Last week I read a quote from Henri Nouwen who said, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. And we all love poorly.” Which is why we need forgiving in the first place.
If we want to love, truly love like Jesus did, then we will have to forgive those who have hurt and harmed us – whether it’s big or small – we have to make amends in order to truly live into the love from which we are created. When asked by his disciples Jesus said this about forgiveness. It’s found in the gospel of Matthew 18:21-22.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
That’s a lot isn’t it? I mean, seven times seems like enough to let someone off the hook...but seventy-seven times? Really? To borrow from George Bush this seems like “fuzzy math.” The numbers don’t add up. At least not like we want them to.
Now I’ve never been particularly good at math. But then again, I’m not particularly good at forgiveness. I understand the basics, but when I try to work it out in life, it does my head in. I’ve learned that’s not uncommon for most folks. Because we don’t take forgiveness to heart. It’s not our go to action when someone wrongs us.
Now, I picture Peter stretching out his arms and asking, “Lord, should I forgive people this much?” And Jesus shakes his head. You see, Jesus knew the ancient rabbinic tradition that says you should forgive the one who sinned against you as many as four times.
Leave it up to Peter to try to impress his teacher by one upping the other rabbis. And leave it up to Jesus to turn what we know upside down. He tells Peter, “Seven is good. But it’s better to forgive seventy-seven times.” I’m sure even back then that a little overkill.
New Testament scholars will debate whether the Greek text translates it as “seventy-seven times” or “seventy times seven times.” Either way, Jesus gives us an enormous number; one so big that we can’t begin to calculate it. I suspect that’s the point. Forgiveness isn’t absolute like math. There is no perfect set amount because each act of forgiveness has its own set of problems and calculations.
Peter wants a hard number. But Jesus just wants him to forgive more than he can imagine so much that it becomes second nature. Think about that. What emotional reactions are second nature to you? How fast are you to forgive someone for something we are all guilty of doing?
Now, what do we know about forgiveness, other than it’s so hard to do? We know it’s good for our health and wellbeing in that it frees us from carrying the burden of guilt, anger and resentment. Such actions rarely ever lead to anything good.
True forgiveness is a self-healing process that starts with you and gradually extends to everyone else. The bible tells us that when Jesus healed people, forgiveness was often attached to their healing. Divine, spiritual healing transforms us from the inside out.
We also know Jesus instructed us to pray for forgiveness like we do for our daily bread. It’s as if he wants us to always remind ourselves how important forgiveness is to nourish our souls. And so we are taught to pray, “Lord forgive my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.”
Here’s the problem with that prayer. We’re all in for God forgiving us. But heaven forbid we should extend the same grace to others; especially to those who have wounded us beyond repair. And yet Jesus said, you aren’t only to forgive them, but to do so with some ridiculous amount. It’s the only way we can truly heal from our brokenness.
You see, the number seventy signifies spiritual perfection. Like with any spiritual practice, the more we do it, the more it becomes habitual or a part of who we are; as natural as our own heartbeat. It’s no surprise that every major religion regards forgiveness as a vital emotional and spiritual practice.
But here’s the thing, Jesus doesn’t give us any specific guidelines other than you are to make the deliberate decision to let go of your feelings of anger, resentment, and retribution towards any person you believe has wronged you.
Take, for example, the story of Louis Zamperini, the subject of the best-selling book Unforgiven. Zamperini spent over two years in a Japanese POW camp during WWII being beaten and tortured in the most unforgivable ways. After spending decades trying to numb the pain with substance abuse and other means, Zamperini realized the only way to be truly free would be to forgive the man responsible for his pain. And that’s just what he did.
And then there’s the story of Dylann Roof. You might remember he’s the white supremacist who murdered nine black lives during a bible study inside an historic church in Charleston, South Carolina. Two days after the horrific and very calculated murders, five family members went to his bond hearing and chose to offer Roof their forgiveness.
While the rage and anger was still boiling around them, these five deeply wounded people chose to follow Christ’s example. They knew it was the only way their families and community could heal from the pain that one man caused because of his racist beliefs. By forgiving him of this horror, they reclaimed their freedom from the chains of deep seeded hatred that had shackled them for far too long.
As research suggests, holding on to any kind of pain or resentment does nothing more than eat you up inside. Desmon Tutu likens the unforgiving heart to someone taking poison hoping for the other person to die. That doesn’t add up.
Let me ask you this, how often have you thought, “How many times do I let this person hurt me before I cut my losses and go?” One? Seven? Seventy times seven? Jesus pretty much said, “As long as it takes to love that person again.” Jesus isn’t telling us to condone the behavior or continue in an unhealthy relationship. He just says forgive them as much as it takes to love them.
In the following verses Jesus tells his disciples a parable, a story about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. And again, the numbers don’t add up if only because the numbers can’t be added up.
The story is about a guy who owes the king ten thousand talents. Now, a single talent was more than 15 years’ worth of wages. Take all the money you’ve made in the last 15 years and multiply it by 10,000. It’s a ridiculous amount of money for anyone to borrow, just as it is to pay off when the debt is called in.
When the king threatens him, the man drops to his knees and begs for mercy. And the king, knowing the impossibility of repayment, forgives the man of his debt, every last cent. As a result the king sets the man free. What kind of king does that? A king who loves you no matter what.
We are in the process of refinancing our home. I can’t tell you how happy I’d be if the bank just decided to forgive our debt completely. But that isn’t going to happen. It doesn’t work that way in a capitalist economy. The money you owe will be paid one way or another.
But it’s different in God’s economy. There is no paying back, because it would be impossible to do so. It’s called grace. We don’t earn it any more than we can buy it. It’s given freely through Christ to anyone who wants it. Thus C.S. Lewis said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
Maybe there is someone in your life that you need to forgive. Maybe you have a friend who hurt you with something she said or did that has made you angry.
Maybe someone close to you that has wounded you so dearly that the very idea of facing him, muchless offering forgiveness, sickens you.
Maybe it wasn’t one big thing that someone did, but hundreds of tiny annoying things that have been building up like a cancerous wall inside you.
Maybe the person who needs forgiving is you. Maybe you have cause harm or done something that is eating you up inside.
If so, I hope that you hear this. We are not perfect beings. Show yourself some grace. Free yourself from any guilt or shame or hurtful judgments that are keeping you from becoming your best self.
Lewis Smede said it best, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” It might take one time or seventy-seven times before you realize that in Christ, God has already forgiven you.
When you ask for it, you receive it. There are no catchers or conditions attached. There is no quid-pro-quo when it comes to receiving God’s grace. That’s how love works in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus simplifies the entire mathematical equation down to this – Forgive one another as God has forgiven you.
It’s the same equation for love. As in love one another as God loves you.
It’s the same fuzzy math that applies to everything in our lives. Heal one another, feed one another, care for each other, do to one another as God does for you.
And so, as you leave here today, I invite you to open your heart and receive the power of God’s grace. Then go out into the world to be the healer, the lover, the forgiver that Jesus made you to be.
The forgiveness that we are to pass on to others is the forgiveness we have in union with Christ.
Which is why we need to practice it daily, until it becomes second nature. Like breathing - and like love. Amen.
Excerpts from an original sermon Immeasurable Forgiveness September 16, 2017.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 68-73.
Pagano, Joseph S. Forgiveness. September 7, 2020. https://episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/forgiveness-pentecost-15-september-13-2020 (accessed September 11, 2020).
West, Cindi. Forgive Someone Seventy Times Seven. July 1, 2019. https://devotableapp.com/daily-devotion-forgive-someone-seventy-times-seven/ (accessed September 11, 2020).
Before he was Paul, he was Saul – a pious man obsessed with upholding the law. In the Acts of the Apostles it’s written “Saul was destroying the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women and imprisoning them” (Acts 8:3). But then something happened to Saul that changed his heart and point of view. He was blindsided by Christ, the Spirit of God’s love (Acts 9:1-22).
Like what happened to Peter, it was such a profound event that it called for a re-naming. He went from being Saul – a law and order kind of guy – to being called Paul, an unapologetic proponent to the Way of Christ. A way, as Paul will write, that is defined by practicing divine love. In his profound letter to the Roman churches, Paul writes:
In three verses Paul, sums up the entire ethical teachings of Torah law. An ethic that Jesus himself not only embraced and taught but commanded his followers to uphold no matter what. That ethic, and commandment, is love.
Christian mystics say love has two feet: love of God and love of neighbor. You don’t need to love God first in order to love your neighbor. The two are inseparable because in Christ God has become the neighbor. And of course, Jesus defined neighbor as anyone we interact with.
If you are a regular of this church, then you know that love will always be woven into whatever theme or scripture we are studying. The reason for that is simple. Jesus said love is the one thing that sets Christians apart from the world. It is the singular mark of discipleship. While there are many ways to show love, there is only one way to define it – by practicing it.
Christlike love is more than a feeling or a matter of the heart. It’s the kind of love makes sacrifices for the other, caring for his or her interests above your own. To Paul’s point, we fulfill the law by acting in love - be it towards our families, our enemies, our friends, the clerk in the convenience store, or the homeless vet holding up a sign at the freeway off-ramp. Love is the law that shows us how to care for the other through just and fair practices.
For most parents, it’s easy to love their own children (most of the time) and to show that love by taking care of their needs. But those same loving parents might have trouble helping a single parent who can’t afford to feed her own child. Or they might have some reserve about having their tax dollars spent to make sure that child has healthcare.
This is where heaven and earth remain apart - at the intersection where law and love meet. The two might stop and recognize each other but then they turn and go in different directions. The way I see it, God didn’t take on human flesh so we could be separated from God’s will. No, God came to us so we could be united in God’s love and change the direction of our lives accordingly.
The incarnation wasn’t a one-time event. It happens day after day – minute by minute, second by second. Likewise, the commandment to love your neighbor is an on-going, daily task for all who dare to follow the Way of Christ through the messiness of life. Which takes us back to the question: How should followers of Christ order their lives? By bowing to the law of the land, or upholding the love of the heart? Depends, perhaps, on who or what you put your priority on.
