Worship ~ 26 March

Audio Recording

Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus continues to teach his disciples in parables saying,

  “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  

As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.  

The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’  And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.  

Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.’  But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’  

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

The gospel of the Lord……….thanks be to God.

You may notice that I’ve surrounded this scripture and sermon with Advent hymns. That’s because Lent is Advent in a minor key. Both are seasons of waiting and preparation. Lent prepares us for Easter by accompanying us through Jesus’ death, as Advent prepares us for the coming of Christ accompanying us through the long pause. Matthew didn’t think it would take this long. He and the other New Testament writers thought the return of the risen Christ would be imminent. And so the warning for constant vigilance and preparedness made a bit more sense.

Since the beginning of Lent we’ve been reading parables — but none of the narrative in between. So, unless you’ve noticed the chapters flying by from week to week, you might not realize where we are. The plot to kill Jesus, the last supper, and all that follows is just around the corner. The location of today’s parable in Matthew’s account is important.

It comes in the midst of sayings and teachings through which Jesus makes predictions about his death, condemns the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites and blind guides, foretells the destruction of the temple and the coming persecution of his disciples, and casts the entire discussion in terms of God’s judgment and the eschatological end of all things. 

The setting is important because, although the opening line remains, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” these later parables go on to relate stories that don’t sound anything like the kingdom of heaven. 

The kingdom of heaven is like a fisherman who casts his nets into the sea bringing in fish of every kind. The fish are sorted. The good are kept, the bad thrown away. “So it will be at the end of the age,” says Jesus. “Angels will come to sort the righteous from the evil throwing the evil into the furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 

In teaching the parable of the wicked slave, Jesus warns of dire consequences if we don’t forgive endlessly and from our heart. Fig trees wither at his word. More than once someone is bound and thrown, wailing and gnashing their teeth, into the utter darkness. Doors are shut in the faces of 5 little maids by the bridegroom who claims not to know them. Servants are commended for underhanded business deals, while the one with just a little has even that taken from him. In the last parable Jesus tells, sheep are separated from goats – and it doesn’t end well for the goats.

Matthew’s Jesus tell harsh parables, and there’s no softening them.   

In the parable we hear today, those deemed unfaithful, unwise, or ill-prepared end up with what seems to be a growing number of people wandering around wailing and gnashing their teeth in the dark.

Is this what the kingdom of heaven is like? 

We know that Matthew was in a bad spot, historically, where urgency, decisiveness, and commitment were called for. That is not our place in history. But still ….. but don’t we, on occasion, need to hear this kind of jarring message to shake loose the spiritual cobwebs? to warn us of the danger of lolly-gagging through life? Do you ever need a wakeup call to remind you how fragile life can be, how fleeting, how fraught with uncertainty? Do you ever need a reminder to be mindful and careful, to live with an eye to the future and not fritter away the time and talents and treasures you’re given? I suspect distraction and complacency are the spiritual ills of our time. How do we live well in the in-between?

“Sisters, don’t grow weary, Brothers, don’t grow weary, Children, don’t grow weary,

     for the time is drawing nigh.

Darker midnight lies before us, Lo, the morning soon is breaking,  Christian, journey soon be over,

for the time is drawing nigh. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, for the time is drawing 


These are the words of a spiritual sung by African Americans suffering slavery. It served both as an expression of spiritual encouragement and as a way to communicate plans for escape. The chorus is not about Christ’s return, but on what to do during the delay…don’t grow weary, don’t give up hope, be ready for the day of freedom.

I appreciate that spin on the parable. Because our attention is not to be distracted by the five foolish maids and perhaps feeling sorry for them, but rather our eyes are to be on the wise ones – those whose reserve and resilience holds them through the night, whose focus is on accompanying the bridegroom, on bearing light.

If today’s parable, in fact, seems to be contrary to much of what we think Jesus teaches and does, it’s because parables tell something (but not everything) about the kingdom of God and our self-perceptions. Jesus was not shutting the door of heaven in the face of five innocent little maids longing to get in whose only fault was poor planning or being rushed and forgetful as they hurried out the door to meet the bridegroom.

Jesus was telling parables— cryptic little stories on a slant. He urges his followers to stay alert! Stay the course! Remember what I have told you and taught you and shown you. “For the days are surely coming,” says the Lord, ‘when I will not be with you, when you will be challenged, when you will hear contradictory and confusing messages – and it is your job to stay faithful, to keep your lamps trimmed, and carry a little something extra in your flasks to give you courage!’ For the challenges of following Jesus are very real. We have forgotten to expect his return. Matthew’s audiences were on the edge of their seats.

Next week, Jesus enters Jerusalem, has a last supper with his disciples. Chapter 26 sees Jesus taking the disciples to the garden of Gethsemane to watch with him and pray. “Peter, James, John, stay awake with me. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.” But they can’t do it, they can’t stay awake.  He comes three times and each time finds them asleep, their lamps burned out.

Chapter 26 ends with Peter sitting outside Pilate’s palace where Jesus is being “interviewed” and a servant girl approaches Peter and says, “You were with him, Jesus, that Galilean.” And three times Peter closes the door saying, “I do not know him.…”

So. That’s what the kingdom of earth is like – we can’t stay awake and watchful and mindful or in tune with the Holy One. Not for any length of time, anyway. When we are challenged or put on the spot or lost in grief or anger or arrogance or busy-ness we are quite likely to say, “I do not know you” and close the door on our fears and on the risks of loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. 

But, it’s Lent and late March, and we also hear these parables of judgment with something of the farmer eyeing snow-covered fields. We hear them knowing that the ground is waiting for sunshine and seed. Jesus tells the parables before chapter 26, before his crucifixion, before Easter, before Pentecost – the day when his disciples were transformed from fishermen and disciples, into fishermen with a story to tell and the courage to tell it.

We remember that the door to the tomb was closed, but it didn’t stay that way. We remember that the door to the upper room was closed, locked, and barred, but Jesus came to the disciples anyway: Came to them and said, “Peace be with you, my peace I give to you.”

Could we ever be ready for this coming? The disciples never were. These parables, like all parables, are intended to alter lives, to twist the expected ending, to cause us to shake our heads clear and say, “What? What just happened?”  

What has happened is God – and those inscrutable ways of the divine in earthly form. The God who requires our participation in her grand scheme.

What are we to do in the meantime? How are we to live? Loving kindness, doing justice, walking humbly with God and our fellow creatures is always a good place to start. Living with expectation instead of boredom or laissez-faire.

