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Bishop Michael Rinehart

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2017

August 13, 2017 is Pentecost 10A

1 Kings 19:9-18 – …and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’

Psalm 85:8-13
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.

Romans 10:5-15 – The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Matthew 14:22-33 – Jesus walks on water. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught [Peter], saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Prayer of the Day
O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. I wait for | you, O LORD;
in your word | is my hope. Alleluia. (Ps. 130:5)

If You Want to Walk on Water, First You Have to Get Out of the Boat

In Matthew 14, two miracles occur immediately in the wake of the death of John the Baptist. First, there is the feeding of the five thousand, which we treated last week. Then we have Jesus walking on the water, a curious story. Keep in mind that Jesus calmed the sea back in Matthew 8.

You may recall that, after hearing of the death of John the Baptist, Jesus got into a boat and headed across the lake to be by himself (Matthew 14:13). The crowds, however, figured out where he was going and followed him to the place where he eventually presided over a mass feeding.

Now Jesus sends the disciples back across the lake and dismisses the crowd. He finally gets his alone time, heading up the mountain to pray. Just like Moses does, Hauerwas notes (Exodus 32:30-34). By evening, he is alone on the mountain. One can dwell on this a bit. If Jesus needs down time, don’t all Christian leaders? We dare not engage in constant decisive action without sufficient time for reflection. Action needs to be informed by prayerful reflection.

In the middle of the night, Jesus comes to the disciples, still in their boat, walking on the water. David Garland (Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary) reminds us of what many of the translations leave out. The Greek in 14:25 literally says that Jesus comes to them on the fourth watch of the night (tetartay de phulakay tays nuktos). For this society, night begins at 6 p.m. Each watch is three hours, so the fourth and final watch is 3:00-6:00 a.m. It is also the time that God’s salvation comes. The Lord rescues the city of God at the break of day, in Psalm 46:5. I believe this story tracks closely the salvation from the raging waters spoken of in Psalm 46, an awesome choice for the Psalm of the day.

Garland also reminds us that what most translations render “far from the land,” regarding the position of the boat, is actually “some stadia.” A stadia, from which we get our word “stadium,” was a foot race about 1/8 of a Roman mile, a bit over 600 feet (200 yards or two U.S. football fields). So, let’s say “some” means three, or better, four. Four stadia would be half a mile out to sea. It’s a decent distance.

They are terrified. “People do not walk on water,” Hauerwas reminds us in Matthew, The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, though the modern reader will not need the reminder. Of course, the disciples assume it must be a ghost.

One might take this opportunity to talk about theophanies. In my three decades as a pastor, I have heard many amazing stories from parishioners. People have mystical experiences, but they don’t want to be thought of as weird, so they rarely tell them to casual listeners. I don’t have explanations for what I’ve heard, and they’ve seen. Visitations by dead relatives, crime victims, or divine messengers. I listen carefully and move quickly to interpretation. What does this mystical experience you have had mean for you? Obviously, if someone presents as mentally ill, or prone to paranoid hallucinations, we would seek medical help. But, as any pastor will tell you, often these experiences are recounted by otherwise average folks, who are as surprised as anyone and trying to understand their own experience. It helps, in a positivistic philosophical world, for the preacher to acknowledge that people have mystical experiences. Be prepared for some appointments if you open that door.

When they freak out, shouting for fear, Jesus responds, “It is I,” or more precisely, “I am” (ego eimi, in the Greek).

The preacher will, of course, recognize Matthew’s choice of words for Jesus’ self-disclosure. “I am,” is the response God gives, when Moses’ asks God what to say to Pharaoh. “Who shall I say sent me?” God responds, “I am.” God says, “Tell them, ‘I am’ sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:14)

The Israelites were not a seafaring people. Their literature is filled with a sense of fear and respect for the sea. That the Israelites passed through the waters of the Red Sea was a big deal. Hauerwas points out Psalm 77:19, which might make a better Psalm for this Sunday than the appointed texts: “You walked through the sea; you passed through the surging waters, but left no footprints.” I AM provides food, freedom, and a way through the raging waters of life.

Then, “Do not be afraid,” (mei phobeisthay).

An even better possibility from Psalms is Psalm 46:

God is our strong refuge;
A sure help in time of trouble.
We will not be afraid,
Though the mountains quake in the heart of the sea
Though its waters roar and foam!

But the story does not end here. Peter asks to come out on the water as well. Jesus gives a single-word response: Elthay. “Come.”