I will be the first to say that laws are important. They’re good for setting the standards and boundaries for acceptable behavior in our communities. We can’t just have people driving all over the road, or practicing their tubas at 2 a.m. Laws need to be created, executed, and adhered to so the entire community can be safe and flourish without fear.
However, every law is susceptible to abuse. Many are violated on a daily basis. As history has shown us, laws are violated more effectively by those in power, and those who understand how the law works. This is true in our own government just as it was in the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus entered and exposed the dark side of strict obedience to the law by shining the light of love on it.
As followers of Christ, we must not only see our neighbor through Jesus’ eyes...but we must also love them through Jesus’ heart. Because “What the law cannot accomplish, love can.” To quote Bono from U2, “Love is the temple. Love is the higher law.” The song reminds us that love doesn’t nullify the law... but in fact, shapes and solidifies it.
I think Jesus said love is the greatest commandment, because he fully understood that love is the very foundation which upon all things begin. God’s love for you and me is so powerful that it can make you, shape you, and if needed, transform you. It collides with you at the intersection of life. And spins you in the right direction. This is the good news.
As Jesus showed us, the Spirit of God’s love doesn’t hold grudges but forgives – offering grace upon grace...and peace to anyone who desires it. God’s love unites life, and all that it entails. What God’s love does for us, must also be true about all that we do. Including the laws we put in place.
If you dare to love God and neighbor, then there is no need to keep monitoring or policing what the law requires because the one who embodies love will not harm the other. As Paul puts it, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” If the law requires me to love and care for my neighbor, then I can do it with the assurance that someone will do the same for me.
I’m sure many of you are rolling your eyes when you hear me say that. You might think I am naïve or have drinking too much of the holy Kool-Aid. There’s no way such a world could exist, right? It’s too broken, too corrupt.
But here’s the thing, we’ve never tried it. We might call ourselves Christians and think we’re following Christ. But let’s be honest. We’ve never really put our faith out there in such a way that would make love grow, and overflow, in our communities.
We’ve never fully loved our neighbor as we would want to be loved, have we? But imagine what might happen if we made love the first priority in all that we do? How might hearts and communities be transformed? Even the law would be affected to show love’s power.
As the Bible shows us time and time again, the law bows down to love, not the other way around. Paul discovered that on the road to Damascus. The woman caught in adultery learned this when Jesus forgave her sins. And of course, Jesus proved this point on the cross. Just when it looked like the law would win, God turned the world upside down so that love would win.
Like we’ve learned recently love is the cross we are called to carry. It is all the little stones that build up the church...the body of Christ. Love is you. It is me. And the world comes to know it, in the ways we practice justice, in the ways we tend to the needy and heal the wounds of the broken, and lift up the down and out. One of the best and most common ways love is seen and felt, is in the way we forgive the other.
Henri Nouwen once described forgiveness as “the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.” And we all love poorly, don’t we? Thankfully, God doesn’t judge us by the quality of our love, but by our willingness to be the visible presence of love in our little spaces in life.
I hope that you will remember this: Love, like forgiveness, is a daily practice that invites those who come in contact with you to become a part of you. The wider you cast your love, the bigger your community becomes. “And the more easily you will recognize your own brothers and sisters in the strangers around you,” adds Nouwen.
In this light, we can see what Jesus meant when he said, “Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
At this church we uphold love above all else. We invite you to do the same. To go out into the world and act with a kind and giving heart to all people, having the best intensions for them as you would wish for yourself.
I urge you to go and make love grow. In your heart, in your house, in the business you frequent, the conversations you have, and yes, even in the way you cast your vote.
For some reason, God has entrusted you and me with this awesome power. Let us go and shape our life accordingly.
Once Peter correctly identifies who Jesus is, the story races to Jerusalem as Jesus sets his sights on the cross. He reveals to his disciples that he will undergo great suffering and eventually be killed. Now we don’t worry about this. We know what Jesus means when he said, “on the third day, be raised.” But Peter doesn’t have our hindsight; making it easy for us to criticize him for trying to stop Jesus. But you got to hand it to Peter for having the guts to try. I mean who here would rebuke Jesus to his face?
Like Eugene Peterson said, “We want to follow Jesus, but like Peter we also want to tell Jesus where to go. Jesus doesn’t need our advice; he needs our faithful obedience.” We’d do better by listening to Christ then trying to get him to listen to us. As so many of my atheist friends like to point out, too many Christians talk the talk, but only a few are willing to walk the walk.
Which is why I want to point back to how Matthew began this portion of scripture. “From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples...” what it means to follow him. Jesus revealed his true self. Not with a Masterclass or PowerPoint presentation, but by being the living embodiment of the gospel. Jesus led by example; healing the sick, feeding the hungry, showing compassion, and yes, he even confronted in angry protest the unjust practices that had infected Temple life. But more importantly he showed them how to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of gaining an abundant and authentic life.
With a quick word search you’ll see that sacrifice is both a noun and a verb. It is the object being offered ... as well as the act of offering. LeBron James and his teammates were willing to surrender a championship and forego the prestige it would bring them. And for what purpose? Justice? Equality? Some people have ridiculed them for this. Even going so far to tell them to “Shut up and play.”
But their willingness to give up all that they had worked a lifetime to achieve reminds us of what Jesus was showing his own team. Real change begins with making hard sacrifices. Perhaps that’s why people resist change. It’s hard, painful and scary. But if you want to claim Christ’s name you got to play his game. Following him means denying yourself and taking up your cross. That is to say, to be willing to walk away from your own self-centered ambitions, goals, and choices, to walk the way of Christ – no matter the cost.
As Henri Nouwen pointed out Jesus isn’t telling us to make or find a cross. He’s telling us take up the cross we already have. Yours might be a handicap or disability; chronic pain or depression; conflict in your family or at work. For too many Americans, the cross is being a victim of violence because of the color of their skin or the person they love. We don’t choose these crosses, but they’re ours to carry. We can ignore them, reject them, refuse them, and even hate them. Or we can lift them up and follow Jesus who gives our suffering new life and new purpose. After all, “What will it profit you to gain the world but lose your soul?”
Jesus wants us to experience a rich and deeply authentic life; a life where one bears one’s cross, and all the suffering that might entail. Like Paul noted, “this message of the Cross seems like sheer madness. But to us who are being saved we know it is the power of God” (c.f. 1 Corinthians 1:18).
And like Jesus showed us, the power of God is love. His cross is our reminder of what God was willing to sacrifice to love us. The power of God’s love gives our pain and suffering purpose.
For example, those who have suffered deeply are better able to understand the power of compassion. And are better able to put themselves on the line to bear one another’s burdens.
Just look at the kids who survived a school shooting. They are better able to speak to and for those who have lost loved ones to gun violence. They are more willing to stand up against powerful lobbyists to demand real reforms that will enable us all to live in peace. LeBron James, Kwai Lenard, Anthony Davis, Paul George, they know what racial injustice feels like. That is why they are willing to make the sacrifice.
Jesus shows us that our sacrifice and suffering are critical parts of who we are, they are the keys to unlocking our real self and our true faith. They require us to put real trust in a God who paradoxically overcomes death with life.
Like the disciples will come to learn, faithfulness is a daily sacrifice we all must make – a constant dying and resurrecting; always shedding the old as we step into the new. Giving up ourselves, our comforts and wants, might seem foolish or hard at first. But in and by our faith, the Bible assures us that we’re given the power of the Holy Spirit, the same power given to Jesus, to do the will of God. By our faith, we realize that we have the power to love as God loves us.
What then are you willing to give up so that you can live faithfully and fully in God’s love for you? Jesus tells his followers that whatever you lose will pale in comparison to what you will gain: a foretaste of heaven, here and now.
I know a lot of people who cling to Christ, not because they want to do what he asks but because they want to get into heaven. But here’s the way I see it. I don’t think the disciples followed Jesus because they were looking a free pass to heaven after death. I think they picked up their cross and followed him because they watched him, and saw who he was, and realized heaven had come to them. And they wanted to be a part of it.
God didn’t become incarnate to us to prepare us for death. God came, in real human flesh, to give us an abundant life. To quote Shane Claiborne, “What good would Jesus’ wisdom be if it were meant only for the afterlife? How hard could it be to love our enemies in heaven?”
“Our faith must be alive,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh. “It implies practice, living our daily life in mindfulness. Praying not just with hearts and minds, with our actions in the world.”
Again, Jesus showed his disciples how to do this. He walked the walk, and talked the talk. And expects us to do the same. If we dare to follow Christ, then our actions must be modeled after him. If we live and love as Jesus did, then our actions will be pure and purposeful, and we will do our share to help create a more peaceful world for all of God’s children.
This is what it means to be the church – to be the very incarnation of God’s love in the world. Love is the ultimate cross we have to bear. And it is the ultimate sacrifice we can make for, and with, and towards one another.
Jesus shows us the way. He is the good shepherd who leads his sheep and cares for them, tending to their wounds, protecting them from danger, and is even willing to lay down his life for them. If we claim his name, then we too have to be willing to bleed, weep, sweat, and die for him. The world might see this as folly and foolishness. That anyone who is looking to save their life must lose it.
But Jesus both showed us and told us that this is it the end of the story. The cross of Christ is empty. His tomb is empty. Out of the worst suffering, out of the apparent meaninglessness of death and defeat, God is able to bring new life. What God accomplished in Christ, God is able to accomplish in you and me. This might mean walking out of a game in protest of racial inequality. This might mean getting involved in a cause that might cause you to lose some friends, or even your job.
But in Christ, God is calling us, and prodding us, to leave the game behind us and walk towards the cross that is before us. To go out and to be the visible presence of God’s love in the world – breaking the hands of injustice that continue to strangle the life out of the least of these, our brothers and sisters.
As Peter would eventually come to discover himself, it is this love that “we have been given a new birth into a living hope; an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is in this love that we can rejoice, even if for a little while we have to suffer various trials. It is in this love that genuine faith will be praised, glorified and honored when Jesus Christ is revealed (c.f. 1 Peter 1:3-8).
And so, I invite you to walk with me as we carry our crosses and follow the One whom by his great sacrifice redeems and leads the world back to God’s open arms and waiting heart.
