24 September 2017

Feeling Anxious?

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I hate to be a kicker,
I always long for peace,
But the wheel that squeaks the loudest,
Is the one that gets the grease.[1]

At this stage on their journey out of slavery, the Israelites were definitely squeaking—man, were they squeaking. They were murmuring, complaining, grumbling, whining incessantly to Moses and Aaron.  Not some, not even half, but, we’re told, “The whole congregation of Israelites complained again Moses and Aaron in the wilderness” (Ex. 6:2), which means they were also murmuring, complaining, grumbling, and whining at God—which is what triggers God’s response.  God doesn’t rain down fiery judgment from heaven; instead, God rains down bread from heaven.  But this bread, this “manna,” is really judgment, a judgment by bread.  It’s a test, as we’ll see.  And because God’s ways are always righteous and just (Deut. 32:4), this test, too, is an expression of God’s righteousness, an expression of God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel, of God’s deep compassion for God’s people.

We find the Israelites in the severe wilderness of Sinai.  They are people on the way: on the way from Egypt to a land of promise, on the way from slavery to freedom, on the way from scarcity to abundance in a land of milk and honey, on the way from an oppressive past toward a hopeful future.  And the exodus road—exodus, a Greek word meaning, “the way out”—the way out of slavery, the way toward freedom, and this holy way cuts right through the wilderness.

The exodus from Egypt was the defining event in the history of Israel. Yes, the dramatic departure of God’s people through the Red Sea, but also the long forty-year trek around Sinai. The wilderness wandering should be understood as central to the exodus experience.  It’s not just a fruitless, empty in-between time between leaving Egypt and eventually crossing the River Jordan.  The wilderness experience was essential for the Israelites; it was formative and foundational.  In some respects, the wilderness is not unlike Holy Saturday, situated between Good Friday and Easter Sunday; a lot is going in that space in-between, that liminal space, that threshold space between what was and what shall be.

In time, the wilderness becomes the birthplace of Israel as a people: their theological identity is tested and formed there.  In the wilderness, they come to know Yahweh—the God of Abraham and Sarah—who was before then really a stranger.  They come to know God’s way, and will, and style.  They come to know God personally, not just beliefs or ideas about God.  They come to know God experientially, they encounter the holiness of God, they face the presence of the living God, they are confronted by the numinous, the Holy.  The wilderness is necessary for a knowledge of God.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are religious traditions that emerge from desert, wilderness experiences.[2]  Moses learns Yahweh’s name, not as a boy growing up in the empire of Egypt, but as an adult in the wilds of Sinai.  One could say that the wild God of Israel is most profoundly known and experienced in wild, dangerous places—whenever we find ourselves in what feels like a wilderness, when we find ourselves in the holy, scary threshold space between what was and what shall be, between the past and the future, between death and resurrection.

This is where we find Israel in Exodus 16. And, to no one’s surprise, their anxiety level is running very high. Wilderness wanderings, wherever or whatever the wilderness might be, often generate considerable anxiety in us. This was a perilous, life and death situation for them.  They were running low on food, starving.  In the middle of nowhere.  They could not imagine a way out, an exodus, out of their crisis.  They began to panic.  They had difficulty envisioning a future that included enough food to live on.  A promising future was eclipsed by absence in their present, the absence of food. They envisioned only death.  And they didn’t have a lot of trust in Yahweh, either. They were beginning to think that God was against them, that it was all a cruel joke, that God brought them there to kill them—because that’s what all the evidence was pointing to.

“If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt,” they cried.  Why didn’t God kill us in Egypt, “when we sat by the fleshpots,” with kettles full of stewed meat, “and ate our fill of bread” (Ex. 16:3)?  Back in Egypt, sure we were in slavery, life was difficult and cruel, but at least our stomachs were full.  Life was so much better back in those days, back there in slavery, compared to this suffering at the hands of Moses and Aaron and their God.  “For you have brought us out into this wilderness,” they shouted, “to kill this whole assembly hunger” (Ex. 16:3)!

