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.

The Sower Reconsidered

Matthew 13.18-23

Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

Listen: Jesus went for a walk by the sea, but there were so many people clamoring to see him, to catch a glimpse of the walking talking Messiah, that he had to get into a boat, and push off from the shore in order to address everyone. 

And he said, “There was a guy with a bunch of seeds, and everywhere he went he tossed them all over the place. Some of the seeds feel on the open ground and the birds came and ate them. Some other seeds landed among the rocks where there wasn’t much soil and after they sprang up the sun scorched them away. Still yet some other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew and choked them out. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and they brought forth grain, a whole lot of it. Let anyone you can hear me listen!”

That’s it.

The whole parable.

The disciples, rightly confused, confront the living Lord with a, “Um, JC, what’s going on?”

He then drops the hammer with, “Listen to me for a hot second you fools. I’m letting you in on the mystery, the hidden things, of the kingdom. But for the people on the outside, I’m giving it to them in parables.”

Which apparently wasn’t enough for the ragtag group of followers, so Jesus unpacks the parable of the Sower for his inner circle.

If anyone hears the Word, and doesn’t understand, the devil comes and snatches it up – this is what was sown on the path.

If anyone receives it with joy, but without roots, then it only lasts a little while and then they fall away.

If anyone hears it, but cares more about the world, then they will yield nothing.

If anyone hears it and trusts it, then they will produce a great yield of fruit.

Jesus’ explanation, as we often describe it, actually doesn’t reduce a complex story into something simple. Instead, it takes an already puzzling narrative and drives it in the direction of extremely difficult interpretations.

It’s one of those parables we preachers types might prefer if Jesus had just left it to dangle out there so we could put whatever spin we want on it.

But that’s not the way Jesus rolls.

More often that not, even though Jesus explains the parable we’re asked by people like me to imagine that Jesus is the divine sower, the seeds are his scriptures, and that we are those with the varying soils.

And maybe that’s true, Jesus’ own explanation trends in that direction, but it honestly doesn’t make much sense. After all, throughout the New Testament, the “Word of the Kingdom” doesn’t refer to a collection of texts that are often collecting dust on our respective bookshelves. The Word of the Kingdom is Jesus himself, the divine Word become incarnate in the world.

That might not seem like much, but it means that the Sower in Jesus’ story is God the Father. Jesus, then, since he is the Word, is the seed sown across creation. Which, in the end, means Jesus has already and literally been sown everywhere in the entirety of the cosmos without any cooperation or consent on the part of the soil.

Do we like that?

When we well-meaning Christians read from Jesus’ parables, we tend to read ourselves into the stories and believe their ultimately all about us.

But the parables aren’t about us, they’re about Jesus and the kingdom he came and comes to inaugurate.

And this kingdom is radically different from everything we think we know.

It’s a kingdom of grace – a kingdom of crucifixion, of scandal, of upside down understanding.

The central figure of the parables, if there is one at all, is the messianic madman who is the divine seed of forgiveness given away like its going out of style and who never stops going after the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.

Jesus points to and is himself the mysterious kingdom, who comes to tell scandalous stories, die a scandalous death, and be raised again to fill all with his scandalous grace.

But, back to the Sower.

The Sower goes and scatters seeds everywhere, always, and for all. 

No one, at any time or any place, no matter how good they are or bad they are, no matter how wrong or right they are, is left out of the scope of this agriculturally theological revolution. The differing soils are just that, different. They cover all people and there is no one to whom they do not apply.

And that’s scandalous.

Immediately we think something must surely be wrong here. Because, Jesus can’t really be for all, despite what all of our well-meaning church signs might say.

What about bad people?

What about people who don’t believe?

What about the people who just get on our nerves all the time?

Are we sure that we want to follow this Jesus guy who is so willing to give away the kingdom for nothing?

Right here, in his waxing lyrical, Jesus doesn’t sound quite like the smart and serious teacher setting the guidelines for his followers that we often imagine him to be.

Instead, Jesus sounds like someone who knows he just said something offensive and is determined to drive the point home again and again and again. 

Even so, the Sower is also very mysterious. I mean, who does he think he is going around tossing seeds everywhere? Don’t we go to church to learn about how to be good, how to have the right kind of soil for Jesus?

Nope.

Consider a seed – a seed is disproportionately tiny in comparison with it ultimately produces. Jesus is like a seed? Wouldn’t it be better if Jesus were like a thunderclap or a bolt of lightning? 

A seed is only good and it can only do anything worth anything when its buried in the ground hidden from view.

Like Jesus buried in the tomb.

It’s only after its covered with dirt, only after its abandoned to its own fate, that the seed bears fruit.