Peter does walk on water (only in Matthew’s gospel), but when a strong wind comes along, he starts to sink. “Save me!” he cries out. Jesus reaches to him and pulls him up. He then calls Peter what often used to be translated “O ye of little faith.” It is actually a one-word name: Oligopiste, “Little-faith-one.” “Why do you doubt?”

Jesus seems to be insulting Peter for his lack of faith, but we need only think back one chapter to the text we read on July 30. Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows into a mighty bush. And in three chapters, we will read that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains.

Garland asks, “If this is a story about discipleship, what is the lesson?” (Reading Matthew, p. 159 of 274). Are followers of Jesus to go out and learn how to walk on water? Shall we go out and walk on the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Houston, Lake Conroe, Lake Pontchartrain? If the boat is the church as many ancient Bible interpreters agreed, don’t disciples belong in the boat? Perhaps the message is that Jesus should be the focus, not the church.

Or, the subtle message here may be, if you lose sight of Jesus you’re likely to sink down. Many of us have found this to be true in our lives. It is faith that buoys us up. In times of grief and sorrow, when the going gets rough, it is a deep-seated trust of God that puts things in perspective, bringing peace and comfort.

When life gets difficult, the seas of life get choppy, it is normal to be afraid. Courage is not a lack of fear. It is moving forward in spite of our fear. Keeping our sights set on Jesus is a way forward. This may be a confusing statement to someone who has not put Christ at the center of things before. The preacher will have to bring it to life. Christ, our relationship with God, Jesus’ way of being in the world – these become our compass in life when skies are gray and threatening.

Peter may have little faith, like many of us, but he has enough faith to get out of the boat. I love the title of John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat. There are some awesome sermon illustrations in that book as well. You could download this book in the next couple of minutes and find some inspiring ideas.

What listener in your assembly will not identify with Peter, his desire, his fear, his doubt, his hope? People, congregations, communities, and even nations can be driven by fear. We are not our best when we are afraid. John reminds us that perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). He may have a little faith, but keep in mind that Jesus’ nicknames Simon, “Peter,” “Rocky.” The Rock.” Peter is the original Rock, not Sylvester Stallone or Dwayne Johnson.

David Garland takes an alternate view. He sees Peter’s step out of the boat as a bit impetuous and self-aggrandizing. “Jesus does not promise to deliver [us] from the storm, but through the storm. The disciple’s task is therefore to stay in the boat worshipping and confessing, not attempting the sensational.”

Our text ends with, “Those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Surely you are the Son of God.’” We are only half way through Matthew’s gospel, and the disciples have already grasped who Jesus is and are worshipping him. These words convey Matthew’s purpose in telling the story. The event is meant to reveal who Jesus is, as should a good sermon.

August 6, 2017 is Pentecost 9A

Genesis 32:22-31 – Jacob wrestles with God/the angel
OR
Isaiah 55:1-5
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 (16) – 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 9:1-5 – They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Matthew 14:13-21 – Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

Prayer of the Day
Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. One does not live by | bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the | mouth of God. Alleluia. (Matt. 4:4)

Before I begin, I want to offer a word of thanks to Andrea Martinez on our staff, and John Turnquist, who read and proof these posts each week. Andrea also edits and posts the weekly podcast. Thanks also to Don Carlson who researched these posts.

Genesis 32 – Jacob wrestles with the angel

Two weeks ago, July 23, 2017, we had Jacob’s ladder, his dream of being in liminal space, in reality, fleeing to the border for his life, and in his dream, being in the space between heaven and earth. In that dream he received grace, the patriarchal promise of progeny, in spite of his many deceptions and betrayals.

This week’s story is four chapters and twenty years later (Gen. 31:41). You know the background story: Jacob married the two sisters, Leah, the elder daughter of Laban, with the tender eyes, and Rachel, the younger, who is pleasing to the eyes. He worked seven years for Rachel, but Laban switched out Rachel for Leah on the wedding day, tricking Jacob. Served him right. So then he worked another seven years for Rachel, who he “loved more.”

Leah gave birth to Simeon, Reuben, Levi, and Judah. Rachel was having trouble getting pregnant, and getting desperate, so she gave her servant Bilhah to Jacob. Bilhah gave birth to Dan and Naphtali. Leah got jealous, so she gave her servant Zilpah to Jacob. Zilpah gave birth to Gad and Asher. Then Leah gave birth to Issachar, Zebulun and Dinah. (For a midrash on Dinah’s rape, read “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant). Finally, Rachel gave birth to Joseph and died giving birth to Benjamin.

