A Sermon for Godparent Sunday: God Tricked Me

Matthew 14:13-21The-Godfather-the-godfather-trilogy-9109850-1191-842

Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

God Tricked Me

Gracious God,

You’ve given us to one another

Help us to share what we have

Help us to rely on your grace

Help us to know your ways more and more

 

God tricked me.

Many of you know that I was a content closet atheist for a few years in college.

Content in the way that you’re content after eating a large meal, not content in the way that you’re content after a beautiful sunrise. It would take me years to figure out the difference between those two types of contentment. One was all focused on me and my action and what I was doing.

The other contentment is one given as gift.

Anyway, I was tricked into this Christian life that I currently lead. It’s much different than the one I used to lead.

I used to lead one full of answers. In fact, when I was an atheist I was full of answers, too.

Turns out that in both cases I was just full of it.

Instead I lead a very hungry Christian life. I was tricked into it.

When we baptize people here at Luther, I often look at the God parents and think, “You’re being tricked into this…” By God. By parents. By this baptized person, usually a tiny baby who is so tricky…

Godparents in most mainline churches, Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian…I think more often than not people think it’s an honorary role. A title you bestow on someone, usually a relative, probably a sibling of a parent, whom you really love. It’s almost like it’s a way of showing affection to the Godparent, instead of showing affection to the baptized.

That’s my big critique of it. And I’ve been vocal in that. People ask me who should be a Godparent and my go-to answer is, “Someone of faith who will be in the child’s life their whole life.”

Part of that comes from me not knowing my own Godparents at all. Part of it comes from me, as a pastor, being frustrated by the fact that Godparents make these promises…but don’t know how they’re going to keep them. Or aren’t really expected to.

They’re tricked into it in a lot of ways.

Because that baptized person, whether they’re a child or an adult, is going to be hungry. Hungry to know the world, hungry with questions about God and spirituality and faith-crisis and apathy, and so often we tell the spiritually hungry to go somewhere else.

Like the disciples in today’s gospel reading. “It’s late,” they say. “Send these people away to get some food.” To which Jesus responds, “You feed them.”

And the disciples give this great answer, “But we only have this little bit of food…”

I think another way of saying that is, “We don’t even think we have enough to eat, how can we feed someone else?”

And there.

There is the hinge of action.

Because, see, I think that we all figure that if we’re going to talk with someone else about faith, especially a God child, that somehow we have to have it all figured out. We have to be full of faith answers. And when we find out that we’re not, we figure that, well, we don’t even have enough answers to go around for us! How can we feed this other one…

And what does Jesus do?

He says, “Give me what you have.”

And then he prays, and the disciples distribute…notice that. Jesus doesn’t distribute; the disciples do the work. God’s work, their hands.

And they distribute and all of a sudden it’s not about having enough, but about sharing that thing that you have.

And, boom, it’s so much that even the broken parts of what is shared aren’t lost.

And that last little bit makes me a little teary, actually. Because in that line I retain hope that even the broken parts of my faith, the broken parts of my past, the times when I thought I was full of answers and really was just full of it, are taken up and saved.

Even those parts aren’t lost in the God who invites sharing what we have over having enough.

So there I was, this nice little theology and philosophy major atheist, thinking I was right and full of answers coming to the communion table most weeks because, well, how can you study religion from afar, right? You gotta be in it.

And then all of a sudden that bread was passed to me one Sunday and I thought to myself, “Wait a minute. I think I might actually trust that a God is present, here, in this little act…”

And I was hungry. Hungry for that bread. Not hungry for answers, hungry with questions.

Questions that had to be shared.

So, for all you God parents out there, how many of are here?

How many of you have God parents?

Ok, for all of you out there, here’s the thing: I think you’ve been tricked.

The world has tricked you into thinking you have to have all the answers. That’s a devious lie.

But God is tricky, too. God is tricky in the way a person in the kitchen hides yeast in 3 measures of flower. God is tricky like a sower throwing seed all over the place, planting in places you’d never expect something to grow. God is tricky like one who plants a mustard seed in a garden, like one who buries treasure in a field, like one who searches for pearls and finds one and buys it right away even though it’s really expensive.

God is tricky in the way that the world is not: with a mischievous grin, planting a seed of trust into our hearts that grows slowly, achingly, painfully, and gets more complex as it grows. And you think it’s never going to produce fruit until someone comes to you who is hungry for some sort of faith discussion.

And maybe you’re too smart for all of that, or all of this even. Your intellectualism has caused you to come this far, but you won’t go farther. Your doubt has brought you this far, but this is it…nothing to share here. I’ll show up for the show, but I won’t drink the Kool-aid.

Well, we don’t have any Kool-aid. Only wine and bread.

And you look at your little vine of faith and all of a sudden there is this small piece of fruit on there and you think to yourself, “Surely this is not enough for anyone to share. I don’t have a faith story. My faith isn’t very big; it can’t really feed anyone.”

And in that moment you may find that God tricks you into sharing it. And the moment you do you’ll find that there’s plenty there…even if the vine is small and shriveled, even if the fruit is tiny.

Because faith is not about answers, it’s about questions. The questions in this life connect us. Answers tend to divide.

So you God parents and God children, when you make a promise to uphold this person in faith, do so knowing that one day you’re going to be tricked into sharing what you have.

