Saturday, September 27, 2014

We Don't Get to Choose (Version 2.0)

I used the theme "We Don't Get To Choose" before, but this isn't a rehash of an old sermon. It's built from a statement on the "Pulpit Fiction" home pageThe tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of you - note Jesus does not say that they will NOT enter the Kingdom, they will just enter behind the tax collectors and prostitutes... Why is this a problem? Should we celebrate that we are all going to the Kingdom and if not, perhaps that is what is keeping us away...”

Also, the last time I used this theme, the Rev. Dr. Kirk Jeffery posted a quote from Nick Lillo of WaterStone Community Church. I used it in this sermon.

(By the way, Rev. Dr. Jefffery roasts and sells the best coffee in the world. Just sayin'.)

There's a thing comedians and musicians do called "riffing," where you just take a theme and run with it. Maybe today's riff is, "God loves, so just... go with it."

MATTHEW 21:23-32
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

The road into Jerusalem is strewn with crumpled, dusty palm branches from the day before, and somewhere between there and Bethany, there's a withered fig tree that had been leafy, but barren of fruit, just that morning. The Temple was packed, as always, and though Jesus had overturned tables and run them out the day before, the merchants and moneychangers were back at work. It isn't much of a stretch to imagine that it was one of them who had notified the elders and priests that Jesus was back. “Hey Phil, isn't that the guy from yesterday? The crazy guy with the whip?”

They found Jesus, squatting on the pavement in a corner, a tight knot of people listening as he taught.

Those priests and elders were, in a way, painted into a corner themselves. These days, if someone came busting in the church swinging a whip and turning things over, we would of course call the cops. For all intents and purposes, the priests and the elders, members of the Sanhedrin,
were the cops... they could simply have arrested Jesus, right then and there. But if they did that, the people would very likely riot.

I'm not saying that everyone in all of Judea who wasn't a priest or an elder or a Sadducee or Pharisee believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Most probably accepted that he was a prophet, or didn't care one way or another. But in a tightly packed city like Jerusalem during Passover week, all it took was a few angry people to start a fight, and soon the whole town was rioting, and they wouldn't really have cared why. The Temple elite would have been a good target, what with their sumptuous living and constant demands on the dirt-poor believers for more money and more sacrifices.

And even if the priests weren't torn limb from limb by enraged mobs, the fact remained that Judea was a province of the Roman Empire, under occupation by legions tasked with keeping the peace at any cost. A riot would be violently quashed, and the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, would determine that the Temple leaders were ineffective and have them replaced, perhaps even jailed or killed.

So this question the elders and priests asked Jesus,
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” was truly a loaded question. On the one hand, it may have been a valid question - “Please tell us who empowered you, please help us understand.” Judging by Jesus' reaction, though, it's safe to assume that the priests and elders were struggling to expose Jesus as a fraud and a charlatan, discredit him in front of the people who clung to every word of hope that came from the mouth of this dusty little Rabbi from the middle of nowhere.

In any case, can you imagine the turmoil those religious leaders felt? There was no denying that Jesus was someone special – he spoke prophetically and with absolute authority, and he performed miracles, real miracles! The lame walked, the blind received their sight... and he had even raised a man from the dead. These elders and priests weren't idiots, they had read the Prophets, they knew how God worked to correct Israel over the millenia. Why were they so against Jesus?

Perhaps the simplest, most cynical answer is the true one. They had a good thing going. Wealthy, well-fed, and enjoying what power Pilate allowed them to have, they saw Jesus as a threat to their comfortable lives, and they wouldn't – they couldn't – allow God to send someone, even a Messiah, that they couldn't control.

These priests and elders had responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” when God had called them to the vineyard. Yet for all their piety, all their dedication to the Law of God, they had, in the end, turned away.

And there. right in front of them, in the small crowd gathered around Jesus – fishermen and laborers, tax collectors and prostitutes – were men and women who had said, when the call came, that they would most certainly not serve in the vineyard. And though they had lived apart from the Law of God, had dedicated themselves to being as impious as humanly possible, had, in Jesus Christ, turned back to their loving Creator.

We don't get to choose.

We don't get to choose how God's Word comes in to this world. Born out of wedlock to a teenage girl, in a barn in the middle of nowhere? Sure, we're used to it now, but think about it... it's ridiculous. Laughable. All wrong.

But we just don't get to choose, do we?

Arrested, beaten, stripped naked, whipped bloody and nailed to a cross to die? OK, set aside this idea of God dying in the first place, to have God die in the most humiliating way possible, amongst criminals, then have his corpse shoved in a rush in someone else's tomb? Preposterous! Unimaginable! Repugnant!