Let us pray:
Lord Christ, we look at you and see more clearly the power of love that can transform the world and its infinite capacity that allows us to give ourselves away in your name. Send us out into the world to open the eyes and hearts of others to reveal you love in all that we do for those around us. Amen.
Jesus has given us the authority to carry out his mission of love. When we proclaim God’s love, not even the gates of hell can prevail.
I’ve titled today’s message as I am The Rock, and no, I’m not Dwayne the Rock Johnson. But I am, and you are, like an unlikely super hero who goes by the name of...Petros. In the ancient Greek, Pedros means...The Rock or little pebbles, depending on how you translate it. Keep that in mind as we read from Matthew 16:13-20.
Here’s what we know from this story. First, Simon knew who Jesus was. Second, Jesus knew who Simon was. Which leads us to third point, “Do you know who Jesus is?” because you can bet, he knows you.
Don’t be intimated by that question. As we see here, only one disciple gets the answer correct. Simon, the fisherman, who spells it out: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” For his prize, Simon gets a new name. Petros – the rock. Now, Jesus knew Simon was no bedrock. In fact, he was more like the stones I tried stacking along the riverbed in Zion —a little too lumpy and rough to balance without a steady hand to guide it.
Although he had his foibles, Simon also was the only one of Twelve who put the pieces together. The way Libby Barlow sees it, “It is such a profound moment that it calls for a re-naming, a new reality from now on, like Abram to Abraham or Jacob to Israel.” Simon becomes Peter, The Rock.
Roman Catholics view his new name as a proper noun to uphold the doctrine of apostolic authority and succession. From Peter to Pope Francis, they believe the keys to the kingdom are held exclusively in the hands of Rome. Protestants argue the plural form of Petros to defend the idea of a Priesthood of All Believers. That’s to say everyone who believes in Christ is called to be a rock that builds up the church upon his foundation. Either way, I think we can all agree that being a rock for Christ is not an easy task.
Traditionally, the father is supposed to be the rock of the family; the strong one in times of weakness. But that’s not really the case in our home. Kathleen is the rock that we stand on for comfort, health, nourishment, and learning. The kids have been rocks for one another - especially when big changes happen in our life. We are rocks that have delicately balanced upon one another for generations.
We look out for each other, support and protect, and build one another up. With Fiona in college, our little cairn feels off balance but yet we’re not falling down. Why is that? I think it’s because we know who Jesus is. Just as Jesus saw Simon Peter and his potential so too does Jesus see us.
“We’re pointy in all the wrong places. We wobble and shake. We can barely hold on to one another. Thankfully, Jesus’ hands are practiced and patient…he finds our balance points…raises us from our feeble flatness to new heights that we can reach only when in community with one another…he calls us to say aloud, with Peter, that he is the Saving One, a confession strong enough to hold us.” (Barlow) If only we could see ourselves like Jesus sees us. And allow ourselves the same grace and mercy that God has given to us.
Years ago, the great preacher Fred Craddock told a story about a boy born out of wedlock. Everyone in the small community knew about it. Everywhere the boy went, he always felt their gaze on him as they tried to figure out who his father was. Because of this, the boy didn’t like being out in public. When he went to church, he would come in for the sermon and sneak out afterwards. One Sunday some people were blocking the aisle and the boy couldn’t get out. Suddenly he felt this heavy hand on his shoulder. It was the minister who stared at the boy’s face.
With a bold, commanding voice, the minister bellowed, … “Boy, I think I know whose child you are . . .” He paused long enough for people to notice. Then with a big wide grin, the minister declared, “You are the child of God. I see a striking resemblance.” Then he swatted the boy on the back and declared, “Now you go claim your inheritance.”
This is our story. Jesus knows our names and who we belong to because we share his name – God’s beloved. And like him we are God’s children. Heirs to the kingdom that Jesus has given us the key to. You might think you’re unworthy or undeserving. But Jesus knows what kind of rock you are, and places you exactly where you need to be. You are a living stone, a living memorial to God’s Divine presence in the world. As such, Jesus is asking you point blank, “Who do you say that I am?” What is your answer?
Peter confessed, “You are the Christ.” These four simple words became the very foundation of Christian faith. This tells me that the rock in this story isn’t Peter. It’s his testimony. It’s like Jesus is asking, “What is your testimony of me? How have you experienced the fullness of God’s glory through me?”
Like the variety of rocks and gems in the world, our answers will be varied. We might call God by a different name, or use different terms based on our theology. That’s okay. That’s the point. We are all different people, with different circumstances. By the diversity of our answers, we are better able to we see the true fullness of Christ through whom God leaves no stone left unturned. By focusing on our testimony instead of our shortcomings, we will never be ashamed of the gospel, as St. Paul testified.
More importantly, I believe it’s in the way we testify that helps us from becoming complacent. I fear church doctrine has made it too easy for us to speak someone else’s confession. It doesn’t take much to recite a statement of faith. Does it? But what does it take to confess your faith with your heart and your hands? It takes being a rock.
If you know Jesus, then you know what he wants you to be a rock for others to lean on. His ministry was one of words and deeds; one that shared the good news of God’s redemptive grace in the many different ways he defined God’s love.
As his disciples, we are the rock of his salvation. Jesus has given us the authority to carry out his mission of love. Love is our confession. Love is our testimony. Love is the ultimate key to the kingdom. When we proclaim God’s love, not even the gates of hell can prevail.
Love stops us from hurting and harming one another. Love strengthens us to lift up our neighbors and care for them in their times of need. Love is the bedrock that life is so perfectly and purposefully balanced upon. Love is what it means to be the church.
We are not a building of bricks cemented together by mortar, we are living stones – held together by mutual love, honor, and respect. Like Brian McLaren wrote, “If you want to see the future of Christianity, don’t look at a church building. Go look in the mirror and look at your neighbor.” During these times of uncertainty and change, when anger and division builds walls around us, let us love like we’ve never loved before.
As you leave here today I hope that you will remember this: God needs you now more than ever to step up to your calling – to be the visible presence of God’s love for each other.
In the daily challenges you face – be it a physical, social or spiritual disease – you must never forget that you are the rock. You are strong, sturdy, and steady because the hand of Christ is upon you. He is the one who builds each one of us up.
It doesn’t matter that are all different shapes, sizes and colors. It doesn’t matter that some of us are made of granite or marble, others of limestone or clay. Some of us are gold nuggets, others simple pebbles along the riverbed. Yet to God, we are diamonds in the rough each of us made precious and priceless by the hand of Christ. Through him, God has a special place for all of us in the cairn, that divine memorial of God’s redemptive glory.
Whether you see this passage like I do, or roll your eyes in doubt, remember this: In God’s heart...there is room for everyone.
For God so loved the world, which includes you, that he sent his son to redeem you and to reclaim you to your rightful place as a beloved child of God. This is the good news. May it forever be your testimony as you move on with your day.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, you have given us the Christ to be our guide back to you. By listening to his words, and doing what he did, we are able to find our strength to be the rock you’ve made us to be... so the world may see and believe in your many names, and glorify you. Amen.
Barlow, Liddy. Living By The Word. August 17, 2020. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/august-23-21a-exodus-18-210 (accessed August 20, 2020).
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
Craddock, Fred B., Mike Graves and Richard F Ward, eds. Craddock Stories. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001.
Lorincz, Lauren. Peter The Rock. August 27, 2017. https://laurenlorincz.com/2017/08/27/peter-the-rock-sermon/ (accessed August 20, 2020).
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to throw my arms up and yell uncle. I agree with my wife that it’s time to make 2020 a new cuss word. This year has been like as bully on the playground who’s laughing maniacally while he twists your arm behind your back. No matter how many times you scream “Mercy” he just doesn’t give up.
We are now a full six months into this pandemic. And all I can say is Lord, have mercy. Seriously, God. People are going crazy around here. Many of us are getting desperate. And will do anything to feel some sense of normalcy. To borrow from the Greek physician Hippocrates, “desperate times call for desperate measures.” We have to do what we have to do. Right? Which means for me to scream “Lord, have mercy.”
Had I known it was going to be this long, I would have started reading War and Peace. Or at least finished Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s great novel that knows a thing or two about desperate people doing desperate things. The story begins with the protagonist, Jean Valjean, being released from prison; having served his time for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and her family.
Because of his criminal past he is forced to sleep on the cold streets, at the mercy of anyone who will help. When he is taken in by a kind priest, a desperate Valjean steals away in the night with the man’s silverware. But that’s when a great miracle happens.
Immediately after he is caught, the priest tells the police he has given the silverware to the criminal even pressing him to take the two silver candlesticks he had left behind. When the coast is clear, Valjean is told that his life has been spared for God, and that he should use the money from the silverware to make an honest man of himself.
For the next thousand or so pages, our hero’s journey move from desperation to grace and finally, to his redemption. His is a story like so many that begin with someone screaming Lord, have mercy.
In her book The Miracles of Jesus, Jessica LaGrone realized there is a common thread that runs between those who are healed by Jesus. “They are all desperate.” In today’s reading, we get one such story about a woman at the end of her rope. She’s run out of ideas and options. All she can do is beg for mercy. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Read Matthew 15:21-28
Can you imagine approaching Jesus with a dire request only to be flat-out ignored. This isn’t the Jesus we know and love, is it? Our Jesus would never diss you or tell you that you’re not his problem, would he? What would you do if he did? Would you run after him? Plead and beg your way into his good graces? What if he called you a dog, and not in a good way either? Would you still persist and pursue after him?
Apparently, this is what happened when Jesus and his disciples go to the district of Tyre and Sidon. We don’t know why his itinerary took him there. This was the side of the tracks upright Jews wouldn’t dare go. This was Gentile country. So, it’s not surprising that they’d run into a Canaanite or two. What’s unusual is that this particular Canaanite woman knows who Jesus is. Moreover, this gentile received compassion from Israel’s Messiah.
I mention this because the Canaanites were Israel’s biggest enemy in the OT. Their idolatrous religion was seen as a threat to the religious purity of God’s people. In fact, God empowered the Israelites to conquer the Canaanites. Which they did. Given the acrimonious history, I doubt this woman was shocked to be met with silence and some verbal abuse.