And, by God, you just might find out that by sharing what you have you’ll have baskets full of return, more than you’d ever dream of. And even those broken pieces of yourself, those times when you didn’t live into your faith, those times when you were full of it, even those times will be redeemed in the sharing.

It’s funny, AA has picked up on this. In the sharing you find that it is enough.

Most of the church, though, shares answers…and then they wonder why people are turned off, turned away, or tuned out of life.

When the disciples come to Jesus and essentially say, “We don’t have enough,” Jesus doesn’t say, “Yes you do!” No assurances. Jesus just prays and encourages them to share.

No answers there. Just acting on trust. Acting on faith. Jesus supports our hands. There is enough.

Kind of like watching a 160lb Jewish guy on a cross and thinking, “God…this is not enough for salvation. There must be more.” And God responds with, “Just share the story. Act on trust.”

And it is enough. Thank God for that.

Sermon Thoughts: Beyond the Miracle (and the Post-Modern Miracle)

No one is familiar with this week’s Gospel lesson.Mosaic fish bread Tabgha DSCN0014

Sure, everyone has heard it, but I don’t think anyone is familiar with it.  Not even me.

Loaves and fishes.  In Matthew, in Luke, in Mark.  Is this the feeding of the 4,000 or the 5,000?  Is this the one where Jesus splits people up into groups or just has them sit down?  Does a little boy have the loaves and fishes this week, or do the disciples?  What kind of prayer does Jesus say?  Is this community organizing?

Kind of like the Christmas story (magi or shepherds?), this story is one where people are a little too familiar for comfort, I think, and merge all the different descriptions together.

And by now post-modern renditions of this story have flown from academic circles to the pulpit to the pew.  Yeah, we get it: they passed around the bread and as they did so everyone shared a bit of what they had and soon they realized that the *true* miracle was sharing their resources and realizing they had enough…

My biggest problem here is that it’s a very liberal, post-modern way of trying to explain an event that really doesn’t beg an explanation.

How is there enough to feed the 5,000?  Miracle? Sharing? How?

Again, I wonder if this is the wrong question.

Think of this as a parable.

Think of the situation on the macro-level.  We’re sitting down at the banquet of the world.

So-called Disciples: “Send the people to their own places to eat.”

Jesus: “You feed them.”

So-called Disciples: “But we only have enough for us.”

Jesus: “Uhm…check again?”

So-called Disciples: “Yup. Just enough for us.”

Jesus: “The kingdom of heaven is like two loaves and a few fishes that, when freed from ownership and offered to all who hunger, becomes food enough so that even the broken pieces are saved.”

How does that change how we view what is “ours”?  How does that change how we view the broken pieces and places of humanity that we imagine aren’t worth saving or able to be saved?

Because, I’ll wager a guess that most of the places that we have globally decided “aren’t worth saving” are places full of the hungry.

We waste time thinking about how this could have happened.  We need to spend some time planting the mustard seed of God’s kingdom into the hearts of humanity so that they imagine how this can happen.

No one is familiar with this text.  Sure, everyone knows it.  But when I turn on the news it’s abundantly clear that no one is familiar.

 

Returning Students

Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52

31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it isparables the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
33He 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.”
44The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51Have you understood all this? They answered, “Yes.” 52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Returning Students

We pray,

Weave through our hearts Lord,

Like a mustard weed, vineing through our beings

That we might know we are of great price

That we might be caught in the net of your kingdom

That we might be students of your love yet again today.

 

I cook at home. Subsequently I’ve also sliced pieces off every one of my fingers. I haven’t mastered the knife skills…though I’m not sure any chef really has. They all slice themselves sometimes.

I had a seminary professor who could fluently speak five languages. When I questioned him on this I said, “Really?! Five languages? You’ve mastered five languages?” He answered, “No. I only speak one well. And it isn’t English.” He didn’t consider himself a master of languages, though he certainly had skill.

Most all of our life is geared toward mastery. We go to college. We get a Master’s degree (which is funny because mine say that I’ve “Mastered Education” and “Mastered Divinity”…yeah, right). Some go on to get other certifications, licensures, skills. Some to doctorates, double doctorates, or…the one I’m pining for…honorary doctorates.

Most all of our life is geared toward mastery in one form or another. We must master how to use the new kitchen appliances, the band saw, the new computer software, the GRE, SAT, and a million other acronyms. We need to master acronyms just to figure out all that we need to master!

And then in steps Jesus to eject us from that mindset, the mindset of mastery, into the realm of spiritual wisdom…which has nothing to do with mastering anything, but rather perception, attunement, openness, awareness.

You know, those sorts of amorphous things.

It’s frustrating, you know? I almost wish that Jesus could center our spiritual lives around some sort of technical skill like needlepoint or woodworking. Something that we could gain proficiency at.

Instead we have to work on things like “love” and “forgiveness” and you wonder, at each moment, if you’re becoming more proficient at love and forgiveness or less proficient…

Because sometimes it’s difficult to tell. I had someone last week ask me how I know if I’ve really forgiven someone. The only answer that I could come up with, an answer deep within me, is that sometimes I just have to remind myself that I’ve forgiven someone…or even forgiven myself. That’s as close to mastery as I’ve been able to come…

We also think we have to master wisdom in this world. “Stupid is as stupid does,” we proudly quote. Forrest Gump, the supposed poster-child for not being blessed with intelligence, rightly becomes the mouthpiece of wisdom for a generation of Americans who find themselves more often than not on the losing end of that saying. We all find ourselves there sometimes.

