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July 30, 2017 is Pentecost 8A

1 Kings 3:5-12 – And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David… Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?

Psalm 119:129-136 – Keep my steps steady according to your promise, and never let iniquity have dominion over me. Redeem me from human oppression, that I may keep your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes.

Romans 8:26-39 – For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 – The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in joy goes and sells all that has and buys that field.

1 Kings 3

The prayer from 1 Kings is the one in which Solomon prays for wisdom instead of wealth, power, or glory. God is pleased with the prayer. “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right…”  (I wonder why there hasn’t been a bestselling book entitled The Prayer of Solomon like there was The Prayer of Jabez. Wealth sells. Wisdom? Not so much).

One is reminded of some of Paul’s words:

” ‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)  “‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)

Psalm 111 – May be a better match for today’s first lesson and Gospel reading than Psalm 119. ”The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Romans 8

As 1 Corinthians 13 is to weddings, so this section of Romans 8 is to funerals. And just as Paul wasn’t talking about marriage in Corinthians…

This is the end of the first section in Paul’s letter, a section in which he addresses the unity of Gentiles and Jews. He then goes on to the unity of Jews and Christians beginning with chapter 9, and the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians beginning with chapter 12. This section of Romans is about unity through diversity in Christ.

There is a lot of wisdom, and homiletical material in this passage.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? God who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will God not with him also give us everything else? 

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Seeds and Yeast

We’ve been in Matthew 13, where we learn the kingdom of heaven is like:

  1. Seeds sown on four kinds of soil
  2. Seeds sown along with weeds
  3. A mustard seed (starts small/grows big)
  4. Yeast (a catalyst for growth)
  5. Treasure (hidden/ great value)
  6. A pearl (great value)
  7. A net (gathers/sorts)

Seeds, yeast, treasure, a pearl, a net – the kingdom starts small, and maybe hidden, then grows into something significant and worth great value, though mixed and needing to be sorted out at the end of time. We dealt with the sorting out business last week, so let’s start with the mustard seed and yeast.

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Jesus is still outside the house, in the boat on the lake, speaking to the crowds at this point. He tells the crowds that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, very small. In time it grows to a huge tree.

Actually, the mustard seed isn’t the smallest seed. This is probably not sermon material, but the wise preacher should know, and it might come up in a Bible Study with agriculturally astute readers. Mark puts it even more poignantly, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” There were plenty of smaller seeds, known to Palestinians even in Jesus’ day. There are lots of microscopic seeds, but even among seeds visible to the naked eye, there are some pretty small ones. Begonia seeds are 1/100th of an inch. Petunia seeds are 1/50th of an inch. Mustard seeds are 1/20th of an inch. Black and white mustard are 1/8th of  an inch.

Mustard does not need to be planted by the seed. It proposes on its own, quite nicely. Pliny says it’s a garden plant. The Mishnah says it grows wild in the fields. We don’t know how the Israelites or Palestinians used mustard plants. There are wild mustard plants over ten feet tall growing near the Jordan, but the branches are not strong enough to support birds’ nests.

Jesus is being poetic. With fundamentalism in the water, many people still read the Bible like it’s a science book, taking its cosmology, anthropology, and botany as gospel. Jesus is pointing to spiritual matters not physical matters. Any reader of the gospels must learn to read hyperbole and allegory. When someone says, “She was the largest of women,” it is not to say, she was the very largest woman but among them. Jesus uses hyperbole a lot. “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out…” “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…” If we get into scientific truth claims in the Bible, we are on the wrong track. Jesus is talking about the growth of the kingdom not botany.

This is not the only place Jesus mentions the mustard seed in Matthew. Jesus likes them to create an image of smallness, perhaps because they are so prolific in Palestine. In Matthew 17:20, Jesus says if we had the faith of a tiny mustard seed (just the smallest amount), we could uproot trees; in fact, he says, nothing would be impossible. This is a relief, since Jesus is constantly reminding them how little faith they have. Apparently a little dab’ll do ya. You can pick up a spice bottle of mustard seeds at the grocery. It helps people get the point.

The next verse compares the kingdom of God to yeast. The point seems to be similar, a small amount has significant impact – explosive growth. The woman mixes in three measures of flour, and the yeast leavens the whole bunch. The yeast grows and has influence, like the gospel. Not by our effort, though we add the yeast and plant seeds. It’s all built into the way nature works.

Jesus uses images like this, everyday household images that capture the imagination. “You are the salt of the earth.” A little salt affects the flavor of the whole dish. A little pinch can make a big difference, unless of course the salt has lost its saltiness, in which case it’s worthless and should be thrown out. The brave preacher/teacher could chase this rabbit down the trail. I had to throw out some yeast recently. It had gotten old. When I proofed it, it wouldn’t rise.

The kingdom starts small but expands. May seem humble and insignificant now, but it moves toward greatness. Watch!

And how right Jesus has been. Could the disciples have imagined the gospel would grow from their small band of traveling disciples in Galilee to what it is today?

Beware, however, the greatness is not in the numbers of Christians, but in what God is going to be doing in the world. Granted, the church is part of that future as the visible presence of Jesus in the world, the body of Christ, but we are not the end product. The end product is peace, justice, healing, righteousness, and hope. The growth is not the spread of the religious institution, but the message of hope in God’s future for the world, and not just the message, but the actuality of it.

The kingdom is like a hidden treasure which someone found, or a pearl of great price for which you sell everything to own. I doubt Jesus explained his metaphors and similes. I suspect he spoke enigmatically in parables, and this was part of his allure. People leaned in to hear and then leaned back to ponder. His healing ministry gave him credibility.

The kingdom is hidden. It isn’t obvious or in your face. It lurks beneath the surface of life. If you aren’t looking you could miss it. But for those who seek, it will find it. Knock, and the door will open.

The last image is that of a net. The kingdom is like a net that is thrown into the sea. Once drawn ashore, people put the good fish in baskets and throw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age (end of time?). Like the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, got will sort out good and evil at the harvest.

Have you seen this mustard seed/yeast phenomenon in your town? Have you seen it change lives, grow and spread? If not, why not, do you think? What could be inhibiting growth? Revisit The Parable of the Sower and the Seed from two weeks ago. What birds, rocky soil, sun, or thorns are in the way? What roots need to be set?

