Tag Archives: Mercy

A Sermon on Ferguson, Robin Williams and the Canaanite Woman

As a blogger, it can be hard to know where to begin with all the things happening in the world. But as a pastor, I can’t help but preach about where God is in the midst of this mess…

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord… (Read the whole passage here)

Sermon

Have mercy on me Lord. 

These are familiar words. In fact, we just sang them this morning. Given the times and places where we usually say these words, it can feel strange to sing them while we are safe and sound at church. Normally it is in moment of distress, moments of trial and hardship, moments when there is nothing else but to ask for God’s help.

Have mercy on me Lord. 

A news alert flashes across the televisions, computer or smart phone. The top story of the evening news. The front page of the newspaper. They all declare the same thing:

Robin Williams is dead.

Mork is dead, Adrian Cronauer is dead. John Keating is dead. Garp, Peter Pan, Mrs. Doubtfire, Sean Maguire, the Genie from Alladin, Patch Adams and so many more beloved characters from our favourites movies. They are all dead.

And the world mourns, the world cries out for healing, the world begs for more understanding and help for those suffering from depression.

This news is a shock and yet it isn’t. Another star whose personal struggles and demons meant that we all share in the tragic results. We all grieve when a famous star dies.

Have Mercy on me, Lord.

The canaanite woman that approached Jesus must have been desperate. She must have been willing to risk any humiliation for her daughter. She also must have known that God in flesh would hear her plea. The woman who calls on Jesus does so knowing that she is repeating the language of worship, the language that Jesus and all Jews would have used in worship. Words that are spoken to God, this woman speaks to Jesus. A sign that she knows just who this Jesus fellow is.

And yet the disciples try to send her away.

They send her away because she is a gentile, because she is a woman, because she is a beggar. They send her away because she is different. She isn’t one of them, and as open minded to the poor, to the marginalized, to the downtrodden they think they are, this woman is too different and therefore undeserving of their mercy.

Even Jesus doesn’t have time for the woman. She begs him to help her daughter and Jesus says some pretty offensive word to her: It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

This is not the Jesus we know. This is a cruel, uncaring Jesus who doesn’t even see this woman as human, but more like a street dog.

Have mercy on me, Lord. 

In Ferguson, Missouri an 18 year old black teenager was walking down the street, and was stopped by a white police officer. The two got into a scuffle and the police officer shot the teen 8 times, killing him. The boy had his hands in the air, and was saying, “Don’t shoot” as he was killed.

The small suburb of St. Louis is shocked and outraged that a white police officer can kill a black teen without repercussion. Neighbourhood vigils and protests turn into a national movement calling for justice and for acknowledgement of the systemic racism that led to this incident.

Have mercy on me, Lord. 

The canaanite woman who has asked for mercy does not let up. She has a sick daughter, a child suffering from a demon, from an unknown illness. She asking for Jesus’ help not her own behalf, but as a parent. And she is willing to risk rejection, and to keep asking, even if he says no at first.

And Jesus gives a resounding no. He hasn’t come for gentiles, he has only come for the people of Israel. Jesus has come for God’s chosen people… yet this woman, this unclean gentile woman challenges Jesus… challenges Jesus to change his mind.

Have mercy on me, Lord.

Wars continue in Syria, Iraq and Gaza. People are dying in Africa from the deadly Ebola virus. The need for mercy in our dark world feels overwhelming these days as the news is a constant flow violence, sadness and shock.

Have Mercy on me, Lord.

These words are familiar to us. They are words that we pray, words of desperation and words that we practice week after week when we gather for worship. Words that are handed on to us and that we are entrusted to use faithfully.

And so when we don’t have the words and when we don’t know what to say, those familiar words like Have mercy on me Lord, or Peace be with you, or Thanks be to God, they spring to our lips without needing to think of them first. These are the words of the community of faith, they are the words of our forebears in the faith. These are the words that we teach each new generation as they come to worship.

And most importantly, maybe most surprisingly. These are words that change the mind of God.