They are fearful.  They are anxious.  Two different emotional responses, similar but not the same.  Fear usually has an object, whether it’s the fear of flying or spiders or starving.  Sometimes a fear is rational, when there are good reasons for being afraid.  Sometimes a fear is irrational.  Anxiety, though, is something different.  Anxiety, often, does not have an object.  We can feel anxious and not know why we are anxious; it sits deeper than fear in the psyche and can, therefore, have a fierce hold over us.  Of the two, anxiety is probably more destructive.  Anxiety, when it’s activated, especially by trauma, and becomes operative, constricts.  The word, itself, has its root in the Sanskrit ang.  In Greek, ánkhō means “to choke.” From ang we get angst and anger and angina, the constriction of blood vessels around the heart. 

Anxiety is often a secondary response to something else, whether what is perceived is true or not is beside the point.  Take, for example, the question of scarcity. Is there enough to go around? Whether it’s oil or money or time or love, or, for the Israelites, food, whether we perceive scarcity and abundance is a direct correlation with how we perceive the rest of reality.  An attitude of scarcity often generates considerable anxiety in us. 

How does this relate to Exodus?  Walter Brueggemann, the brilliant Old Testament scholar, reminds us that Egypt was an empire, an extremely powerful economic and military force, the mightiest empire of its time in this part of the world.  Empires are often built to secure the resources necessary for its own survival.  This is why empires need slaves; this is why Pharaoh needed to keep the Israelites in Egypt.  The narrative that fueled Pharaoh’s empire was the myth of scarcity—the fear of not having enough, the need to have more just in case because they assume there's not enough.  The Pharaoh narrative, the narrative of empire, Brueggemann says, the story that empires tell themselves and want to make others believe, goes like this: resources are scarce, scarcity yields anxiety, the anxiety of not having enough leads to accumulation, pathological accumulation leads to monopoly, and the need to maintain monopolies inevitably lead to violence.[3]

This is the narrative that Israelites are used to.  This way of being had been embedded into their psyches for generations.  Read through the book of Exodus and you see that Israel is always whining and grumbling and complaining and worried…it’s tiresome.  Even with all that God had done for them, they had difficulty remembering, they assumed the worst, they couldn’t trust, they couldn’t live with confidence and hope.  Anxiety—anxiety and fear, but mostly anxiety—is informing everything. 

When we’re anxious our perceptions of reality become distorted, our lives constrict, it’s tough to make wise decisions, it’s easy for us to (over)react to what’s going on around us, we choose scarcity over abundance, we become defensive.  Anxiety hinders the Israelites's ability to move forward.  Overwhelmed by anxiety, they want to go “home,” even if “home” was slavery.  When anxiety becomes intense there is often a tug to go back to the past, to "the good ol' days," to the way things were, to the familiar and the known.  You can see why there’s often a connection between anxiety and nostalgia, which literally means “a painful longing for home.”

And, so, the daily bread from heaven is given as a test: will they learn to trust in the daily provision of God? They were forbidden to, collect, or accumulate for a later date, behaviors often fueled by anxiety and an inability to trust in the benevolence of God.  They were not allowed to take matters into their own hands, they were not free to manage or plan for their future, they were not free to control the desired outcomes.  They had to learn to trust in God to provide for them.  Not once, but day after day after day.  This test might appear harsh, but it was designed to change their lives, so that they would stop being fueled by anxiety.  Stop grasping.  Stop trying to control the future.  Stop accumulating in fear or anxiety, as if God is not God.  It took more than two generations to change their attitudes, and even then, it was difficult for Israel to really trust in God.  They had trust issues—that’s what being sold off into slavery will do to a people.

As any psychologist can tell you, every human being has trust issues.  It starts early, as an infant slowly determines whether one’s parents, one’s family, and the world are safe.  And if our trust has been betrayed, once or countless times, it takes a long time for trust to be recovered.  If you’re watching the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War, you see how the American government betrayed the trust of its people, a trust that has yet to be full recovered, a trust that continues to be betrayed. 

God wants the Israelites to learn to trust. But is God trustworthy? The viability and vitality of faith depends upon the image of God we hold deep in our heart of hearts. Your image of God is critical.  If you see God essentially as a judge, then don’t be surprised if you become excessively judgmental.  If you’re not sure that God is trustworthy, faithful and good, then don’t be surprised if you’re obsessed with gaining control over your life, taking matters into your own hands, fending for yourself, living defensively, living with the myth of scarcity…what if God won’t provide, what if the manna won’t show up, what if there’s not enough?  I need to do something about this.  What am I going to do?  I.  I.  I.