Confucius notes in Analects (which you should read if you haven’t) that wisdom is “knowing what you do know, and knowing what you do not know.”

That’s a far cry from the definition of wisdom touted in the Western world. Wisdom here more often than not is distilled down into having the right answer to anything.

Which is why it’s good that we have these parables before us because these parables, if they do anything, point us to a great spiritual truth and it is this: we are not to master the ways of God. We are perpetual students of God.

It’s why we must gather weekly at the foot of the cross in this place, students sitting at the foot of God.

It’s why Jesus continually claims that infants and children are better at holding the ways of God than adults. Children are in learning mode. They have what that desert-dwelling mystic Father Richard Rohr calls, “beginner’s mind. They are aware of what they know and what they don’t know.

Perhaps Jesus uses the terms “infants” and “children” and purposefully avoids the term “teenagers.” It seems in our teenage years we become less wise. Hence the word “sophomore;” wise-fool. So many adults are sophomores, this one included…

I think some are under the impression that we go to church to master religion. Or master Jesus. Or master the path to heaven. Or learn to master life somehow.

And then Jesus tells us this little story about a person who finds a pearl of great price, and sells everything they have to buy it.

And at the end of that parable, what is the person left with? They didn’t master anything, but rather gave up everything.

Or a person who finds treasure in a field, sells all that they have, and buys the field with the treasure hidden therein.

Or the planter who plants a small weed, a mustard weed, a small seed into a fresh garden knowing it will overtake everything. They haven’t mastered anything…they’ve given up their crops.

The repeating descriptors here in all of these parables: small, hiding, the element of secret-keeping, do you have ears to hear?

These are not stories to master or of mastery. These are stories that master you. They ask you the tough questions like, what is of worth to you? What would you risk everything to have? What might it mean for God to seek you, find you of great price, and sell everything to be with you forever?

What does it mean to imagine God, in her kitchen, has hidden the kingdom of God within the world, within you, like a yeast to infect you?

How is the kingdom of God a weed like the mustard weed, creeping its way through the world inviting you to make a home there?

These are not stories to master. These are parables; they master you. You are the student here. We are always students when it comes to God…

And, perhaps, it might be best to think of your life, our life together, as a parable. Life not as something to master, but as something to learn from. To sit at the feet of life and learn. After all, in the Gospel of John Jesus claims to be the “way, truth, and life.” To sit at the feet of life, to look at all that is to come, all that has been, and to learn from it is to take the parables of Jesus seriously.

That, of course, does not mean that “everything happens for a reason,” or that there is some particular message we are to be learning from this experience or that. Again, that goes back to this idea of mastery…you don’t have to master the meaning. Perhaps there’s not meaning to be mastered, but only meaning to be made.

We’ve even been taught to master ourselves, our own bodies. But the more I practice meditation, the more I realize that I never master my breath, I just learn from each inhale and exhale. That pearl of wisdom, a pearl of great price, is one that I’ve sold all my other mastering attempts for to allow it to live in me. I no longer try to master my preaching, my relationships, my work…I learn from them.

The need and desire for mastery bleeds into all forms of life, causing anxiety. We get anxious when we don’t feel we’ve mastered something, and sometimes this is warranted. A nurse must master putting in an IV. A welder must master the bead of metal and a smooth finish.

But we mistake those tasks for the task of life and the ask of a spiritual life. They are categorically different tasks…and yet so many of us are anxious not over the skills of work, but over life. Spirituality. Faith.

Following Christ in this world does not mean that you seek to master morality, that you seek to master religion, that you seek to master wisdom, master salvation, master God.

The idea that we must master everything is a distinctly Western understanding of what it means to live. Christ was more Eastern than he was Western. And, as the poet Christian Wiman notes, “Even when Christianity is the default mode of a society, Christ is not. There is always some leap into what looks like absurdity, and there is always, for the one who makes that leap, some cost.”

And that, precisely that, is what the parables teach us. They take us on this absurd little trail through a story that seems simple but is more complex than anything we’ve ever heard before, asking us to question what we’d sell everything for; what small pieces of our life are we underestimating, what we’re throwing away and what we’re keeping about this existence.

And they put us to the point of action. Can we truly hope that the kingdom of God is at work like yeast in flour, like a mustard weed in a garden especially when we look around and see violence on our streets, trouble in our marriage, and cancer in our bodies, dare we still look around and cling to the hope that the kingdom of God is still present through it all?  As we watch Gaza burn, dare we believe that God’s kingdom is somehow hidden like buried treasure in that sacred soil, working still?

Can we look at our lives, as students of our lives, and not judge whether we’re good fish or bad fish, but whether what we’re learning is worth keeping or tossing back? Whether we’re seeking just to master this parable we call life, or whether we’re willing to sit at the feet of the Way, the Truth, and the Life to learn from it?