Parables don’t explain the kingdom of heaven, but they do reveal it – like spring fields…waiting, receptive, rocky, thawing, awakening to the warming sun. Today’s parable encourages – or admonishes – us to be like that, too. Wake up, stay awake, watch for and celebrate signs of God’s self-revelation, take yourself out of the center of the story and imagine it some other way, and, when the time does come, enter the wedding feast with joy. The night and its darkness will be past, the doors thrown open. Enter, then, into holy joy.

Worship ~ 19 March

Audio Recording

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 

4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 

7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 

10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 

11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 

14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

First, the good news. God wants the tables to be filled. There’s going to be a banquet, by God, and resistance is futile.

The gospel of our Lord.

It is true, and it is the good news of the kingdom coming. But we’re not there yet.

Too often this parable has been taught or understood as Christians are In, the Jews are Out. That is wrong. This is not a supersessionist, anti-Semitic text. Jesus told it against Jewish leadership, not against the Jewish people. He told it against human nature and the representatives of the status quo – those elite power brokers of every culture and place. It’s being told against classism, racism, against passive-ism and hegemony. Because we’re all invited to the Banquet. That’s the point of the parable. We all always have been invited into the presence of the King of Glory. We all have always been urged, enticed, invited to the feast of good food, flowing oil, healthy waters, regenerative life in the way and will of God. 

We just don’t want to go. 

We don’t want to do it that way – in that all-inclusive, everybody’s welcome, pull-up-a-chair way of the kingdom. Because….  well, because, how much are you really willing to give up to ensure that others have the same choices and chances?   I think that is the key question.

It is the original and perennial hot button.  It can be asked functionally, or economically, or spiritually.  How much are we willing to let go of our ways, our will, our leverage, the specific shape of our beliefs  so that the invitation seems actually inviting to those who aren’t already like us?  And if anyone is admitted, then what becomes of the rules or codes of behavior and standards of belief that we think are necessary and that have gotten us thus far along the way?     This is not a trivial faith question.

How inclusive is the kingdom of God?

In Matthew’s community, the question was framed around how to include Gentile converts into the young Jewish Christian community. What standards of Jewish righteousness still appliedy – circumcision, for example? or purity codes about what foods could be eaten? What needed to be maintained, upheld, hung onto? After the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, as Jewish religious culture lost that anchor and became more dissipated through the diaspora and through Paul’s mission to the gentiles (like salt spread so thin it’s in danger of losing its saltiness), what becomes of the rules that kept you together, that identified you as the people of God? How far can toleration stretch before righteousness breaks and God takes offense? Can you eat a kabob at Jericho Days if the meat was dedicated to Zeus?   Jesus welcomed those whom the Law cast out, he ate with known sinners. And, if God raised him in spite of, or because of his rule breaking, then what were they to do about the prohibitions and Torah?

We believe that Jesus was the embodiment of God’s word, that he was the heart of the law that had gotten sidetracked by the rules. But we still trip over the topic. What are the necessary parameters of Christian life? What beliefs or doctrines need to be set in stone? How inclusive is God’s desire and intention? There are a lot of Christians don’t think it even extends to all Christians. So what about Jews and Muslims who profess belief in the same spiritual ancestors and, presumably, the same One God? What about Buddhists or Indigenous religions? Are those people invited to the Banquet? What about those who don’t believe in any of it? Is being kind or generous or helpful – being a good person – enough?

How much of this big question can we ask a parable to explain?

The third round of invitations went out and the slaves came back with everybody they found, both bad and good, weeds and wheat, sheep and goats, and everyone found a place to sit at the table.    God will reconcile the ends of the spectrum somehow (the first and the last) – we don’t need to concern ourselves with that; but, just when we’re getting settled in our chair and looking around to see who else is there, there is a scuffle and some guy is hauled up out of his seat and grilled. We might concern ourselves with him. Because we don’t really know why. We don’t have enough information. We don’t know his motivation or excuse.  The tradition says he didn’t put on the robe of righteousness – and that would be a very Matthew kind of thing to say – righteousness was a big deal for Matthew. “How did you get in here without a wedding robe, Friend?”  You’d think the hall monitors might have been brought to book for letting him in without the proper garment.  

It’s hard to suss out how it is this guy’s fault given the scanty information we have – except, that maybe, maybe Matthew is warning that all of us are this guy, all are subject to judgment, anyone might be held accountable. Perhaps, the reality of inclusion should actually show, should be evident. Some Cinderella-like transformation needs to happen as we enter the Ball.

In an article for Working Preacher, Karoline Lewis wrote: “It is not enough … to call yourself a follower of Christ and then act as if you were sound asleep during the Sermon on the Mount.      It is not enough to pledge allegiance through church membership without then vowing to live out that chosen-ness in the world. It is not enough say you are a “Christian” and then stay silent when life, liberty, and love are in jeopardy.

“Many are called, but few are chosen, indeed. The chosen are the ones who realize that just showing up is not enough… The chosen are the ones who insist that mere acquiescence, week after week, day after day, to doctrine and dogma will not stand the test of what it means to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The chosen are the ones who believe that a God who is Immanuel might very well stake a claim on our whole humanity.

“And, the chosen are the ones who understand that the time for bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven is now — not later, not tomorrow, not someday, but now. 

“What not to wear? Complacency, conformity, and any kind of garb that is content with the way things are. What should we wear, so that the whole of the world can see who we are and what we are about? The kind of compassion, birthed by God’s own righteousness, that cannot leave things the way they are.”

We watched the movie, ‘Harriet’, the other night at home, and I haven’t quite gotten over it. It’s a deeply powerful movie about Harriet Tubman and her determination to set slaves free. 

She was one of those chosen. Braver and more in-tune with the voice of God than I can imagine ever being. There are others, like her, that we could pick out of history, people who allowed the presence of God to reside within them, causing them to act with no thought to their own mortality: as long as they have breath, they will do what is within them to further the cause of freedom, truth, wholeness, goodness. Maybe you can name people you know or have heard about who exemplify that passion and chosen-ness. That is the Christian model and ideal. That is the life of Christ.

What I have realized in thinking about all of this is that I’m not one of them. I’m not one of the chosen and that I don’t want to be. I feel bad saying that. I suppose there might be a scenario in which I – any one of us – would throw everything we’ve got, every fiber of our will and soul into battle for a greater good. But I can’t imagine it, and don’t want to find myself there, chosen for that. I am among the called, the gathered, the safe in the crowd.

I’m too lazy, too passive, too comfortable, too conciliatory. I’ve spent my life rejecting black and white mindsets and world views of clear-cut answers and one-way theologies. I’m not going to draw a line in the sand and stand firm. I’m too prone to self-doubt for that. I’m a follower of the broad way of Christ.   It takes a certain kind of person to be an authentic, rigorous, narrow path Christian. I think Matthew was right. Few are chosen for that purity and faith and trust in God’s word.

