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.


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.”


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,” 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)


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.


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.


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?


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.


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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The First Evangelist, John 4.5-42

 the first evangelist promo

He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.

The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)

10 Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”

17 The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”

“You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,’” Jesus answered. 18 “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”

19 The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”

21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. 24 God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”

26 Jesus said to her, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.”[a]

27 Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to see Jesus.

31 In the meantime the disciples spoke to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”

32 Jesus said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”

33 The disciples asked each other, “Has someone brought him food?”

34 Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. 36 Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. 37 This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. 38 I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”

39 Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 Many more believed because of his word, 42 and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.”




It’s exhilarating to be able to give good news, isn’t it?

I mean, we have whole traditions around giving good news now. Making announcements are now just as important as the actual thing they are meant to announce. We love sharing good news. From Wedding announcements–greeting cards with engagement pictures on them saying “She said yes!” on them, posing in adorable ways–to gender reveal parties for babies–parties huddled around boxes of gender-coded balloons to reveal to friends and family that you’ll have a boy or a girl–the biggest moments in our lives are telegraphed in exciting and creative ways. Graduation parties do much the same thing. Even the heart pounding anticipation of opening a letter from a university, potentially holding good news that you have been accepted into your dream university, as small as it may be, is enough of a tradition to be codified in the modern human experience.

Getting good news feels amazing. Being able to give good news? Even more so. Because you get to see someone else receive something wonderful, that makes it a blessed experience. So to see the birth of a grand tradition like being able to get to share the good news of Jesus should be a much more important story than I think it is.

There’s a lot to the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

There are a lot of story aspects, and details, it’s easy to get distracted from the end result–that this woman became the first evangelist. Before the disciples and the apostles, an unnamed non Jewish woman became the pioneer of a grand Christian tradition. To experience her story is to experience the first of an important part of our own Christian lives, the witness to salvation, and sharing that witness to others.


Samaritan Woman At the Well, by He Qi

A Misunderstood Meeting

I feel like there’s a lot to be misunderstood about this meeting between Christ and the woman at the well. Because of this, there needs to be some clarification to understand why this meeting means so much.

First, we probably should talk about the well. I know, that’s what everyone comes to church for, right? A history of obscure middle eastern water sources? Seriously, though, this well is important despite appearances. It means something to both Jesus and the woman, and to the story itself.

First of all, the Well of Jacob isn’t actually mentioned in the bible before or after this. This is the only time it’s mentioned. It is a real well, though, in the city of Sychar in Samaria. There is some reference to it in Genesis, but only obliquely:

After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel. Genesis 33.18-20

On this ground the well was built, and for hundreds of years, Samaritans revered it as a holy and important place connecting them to the past and to their heritage.

Now, who were the Samaritans, you might be wondering? Samaria is a region in Central Israel/Palestine that used to be a part of Israel, but during the great wars in the times of the kings, they allied not with Israel but with the Assyrians. In this, they became traitors to the Israelites. History did not look kindly upon them. Henceforth, Jews didn’t associate with them, and thought them beneath them, as traitors and villains.

And yet, they shared in common the same God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This well was an enduring sign that they believed they belonged to God, even though they may have betrayed the Israelites. This well was important to the Samaritans, and thus to this Samaritan woman.

Let’s talk about this Samaritan woman a bit too, because there is much misunderstood about her as well.

Don’t get me wrong, there was much I was mistaken about as well. It’s something so often preached about that we don’t even think about it. As Jesus converses with her, he reveals that he knows something that was rather intimate–that she has had 5 husbands, and the man she lives with is not her husband. Immediately, good Christians for centuries have come to the conclusion that she had a licentious past. Rather, there is honestly a far more innocent reason for this. See, women didn’t really have the agency to be divorced back then. So more than likely? She’s a widower, being passed from husband to husband through levirate marriage laws, betrothed to the next brother or next of kin in line. She probably had nothing to do with the fact that she was married five times, but trapped in an arcane system that we have no modern context for.

