Oil in the Lamp, Matthew 25:1-13

oil in the lamp promo

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom.Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring oil for them. But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil.

“When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and went to sleep. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.’

“Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out.’

“But the wise bridesmaids replied, ‘No, because if we share with you, there won’t be enough for our lamps and yours. We have a better idea. You go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 But while they were gone to buy oil, the groom came. Those who were ready went with him into the wedding. Then the door was shut.

11 “Later the other bridesmaids came and said, ‘Lord, lord, open the door for us.’

12 “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’

13 “Therefore, keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour.

–Matthew 25:1-13

 

People can go to extreme lengths to be “prepared.”

Take for example my old Scoutmaster, Mr. Menger. Mr. Menger was a great scoutmaster, and he, along with several of the adults in my scout troop, got me ready for a life of goodness, virtue and service. As many of you know, the Boy Scout Motto is “Be Prepared.” It’s a solid motto to live by, because you never know what you’re going to encounter in this world, especially in the wilds of nature.

Mr. Menger took the scout motto I think as far as it can go. The man had an REI bill that probably cost as much as a down payment on a house. The dude bought every gadget, gizmo, and state of the art wilderness survival tool money could buy. GPS trackers, titanium walking sticks, tents made of high tech fibers, boots that cost  far more than any boot could be worth, breathable Columbia and North Face hiking gear. You name it, he bought three of them.

Of course, inevitably half of the gizmos didn’t work or weren’t needed. I remember giving a hearty laugh when his titanium alloy walking stick broke in half.

He’s not alone though. More and more, people tend to stockpile and hoard out of a fear of not being ready.

Several years ago there was a show on National Geographic called Doomsday Preppers, where it would give an episode to different people preparing their houses–and their lives–for the end of the world. Be it through nuclear apocalypse or otherwise, they’d hoard weaponry, food, fuel, and other supplies, turning their house into a fortress. Happy homes transformed into castles, for the fear of the end.

It was a bleak show, but also a funny one in a way, at least to me. I’ve actually met people who prep in this way, stockpiling freeze-dried food and building silos for canned goods. In a way, to me, it’s a consumption and hoarding turned into a hobby, a lifestyle. This lifestyle is both sad and frightening, because in my mind, you’ve let fear define your life. Most of all? You’re preparing in the wrong way, according to Jesus Christ.

The parable of the Bridesmaids is, like many other parables, is simple to hear, but hard to grasp. On the face of it, it’s divisive between two groups of people, those prepared and those not. However, more meaning is always found beneath the surface. Jesus wants us to be prepared, to stay awake, and not be afraid or forgetful of what is truly important.

Caught Off-Guard

The story Jesus uses, one of ten bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom to come for a wedding, may not be the most applicable to today, but the meaning still exists for us.

There’s about 2000 years of wedding tradition changes between us and the story, for example. We don’t celebrate the same way anymore. In a modern wedding, the one we have to wait for and on is not the groom but the bride. Bridesmaids perform a more ceremonial role today, where as then, these would be not friends of the bride, but her servants. And certainly, a wedding wouldn’t start in the middle of the night. We don’t even use oil lamps anymore unless the power goes out in our house and we have an old hurricane lamp kicking around. So there’s a significant amount of distance between us and this parable, which in a way, defeats the purpose of a parable. Parables are meant to use ordinary events to explain extraordinary ideas.

Nevertheless, we still can glean the meaning behind it all, even without the immanence of the experience. We still get waiting. We still get weddings. And we still, for the most part, understand why you need oil in a lamp, although for us, we’d just switch it out for batteries and a flashlight. So say for example, you’re waiting for someone to arrive to take you to a bonfire in the middle of the woods. Ten people are waiting, five wise, five foolish. Five have flashlights with good batteries, five forgot to bring a flashlight. When the five fools arrive at the rendezvous point, they see the wise ones’ flashlight, and go out to the CVS and pick up a little flashlight for the hike. While they’re gone, the party leader arrives, and they are left behind without directions. No cell service in the middle of the woods, either. They’re left out, because they weren’t prepared in the way they needed to be.

Because that’s the thing, right? The bridesmaids were prepared for a wedding. They probably had their makeup and their hair all done up, and their finest dresses on, but one detail they forgot wound up being the one that got them left out of the party.

I’m sure it felt like a small detail. They probably didn’t know that the groom would come in the middle of the night. They more than likely simply didn’t think of this one unlikely situation, and they had so much other stuff to do that it slipped their minds. Weddings are like that, after all. But that’s just it: half did think ahead. Half thought about what they would need in an emergency and planned ahead. They didn’t base their life around it, and hoard the oil, but they made sure they had it if they needed it. They didn’t want to be caught off guard.

Focus on the Right Things

Oil in the lamp. Seems a small thing to be left without. But it made all the difference in the end, because it was essential. And there’s so much that we, in our own lives, in our own faiths, think is relatively unimportant, but becomes essential in the end.

Jesus was telling this to his disciples, who in the previous chapter, were obsessing about the end of all things, and when, specifically, it would come. Jesus responded by simply saying that there would be signs, that disasters would happen, and that you would know it when it happened. As for specifics, Jesus did not give that out. Instead, he gave them this parable, along with a couple more, which we’ll discuss in their own time. He never told them the answer to the question, but rather, that in the meantime, they should get ready.

So how should they get ready? What DO we need to have prepared? How ought we to live in preparation for Jesus’s coming?

Let me go back a sec and think about the Doomsday Preppers.

These are people who have planned out to the Nth degree the end times. Every eventuality has been planned out, so much so that they are well stocked for any disaster that might arise. In the process, they have made their entire lives about the end of the world, and surviving. All their money, free time, and energy goes to their preparations. Is that what Jesus is saying here? Is Jesus telling us to live like a doomsday prepper, holed up in our basements, waiting for the bombs to fall? Does that sound like this parable at all? No, I don’t think it quite matches up.

For instance, these young bridesmaids weren’t prepping for the end of the world. They were waiting on a wedding. Jesus repeatedly compares the end of the world to a wedding feast, and a wedding feast is a party! And if it’s anything like Jesus says, his grand wedding feast will be the biggest party ever. New Year’s Rocking Eve hasn’t got anything on this party. Jesus wants us to know that what’s going to happen will be important and earthshaking, but also fun, and exciting, and joyous.

So rather than preparing ourselves for the end of the world with stockpiles and shelters, what if we prepared for the end as if it was a party?

What if we got excited for it, because it will be a joyous occasion? What if we made preparations for something not disastrous, but something magical? And what if our preparations were joyous in the process?

If that’s the case, we don’t need to hoard supplies. But something tells me there’s another dimension to this as well. Jesus’ most vicious criticisms came from the religious officials of the day, the priests and the pharisees. Jesus responded in kind to them. They criticized him for being a false prophet, and not maintaining religious cleanliness and purity according to the Torah. For associating with sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. But Jesus accused them of being false prophets as well–for not practicing what they preach. For focusing on all the unimportant things when the most necessary thing is what is forgotten.

