If You Ain’t First…

Mark 9.30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

We love this little anecdote from the Gospel of Mark because we love thinking about children in church. 

Literally, we enjoy actually seeing children among our ranks and it gives us hope for a future not yet seen. But even more so, we love to think about children being in church because it naturally corresponds with our imaginations regarding Jesus as a simple, lovable, leader of those who walk in the ways of life.

But this story, these handful of verses right on the other side of the Transfiguration should stop us dead in our tracks, because, like the disciples, we don’t really understand what Jesus is saying and we are too afraid to ask him.

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. 

From where? 

Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, as the one to save and redeem Israel. But then as soon as Jesus predicts his own passion and resurrection Peter offers a rebuttal.

“Excuse me, JC, but that’s not what the Messiah is supposed to do.”

“Get behind me Satan, for you’re stuck with a worldly imagination and not a divine imagination. If you want to join me on this world turning upside down endeavor, then you need to get you world flipped right now – those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who are willing to lose their lives on account of my name will save them.”

And then Jesus has the bright idea to take Peter, and a handful of the inner circle up on top of a mountain upon which he is Transfigured and flocked by Moses and Elijah and a voice cries out, “This is my Son! Listen to him!”

They come down from the mountain with all sights trained on Jerusalem, Jesus heals yet another person in need and then, while passing through Galilee, Jesus drops some truth on his would-be disciples again.

“Listen, I’m going to be betrayed, handed over to the authorities, and I’m going to be killed. And three days later I will rise again.”

But the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask for elaboration.

Apparently, however, they had something else to talk about along the journey because by the time they make it to Capernaum Jesus asks, “So what was it that you all we arguing about on the way?”

They say nothing because they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest.

Jesus is on his way to the end, to the cross, when all his disciples can argue about is cabinet positions in the Kingdom of God, they want to know who is the greatest.

These disciples have heard Jesus teachings, they’ve witnessed his miracles, and they’re still clueless.

“Pay attention,” Jesus says, “if you want to be first, you have to be last.”

And then he grabs a kid (from where?) and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcome me welcomes God.”

In the strange new world made possible by God in Christ, the master is oddly the one who serves, the greatest is the least, and the first is the last.

Luke and Matthew have this same story in their respective gospels, the dispute about greatness. They, too, record Jesus claiming that whoever wishes to be first must be last, but then they add, the great among you shall be like the youngest – one cannot enter the kingdom unless they do so as a child.

So, Jesus seems to say, we’ve got to welcome one another like children, and we’ve got to start acting like children.

That sounds good and fine, and even nice. But it makes me wonder if Jesus actually spent any substantive time around children…

I mean, this isn’t very good advice.

Can you imagine what would happens if all of us respectable adults started acting like children? Or, perhaps worse, what would happen if we let kids run the show we call church?

You know, my first week here, I asked our Youth what they would change if they could change one thing about the church, and you know what they said?

One of them made a strong case for installing a Hot Tub outside our gathering area!

Another one argued for us to renovate our back set of stairs because, if you ever need to use the bathroom during the service, everyone in the sanctuary can hear you walking down the stairs.

Seriously, and get this! Another one said that they would make us actually love each other and our neighbors.

Kids! They don’t know what they’re talking about! We can’t trust them with the church!

Soon enough, we’ll all be relaxing in hot tubs and actually living like disciples!

Jesus says if you want to be first, you have to be last. Which, in a sense means the whole apparatus called church is caught up in a confounding community in which the people with no qualifications are in charge, and those with all the power and prestige in the world have to take a back seat to the whole kingdom thing.

Did you know that the Methodist Church grew every year until we started requiring pastors to have Masters degrees. Interesting isn’t it?

You start letting the people with the right pedigree up into the pulpit and it runs counter to the strange machinations of the Lord.

In the Gospels, Jesus is forever going from place to place, talking fast, dropping one bomb after another without giving anyone much of an opportunity to sit with and in this strange new world. 

Notably, when Jesus calls the disciples he does so without a screening process, there’s no resume evaluation committee, he doesn’t stop to check anyone’s connections of legacy. All he says is, “Follow me.”

And then, later, he says, “Start acting like children.”

Who can know the mind of God? God is God and we are not. The finite can never truly comprehend the infinite. But there really is something to this bizarre proclamation, something that rings true even today.

When I was in the third grade, I was marched up to the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and some well-meaning Sunday school teacher handed me this Bible. It’s a tradition among mainline Protestants to give away Bibles to children, to kids, once they’re old enough to handle it.

But have you have read the Bible? There’s a whole lot of stuff in this book that is way beyond PG-13. 

A woman rams a tent peg through the skull of a foreign general. (Judges 4.21)

A late night pre-marital rendezvous results in the eventual birth of King David. (Ruth 3.4)

And I won’t even say this one out loud, but go check out Ezekiel 23 sometime.

Yet, the church gives away Bibles to 8 years olds as if to say, “Good luck!”

But this is why the call to behave like children stands as a beacon of wonder in the church today, because children often reject the rugged individualism that our culture is so obsessed with. Children, unlike adults, cannot survive on their own and they always seem to exist as a group. 

Children take their Bibles, they read these stories, and then they bring their questions to one another and to the church. 

We, that is adults, on the other hand, feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community that teaches what it means to be who we are.

We’re so consumed by the idea of needing to think for ourselves that we’ve never dared to think, like children, of what it means to think together.

The witness of the church, straight from the lips of lips of the Lord, is that we cannot know who we are until God tells us. And then, and only then, can we live into that reality when a community of people persist in proclaiming that truth over and over again.

The world might try to label us based on external or even internal circumstances. You’re a Republican, you’re a Democrat, you’re fat, you’re old, you’re stupid. On and on and on.

But God, in Christ, through church, tells us again and again that we are the baptized, that we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone, we’re not labeled by what we wear or what we do, we are only who God tells us we are.

I’m not sure exactly how it happens, or even when it happens, but at some point we, adults, foolishly believe we have nothing left to learn. 

Children, thankfully, remind us that there is no limit to the knowledge and wisdom that comes from God.

Oddly enough, we never really think for ourselves, no matter how much we believe we do. We are all captives to the thoughts and the instructions of others. We might tell children to think for themselves, we can even tell ourselves to do so, but all of us, eventually, will think like someone else.

Entire industries exist for the simple and sole purpose of indoctrination. All usually under the auspices of encouraging our intellectual freedom.

The never-ending push for individualism, for solitary adult like behavior, presents a version of the world as if people are actually capable of being alone, which forgets that we owe our entire lives and our ability to think, to other people.

Independence might be the carrot on the string dangling in front of our faces, but in the kingdom of God, dependence is the name of the game. Because, in the end, our insatiable desire for autonomy actually leaves us lonely and without any story by which we can make sense of the condition of our condition.

The Gospel, on the other hand, calls us to a dependent life upon which our hopes and dreams stem from being part of something bigger than ourselves in which God’s story renarrates our own.

In other words, the church, at her best, is an antidote to the loneliness of the world, and the loneliness all too many of us feel. It’s here, among the baptized, that we learn we have a story, they we are not alone, and that we are incorporated into something that is not of this world.

It’s not that we have an antidote – the church is the antidote.

What we do – worship, prayer, sacrament, mission, it is all of a piece in which the story of God reveals to us our dependence upon God and upon others. In this community of faith we live out the story revealed in the strange new world of the Bible and this becomes the training ground for those who call ourselves Christians. It’s in our living together, our being together, that we cultivate the habits necessary for understanding who we are and how we can live in the world.

Welcoming those like children implies a willingness to welcome ideas from the very kinds of people (and places) that we would never dare to imagine. It means being open to a future that we cannot yet conceive on our own. It means getting out of the way of the Spirit, and letting it rip.

If you ain’t first, you’re last – so says the world. From the time we’re young adults until the day we die its always this break-neck competition for firstness, greatness, foundness. But in the Kingdom of God Jesus does his best work, his only work really, with the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

People like us. 

King Jesus

Matthew 25.31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they will also answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

The Lord Jesus Christ is Lord and King over all creation!

Easter and Christmas Eve are remarkable moments in the liturgical year, but there’s nothing quite like Christ the King Sunday. 

Today, for Christians, is our New Year’s Eve, it’s time for champagne and fancy clothes and bad renditions of Auld Lang Syne.

It is our once-a-year opportunity to look both backward and forward. We look behind us to the story of Jesus as we followed his moves from a manger to meeting the disciples to ministering with the last, least, lost, little, and dead to table-turning to Holy Week to Easter to Pentecost and to the Ascension. And then, as the first Sunday of Advent comes a-knockin’, we look forward on this day to the second coming of the Lord, to the re-arrival of the once and future King.

In church lingo, we often refer to Jesus as the Lord, but we don’t live in a world of lords so to call Christ as such can feel a little empty handed. And yet, to confess Christ as Lord is to express faith in One who was, is, and will be the ruler of the cosmos.

But, when we talk of Jesus, we love to speak of him as a teacher, or a healer, or a rabbi, or a sage, or a spiritual guru, or the perfect moral exemplar. And all of that stuff is good and fine, but if that’s all he was, is, and will be, then he is only one of many and he isn’t really worth our time.

What makes Jesus Jesus is the fact that he is God in the flesh, dead on the cross, raised from the dead, master of all things.

He, to put it rather pointedly, is our King.

Our King, according to the strange new world of the Bible, was born as Jesus from Nazareth in the reaches of Galilee. He was poor and had no standing in the world whatsoever, but he went out talking about the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, befriending the friendless, and it attracted a whole lot of attention. And for good reason – he spoke to a people who, for centuries, lived through exile, defeat, abandonment, and foreign occupation all while waiting for the promised Messiah.