Remember: Jesus as the seeded Word, is despised, rejected, abandoned, betrayed, and left in the ground. And yet, his entire overturning of the cosmos takes place like a seed – it happens in the dark, like a mystery, something that no one gets to witness.

And maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all good and fine, but what does it have to do with me? What about my soil? What am I supposed to do?”

Well, sorry to be the bearer of the best news of all, we don’t have to do much of anything. 

Regardless of whatever kind of soil we might have, or we think we have, God is going to get what God wants.

Think about the seeds sown on the road, the seeds eaten by the birds. That sounds pretty terrible right? Jesus even says that the birds are like the devil coming in and snatching up the divine Word.

But do you know what happens when seeds get eaten by birds?

They’re deposited somewhere else, only this time with fertilizer, if you get what I’m saying. 

The Word, like a seed, still works on its own terms and not at all by what we think we can do to it.

Think about the seeds sown in the other locations like the rocky ground, the thorns, or even the good soil – the seed does it’s job – it springs up!

The seed works whether or not it lands on the good soil.

We, however, almost always lean toward another, though not in the text, meaning. “Sure,” we say, “The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world.” But then we immediately jump into conversations about all the things people need to do to activate Jesus in their lives. 

You’ve got to accept him as your Lord and Savior!

You’ve got to lays your sins up at the altar!

You’ve got to invite Jesus into your heart!

If that’s how it all works, if the onus is completely on us, then it’s simply unmitigated Bad News. 

If our salvation is up to us, then the seed might as well not really have been sown in the first place.

Because, in the end, we can’t do much of anything to our soil – whatever form it might be. 

Every week I stand in this place and I talk about how God gathers us together, how God proclaims God’s Word to us, and then we respond to it. The truth behind all that is our response, if it ever amounts to anything, pales in comparison to what God did, what God does, and what God will do. 

And that’s the best news of all.

It’s Good News, really Good News, because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves can take us away from the Lord that refuses to let us go. 

We can, of course, squirm and kick and complain and make things all the more messy. But if God really is the God of Scripture, the great divine Sower, then there is no way we will ever find ourselves anywhere other than being reconciled and forgiven over and over and over again.

Think about it – even the good soil, the best soil with all the right nutrients, does nothing to the seed for it to bear fruit. The soil simply receives the Word called Jesus, trusts it, and then fruit comes from it. It’s not that the good soil has the responsibility to make the right choices or the proper proclamations or maintain moral purity, rather the only thing the good soil has to do is make sure it gets out of the way of the seed doing its seed thing.

Or, to put it another way, we do respond to the good work done for us and to us and in us, but our only real response is to not screw it up, to not make Jesus’ job harder than it already is.

The seed is sown regardless of the soil it lands on. Which means the seed is not sown in order to force us into making better choices, or to punish us for all our bad choices. The seed is sown simply and yet powerfully to bear fruit among us, within us, for us, and often in spite of us.

In the end, the seed that is Christ is sown to bring us home, back to the Sower’s house, to be part of the grain that becomes the bread of life at the Supper of the Lamb.

Jesus gets what Jesus wants.

The only problem occurs when we get in his way.

And we sure love to get in His way.

Take, for instance, all the social media posts I’ve seen over the last few weeks, lambasting Christians for posting about “Black Lives Matter.” I had more than a few people assure me that the only proper and faithful and Christian response to the present (and longstanding) crisis is to affirm “All Lives Matter.”

But that’s, literally, getting in the way of Jesus.

You know, the Good Shepherd who, in another parable, leaves behind ALL the other sheep in order to go off after the one in danger, the one in need.

Or, consider all the countless pictures of white Jesus that are put up in homes and in sanctuaries. Those images that make white people like me feel comfortable knowing that my Savior is just like me.

That’s getting in the way of Jesus.

Jesus was a first century carpenter turned rabbi who spent his entire earthly life living in the Middle East! He didn’t look like me in the least.

Or, finally, think about all the people lamenting the riots and the protests for not witnessing to the practice of Christian non-violence. The whole, “Why can’t we all just get along?” And “This isn’t what Jesus would’ve wanted.”

Well, do you remember what happened to Jesus? He was nailed to a tree for the things he said, for rioting inside the temple and flipping tables over, and showing up for the people we otherwise would ignore.

We are blessed because Jesus continues to be sown all over creation, bearing fruit we couldn’t on our own. 

We are blessed because Jesus won’t give up on us even when everything seems like he should.

We are blessed because, no matter what our soil looks like, Jesus delights in making something of our nothing. Amen. 