To imagine words with such power is hard for us. Words that change the mind of God seem like too good to be true. And yet, that is exactly what happens each week, each moment we worship. The words that we hear in this place and the words that we share remind us over and over again, that God’s mind has been changed about us.

We have chosen condemnation, we have chosen death for ourselves. We are sinners who can only choose to die over and over again. Yet with mercy and love, God comes and speaks to us, with forgiveness and grace, God choses life and love for us. As Jesus changes his mind today, he doesn’t just change it about one woman. In Gospel of Matthew, from that moment on, Jesus’ mission was not just for the Jews, but all creation, for Jews and Gentiles alike. We are the ones asking Jesus for mercy and we are the Gentile members of the body of Christ who have received it.

Today, the Good News is that God changes God’s mind to include us. To include Gentiles, to include 21st century Canadians, to include the people of The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. God in Christ has come into our world, to be born, live and die for us. God in Christ has come to give us so much more than scraps from the table, but to give us a place at the table, to welcome us and feed us with God’s own body and blood. To make us into One Body. To hear our cries for Mercy.

And despite the horrible news that we have encountered this week there has been mercy. Since the death of Robin Williams there has been renewed awareness for those who suffer from mental illness and increased giving towards charity.

Mercy given.

In Ferguson, as tensions grew between police protestors, faith leaders and community leaders joined the call for justice but also the call for peace.

Mercy given.

In Africa there is help being sent, including new medicine with the hopes of helping.

Mercy given.

There are calls for peace and an end of violence in Gaza, Syria and Iraq, but most of all people of faith are standing together in solidarity promising to pray for innocent victims of conflict.

Mercy given.

Mercy isn’t about taking the problems away, but mercy is the promise that God walks with us in the midst of the darkness. God promises to be our light in a dark world, to be our healing balm for our suffering, to be the compassion that we so desperately need.

Have mercy on me Lord. These words will cross our lips over and over again. They will be ingrained into our bodies and into our souls, they are the words that change God’s mind, they are words that change us from dead sinners into members of of the body of Christ – forgiven and alive. Mercy is what we need these days.

We cry out,

Have Mercy on us Lord.

And Mercy is what God gives.

Amen.

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Why Calvinism asks the wrong question

So Calvinism, of all things, is becoming popular among Evangelicals. I remember a few years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer was all the rage, and Evangelical studies of The Cost of Discipleship were spreading like the plague. Of course, it was hardly mentioned that Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran and so was his theology, but his writings were finding a new popularity.

These days, John Calvin is finding some new popularity among North American Evangelicals. According to this New York Time Op Ed, it is actually among many pastors that Calvinism seems to be creeping back into Evangelical churches and pulpits. The apparent reason for this renewal is that Calvinism provides an alternative to the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen and the like. Calvinism does offer a good critique of the prosperity gospel, with its more realistic and honest stance on human beings and sin. Calvinism also invites a deeper understanding of scripture and deeper theology than “God will make you rich if you are good Christian”. I can understand why many are turning to something meatier in the face of Joel Osteen and others.

As Lutheran, this is kind of like watching your family, friends and neighbours become fans of your favourite sport which is great, but then realizing they are all cheering for a rival team. Finally, people are watching the right sport, but cheering for the wrong team is almost worse than not playing.

Now, some are reacting to Calvinism’s strict view on salvation and predestination. Benjamin Corey over at Patheos has written a couple of great posts about this. 5 Reasons Why Calvinism Makes Me Want To Gouge My Eyes Out and Love Doesn’t Kidnap: Why I Believe In Free Will Over Predestination. He rightly points to some of the deeply problematic consequences of the strict view of Double Predestination held by Calvinists.

However, as Calvinism (and its issues) comes up over and over again, I am surprised that Martin Luther is hardly mentioned. There would be no Calvin without Luther, so it is odd to debate the finer points of Calvin’s theology, without looking to Luther’s.

Now, I know should probably stop trying to say how great Lutheranism is, however, this justification stuff is exactly where I think Lutherans have the strongest theology there is.