So, now Jacob has two wives, two concubines, and at least fourteen children. This is why I always chuckle when I hear the phrase, “We believe in biblical marriage.”

Jacob is doing well. His flocks are increasing. He is, however, having trouble with his father-in-law Laban and Laban’s sons. His flocks have done better than theirs, so they are jealous. The tension builds. His life is in danger, so God tells Jacob to return to his homeland.

Afraid of what Laban would say, Jacob sneaks out with his wives, concubines, kids, and all the cattle, which he considers his (but which Laban considers his). Three days later, Laban discovers they are gone and furiously sets out in hot pursuit. Ten days later, Laban catches up. It is only a dream from God that prevents Laban from killing Jacob, who always seems to be in hot water with someone. Laban is angry, at the loss of his daughters, grandchildren and flock, but strikes an agreement. Once again Jacob erects a standing stone, and they part company.

Whew.

Safe finally? Except this: a scout tells him his betrayed brother Esau is approaching with 400 men. Uh oh. Jacob divides the entourage into camps. This gives him a 50/50 chance of surviving. Always the trickster. Then he sends gifts to Esau. A peace offering? 200 female goats, 20 male, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 40 cows, 20 female donkeys, 10 male donkeys, 10 bulls, 30 female camels, and so on. This is the point that our reading begins.

In the night, Jacob packs up and sends ahead his wives, slaves, and children. Esau wouldn’t kill them would he? Jacob himself stays on the far side of the river to see what will happen, ever the coward. I also love the phrase “Heroes of the Bible” – not so much. These are stories of deeply flawed people in highly dysfunctional families, whom God uses for God’s purposes anyway. This should give us all hope.

In the middle of the night, Jacob tossing and turning, has a dream – a bad dream. He wrestles with a man, and when it was over, although he prevails, he is left with a broken hip. Did Jacob wrestle with an angel or with God? Hosea 12:4 seems to indicate both.

In the dream, Jacob asked for a blessing – classic Jacob. Give me something. The man asked Jacob’s name, and renamed him Israel (which means “who prevails with God”). Jacob believed he wrestled with God. “Certainly I have seen God face-to-face and prevailed.” Jacob sought to make himself a hero.

This is where our story ends, but it’s good to know the rest. Esau approached with over 400 men. Jacob limping, put the slaves and their children out front, then Leah and her children, and finally Rachel and her children. Priorities, right?

When finally arrived, Jacob went out front to face the music. He bowed his head to the ground seven times. Esau ran to him, embraced him, and kissed him.

This story is grace upon grace upon grace. All of Jacob’s life is grace, inspire of himself.

Some have called this a pre-incarnation appearance of Christ. That may be a bit much.

Homiletical possibilities abound. Every interesting person I have known has wrestled with God. Speak of your own wrestling with God. Help people know that their wrestling with God isn’t unfaithfulness, but rather a normal experience, one that even Jesus had. “Let this cup pass from me.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…”

In this story, God appears as a dark, disguised threat, not as a protector. Sometimes our experiences of the divine are like that. You will wrestle with God, but it’s an uphill battle. You never come out the same. Just ask Jonah. Jacob’s dreams and experiences of God come when he is exposed and vulnerable. How about you? Fears, darkness, loneliness, vulnerabilities, empty feelings of powerlessness, exhaustion, and relentless pain. Ever been there? Jacob is forced to confront his fears, weakness, sins, failings, and ruthlessness. Luther calls this tentatio in Latin, anfechtung in German. In a theology of the cross, this is the path to God. There is no revelation without agitation. There is no art without struggle, without confronting our brokenness, our restlessness, our pain, and our weakness. Think about Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

When have you wrestled with God. Why? When have you experienced the dark night of the soul? What tends to keep you up at night? When have you experienced undeserved grace and blessing? You will receive blessings, in your divine encounters, but you may come away with a limp.

Isaiah 55

If you choose to preach the Feeding of the 5,000, Isaiah 55 may be the better choice for the first reading.

Isaiah 55 is the last chapter in Deutero-Isaiah. Proto-Isaiah, chapters 1-39, being pre-exilic; Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40-55, exilic; and Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66, post exilic.

The most profound and troubling words come in the second verse of the pericope, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”  Walter Brueggemann’s article, “Counterscript,” speaks to these words in 19 theses.  Three of the more pointedly germane theses talk about a common script that empire’s hold, especially today:

  1. The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.

* I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.