Nonetheless, she persisted – ignoring the history and social norms of her day to get Jesus’ attention. And can you blame her? Desperate times call for desperate measures. I’m sure if my family were starving, I would steal food, like Valjean. Or if one of our kids was suffering like her daughter was, I wouldn’t think twice about setting aside my pride and prejudices if I knew she would be healed.
I think it’s safe to say her story is ours. But it’s not just about us. It’s also about the communities in which we live. There are, of course, people and areas in our lives possessed by the demons of systemic racism, poverty, and inequality. It’s causing anger and rage to boil over onto our streets and into our homes.
There are so many of us throwing our hands in the air, wondering what we can do. When you’re the desperate or feel only hopelessness, there’s no telling what you will do. Given the spiritual, emotional, and cultural suffering we’re experiencing today, this woman’s story offers a great example to follow.
Notice what she does. First, she recognized Jesus for who he is and turned to him for help. How she knew who Jesus was remains a mystery, but she called him Lord, Son of David. Clues that point to some kind of royalty perhaps. Remember she is a Canaanite. And probably leans politically with Herod and Rome. But she is also a mother with a troubled child. My guess is she’s heard things about this particular Jew. In the desperate cry of a concerned parent, she is willing to set aside any animosity and run after the one whose reputation proceeded him.
Perhaps this is why LaGrone sees “Desperation is a gift from God because it teaches us we can’t do this on our own. We’re all in need of Jesus’ help, but the truth is it’s only the desperate who go looking for it. And they are the ones who receive it.”
I‘m sure we’ve all experienced some kind of suffering. But sadly, not everyone recognizes and seeks the One who always meets us in our brokenness, in our places of pain and anguish. He chooses to heal our woundedness. And restore us to our belovedness.
If there is something that you are facing today, something that you can’t seem to control or handle, I invite you to seek Jesus…and run into the open arms of God’s love. Embrace the plea of this desperate mother and shout “Kyrie Eleison” - Lord have mercy. As Stanley Hauerwas taught, this unknown Canaanite woman, is not only “the forerunner of our faith, ...she also teaches us how to speak.” Lord have mercy.
Whether that was said boldly or desperately, in speaking those two words, this unknown woman leapt over the chasm created by centuries of animosity and violence. In doing so, she would come to discover that God’s mercy may have started with Israel, it doesn’t end there. In Christ, she saw and recognized the very nature of God’s love. A love which overflows to all; even the dogs. As mutts and mothers, this is our wake-up call.
Even as he ignored or rejected her, nonetheless she approached Jesus with an unshakable conviction, knowing in her heart that God’s mercy and grace was enough to restore her daughter and save her family. Jesus recognized this as faith, and immediately her daughter was healed.
What does this mean for us today? I think it’s a pretty clear indication that God’s love is not exclusive. It’s for anyone who comes in faith. What that faith looks like or sounds like is not up to us to decide, but to Christ who was entrusted with God’s loving heart.
This woman joins the countless other desperate people who seek out Christ. The blind, the lame, and dying. The thousands who are hungry, but there’s not enough food to feed them all. The demon possessed, and those with leprosy who have been cast out from their families and community. A woman with a crooked spine. A man whose hand is withered beyond recognition. A woman who has been bleeding for twelve years (LaGrone).
The Roman centurion who tracks down Jesus to heal his beloved servant. His story is like this one in that both of these healings are request made by someone other than the sick, and both take place far away from Jesus.
How blessed are we that God loves to bless the desperate, reach the broken, and heal the wounded? That’s why this story speaks so well to us in this historic moment. Because right now, Americans are struggling with how to approach racial inequality. It’s affecting families, eroding friendships, and dividing communities. Now, more than ever, let us cry, Lord have mercy.
From our biggest cities to the smallest townships, tens of millions of people are out of work, businesses are losing revenue and small shops are closing their doors forever. Now more than ever, let us shout, Christ have mercy.
Right now, as our nation’s leaders fail to come together for the common good, the U.S. continues to average around 1,000 deaths/day from COVID alone, not to forget all the countless others who are dying from cancer, heart disease, suicide and overdoses. Now more than ever, let our screams be heard, Lord have mercy.
As temperatures soar above their yearly average, the world’s ice shelves are melting at alarming rates. Kyrie eleison.
As millions of God’s children lack clean water, have inadequate health care, and suffer from malnutrition caused by famine and violent conflicts. Christe eleison.
As we gather together to worship God and learn how to be Christ like our neighbors are worrying about how they are going to make their mortgage, or simply make ends meet. Kyrie eleison.
It’s times like this we shout out to God for help. Desperate times call for desperate measures. May we never forget that “Jesus is the miracle worker of those in despair, the Savior of desperate people.”
But here’s the ironic thing. Jesus is the one calling out to us begging us to go out to the streets and pleading with us to go to the other side of the tracks to meet people where they are, to share God’s love and mercy with one another, and to do it so much that mothers and fathers no longer have to worry if their child will come home after jogging around the neighborhood or going to the store to buy some candy.
By recognizing Jesus and leaning on him, we too can embrace his life of inclusive love as our own – engaging in courageous conversations, adopting an open-minded heart; practicing tolerance and living in mutual respect with one another. Because he is merciful to us, so too can we show mercy to one another. LaGrone writes, “Your desperation is a gift if you’ll let it be.” Like St Paul wrote, “It’s in my weakness I find my strength.”
So let me ask you this: What will your desperation cause you to do to further the kingdom of heaven? Who will you reach out to in love, as a bridge builder and peace seeker?
As you leave here today, I invite you to embrace your fear, your worries, you anxieties and desperation. Because this is where you’re going to meet God in Christ. By turning your eyes upon him, and by giving your faith over to his mercy you’ll discover that no one is a “dog. And that everyone is a beloved child of God, deserving of God’s grace and of God’s holy name. Let us come together and sing out loud to divine creator, to shout from hearts, “Kyrie eleison.”
Let us pray: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy upon on us all; the faithful and the faithless, those who question and doubt, and those who desperately hold on to the promise you have made to the world through Christ. Amen.
Bartlett, David L, and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.
Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. Canterbury Classics, 1862.
Kesselus, Ken. What's Wrong? August 10, 2020. https://episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/whats-wrong-pentecost-11-august-16-2020 (accessed August 14, 2020).
LaGrone, Jessica. Desperation: What Miracles Are Made Of. April 16, 2019. https://wesleyancovenant.org/2019/04/15/desperation-what-miracles-are-made-of/ (accessed August 15, 2020)
The Big Sister Prophet - Micah 6:3-4; Exodus 15:20-21; Numbers 20:1-2
August 9, 2020
Today’s message is a piece I wrote and delivered as part of a sermon series that was created by my good friend, and sister in Christ, Rev. Dawn Carlson of The Phoenix Congregational Fellowship. The series is entitled: “A Cup Of Tea And A Conversation” and it speaks to the voices of the many wonderful and important women of the bible.
Those of you who know me well will know that I will be having a cup of coffee as I chat about a woman whom, up until this week, I only knew as Moses’ big sister. Her name i key to Israel’s survival. She was a hero then. And is still a hero today. Paving the way for women and men alike to be faithful leaders in God’s Righteousness.
I am blessed to have two big sisters. Both of whom I love and adore for a variety of reasons. I can honestly say they have both been good to me. They always loved and looked out for me, even though they told everyone I wasn’t really their baby brother but some kid they ordered from the Sears catalogue. True story.
I am also blessed to have seven sisters-in-law. I think it’s best not to say anything more. I know better, having once said a mother in law joke in church while my mother in law sat in the pew leering at me. All nine of these women have added to my storied life - teaching me lessons that one often learns the hard way.
Now there isn’t any one specific thing that Miriam taught her brothers that’s recorded in the Bible. But if you have an older sibling, or if you are one yourself, then you know she couldn’t help herself to give her two cents. Because other than being a built-in babysitter for your parents, one of the many roles of the big sister is being bossy. Just ask my eldest daughter, who has no problem wielding her power over the other two...or over me. I will forever be the baby brother, and she uses that to her advantage.
Some of the best lessons I’ve learned from my sisters have happened by observing them. I’ve watched my sister Sally welcome people with an openness and kindness like no other. I’ve seen how she’s always ready to jump in and help out, and is always willing to listen to your problems. Her actions have helped me considerably in shaping my ministry. I have also watched both my sisters struggle with some really difficult things in their life, and as result I have learned how to persist in spite of the obstacles that try to stop me.
Miriam was like that. A persistent and strong role model for her brothers. And at a time when women were to be seen but not heard, nevertheless, Miriam persisted.
Because of her tenacity she was much more than a big sister, she was vital and invaluable to Israel’s story. Perhaps that is why she is mentioned more than 15 times in five separate books of the Old Testament. My favorite comes from the prophet Micah who does something unheard of in his day. He boldly declares Miriam as one of God’s great messengers of deliverance (Micah 6:3-4).
Although she’s often overshadowed by her famous brothers, Micah made it pretty clear that Miriam is on par with Moses and Aaron as having been appointed by God to deliver the Israelites from their Egyptian captors.
This is a far cry from where she started out – as a young unnamed girl babysitting her brother on the banks of the Nile River. You know the story. After living in Egypt for four hundred years, the Hebrew people began to outnumber the Egyptians. With a similar fear to what some of us have in our own country about foreigners, a paranoid Pharaoh declared that “Every male born to the Hebrews must be thrown into the Nile.”
Fearing for her son’s life, Moses mom hides the infant in a basket and places him in the reeds on the bank of the river. Moses’ sister, which is how Miriam is introduced, waited and watched to see what would happen. When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket, Moses’ sister does the unthinkable: she approaches the princess and starts up a conversation. Like that wasn’t dangerous enough for a slave girls to do, Moses’ sister convinced the princess to defy her father’s royal decree, and even tricks her into paying Moses’ mom to nurse her own child.
Because of her bold confidence, her fearless tenacity, and her law-breaking/deal making skills, Miriam not only protected and restored her family, but also solidified Israel’s freedom and redemption. And yet, this celebrated savior remained unnamed.