And so it came to pass that, after a flirting with popularity and controversy, the religious and secular authorities (church and state) finally got their acts together and put his little ministry to an end.

He was betrayed, beaten, abandoned to die alone on a cross, and buried in a tomb.

Later, his discredited would-be followers started moving from Jerusalem throughout the Mediterranean, and they delivered the news (we call it the Gospel) that this crucified man was the Lord and King of the universe; that even after his horrific and degrading death, even after being left dead behind the rock, he was resurrected and now rules at the right hand of God.

He’s the King.

And we pause on this proclamation for a moment because this runs counter to just about everything we think we know about power and glory and vindication.

It’s even more confounding that this One, this King, can speak to his followers as he does to us in our texttoday. These words comes to us from his final moment of teaching before his arrest, execution, and resurrection.

Listen – When the Son of man comes in his glory, he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gather all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Think about how strange this is! Jesus was born to nothing, he didn’t graduate at the top of his class, he didn’t have a full ride to Jerusalem University, he held no bank account, he had no job or mortgage or stock portfolio. And this man, who was about to be judged guilty under the guise of law and order, tells his followers that he is going to come again at the end of all things to determine the fate of every single human being who has ever lived.

Jesus is about to go on trial and he chooses this final teachable moment to tell those within earshot about the Great Trial, the one in which he will be the Judge.

Jesus will judge humanity, and its not just all of humanity that will be there – you and I are going to be there too.

Now, I know that sounds a little strange, but with talk of divine courtrooms and eternal Kings, it can can all feel a little above us. But this Jesus comes to us, to live among us, and, ultimately, to judge us.

Which leads us to the parable at hand, the parameters of separating the sheep from the goats.

These words are fairly well known among well-meaning Christian types – “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… just as you did to the least of these you did to me.”

Generally, when we refer to this final teaching from the Lord, we (that is: the church) use it as a way to encourage more do-goodery from congregations. We hang it over the heads of those who follow Jesus in order to convince folk like you to serve at soup kitchens, donate gently used articles of clothing, and, at the very least, drop a few extra bills into the offering plate.

And yet, in looking over the parable, the response from those who are told they are about to inherit the kingdom is remarkable – they are amazed! They are amazed because they didn’t even know they had ministered to the hidden Christ among the least of these. That they are vindicated in their goodness is strange considering the fact they were not even aware they had done anything good at all!

On the other side, appropriately, the response of those on the King’s left are similarly surprised. They have no idea they had neglected to do the goodness so described by the Lord. 

Surprises are in store for everyone, apparently. 

If we are ever in the mood for self-congratulation, Jesus seems to say, the we are precisely those who have not done what we were called to do. The moment we think we’ve saved ourselves is the beginning of our end.

And if we think we can rely on explaining our lack of goodness away for lack of Jesus’ obviously identifiable presence, it becomes the end of our beginning.

There is therefore good reason to fear this parable – for it to leave us scratching our heads rather than comforted in the knowledge of our vindication. 

Because, who among us can present a laundry list of more good deeds than bad deeds? If we take Jesus seriously, we need only think of adultery to have committed it, we need only think jealous thoughts to have stolen from our neighbors. 

The end and beginning of discipleship is the recognition that, as Paul puts it, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understand; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

This, to put it bluntly, is a rather terrifying prospect. But that’s exactly what makes the parable so good. 

For all of its terror, it is also the last laugh in Jesus’ ministry of salvation – it is the bestowal of the Kingdom of God on a bunch of dumb sheep who not only didn’t know they were doing good things for Jesus, but they also never knew they were faithful to him.

The language of separation remains, of course, but Jesus tells us the King will separate them one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and, lest we forget, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. 

And the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but he also lays down his life for the goats as well because on the cross he draws all to himself, which is why all nations will be gathered in the end.

Remember – Jesus came to raise the dead, not to teach the teachable or fix the fixable.

What the Gospel stresses, what Jesus proclaims, what we are called to keep at the forefront of our minds, is the fact that Jesus is both Lord of the universe AND he identifies with the lowest and the least among humanity. And it is precisely the combination of both things that makes his final teaching ring clear. Otherwise it just descends into a Santa Clausian nightmare in which “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice, Jesus Christ is coming to town!”

That’s not what Jesus is saying here! The division of the sheep and goats is not based on who is good and who is bad. If that were the case, then we’d all wind up among the goats.

It’s based, instead, on who the Shepherd is and what he’s been up to this whole time.

For, from the foundation of the cosmos, the triune God has been engaged and involved in the good work of drawing all into the salvific work of the cross and resurrection. The great story of God with God’s people has been one of rectification, not damnation. 

The only thing we have to do, particularly since we don’t even know that we’re doing good things when we’re doing good things, is to take Jesus at his word and trust him.

Because, in the end, our King Jesus cares so much for the last, least, lost, little, and dead that he is willing to die for people like you and me who deserve not one parcel of his grace, replacing our unrighteousness with his righteousness, becoming the judged Judge standing in our place.

Our King, counter to every other king in the history of all things, looks upon our miserable estate, takes all of our sins, and nails them to the cross upon which we hung him.

And he leaves those sins there forever.

No one can earn or deserve salvation. No one can even know that he or she is saved. We can only believe it. We can only trust it.

You know, for all of the talk in the church of doing this, that, and the other, for all our talk of who is in and who is out, for all our talk about what is good and what is bad, this final teaching from Jesus offers a different understanding of the way things were, are, and shall be forevermore – we, even the brightest and most faithful among us, we don’t know what we don’t know, we are incapable of doing what we’ve convinced ourselves we have to do, we are, to put it simply, sinners in need of grace.

And even if we can’t rest in the trust that Jesus is good to his Word (for he is the Word), it’s all still Good News because Jesus is in the raising-of-the-dead business and he is very very good at his job. Jesus is the Love that refuses to let us go, he is the fatted-calf slaughtered on our behalf, he is the Divine Father rushing out to meet us in the street before we can even open our mouths to apologize. 

And he also happens to be our King. Amen. 

5 Ways You Can Help Your Church

When the pandemic struck, many churches quickly made the leap to online worship in order to keep their respective communities safe. As a pastor, it has been a joy to see so many other churches adapt to the situation, and to witness their worship as I was usually relegated to my own services on Sunday mornings. 

And yet, while churches navigate what it means to be the church in the midst of such uncertain waters, many of them are in need of help. 

Here are five ways you can help your church:

  1. Support You Church With Your Financial Gifts
    1. Consider making an extra financial donation to your local church if you are able. Many churches have had to cut programs and ministries throughout the pandemic because their typical Sunday offerings have diminished while not worshipping in-person. Making an offering to God through a financial gift is akin to Jeremiah’s willingness to purchase a vineyard in spite of not knowing what was coming next – it is believing in a world we cannot yet see because we know God remains steadfast even when we don’t. And, to make matters easier in our present moment, most churches have now enabled online giving through their websites so you can give without have to leave the house. 
  2. Share Information About Your Church
    1. You can tell neighbors/friends/family members about your local church and how they’ve been able to provide a sense of God’s grace and mercy in a time when the world feels like its teetering on the edge. And, because so many churches have moved online, its never been easier to “share” what a church is up to because all you have to do is share the information on your respective social media pages. The more people who gather for online worship/devotionals, the more churches can create partnerships with new, and even familiar, faces.
  3. Contact Someone From Your Church
    1. Our ability to be in touch with one another has never been easier. Whether its sending a text, writing an email, or making a phone call (do people still make phone calls?), making a connection with someone else right now can be the difference that makes all the difference. If you don’t know how to get in touch with someone from your local church, contact your pastor – I am sure they will be delighted to connect you with someone. The tie that binds us together is Jesus, and we need to live into that tie now more than ever.
  4. Share Your Ideas With Your Pastor
    1. The pandemic has isolated us from one another in ways previously unimagined. And, because of our respective separations, pastors are not having the normal interactions that help them discern how the Spirit is moving in terms of sermon and Bible Study preparation. If you have ideas for a new sermon series, or a topic to be covered in a devotional, or anything else that might pertain to your church, send it to your pastors. The church was never meant to be a solo endeavor, and sharing ideas with the pastor, along with the power of the Holy Spirit, can bring about some incredible opportunities in the Kingdom.
  5. Pray. Pray. Pray.
    1. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, once said, “God does nothing but by prayer, and everything with it.” If there was ever a time to pray – it’s now. Prayers for your church, for your community, for your country, for the world. As the old hymn goes, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer.” And, if you are unable to bring yourself to pray, reach out to your pastors and ask them to pray for you. Chances are, praying for others happens to be their cup of tea!

Grace Is For Losers

Matthew 21.28-32

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 son 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. 

What do you all think?

There’s this guy with two kids and there’s yard work to be done. So he wrangles them out of bed and says to the first, “Hey, grab a rake and start working on the leaves.” The kid pulls the covers over his head and says, “No way Dad.” But later he changes his mind, and goes outside to rake up the leaves.

The father also tells his second kid to get out on the lawn and the kid responded with a, “Yessir” but as soon as he got outside, he got on his bike and spent the day riding through the neighborhood.

So, which of the kids did what the father wanted?

The first who, though the call of the bed seemed so strong, actually went and raked leaves?

Or the second who, though he said he would do it, actually spent the day doing whatever he wanted?

Truly I tell you, the people begging on street corners, the economy stealing stockbrokers, the pregnant teenagers, and the squanderers of inheritance are all going into the kingdom God ahead of you.

Ahead of us.

What must we do to be saved?

It’s an interesting question, particularly for those of us habituated in a world of meritocracy. 

Do we have to be baptized? 

Is there a certain percentage of Sundays that we have to be engaged in worship? 

What amount of money demonstrates a salvific commitment to Kingdom of God? 

How many wrongs do we have to right to wind up in the right place, in the end?