The great joy of the preacher/teacher is that all we have to do is plant a seed, sprinkle the yeast. The gospel does the rest. The Word has power. It is a catalyst. We plant this tiny seed of possibility and hope for what God might be doing in the world, and the Spirit does the heavy lifting. Through our preaching and teaching about the kingdom, we spark imaginations and stuff happens. Often things will happen that we could not possibly have imagined ourselves. I’ve seen it happen. A relationship with churches in Peru explodes. A homeless ministry is started by a member who is captivated by the challenge, and the call that haunts her dreams. A divorce ministry is started by a broken person who found healing so great, it had to be passed on to others. Ministry is most exciting when it is out of control, greater than the leader could accomplish alone, even beyond the leaders’ imagined future.

What jewels of hidden treasure have been revealed to you? These next months, stir up the imaginations of your people for what God is doing, and give them permission to run amok. See what happens. See if the gospel is indeed like yeast, or a tiny seed, with the explosive power of life in it.

July 23, 2017 is Pentecost 7A

Genesis 28:10-19a – Jacob’s ladder. His dream at Bethel. The promise of offspring. He puts up a standing stone to commemorate the Lord’s presence in this place.
OR
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 – There is no god but you. You show your might. You condemn the proud.
OR
Isaiah 44:6-8 – Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.

Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 – The Inescapable God. O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. Where can I go to flee from your spirit? Even if I go to the depths of Sheol, you are there.
OR
Psalm 86:11-17 – But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

Romans 8:12-25 – For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 – Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.

Prayer of the Day
Faithful God, most merciful judge, you care for your children with firmness and compassion. By your Spirit nurture us who live in your kingdom, that we may be rooted in the way of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. My word shall accomplish that | which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for | which I sent it. Alleluia. (Isa. 55:11)

The Wheat and the Weeds

Let’s talk about judgment, in the context of the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, otherwise known as The Wheat and the Tares. We are walking through Matthew, and we are amidst three weeks in Matthew 13’s intriguing Parables of the Kingdom, the third of five great discourses in Matthew’s gospel. This parable is an inclusio, which we discussed last week. First, Jesus tells the parable, then he changes the subject, then he returns to the parable to explain it.

In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus tells a story. The kingdom of heaven is like someone who sowed good seed in a field. Then, while everyone was sleeping, an enemy sowed weeds. This is a truly diabolical act. Can you imagine a more cut-throat way to undermine the competition? Sow weeds in you neighbor’s crop.

The owner’s slaves want to pull the weeds, but the owner says, “No, you might unintentionally pull up the wheat too. Leave them to grow together. We will sort it all out at the harvest.”

Then Jesus drops the story and moves on. We won’t read verses 31-34 until next week, but they are the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus compares the kingdom to things that grow? Wheat, mustard plants, yeast. More on that next week.

Then Jesus goes back into “the house.” (Since the beginning of chapter 13, Jesus has been preaching from a boat. Jesus had stepped out of the house to the lake, and the crowds pressed him into the boat. Check out last week’s post). Now back in the house, and away from the crowds, the disciples ask Jesus to explain his parable to them privately. It is a great literary device on Matthew’s part. The crowds don’t get to hear this, but we do. The reader of the gospel get to listen in on Jesus’ private instruction with his inner circle of disciples.

Luther (in a 1525 treatment of this passage) points out that Jesus explains the parable in seven points:

  1. The sower is the son of man.
  2. The field is the world.
  3. The good seeds are the children of the kingdom.
  4. The tares are the children of the evil one.
  5. The enemy that sowed them is the devil.
  6. The harvest is the end of the world.
  7. The reapers are the angels.

(We never learn who the owner’s slaves are supposed to be)

Therefore we shouldn’t burn heretics at the stake, Luther concludes, but rather leave them time to repent. It is a strikingly self-serving passage, since Luther-himself has already been declared a heretic by this time. In fact, it would seem Luther uses this very text to question the inquisition and other forms of religious persecution:

From this observe what raging and furious people we have been these many years, in that we desired to force others to believe; the Turks with the sword, heretics with fire, the Jews with death, and thus uproot the tares by our own power, as if we were the ones who could reign over hearts and spirits, and make them pious and right, which God’s Word alone must do. But by murder we separate the people from the Word, so that it cannot possibly work upon them and we bring thus, with one stroke a double murder upon ourselves, as far as it lies in our power, namely, in that we murder the body for time and the soul for eternity, and afterwards say we did God a service by our actions, and wish to merit something special in heaven.

This is a refreshing view for a Medieval mindset. The parable itself is troubling though. So, some people are children of the kingdom, and others are children of the evil one? Hmm. Who to trust? My dad, who died this month, used to jest, “I trust everyone but you and me, and lately, I’ve been wondering about you.”

Jesus usually puts things in extreme terms to get our attention. “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out…” So this shouldn’t surprise us. But there are questions. What makes one a child of the kingdom? What makes one a child of the evil one? What if one has both the tendency toward good and evil? If one is mostly evil with a little bit of good is one a child of the evil one? And if one is mostly good, with some mild tendencies toward wrong, is one a child of the kingdom? M. Scott Peck would tend toward such an interpretation. He says that some people are so caught up in evil, that every decision, thought, action stems from it.

Martha Stout, in The Sociopath Next Door, claims that 4% of the population, one in twenty five people, are sociopaths. A sociopath is someone with no conscience, who can do wrong to another or see them suffer without feeling remorse.

I heard one preacher say the children of the kingdom are the followers of Jesus. This sounds good at first, but play it out. Are we saying that those who don’t follow Jesus are children of the evil one? Are all Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, agnostics, atheists, and the like children of the evil one? That would be an awful perspective, but sadly, one that has been held too often by Christians. I have some Muslim friends. They aren’t children of the evil one. And I have some Christian friends who very well might be.

Here’s another question. How can we tell the children of the kingdom from the children of the evil one? I’m thinking of some of my neighbors right now. I think I have a pretty good idea, but, you know, it would be really nice to have some confirmation (Tongue in cheek).