Uncomfortable

Matthew 13.1-13

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/835967350&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true Think and Let Think · Uncomfortable

Jesus wasn’t a very good storyteller.

Forgive me Lord, but it’s true.

Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end.

Stories are supposed to easily teach us something about ourselves we didn’t know until the story told us who we are. 

Stories are supposed to be approachable, repeatable, and memorable. 

Jesus’ stories, we call them parables, are certainly memorable – but not for the right reasons. Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus said nothing except in parables. 

And, the more we enter the strange new world of the Bible, the more we realize that Jesus himself was a parable – the storyteller become the story. 

We often forget, in the ivory towers of our own design, that Jesus was killed for telling the kind of stories he told. Most of them are wildly unfair, they raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty, they give the whole kingdom away for nothing, and mostly, they make us uncomfortable.

If he were a better story teller, the stories would’ve made a little more sense, people would’ve walked away knowing exactly what he was trying to say, and certainly no one would’ve killed him for them.

But they did.

We did.

Most sermons, not stories, do their best to explain something. They take a particular text, wave it around for awhile, and then in the end declare, “Hear now the meaning of the scripture… this is how you can apply it to you daily life…”

But Jesus, you know the Lord, rarely explains anything.

Instead, he tells stories.

That Jesus speaks in parables is a reminder that he desired not to explain things to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings.

In other words, Jesus’ parables are designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of the listeners.

Including us.

Up until this point in the gospel story, that is, up until he tells the watershed parable of the sower, Jesus has been pretty content with walking and talking and healing and doing whatever went against the grain of what people were expecting. They had their own ideas about what the Messiah would do, and Jesus didn’t give a flip about what they were hoping for.

And it was pretty low key until this parable, because from this point forward, Jesus cranks it up to eleven.

It’s as if, having done the whole ministry thing for awhile, he says to himself, “They haven’t understood much of this kingdom stuff, so I might as well capitalize on it. Maybe I should starting thinking up particular examples of how profoundly the true messianic kingdom differs from what the people are looking for.”

Listen: Jesus went for a walk by the sea, but there were so many people clamoring to see him, to catch a glimpse of the walking talking Messiah, that he had to get into a boat, and push off from the shore in order to address everyone. And he said, “There was a guy with a bunch of seeds, and everywhere he went he tossed them all over the place. Some of the seeds feel on the open ground and the birds came and ate them. Some other seeds landed among the rocks where there wasn’t much soil and after they sprang up the sun scorched them away. Still yet some other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew and choked them out. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and they brought forth grain, a whole lot of it. Let anyone you can hear me listen!”

That’s it.

The whole parable.

Just about every sermon I’ve ever read or heard on the parable of the sower retells the story, as I just did, and then asks people to consider what kind of soil they think they have. Which implies the preacher believes he or she knows exactly what Jesus is up to with this one. Moreover, they make it out as if, had they been there, they would’ve known what it all really means.

The truth of the matter, however, is that if any of us had been part of the original Jesus crew, we would’ve walked away scratching our heads. 

It’s no wonder, then, that the disciples’ reactions was one of, “Um.. JC, are you alright? You’re talking in parables again, and we can’t understand what you’re trying to say, and frankly, some of us are getting a little uncomfortable?”

“Hey,” Jesus says, “Listen to me for a hot second. I’m letting you in on the mystery, the hidden things, of the kingdom. But for the people on the outside, I’m giving it to them in parables.”

And we, if we were those disciples, want to say, “Jesus. That don’t make no sense.”

His response about the hiddenness of the kingdom, about certain things being weird and uncomfortable, it’s like Jesus is saying, “Okay, if you can get it through your thick skulls that my kingdom works in a mystery, you will have more understanding. But if you don’t get that, if you can’t handle the weirdness and the discomfort and not knowing every little thing, then none of it will ever make a bean’s worth of sense.”

There’s a way to take all of this as if Jesus is telling us we better get shaped up with our understanding of God or he’s going to zap us into oblivion. Or, to use the language of the parables, we better get our soil in order lest we run the risk of the seeds get stolen, scorched, or suffocated. 

We, then, could hold a story like this one over the heads of Christians and non-Christians alike until they shape up how we want them to.

We could even employ this parable as the means by which we determine who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside.

But, that’s not what Jesus does. 

Jesus sees the obtuseness all around him. 

He witness the unlikelihood that anyone will ever get a glimmer of the mystery, let a lone a grip on it.

Hence he ends here by saying, “Seeing, they do not perceive, and listening they do not understand.”

Now, I know some of you have looked ahead of the scripture reading and noted that Jesus then goes straight into explaining the parable, but we’ll get there next week. 

