So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.
There was a man who liked to mow his lawn early in the morning. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garden when, out of nowhere, he was tackled off the mower and onto the ground.
The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway exchanging blows until concerned neighbors rushed forward to stop the scuffle.
Hours later, the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs.
The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the attack took place. In our heightened and frenetic political atmosphere, tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Paul’s political proclivities and that he felt the only recourse for their disagreements was violence.
It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if the same thing could happen to them.
Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tired of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.
Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible. And it sure is a strange new world. Jesus (and Paul the apostle) is forever going on about loving our neighbors as ourselves and about speaking the truth in love.
Which are decisively difficult when we don’t even know our neighbors, let alone what the truth might be that we can express toward them.
So, instead, we practice silence and we call it love.
Sometimes that silence turns into bitterness, and then the bitterness turns into anger, and then before we know it we’re tackling our neighbor for not taking better care of his lawn.
And yet, in the church, we are called to speak the truth in love and we know what real love looks like – it looks like the cross.
The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God and neighbor is demanding and risky. Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on down the drain.
And that kind of love got Jesus killed.
We, of course, are not the Lord (thanks be to God). In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point.
We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do.
Contrary to all of its complications, neighborly love is at the heart of the life of the church and every single person who claims to follow Jesus. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.
Or, to put it another way, when we begin to see how much God loves us in spite of all the reasons why God shouldn’t, it actually starts to change the way we interact with others, even our neighbors.
Love, the kind that God has for us and the kind we are called to have for God and neighbor, is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost.
And, because I believe music often does a better job at expressing the faith than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us wrestle with what it means to speak the truth:
Jonathan Richman’s “That Summer Feeling” from 1992 is deceptively simple with the singer-songwriter and his acoustic guitar. And yet, the lyrics invite the listener into a wave of nostalgia that should come with a warning – the refrain is all about being haunted by a feeling, of being caught up in things we can’t quite explain. To me, it rings true of the ways we can be haunted by previous interactions.
Molly Tuttle is an award-winning guitarist with a penchant for insightful songwriting. And yet, it’s her cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless” that really lets her shine. With the backing help of Old Crow Medicine Show she brings a welcome nuance to the well known song while making it sound hopeful and hopeless at the same time.
Madeline Kenney’s new EP Summer Quarter recently compelled me to return to her 2018 single “Cut Me Off.” She sings with such raw honesty, an honesty all but absent in the world today, that I find myself getting lost in her lyrical sonic wonder. The song’s disjointed melody, ripe with surfer guitar strumming and syncopated drumming, really conveys a sense of what it means to be cut off literally and figuratively.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
A woman was walking down the street one afternoon when, all of the sudden, the ground fell out from beneath her and she tumbled into a giant sinkhole. After brushing herself off, she realized that the walls were far too steep for her to climb out and she began to cry out for help.
A doctor happened to be passing by and he looked into the pit when the woman yelled, “Hey! I’m stuck down here. Can you help me out?”
The doc thought about it for a moment, pulled out a notepad, wrote a prescription, tossed it into the hole, and kept walking.
Later, a preacher came walking along and the woman shouted, “Hey Rev! Please help. I’m stuck down in this hole and I can’t get out!”
The pastor slowly put his hands together, said a prayer for the woman, and kept walking.
Next, a sweet older woman from the local church walked to the edge of the pit and the woman yelled, “Please help! I’m starting to get desperate down here.”
To which the older woman replied, “Honey, don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And she kept walking.
Finally, a friend of the woman in the hole arrived. “Hey! It’s me down here!” she shouted from the depths, “Can you please get me out?” And the friend immediately jumped straight down into the pit. The woman couldn’t believe it and she said, “You idiot! Now we’re both stuck down here!”
But that’s when the friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out…”
I love that little anecdote and, full disclosure, I stole it from The West Wing. Ever since I heard Leo McGarry share the narrative with Josh Lyman it has rattled in my brain because it’s basically the Gospel.
God, in Jesus Christ, is the friend who rather recklessly jumps into the depths of our depravity and our despair. God never abandons us even when we go off assuming that we can (or should) do it all on our own. God humbles himself to the humiliating status of humanity just to come down in the muck and mire of our lives.
God comes to us.
That’s the whole point.
We might like to think that the journey of our discipleship is about climbing out of our badness into a life of goodness, but it’s actually about recognizing our rather desperate situation down in a deep hole and how God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us.
The grace of God made manifest in Jesus Christ is not something we can earn, buy, or even work for. To put a finer point on it – we cannot help ourselves into grace.
Grace is something done to us and for us.
It jumps down into the hole next to us, and it shows us the way out.
