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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Bring it Into the Light, Matthew 10:24-39

I’m back! after a brief hiatus, I’ll be attempting to update this blog more often, as well as offer some new content. In other words, I’ll actually be blogging, and not just dumping sermons here. Yay! 

Matthew 10:24-39

24 “Disciples aren’t greater than their teacher, and slaves aren’t greater than their master. 25 It’s enough for disciples to be like their teacher and slaves like their master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, it’s certain that they will call the members of his household by even worse names.

26 “Therefore, don’t be afraid of those people because nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed, and nothing secret that won’t be brought out into the open. 27 What I say to you in the darkness, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, announce from the rooftops. 28 Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell. 29 Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already. 30 Even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.

32 “Therefore, everyone who acknowledges me before people, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven. 33 But everyone who denies me before people, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

34 “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword. 35 I’ve come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 People’s enemies are members of their own households.[a]

37 “Those who love father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me. 38 Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. 39 Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.
The darkest darkness I’ve ever known was when I had one spring break in West Texas and New Mexico.
One might think that I’m talking about Carlsbad caverns, which I did go to and experience, but because it was so well lit, I can’t say that it was super dark. They’ve removed the darkness from that cave, and so in some ways its lost some of the fear it might have commanded. No, the darkest I’ve experienced was on top of Mount Locke at the McDonald Observatory.

McDonald Observatory
When you go to experience it, you have to go later in the evening, say around 10 pm. That’s not nearly as dark as it gets though. On top of that mountain, you simply lie down on the ground and stare up at the stars. It’s best to do this on a moonless night, as well. When you do that, all around you are other people, but you can only make out their dark shapes (it is a tourist attraction, after all). You can’t hardly see anything around you at all. But you look up at the sky, you are overwhelmed by both darkness…and light. The light of the stars is just as overwhelming as the dark, but in a different way. It’s a light that lights up not you, but the rest of the universe. You, and all the people around you, are small, dim shapes. But creation? Creation is a dazzling, swirling ocean of light, life, color and beauty. It brings you into the realization that John the Baptizer came to long ago: I must decrease, and He, God, must increase. In the darkest of darkness, true light shines brightest.
lantern 2.jpgJesus’s teachings are often like the lights of stars in a dark and overwhelming universe, shining despite that which threatens to consume it. Nonetheless, he calls us to shine: “What I say to you in the darkness, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, announce from the rooftops.” With these words, Jesus sets us up to be a megaphone for his teachings, his miracles, and the salvation he offers…if we would simply bear his light. Which, of course, is easier said than done.
The whole of this passage is essentially that: living as followers of Christ is easier said than done. There will be trouble. We must not fear it though. Through everything, we must bring the light of Christ into a dark world, because those who dwell in darkness need the light more than they will ever know. See, in darkness, our eyes adjust, and soon we begin to believe we don’t need the light. But when the light shines, we truly see what we missed out on. That is the challenge before us today.

Trouble Will Come

Perhaps the biggest hurdle of this passage comes at the end, with one of Jesus’s most quoted and least understood passages, Verse 34: “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword.”
This proclamation has vexed many a Christian before, and will continue to vex us, because quite frankly, this seems to go against everything Jesus stands for. I don’t come to bring peace? I thought you were supposed to be the Prince of Peace! Not a few chapters before, you told us “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “turn the other cheek.” Jesus’s teachings overwhelmingly follow an ethics of nonviolence. So what’s the story here? Why does he say that he will bring not peace, but a sword?
What he’s hinting at is a truth that I think we don’t want to admit. His teachings of non-violence? They will make other people be violent. His message of peace will make others not following him take up a sword against his followers. Those who bring his light into the dark will face persecution. So because his followers choose to live peaceably in a violent world, we will suffer violence. We aren’t the ones who are going to be bearing the sword, but rather the sword will be brought to us, because of the nature of light and darkness. The darkness cannot understand the light, and will respond the only way it knows how to: by trying to extinguish it. But we must bear the light anyways, fearlessly.
But what about the other half of the quote?
35 I’ve come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 People’s enemies are members of their own households.[a] 37 “Those who love father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me.
That is a really hard teaching to take… if you take what he’s saying at face value. And let’s be honest: there may be families that may not take to true discipleship. Truly following Jesus is countercultural, even here in the bible belt. There is much we take for granted as the majority cultural religion down here, but the truth is following Christ has a lot of ramifications that may be difficult for some family members to take. Truly loving and lifting up the poor, the oppressed and downtrodden is far from popular or easy. Going the extra mile takes sacrifice, as does carrying your cross. Rejecting what we value culturally and embracing what we should value faithfully can be very costly.