That’s so like God isn’t it? Lifting up people because of what they can do; not because of who they are. It’s not that our names are unimportant, but I believe it’s our actions that people will remember us by. Miriam was no different.
Thirteen chapters later in the Exodus story, we not only learn Miriam’s name, but also discover she’s a prophet – someone who was chosen to speak for God.
My big sister Sally loves to speak for the entire family, often at a very loud decibel level. I can honestly say, none of it is very prophetic, or godly for that matter. Even though we don’t get any specific details - the Bible gives us some clues to the way Miriam prophesies. For example, after God sends the plagues upon Egypt and delivers the Israelites through the Sea of Reeds, Miriam leads all the women in worship with song and dance (Exodus 15:20-21).
Her song may not sound prophetic or even radical by our standards but remember, what Miriam did on the sandy banks of the Reed Sea was unthinkable for a woman in her day. In her defying of the social norms and rules of conduct, Miriam created an act of worship that is still practiced in nearly every church and synagogue around the world. So you see, the power of one’s actions can have historic impact throughout the generations. Even if it’s just a song.
Years ago, my sister-in-law formed a “band” with her five younger sisters. They were called Angel and the Bad Girls. Maura, of course, was Angel. That’s just one of the perks of being the older sibling. Using hair bushes as microphones, they played such venues as the Living Room or the At the Kitchen Mirror. Although the band wasn’t very popular, the sisters reunite every Thanksgiving to sing their biggest hit a cover of the Kenny Rogers classic, the Gambler.
I know for a fact that Miriam’s short song was never a Billboard hit, but it is forever recorded in the holy scriptures as the climax to Israel’s four hundred years of oppression. Ever since then, God’s people have remembered this heroic woman by singing her song during Passover. Talk about an unexpected prophetic witness.
Her song makes me wonder about my own witness. What is my song that I lift up for God’s glory? What can I do to get people dancing and moving with such exuberant joy?
Again as the prophet Micah writes, “and what does the Lord require but to love justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Love. Kindness. Humility. That is to be our song, our witness in the world.
Unlike her brothers who focused on stirring speeches, Miriam chose singing and dancing in moments of joy. It’s been said that because of her exuberant praise after crossing through the waters, God rewarded Miriam’s joy in the most unexpected way.
According to the medieval scholar, Rashi, Miriam was more than a big sister or prophet. She was literally the Well of Life. What is now known as Miriam’s well, God’s people always had water as they moved through the parched wilderness. Miriam was, without a doubt, vital to the survival of God’s people as they began their 40 year journey towards the Promised Land. This was something her community only realized after Miriam’s death (Numbers 20:1-2).
From the banks of the Nile to the triumphal exodus through the Sea of Reeds to her miraculous well, Miriam’s story is as vital to God’s people as water is to us.
A sister, a prophet, a savior and sustainer. Miriam is a heroic figure who is still able to lead us through the wilderness of our time. Micah wasn’t just being nice to include her in his prophecy; he was being accurate. He recognized her importance and made sure that her name would be forever engraved on the heart of Israel, and Christians as well.
Like Miriam, Jesus’ story was framed in water. From his baptismal font in the Jordan River, to the wedding at Cana, to the piercing of his side on the cross, Jesus is described as Living Water. It’s written in John’s gospel, that anyone who drinks of this water will never thirst again.
Just as Miriam did for her people, Jesus does for all; lifting us up and sustaining us in times of fear, uncertainty and death. Much like his ancient ancestor, Jesus defied the system and status quo to bring relief to the poor, the sick, and the marginalize. And he still does this today. His cup overflows with the love of God so that all who thirst for righteousness receive it.
On those hard days when you thirst for justice, or want to savor God’s grace; when you feel like you’re trapped inside your house or out there struggling in the wilderness; when you fear you’ll never sing your favorite hymns the way you used to or dance with joy because it feels like there is no more joy to go around, remember the story of Miriam, the big sister prophet, the vessel of God’s loving grace, a leader among men.
As J. Lee Grady says of Miriam, “She was not an inferior appendage, smiling from her tent, washing clothes and preparing food with the other women ... while Moses and Aaron managed the problems of the nomadic nation. Miriam was given authority by God to lead. She functioned, along with her brothers, as a governing elder.”
And isn’t that what Christ has called us and empowered us to do? To lead - boldly and fearlessly?
I hope that you will leave here today knowing that you too are not only a vessel of God’s goodness, but in Christ you are also a leader. One who steps up when it’s not expected, when it goes against cultural expectations, or when it means stepping up to royalty, and disobeying the written law of the land, Jesus calls us to be like Miriam, who despite the odds set against her, nevertheless, in faithfulness, she persisted.
How blessed are we that we have her story, and “the stories of so many persistent women of faith who fought against the limiting rules and unjust laws, who risked family and life, who spoke when they weren’t supposed to speak, who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, to ensure that God’s justice shall reign on earth.”
Following in this tradition, I encourage you to go and do the same. Just as Miriam was a prophet who paved the way for Christ’s reign it’s now our turn to pave the way for Christ’s return. It’s time to be the one who gets the world to sing and dance and laugh and celebrate again.
So let us go now, and fill each other’s cup with love and joy and all the goodness of life that God has given to us through Christ Jesus. Let us make that our story and our song that bring all glory to our God, now and forever, Amen.
Let us pray:
Gracious and loving God, you have a way of doing things that never ceases to amaze us. You call us, ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Making us your children, inviting us to be your presence in the world. When all we can say is thank you for all that you do for us - that is enough to make you dance with joy. Send us now out into our communities with hearts of joy to celebrate and share your name in the many ways we live out the love of Jesus. Amen
Alexander, T. Desmond and David W. Baker, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Downers Grove, Il: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003.
Artson, Bradley. Miriam: Water Under The Bridge. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/miriam-water-under-the-bridge/ (accessed Aug 07, 2020).
James, Thomas. Persistent Women: Miriam. Sermon on Sept. 9, 2018. https://wsumc.com/multimedia-archive/miriam (accessed Aug 07, 2020).
Mandel, David. Miriam. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/miriam/ (accessed Aug 07, 2020).
Siegal, Madisen. The Forgotten Sister. January 18, 2017. https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/forgotten-sister-miriam (accessed Aug 07, 2020).
Gathering Together – Matthew 13:44-53
August 2, 2020
Recently, the family and I have been enjoying old episodes Psych, a TV show about two guys who run a psychic detective agency in Santa Barbara. In the episode titled, "The Greatest Adventure in the History of Basic Cable," Shawn and Gus find themselves in a dangerous but hilarious chase with a shady group of treasure hunters who are looking for the buried stash of an old French pirate named Bouchard. It’s a treasure Shawn’s uncle has spent his entire life searching for ... but comes up short when these so call detectives get in on the action.
From classic movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to the billion-dollar franchises of Indiana Jones, The Hobbit, and Pirates of the Caribbean, Hollywood has always capitalized on the treasure seeking spirit within us all. I mean, who doesn’t love finding a hidden treasure? There’s still a part of me that hopes every time I dig a hole in my yard, I will find gold, or oil, or my first wedding ring.
A while back I saw a man with a metal detector walking in front of my house. Apparently, there are people who like to search around the property of old homes like ours hoping to find antique coins, bottle caps, and other weird stuff. Watch only one episode of Antique Roadshow or Storage Wars… and you’ll learn everything has a value to someone.
Which takes us to today’s lesson, and our conclusion of Jesus’ Sermon of the Parables from Matthew 13. To recap Jesus has compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a sower sowing seeds, and weed that grow among the wheat, and last week it was the mustard bush and a batch of yeast. Today, Jesus teaches his disciples about the worth of this heavenly kingdom and what makes it so valuable.
Read Matthew 13:44-53
Having left the public, Jesus and the Twelve go to a private house where he tells them two sets of “Twin Parables.” Some people called than that because they share the same blood, but are both uniquely their own.
In the first set, you may have noticed that one focuses on a random discovery, while the other is an active search. Yet both express great joy on behalf of the one who finds them. A joy so great that they are willing to sacrifice everything to possess the treasure for themselves.
It’s worth mentioning that the man who finds the treasure buried in the field will be set up for life, while the pearl the merchant procures will cost him everything he has. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like: a kind of joy that sets you up for life if you’re willing to give up everything to obtain it.Again, this kingdom is not some far away home in the sweet by-in-by. It’s a part of the here and now. Jesus brings this to our attention as we learn how to exist with one another.
Why is this important for us to know? Because the other second set of parables remind us of the eschatological nature, or the end times, of these stories. As if Jesus is saying, our future is tied to the ways we behave towards one another this side of eternity.
One could argue these parables are about our faith and willingness to follow Jesus. And in many ways, they are. He shows us the way to live into God’s righteousness. Others might argue they are about the goodness of God, which is the biggest theme of the entire Bible. You might be like me and see a mix of both. For example, I see God as both the treasure and the treasure seeker.
Now what do we know about treasures, other than pirates like to steal them? Up until the modern banking system, it was common for people to bury valuable possessions as a means to keep them safe from thieves and wild marauders. This was a great idea unless you were killed or died without telling anyone about your secret hiding place.
To this day people are still digging up priceless treasures all over the world. Nearly all of them remain a mystery to who buried it and why. Some of these discoveries include antique vessels filled with gold coins, precious gems, and various kinds of heirlooms. Other’s have been sports memorabilia or antique cars abandoned in storage facilities. Again, everything is worth something to someone.
Just last week I found this old spike while digging in my yard. It’s not worth much, but it was kinda cool to find. The joy I felt when I found it doesn’t compare to what Howard Carter experienced when he discovered King Tutt’s tomb. For those of you old enough to recall, my discovery was still more exciting than watching Geraldo Rivera hunt for Jimmy Hoffa.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like: Joy. Delight. Excitement.
In this kingdom some of us are rubies. Some of us are diamonds, gold doubloons, an old photograph or love note. It doesn’t matter who or what you are. God knows your heart and sees your value. Jesus calls you a perfect pearl. One that God is willing to sacrifice everything just to hold you in his hand.
