it helps us remember not only that God is merciful, but that we are in need of mercy from God.

At times it seems as though God’s mercy will be stretched too thin by the world’s need. Every day, the news brings more need to the table. As people of faith, how do we respond? One response is a whisper - or a shout - of “Lord, have mercy!”

But mercy is also seen in how we live out the love of God. Just a few days after white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia bearing torches, the Charlottesville community took the campus back over with a candlelight vigil. There is still plenty of work to do in dismantling racism in our country, and it will take time, and conversation, and it is work that can only be done with love…and mercy.

There have been massive mudslides in Sierra Leone that have killed hundreds of people. This nation which has just begun to recover from the ebola outbreak has been devastated yet again. Our own Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod has already sent funds to Lutherans there to help this nation recover. Recovery is – and it will be - the work of love…and mercy.

Mercy isn’t stylish, and it won’t get us elected to public office, but as followers of a merciful Savior, we are also called to be merciful. Like so many other things, mercy begins in our hearts. Mercy begins with seeing the person in front of us, and in taking the time to see their humanity.

And through God’s steadfast love for us, God’s mercies are new every morning. So there is always enough mercy to go around.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Walking By Faith and Not By Sight

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Memorial Service for David Dolezal – 13 August 2017
Text: John 11:17-27, 38-44
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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A few months ago, I was digging around, looking for a small notebook to throw into my bag – something I could scribble notes in at a conference that I was attending. I found this old notebook. I opened it to see what was inside, and there, on the first page, was written “David Dolezal” and a phone number.

I realized that I had written that note way back in 2011, when David was the chair of the call committee here at Our Redeemer. The committee had received my paperwork in their search for a new pastor, and it was David’s job to call me and begin the process of interviews.

And so it was that David was the first person at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Grand Prairie, Texas, with whom I ever spoke. And when my husband, Steve, and I arrived here for the first interview with the call committee, it was David who greeted us at the door.

And that was David.

As more than one person has said, both in person and in comments on Facebook, David was interested in everyone he met. Here at Our Redeeemer, he would greet everyone alike – both friend and stranger – always with a big smile that made you feel welcome.

That was David.

There were many times when I was able to have good conversations with David related to faith. Once, during worship, we sang a hymn that’s called “We Walk By Faith and Not By Sight.” After worship that day, David and I were chatting, and I confessed my discomfort to him about singing that song. I felt as though I had been insensitive in choosing it.

He looked at me, with a deep and piercing look, and said, “Let me ask you something. Is that hymn about actual walking?”

It was a good reminder to me that walking by faith, and not by sight, has less to do with the physical act of walking, and more to do with our spiritual condition.

For we do walk by faith, and not by sight.

It’s inexplicable, really. Yet this is what I saw in David and Cindy in the last week of David’s life – remarkable faith, not based upon the difficult reality that was in front of them, but based upon their faith in God’s abiding love. In the last visits I made to David, there was a calm over him – what some might even call the peace that passes all understanding.

It is difficult to watch someone you love die. In that grief, we are similar to the sisters, Mary and Martha in the story from John that I just read. Their brother, Lazarus, has fallen ill – very ill – and so, from afar, they call out to Jesus, asking for him to help them.

At first, it doesn’t seem like Jesus is interested in helping, for Lazarus dies anyway. By the time Jesus gets there, Lazarus has been dead for four whole days. The grief is palpable, hanging in the air like a thick haze. In her grief, Martha says to Jesus, “If you have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!” In other words, if only you had been here, Jesus – we wouldn’t be doubled over with our pain and our loss.

But Jesus knows that death won’t get the final word, and he – for whatever reason – decides to show the sisters and the rest of the mourners right then and there that he is the resurrection and the life. He walks to the grave, tells them to roll away the stone placed at the doorway of the grave, says a prayer, and then shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” Just like that – as if he’s calling Lazarus home for supper.

And the dead man comes out of the grave - his hands, feet, and face still bound with the strips of cloth they used at his burial. Jesus looks him up and down and tells the others, “Unbind him, and let him go.” So it is that Lazarus is set free from his body of death, and emerges from his grave wearing life once again.

I said a few minutes ago that, in our grief, we are similar to the sisters, Mary and Martha. But we are similar to them, too, in that we call out to Jesus, asking him to help us. I don’t expect Jesus to stride down the aisle of this church and shout David’s name. But, by faith, I  trust that Jesus has rescued David and all of us from our bodies of death, and Jesus has clothed us with new life in him, for Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

It's inexplicable, really. But we do walk by faith, and not by sight, which was a lesson that David taught us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

+ SDG +

Lord, Save Us...

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
13 August 2017
Text: Matthew 14:22-33
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

Remains of a "Jesus boat," similar to what the disciples would've used.
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Last Sunday afternoon, we were in Seattle, staying with my uncle and aunt. For me and many others, Seattle usually calls to mind cool air and clear mountain views, but while we were there, the Pacific Northwest was experiencing record heat and stifling smoke from wildfires.

