Saturday, August 19, 2017

“Care Unlimited” - August 20, 2017

Matthew 15:21-28

            The events in this part of Matthew’s gospel take place in the area of Sidon and Tyre, which is modern-day Beirut.  It was outside specifically Jewish territory in Jesus’ time, even as it is outside Israel now.  What sent him there?  Matthew doesn’t really say, but in both his gospel and Mark’s this episode follows a lot of controversy with his opponents and taking a lot of criticism from the religious authorities, and in Mark 7:24 we read that

“He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice.”

In other words, Jesus needed a break.  Anybody who is a caregiver or who faces a lot of human need on a regular basis knows the feeling of just wanting to get away for a short while.  As one of my social worker friends once said, “You want to go where nobody knows your name.”

            There’s a movie from 1991 called What about Bob? where Richard Dreyfus plays a psychiatrist with Bill Murray as “Bob”, a particularly determined and resourceful patient who will not leave him alone even on vacation.  Bob tracks down his doctor to a small town where he and his family are staying and demands care.  It looks like this:[1]

It’s not all that different from what happened to Jesus. 

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’”  [Matthew 15:22]

Now, this woman’s situation, where she’s looking for help for her daughter, is not the same as Bob’s “Gimme!  Gimme!  Gimme!”  All the same, there may have been times that Jesus felt drained by the constant demands for his help, even the most legitimate.

            Surely you know someone who is kind and caring and who, because of that, makes a contribution to a charity that puts their name onto their mailing list, and then a few months later other charities begin to send request letters and before too long sorting through appeals of one sort or another are part of the daily routine.  If I’m asked about it, and I sometimes am, I generally suggest picking one or two causes that are close to your heart and helping them, while trusting that someone else will cover the others.  Jesus tried to do something like that when he said, 
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” [Matthew 15:24] 

At the same time, though, he couldn’t just close his heart to the genuine and persistent love of this mother for her daughter and eventually that won the day for her.

“But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” [Matthew 15:25-28]

            “Compassion fatigue” is real.  There are recommendations that were put out by a group called “The American Institute for Stress” (you’ve got to love that name!) specifically for medical personnel, for whom it comes up all the time.

Find someone to talk to.
Understand that the pain you feel is normal.
Exercise and eat properly.
Get enough sleep.
Take some time off.
Develop interests outside of medicine.
Identify what’s important to you.
Blame others.
Look for a new job, buy a new car, get a divorce or have an affair.
Fall into the habit of complaining with your colleagues.
Hire a lawyer.
Work harder and longer.
Neglect your own needs and interests.”[2]

All of that is good advice, but I want to add to that another resource that didn’t make it onto that list, one that a certain mother, overwhelmed by her daughter’s needs, was able to find and to access.  That is to seek help from Jesus, who made a general offer:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  [Matthew 11:28-30]
Jesus models for us all the proper and necessary balance between focused care and general care, between rest and work, between prayer and service, that makes teaching and healing and peacemaking and feeding the hungry and parenting and healthy marriages or relationships of all kinds effective.  When things are too extreme, he helps to carry the load; and when the time comes to put things back on us, he knows how to do that, too, in a compassionate way.

            Do you know what happened after Jesus had his time away from things, punctuated by this encounter with a mother troubled for her daughter?  Matthew says that

“After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.”  [Matthew 15:29-31]


Saturday, August 12, 2017

“If It Is You, Command Me” - August 13, 2017

Matthew 14:22-33

            When Matthew shares his account of Jesus’ walking on the water, there are really two miracles going on.

            The first is what the disciples saw Jesus do when he had sent them ahead of him in a boat, leaving him alone for awhile because he needed time to pray.

“And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying ‘It is a ghost!’  And they cried out in fear.”  [Matthew 14:25-26]
Matthew, who knew his Old Testament very well — that was the only scripture that he and the other disciples, not to mention Jesus, knew — also knew, like a great artist, how to show his message, not just how to spell it out.  He knew the words of Psalm 77:

“When the waters saw you, O God,
   when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
   the very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
   the skies thundered;
   your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
   your lightnings lit up the world;
   the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
   your path, through the mighty waters;
   yet your footprints were unseen.” [Psalm 77:16-19]

Here, then, is Jesus, God in the flesh, approaching the disciples in the midst of a storm and

his way was through the sea,
   his path, through the mighty waters;
   yet his footprints were unseen.