That question, for some, lingers above most of what we do whether its a truly theological reflection, or we’re merely thinking about how good we have to be in any given moment.

And, in some places/churches, the question is answered with a list of things to do and a list of things to avoid.

Preachers may or may not speak about it explicitly, but it definitely shows up in preaching and teaching and also on our individual Facebook statuses and our trite little tweets – we implicitly affirm a whole host of expectations.

I’ve said it before, but the church has become a version of the next best self-help program where people like me say to people like you, “Hey, the mystery of the Kingdom isn’t nearly as mysterious as we make it out to be, and if you want to be part of it, there’s some things you all need to start working on.

“Now, you might want to write all this down, because it’s important: You need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, love your neighbors, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, and STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”

And, at first glance, this brief little parable about who actually does the work of the father seems to support a view in which we have work to do.

God in Christ has given us commandments and, well, we better follow them accordingly.

Doing, then, is the end all and be all of a life lived in Christ.

But, what if that’s actually wrong?

And by wrong, I mean dead wrong.

Notice – Jesus tells his story, dangling it out for the scribes and Pharisees and us, and then he ends with a reference to the salvation of tax collectors and prostitutes. And, by doing so, Jesus seems to be saying that salvation comes not because these disreputable characters suddenly become respectable and law-abiding and even good, but simply because they believe.

Salvation, according to Jesus here in his little aside, comes only by belief, by faith, by trusting in someone else to do for us what we couldn’t do on our own.

But, that’s exactly the problem because it all sounds too easy – it sounds too simple.

Is Jesus telling us that anyone can just stroll through the pearly gates just for having a little faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed? They don’t have to do anything else? They don’t have to right all the wrongs and only make good choices and be perfect all the time?

That sounds a little unfair doesn’t it? I mean, what about all of us who have worked so hard, and done all the right things, and followed all of the important rules?

Everybody getting in gratis feels so wrong – it runs counter to everything the world runs on.

Which, in the end, is exactly what makes it right.

No matter how much we talk about grace in the church, and no matter how much we sing about it in our hymns, we don’t really like it. It’s too… free. It lets squandering sons and delinquent daughters get into the Kingdom for nothing, all while disregarding the good people. 

You know, people like us. People who drove to a church parking lot on a Sunday afternoon.

So, we continue to offer words of encouragement about how much God loves everyone and forgives everyone, but then, for some reason, we make it good and clear that the aforementioned everyone have to clean up their act before God will do all the loving and forgiving.

We do this because we want to make it abundantly clear that church is for good people, and the world is for bad people.

Which only goes to show that we, sadly, have more in common with the Scribes and the Pharisees and than we do with those who are getting into the kingdom first. 

We’ve confused the Good News of Jesus Christ for the bad news of works-righteousness.

We’ve failed to see the how offensive the Gospel is, because we’ve tricked ourselves into believing in ourselves rather than believing in Jesus.

The problem with grace is that it doesn’t sell – it doesn’t give us a list of things to do to fix all of the disappointments we feel here and now. It’s not a Peloton that promises to slim our waistline, it’s not a mindfulness technique that guarantees to lower our anxiety, it’s not a book that insures we will feel happier on the other side. 

Grace works for losers and only losers, and no one wants to hang out with losers.

No one, that is, except for Jesus.

The world of winners, people like us, will invest in myriads of moral absolutes, and truck loads of self-improvement seminars, and heaping baskets of do-goodery. 

But the world of winners, people like us, refuses to opt-in for free forgiveness because that threatens to bring in all of the disreputable types.

Thankfully, however, the Holy Spirit has a knack of reminding us, all of us, that we’re all unworthy, that we’re all up the creek without a paddle, that we’re all in need of some saving.

And we can’t save ourselves.

God’s plan of salvation is that we trust Jesus. That’s it. God has already forgiven us, God has already reconciled us, God has already raised us up with Jesus. And, to make it even better, God has thrown away the ledger against us forever.

Our sins were nailed to the cross and God left them there.

If we want to keep believing the kingdom works on works, that there’s something we have to do to get what God is offering, we can absolutely believe that. But that’s not the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection. 

In the end, we are saved by grace for free. We do nothing and we deserve nothing. It is all one huge and hilarious gift. Thanks be to God.

The Kingdom of Judgment

Matthew 13.47-50

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. 

We’ve come to the end.

Both the end of our series on the parables of the Kingdom and to Jesus’ proclamation, parabolically, about the end of all things.

The Kingdom is like a net that catches everything so that the angels can sort out the evil from the righteous.

This is a story about judgment.

And we don’t like judgement.

You know, judge not lest ye be judged and all that…

But I think it’s more that we like to talk about not being judgmental while actually being addicted to the judgments we make against ourselves and others.

Consider this: How many conversations have you had recently about people and their willingness or unwillingness to wear masks?

It’s notable that, having talked at length about the Kingdom, yeast and seeds and weeds, Jesus ends the entire sequence of these parables with a story about fishing. 

It is an ending about the end.

Jesus has been laying it on thick for the crowds and for the disciples. But then we encounter, “So it will be at the end of the age” – the Eschaton, a final period on the whole kit and caboodle.

This is the moment in which all of the stories about the Kingdom are summed up by the Lord of lords.

Listen – The Kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea that catches everything. And, only when the net is full, is it brought ashore and the good are put into baskets while the bad are left on the sand. So it will be at the end of the age. My angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Sounds like a party, right?

The Kingdom is like a net. Strangely enough the net, SAGENE in Greek, is what we call a hapax legomenon, a word that only appears once in the entirety of the New Testament. 

It’s very very rare.

Nevertheless, the net here is one dragged through the water indiscriminately taking up everything in its path.

It is not the tiny net I carry on my fly fishing bag to help collect the one solitary fish I’ve been trying to reel in for fifteen minutes.

It’s more like a trawler that picks up everything.

And everything means everything. Not only fish but also seaweed, trash, and other oceanic items. 

This, of course, runs counter to how we often imagine the fishing stories from Jesus and the way we portray them in Children’s Bibles. 

Jesus says, “If I be lifted up I will draw all to myself!”

Which is all to say, just as the net fetches out everything it meets in the sea, so too the Kingdom fetches out everything in the world. When Jesus proclaims that a new heaven and a new earth are coming, they are not replacements for the old ones, we don’t get zapped from one to the other – they are transfigurations of them.

Jesus doesn’t abandon planet earth to go stake out a claim somewhere else, he raises creation and glorifies it.

The totality of the net might sound like an overstatement, but the word for fish doesn’t actually appear in the Greek – even though plenty of translators have opted to stick it in.

Its just says the the net was tossed into the sea and caught everything.

This means, parabolically speaking, that everything and everyone gets swept up into it, the good and the bad, the tall and the small, the poor and the powerful.

There is a sorting to come, we cannot ignore that, but not before the net draws everything in. While the net is being dragged behind the boat, doing its work, judgment is nowhere to be found. Which is a reminder for those of us called the church that the kingdom, while still in this world, does nobody any good while remaining in the judgment business.

But judgement, of course, is what we do best!

It’s been one of the favorite pastimes of the church since the very beginning. The practice of tossing out the bad apples while the net is still int he ate drawing everything in has been everybody’s preferred method of “furthering the Kingdom.”

Everybody’s, that is, except Jesus.

Sometimes it takes weeks and weeks of sitting in the parables to realize how much of a miracle it is that the church has made it this far all the while confusing the words of the divine Word incarnate.

We have heaping examples how how judgmental the church has been, all while Jesus has been doing his best to drag the net of the kingdom across the ocean floor of our existence.

Consider how adulterers, murders, and philanderers have been paraded out of both pulpit and sanctuary. But its not even just the really bad sins we hold over the heads of others: we dismiss the liars and the cheats, the questionable and the bizarre. 

Throughout the centuries we have picked our particular flavors of allowable and unallowable all under the auspices of keeping the good in and the bad out.

And what do we have to show for it?

Now, if we talk about sin in church at all, we do so in a way that denies our sinfulness while highlighting the sins of others. We’ve taken down the mirror of the Gospel, the law that accuses us dead in our sins, and instead we wag our fingers at those who don’t align with what we think is good and right and true.

And, I must confess, I’m guilty of this just as much as anyone else. I mean: Do you know how much fun it is to belittle and bemoan televangelists for the wildly inappropriate theology they drop on their dozing congregations? Do you know why it’s so fun? Because it makes me feel better about myself!

We love to point out the sins in others all the while ignoring our own.

But Jesus? Jesus didn’t shy away from sinners. So why should we?

Of course, we might think that the church welcomes sinners. But we don’t. At least, not really. We’re only inclined to welcome the sinful so long as their sins aren’t of much consequence and their willing to repent and never fall back into their sinfulness.

Should we let people get away with their sins? Is that what Jesus wants? A church full of worthless sinners failing in their inability to be good?

Yeah, kind of. 

It’s not so much about letting people get away with it, but recognizing the real condition of our condition such that we see salvation isn’t possible on our own. We don’t have the capacity, on our own, to turn it all around. It’s only ever possible because of the Spirit working in us and through us.

Consider Paul’s argument in his letter to the Galatians: If there had been a law, a rule, that could have saved us then it should have already happened. 

We can change, we can get better. But it’s God who does that work and, like the Kingdom, it’s rather mysterious. There’s no good answer to why one person is better at dropping a bad habit than someone else. There’s no good answer to why someone gets through grief faster than someone else. 

God works and we know not how. It is, to make the point even finer, a mystery.

The church, at her best, is merely a sacrament of God’s Kingdom, an outward sign of the mystery in the world. It is like a version of the net, doing its best to sweep through the dark waters of life, collecting anything and everything.

What happens next is entirely up to God.