God welcomes us back as returning students. It is good that we’ve come back to the foot of life again. Jesus has a story for us. Don’t tell me what it means, for it doesn’t mean just one thing. Let the story of Jesus sit inside you like a pearl of great wisdom which you’re willing to sell all your attempts at mastery to just hold.

Let the story of Jesus be buried in the field of your life, where you secretly know it’s there even when disaster and tragedy strike. That field is worth keeping with the treasure buried there.

Let the story of Jesus be the seed planted in the garden of your existence, weaving its way through everything so that you feel God’s presence like a shade tree inviting you to come and rest in it.

Let the story of Jesus be the sorter of your life, throwing out the bad and keeping the good.

And at the end of it all, perhaps we’ll know that our lives, too, are living parables. Parables of such great worth that God was willing to sell all divinity to walk with us even unto the cross. And once buried in the ground, hidden like yeast, like a mustard weed, like a treasure of great price, wound up a vine of resurrection that we all take comfort in.

 

Sermon Thoughts: The Kingdom of Heaven is Like…Jesus, Stop Talking

Pearl-of-Great-PriceWe’re knee-deep in parables if you’re following along in church these days.

This week the parables come rapid-fire, one right after the other in Matthew.  At the end of it all Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “Have you understood all that I’ve said?” to which the disciples say, “Yes.”

I have to wonder if that “yes” from the disciples was more of an invitation for Jesus to stop talking than an admission of comprehension.

Something to note: if someone asks you if you “understand a parable,” and they’re not just checking to see if you know the words used, the answer isn’t ever “yes.”

That’s like asking “What does purple taste like?”

It’s nonsensical.  We don’t “understand” parables in the traditional sense of understanding.  Parables aren’t to be decoded.  Parables decode us.

Peter Rollins says it best in his book Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales, “A parable does not primarily provide information about our world. Rather, if we allow it to do its work within us, it will change our world–breaking it open to ever-new possibilities by refusing to be held by the categories that currently exist in that world.  In this way the parable transforms the way we hold reality, and thus changes reality itself.”

He goes on, “The problem with so much religious communication is that it aims at changing our minds.  The result is that we can hear the message of the preacher without necessarily heeding the message; we can listen to the ‘truth’ and agree with it, yet not change in response to it.”

Rollins picks up on a central theme in this week’s string of parables: they’re all calls to awareness and reflection and action. “The parable facilitates genuine change at the level of action itself.  The message is thus hidden in the very words that express it, only to be found by the one who is wholly changed by it.”

There is some sort of impetus on our part, then, not to engage the parable like we would a story about Jesus.  The parable isn’t like Jesus healing the lepers (though the story about Jesus telling the parables would be).  But the parables themselves are an altogether different beast.  They are endlessly instructive.

Which, I guess if you’re going to get to the meat of it all, is the real problem with having the disciples say “yes” when they’re asked if they understood it.  Because that “yes” is really just an invitation to stop engaging it.

And I’ve read a few sermons this week on these parables, and so many go into decoding mode instead of allowing the parables to do the decoding, that I just want to shake these pastors and say, “Jesus, shut up!”

The silence is sometimes better than the sermon, because at least then everybody is able to learn from the text.

Parables are our teachers.  We come back to them for new and different wisdom every time.  A sermon that invites a different answer than the one the disciples gave is, perhaps, the best response.

“Do you understand all that has been said?”

“No.”

“Hear again, then, that the kingdom of God is like a weed, the mustard weed, from the smallest seed…”

And slowly, surely, the weed of the parable will vine around your life producing wisdom of such great price that you will throw out the old ways in deference for the new in the net of existence…

 

Ancient Farming

Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; wheattares125but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”
36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Ancient Farming

We pray,

Lord let our hearts be good soil.

Lord let our hearts be good soil.

Lord let our hearts be good soil today.

This week I was pointed to an article on social media by Humans of New York that interviewed a drug dealer who spoke about his life. It’s a simple story. He got into selling drugs because everyone else around him was doing it, no one around him was interested in hiring him, and it was easy.

With his drug money he bought food for his children. With his drug money he’d give out loans to some of the older ladies in his neighborhood who had trouble making their rent and mortgage payments. He bought school supplies for the local elementary school.

So, good people of Luther Memorial, is this man an example of a weed or wheat in light of today’s Gospel reading?

This week I was walking down Michigan Avenue, and I saw a man sitting with his young son, probably about 3 or 4 years old, asking for pocket change. On the one hand we look at that and think, “How dare he bring his son out here and display him like that?! Shameful.”

On the other hand, the reality of childcare when you are penniless, let alone hungry…well…

So, good people of Luther Memorial, is this man an example of a weed or wheat in light of today’s Gospel reading?

This week we see Hamas in Palestine and the government of Israel lob bombs back and forth. 1 dead in Israel. Over 200 in Palestine, many of them babies. On the one hand, no nation should have to endure rockets being shot into their homes. On the other hand, no nation should have to endure seizure of land and indiscriminate killing of innocents.

Tell me, good people of Luther Memorial, who is the wheat and who is the weed?

The disturbing thing about this parable, a parable only found in the book of Matthew, is that even with the explanation Jesus offers, and I wonder if it’s reluctantly offered…Jesus didn’t often explain parables, but even with the explanation, the meaning remains murky.

Jesus’ explanation is really tough news for “those who have ears to hear.”