As if that were not enough, there’s another declaration that unfortunately doesn’t come across as strongly in English as it does in the Greek that Matthew wrote in.

“But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I;” [Matthew 14:27]

and that “it is I” is the same phrase that God himself uses when Moses asks him his name at the burning bush, “I AM”.

This is one of those moments, like the Transfiguration, when the deep, divine center of Jesus’ being breaks out into view.  At the end of this whole episode,

“those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’” [Matthew 14:33]
            In no way would I downplay this mystery.  In no way would I reduce this to a magic trick.  We are hearing of one of the ways that the disciples came to recognize that they were face-to-face with the Lord of heaven and earth.  Yet for God to walk upon the water, the same God whose Spirit in the beginning moved across the face of the deep, is not beyond him.  We are dealing with the omnipotent ruler of all time and space.  That in itself is frightening and awe-inspiring, but to rule nature in all ways is part of the essential being of the Almighty.

            The second miracle is a different matter.  It’s where, when Jesus announces himself and at the same time announces the eternal and holy One within him,

“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’  He said, ‘Come.’  So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.” [Matthew 14:28-29]
Peter is entirely human.  In some ways, with his bluster and bragging, but also with his loyalty and the way that he just sort of pushes the envelope all the time, even when he has no idea what he’s doing, he seems like one of the most clearly human of all the disciples.  Yet for all his faults, he genuinely wants to be like Jesus.  So on the one hand, he knows that human beings do not just, on their own, go for a stroll on the waves.  But on the other hand, he sees the divine power of God that can do anything at all, and he says, “Command me.”

            Human beings can do the impossible, but not on our own.  Human beings can do the impossible when God makes it happen.  The thing is, however, that if you are going to attempt the impossible, you had better be very sure it is God’s voice, and not your own, that you are obeying.  Peter did not have an easy walk.  I am sure that the first step was the hardest, climbing out of the boat.  I can picture the others either trying to hold him back, or grabbing a rope to throw him as he starts overboard.  Yet he went.  As he went on, though, it didn’t mean that the storm subsided.

“But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” [Matthew 14:30]

If you are going to be like Jesus, and if you’re going to follow him, you may be walking on water, but there will still be wind and waves.  Even on land, if you’re going to follow him, the way to do it, as he clearly said, is to take up your cross.

            Madeleine L’Engle was a great essayist and writer of children’s books.  One of her best, A Wrinkle in Time, is going to be released as a movie later this year.  She was very much aware of the excitement and possibility that God calls his people to experience, in her case as a writer.  But she also knew that to experience the miracles that God works out requires a faith that is ready to follow Jesus into the storms of life and not to hide from them.  She wrote of some of her own experiences:

“In the literary world today, Christianity has pretty well replaced sex as the present pet taboo, not only because Christianity is so often distorted by Christians as well as non-Christians, but because it is too wild and free for the timid.
How many of us really want life, life more abundant, life which does not promise any fringe benefits or early retirement plans?  Life which does not promise the absence of pain, oriole which is not vulnerable and open to hurt?  The number of people who attempt to withdraw from life through the abuse of alcohol, tranquilizers, barbiturates is statistically shocking.
How many of us dare to open ourselves to that truth which would make us free?  Free to talk to Roman Catholics or charismatics or Jews, as Jesus was free to talk to tax collectors or publicans or Samaritans.  Free to feast at the Lord’s table with those whose understanding of the Body and Blood may be a little different from ours.  Free to listen to angels.  Free to run across the lake when called.”[1]
I am not going to presume to tell you what impossible task the Lord may put in front of you.  It could be anything.  It could be a one-time challenge, or it could be a lifetime’s work.  It might be something very public, or it might be some private matter no one but you and he will ever know about.  What I will say is this: if you are already out of the boat, keep going, and if you need a hand, call him.  He’s right there, and if it’s his work, he will not let you sink.  If you’re thinking about stepping out of the boat, make sure that it’s his voice and not your own that you hear, but if it is Jesus, then go and watch the impossible happen.