Matthew would probably be astounded to know the small, disparate communities of Jewish Christians of his era would become the Christian church of today – a world wide, incredibly varied, terminally fractured body following, in various degrees of rigor, in the way of Christ. And I doubt that Jesus would recognize himself or his teachings in the practice of the modern American Christians. Sometimes that bothers me.  We should probably all strive to be the chosen; to be brave enough, trusting enough to listen for that voice of God and act on it.  For how else will the world turn.   But, maybe, we don’t want to.

God’s will is generally off-putting, shall we say, to those in comfortable circumstances.  We don’t want to be asked to make radical changes to our life-styles or beliefs. We actually kind of like standards and rules of inclusion as long as we feel reasonably confident that we are included. We support the systems that keep us in place, that uphold the empire that maintains us. We might not like the sound of that, but we can’t deny the truth of it. 

Otherwise, we would have changed by now. Otherwise, the world would have turned by now — the last would be brought up to the head of the line and the first would step back, the poor would be raised and the powerful brought down from their egos.

These parables are meant to be problems for us. We are supposed to be challenged by them, to sit with them, wondering about them, letting them work on us. I hope you will allow that.

Even if the Christian church of today is a collection of mostly okay people who try not to cause harm, who try honestly to be good people, who mix in with our fellow citizens as bits of light, maybe that’s what we’re for. I mean it could be worse. The Holy Sprit still seems to call, enlightens and woo us, shaking us out like grains of salt, planting us like tiny mustard seeds, growing us as fractals of leaven.

We can’t know if the world is better for it. I suspect that the Spirit will do her work of gathering in the bad and the good, occasionally choosing one or two to be remarkable, light to counter the darkness, while letting the rest be good enough, salt and ashes to season, to melt ice, to etch imprints of God in the world.

Did Jesus die for that? Does that kind of life – our kinds of lives – do justice to his life, to God’s hopeful, outrageous experiment? No, probably not. 

I’d like to help make the world turn, I’d like to see a shift in power, I’d like to know our small, mild-mannered acts of kindness and care play some part in God’s will.

But… even if we are tepid Christians, too comfortable to stick our necks out, too quietistic and complicit to demand and bring about change to systemic wrongs… we can still be true to our understanding of the gospel’s word of love and inclusion and uphold that in our dealings with others, and await our invitation to the Feast where some are chosen, but even the small ones are welcome.

Your invitation is in the mail.

Worship ~ 5 March

Audio Recording

Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 

3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 

6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 

8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 

13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 

16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This parable is so interesting. I would love to have seen the reaction on people’s faces when Jesus told it, because, even now, it creates a visceral reaction in us as listeners.

Although not all of the parables Jesus tells are about the kingdom of heaven, most relate to it in some way. And even though we may not quite understand some of the more obscure sayings, we are rarely offended by them. I mean, how can the kingdom of heaven be offensive? We might feel sorry for the prodigal son’s older brother when he stomps off feeling betrayed by his father. And the parable of the good Samaritan can be disconcerting in that it ends up being the enemy who proves himself the good neighbor, but this one is different. This arouses some emotion.

Is it because it’s about wages and what’s fair? Does is stir old jealousy and self-worth issues? I think that’s what we hear, but it is actually about the kingdom of heaven and grace, God’s love. So why doesn’t it feel gracious?

I’m reading a book on an entirely different matter, but it says something that might be pertinent. The author describes the profound effect Calvinism has had on the American psyche — even of Lutherans. The author describes it this way: 

“According to Calvinism, God likes some people better than others and expresses his approval through earthly gifts. Health, wealth, and happiness are proof of God’s favor. Poverty and suffering are telltale signs of sin. Whether people will be favored or rejected by God is already decided before they are born. Some are predestined to be saved, and some are earmarked for damnation. 

“Contrary to what you might expect, this doctrine didn’t plunge its believers into despair or stop them from making an effort. On the contrary, it spurred them on. By working hard, amassing wealth, and keeping their lives in good order, they could prove to themselves and others that they were among the elect. This is the source of the Protestant work ethic. 

“The Calvinist impulse has broken free of its Protestant origins and entered the collective unconscious of Americans.

“In medieval Europe, people looked to the impoverished and emaciated for spiritual teachings. Austerity was the mark of a saint. In America, the prerequisite for any spiritual teacher is a life that works. We don’t turn for guidance to someone who can’t pay the electric bill. Consciously or unconsciously, we assume that the spiritually accomplished lead, healthy, prosperous, and well ordered lives.”       That’s a quote from Catherine MacCoun.*

This explains why we have the cult of celebrities, why the rich and famous make the news, why winning sport teams or individual ‘stars’ credit God for getting them where they are – the losers don’t do that. It’s the driver of Manifest Destiny, why we continue to have deeply ingrained racism and classism. It’s because those on the bottom are destined to be there. 

You may not consciously believe that…. but we do believe it. 

That’s why this parable seems so unfair. The Protestant work ethic; Justice; Fairness; Virtue and the American Way. We get what we deserve (we believe), and if others don’t work as hard — or rather, if they don’t achieve the same results (we tend to conflate those two things) — then they don’t deserve what we have.

This parable bothers us because it’s not fair for the workers who were out there all day long in the heat of the sun not to get more than the ones who only worked for an hour. The first were hardworking, the last hardly worked. The first were righteous, the last were unworthy. The first were furious, the last were amazed.

True, the landowner contracted with them for the amount they would get paid, and paid them what he said he would. BUT, when he hired all the rest, he said he’d pay them ‘what was right’ — and how can it be right to pay everyone the same thing? If he’s generous with the last, he ought to be even more generous with the first. Right?

We can’t know what Jesus’ original audience thought, but it would have bothered people back then, too, at least to the extent that they considered themselves privileged and chosen and the elect. 

The radical equality of the kingdom of heaven is galling to those of us who count on entitlement. 

So, let’s back up a step.

The kingdom of heaven is like… that’s how it begins. This isn’t advice from God on how to run a business or how wage schedules should be set. This is what God’s reign is like, God’s will.

The kingdom of heaven is like loving your neighbor as yourself. Maybe Jesus should have begun all his parables that way. This is what loving your neighbor as yourself could look like.

It would be as if a landowner went out early in the morning to gather workers… and in the end paid them all equally, even though they began at different times, had different needs, different experiences, backgrounds, issues, and different skill sets. Maybe that doesn’t help. We are too strongly bound to merit as the basis of justice.

