Defiled | Proper 15

Matthew 15:10-28

10 Jesus called the crowd near and said to them, “Listen and understand. 11 It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person.”

12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?”

13 Jesus replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be pulled up. 14 Leave the Pharisees alone. They are blind people who are guides to blind people. But if a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch.”

15 Then Peter spoke up, “Explain this riddle to us.”

16 Jesus said, “Don’t you understand yet? 17 Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. 19 Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. 20 These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight.”

21 From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” 23 But he didn’t respond to her at all.

His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”

24 Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”

25 But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”

26 He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”

27 She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”

28 Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed. (CEB)

Defiled

The latter portion of this text raises questions about prejudice and whether or not one race or people can be superior to others. It raises questions that were lived out on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. When anyone thinks of themselves as superior to another, the results are appalling and inexcusable.

The difficulty of this text is that it has Jesus call a woman a dog because she is from a different cultural and religious background. It’s one of those moments where we read Jesus’ words and cringe. Let’s unpack the scene a little bit. Jews of Jesus’ day and earlier viewed themselves as superior to the peoples around them. It was, apparently, common for Jews to refer to Canaanites and Samaritans as dogs. Many Jews believed these people were unworthy of a decent thought. Why? Because Jewish tradition said Jews were the chosen people of God. They had displaced the Canaanites in the land under the leadership of Joshua and the Judges, and the Samaritans were essentially half-breeds from the former northern Kingdom of Israel who had intermarried with people of other backgrounds when their tradition forbade it.

Really, at the key to understanding this matter is mercy. Who is worthy to receive mercy? Who is worthy of ours and who is worthy of receiving God’s? And how is one worthy or unworthy?

The heart of the argument is the role of tradition in Jewish life. In fact, the first 15 verses of Matthew 15 show us a disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees about tradition. Tradition can mean anything from the order of Sunday worship, to some dusty relic in a closet, to the potato salad recipe at the pitch-in dinner.

I mean, Potato salad without mustard is blasphemy. By golly if it doesn’t have mustard in it, someone might just get a beat down. God ordained that potato salad shall have mustard because that’s the way my 5th great-grandmother from Dublin made it when she invented potato salad!

That’s the level of nonsense to which these arguments about tradition can descend when people start in on them. We know we’re supposed to love each other because that’s what God told us to do. But we end up loving tradition (meaning our way and our stuff) more than each other. And we wrap that love of tradition in the guise of holiness. Jesus argued the Pharisees were doing that. In the first fifteen verses, Jesus argues that the Pharisees ignored the commandments of God by adhering to human tradition. The commandment to honor your father and mother meant that you took care of your parents in their old age. The Pharisees got around that because tradition said they could tell their parents that, whatever they were going to give to their parents for their care, they’ll give to God instead. So, they ended up not honoring their father and mother, and thought they were doing something holier than the very thing God commanded them to do. They disobeyed God to fulfill their human tradition and wrapped that tradition in the guise of holiness.

Tradition in and of itself isn’t bad. It can be a good thing. It can ground us solidly in our faith and life. Our order of worship comes from tradition. Praying the Lord’s Prayer comes from tradition. Singing hymns comes from tradition.

But tradition can also work to achieve the opposite of solid grounding, especially if we use tradition to fence people out. When we honor tradition more than people, we’ve squeezed the life out of tradition. We’ve hardened it into irrelevance. Tradition cannot be inflexible. It cannot be held up as more important than people. Our tradition is not the object of our worship. When it is, we’ve turned tradition into an idol. A pastor from Texas once told me that the first thing their congregation does when they put in new carpet is to eat on it. They have a meal in that room knowing someone was going to spill gravy. But they do it so people won’t make an idol of the carpeting. (Sorry, Trustees, if I’m making you cringe a little). People are always more important than our sacred cows.

In our text, Jesus takes up the tradition of ritual cleanliness as an issue. The Pharisees argued that if you eat with unwashed hands, you’re defiling your food and, therefore, yourself for eating it. Their tradition said that you were actually offending God by eating with unwashed hands. Now, most mothers I know will probably start preaching this to their kids before lunch today. (For the hundredth time, wash your hands or God will be mad at you!). But we aren’t going to offend God by not washing our hands before we eat. (Sorry moms. Let me fix that). Kids, honoring your father and mother also means doing what you’re told. So wash your hands when mom tells you to.

Twice before this dispute with the Pharisees over a matter of tradition, Jesus had quoted Hosea 6:6, which says, “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings” (CEB). That word translated as “faithful love” is חֶסֶד (hesed) in Hebrew. It can also mean obligation, kindness, and mercy. Jesus, twice, tells us what God wants of us, “I want mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7 CEB). Over and over Jesus preaches that it isn’t the tradition that matters to God. It’s how we treat other people that matters to God. It’s our relationships that matter to God. That’s why Jesus calls the Pharisees blind guides. They don’t see that people are more important than human tradition. They don’t make the connection that following their tradition actually leads to disobedience to God’s direct commandments to honor their parents and love their neighbors.

What defiles isn’t what goes into our mouths, but the words that come out of it. I love Jesus’s image. It’s incredibly kid-friendly. What goes into our mouths—whether we washed our hands or not—goes into our stomach and we poop it out. It all goes into the sewer. But what comes out of our mouths comes from our heart. The evil of our hearts is what defiles us before God. Those are the things that contaminate us. If our heart is full of evil thoughts and intentions, murder, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults, those are the things that are going to come out of our mouth. Our mouth reveals our contamination just like fruit tells us what kind of a tree we’re looking at.

Some parts of tradition, at least the way the tradition was interpreted by some, also said that certain people were outside the scope of God’s care. Tradition suggested certain people didn’t deserve God’s mercy. So, when Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a land inhabited by Canaanites, he’s met by one of these very people and the arguments he has just made are put to the test. When we read what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, who only wants her daughter to be healed, we cringe. She begs Jesus for the very mercy he’s been preaching and, at first, he ignores her. Then he tells her he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Then, he calls her and her people dogs.

None of this sounds very Jesus-like. It sounds like he’s living out of the very tradition that he was preaching against just a few verses before. What comes out of a person’s mouth is what defiles them because those words proceed from the heart. It sounds like Jesus is demonstrating an incredible amount of prejudice against this woman who’s coming to him asking for mercy for herself and her daughter. She’s not an Israelite. She’s not a Jew. Yet she knows something of Jesus and his reputation as a healer. She even addresses him as “Son of David,” which has Messianic implications. She knows Jesus has come from God, and she seeks God’s mercy.

Some scholars think this is a moment when Jesus is caught with his compassion down. But what I think is happening here is a demonstration of the argument Jesus has just had: that God desires mercy not sacrifice, compassion not tradition. Of course we can’t know for sure, but I would like to think Jesus knew all along that he would heal this woman’s daughter. But first, he lists the excuses tradition would give any Jew for not showing mercy to an outsider. Tradition says the Messiah is a Jewish thing, not for other people. Tradition says the people of Israel are God’s chosen and elect, not other people. It was an idea that had become a doctrine of favoritism and exclusion in the hands of the very religious leaders who criticized Jesus. It was a doctrine that allowed people to hold contempt for non-Jews and even for Jews who were born into poverty, or born with physical maladies and ill-health.