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Colorado Springs: Shaw Books, 2001) 48-49.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

“We Have Nothing Here” - August 6, 2017

Matthew 14:17

We who enjoy religious freedom (and we do) are often unaware of how dangerous it can be to follow Jesus.  In our country, people trivialize what that means, what with Rush Limbaugh and his buddies inventing a “war on Christmas”.  There is no such thing.  If there ever was, it was led by the Puritans; between 1659 and 1680, anyone in Massachusetts caught celebrating Christmas could be fined up to five shillings.[1] That is nothing, though, compared to what it may take nowadays to be a Coptic Christian in Egypt, where churches have been bombed, or to hold to the gospels in Pakistan, where taking the Bible’s view of Jesus over the Koran’s view means that you could be charged with blasphemy, which is a capital offense.

In that light, the account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is one of great hope, because this story isn’t just about the bread.  In our setting, it can be turned into a bedtime story for a child, The Boy Who Shared His Lunch, and that may be appropriate for someone under twelve or so.  But read in context, it’s a lesson about Jesus’ survival, and the survival of his movement.  The ways of God's kingdom are always going to be calling the world's ways into question, and the powers and principalities of the world don't like to be questioned or analyzed and shown to be hollow.

            There’s no question that Jesus and his disciples had connections to John the Baptist, who was a rabble-rouser of the first degree.  The gospels each tell of how Jesus went out to the Jordan to be baptized and that it was there that he experienced the Spirit of God in a new and empowering way that would propel him from that moment on through the following years of teaching and healing and prophetic confrontation with earthly powers that would torture and kill him.  (No, that would not be the end of him, but it was what he would have to endure.)  How close was Jesus to John?  Luke describes them as cousins born three months apart. 

            Certainly they were close enough that when Herod had John executed and, in one account, presented his head on a platter as a gift to his wife and daughter, Jesus decided to get out of the way for awhile.  That is the setting for what happens in the section of Matthew’s gospel that we heard this morning:

“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.”  [Matthew 14:13]

John was dead, and Jesus was in danger, trying to be inconspicuous, but he had somehow inherited at least a part of John’s following, and there they were, looking to him for leadership.  There were things he could do for them.  He looked at them with compassion (not something John was especially known for) and he could and did heal their sick, which was a gift that John didn’t have.  But there were other, practical needs to look after, and Jesus’ disciples weren’t so sure that they would be able to meet those.

“When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” [Matthew 14:15]

And that made sense.  You do not want five thousand people whose leader has just been killed by a tyrant suddenly noticing how hungry they are.  You do not want to keep them around any longer than necessary.  But on the other hand, if you are there in one of the local villages and even a small percentage of the crowd suddenly appeared, looking for food – say even 10% of them – what would you do about 500 people, followers of a politically suspicious religious leader, showing up on your doorstep and demanding supper?

            The people were hungry, yes.  The disciples knew that they had not only hungry people, but potential for some intense crowd problems, possibly leading to riots, that could present a reason for Herod to call in the Romans.  Herod needed little prompting to execute members of his own family.  What did he care about a bunch of rebellious peasants?  He would be better off without them, anyway.  How convenient that they were all gathered together in one place.

            Do you see the position that Jesus was in?  Do you hear how desperate the disciples were when they said,

“We have nothing here”?  [Matthew 14:17]

Five loaves and two fish was as good as nothing standing between them and failure or worse.

            Well, as it turned out they may have had nothing but they did not have no one.  They had Jesus.

“And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” [Matthew 14:18-20]

Twelve baskets, like the twelve disciples; like the twelve tribes of Israel who, when they grew hungry, were fed with manna in the desert when they were being led out of the tyrannical slavery of Pharaoh into God’s freedom.