For now, I want us to rest in the discomfort of not having all the answers, of seeing without perceiving and listening without understanding.

There’s a summer camp outside of Boston in which, every summer, students are bussed in to confront the complications of race. 

On the first night, the students are asked to separate into their respective races to discuss how they have experienced their own race with others of similar situations. 

The Latinx kids go into one room, the Black kids in other, there’s a room for the Asian kids, and finally one last room for the White kids.

For many of the students, the sharing on that first night is radically life-changing. For many of them, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had to share what its like to be viewed by others through a racial lens, what’s its like to have a prejudice dictate who they are, what it’s like to not be like everyone else.

The counselors then bring all the students back into one group, and each of the races are given a chance to stand in front of everyone else and share their truth. One by one they lift up how horribly they’ve been treated, or what they really want people to know about them, or how much it hurts to hear certain slurs.

Last summer, there was only one white student who attended the camp. With each passing year, the truths spoken to White about the white-ness has resulted in less and less white people attending. But there was one young white woman there, and when she stood in front of the entire camp she said, “I want to continuously challenge white supremacy in white spaces, and that will be uncomfortable for me. But I want to be uncomfortable; I am willing to give up my comfort.”

Later, the black students stood and proclaimed their truth.

“Stop touching my hair just because you don’t know what it feels like.”

“We deserve to be paid the same as white people.”

“Just because you say you have black friends doesn’t mean you’re not racist.”

But there was one black girl on stage who couldn’t stop thinking about what the young white girl had said. And so, when it was her turn to speak she said, “When white people talk about what they’re ‘willing to give up’ it implies that they are fine sharing a little bit of what they have but they’re going to be fine. It’s not about what you’re willing to give up, it’s what you have to give up. You have to really be uncomfortable. You have to give up what you think belongs to you simply because of the way you look.”

The young white girl immediately started crying and left the room.

A counselor went after her, consoled her, explained that it can’t easy being the only white person in the room, and the girl looked up and said, “Yeah, but this is how people of color feel every day. I guess you really do learn the most when you’re uncomfortable.”

So much of what Christianity, what the church, has become is focused on making people comfortable; how to tell people about Jesus without ever stepping on any toes. 

The fire of Pentecost, the one that sent the disciples tumbling into the streets can be found more in our national protests than in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.

Parables are supposed to make us uncomfortable. Whether our soil is rocky, thorny, or barren. 

Hear the Good News: The Sower never stops sowing. The Sower doesn’t stop to take stock of the condition of our condition before offering the grace we so desperately need. The Sower just keeps throwing it all over the place until something comes of our nothing.

Remember: When Mary encountered Jesus at the empty tomb she mistook him for the gardener. And what do good gardeners do? They till the soil, they weed out the thorns, they remove the rocks, they do whatever it takes to make the best soil possible. 

And that work is uncomfortable. 

We, in spite of all our good works, have shut our eyes and closed our ears. We’ve settled for milk toast sermons and milk toast churches. We like hearing about the kingdom so long as it doesn’t require anything for us. 

It’s like we’re wandering around deaf and blind.

Fortunately for us, Jesus likes nothing better than healing the blind and opening the ears of the deaf. 

We disciples of Jesus may not be that brightest candles in the box, but at least we know a true story when we hear one.

In this story of a reckless Sower we are reminded, yet again, that God is not removed in some far off place content to leave us to our own devices. God’s kingdom is happening, it’s happening right now! Open your eyes! Open your ears! 

And here’s the best news of all: Even if we refuse to see and hear, Jesus is gonna open our eyes and ears anyway. 

And it’s probably going to be uncomfortable. Amen.

Salvation Is Confounding

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Thomas Irby about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 58.1-12, Psalm 112.1-10, 1 Corinthians 2.1-16, Matthew 5.13-20). Thomas is a United Methodist Pastor serving in Tacoma, Washington. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Seattle hatred, using the S-word in church, the work of the Lord, focusing on what we don’t, the social gospel, scripturally shaped imaginations, the evils of capitalism, salty Christians, and being least in the Kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Salvation Is Confounding

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Blessed

Devotional:

Matthew 5.3

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. 

On Sunday I left church after a few meetings to swing by the hospital to meet with a sick parishioner. My mind was going over all of the details from Sunday morning as I trudged across the parking lot and was surprised to be greeted with a loud, “Excuse me, Father.” Before looking up I knew that whoever was speaking had confused me for a Catholic priest since I was wearing all black with a white clergy collar, and rather than spending the new few moments trying to explain my protestantism I just said, “Yes?” and then lifted up my gaze to meet the speaker face to face.