This parable seems to recognize that it really is hard to tell. The word for “weed” in this text (ζιζάνια, zizania) refers to a weed (a darnel grass sometimes poisonous) that looks very much like wheat. It mimics wheat.

The text also suggests that in overreacting to evil, we might do more harm than good, ruining the harvest, by uprooting the good as well. Indeed, many an effort to root out evil have proven disastrous, creating more misery than would have been otherwise. These are wise words.

What would Matthew say makes one a child of the kingdom? Paul would say those who are “in Christ” or those who are justified by faith in Christ. What would Matthew say? Powell (God With Us) is a big help. In Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of heaven has been prepared for the righteous (13:43, 25:34, 37). Anyone who obeys God’s commandments may enter (5:17, 19:17, 25:46). Not everyone in the church will be saved (“not all who call me Lord, Lord shall enter the kingdom…”)

It will not work to superimpose a Pauline theology on Matthew, and yet we have to land somewhere don’t we? Wouldn’t it be fun to have Paul and Matthew in a room together and hear them argue. Matthew himself may suggest a way through. Matthew’s Jesus not only uses the phrase “children of the evil one,” but even the phrase “children of hell” (Matthew 23:15), though he reserves it for the Pharisees. In fact, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day are shown to be evil persons throughout Matthew’s gospel (9:4, 12:34, 39, 45, 16:4, 22:18).

One would think, if righteousness gets you into the kingdom, the Pharisees would be the first through the door. They are law-keepers to the nth degree, adhering to every jot and tittle of the Mosaic law. But apparently for Jesus this is not enough. Maybe there is more Pauline theology in Matthew than we see at first glance. In Matthew Jesus views the Pharisees as missing the forest for the trees. They tithe of their herbs but have forgotten the weightier matters of the law, justice and compassion, Micah 6:8 stuff. Justice for the orphan, widow, and stranger is a more critical matter than whether or not your pull your donkey out of a ditch on the Sabbath in terror of actually working. Loving your neighbors is more important than ostracizing them if they don’t live up to your moral standards. In fact, for Jesus, loving God and neighbor embodies all the law and the prophets. If you keep the law, but have no compassion in your heart, you may be a child of the evil one.

Sounds like a fun confirmation game. “Hey kids, tonight we’re going to play a fun new game called You Just May Be a Child of the Evil One. Now, question number one. Jeffrey?”

The wolves in sheep’s clothing comment in Matthew also seems to indicate that perhaps it’s not too easy to tell one from the other. Just as the weeds are disguised as wheat, the wolves are disguised as sheep. This is why it is so critical to not judge. The one you judge may have been in a very difficult spot. Judgment is God’s business, at the end of time. Not ours, for right now. Matthew 7:1 ff and Romans 2:1 ff. make this perfectly clear.

Parables are not meant to be parsed word-for-word. They convey a sense. They are allegory. Even Chrysostom says as much, “And, as I am always saying, the parables must not be explained throughout word for word, since many absurdities will follow…” (Homily XLVII). So what is the “sense” of this passage?

Expect good and evil to be jumbled together in this life. It won’t get sorted out until the eschaton. That seems to be the point.

The next question, then, is “So what?” What is the good news of this passage for the faithful, striving to live lives of faith, hope, and love in daily life?

There are those who struggle with doing the right thing in a business world that is corrupt. Perhaps the preacher could tease out the challenges of living a moral life in a morally jumbled up world. We can teach people to sin boldly when facing moral dilemmas, and making difficult decisions between what may very well be the lesser of two evils.

There are those out there who wrestle with heaven and hell, and what happens to people when they die. Did Uncle Fred go to heaven? After all, we all know he was no saint. What will judgment day look like? I know a man whose son committed suicide. He’s worried that his son might be in hell, in spite of gracious conversations he’s had with many people. It might be worth wrestling with different concepts of judgment.

What if on judgment day all that is evil, all that is bad in you gets burned up, and all that is good in you continues on into eternity? What if everything that is against God gets cast into the proverbial fire, and all that is for God, endures? What if, like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, nothing endures except faith, hope, and love, these three, which abide forever.

If all that was bad in you was burned up, how much of you would be left? What percentage? How much of you is faithful, hopeful, and loving? How much of you is self-centered, angry, hateful, and greedy? How is God transforming one into the other?

What if good endures and bad is cast into the fire? Because none of us are all good, and none of us are all bad. We are what Luther called a “corpus mixtum,” a mixed bag, if you will. We are simul justus et peccator, at the same time both saints and sinners.

Who knows? We speak of things beyond our comprehension, but here’s what it could mean. It could mean that if we are mostly caught up in greed, anger, and hatred, if we are 95% against God, after judgement day there might not be much left. Perhaps this is what Jesus means by “children of the evil one.”

The prophets talked about the refiner’s fire (Malachi 3:2). A really hot fire can burn off the impurities in a metal, leaving behind only the pure precious metal. What if only righteousness lasts, and unrighteousness is destroyed?

Then the questions becomes, how do we get righteous? How do we get in right with God, in line with God? Lutherans believe that you cannot get right with God by trying harder, or by being good enough, or pure enough. We believe even our good deeds are corrupt, often growing out of selfish motives and self-serving tactics. Like Paul says in Romans 7, the harder I try to be good, the more I realize evil is close at hand.

We believe that the law, tradition, and superstition have no transformative power. The only thing that gives us wings is following Jesus, trusting Jesus. We believe Jesus’ way is the only hope for the world. It has the power to heal and change lives. If we are “in Christ” we will act and live out of a spiritual center that will give life to us and to others. We will be transformed, over time, from being self-centered to Christ-centered. And when we are turned from serving ourselves to serving others, we will find a joy that will sustain us in this morally jumbled up world of wheat and weeds, good and evil.

Warren Rinehart (1933-2017)


Warren Rinehart of Leander, Texas died peacefully on July 8, 2017 at St. David’s Hospital in Georgetown, Texas, surrounded by family.