If the parable was about a mother hen sitting on her eggs, who was overjoyed and filled with such warm, adoring love when the first chick pecked it’s little head out of the shell, that she fluffed her feathers and clucked and coddled the little chick — And a day passed, and then another egg cracked and a scraggly wet head popped out, and then another — And momma hen clucked and fluffed and resettled herself to give each tiny bird the warmth it needed — and by the next evening all six eggs had finally hatched and downy little chicks were jostling and snuggling and wiggling under momma hen’s wings and she was clucking and fluffing and so pleased she just about crowed with joy — If that was the parable, would we be angry?

Of course not. We know love expands to the whole nest. We expect God to love, right?

Well, I will remind you of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the ugly duckling and how the signet swan was treated. Or how upsetting it is to watch a cowbird egg hatch and take over a warbler’s nest and watch the warbler chicks die. We only want God’s love to apply to our nest, our kind. Because that is how fairness works, right? We want God to be fair according to our standards of justice. At least we want to choose our neighbors before we commit to loving them as ourselves.

But that is what we don’t get to choose. We do not get to choose the merits of our neighbors, nor the standards of God’s love.

The deeper into the kingdom of heaven we are drawn, the less we get to choose the circumstances or conditions or people we love. They are thrust upon us.  Following in the way of Christ causes us to grow, requires us to grow. Jesus originally told this parable against the Pharisees and professional religious of his day who scorned the poor and outcast. Matthew used it to tell Gentiles they were as loved and welcomed as their Jewish brothers and sisters in God’s grace. You might realize that marginalized people hear this parable quite a bit differently than we are likely to. We are invited to share in their joy, to open our imaginations and our hearts and set any jealousy or rancor aside.

In the kingdom of heaven, whether we like it or not, the last will be first and the first will be last and the middle seem to stay in the middle. Wouldn’t it be great if we could cheer that happy exchange? Because in the reign and realm that God creates, everyone is equal in the Mother Hen’s love. Everyone.

  • * Catherine MacCoun. On Becoming an Alchemist – a guide for the modern magician, Trumpeter press 2008

Worship ~ 26 February

Audio Recording

Each Sunday in Lent the narrative lectionary gives us a parable. Today’s parable on forgiveness is accompanied by a practical application.

The gospel according to Matthew, the 18th chapter :15-35

  “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.  But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  

Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”  Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.  “Therefore the kingdom of heaven has become like a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.  When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents;  and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.”

But you don’t need to take my word for it….

Sunday School Skit 

But the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’  And being moved by compassion, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.  

But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’  But he refused and went and threw him in prison until he would pay the debt.  When his fellow slaves saw what happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.  

Then the king summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 

“So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The gospel of the Lord…thanks be to God

Today’s reading begins with the church handbook on how to deal with adversarial or conflicted relationships. It’s good, practical advice for disagreements that are bound to arise in any close community: begin with the source with your complaints, don’t triangulate someone else in or spread your complaint out into the neighborhood – face disagreements head on – face to face, forthrightly, and with humility and honesty.

If that doesn’t work, bring in an arbitrator who can hear both sides fairly, who will point out the faults and highlight the similarities in the two positions. And then, if that fails, inform the community: draw on their strength and communal wisdom to help you process the argument and come to peaceful terms – even if it is disagreement. And if even then, harmony can’t be restored, turn your collective backs and close the door. 

That’s what we hear – and usually practice as a first or second step – kick the offender out, lop off the offending part, pluck out the eye that causes you to sin. Matthew offers a lot of suggestions for alienation. But, actually, Jesus didn’t say that. He says, “and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Oh. And how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Oh.

In Luke’s gospel, Zacchaeus is a tax collector. And when Jesus calls him down from the sycamore tree, Jesus invites himself over for dinner. He even called a tax collector to be a disciple – the disciple named Matthew. Hmmm. 

So… when irreconcilable differences occur, for the sake of order within the ecclesia, the church, the offender should be excluded from the gathering, but invited into personal relationship, invited into dialog, invited to lunch. It seems that Jesus is recognizing the ripples of trouble internal hostility or discord can create, but is still committed to, or at least hoping for, reconciliation one-to-one by continuing the mission of Love to that person.

We aren’t very good at any of this. It’s so much easier to sever ties, to turn away and not step into the murky depths of conflict. Approaching someone who’s angry with humility and soul searching is uncomfortably vulnerable. We don’t have models for this behavior. 

The only leverage that changes attitudes and opinions is love. The other person might not love you or you them, but love has to be in the mix, it has to find a crack to shine through. When have you really changed your mind about someone or some ‘category’ of people? When have you been swayed to understand an opposing viewpoint? When have you felt safe enough to let down your guard and let the hard candy outer shell melt? I’m willing to bet love was involved. Compassion, empathy, mercy, forgiveness – they all flow from a place of vulnerable love.

Matthew was talking specifically about the church community. This is the only time the word ecclesia is used in the gospels – it’s the word for the Christian Jewish worship, not synagog or temple. And gives us a sense of the struggles his community was dealing with. We don’t know the specifics of that – at all – but the challenge and practice of forgiveness is universal. We do know about that.

“Forgive our debts and we forgive our debtors.” “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Or sin. Whichever version we use, the order is the same.

I imagine you might have noticed and puzzled over the order of these words in the Lord’s Prayer. Proper Lutheran theology would turn them around: “Grant us grace to forgive, as we have first been forgiven.” The way the prayer is written sounds as if our forgiven-ness is based on our practice of forgiving – similar to the warning from a couple of weeks ago, that the judgment you give is the judgment you will receive. 

The parable Jesus tells goes both ways. The king forgave a ginormous debt, expecting the slave to forgive one who owed him a small debt, out of gratitude for what the king had just done. However, when the slave fails to offer the same clemency, the king is filled with rage and throws him into prison for the rest of his miserable days. So, this isn’t good news of great joy.

Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question doesn’t fit the parable. Peter wonders where we draw the line in the sand of forgiveness? How many times?  How do we distinguish mercy from enabling someone to continue in their abusive behavior? According to the king, there needs to be acknowledgment and gratitude and repentance – changed behavior and an outflowing of the internalized mercy. According to what Jesus tells Peter, you need a calculator and a tally sheet. Forgiveness just goes on and on and on.

I’m trying to like Matthew’s gospel. I’ve been reading all kinds of stuff looking for insight and answers to my confusion. One thing I’ve read is helpful. Matthew is trying to answer the question, “How then shall we live?”

Jesus came into the public eye, taught with wisdom and authority, wowed the crowds and created enemies, healed diseases and illness and broken lives, gave value to people – people who were mostly unseen and unvalued. He was killed brutally, buried. The story Matthew has received is that this Jesus rose from death and was seen, interacted with his disciples and others and, like Elijah rose bodily to return to God. And still, Jerusalem was leveled, Rome is in charge, Jews and Christian Jews are persecuted sporadically and have spread out from Jerusalem like spokes from a wheel. There was talk of signs and wonders, but life is still life in the Empire. 