Here’s what I learned about pearls. They’re the only gem formed and found within a living creature. Sapphires, diamonds or emeralds can’t make this claim. Moreover, pearls are formed out of great suffering. For example, a parasite or a grain of sand works its way inside an oyster. In order to sooth the pain, a fluid is produced that coats the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating is built up until the lustrous gem is formed.
Every pearl is made this way, yet no two are the same. Some pearls are created naturally in saltwater, others are farmed in freshwater. Some are various shades of white, and others various shades of black. Yet all are worth everything to God.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s joyful and priceless. It’s where something as banal as a grain of sand can be transformed into a unique, intrinsic, highly desired gem. No wonder Jesus said a person will give up everything to have that treasure.
Now, imagine you are the treasure seeker. What exactly are you looking for? More importantly, what are you willing to give up in order to obtain it?
The disciples have given up everything – their families, their jobs, their safety and security – all to follow a man who had nothing material to offer them. What did they expect to gain in return for their sacrifice? A mansion and Ferrari in the afterlife, streets paved with gold as if the best God could come up with was Beverly Hills but with better weather and less smog? In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell writes, “How we see heaven will directly affect how we understand what to do with our days in this age.”
The next two parables, I think, allude to the eschatological nature our actions. The good and the bad, the new and the old. They are parables like the wheat and the weeds that tell us not everything will be welcomed in God’s realm. Things like greed, injustice, anger, violence, racism, rituals, doctrine and dogma all come to mind.
Basically, I’d say whatever does not reveal the love and goodness of God’s righteousness is not worth holding on to; especially if they keep you from thriving in the kingdom. It’s best to let them go, if you want to go with Jesus.
Truth be told, it’s not that great of a sacrifice considering what you’re getting in return. Letting go of bad things free us up to joyfully embrace the goodness of the kingdom - bridge building, peacemaking, pursuing justice, and showing mercy and kindness. These are the treasures God is looking for in us. The very things that ignite God’s delight and joy and excitement when found.
Now let’s go back to finding that treasure. In 2013 a Northern California couple had an experienced that would make for a wonderful, modern parable. While walking their dog on their large rural property, they noticed a rusty can popping up from the ground. Curiosity got the best of them and they took to digging it up. And boy, were they glad they did. That old can was filled with gold coins.
After quietly celebrating, the couple returned with a metal detector, and unearthed seven more cans for a total of 1,427 uncirculated and mint condition gold coins from the 19th century. No one knows where they came from or how they got there. Only after the last can was uncovered did the couple notice an odd-shaped rock tied to a weathered leather thong, and left hanging from a tree, right there in plain sight, marking where the treasure was.
This is the kingdom of heaven. It’s full of joy, unexpected surprises, and plenty of clues revealing the mysteries of God. Jesus is one such clue; showing us that the true treasures we seek are within our grasp.
It doesn’t matter if God is the treasure or the one looking for it, or we are. When the two come together, the human and the divine, there is great joy and delight. Every time we love the unlovable, forgive the unforgivable, seek justice and demand equality, the kingdom of heaven is revealed. As Jesus put it, “Whoever gets in trouble for doing the right thing will be blessed in the kingdom of heaven.”
God knows the treasure that is in us, and the treasure God is. Now it’s up to us to discover its true value.
Despite the division, the pain and suffering our country and the world is enduring, God, in Christ, is making something very holy and sacred happen in our lives. The more we become aware of it, and move to participate in it, the more we discover and uncover the real treasure of God’s love right here and right now in our lives.
Whether you’re a treasure buried deep in the earth or sunk at the bottom of the ocean, remember this there is no place to far or to deep for God’s grace to find you and redeem you back into his heart. That’s the good news. That God is willing to joyfully enter life, to look and search for us, and then claim us no matter the cost, is the greatest treasure of all.
Jesus asked his disciples if they understood what he meant. We know in hindsight, that their ‘yes’ was premature. They will not fully gasp it until they go into Jerusalem with him one last time and witness the power of God’s redemptive love.
Though we have the gospel stories that tell us what happened after Jesus gave his life for us, we don’t really know what God is capable of doing because it’s still being revealed to the world. We have to trust that God knows what God is doing, and stand firm in God’s righteous, even if we get in trouble for doing so. But in return for such faithful action, comes the kingdom of heaven.
So, I’ll ask you one more time, are you ready to let go of the things that are keeping you from living and thriving in God’s love, peace and joy?
Are you ready to live into your faith, to be a valuable part of the body of Christ, the visible presence of God’s grace here on earth as it is in heaven?
If so, then here’s one last parable for you to ponder. The kingdom of heaven is like you. And you are worth more to God than any earthly treasure.
Let us pray:
Blessed Lord, thank you for seeing our value when we are not able to. Thank you for making us worth something in your kingdom when the world believes we aren’t so worthy. Thank you for Christ, who gave all that he had for you, your glory, and our salvation. May we always walk in his way, and pray in his name. Amen
Works CitedBell, Rob. Love Wins: a Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. New York: HarperOne, 2011.
Lockyer, Herbert. All the Parables of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963.
The joy of having a mobile church is that you can worship literally from anywhere. Like the kitchen inside my house. And without some great institution telling me what to do or say, I pretty much have free range to share what God puts on my heart.
For example, I can stand in my kitchen and read the ingredients on the back of a bottle of mustard if I want to. By the way, did you know mustard is made with: distilled vinegar, water, number one grade mustard seed, salt, turmeric, paprika, spice, natural flavor, and garlic powder? The particular brand of French’s Yellow Mustard claims zero calories, no artificial colors or flavors, and it’s gluten-free.
Why am I doing this? Because there’s a good chance you have a bottle of mustard in your kitchen. It’s a common condiment one keeps on hand and yet we barely know anything about it. I think it’s safe to say that mustard takes up less space in one’s head than it does in one’s refrigerator.
When I think of mustard, I am reminded of a trip I took with two friends for spring break. Like most starving students, we barely had enough money for gas, and hardly enough for beer. Food was an afterthought. But we had to eat, so we hit the grocery store and grabbed whatever we could afford.
As I was standing in line with my provisions, my buddy Gordon came up behind me balancing a jar of mustard and a loaf of bread on top of three cases of beer. No cheese. No meats. No other condiments. He had no need other than those three things. For Gordon, there was nothing better than a mustard sandwich and a cold beer. Who would have thought something as common as mustard could bring a person so much joy?
I see this story in a different light now that I’ve come to understand what an ancient mystic meant when he said, “God is nothing.” That is to say God is no thing, but all things. Even a common plastic container of mustard or a loaf of bread? I think Jesus gives us some clues in his parables.
We’ve spent the last two weeks dancing around Matthew 13, skipping over some pretty import stuff. Like these two parables found in verses 31-35.
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” 33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” 34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:“I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”
You might have noticed a theme evolving. Not just seeds, plants and things that grow. But a bigger theme that’s been hiding in plain site. And that is: The kingdom of heaven. The realm where human and divine mingle together.
Matthew first mentions this kingdom in chapter three with John the Baptist. When Jesus went to the wilderness to be baptized by him, John proclaimed, “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” We see it again in chapter four, when Jesus begins his ministry saying the same thing, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
As Talitha Arnold points out, “Jesus demonstrates that nearness every time he heals someone, reaches out to outcasts, respects women, and cares for the poor.” To expand on her point, God’s kingdom is not some esoteric far off place; it’s literally down to earth, here in this present moment. It’s as close as our breath behind a mask, or mustard on a hamburger bun.
Jesus said it’s been hidden from the world up until this point. But it’s been hidden in plain site. As these parables demonstrate, God’s kingdom can be found in every nook and cranny of our daily life. We can see it with our eyes, touch it with our hands, and taste and savor its sweetness as well as its bitterness. The kingdom of heaven is near.
If Jesus were telling these parables today, I imagine him saying the kingdom of heaven is like a maid who cleans your hotel room no matter how big of a mess you make. Or the kingdom of heaven is like a sandwich artist at Panera who gives you a little extra meat because you look hungry.
While God’s grace, mercy and love are extravagant and elegant visions of heaven, they are also as commonplace as holding the door for someone in a hurry. God’s realm is found and discovered in everyday people doing everyday things. Which tells me, what we do in this kingdom is actually pretty important.
In her award-winning book Liturgy of The Ordinary, Tish Warren sees everyday tasks as the extraordinary ways of worship. She writes, “In the overlooked moments and routines, we can become aware of God’s presence in surprising ways.” We can use the ordinary to be extraordinary for God’s glory.It’s up to us to embrace the sacred in secular life.
Recently a friend posted pictures of her trip into the redwood forest. In describing her pictures, she used words like majestic, wondrous, and heavenly. The same kind of words the psalmist used to glorify God. However, this person does not believe in God. Yet here she was giving God praise.
Eugene Peterson wrote, “Everything that is made is a clue that leads us back to God.” Every small seed and gigantic sequoia; every cry of a hungry baby; every hollow gaze of a thirsty drunk. All things lead us back to God, if we only open our eyes to see. As Peterson noted, “Our ability to see anything and understand it is because of God. Even our questions about God are evidence of God. Our enlightened minds, which we may use to deny God, are a gift from God who gives us life.”
Jesus got that. And revealed it to us in parables. Thanks to Jesus, we have the ability to see the kingdom like he did. Through him, we can embrace and embody the incarnation, the mystery of the oneness between the divine and human that was revealed at his birth.
What does this mean for us today? Let me just say Jesus isn’t merely opening our eyes. He’s calling us to open our hearts and hands too to do the kingdom work – revealing God’s righteousness in the most mundane and majestic ways.
I’m sure you’re laughing right now, believing there’s nothing divine about you. I know I have doubted this about myself more than once this week. And it’s only Sunday.You might be doubting your ability to make a difference in God’s kingdom. You might think because you don’t have the education, or you don’t know the bible very well, or that you’re shut away in your home that you’re not worth much to God.
Think about this: In Ancient Israel, yeast was commonly used in stories to illustrate corruption and impurity. Jesus used it to describe the religious leaders who were out to get him. And yet in this parable, it’s a good thing. Just as the yeast of the Pharisees revealed God’s glory, so too can you be the same.
An ordinary seed that produces a tree of life. Corrupt leaven that can make enough bread to feed the multitudes. If this is how God’s kingdom works with insignificant everyday objects, then just imagine what God can do with ordinary people like you and me.