One of the interesting things about this parable is that Jesus never uses the word “weed” in it, at least not in the generic way we use that word. That’s the English translation. Actually Jesus talks here about a very specific kind of weed. The word in Greek is zizania, a particular weed, the darnel.

Now the darnel has this amazing thing about it: it looks a lot like wheat.

So if you see a field of wheat with darnel interspersed, sometimes it’s very difficult to tell the difference between a wheat stalk and a weed stalk.

Oh sneaky Jesus…you love to make your stories complicated.

In this parable where the evil one plants the darnel and the Son of Man plants the wheat, Jesus points out that it’s really difficult to tell the difference between the two. And all we want are answers, right? All we want is some clarity. And even when Jesus offers it, he doesn’t offer it.

But that’s the way it is with parables. As the brooding Irish theologian and metaphysicist Peter Rollins notes, parables don’t offer water to the thirsty soul. Parables give salt to the thirsty soul…making you more thirsty.

Because we hear Jesus’ example of wheat and darnel looking alike and think that Jesus is really just going back to that old cliché that we all know too well, “You can’t judge a book by its cover…” but that’s a shallow interpretation. Look closer. Get thirsty.

Jesus is saying something much more difficult and challenging as an ancient farmer.

Because it’s not just that you can’t tell a book by its cover, that you can’t tell the weed from the wheat, but that when you try to do so in other people, you actually usually become the thing that you hate. You actually become a weed yourself.

We can see this principle played out in Jesus’ other parables. Think of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee goes up to the temple, lifts his arms and says, “Thank you, God, that I am not like that tax collector…”

The tax collector goes into the temple, bows his head and says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner…”

And then Jesus says, “Which one of these two knows the ways of God?”

It is, of course, the Tax Collector whose humility lifts him closer to the Divine, meanwhile the Pharisee’s pride descends him into the hells of self-righteousness.

The one who tries to distinguish between wheat and weed in a way that passes the judgment of God on others becomes the weed he or she is trying to pluck out…

And this same thought process works throughout the whole of the Gospels. Jesus is constantly turning the tables on our ability to judge rightly. Look at the way he treats people.

He eats with sinners and tax collectors, he chats it up with strange women at wells, he heals lepers who have been plucked out of society and thrown into the trash heaps of leper colonies by the religious righteous, he demands mercy for the woman caught in adultery and condemns the piety of the Pharisees who have broken no laws. By all outside looks, it appears that Jesus has poor judgment, hanging out with the weeds…

In the world of Jesus, the people that we would imagine are weeds are actually the wheat.

And the people we imagine to be wheat? Dare we look in the mirror?

In this parable the weeds of the world are planted by “the evil one.” We might imagine that to mean that there are evil people in this world, evil to the core, and there are good people, and we must know the difference.

But think about this. In a couple chapters after Jesus tells this parable in Matthew, he has this encounter with Simon Peter where Peter tries to tell Jesus that he shouldn’t go to Jerusalem because they’ll certainly kill him there.

And what does Jesus say to Peter? “Get behind me Satan…” (Matthew chapter 16)

Peter is a weed in that moment. His motivations aren’t coming from the Divine promise, but from fear.

So does that mean that we should pluck Peter up and throw him into the fires of our judgment?

Well, no. Of course not. Because Peter is both weed and wheat. Or, as Dr. Martin Luther said it, Peter is both “sinner and saint.”

As are we all. See, this parable is trickier than you might think. We all have weeds amongst the wheat of our souls. If you think you’re totally one or the other, or your neighbor is, think again. Those who have ears to hear, listen!

And the grace of God which works over us takes all the weeds in our being and graciously plucks them from us through Divine love and forgiveness, throwing them away, until all that is left is the wheat of righteousness. The wheat that God first planted in the Garden of Eden saying, “this is good…”

And at the end of his story, the religious followers and the imperial rulers take Jesus, label him a weed, and hang him up to dry next to two others identified as the weeds of society, and then throw them into the garbage pit of the tomb.

At which point God starts the work of replanting, and from that empty tomb sprung the wheat of Christ again, not full of judgment, not full of pointing at those that killed him with vengeance, but continuing to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near, that God is still harvesting in this world despite our penchant for wanting to pluck up one another and throw each other away into the hells of judgment where we gnash our teeth at one another in angry vitriol and wail at one another because we’re so certain that we’re wheat and the other one is weed…

When Jesus rises from the grave he proclaims God’s love and grace, even on those who put him in the grave. And after having a radical encounter with this grace a well-known supposed weed by the name of Saul suddenly becomes the most well-known supposed stalk of wheat, called the Apostle Paul.

It seems that the weeds inside of us always have a chance to fall away so that our wheat grows forth…

So, here’s an interesting last tidbit. The sower of the seed in this story stops his servants from plucking up the weeds because he claims that it will also uproot the wheat. He encourages the servants to “permit them to abide together” or “grow alongside one another.

This ancient farming technique was used to save the crops. If you just start throwing away all the weeds you eventually also kill all the wheat.

For a real-life example of this, we don’t have to look too far as our bombs meant for strategic targets hit schools, playgrounds, apartments of the innocents. We could use a lesson in ancient farming.