There was no instruction book for how to live in the way of Jesus. There were just stories and a handful of letters from Paul that somehow made their way around to the churches, but not as a volume or collection. Each community was struggling to live according to what they remembered and were told was significant about Jesus’ teachings, how that teaching and story blended with the Jewish scriptures and practices, how they should be adapted to welcome in pagans and Gentiles and even tax collectors? Where do we go from here? What are we to do? How do we live into the kingdom of heaven that seems to be the size of a mustard seed? What difference does Jesus make in a multicultural, pluralistic, many faith-ed world of first century Asia Minor?

How then shall we live?

Matthew can’t present a systematic theology of Jesus, because there wasn’t one. He put things together that maybe didn’t fit together,  because that’s what they had, what they remembered, what seemed important to hold onto. And the differences, or contrasts, or rubbing points were allowed to stand. Because the truth is that there isn’t a smooth story about Jesus, and there isn’t a single path. And the point of community is to bring all the pieces together, like a jigsaw puzzle: bringing the needs and joys and conflicts and insights and hope and vision and workers all together into an ecclesia, a gathering, and sharing all these things in common.

One of the questions on this year’s annual report to the bishop was, “What theme or biblical story has been capturing your attention lately?” I imagine that of the 100 or so responses, there are clusters of similarities, but also lots of outliers, because the rostered leaders are all coming from different communities with different issues, interests, and needs – and the experiences of each congregation or ministry setting is being filtered through each pastor’s perspective and strengths and deficiencies as they practice their particular ministry. And each pastor’s ministry necessary spills into our personal lives and imaginations and what might be capturing our attention.

I’d like to ask you that question. What biblical story or theme is capturing your attention lately? 

I know it’s not something you can come up with on the fly, you’d need to think about it (and remember to think about it) and then remember to tell me. But the point I’m trying to make with this is that we have four gospels that tell about Jesus. And they are all slightly or very different. And even within one gospel, like Matthew, there are different approaches to the same topic – like forgiveness – written side by side, because the author of Matthew felt they were both valid, both true to what Jesus said or did or taught. And there is not a single way to work forgiveness or receive forgiveness, because the causes and needs are different. We come into it at different places. And God has all the nuance and subtlety and adaptability and wisdom in the world to sort things out, so we do’t need to try to hold God accountable to one story.

How then shall we live?

Forgiveness opens up a future that the past has closed off. Forgiveness says the past need not dictate the future. Unless someone is willing to unhook, nothing can change. It is allowing your heart and mind to be transformed, released from a kind of prison – like the slave in the parable.

“With grateful joy and holy fear, God’s charity we learn…” We will soon sing these lines. “Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found.” 

I think, finally, that’s what the parable and Jesus’ teaching is about – holy fear, grateful joy and charity that prevails in spite of all odds, despite all the examples we can throw at it of harm and deceit and arrogance and lies. To the extent that we can, with God’s help, hold onto charity and love, bring them to bear on painful situations, help forgiveness prevail – prove more powerful than opposing forces, then we may live as an authentic community of the forgiven – practicing forgiveness until we get it right.

Worship ~ 19 February

Audio Recording

Matthew 16:24-25; 17:1-8

6:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 

17:1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

The gospel of Matthew is invested in building a case for the divinity of Jesus. 

That might sound unnecessary because we’re so used to ‘knowing’ about Jesus’ divinity. We take it for granted. We’re used to the trinitarian formula – God the Father, Son, Holy Spirit – one God. We’re used to mushing all the gospels and their varying images and themes together into one theological meatball. 

But the gospel of Mark, for example, speaks of Jesus as an emissary of God, a portal through which God’s way and will are made known. The emphasis in Mark is not on Jesus’ divinity, but on his faithfulness to God’s will that leads him to the cross. 

Matthew has a different theological point to make.

Each gospel was written into a time warp. Looking back 50 or more years, written at least 15 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, they talk about people, events and structures which were no longer there. Matthew was written to a community of Greek-speaking Christian Jews who probably lived in Syria, likely in the city of Antioch.  

His community was growing increasingly distant from the Pharisee-led Judaism of this new era in diaspora, and they were increasingly Gentile in their membership and outlook. It was written to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the unique son of God in a strongly pagan culture where the virgin birth of gods was not uncommon; where the gods dwelt on mountain tops and meddled somewhat maliciously in human affairs. It was written to bring the traditions, laws and promises of Hebrew scripture, of their God — who loved and prodded and guided and sacrificed for the sake of people — this God, into a new and diverse context. 

We see evidence of this in the frequent quotes and references to the prophets, in reminders of events from Jewish history, in the images of Jesus as the new Moses, and in presenting Jesus as one who fulfills the Law. 

Unlike the apostle Paul, who had died 20 years earlier, Matthew believed that Torah law was still in force.  Matthew was likely written in the era of Emperor Domitian when Jews and the Christian Jews (and even members of his own Senate) were under threat. It was a time fraught with vying realities and claims of power.

The transfiguration is an important event within the gospel for all of these reasons. Jesus on a mountain top with clothes and face shining white is a reminder of Moses on the mountain receiving the Law – whose face shone so much that he had to wear a veil when he came back down to his people. It is a forecast of the glory to come – born out of the Jewish imagination and deep religious identity, and at the same time it would be familiar imagery within Greek and Roman mythology. The transfiguration story is a powerful bridge connecting all of Matthew’s community.

But, is it more than that? Is it more than a literary device? After all, there were only three witnesses and Jesus ordered them not to say anything about it. It could easily be a dramatic turning point created by the oral storytellers of Jesus’ life. From this point and forward, Jesus has turned his face and is aiming for Jerusalem and his death. It is the middle of the gospel, Jesus coming up for breath, as it were. He began on a mountain with the sermon on the mount, and will end on another mount, the hill of Golgotha. This episode echos God’s words at his baptism and the Centurion’s confession at the cross. It provides a solid literary structure, to be sure.

Often, miracles arouse my suspicious mind. What I think I know gets in the way of what I’m supposed to believe. Miracles raise all sorts of questions and skeptical responses in me. 

But, perhaps oddly, I like epiphanies, theophanies, moments of God coming near, revelations of glory and wonder – wonder in the sense of awe, not of doubt. Moments of vision or clarity – of encounter – for some reason seem more believable. I’ve come to like this story of Jesus’ transfiguration – the glory of God bursting out in a blast with the holy ghosts of Moses and Elijah – the Law and Prophet  – appearing like holograms from Star Wars. Life-altering experiences of insight, divine presence, and vision make sense to me. 