            When all else fails, that is still where safety and security comes from.  When we have nothing, Jesus himself is everything for us.  When we are at our wit’s end and do not know which way to turn, his wisdom is there to guide us.  When our resources are totally depleted, he provides what is needed.  It may come from some unexpected direction like when, after those Coptic churches were bombed, there were Egyptian Muslims who formed a human chain outside other churches while their Christian neighbors prayed.  It may come in the form of a persecutor like a man named Saul who held people’s coats while they stoned the first Christian martyr, a man named Stephen.  Saul heard Jesus speak directly to him and his life was turned around so completely that, going by the name Paul, he himself preached the gospel at the risk of his own life, and wrote to one of the churches he founded:

“we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed”. [II Corinthians 4:7-9]

No, we don’t have anything here.  We have nothing.  If we think it’s on us to save the world, we are bound to fail, however  

“this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” 
If we are ready to trust Jesus with the little bit of nothing that we hold onto, no matter what, all will be well.

            Of course there is a lot that gets in the way of the kingdom of God.  No kidding.  The words are recent, but the cry is old:

“Through the flood of starving people,
Warring factions and despair,
Who will lift the olive branches?
Who will light the flame of care? …

As we stand a world divided
By our own self-seeking schemes,
Grant that we, your global village,
Might envision wider dreams.” …[2]

But what is far older than that, older than humanity, older than the world itself, is the eternal, loving power of God that brought all things into being.

            From nothing.

[2] from Julian B. Rush, “In the Midst of New Dimensions”, The Faith We Sing (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), #2238.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

“Surprise Growth” - July 30, 2017

Matthew 13:31-33

“He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his 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.’”

            I feel sorry for people who don’t have a place they think of as “the old neighborhood”.  You know what I mean, I hope.  It’s a place that probably never existed the way it does in your head, but when you get together with other people who were there at the same time, you find out you all have the same general landscape in mind, peopled with the same unusual characters, unaware that you are probably also a character in somebody else’s version of the place.

            For my friends and me, one of the people who will always live in the old neighborhood, even though he has gone to be with the Lord many years ago now, is a man named Samuel B. Patchell III.  He was one of those loud, unabashed, intensely social men who thrived by the connections he made.  I am not making this up: he wore a cheap toupee and chomped on an unlit cigar everywhere he went.  He sold insurance for a living and handed out these pocket calendars left and right.  They had bright, shiny gold covers and you saw people pull them out of their pockets all over town.  He made sure that his son and daughter’s friends all had Patchell planners before they got their drivers’ licenses so that when that time came they would suddenly think of him.  This story has to do with kids and cars, too, and will eventually get around to the mustard seed turning into a tree, but bear with me.

            I was home from college one summer.  It must have been 1987 or ’88, but the date was definitely July 3.  That night I went to the movies with a girl from the old MYF group, who was also a friend of Mr. Patchell’s kids, and she drove.  After the movie, we were getting close to my house and one of her tires began making that sound that tells you it’s flat.  We pulled into the driveway and I got ready to change the tire.  I pulled out her spare and then looked for the jack.  There was none.  It was an old car and who knows where it had gone.  That’s okay, though.  I knew we had a jack in the shed and I went up to get it.  While there, I also noticed a whole, big bundle of flags that had accumulated there and realized that it was now after midnight.  It was the Fourth of July, and I had an idea that would turn a dismal end of the evening around.

            After changing the tire, we took the flags – and there were a lot of them – and we went around the block to decorate the Patchells’ house while they slept.  We left flags around the flower beds and along the street on both sides (it was a corner property).  We put them along the driveway and up the sidewalk.  We stuck them all over the place.  Then we started laughing, because we could picture what we knew would happen and (as it turned out) did happen in a few hours.  That would be when Mr. Patchell would get up to let the dog out, open the door, and turn around and scream up the stairs, “Vi!  Vi!  Wake up!  Ya gotta see this!  Vi!  Look out front!”

            That morning, Fourth of July, I told my parents about the stunt and they had to go see it right after breakfast.  It was surprising we hadn’t heard Mr. Patchell shouting, since we were only about a hundred yards away, and I have no doubt the other neighbors heard.  I was surprised, though, that I didn’t hear from his daughter, Joy, who was also home from school, but I would see her later when the whole bunch of us went to watch the fireworks down by the Art Museum.  It was her turn to drive.