Warren was born to Howard W. Rinehart and Claire Elizabeth Rinehart on June 12, 1933. He was baptized at Martin Luther Church in Canton, Ohio on August 22, 1933, and confirmed on April 13, 1947. He is a 1957 graduate of Capital University, where he met his wife Patricia. In 1962, he graduated from Trinity Lutheran Seminary (formerly Evangelical Lutheran Theological Seminary) in Columbus, Ohio.

Completing internship at St. John Evangelical Lutheran in Oak Harbor, Ohio, Warren was ordained to the holy ministry on April 29, 1962 at Martin Luther in Canton, Ohio. He went on to serve his first call at St. Peter’s in Edon, Ohio. In 1964, he was called by the Board of Missions of the American Lutheran Church to plant a congregation in Grand Blanc, Michigan. He stayed at Holy Spirit Lutheran for 33 years.

After retiring in 1997, he moved to Leander, Texas and served as an interim pastor for congregations in all three Texas synods for over ten years. Among those congregation were:

  • St. Paul in La Grange, TX
  • Elizabeth in Caldwell, TX
  • Our Saviors in College Station, TX
  • First in Waco, TX
  • Zion in MacGregor, TX
  • Faith in Weimar, TX
  • Immanuel in Pflugerville, TX (2000-2001)
  • Palm Valley in Round Rock, TX
  • Hope in Buckholts, TX

He loved ministry, family, gardening, cooking, music, football, and cars. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Patricia Rinehart, his children Michael and wife Susan, Paul and wife Karen, and Katie, and his seven grandchildren John, Nicolas, Gregory, Abbey, Sarah, Heidi, and Yuliana.

Memorial Service

Thursday, July 27, 2017 at 1:00 PM 
Triumphant Love Lutheran Church
9508 Great Hills Trail
Austin, TX 78759-7290

A reception will follow.

In lieu of flowers, friends are invited to give to the Rinehart Memorial Fund. Gifts will be split among several charities including Alzheimer’s research and Triumphant Love Lutheran Church. Checks can be made to Triumphant Love Lutheran Church, c/o Rinehart Memorial, 9508 Great Hills Trail, Austin, TX 78759-7290, or you may donate online with Triumphant Love.

Back in April of 2017, I posted a bit about my dad, when he was struggling.




1957: Wedding

1961: Michael
1966: Paul
1969: Katie
1964?


2003:





60 years

Featured post

July 16, 2017 is Pentecost 6A

Genesis 25:19-34 – Jacob and Esau, the twins are born, two nations contending. Esau sells his birthright to Jacob.
OR
Isaiah 55:10-13 – For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven… so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty…

Psalm 119:105-112 – Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and light unto my path.
OR
Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13 – You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it.

Romans 8:1-11 – There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 – THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER. Listen! A sower went out to sow… and some seed fell on the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns and some on good soil.

Path, Rocks, Thorns, Good Soil

Isaiah 55 reminds us that the Word of God has incredible power. It accomplishes what it sets out to do with or without our help. We are only invited to get on board.

Romans 8 is a powerhouse gospel message. Christ appeared in sinful flesh. The Spirit of life in Christ therefore sets us free from sin and death.

As has been pointed out previously, Matthew is divided into five sections like the Pentateuch. Each section has a narrative in a discourse. The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 through 7 was a discourse. Matthew 10 held the Missionary Discourse. Matthew 13 would best be described as Parables of the Kingdom.

According to Stanley Hauerwas, in Matthew, (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), Jesus redefines family in the text immediately preceding this. Who are my mother, sister, brother? Those who do the will of my God in heaven (Matthew 12:47-50). One does not become part of Christ’s family by birth. The parables are teachings, ways Jesus instructs his followers to become disciples, part of the family.

Matthew is the church’s gospel. Written half a century after the crucifixion, the author of Matthew is likely addressing issues the church is facing in that time. We now wade into three consecutive Sundays of Kingdom Parables in Matthew 13, though in a jumbled fashion:

  • The Parable of the Sower ( 13:1-9, 18-23)
  • The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds ( 13:24-30, 36-43)
  • The Parables of the Mustard Seed, Leaven, Treasure, Pearl, Net ( 13:31-33, 44-52)

Unlike the Sermon on the Mount, here Jesus leaves the house, goes down by the sea, and sits down in a boat to teach these lessons. Like the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is going to teach the disciples, but a large crowd will listen in.

What house?

In Matthew 8:20, we get the clear sense that Jesus is not a home owner. Looking back through Matthew 12, the narrative doesn’t help us much. After a few other events, we end up with Jesus speaking to the crowds. His mother and brothers are standing outside. Outside what? Probably the house. The narrative is vague. The only three references to a house before this in Matthew’s gospel, other than parables, are Matthew 2:11, 8:14, and 9:23.

  • In 2:11 the magi come into the house where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are.
  • 8:14 is Peter’s house, in Capernaum, where Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law.
  • 9:23 is the synagogue leader’s house.

We read that Jesus’ family appears outside. So we can presume this is not Jesus’ house. I vote for Peter’s house. Perhaps Peter’s house is their home base. (By the way, I’m stumped as to what those who hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary, and thus the proposition that Jesus had no siblings, do with this text that so clearly indicates otherwise).

The Word

Jesus has to get in a boat; as usual, he has attracted a large number of people, because the Word is powerful; it always accomplishes what it sets out to do. In the theme verse (propositio in rhetoric), Romans 1:16-17, Paul uses the word dunamis, from which we get our word dynamite. The Word has explosive power:

Οὐ γὰρ ἐπαισχύνομαι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, δύναμις γὰρ θεοῦ ἐστιν εἰς σωτηρίαν
παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι, Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ελληνι:
δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται,
 δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται. 

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation
to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written,
“The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Inclusio Sandwich

Matthew 13:1-23 is an inclusio, that is, it has a lesson with in the lesson. Jesus tells the parable, then he teaches a little bit about the purpose of parables, and then he explains the parable to the disciples. There are three parts, like an Oreo cookie sandwich. The top part of the cookie is the parable. The bottom part is the explanation of the parable. In between we get the cream filling: a change of subject that often lends meaning to the parable. Writers of books and screen plays do this all the time of course. One character drops a shocking surprise on another character, and then suddenly the scene changes. You have to wait to see what happens. It builds suspense. Matthew will do the same thing with the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.