To counter these egocentric faithless pieties, God comes to us as the generous one.  Here, and later in Jesus’ ministry, we come to see that God is known for God’s liberality, God’s excessiveness, God’s prodigality.  This is the image of God that should fill our hearts and minds.  John Calvin (1509-1564), writing on Exodus 16, said it beautifully, “God so far extended [God’s] liberality as abundantly to satisfy them, …not less was given than was amply sufficient for them.”[4]  This image was at the center of Calvin’s piety because he knew God to be liberal and prodigal with love for him.  And, Calvin knew, this manna is really something else; it’s not like the food we obtain through planting and harvesting, it doesn’t come through the fruit of our labor.  It doesn’t come from us.  This daily bread, the kind that really sustains us is pure grace.  It’s unearned. It’s freely given from a generous God.  It all flows from God’s bounty.

We know we are living in anxious times.  And fear abounds. It feels as if we’re in a wilderness.  Earthquakes: three in Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.  Devastation from hurricanes in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico, most of the Caribbean.  Weekly talks about nuclear annihilation. Pathological narcissists with fragile egos playing with the lives of millions of God’s children.  On Wednesday evening here at CPC, Robert Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, shared disturbing data about trends in American society pertaining to religion, values, and unacknowledged racism tearing at the fabric of society.[5] We are living through a time of fast, unprecedented change. These changes, too, are yielding considerable anxiety. 

So, what can we do?

We can either resist anxiety, deny it, self-medicate, run from it, try to run “home,” go back to an imagined past, somewhere called “again.”  Or, knowing that God is faithful, we can stay with the anxiety, really feel it, enter it without succumbing to it.  This is not the usual response to anxiety, I know.  But it might be the more faithful one.  Isn’t this what the Israelites came to know in the wilderness? In fact, our anxiety, our unease, Walter Brueggemann goes so far to say, is a holy thing or can be holy.[6]  Why?  Because we can discover in our anxiety a new experience of the Living God.  We can discover something of the beneficence, the liberality, the abundance of God. 

Moses and Aaron summoned the people in the wilderness, in their anxiety, saying, “Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.” And as Aaron spoke, we’re told the whole congregation looked toward the wilderness—they looked out over the hot sands of the Sinai, they saw the barrenness all around them, they became conscious of their situation, caught between the past and the future. And what did they see there?  

The cloud!  

The glory, the presence of the Yahweh appeared in the cloud.  Then, Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God” (Ex. 16:16:12).  

Then, indeed…that morning and this morning and tomorrow morning and the next morning and the next, on and on and on, forever and ever. Amen.

Image: Anton Koberger (1440-1513), "Gathering Manna," German Bible, Nuremberg, 1483.

[1] Attributed to the American humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw (1818-1885), around 1870.
[2] See Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
[3] This is a theme found throughout Brueggemann’s scholarship, but cited here.  See also Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012).
[4] John Calvin, Commentary on Exodus.
[5] Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016).
[6] From Walter Brueggemann’s interview with Krista Tippet at OnBeing, “The Prophetic Imagination,” aired 19th December 2013.  

10 September 2017

Welcome the Child

Matthew 18:1-5 and Matthew 19:13-15

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Kickoff Sunday

“The child” features prominently in Matthew’s Gospel.  In fact, the significance of “the child” is often overlooked in Matthew’s Gospel.  “The child” I have in mind here is not an individual child, although, as we’ll see, it can refer to one in particular; I’m referring, instead, to a turn of phrase, “the child,” to paidion, some version of which is used frequently in Matthew.

I’m grateful for the scholarship of Sharon Betsworth who, in an article in the Journal of Childhood and Religion, analyzed Matthew’s use “the child.”[1]  Matthew first uses this phrase in Matthew 2, which contains Jesus’ birth story.  Unique to Matthew’s Gospel is the story of magi who visit Jesus, not as a baby, but as a child.  This is followed by Herod’s demonic slaughter of the innocents.  Then we have Joseph taking Jesus and Mary to Egypt, for safety.  All this happens in Matthew 2.  Betsworth notes that scholars often draw parallels between Jesus and Moses in Matthew 2, and Joseph’s warning dream to take Jesus to Egypt echoes Joseph in Genesis (37-39), who also had future-warning dreams. Scholars often focus on the characters, Herod, magi, Joseph, Mary.  “Attention to these characters,” however, “often eclipse the one who is the catalyst for their actions, the child Jesus.”[2] 