They focused on a lot of the small laws, regulations and practices. Things like eating the right foods, washing your hands, not working on the sabbath in any way, and 600 other rules like that one. Jesus wanted them to focus on the law, but the law they needed the most: the law of love. Not the minutia of wedding planning, but the most basic things, like light. If you’re going to have a wedding, you’re going to need some kind of light source. You gotta have oil in your lamp to keep the light going.

That oil for the light will make everything else possible. You can’t see the decorations if there is no light. You can’t find you’re way to the party if you don’t have light. Without the light of love, none of the other rules makes any sense! It’s  Because the point of it all is love, joy, peace, kindness, and gentleness. Love is light, and light drives out the darkness.

Love Light’s the Way

The end of everything, though the signs will be destructive and chaotic, is not something to be scared of. We aren’t supposed to hole ourselves up in a bunker. Nor are we supposed to religiously shut ourselves off from the world, judging and condemning. We are supposed to be prepared for a wedding, a party. We need to be ready to walk in the darkness and bear the light. To do that, we need oil to light the way.

So don’t be afraid. Be ready for the coming of the Lord, but don’t be afraid, or malicious. Be bearers of the light, and get ready for a party. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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Beloved Children of God, 1 John 3:1-8

See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are! Because the world didn’t recognize him, it doesn’t recognize us.

Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself even as he is pure. Every person who practices sin commits an act of rebellion, and sin is rebellion. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and there is no sin in him. Every person who remains in relationship to him does not sin. Any person who sins has not seen him or known him.

Little children, make sure no one deceives you. The person who practices righteousness is righteous, in the same way that Jesus is righteous. The person who practices sin belongs to the devil, because the devil has been sinning since the beginning. God’s Son appeared for this purpose: to destroy the works of the devil.

All-Saints-Day-Dove-Sitting-On-Olive-Branch-ClipartFor better or for worse, our families define us. Family is one of the most important influences on our lives: our personalities, our talents, our health, our success, and our failures, can often be traced back to the family.

Take mine for example. I grew up in a rather privileged position. Solidly middle class, grew up mostly in small towns or suburbia, to two college educated people who never divorced. Already, I had advantages that most of my friends did not have. While it may not have predicted my successes or failures in life, it definitely influenced them.

Beyond economics, I was raised by big cookers and big eaters–my waistline didn’t have a chance. My family loved music, and so I was bound to be in some capacity, a music lover. We weren’t very athletic, but we were fairly good readers. Already a template was in place for the person I would become. Oh, and by the way, we were religious. That accounts a great deal for why I  stand before you today. So yes, for good or for ill, my family definitely got me where I am today.

However, a family is more than just a mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, grandma and grandpa. A family goes beyond genetics. A family is bound, rather, by blood.

Genetics and blood relation, to me, are not the same. Genetics accounts for a lot. But blood goes much farther. I have many friends that I would consider brothers and sisters, not because of our genetic  relation, but because of the blood we have  bled,  sweated together. Crunch time in school, writing papers or studying for exams. Camping together, falling, and picking each other back up. Most of all, sharing in the cup of communion. Blood ties us, and makes us a family. Strange? Abnormal? Perhaps. But family nonetheless.

Today we observe All Saints’ Sunday, which in a manner of speaking, is a family reunion of all of the Children of God. Brothers and Sisters, Mothers and Daughters, Fathers and Sons, all throughout time, bound by the blood of Christ, are reunited this day as we pay attention and homage to the church eternal, invisible, one, holy, apostolic and universal. Today is the day we remember the saints!

A saint, for those who might be confused, is anyone who is a part of the church. Not just the named ones you’ve heard about from the Catholic church, but anyone and everyone who has been born again in Christ, who has died in Christ, and will be risen in Christ. You remain a part of the church after you die, but more than that, you remain a brother or a sister in Christ. Therefore it’s good to take time to reflect on this divine mystery: we are the beloved children of God.

The Father’s Kind of Love

As much as we are defined by our family, a family is defined by how it interacts with each other. The founder of our family, the Christian family, is the God the Father.

One of the fun things about the letters of John is how  much they are kind of an interpretation of the gospel of John. The letter writer, probably a disciple of John writing his words in his name, uses many of the ideas and motifs of the gospel to write to early church communities. If it were music, he’d be writing these letters in the same key, with some melodies lifted here and there to remind them of the gospel.

As such, one of the most examined ideas in the letter is the character of God, that character being defined as love. So much so that he goes as far as to claim that God IS love, as bold a proclamation as one can make. If we then are God’s children, God’s family, our relationship to God is one of love. Love as a father, a parent, would have for a child is stronger than most any other kind of love there is, and that is the love that defines our relationship to God.

So how is it is we became God’s family?

After all, there is only one Son of God, and he is Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t have any children. How can we therefore claim that God is our father? John fills in that blank by using the language of adoption. Adoption, in the world that John inhabited, was a fairly common practice, and not always done as a loving couple taking in an orphaned child. Sometimes a family would legally adopt an young teenager, or even a grown man, so that the lineage and property would be taken care of. In those cases, adoption is about inheritance.

For us, we benefit in both ways. We were taken in by God because God loves us, wants us to grow and prosper and bear fruit. God also give us the inheritance of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

As you see then, all those in Christ, saints living and dead, are bound together as a family of love. We aren’t a family by genetics, although some are related. We are a family bound by love, love poured out for you and for many on the cross. That love fills our cup today, and that love should cover any disagreements, any arguments, any divisions we have. If we but remember that we are all children of God, bound together by love, then what could keep us apart?

The Strains of Sin

There’s always something though, isn’t there. Something can always get in between us. That something is a three letter word that so many people hate to think about. The think that can tear us apart is sin.

The community in particular that the letter of John was written to was being divided by certain influential people. John used the somewhat unpolitic phrase “antichrists.” Harsh, perhaps, but accurate, because if Jesus was the ultimate example of unity and love, these people did the opposite of that. They pit the family of God against itself, and led to all kinds of divisions and arguments. John saw this behavior as not only un-Christlike, but anti-Christ, against Christ.

Sadly, in any family there’s bound to be a few bad seeds that cause nothing but conflict.

These people seek it out intentionally, for whatever reason. They see it as a means to an end, a means to get power, or to get their way. It doesn’t matter what violence might occur in ripping a family apart. These people divide, and make everything worse. The term for this is “triangulation,” talking to one person and pitting them against another person so that in the space between, this divider gains power over both sides.

The Christian family is not without its “antichrists.” It’s not just one person at the end of days, oh no. It’s many people over the history of the church. People who seek power, preaching a Gospel that is wholly unlike that of Christ, all to gain something they want. They commit a great sin in doing this: removing Christ from the center of their lives, and placing themselves there instead.