And thats when the real judgement begins…

The plunder is brought to shore to sort out, in Jesus’ words, the good from the bad. What makes the good good and the bad bad? Jesus doesn’t give us much to work with here, but its entirely in the eyes of the one who tossed out the net in the first place. That is: Jesus is the one who decides what goes in the basket and what get left on the sand.

Notice, again, that the separation only occurs after the net has already done its job, only after the mystery of the Kingdom has come to fruition, only after the power of Jesus’ reconciling work. 

Everyone who comes before the divine sorting, if we want to call it that, has already been judged by the Judge who came to be judged in our place.

The whole world, the all the Jesus draws into himself, is accepted in the Beloved.

The forgiveness of wrongs, the rectification of sins, pronounced from the cross and the empty tomb is for all. 

What we choose to do with that forgiveness is tricky business.

Think about the older bother from the parable of the prodigal. His Father, rather recklessly, forgives the younger son from his squandering ways, throws him a party and then insists that the older son comes into the cut up the rug. But we never find out whether or not the older brother joins the party.

Does he enter the room, grab a drink, and head for the dance floor?

Or does he stay in the outer darkness while weeping and gnashing his teeth?

In the end, God is throwing a party, the Supper of the Lamb, and we’re all invited, no matter what.

The question isn’t what constitutes a life worthy of the Kingdom, but instead, what are we going to do with out invitation?

Notice: nobody goes to hell because they made too many bad choices in this life anymore than someone goes to heaven because they made enough right choices. Everyone meets Jesus in the mystery of his death and resurrection, they are swept up in the great net whether we think they deserve it or not. 

Counter to many of our church ramblings throughout the centuries, and even today, we are not judged by the Lord in the light of our previous proclivities. If we were, none of us would go anywhere but hell.

Instead we are judged by what Jesus does for us on the cross. He announces a forever and all encompassing forgiveness that transfigures us into his kingdom in ways that are hidden and right here among us.

Let me put it this way: Everybody, even the worst of the worst, is someone for whom Christ died. Whenever the church goes around kicking people out for missed and poor choices, we fail to live into the netted-ness of Christ’s salvific work.

Sinners are the church’s business for God’s sake, literally.

We worship a Lord who came not to condemn the world but to save it. Until the end of the age, the only thing we can do is rest is the Good News that Jesus delights in catching us and everybody else. 

But back to the judgment reserved for the Lord.

So it will be at the end of the age, Jesus says, my angels will come and separate the evil out of the midst of the righteous.

How did the righteous ones get to be righteous? Well, scripture tells us that Jesus makes us righteous and we can’t do it on our own.

To whom is the gift of Jesus’ righteousness offered? Well, scripture tells us that Jesus came for the whole world, the good and the bad, the right and the wrong.

But then how can some of them be judged as evil?

And that, dear friends, is the question of all questions.

Is it because not one of us is righteous, no not one (to steal an expression from Paul)?

Is it because, even though Jesus told us not to judge, it’s still our favorite thing to do?

Is it because we’re all dead in our sins and in desperate need of a Savior who can save us from ourselves?

The angels of the Lord will separate the evil out of the midst of the righteous. This is God’s good work, for there will be no evil in the end of the age – there will be no death, no mourning, and no crying, for God will make all things new.

Even us.

Do you see? Even at the end, God in Christ is hellbent on getting every single one of us into his Kingdom, even if it means separating the evil out of us so that we can feast at the Supper of the Lamb forever and ever.

There is to be joy in heaven! Not just over one found by the Lord but over the ninety nine as well.

There is to be joy over a whole New Jerusalem populated entire by forgiven sinners whose citizenship is based on nothing but their forgiveness. Not their good works of perfect report cards. Only by the forgiving and reconciling work of God. So be it. Amen. 

Buying The Farm

Matthew 13.44-46

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure 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. 

When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand

Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand

Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band

Check into a swell hotel, ain’t the afterlife grand?

And then I’m gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale

Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long

I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl

‘Cause this old man is goin’ to town

Then as God as my witness, I’m gettin’ back in show business

I’m gonna open a nightclub and call it “The Tree of Forgiveness”

And forgive everybody ever done me any harm

Well, I might even invite a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics

Buy ‘em a pint of Smithwick’s and smother ‘em with my charm

Yeah when I get to heaven, I’m gonna take that wristwatch off my arm

What are you gonna do with time after you’ve bought the farm?

Those are some of the lyrics from John Prime’s last recorded song before his recent death. And, I haven’t been able to get them out of my head. For one, the chorus is pretty catchy and I feel just the right amount of naughty for singing about drinking Moscow Mules and smoking cigarettes. But mostly because of the bit about watches in heaven.

I mean, what good is knowing what time it is when you’ve already bought the farm?

Buying the farm, incidentally, is an expression that came into existence around the time of World War II during which the insurance payout on a soldier’s death often afforded the opportunity for a surviving widow to pay out the mortgage on the homestead – ie. Buying the farm.

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which a man found and then subsequently hid again. Jesus, in all of his parabolically paradoxical wonder, does some of his best work in hiddenness, in the not-yet-to-be-understood. 

It’s why the parables leaves us scratching our heads instead of really understanding the subject at hand.

Even the earliest disciples struggled with the stories. After Jesus prophesied his death and resurrection for the third time, not the second nor the first, scripture tells us that the disciples did not understand any of these things, and they did not know what Jesus was talking about.

The mystery of the kingdom, even when its most literal details are all spelled out remains inaccessible to their understanding.

Which means we’re in good company with the disciples.

God is God and we are not.

Or, as the psalmist puts it, “such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is so high that I cannot attain it.”

But Jesus is hellbent on bringing us closer to the hidden mystery, even if it means we’re none the wiser on the other side.

Ultimately, Jesus says, the mystery of the kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field; it is something worth selling anything we must in order to enjoy having it at all.

Most of the time when we read these two brief parables in tandem with one another, the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, we think of them as proxies for our individual responses to Jesus’ kingdom. That is, each of us have the ability and the responsibility to go out seeking the kingdom and must be willing to pay whatever price for it. 

But, it’s more than that.

Because the two who are so willing to go and sell everything for the mystery is just as much about the whole church as it is about the individuals within in.

It’s about the church’s relationship to the world in which it finds itself, and how in the world they relate to one another.

Right now, in the midst of a pandemic that is keeping us from gathering in-person with one another, the lines have become more blurred than ever about where the world ends and where the church begins.

And this is Good News.

What makes the advent of our current time such Good News for the church is the reminder that the church is not a club of insiders who happen to have a monopoly on the mystery that is the kingdom made incarnate in Jesus Christ. The church is not about our respective identities, or good behavior, or particular income brackets.

The church is a sign to the world of the mystery by which the light of the world has already shined upon all of creation.

Let me put it another way: For far too long the church has operated as if it’s this specific enclave that has access to salvation that the world does not, that people outside the church have to come inside and be just like us in order to have access to the one we call the Lord.

And there’s some truth to it – “there is no salvation outside the church” is a prevailing theological understanding across the church. But that language implies that everything is already perfect inside these walls and everything is damned outside. It leads churches to believing we are the paragons of virtue, the arbiters of everything that is good and right and true. And therefore we believe that evangelism, whatever it is, is all about making outsiders look like insiders – its all about getting people out there, in here, so that they can look, act, and speak like us.

What that ignores is the fact that the church isn’t full of perfect people – its full of sinners!

But that’s not how we act.

Instead we put up signs about how welcoming we are, and we’re only really welcoming so long as people start assimilating the moment they join the club we happen to call church.

Or we take the latest buzzwords and create slogans for our websites about tolerance, but we don’t tolerate anything outside what we consider worthy.

Or we invite people to church implicitly assuming that it’s our job to fix our friends/neighbors/co-workers so they can have perfect lives just like us!

All of that is false advertising.

It’s like putting a cake in the window of a running store – it only confuses people about what our business really does.

Similarly, whenever we market the church as a bunch of perfect people only getting more perfect, we deceive people as to what we are all about.

Notice – the discoverer of the treasure in the field goes and buys the whole thing. He doesn’t bury the treasure off in the best corner of the lot only to purchase that small portion. He buys the whole thing!

The church doesn’t exist as an a priori negation of the world, nor does it stand off as an exclusive country club for only the best of the best – the church is filled with the world whether we like it or not.

And the sooner we start liking it the better off we’ll be, because without it none of us would cut it.

The church is not perfection here on earth because its filled with a random sampling of all the broken people the world has to offer, the very people for whom Christ died, people wading through the waters of baptism to live in the light of the resurrection recognizing that we deserve not a single beam of it.

Rather than only procuring the best part of the field, the man buys the whole thing complete with sink holes, poison ivy, weeds, and thorny bushes. 

The same then holds true for the church – if we can’t bring ourselves to buy, that is: bring in, every different condition of our condition, the smart and the stupid, the good and the bad, the holy and the unholy, then we can’t even pretend we’re the church at all.

But why all this insistence of the all-ness of the mystery of the kingdom? Why isn’t it just for the choice and select few who maintain moral purity at all times?

Well, in addition to the totality of the field purchased by the parabolic figure, and the willingness of the merchant to sell all he had to buy the pearl, the power of the mystery is hidden in the most universal of all things: death. 

Now, bear with me for a moment: I know we don’t want to have to think about death any more than we already do. Though, I will note that just about every single product in the world is designed and advertised to make us think we can live forever.

But Jesus does his work, his best work, in the mystery of his own death, its in the darkness of a seed buried in the ground or treasure in a field or a man in the tomb, that the world is forever turned upside down. 

And, for what its worth, though Matthew tells us that man bought a field, there’s no reason to think the field wasn’t a farm. And, in the end, we all buy the farm.