The woman’s response is perfect. She doesn’t object to God having mercy on the chosen of Israel. On the contrary, she makes God’s mercy for Israel the very grounds of her request for mercy. “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:27 CEB). She understands the very thing about God that Jesus has been teaching, that God is merciful. The way God acts as God toward the human race is through mercy.

When Moses asked to see God’s glorious presence, God said, “I’ll make all my goodness pass in front of you, and I’ll proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD.’ I will be kind to whomever I wish to be kind, and I will have compassion to whomever I wish to be compassionate.” (Exodus 33:19 CEB). God’s mercy extends to everyone. We Christians should know that very well because, by and large, we are not biological children of Abraham. We are God’s children by adoption because God had mercy on us. God’s mercy overflows even to people like us: the dogs of the house whom some interpreters of Jewish tradition would have excluded. That’s us, you know. We’re the dogs. (Which is one of countless reasons why white supremacists ought not think so highly of themselves).

The only claim we have, no matter who we are, is the overflowing mercy of God. When I read the last verse of this text, I can only hear amused delight in Jesus’ tone when he said, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish” (Matthew 15:28 CEB).

One more thing to note here is that the word mercy in this text is a verb in Greek, not a noun. Mercy is something we do. It’s the compassion we show, the love we give, the kindness we offer, the charity we provide to and for others. God’s mercy is for everyone. There is no us against them. There is no limit to the mercy of God. Since we have received God’s mercy, what can we offer to others but mercy?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

The Sound of Silence | Proper 14

1 Kings 19:9-18

9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.

The LORD’s word came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”

10 Elijah replied, “I’ve been very passionate for the LORD God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!”

11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the LORD. The LORD is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the LORD. But the LORD wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the LORD wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the LORD wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”

14 He said, “I’ve been very passionate for the LORD God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too.”

15 The LORD said to him, “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. 16 Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill. Whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. 18 But I have preserved those who remain in Israel, totaling seven thousand– all those whose knees haven’t bowed down to Baal and whose mouths haven’t kissed him.” (CEB)

The Sound of Silence

I thought ministry would be easy. Even after a pastor whom I’ve known since my days in Jr. High told me, “If you can do anything else and be happy, do that instead,” I still had this idea in my head that working as a pastor was going to be this wonderful Spiritual journey full of smiles, blissful happiness, and high levels of job satisfaction. I quickly realized that I had been misled by none other than me, myself. People in the church are still people. We all have our flaws. And we—both clergy and laity—don’t always behave the way we ought.

I think most of us probably get Elijah’s dejection here. It’s relatable. There have been moments, even seasons, when I wanted to throw in the towel and call it quits. Last Sunday I mentioned that bullying saga I went through. I almost took a leave of absence from ministry over it. My move away from that situation was a last-minute emergency thing. I hated leaving that congregation because I loved so many people there, but I was relieved to get out of the bullying situation that had led to many an anxiety attack. Joy gave up a job working for a university and the free masters degree they wanted her to earn while working for them.

The next church to which I was appointed had a decades-long track record being hard on pastors. Of course, no one told me about it at the beginning so I walked in blind. Two years into that appointment the district superintendent told me that certain people in that congregation were complainers before I got there, they were complainers before she became the D.S., and they would be complainers long after we were both gone. In fact, if it hadn’t been for my emergency move, that congregation would have been left without a pastor because they treated their previous one so poorly. I got put there because there was nowhere else to go. All the appointments for that year had already been made.

Now some of the issues that came up there weren’t all the congregation’s fault. I was a lot younger then, inexperienced, still hurting from the bullying stuff, and still fairly naïve about a lot of things. But the accusatory letters written to the bishop and district superintendent behind my back, the mean letters written to me without a name on them, the attempts at sabotage, the lack of common manners on the part of some really dysfunctional people, made it a tough appointment. I get Elijah’s story.

It’s not easy to love the people who are making your life a living hell for no other reason than that’s their habit. I’ve discovered that, for some people, complaining is like breathing and, if they stop complaining, they’ll die. While ministry there was often difficult because of certain people, a lot of good things happened. Still, the broad strokes of my memory paint those years as a painful time. It was like being nibbled to death by ducks. But I still keep in touch with a lot of people from that congregation and feel only love for them. Others, not so much. But, the love one develops for good people in the midst of difficult times tends to stick. And mine has. It has been a great joy in my life to be able to remain a part of their lives.

Then, I had two really great church appointments in a row. I was at the first one for three years and the second for four years. The problem was that Joy and I wanted to stay put somewhere. We had children. We wanted a home, and we wanted to put down roots. And the churches wanted us to stay there: they loved and cared for us and we loved and cared for them. But then we got uprooted again and again. And we hurt so badly. We didn’t think the church should treat pastors and their families so flippantly. At the second of those churches, Joy was going to start her masters degree once again. She felt a call to minister to children. She had plans to work with kids who didn’t have a voice. And, due to our being moved, she had to give up her graduate degree for a second time. Our children had to give up beloved friends and activities. And we all had to give up a faith community that had truly become our family.

So, my family and I, we kind of get Elijah’s despondency. We get it that, when a person tries to serve God they’ll have both successes and failures. They’ll be loved and reviled by different people at the same time. They’ll have moments of joy and moments of pain, they’ll find pieces of community and abject loneliness.

This text shows us one of Elijah’s deepest moments of pain. If you look at what happens just prior to it, Elijah was at the height of his prophetic career. He had just won a miraculous victory at Mount Carmel over the prophets of Baal—450 of them to one prophet of the Lord! He seemed unstoppable. He was going to bring the people of Israel back into the covenant God made with their ancestors. He was going to teach them how to live faithfully so they would be blessing to other nations, just as God declared in the covenant. Imagine how great he must have felt, the hope he must have had for his people, the joy that must have filled his heart that they were turning back to the Lord!

Then Queen Jezebel sent him a threatening message saying she was after him. And when she got ahold of him, he was a dead man. In that moment, the bottom fell out of the barrel for the Man of God. Elijah didn’t merely come down from the proverbial mountain, he fell off the summit cliff and splattered in the foothills. He was terrified and he ran for his life (1 Kings 19:3). By the time he got to the cave, Elijah was so distraught that he’d had enough of living. Can you relate?

When God asked him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” the prophet’s response is that he has worked so hard for the Lord. But the Israelites have done terrible things. They’ve forsaken the covenant, torn down the Lord’s altars, and killed the lord’s prophets. He’s the only one left, and now they’re going to kill him. In that moment, Elijah could only see his fear, failure, and forlornness. There was nothing left for him to give. What more could he possibly do?

God told him to go stand on the mountain before the Lord because the Lord is about to pass by. A strong wind tore through the mountains: a wind so powerful it shattered stones. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. Then, the earth shook, surely ripping more of the mountain apart, but the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. Then, fire scorched the land and seared the air, but the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire “there was a sound. Thin. Quiet” (1 Kings 19:12 CEB). Another translation calls it “a sound of sheer silence” (NRSV).