Brothers and sisters, we must resist people like this in our church. We must resist self-seeking ambition, instead seeking only the vision of the kingdom of God. We must practice putting aside differences among ourselves so that we can remember that we are truly bound together by the blood of Christ, not destined to be pitted against each other by petty grievance or ambition. We are a stronger family than that. We must be.

Under One Roof, At One Table

Brothers, Sisters, we are the family of God. We are all children of God, Co-heirs of he kingdom. Today is a celebration of that.

In this place, under this roof, at this table, we re-forge the bonds of family. We eat the body, we drink the blood, and we are reconciled to God and to one another. That’s something worth celebrating. That’s worth singing about. That’s worth dancing about. Most of all, that’s worth sharing. There’s always more room under this roof, space at the table. The good news is not something to be hoarded or denied to anyone, but to be shared. So go, and open up these doors. The saints are gathered here, singing the praises of God and sharing the food and drink at the table. They always will. And there’s always room for one more. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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A Taxing Argument, Matthew 22:15-22

A Taxing Argument promo

Sometimes, Jesus puts everyone in a difficult situation and it’s really hard to deal with.

Jesus doesn’t pull punches, but in that sense, he also makes it so that we have to receive the punches. We have to take our lumps. It’s hard. It’s hard to actually do what Jesus says, because we have a history and an inclination to do the opposite. As he puts the pharisees in their place today, Jesus puts us in ours as well. He asks us the most difficult question he could ask us: where is your loyalty? Who is your authority? And What are you going to do about it?

Jesus’s statement on taxes, a response to a trap from the religious authorities, is a trap for us too.

It’s almost flippant how he says it, but the implications are drastic. Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and render to God what belongs to God, or so the older KJV English will say. It’s almost off-handed. But here’s the thing–it really isn’t. The effortless paradox he presents us with has vexed the faithful for generations. It’s obvious what he’s implying–that everything belongs to God–but because it’s obvious it makes us question what everything entails. It makes us question: is it really right to pay taxes? Is it really right to do this, when we know that everything truly belongs to God? And if that is the case, what then belongs to Caesar, the emperor, the government?

I have been told  all my life that there are three things you don’t talk about in public: money, politics, and religion, and here Jesus has combined all three in this glib challenge to the Pharisees. So you see how difficult of a position we are truly put in! Jesus doesn’t care about our self-made rules so that we can go along to get along. He doesn’t care what inner conflicts this presents us with. What he cares about is righteousness: who is righteous, and what do we do to be righteous?

The Idol In Our Pockets

Let’s get this one piece of this puzzle squared away first: Idolatry is the sin that Jesus is confronted by in this story.

Now it’s obvious that the Pharisees and Temple Priests wanted Jesus gone. They either wanted him to be irrelevant, or be killed by the mob or Rome, whichever comes first. The best way for them to do this was to get him to answer the most difficult and dangerous question they could think of, one with no good answer: Should we pay taxes to Rome? Rome, the occupying empire, had after all brought many good things to the people of Israel, like solid infrastructure, roads, and the like. All Israel had to do was pay taxes, and live with Roman soldiers on every street, and support the Roman government.

Some people had few problems with this. These people were privileged enough that they could pay the taxes, and that they were friendly enough with the romans that they had no worry of arrest or attack. Many of these people were in the Temple authorities and the Pharisees circles. Seen as collaborators, there was widespread suspicion of these people by the general population. If Jesus answered yes, you should pay taxes, the people would see him as a collaborator with the Romans, and abandon him. If he said you shouldn’t pay taxes, well, that’s a great reason to get thrown in jail and killed by Romans. So they had him caught. But Jesus knew better.

Sometimes I really wish I had Jesus’ ability to quip a meaningful retort at the right time. I frequently experience something known as esprit de l’escalier, or “the spirit of the staircase.” It’s a French term for that feeling of coming up with the perfect comeback too late, as you’re going down the stairs out of someone’s house. But while esprit de l’escalier is upon me, the Spirit of God is with Jesus  in his inspired challenge: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s.

To illustrate this point, he uses the fact that the Roman currency had the faces of their emperor on them.

This, of course, is a direct violation of one of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not make graven images, or idols. In a very real way, by even handling Roman money, the people of Israel were complicit in idolatry. It was a heated topic of debate among the Jewish people at the time. Does having Roman coins with engraved images on them count as Idolatry? For a people as careful as the Jews were about going out of their way to not be sinful, they treaded a fine line with currency.

In a very real way, there was an idol in everyone’s pocket, and if you didn’t have it, the taxman cometh and taketh you away. So what to do? Jesus says give to Caesar what belongs to him–that which has his face on it. He also says give to God what’s God’s–meaning everything else. But is that right? Are we too small to grasp what he really means?

Battling Kingdoms

So let’s get down to brass tacks: what belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar, the emperor, the nation, the government, the world?

What, exactly, is a nation owed? Nations, after all, are man-made constructs. A political boundary may have some kind of physical marker or dividing line, like a river or a mountain range, but in the end, a boundary is artificial. We collect ourselves into nations for many reasons: sharing of resources, general administrative duties, defense, infrastructure, and many more. But a lot, if not all of this is voluntary; we pay taxes to support these artificial constructs, and those taxes are compulsory. We are made to pay taxes because, as citizens, we have a civil contract to uphold.

Some go above and beyond to support a government. Some are active in politics and campaigns. Some volunteer for military service. Some work in the bureaucracies, both local and national. Some people uphold laws in police forces. Some people teach in the public schools because they believe in an informed citizenry. There are many benefits to a nation.

So perhaps let’s come at this in a different way: What does a Christian owe a nation?

A citizen owes a nation many things, but Christians are resident aliens, citizens of a kingdom not of this earth. We belong to the Kingdom of Heaven. And that requires a whole different set of rules, values, and actions, ones that sometimes rub against the values and requirements of a nation.

We are called, as God’s children to ten main commandments, and one over-arching commandment. They are (put very simply):

The Lord is our God, and have no other gods before God.

Don’t make idols.

Don’t use the Lord’s name as if it had no significance.

Take a sabbath every seven days, and keep it holy.

Honor your parents.

Don’t Kill.

Don’t commit adultery.

Don’t steal.

Don’t lie.

Don’t covet.

The over-arching commandment, covering all of them, is to Love your God and to Love your neighbor. These are our ideals, our virtues, our teachings, our commandments, and as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, we ought to follow these above and beyond all other laws.

So when do the ten commandments rub up against the laws of a nation? You might be surprised to see how often it happens.

Let’s start with the first couple of them: Don’t worship anything else but God, and don’t make false idols. Well, shucks, we constantly mess up on this one don’t we? There are many rival gods for us to worship in our nation. Between the trappings of patriotism, the graven images found on our currency, and our flag, we have competing idols all around us. And yes, there are some who elevate the flag above the cross, and as Christians, we must be clear about who we are allegiant to. Patriotism can absolutely conflict with our convictions and commandments as Christians, especially in the battlefield of the heart.