Starring back at me was a heavily bearded and ruffled looking man who was clearly carrying all of his earthly possessions in his ripped and stained backpack.

He said, “Could I bother you for a cigarette?”

I said, “Sorry, I don’t smoke.”

Then he said, “What kind of priest doesn’t smoke cigarettes?”

And I honestly had no idea how to respond, so I just shrugged my shoulders and started back toward the entrance of the hospital. Right before I passed through the doors I heard him yell at my back across the lot, “I wish your God had done more for me!” And by the time I turned around he was gone.

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This coming Sunday churches across the world will hear some of Jesus’ most powerful words, the so-called Beatitudes. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted – Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth – Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Of all the Beatitudes, I think my favorite is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And it was that particular beatitude that I found myself saying over and over while I walked through the hospital. 

We live in a world in which we reward, and are rewarded for, spiritual successes. We lift up and praise those who demonstrate their faith whether it’s showing up in church every Sunday morning, or leading those perfect corporate prayers, or even having certain Bible passages memorized. And all of that is good and fine, except for the fact that Jesus says the poor in spirit, not the strong in spirit, are blessed and the kingdom belongs to them. It’s in weakness that God’s sees strength, and in spiritual poverty that the kingdom of heaven becomes the most real.

I wish I had spent more time with that man in the parking lot, I wish that I could’ve listened to him express whatever it was that was torturing his soul, but mostly I wish I told him something that, probably, would have come as a surprise: 

“God’s kingdom belongs to you.” 

The Politics of Jesus

Matthew 2.13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” 

Questions. Questions. Questions.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that people don’t come to church for preachments, but to daydream about God – and I think he was right. Rare is the one who wakes up on a Sunday morning thinking, “You know what, I just can’t wait to hear what the preacher is going to say about the Bible today!” 

That’s not why we come to church. 

If you want to humor me and inflate my ego you can certainly tell me that’s why you’re here, but, if we’re honest, we’re here because something, or perhaps someone, has compelled us to be here. It’s a feeling, and when we do find ourselves in a place like this, we come with the hope that we will learn something more about ourselves and the world on the other side.

Or, in other words, we come looking for answers.

One of the great aspects of faith is that God is in the business of providing what we need. It’s just that sometimes we ask the wrong questions. 

Today, all of us are coming to the Lord with the simple question, “Is the church political?” 

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.

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On Christmas Day, Pope Francis offered his annual address to Catholics across the globe. The message was one of hope and a call for kindness to those experiencing hardships. It was titled “To The City And To The World.”

Like a lot of sermons it was filled with the “Christianese” language that can float right over the heads of those who receive it, but some of it was far more pointed. 

For example: “May the Son of God, come down to earth from heaven, protect and sustain all those who, due to these and other injustices, are forced to emigrate in the hope of a secure life. It is injustice that makes them cross deserts and seas that become cemeteries – It is injustice that turns them away from places where they might have hope for a dignified life, but instead find themselves before walls of indifference.”

This address came on the heels of Pope Francis placing a new cross inside the Vatican last week, a cross encircled by a life jacket, in memory of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they sought out a new hopeful existence in Europe.

He ended the address like this: “May he soften our stony and self-centered hearts, and make them channels of his love. May he bring his smile, through our poor faces, to all the children of the world: to those who are abandoned and those who suffer violence. Through our frail hands, may he clothe those who have nothing to wear, give bread to the hungry and heal the sick. Through our friendship, such as it is, may he draw close to the elderly and the lonely, to migrants and the marginalized. On this joyful Christmas Day, may he bring his tenderness to all and brighten the darkness of this world.

And people lost their minds.

How dare the Pope make such a political statement on Christmas! He’s using Jesus to make his own political judgments! There’s no room for politics in the manger!

There’s a lot of criticism about the political nature of the church and many have raised concerns about the rise of political rhetoric inside of church buildings. There is, after all, the so-called Johnson Amendment that prohibits churches from supporting particular political candidates or suffer losing their tax-exempt status in the US (though it certainly hasn’t stopped certain pastors from endorsing particular individuals). And, when rightly considered, the table at which we gather to celebrate communion is one through which all divisions end, even those of red and blue, liberal and conservative.

But when we talk about the politics of the church, or the politics of Jesus, we are already in a losing battle because when we think about politics we almost always do so through the partisan politics of our country.

Or, to put it another way, the politics of Jesus are not the same thing as the politics of America.

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A politic, rightly understood, is the way in which individuals relate to each other via decisions. Which, of course, has to do with things like democracy, and representation, and voting. But when we view the politics of church through the lens of our current political situation, we blind ourselves from the ways in which Jesus, and his life, death, and resurrection, compels those who wish to follow him to live under a different kind of politic.