            So that night there were about seven of us in the car and I hadn’t said anything.  Joy brought up what had happened.  She had been asleep when she heard her father shouting to her mother.  “Vi!  Vi!  Wake up!  Ya gotta see this!  Vi!  Look out front!”  She was used to her father going off and ignored it until her mother shrieked.  Then Joy got up and looked.

            Mr. Patchell’s old friend Joe had died not long before that, and Joe had always decorated his house in a big way for Fourth of July, so Mr. Patchell became convinced that someone had done this in memory of Joe, and the first thing he did when he stopped shouting was to get on the phone with Joe’s widow and thank her for doing this.  Only, she hadn’t done it.  Then he started calling through his rolodex to find out if any of his fellow Masons or Rotarians had done it.  Nope.  Then he decided it had to have been arranged by his son, who was in the Army in Korea at the time, so he started calling all of Greg’s friends and they all said they knew nothing.  Next, he placed a call to Greg himself.  He called him in Korea, on the other side of the world, to ask how he had pulled it off.  Greg knew nothing.  By 4:00 that afternoon, he had convinced himself that Joe had somehow reached out from beyond the grave to put those flags around the house.  That was the only possible explanation, and Joy was very glad to be out of the house for the night, because she was tired of trying to convince him that they were not being haunted by a patriotic ghost.

            One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was to tell her what had happened, and then to walk into the Patchells’ house after the fireworks, where everybody was still all wound up, and interrupt her father’s endless retelling of his morning (and it was hard to get a word in with him even when he was calm), to tell him that I was the ghost.  By the way, the next day he made a chart of where each flag had been as he took them down, so that he could put them up in the same spot the following year.

            So, what does this have to do with the mustard seed parable?

            If one small act of attempted humor can get so out of hand, and one excited person (admittedly over-extroverted to begin with) could stir up so many other people, not just from one end of town to the other, but also as far as Asia, within a matter of hours – all of this before social media spread our instantaneous reach – just think what it means when someone gets excited about something that really matters, something like what God has done for them, something like what happens when it’s not a bunch of flags that shows up along a driveway but the love of Jesus that shows up in their heart.

            I love that story in the gospel of John about Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a village well when it was only the two of them around.  He sees all the troubles and baggage that’s in her heart, talks with her about the rough spots she’s been through and probably was still experiencing, and offers her hope for something better and the assurance that he was there for her, even though nobody else in her old neighborhood probably saw her as anyone except a woman who was trouble.  Her response was not to pretend they didn’t know her, but to ignore the story they told her about who she was and to adopt Jesus’ version.  She ran to get people from the village that had rejected her and to tell them,

“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’”  [John 4:29]

They went to see what was happening.  Jesus spent a couple of days with them, and at the end of it

“They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’ [John 4:42]

            The kingdom of heaven surprises us with its intense, sudden, and unstoppable growth that doesn’t come about because of gimmicks and programs (pocket calendars and pens with church names or Bible verses printed on them, visitation plans, advertisements on billboards, and so forth) but when those who have faith like a mustard seed let it grow and do its work.  It happens when people speak up plainly and honestly, not with any self-interest or desire to build up their own ego or sense of achievement, but just to say that they’ve met someone who could understand them through-and-through, who can say with the authority of God himself that they are forgiven and made whole and there is a place in God’s kingdom that is there just for them, a spot in God’s neighborhood where people can see themselves and those around them as part of this great, wonderful, worldwide, unending story of God’s love, and maybe (at least sometimes) all laugh about themselves together and discover there’s a place in their hearts for each other, too.  “Vi!  Vi!  Wake up!  Ya gotta see this!  Vi!”

Saturday, July 22, 2017

“Leaving It to God” - July 23, 2017

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

            Before I get around to Jesus’ parable this morning, I want to remind you of two stories from the Old Testament. 

            In Genesis 18, Abraham gets a visit from two angels who are on their way to investigate what is going on in Sodom, which happens to be where Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family are living.  If things are as bad as reports say, the Lord plans to wipe the place off the face of the earth.  Of course, that would destroy Abraham’s family, since at that point he and Sarah had no children.  So Abraham has a talk with God.

“Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’ Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And he said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.” [Genesis 18:23-33]

In the event, things did not go well, but before the fire and brimstone started pouring down, Lot and his family were given warning to clear out.