Let’s push further. Our currency has the phrase “In God We Trust” on it. A nice thought, perhaps, but is it not ironic that we use the Lord’s name on money, a something that in and of itself isn’t evil, but can be elevated to the status of an idol? Can that not be claimed as using the Lord’s name in vain?

How about the Sabbath? I’m not saying that we ought to close all the stores on Sunday, but we certainly don’t value rest in our culture. We don’t make allowances for much outside of work, to be honest. There even was an article earlier this week entitled: “Work, Sleep, Family, Friends, and Fitness–Pick 3.” The article in question was basically a manifesto that in modern working life, you only have room for 3 of those activities in your life. How tragic. How monstrous. How utterly demonic a mindset is that! That certainly goes against the 5th commandment of honoring your parents/family?

The other five are less complex, and align more with our nations laws, but we still have soldiers who kill. We still don’t punish or shame adultery nearly enough. We glorify those who rip people off in the name of capitalism and consumerism. Our legal system is nothing but a network of liars and corruption. Our entire monetary system is based on our covetousness.

Now don’t take this as a screed against our country, or as me bashing the nation I was born into, and am a citizen of. I very much appreciate this nation, the freedoms it offers, and the people who serve it.

But I will not waver and say that my true allegiance does not lie with this world or this nation. My true home is not here. I am, and always will be, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and I will do what believe to be the best citizen of that nation that I can. As we all should. If you are a Christian, you are a citizen of another kingdom, unlike any other. If you claim the name of Christian, you will be held accountable to the commandments of God, to love God, and to love your neighbor, even if that means defying the values and norms of our earthly home.

Jesus makes the concession that we must give that nation what it is owed, but always with the understanding that God supersedes it always. God’s kingdom takes precedence.

So give to the world what it is owed, but first give to God what is God’s. That is your challenge today, and always, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Question when God’s laws and principles rub up against what we are supposed to be like or value on this earth, in this nation. Know that you are an alien among other nations, not of this world. Act like it too. It may not be popular. Heck, it may not be safe. But in the end, you will have fulfilled God’s command, and in doing so, you will make this world a little more like heaven. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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Blessed Wresting, Genesis 32:22-31

Blessed Wrestling Promo

 

22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”

But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel,[a] because you struggled with God and with men and won.”

29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel,[b] “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.

It’s time, I think, for a change of pace.

For the past several months, I have been doing a lot of preaching primarily on the New Testament. In fact, I looked back, and the last time I preached on the Old Testament was in March, when I preached on Isaiah. Wesley once said that he was a “man of one book,” meaning that the New Testament and Old Testament ought not be separated but bound together as one, cohesive story of God and God’s people.

Free-YourselfSo I’m taking this time to shift gears, and for the next eight weeks, I’m going to be preaching on passages from Genesis and Exodus. I’ll be following the lectionary passages, and what’s interesting is that when I took the time to examine them all, a theme began emerging: a theme of liberation. Being set free is one of the most consistent actions in the story of Israel, God’s chosen people, and God’s continued work in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus set us free from sin, completing the mission God set out to do with his people Israel. But the work started a long time ago. So I want to explore how God set people free in the earliest history of his people, and how we might encounter God’s liberating presence in our own lives. For the next eight weeks, I’ll be starting a sermon series called “Set Free: God’s Liberation of Israel” and see the liberating work of God from the very beginning, and find ourselves in the midst of new liberation every day.

So to start, let’s go to a story that is probably one of my favorite Old Testament stories, because it is so formative for the history of the Jewish people, but also my own faith: Jacob wrestling with God.

That this story is so important to the Jewish people is no secret. Jacob did eventually get a new name from God, that name being Israel–a name with many translations, but ultimately comes back to this event, a name which means “he who struggles with God.” Other translations it’s “God’s triumph” or “is triumphant with God”. It’s a weird name for a person, and an even weirder name for an entire people, but it’s the name they revere and keep to this day. That means that this event, right here, is the birth of Israel in a way. And Israel’s story is not only a story of struggle, but of liberation. It’s from this initial struggle that a nation, a history, and faith is born.

jacob iconJacob’s Long Winding Road

To arrive at this legendary wrestling match, you need to know how Jacob got to this point. Rather, how Jacob hit rock bottom.

Jacob’s whole life is defined by his craftiness and his nature as a trickster. He was named Jacob because that translates to “He who replaces” or “He who supplants” because as he was being born, he was grabbing his twin brother by the ankles. He grew up, and tricked his brother Esau many times, once by getting Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of soup, and another by getting his father Isaac’s blessing by impersonating Esau. So to start out life with such an antagonistic streak in order to gain personal  wealth and power is an audacious way to be.

But it doesn’t stop there. From here, he runs away from Esau’s wrath and lives with his uncle Laban. With Laban, he has an able teacher in the ways of craft. Their story is of constant loving one-upmanship. Jacob tricks Laban into giving him more livestock than Laban intended. Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah before he can marry Rachel. On and on, they’re constantly trying to out-trick each other, making each other smarter. Until one day, that is, when Jacob can’t out-trick his way out of a situation, which brings us to the wrestling match with God.

See, Jacob got word that his brother Esau was on his way to meet him with an army of 400 men, and quite frankly, that’s a pretty dangerous situation. Jacob knows he’s in a tight spot.

His past ways finally caught up to him. He did have a plan to get out of dying…but that meant that he would have to lose a lot of his wealth that he had worked so hard to attain. He sent ahead of him 3 waves of people bearing his livestock and riches to meet his brother, and when they did meet him, they would give his belongings to his brother as a gift. To live meant to lose all he had gained by trickery and deceit.

See, that’s the trouble with investing everything into being a trickster. By all means, being a trickster has advantages. When your opponent outclasses you in strength and power, you have to rely on your mind to get you out of trouble. That the Jewish faith reveres Jacob and his trickster ways can tell you a lot about their mindset. Outsiders love a good trickster story. Outcasts. Smaller countries in the midst of larger, powerful nations. Owing your status based on the power of your mind can be a powerful history to draw on, and a guide for future action. There are far worse people you could base your history on than a trickster. Though he was devious, he still was history for a whole people, a forefather to trace your life to.

As anyone can tell you, being a trickster has disadvantages too. In your own life, it can cost you relationships. It can cost you credibility. In Jacob’s case, it might even cost you your life. It begs the question: what is your life worth? Is it your possessions that matter? Or is it the possibility of a future? Would you be able to say you would start from zero if it meant you could live another day, possibly in peace with someone you wronged?

jacob wrestles with godA Blessed Struggle

Before the day on which he was to meet his brother, Jacob has this dream that I read to you, in which he wrestles with a mysterious man, who turns out to be God.