And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing theological principles than mere words alone, here are some tunes to get us thinking about how God comes to us, rather than the other way around…
Bayonne’s “Drastic Measures” is a propulsive and percussive adventure of sonic goodness – I challenge you to listen to the song without tapping your foot or bobbing your head. And I love how the chorus is an anthem of what it means to take drastic measures, not unlike what God was (and is) willing to do for us.
Erin Rae’s “Love Like Before” demonstrates how the guitar-and-voice singer/songwriter can evoke such intimate ideas and melodies in a song. The charm of this particular song comes from its reflections on a life of looking for love only to realize, in the end, that it was there the whole time.
“We Are Gonna Be Okay” from Dan Whitener made regular appearances on the pandemic playlist in my house over the last year. The song tells the tale of a courtship and marriage, but the real power comes from the harmonic chorus that demands to be shouted with full lungs (and full hearts).
“The story of Pentecost is more than a pretty tale. Here is real knowledge, deep ultimate insights into that existence which Jesus is. What is told on Pentecost is that Jesus not only was, but that He is, and will be. He does not exist here or there in a certain place; for Him there is not only a ‘once’ and a ‘then’ but he is yesterday, today and the same in all eternity; in a word, Jesus is ‘standing in the midst.’ – Karl Barth, Pentecost Sermon
Full disclosure – I get a strange and sweet satisfaction from listening to lay liturgists when they read scripture aloud in worship. Perhaps it’s the years of training and devotion to a collected volume of texts being boldly proclaimed, but I think most of my enjoyment stems from the struggle that can occur with particular passages. It could be one of the many genealogies, or a more graphic detail from the Song of Songs, or a moment of profound violence and, in real time, you can witness the person reading the text coming to grips with the text.
The same holds true for the story of Pentecost from Acts.
“And how is it we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2.9-11)
I love it when laypeople read that bit because they, like everyone else (clergy included) don’t really ever say those words and they don’t really know what they’re talking about.
It’s a rather diverse ethnic gathering for the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, but it’s also a historically impossible gathering as well. The Medes of Acts 2 would’ve had one hell of a time getting to Jerusalem all the way from Mesopotamia not only because the distance between the places is a few hundred miles, but also because the Medes had been extinct for at least two centuries before the day of Pentecost took place.
And the Elamites? They are only mentioned in passing in the book of Ezra and are never mentioned again.
Pentecost, then, is peculiarly and particularly powerful because it details the gift of the Spirit across space and time.
Which is all just another way of saying that the Spirit poured out on Pentecost really was for everyone.
We might not know it, or even believe, but you and I were there too along with the Medes and the Elamites.
Or, to use Barth’s words, Pentecost is a reminder that Jesus, through the Spirit, is still standing in the midst.
And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing the faith than mere words alone, here are some tunes to put us in a Pentecost(al) mood: (The playlist includes some of my favorite cover tunes of The Beatles – I share them because whenever I listen to these covers I feel like I am out of space and time hearing other bands interpret some of the most well known tunes of all time.)
Palm Sunday is a strange Sunday. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It begins with “Hosanna” and ends with “Crucify.” It begins with life and ends with death.
Contrary to how we’ve (often) watered down the Gospel message in church, Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another. He was killed because we don’t have imaginations capable of understanding what love actually looks like.
But now we do know what love looks like because we know Jesus and him crucified. For the cross reveals to us the very heart of God. The cross is not just some symbol to explain suffering in the world, rather it is the witness to the lengths God chose to go in order to rectify our wrongs. Jesus’ cross makes a people possible who see, know, and believe that the only true response to suffering in this world is love.
And yet, Holy Week isn’t about us. If it is, it is only about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of the cross, we are given a task made possible as well as demanded by the cross to be present to one another when there is quite literally nothing we can do to save ourselves.
Jesus enters the holy city under occupation and, in the end, occupies our place on the cross.
The crowds demand their salvation and, in the end, Jesus gives it to them by giving himself.
“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118.24)
Here are a few tunes that can put us in a decisively strange mood for Holy Week:
I am convinced that Robert Farrar Capon would’ve been a fan of Tyson Motsenbocker’s “Sunday Morning.” The song opens with a sweet guitar riff and then launches into lyrics that reflect on leading worship: “I chose all the right songs, I played all the right chords / ‘Till the kids who still weren’t singing, praised the Lord / And the pastor yelled about faith and hell / And I soundtracked his words for affect / And everyone cried and cried and cried / everyone cried and cried and cried / And then we played kickball.” The juxtaposition of what the church often sells on Sunday morning (Do this and that to get saved) with the Gospel message that Jesus, in fact, is the one who saves us, is delightfully reflected in this song.
Caamp’s “Fall, Fall, Fall” is a soft and tender anthem about change and I can’t help but hear the refrain “I want my kids to swim in the creek” as a reflection on the desire to swim in the waters of baptism.