Because of Jesus we are not only able to see the nearness of God but we can also be the nearness of God by embracing every moment as sacred...and human as divine. This is what it means to be the church, the body of Christ, that lives life like he lived his – loving others as he loved, forgiving as he forgave; praying, healing and caring for those in need, just like he did.
We cannot make the kingdom of heaven happen, that’s not up to us. But as the church, as disciples and students of Jesus Christ, we are called to partake in it; to play in this heaven realm and share it with everyone. Through the smallest of acts of charity to the grandest gifts, we too can reveal the secrets of God’s kingdom and its nearness in our lives. Every smile we give is a smile God gives to that person receiving it. Every meal we make, every flower we plant, every child we teach, every wrong we let go of … a little bit of heaven is revealed.
In closing I want to leave you with these words from the great American poet, Wendell Berry who wrote, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Think about that today. Through Christ Jesus, God has opened our eyes to see the world as God sees it – as a holy and sacred space. A place where people of every color, class, and condition can live together in peace.
As you move in the world, remember Jesus has employed and empowered you to move into those desecrated places and reclaim its sacredness by being holy and beloved children of God.
You are God’s abundance. You are the visible presence of thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. You are the mustard and bread of life … blessed by Holy Spirit … to nurture and nourish the world … one sandwich, one smile, one person at a time.
Let us pray
Gracious Lord, for some reason you believe in us. Despite all that we have done to reject you, you still continue to accept us. Help us to remember this as we move from here out into your kingdom to shine the light of Christ and to see and embrace all people like he did. Not for our glory but for yours. amen.
Arnold, Talitha J. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
Berry, Wendell. How To Be A Poet. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/41087/how-to-be-a-poet (accessed on July 25, 2020).
Peterson, Eugene. A Year With Jesus: Daily Readings and Meditations. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006.
Warren, Tish Harrison. Liturgy of the Ordinary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.
Growing Together – Matthew 13:24-43
July 19, 2020
I’m not going to lie, but it’s been a tough couple of weeks. Nearly every day something new happens in the world or in our community that challenges our faith and our commitment to it.
I’ll confess, there have been days recently where I feel completely overwhelmed, lacking the words of comfort, or a clear vision on how to make sense of all that is happening. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been feeling exhausted and drained of all energy. I saw the doctor last Monday and after a thorough exam, he gave me a clean bill of health. And prescribed for me to take the week off.
Like those on the front line fighting the seemingly never-ending pandemic, professionals in the care-giving field are beginning to show signs of serious burnout. I fear this might be a new pandemic to hit us. And by us, I mean all of us. No matter what your political affiliation is or what you believe about wearing masks - we are all in it together.
In an essay published in April, Brian McLaren realized how, “We used to think that we caught diseases as individuals. But now we realize we catch diseases as individuals who are part of families, and families who are part of cities, and cities that are part of states and nations. We realize now that our whole species can become infected, and that our whole globe can be changed because of our interconnectedness.”
Doctors, ministers, teachers, nurses, parents, kids, we’re all affected by this we’re all susceptible to burnt out and to the bad things that cause it to happen. In today’s gospel, Jesus reminds us that, for better or worse, we all share this world. At the end of the day, it’s how we live together that is going to make the real difference.
Read Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43
Jesus’ “great sermon on the parables,” as Stanley Hauerwas calls this section of Matthew’s gospel, is filled a bunch of lessons about the kingdom of heaven. This particular parable of the Wheat and Weeds is a continuation of last week’s parable of the Seeds and Soil. Only instead of good seed planted by a good sower, here we encounter two kinds of seeds sown by polar-opposite sowers. One good. One bad.
Jesus teaches us that the seeds in this parable are not so much about faith like last’s week lesson, but about two different kinds of discipleship.The kind that is the life-giving seed of Christ. The other being a weed producer that has no use in the kingdom of heaven.
This opens the door to all sorts of questions about good and evil, or why God allows evil to persist, and so on. Truth be told, I don’t know why a God who makes all things good allows bad things to happen. Unless of course evil is part of a greater plan that has yet to be revealed. But again, I don’t have a sufficient answer for that.
So instead I want to point your attention to the bearded darnel. In writing on this passage, Talitha Arnold addresses this particular weed, which in biblical terms is often referred to as ‘tares’ or ‘thistles’.
Arnold says, “The bearded darnel defies Emerson’s poetic notion that a weed is “a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.” She goes on to call it “the devil of all weeds” because its insidious roots surround and strangle the roots of good plants. As Jesus pointed out, it’s impossible to uproot darnel without causing more damage to the good crop.
To make matters worse, this sinister plant looks identical to wheat; yet unlike wheat, the seeds of the bearded darnel can be fatal if ingested. Because it lacks any good qualities, Arnold believes darnel is “the perfect illustration of the pernicious nature of evil, underscoring both the necessity of eradicating it and the difficulty of doing so.”
In the eves of our home is a birds nest that’s been there for at least 8 years. Multiple times a year, the mourning doves come and hatch new babies there. This year, a swarm of wasps have decided to build their nest right next door. It’s too close to the baby birds to spray it or knock it down. I wouldn’t be able to get rid of one without getting harming or damaging the other. So, I let them live together until the time comes when it will be safe to do so.
This is similar to the parable Jesus tells. And it’s a great reminder that while we like to see ourselves as good people, doing our best to live as faithfully and kindly we can, given the circumstances we face, there’s always a little bearded darnel lurking around us intertwining itself - in our souls, our hearts, and our minds.
Think about all that’s been going on recently, all that has come to light as we’ve seen “the social and spiritual viruses spreading among us from individual to individual; causing all kinds of sickness [and death].” Evil viruses like racism, white supremacy, human supremacy, Christian supremacy, the kind of evil that is spread through prejudice and fear mongering. (McLaren)
This evil is real. It’s not a hoax or fake news. And we all are affected by it. Not even the church is immune. As you’ve heard me say before, the church is not a building, it’s people people who are susceptible and vulnerable to the world around us.
Thus, this parable is perfect teaching tool for today - reminding us to remain present and fully engaged in God’s righteousness even as evil encroaches on us. We are all in this together. And we need lean into God’s righteousness if we are going to grow through this.
When the servants want to rip up the weeds, what does the landowner tell them to do? “Let them grow together until the harvest.” Now, you don’t have to be a farmer to understand what darnel can do to a crop, or what evil can do to your faith and the greater community.
So why would Jesus want us to let them grow together? What would be the purpose for the two to intermingle? It’s not like Jesus didn’t understand the power of evil. He had his own darnel to deal with in those pesky Pharisees who would eventually grow to killed him. Jesus saw evil reveal itself in the most unassuming places and in the most brutal of ways. Yet, it did not cause him to give up doing what God called him to do.
Jesus knew a thing or two about the goodness of God, who often used evil to reveal the greatest of God’s glory to the world. When I read this parable, I couldn’t help but see it as a call for us to be patient so God can do what God does best. Jesus knows we have to live side-by-side with others who don’t think like we do, or share the same faith.
It’s like he’s telling us that it’s in our being, in our struggle to stand in the world as people of God’s righteousness, that we can shine the light of God’s glory upon the bad things that lurk around us. That’s our job, to be the salt and light of the world. I think Jesus is also warning us to be patient because he knows our impatience can lead us to separate from one another - using fear, anger, and violence to do so.
So as we draw lines between us and them, remember Jesus told us not to be so quick to judge others. Instead be patient, don’t worry about what going on worry about what you’re doing to others. Trust me, God knows which plant is good and which one is not.
I think it's okay to say that this parable is a model of God’s infinite patience that frees us to live with one another with peaceful intentions in this age, right now, which of course prepares us for the age to come.
Like James Finley once stated, “In light of eternity, we’re here for a very short time. We’re here for one thing, ultimately: to learn how to love, because God is love. Love is our origin, love is our ground, and love is our destiny.”
So why does landlord tell his workers to be patient and wait until the harvest? Because that’s when the true fruit of the plant is revealed. Love will always rise to the surface and make itself known.
Eventually a politician’s lies will be exposed, a criminal’s past will catch up, corporate greed will run its course but the good fruit of God’s righteousness will always reveal the glory of God’s love in you and me.
Later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus names the very things we will be judge by. Our only litmus test, Jesus tells us, will be based on how we produce good fruit in the ways we care for one another. In the ways we love others as God loves us. At the end of the day, this parable is about us, the church and it’s about us, the state. It’s about individuals and families and communities and a global interconnectedness. It’s about us being in the world, while not being of the world.
In his first epistle, Peter reminds us that we are only temporary residents here. He warns us to live properly among our neighbors who see the good things we do in Christ name, and when their day of judgment comes they will be able to glorify God (1 Peter 2:11-12).
Jesus knows the evil that runs amuck in our world. He knows that failure to deal with it will allow it to spread like a virus, or seeds of noxious darnel. Just as we all should wear a mask during a pandemic to slow or stop the virus from multiplying, by imitating Jesus in the way we live we can slow down or maybe even stop the spread of evil from contaminating God’s creation even further.
Love is the way Jesus invite us to usher in the kingdom of heaven. Love is the way we carry on his ministry throughout the ages. In the sermon on the parables, we can see that kingdom isn’t just “up there” somewhere, but everywhere we intermingle and grow together. It’s here we join Jesus in sowing good seeds – in the way we love, forgive, care for and tend to the needs of others, in the way we serve even our enemies instead of demanding to be served ourselves.
Jesus invites us into this holy space, even if it looks like the weeds have taken over. For it’s here we lean into the power and glory of God, whose angels will come and reap the fields – separating the good from the bad. Just as God’s love is more powerful than any virus or politic, it’s most certainly stronger than any weed-sowing enemy.
In a world where the seeds of hatred, injustice, and division are sown daily,God is still in charge; working through us and in to bring us all back together. I don’t know about you, but I find comfort to know God doesn’t just mixed and mingle with good and evil. Through Christ, God also acts to judge and redeem as well.
While I burnout on all the bad news out there, I hold tight to the good news of the grace and love God gives us through Jesus Christ. If you are suffering from exhaustion or worried about what’s going on in the world, I hope that you will remember that “God doesn’t get burned out.”