We don't get to choose.

And if you are going to rise from the dead, shouldn't you do it in front of everyone? Or at least find some witnesses that people will listen to! In that day and age, the one hundred percent worst kind of person to appear to, to carry your message, would have been a woman. Yet what does every Gospel tell us? Whether one or two or three or a group, it was women, every time! It makes no sense.

But it isn't our script to write. We don't get to choose.

And we also don't get to choose who God saves. Oh, I have my lists – people and groups of people and kinds of people who in my opinion don't deserve to be in the Kingdom of God. I don't know if anyone else has lists, maybe it's just me.

There's something that Jesus says, though, something intriguing. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you...”

I am comfortable with the idea of those tax collectors and prostitutes being members of the Kingdom of God. Not so much, though, the elders and priests, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees...

Here's the thing, though. Jesus didn't say “ the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God
instead of you.” Believe me, I checked, and the Greek word proago, which our reading translates as “ahead,” really does mean “ahead.”

...the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God
>ahead of you.”

I don't think I am talking about Universalism, the idea that everyone gets in the Kingdom no matter what.

What I
do think it means is...

I don't get to choose.

God will call, save, heal, and reconcile with whomever God will call, save, heal, and reconcile. I can't pick the ones I like. I don't get to choose.

I do get to choose how I treat others, though, don't I? I can choose to be like the priests and elders, or like the scribes and Pharisees, comfortable in some imagined theological or moral superiority, looking down on people who, because of birth or choice or whatever, are different than me.

Or... I can understand that, as a beneficiary of the grace and mercy of the living God, I c
an choose to be a conduit of that grace and mercy to others, all others, no matter who they are. I can be a reflection of the Jesus I believe in and try to serve.

Nick Lillo said, “You have never looked into the eyes of someone who did not matter with God.”

We don't get to choose how God acts, we don't get to choose how the wild and ebullient Spirit of God m
oves in the world, we don't get to choose who God loves, or how God saves. But we can choose – we must choose – the part we play as members of the Body of Christ, as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

And that's really the only choice that counts.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Reconciliation is a hard subject. Here's hoping I did it justice.

MATTHEW 18:15-20
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

One thing people are really good at is arguing. Christians will argue with people who aren't Christians, or with people who are different kinds of Christians than we are, or with people who are in the same denomination as we are. People will argue politics, football, what state has the best barbecue, which Pokemon is the best, we will argue about anything.

A lot of times, arguments have to do with ego – I want to be right, and if I am right, you can't be. Other times, it has everything to do with context and interpretation.

One example of all of this happened with me this week. I was browsing either FaceBook at home, or Yahoo News at work, and I ran across an article: “Five Reasons to Suspect That Jesus Never Existed.” Now, the article's points were easy to respond to, and me being me, I did... I made a blog post. As of this morning, less than thirty people have seen the blog post, compared to the millions that saw the original article, but... that'll show 'em, huh?

One of the things that caught my eye was a quote by Bart Ehrman, which seemed to support the writer's contention that the existence of Jesus is a myth.

Now, Bart Ehrman is the James A Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's a graduate of Princeton Seminary, the author of twenty books, and he is a well known speaker. Some of the books he's written include “Misquoting Jesus,” “How Jesus Became God,” and “Did Jesus Exist?” - which is the book that's quoted from.

Bart Ehrman will never, ever get a prize for being the world's most passionate Evangelical. He is, in fact, an agnostic – someone who believes the existence of God is something we can not know. However, that is not to say that Ehrman thinks Jesus did not exist. He has said, both in the book the article quoted and in several interviews, that there is very little reason to doubt that Jesus did, in fact, exist.

Here's a couple of quotes from Ehrman from an interview on NPR: "Paul knew Jesus' brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did, If Jesus didn't exist, you would think his brother would know about it, so I think Paul is probably pretty good evidence that Jesus at least existed."

Also, “The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies – and so if you're going to make up a messiah, you'd make up a powerful messiah, You wouldn't make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and the killed by the enemies.”

Pretty ironic, I guess, that the author of a book named “Misquoting Jesus” would, himself, be misquoted.

Taking words out of context, purposely misquoting people in order to make a point or to bolster your own position... these things happen all the time. Politicians do it all the time, and so do the news media.

And Christians do it, too, and we do it most often with the Bible. There are very few places this is more true, than with our Gospel reading today, what to do if a fellow Christian sins against you.

This Gospel passage has been misquoted, maligned, and misused as a way to protect the status quo, to keep people from speaking truth to power, to make the vulnerable even more vulnerable… Like far, far too many passages of Scripture, this has been a hammer to beat people down, rather than a beacon to bring them home, wings to lift them up.