A few weeks ago I shared how I saw a bumper sticker that boggled my mind – It said, “If Jesus had a gun he’d still be alive.” That is a political statement that carries more layers than we can look at in a worship service, but suffice it to say that the person with that on their car probably believes and lives according to a political understanding that, everyone should be entitled to having guns, and that in particular Christians should be the ones fighting for Gun Rights.

Now, it should come as no surprise to us that this creates a bit of a conundrum when conflated with the words from Jesus himself who said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” and “ love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

We live in a world in which everything is political, and therefore the church (whether she wants to or not) is inherently political as well. However, the politics of the church do not fit neatly into the binary of Republican and Democrat as is so often desired in our country (as if the two of those things are mutually exclusive in the first place). It is a far more complicated matter, and one that we shy away from all too often.

Pope Francis chose to speak forcefully about the role the church has to play in a world where refugees are fleeing from difficult and dangerous situations in hopes of a better life. And, people and institutions can claim that he was being political, or even overly political, but he wasn’t just making it up for the sake of an argument. The concern of the church for refugees is biblical.

In the Old Testament, God ordered the people Israel to “not oppress foreigners, [for] you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9) Similarly, they were told to treat the foreigners in their midst as if they were native-born and to love them as they love themselves. Care for the sojourners, for those without homes, was paramount in the community and it was central to what people had to do. 

For some of us, that might feel foreign (pun intended) but it is part of the story that has become our story. 

And, to make matters all the more prescient, the story we gathered to celebrate on Christmas Eve, the precious little baby in the manger, turns very quickly into a story of fear, infant murder, and migration.

King Herod, the de-facto political leader, is afraid about the one who has come to deliver Israel into a strange new world. And like all smart, powerful, and effective political leaders, Herod does what needs to be done to insure his tenure on the throne. He orders troops into Bethlehem to indiscriminately murder every child under the age of 2. 

Thankfully, Joseph receives word through a dream that he, Mary, and the newborn baby Jesus will need to flee the area and make a new home in Egypt as strangers living in a strange land. 

Or, in other words, they become refugees.

As Christians, therefore, we are a people whose story has been shaped by the story of One whose life was put into jeopardy by the ruling powers and principalities. We worship the One who regularly called into question the political practices of his day by flipping over the tables in the temple, and declaring that his followers needed to render the things back to God that belonged to God. We have been granted salvation by the One who, at the orders of the political powers, suffered under the death penalty and died on a cross.

The political group of people called church have come a long way through the centuries. You can tell how far we’ve come, or how far we’ve moved, by how much we bristle at the thought of politics mixing with church because that doesn’t harmonize with the ways we’ve been taught to think and speak. 

And, ultimately, that’s one of the reasons we still gather together for worship. Not to listen to a preacher wax lyrical about how scripture still speaks to us today, but to develop an imagination capable of forming us into the people God is calling us to be. 

It is here in church that we are given the words to speak and think Christian. 

As Christians, we know that Jesus is Lord, and therefore we do not need rights and freedoms granted to us from a document written in response to the rule of monarchy to be who we really are. 

We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we believe in taking care of people regardless of whether or not our political parties do. 

We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we are not captivated by partisan policies geared at keeping up divisions. 

For, in the end, we worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One whose arms were still outstretched even while mounted to the hard wood of the cross.

Being a Christian is not about idolatrous freedom, denying responsibility, or ignoring the plight of the marginalized. 

Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that will often place us positions counter to partisan politics. Because, as Christians, we believe in loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves, which is not the same thing as being a Democrat or being a Republican. Jesus helped those who couldn’t help themselves, and that includes people like us, and people who are fleeing for their lives.

When the politics of our country become the most determinative thing in our lives, it becomes way too easy to believe the problems of the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what Jesus says: the problem in the world is in all of us. We chose to do the things we know we shouldn’t, and we avoid doing the things we know we should. 

When we worship our partisan politics, it becomes harder and harder to like our neighbors and it becomes impossible to love our enemies.

When we think the church isn’t supposed to be political we forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated isn’t a Kingdom that any political party could ever create.

But it is a Kingdom. 

And in Jesus’ kingdom trespasses are forgiven, grace is given, enemies are prayed for, peace is practiced, and all of our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this table together.

In the end, our personal politics might not line up with what Jesus had to say and what Jesus had to do, but Jesus was political, and the church always will be. Amen. 

Exegete This!