Do you know what the Greek phrase used to describe allowing the weeds and wheat abide together is? The Greek word used for “permit” there is aphete. Aphete literally means something like, “let it be,” or in other places a full on “forgive.”

How are the wheat to respond to the weeds? With forgiveness.

Not by plucking them up and throwing them away. As Jesus says at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Instead we are to respond by forgiving them. And later on in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 18) Jesus claims that what we bind on earth is bound in heaven, and what we loose on earth is loosed in heaven, encouraging them to forgive as God forgives.

So it makes you wonder that, if the wheat become really good at forgiving the weeds, perhaps then the weeds themselves become wheat for the world in the transforming love of God… and then, at the end of all things, there is just harvest. A just harvest.

If you have ears to hear, listen. And then you might begin to understand why following Jesus was so difficult for those in ancient Palestine. You might begin to understand that following Jesus today is still difficult.

It’s difficult because we must understand the ways of ancient farming, the way of radical forgiveness like this, the way of giving up radical judgment in deference for God’s grace.

And at the end of the age, when the wheat have been so active and adept at channeling the grace of Christ in this world as Christ offers us forgiveness, weeding out our inner-selves, perhaps there won’t be any weeds left…

So, tell me good people, who is the weed and who is the wheat?

 

Thoughts on the Gospel this Week: There are Two Types of People in the World…and Jesus is a Weed

Humorist Robert Benchley once wisely said, “There are two types of people in the world: those who split the world into two types of people, and those who don’t!”Modica-Weeds-in-the-Wheat-Field-e1342882288127

It seems Jesus is one of those people in light of this week’s Gospel lesson

I’m working on this week’s sermon.It’s interesting to note that we only find this parable in the Gospel of Matthew, and that in the Gospel of Matthew we find really stark distinctions between good and evil.

Matthew’s worldview is one of good guys and bad guys.

Only, the good guys are never who you’d imagine they’d be, and the bad guys are the folks you’d pick out as the natural heroes.

In this world where we’ve domesticated Jesus and the Bible it’s hard to see that. We always imagine Jesus to think the bad guys are the same people we think are the bad guys.  But imagine this little example:

“The Pope and a pimp went up to the temple to pray. The Pope looks to heaven and says, ‘I thank you Lord that I am not like that pimp over there…’ The pimp, all the while, looks to the ground and says, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, a sinner…’”

Theologian John Dominic Crossan provides this tale (The Power of Parable), a modern telling of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. To ancient ears you’d expect the Pharisee, the teacher of the law, the holy one, to have the humility to know how to pray.

Instead it’s the street worker who knows the truth of God.

Jesus does this all the time in the Gospels, presenting the hero as the bad guy and the villain as the savior. It’d be like making a Western where the guy in black is actually the good guy, and the guy in white robs the bank.

The creators of Zorro seemed to have picked up on this. Robin Hood follows suit. Jesus started a trend…

Which is dangerous. Because whenever something becomes trendy its impact can’t be felt the same way.

Because we hear this parable of the wheat and the weeds and we automatically start assigning people as either a wheat stalk or a weed…and I’m here to remind you that Jesus is telling this story, which means that the person you think is a weed is probably wheat.

And if you dare to look in the mirror, well…be careful.

See, here’s the thing about parables that we need to fully understand if we’re going to get the radical nature of Jesus’ words: parables don’t just have one interpretation.

Parables don’t lead you to one conclusion.

Even when Jesus offers an explanation of the parable to the disciples in Matthew, you must realize that, if you read the end of the Gospel, he lives out this parable in a way that might lead you to a different conclusion than the one you assume.

I mean, imagine you are a disciple following Jesus, and you’re trying to figure out if Jesus is weed or wheat or what.

And at the end of Jesus’ story, or what appears to be the end, the wheat of the world, the religious people, pluck Jesus out, put him on a cross, and then bury him in the compost pile with two other weeds that were plucked out of the soil of society.

Well, there’s your answer, right? Jesus is a weed.

If some people are the weed and some are the wheat and religion is supposed to help you distinguish between the two, then Jesus’ life parable comes to a startling conclusion when you look through the lens of this weed/wheat deal.

Jesus is a weed.

But we know now on the other side of it all that this can’t be the case, right? Because we believe Jesus is the wheat. The resurrection shows that, right?

There are two types of people in the world, those who split the world into two types of people, and those who don’t.

It appears that Jesus is the type of person who does this, right? But is he really?

Because here’s the thing about parables, especially this type of parable, what we call a “parable of warning”: the ending is open-ended.

Weeds and wheat…both are in the same soil. The soil might be the Earth, this world, and surely evil has moved in my heart in some moment or another toward another person and the world and suddenly I find myself more weed than wheat.

In those moments I ask for forgiveness. Repentance. Prayer. Contrition to the neighbor, friend, family member I’ve hurt.

And surely goodness and Christ’s image, the Divine within me has moved in moments as I help my neighbor, love my friend through crisis, participate wholly in my family. And I can step back and say, “You’ve done well today.” Wheat moments.

And the soil could be me, too. I could be the soil here, because inside of me grows both weed and wheat; I know this is true.