Unfortunately, the lectionary leaves out the second section, as if Matthew’s purpose in structuring it like this is irrelevant:

  1. Matthew 13:1-9 — The Parable of the Sower
  2. Matthew 13:10-17 — The Purpose of Parables
  3. Matthew 13:18-23 — The Parable of the Sower explained

Whether you consider these parables, similes, or metaphors, Jesus has employed this method earlier in the gospel. In Matthew 7, those who hear the Word, and act on it are like (simile) a wise man who built his house upon the rock. The message in this parable will travel along the same lines.

The Parable

So, let’s get into the parable. A sower went out to sow. The seeds fell in four places:

  1. Path – eaten by birds
  2. Rocky ground – sprang up quickly, shallow roots, withered by the sun
  3. Thorns – choked
  4. Good soil – great harvest

Coming soon after the Matthew 10 missionary discourse, it seems likely that the story might have been used to process the experience of some churches growing/others not, some people growing/others not, some hearers responding to the gospel/others not.

Quantitatively, Jesus teaches them to expect a 25% ROI, return on investment. The Word accomplishes what it sets out to do, but there are external factors that impact how that Word will be received at any given time. Expect one out of four people to respond, or one out of four churches, or one our of four towns? Ah, but when they do respond, expect amazing results, like the crowds Jesus attracted – one hundredfold, sixty, thirty.

The Filling

Fortunately, Matthew includes an explanation of this parable, but first, the cream filling of the cookie – a suspense-building foray into the purpose of parables. Not so fortunately, this explanation is more confusing than the parables themselves. Apparently most will hear but not understand, see but not perceive. As he so often does, Matthew has borrowed once again from Isaiah (6):

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go and say to this people:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”

Both Isaiah and Jesus are being prophetically paradoxical and enigmatic.  Louisville Presbyterian Seminary Professor Patricia Tull says Isaiah aims at “punchy irony.” Straightforward communication has not worked, so the pithy prophetic voice tries the back door: “The Lord has told me to tell you this, but you’re not gonna get it, probably because you don’t want to get it.”

Like the parable itself: most won’t get it. Spiritual things are by nature nebulous, non-linear, not easy to grasp. If I may mix gospels, the Spirit is like the wind, as Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3. You don’t know which way it’s going to blow next. The things of the Spirit are difficult to perceive. Parables help bring it down to earth a bit. Listen, if you have ears to hear.

The Explanation

  1. Then we get the explanation of the parable. The first seeds represent those who hear the word of the kingdom, but don’t understand it. The “word of the kingdom” (λόγον ʏῆς βασιλείας) is a curious phrase. This is the only place I could find it in the New Testament. Given the fact that Jesus trained his disciples (Matthew 10) to go heal and then tell people the kingdom of God had come near, it may very well be that Jesus is referring to the content of his preaching and that of his disciples. The word of the kingdom (or maybe more accurately translated, the news of the kingdom) is that the kingdom of God is breaking into our world, and the witness is in the selfless acts of kindness, healing, and casting out of spirits that the disciples themselves are doing. This passage (and a few others in Matthew) give us some more hints about the nature of the Word, which we’ll summarize in a minute.

Jesus explains, when people hear the word and don’t understand it, the evil one snatches it away, like birds snatch away seeds on a path. The word for “understand” is συνιέντος, (sunientos), which means “understand” or “perceive.” Why wouldn’t they understand the Word or be able to perceive its meaning? Jesus has just explained this in the cream filling. Spiritual things are by nature hard to grasp, especially if you have your head in materialistic things, and are seeking them, rather than the kingdom of God. It’s sad really. Some people will hear the good news and simply not get it. Anyone who has ever been a church leader has seen this.

Pay attention to what we learn about the Word in verse 19: The Word is heard. It is audible. And it is sown in the heart. In antiquity, the heart is the center of consciousness, your thoughts, your motives, your feelings, your will. The Word can be understood or not understood. Perceived or not perceived.

  1. The seed sown on rocky ground are those who hear the word and receive it with joy, but they have no roots, so when persecution comes, they wither and fall away. All church leaders have seen this phenomenon as well.

How often have church leaders seen someone have a kind of conversion experience and respond with the unbridled enthusiasm of a convert, only to lose steam a year or two later when difficulties set in? We need to help people set roots through relationships, Bible study, prayer, worship and serving with the poor. Pastor Mindy Roll and a team in our synod are working on a curriculum to do just that. It will invite people to explore, in a 12-session group, the ways that they experience the Divine.

It’s not good to rush new people into leadership positions too quickly. I’ve seen them come in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They are enthusiastic, sparked by a new-found faith connection. They sprout up quickly, then run headlong into the dark underbelly of church politics, which sucks the life out of everyone. A spouse dissents, an addiction interrupts, or they discover what they are called to do isn’t easy, and might take a lifetime, rather than a weekend.

Protect new people from all of that, and help them set spiritual roots. I’m not saying to keep them from ministry. Just don’t throw them into the deep end of leadership, where they will be over their head, to mix metaphors. Tend to faith formation, which includes serving, but also praying, and studying and so on…

Pay attention to what we learn about the Word of the kingdom in verses 20-21: It is powerful. It can cause great joy. But a person can lose it. Life’s trouble or persecution can drive it away if we don’t set deep roots.

  1. The seed that falls among the thorns, Jesus says, are like those who hear the word, and presumably even understand it, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke it, and the word bears no fruit.

Have you seen this in your context, or in previous parishes? Can you give unidentifiable examples without naming names? Have you seen wealthy people abandon the world-changing ministry to which they were uniquely gifted in order to pursue more wealth? It’s heart-breaking. Jesus is preparing his disciples (including us) for this eventuality.

This is so consistent with what Jesus says in other places. Wealth, materialism, stuff, and riches are the greatest threat to our spiritual life. Jesus says it is easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom. 1 Timothy 6:10 states it even more pointedly, “ The love of money is the root of all evil.”

After visiting five countries in Africa, I am again astounded at how happy people with very little material possessions can be. And here we are in the U.S, choking on our stuff, and people seem trapped in unhappiness. Perhaps the key to the things of the spirit, is becoming a little less obsessed with stuff, and a little more focused on faith, on God, and on the things God cares about.