Jacob struggles with the mystery wrestler until dawn, and then the mystery man wounds Jacob to where he could not fight anymore. Holding on for dear life, Jacob then demands that he would not let go until he received a blessing. An odd request, but this is the kind of thing that Jacob has done his entire life. He received many intangible blessings in his life: his birthright, his inheritance, and many other things. A blessing means many things, but in this case, it is the spoils of victory. Jacob wants something in return for his long fighting match with the mystery man. The mystery man, of course, acquiesces, and grants him of all things, a new name–a very God thing to do. That name, Israel, which I discussed earlier, is the turning point for Jacob’s whole life. It’s a transformation, from scoundrel to full humanity. Jacob was defined by his desire to supplant and gain. Israel, now, is defined by struggle, yes, conflict, but also triumph. Victory is his name, and so will be his future, but only after much conflict.

Jacob, the following day, meets with Esau and is surprisingly not attacked, but embraced. Moved by Jacob’s gesture of goodwill and giving, something Jacob had never done for Esau, he embraced him as a brother, reunited in love.

Jacob, in the end, not only retained his hard-fought wealth, but gained something as intangible as a name: he gained a true brother. That chapter of his life is no more. balance. Everything being in order, nothing out of balance, he then goes on to have more blessed life with his neighbors.

Limping Triumph

Israel would never forget this story, nor it’s mark on his life. After all, the struggle left him with a limp for the rest of his life.

A limp, like a scar, is a reminder of a story. It’s a lasting wound that never goes away, changes how you approach life. Anyone with some kind of physical impairment can relate to that. If you are hard of hearing, you need a hearing aid, and that requires adjustments to your life. If you have diabetes, it requires you to change your diet and habits. If you have poor eyesight, you need to take care of your glasses and contacts. To live, we always must make adjustments to your life. But what kind of adjustment is required when you have a limp from fighting with God?

I always go back to this story because understanding that Israel, and by proxy we, will always have struggles with God. Struggles with belief, with God’s actions, with sin in this world–all of it will be with us. We won’t have a day without some kind of conflict, until the very end of days. But it is through that conflict, we might find balance, even if we sacrifice a bit of ourselves to find it. Balance requires adjustment, and so to right ourselves with God, we must ask ourselves: what must we adjust in our lives to be in balance, in harmony, with God?

To be a follower of God requires not only faith, but sacrifice of ourselves. It means giving up something about ourselves so that we might be more like God.

We do so treasure our sins. Jacob treasured his ability to trick his way out of danger. But he couldn’t trick Esau anymore, and you can’t trick God when you wrestle with him. He had to sacrifice his safety and get his hands dirty, and actually face his conflicts. There is a time for safety, and there is a time for confronting your problems and dealing with them.

Through this blessed wrestling match, Jacob gained freedom and liberation from the prison of trickery and deceit that he built for himself. Jacob was changed into Israel, he who struggles with God. Who will you become when you encounter God? And what will God free you from? Ponder this, and pray for the freedom that is possible when you wrestle with God. Amen.

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Never the Wrong Time, Luke 2:1-20

Note: This sermon was delivered on July 30th. We held a “Christmas in July” service, with songs and scripture reflecting a different season of the church. This came as a surprise to the church, as we didn’t warn them what the leadership was doing…which was super fun to see! So enjoy this weird, out of place sermon. I really enjoyed writing and delivering it, so I hope you all enjoy it too.

Never the Wrong Time title card

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child.18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them.19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

 

christmasparty2.pngMerry Christmas! I suppose this whole service is a bit of a surprise to you all, but, quite honestly, you should be used to surprises by now. I mean, this is the church, and what if anything should we celebrate but surprising joy?

 

Think about it. When you first encountered Jesus, truly and fully, were you not thrown off? Were you expecting to receive the promise of a new life, freed from the pain of suffering and death in the fullness of time? If you have, I expect you were. Even if you were raised in the church, you would probably have been surprised when you have that personal conviction of sin, and the personal revelation that you are saved from it. At least that’s the hope. And if you haven’t, consider this one such surprising moment from God.

 

christmasburnoutCelebrating Christmas is incredibly important to us, if not religiously, then culturally.

We spend months planning for it every year. We spend hundreds, maybe thousands, on gifts, travel and parties. We love the season, its lights, its sounds, its festival nature. But truth be told, when we finally get to Christmas day, we’re often so tired of Christmas that the magic has worn off.

 

So let’s let today be the surprise that Christmas was meant to be. People in the ancient world were expecting a messiah, but that messiah’s arrival would have been a surprise, without any fanfare or forewarning of actual dates. When the Messiah actually did come, there were no lights in the streets or songs in the taverns. Rather, the streets were quiet, the people were upset because of the census, and nobody was expecting a boy born in a manger was to be the king of kings, lord of lords, prince of peace. Jesus and his birth was a surprise. So celebrating Christmas when we least expect it is probably the most authentic way we can appreciate his birth.

 

Jesus was probably not born on December 25th, anyways. More than likely, according to historians, he was probably born in April or May. So truth be told, it’s never the wrong time to celebrate the incarnation of God into the world.

 

Unexpected Joy

 

christmas_painting_holy_family_nativity_346b67145c1bd980447b174c9544629b

Art by Heidi Malott, http://www.heidimalott.com

The story itself is one nobody expected. 

 

Mary didn’t have on her calendar the day an angel was supposed to come to her and tell her she would bear the son of God. Joseph certainly didn’t plan on being engaged to a woman already pregnant, nor did Joseph’s family, nor the village of Nazareth. Joseph was an upright citizen, and though poor, a hard and good worker. Mary was a just a kid, thirteen or fourteen. Nobody expected any of this to happen.

 

Nor did anyone really expect the emperor to call for a census, leading to the mass migration of people to their ancestral hometowns. This was the first census, after all. Mary and Joseph probably did not expect that they would have to deliver a child in the midst of this travel, let alone the night they arrived in Bethlehem. The angels definitely didn’t expect to see and entire army of angels singing in the night sky on this unassuming night in the late spring. Mary and Joseph didn’t expect of all people a bunch of shepherds to come and see them while they delivered a baby in a stable filled with animals, and all the smells that come with animals.

 

The Magi didn’t expect to see a star in the sky where there wasn’t one before, nor did they expect that when they looked up which star it was, that it would be a star that would foretell the coming of a king. They didn’t expect when they arrived at the palace of the country the king would rule in that the king would be surprised. The king didn’t expect news of a new king being born, especially when he himself hadn’t sired a son.

So you see, this entire story is about surprising, unexpected events happening to all kinds of people, from all over and with every kind of background.

 

The birth of Jesus affected everyone differently, too. For some, it inspired fear and dread. For others, hope and light. For some, awe and adoration. For others, hardship and persecution. For everyone it caught off guard, this miraculous event was truly a surprising time. And as it turns out, it came at the right time, which is any time. There would have been no better time for Jesus to have been born. And there’s no better time than now for us to recognize the miracle of Jesus in our own lives.

 

Jesus Breaks In Without Warning

 

Celebrating Christmas in July, then is an opportunity to reflect on the revelation that God himself broke into the world, without warning, and changed everything just by being born.