A colleague of mine noted that sometimes people will do really awful things and they’ll come to him and say, “I’m not the kind of person who would do something like that…”

But, actually, they are. We all are. It’s not our truest self, but let’s not discount that these hands can be just as evil as they can be good. Such a recognition of our frailty as mortal allows us to be reverent and humble in this world.  I think the rise in attendance and curiosity surrounding Ash Wednesday speaks to this truth being re-awakened in many after the selfish 80’s.

Weed and wheat grows inside of all of us. And it is not such an insane thought to believe that, in time, God indeed does take the weeds of our soul and gets rid of them. Perhaps this is why heaven is described as a place that shines in this text, because all that is left of us is the wheat, our imago Dei, our truest selves. Or to say it differently, Martin Luther notes that we are all sinner and saint. All of us.  And once the sinner and saint is redeemed fully, all that is left is Christ.

And I’ve known people, and it’s even been me myself, who have tried to do some internal weeding. Conventionally we call that a “sin management system,” (a lovely phrase made popular by Nadia Bolz-Weber, but I don’t believe she invented the phrase…regardless, it’s a great phrase).  This is where we try to stop the weeds from growing in our lives by being extra vigilant.

And this works, to a point…until we realize that weeds sometimes grow no matter how furiously we try to weed them out.

And then we start to see weeds in other people’s being because it’s all that is on our mind, and we try to pluck them out, or at least point them out. And before long we’re standing in the temple in our holy hats saying, “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like that weed…”

And sure enough, we’re back to being a weed.

This is why Jesus notes that you can’t pluck a weed up while it’s still amongst the wheat: the roots of everything will be pulled up and then all you have is something that looks very alive but is spiritually dead.  The one pointing at another and thanking God they are not like them is spiritually dead, despite the fact that they appear to be in prayer.

Jesus uses this phrase “the end of the age” here quite a bit, and we should note that. In the ancient world, and specifically in Jesus’ context as a first Century Judean, “the end of the age” meant the time when God’s good purpose is fulfilled on the earth.

The funny thing about this phrase, and about God’s good purpose, is that the Messiah was to be the sign of the end of the ages. The Messiah was to bring to fruition God’s good purpose.

So is now the end of the age?

In Jesus time, through the lens of Jesus, you would have to answer that both with a “yes” and with a “no.”  Because Jesus is the Messiah, and although many think the “end of the age” meant the “end of all things,” when looked at through the life of Jesus it is actually a grand beginning.

In light of this, we could say, “Thank God now is not the time of harvest.” Because we’re all still so full of weeds.

In light this, we could say, “Thank God now is the time of harvest.” Because we’re also all full of wheat.

There are two types of people in this world, one who splits the world into two types of people, and one who doesn’t.

At first it appears like Jesus is one of those people…until you view the parable through the lens of his life, death, and resurrection.

And then you realize that Jesus isn’t one of those people after all.

A Different Interpretation and Good Enough Love

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat SONY DSCand sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”
18Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When 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. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet 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. 22As 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. 23But 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.”

A Different Interpretation and Good Enough Love

Join me in prayer,

You’ve sown the seed of your word and love in our hearts, Lord.

We thank you for the times we grow and flourish,

And live into your word.

And we invite your grace in times when we’re choked and silent.

In your love, teach us to love our world, one another, and you better. Amen.

 

50 years. 50 years is 20 more years than I’ve been alive.

50 years ago the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

50 years ago The Beatles occupied slots 1-5 on the Billboards Top 40. The headline of Billboard Magazine read, “Everyone is just about tired of the Beatles…” and yet just this past weekend Sir Paul McCartney played to a sold-out crowd at the United Center for 2 hours and 45 minutes.

I guess we’re not that tired.

Sometimes it seems like life passes quickly. Sometimes it inches by, like a slow-growing plant pushing and straining through the dirt toward the sun.

If you think about it, 50 years ago we were talking about civil rights. Today we’re still talking about civil rights.

50 years ago The Beatles were rocking. And although two of the original four have died, one in tragic violence and one to illness, their music continues. In fact, John Buckvold, who sits just back there at the second service, made a CD of music for Finn, my son, when he was born, and three of those tracks are Beatles tracks.

Ever since they debuted 50 years ago, it’s kind of been common thought that no childhood should be bereft of “All you need is love; all you need is love. All you need is love, love, love is all you need…”

And, of course, 50 years ago love was on the lips of two young-uns, him just over 20, her not quite, as they kissed and sealed their vows of love with one another in this place.

Sometimes it seems like life passes quickly. Sometimes it inches by…

And I’m sure that’s true for you two, Dieter and Diane, as it is for all of us whether we’re married or single. Whether we’re 50 plus, or just over 20.

I think that one of the reasons Jesus uses so many agrarian metaphors, and that planting and sowing and nature show up so often in his parables, is precisely because time is this strange thing that requires endurance and patience, and yet the thing we’d like to apply the brakes to sometimes…

Few things are like that, you know. Few things in reality are so paradoxical.

Today Jesus talks about sowing in a field and the various fates of different seeds depending on the soil they’re sown in. The Gospel writer Matthew follows this parable up with an explanation of the parable…something that we don’t find in many of the other parables in the Gospels.

Jokes are no good if you have to explain them, right? Parables aren’t jokes in the formal sense, but they are in that their twisty-turny way plays a joke on your logic and reasoning. Parables are meant to be pondered and held, not explained.