What is Jesus really saying? If a brother or a sister does something that offends, hurts, or harms you, or if he or she is committing a sin – and yes, it is entirely accurate to include all of this in the Greek word “hamartia” which is taken from archery and means “missing the mark” – then find a space where you are both alone, and point out the problem. If there’s no meeting of the minds, no resolution, go back with a couple of witnesses. If that doesn’t work things out, take it to church, and if that doesn’t fix it, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Is this a justification for excluding from fellowship anyone who hurts our feelings or does something we don’t like? Is Jesus simply giving us justification for shutting others out, or is there something deeper at work here?

To be sure, if all Jesus is doing is offering us the mechanics of church discipline, the church as a whole does a really lousy job of carrying this discipline out. We seem to operate as if church discipline is a hammer, and people are nails... but I digress.

I want to suggest to you this morning that this passage speaks less to classic church discipline and more to personal discipline within the body of believers. If a brother or sister sins against you – you go… you take one or two others with you… you go to the church…

That’s hard, isn’t it? And we are wired so differently than that. It’s easier, almost more natural that, rather than face the person we have a problem with, in private, one-on-one, we tell someone else about the offense, who tells someone else, and on and on and on. It’s the easier, more face-saving option, sure, because all that gets out as far as we are concerned is our side of the issue, and it's fun, because it's gossip… but it all too often leads to churches splitting, fellowships breaking, or families being destroyed, when a simple conversation would have set the whole matter straight in moments.

Confrontation is toughand by “confrontation” I don't mean reality-TV style confrontation; rather I mean conversation, difficult talks whose foundation is love, speaking softly, with humility, and with an eye toward working things out. This is hard, hard work. But the Gospel is about relationship. Through Jesus Christ we are related to one another, and related to our loving Creator God, members of a singular body and a singular Kingdom of God.

And the Gospel is about reconciliation. In Christ, we are reconciled to God. Jesus Christ is all about reconciliation, and the good news is that even here, even in this Gospel reading, the focus of what Jesus is saying is not exclusion or excommunication – not how to keep people out! No, the focus is upon reconciliation and restoration – how to keep people in!

That first step Jesus talks about has a wonderful focus to it! “If [he or she] listens to you, you have regained that one.” Reconciliation!

That second step – having one or two others who can hear both sides, and help work things out! Reconciliation!

And what about that last, seemingly harsh pronouncement: “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector?” Think about it – the one who is speaking is the same Jesus who made it a point to specifically reach out to, eat with, care for, heal and feed the Gentile? Who not only ate and spent time with tax collectors, but even called one, Matthew, to be his disciple?

Knowing this, it makes sense that Eugene Peterson, in “The Message” paraphrase, interprets the “Gentile and tax collector” verse to say something shocking, something profound: “If [the sinning fellow believer] still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love.”

Again, reconciliation.

And where is Jesus in all of this? Right there! “…I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus’ presence is found in the hard work of reconciliation!

It is at once humbling and reassuring. Jesus does not promise to be present when we argue, or make blog posts, or share our opinions on Twitter or FaceBook. As much as I like to be right, God doesn't care so much if I am right. God cares if I am loving. God cares if I am compassionate.

It isn't about fixing people. It isn't about making you think the way I think, or making people agree with a given world view, or adhere to a given doctrinal position. The work of the Kingdom of God is found in bridging gaps rather than widening them, in opening doors rather than locking them, in welcoming rather than excluding... Jesus’ presence is found in the hard work of reconciliation!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

"Something to Eat..."

I drew on my 2011 sermon on this Lectionary reading for the beginning parts of this sermon.

Matthew 14:13-21
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus had just heard horrible news – the kind of news that hits like a slap to the face; gut-wrenching, mind-numbing, incapacitating news. His cousin: a man he’d grown up with and loved, a man whose willingness to baptize changed Jesus’ whole life – was dead. Killed at the hands of the despicable King Herod.

Most, if not all of us, have been in this place. Reeling from shock, confused, unable to think… of course his first thought was that he needed to be alone, to get away from the noise of the crowd, their neediness, the challenges of the scribes and the Pharisees, the pressure of proclaiming the Kingdom, if only for a little while.

So he got in a boat and set off across the lake. I can’t say if the disciples were in the boat with him; I suspect they watched him float away, looked at each other, shrugged and decided to walk around the lake to meet him.

As they trudged off for the long journey to the other side, word was spreading about what had happened. As the disciples passed through the villages, people laid aside what they were doing, tied on their sandals, and joined the trek. First, a dozen, then a few hundred, then, several thousand men, women and children, joining as one in a somber pilgrimage to meet Jesus.