Yet we still can’t get rid of our preconceptions. And because of that, we miss a lot of what was really important here. It’s not that Jesus forgave her, or shamed her, or anything negative. It’s that he knew her. Knew her before she knew him. It’s that he had foreknowledge of her life, it’s ups and downs, and approached her as a friend without even meeting her before. Because he recognized her as a friend, we ought to as well, and not look on her with pity or with shame. She is no more shameful or sinful than we. She was a person, and an important one at that, as we would go on to emulate her example as fellow witnesses of Jesus Christ.

samaritan woman iconReceiving the Good News

So now that we’ve gotten some of the background on this story, there isn’t all that much to the story.

Much like with Nicodemus, this isn’t as much a story as it is a conversation. Jesus rolls up into a Samaritan town. He’s thirsty. He asks a woman for some water at a well.

Already, though, he’s broken some boundaries. Unless you are family or married, you don’t just roll up and approach a woman like that back then. And yet, as I said, he greets her as a friend. Not only that, despite him being a Jew and her a Samaritan, two groups that don’t mix, he greets her as a friend. Despite whatever boundaries may have been there, Jesus didn’t care. He came to that well not to ask for water, but to have a conversation.

From there, the conversation goes from Jesus asking for some water, to her challenging him, his status against hers, and his impropriety.

I actually admire this woman, because she has the courage to call Jesus on his somewhat baffling behavior. Not even his own disciples were able to do so as ably as she did, and here she is. So kudos to her: she’s already proving to be a sharp wit and powerful conversationalist on her own.

Jesus prods at her reluctance by saying she should be asking him for water, really, because he’s got water that, if drunk from, will leave you never thirsty again. Which, if a stranger told me that, I’d probably not take it nearly as well as the Samaritan woman did. She quizzed him on this, and then he gives her the reveal: he knows about her. He knows her history, her identity–he knows her. Astonished by this, she has a ready-made response: so you’re a prophet eh? Ok, Jewish prophet-man, your people have told us our faith is bad, that we must worship at the temple, and yet we are barred from entry. You and your people have a lot to answer for.

I mean, the gall! The absolute nerve of the woman! This conversation’s taken more u-turns than a mountain drive. Yet Jesus actually agrees with her. He says its true that Jews do this, but he says that there’s going to come a time when that’s not going to be the case. Someday, people will be able to worship God wherever they are, without any artificial divisions, in spirit and truth. So he gives her this round.

She takes control of the conversation again. She says that she’s a believer in the messiah, that someone will come to save them and lead them. Not everyone believed this, but it was a growing movement in Judaism at the time. She was saying this to test him, to see how he believed. She never expected that he would respond positively, but that he would reveal his identity–that he was the Messiah.

coffee conversationA New Occupation

At that, the conversation ends. I imagine there was a moment of stunned knowing and understanding. He tipped his hand. She knew him now, as much as he knew her. And from there, she left.

From that moment on, she had a new life, and a new job, one she started to immediately do. She began telling everyone that she had met someone at the well who had known her entire life without meeting her, that he was a prophet, and that she could testify that he was the one who said I Am. That this was the Messiah. She became the first evangelist.

At that moment a new profession was born, something all of us followers of Jesus are called to do. We now get to follow in this brave woman’s footsteps. This woman who we are used to shaming now is the person we get to emulate. She’s the pioneer of our role as witness. She shared how she met Jesus. And she did it with everyone she met. She makes it look easy.

I won’t sugarcoat the fact that it takes courage to be an evangelist.

It’s really hard to talk about faith, especially to someone we don’t know. It’s hard to talk about faith, period. There’s going to be people who don’t want to know about it, or hear about it. But that’s where it takes tact and practice.

Am I telling you to be obnoxious in your evangelism? Not at all. What I ask you to do is be authentic. Be open about it. Don’t rely on platitudes and clichés. Talk about your individual experience. Talk about your walk with Christ. Talk about your ups and downs. Talk to others as Christ talked to this woman, not letting boundaries interfere. He broke the walls down. Now you get to walk where they once were to people who could use the good news.

This should be an exciting task, though. You get to give good news to people! You get to choose how you do it, too. You can be creative. You can do it your way. You can do it on your terms. And you can do it to anyone.

I pray that you get courageous, as this woman was. I hope that if you have experienced Jesus, you can bear witness to how he’s changed your life. If you’ve met Jesus, you get to share the good news. That’s one of the best jobs out there, giving good news. Have fun with it. Be open. Be honest. In Jesus Name, Amen.