That makes us Bible scholars kind of suspicious about the interpretation and whether or not Jesus actually offered one. Maybe an editor put words in Jesus’ mouth. Jesus was good at telling parables and stories, but the interpretation of those things he often left to those around him…God doesn’t give easy answers.

That’s the way of God: more cloud than sunlight, more mystery than revelation, both near and far. A relationship with God, like time, is full wonderful paradox. That’s what makes it dynamic. Like a marriage between two people who, after 50 years, know the habits and preferences of the other, and yet still manage some surprises here and there…

But this sower goes out to sow the field and starts scattering seed around and we find that some seed gets scorched by the sun, some choked by weeds, some eaten by birds.

And some of it grows to amazing harvest.

And today, on top of this text, we have other texts that are speaking to us.

Like the people lying dead in Chicago over the violence of the streets. Over 1000 people this year. 1000.

Like the hostilities in Palestine and Israel rising higher and higher over these poor dead teenagers, a situation that is not at all clear to me. Death begets death. As Jesus says, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” How are we to live?

Like the babies coming across our southern border in droves as they escape the threat of death and mafia and gang warfare and starvation. Say what you want about laws; these are babies. California. Arizona. Texas.

And all the while you have sports-loving us waiting with baited breath as athletes announce where they’ll be playing next year for salaries equivalent to the Gross Domestic Product of small nations…

And see those texts through the lens of Jesus’ parable.

The seeds of life being snatched away by violence that has such a grip on our lives that we can’t seem to break free.

The seeds of life not given the chance to grow because the roots of peace aren’t deep enough in an ancient land.

The seeds of life enduring the scorching sun as they look for growth through the desert.

The seeds of public awareness getting choked out as we pay teachers little and athletes much, and don’t bat an eye at it because we’re too glued to our TV screens to think about it all because LeBron or Carmello or Toews may announce today with the fanfare of a royal birth just where they’ll be…

I know that in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus offers an interpretation of this text, but with parables there are always other interpretations; as there are meant to be. And if I’m honest with myself, the word of God that is sown in the soil of my being should sprout a response to all of these situations, but I too often find it is choked out by a silence that tends to love the status quo too much.

We love profits more than prophets, as someone recently noted on social media.

So all these texts are swirling around in our lives today.

But there is one more. A text that has been 50 years in the composition for you, Dieter and Diane. And for Sis and Charlie, unable to be with us today but still very present in our hearts and minds, 64 years in the making.

And that is a text of love. That is a seed sown in good soil.

A good soil that says that we have way too many deaths here in Chicago, but look here at beauty springing up from the soil of the city: a couple who have been sowing the word of God here at LMC for 50 years, sowing love with one another for 50 years, who have been sown into the soil of this city to grow beauty through their work with the children and adults of the city these years!

See, a religious person like myself sees these texts all on top of one another, including this last one, and I can say that God in the Christ has done some amazing things here, is doing amazing things, despite all these other texts, because this text of love is an amazing harvest, so amazing that it yields enough hopeful fruit for even to deal with all these other texts.

As the Psalmist writes, “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be forsaken.” In the midst of Chicago. In the midst of Jerusalem. In the midst of Tucson. Even in the midst of the cities awaiting to hear if their favored sports star will sign with them again….

…looking at you, Cleveland…

Sometimes one act of love is enough, just enough, to bring about a different interpretation from those things we see around us.

Sometimes a little green shoot is enough to believe once again that the sower is still sowing seeds of love in this world, and that we get to participate in that growth, and that it will grow despite the thorns and scorching sun and birds around it.

For 50 years. For 64 years. For however long it’s able to.

And, it’s true: sometimes the image of God inside of me is choked out due to the thorns of money, fame and fortune. Sometimes the word of God doesn’t escape my lips because the heat of anger scorches it; the roots of peace aren’t deep enough.

But even then I live in the confidence that the sower of all good things doesn’t plant on a whim, but plants in love.

I truly believe God is in love with this city. Is in love with Jerusalem; Israel and Palestine. Is in love with babies who have nowhere else to go but over the border, and parents who have no other choice but to bless them and send them with a kiss and the hope that they’ll grow in new soil.

And part of the reason I truly believe all those things is because of the Divine love reflected here over 50 years. The Divine love reflected in a small room in a nursing home in Norridge where sits Sis and Charlie; where he’ll crack a joke and she’ll still smile after 64 years.

And things begun in love are never wasted; will never be wasted. As Jesus himself was sown into the earth of the tomb, only to spring up to life three days later despite the thorns of death and the birds of hate that tried to snatch him away, we live in the constant hope that resurrection, even for the seeds choked by affluence, even for the seeds snatched by violence, even for the seeds scorched in the heat of the sun of wandering through the Arizona desert in search of new life, will be the final ending of the parable of the sower and the seeds.

And the final ending for those seeds of love sprouted to life these past years…

No love shared by humans is perfect. Our tendency to choke the life out of one another is evidence of this, and evidenced all around us.

But in the beginning of all things the God who created all things said, “This is good.”

And that goodness, when mixed with God’s perfect love, is indeed good enough.

Good enough to give hope that life, despite all the times it seems things never grow, is not wasted in the soil of God’s love, and that our love is good enough to remind one another, and the world, that God is still in love with all of us.

After all these years.

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