Have you ever wondered why? Why would so many, already desperately poor, already teetering on the edge of starvation, drop everything, leave the paltry security they had, and with no thought of where they were going or what they would do to survive when they got there, just fall in line behind these disciples?

I mean, yeah, there's the standard response of “Well, they wanted to see Jesus, wanted to get healed, yada yada,” but I believe there is something more at work here.

John the Baptist had been many things: prophet, preacher, and perhaps above all, a reminder to these people in bondage that God was not done with them yet. And when Herod had forced his brother Phillip to divorce his wife, Herodias, so Herod could marry her, it was John who said what everybody was thinking: it was a shameful, disgusting thing, improper for a Jew (even one as nominally Jewish as Herod).

The word was that Herod had been pushed in to arresting John by Herodias, but no matter who made who do what, John was arrested, and with that it seemed some of the light had been stolen from the sky. Once again, the powerful exercised their will on the weak, and no one could do anything about it.

For a while there was hope. John's disciples made sure he had food, and brought back news that he was still alive, that Herod didn't want to kill him because he feared an uprising, even that Herod snuck down to the filthy dungeon at night to have conversations with the prophet.

Now, village after Galilean village learned the terrible news. John was dead, murdered as entertainment for a drunken banquet, his head displayed on a serving platter. So they walked. They walked to share their grief, they walked to try and figure out what to do next, maybe they walked because the one thing people need more than food or shelter in order to keep on living another day is hope, and they were fresh out and needed more – anything, something – to keep them going.

And I don't know this but maybe some, maybe all of them, knew who John had been to Jesus. Maybe they wanted to tell Jesus how sorry they were that his cousin was dead, to offer some kind of comfort in his grief.

I imagine Jesus there, alone, in the boat, probably paying very little attention to things like setting the sail properly, or rowing, or whatever it is one needed to do to get that particular watercraft from one side of the lake to another. It was a time to grieve and a time to cry. Yes, I’m sure there was prayer; probably along the lines of asking “why?” as his thoughts turned inward, ever inward…

Jesus was, of course, God-made-flesh. But how easily we forget that God-made-flesh was, well, a human being. Jesus was on a life journey, a journey where he learned and experienced and dealt with everything every other human being has ever had to do – potty training and learning to use a fork and learning to walk and read and talk, and, yes, to feel the crushing grief of losing someone we love to Death.

Who knows how long that boat took to cross the lake? Who knows how deep Jesus fell into that well of loss, of sorrow, of grief? Perhaps, at last, the rocking of the boat coaxed him into a fitful sleep…

a sleep interrupted by the sound of voices. Lots of them. Thousands! A low murmer, bereft of shouts or laughter, just there. Jesus wiped the sleep from his eyes and peered over the railing toward the slowly approaching shore…

and something happened to Jesus. Our New Revised Standard Version translation puts it mildly enough, it says that Jesus saw a great crowd and had compassion for them. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But I want to suggest this morning that something far deeper, more seminal happened right then. You see, the Greek word for what happened in that moment, splagchnizomai, is derived from a word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which described the removal of an animal’s innards during ritual sacrifice. It’s a much more decisive, visceral, even violent word, than what we understand “compassion” to be. Eugene Peterson’s “Message” translation of this Scripture says that Jesus’ heart went out to them, and that’s closer, but it’s much more like Jesus’ love for that crowd – his desire to help them, to heal them – that compassion was so great that it was as if his very heart was ripped from his chest.

And the miracles began. Jesus did what Jesus does – he loved them, he healed their sicknesses. And healed, and healed some more. For hours and hours.

I wasn't there, obviously, and I have no way of knowing this, but I imagine that this gathering was different from the one before, where the crowd had been so huge and pressing in so uncontrollably to see Jesus that he had to jump in a boat to keep from being crushed. I think the sorrow and the grief pressed down on the people so much that they just stood there. And Jesus walked among them, whispering, touching, maybe weeping with them, who knows? Who knows what was said, who was touched, what sicknesses were healed?

And you know what? I think that, as Jesus walked around from group to group, friends and families clustered together in little knots of grief, not only was he giving the people what they needed, he was getting what he needed as well.

After all, Zig Ziglar said, “you can't sprinkle the perfume of happiness without getting a few drops on yourself,” and that is so cheesy it sets my teeth on edge but it is true. In moving through that crowd, comforting, healing, loving, Jesus was receiving the comfort and healing and love that he himself needed in his grief.

I don't think I am straying off the theological reservation when I suggest that all of us – even Jesus – need hope, especially in times of loss and grief. That's what he went looking for when he got in the boat, and though it didn't look like what Jesus was expecting, it's what he got.