Kevin Morby’s “Parade” is a somber reflection on death, identity, and ambiguity. The sporadic piano keys overtop his strumming guitar rhythms actually feels like walking through a city in a parade. But, above all, I love how Morby portrays the strange realities of what it’s like having compassion for a city hell-bent on chewing him up. Sound familiar?
What does it take, what does it mean, to be a Christian?
This is a worthy question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, particularly during the time we call Lent. Lent, after all, is a season of repentance, or turning back to the Lord who came to dwell among us. Lent is that wondrous opportunity to reflect on what it is we are doing with our lives and how those lives resonate with the one who breathed life into us.
And yet, most of us believe, even though we confess ourselves to be sinners, that we are actually good enough. We know we are not perfect but at least we’re not like those other people (whoever they may be). It is therefore not at all clear to us that we are sinful creatures in need of a Savior who can make something of our nothing.
As Christians, thankfully, we believe that we must be taught what it means to be sinners. That training comes by being confronted by Jesus Christ who, as Karl Barth puts it: “has accused us by turning and taking to Himself the accusation which is laid properly against us, against all people. He pronounced sentence on us by taking our place, by unreservedly allowing that God is in the right against Himself – Himself the bearer of our guilt. This is the humility of the act of God which has taken our place for us in Jesus Christ.”
Just as we must be taught what it means to be sinners, we must be taught what it means to be disciples – and this is a teaching that takes a lifetime.
So we need not worry about whether or not we are really Christians. During Lent (or any other liturgical time) we may think we are only pretending to be Christian, going through the motions of faith.
But, by God’s grace, God makes us what we pretend to be.
Here are some tunes to get in a Lenten mood…
Kevin Morby’s “Wander” has been on repeat in my house over the last few months if only because my four year old loves to pound his chest when the kick-drum shakes our bookshelves as it mirrors a heart beat midway through the song. The lyrics, though, feel perfectly Lenten as it conveys a journey into the stormy weather of the wilderness.
The Strokes’ “Under Control” is one of my all time favorite songs and Rostam’s cover pays homage to the teen angst of the original while putting it inside of a more reflective and ethereal feel. As one of the founding members of Vampire Weekend, Rostam excels in creating atmospheric melodies and what he does with “Under Control” keeps the song stuck in my head for hours. Lent, to me, is a season where we wrestle back and forth between being in, and out of, control which is what this song is all about.
Wilco’s “On and on and On” is remarkably apt this lenten season as it feels like we never really left Lent last year because of the pandemic. Jeff Tweedy has this uncanny ability to craft songs that speak these tremendous truths, and the lyrics in this song are both hopeful and frightening (in the best way) at the same time: “On and on and on we’ll be together, yeah / please don’t cry, we’re designed to die.”
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
It was a busy Sunday morning.
The confirmands were getting confirmed.
The choir was trying out a new anthem.
The sermon was a sitting at a solid B-.
Nevertheless, I stood and addressed the people of God, all while constantly referring to the overstuffed bulletin in hopes that I wouldn’t, accidentally, skip over part of the service.
God gathered us. God spoke God’s word to us. And the time had come for us to respond. The confirmands were, finally, confirmed, and were therefore the first in line to receive communion. They, being the good and holy tweenagers they were, made silly faces at me when I offered the bread, doing their best to mess me up. I kept my cool, being all holy up at the front with my long robe and made a mental note to teach those kids some some respect after the service.
I kept distributing the bread with the solemnity required at such a moment.
Knowing head nods.
The subtle tap on the hand.
Until, the very end when the final person came forward to receive the body and the blood of our Lord.
I confess I was momentarily surprised to see Owen standing before me and below me in the middle of the sanctuary because Owen was barely three years old, a child from our preschool, and his family had never been to church before.
I looked around for his mother, and father, and little sister and found them frantically rushing around the back of the church as if they had lost something.
The something they lost was standing right below me.
“It’s my turn pastor Taylor,” he said, “I want some Jesus please.” And he opened his mouth like a little baby bird and waited for me to drop a piece of bread in.
So I did.
I then, of course, picked him up and carried him to the back of the church where his family expressed their gratitude for the lost having been found, and then I sprinted down the center aisle to get us back on track.
As the big, grown-up, entirely responsible, never child-like adult that I am, I am quite good at making myself the center of all things.
It doesn’t matter whether I’m at a dinner party or standing up in a space like this on Sunday morning – I get used to things going a certain way, the ritual of it all, the comforting domestication of life. So much so that I, occasionally, forget to pay attention to the Spirit who insists on defying and upending expectations.
God, bewilderingly, likes to drop road signs pointing us in the right direction, or smacking us in the face with stop sign to halt us dead in our tracks.