When Elijah heard the sound of silence, he went out to speak to the Lord. God asked him the same question, and a still dejected Elijah gave the same answer. He’s worked hard. The peoples refuse God’s covenant. They’ve destroyed the Lord’s altars and killed the Lord’s prophets. He’s the only one left, and they’re after him.

At first glance, the Lord’s response almost feels insensitive. “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet” (1 Kings 19:15-16 CEB). But, when you look at what God provides for Elijah, it’s incredibly compassionate. For one, God doesn’t give up on Elijah, even though Elijah has given up on himself. Instead, God gave him a plan. Elijah was given three tasks but he only got one of them done. He designated Elisha as his successor, and it’s Elisha who does the other two. Elisha encouraged Hazael to assassinate the king of Aram and usurp the throne. It was also Elisha who instigated the rebellion of Jehu against King Joram of Israel.

One thing we can take away from this is that we don’t have to accomplish everything ourselves. We do what we can. We accomplish that which can be accomplished and trust that neither the world, nor the church, rests on our shoulders alone. God will prevail.

For another, God lets Elijah know that, despite how lonely he feels, he is most certainly not alone. This is the part that assuaged Elijah’s deepest fear. The Lord has left seven-thousand in Israel who have not knelt down to Baal or kissed Baal’s image. There are people of faith in the congregation of Israel. There are those who hold fast to the covenant. All is not lost. God will continue to be with the faithful.

If we had read verse 19, we would have discovered that Elijah left the cave and found Elisha. It took a moment of quiet, a time of prayer, for Elijah to hear the Lord’s voice and find his way forward. That’s something we need, too. I once heard a pastor joke that, if you want to make your congregation uncomfortable, let silence linger in worship for more than 10 seconds. We are so used to noise—both literal and metaphorical—that silence is scary. We aren’t used to quiet. We’re used to the wind, earthquake, and fire. If we don’t have some kind of audio stimulation going on, we get uneasy, even scared. People leave their TV on when they aren’t even watching it because silence is uncomfortable.

I dare you to turn off all the noise, find a quiet place, and spend 10 minutes in absolute silence. Don’t even talk to yourself. Turn the voice in your head off and just be silent. It’ll take some practice before you’re able to do it successfully. Use those minutes of quiet as preparation for prayer. And, when you pray, try listening for God’s voice as much as you speak.

Prayer is where we find God. Sometimes, we need to shut everything else off so we can hear when God speaks. I’ve begun to seek those moments of quiet again. It’s not easy to shut off the noise or set aside my worries, or the weight of my responsibilities, or the need to get the things on my to-do list checked off. Simon and Garfunkel were right about the sound of silence. We need to set aside the distractions of the world—the flashing neon lights, the babel of people talking without speaking, the pretense of people hearing without listening—so we can see and hear rightly.

No matter who we are or how passionate we are for God, we’re going to have ups and downs. We’ll have days when we’re on the mountain and unstoppable, and we’ll have days where we’re hiding in a cave, utterly dejected. We’ll have times when our faith feels unbreakable, and times when our faith feels like it’s been shattered to pieces. Yet, no matter where we are on any given day, some things are certain.

We are not alone. God is with us and we have a community of people who love us and will choose to walk beside us and hold us up when we stumble or fall.

There is always more to do for God’s kingdom, but we do it best by working together.

God will never give up on us no matter what we think of ourselves. God’s love for us is simply too great, too unbreakable, too much for God to let go of us.

~Pastopher

Come to the Waters | Proper 13

Isaiah 55:1-5

1 All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! 2 Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. 3 Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful loyalty to David. 4 Look, I made him a witness to the peoples, a prince and commander of peoples. 5 Look, you will call a nation you don’t know, a nation you don’t know will run to you because of the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, who has glorified you. (CEB)

Come to the Waters

My mother once told me to be careful of deals that sound too good to be true because they probably are. Can you imagine a billboard or TV commercial inviting the public to come and get all you need for free? Most of us would assume something was up, some game must be afoot, some ulterior motive has to be at play. That’s exactly the kind of invitation God seems to offer through Isaiah. Isaiah invites everyone who’s thirsty or hungry to come and buy food and drink, even if they don’t have any money to make the purchase! Yet, this is not quite the no-strings-attached deal that it might, at first, sound like. Really, it’s a prophetic invitation to make an exchange from one way of life to THE way of life.

There are a few important things that we need to understand about Biblical prophets. First, one common misconception is that the prophets tell us the future, but that’s not even close to the main point of what the prophets intend to say. The primary concern of the Biblical prophets is to speak God’s word to God’s people so that the people might turn wholly back to God. Sometimes that prophetic word contained an element of, if you don’t change your ways, then this bad thing will happen and, if you do change your ways, then this good thing will happen, but prophets were not really concerned with telling the future so much as they were concerned with telling the truth about God and how people were living.

The prophet Amos, for example, spoke against the rich and powerful who were neglecting to care for the poor and powerless in a time when the rich kept getting richer at the expense of the poor, and the poor kept getting poorer. For a prophet who preached in the 8th century B.C., his words are incredibly relevant today.

The prophetic story begins with a God who searches us out and seeks to be in a relationship with each member of the human race. The prophets spoke deeply challenging words in order to get people’s heart, mind, body, and soul in line with the way of life that God designed for humanity as good and life-giving for everyone. Prophets are the ones who called people to account. Even words that were meant to comfort God’s people, such as the whole of Isaiah chapters 40 through 55, which is often called the Book of Consolation, profoundly challenges those who hear it.

Second, Biblical prophecies are full of paradigms that can allow for multiple interpretations across the ages. There is always the original context of the prophetic words. Then, there are the many ways people have understood those same words to apply to them and their context in later years. The original context of Isaiah 55, for example, is most likely the Babylonian exile, but later generations have heard these words and understood them differently in their own contexts. Amos was the earliest of the writing prophets but, as I said, his words are hauntingly relevant 28 centuries later.

Let’s look at that original context of Isaiah 55:1-5. Many of the exiled Jews in Babylon had followed the advice of the prophet Jeremiah who told them to settle into life in their new location. “The LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7 CEB).

So, settle in they did. Some prospered quite well and, when the opportunity to return to Judah came about by King Cyrus of Persia’s decree, some descendants of these exiles chose to stay because life was good. In fact, some stayed in that land until the formation of the modern state of Israel.

Isaiah’s prophetic word to the people in exile was a call to return to the Lord, to remember the place from which they came. This is a promise of restoration to an exiled people, some of whom have probably gotten caught up in the glitz, glamor, and wealth of cosmopolitan Babylon. Others among the exiles might have been struggling with the basic necessities of life, and these words would serve as a reminder that God would bring them home.