Actually, the older I get, and the more left behind I am by technology, the less bothered I am by things that I can’t account for, that I can’t relate to or figure out.  Computer algorithms that possibly know more about me than my friends and family do, bothers me, but in a helpless kind of way. I still can’t really understand radio waves, the uniqueness of snowflakes, or how infinite space can expand, or how kitchen scraps become garden soil.

There are lots of things that I don’t understand, that I can’t see with my own eyes, or give a rational explanation –  but that I do, never-the-less, take on trust. 

How do fiberoptic cables hold all of the movies I stream? How do sound waves recreate a particular voice with all of the subtleties of tone and inflection that makes it your voice? How is that transmitted exactly right so I know who’s calling by the time you’ve said “hello”? Why isn’t it interrupted by cars driving past, or trees blowing in the wind, or snow falling?  How are my phone and computer sharing all things in common, but not with Marnie’s computer when she is sitting right next to me? Anyone?

We look out at a snowy landscape and we’re told that every single snowflake is unique in its shape, size or configuration. How do they know that? We look up at the stars and see dots of light and know intellectually that they are suns at all different depths of space, that space is actually full, it’s thick with energy and, though it’s infinite, it is expanding. Who wants to explain that to me? 

I’ve read that two handfuls of healthy soil contain more living organisms than there are people on the earth.  Two handfuls. Again, who is counting, and how?  But believing that there is an unknown, unseen world beneath our feet upon whose health our planet’s survival depends, is … well, does it not transfigure dirt into glory? Do these wonderments not call our experience, our limited experience, of reality into question?

So, maybe Jesus did go up on that mountain with his disciples and was swallowed up in a bright cloud and it happened just the way they said it did. Maybe it’s true… like soil is true and stars and snowflakes and radio waves are true. The the point about miracles or epiphanies of God’s glory isn’t so much how they work or even about their truth, but rather about their meaning. What is the transfiguration story trying to communicate?

Two things, at least, which is maybe just one thing. As I said at the beginning, the gospel of Matthew is invested in building a case for the divinity of Jesus. 

“…a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  And when they looked up, they saw no one there except Jesus, alone.”

They go down the mountain and Jesus says, “By the way, don’t mention this to anyone,” and they get swallowed up in a crowd of people needing to be healed, and there are controversies with the Pharisees, and misunderstandings among the disciples, and Jesus keeps trying to teach them about radio waves and snowflakes and compost – the hidden and marvelous things of God.

BUT, the divinity of Jesus and the hidden, marvelous ways of God are one and the same thing. That’s what the disciples were supposed to see in this meeting on the mountain. They experienced the glory of God and then saw Jesus disappear into a crowd of people, engaging in the disputes and dealings and doubts of daily life.

The glory of God was visible on the mountain, but like Jesus’ lesson through the beatitudes, pointing out God’s favor-in-disguise despite the awkward appearance of real life and suffering, Jesus shows God’s glory even when he’s down the mountain, even when he’s tired and discouraged or eating and drinking with his friends and sinners – the ones with a past and with saucy stories to tell.  God’s glory in Jesus shows then, too. It isn’t a white glow or the halo he’s painted with in religious art, but that’s the miracle –  that God is present in Jesus in suffering and defeat and death, and is present with us when we can’t really believe it, can’t feel it, can’t see it …at all. God’s glory is hidden… dirty, lived, embodied. 

Like those first disciples, we’re fascinated by the power plays, the flash and grandeur. We assume that glory means success and ease and smooth sailing and power. We like the view from the top of the mountain when the troubles of the world are far below, when people look like ants. 

But Jesus insists on going down the mountain. 

Transformation is a slow process – like compost creating glorious soil from coffee grounds and apple skins. But the work of Christ’s earthbound glory is to reconcile us to God and to one another, and to form us into fragile and resilient and useful vessels of his love and mercy for one another and the neighbor and the world. There is a cost, there will always be a cost, and we will, of course, encounter, and experience, and cause suffering. But, as Jesus said in the first verses of our reading, it is the way of the cross that leads us to life. It is those who give away and lose themselves in this life who are blessed to discover that they have actually found life.

Traditional theology, in an effort to maintain the divinity, says Jesus empties himself of glory, power, and status for the sake of a broken world. He leaves the things of God behind when he comes to us. I don’t think that’s right. I think that our hope rests on exactly the opposite being true – that Jesus brings the glorious, hidden, transformative power of God down the mountain and lets it get dirty. 

It is here that God’s greatest glory is shown, here that the fullness of God’s love is poured out for us, here that Jesus shows us the glory – not of purified starlight and sunshine, but of unfathomable mercy and love – the messy glory of God for us, with us: Emmanuel.

Thanks be to God.

~ Pastor Linda

Worship ~ 12 February

Audio Recording

Matthew 13:24-43

Jesus put before them another parable: 

“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; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”  

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.” 

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” 

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.  This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” 

36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

The gospel of the Lord…. Thanks be to God.

I suspect most of us have been taught or conditioned to hear the first parable about weeds and wheat growing in the same field to be about the weeds and wheat growing in the same field, and whether the evil one’s weeds should be pulled, and to wonder how the wheat will be harvested separately from the weed seeds at harvest time, and who are those evil weeds anyway, and will I be burned or gathered into the barn? It’s a cautionary tale whose explanation doesn’t seem to be in sync with the parable itself. Instead of clarifying things, the insider information Jesus gives the disciples is confusing and makes us edgy. Our attention is focused on the fate of the weeds.

Well. If we start again, what the parable says is that “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone.” Someone who sowed good seed and left it alone, and let it grow.

The second parable is about a tiny mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field — and the third is about a small amount of sourdough sponge that a woman planted in a bag of flour.

These three parables are not about judgment, separation, sin, or eternity – but rather, they are about the mysterious hidden growth of the kingdom of heaven in earthly ways, in human lives and in living communities. Growth, not weeds.

That’s what Jesus was teaching about. The kingdom of heaven had come near – and you might not notice or be impressed, but it was/is a living thing, growing inexorably just like grain and tiny seeds and yeast. And it’s not a mono crop. The earthy kingdom of heaven doesn’t make everything new. This is just the beginning. Old seeds are still lying dormant in the dirt, ready to grow when the field is prepared and sown with good seed. But time will do its work. The wheat will head out, the mustard plant will grow less spindly and bush out, even three measures of flour will eventually be raised by just a bit of yeast. The trio of parables Jesus taught are hopefully realistic descriptions of God coming near in the midst of it all.

 Matthew had a different use for these parables, adding the allegorical explanation to the wheat and weeds. That explanation is not believed to be original to Jesus, since it changes the message of the parable completely. Matthew had reasons for this. He lived and wrote at an apocalyptic time. They expected the end of the age. Jerusalem was demolished, it was time to choose which empire you would support and be part of – Rome or Christ’s. It was a very black and white time for the Christian Jewish community in diaspora.

