On Breaking The Rules

Matthew 18.21-22

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Jesus loved to speak in parables.

Perhaps he enjoyed watching his disciples scratch their heads or maybe he knew that parabolic utterances have an uncanny way of allowing the truth to really break through.

Peter wants to know what the forgiveness business really looks like and Jesus basically responds by saying that in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no end to forgiveness. However, knowing that wouldn’t be enough, he decides to drop a parable on his dozing disciples to send home the message.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the process a slave who owed him ten million dollars was brought forward. And, because he could not pay back the king, he along with his wife and children were ordered to be sold into slavery.

Summary: Don’t break the rules.

But then the slave speaks. Having racked up an impossible debt, he asks for patience.

So how does the king respond? Moments ago he ordered the man and his family to be sold into slavery, but now he, bizarrely, takes pity, releases the man, and forgives ALL his debts.

The parable goes on to describe how the now debt-free servant holds a small debt over the head of another servant and is then punished by torture, but I want to pause on the king.

Because this king is a fool.

He offers forgiveness without spending much time in contemplation – he doesn’t consult with his trusted advisers and he doesn’t even weigh out what the payment on the debt would mean for the kingdom.

Instead, the king chooses to throw away the entirety of the kingdom for one servant.

Now, lest we think that’s an overly dramatic read of the parables – to forgive a debt as great as the servant’s is not merely a matter of being nice. It is a willingness to throw everything away for the man. Without receiving the ten thousand talents (read: ten million dollars), the kingdom would cease to operate accordingly and would thusly be destroyed.

The forgiveness offered by the king is not just a gift – it’s a radically changed life through death. 

Jesus is setting Peter up with the story, and all of us who read it all these years later. Jesus is trying to say, yet again, that he is going to fix the world through his dying.

He will destroy death by dying on the cross, by giving up the kingdom for undeserving servants, by going after the one lost sheep and leaving the ninety-nine behind. 

He will free us from ourselves by losing everything himself.

Jesus delights in breaking the rules and expectations of the world by showing that things aren’t as they appear.

There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God through Christ Jesus. It sounds crazy, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. 

If there was a limit to forgiveness in the Kingdom, then Peter would not have cut it as a disciple, and neither would any of us.

Jesus uses this parable not as a way to explain everything to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous understandings.

Or, to put it another way: the world runs on debt and repayment (at interest), but the Kingdom of God runs on mercy and forgiveness. 

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. 

God Knows Your Internet Search History

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 28.10-19a, Psalm 139.1-12, 23-24, Romans 8.12-25, Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Zoom meetings on the Peloton, dreaming dreams, timelessness, (un)holy spaces, God’s choices, birth pangs, losing control, doom-scrolling, parable preaching, and making the world a better place. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Knows Your Internet Search History

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. 

God Works With Manure

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 6th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 25.19-34, Psalm 119.105-112, Romans 8.1-11, Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including self-care, ordinary people, church pro-tips, low hanging fruit, family problems, lamps in parenting, other gods, the Gospel in Romans, peaceful living, sowing stories, and fertilizing with the Word. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Works With Manure

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.

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.