God’s ways are not our ways.
One day, Jesus was walking with the disciples, teaching them about the Kingdom of God. All of them, being good and faithful disciples, were frantically taking down notes so as to not miss any of the important details.
But they were distracted.
One of them, perhaps Peter, interjected, “Lord, can’t something be done about all these kids who keep following us around? Shouldn’t we send them to the nursery, or children’s church, or maybe we could just put them down in front of an episode of Paw Patrol? They’re so distracting!”
And do you know what Jesus did? He plucked up the nearest kid and sat her down right in the middle of all of the disciples and said, “When you receive one such child… Surprise! You receive me also.”
One day Jesus was hanging out with his disciples in the Temple. Upturned tables littered the area and the money lenders grumbled in the corners. Meanwhile, the blind and lame came to Jesus and he cured them, he made them whole. But when the big whigs, the movers and the shakers, saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children singing out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became very angry with Jesus.
They said to him, “Do you hear what they’re singing???” Jesus replied, “Of course I can hear them singing! Don’t you remember what it says in Psalm 81? Oh, you don’t remember that one? Well, let me refresh your memory: ‘O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is you name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.’”
And then Jesus left them standing there with the jaws on the floor.
Stanley Hauerwas is famous for saying: “Beware when you hear a Methodist minister quote his/her twelve-year old in a sermon. When that happens you know you’re fixin’ to hear some baloney.”
Though, when he says it, he uses a much saltier expression than baloney.
That he says it so often is indicative of his desire for sermons to be about God rather than about us. For, when someone like me stands in a place like this regaling people like you with stories of “Kids Say The Darndest Things” moments, it is worth wondering what, at all, that has to do with the Gospel.
We aren’t here to hear stories that make us chuckle about the whimsy of youth.
We’re here to hear a Word from the Lord, from God almighty!
And yet, as Jesus so wonderfully reminds us today, the child sitting in the middle of the crowd, the kid who sneaks away from his parents in the middle of a worship service, the children singing in the courtyard of the temple, they are here to distract us from our big, serious, but utterly self-centered adult religion, all so that another kid, a baby actually, might get our attention about what’s really important.
How odd of God to chose a baby born to an unwed virgin to change the cosmos.
How odd of God to chose the baby turned adult to speak greater truth than we could possibly bear.
How off of God to chose children singing songs by the temple to shake up the religious sensibilities of those in charge then and now!
Notably, when Karl Barth (the great theologian of the 20th century) was asked to summarize the entirety of his theology he responded by singing: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so!”
Shortly before his wild temple tantrum, Jesus settled a dispute between his disciples about greatness by telling them, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!”
So, should there be any children paying extra close attention to the sermon today, the next time you hear an adult tell you to “act you age” you have pastoral permission to respond by saying, “Well Jesus says that unless you start acting like a kid you’ll never enter the kingdom!”
Of course, it’s not just about having a child-like faith. We’re not called to be naive about the world. But, at least according to this moment from Matthew, when Jesus spins a verse from his favorite playlist The Psalms, it has less to do with being small or unintelligent and more to do with the fact that even babies and children proclaim the goodness of God.
Consider, for a moment, what it is that the children are singing that day in the temple courtyard: “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
Literally, “Save us, Son of David.”
The adults, the chiefs priests and elders, are all angry because they can’t stand the thought of Jesus being God, being the promised Messiah. They can’t stand to hear children confessing a truth that runs counter to everything they think they know. Perhaps they’re furious because they can’t imagine a world in which someone like Jesus, a wandering rabbi with a rag tag group of would-be disciples, could actually be the one to bring about the salvation of the cosmos.
But the kids… the kids that day see something more than the adults do, they hope for something more than the adults could wrap their heads around.
In Jesus, they see God.
They witness the abundant mercy of the Messiah who stoops to heal the sick, and the blind, and the lame.
They encounter the power of the Anointed One who rids the temple of its economic disparity for a reality in which all are welcome to worship no matter the size of their wallet.
They experience the King of kings who, in the end, rules from the hard wood of the cross and uses his final earthly breaths to declare, of all things, forgiveness.
Sometimes, kids get it better than we do.
It all began, the father starts his story, a few Christmases ago when my 4 year old daughter began asking questions about what the holiday meant.
So I began explaining to her that this was in celebrating the birth of Jesus and she wanted to know more about that so I went out and got a children’s Bible and we would read together at night. She loved it. She wanted to know everything about Jesus.
So we read a lot about his birth and his teachings and she would ask constantly about this one particular phrase and I would explain that it was “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And we would talk about those old words and what it all meant.