 

75 manger12010[1]By being born, God changed the nature of reality. For beforehand, humanity was absent divinity. We were truly and completely unholy. But because Jesus came, and was born of a human, and made fully human and divine, he united humanity and divinity itself. Because he was human and divine, he made it so that we can have hope of being made like him, more holy, more like God. He opened up a pathway for us to God.

 

God came in Jesus so that we could know God better, but also that God could know us better. True, God knows all, but in the experiences of Jesus Christ, the Godhead experienced humanity like never before. God was born. God was taught what it means to be human, with all the happiness and messiness that involves. God was in diapers. God had friends, played with friends as a child. God went to weddings, and funerals. God celebrated, and God wept. God, as made known to us in Jesus Christ, experienced humanity in its fullness.

 

Knowing that God was human makes it possible for us to understand him better, and in that way, we know that Jesus truly loves us humans, warts and all.

 

He knew the depravity we were capable, and his still loved us. He knew cruelty, but he also knew kindness. He knew the power of humanity to do great things empowered by the Holy Spirit. He saw it in unexpected places, and forced us to look where we would never look. And it all started by forcing us to look in a stable for a king. Look at the shepherds as his first honored guests. Look at Kings as the shallow, paranoid creatures they are. Look at foreign wise men as bearing the promise from the outside. Look at the refugee, because Jesus became one in Egypt. Look where you never would, and you will be surprised by joy.

 

The Time is Now

 

In celebrating his birth in the wrong month, so to speak, we see how powerful it truly is that he came at all, when nobody expected. Jesus came as a surprise, so that we all can be saved, so that we all can have hope.

 

We’re in the dead heat of July, soon to be August. We have so much on our plates, we often lose sight of what gives us hope. So I invite you to look for hope. Look for joy where you least expect it. Look, and remember when you first encountered Jesus. Look, and seek goodness where none may have been thought to exist.

 

Seek first that goodness, and know that it’s never the wrong time to have hope, to see joy, and to live with unexpected happiness. You may yet bear the surprising good news of Jesus to someone who needs it, and can’t wait for “the right month” for us to do it. Do it now. Live like it’s Christmas everyday. It’s never the wrong time to have hope, share goodwill to all people, and bear the light to the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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The Hardest Thing to Do, Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

hardest thing to do promo

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. 25 While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The servants of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Master, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Then how is it that it has weeds?’

28 “‘An enemy has done this,’ he answered.

“The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them?’

29 “But the landowner said, ‘No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. 30  Let both grow side by side until the harvest. And at harvesttime I’ll say to the harvesters, “First gather the weeds and tie them together in bundles to be burned. But bring the wheat into my barn.”’…

36 Jesus left the crowds and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 Jesus replied, “The one who plants the good seed is the Human One.[a]38  The field is the world. And the good seeds are the followers of the kingdom. But the weeds are the followers of the evil one. 39  The enemy who planted them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the present age. The harvesters are the angels. 40  Just as people gather weeds and burn them in the fire, so it will be at the end of the present age. 41  The Human One[b] will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that cause people to fall away and all people who sin.42  He will throw them into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth. 43  Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. Those who have ears should hear.”

 

 

headphonesIt’s a curious quirk of humanity  that when you tell someone something, they will often hear not what you said, but what they think you said. Worse yet, they may have only heard what they wanted to hear, and tuned out the rest.

I’ll give you an example.

Luis was a young teen in need of some money so he could go out with his friends, but he was also a teen who wanted to put only minimal effort into what he did. His dad came home and told him that he needed some lawn work done before the weekend. Luis kind of nodded along, not really paying attention, until his dad tacked on that he’d be willing to pay him if he did a good job. His ears perked up after that, and jumped on task. However, as his dad explained the job, Luis’s mind drifted, thinking about what he would spend the money on, and not what he needed to do to get said money.

Flash forward to the weekend. Luis had mowed, weeded, and edged the lawn, what he remembered his dad asked him to do. His dad came home, examined his work, and then paid him–but only half of what he promised him. Luis was enraged. He spent half the day working on the yard! When he protested, his father calmly reminded him that yes, while he did a great job on the things he did, he didn’t trim the hedges, clean the gutters, or sweep off the patio. Dad asked for 6 things, he did three. Therefore half the pay. Crestfallen, Luis accepted this explanation. He only heard half of the directions. Rather, he heard it, but wasn’t listening.

Regarding this proclivity for selective hearing, the same can be said for many of the parables of Jesus.

ADHDIn many ways, we have what a preaching professor of mine called “Attention Deficit Discipleship.” We, like Luis, can often get distracted by what we want to hear, to the exclusion of what might be necessary to hear. It doesn’t help when, over the course of centuries, certain narratives and certain morals are consistently reinforced, narratives that may exclude something very crucial to understanding what scripture may be trying to get across, even the words of Jesus Christ himself.

This parable of the “wheat and the weeds” is fairly similar in reference material to the parable of the seeds–all of Jesus’s parables drew on common experience, and back then, common experience usually involved agriculture–but with a different emphasis. Instead on just one type of seed being planted in various soils, this one instead focuses not on whether or not the seeds will grow, but what they will grow to become.

However, with that said, it’s interesting how our minds will often gravitate to one part of the parable and ignore other parts, because it is simply something that many of us are fascinated by. In fact, ignoring the flashy bits, and instead focusing on what Christ may want us to focus on may be the hardest thing to do.

devil-4_credit-Shutterstock

Pictured: Not what this passage is actually about.

The Elephant in the Room

So let’s get this out of the way: This parable is not actually about hell and the nature of evil.

As much as we are hypnotized by evil and the afterlife, that’s not really what I think Jesus is trying to say with this parable. Why do I say this? Well, for one, this parable doesn’t really do a very good job of explaining evil at all.

First of all, a parable is a story meant to explain a spiritual truth via the means of a metaphor, or an analogy. With any analogy, there will always be a point where the metaphor will break down. There is nothing you can do to get around this, even if you’re the Son of God. That’s just not how analogies work. So while they can be and are useful to some degree, it will never be a 1 to 1 perfect fit. Analogies are meant to explain one, maybe two, main ideas–not everything it uses in the process.

Where this one breaks down is the explanation of the evil in this world. Jesus says that the weeds are “followers of the evil one.” Well, if that’s the case, wouldn’t these followers of the evil one have been evil since before they were born? And if that’s the case, would it then be logical to say that God created these people to be evil? And if that’s the case, why did God say in the beginning that humanity was created and called “very good?” Also, if we believe that God loves humanity and wants us to be in a relationship with us, does that extend to these bad seeds? Do these people have any hope at all, or are they condemned before their birth? And if they are, how could we then call God all good and loving if he created people just to be destroyed and condemned?