Pay attention to what we learn about the Word of the kingdom in verse 22: Things choke the word.

  1. Finally, the seed that falls on good soil, says Jesus, are those who hear the word. They understand the word, and it bears much fruit in their lives.

Pay attention to what we learn about the Word in verse 23: The word, when planted in the good soil of a heart that is ready, can bear much fruit.

What kind of fruit? You need to seek this out in your own community. The Word is alive and working in your neck of the woods, somewhere. Can you identify it and point it out?

The comment about joy in verse 20 may also give us a clue. Personally, I resonate with Paul’s comment in Galatians 5:22. The harvest, the fruit that the Holy Spirit, produced in us are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Keep in mind as we march through Matthew’s gospel this year, that when Matthew uses the words, “word,” “word of the kingdom,” or “word of heaven,” he is not talking about the Bible. The Bible hadn’t been compiled yet. And he doesn’t mean Jesus as the Word of God, like John does when John says the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Matthew’s talking about the content of Jesus’ preaching: that the kingdom (all God’s hopes and dreams for the world) are breaking into this world, right now, in quite tangible and visible ways. At the same time, the Greek word for word, Logos, has power for meaning in Greek language, culture mythology. It also has significance in Hebrew culture, as the word that God spoke at creation, and the word mentioned in Isaiah 55. For this reason, I have been capitalizing it. It may not yet be theological shorthand for Jesus in Matthew’s theology, but it means more than a few letters on the page. The word has power.          .

So what?

So what’s the good news in all of this? It depends on your context. The beautiful thing about parables is they have multiple layers of meaning. The story of the Prodigal Son meant one thing to me as the oldest son in my family. It has completely new shades of meaning now that I am a father. What does your congregation need to hear right now in your place and context?

Here are some things that jump out at me:

  1. God is at work in the world transforming lives and planting seeds in those whose hearts are prepared to receive it. One of the things that jazzes many church leaders I know, is seeing lives transformed. It is an incredible rush when someone who is lost in life, finds meaning and purpose. It is a joy when someone who is materialistic and self-centered discovers the joy of giving and becoming other-centered. The angels in heaven rejoice when someone who is slumped over finds joy, hope, and life in Christ.
  2. It is good news that the work of evangelism, conversion, and transformation is not dependent only on us. It doesn’t depend on this conversation I have with someone or that one. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. We can plant seeds, but God gives the growth. Because evangelism is a team sport, it doesn’t all rest on my abilities alone. Thank God.
  3. It is good news that the gospel still has power in people’s lives. Seeds want to grow. It’s in their DNA to grow, and with the right soil, they will grow, even in an imperfect church with imperfect leaders. And even though maybe ¾ of the seeds we plant will fall on inhospitable soil, ¼ of them are likely to bear fruit. Some people get discouraged because ¾ attempts at planting seeds bear no fruit. And they stop trying. But I can find hope that ¼ of my seeds will bear fruit! It encourages me to plant all the more. If you dream of a 30-fold harvest, plant 120 seeds.
  4. The preacher might ask the congregation to pray about a few things:
  • What seeds are you planting right now with those relationships you have?
  • What seeds are being planted by your congregation?
  • Who is planting seeds in you, and what kind of soil would you say your heart is?

The Founding Fathers and Their Slaves

Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English literary giant of the 18th century once quipped, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”

Half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves.

Thomas Jefferson

One cannot honestly study U.S. American history without bumping into this paradox. The same man who wrote, “We hold these truth to be self evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator by certain inalienable rights…” also owned 600 slaves over his lifetime. Some of them were born in the White House.

Jefferson could articulate an ideal, but not live it. This prompted the Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway to say, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”

Jefferson would look down the mountain at the 140 slaves of his plantation, knowing that many of them were extended family that his family had owned for generations, descendants of a single matriarch, Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings. All Jeffersons house servants were related.

As is now known, Jefferson (1743-1826) with one of the house slaves his wife inherited. In fact, Sarah “Sally” Hemings (1773-1835) came to Monticello as an infant, as a part of Martha Jefferson’s inheritance when her father died. Martha died in 1882. Thomas Jefferson never remarried. Jefferson is believed (thanks to DNA testing) to have fathered all six of Sally Heming’s children. Jefferson was thirty years older than Hemings. The first child was born when the widowed Jefferson was in his 40’s and Hemings in her teens. She remained a slave in Jefferson’s house until his death. 

Was it a consensual relationship. Of course not. Anyone who understands power dynamics knows a slave girl could not and would not say “no” under any circumstances. The consequences were too high. Even if it was consensual, it wasn’t. Hey man the powerful cannot possibly have a consensual relationship with a slave girl under his complete dominance. 

In a letter to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson noted a 4% profit margin on negroes. He is quite aware that slavery is profitable. Economics trumps ethics, especially for Jefferson who spent a lot of money, and was in significant debt most of his life.

In time as his letters attest, Jefferson came to see slavery as distasteful. A little time in Europe helped appreciate how ugly slavery had become in the states. You can read his many writings and letters online: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/jefferson-the-works-of-thomas-jefferson-12-vols. Jefferson comes alive in the reading of his letters.

Tobacco farming required child labor, so boys were put to work at age 10. Later, when Jefferson switch to wheat, the boys would work making nails. They were routinely whipped if they did not work hard enough. White boys were hired at $.50/day to work in the nailery as well, stoking fires, but only on Saturdays, as they were expected to be in school during the week. Jefferson was kind to his house slaves, but plantations ran on what the Smithsonian magazine calls “calibrated brutality.”

Upon his death, Jefferson’s slaves were sold. Families were split up. Children were bartered for on the auction block. A few slaves were freed in Jefferson’s will, however one of those freed slaves watched his three youngest daughters auctioned to three different buyers.

George Washington


When George Washington’s father died, he left him 280 acres and 10 slaves. Washington was eleven years old. He continued to purchase slaves, inheriting many more when he married Martha (the widow of a wealthy plantation owner). By his death in 1799, Washington had over 300 slaves at Mount Vernon, half of them owned by Washington. They worked from sunrise to sundown six days a week.