There is a strong contingency of modern Christians (and this is mostly an American dynamic) who don’t pay attention to the historical, cultural setting of the gospels, believing that it is all directly applicable to us in our time, and that somehow, Christians are still the ones under threat. Theirs is a model of religion with stark divisions focused on purity and distinctions and judgment. Seeing culture through that lens, it is natural to look for enemies and evil somewhere ‘out there’ and miss the point of Jesus’ message. The kingdom of heaven is about growth and grace and the hidden, nuanced, complicit, complex, interconnected lives it touches. Our lives. 

And we know something about weeds. A weed is a perfectly good plant growing where you don’t want it to be. Many, if not all weeds, have intrinsic value and things to contribute for those with eyes to see. I can’t grow a good container of spinach, for example, and only have a few weeks of good baby lettuce before the plants get bitter or leggy. But dandelion, lamb’s quarters, plantain, nettles and purslane grow really well and are actually more nutritious.. Milkweed is being reintroduced even in gardens for the sake of monarch butterflies. Nettles are a beneficial companion plant. Native weeds belong here and have a lot of benefits for the soil, insect populations, birds, and even us, while a beautifully manicured lawn is a biological wasteland. 

I do realize I’m not talking about weeds in a wheat field, and mustard plants were invasive even in Jesus’ time, but the point of the parable is that the wise farmer recognized that weeds and wheat needed to grow together, root systems were too fragile to separate, and in the fullness of time all would be sorted. That’s what Christians who take the parable and it’s explanation literally tend to leave out. The  benevolent element of time. And that God’s plan for this earthly enterprise isn’t – never has been – to pluck out a faithful remnant. The goal is to create abundant, diverse, flourishing life. That is fostered through inspiration and love and compassion and empathy, not judgment and self-righteousness.

Martin Luther’s small catechism teaches this in the ten commandments. This is the Eighth Commandment: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

“What does this mean?”, he asks. “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”  Luther states the law, but explains it with grace, teaching how to love, respect and live with our neighbor. 

Having said this, I recognize that much of scripture is judgmental and warning in nature. And I do believe in final judgment, but I believe it will be the judgment of deep love that strips away all pretenses and pride, that will dissolve our hard candy coating leaving our soft, delicious centers, that we will see ourselves face to face instead of through a mirror, and in the gaze of God all will be made right and true and blessed.

But in the meantime, wouldn’t it be something if we could practice that kind of judgment? To gaze in love so patient and calm and wide that the hard candy coatings, and pretenses and defensiveness and arrogance and fears of both observer and observed all melt away. It might be a small thing in this world of enormous suffering and staggering problems, but small things grow.

May it be so.


Worship ~ 5 February

Audio Recording

Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.  Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! 

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.  

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. 

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”  

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For withthe judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you receive.” 

In Confirmation class last week we began looking at the Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel – how the very same teaching or law can both convict and comfort. Today’s readings offer good examples of that dynamic. The judgement with which you judge will be the criteria used in judging you. The measure of generosity, kindness, arrogance, anger you give out will be what comes back to you. 

Is this good news, comforting news? Or is it time for a fearless moral inventory and change?  

Judging others is inherent to our nature. It’s wired into our survival mechanism – needing to know in an instant if we should fight or flee. 

But that instinct has been exploited. Within the public political arena, judging others (dismissively, of course) is part of the game and spectacle. Judging others and how closely they align with our ideals or standards or ways is how we form friend groups and congregations. But the judgment that forms inclusion, by definition, is a move to alienate others (Law and gospel). And judgment is more often about separating sheep from goats. It might be based on racial differences, skin tone, clothing styles, body shape, sexual identification, educational level, occupations, income, visible manifestations of ideologies, gender, piercings and tattoos, what we feel is appropriate dress or behavior … the list is endless, really. The result is the assumption that for various and obvious reasons, we are better than them.

We all take part in some amount of instant judging. We can’t help it. It is a natural, seemingly innocent thing to do. Sometimes we are conscious of it, maybe enjoying the diversity of lifestyles or cultural expression evident at a big event or trip to the cities for those of us from small villages. We might call it ‘people watching.’ But I suspect we aren’t looking for the good, the kind, the Christ in them. I suspect it is the differences that catch our eye, and differences are always targets for judgment. We form an idea of an individual’s worth or a backstory based on a glance. If we were honest with our inner selves, we’d call it ‘people belittling’, not people watching. It’s not neutral. Sometimes judgments ride under the radar of awareness, but we feel them or react to them. Fear, wariness, revulsion, attraction, coveting, compassion based on what we see – while knowing nothing about the individual or group. 

Our treatment of others summarizes the human dynamics of the first law of thermodynamics: The Law of Conservation of Energy that states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but is transferred, changed from one form to another.    Behaviors, attitudes, prejudices, treatment of others don’t dissipate into a void. They land on another person, are absorbed, felt, engaged, recycled, transferred from person to person. This contributes to the systemic nature of racism, misogyny, and bigotry. The measure you give is the measure you receive… do unto others as you would have them do unto you… What goes around, comes around.

Our interactions are marked by this mutuality, this inability to disconnect; and they can contribute to the way of empire or they can contribute to the way of the kingdom of God. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” goes back a very long way in human history and in relationship to God – and it hasn’t gotten any easier. In fact, it feels like it is getting worse. Judgment is quicker and more malevolent, forgiveness and compassionate curiosity hardly in the picture.

The center of this long section of Jesus’ teaching is where we find the Lord’s prayer in which we ask God for what we need to be a people who live into the ethics and ethos of God’s will and way. It asks for simple and not so simple things: daily bread, forgiveness of our debts and trespasses, a plea not to be tested or tempted, but to be delivered from the evil that lures us. We ask that God’s kingdom, God’s reign, break in to our present time, for it to be enacted, behaved here, among us.

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.(Yes! Even for you. And even for them – those despicable, untrustworthy, abusive, ignorant, judgmental ‘others’.)  Indeed, for everyone who asks, receives; and everyone who searches finds; and for everyone who knocks, the door shall be opened.’ 

     God will welcome you. God will welcome those whom you have judged. God will welcome those who have judged you!  This isthe hospitality of the kingdom of God. Everyone who searches, who seeks, who knocks at the door shall be admitted. Not because we have judged them worthy. But because God has claimed a presence, proclaimed a promise, in their lives, too, as in your life.

For is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, would instead give them a stone?  Or if the child asks for fish, would you substitute a snake?  Of course not. 

  If you then, who are … human, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask!   