Curiously, Isaiah asks why the people spend their money for that which is not food and their earnings for that which does not satisfy. In that sense, what Isaiah seems to speak against is a misalignment of priorities and values of some kind. If Isaiah were to ask these questions to us, how might we answer? In what ways do we spend our money for things that aren’t food and our savings for things that don’t satisfy? If we take the question literally, we Americans are a people who are easily caught up in the vicious cycle of consumerism. Many of our compatriots spend more than they earn, have amassed insurmountable debt, yet continue to buy and spend as if money grows on trees.

We’re so easily caught up in this cycle because every commercial we see or hear entices us to shell out money for things that promise to satisfy us. Advertisements promise us happiness, contentment, fulfillment, a sense of power, prestige, or a means to impress others and get them to think well of us. In fact, many Americans have so many bills to pay from so many products we’ve been seduced to purchase that we hardly have time for things like family, friends, and other meaningful relationships. We work, not so we can live happily with those we love, but so we can pay for the stuff we can’t afford but bought anyway.

It isn’t only consumerism that can suck us into a black hole, but how we spend our time. During a particularly difficult period of my life, I became completely addicted to computer games. They were my escape from a bad reality of anxiety and depression when I was bullied in my workplace. I spent hours each day in front of a screen. I neglected my wife. I neglected my children. I chose my computer over the people I loved the most, to the point that my wife started to call my computer, “the other woman.”

Thankfully, God gave me the chance to get out of that mess. I realized that I could either continue down that destructive path or I could choose to devote my time to people in ways that would be productive. So, I quit playing games and started giving my attention to those who deserved it, needed it, and wanted it. I worked on my relationships with people that were life-giving for me and for them. I realized it was my choice to do one or the other. I also realized that my time doesn’t only belong to me. My time also belongs to others, especially the people I love and who love me. It was a challenging thing to realize that I don’t belong wholly to myself. We are meant to live in community with each other. That’s how God made us.

Through Isaiah’s word, God called the people in exile to listen and invest themselves in the relationships and things that mattered. They were invited to come to God so that they could live–truly live. They were invited to pay attention and partake in those things that are good, satisfying, and delightful.

Those who answered the call would be party to an everlasting covenant, represented by God’s steadfast and sure love for David. Isaiah set David before the people as an example of God’s faithfulness. God was with David throughout his life, and made promises to him that were kept. The people could believe what God was saying to them. If they harbored doubts about God’s fidelity, then they could remember what God did for David. More than that, other nations that they don’t even know will run to them because of the renewal they experience. Others will see and be curious enough to take a closer look. This insignificant, broken, humiliated nation will survive and shine like a light to other, more powerful nations surrounding them, if they partake in the kind of life that is good and delight in the Lord.

No matter what situation we’re in, there is a chance for renewal, a promise of a new future. But it doesn’t just happen magically. We have to choose that future by exchanging a destructive way of life for a productive way of life. There will never be a new golden age in our lives, our relationships, or our communities if we don’t even attempt them. We have to incline our ear to God’s prophetic message. We have to listen and choose the things that are good and life-giving.

Some of the ways we do that are by devoting ourselves to the Spiritual disciplines and means of grace of our Christian faith. Another might be to devote ourselves in some specific ways to serving others, or investing ourselves in our faith community and our local community in impactful ways. What’s more, others will see how we live. Our lives are never as insulated or private as we think. Others see how we spend our time and the way we interact with those around us. When we devote ourselves to God and to others, when we show love and care for the people in our lives, the world knows.

Through Isaiah’s words, God invites us to this banquet. A banquet to which anyone can come. Any person who thirsts for water is invited to drink. Anyone who hungers for something to eat, whether they have money or not, is invited to buy food and join in. For some of us, that might not be a comfortable notion. This is a meal where everyone is on the A list, even people whose presence we might call into question. But this meal is a reflection of God’s kingdom and that kingdom’s values, which are not necessarily our values. Everyone is invited.

God promises an everlasting covenant and a way of life that builds community and egalitarianism among those who share in it. The walls that formerly divided rich from poor, powerful from weak, predator from vulnerable will be torn down when we choose the kind of life-giving way of life that God holds up before our eyes. What matters is how we treat one another. How we love one another. How we devote ourselves to those around us. Even how generously we give. Those things reveal something of our devotion to God. Through Isaiah, God doesn’t merely invite us to feast. God invites us to feast with each other.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Kingdom Parables | Proper 12

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

31 He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32 It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.”

33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. 46 When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, they pulled it to the shore, where they sat down and put the good fish together into containers. But the bad fish they threw away. 49 That’s the way it will be at the end of the present age. The angels will go out and separate the evil people from the righteous people, 50 and will throw the evil ones into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

They said to him, “Yes.”

52 Then he said to them, “Therefore, every legal expert who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest.” (CEB)

Kingdom Parables

The parables of Jesus don’t always make perfect sense, but they’re interesting. There are often several interpretations of each parable—most with merit, and some not so much. I’ve said before, they’re not straightforward.

The first two of the five parables in our text might point toward the humble beginnings of the kingdom: one man, Jesus, was born of a young, humble, virgin in a stable in Bethlehem turns out to be none other than God incarnate. The next two parables might deal with the great worth of the kingdom of Heaven. The fifth parable might be about judgment.

But they might have other meanings, too. In past sermons, I’ve mentioned how most people interpret the parables of Jesus as though they are about us, but I tend to believe that the Scriptures are telling stories about God, not necessarily us. It’s no surprise, then, that when we look at the parables more closely, things tend to get a little more complex, even difficult.

The first parable is full of exaggeration. A mustard seed is indeed very small, but it is not the smallest of seeds. Neither does it grow into a tree so large that flocks of birds can nest in its branches. Jesus was probably cracking himself up when he compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a lowly mustard bush. In Old Testament imagery, mighty kingdoms are compared to great and strong trees. The book of Daniel compares the kingdom of Babylon to a mighty tree standing majestically at the center of the earth, with its top reaching to heaven. “Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living things were fed” (Daniel 4:12 NRSV).

Great kingdoms are supposed to look like the mighty Cedars of Lebanon, towering Sequoias, great oaks, or grand beeches. Just imagine what the people listening to Jesus were thinking when they heard him say, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard bush…” They were probably thinking, Mustard bush? Mustard bush? Are you kidding? What kind of wimpy little kingdom is this dude preaching? What kind of kingdom is like a mustard bush?

But I think that’s exactly the point Jesus is trying to make. The kingdom does not come in the form we want it to, or expect it to. We don’t sing, “A Mighty Mustard Bush Is Our God,” we sing, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” We think that everything about God is supposed to be BIG, POWERFUL, STRONG, UNBENDABLE! But in this parable, Jesus hints to us that the Kingdom of heaven is breaking into our world in a disarming and, for many of us, a disenchanting sort of way. It isn’t what we expected. It isn’t what we wanted. It isn’t the way we think about God or imagine how God is supposed to act. No wonder so many Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, and it’s no wonder that so many people still reject Jesus. Most Jews expected the Messiah to be a conquering hero who would re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, but instead the world got Jesus: a guy who taught radical stuff like peace, love, nonviolence, generosity, acceptance, and praying for enemies. God does not act according to our paradigms and expectations. And that is what Jesus teaches us in this parable of the mustard seed.