            That’s story #1.  Story #2 comes from the book of Jonah.  The part that gets the attention is the section where Jonah is swallowed up by a whale, or a great fish.  That’s not the juicy part, though.  What had happened before that was that God had told Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the town to repent its ways.  God would give them forty days to turn things around, or else it would be another Sodom and Gomorrah moment.  Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh to have any warning, since it is the capital of one of Israel’s traditional enemies, Assyria.  He tried to sail in the opposite direction but when a storm arose and the sailors learned what Jonah was trying to do, they threw him overboard.  That was how he ended up inside the fish that eventually swam back to the Middle East and threw him up on the beach, at which point he realized there was no escaping God.  Jonah went to Nineveh, announced the warning, and then watched people repent and God do nothing to punish them.  He sat down outside the city to stew about it and to hope God would act. 

“The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’

 But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’” [Jonah 4:6-11]

And the Bible ends the story right there.  Jonah does not get a rebuttal.  For the sake of the children and animals, even if only for them, God will spare his people’s enemies.

            Now, about this parable that Matthew records: it works out the same way.  The Master’s servants (the Jonahs, let’s call them) want to clear the field of all that is not up to standard – or worse.  The Master is more aware of the possible collateral damage they may do in the process.

“‘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. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”’” [Matthew 13:24-30]

            What does that look like?  Well, it may mean learning to hold your tongue long enough for righteous indignation (and I do mean it is truly righteous) to simmer down a bit, and it may leave anyone who really and truly cares feeling cut short, like Jonah.  Jesus said to love your enemy; he never promised your enemy would learn to love you back.  It’s great when that happens, but it’s not a certainty.  It may be for the sake of the children who are nearby and observing, who need a peaceful environment.  It may be for the sake of your own soul, which is probably not going to benefit from long-held anger.  For that matter, your blood pressure and/or your stomach ulcers wouldn’t be helped by it, either.

            A blogger who shows up on a clergy page that I often read had this to say recently about himself.  Please note that I have edited his comments for a general audience.  If his political stance is not yours, just flip it around and the story will apply just as much.  He writes,

“After First Baptist Church of Dallas went all-in on their nationalist idolatry, releasing an official CCLI Christian praise song called “Make America Great Again.” After I heard about an angry white man shooting a black girl with his concealed handgun out of road rage. After Donald Trump released his wrestlemania tweet. …

I’ve been on a roll the last few days on Facebook and Twitter. People are starting to share and retweet my stuff (which always makes me feel strangely uneasy). My creative juices are flowing. I’ve got zeal boiling over like a ripe volcano in my brain. So I was fired up to say something really poignant and devastating. …

But then I found myself last night in a conversation with a military guy who had a conservative seeming haircut and biceps and mannerisms. And his wife has cancer that’s come back for a second time and it’s metastasized all over. And he kept on saying, “The Lord has blessed us so much.” And they’ve got two beautiful kids who were playing with my kids and having a great time in the pool. We didn’t talk about anything earth-shattering. It was mostly just dad small-talk. But he was friendly and humble. He was patient and compassionate with his kids. And talking with him made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

So it got me confused.

What does resisting evil look like? Is it going off on the apostate idolaters who think that everyone else is an apostate idolater …
Or is it relishing and holding up human interaction where ideological categories don’t exist and two dads are just watching their kids swim together?

So if I like the warm and fuzzy feeling I have when I’m just a dad talking to another dad, is that me retreating into my white male privilege and pretending the world around me isn’t a giant dumpster fire? Or on the flip side, am I being a toxic, self-righteous [jerk] who is hardened against God’s love…?”[1]

            There are times when you have to remember that God has promised that in his own way, using his own judgement, his own insight, and his own mercy, he will sort everything out.  In the long run, I suggest that we should all, one way or another, be grateful for that.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

“Doesn’t Jesus Know Any Better?” - July 16, 2017

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

There’s something that bothers me about the parable of the Sower: why does he waste seed planting it where he knows it won’t grow or flourish?  I’ve read the commentaries that talk about the differences between ancient and modern agriculture – we plant very carefully in neat little rows while Jesus’ contemporaries planted by tossing seed out as they swung their arms.  Their system works well enough in fields, but surely they were smart enough to know not to toss grain that had been carefully stored and prepared onto rocks and roads and into brier patches.  With famine always a possibility, why would anybody waste a single grain of wheat?