Theologian Michael Danner said it well:

“The best interpretation of this passage, in my view, comes from an atheist philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek … Jesus isn’t saying that I have to love him more than my mom and my dad and my kids. Rather, mom, dad and child stand for the social structure of Jesus’ day, which is rooted in hierarchy, power-dominance relationship and patriarchy. The conclusion being that Jesus isn’t coming to wreck your family, he’s coming to wreck your society.   He’s not coming to wreck your society for the sake of wrecking it, but for the sake of opening up new space for a new future, more in line with what God intended from the beginning.”

God intended for us to love each other fully, and to love God with our whole selves. God intended for us to bear light into a dark world, but darkness will trick us into thinking it’s normal, even good. So fight it. Fight that impulse with everything you have. Jesus is going to wreck your whole world, and make it so much better, flood it with dazzling light.

Don’t Be Afraid

Sounds pretty daunting, doesn’t it? Jesus is laying down the gauntlet for us. But before we go through that, he gives us of all things assurance: Don’t be afraid.
Whatever we face, God’s got us. God knows when a sparrow flies. God knows how many hairs are on our heads. God will care for us even in the darkest of nights, the deepest of caves, and the most violent of battles. In bearing our crosses, God knows us, loves us, and therefore we need not worry.
Admittedly, that’s kind of like slapping a band-aid on a broken arm. Doesn’t seem to really relieve us, when we’re surrounded by evil. And yet, refusing to fear is part of that light we are asked to bear to the world. Refusal to fear? That’s what must do in this world.
We live in a world in which the terrorists won. Why do I say that? Because our lives are defined by fear, and a craving for security. We are afraid, so we invest in weaponry and swords, because we misunderstand what Jesus meant. We fortify ourselves more and more, to protect what we have, when Jesus asks us to risk it all for his light and glory. We follow leaders who yell loudly so as to intimidate and cow our perceived enemies, when Christ asked us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We feed our fear more and more, and our fear instead consumes us. It takes far more courage to let go than it does to cling tightly. The way of Jesus is not a clenched fist, but an open palm.
We do this because, as I said before, we’ve gotten used to the dark, and we mistake the dark for light.
Our eyes have adjusted, and the light is too bright for us to comprehend. But we are asked to comprehend it anyways. So don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to lose everything, because that’s exactly what Jesus asks us to do. You must decrease, while he must increase.
Creation is so much bigger than us. We are but dim, dark shapes in a universe of light, and once we understand that, we can live for that light all the easier. Though we might be afraid of it, God will be with us through it all. There is no need to fear, because when we let go of our fear, we become free. Free to love. Free to live. Free to bring our light into the dark.

Let the Light Shine

So let the light shine. Let the light of Jesus envelop you. Let the hope of God’s glory consume you. Let go of your fear, and take up your cross. Let go of your shame. Let go of your hate, your pride, you greed. Let go of all of your darkness. Embrace the light. And let it shine. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Bittersweet Parade, Matthew 21:1-11

Cross palms

When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.”[a] The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.

Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![b] Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:1-11)

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A young boy on the outskirts of Jerusalem stands in the barn with a shovel, doing his morning cleanup of the stables. Flies buzz  around him, and as he swats them away, at the gate of his field, he sees a group of men gathering, and making way to enter the gate.

The creaking gate opens, and they bolt for the stable–the one the boy is shoveling in. Confused by the odd intrusion, the boy leans on the shovel and watches as the men dash towards him. When they make it to the boy, panting for breath, they start to unhitch a donkey and a colt. The boy’s father’s donkey and colt. As they untie the hitch it dawns on the boy–they’re stealing the livestock.

The boy yells and says, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?! That’s not yours, that’s my dad’s! You can’t take them!”

The strange men, finishing their crime, push the boy away and say “Don’t worry! The Lord has need of it!”

This gives the farm boy pause. A lord? Why would a lord need a donkey and a colt? Wouldn’t a lord have horses already, and much better ones than these? Then again, if it is a lord that needs them, then he’s really in no position to protest, now is he?  So he lets them go.

As they leave, the farm boy hopes that this lord will return the donkey and colt later. Then again, any lord he’s ever met wouldn’t think twice about keeping them. This knowledge left a bit of a sting in his heart. At the same time, he couldn’t help but think that if a lord needed those animals, maybe it was truly out of need, and he did a good thing. Yeah, that’s it. He helped out someone in need. That’s what he needs to focus on, the farm boy decided. God’s going to remember this, and think fondly on the good deed.