The parable of the yeast has a similar twist to it. It might seem like little more than a cooking illustration, but it’s much more than that. In Jesus’ day, yeast was a popular symbol for corruption. In Matthew 16.6, Jesus says, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” He was warning the people to beware of their corruption. To say, “A little yeast leavens the whole loaf” is like saying, One bad apple spoils the barrel. For Jesus to say that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, is like describing it as a virus or rust: something insidious that works in hidden ways that we can’t see, at first, to corrupt what we thought was strong and healthy.

To emphasize that point, in the Greek text, the word used to describe what the woman in the parable does with the yeast is ἐνέκρυψεν [enekrupsen] which means “hid.” She didn’t innocently mix in yeast with the flour, she hid it! People don’t know what they’re getting when they eat this stuff any more than they know what they’re really getting into when they become a Christian. What’s more, her action of hiding the yeast in the three measures of flour is going to affect a lot of people. Three measures are equal to about 50 pounds of flour, which will make enough bread to feed 100 people.

If the kingdom of heaven is like yeast hidden in three measures of flour, it’s going to touch a lot of people and they won’t even know it until it’s too late. In this parable, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as a hidden force working silently to “corrupt” the world from its evil disposition to good. The kingdom of heaven works kind of like the Dark Side of the Force, for those of us who are Star Wars fans. Not that it’s evil, but it works in secret and silence right under the eyes of the Jedi. It pervades the whole world, secretly infecting and affecting everyone who comes into contact with it. It’s the righteousness of God’s kingdom that sneaks in and corrupts the evil of the world into righteousness. When the kingdom’s covert work of fermentation is complete, the ordinary flour is transformed into the bread of life.

The parable of the yeast is a story about how God works. John Wesley called it prevenient grace: the kind of grace that works on us and in us before we even know it. Suddenly we realize that God has been working in our lives from the beginning. There has never been a time when the kingdom of heaven wasn’t working on us, breaking into our lives in covert and sometimes imperceptible ways. That’s how much God loves us!

Then we come to the parables of the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great value. And I think they are less about us and every bit about God. They can suggest just how far God is willing to go in order to possess us. In God’s eyes, we are the treasure hidden in a field, we are the pearl of great value for which God was searching; and God has given everything, even his own Son, to make us God’s own possession. We have been bought with the very blood of Jesus Christ. And it might just surprise us that God sees so much value in us, that God could see a treasure or a precious pearl in something so despicable and wretched as us. But that is how God sees us. We were lost treasure, and God found us. We were a priceless pearl for which God had been searching, and we have been found. We are God’s priceless treasures, and God has sold everything to buy us, to come close to us, to be God with us, and to make us God’s very own possession. Think about that for a minute. God’s love of us is incalculable and amazing.

Then, there’s the parable of the net. It’s as much about the kind of evangelism the church ought to be doing as it is about judgment. It tells the church what kind of evangelism we ought to be doing because it primarily tells us what kind of evangelism God has been doing. We sometimes forget that salvation is about God, not us. God has adopted an open and uninhibited approach to evangelism. “The kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says, “is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” When a fisherman casts a net into the sea he or she doesn’t know what kind of fish they’re going to catch. The net could be filled with any kind of fish: meaty fish, bony fish, good fish, bad fish, bottom feeders, top feeders, whatever—they’re all gathered up in the net. No fisherman hesitates to cast the net because they’re afraid of catching the wrong kind of fish. They cast the net deep and wide and haul everything in. The sorting of the good and bad fish will take place later.

So it is with the kingdom; so it ought to be with the church. God’s net is cast deep and wide in order to bring in an abundance. Regarding this parable, Will Willimon wrote: “A dragnet is hauled into the boat full of creatures both good and bad. Should the catch be sorted? No. The Master is more impressed with the size of the haul than with the quality of the harvest. One day, not today, it will all be sorted” (Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, 36).

Our church doors are open to all. Our church programs are open to all. Our net ought to be cast deep and wide. Sometimes the church gets people who are deeply serious about the things of God. Sometimes the church gets people who are looking for a pretty sanctuary in which to get married. Sometimes we get people who don’t have anything better to do on a Sunday morning. Sometimes people show up because they are hungry to do righteousness. Some people show up because their spouse said they were coming whether they like it or not. The life of God’s people is wonderfully nondiscriminatory. Everybody is welcome to come along for the ride and, hopefully, each of us is encouraged to grow in our faith in God, deepen our love of God, and expand our love and care for other people along the way.

The job of sifting and separating the righteous from the evil, the serious from the frivolous, the authentic from the fraudulent, is left to the angels on another day. The job of sorting—of judgment—is not left to us. In the meantime, the grace of God flows freely and hopefully because, who knows whether the fish that any one of us might have hastily thrown back after little more than a quick glance will, in time, turn out to be the best catch of the day? That is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that salvation is God’s story, not our story. God is the main character, not us. And that’s a good thing! If it were our story, we’d look at all those fish and start sorting right away. We’d start tossing what we would judge to be “bad fish” back. Whereas God might see a bad fish and say, let’s keep this one and see if it doesn’t grow into a whopper. No story of any saint ever had a perfect beginning. We too are fish, after all. God is the fisherman. We’re just a part of the haul brought in by the net. And thank God the net of the kingdom has been cast so deep and so wide. If God’s net wasn’t big enough to catch the whole world, some of us who are sitting here might have been left out. This parable, like all parables, is about God, not us.

After teaching all these parables, Jesus asks his disciples a simple question, “Have you understood all this?” And they answer, “Yes.” The true disciples of Jesus Christ are like scribes who have been trained for the kingdom of heaven.

That kingdom—God’s kingdom—is like a mustard seed sown in a field that doesn’t always come the way we expect it to come, or look the way we expect it to look.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast hidden in flour that works in our lives and throughout the world in ways we don’t realize or readily see.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, like a merchant in search of fine pearls where God searches for us and sees in us immeasurable value: a value so great that God has risked all and given all just to possess us as God’s own.

The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea in that the kingdom is open to anyone and everyone regardless of how others might judge them because judgment isn’t our job, it’s the job of the angels on another day.

These things are what the kingdom of heaven is like, and we—as the church—are scribes in training for this kingdom: a kingdom that might not be exactly what we expect precisely because it’s more than we could ever imagine.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

A Sower | Proper 10

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

1 That day Jesus went out of the house and sat down beside the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he climbed into a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the shore.

3 He said many things to them in parables: “A farmer went out to scatter seed. 4 As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. 6 But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. 7 Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. 8 Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. 9 Everyone who has ears should pay attention.”

18 “Consider then the parable of the farmer. 19 Whenever people hear the word about the kingdom and don’t understand it, the evil one comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. 20 As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. 21 Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. 22 As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit. 23 As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce– in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.” (CEB)

A Sower

I love watching sports with my wife. I mean, we don’t watch often. It’s the occasional Duke basketball game, Notre Dame football game, or Detroit Tigers baseball game. But when we do sit together and watch, she inevitably cracks me up with the way she mocks the sportscasters. Two of Joy’s Spiritual gifts are mockery of the inane and sarcasm in all its forms. Sports commentators offer some of the best material for both of her gifts to flourish. As soon as a commentator asks the inevitable question, “How do you win this game?” Joy is off to the races.