    God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts, judging, forgiveness, loving, mercy, joy… are not our ways.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine,” Jesus said, “and acts on them will be like a wise one who builds their house on rock.” Where God’s will is done, where God’s ways are practiced, where the teachings of Jesus are enacted, there the kingdom of heaven draws near. The Lord’s prayer is talking about behaving more than believing the kingdom of God. And when we behave it, we begin to see it.

‘Forgive us our trespasses, Merciful God – our slanders, our arrogance, entitlement, hubris — as we forgive those who in like fashion judge us,   and grant that we may do unto those others as we would have them do unto us. Lead us not into the temptation of loving ourselves without equal regard of our neighbor, but deliver us from such evil…   Judge us, good Lord, with a lover’s compassion. For we are all … the creatures, the habitats, our neighbors, ourselves, those disenfranchised, despised … we are all all yours.

Worship ~ 22 January

Audio Recording

I don’t like the gospel of Matthew. I’ve said that before – maybe a lot? I apologize for the repetition. I find this gospel very challenging and unsettling.  This section of antithesis (You have heard it said, but I tell you…) goes on for several more topics. We’ll hear more of them next week. Near the end, Jesus says: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” 23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers….   the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’

I don’t know what to do with many of the things Matthew’s Jesus says. They break sharply with the image of Jesus I carry as compassionate healer, empathetic see-er of the human condition, as the encompassing, inclusive embrace of a loving creator God. I know Jesus was edgy, but in Matthew, he is often harsh, judgmental, snarky, impossibly rigid. 

So then, I ask myself if my comforting belief is grounded in scripture, or if I’ve done the Disney thing. And, as you also probably know, there’s no conclusive answer to that. It’s true, of course, that we all favor images and sections of scripture that fit most closely with our world view, our cultural ethos, our need. And that we do that no matter what the Good Book actually says. 

And maybe — I may be well on my way to heresy at this point — maybe, it doesn’t matter. Maybe, all of the fuss is irrelevant because every image, every trajectory of faith, every attempt at knowing the nature of the divine being, is in some ways true and in some ways a false image, an idol of our mind’s making. I mean, I think that’s true. I read hours of commentaries and seminary text books every week and these experts all say something a bit different and sometimes contradictory to the last one I read. So I back up and just think…. which is what you usually get on Sunday morning, for good or ill. Mostly, I hope I cause you to think, too. We’re in this together.

But, back to the matter at hand and the beatitudes.

I’d like to do a sermon series on religious artwork, showing images created throughout the centuries on the topic of scripture. We have a preview today in the bulletin insert. I spend (perhaps waste) quite a bit of time each Saturday night finding an appropriate or pleasing image for the bulletin cover. As a result, I have seen what many artists have emphasized or brought to life for every sermon topic that we’ve covered for the past many years. 

Look at your bulletin cover. It’s beautiful, colorful……. and very American 21st century. The words are there, but Jesus is in a cloud of color, the cliff is barely accessible, and the only people are obviously physically fit. That’s not to say they aren’t mourning; they may indeed be meek, merciful, pure of heart, and peacemakers, but this image, as beautiful as it is, doesn’t ring true to scripture.

 “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

And when Jesus saw this crowd, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down and his disciples came to him, he began to teach them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed those who mourn, blessed the meek, blessed those who hunger for a righteousness they can never attain, blessed the merciful, blessed the pure, blessed the peacemakers, blessed the persecuted. He’s looking at the crowd of people he’s just healed. 

Butterflies and children scrambling up a cliff are, I hope blessed, but not quite what Jesus is saying. The painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder (top right on the insert) is similarly lovely. It’s too small for you to see properly, but Jesus is in the center of the people in a pale yellow, knee length tunic. No hat, long hair looking kind of a mess, actually. A white aura encircles the crowd near him. Everyone else is dressed in 16th century Flemish finery. I’d like to learn more about the various groupings, but without knowing more, what I see is that the artist brought Jesus into his own context, his own people and time. High class people. 

Whether it is proper theologically or not, this is what we do, what we need to do to have Jesus speak to us. And so it is with each of the paintings I’ve selected. They speak from a specific context, they bring Jesus into the midst of their community. The Van Gogh was paired with the poem and it felt right even though it’s not intended to be about the sermon on the mount. You might want to take the insert home and look the images up on your computer to study them, and no doubt you’ll find dozens of others. I do with words what artists do with paint and brushes. With one big difference. I can quickly change images and focus and emphasis week by week, trying things on to see how they fit – artists are committed to an interpretation, a visual description of who/how they see Christ working in the world – they are putting it all out there. 

And actually, this is exactly what Matthew did. He brought the stories and traditions he knew of Jesus into the needs and issues of his community – without giving a thought to us! The author of Matthew – probably in Antioch, Syria, probably around the year 85 CE,  probably of the sect of Christian Jews, was trying to help his community find a path forward after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. As a Jew, he believed in Hebrew scripture absolutely. But he believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Torah, and that set him at odds with the Pharisees. Matthew spends the first seven chapters presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture and righteousness – which Jesus says – “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” That’s why we’re hearing so much law in this gospel when we expect to hear grace. Matthew’s community members were observant Jews contemplating this completely new thing, interpreting Jesus in light of scripture. The opening chapters of Matthew are a retelling of the themes from Exodus. Like Joseph of long ago, Jesus’ Joseph interpreted dreams and escaped with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Like the Israelites, Jesus was led out of Egypt, crossed through the water, was claimed by God, and was tested in the wilderness – for 40 days, not 40 years.  Unlike Israel, Jesus proved his faithfulness to God. Now, on a mountain, like Moses, he proves his adherence to the Law reinterpreting the commandments, exceeding their righteousness. Matthew is carefully building the structure of the story so that his people may take this image bridge to the astounding news that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah.

Jesus may or may not have said the words we read quoted in Matthew. It was written 50 years after his death. But that doesn’t matter – in that Matthew is incarnating, fleshing out the various stories and documents he had available to him about Jesus in order to move the hearts and minds of his community to believe that scripture was being fulfilled in their lifetime. 

It’s an extraordinary leap. It is an extraordinary, inspired gift that the apostle Paul and Matthew and the other gospel writers were given to be able to see God in Jesus and make the connections that made sense within their own setting. It is even more incredible that throughout history and across completely divergent cultures, as shown in the few art works in the bulletin, that we are able to recognize and assimilate the gospel story finding ourselves and our times reflected there. 

The reality of people’s lives that Jesus saw that day moved him. And he saw that whatever the world might say of them, whatever they might say of themselves — poor in spirit, meek, hungry, mourning, merciful — they were, at the same time, children of God whose grace drew near and named them blessed. That, too, is something we may appropriate from these old writings for ourselves and our time. Blessed are you.