So he touched more, he healed more, he comforted more, hour after hour.

As the shadows grew long, his disciples finally came up to Jesus. Maybe it was Peter who whispered, “Master, it’s getting late, and these folks need to go find a village and get some dinner.”

Jesus never missed a beat, didn't even look up, going from person to person, touching, blessing, healing. “Nah, they don’t need to go anywhere. You give them some supper.”

Um, Jesus, not to argue with you or anything, but we’re not exactly McDonald’s here. Five loaves, a couple of fish, that’s our inventory.”

And I know that the Gospels don’t record it this way, but I can see Jesus looking up, smiling, and saying, “Perfect! Give ‘em here. That’s plenty. Watch…”

I suppose the disciples could have held back: “What are you, crazy? This is my lunch! I give this up, then I have nothing! Go get your own loaves and fishes, man!” – but they gave them over to Jesus, and the miracles began anew.

Thousands upon thousands of people sat on the cool grass as Jesus blessed and broke the bread and the fish, and passed them over to the disciples to begin handing out.

The disciples must have thought their Rabbi had lost his ever-loving mind. But they dutifully did as they were told, and walked out among the people with these meager fragments, passing out food. And passing out food. And passing out food.

There wasn’t “too little” after all. In fact, there wasn’t “just enough.” There was an abundance! Way more than they needed!

I have heard and read many, many explanations from theologians of all stripes of how and why the miracle of the loaves and fishes happened. Many point to Elijah and the miracle of the widow's oil, or of Elisha feeding a hundred people with a few barley loaves. Others suggest that what happened was a “miracle of sharing,” where people responded to the disciples' faithfulness by pulling out their own food and sharing it.

Look, it was a miracle, and I don't really care how it happened. Sorry. I think it's a waste of time to try and explain it, I think it misses the point.

And I really think it misses the point to make this a Prosperity Gospel reading, focusing on the fact that, because they were faithful in giving up the little that they had, they gathered up far more than they themselves needed. This isn't about giving money to a TV preacher so God will give you a Cadillac.

I mean, yes, this is an example of what Paul meant when he wrote in Phillippians, “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” And we know this – we give glory to God for our successes, and lean on God when we are in need.

At the same time, in this nation where there is an abundance of food and clothing, where houses stand empty, something like fifteen point nine children – twenty percent of the child population of the United States – live in homes where they aren't sure where their next meal is coming from. Talk all you like about school lunch programs, I have spoken to many educators who tell me that, for far too many kids, that free lunch is the only food they can depend on.

In a nation of iPhones and Androids and fifty-two inch plasma TV screens, with a Wal-Mart and a Whataburger on ever corner, we worry that children surrendering at our Southern border to escape certain death might tax our resources as a nation.

Jesus isn't looking to us for a political solution. If we have learned anything over the past few decades in American politics, it is that Christians cannot depend on legislators to do the right thing, to act in ways that are moral without regard to the political cost. Without removing our responsibility as people of faith to always speak truth to power, Jesus looks to us.

After all, Jesus moves and acts in this nation and in this world through you and I, we are Christ's hands and feet. Jesus looks to us and says, “you give them something to eat.”

You give them something to eat.”

What does that look like? Does it mean we pack up everything and start going around the country, feeding hungry people? Maybe.

And maybe it means we start right here, doing what we can with what we have. Is there a person in need? “You give them something to eat.” Someone needs comfort, reassurance, hope? “You give them something to eat.”

Anne Frank wrote, “No one has ever become poor by giving.”

Do we dare? Do we dare test that theory, giving ourselves over to the gut-wrenching compassion that compels us to do whatever we can to feed that hungry child, that grieving adult, that homeless family?

You give them something to eat.”

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Kingdom Weeds...

OK, I confess... I posted this yesterday, knowing it wasn't really a completed sermon, but not knowing what to do with it. In the past, I've winged it from the pulpit, and I guess I've done OK.

This time, my friend Dr. Greg Brown came to my rescue. I am blessed to have many smart, spiritually insightful friends, including Dr. Brown, who can take a mess I've made and help me translate it into a sermon.

Kinda like Jesus does here with mustard seeds and yeast, huh?

I am also indebted to Kathryn Matthews Huey for her insight into today's Gospel reading.

MATTHEW 13:31-33, 44-52
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus asked “Have you understood all this?” And his disciples answered, “Yes.” I find that just a little hard to believe, don't you? I mean, we go from last week's reading, where Jesus took the time to explain one parable, in detail, just so everyone knew precisely what he meant by sowing and seeds and ground... and here we are with five short, rapid-fire parables, and everybody understands completely.