Some of us get stupidly rich, some of us get horribly sick, some of us lose people we love, some of us write book, some of us teach others how to read or write books, some of us lose ourselves, and some of us throw it all away because of one foolish mistake, but every last one of us dies in the end.

Every single person, whether Christian or not, whether good or bad, will someday come into possession of the field of death in which Jesus has hidden the treasure of his salvific work.

As has been said from this pulpit on a number of occasions, the kingdom of Heaven will only and forever be populated by forgiven sinners. Hell, whatever it may be, exists only as a courtesy for those who want no part of forgiveness.

The entire world will buy the farm.

And the best news, the Good News, is that we are saved by meeting the Lord in his death. 

Some of us participate in Jesus’ death here and now in the deadening of ourselves in the waters of baptism, whereas others experience it only at the end of their days, but Jesus comes to raise the dead. That’s his mysterious work. And there’s nothing on this earth that can stop him from doing it.

But, that’s not how we often talk, as the church, as Jesus’ body, in the world right now. Instead, we take this profoundly powerful and mysterious Kingdom and make it out as if there are only two types of people in the world – the completely right and the dead wrong.

And, again, the purchaser doesn’t buy only the best looking parts of the field. He procures the whole thing!

Which leads us to the parable of the pearl of great price.

The merchant is looking for something and he knows not quite what he is looking for until he finds it.

Or, perhaps, it finds him.

All of us, in different ways, are merchants of our own desires – shopping day and night for that which we don’t quite know or even understand. 

We adopt the latest culturally relevant habit because we believe it will make us whole.

We go and buy the latest Apple product because we convince ourselves it will finally bring order to the chaos of our lives.

We look for the greener grass over the next hill because surely life must be better than whatever this is.

And then, if the miracle of miracles occurs and people stumble into the church (or online during a streamed service) looking for something, what does the church offer in turn?

Hey, um, here’s the mystery of Jesus Christ all wrapped up nice and neat for you, the in-dwelling or his kingdom, but… if you want any part of it, you’re gonna need to shape up. So, uh, write this down, you need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, love your neighbors, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH.

If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher ethical stands, they might be converted from something, but not to the Gospel.

I mean, who the hell would sell everything to buy all of that?

That whole list is undoubtedly filled with good things, things that we should probably all work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations. He says, “Come to me all of you with heavy burdens and I will give you rest.

The work of Christ, the hidden mystery of the kingdom, frees us from the sins that shackle us to a world in which we will never really feel home in.

Our home, instead, is in the kingdom. It is the kingdom – a kingdom built on love, freely offered and given to each and every single person past, present, and future, and the only thing anyone ever has to do to have it is buy the farm.

Because purchasing gladly at whatever cost is the heart of these two brief parables.

It is an utterly precious and priceless mystery – something to be enjoyed.

At the very least, there should be smiles in the church, not grimaces. We should be hearing Good News, not bad news. We should relish in our freedom, not in our burdens.

For, Jesus as the mysterious kingdom is already buried and hidden in the world. The church just as the good fortune of sharing that Good News with anyone and everyone whenever we can. Church, at its best, is nothing less that joyful discovering the truth that’s always been there, the truth that meets us where we are, that Jesus has already done for us far more than we could ever do for ourselves.

In the end we don’t have to sell everything we have for the field or for the pearl because, as the old hymn goes, Jesus paid it all.

Therefore, the grace of Jesus Christ is actually free. It’s not expensive, it’s not even cheap, it’s free.

And that’s exactly what makes the Good News so good. Amen. 

In The Weeds

Matthew 13.34-43

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parables of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Contrary to how we often talk about, or even display, Jesus – He was pretty feisty. 

Sure, he sat with the crowds and multiplied the loaves and fishes – He calmed the storm while the disciples cowered in fear – He cured the sick, elevated the marginalized, and sought out the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

But that doesn’t negate how contentious he was.

The Gospels paint a picture of the Messiah man such that we can see how he was eventually done in by the hostility that surrounded him.

It’s all good and well that you fed the crowds Jesus, but why didn’t you rain down manna from heaven for the rest of us?

Thanks for calming the storm out on the sea Jesus, but what about all the other hurricanes and typhoons?

I’m all for making the last first Jesus, but if I’m in a position of power right now you’re not going to take it away from me, are you?

It’s amazing to take a step back from the strange new world of the Bible every once in a while to think about how enthusiastic the crowds were for Jesus. Free meals not withstanding. The parables, what we’ve been focusing on here for the last few weeks, they’re downright confounding, they’re anything but clear, and they don’t paint the prettiest picture of the Kingdom.

And, apparently, this wasn’t anything new, at least according to the Lord.

Matthew tells us here that Jesus spoke in parables, and without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables and I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” 

This is how the Lord works, in mysterious, confusing, and scratch-your-head kind of ways. With stories about a sower scattering seeds, a Father who throws a party for his wayward son, and a field with weeds and wheat.

All of the parables, whether they’re parables of grace or judgment, they all point to God’s strange proclamation that the kingdom is already here, existing under the banners of judgement and grace. It’s not something off in the distant future that we have to wait for or work for. Rather, it’s among us in this present moment, and has been with us, mysteriously, since the foundation of the world.

Of course, the mystery of the kingdom throughout history is the whole point. For, since those days back in the Garden with Adam and Eve, the kingdom has been hidden and only signs of it have broken through (the people Israel, Jesus, the Church, etc.). But it has only been hidden, not absent. 

It is not, “yet to come.”

It is already here in strange and mysterious ways. 

Which leads us, bewilderingly enough, back to the parable of the Weeds and the Wheat.

A brief refresher: A man plants good seeds in his field. But one night, while everyone’s dreaming of sugarplums, an enemy comes and plants weeds among the wheat. When the plants start to grow the servants of the man notice the weeds and ask if they should remove them. But the man says, “Nope, if you take out the weeds you’ll only ruin the wheat. Just wait for the harvest and we’ll get it all sorted out.”

That didn’t sit well enough with the disciples, and perhaps even with some of us today, so only after leaving the crowds and retiring to the house do the disciples pick up the previous, and unending, line of inquiry. “Lord,” they say, “You’ve got some explaining to do. Tell us what the parable of the Weeds really means…

“Fine,” Jesus seems to say. “The story I told wasn’t good enough for you eh? Well how about I explain every little part so it loses its excitement and you all can rest easy. But I should warn you, the more you know, the more you know. And you might not like what you come to know.

“Okay,” Jesus begins, “Check this out: I’m the guy sowing all the good seeds. The field is the whole cosmos, and the good seeds are the people of the kingdom. But the weeds, they are from the evil one, and the evil one is, well, evil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. I will send out the angels, and they will collect out of the kingdom all the stumbling blocks and all the indwellers with sin, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire! Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom. Did you get all of that? Are you happy with the explanation O disciples of mine?”

Are we happy with it?

Maybe we are. We’re pretty decent people after all. Heck, we’re watching a worship service online for God’s sake. We’re not terribly worried about being considered among the weeds. And, frankly, we know so disreputable types who might deserve the furnace.

Or maybe, this doesn’t sit too well with us. We know, in our heart of hearts, that we’re not as good as other people think we are and that, if we were to identify ourselves in the parable, we have more in common with the weeds than the wheat. Does that mean Jesus is going to send the angels to toss us into the fiery abyss?

It’s notable that, having listened to the Lord wax lyrical for an afternoon about sowers, wheat fields, mustard seeds, and yeast, the disciples gather in the house with Jesus and they demand to have the “parable of the weeds” explained to them.

Of all they heard, that’s what they wanted unpacked. And even the way they frame the inquiry, they have managed to turn the parable into something else. No mention of the divine farmer who delights in letting things grow together, no questions about where the farmer sows the wheat, they don’t even ask about the servants and their response to the growing field.

All they heard was a story about weeds.

Jesus delighted in giving those disciples a tale about the confounding relationship between good and evil from the vantage point of the Lord, but all they received was a pigeon-holed story about evil, and only evil. 

Perhaps we should give the disciples some credit. Rather than slinking down in their seats pretending to know exactly what was going on, they had the gall to raise their hands with an, “Excuse me Jesus, I don’t get it.

I like to imagine that when questioned about his parabolic utterances, Jesus responded first to the disciples by saying, “Yep, you really don’t get it.

But that’s not in scripture.

What is in scripture, on the other hand, is Jesus’ apparent willingness to unpack all that he had laid before them, one detail after another. 

Even today, we struggle like those disciples. We don’t understand the church’s relationship to the world, we don’t understand the complex dance between good and evil, we don’t understand what it means to be the wheat anymore than what it means to be the weeds. And if, and that’s a big if, we ever do start to see behind the curtain, if things start to fall into place, it’s a journey toward understanding and never an end in itself.

But it is a tremendous gift to be part of that journey. For, the parables of the kingdom make it rather clear that heaven is not “up there somewhere” but rather it is a kingdom that creates time and takes up space here and now. Jesus speaks through these strange and wild and wonderful stories so that we, those who receive them, might be for the world the reality of the kingdom. 

Sometimes we forget that in Jesus we get to see and hear what countless people had longed to see and hear.

The Lord made flesh, dwelling among us, telling stories about what reality really looks like.

And yet, the reality of Jesus’ explanation still hangs before us, a dreaded fiery catastrophe for those whom the harvesters gather together.

“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire,” Jesus says, “so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all stumbling blocks and doers of iniquity.”

And that is what God will do. The New Jerusalem, the Supper of the Lamb, would be pretty weak if the Lord allowed such stumbling blocks to remain. Evil will be dealt with. It will be vanquished forever and ever. 

The disciples, like us, can’t help but assume that’s their job right here and right now. “Forget letting the angels divide up the weeds in the wheat Jesus! We can start right now! Give us a list of all the unforgivable sins and we’ll sort everyone out for you!”