One day we were driving past a big church and out front was this big crucifix and she asked, “Who’s that?!” And I guess I never really told that part of the story, so I had to sort of fill the rest in. I told her that Jesus ran afoul of the Roman government and that his message was so radical and unnerving to the authorities at the time that they came to the conclusion that he would have to die.
About a month later her preschool had the day off for Martin Luther King Day and I took off the day from work and we went out for lunch together. We were sitting and right on the table was the local newspaper with a giant picture of Dr. King on the front. And she said, “Who’s that?” I said, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. This is the day we celebrate his life.”
She said, “Well, who is he?” And I said, “He was a preacher.” She looks up at me and goes, “For Jesus?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah he was. But there was another thing that he was famous for. He had a message. He said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like.”
She thought about that for a moment and then she said, “Well that’s what Jesus said.”
I said, “I guess it is. I never thought about it that way but it is like ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
And my daughter looked down at the table for a long time before she said, “Did they kill him too?”
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. Amen.
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” 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.”
To what may we compare the scriptures?
Or, perhaps more plainly, what’s the Bible like?
Well, the strange new world of the Bible is like a giant house that is full of locked rooms. And on the floor in front of every door there is a key. But there’s a catch: the key doesn’t fit the lock on the particular door.
The challenge, then, is to gather up every single key and begin trying them out on each and every door until the proper key is found that will unlock each room.
So it is with the scriptures.
They are so obscure that the only way to understand them is by means of coming into contact with other passages containing different explanation that are dispersed throughout.
This is a parable about parables.
Consider – the Bible is full of just about every literary form.
Genealogy. Poetry. Prose. Drama. Instruction. Reflection. And, of course, parables.
Take it up and read – you’re just as likely to find something familiar as you are to find something bizarre.
This is the challenge of this thing that we come back to over and over again, like fools wandering around through a house with a pocketful of keys having no idea where any of them go.
So it is that we wander through the Bible while using the Bible to make sense of the Bible.
And, stretching the parable out a little more, we might hope and suppose that if any of the rooms in the house were already unlocked and opened, they would be Jesus’ parables.
That we would so hope is due to the fact that parables are usually use to clarify something about something – they are stories that reveal truths that we would otherwise miss.
And yet, at least with Jesus, the opposite seems to be true.
We don’t walk away from the parables with exclamations of, “Oh that’s what he meant!”
Instead we often walk away only to say, “What in the world was that all about?”
The late great Robert Farrar Capon put it this way: The device of parabolic utterance is used NOT to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings… Jesus’ parables are intentionally designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of those who receive them.
Consider, briefly, the parable of the Lost Sheep.
Jesus tells his disciples that God is like a shepherd who, if one sheep among one hundred goes missing, will leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one who went astray. And, if he finds it, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.
Okay. A lot of us love this parable. We’ve heard it since we were kids in Vacation Bible School and the idea that God will never leave us lost is, truly, a comforting thought.
But, here’s the problem: The only thing guaranteed about going after one lost sheep is that the ninety-nine will go missing too. Going off after one is straight up bad advice because it puts all the other sheep at risk. And, in the end, there’s no guarantee that any of them will be found!
The parable of the lost sheep is, like all of Jesus’ parables, confounding and head-scratching Good News. It is a stark declaration that God saves losers and only losers. God finds the lost and only the lost. God raises the dead and only the dead.
The parables of Jesus, from the Lost Sheep, to the Prodigal Son, to the Good Samaritan, though they vary greatly in form and even function, they all point again and again to the fact that God is the one who acts first and God acts definitely without conditions.
Well, there might be one little condition, and if there is one it is this: we need only admit that we are lost and without a hope in the world unless a crazy shepherd is willing to risk it all on us.
But to the passage at hand – Jesus, resting in the vibes of his favorite playlist, the Psalms, chooses to speak in parables and only in parables in order to “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
This is the exclamation mark on a string of stories that include the sower who scatters seed indiscriminately, the weeds among the wheat (which must be left to grow together until the harvest), and the mustard seed.
All three of these brief parables point to the circuit-breaking nature of Jesus’ ministry and kingdom.
The Sower refuses to sow only where the seeds will bear fruit and is determined to rain down grace upon every type of soil.
No good gardener lets the weeds grow among the wheat, but in the Kingdom of God there is room for all to grow and flourish.
And the 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 a tomb, was raised three days later.
But then Jesus decides to tie up all of these crazy stories with the parable of the leaven.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flower until all of it was leavened.
In one sentence Jesus has fulfilled the promise and proclamation of the psalm: He has drawn the people in to hear the words from his mouth – he speaks a parable, utter dark sayings from old. They will not be hidden from children, and this story will be told to every coming generation describing the wonders that God has done.
But what’s so wonderful about a woman mixing yeast with flour?
Better yet, what in the world does that have to do with the kingdom of God?