So here’s a much more sensible version of this parable.  Listen!

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, so he scraped them back with his foot so that the birds would not eat them up.  Other seeds fell on rocky ground the previous year, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil, so he steered away from that area this time. He knew that if they had no root, they would wither away.  Then he marked off where seeds had fallen among thorns in the past, so that he could get back and do some weeding before he planted there.  Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

Now isn’t that better?

Let me ask you this, however – and it’s a series of questions that I ask myself, too, with answers that I don’t always like.  And I’m assuming here that everybody understands and has heard what Jesus calls “the word of the kingdom”.  That is, that God loves his people, every one of them, with all of his infinite being, and himself has taken on the world’s infinite suffering so that the poor in spirit are given the kingdom of heaven, those who mourn are comforted, the meek inherit the earth, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are filled, the merciful receive mercy, the pure in heart see God, the peacemakers are called his children, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake also receive the kingdom itself.  [Matthew 5:3-10]

So, if Jesus is going around, and his Spirit still goes around today, sending out this kind of good news left and right, and if you and I have, presumably, really taken this good news to heart, have there not also been times when

“the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart”? [Matthew 13:19]
“when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word” [Matthew 13:21]
have fallen away?  Or who can say that they have never experienced how

“the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing” ? [Matthew 13:22]
It seems to me that it is not just the world, or society, or life, or whatever you want to name it, that is composed of all these different types of soil.  It’s our own hearts, too, that have all kinds of different conditions.  Maybe at a given point in life on type or another will predominate, but they are all there, all hidden within our souls.  If Jesus is to plant the word within us, and if it is to spring up so that it

“bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty”, [Matthew 13:23]

then some of it is bound to fall into places where we don’t see it doing any good.

            But, you know what?  Sometimes we ourselves don’t know where the good and bad places are until the seed starts growing there.  Just try – I dare you – to keep the weeds from growing in the tiniest crack in the pavement, for even a week.  It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t know where the good seed will not grow.  It’s that we don’t know where it will.

            We look at someone and have in mind the conditions that Jesus rightly points out are dangerous to the good news, and we think we can see their hearts.  But only he can. 

So we see someone who lives in the midst of temptation and we assume we can write them off.  The addict will never be able to escape the trap they have fallen into.  But you know that isn’t true.  Maybe a huge percentage of people will be lost to the dark side that way, but what about the ones who are not?  Do they not count?  And do you know who they are, or how many tries it may take them before “the word of the kingdom” finally takes root?

Or maybe there’s a prominent actor who finds religion or a sports figure who gets saved and there’s this little, cynical voice that says, “No way will this last for very long.”  Maybe a political type starts mentioning his or her faith and we (okay, “I”) start thinking, “Here we go.  Whose vote are you trying to get?”  What if, dare I say this? – it’s for real?  Jimmy Carter isn’t the only one.

Even more than that, don’t overlook Jesus’ ability to change the very conditions that he is up against.  His teaching of the good news was joined together with his living the good news and in an essay called “In Which Life Meets Life’s Enemies”, E. Stanley Jones points out,

“He came that [people] might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.  But three things kept [people] from knowing life; three things shadowed and shattered life – sin, suffering, death.”

(Aren’t those the things Jesus talks about in this parable?)

“All his teaching, all his living, all his miracles, all his tragedy at Calvary were to get rid of these three things.  He hated sin.  He hated suffering.  He hated death. When he performed miracles of healing upon suffering [people] it was not, as some have thought, to attest his claims to divinity.  He healed them because he hated suffering.  He simply could not bear to see [people] suffer.  But he knew he could not rid the world of suffering by individual healing, so he went deeper, went to the utmost limit and at the cross became suffering that [people] might be saved from suffering; became sin that sin might be ended; became death that death might be banished.  He took it upon himself.”[1]

            The Sower knows what he is doing. 

“Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”  [Matthew 13:8-9]

[1] E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of Every Road (New York: Abingdon Press, 1930), 77-78.