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Midnight Conversations, John 3:1-17

midnight conversations promo

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew,[a] it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit[b] blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One.[c] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One[d] be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.


van_gogh_cafe-terrace-at-nightThe most important conversations I have ever had have happened late at night.

They happen over coffee at a midnight diner. They happen after parties and get-togethers, after we’re all good and tired and our inhibitions are down. They happen while studying for important exams. They happen during inventories in the back room before a big sales day. They happen after the kids have gone to sleep. They happen when your kids have a bad nightmare and they’re shaking and aching for comfort. They happen as you sweat and cry over your finances. They happen after funerals. They happen after weddings. They happen after all the non-essentials have fallen away and you can have the conversations you dread to have and yet ache to have.

I could fill a book with all the midnight conversations I’ve had, and how they’ve changed me, who I am, how I think, how I believe. You learn about yourself at midnight. You learn about what matters.

I’ll tell you about one such midnight conversation.

night patioIt was after a long night hanging out with my brother and his roommates. Nobody had work the next day and it was right as the school year ended, so we could relax knowing the next day was off. I got to talking on the back porch with one of his roommates, who I’ll just call “Bill.” Bill was raised catholic, but didn’t go to church anymore. He had long abandoned the faith for atheism, and he was quite vocal about it, because church didn’t make much sense anymore to him. At the time, I had only just begun my journey to be a minister, and so I was freshly instilled with a sense of purpose and hope. He and I talked a long, long time. We talked about the nature of God. If God is real, why is there suffering? Why do so many people do such evil in his name? What’s the purpose of belief? Why does the church seem to resist independent thought? We talked for a couple of hours on all of this, and so much more. It was a long time ago. I don’t remember all the details. But what I do remember is that we had a genuine connection, and though we remained on opposite sides of the faith spectrum, we came to mutual understanding why we believe what we do. So I didn’t make a New Christian that night. He didn’t enlighten a New Atheist that night either. But we came together and talked. It changed me. I hope it affected him too.

The midnight conversation happens when you least expect it. Neither Bill nor I expected to talk about the meaning of life that night. But we did. And so today, we talk about another midnight conversation, one between a religious official and a religious outsider. There was mutual respect between Jesus and Nicodemus. They came to each other openly, honestly, and in good faith. And that midnight conversation has echoed down through the ages to challenge not only Nicodemus, but us in his place.

nicodemus-visiting-jesus_henry-ossawa-tannerEnemies become Friends

This story contains one of the most important and most recognizable passages in all of scripture, but if all you take away from this passage is John 3:16, you miss out on everything that makes 3:16 so powerful.

First of all, Nicodemus makes the first move. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. I’ve said it before, but Pharisees and Jesus actually didn’t have all that many theological differences. They were very similar in beliefs. It is because they are so close in belief that their differences become all that much more apparent, and the difference is of crucial importance. For Nicodemus, and for his Pharisee cohort, they are preoccupied with the letter of the law and adherence to purity. Doing the right things the right way is the way to righteousness, and the details are what is most important. In a way, they adhered themselves to rigid structures, like the temple, like the governing power. Preserving that power meant preserving their people, or so they thought. They debated endlessly how to best implement the teachings of their people, to preserve themselves, and didn’t see what was going on beyond the small scope of their interpretation.

In comes Jesus. Jesus, the outsider. Jesus, the Nazarene, who preached holiness and goodness. Jesus who cleansed lepers. Jesus who healed. Jesus who was not connected to the temple, or to the established order. Jesus, who broke the smaller laws so he could fulfill the law of love. He was tremendously popular and charismatic, and Nicodemus saw him as a good and right teacher, who came from God.

They were, categorically, enemies. Nicodemus represented a seemingly immovable object, and Jesus an unstoppable force. They were bound for collision. And yet… Nicodemus saw in Jesus a friend. A compatriot. A good and godly teacher. One who maybe could change the problems of the world.

So Nicodemus approached him as a friend under the cover of night, and sought out a conversation. He made the first step, something that not a lot of people in his position would do.