This is a line of questioning that can lead to some less-than-satisfying answers. There is of course those in the Reformed tradition that sees no problem with this, and believe that if God is truly sovereign, then there is no incompatibility with the idea that God is good and created people specifically to be condemned. This theology very much leans on the notion that the ways of God are not our ways, and we ought not question God’s logic. To me though, this action does not sound like a God that I would want to worship. Hell ought not be a place for people specifically created to do evil in the world, but people who choose to do evil in the world unrepentantly. I don’t like the idea that though I might have faith in God, and good works to compliment it, if God pre-determined that I was to be sent to the flames despite everything I’ve believed, said and done, well, that just doesn’t sound like a very good God. It sounds like a petty tyrant, not a loving and just father.

To be honest, it doesn’t much sound like the farmer in the parable, either.

This is a farmer who doesn’t want his servants going out and immediately weeding the crops because he’s afraid of damaging the good wheat. That is definitely merciful, and more than just. I know that if I was tending a garden, I would want to yank those weeds out as soon as I saw them. But that’s not how this farmer works. In fact, this farmer seems very patient, and kind.

So that kind of logic is inconsistent within the same parable. Which is why focusing on the evil and hell part, though flashy, entertaining, and attention-grabbing, is not really the focus of the parable. It is simply a period on a sentence. Jesus rarely said the most crucial parts of his teachings at the end, anyways. His teachings almost always have a structure of escalation, where the climax is in the middle, and not the end.

There are many sermons one can make about the nature of evil and the existence of hell. This parable, however, does not lend itself to that naturally.

Businessman and questionsHard to Swallow

So, you may be asking, if this is NOT a parable about hell and evil, then what is it about? Well, it’s almost the opposite: It’s actually about ambiguity.

Yes, one of the most seemingly cut-and-dried parables, one which most people assume just explains the division of good and bad people being sorted out for their respective afterlives, is actually about us not really being able to tell the difference in this life.

Why do I believe this? Because look at how Jesus divides up the metaphor. The Farmer is the Son of Man, the farmhands are the angels, the farm is the world, the wheat are the righteous, and the weeds are followers of the evil one. Note, then, who is the one deciding which pile goes where? It’s the Son of Man. And who are the reapers? The angels. Who is being reaped? Us. It’s us. We are the ones who are being acted upon in this situation. We are not acting. We are not deciding who is good and who is evil. We are the ones being judged.

This gets to the heart of the issue. We are so focused on the hell and evil because we imagine ourselves in the place of the angels, sent to do the reaping, or even the Son of Man, sent to be the judge. But ours is not to judge, but to be judged. Our imaginations are captivated by the mental calculus of who’s where when we die, and deciding who are the followers of Satan and who the righteous are that we lose the plot of the parable: We will be EVENTUALLY be reaped, but until then, we can’t tell who is good and who is evil. So for now, things are ambiguous. And we have to live with the ambiguity.

We don’t like ambiguity though. Nobody likes ambiguity.

Ambiguity is something that for about 150 years, evangelical Christianity has been trying to erase from scripture, even though it’s thoroughly baked into the batter. When our modern scientific minds decided that the bible is entirely black and white, A is A, we lost a big part of what makes scripture so beautiful and special. When you read a poem, do you read it for the scientific analysis it provides? When you sing a song, do you sing it because of how accurate it is in explaining the cosmos? True, there are laws in scripture, and histories, but more important than anything actually written down in the bible is the story it was meant to tell. A love story. A story that transcends black and white, a story that is more accurate to real life than any other story. Life is not black and white, and filled with ambiguity. Scripture is here to help prepare us to deal with ambiguity.

harvest-038Preparing for the Harvest

To bring this all together, we must come to terms with what we are. We are what will in the end be harvested. As such, we are tasked with one task: To grow. To focus on our own growth. To think first and foremost about the status of our own soul, and not that of another.

Jesus reiterated this many times, but coined the famous maxim that we are to take the log out of our own eye before we remove the speck out of our neighbors. How other people live their lives? That’s not your problem. Your problem is your life. How is your status with God? How is your relationship? Have you been taking care of your relationship with God? Have you been reading scripture? Have you been praying? Have you taken the time to be in communion with God? Have you been growing in love with God and your neighbor? I think who we perceive ourselves to be is tremendously important, because it helps govern how we live. God in the beginning called us beloved children. When we see ourselves as such, we begin to live as such.

I’ll close with this thought I learned from Rev. David Henson.

“In the Master’s garden, The Master errs on the side of growth rather than punishment. The Master is more concerned with everything growing than just the right things growing. But our tendency is to read a great deal of punishment in all this; the eventual burning of the weeds becomes for us a metaphor for the fires of hell and judgment. The introduction of flames in the last few sentences colors the entire parable.

But, to me, it’s not a promise of judgment. It’s a promise of harvest. Harvest is about feeding people. It’s about sustenance. It is about bounty and abundance. Our [minds]… however, have turned the theological idea of a harvest into something to be feared, a terrible separating of those who belong and those who don’t.

But that’s not what a harvest is about. Harvests bring together communities. Harvests are hard-work, to be sure, but they are to be celebrated, not feared. In the end, by the time the harvest arrives, no one is concerned with the weeds any more. They are concerned and thrilled at the bounty and abundance springing from the land. They are concerned about putting up food for the lean months. They are excited about a season’s work bringing forth fruit.

Weeds are a concern only for those who can’t see the joy of the harvest.”

So may you go out and see the harvest for what it is: a celebration. May you grow in love with God, and ever give thanks to God. Glory to God. Amen.

 

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Ideal Conditions, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Ideal Conditions Promo

13 That day Jesus went out of the house and sat down beside the lake.Such large crowds gathered around him that he climbed into a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the shore.

He said many things to them in parables: “A farmer went out to scatter seed.  As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it.  Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep.  But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots.  Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them.  Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. Everyone who has ears should pay attention.”

storyteller

Being a writer and a storyteller, you often wonder if people are actually understanding what you say, and what you are telling them.

When you tell a story, you aren’t ever just telling a story. Every story bears a kind of truth, either out in front where everyone can understand it, or with meaning buried deep within it, and often, stories have both.

One must be careful though. In the film V for Vendetta, the protagonist at one point says that artists use lies to tell the truth. And in truth, a storyteller is a kind of liar. When you weave a fictional story, It is always dangerous, because inevitably you are lying to your audience. The events you tell of did not actually happen. And yet, even if they never did happen, a good storyteller wishes to tell you more than just a story. More than just something to make you feel something for a brief flash of a moment. A good storyteller wants you to change as a result of having heard the story. A story is a catalyst for many things. A story can even change a life.

I’ve told you many stories from this pulpit. Some of them have been historical, some of them have been fictional examples, vignettes from which to draw meaning. I do this because I fall into the tradition that Jesus started in his use of parables and storytelling.

I read to you the parable of the soils this morning without Jesus’s explanation because I want you to ponder it without Jesus telling you what to think of it first.