Reports of how Washington treated his slaves vary, but we do know whippings were common. We also know that as a punishment, Washington was known to sell slaves to the West Indies, where they would never see their families again. There were many successful and unsuccessful attempts by slaves to escape Mount Vernon. This is history we were not taught in school. I wonder why that is…

In his 1799 will, shortly before his death, Washington ordered the emancipation of all of his 123 slaves. Martha freed them in 1801. Older slaves were to be provided for in perpetuity by his estate. Washington was the only Virginian known to take this action. Sadly, Martha’s slaves were not freed. They became part of the Curtis Estate. 

Benjamin Franklin


Benjamin Franklin had concerns about most non-English races. He was worried about German immigrants who he believed would ‘swarm into our Settlements’ and make Pennsylvania a ‘colony of Aliens.’ He had even more negative things to say about African slaves. 

Franklin owned slaves for his house and for his print shop. He believed them to be inferior and impossible to educate. The print shop was a kinder environment than the plantation. When one slave ran away, Franklin did not pursue the slave. 

Franklin himself had been an indentured servant, to his brother no less. He was forced to work in his brother’s print shop, and was treated so badly that he ran away. In time, Franklin set up his own printing business, which depended upon ads, often taken out by owners of runaway slaves. Franklin also made money on anti-slavery pamphlets. He appears to be neutral on the topic of slavery for a time. In his later life, he began to reflect on slavery, taking on an abolitionist tone. In time he would come to view it as unfeasible economically, and morally reprehensible. 

In 1787, Franklin became the president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. He helped establish schools for black children, and through that experience reappraised his opinion of the intellectual capacity of slaves. In 1790, Franklin sent a petition to Congress calling for the abolition of slavery. It was congress’ duty “to secure the blessings of liberty to the People of the United States and this should be done without distinction of color. Therefore Congress should grant liberty to those unhappy men who alone in the land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage.”

Unfortunately, the petition failed. Congressman James Jackson of Georgia said the “Bible sanctioned slavery and, without it there would be no one to do the hard and hot work on plantations.” One of the worst sins is using the Bible and religion to justify oppression. 

Upon his death, Franklin freed his slaves.

John Adams 


John Adams was not a slave holder. He hired domestic servants and laborers, but never owned a slave. Of the first 12 presidents, Adams, and his son John Quincy, who also became president, were the only two who didn’t own slaves. Adams said he was morally opposed to slavery. 

But, Adams also opposed legislation to abolish slavery. Perhaps afraid the Southern States would succeed, he said such legislation should “wait.” Adams dismissed radical and violent abolitionist efforts as “produc[ing] greater violations of Justice and Humanity, than the continuance of the practice” of slavery itself. It is difficult to imagine anything much worse than slavery as it was practiced. How out of touch was Adams? How fleeting must the suffering of others seems when we ourselves are not experiencing it. 

In the third paragraph of this 1801 letter to a Quaker churchman, Adams stated slavery was “fast diminishing.” How wrong he was. The 1790 census reported 700,000 slaves. The 1800 census reported 900,000 slaves, an increase of 29%. Slavery was on a steep rise. His letter called for patience. Adams thought slavery should gradually be phased out. One is reminded of MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written to clergy who were also calling for patience, and King’s dictum, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Summary

Jefferson, Washington and Franklin all went through a change of perspective about slavery in their lifetimes. All free their slaves when they died, but not until they died.

In all, 13 of the first 18 Presidents of the United States owned slaves, eight of them while in the White House. Slaves built the White House, many of them owned by the architect. Seven Preidents were served by slaves in the White House. They lived in the basement and on the first floor. 
The Founding Fathers were not saints. One only need read a few biographies to clear up any such misconceptions. They saw the scourge of chattel slavery, but the lure of wealth choked that word. They cast a vision for a better world, but weren’t ready to live out its full implications in their lifetimes. Yet, amid all of this, there were a few voices of conscience who not only spoke the truth but had the courage to live it. Another day I will write on the courageous voice of abolitionists. 

How about us today? What injustices do we see right in front of us? How shall we respond? Will we see them and denounce them? Will we take the next step and make the sacrifice of altering our own lives to be the change we want to see in the world? Or will history remember us as having postponed justice for a future generation, missing the truth altogether? 

Bibliography

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson

http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/jefferson-the-works-of-thomas-jefferson-12-vols

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-dark-side-of-thomas-jefferson-35976004/

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally_Hemings

http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/washington-the-writings-of-george-washington-14-vols

http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/slavery/ten-facts-about-washington-slavery/

http://www.personal.psu.edu/cjm5/blogs/benjamin_franklin_then_and_now/2013/04/benjamin-franklin-and-slavery.html

http://www.benjamin-franklin-history.org/slavery-abolition-society/

https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/early-republic/resources/john-adams-abolition-slavery-1801

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Presidents_of_the_United_States_who_owned_slaves

http://johnadamsinfo.com/john-adams-and-slavery/89/

July 9, 2017 is Pentecost 5A

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 – Isaac’s servant meets Rebekah at the well/spring, and takes her back to meet, and marry Isaac.
OR
Zechariah 9:9-12 – Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Psalm 45:10-17 – For the Director of Music, a wedding song. Listen, daughter, and pay careful attention: Forget your people and your father’s house. Let the king be enthralled by your beauty; honor him, for he is your lord… In embroidered garments she is led to the king; her virgin companions follow her—those brought to be with her. Led in with joy and gladness, they enter the palace of the king.
OR
Song of Solomon 2:8-13  – My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
OR 
Psalm 145:8-14 – The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

Romans 7:15-25a – I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 – Repentance and comfort. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

Prayer of the Day
You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Blessed are you, Lord of | heav’n and earth;
you have revealed these | things to infants. Alleluia. (Matt. 11:25)

Many thanks to Don Carlson, for help researching these reflections.

Zechariah – Prisoners of Hope

Cyrus the Great ruled Persia from 559-530 BCE. As “King of Kings” and God’s messiah (Isaiah 45:1), he allowed those captive in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. He died shortly thereafter and was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who ruled for 8 years. He was succeeded by his brother, Bardia, who only ruled for several months. He was succeeded by Darius I, who ruled from 522-486 BCE and was on the throne of Persia during the time of Zechariah (1:1).