And, significantly, Matthew sparingly refers to Jesus by name.  In chapter two, only once.  Instead, Matthew refers to Jesus as “the child,” to paidion.  It’s used nine times in chapter two.  Four times it refers to Jesus, alone; five times it’s used together with his mother, and each time the mother is secondary.  The focus is on “the child.”  All the action here revolves around “the child.” The promise of a new future rests upon this child.  The child has to be cared for, protect.  This child has enormous power.  This child is a threat to Herod, a client king of the Roman Empire. 

Remarkably, referring to Jesus as “the child,” instead of by his name allows us to identify more fully with Jesus.  “The child” become a blank slate or canvass upon which we project our own images or understanding of what it means to be a child.  Referring to Jesus as child makes it easier for us to relate to him, to connect with him, to have empathy toward him, even to worship him—as the magi worshipped Jesus on bended kneed, even as we might worship a newborn child, with appropriate wonder and awe and gratitude and joy.

What we need to know, which is not immediately obvious for us, is that the phrase to paidion, reflects the low status of a child in Jesus’ time.  Paidion is related semantically to pais, often used to designate a slave.  The word conveys the “sense of one who lacks choice and is powerless.  The child is very vulnerable,” in Matthew 2, “and very much in need of the care provided by his parents.”  We may not have associated these attributes of low status, powerlessness, fragility, vulnerability, with Jesus if his name were used in the narrative.[3]

So, then, what do find throughout Matthew’s Gospel, especially here in chapter 18 and 19?  The Gospel is replete with references to “the child” and “children.”  Some form of the phrase is used eighteen times in Matthew. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus places a child before them and tells the disciples that they must change and become like children.  “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Mt. 18:4-5). 

We have, no doubt, heard and maybe romanticized this saying of Jesus countless times.  However, if we romanticize it or idealize it, we’ll miss the radicality of this statement.  To see this, let’s skip to the Matthew 19, another place where Jesus refers to children.

What do we have here?  Little children were being brought to Jesus for him to bless and pray for them.  The disciples have no patience for this.  The disciples, obsessed with power, influence, authority, wondering about who is “greatest in the kingdom” (Mt. 18:1-5), find the presence of mothers and children as the opposite of all that they aspire toward.  The disciples yell at the parents with a force that push them both, parents and children, far away from Jesus.  Then Jesus scolds his disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14).

To be fair to the disciples, they probably thought they were acting appropriately.  They were merely reflecting the assumptions and customs of their day.  The disciples’ response here, like so many other places in Matthew’s Gospel, exemplifies “normality,” “custom,” “convention,” “tradition.”  The disciples represent the way it is, the status quo.  And so, they were probably stunned, appalled, even outraged to hear Jesus appraise normality, flaunt convention, and undercut custom.

The way of Jesus is always demanding.  If it’s not demanding, it’s not the way of Jesus.  Before the gospel is heard as good news, it’s often experienced as bad news.  God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).  God’s grace, God’s justice, God’s mercy are radical, they cut to the root.   The gospel overturns in order to rebuild lives, and the world.  The gospel is first encountered as shocking or scandalous.  Doesn’t Jesus say to his disciples, earlier in Matthew, “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me” (Mt. 11:6). Blessed is the one who is not offended.  Why would Jesus say such a thing?  Because Jesus is offensive, the gospel is offensive according to conventional morality and custom.  Jesus needs to say this to his disciples precisely because the message of God’s Kingdom, the core message of the gospel, the work of the church is offensive and scandalous.  The gospel undermines all that is, it shakes the foundations, and destabilizes everything; it upends the way things are, and offers in their place an alternative ethic based on love, a different way to live based on mercy and justice, a new understanding of what it means to be a person of faith, to be a servant of God, even a new understanding of who God is and what God loves and desires and expects from us—which brings me back to “the child.”