“Well, Bob, it’s really complicated, but here’s what we’ve got to do: we’ve got to score more points than the other team. Basically, our team needs to score a bunch of points and make sure the other team doesn’t score as many points. We know for certain that if they score more points than us, we’ll lose the game. So, to prevent that from happening, we need to score a lot of points and keep them from scoring any. Or, at least we need to keep them from scoring as many. And that’s our strategy for winning. So, to summarize, we are going to score points and keep them from scoring points.”

Sportsing

That’s actually every sports interview, ever. There’s really nothing to add, but people talk and talk and talk as if there’s something really new to add, some valuable insight that no one ever thought of before.

Which is kind of like this parable. This is a first for me. I’ve never preached on this text. I’ve avoided preaching on this text because sermons are, in part, about interpreting the Scriptures. The difficulty with this parable is that Matthew follows it a few verses later with an interpretation. So what more is there to add? What can a preacher do with it when the interpretation that breaks the parable down is right there, included in the lectionary reading? It’s a little intimidating, to the point that I considered reading the parable, and the interpretation Matthew has Jesus provide, and have my whole sermon be three words: “What he said.”

Then, I got to thinking about parables themselves. They’re grounded in real life stuff, so they’re fairly concrete, not theoretical or abstract. And, they’re not very straightforward or direct. A parabola is a curve, and parables tend to behave the same way. They curve in and come at things from the side, and there are always multiple interpretations and vantage points.

This parable is sometimes called the Parable of the Soils, or the Parable of the Seeds, or the Parable of the Sower. In the interpretation Matthew provides in verse 18-23, the meaning is very straightforward. It’s about how different people receive the Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Those who hear the news and don’t understand it have what was sown in their heart snatched away by the evil one. That’s the seed sown on the path. The seed sown on the rocky ground are those persons who hear the news and receive it with joy, but fall away when trouble comes because they don’t have deep roots. The seed sown among thorns are those who hear, but the cares of the world or the lure of wealth choke the news out so it doesn’t yield anything. The seed sown on good soil are those who hear, understand, and grow in the news of the kingdom. They bear fruit and yield bountifully.

We typically interpret the subjects of Jesus’ parables as us. I mean, we do that with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We think we’re the Good Samaritan, but we might be the guy who got beat up and was lying half-dead on the side of the road. God might be the Good Samaritan who comes to us and offers healing and care at God’s own expense.

In this case, we might be the sower casting seeds to those around us, meaning we’re the evangelist sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven with others. In Matthew’s day, the early church struggled in Judea. They were a minority group. And while they had some amazing gains at various times, it wasn’t always easy to be a Christian in first century Judea. So, with this interpretation, it’s about perseverance when preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven because, while many will reject the word or fall away or be choked out, a few will accept it. Those few will bear their own fruit and start sowing their own seeds.

Or, in another interpretation, we might be the soil receiving the seed, and the state of our hearts and minds will determine how the seed cast upon us and sown in our hearts will grow or not. My problem is that the state of my soil seems to change. Sometimes the seed seems to fall flat on a hard path and I don’t understand things. Sometimes my soil is a little rocky, and my growth seems stunted. Sometimes my soil gets a little choked with briars and weeds because life happens and I end up worrying about my family’s well-being. This past school year, for example, my youngest missed over 30 days of school mostly due to a fever of unknown origin. Her temperature always registered from 100 to 101 degrees. Always. And no one could figure it out. The doctors finally decided it must be her tonsils, so she’s having them removed in a few weeks. It’s not a guaranteed fix, but that’s the best they can determine as a cause. And, her surgery is on my birthday. So yeah, I can confess that my soil has been a little choked lately, for that and other reasons.

While those are perfectly valid interpretations of the parable, what if we dropped our anthropocentric airs for a moment and looked at the subject of this parable as God? While the interpretation in verses 18-23 is important, most scholars agree that it’s a later interpretation provided by Matthew for the sake of the early church not necessarily an interpretation that Jesus gave. Let’s look at the parable by itself, without the interpretation.

“A farmer went out to scatter seed. As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. Everyone who has ears should pay attention” (Matthew 13:3-9 CEB).

If God is the farmer who is sowing seeds, I imagine God’s generosity is such that some of those seeds would be purposefully thrown onto the path just so the birds could get something to eat. There’s nothing in the parable itself to suggest the birds eating these seeds is a negative thing, nor is there any suggestion that the seeds were thrown onto the path accidentally, or that the farmer is being careless in his sowing. We’re simply told that some fell on the path and the birds ate them. At the risk of getting a little gross, when the bird passes the seed in a dollop, it can take root in the strangest of places. It’s possible that the farmer meant to throw some seed on the path.

The text which the lectionary provides from Isaiah suggests this very thing: “Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky and don’t return there without watering the earth, making it conceive and yield plants and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater, so is my word that comes from my mouth; it does not return to me empty. Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend” (Isaiah 55:10-11 CEB).

God scatters seed extravagantly and with varying results. Some of it takes root in shallow soil but doesn’t last, some of it takes root in hostile places among thorns that threaten to choke the life out of the seedling. Others take root in good soil and grow as they’re supposed to grow. Why would Jesus tell us a parable like this? Somehow I don’t think it’s so we can make the connections to the different kinds of soils as mere observers and say, Yep. That sure is how it is, and walk away holding that little nugget of insight in our hearts. Jesus was a practical guy, and the Methodism of the Wesley brothers was practical divinity. Faith requires action or it doesn’t count as faith. Understanding means that we get it and get to work.

What if the reason Jesus told this parable was to show all of us that there’s still some groundwork that needs to be done? God scatters seed and gives growth, but we’re the tenants of the garden. We’ve been the tenants of the garden since Adam and Eve. That was God’s first commandment to the human race in Genesis 1:28. Got told us to take charge of creation. If some of the seed God sows is falling on unprepared ground, maybe it’s because we haven’t cleared and tended the soil as we ought. Maybe we’ve got some work to do. Maybe we need to step into those rocky and choked places of the world and get our hands dirty until even that soil can support life to its fullest potential.

With some effort and hard work, we can turn rocky soil into something fertile. We can clear out the thorns and weeds that hinder growth of the seed God has sown. There is a lot of rocky and thorn-choked soil out there, my friends. You can walk out any door of this building and see it. You can drive down any street of this city and find it. “Everyone who has ears should pay attention!” (Matthew 13:9 CEB). There is ministry to be done. God is already sowing seed in every heart we’ll ever encounter. Our responsibility is to love those hearts so fiercely that the rocks and thorns are cleared away and all that’s left is good, fertile soil and the potential for a mighty harvest.

~Pastopher

Dance | Proper 9

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

16 “To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17 ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you’ve hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have shown them to babies. 26 Indeed, Father, this brings you happiness.