We were excited when my uncle and aunt said we’d been invited by their friends to spend a few hours on their boat watching the Blue Angels fly overhead. We met up with their friends and hauled snacks and drinks down to their ski boat, and then, we were off, almost instantly cooled down by the wind across the water.

As we traveled, the water was a little choppy, but nothing we hadn’t seen before. A little while later, and we were in the area where other boats were also gathering. There was a party atmosphere – people were listening to music and dancing; smaller boats were weaving around, launching surprise attacks with water balloons – we reciprocated with our small arsenal. It was fun, and I felt myself relaxing, ready to enjoy the afternoon.

And then…

It began as a flutter in the very pit of my stomach. A few minutes later, the full-on effect of sea-sickness hit me. I moved to another area of the boat, where more air could hit my face. I stared at the horizon as much as I could, trying to get my bearings, trying desperately to will my stomach into settling down.

Someone suggested that swimming would help me feel better, and so I sat toward the back of the boat in my bathing suit, not yet sure about getting into the water. The boats around us began to close in. Two of them had competing music blaring from their speakers, and my nausea was overwhelming. Desperate, I dove off the swim platform, letting the cool waters wash over me, soothing me and helping me feel a little bit better.

Once the Blue Angels began their show, I climbed back up onto the boat, and the nausea returned, full force. As we oo-ed and ah-ed and covered our ears, I began to pray fervently for relief.

Relief finally came later on, when we arrived back to shore – in fact, almost immediately after we got back to their home. Everything settled back down, eventually, once I had my bearings again. And so, I chuckled this past week when I saw the Gospel reading for today, remembering this recent experience as I read again about the disciples being out on their boat, battered by the waves.

They’ve just had the experience of feeding the five thousand, and then Jesus dismisses the crowds and sends the disciples away in the boat so he can have some time alone. Presumably, the disciples assume that Jesus will meet up with them later on.

Their boat ride is less than idyllic because they are fighting the wind, but they don’t fear the waves – many of them, after all, are seasoned fishermen. What they fear is the ghost that seems to be heading toward them, walking on the water. Except – this isn’t a ghost – it’s Jesus, and he quickly assures them that he is there, with them.

Peter – who’s known for being impulsive – wants to know for sure if this is really Jesus. Jesus tells him to step out of the boat and onto the water, and Peter does just that.

So there’s Peter, walking along, making his way to Jesus, and then…he notices the strong wind, and he gets scared. Right as he’s sinking down is when he calls out for Jesus to help him: “Lord, save me!” Peter’s cry is a cry of panic but it is also a cry of faith – for he knows that Jesus can save him.

And Jesus does save him, and Peter is safe in the boat again, and the disciples are in awe of what they’ve just seen. They worship Jesus and acknowledge that he is the Son of God. Once they land on the other side, they’re back to the work of ministry. Jesus has shown them once again who he is, and that they are very much in the hands of a loving God.

This story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water appears in three of the four gospel books. It’s good for us to remember that these gospel books were written for communities of Christians who lived in the First Century. So when I see the same story in more than one gospel book, I pay special attention to that story.

To the earliest Christians, this story was fairly important. For them, persecuted as they were for their faith in Christ – some of them even killed for their faith in Christ – this story was a reminder that at times, we are in safety and security, and at other times we are not, but no matter where we find ourselves, Jesus is right there.

So it is on account of our faith in the presence of God that I can say this: Jesus was most certainly present with my clergy colleagues and other brothers and sisters in a church as they prayed, worshiped, and heard God’s word on Friday evening in Charlottesville, Virginia. Outside, hundreds of white nationalists began to surround that church, so that those inside were told by police to stay put for their own safety.

As the weekend went on - Jesus was most certainly present as my colleagues and other brothers and sisters marched in counter-protest to racism yesterday, singing songs of love in response to the chants of hatred shouted by the neo-Nazis assembled in Charlottesville. And Jesus was most certainly present with police, paramedics, and others who responded after a man plowed his car into a crowd of anti-racist counter-protesters, killing one and injuring many others.

“Lord, save us…” indeed.

As Christians in the 21st century, we certainly don’t face all of the same trials that the early Church faced. However, we face do trials of our own. You can probably start a list in your own mind – maybe even to a point of feeling overwhelmed. And the trials we face aren’t only our own, individually, for we share communal burdens with others, too – as family members and friends, as coworkers and classmates, as neighbors and citizens and as Christian people.

This story of Jesus saving Peter out of the waters helps us remember that wherever we find ourselves, we are very much in the hands of a loving God. It is the hands of God that hold us when we are feeling adrift. It is the hands of God that steady us when we are deeply unsettled – so unsettled that we can’t seem to find balance or equilibrium.

In those moments, we can cry out to Jesus as Peter did: “Lord, save me!” And there Jesus will be, reaching out to catch us.


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