As we know, children are among the most vulnerable in society.  Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) said, “The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.”  Scripture tells us that children are a sign of divine blessing (Gen. 13:16, 15:1-16; Ps. 127:3-5, 128:3-6).  They embody the hope of the family, or a people, for a meaningful future.  In Jesus’ time, however, most of the children lived on the edge of existence.  In the Greco-Roman world, children were the least socially, politically, and economically.  They were considered “weak, irrational, ignorant [and] unpredictable.”[4]  The disabled were especially vulnerable.  Children lacked worth and status; worth and status only came with adulthood.[5]  Jesus did not accept these views.  He judged these views and then transforms them.  For Jesus, a child is elevated into a living symbol; a child represents the most vulnerable in society, those society considers weak, worthless, “low” on the ladder of economic class. 

Jesus’ teaching is radical: remove the barriers, he says, between the church and the “little ones”—and don’t erect new ones.  Allow the vulnerable, the weak, the worthless, the low to come.  God’s kingdom, God’s realm belongs to them, to the little children.

And, where is this kingdom?  Here, now.  Don’t we pray, week after week, “…thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10)?  Who are the worthy residents of God’s kingdom? Who is the kingdom for?  Children. 

And, who are the children?  Who are these “little ones”?  Who is “the child”?  The child is not defined by age, the child is nameless poor among you, the refugee, the asylum seeker, the immigrant, the migrant worker, the teenager living on the streets, the forgotten, the overlooked, the ignored, the abandoned, the invisible, the vulnerable, the marginalized, those we deem strange or odd, possessing little value.

And, how do we know the child is not bound by age?  Because Jesus, himself, says, that to welcome the child is to welcome him, because—amazingly—Jesus is the child!  

A child is not defined by age; a child is anyone who is vulnerable and powerless.  Jesus is the nameless poor, the refugee, the asylum seeker; Jesus is the immigrant, the migrant worker, the teenager living on the streets; Jesus is the forgotten, the overlooked, the ignored, the abandoned; Jesus is the invisible, the marginalized, those we deem strange or odd, possessing little value.  We are to become like children, like them, risk vulnerability, welcome them into your world.  The Greek word for welcome here, dexomai, can also mean “receive” or “accept,” it can also mean “greet,” even “worship.”

To become like a child is to become like Jesus, “the child,” vulnerable. To welcome Jesus is to welcome the child. To love Jesus is to love the child, the most vulnerable among us.

To love Jesus is also to love the vulnerable child within us.  Whatever our age, all our experiences as children are embedded in our psyches, in our memories. There is an inner child who dwells within each of us.  This is not pop-psychology, but a holy claim that honors the child still alive within us, the child, the little “you” who is always beside you, who accompanies you along your way.  It was psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) who said, “In every adult there lurks a child—an eternal child, something that is becoming, is never completed, and calls for unceasing care and attention and education.  That is the part of the human personality that wants to develop and become whole.”[6]  The inner child remains the most trusting and hopeful and innocent part of who we are; she or he is also the most vulnerable and tender and wounded part of our psyches, often fearful, anxious, timid, worried, concerned.  This child, the child within also requires our compassion, as much as our neighbor.[7]  Jesus loves this child too. The inner child, this holy child, like the child Jesus, needs to be welcomed and loved and protected, and maybe even “worshipped,” treated with respect and awe.

As we kickoff another program year, as we welcome our children into church school this morning, let us go out of our way to make sure our children and youth feel welcomed and loved and accepted here. Are there obstacles that prevent them from experiencing God’s grace and love and acceptance?  Do you know the names of the children that sit beside you and near you most weeks in worship? Are you praying for them?

Let us also consider the most vulnerable in our community, the ageless child among us who needs to experience God’s welcome, love, and acceptance here? Have we put obstacles in their way, made it difficult for them to experience God’s grace?  Are we making it easy or difficult for children, whatever their age, to know their status and worth within God’s kingdom? Are we extending God’s welcome, love, compassion, and acceptance toward one another in this community of faith, to the folks we see week after week in worship—and to the child within?  May it be so.

[1] Sharon Betsworth, “The Child and Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew,” Journal of Childhood and Religion, Vol. 1, Issue 4 (June 2010): 1-14. 
[2] Betsworth, 2.
[3] Betsworth, 8.
[4] Betsworth, 12.
[5] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 218-219.
[6] Carl G. Jung, “The Development of Personality,” Collected Works 17 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), par. 286.
[7] On valuing the inner child, see Donald Kalsched, Trauma and the Soul: A Psycho-spiritual Approach to Human Development and Integration (London: Routledge, 2013), 53ff.