For a moment, let us rest in the great and sadly controversial fact that the surrogate for God in this story is, in fact, a woman. Contrary to how it has been spread throughout the history of the church, all that patriarchal nonsense doesn’t have any foundation to rest on. In other places Jesus specifically compares himself to a mother hen, women are the only disciples who don’t abandon Jesus at the end, and without women preachers none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection from the dead!
The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like yeast that a woman took and kneaded it together with three measures of flower.
God, as the female baker, takes the yeast that is the kingdom of God, and mixes it thoroughly with the flour that is the world.
Now, think about this for a moment, the work of this baker isn’t just a nice little loaf for Sunday brunch. Jesus notes that she took three measures (SATA in Greek) of flour which is a bushel.
That’s 128 cups of flour!
When you’re done putting in the 42 cups of water necessary to get the bread going you’re left with over 100 pounds of dough.
But Jesus keeps going! That crazy 100 pound mass of dough is thoroughly mixed until all of it, ALL OF IT, was leavened.
The great, and at times terrible, part about baking bread is that once the yeast has been introduced it cannot be removed. It becomes hidden, it loses itself in order to become something else. It is a mysteriously wonderful thing to watch the yeast disappear into the mixture knowing that it will make something marvelous of something otherwise useless.
Which, parabolically, means that the kingdom of God, like leavened bread, has been with us from the very beginning and will always be with us. It is hidden in and among us doing it’s job and there’s nothing we can do to get rid to it.
No amount of badness, or even goodness, can do anything to the yeast that is already mixed with the flour and the water.
The baker has done her job and now the yeast will make something of the messy dough. The yeast works intimately and immediately and nothing can stop it.
But we, as usual, scratch our heads like the disciples and all who have received the parables. We keep wandering around the house with many rooms, struggling to hold all of the keys, without having any idea about which door to try next.
We wonder what, in the world, this parable has to do with us.
Well, perhaps this parable, this dark saying from of old, reminds us that the only thing we can do, other than admitting our need of Jesus, is wait for him to do his job.
Ask any baker, one of the worst things to do is throw the dough into the oven before it’s ready. And good bread, really good bread, is made when the yeast has the time to do what it needs to do without our mucking it up.
And, AND, when baking, the only way the yeast makes something of nothing is by, of all things, dying. When the yeast has finally mixed into the dough, and it is placed in the oven, it dies – and by dying it creates thousands of little pockets of air – it’s those pockets of air that makes the dough expand as its cooked.
Frankly, all of baking is a miracle.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure, and the patience, to bake bread it’s nothing short of incredible.
And here’s the real kicker – the air created by the death of yeast, warm carbon dioxide, is the same thing we create every time we breathe.
The whole of the Kingdom, Jesus seems to say, operates similarly by warm breath.
Remember: Jesus is the breathed Word of God, begotten not made, from the beginning of creation. God speaks creation into existence. God breathes the Spirit into Adam in the garden. That same Spirit, Ruah, breath, flows in and around all that we do giving life to the lifeless and possibility to countless impossibilities.
Remember: Jesus breathes out the Spirit after the resurrection onto his ragtag group of would be followers hiding in the Upper Room. Jesus speaks all of his parables only by use of a breath that was there before the foundation of the world.
Remember: The Spirit is blown on the day of Pentecost filling the newborn church with a mighty wind to go and share the Good News with the world. That same Spirit compels us, as the Psalm says, to tell the stories to the coming generations and declare the mighty works of our God.
Even me standing here and proclaiming the Word is only possible because of the warm breath that comes forth from my mouth. And, best of all, God is able to make something of my nothing every week that I stand to speak.
In the end, it’s all about warm air. Whether it’s in the bread backing in the oven, or the Spirit poured out on all flesh, or what all of us are doing right not simply to live.
Consider, for a moment, your own breath. From the time I started this sermon we’ve all, on average, breathed 150 times and we didn’t have to think about it at all for it to happen.
Just like the leavened bread, our breathing happens automatically. And when that leavened bread, the bread of life we call Jesus, is mixed definitively into our lives, it unfailingly expands and makes something miraculous of us.
The job, strangely and mysteriously, is already done. Finished and baked before the foundation of the world. Completed by the great baker who breathed out his life for us from the cross, forgave us with some of his final breaths, and forever prays on our behalf even when we can’t.
Which is all to say, whether or not we know what key matches with which door, we are as good and baked into salvation right here and right now. God, compelled by love, has kneaded us in with the holy baking trinity of flour, water, and yeast which will become something we never could on our own.
The only thing we have to do is listen to Jesus and trust that he has done and will forever do his yeasty work. And, in the end, when we start to small the fresh bread wafting in from the oven of the Kingdom, we will know that we are truly home, forever. Amen.
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge or understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!
The Jews took up stones agin to stone him. Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped form their hands.
Imagine, if you can, two separate courtroom dramas.
BUM BUM (a la the theme to Law & Order)!
In the first, God sits behind the judgment seat looking out over a room full to the brim with God’s people. They have all meandered in, carrying their own hopes and fears, sins and shames, on their sleeves. They have been elevated to the status of angels because they, unlike the rest of humanity, have received the Torah. And yet they have taken this privilege and squandered it with injustice.
God smacks the gavel and all those gathered sink even lower into their chairs.
God declares, “What is wrong with all of you? How long will you continue to make such a mess of things? All I ask is that you give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute, rescue the weak and the needy. For once you were no people but now you are my people – start acting like it!”
But they don’t.
They are more concerned with themselves than with others. They do whatever they can to rise to the top and care not one bit about what it costs. They walk around like a people stuck in darkness and they have no hope.
God shakes the very foundations of the earth from God’s divine courtroom and proclaims the verdict: “You are gods, you are children of the Most High, all of you belong to me. Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”
Justice is served.
In the second courtroom, the tables have turned (literally). Now it is God’s people who sit in the seat of judgment and Jesus, God in the flesh, is the one on trial.
Jesus has given his whole pitch, proclaimed the kingdom parabolically, as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. But he ends the head-scratching discourse (Consider: what good does it do for the sheep for their shepherd to give his life away?) with a reoccurring connection between himself and the Father.
And now the gathered faithful surround the accused: “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they demand. “How long are you going to annoy us with your stories and cheap parlor tricks? Just tell us who you really are!”
They are looking for some good old plain truth.
But there is nothing plain about Jesus.
Born God in the flesh to an unwed virgin in Bethlehem.
Heals the sick and feeds the hungry.
Elevates the lowly and brings down the mighty.
There is nothing plain about the Messiah, about a God who speaks from a burning bush, about the One who makes a way where there is no way.
“Look,” Jesus begins, “I have told you again and again who I am, but you don’t believe me. Have you not seen the wonders wrought through these hands? Have you not received parables about the coming and present Kingdom? Have you not witnessed the Father’s work here and now?”
The crowds of judgment bicker among themselves.
“Well, he did feed those 5,000 people…”
“My cousin told me that his friend’s coworker saw him make a blind man see…”
“I heard he can cast out demons…”
Jesus interrupts their discussion, “It’s simple really. The Father and I are one.”
That’s enough for the judge, jury, and executioner! They all rush forward to put him to death but Jesus merely lifts his hands and says, “I have done so many good things for all of you. For which of them are you going to kill me?”
They answer in unison, “It’s not for a good work that we are going to stone you to death, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”
“I seem to remember another courtroom of sorts in the Psalms,” Jesus says, “when the Lord called those who received the Word gods. So can you really call me a blasphemer even though I have been sanctified and sent into the world as God’s Son? If you don’t think I’m doing God’s work then fine, don’t believe me. But, at the very least, you can believe in the things I do and maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
And they rush forward to enact justice against Jesus, to kill him where he stands, but he escapes, again.
Here’s the matter at hand from the strange new world of the Bible today – Jesus is in a standoff with the religious authorities. He has told them who he is, he has demonstrated who he is, and they still do not believe. The whole of it feels on edge, like a powder keg ready to go off.
The people are dismayed, confused, and downright angry. They want to know when the truth will be revealed. They want to get a glimpse behind the curtain. They want to know who Jesus really is.
But Jesus’ answer fills them not with satisfaction, but with rage.
The Father is in me, and I am in the Father.
Jesus has equated himself with the Lord and the gathered people don’t like it one bit.
And yet, they want to kill him for it?
It can all feel a little exaggerated when we encounter this story, particularly when the Jesus of our minds is the hippie-dippy Jesus who just wants people to get along, a little more love in the world, and would be an excellent guest on the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
But that’s not who Jesus is, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.
Jesus was offensive.
Jesus was offensive to those who trusted in their own reason, in their own understandings of how things were supposed to go because he ran counter to just about everything they could think of.
Jesus was offensive to the practitioners of religious observance because he was forever eating dinner with outcasts, those deemed unclean.
Jesus was offensive to those who sat in the positions of power because with every passing parable and proclamation the calls for the first to be last and the last to be first sounded more like a threat and less like a theory.
But more than all of that, more than the taking people to task, more than upending all the expectations, more than dropping story after story that made things more confusing rather than more clear, the most offensive thing about Jesus to the crowds is that he equates himself with God.
Why should he, a nobody from a nobody town, be the Son of God?
Isn’t God supposed to be perfect, and clean, and morally pure, and removed, and distant, and holy, and hidden, and powerful?