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with John Carl Hastings about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 18.1-11, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1.1-21, Luke 14.25-33). John Carl serves as one of the pastors of Bluff Park UMC in Alabama. Our conversation covers a range of topics including story time with Bishop Willimon, throwing on the wheel, difficult verses, being known, predestination, Philemon, reading outside the text, hating the family, kingdom catching, and uncomfortable fellowship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Exegete This!

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Narrow Hearts. Narrow Minds. Narrow Doors.

Luke 13.18-30

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ Then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

It must’ve been very frustrating to be the Messiah. Hey Lord! Can you fix my bum leg? Hey Lord! We’re getting hungry, can you whip up some dinner? Hey Lord! What’s the kingdom of God like?

Everywhere he went, through all the different towns among all the different people, questions just kept coming. And, bless his heart, Jesus responds. Sure, take up your mat and walk. Sure, we can eat – anybody got any bread or a few fish? You want to know about the kingdom? Hmmm…

You know what, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

The kingdom of God is like yeast hidden in some flour.

Do either of those make sense to you? 

Well, it seems like one of the disciples mulled over parabolic answers from the Lord for a few days before asking yet another question: “Jesus, will only a few be saved?” 

Well, it’s like a narrow door and, believe it or not, a lot are going to try to enter and they’re not getting in. Imagine that the owner of a house has already shut the door for the night, and you go knocking loudly. He’s not going to let you in, no matter how much you can claim to have done with the owner. 

Today, we live in a world in which we are always walking on eggshells. We have to be careful about what we say, and to whom we say it, and even how we say it. And specifically in the realm of the church, we do this with an ever greater degree of attention.

And can you blame us? We want everyone to know that God loves them. We want everyone to feel welcomed. We don’t want to upset anyone.

But then what in the world are we supposed to do with Jesus’ words about the narrow door? Because it sounds like whatever the kingdom of God is, it is inherently an exclusive endeavor.

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One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, was once questioned about his theological position regarding universalism, an understanding of salvation such that all are saved. 

And when pushed to respond his answer was this: “I don’t know if I’m a universalist, but I do know this: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

I like that a lot – but how can heaven be crowded if, to use Jesus’ words, many will try to enter and will not be able?

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When mustard seeds get talked about in the church they are mostly known for their size. They are tiny. And it is from tiny things that great things come. That’s all good and fine. But one of things we almost never talk about is that for a mustard seed to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the ground.

The kingdom of God is like yeast mixed with flower. When yeast gets mentioned in church it usually falls into the category of its hiddenness, or its reactivity in terms of making something new a la bread. But one of the things we almost never talk about is that for the yeast to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the flour before it is baked away.

Death has been stinking up all of these parables we’ve been encountering week after week. And the more Jesus confuses his disciples, the more he mentions death, the city of Jerusalem hangs brighter on the horizon and the view of the cross comes sharper into focus.

Death is, and will be, the mechanism by which God makes all things new. 

And so it is on the heels and very much among the theme of death that the question is asked, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”

Now notice: Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He just hears the question and starts in with another one of his bizarre and meandering stories.

Strive for the narrow door my friends – many will try to enter and will not be able. 

It’s as if Jesus looks out at the crowds with a twinkle in his eye only to say, “You bet there will only be a few that get saved. Many of you will go crazy studying for the final exam, an exam that you will fail.”

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Now, I know a lot of you well enough to know that this Jesus doesn’t square up nicely with the Jesus in other parts of the Gospel story. We like to think of Jesus as the one standing with open arms, the one who reaches out to the last, least, lost, the one who even offers Judas a spot at the table. 

And even our church, it can have all the open hearts/minds/doors it wants, but it doesn’t make much of a difference if they only open narrowly.

Jesus goes on to add a little more flavor to the story with the aside about the one who refuses to open the door once it has been shut and the imagery of our exclusive Lord and Savior looks more like a divine bouncer standing outside of Club Heaven than the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the one lost sheep.

And yet the narrow door is precisely the image of the story, the one that stays with us long after our Bibles have been closed and put away.

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The door is narrow friends, but not for the reasons we so often think. The door is narrow because the door is Jesus himself. 

We’ve been saying this a lot over the last two months, so I apologize for banging on the doors of all of our brains with this repetitive declaration – the parables are primarily about Jesus, and only secondarily about us.

It is the Lord who makes the door what it is, with all of its narrowness, because we can’t get through it on our own. For as much as it might make us cringe – the door that is Christ is inherently exclusive because it is not for us. 

Jesus doesn’t set up a long list of requirements meant to keep only the perfect inside of his grace. This is truly the only way to enter into the many mansions of the Father’s house, and it’s certainly not because we’ve earned a space or somehow gotten our name on the list with a smattering of good deeds.