That’s actually how Jesus intended us to receive it, however. It was only at the urging of the disciples that he gave an interpretation to the story. I imagine he was a it disappointed that he had to do so. Well, I don’t have to imagine too hard; he all but says so. He laments that, when he gives the parables, that many do not have the understanding to perceive what he is saying, and that if they can’t understand a parable he gives, they really don’t understand anything. In fact, one could say that this parable was about parables themselves: that what the farmer sows may not be land in fertile ground. That Jesus didn’t wait for ideal conditions to give this parable is telling of what he thinks of us, and how he does his ministry.

A storyteller often wonders if the people understand what they’re trying to tell them. Jesus didn’t have to wonder. He knew. And he knew that those who did understand would be blessed with a glimpse at the kingdom of heaven.

parable-of-the-sower-and-seedsA Parable about a Farmer

For a moment, then, let’s ignore what Jesus tells us about the soil. Let’s instead focus on the other aspects of the story he was telling us. First, let’s talk about the farmer.

This farmer in the story, to be completely honest, doesn’t seem to be a very deliberate farmer. In fact, he seems quite careless. I mean, he just throws his seeds around, not really caring where the seeds will land. He haphazardly tosses the life-bearing seeds onto any kind of soil, be it fertile, rocky, dry, or even on the hard road. He just…let it out into the world. He let nature take its course.

This means either one of two things for the farmer: either he’s a great fool, or he’s a generous soul. Now, obviously, Jesus certainly didn’t mean the farmer in this allegory to be a fool, but that wouldn’t stop people from thinking of him as so, would it? In fact it’s said many times that God’s wisdom is foolishness to the masses, and wisdom of men is foolishness to God. So we must be cautious in labeling the farmer a fool.

So that leaves generosity. The farmer spreads the seed far and wide, wherever the wind might take it, in hopes that it would take root anywhere, not really caring if some of it might not grow and bear fruit. The point is that the seed is sown.

That should say a lot to us, as well. If we are to imagine that the farmer is Christ, then we must take seriously that Christ does not aim to sow his seed in only particular places, with only particular people in mind. He did not come only to Jews. He did not go only to people in the Middle East. He did not send his disciples only to Greek speaking areas. He sent them out into the world. He did not preach only to the people in the synagogues, but on the streets, where anyone and everyone could hear him, in the hopes that the seeds might take root somewhere unexpected.

Because that’s just it, isn’t it? Where one might think the most ideal conditions would be–the synagogue– was not where his message took root, was it? In fact, it was in this supposedly “ideal setting” that Jesus was met with the most opposition, and even threatened with death multiple times. That his generous message of salvation and the kingdom of heaven was given generously everywhere should mean something to us: that the ideal conditions for growth may not be where we are now, but where we might be in the future.

What-Is-Soil-Organic-Matter_Natural-Resources-ConservationA Parable about Soil

Now, I’d like to talk about the soil, because it is by far the most varied portion of the scripture.

Jesus, in the second half of the reading which I will now read, explains how these soils might interact with our own experience. Here’s the rest, 18-23:

18 “Consider then the parable of the farmer. 19  Whenever people hear the word about the kingdom and don’t understand it, the evil one comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. 20  As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. 21  Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. 22  As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit. 23  As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce—in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.”

So we see he warns of 3 dangers for people who receive the “seed,” which would be his gospel: Either it doesn’t take root and the message is destroyed from the outset, the faith is shallow and dies in harsh conditions, or the faith is choked away by sin.

stubborn kidDo any of these situations sound familiar to you? They certainly are to me. First there will always be people who are stubborn and refuse to listen. There will be people who don’t believe that there is anything wrong with the way they are now, or that they even need a savior. There will also be people who refuse the gospel out of hand because of other reasons: perhaps it simply doesn’t make sense, or it is so thoroughly implausible as to be laughed at out of hand. Perhaps they even have heard tale of abuses within the church, and want no part of the whole thing. These I would say belong to the first group: the seed has no way to take root, because it fell on concrete or asphalt. It just won’t take.

shallow_roots_aric

“Shallow Roots,” by Aric Mei

Then, there are people who have a shallow faith, who start out enthusiastic but at the first sign of turbulence, abandon the faith. Sadly, I must blame much of this on people who have been charged with sharing the gospel. For many a generation, there have been preachers who have not taken care to tell people what faith truly requires, that it’s more than a good feeling you get from accepting Jesus, but it means that life only gets harder, not easier, when you have faith. Life will have hard times. There will be illness, loss, grief, and obstacles. So we must take care to share the gospel accurately, and not ignore the fact that it calls us not to lie down in a bed of roses, but to pick up our cross and follow him.

thorns-1675314_960_720And of course, there are those whose faith is choked away by sin and cares of this world. And for a moment, lets ignore the big flashy sins that get the headlines. Let’s ignore identity politics, and look at the real dangers Jesus mentions: worries of life and the appeal of wealth. Does he mention sex? No. Does he mention Government? No. Does he mention anything that Christians on tv and radio ever talk about? Not at all. He talks about anxiety and greed. He talks about fear, and he talks about money. Those two lead to a great deal of sin. Chasing money can lead us to sacrifice much on a pagan altar. It can cause us to sacrifice our families, and even the livelihoods of others. It can cause us to lie and cheat the system. Jesus has no illusions: just because it isn’t illegal, doesn’t mean it’s right. Likewise with anxiety and fear. As one who struggles with clinical anxiety, I can certainly see how it might choke whatever faith I might have. Anxiety in general, however, is based in fear, and also sadness. It is a mixture of those emotions, which can cause all kinds of havoc. It can make us lash out. It can make us shut others out as well. It can make us something other than what we are. It will choke out your faith.

gardening_in_mnThe Work Ahead of Us

So, with all of that said, we have some work ahead of us. What work you ask? Jesus is already the one sowing the seed. So what work does that leave for us?

Well, first of all, we need to examine our own faith, and ask ourselves: are we the kind of soil that will be conducive to bearing fruit? Are we in ideal condition? Do we listen and understand what Jesus says, or dismiss what he says in favor of a different, gospel, philosophy, or way of life? Do we have a faith deep enough to withstand the hottest sun, the coldest winter, or the most torrential downpour? Do we have faith that resists the sins that Jesus warns us of, fear and greed? Can we muster up the faith to bear fruit in this world that can feed the hungriest of hearts?

And second, we must tend to our garden, which is to say, this church. Can we make this place fertile ground, ideal conditions for us to bear fruit? Can you be a person who makes it so that others can accept the good news? And are you ready for that to happen? Because when it does, things change. And any change is hard. We are creature of habit, and it’s hard to change. But that’s how plants work, right? They grow, and change from a tiny seed to a vine that produces all kinds of nourishing food. We must be willing to change if we want to be willing to grow, spiritually or otherwise. And we must make it so that we have ideal conditions for others to grow.

That is our task. That is the mission. That’s what work we have ahead of us. So go, and bear fruit. Go, and tend to the soil. Go, and bear the good news to the world.

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