27 “My Father has handed all things over to me. No one knows the Son except the Father. And nobody knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wants to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. 29 Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. 30 My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (CEB)

Dance

I was a little skeptical. Okay, I was incredibly skeptical. When my wife told me about the ballroom dance lessons she wanted us to take at Miami University of Ohio, I was skeptical. I thought I would make a fool of myself. I thought it would be a waste of time and money. But she really wanted to learn to dance, and she wanted to learn to dance with me. So, I agreed. We learned East Coast Swing and Waltz. For a guy who can’t even do the Macarena correctly (and there’s video proof of that online), I had more fun with Ballroom Dance than I can adequately describe. We had so much fun that we took another class when the teacher offered one in Rumba, Salsa, and Mambo. We loved it! And to think that I almost refused to join in the dance.

Jesus uses a simile to describe his own generation of Jews. Children would often play in the marketplace when their parents were shopping for goods. Sometimes, those children would pretend that they were participating in a wedding or funeral procession. This may seem odd to us, but it’s no stranger than my children pretending Mom and Dad are bad guys and pretending to spy on us and attack us with plastic light sabers. Wedding processions were elaborate community-wide events with music, dancing, and all-around celebration. Likewise, funeral processions were large events, where professional wailers would be hired in order to get the crowd into a mournful disposition. So, children would play and pretend they were flute players, or professional wailers.

Part of the game might even be to get some of the adults to play along by dancing to their pretend flute playing, or pretending to mourn with their wails. If no adults joined in the make-believe fun, the children might call out to them, “We played the flute and you did not dance,” or “We wailed and you did not mourn.” Sometimes we adults forget how to have fun. You can imagine Jesus teaching in a marketplace and watching the children play these games. Then, using the image as a lesson. Jesus’ simile describes “this generation” as the adults who refuse to join in on the children’s games.

This text marks a rather dark time in Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist has been thrown into prison, and the people of three prosperous cities, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, have not listened to his teachings. People didn’t seem to be catching on to the message that the Kingdom of Heaven was coming near. It’s kind of the opposite of that “The Far Side” cartoon, in which two demons are watching a guy walk by them, joyfully pushing a wheelbarrow through the fires of hell while whistling a happy tune, and one demon says to the other: “We just aren’t getting through to that guy.” People weren’t getting this whole Kingdom of Heaven thing. They were refusing to join in the games.

John the Baptist and Jesus both came to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, but they did it in different ways. John was a wailer. He was an ascetic, and cried out for people to repent, to be mournful for their sins. John came “neither eating nor drinking,” but this generation refused to repent and mourn. They derided him and said, “He has a demon.”

Jesus, on the other hand, was a flute player. He came with joy to share the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven, and compassionately ministered to the people who would be his future bride as the Church (Revelation 21:2 & 21:9). His was the wedding procession. He came with merriment, eating and drinking with all sorts of people: Pharisees, sinners, and tax collectors alike. But “this generation” would not dance. They scoffed at him, saying, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

The people did not accept John or Jesus. They managed to make an excuse by finding a fault in how they dressed, the food they ate, or the people with whom they associated. It isn’t that “this generation” did not want to be redeemed. They all expected that the Messiah would come. But neither John nor Jesus measured up to their expectations of what the Messiah ought to be.

Jesus knew that this was the issue, so he told them a proverb, “Yet, wisdom is vindicated by her course of action” (Matthew 11:19c, my trans). In other words, the proof is in the pudding. The truth of John and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven is in the action: what is happening in the world through Jesus. Just as Jesus told John in the first verses of chapter 11, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:4 NRSV). Jesus is saying to the people, sit out the dance if you want to, but this is the right music to kick up your heels and dance.

Jesus then offers a prayer of thanksgiving to the Father. The theology of this passage is rather complicated. At its heart is the deep, mutual, and intimate sharing of everything between Jesus and the Father. No human being knows with all completeness who Jesus is. For, “no one knows the Son except the Father” (Matthew 11:27 NRSV). God the Father is only fully known by the Son, yet the Father wants to be known by all people. This is the mission of Jesus. It is the Son who has come to reveal God to us in all fullness by proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven and what that kingdom looks like. Jesus taught us the values of that kingdom, which are God’s values.

Jesus’ statement, “and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” may sound as if Jesus has a secret knowledge about God, and makes independent decisions about choosing which people he will let in on the secret. But this is not the case. God the Son and God the Father are joined together in so intimate a relationship that a decision of the Son is an expression of the Father’s will. In the same way, the will of the Father is incarnate, enfleshed, embodied, in the life of the Son. This is a model for how we are supposed to live. We’re to be so intimately joined with Christ that the will of God is expressed in our very words and actions.

For us, there’s also a clash between the ancient and modern ideas of logic and philosophy. People back then thought differently than we do. Even today, people in the East think differently than we in the West. We would think that if God wants to be known, then why does he hide “these things from the wise and intelligent?” We would think that if God wants to be known by everyone, he would reveal himself to the wise and intelligent. And if God has “hidden” these things from some people, how can they be blamed for rejecting Jesus? While we tend to pit human freedom and God’s sovereignty against each other, Matthew and his contemporaries believed both that people were free and responsible, and that God is in complete control of human history.

The fact is, Jesus had revealed the truth to the wise as well as the lowly. While the common masses tended to accept Jesus because of his actions and teaching, the wise thought that, no matter what Jesus did or taught, he did not fit the Messianic paradigms they had gleaned from Scripture. Or, at least, their interpretation of Scripture. The Glad Tidings of Jesus Christ are proclaimed openly to all, but there will always be people who refuse to accept the Kingdom of Heaven. There will always be people who refuse to dance. And sometimes, it’s us religious folk who already have our ideas nailed down with our hats hung on them. So when Jesus tells us he’s got a new dance move, we are liable to cross our arms and say, That’s not how I learned to dance.

Jesus then appeals to the weary and burdened to come and find rest in him. However, what Jesus offers is not a hammock on the beach. It’s a yoke. In Judaism, the yoke was a symbol of obedience to the law and wisdom of God. Rabbis often spoke of the “Yoke of the Law of Moses.” The Law was a yoke which the Jews gladly bore because obedience to the Law meant obedience to God. Likewise, Jesus’ yoke is obedience to his commandments: a willingness to serve others with humility and mercy, to love your enemies and pray for them, to deny yourself, to seek good for others. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.

Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light not because there is little to do or because the way is safely paved. On the contrary, there is a cross to bear, and the world is full of wolves. The yoke of Jesus is easy and his burden is light because God is with us along the way. Obedience to the commandments of Jesus means obedience to God. When we follow the way of God we find that it is profoundly satisfying to our souls. Jesus’ yoke is more demanding, but it is much more rewarding because it is the work of the Kingdom. It feels good to be nice to people and take care of others. Have you ever noticed how infectious something as simple as a smile or a kind word can be?

Of course, scowls and meanness are infectious, too, but the way to overcome those things is by loving others with the love of Jesus Christ.