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A Parade Long Foretold

palm sunday art 1

Art by Hanna-Cheriyan Varghese

Palm Sunday is, on its surface, a simple kind of day. It’s the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem. It’s a day of triumph, celebration and joy. But, it’s also a day that is bittersweet.

After all, this is the high point of Jesus’ ministry. He was never more popular in his life than on Palm Sunday. As soon as he entered Jerusalem, the problems began. Immediately after his arrival, he went to the temple and drove out the money changers and vendors selling sacrificial animals. He repeatedly confronted the temple officials, pharisees and sadducees. And most dangerously of all, he did this on the Passover festival.

Why is it dangerous that he did so at Passover? Let’s think about that. Passover is the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar. It’s the day that they celebrate their escape from Egypt, their liberation from slavery. People came from all over Israel to make sacrifices at the temple and celebrate the Passover feast, the Seder.

The city of Jerusalem is then crowded over capacity…which makes the Romans, the guys who run the government of Jerusalem, nervous. Their security is heightened, and on high alert. Jerusalem is then an overcrowded city with lots of people from all over and soldiers guarding every street to watch for trouble.

That’s the situation in Jerusalem when Jesus and his parade enters into the city. Starting on the Mount of Olives, riding a colt and a donkey, Jesus comes to the city with throngs of people around him, making a lot of noise and commotion in a city on high alert. You can see why the authorities didn’t like him. He was a threat. A threat to the peace. A threat to the people of Jerusalem. Tensions were boiling over, and he was not making things better for those in power.

Now, why is it important that he was at the mount of olives, riding a colt and a donkey? Because that was a sign, a prophecy from the scriptures that many, if not most Jews, would have known.

It was prophesied that the messiah on his victory march would enter the city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives riding on a donkey. People would have seen this and immediately made the conclusion that this Jesus is posturing himself to fulfill this prophecy. And for them, this was a declaration of intent to conquer the city and usher in a new age.

The age they were looking for, though, was not the kind of age Jesus was bringing in,. He was entering as a messiah, but the messiah that God had in mind is not what the people thought.

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A voice from the crowd exclaims, “It’s him! It’s him! He’s coming, quick come and see him!” The merchant lazily lifts her head to see what all the commotion was. There was a lull in the action, you see. People hadn’t been coming by her fruit stand for a while, so she closed her eyes to rest for a moment before more customers came.

As she opened her eyes, she saw that on the next street over, something indeed was going on. Her curiosity piqued, she leaves the stand unattended to go and see the commotion. If someone stole from her stand while she was away, that was a risk she was willing to take. Something interesting was happening. That doesn’t happen all the time. She’d been coming to Passover all of her life, and it was the same each year. Same crowds, same soldiers, same everything. But this was different. In all her life, she hadn’t seen as packed and as excited a crowd as this one.

As she made her way to the road where everyone was gathered, she saw in their hands palm branches cut down from nearby trees. Was a noble coming by? And if he was, why was he coming this way? And why weren’t there as many roman guards lining the road? This was very odd indeed.

Finally, as the crowd’s noise rose, she saw who was actually coming. He didn’t look like a noble. He just looked like a guy, like one of the people who picked the fruit in her husband’s grove. But all these people were around him? Why? And yet, there was a magnetism to him. Was it just the energy of the crowd? Or was there truly something different about this person? Is he really as important as everyone sees him to be? Who is he?

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palm-sunday iconThe Messiah the God Has in Mind

The Messiah God had in mind was very different from what we expected.

The Messiah God had in mind, the one we find in Jesus, may have come riding on what was foretold, a colt and a donkey, but that in and of itself is a statement. He didn’t ride a horse. He didn’t ride a camel, or elephant, or anything exotic. He rode on normal, barnyard animals. He didn’t ride anything exotic because he wasn’t exotic. As extraordinary as Jesus is, being both God and Man, he didn’t portray himself as such. He wore clothes common people wore. He rode common ordinary animals. He worked miracles with ordinary things, like mud, and water, and bread and fish. He didn’t have a magic cupboard of potions, but rather a few words, open hands, and a loving heart. His miracles were extraordinary, but in ordinary ways.

He was a healer, but he didn’t charge for his healing. He gave it away freely, the only requirement almost always being a show of good faith. He wandered the streets, hung out with lepers, scoundrels and prostitutes. He had a heart for the common person, the people on the lower rung of society. And so he was a messiah, an anointed one, one chosen to liberate the people, and to do that he got to know the people, love the people, and care for the people.

So this unexpected, ordinary messiah comes to town, and upsets everything. And It goes great at first. But soon the parade ends, and the bitterness invades the sweetness of the day.

This week, we observe the rest of his journey. Today is the triumph of the ordinary messiah. Thursday will be his final meal. Thursday night will be the night of his betrayal. Friday will be the day that he is tried, tortured, and put to death. He will die the death of a traitorous criminal, though he was still the ordinary messiah from today. Saturday, he will lie dead in a tomb. The week will add bitterness to this day, but that doesn’t stop us from singing hosannas. That shouldn’t stop us from praising him as he is fit to be praised: as our king, our triumphant ordinary Messiah.

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The soldier watched it all from outside the temple as the man walked inside the gates. Odd, the soldier thought. Why would this man be causing such a ruckus? Why the parade? And why did he cause such a mess inside the temple? As he wrestled the rowdier of his disciples away, and as the man’s group followed him back into the city, the soldier looked into the temple. What a mess. Why does Passover always bring out the crazies?

As he helped the merchants set their tables back up, he overheard the conversations between the temple officials. Their voices suddenly hushed. They were talking about this troublemaker, saying they needed to put in a few calls to the governor. Words like “for the good of the nation” and “he must be dealt with” were uttered.

The soldier tried to mind his business, but the conversation was too interesting to ignore. What were they up to? This guy just seemed to be your average troublemaker. He may have messed up the temple, but do they really need the governor involved? That seems a bit extreme, he thought. But, his job was not to ask questions. His job was to obey orders. His job was to protect the people, to provide security, by any means necessary. If that meant he needed to get rough, to shed blood, or even kill? Then that was what he needed to do. He was there to do what needed to be done, just like every soldier. That doesn’t make sleeping any easier though.

He thought about he man who had the parade. He seemed rather ordinary. But he obviously wasn’t. He sighed. We’ll just have wait and see what becomes of him.

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A Moment of Rest, Psalm 23

A Moment of Rest promo
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;[a]
    he restores my soul.[b]
He leads me in right paths[c]
    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[d]
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely[e] goodness and mercy[f] shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.[g

 

 

pond-0How often have I said these words at times of need? How often have I uttered this poem in the depths of my heart so that I, in a moment of conflict and despair, may have a word of comfort, rest, and Sabbath?

There is little to be said about Psalm 23 as an introduction. It is by far in the rankings of the top five works of scripture of all time. Everyone has heard it before. Language, nation, and lifestyle, I doubt there is someone who has not heard this poem at some point in their lives. If nothing else, you’ve heard it at a funeral, in King James English. It has been etched on stone, embroidered in cross stitch, and emblazoned on billboards.

Why? Why this psalm? Why this poem? I cannot say. It is however one of the most powerful pieces of scripture in the canon, though, because it speaks deeply to human need, human faith, and the human condition.

Why read this in Lent? Because we are in the middle of it all.

Lent is, after all, a season of fasting, repentance, and preparation. Lent is a journey, a journey to a difficult end, a daunting finale, one of supreme grief, but also overwhelming joy. In every journey, though, one must take time tor rest. That is what this psalm offers us today. A moment of rest.

trust father and childA Moment of Trust

Essential to understanding psalm 23 is an virtue that is sorely needed in this world, and that the notion of trust.

This psalm is one of a particular kind, known a “song of trust.” There are others in the psalms like it: psalm 4, 11, 27, 16, 62, and 131. What makes a song of trust is that it has within it a sense of impending disaster, calamity, or danger. Something bad is about to happen, or several bad things are going to happen. Coupled with this sense of danger, though, is a sense of trust that the disaster will pass. All will be well.

In this psalm we see this clearly. Walking through the valley of the shadow of death? That is a clear and present disaster waiting to happen. It’s like walking though a dark forest at night, and seeing the glint of moonlight in two small eyes inside of a bush. You don’t know what’s inside that bush, but you know it’s something you don’t want to see. Calamity may fall upon you, but you trust that you’re going to make it back to camp safely. You trust that God will protect you.

Trust is hard to come by these days.

We live in an age of conflicting sources and alternative facts. We can’t even agree what facts are anymore. If we can’t do that, how on earth are we going to trust each other? Direct contradiction and barely concealed hostility between each other is no way to live, and yet it is our present and very dangerous reality. We have never been more divided than we are now. So how is it that we are asked to trust?

The fact is, trust takes time and care. You must take time to walk alongside someone to gain trust. A child trusts their mother because that mother (hopefully) has been with that child through everything. A person trusts their spouse because they have spent a lot of time together, for richer for poorer and in sickness and health. You don’t instantly trust someone. It takes time. Not everyone has the patience for trust, but if you do, trust is a great asset and resource to draw on, especially in moments of impending disaster.

Which is why this psalm is so important, and frequently quoted. It speaks of deep trust between a you and your God. It says that though you walk through that dark valley, you’re not afraid. God is going to protect you. God will lead you through it. But the only way to get that kind of trust is with time. Time, prayer, faith–this is what leads us to say with full confidence, “Your rod and staff, they comfort me.”

Why-You-Still-Probably-Need-More-Rest-FinalMake Me Rest

As God comforts us, we must also take seriously our own state, and our need for rest.

We’re halfway through Lent after all, and as anyone knows, you can’t walk a journey of a thousand miles without taking some time to stop and regain your strength after a while. Jesus Christ took many opportunities to go off by himself to pray, to regain strength, focus, and courage for the days ahead.

We are commanded in the great laws, the Ten Commandments, to take a rest, a Sabbath, and keep it holy. God himself rested on the seventh day of creation, and if God needs time to rest, to relax, and take stock in all that he’s done, then why are we so loathe to do so? Why do we resist rest? It’s obviously necessary, so why don’t we do it?

There are many reasons for us to not rest, to skip Sabbath and soldier on, tired and in need of respite.

Sometimes our work will swamp us. We overschedule our work and activity without paying attention to our needs for rest. And so we grind ourselves to death. Our work, our family, our obligations–we have an overwhelming desire to get it all done, and only then can we rest.

There’s some history to this. We in the US have a strong history of the Protestant Work Ethic. This is the belief that only in our work do we glorify God the best. That when we fail to work, we allow the devil to take over. “Idle Hands are the devil’s plaything,” as the saying goes. So we work. We work the fields. We work the mines. We work the factories. We work the cubicle and the office. We work the classroom. We work at home. We work and work and work, and drown ourselves out of a deep-seated cultural agreement that time is money, and only when you have enough may you rest.

But that has been exploited. Working overtime without rest is not good for anyone. A car needs to refuel. A field needs a season to lie fallow to regain its nutrients. A computer needs to reboot. And a human needs to rest. We need sleep. We need leisure and play. We need it not only for our bodies, but also for our souls.

This past week has been a week where I have experienced this deep spiritual need for rest, but also have seen it in others.

At a meeting this week with several of my brothers and sisters in ministry, one of the over-arching things we talked about in our check-in time was that we were tired. Down the line, our ministries were overwhelmingly successful and growing, but at the same time, we had spent so much time working and stressing that at the end of the day, we were just…tired. Drained. Our souls were positive, but depleted. We needed time to rest in the Lord.

One of my colleagues said that as he was preaching about Psalm 23 this week, what came to him most clearly was the phrase “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” He makes me lie down. He doesn’t ask me. He doesn’t suggest it. He makes me. He makes it so that I can do no others. And this is the moment the psalmist speaks of. When we are tired, dry, emotionally and spiritually depleted, we need to trust God enough to listen when he makes us to lie down, to rest.

This is something that only someone we trust can make us do.

A mother makes her child rest for a nap because she knows they are only cranky because they are tired. A good boss knows when their teams are past the saturation point and need some time off. A good military leader knows when their squad is tired and in need of R&R. And so a good God knows when we need to rest.

It is a deep sense of knowing and trust that allows rest. And so we must allow ourselves to rest in God from time to time. To lay by still waters. To restore our souls.

refreshed1Courage to Fear No Evil

Through rest, through trust, we are drawn closer to this good Shepherd. And through this trust, we are given courage to face what is ahead, to stand up, and keep moving.

In the end, this moment of rest and this assurance of trust has made it so that the psalmist claims that he will fear no evil. That his trust in God is so great that God can invite all of his worst enemies to dinner and wouldn’t be afraid of anything. Most of all, the poet is assured that as long as he lives, he will have a home at rest in the house of the Lord forever.

This takes great trust. It takes a willingness to let your guard down and rest. But above all, it takes courage. Courage to have faith. Courage to put your heart in God’s hands. Courage to breathe in the breath of God once in a while and be restored.

We are beset at all sides by challenges, fear and doubt. But in the middle of this season of Lent, take time to rest. Take time to find that quite meadow and allow yourself to be restored by God. For some this is easy. For some this may take monumental effort and will. But trust in God. Fear no evil. Take time to rest. And have courage, for God will be with you forever. Amen.

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