I guess I'd have an easier time believing that everyone understood everything Jesus was saying here if it weren't for the pages and pages of scholarly commentary on different aspects of these parables. I try to resist that kind of thing, because if we understand parables as tales told in the moment to a specific group of individuals for the purpose of making a point, then dissecting each word at length misses the point. But I digress.

You may have noticed that our readings from the Lectionary, especially when it comes to the Gospel, sometimes tend to jump around a bit, skipping verses here and there. In this case, I think we miss something ery important in the missing verses. We don't see to whm and where Jesus is saying these things. What I mean is this: Jesus speaks of mustard seeds and yeast to the crowd in general. As far as we know, he's still on that boat just off the lakeshore where he told the Parable of the Sower. He goes into a house with his disciples and speaks of hidden treasures, found pearls, and rejected fish to his them alone. It is Jesus' disciples, not the crowd at large, who Jesus asks, “Do you understand?”

Good thing, too, because what Jesus said to the crowd about yeast and seeds might have taken them a minute to digest.

Yeah, mustard seeds are teensy, but they sure do grow up big; and it doesn't take a lot of yeast to make bread rise... but wait a minute! Why on earth, with so many possible metaphors available to Jesus, would he pick those? I mean, for just one example, Jesus and his listeners would have been familiar with the pomegranate. Pomegranate seeds are small, but the trees get big enough for birds to nest.

But no, Jesus specifically chose mustard seeds and yeast. Was he trying to offend the crowd?


Mustard for the first-century Judeans wasn't the wonderful condiment we know today. It was a pungent, pervasive weed. And in proposing that someone intentionally sowed a mustard seed, not only was Jesus suggesting that someone planted a weed in their own field, on purpose, he was in effect advocating an act that was, at the very least, problematic to the faithful Jew. Richard Swanson says, “Living a Jewish life means living a life that witnesses to the stable and orderly love of God in all things. Planting a weed that was a symbol of wild disorder was judged to be an unnecessary compromise of the basic principles of a Jewish life.”

Furthermore, yeast, or leaven, was seen as a symbol of things unclean and corrupting. The Old Testament is filled with these kinds of references, and the New Testament repeats this view of leaven as a metaphor for moral corruption – the one rotten apple in the barrel – as well.

It's easy to miss these things in our day and time. I like leavened bread, and I really like mustard, too. So with the popularity of mustard and wonderful, yeasty bread, we don't hear the story the same way, and we miss the offense and – just perhaps – we miss the power of what Jesus is saying.

Kathryn Matthews Huey observes that “...our considerable efforts to avoid offense in the life of the church and in its ministry run the risk of neutralizing the gospel that Jesus embodied. If he didn't 'give offense,' would he have been crucified by the powers that be, with the crowd shouting its approval?”

So, sure, maybe Jesus was either purposely offending people, and maybe he didn't care whether he caused an affront to their delicate sensibilities anyway...

Or maybe... maybe...

During this period of his ministry, Jesus is preaching in the towns of Galilee. He's a long way from the Temple, and probably not terribly close to any Roman garrisons. So it is most likely that Jesus isn't speaking to the powerful Romans, or to the wealthy Pharisees and Sadducees. Rather, in that boat off the lakeshore, he is speaking to a people oppressed on all sides.

The Roman Empire was a massive juggernaut, bringing its bloody form of “peace” to nearly every corner of the known world. When Rome conquered, the lucky ones were merely subjugated and taxed; more than once the Romans had completely obliterated whole societies, destroying cities and selling those they did not murder outright into slavery. The only people the “pax Romana” benefited were the Romans; to everyone else, the Roman Eagle represented harsh oppression. Talk as they would of the former glory of Israel under King David, it was easy to see one's self as small, insignificant, as utterly worthless as a tiny mustard seed.

Then there were the demands of Judaism – never mind the constant pressure to pay the Temple tax and to come up with the required animals and grain and what-not for the sacrifices, no one – no one – could be expected to live up to the reams of minutiae required to be properly holy. More than eighty percent of Judeans lived a subsistence existence, barely enough food to keep them alive, constantly hungry, and constantly aware that they were not good enough, not holy enough, not pure enough, for God. They were as cast out as the leaven at Passover – reviled, forgotten, worthless.

So perhaps, just perhaps, one of the things Jesus is saying to the crowd is that the Kingdom of God is more like them than it is like the powerful Temple elite or the all-too-holy Scribes and Pharisees. Maybe the Kingdom of God isn't so much about power as it is about pervasiveness – like a weed, growing anywhere and everywhere; like yeast, multiplying and spreading and growing and thriving.