* I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot he solved.

* I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that “if you want it, you need it.” Thus there is now an advertisement that says: “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.” The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities. 

It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated. 

  1. This script — enacted through advertising, propaganda and ideology, especially in the several liturgies of television — promises to make us safe and happy.Therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism pervades our public life and promises us security and immunity from every threat. And if we shall be safe, then we shall be happy, for who could watch the ads for cars and beers and deodorants and give thought to such matters as the trade deficit or homelessness or the residue of anger and insanity left by the war or by destruction of the environment? This script, with its illusion of safety and happiness, invites life in a bubble that is absent of critical reflection. 

 

  1. That script has failed.I know this is not the conclusion that all would draw. It is, however, a lesson that is learned by the nations over and over again. It is clear to all but the right-wing radio talk people and the sponsoring neoconservatives that the reach of the American military in global ambition has served only to destabilize and to produce new and deep threats to our society. The charade of a national security state has left us completely vulnerable to the whim of the very enemies that our security posture has itself evoked. A by-product of such attempts at security, moreover, has served in astonishing ways to evoke acrimony in the body politic that makes our democratic decision-making processes nearly unworkable[Article written in 2005; increasingly true today!] 

We are not safe, and we are not happy. The script is guaranteed to produce new depths of insecurity and new waves of unhappiness. And in response to new depths of insecurity and new waves of unhappiness, a greater resolve arises to close the deal according to the script, which produces ever new waves and new depths.

One of the best songs based on this text (IMHO) is John Foley’s “Come to the Water” – original arrangement and contemporary arrangementDownload the sheet music and MP3 arrangement samples.

Romans 9

Daniel Kirk points out that these first five verses of Romans 9 are an introduction to Paul’s argument in chapters 9-11. If salvation is now open to Gentiles, where does that leave the Jews? Kirk also points ok that this passage is quite self-referential. In the English translation, Paul uses “I” or “my” over a dozen times; this is personal for Paul.

In chapters 1-8, Paul wrestled rhetorically with the unity shared by Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews), a unity they shared in and through Christ. In chapters 9-11, Paul now addresses the unity shared by Jews and Christians (Chapters 12-16 will concern the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians).

Paul makes it clear that the covenants and promises are in tact:

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

One should read through chapters 9-11 in one fell swoop to get a sense of what Paul is after rhetorically. 11:25ff is one of the high points,

So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,

‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer;
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’
‘And this is my covenant with them,
when I take away their sins.’

In other words, don’t think that you are wise enough to determine who ought be “in” and who ought be “out.” God is in the business of inclusion, not exclusion, centripetal force, not centrifugal. Do you think that is “just” or “unjust”?

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

 ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.  

Once again, a song by John Foley, Who Has Known, would be a great contemplative piece during communion – words and sheet music.

Matthew 14: A Tale of Two Banquets

The Feeding of the Five Thousand is an important text. It is one of the few stories that appears in all four gospels. The feeding in Matthew must be understood in light of the death of John the Baptist at Herod’s wedding banquet. Matthew is contrasting Herod’s banquet with Jesus’ banquet. Matthew retains the juxtaposition of Herod’s banquet and Jesus’ banquet in Mark, from which he gets the story.

This Herod is not Herod the Great from the infancy narrative, who, as we know, died, making possible the Holy Family’s return from Egypt. This is Herod’s son, less powerful as indicated by the fact that he is simply identified as Herod the Tetrarch. Herod the Great’s kingdom has been split into four territories. Nevertheless, Hauerwas (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew) points out that this Herod seems to be also skilled in the politics of death.

These are two very different meal stories, as Barbara Lundblad and Gordon Lathrop (The Four Gospels on Sunday) have both so articulately pointed out.

Herod’s banquet is in a lavish place, while Jesus’ banquet is in a deserted place. In Herod’s place, there is plenty, excess even. It is a place of power. Call it a power lunch. There is plenty for a few, while the masses starve. Women are brought in to perform and pleasure the powerful men. A powerless prisoner is executed for entertainment. Herod seems reluctant to execute John, but he has promised the party; he would give Herodias what she wants. In order to maintain power, the powerful must maintain the myth of power. The leftovers are not twelve baskets of bread, but death and decay: John’s head delivered on plate, like a pig, like the final course. Important officials are invited. Herod’s wife is there, the one he stole from his brother, an act of power which John the Baptist denounced.