And, as I’ve said before, we’ve done that kind of work since since the beginning of time an we’re still doing it today. We are quick to find a sin, whatever sin we want, and hold it over one another as the sign of someone’s outside-ness to our inside-ness. We fight to have the Ten Commandments hung in court houses, we keep locking people up for every crime under the sun, we keep putting people on death row, and what have we got to show for it?

When are we finally going to make the world a better place?

Jesus says, in his explanation of the parable, this work doesn’t belong to us. It’s up to him. And for that we should be remarkably thankful. Because not a one of us would cut it as a wheat in the kingdom of heaven. “No one is righteous, no not one,” to steal an expression of Paul’s. There is only one who has lived a life without sin, and he became sin in order that we might be freed from it. He went ahead and nailed every last one of our sins to the cross, past, present, and future. He forgave us from the cross for the worst sin of them all, for trying to kill God.

We, whether we like to admit it or not, are in the weeds – we deserve the furnace. 

I know that sounds a little too fire and brimstone for those of us who are Methodists. After all, we believe we have open hearts, minds, and doors even if everything about our lives scream the contrary.

But we can’t ignore Jesus’ explanation. I mean, we asked for it. 

And the angels will throw them into the furnace of fire. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

The furnace of fire. That quite an image that Jesus chose. Interestingly, furnace is not a word that occurs in scripture all that much. In fact, it’s rather rare. Jesus uses it here, and he will use it again seven verses from now, and it also shows up, unsurprisingly, in the Book of Revelation.

But there’s one other, very notable, use of the word furnace in the Bible. It happens in Daniel chapter 3. 

Let take a very abbreviated trip into the Old Testament for a moment – The people Israel are living in exile in Babylon having been taken from the Promised Land. King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonians catches word that three men (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are refusing to worship the gods of Babylon and the king orders them to be thrown into the furnace of fire. Where, miracles of miracles, nothing happens to them. 

Moreover, when Nebuchadnezzar looks inside he see another mysterious figure with the three men. The King orders them to be removed from the fiery furnace and he blesses the God of the men he had previous condemned to death.

They are delivered from the fiery furnace and they stand as the righteous in a land of iniquity. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture them glowing from their fiery ordeal standing as a testament to the power of the Lord for salvation.

Jesus says that the weeds will be tossed into the furnace of fire and then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of the Lord. 

In the end, the Kingdom will be populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. That is, all of us. Hell, whatever it may be, exists only as a courtesy for those who don’t want any part of forgiveness. The fire of refining that comes at the end of the age will burn away all the stumbling blocks to the kingdom, it will burn away all iniquity, and the only thing left will be forgiven sinners. Nothing more, less, or else. 

Amen. 

Baking(dom)

Matthew 13.31-33

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 bird 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 with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

He put before them another parable.

Do you think the disciples ever got tired of Jesus’ stories?

“Enough with the Prodigal and the Samaritan and the Sower Jesus! Can’t you give us something clear and concrete? When are you going to tell us what to do?”

I’ve asked, albeit rhetorically, each week during this sermon series on Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom if we’re sure we want to follow this guy.

And it’s a worthy question for reflection.

After all, Jesus never seems to shut up about this stuff – the first being last and the last being first, forgiving forever, turning the other cheek, the kingdom being like a guy throwing seeds into a field like its going out of style.

But today the question is slightly different. It’s less about the King of the Kingdom, and more about the Kingdom itself. 

Are we sure this is the kind of Kingdom we want to live in? Because this Kingdom Jesus inaugurates in and through himself, it’s not very impressive.

If the kingdom we up to us, we’d no doubt pick something large, something impressive, something effective. 

Remember back in the days when we could actually have a parade for the 4th of July? The whole community coming out in matching colors, the firefighters and the ambulances, and the military veterans, and the marching bands, and the FIREWORKS!

That’s impressive. It’s a sign of power and even solidarity.

But for as much as we might want to believe that’s what Jesus kingdom is like, it’s decidedly not. 

Indeed, as the disciples and everyone else around Jesus found out, the Kingdom does not come in a way we would expect or create on our own.

It’s notable that, when asked how to pray, Jesus told the disciples to first pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. What’s implied in that statement, though not necessarily talked about very often, is the fact that God’s kingdom is not naturally inside any of us.

Which is just another way of saying, we can’t make the Kingdom come on our own.

Instead, it’s like a seed buried into the ground, or yeast mixed into flour, it must be done to us by the Spirit from the outside.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – teeny tiny, and yet when buried in the ground it grows to be one of the greatest of all shrubs. It’s remarkable, when deciding how to describe the kingdom, Jesus purposefully uses the smallest known seed at the time.

And that doesn’t square well, at times, for the followers of Jesus. We want something big and impressive and effective. Instead we’re stuck with a tiny seed. 

Even those of us who feel like we’ve got our theology all figured out, myself included, this can rub us the wrong way. 

We pray for things like greatness and we get humbled by the Lord who works in small and mysterious ways.

We ask for a sign from the Lord and we’re treated not with an earthquake but instead a still small voice.

We want God to rule by just putting the right political leaders in office so that can pass laws that will make everything perfect, but it doesn’t happen (and it never will).

We have this constant temptation to believe that we can make things right if we just work hard enough. We wrestle with a desire to bring the kingdom into being from the top down rather than from the bottom up. We think we’re responsible for, and in charge of, the kingdom.

But we’re not.

And we can’t even really see it all the time.

Notice, a mustard seed doesn’t do anyone any good until its buried deep into the soil. Not unlike a first century carpenter turned rabbi who, after being buried in the tomb was raised three days later, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The mustard seed’s work happens in hiddenness, in mystery. It gets tucked away under the good soil and it becomes that which it was created to be completely on it’s own. It grows and it grows until its branches are enough to provide nests for all the birds of the air. 

And the thing about mustard seeds, a thing that many of us don’t know because we’re not sowing mustard seeds in any of our gardens, is that there’s a reason we don’t plant mustard seeds. In fact, it was a punishable offense during the time of Jesus to plant a mustard seed in someone’s field because when it grows it chokes out every single plant, it resists just about every single attempt at its destruction, and it really won’t stop doing it’s mustard seed thing once it’s planted in the ground.

Like the mustard seed, the kingdom grows and accomplishes its designed purpose in spite of everything that stands against it. It cannot be destroyed and it cannot be taken away. And it will grow in spite of our knowledge for or against it. 

Prior to this parable Jesus has been going on with talk about the great divine Sower and the field with wheat and weeds and it’s like he says, “Look, I’ll give it to you one more time. The kingdom is not what you think it is. It’s not military might, it’s not parades of power, it’s not the domination of democracy. It’s just the sun shining in the sky, birds flying in and out of the shade. It’s a seed that grows from nothing into something. The best thing you can do is enjoy it.”

And then, as if to drive home the same point from one further angle, he launches into a parable about baking.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flower until all of it was leavened.

Now, the parable of the leaven is barely even one full verse in the gospel and yet it contains multitudes. To begin with, we should sit on the fact for a moment that the surrogate for God in this particular parables is a woman – a female baker. All of the patriarchal patterns of the church really don’t have much to stand on. In other places Jesus compares himself to a mother hen, and quite notably, women are the only ones who don’t abandon Jesus in the end.

Moreover, without women preachers, none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection in the first place!

And the work of this baker isn’t just a nice little loaf for Sunday brunch. Jesus says she mixed three measures (SATA) of flour, which is a bushel. That’s 128 cups! And when you get done putting in the 42 cups of necessary water to make the bread, you’re left with 101 pounds of dough!

But Jesus doesn’t stop there – 101 pounds of dough are thoroughly mixed until all of it, ALL OF IT, was leavened. 

Unlike the mustard seed, you can’t take the yeast out of the dough once it’s mixed in. Sure, it would be pretty hard to find a mustard seed in the ground after its buried, but you could theoretically do it. But yeast? No way. The minute the yeast start to do its thing it completely transforms the flour and it cannot be reversed. 

The yeast, in a wonderfully theological sense is completely and totally hidden within the dough. Which, in a way, means that the kingdom of heaven, like leavened bread, has been with us here from the beginning and will always be here. It is among us. And no amount of badness, or even goodness, can do much of anything to it. 

The baker has done her job and now the yeast will make something of nothing. So intimate and immediate is the yeast with the dough and water that nothing can stop it. So intimate and immediate is the Kingdom in the world that there is no way on earth of stopping it from doing exactly what its supposed to do.

But, again, we, like those early disciples, are left scratching our heads about what in the world in means for us. Because if we don’t gather as the church for our marching orders then what are we really doing? If we can’t make the world a better place with three easy steps, if we can’t make the Kingdom come on our own, then what kind of Kingdom is it anyway?

How are we supposed to respond to this paradoxical set of parables?

Well, perhaps we respond like we do to baking – with patience. 

Ask any baker, one of the worst things we can do is throw the dough into the oven before it’s ready. And, really, good bread is made when the yeast does what it’s supposed to do without our interfering with it. 

And, please forgive this final declension into baking – how does yeast actually make the dough into the stuff of perfection. It dies and fills the dough with thousands of little pockets of carbon dioxide. And when those pockets of air are heated, the bread rises.

It’s a miracle.

Make some bread some time, throw it in the oven, and sit and watch.

It’s incredible.

And here’s the real kicker with the parable: warm carbon dioxide, the stuff that makes bread bread, is the same thing we make every time we breathe out. 

The whole of the Kingdom, operates similarly by warm breath.

Jesus is the breathed Word of God, begotten not made from the beginning of creation. God breathes the Spirit into Adam in the garden. That same spirit, Ruah, Breath, Wind, flows in and around all that we do giving life to the lifeless and possibility to countless impossibilities.

Jesus breathes out the Spirit after the resurrection onto his rag tag group of fearful followers hiding in the Upper Room. 

That same Spirit is breathed out on the day of Pentecost filling the church with a mighty wind to go and share the Good News with the world. 

Even what I’m doing right now is only possible because of the warm breath that comes from my mouth as I speak. And, the best news of all, is that God is able to make something of my nothing every week that I stand to speak. 

In the end, God’s warm breath is what’s it all about. Whether its in the bread baking in the oven, or the Spirit poured out on all flesh, or what you’re doing right now to simply live. 

Notice too, about your own breath, you don’t have to will yourself to do it, you don’t have to think about it at all for it to happen. You simply breathe. Over and over again. 

Just like the leavened bread – its happens automatically. And when that leavened bread, the Bread of life, the one we call Jesus is mixed definitely into our lives, it unfailingly lightens every single one of us. 

The job, mysteriously enough, is already done. Finished and furnished before the foundation of the world. Completed by the One who breathed out his life for us from the cross, forgave us with his final breaths before his death, and forever prays on our behalf even when we can’t.

Which is all to say, we are as good and baked into existence right here and right now. We have been mixed into the flour and water and yeast that becomes something we never could on our own. 

The only thing we have to do is trust that Jesus will do his yeasty work. And that, in the end, when we detect the smell of fresh bread wafting from the oven of the Kingdom, we will truly be home. Forever. Amen. 

No Way To Run A Farm

Matthew 13.24-30

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

What is the Bible really about?

That’s a worthy question. And, plenty of people have tried their best to summarize the Holy Scriptures nicely so that it can fit onto a bumper sticker or in a Tweet.

“God is Love.”

“God provides.”

“God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt.”

That sort of stuff.

They’re all fine and they’re all true.

But compartmentalizing the Bible into a fragment is always and forever a fool’s errand. It is a fool’s errand because whenever we lift it up, we are beckoned and transported to the strange new world of the Bible. 

We with Abraham in Haran. We hear a call that commands him to go.

We are with Moses in the wilderness. For forty years he has been living among the sheep, doing penance for his crime in Egypt. When suddenly there comes a call from a burning bush: “Moses! Moses!”

And we are there with the crowds, lifted on tiptoe struggling to hear what we can from this Messiah man, the one who has come to save the world. And what does he say?

“Listen: the kingdom is like a farmer who sowed only the best seeds in his field. And one night, the farmer’s enemy came and scattered weeds among all the good seeds. So much so that when the plants came up and bore grain, the weeds were all over the place. The servants of the farmer come and say to him, “Where the H-E-double hockey sticks did all these weeds come from?” And the farmer says, “They are from my enemy.” So the servants, dedicated as they are, they ask if they should go out into the fields to remove all the weeds. A no doubt practical response to the dilemma at hand. But the farmer says, “No; for in gathering up all the weeds you’ll destroy all my wheat. Let both of them grow until the harvest. And then we’ll figure it out.”

So, standing among the crowds, peaking over one another’s shoulders we think to ourselves, “Well dang o dang, that guy really is the Messiah! He speaks so clearly and elegantly about what his kingdom is all about. Let’s follow him.”

But before we have a chance to leave it all behind, someone nearby leans toward us and says, “Hey, I’d think twice before following that so-called Messiah. Did you really hear what he just said? ‘Let the weeds grow with the wheat’ thats the worst farming advice I’ve ever heard. What kind of king can this Jesus be if he doesn’t even know how to manage a garden?”

And, we realize, this stranger in the crowd has a point. The practice of not pulling out the weeds until the harvest is no way to run a farm. Such a lackadaisical approach to the agricultural conundrum only guarantees the choking out of all the good plants in addition to creating a bumper crop of unwanted weed seeds that will plague the field for generations.

Are we sure this is the Lord we want to worship?

Perhaps Jesus was just not as good of a farmer as he was a carpenter. After all, his advice about not building a house on sand is spot on. But his ideas about running a farm leave a lot to be desired.

In any case, this is one of the story he told to his disciples about what the kingdom of heaven is like.

The good seeds sown all across the property, the ones that will one day grow to bear grain, are those whose lives are the flowering of what has been sown but the Son of Man. Think of someone who embodies everything about what it means to be a good person, to be a good Christian. Someone who always goes out of their way to check on the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead. Someone who is logged in for online worship every week. Someone who gives 10% of their income back to God.

All that stuff.

They are the good seeds scattered everywhere.

And up until this point, all is well. But, like all good stories, well can turn to hell right quick.

The farmer’s enemy shows up in the middle of the night, while everyone is asleep, and sows weeds among the wheat.

Notice two things: First, everyone is in bed. They’ve already done their job as far as the crop is concerned. The work of the good seed is not threatened, but only inconvenienced, by the arrival of the enemy’s weeds. 

Which leads to the second thing: If the enemy really wanted to mess things up for the farmer, why not do something a little more effective, a little more dramatic? The enemy could’ve lit the field on fire, or flooded it with water, or dug up all the good seeds to plant them in the enemy’s own field.

Instead, the enemy merely tosses in the seeds of weeds to make the job of the farmer a little harder.

Sadly, whenever we read this story or hear about it in church, we do so in such a way that it results in people like us making claims about how certain people need to be destroyed, removed, and obliterated, in order to shore up the kingdom. 

Which is to say, we believe we have to use every tool at our disposal to stop the devil from showing up and dropping weeds into all the perfect things we have going on in our lives.

But, that’s not what Jesus does with this parable.

As I already noted, the weeds will not interfere with the growth of the wheat. The weeds are not a danger to the good seeds development but rather an inconvenience to the farmer and his servants.

And that’s what the parable is really all about.

The servants, those working for the farmer, the ones entrusted with the work in the field, the ones who wear things like this on Sunday mornings, are the ones who have the bright idea to take some immediate action against the undesirables in the field.

“Come on Jesus, I know you keep talking about the grand scope of your kingdom, but have you really thought about what might happen if you let all the riffraff in? Why don’t you let us go out in the world and get rid of all those weeds that keep ruining things for the rest of us?

The farmer, though, seems to have a radically different strategy: Let it be.

“That’s irresponsible!” We think to ourselves or have the gall to mention aloud. “Let it be? That’s a hippy Beatles driven response to the world! Surely Jesus would give us something better to do!”

And yet, throughout history, it’s precisely when we’ve taken those kind of actions into our hands, that the very worst of humanity has come to the surface.

Or, let me put it another way: The seeds sown here in the parable (ZIZANIA in Greek) is an annual grass weed that look an awful lot like wheat when it grows. Which is to say, it’s very difficult to tell them apart, let alone take one out without taking out the other.

The end of the parable, the farmer’s insistence that the servants cannot take out the weeds without damaging the wheat is a profound and challenging word for those of us convinced that we are responsible for fixing the world’s problems, that we can truly make the world a better place.

The desire for making the world a better place almost always makes the world worse.

For, all of our programs (and at time pogroms) designed to get rid of evil are doomed to do exactly what the farmer suggests will happen.

Because the servants, whoever they might be, are either too busy or confused or self righteous to recognize any real difference between good and evil and all they will ever accomplish is tearing out the wheat with the weeds.

What we good and well-meaning folk often forget, as good and as well-meaning as we think we are, is that there is no one who is categorically good just as there is no one who is categorically evil.

In a very real way we are all pretty messed up.

Or, to use Paul’s words, “For I know nothing good dwells within me, I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

I remember helping a church reinvent itself a number of years ago when I was in college. We wanted to create a list of beliefs and expectations for those who would join us. And, at first, it was simple stuff like, “We believe in the triune God” and “We confess Jesus as Lord.” But then it quickly turned to things like, “No hatred allowed” and “liars will be asked to leave” and “members must be present at least 3/4 of the Sundays in a year.”

Which, by the end, meant that no one was worthy of the church.

To connect it back to the parable, the only result of a truly dedicated campaign to rid the world of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody.

Does that mean we should just kick back, and let the world fall to pieces? The parable doesn’t imply that resistance to evil is wrong, only that its not effective in terms of salvation. We can introduce all sorts of programs to solve all the problems on earth. We can advocate for just wars, and capital punishment, and bigger and fuller jails of dirty rotten scoundrels. 

But, as Christians, we can’t assume that any of those thing will “make the world a better place.” 

We can take up the sword all we want, but we cannot forget that those who live by the sword die by the sword. 

Just as with the parable of the Sower, the kingdom comes along automatically, despite the presence of weeds among the wheat. The weeds may not be real wheat, but if the servants go to the trouble of removing the less desirables, a truly horrific scene can unfold.

It was a new nation of so-called good people that brutally tortured, enslaved, and murdered entire generations of people all in the name of manifest destiny.

It was a democratically elected leader of the most advanced nation in the world, at the time, who ultimately brought about the execution of 6 million Jews.

I could go on and on.

And yet, behind the servants’ question is the question we all wrestle with, “What are we supposed to do?”

Looking out at the tragedies of the world we can’t help but wonder what we could possibly ever do to change anything in a meaningful way.

We can help ourselves from wondering, in spite of all the evidence of the past, that maybe the world would be better if we got rid of all the weeds.

“No,” Jesus says through the farmer, “Pull up evil and you’ll pull up goodness right along with it.”

And then comes the most remarkable and bewildering word in the whole parable: APHETE them to grow together. In our English translations it says, “Let both of them grow” but  in Greek the word is APHETE and its the same word for forgiveness. It’s in the Lord’s Prayer we say every week. APHES us our trespasses as we APHEMEN those who trespass against us. 

It is here, in the light of the farmer’s strange and divine forgiveness that the parable truly hits home: the malice, the evil, the badness that is manifest in the real world and in the real lives of real people is not to be dealt with by abolishing the things or persons in whom it dwells. 

It can only be dealt with, with forgiveness – a recognition that even the best of us aren’t as great as we think we are. 