No, a mustard tree doesn't look anything like the cedars used to build the Temple, it doesn't at all resemble the columns of Roman architecture... but birds find a home in its branches, and even those who have been oppressed and forgotten by society can find a home in the Kingdom of God.

That was true when Jesus said it, and it remains true today.

And that is dangerous. And offensive. And being dangerous and offensive isn't something that Western Christianity is used to.

Maybe it's time to change all of that.

In its earliest years, Christianity was known as a religion of women and slaves. In Rome, Christians would sneak out in the night and rescue abandoned babies, left to die on the steps of the Forum. Not all of them, probably, and not every night, but it made a difference to the ones they were able to save, didn't it? Now, we have people who proclaim themselves to be Christians, waving signs and hurling insults at children who surrendered at our southern border to try and escape certain death in Central America.

In its earliest years, Christians were tortured and killed because they refused to bow their knee to Caesar. Now, we require that a politician give lip service to God before they can be elected. The facade of faith trumps competence in far too many elections.

Is this the measure of Christian faith?

Who cares for the homeless, the forgotten? Who tells the person contemplating suicide that there is hope? Who comforts the sick, who visits the imprisoned? Who becomes the family to one who has been kicked out of their home because of their orientation? Whose heart is broken by suffering, and who resolves to use whatever means are available to alleviate that suffering?

I know who it should be.

I know it should be us, the church.

I know this because time and again throughout Scripture, and particularly here, in Jesus' choice to use despised, misunderstood, and rejected things as examples, Jesus is saying this: The Kingdom of God isn't like the empires you're used to. It doesn't look like Rome, nor does it look like the Temple.

The Kingdom of God looks like you. It looks like me. And it looks like every marginalized and forgotten person everywhere, whether in downtown Birmingham or in Gaza or in Mozul or Detroit. These are the people of the Kingdom.

Maybe we look like mustard seeds – worthless weeds, worthy only for the trashbin. Maybe we look like yeast – others see us as sinful merely because we exist.

The kingdom will grow from those who have been made to feel unworthy, the scorned, the abused. Jesus says to these "insignificant" ones, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. You are not worthless and neither are people you may see as "seedier" than you. It is from these – women and slaves, the despised and rejected of that society – I will build a Kingdom for all who dare come, a kingdom so large that there truly will be room for all.

Alleluia, Amen.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Playground Theologians...

I am indebted to the work of the Rev. Dr. Delmer L, Chilton and Stanley Saunders for their insights into today's reading.

This song kinda fits:

MATTHEW 11:16-19, 25-30
But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;
the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

There’s a story told about a Hindu disciple who asked his master, “How can I find God?” Instead of answering the question, the master led the student down to the river. They stood there awhile, looking out over the gently flowing water. Suddenly, the master grabbed his student and dragged him into the water, shoving his head under and holding him there!

It seemed to last a long time, the master fighting to keep the thrashing student’s head under. Finally, he felt the man beginning to weaken and let him go. The student sprung to the surface, only waist-high in water, and he coughed and sputtered and struggled to catch his breath.
After a few minutes, the master smiled and said, “So how did it feel down there?” The student glared angrily at the master: “It was awful. I thought I was going to die.” The Master said, “When you want God as much as you wanted air, when you feel like you cannot live without God in your life; then you will find God. Or rather, then you will realize God has already found you.”

The Scribes and Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Herodians, they appear to everyone to be seriously dedicated to finding God, committed to worshiping their Creator… but appearances are deceiving.

OK, maybe that’s not fair. They were dedicated to finding and worshiping God, or they thought they were, but somewhere along the way they’d gotten off track. What the Scribes and Pharisees and Saduccees and Herodians were all really looking for was a God made in their own image. They were looking for a religious experience that fit appropriately into their lifestyle, a religious experience that they could control and regularize. And when God sent messengers, they didn’t like them: John the Baptist didn’t match their expectations, and Jesus didn’t either.

Jesus compares them to children sitting in a playground and complaining because no one wants to play each other’s game: “We played ‘wedding,’ and you did not dance; we played ‘funeral,’ and you did not mourn.”

And there is a very good reason for that comparison – it was a game. You see, when the Scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees weren’t plotting together to destroy Jesus, they were at one another’s throats, fighting over who was following the rules the right way. The point was no longer finding God, the point had become being right.

And that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We live in a day and age where complex political and moral questions are distilled down to soundbites, and where lines are drawn between “us” and “them.” Whether the subject is politics or religion, the one thing you can count on today is that people will fight – not to understand, not to persuade, not to grow and learn, no. People will fight to prove themselves right.

We even choose our news outlets based on which side we’re on. Conservatives have their news channel, Liberals have theirs, and these news sources specifically craft their news to appeal to their viewer base.