We only get in to the party because Jesus is the door.

For a long time Christianity has been defined by its exclusivity – you have to do this, and you have to believe this, if you want a space at the table. It’s an inherently narrow proposition. But the narrowness of the door in the parable actually comes not from being small or difficult. It’s narrowness comes from the fact that it is so counter to everything we think and know that we are repulsed by it. 

It has been my experience, and perhaps your own too, that people do not often hear what is said, but they hear what they are prepared to hear. Such that a parable about a narrow door immediately conjures up in our minds the innate difficulties of getting into the club rather than us actually listening to what God has to say. 

It is so difficult to hear because it implies that this is impossible for us to do on our own, and we hate being told that something is impossible. We hate being told something is impossible because we are told throughout our lives that so long as we work hard enough nothing is outside of our grasp.

This is a particularly challenging parable because the narrow door that is Jesus lets in a whole heck of a lot of people who don’t jive with what we think the party is supposed to look like.

The whole last will be first and first will be last is actually frustrating because the lastness of the last is what makes them first in the kingdom – not because they did what was right, or because they earned all the right things. They are now first precisely because they were last.

And those of us who have done what was good, those of us who have earned all the right things by doing all the right things, we can’t stand the idea that we’ve been put at the back of the line, in fact we wouldn’t be caught dead at the back because we’ve worked so hard to be at the front. 

And then here comes Jesus, who looks at all that we’ve done, or left undone, and says, “The door is narrow friends, and none of you are good enough.”

This parable sets us up to be duped and radicalized. God doesn’t want to let us into the house. No amount of banging on the door is going to do us any good. Even the desperate pleas of our self-vindication (But Lord I went to church every Sunday, I gave 10% in the offering plate, I fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and befriended the lonely), none of it merits us anything.

But that’s exactly where Jesus drops the bomb of the Good News. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you all try to measure yourselves up to a standard of your own making and design. You will grieve all of your wasted energy, and all your accounts of self-righteousness. Because the door is too narrow for you.

AND THEN, the Gospel says, AND THEN, ONLY THEN, will people come from the north, south, east, and west to eat with God.

There are definitely two ways to read the parable, and there are two ways to preach the parable. In version one we all leave church feeling pretty crummy about our chances of getting in through the narrow door. We leave with our heads hanging low as we contemplate our sins, or our problems, or our lack of faith, and we wonder if we’ll ever be good enough. There is a way to read and preach the story such that God has closed the door of grace and locked out those who do not measure up.

In version two, the door is still closed. But the closing of the door can also be read and preached in a way that the door God closes is the one that says we have to do this that and the other in order to gain eternal salvation.

While the world’s firsts, the winners by all definitions, are out there knocking their knuckles bloody on the locked door of righteousness, Jesus is quietly knocking at the narrow door of our own deaths trying to get us to let him in.

Remember, this narrow door follows the mustard seed and the yeast. All those two things have to do in order to do anything is die. They have to give up being a seed and being yeast, they’ve got to let the old fall away in order to become the new. 

And yet we live by and in and world that tells us we have to do everything on our own. There are systems and norms that are largely designed to show us how we will never be good enough. And then Jesus shows up to say perhaps the most radical truth any of us will ever hear: Don’t worry about how good you are or what you’ve been able to achieve, I am the door, and I’m coming to find you. 

This parable, much to the consternation of preachers and Christians who want to scare others into behaving better, is actually about the opposite; Jesus is not busily thinking up new and frightening ways to keep people out of the kingdom – instead Jesus is actively and forever committed to letting himself into our kingdoms in order to tear them down.

At the very end, Jesus says the we who are knocking at the doors of perfect living and measured morality are nothing but workers of iniquity. Our good deeds are no more capable of getting us into the kingdom than our bad deeds are of keeping us out. 

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not while we were perfect, and not even while we were repentant, but while we were sinners. There is nothing on this earth that can make God love us any more OR any less.

That’s the scandal of the Good News, but its also why we can call it good.

And lest any of us remain unconvinced of the narrow door becoming the obliteration of any door keeping us out of anything, let us end where Jesus does – the meal. 

It is after the weeping and gnashing of teeth, or own refusal to live under the unfairness of grace for everyone whether we deserve it or not, its only after our lamenting of the old world, that Jesus speaks of the meal –  the meal that draws people literally from all directions. 

The feast is not a trickling in of guests who, after becoming the paragons of perfection get a special invitation to the party, but instead it is a flood of uncountable people who, for free – for nothing, will be drawn by the love of Christ to the ultimate party that has no end.

Or to put it all another way: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen.