This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matthew Husband about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 22.1-14, Psalm 13, Romans 6.12-23, Matthew 10.40-42). Matthew is an occupational therapist in Westerville, Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including canonical preaching, the Bible on a bumper sticker, sacrifices, foolish prayers, obedience to grace, singing the faith, baptismal protests, and memorable zingers. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Church Isn’t Full Of Hypocrites (There’s Always Room For More)
He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Look, the Bible is a strange thing.
And God is even stranger.
For, if you ever decide to lift it up and take a stroll through the strange new world of the Bible, its quickly clear that God does so many ungodly things – like not remembering our mistakes and transgressions, erasing the ledger against us, become sin for us.
The only safe way to come to scripture is by first realizing that we really have no idea what we’re doing.
Which is just another way of saying, God is God and we are not.
And this is perhaps no where better seen than in Jesus’ parables.
They are, without a doubt, some of the most well known bits of the Bible, though just because we know the stories it doesn’t mean we actually know them.
After all, they are told in such a way to destroy every preconceived notion about what we think we know about God such that, after hearing a particular parables, the only thing we can be sure of is that we know less than when it started.
Jesus is far more concerned with telling stories than explaining them.
GK Chesterton, country to how we so desperately want all things explained all the time, once opined that if you tell someone a story and they claim not to understand, tell them again. And, if they say they still don’t understand, give it to them a third time. But from there on, if they still insist they do not understand, the only thing left is to praise them for the one truth they seem to have a grip on: “Yes,” you say, “You are quite correct – you do not understand.”
And leave it at that.
If Jesus wanted things simple, and easy, and therefore accessibly presentable, he would’ve told his tales that way.
But he didn’t.
And not only did he come to preaching paradoxical parables, the gospel writer tell us that he endeavor to speak nothing except in parables!
This Kingdom of Jesus’, whatever think it might look like, is always far more mysterious than any of us can imagine.
Listen: When you buy a new lamp for your living room, do you hide it under the rug or leave it in the closet? Or, do you put it on that nice table next to the couch so it really lights up the room? Hidden things are brought to the surface and secrets are exposed.
Listen: The Kingdom of God is as if someone threw seeds onto the ground and then went to bed. Overnight, the seed produces of itself, and the person has no idea how it happens.
What in the world is Jesus cooking up here?
The lamp, the light that shines in the darkness, the Good News in a world drowning in bad news, is the Word that comes with the kingdom, namely Jesus. But unless that lamp is set up in such a way to spread light near and far, the light will never be seen.
Or, to push the parable in its profound direction, if we keep sweeping Jesus under the rug, if we hide him in the closet when no one is looking, if we stand Him on anything other that the story of a world turned upside down, then we really will be stuck in the darkness.
For, the kingdom Jesus embodies, inaugurates, and incarnates, is already here among us. We don’t have to sit around and wait for it, we don’t even have to work for it.
The best thing we can do, really the only thing we can do, is not make Jesus’ job any harder than it already is.
But, for some strange reason (lets call it sin), we believe its our job to do Jesus’ job.
I am bringing you today’s sermon from the midwest where my in-laws live. In fact, I am preaching from my mother-in-law’s art studio.
It took us a long time to drive our here, particularly with a four year old who wouldn’t stop asking the one question you’re not allowed to ask on road trips. And throughout our westward journey, I was confounded by how many theologically infused highway billboards coasted by our windshield.
Some were straight forward with promises of “A Friendly Church Atmosphere” 7 miles ahead at Exit 86.
Others displayed stock photo images of families with children of every ethnic and racial background under a church name just so the observers will know that no matter what they might be like, they can find other people like them at said church. Even though, statistically speaking, churches are some of the most segregated spaces in the country.
But the overwhelming majority of billboards were, to put it mildly, terrifying.
“STOP AND ACCEPT JESUS NOW OR SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES”
“DO YOU WANT TO BURN FOREVER? CALL THIS NUMBER…”
“AVOID ETERNAL PUNISHMENT WITH THREE SIMPLE WORDS: JESUS IS LORD.” That one was followed by three smiley face emojis.
Almost every churchy sign, with the exception of those with empty promises about welcoming, loving, and tolerating congregations, were predicated on making an action now to insure the future.
That future is what we in the church often call Heaven. And, to our wondering and wandering imaginations, Heaven is often filled with fluffy clouds and pipe cleaner halos, and a whole lot of boredom.
But in Scripture, the thing those signs portend to represent, Heaven is actually a whole lot more like earth. In fact, it is those two things wedded together – the predominant image Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of Heaven is a wedding feast that never stops, a party with food and drink that never ever ends.
And that kingdom, the kingdom of celebration, is what Jesus says is sown on the earth, lit like a lamp, and never to be hidden under a basket, or a rug, or in the closet.
Which is just another way of saying, Christianity is less about what happens when you die and more about what’s happening with and in the life you’ve been given.
The kingdom is already done, it is here, it cannot be taken away. It is a lamp set up on a lampstand shining bright for all to see. It dwells in us, among us, and for us. The person of Jesus Christ, kingdom incarnate, has already done for us that which we could not do for ourselves. That is the light in which we live.
And rather than just leaving it right there, Jesus continues with his penchant for parables and proceeds to give yet another illustration of the very points he’s been cooking together.
Consider the seed that grows without work on the part of the one who threw it to the ground. The kingdom is at hand, planted right here, at work in this world right now. Jesus is sown into all of this and brings about a new reality that shakes the foundations of everything we hold dear.
By his death and resurrection, Jesus, as God in the flesh, reconciles everything, everywhere, to himself. And at the end, when he makes all things new, he makes not just a new Heaven but a new earth, combined and mixed and stuck together forever.
That is God’s work in Christ, and it happens for us and in spite of us!
Notice: once the person in the parable sows the seed, nothing else is done. The sower goes to bed, wakes up and goes to the grocery store, maybe hits the gym for a quick workout, comes home to make dinner, and goes to bed again. That’s what happens day after day and night after night — all the while, the seed that is the kingdom sprouts and grows in a way that the person simply knows nothing about.
Jesus says the seed bears fruit of itself automatically. The kingdom has been sown into the world among sinners and saints, the best and the worst, the greatest and the least, the perfect and the pitiful, and it will come up a perfect kingdom all by itself.
It grows without any help, and when it’s ready in all of its ripeness, that’s when the sickle comes.
The harvest is made.
And, that sounds nice, but what about all the bad people? Do they get taken up in the harvest as well? What about the person who burned that bridge with us so long ago? What about the people on the news every night that make us clench our fists? What about those we clearly believe are outside the realm of Jesus’ kingdom?
But Jesus doesn’t make distinctions here. The kingdom is ready for harvest and that’s that.
And that might be the most confounding part of this paradoxical set of parables.
It is confounding to us because every one of us is an eschatology junkie – we are consumed by the idea that, in the end, in the eschaton, wrongs must be set right, that those who are evil must be kicked out of the intertwined new heaven and earth, and that the only way the Kingdom can ever come is if we separate the good from the bad, and the deserving form the undeserving, and the saints from the sinners.
Notice, in the kingdoms of earth, our favorite solutions to problems are knocking people down a peg or two, locking them up behind bars, and – if all else fails, getting them out of the game forever with the death penalty.
We set up systems (powers and principalities) all in the name of law and order, but in the end they keep the poor poor and the rich rich. They lift the mighty even higher, and bring the low even lower. They, to put it simply, make the world a better place by making it better for certain people and far worse for everyone else.
Remember: it was law and order that nailed Jesus to the cross – church and state working together for the common good to keep suppressed that which they disagreed with.
Which, isn’t too far of a stretch from how we’re still living.
To bring it full circle – we think its all up to us. We believe we have been so elected by God to be the great arbiters of morality and justice and goodness all while the world continues to go down the drain. We come up with all these “great ideas” on how to fix everything when, even if we do take a step forward, it doesn’t take long before we fall tumbling back.
The kingdom grows, Jesus tells us, because the kingdom has already been sown into the ground. It grows of itself in its own time and, above all, we don’t know how! Any and all the bright ideas we might have of making the world a better place, about how to fix everything we think is broken, how to make people more holy and faithful and good and honest and true, will always and everywhere fall short of what God in Christ has already done and is forever doing.
This has been proven again and again throughout history because if the kingdom could have been made to grow perfectly in this world by our own bright ideas, it would have sprouted up all over the place and there would never be anything bad on the news at night.
But it never did and it never will.
Except, except, in a mysterious way that will always be outside of our moralizing and addiction to knowing how everything should be happening.
We might be obsessed with the end as we see it, but Jesus, in this parable, reminds us that the end is in his hands, and so too is the present. The kingdom is already here, it is made manifest among and within people like us – it is happening and we know not how.
For a people hell bent on having explanations for everything, that’s bad news.
But for those who live in Jesus’ kingdom, there’s nothing better. Amen.
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!”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia 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.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Think and Let Think · All!
They were all together in one place.
A little more than a week had passed since they watched their Lord ascend to the right hand of the father. And whatever joy they had been feeling in the moment, the proverbial kick in the rear end from the angels asking about their eyes in the sky, apparently dried up. One would hope that the first disciples, having been commissioned by Jesus would actually be out there in the world doing the work they had been entrusted to do.
But instead they were all together in one place.
A violent wind came whipping through the room without warning, knocking over tables and cutlery, such that it filled the entire place where they were staying.
Divided tongues, like fire, appeared among them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.
The early disciples tumbled out of the house, into the streets from which they were previously hiding and they made good on the new gift and started speaking to the people in their own native tongues.
They told them the Good News.
The crowds, meanwhile, were amazed and astonished by the miracle in their midst and all of wondered what it could possibly mean.
And yet others sneered and said, “They’re just drunk.”
The rest of the story goes that Peter takes that as his cue to preach, stands in the midst of the street, delivers the Word, and 3,000 were added to their number that day.
I’ve got to tell you, I’ve preached from Acts 2 every Pentecost since I became a pastor, and even the best of my sermons haven’t come close to delivering thousands of new people to the church.
For a while I wondered if it was because I wasn’t as good of a preacher as Peter.
But, go read his sermon some time.
It’s terrible. It’s boring. There’s no illustration. It doesn’t even end with an application.
So then I thought it was because the church wasn’t doing its job holding up the Acts 2 vision.
But, go look at what the church does.
Nothing. The only thing the people called church do is act like they’re drunk early in the morning.
The story of the arrival of the Spirit in Acts 2 is counter to just about everything we think about and do in the church today. It is disruptive, it is confounding, and it is for all.
If you tune out in the next few minutes, no worries. Just pick up a Bible and notice how many time the word “all” appears in this text.
Just like the Spirit.
I can give you plenty of reasons why the church shouldn’t exist. It’s filled with a bunch of sinners who are struggling with our inability to be good. We put up signs like, open hearts, minds, and doors when we actually close off our hearts, minds, and doors to anything we might deem “other.”
And, to be real, the church is a place where people get together week after week to sing songs, sit in silence, listen to someone preach, and then eat the body and blood of Jesus.
It’s shouldn’t exist.
But people keep showing up. People keep streaming worship on their phones and computers.
None of this can be explained without Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. None of what happens here is intelligible unless the Spirit was poured out on ALL flesh.
And when the Spirit hits, it knocks us out of alignment from everything we think we’re supposed to do, say, and believe.
I’ve heard it said, in this church no less, “God is good all the time – all the time God is good.”
Which is fine.
But, if that’s true, then why have we been worshipping at home for so long? Why do black men keep getting killed in this country for no reason other than the color of their skin? Why can’t we have God when we really need God? What good is the goodness if it’s not there when we need it?
It took me a long time to come to grips with this stark reality. And the Pentecost story is the one that helped me. You see, by the time the Holy Spirit showed up, the Israelites had been waiting centuries for a gift and Word from the Lord like they received on Pentecost.
Earlier, Moses was told to save God’s people, to deliver them to the Promised Land, and he does, but he dies before he can get there himself.
Later, the prophet Isaiah spends three years wandering around naked as a sign and wonder against the Egyptians.
Even Lazarus was dead for three days before Jesus showed up and called him out of the tomb.
Which is all to say: God’s time is not our time. God’s ways are not our ways.
Long before the wind swept through the house and tongues of fire landed on the disciples, the people of God were long trained in being out of control and out of time. And even though they were trained in this practice of patience, it still drove them crazy.
It still drives us crazy.
Its why, rather than having difficult conversations this week about yet another black man’s murder, people like me are quick to post poetic reflections on the problems of racism.
Its why, rather than engaging in the long process of upending the inequality of this country, we offer our lament and move quickly on to whatever the next story might be.
It why, rather than calling into question the powers and principalities that so dominate and control our attention, we talk about the looting of stores rather than the destruction of bodies.
We want to be in control of all things, and make sure things happen according to our timetable, and that it all happens while requiring the least of us.
And yet, to follow Jesus is ongoing training for learning to live a life out of control.
Faith, belief, trust, those are merely words for letting go of our presumption that fixing the world is up to us. Everything has already been done that needs doing. The end has already come to us in the person of Jesus through cross and resurrection. The powers and principalities have been vanquished forever.
We just don’t act like it.
Or to put it another way, we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we can do the work of the church whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead.
What difference does it make if he wasn’t raised? Jesus is a good ethical teacher, he wants us to be kind to one another, spread a little more love in the world.
But that’s ridiculous!
Christianity has nothing to do with getting along with one another.
Christianity is a violent Spirit blowing wherever it wants, knocking us down or back in order to get done what the Spirit wants getting done.
We want God to be for us, which means, of course, that we want God to be against them, whoever the them might be.
But the Spirit doesn’t show up for us, or for them, the Spirit is poured out on ALL flesh.
Contrary to all of our best intentions, and all our well meaning programs and practices, we continue to sin against the Spirit poured out on Pentecost because we continue to do whatever we can to explain away the disruption that is God.
And we all know why we do this – we’re afraid.
We’re afraid of the Spirit that goes wherever it wants.
We’re afraid, though we think we have it all together, that we’re going to be grabbed up from our comfortable couches, shaken and thrown into confusion, and have even intoxicated like behavior.
Most of us, myself included, go to worship to have confirmed what we think we already know. That we’re right, and good, and fine, and they (whoever they are) are wrong. We don’t expect to be turned upside down.
But those early Christians, the ones accused of being drunk early in the morning, they were so accused because the Good News tasted like 200-proof grace that makes the room spin around with outrageous joy.
Here’s another way to think about it: When was the last time you left a church service, whether in-person or online, so joyful, so out of control, so confused, so filled with the brim with grace that someone said of you, “Look at those Christians again, drunk as skunks on a Sunday morning.”?
Usually, when we wrap things up on a Sunday morning, onlookers are more likely to say, “Look at those Christians, they look so smug, they look so bored, they look so dead.”
The Spirit refuses to let us die in our own self-righteous indignation.
The Spirit is poured out on all flesh, the good and the bad, the tall and the small, the black and the white, the rich and the poor, all so that we might begin to see the world and ourselves differently.
Flannery O’Connor has a short story about a woman named Ruby Turpin. In it, Mrs. Turpin is a large Southern white woman who believes she is superior to just about everyone else, but particularly black folk. She spends her days looking down on those she deems unworthy, and the story picks up with her taking her husband to the doctor’s office for an appointment.
In the waiting room, she is disgusted to find people of lower classes, lower ambitions, filling up all the seats while she has to stand. She strikes up a conversation with a nearby mother who is there with her daughter and they bond over their disdain for certain individuals. They wax lyrical about the virtues of being hardworking, clean, and having a good disposition. And the more they talk the more the young daughter glares at Mrs. Turpin with hatred in her eyes over the cover of a book.
Eventually, the conversation moves closer to home as the mother complains that her daughter isn’t grateful enough for everything she’s been given. Mrs. Turpin, of course, agrees with the woman wholeheartedly, when all of the sudden the young daughter takes her book and throws it with all of her might straight at Mrs. Turpin’s face and hits her right above the eye. The girl further lunges toward Mrs. Turpin, grabs her around the throat, and has to be subdued and given a sedative by the doctor.
Right before the girl gives way to the medicine flowing in her veins, Mrs. Turpin demands an apology from her, and instead all the girl says is, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
Needless to say, Mrs. Turpin is greatly disturbed by the comment, and can’t help herself from wondering if maybe it was a message from God. And the more she thinks on it, the more upset she becomes.
Eventually she returns home only to scold God in her prayers, demanding to know how she, the upstanding, polite, and perfect Christians she think she is, could possibly be an old wart hog. She even angrily lifts up her fists in the sky and shouts, “Who do you think you are?”
And its at that precise moment, with rage in her veins, she sees a vision. It’s a road from the earth to the sky, and on that road she and all the “proper” white Christians are at the back of the line. In front of them, arriving in heaven first, are all the people Mrs. Turpin considers inferior and unworthy of either her or even God’s love.
Sometimes the Spirit shows up in a perfectly timed hymn, or just the right scripture reading, or even in the occasional sermon.
But most of the the time the Spirit shows up like a mighty wind, like flames of fire, or like a book being hurled across the room.
Because all of us, each and every single one of us is an old wart hog. We choose to do things we know we shouldn’t. We avoid doing things we know we should. And yet God still pours out the Spirit on all of us.
And all really means all. Amen.
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the time or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. When he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Think and Let Think · A Job To Do
You want to hear about Josh don’t you?
Everybody wants to know about Josh. It doesn’t matter where I go or what I do, or even what I say, it always comes back to him.
Which, to be fair, makes sense.
He turned my life upside down before he did it to the world, who wouldn’t want to know more?
But if you want to know about Josh, you need to know what my life was like before he showed up.
I was happy.
Well, that’s not true. But I was really good at making it seem like I was happy.
You know the whole married, kids, nice job, mortgage, decent neighborhood. I traveled a lot for work back then and I was a frequent guest a particular airport bar. I’d be coming in, or going out, or not really knowing the difference when I would sit down and the bartender knew what to bring before I could even ask for it.
And it was during one such barstool session that Josh arrived.
He sat down right next to me and he said, “Pete, you’re going to make a killing on this trip, huge bonus is coming your way, but I’ve got something better for you.”
To be clear, I’d never laid eyes on this guy in my life, and here is is telling me about my work and even calling me by name. I should’ve known then that it was something not normal. But I didn’t, and I just went along with him.
“Sure,” I said, “That makes total sense, except business has been lousy and I can’t even remember the last time I got a bonus.”
“I don’t know,” he said, “I’m in the miracle business and I know one is coming your way. But, again, I’ve got something better for you. Why don’t you finish your drink and follow me?”
Maybe it was the 3rd too many drinks I had already consumed, or the fact that he appeared to know more than he should, or maybe it was something else, but I did get up from that barstool and I followed him straight out of the airport.
And, honestly, I never looked back.
But you don’t want to know about me. You want to know about Josh. You want to know if it’s all true, if it all really happened.
Well, I can tell you the truth, not the crazy stuff that went around on Twitter, or even the low-quality YouTube videos from so-called eye witness.
I was there, for all of it.
Like the time he fed everyone in the park. Do you know that one?
See, we’d been in the park with him all day, Josh had quite a following at that point, he talked most of the day about all sorts of things that sounded nice but didn’t make a lot of sense. At least, it didn’t at the time. He was so good with crowds, it was like he knew exactly how to play them and how to lift them up and bring them down and keep them on the edge of their toes.
But we had been there all day, and when he finished talking he started walking throughout all the people and started curing some of the sick and comforting the downtrodden and no one wanted to leave.
But they were getting hungry.
And then Josh said, “This is a nice size crowd today. You think we have about 5,000? Too bad we don’t have any food to give them. Pizza sounds nice.”
“Pizza?” I said, “Do you know how expensive it is to feed 5,000 people pizza?”
He ignored me and spotted a kid on the other side of the park walking home with a pizza in his arms and he ran after him. Josh came back a minute later with the pizza, and the kid, and said that the boy had agreed to let us borrow the pizza. I mean, who ever heard of borrowing a pizza? But then he told me to round everyone up and to see how far we could stretch it out.
So I grabbed a few pieces and handed them to the closest person and when I went back to the box it was still full. And it was full every time I went back for more. Until everyone in the park had their fill and we even had leftovers.
By the end of the spectacle it was clear what had happened. At first, people just assumed the slices were being passed out from the middle of the park where a whole boatload of pizzas had been delivered. But the word got around that Josh had fed the entire park with just one box of pizza, and they started calling it the greatest miracle of all time and they said that Josh should be elected to the Senate, or even the White House with the kind of powers that he had.
That’s when things really started to change.
Because up until then, Josh seemed content for his miracles to be a substitute for the message. But after the powerful pizza moment, he was convinced that any miracle would give people the wrong impression. He talked about his death a lot at the time and none of us really listened. We were too busy eating our pizza. And even when he talked about a New Order and the first being last and the last being first, it all sounded nice but it couldn’t quite compare with sick kids getting better, and people walking away from their wheelchairs.
But, like I said, things changed after the pizza.
He talked about his death all the time, and those riotous crowds started dwindling. They waited for a miracle and all they got was hot air. He started telling all these stories that didn’t make much sense, like the one about a man abandoned on the side of the road and only a homeless man stopped to help him. Or the one about the dad who sold the family business and gave the proceeds to his youngest son who blew it all in Vegas only to return home penniless and his dad threw him a giant party.
I couldn’t blame the crowds for leaving. I mean, here he was in one day fixing the hunger problem, filling the bellies of thousands. Why couldn’t he run for office and fix all sorts of other things?
But Josh just kept saying the same thing each time, how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously they would still die eventually. He’d talk about a new kind of food, a food that would really fill the world. In fact, he once said that unless we were all filled with him, we would stay dead forever. But if we fed on him, he would raise us from death for good.
But what you really want to know is where he is now. Why did he leave if there’s still so much work to be done?
Well, that’s honestly what I wondered at first too, until I remembered all the stuff he used to say.
Josh’s final earthly act was just as bizarre and paradoxical as his bizarre and paradoxical life was. He had already been killed and raised from the dead. He had been with us for forty days talking to us about all the stuff we had already gone over. When one day he said he wanted to go for a hike. So we filled our bags with sandwiches and headed for the woods. We hiked and hiked until we came to a clearing.
He looked up into the sky and said, “It’s time for me to reign with my Father.”
And one of us said, “Wait, wait, wait. If you’re about to do something really cool, can we at least call the news station to get a camera out here? And if not that, can I at least put it on Facebook Live?”
And Josh said, “No. Listen to me. I know this doesn’t make sense to you. But hasn’t all of this been weird? I am leaving. But I’m not really leaving. It’s time for me to rule over the cosmos, but I’m sending you another soon. I want you to get it through your thick skulls one last time, the world depends on it: The New Order does not come because you or anyone else can do anything to make it happen. I am the New Order; It is me and it is in me. It’s in you. When I ascend I am taking the whole world with me.”
Then he looked up again and continued, “I know it won’t seem like it right now, but this is nothing new. I am simply making manifest what I’ve been doing all along. No meddling, divine or human, spiritual or material, moral or immoral can save the world. Your salvation is already here, in me. The only thing you have to do is trust me.”
And with that he started floating, subtly at first, just a few inches off the ground. “Listen,” he said, “We don’t have long, and you have work to do. But its not the work that you think. It’s not your job to fix anyone or save anyone. Hell, it’s not your job to fix or save yourselves. All you need to do is go and tell everyone what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard. Tell them they are forgiven. And when they don’t believe you, because they won’t, tell them again. Tell them again and again and again until it seeps into the marrow of their very existence. Tell them I’ve gone and done for them what they never could for themselves. Tell them. And don’t let them forget.”
And then he disappeared.
We were all stupefied and kept looking hoping against hope that maybe it was just a trick of the light until we realized that he was gone. But the strangest thing was, it didn’t really feel like he was gone. It felt like he was right there with us.
And that’s when two crazy bearded men came tumbling out of the woods and said, “What the hell are you all doing standing around like that? Didn’t you hear what he said? Go. You’ve got a job to do.”
And I’ve been doing it ever since. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Tripp Fuller about the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 1.6-14, Psalm 68.1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4.12-14, 6.6-11, John 17.1-11). Tripp is the host of Home-brewed Christianity, and is a Religion/Science Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Our conversation covers a range of topics including homeschooling in quarantine, Process Theology, hide and seek, idiotic disciples, looking down and out, psalm problems, faithful suffering, tyrannical immediacy, thinking small, and the doneness of the Good News. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Gold Bond and The Gospel
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The Spirit fell upon the disciples like flames of fire.
They were given the gift to speak in many languages, tumbled out into the streets, and started spitting off the Good News.
Crowds of people assumed they were drunk, even very early in the morning.
But Peter, ever eager Peter, stood and preached to the people and told them exactly what God was up to.
And that day, 3,000 were added to the early church.
That should be the end of the story and we should be able to move on to the next relevant narrative. After all, it’s the Acts of the Apostles so it would nice to find out what happens next. Maybe jump to the early details of Saul soon to be Paul. Or maybe give us an update on what the women who went to the tomb were now up to. Maybe we could catch a glimpse of the powers and principalities plotting against this budding group that just won’t shut up.
But that’s not what happens in Acts.
Luke just keeps going. The story continues by showing, rather immediately, how the Holy Spirit is embodied by those who are now part of The Way.
They devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
They gather together in fellowship.
They break bread and feast with one another.
And, finally, they share their prayers.
But it’s more than that.
We, those of us for claim to follow Jesus, we can point to any of those descriptions as being part of our faith lives even today.
On a weekly basis many of us commit ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, we gather (even on the internet) to share in fellowship with the revealed Word, we offer signs of peace to each other with the breaking of bread, and, at the very least, we pray.
But wait, there’s more!
And the more is something that, we confess, we’d like to overlook at times.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need.
I mean, God, it’s all good and fine if you want us to put some money in the offering plate or donate online every once in a while. We’re even on board with serving meals to the homeless so long as it eases our guilty consciences.
But selling off our possessions and distributing the proceeds to other people?
That sounds awful.
Luke choses this moment, having learned that the Good News is spreading like wild fire, to show what the early gathering of faith looks like. And it looks like a bunch of lazy pinko commies who want everything done for them.
Or, that’s at least how some would have us imagine it.
However, the commonality of goods is set up as a concrete testimony of how empowering the Holy Spirit really is. It forces us to confront, with wonder, that something unsettling, specific, and substantial has happened to these bewildered and bewildering people.
And maybe, just maybe, we should call the first Christians communists.
That, of course, sounds ridiculous and downright rude to some of our ears. Communism, politically speaking, doesn’t really come close to the bartering and redistribution of the small and early group of the faithful, but it is notable that we find those two things to be so incompatible with one another.
Particular when, frankly, Christianity has far less in common with something like capitalism than communism.
This is somewhat of a scandal to those of us in the West, and in particular those from the good ol’ US of A. Today, with our (and by “our” I mean American) bizarre piety for, and idolatry of, free enterprise and private wealth, it’s almost unimaginable that we would ever call something like this country a Christian nation.
Or, to put it simply, if the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, then it’s not the kingdom of God.
Certainly no one in the Acts church, not even Peter, was advocating for, or attempting to institute, some new political rule over and against the powers and principalities. The disciples were not holding informational meetings with agendas about how to get the right people elected to office. Nor were they standing on the street corners of Jerusalem handing out hats emblazoned with “Make Israel Communist Again.” They weren’t even setting up their own political action committees to consolidate tremendous amounts of money.
But the church was (and always will be) its own politics.
Our form of life as the gathering body of Christ is predicated on the sharing of goods as seen here at the beginning of Acts. And it’s not just because we think we should be doing nice things for other people.
It’s simply the embodiment of what we really believe.
God has made all things new and turned the world upside down.
However, most us would like to tip it back over every once in a while.
It’s amazing to read this little description of the early church and see how far we’ve moved away from it. But, for a long time in the early centuries of the church, the redistribution of all things was fairly normative. So much so that even by the 4th century, Ambrose of Milan refused to grant that even a rich man could make gifts to the poor. Instead, he could, at most, only restore what already belonged to them,
Say that in a place like the US today and you’re liable to get kicked out.
Again, many would consider that behavior and idealism downright awful.
But how could it ever be possible unless people were filled with awe?
They devoted themselves to this wildly different way of living, instilling a sense of value and worth in all people, and then they broke bread together with glad and generous hearts.
Which, in many senses, means they liked to have a good time with each other.
And, this makes a lot of sense. When you take away the things that tend to divide us from one another the most (namely economics and possessions), when those walls are torn down forever, there’s no better way to respond than by throwing a party.
This really is at the heart of what it means to be a gathering people, to be the church.
Go through the Gospels sometimes and note how many times Jesus “was at table with them.” And the them in that sentence contains a whole bunch of people who never would’ve eaten together otherwise.
Jesus goes to a wedding, and when the host runs out of wine he makes manifest the first miracle so that the party won’t stop.
Jesus comes upon a tiny little tax collector, a man who has made life miserable for so many, and what does he do? He invites himself over for lunch.
Jesus meets the deserting and denying disciples on the shore of the sea with some grilled fish and a nice loaf of artisanal bread.
Of all the criticisms lobbed at Jesus by the governing and religious authorities, the fact that he ate with sinners is one of the things that comes up the most. They couldn’t stand the company he kept at table. Receiving the outcasts, eating with the marginalized, instilling worth and value in people who felt worthless and valueless was Jesus cup of tea.
And it drove people crazy.
It would be quite easy, therefore, to take this text and preach it at people like all of you in such a way that you would feel guilty for not inviting more of the riffraff over for dinner. It’s not all that difficult to raise up the redistribution of goods here in Acts and drop that like a bombshell on the dozing church and triumphantly declare that you all need to get your acts together!
And, that’s all fine. Perhaps we should feel guilty for the company we keep and maybe we should feel guilty about how we keep holding onto all our earthly possessions while people around us starve.
Jesus failed to make distinctions between people and we can’t get enough of it of those distinction that people squarely in their places.
But, haven’t we heard all of that before?
We need longer tables, and more open churches, and bigger feeding programs.
Preacher types like me remind people on a somewhat regular basis that Jesus has given us work to do. That we must rid ourselves of our addictions to the old systems of prioritized self-interest that result in the first being first-er and the last being last-er.
But has that kind of exhortation ever worked?
Notice: when Jesus went to the wee-little man’s house for a mid-afternoon snack, he doesn’t tell him to go and repay everyone he wronged.
The tax collector comes up with that all on his own.
Notice: The Holy Spirit doesn’t command the early church to set up programs for food delivery and economic redistribution.
They just start living differently.
Being filled with awe, really filled with awe, is a crazy thing and can make us do crazy things.
And what could fill us with more awe than knowing that Christ chooses us?
Or, let me put it another way: What if what we’re supposed to focus on isn’t so much our need to have bigger visions of the kingdom, but that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom was big enough to include us?
Or how about this: What if instead of thinking about what we would have to do to get criticized for the people we hang out with, we thought about how Jesus would be criticized for hanging out with the likes of us?
Because, let’s admit it, we don’t have a lot going in our favor.
We do things we know we shouldn’t.
We avoid doing things we know we should.
We care more about ourselves than other people.
Giving up our possessions so that those who have nothing can have something doesn’t sound like a good deal.
And knowing this, knowing that we bristle at the ideas and images of a radical way of life, knowing that our addiction to self-interest isn’t something we can kick, Christ comes to us and for us anyway.
It’s like we’ve been brought before the throne of God and every single one of our mistakes is paraded out in front of us. With every instance we cower closer and closer to the floor. And at the end, Christ looks at us, really looks at us, and says, “It’s okay. I forgive you.”
That is radical.
Perhaps even more radical than inviting a few extra people over and giving away a few things to make someone else’s life a little better.
Once we even come close to realizing how ridiculous it is that Jesus has invited us to his table, how bewildering it is that in him all things are held together, how perplexing it is that through him the first have become last and the last have become first, then we can begin to see what it means to be filled with awe.
It could change everything.
It already has.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.14a, 36-41, Psalm 116.1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1.17-23, Luke 24.13-25). Sarah is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including shame in the church, John Prine, preaching with authority, Jesus’ titles, The Good and Beautiful Life, loving the Lord, the preciousness of death, Peter and Social Distancing, and grace in retrospect. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Walking and Talking
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
In this strange new time I keep referring to as Coronatide, we have been physically separated by orders of law and state, but we are still bound to one another through the Lord. And yet, it has become apparent with every Facebook post calling on people to answer questions in order to learn more about one another that we really don’t know much about each other at all.
Well, knowing that we don’t know what we don’t know, I’m going to share something that you do know about me, no matter who you are, and something I know about you, no matter who you are.
We’re all going to die.
What a way to start a sermon!
Or, as it is written in one of my favorite books, “In the world according to Garp, we’re all terminal cases.”
That’s what we were affirming on Ash Wednesday, which now feels like an eternity ago, and it’s what Lent reminds us at every turn: In the midst of life we are in death. And, frankly, we didn’t need the Coronavirus to remind us. We didn’t need the empty supermarkets, and the abandoned jungle gyms, and the vacant school parking lots to remind us that no one makes it out of this life alive.
Though plenty of us love believing the contrary. We are suckers for the advertisements of products that promise youthful glows, and smoothed wrinkles, and tighter waistlines. We use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s void. We even check the updates on how fast the virus is spreading in certain places and think, “Well surely, it won’t happen like that to me.”
But then it does.
Or, to put it another way, a few weeks ago, before everything really ramped up, I took my 3 year old son out for lunch at a local Chic-fil-a. We ate our waffle fries in beatific silence, smiling as the ketchup smudged our cheeks, and then my boy gave me a look that said, “Dad. Bathroom time.” We quickly cleaned off our messy hands and faces, and bee-lined for the restrooms. After business was taken care of, a man walked in, used the stall next to us, and walked out. To which my son shouted, “Uh, Dad, that guy didn’t wash his hands.”
And I, being the great parent I am, said, “Elijah, say it louder next time.”
In ways both simple and profound, we like to pretend like the one universal truth is actually a lie.
But it’s not.
Ezekiel, contrary to our dispositions, knew the truth of our finitude. Should you have any extra time on your hands while social distancing, go read through the book of Ezekiel, there’s some wild stuff inside. But for today, we get to see, through Zeke’s eyes, the valley of the dry bones.
It must’ve been a particularly striking and relevant image for the bizarre prophet considering his own life situation. Prior to this text, we learn that Ezekiel has been on somewhat of a rampage against God’s people, indicting them for all the had done and left undone. The people God chose to change the world, the people with whom God had covenanted, the people God loved with reckless abandon had abandoned the Lord – they had given themselves over to idolatry.
Idolatry, for the people in the back, is believing and acting as if anything or anyone can give us what only God can give.
Idolatry is believing wealth says more about who a person is than the fact they were made in the image of God.
Idolatry is looking out for our own interests at the expense of the marginalized.
Idolatry is assuming that we can save ourselves.
The people of God worshiped whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, the ignored the plight of the needy, and they believed they were entirely in control of their destines.
And the Lord spoke into their midst and said, “You want idolatry? I’ll give you idolatry!”
They were dragged off as captives to become strangers in a strange land: Babylon. A foreign place where the land was dominated by colossal statues and overwhelming debauchery. In short: a place totally at odds with what the worship and love of God is supposed to look like.
And it’s from this place of exile, maybe something a few of us can identify with right now, that Ezekiel speaks of his vision.
The Lord drags Ezekiel out to a graveyard, that stretches as far as the eye can see, and all his eyes can see are bones piled upon bones, and they’re all dry. And the Lord says, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies, “Lord, only you know.” And the Lord says, “Tell this to the bones: O dry bones the Lord will give you life! The Lord will breathe upon you and the sinews and the flesh will string together and you will live because God is God!”
Ezekiel does what the Lord commanded, and the earth trembles beneath his feet, and like a scene befitting a horror film, Ezekiel watches as bones come together, and tendons and muscles are stretched and skin forms until a vast multitude stands on their feet and they are alive.
“Look” says the Lord, “these bones are the whole of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ But look what I did for them! I will bring you back and you shall know that I am the Lord!”
This is strange stuff, even for the Bible.
The Lord promises to reconstitute the very people who had given up on the Lord.
God breathes life into the bones of those who destroyed life time and time again.
God makes a way where there was no way.
And the bones live.
Contrary to how so many of us speak about church or hear about church, this confounding moment in the valley of the dry bones has not one thing to do with us and whatever it is we think we bring to the table.
Notice: The people of God have done less than nothing to restore God’s faith in them. They died and were buried in their sins and in the trespasses and God says, “Ok, time to make something new.”
They didn’t deserve it and they certainly didn’t earn it.
Notice: God doesn’t tell Ezekiel to go out and give the bones a ten-step process on how to get their lives sorted out. God doesn’t tell the people to pray three times a day in order to earn their salvation. God doesn’t wait for the people to memorize their favorite book of the Bible before the bones starting coming back together.
God raises the bones to life because that’s what God does!
I hope you hear that as a hopeful word. Because even at our best, we’re not very good.
When we hear about the valley of the dry bones, if we hear about it at all, we are often so caught up with the striking physical details that we don’t take a moment to really think about it. We have the benefit, if you want to think about it that way, of knowing whose bones we’re walking on whenever we go through a cemetery. But Ezekiel could only see bones upon bones.
But who did they belong to?
Scripture answer the question for us, of course. The Lord says to Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel?” But even a statement like that warrants further reflection. Because if the bones are the whole house of Israel, that means that some of those bones belong to Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Saul and David, the elect and the reject. It means that buried among that pile of bones are the good and the bad, the sinners and the saints, the first and the last.
I don’t know what you all have been up to these last few weeks, but I’ve seen and heard countless stories about people going above and beyond to help people in need. Distilleries shutting down production of their whiskey in order to reformat their facilities to produce hand sanitizer. Businesses donating medical masks to hospitals in need. Neighbors picking up groceries for the most vulnerable. Basically, stories of saints.
But for every positive story there’s plenty of stories that demonstrate the opposite.
Individuals hoarding up precious supplies and equipment only to price gouge individuals and business who really need them. Corporations calling on furloughed workers to start GoFundMe campaigns for medical expenses rather than offering financial assistance. And countless politicians using our present crisis as an opportunity to shore up votes for the next election cycle.
And that’s not to mention the great number of pastors who have, foolishly, assured their respective congregations that they can keep worshipping together or going out in public because the Lord will protect them in all of their comings and goings.
Basically, stories of sinners.
In the end, we’re all just a bunch of dry bones sitting in the bottom of a valley. Even the best of us cannot prevent the bell that tolls for us with our perfect spirituality or magnificent morality. Even the worst of us cannot so take advantage of others to stop the inevitability of our own demise.
Remember, in the time of Jesus, it was all of the so-called “good” institutions, both the religious and the secular, following all of the proper protocols, and calling for a vote, people like you and me joined together to crucify Jesus of Nazareth. In all of our goodness and our badness we nailed that man to a cross and hung him up for the world to see.
Stories end in graveyards. I’ve been in enough of them with the dirt in my hands laying it over the bodies of the dead to know it is true. I’ve seen enough tears spilt upon the tombstones of the familiar and the stranger to know that the one thing we all truly share is our death. I’ve listened to enough conversations and met with enough people to know that is our deaths that frighten us the most even if we do everything in our power to convince ourselves otherwise.
The disciples knew it too. That’s why they abandoned the Lord the closer he got to death, it’s why they avoided him on the cross, and it’s why they only trudged up to his grave three days later.
And yet, one of the greatest messages of scripture, a message as plain as day in the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones, is that in the end it’s not up to us to save ourselves. We will be buried among saints and sinners, our bones will dry and scatter, and only God, Father of the Incarnate Word, is the one who raises the dead.
If you find yourself thinking, “My life is all dried up, I’m stuck in the confines of my home unsure of what tomorrow will bring, I have nothing to hope for, I feel completely cut off” then you are in good company. God can work with that. Amen.