And here’s this Jesus, who insists on spending time with the last, least, lost, little, and dead. He breaks bread with sinners, he dwells in and among the lowliest of the low, he reveals the secrets of the Kingdom, and he demonstrates his power, ultimately, through weakness.
What seems to disrupt and offend the crowds so much is the fact that Jesus points to a truth they can’t stand.
As my friend Kenneth Tanner put it this week: The poverty of God is the greatest wealth in the cosmos, the weakness of God in the human Jesus is the conversion of the world and stronger than any power visible or invisible.
And yet for the crowds, and even for us, that rubs the wrong way. We are a people who are drunk on the illusion of power than comes from human hands, from our own ways and means, but God comes in Christ to remind us that power, real power, comes not from a throne or from violence, but from the cross and from mercy.
And so the crowds rush forward to kill the One in whom they live and move and have their being and Jesus spins the scriptures right back in their faces – How can saying “I am the Son of God” be blasphemy if Psalm 82 does not hesitate to call “sons of God” those to whom the word of God came.
Apparently, even Jesus liked to proof-text every once in a while.
Notably, the “gods” of Psalm 82 lose their divine-like status for failing to take serious the justice of God and here, in Jesus, the justice of God is made manifest to a people undeserving, namely all of us.
God is Jesus and Jesus is God.
God is at least as nice as Jesus, and at least as zealous as Jesus.
The hiddenness of God is revealed in the person of Christ. The incomprehensibility of God is made known through the life, the teaching, the parables, the miracles, the healings, the feedings, and ultimately the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Which, when you think about it, is rather confounding. Or, perhaps it would be better to call it offensive.
It is all so offensive because while God in Christ is like us, God in Christ is also completely unlike us.
Consider – How does God in the flesh react to those who are hellbent on stoning him to death?
Does Jesus respond with retribution and damnation and destruction?
Does Jesus take up the sword to put people in their place?
Does Jesus react the way we would?
In the end, God in Christ responds to all that we do with, of all things, forgiveness.
And forgiveness can be the most offensive thing of all.
There’s this great YouTube channel I came across this week where they ask people to respond to a question in one minute or less. They’ve been interviewing theologians and pastors which makes the premise all the better because pastors and theologians aren’t known for their brevity.
Nevertheless, this week they asked Dr. Jane Williams where she finds hope in a time such as ours and her answer was perfect.
She said, “I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.”
The offensive nature of the gospel is both that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, and that God does for us what we could not do for ourselves.
The crew from Crackers & Grape Juice has started putting together a bi-monthly newsletter with exclusive essays/sermons/reflections from some of our favorite theologians. My humble contribution is a playlist. You can sign up for the newsletter here: CGJ+ and you can check out my playlist for the beginning of Advent below:
Punch Brothers – O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Sufjan Stevens – Justice Delivers Its Death
The Shins – We Will Become Silhouettes (cover)
Here, in the midst of a world drowning in bad news, it’s not hard to imagine raising our clenched fists to the sky and shouting, “God! Where the hell are you?”
That is an Advent question – perhaps the Advent question.
Therefore, an authentically hopeful Advent spirit is not looking away from the darkness and filling our lives with fluff in order to deny the truth. Instead, we pray for the Holy Spirit to give us the courage and the conviction to look straight into the muck and the mire of this life.
For, in the end, that’s exactly where God chose, and still chooses, to show up for us…
Chris Thile, front man for the Punch Brothers and recent host of “Live From Here,” is a mandolin-picking genius. His tunes have been categorized in genres from acoustic folk to progressive bluegrass to modern classical. He, along with the Punch Brothers, put forth a version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel that does the delicate balance of lifting the original melody and lyrics with a new sensitivity – with each passing verse more instruments and harmonies are added until its righteous conclusion.
Any fan of CGJ knows that I am a big fan of Sufjan Stevens – so much so that the rest of the crew often ridicules me for it. Hopefully, the more of his music I put on these playlists, the more they will accept his genius. Stevens has released a ton of Christmas/Advent covers over the years, but his original song Justice Delivers Its Death haunts me. The declaration of “Lord, come with fire!” comes straight from the prophet Isaiah and it offers a melodic corrective to the saccharine quality of too many Advent/Christmas songs.
Whether we like to admit it or not, Advent is an inherently apocalyptic season in the liturgical calendar – it places us squarely between the already and not yet, the once and future King, the arrival and the return of Jesus Christ. And yet, the apocalyptic tension of Advent is not necessarily as grim and frightening as it is made out to be (in certain churches). The Shins cover of the Postal Service’s We Will Become Silhouettes embodies a hopeful character while the lyrics are strikingly scary. To me, it captures the essence of a hopeful and realistic Advent of looking straight into the darkness knowing that the dawn is coming.