Image Source - http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nakedpastor/2010/09/cartoon-t-shirt-idea-for-the-elect-only/
Image Source – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nakedpastor/2010/09/cartoon-t-shirt-idea-for-the-elect-only/

The problem of the reformation was that most reformers wanted to express justification in terms that didn’t involve good works that earned merit for salvation. This lead to theologians like Calvin having to come up with new criteria to determine what saves us. Calvinists say that God chooses ahead of time who is saved and who is damned. In response to this view, Arminians (another reformation movement) say that God decides not to choose, but to let us choose. So those who choose Jesus are saved, those who reject Jesus are damned. The issue for these views on predestination is that they paint a false dichotomy. There is either Double Election (Calvinism) or completely Free Will (Arminianism). These two options are opposites, but they are not the only two out there. Yet, Calvinism and Arminianism, for some inexplicable reason, are the two competing theologies out there for a lot of Evangelicals.

But each position has fundamental flaws:

  • Double Predestination, choosing who is saved and who is damned puts a loving and creating God in the silly position of having damn most people that God created…
  • Free Will puts a flawed and limited humanity in the position of having to choose God, despite our difficulties and imperfect ability to make good choices in all other matters – from choosing dinner off a restaurant menu, to choosing all manner of sin in regard to how we treat our neighbour.

Martin Luther saw a middle ground, which he called The Bondage of the Will: 

  • We are free in all areas in respect to our actions towards our neighbour.
  • We are free to reject God.
  • We are NOT free to choose God.
Image source - mmcelhaney.blogspot.com
Image source – mmcelhaney.blogspot.com

The good works/indulgence mess required that the reformers describe salvation as entirely the work of God:  We do not participate in our justification or salvation – God extends that grace completely on God’s own. We do not choose it, we do not earn it, we do not facilitate God’s grace giving action. And because God is the source of all grace and mercy, God does choose those who are saved. Calvinists would agree on this point.

However, Luther also saw that Christ’s death was not limited, but for all people, all creation even. God’s desire is to save all of creation. Arminians would agree on this point. So does that mean that all creation will desire to be saved? No. Will God force salvation on us? No. We are free in will to reject God. In fact, as human beings we are good at this. We often choose to be God in God’s place, as is the condition of Original Sin. We may choose God today, but will we choose God tomorrow? We are fickle creatures. In Luther’s view, he saw that because God had given us grace freely, without condition, the only choice that we really had to make is to reject God. (Luther did not see “not choosing” as an action of human agency). So our ‘Bound Will’ will chose to reject God.

The difference between Luther and Calvin is that Calvin started his theology with the issue of God’s sovereignty, Arminians started from the same point as well. When you start from God’s  sovereignty  you are bound to end up at Double Election or Free Will. God chooses for us, or God offers a choice.

Luther saw God’s chief characteristic as ‘Mercy’. Luther wasn’t really concerned with whether God’s sovereignty is strictly maintained, because the incarnation shows that God isn’t really concerned with that either.

Image Source - psalmslife.com
Image Source – psalmslife.com

Rather, Luther saw a God that was consistently offering mercy to a flawed, limited, sinful, suffering, imperfect humanity over and over again. Forgiveness was a daily exercise for Luther. He would remind himself daily of the Baptismal promises made by God – of Forgiveness, Life and Salvation (he was no anabaptist, baptism is all God’s action).

As much as Free Will seems like the answer to Predestination, it is isn’t. In fact, it is just as unloving a choice for God to make, as damning most people is. As imperfect and flawed creatures we simply cannot be relied on to choose God, we would all be damned if it were up to us. God’s real recourse is constant and abundant mercy.  God’s alternative to saving some and damning others, or letting us choose, is to be constantly forgiving. Salvation is not about God’s sovereignty, salvation is about God’s mercy.

Calvinism and Arminianism ask the wrong question – “How are we saved?” – there is no good answer to this question.

Luther was concerned only with this question – “Who is it that saves us?” – the only answer is God.

So what do you think? Does Calvinism or Arminianism appeal to you? Or does Lutheranism have the goods? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

*** Image Credit: The Predestination – T is a cartoon by David Hayward also know as the Naked Pastor. Check him out at www.nakedpastor.com ***