But what if people keep screwing things up?

What is the enemy comes back the next year and sows even more weeds among the wheat?

Well, at least according to the farmer in Jesus’ parable, the enemy is free to come back and drop his weeds. And, on the basis of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God has announced the exact same thing. 

No enemy, not the devil, not you, not me, and not anybody else, is outside the realm of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

If that sounds unbelievably radical, it is!

But remember, Jesus on the cross, in the moments immediately prior to his death, he doesn’t threaten his enemies, he forgives them.

APHES one more time.

That might not sit well with those of us suffering under the weight of the world, or those of us troubled by what we see on TV every night, but according to the mystery that is God’s kingdom, it is already here, sown, sprouting, and bearing fruit. And all the weeds of this world can’t do a thing about it.

We are hooked, downright addicted, to assuming that its all up to us. Give us just a small taste of the power that comes with making decisions about what is good and right and true and we’ll never be able to kick the habit. We delight in believing that we are the ones who get to settle scores here and now and yet, in the end, none of us could possibly make it in Jesus’ kingdom unless forgiveness reigns supreme.

Forgiveness, APHES, it’s no way to run a farm, but it’s the only way to run the kingdom. Amen.

Eschatology Junkies

Mark 4.21-29

He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Look, the Bible is a strange thing.

And God is even stranger.

For, if you ever decide to lift it up and take a stroll through the strange new world of the Bible, its quickly clear that God does so many ungodly things – like not remembering our mistakes and transgressions, erasing the ledger against us, become sin for us. 

The only safe way to come to scripture is by first realizing that we really have no idea what we’re doing.

Which is just another way of saying, God is God and we are not.

And this is perhaps no where better seen than in Jesus’ parables.

They are, without a doubt, some of the most well known bits of the Bible, though just because we know the stories it doesn’t mean we actually know them.

After all, they are told in such a way to destroy every preconceived notion about what we think we know about God such that, after hearing a particular parables, the only thing we can be sure of is that we know less than when it started.

Jesus is far more concerned with telling stories than explaining them.

GK Chesterton, country to how we so desperately want all things explained all the time, once opined that if you tell someone a story and they claim not to understand, tell them again. And, if they say they still don’t understand, give it to them a third time. But from there on, if they still insist they do not understand, the only thing left is to praise them for the one truth they seem to have a grip on: “Yes,” you say, “You are quite correct – you do not understand.”

And leave it at that.

If Jesus wanted things simple, and easy, and therefore accessibly presentable, he would’ve told his tales that way.

But he didn’t.

And not only did he come to preaching paradoxical parables, the gospel writer tell us that he endeavor to speak nothing except in parables!

This Kingdom of Jesus’, whatever think it might look like, is always far more mysterious than any of us can imagine.

Listen: When you buy a new lamp for your living room, do you hide it under the rug or leave it in the closet? Or, do you put it on that nice table next to the couch so it really lights up the room? Hidden things are brought to the surface and secrets are exposed.

Listen: The Kingdom of God is as if someone threw seeds onto the ground and then went to bed. Overnight, the seed produces of itself, and the person has no idea how it happens.

What in the world is Jesus cooking up here? 

The lamp, the light that shines in the darkness, the Good News in a world drowning in bad news, is the Word that comes with the kingdom, namely Jesus. But unless that lamp is set up in such a way to spread light near and far, the light will never be seen. 

Or, to push the parable in its profound direction, if we keep sweeping Jesus under the rug, if we hide him in the closet when no one is looking, if we stand Him on anything other that the story of a world turned upside down, then we really will be stuck in the darkness.

For, the kingdom Jesus embodies, inaugurates, and incarnates, is already here among us. We don’t have to sit around and wait for it, we don’t even have to work for it.

The best thing we can do, really the only thing we can do, is not make Jesus’ job any harder than it already is.

But, for some strange reason (lets call it sin), we believe its our job to do Jesus’ job.

I am bringing you today’s sermon from the midwest where my in-laws live. In fact, I am preaching from my mother-in-law’s art studio.

It took us a long time to drive our here, particularly with a four year old who wouldn’t stop asking the one question you’re not allowed to ask on road trips. And throughout our westward journey, I was confounded by how many theologically infused highway billboards coasted by our windshield.

Some were straight forward with promises of “A Friendly Church Atmosphere” 7 miles ahead at Exit 86.

Others displayed stock photo images of families with children of every ethnic and racial background under a church name just so the observers will know that no matter what they might be like, they can find other people like them at said church. Even though, statistically speaking, churches are some of the most segregated spaces in the country.

But the overwhelming majority of billboards were, to put it mildly, terrifying.

“STOP AND ACCEPT JESUS NOW OR SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES”

“DO YOU WANT TO BURN FOREVER? CALL THIS NUMBER…”

“AVOID ETERNAL PUNISHMENT WITH THREE SIMPLE WORDS: JESUS IS LORD.” That one was followed by three smiley face emojis.

Almost every churchy sign, with the exception of those with empty promises about welcoming, loving, and tolerating congregations, were predicated on making an action now to insure the future.

That future is what we in the church often call Heaven. And, to our wondering and wandering imaginations, Heaven is often filled with fluffy clouds and pipe cleaner halos, and a whole lot of boredom.

But in Scripture, the thing those signs portend to represent, Heaven is actually a whole lot more like earth. In fact, it is those two things wedded together – the predominant image Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of Heaven is a wedding feast that never stops, a party with food and drink that never ever ends. 

And that kingdom, the kingdom of celebration, is what Jesus says is sown on the earth, lit like a lamp, and never to be hidden under a basket, or a rug, or in the closet. 

Which is just another way of saying, Christianity is less about what happens when you die and more about what’s happening with and in the life you’ve been given.

The kingdom is already done, it is here, it cannot be taken away. It is a lamp set up on a lampstand shining bright for all to see. It dwells in us, among us, and for us. The person of Jesus Christ, kingdom incarnate, has already done for us that which we could not do for ourselves. That is the light in which we live.

And rather than just leaving it right there, Jesus continues with his penchant for parables and proceeds to give yet another illustration of the very points he’s been cooking together. 

Consider the seed that grows without work on the part of the one who threw it to the ground. The kingdom is at hand, planted right here, at work in this world right now. Jesus is sown into all of this and brings about a new reality that shakes the foundations of everything we hold dear.

By his death and resurrection, Jesus, as God in the flesh, reconciles everything, everywhere, to himself. And at the end, when he makes all things new, he makes not just a new Heaven but a new earth, combined and mixed and stuck together forever. 

That is God’s work in Christ, and it happens for us and in spite of us!

Notice: once the person in the parable sows the seed, nothing else is done. The sower goes to bed, wakes up and goes to the grocery store, maybe hits the gym for a quick workout, comes home to make dinner, and goes to bed again. That’s what happens day after day and night after night — all the while, the seed that is the kingdom sprouts and grows in a way that the person simply knows nothing about.

Jesus says the seed bears fruit of itself automatically. The kingdom has been sown into the world among sinners and saints, the best and the worst, the greatest and the least, the perfect and the pitiful, and it will come up a perfect kingdom all by itself

It grows without any help, and when it’s ready in all of its ripeness, that’s when the sickle comes. 

The harvest is made.

And, that sounds nice, but what about all the bad people? Do they get taken up in the harvest as well? What about the person who burned that bridge with us so long ago? What about the people on the news every night that make us clench our fists? What about those we clearly believe are outside the realm of Jesus’ kingdom?

But Jesus doesn’t make distinctions here. The kingdom is ready for harvest and that’s that.

And that might be the most confounding part of this paradoxical set of parables. 

It is confounding to us because every one of us is an eschatology junkie – we are consumed by the idea that, in the end, in the eschaton, wrongs must be set right, that those who are evil must be kicked out of the intertwined new heaven and earth, and that the only way the Kingdom can ever come is if we separate the good from the bad, and the deserving form the undeserving, and the saints from the sinners. 

Notice, in the kingdoms of earth, our favorite solutions to problems are knocking people down a peg or two, locking them up behind bars, and – if all else fails, getting them out of the game forever with the death penalty. 

We set up systems (powers and principalities) all in the name of law and order, but in the end they keep the poor poor and the rich rich. They lift the mighty even higher, and bring the low even lower. They, to put it simply, make the world a better place by making it better for certain people and far worse for everyone else.

Remember: it was law and order that nailed Jesus to the cross – church and state working together for the common good to keep suppressed that which they disagreed with.

Which, isn’t too far of a stretch from how we’re still living. 

To bring it full circle – we think its all up to us. We believe we have been so elected by God to be the great arbiters of morality and justice and goodness all while the world continues to go down the drain. We come up with all these “great ideas” on how to fix everything when, even if we do take a step forward, it doesn’t take long before we fall tumbling back. 

The kingdom grows, Jesus tells us, because the kingdom has already been sown into the ground. It grows of itself in its own time and, above all, we don’t know how! Any and all the bright ideas we might have of making the world a better place, about how to fix everything we think is broken, how to make people more holy and faithful and good and honest and true, will always and everywhere fall short of what God in Christ has already done and is forever doing. 

This has been proven again and again throughout history because if the kingdom could have been made to grow perfectly in this world by our own bright ideas, it would have sprouted up all over the place and there would never be anything bad on the news at night. 

But it never did and it never will. 

Except, except, in a mysterious way that will always be outside of our moralizing and addiction to knowing how everything should be happening.

We might be obsessed with the end as we see it, but Jesus, in this parable, reminds us that the end is in his hands, and so too is the present. The kingdom is already here, it is made manifest among and within people like us – it is happening and we know not how. 

For a people hell bent on having explanations for everything, that’s bad news.

But for those who live in Jesus’ kingdom, there’s nothing better. Amen.