Seeing in Nicodemus this willingness to do something different, Jesus presented his teachings in the way he did. Confusing, yes, but he knew he didn’t have to dumb it down for Nicodemus. He could pick it up.

interventionThe Come-To-Jesus Meeting

Let me ask you a question: Have you ever heard of a “come to Jesus meeting?”

It’s a fairly popular phrase in our culture, especially in the south. It’s kind of funny too, because usually when it’s said it refers to an especially difficult meeting that one has to have. It’s a climactic meeting. It may not have anything to do with Jesus, really, but it’s a meeting in which tough love is administered. In other words, it’s become another way to talk about an intervention.

This meeting that Nicodemus had with Jesus could be called one of the first come to Jesus meetings. However, there is a crucial difference. He came to Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to him.

That’s something I think is often when we talk about Come to Jesus meetings. Meetings we have are confrontational. Jesus didn’t confront Nicodemus, and Nicodemus didn’t confront Jesus. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t serious though. This was definitely serious.

After Nicodemus approaches Jesus, Jesus gets past whatever pleasantries that were customary and gets straight to the hard philosophy: Unless you are born anew, you won’t see God’s kingdom.

In the past, when I’ve read this, I saw this conversation as Jesus talking over Nicodemus’s head. But that’s not necessarily correct. I now think Nicodemus knew what Jesus was talking about–and was questioning because of how hard it was to do what Jesus said.

Nicodemus knew what Jesus was talking about. We’re born into this world one way, born into sin. Jesus is saying you need a whole new life, period. Nicodemus is on his level, going with his metaphor. He resists not because he doesn’t get it. He resists because it feels impossible from where he is.

He’s a pharisee. He’s invested his entire life into one way of being. And now Jesus is telling him what he needs to know to see the kingdom, and it’s something that wasn’t in the plan. He’s got to go back to square one. He’s got to change his entire life.

Jesus continues that you have to have a renewed spirit, cleansed and born again to live a spiritual life. And yeah, it’s not what you wanted to hear. And yeah, it’s going to take you to God knows where. But that’s what has to happen.

Nicodemus final question is one of great importance: How are these things possible?

Nicodemus knows that that he doesn’t literally have to emerge out of a womb again. But rebooting his life completely? That certainly feels impossible. So he has to ask, how does this work? How can I restart my life like this? How can I follow where the spirit goes? How can I be cleansed by the water of new life? How is it going to work, Jesus?

And Jesus response is not one necessarily of chiding mockery, but one of confidence. You’re a teacher of the law, and you’ve been in this you’re whole life–and you’re gonna ask me? You know what to do. You know how this is going to work. If you don’t I’ve seriously misjudged you. If you don’t know this, then you aren’t who I know you to be–and I know you.

The Final Word

The final teaching is the most important part of this midnight conversation. The last teaching is grace.

Jesus admits that yeah, he’s seen the kingdom of God. In fact, he’s the only one who’s done it. But Nicodemus, and others who seek this kind of wisdom, they’re going to get there. In the darkest wilderness, in the most hopeless places, God’s going to show the way. You know how Moses got out of the desert: a snake had to be lifted high so people could see it. In the same way, you’re going to see Jesus lifted up, and you’re going to find the way.

boardwalk lightsSo have some hope. God didn’t send Jesus here because we’re hopeless, but rather to give hope. God loved the world, and because God loves the world, he loves it in this way. He’s gonna send the Son. And if you believe him when he says you gotta change? That’s going to be all the difference. In fact, that’s when you’re new life begins. He didn’t send him to condemn anyone. He didn’t send Jesus to consign you, who may be on the other side of the law, to damnation. Jesus came for everyone, everywhere, to be given a way out of the wilderness, so they can have their lives changed.

I think about this conversation a lot. I’ve changed how I think about it a lot too. Nicodemus was on Jesus’s level. He knew what he was talking about, and how hard it was going to be to do. But Jesus had faith in Nicodemus, and that’s what gives me hope, because it means Jesus has faith in me. Jesus has faith in you. He has faith in us. Faith to know that we can follow him. Faith to know what the right thing is. And faith that we can turn the ship around and find the right way.

It may be harder than we think. It may be the hardest thing we do. But we can have a new life. We can hit the reset button. We can renew ourselves and be born again, because God loves us, and Jesus has faith in us. We can do it, with God’s help. Amen, and amen.

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