As Henri Nouwen told us, “God is gentle and loving. He desires to give you a deep sense of safety in His love. Once you’ve allowed yourself to experience that love fully, you will be better able to discern (who you are and) who you are being sent to in God’s name.”
Jesus is calling you to follow him on this journey. He is inviting you to open your heart to embrace the fullness of God’s glory; to shine like the sun in the kingdom of heaven; to accept your calling as a beloved child of God, today until the end of the age when we will be gathered together ... as one people... in one glory... in God’s one and only eternal love.
Let us pray:
Great and loving God, in this time of worry, when fear and anxiety ride high, when it seems there is nothing good happening, open our eyes and our hearts to the good news of Jesus. Through him, your plans don’t depend on our perfection any more than they are at risk by our mistakes. Because of Jesus, and the kingdom to which he invites us to partake in, your harvest and resurrection will take place anyway. Send us now your Holy Spirit to begin preparing our hearts for that day, and to empower us in this moment to be like the One who, despite the evil of his death, lived to reveal your glory. Always and forever, Amen.
Arnold, Talitha J. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
Finley, James. “Practice That Grounds Us in the Sustaining Love of God,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (April 26, 2020). (accessed on 07-16-2020)
McLaren, Brian. “We Are All Connected,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (April 20, 2020) (accessed on 07-16-2020).
Seedlings – July 12, 2020
If you’re a regular here, you’ve probably heard me talk about Ed the tortoise. I know some of you have asked to see him. Today would have been the perfect day for it, and if you stay with us you’ll see why.
A couple of weeks ago Ed officially became a free-range tortoise. We built him a house under the orange tree. And now the backyard is officially his. This move has really brought out the best of Ed’s personality. Believe it or not, for a tortoise Ed has a lot of good qualities. One in particular is his love for eating dandelions. They’re like natures donuts to him.
Long before Ed became an outdoorsmen, I was obsessed with having that picture perfect green lawn, the kind you see on commercials. No matter how well I seeded, watered, aerated and fertilized, I couldn’t get rid of those damn-delions. Whenever I saw a little yellow bud appear, I’d be on my hands and knees digging with great precision to keep the root in tact.
Yet every now and then, one would slip passed me, and transform into a puffy white bloom. My kids thought these cottony puffs were magical. They called them wish-makers. Apparently someone who hated lawns told them that if they made a wish while blowing on one ... the wish will come true. Whether or not that is true, I can say that every time my kids blew one of these puffs my blood would boil as I watch hundreds of tiny seeds scatter in every direction. Believe it or not, Jesus had something to say about this as well. Not the blood boiling part, but the scattering of seeds.
Today’s reading is a parable found in Matthew’s gospel 13: 1-9 and 18-23.
Jesus begins his parable with, “A sower went out to sow.” Having lived in rural Michigan for a brief moment, I learned if you are going to sow seeds, i.e. plant them, you have to first prepare the soil. It needs to be till and turn to break up the dry surface so the seeds have an easier time to take root. You also have to remove any rocks or other impediments that will get in the way as you plow the rows for the seeds to be carefully dropped in. I’m sure there are a few more steps you have to take if you want to be successful.
But that’s not how it goes in Jesus’ parable. He says, this sower just went out and started throwing seeds everywhere. There was no method to his madness whatsoever. I imagine this guy is walking along, maybe whistling a happy tune as he grabs handfuls of seeds from a sack that’s slung over his shoulder and randomly tosses them up in the air without a care in the world. It doesn’t matter to him where they land, he’s just walking and tossing.
To most people this would seem like a waste of seeds. But not to this guy. Apparently, he’s got more seeds than he knows what to do with, and he’s going to cover literally everything in hopes that something takes root.
Of course, Jesus’ parable is focused on all the different places that seed lands on. Some hit the road and get gobbled up. Others take root in rock piles but don’t last very long. Some land among some not so good plants and get twisted up into nothing good. But a few lucky ones make it into the rich garden soil – yielding an amazing and bountiful harvest.
I’m sure if you put your mind to it, you can picture someone from each of these different soil “types.” Of course, we like to believe that we are the good soil. But let’s be honest, we probably aren’t – at least not all the time. Most of us shift between one soil and another - sometimes on the same day or even within an hour. Which is why I don’t want us to focus on the soil as much as i want to focus on the seed that is being thrown around so frivolously.
Here’s what I know about seeds. They are life giving and fruit bearing. Often, they are tough and pretty resilient if not downright defiant (like the damn-de-lion). But they are also vulnerable, and susceptible to all sorts of harmful things. Strong or weak, each one carries the DNA for great potential – even the tiniest of seeds can grow into a massive tree in just a short period of time. Moreover, a seed, which begins the life cycle, can actually move through death as a means to reproduce new life. This sounds like God work to me.
It begs the question: What is it that God has in great abundance that can be so easily tossed into the wind like a dandelion puff?
If you were to guess, what would it be? I believe the answer is love. God’s love to be exact. For divine love is the first and final word of the kingdom of God. Thus Jesus gives the impression that the sower isn’t all that concerned about which soil He allows His seed to take root in. The footpath, the rocks, the weedy soil – they all get a shot.
As my friend Roxy taught me, “God isn't content just to sow in the good soil. Though the farmer would want to preserve his seed for the field, God prefers to be extravagant in casting His seed as far and wide as He can – even to those who don't care, or won't respond the way God would like.” St. Paul called this grace upon grace. And we all might be happy to receive this grace from God since most of us aren't great soil to begin with. As Roxy explained, after living in this world like we so often do, “It takes a while to cultivate our hearts to be good soil.”
I would like to point out again that God does not discriminate where this seed is scattered and sown. God doesn’t think twice about grabbing a big handful of love, and liberally throwing it at us if for no other reason but to see what kind of love it will yield.
Grace, mercy, forgiveness these are just some of the fruits born out of God’s love for us. Love is the good news, the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, the very seed of everlasting life. Will we allow God in Christ to take root in us? Now before you think to yourself that you’re not good enough, or faithful enough to receive this seed...
I‘d like to point out that just because the soil seems bad doesn't mean some seeds won’t take root. The Burren National Park in County Clare, Ireland is a great example. The name ‘Burren’ means, “Rocky place.” The area got its name because it’s literally hundreds of acres of exposed limestone that lacks any normal soil base.
Yet this park is covered with wild nutrient rich herbs and an abundant of floral species that grow inside the hidden cracks and crevices of these rocks. In fact, Burren is home to twenty-three of Ireland’s twenty-seven unique orchid species. Now, imagine all the missed opportunities to bear rich, diverse beauty if God only sowed in those who were already good.
The good news is God doesn’t overlook any one of us. Whoever we are, wherever we are God’s greatest love has already been abundantly sown in us through Jesus Christ, who took the soil of death itself and harvested everlasting life.
I think the sower throws seed amid the rocky, barren, broken places because God’s vision for the world is often found in our brokenness. Like pesky dandelion seeds, God’s love floats all over creation, and finds its way into all sorts of nooks and crannies.
The question you must ask yourself is will I allow God’s love to take root in me? Are you willing to accept God’s love and a grow to produce the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
You see, just as every botanist knows, seed bearing plants always yield more seeds. Just as seeds produce more seeds...love produces more love. Kindness produces kind results. Same is true with generosity and gentleness.
If we choose to follow Christ, then in essence we are not merely the soil, We are also the seed and the sower as well. Jesus invites us to accept God’s love and grows God’s love and scatter God’s love all over the place without ever worrying about running out.
Jesus knows that some of us will reject God’s love with hardened hearts, but even the hardest objects can radiate God's truth and beauty. A diamond is a perfect example. Sadly, too many of us don’t see ourselves as valuable.
Jesus also knows the abundant ways of God. He says some of us will receive God's love and even thrive in it. But when the struggles get real, those people flee. What they tend to forget is that seed has already been planted. Where there is a seed there is an opportunity for a new life to sprout even if it’s been dormant for a while. Think about Amaryllis bulbs...for most of the time they just sit buried in the ground or frozen in your freezer. But once a year they let their true beauty shine.
As Jesus pointed out some of us will work hard to grow stronger in our faith and understanding. But we have to be careful. We are vulnerable too. The ways of the world can still overpower us and draw us away from fully relying on God’s abundance.
And of course, some of us will thrive; producing a great yield - some even a hundredfold. They are the ones who give us hope and remind us of the power of God’s love to transform dark, barren soil into thriving, life giving plants.
Here’s what I hope you will remember: God is patient and purposeful; sowing the seed of love anywhere and everywhere because God’s redemptive love can reach everywhere and anywhere.
God is not concerned about which soil the seed falls on because God is confident of the power of the seed. Instead God’s attention is focused on the harvest, the spiritual food that will feed the world. God knows love has power to take root in the harshest ground, but will it bear the fruit of justice, mercy and grace in spite of the terrain? I guess it all depends on how we respond to God.
This week I hope you will take some time to think about this parable. As you do, ask yourself if there is any place in your life where you feel God is not present. Maybe there’s a difficult challenge you’re facing alone. Maybe you have fears or doubts that are causing you to look elsewhere. Maybe you’re stuck in a place you DON’T want God to be present. Maybe you’re in a dark place right now. If that’s the case, then remember this; all seeds thrive in darkness.
It’s there the shell cracks and falls apart. It’s in that dark place, the plant first takes root – descending deeper into the dark ground to find its foundation before it sprouts upwards towards the light. The darkness cracks us open so God can do something great. Eventually our faith becomes rooted enough to begin to grow big enough. And before we know it, we are bearing the good fruit of God’s kingdom – yielding a hundred, sixty, or even thirty times the amount of love we are given.
Seeds producing more seeds. Love producing more love. This is the Kingdom of God that Jesus invites you into.
Let us pray:
Thank you God for your abundance and generosity of love, patience, kindness, grace and mercy that you have given to us out of great love for us, through Jesus Christ, Amen.
*This is a refreshed version of a sermon originally given on July 16, 2017 which can be found at https://www.jesusnotjesus.org/be-kind/sowing-seeds-of-love
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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