Point? Zechariah’s time isn’t too long after Cyrus the Great. People haven’t left Babylon yet.  Nehemiah dates from the reign of Artaxerxes, 465-424 BCE; Ezra perhaps 50 years later.

And so, after much apocalyptic visioning (Zechariah 1-8; apocalyptic literature may be of Babylonian influence), there is encouragement in 9-14 (maybe later by another author) to “Return to your stronghold (Jerusalem) you prisoners of hope.”

Jerusalem will become the center of the world (14:8-9). Of course, there was more than a little rivalry as to where the “center of the world” was; the picture to the left is of the stone in Delphi that marked the “navel” of the world. But, the “Jerusalem as center of the world restoration project” never materialized; the empires of Persia, Greece, and Rome would hold sway. “Centers of the world” wax and wane.

This is perhaps why the words of Zechariah got usurped and projected onto a future messianic figure: Jesus (Some people may wonder if it’s already Palm Sunday). Prisoners living in hope of deliverance are always waiting and looking. And maybe – perhaps just maybe – although usurped and projected, the “center of the world” hope never went away?

Consider the final scene in Tolkien’s Two Towers. Trapped and under assault in the fortress of Helm’s Deep, the alliance of Middle Earth seems certainly doomed. Theoden says, “What can men do against such reckless hate? The Horn of Helm Hammerhand will sound in the deep, one last time!” The ancient horn is sounded and Theoden and Aragorn ride out “for death and glory.” Aragorn remembers the words of Gandalf, “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east.” And then, amid the hopeless darkness before the dawn, out of the blinding sunrise rides Gandalf the White, Eomer, and the Rohirrim. It is the apocalyptic battle between light and darkness; darkness is vanquished.

That’s the common vision of deliverance for many hopeless prisoners of hope. Grand. Glorious. Apocalyptic. But does it have anything to do with the triumphant and victorious king who comes “humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” In short, “Prisoners of hope, for what exactly – for whom exactly – are you hoping? Are you really hoping to be made the center of the world?” Which, I suppose, is our sinful propensity – incurvatus in se which should get you into Romans 7:15-25, should you want to go that route. Let us go that route – via Matthew.

Matthew

Jesus said,

But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ’We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

What do we hear in Jesus’ words? Maybe something akin to this,

The Baptist came and his bed was too hard for you. The Son of Man comes and his bed’s too soft. Now tell me, in your fairy tale religious world, what vision of the kingdom will be just right for you? What are you looking for, anyway? What exactly do you want from God?

We piped for you, but you would not dance.

John came as an ascetic, and he was rejected by the religious leaders. Then, along came Jesus, who bent the rules, ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners. Him, they called a glutton and a drunk. You can win.

The Fourth of July weekend, there will be – whether spoken or not – the hope that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “God Bless America” will somehow work their way into the service. Rather than avoid it, I think the texts are an opportunity to address those latent apocalyptic hopes and dreams head on.

Without getting into the “under God,” pledge debate, or the, should we have “In God We Trust” on our currency? debate, consider that almost everyone – nations included – trusts in God. The real question is, “In what kind of god do you trust?”

The Taliban believes they live life “under God.” The Sunnis and the Shiites – the Israelis and the Palestinians – everyone intones the name of God. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the leaders in Iran, both Cortez and Montezuma, the Christian crusaders that “killed Turks for Jesus,” Reverend Phelps who proclaimed that “God Hates Fags”, both George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull, the anti-abortionist who murdered a doctor because life is sacred – the list could go on and on, but all trusted or trust in their god.

No matter what the currency says, everyone says “In God We Trust.” Almost every person believes that they are “under God,” and every nation believes that they are the “one nation under God.” But the real issue is: In what god do you put your trust? And: What do you trust God to do? It’s not necessarily even about which god; it’s about what kind of god. Different views of the same God have different kinds of agendas – different kinds of “royal agendas.” The question for us is, “Is the God we have in mind in sync with the mind of Christ?” In Jesus we meet a humble and compassionate king on a donkey who challenges the royal ways of the world.

The possibility of compassion is basic to the heart of God. But the possibility of compassion is precisely what the royal wants to eradicate. Compassion is the ability and willingness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel. It is the enemy of the royal life. Royal economics is designed to keep people satisfied so that they do not notice. Royal politics is intended to block out the cries of the denied ones. Royal religion is to be an opiate so that no one discerns the misery that is alive in the heart of God.
– [Quote source unknown]

These are weighty words to consider as we debate health care in this country, especially as it impacts the poorest among us.

Personal, ecclesiastical, and nationalistic incurvatus in se (being turned in upon ourselves) is what these texts address. It is “the kingdom of heaven” against the “royal agendas” of the world; agendas in which we are all entangled and complicit. What’s our agenda? Ought we be the center of the world?

Humanity used to believe that our world was the center of the universe; that everything revolved around us. Maybe, despite all our scientific knowledge, we have not come all that far. What is our hope? Who is our hope?

Romans 7

At camp we used to call this “the do-do passage.”

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 

Sin is defined, as we said above, as being turned in upon ourselves. Self-centeredness, as opposed to being centered on God and neighbor, is our malady. In Romans 7, Paul describes his humanity in a way that people really hang onto: I want to do good, but I can’t. And the bad stuff I don’t want to do, I find myself doing.

…I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Paul describes what we all experience. I want to be generous, but somewhere within me, greed rises up. I want to say “no” to that bad habit, but urges arise within my flesh that I cannot seem to quell. It is as if there is spiritual warfare going on inside of me. The law is of no use. The only thing that seems to have any effect is faith in Christ, being bound up in the love of Christ.

Putting our faith in Christ, following in the footsteps of the one who lived in love of God and neighbor, stranger and enemy – this is my only hope. Paul addresses the self-centeredness of nationalism, militarism, greed, and corporate sin with the antidotes of faith, hope and love. If we think a religion of laws will get us where we need to go, we are sorely mistaken. Who will deliver us from this body of death? Only faith in Christ and the faith of Christ.

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