Lundblad asks,

Is it possible to maintain an empire and feed people who are hungry? The leftovers of empire have almost always been destruction and death–even in the name of peace and security. There is always enough money for weapons, but never enough to feed those who are hungry. Into such a world, Jesus comes with an alternative vision.

We who live in the world’s most powerful empire must ask this question. When do the bloody sacrifices of being an empire compromise our ability to serve the world, to be a blessing?

In contrast to Herod’s banquet, Jesus’ feast is in a deserted place – a place to which he took his disciples for rest, but the crowds followed. It is not in a lavish place, like Herod’s banquet. Those invited to Jesus’ feast are not the few, the rich and powerful, they are the poor, the lame, and the blind, as in Isaiah’s prophecies. This is consistent with Jesus’ preaching (Luke 14:13).

Herod takes a lot, leaves behind only death. Herod consumes. Jesus multiplies. Jesus takes a little and makes a lot of it. He spreads things out so that everyone has enough.

The feeding is an apt parable for a hungry world. “That’s communism!” someone said to me once. “No, it’s enough-ism.” It’s not about everyone getting exactly the same. That might not be fair. It’s about making sure everyone has enough; that’s all. This is not so radical a concept. People aspire to more than just “enough.” But clearly, there are many in our world who do not have enough. Half the world lives on $2/day; one quarter live on $1/day. The thing that drives me nuts is that we have the wealth and now the technology to feed everyone. We seem to lack the will. This is my sin too. Me having more is more important than everyone having enough. I reaffirm this self-centered reality with nearly every nonessential purchase.

“You give them something to eat,” is Jesus’ strong call, right up there with, “When I was hungry you gave me food,” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

Lundblad echoes the prophetic voice:

Jesus knows we are perplexed, but my excuses are no better than those of the disciples! Jesus knew long ago what economists and hunger activists tell us now: we have everything we need to end world hunger. It would take $13 billion a year. That’s not even 3% of our defense budget.

Don Carlson suggests an article by Walter Brueggemann, “Myth of Scarcity,” as a helpful read prior to preaching. Brueggemann refers to Mark’s account, but it works for Matthew’s as well.

The feeding of the multitudes, recorded in Mark’s Gospel, is an example of the new world coming into being through God. When the disciples, charged with feeding the hungry crowd, found a child with five loaves and two fishes, Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave the bread. These are the four decisive verbs of our sacramental existence. Jesus conducted a Eucharist, a gratitude. He demonstrated that the world is filled with abundance and freighted with generosity. If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all. Jesus is engaged in the sacramental, subversive reordering of public reality.

The profane is the opposite of the sacramental. “Profane” means flat, empty, one-dimensional, exhausted. The market ideology wants us to believe that the world is profane – life consists of buying, selling, weighing, measuring, trading, and then finally sinking down into death and nothingness. But Jesus presents an entirely different kind of economy, one infused with the mystery of abundance and a cruciform kind of generosity.

Five thousand are fed and 12 baskets of food are left over – one for every tribe of Israel. Jesus transforms the economy by blessing it and breaking it beyond self-interest. From broken Friday bread comes Sunday abundance. In this and in the following account of a miraculous feeding, people do not grasp, hoard, resent, or act selfishly; they watch as the juices of heaven multiply the bread of earth. Jesus reaffirms Genesis 1.

The feeding of the 5000 – or some version of a feeding miracle, 5000 or 4000 – shows up six times in the gospels. John Dominic Crossan points out that loaves and fish are an allusion to Sepphoris and Tiberias in Galilee. Sepphoris, a very Romanized city, was the center for grain, the breadbasket of Galilee. Tiberias, built in honor of Tiberius Caesar, was a very Romanized city that was the center of the fishing trade. Both were built to feed and sustain the empire.

[Herod] Antipas had multiplied the loaves in the valleys around Sepphoris, and he now intended to multiply the fishes in the waters around Tiberias, for the kingdom of Rome. But a magnificently parabolic counterstory tells us how Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes, for the kingdom of God (Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, p. 126).

As we have had parable about the kingdom of heaven for the past few weeks, this story then is also about the kingdom of heaven vis-à-vis the kingdom of Caesar. Where is nourishment to be found? Where is abundance to be found? To go back to Isaiah, where and what are the things that truly satisfy?

A final Brueggemann article, “Enough is Enough,” elaborates on a theology of scarcity versus a theology of abundance, starting with Genesis. How can you make these very different ways of thinking and being in the world come alive for your people, for their own sake and for the sake of the world?

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.

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?

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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