That means that the information we get – the wisdom we gain – when we watch these kinds of news sources, what we get is news that is specifically engineered, not to expand our horizons or challenge our preconceptions, it isn't intended to open our minds to a unique way of thinking or give us access to new information... no, the news we get is the stuff that's intended to make us feel right. Because then, we'll watch more.

And, to get back to the point of the Gospel reading, we can be so busy being right, that we aren’t listening anymore. When Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…” he isn’t being anti-intellectual.

Rather, Jesus is referring to that false wisdom that people seek out not to expand their understanding of the world around them, but to reassure themselves that they are correct in their world view.

Back in February, there was a televised debate between a famous Christian and a well-known science educator. Ken Ham is what is called a “Young Earth Creationist,” a Christian who absolutely insists that the universe was created no more than six thousand years ago. In an effort to promote his Creation Museum, he challenged “Bill Nye, The Science Guy” to a debate.

Now, Ken Ham reads the same Bible we do. He believes in the same triune God that we believe in. He believes, as we do, that the triune God created all that is, seen and unseen. But he has decided, somewhere along the way, that anything which does not unswervingly adhere to his own rigid interpretation of the Bible must be – not simply rejected or ignored – but attacked as an enemy.

The most telling question of the night was, What, if anything, would ever change your mind?” Ken Ham, the Creationist, said that nothing would ever change his mind. Bill Nye said, “show me evidence, and the evidence will change my mind.”

During the debate, Bill Nye also said, “It fills me with joy to make discoveries every day of things I’ve never seen before. It fills me with joy to know that we can pursue these answers. It is an astonishing thing that we are — you and I are one of the ways the universe knows itself.”

I want to suggest this morning that one of the most beautiful assets that God gives each of us is an innate curiosity about what Douglas Adams called, “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” The joy of looking for answers, the thrill of learning a new thing, the pain of expanding our horizons beyond our narrow circle of knowledge, this is what I think Jesus means when he speaks of hiding wisdom from the wise and revealing it to the infant.

We humans try very hard, we always have, to put systems in place that quantify and categorize and explicate God. We desire certainty, security, even in those things which are beyond our limited grasp.

Ken Ham does it with Young Earth Creationism, yes, but there are untold numbers of theologies within Christianity, and they all have two things in common. First, by offering us easy answers to complex questions, they very subtly become a crutch to lean on, a panacea for the nagging doubt that is part and parcel of faith, something tangible that replaces the intangible and eternal.

Second, they break down somewhere, they are flawed, because we are flawed. We are the wild card in every theology, and in every moral and political system, every philosophy and grand design.

What Jesus offers us is a way out of the struggle.

I like the story I started out with, about needing God as badly as we need to breathe, but I worry a bit that it may paint the wrong picture. The point is not that we have to be theologically gasping our last breath, desperately clawing at the ring God tosses us, in order to find God. The point is that, in the same way that nothing is more important to a drowning person than air, nothing should be more important to the follower of Jesus Christ than, well, Jesus Christ. When we let go of being right, and let go of this idea that God is a thing to be found, and open ourselves to God, that is when we will find God, here already.

The Scriptural criteria for being a follower of Jesus Christ is not “being right.” It isn't rigid adherence to a set of doctrinal absolutes. As much as I enjoy theology, in the grand scheme of things, I don't really think God cares if I am Calvinist or Armenian, whether I am transubstantiationalist or consubstantiationalist or ordinalist or virtualist or participate in anabaptism or paedobaptism.

Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

That's it. Oh, I mean, there are details, like “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,”and so forth, but that is almost commentary on the central truth of love.

The thing about love is that it tends to pull us away from our comfort zone. It is a natural human tendency to surround ourselves with people like us, after all. If I am Republican, I will be most comfortable around other Conservatives, if I am a Democrat, I will be more comfortable around other Liberals. I will have more fun watching a football game with people who are fans of my team.

But a hungry person doesn't care if they get food from a Presbyterian or a Baptist or a Methodist or a Mormon or a Muslim or an Atheist. They need food. The yoke of love that Jesus lays upon us, the light burden we are to bear, is to not worry about proving ourselves right to the hungry person, but to feed that hunger.

The Scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees couldn't see God, right there in their midst, because God didn't meet their criteria. And that is the big secret: We don't get to decide what God looks like or how God acts!

Sometimes God looks like a kid, or a homeless person. Sometimes God has rainbow hair and tattoos, sometimes God has dark skin. Sometimes God smells bad.

But God always offers us a loving opportunity to expand our horizons, to think and wonder in new ways, to grow in relationship with one another and with God, to not accept this world the way it is but to see it as it should be, and to change it and in the process, change ourselves.