Jesus came into the world in order to reveal God to all people. He came, not so that we could refuse to mourn our sins or refuse to dance for joy at God’s salvation. Jesus came so that we could join in with the children’s game and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. Jesus came to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus calls us to dance with him in the joyous Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. Don’t make excuses as the generation of Jesus’ day did—and as it is often our very nature to do. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” and we are invited to participate in the Kingdom, take the yoke of Jesus, and dance!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Welcome | Proper 8

Matthew 10:40-42

40 “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me. 41 Those who receive a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Those who receive a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” (CEB)

Welcome

A United Methodist pastor family I know used to live in a parsonage next door to the church he served. That meant they often had people knocking on their door, and often late in the evening. One such encounter had a Hispanic man show up with his teenage daughter and son. The father actually waited by the church steps so as not to alarm the pastor’s family. This father didn’t speak English well, so his children translated as the two families sat together on the front steps of the church to talk. The father was on his way to Michigan where he had gotten a job, and they were fleeing a bad situation with an abusive mother in their former location. The man showed the pastor all of his court paperwork, showing he had custody of his children and the documentation of his job offering up north.

After listening to their story, the pastor invited them into his family’s home. They talked some more, shared some food, and invited the travelers to stay the night with them and their toddler and newborn. The man didn’t want to impose that much on the pastor’s family so, instead, the pastor’s wife made some calls and put them up in the only available bed & breakfast in town. The man looked at the pastor and his wife and said through his children, “You aren’t from here, are you?” To which the pastor and his wife responded, “No. Why?” The man said, “Because everyone else in this town has given us dirty looks. Even at the gas station when we filled up, people looked at us like they hate us. You’re different. That’s how I know you’re not from here.”

I like that story for several reasons. First, it’s a great example of hospitality to strangers. Second, it begs the questions, How do others to perceive us, and how do we want others to perceive us?

Admittedly, when taken at face-value, this text doesn’t appear to be one that has a whole lot of direct relevancy for most modern congregations. These words are the last of Jesus’ missionary discourse where he sent out the apostles like sheep among wolves (10:16), without money, a backpack, extra clothes, or a walking stick (10:9-10). These words are about those who will potentially receive the apostles on their missionary journey. If we take the text as is within its context, if the apostles come to your door, then make sure you welcome them. Then again, if that were to happen, then it likely means the Day of Resurrection is upon us and there might not be much to worry about because all Heaven is about to break loose.

We know Jesus is talking about hospitality, but the meaning of the Greek text and the English translations is a bit of a pain. First off, where the Common English Bible translation says, “as a prophet” and “as a righteous person” the Greek is literally, “in the name of [εἰς ὄνομα],” which is how the New Revised Standard Version translates it. But what that means in Greek and how we’re supposed to render that meaning into English isn’t clear. In addition to “as” and the more literal “in the name of” it could also mean “because.” Whoever welcomes a prophet or a righteous person simply because they are those things will receive the appropriate reward.

The “reward [μισθὸν]” part isn’t clear either. In fact, the Greek word has a more neutral connotation. It simply means recompense, or remuneration for work that has been done. It can be either reward or punishment depending on the work or deed. It’s kind of like getting your just deserts. And, what is the reward? When is it given? Is it some future thing like heavenly treasures, or do you get a sticker or a sucker right away like my kids do when they go to the doctor? You were good. Here, pick a sucker out of the basket.

Neither is it clear what is meant by “a righteous person [δίκαιον],” especially in regard to the sending of the apostles. Do these labels, Prophet and Righteous Person, apply to all the apostles? And, who are the “little ones [μικρῶν τούτων]”? Many scholars say it’s a reference to the apostles because it’s a part of the Missionary Discourse. To me, however, there appears to be a theological connection to the “least [ἐλαχίστων]” in the parable of the sheep and the goats. (Matthew 25:31-46). In that sense, we could interpret this as a reversal of the expected hierarchy. If a prophet or a righteous person came to town, it would be expected that they would be properly hosted and shown hospitality. They would probably receive multiple invitations to be hosted by many families of good standing, and they could take their pick.

But these “little ones”—whether they are the apostles or anyone of low status—wouldn’t necessarily have a significant social or religious standing. If these words are connected to the “least of these” in Matthew 25, then Jesus means to tells us that giving a cup of cold water to a little one would result in the highest reward.

There’s also the fact that our point of view as the readers of this text seems to change multiple times. In some instances, we’re the apostles who are being sent out, we’re the ones to whom the apostles are sent, we’re the ones called to give a cup of water to the little ones, and we are the little ones to whom the water is given.

For only being three verses in length, the words of Jesus sure do bring up a lot of questions. So, here’s what I propose. Instead of having to choose whether the “littles ones” are the apostles or someone of low socio-economic or religious status, it might behoove us to read it as inclusive of both. I think that’s how Jesus would want us to understand it. And, despite the apparent lack of direct relevancy for modern congregations that I mentioned earlier, there is something incredibly—profoundly—relevant for us to get from this. Even if these words were meant specifically for the apostles in that moment of being sent out, the Gospels were written for us.

And, the kind of hospitality Jesus expected his apostles to receive is an extension of a larger matter of hospitality that is rooted in God’s very nature. God is love, and that love surrounds us whether we’re worthy or not, whether we’re righteous or not, whether we’re religious or not. God is the one who hosts us every day. Everything we can sense belongs to God. Even the stuff we can’t sense was created by God. We are the recipients of God’s immense hospitality, and we are meant to show we are grateful by showing hospitality and welcome to others no matter who they are, what their story is, or where they come from.

Across the Old Testament, God commands that we show hospitality and welcome to people. Exodus 22:21 says, “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt” (CEB). It’s pretty straightforward. Don’t mistreat or oppress people who are different from you. Then, Leviticus 19:34 gets a little more specific. It says: “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (CEB). In fact, twice in Leviticus 19, God tells the people, “you must love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18 CEB). Love is the primary characteristic of the Christian.

That call to love our neighbor is taken up three times in Matthew’s Gospel. “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:43-48 CEB).

Our job is to love others: even our enemies! Our job is not to be the gate. Jesus already has that role covered, and this is what he says on the matter. He likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a net that people cast into the sea to gather all kinds of fish. They hauled it ashore and started to separate the good fish from the bad fish. Then, he says it will be like that at the end of the present age. The angels will separate the good from the bad. Not us. We, the church, are the net. We’re to fling our arms open wide and welcome anyone we can. If there’s any separating that needs doing, God’s angles will take care of that. We don’t.

If God’s hospitality is offered to everyone without limitation, then ours should be, too. When it comes to welcoming prophets or righteous people, we can’t tell who they are by looking at them. Our call is to welcome people with simple, basic acts of kindness. With each opportunity that presents itself, God invites us to extend genuine hospitality to each other. This kind of compassionate welcome is how we approach one another through the love of God. When we put the grace-filled hospitality of God’s love at the center of our lives and our relationships—even the difficult relationships—we are living into God’s expectations of discipleship. When we do that, when we live into showing hospitality, we are often the ones who feel rewarded.

That pastor family still remembers the Hispanic man and his children who visited them that night. To them, it wasn’t merely an opportunity to host a poor man and his two children who were passing through town. That night, they hosted Christ, and that will stay with them forever. “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher