The Opposite of Scarcity Is Not Abundance

As with so many of the parables of Jesus contained in Matthew I couldn’t begin to cover the whole spectrum of questions this gospel raises. So I picked just one. Eager to hear how this is heard.

With thanks to the Disrupt Worship project, specifically the Rev. Collette Broady-Grund.

Matthew 20:1-16

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Dear people of God, grace to you and peace this day from the God who loves us all, through Christ who opens our eyes to that love.  Amen.

It’s. Not. Fair.

Maybe that’s your thought on hearing this parable of Jesus.  Or maybe you have a different take, more like the landowner’s “hey buddy, that’s what we agreed to.  Those are the terms of the contract.”

Or, maybe you see this story as one of the landholder undermining the goal of fair wages and labor practices.

Whatever our reaction, I suspect that (like me) your initial reaction was one related more to fairness than anything else.

But it’s not really about fairness at all.  Because God doesn’t care about fairness so much as God cares about justice.  And in order to think deeply about this, we need to abandon our 21st-century understanding of those two words.

Justice, at its core, is the idea is that everyone receives what everyone needs.  Not all the things they want, but the things they need.  This is not a merit-based system of determination of what someone deserves (that is closer to fairness)but an assumption that there are basic things we all have in common that we need.  That is justice.

In this parable, “need” might be defined as a denarius, or what at the time was enough for a person to subsist for another day.  That is the “usual daily wage” we hear about in the parable.

In our world, defining “need” could be as simple as food, shelter, and water – or it could be surprisingly complex.  For example, in this time of pandemic, for kids to be able to continue in online school, they need an internet-capable device of some kind.  In another time, however, we might define that device instead as “want.”

This lesson is unsettling for us because it appears to stand over against the merit-based variety of capitalism in which we’ve all been raised.  At the same time in the same action, however, it shows us what happens when power is leveraged in ways that do harm to others.  Because ultimately this is a story not about the relationship between the landowner and the laborers, but about the relationships between the laborers.

The way we’ve usually heard this lesson broken open is with the landowner as God, the long-toiling workers as Israel, and the newly-arrived workers as the Gentiles.  God gives lavishly to everyone no matter how long they’ve been a part of the workforce, the family of God.  The end. 

But I want to look at this a different way.  Is God lavish with God’s generosity?  Absolutely.  But I think Jesus is teaching a different lesson here.

I grew up in Southern California, in the beach and agriculture town of Encinitas.  It used to be called “the flower capital of the world.”  Day laborers were as integral a part of the local workforce as the carhop down at the A&W.

And the scene that is described in our parable was as common as the ones I observed daily.  Day laborers would convene in a particular spot, and landowners or contractors would come by to hire as many people as they needed for that day’s work.  A price would be agreed upon, and off they would go.

Later hires would happen too.  And sometimes the morning job would end earlier than expected, with less pay than expected, and a laborer would join the ranks again in hopes of a second job for the day.

My home congregation had a German exchange pastor who had worked for some time in Oaxaca, and she spent a couple of evenings a week teaching English to migrant workers (albeit with a German accent).  She discovered many things about the life of a day laborer or migrant worker, and one of those things was that it was a very small community.  If a worker was mistreated by the person hiring, or if their pay was shorted or even withheld, word got around, and when that hiring person’s truck would pull up, no one would dash over to seek work.

By the same token, the person who paid well, provided lunch and other perks, and treated folks well usually had their truck mobbed by eager workers.

Spreading the word about who to work for was part of the ethos of the worker community.

In our parable, the way the landowner works might seem on the surface like he is upending the status quo.  To a degree, he is.

But what he is doing far more is upending the sense of community among the workers.  He is setting them against one another by having every worker see what each of them is being paid.  The workers complain to the landowner, but not ABOUT the landowner – they are complaining about their fellow workers.

So while we might see the landowner’s actions as generous, I’m not so sure.

Remember, he is paying the minimum amount a person needs to survive.  Is this a fair wage?  That’s a legitimate discussion that I think arises from this parable.

Jesus’ statement “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last” is meant to remind us that the way things have always been – what we call the status quo – is upended in the peaceable realm of God.  The status quo is always, and can only, be maintained on the backs of the marginalized.  By this statement, Jesus makes the claim that in God’s kingdom, one group is not sacrificed so another can thrive. 

In God’s kingdom, the opposite of “scarcity” is not “abundance” but rather “enough.”

We are a society that has a staggering amount of visible abundance, and a staggering amount of INvisible scarcity.

Where is the middle ground of enough?

You may have seen the meme that reminds us that when one person is granted equal rights, it does not thereby diminish the rights of another person.  Rights are not pie.  There is enough.

My salvation is not dependent upon yours.  The Kingdom is not a zero-sum proposition.  My relationship with God is not affected by yours.  There is enough.

Reward from God is not about wages.  It is not a scarcity-based economic exchange.  Reward from God is peace, grace, love.  These things are not affected by outside forces, or laws of supply and demand.  There is enough.

Abundance can only begin when everyone has enough.  Christ was about making sure there is enough for all, not to maximize however much you can amass for yourself at the expense of others.

You may have heard the saying: “when you have more than enough, don’t build a bigger barn, build a longer table.”

Is God like this landowner? In some ways, yes: equal love, equal grace, equal reward for all who labor in God’s kin-dom.  And let me be clear: the part of me that was raised in the merit-based economic system in this country is irritated by this equality. I’m Jonah sitting under my dying vine, lamenting that God is merciful to THOSE NINEVITES too. That’s the part of me that needs to be reminded that the economy of God works differently than the economy of our western world.

That same part of me also needs to be reminded that God should NOT be easily equated with the landowner, who while he seems concerned with this one day and its wages, does nothing whatsoever to dismantle a system that makes the rich richer and keeps the poor powerless. As we see image after image of laborers in the vineyards of California and the orchards of the Pacific Northwest, working despite smoke-filled skies and a global pandemic, we must proclaim that God wants more than a generous day’s wage for these beloved people. It is not God’s justice that endangers the lives of those deemed essential workers so that the rest of us can stay safely home and order the produce they’ve picked for curbside pickup at reasonable prices.

Jesus came not only to be sure that those who had been left out had equal access to God’s power and healing, but also to put an end to the whole system of transactional religion and rigid social hierarchy. Like this parable, Jesus’ story is about coming out into our midst, calling not just the hardest workers, but those who are left out and left behind to join in the work of the kin-dom. Jesus’ story is about coming to the world again and again and again, not until everyone is laboring under a wealthy landowner, but until all are laboring together as equals in the peaceable and abundant realm of God, where there is always enough.

Amen.

The Hardest Thing

In which I touch just the surface of the very complex nature of forgiveness. It’s a foundational characteristic of Christianity, and it’s one of the most difficult things to do sometimes.

Genesis 50:15-21

15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ 19 But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Matthew 18:21-35

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

+++++++

Dear friends, beloved of God: grace to you and peace this day from our loving God, through Jesus who shows us how to forgive.  Amen.

Let me begin by saying that no sermon of any reasonable length could comprehensively address the topic of forgiveness.  This is the sort of thing that a faith community might engage over an extended period of time.

I’m thinking that along with one’s own sinfulness, forgiveness is one of those subjects that most of us would rather avoid.  Maybe there’s someone in your past who was unspeakably hurtful to you, and the wound has not healed.  Maybe you were done wrong in a business deal.  Or maybe you have endured treatment that is now recognized as abusive, and you cannot even comprehend the idea of forgiveness.

All of these are sources of legitimate pain.  I want to make it clear here and now that neither I nor, more importantly, the Scriptures tell us that we should put up with anything that harms us.

Indeed, that is what these lessons get at today in so many ways.

And the model we see in these lessons is one that is modeled on God’s incalculable capacity to forgive US.  I got to wondering, how many times a day or a week does God forgive me?  (If your face can go red when you’re by yourself, mine certainly did.)

Keep in mind, though, we can’t make the jump immediately to God’s ability to forgive.  I believe that forgiveness is a practice, something that happens in an unfolding fashion – not a one-and-done event.

One can only imagine what gave Peter the idea to ask the question he does of Jesus: basically, if my brother in the faith is a total jerk SEVEN TIMES am I supposed to forgive him that many times?!?  I mean, seriously Jesus.

Well, let’s unpack that question just a bit.

As a species, we humans are really good at keeping score.  And by that I mean, a kind of cosmic score.  A running count of who’s ahead in just about any capacity.

So maybe Peter is thinking about the guy he used to sell fish to, who short-changed him more than once, and who when Peter brought it up just laughed it off.

Peter’s question is on what could be considered a petty level, but Jesus’ answer breaks down those walls.  Jesus urges him to get to the place where the count – doesn’t count.  Where instead of keeping score, we are keeping community.

These are fundamental, foundational aspects of what it means to do life together.  To function as one in community.  Forgiveness, and love.

This idea of forgiveness is so important in Matthew’s gospel that it’s included in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, when he says:

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[i] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,[j] and then come and offer your gift. 

And yet we still find forgiveness SO HARD. 

What IS forgiveness, anyway?

Some descriptions I’ve heard include: releasing a sin against you – erasure – something that falls outside measurement in God’s realm – located in daily life as well as larger events – and an action that moves us away from scorekeeping.

And what is forgiveness from the heart?

It’s not forgetting – but it IS future-oriented, not dwelling on the past.  It is, at its deepest place, a process towards restoring relationship.

I think it’s important to look at this idea of restoring relationship, which is of course another cornerstone of community.  Relationship, community – these are things that require more than one person invested in them to actually function.  So if the person you might forgive has no interest in doing the work of restoring to community, then sadly there is brokenness.  Our world is full of this.  But God does not intend for you to take on responsibility for that brokenness.

One thing I also think forgiveness is, is releasing the control someone else’s actions have on your heart and your soul.

Maybe you’ve had a situation where this is what you’d like to do, and your thought is “I need to work on that.”

This is that process – the practice of allowing release to evolve in whatever situation is hurting.  Sometimes that release is related to another person’s actions.  And sometimes that release is related to re-ordering your priorities – as they say in the military, what hill are you willing to die on?

I think this lesson about Joseph forgiving his brothers seems like an obvious choice to pair with this gospel on the surface.  But don’t forget that when his brothers first showed up, Joseph recognized them although they didn’t recognize him.  He didn’t tell them who he was right away, he messed around with them a bit.  But eventually his heart is moved and he reveals his identity.  He’s decided that particular payback, dying on that hill, isn’t worth it.  He’d rather be reconciled.

An important note: when Joseph says “God intended it for good” we need to know that the Hebrew word translated “intended” means many things, but it does not mean that God made this bad thing happen so God could look good by making something nice happen in the end.  Rather, God can work even through human wrong to render good in the world.  God doesn’t set up the bad – God redeems it.

The things we claim as important can get in the way of our being able to forgive, or seek reconciliation or restoration of relationship.  Paul points this out in our Romans test: when we get all huffy over someone else’s food choices, or the holidays they observe, or the cultural practices they enjoy, we are being ridiculously judgmental.

You may recall the seasonal outrage over the color of a Starbucks coffee cup between Thanksgiving and Epiphany.  People lose their minds because a PAPER COFFEE CUP says “happy holidays” or is simply red with no words and they moan that Christ has been removed from Christmas.

I will go on record to say that such behavior is how Christ might be separated from Christmas, not the appearance of a paper coffee cup.

This is Paul’s point.  This is the point of the story of Joseph.  And it’s Jesus’ point too.  It’s not the piddly details, but how you live your life as a disciple of Christ that is the most salient witness to the love of God in Christ.

What does living faithfully together as followers of Jesus look like?

That has been the focus of the lessons these past several weeks.  And I’m struck how, in virtually every time I ask that question, the same answer crops up in my mind:

Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God.

It’s another way of saying “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Do we forgive everything without question?  No, that would be what Dietrich Bohoeffer termed “cheap grace” – forgiveness without repentance.

It’s always a relationship-based dynamic.

Because the character of the peaceable realm of God is right relationship.

All that we do, all that we say, all that we are – is meant to contribute to the existence of right relationship with one another.

I don’t need to remind you how much this is missing in our world today.

But as followers of Jesus, sitting in this time of pandemic and wildfires and unrest, let us consider these thoughts:

What is forgiveness?

Where is it needed?

How can I help?

Because in the final analysis, the answers constitute right relationship.

And that is the essence of God.

May God lead us to discover how God is calling us into this work.

Amen.

Words Matter

After a torrent of words was unleashed this past week that hurt and wounded untold numbers of veterans, I knew I had to address it – not in the least because that’s exactly what was addressed in this week’s lessons.

+++++++

Matthew 18:15-20

15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

+++++++

Dear people of God, grace to you and peace this day from our loving God through Christ who calls us to be reconciled, to one another and to God.  Amen.

Words matter.

You may recall the rhyme from childhood “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

Oh really?

I beg to differ.

As I sat with these stories and passages of Scripture this week, I was reminded that words DO matter.  That words DO hurt.

Especially now.

In these days when we can’t safely gather, and be able to read the body language and facial expressions of the folks we’re talking with, we are reduced to words on a screen or a piece of paper.  And oh, the pain and hurt those words can cause.

To be sure, sometimes they create joy.  But it is too easy to do real harm.

In 2019, Jia Tolentino (staff writer at The New Yorker magazine) identified five intersecting problems created by the internet: 

  1. It is built to inflate our sense of identity;
  2. It encourages us to overvalue our opinions;
  3. It maximizes our sense of being opposed;
  4. It cheapens our understanding of solidarity; and,
  5. It destroys our sense of scale – in other words, we make mountains out of molehills.

Her writing highlights how the internet’s success is partially predicated upon its ability to kindle the flames of human conflict. Rage sells. 

And we’ve seen where that gets us. 

Words matter.

Our Scriptures this week have something to say about how we deal with conflict, through faithful confrontation and truth-telling.  We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus offers an alternative vision that stands over against our current reality of internet-based, faceless communication.

Make no mistake: there is tremendous gift in the internet.  We couldn’t gather like we are right now, were it not for the internet.  The ability of folks to order groceries online and have them delivered in the midst of a pandemic is quite literally a godsend and a lifesaver.

But as with most things, there is a very dark side as well.

And when we have the ability to hide behind a screen profile, even to remove photos of ourselves from our profiles, we become part of that dark side.  We can hurl invectives for all the world to see with very little, if any, accountability.

Our lessons all address this.  They speak from their own contexts, but the presence of human conflict has been with us from the beginning, and so their words hold deep meaning for us.

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul is specific about behaviors that harm others.  And yet it is his urging to “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” that is our deepest calling.  We must first look for, and grow in, love: love for God, and love for one another.  Dear church, we can never really realize our God-given potential if we do not love others.  Our words matter if we are to love others.

When I think about how I’ve failed in this regard, the list is uncomfortably long.  There are plenty of folks in my life today and in the past whom I’ve had a very difficult time simply enduring, let alone loving.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sets out a way to handle hurt between folks that we use in some form to this day in matters of church disagreements.  It’s even spelled out in our constitutions.  Notice that this is a way that is meant to not publicly shame a person and also take into account the Eighth Commandment, where we aren’t to lie about our neighbor.  It’s a way of truth-telling about the hurt one has caused another that deals with the offense while not condemning the offender.  It’s accountability for the sake of the individual and the community.

This keeps the process in the path towards reconciliation and return.  It’s never meant to be confrontation just to start a fight; rather, it’s a way to be sure that all voices are heard and honored.

Ezekiel – true to prophetic form – bears divine and seemingly harsh words of correction to God’s people.  He brings these words because he must.  So how does THIS situation check out when we say that “words matter”?

The words matter not because they may cause offense, but because to not speak them is to invite judgment upon oneself as well.  It is as Bonhoeffer said:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.”

Words matter.  So does the absence of words.  It is as our Confession says, in one way or another: we have sinned not only by what we have done, but by what we have left undone.

Writer Dana Canedy published an article this week about words.  Ms. Canedy is the author of A Journal for Jordan, a book that blends her writing with those of her late fiancé and her son’s father, Army 1st Sgt. Charles Monroe King.

During his tour of duty, Sgt. King spent his evenings writing to his son.  He met Jordan shortly after his birth, on an all-too-short 2-week leave.

Ms. Canedy writes:

“He filled that journal with 200 pages of wisdom and expressions of love for us. He wrote that he hoped to make us proud with his service to our country. On the last page, he told Jordan that he had written all he could think of — favorite Bible verses, how to choose a wife, lessons in how to be a man — in case he did not make it home.

He had one month left on his tour of duty when he was killed by a roadside bomb. I collapsed onto the hardwood floor when I received the news.

Since then, I have worked hard to create a happy, full life for Jordan and me, and fill in any holes that the journal left. Over the years, when Jordan needed to hear his father’s voice, we pulled out the journal and read from it together. I told him stories about the honor, dignity and leadership of his highly decorated dad’s 19-year career of military service.”

Ms. Canedy knew that Jordan’s dad’s words mattered deeply to Jordan.  They gave him a sense of identity and purpose.

So when her son heard a public figure had labeled military members who were killed in action as “losers” and “suckers” he was stunned.  She writes:

“Mom, is he talking about my dad?” Jordan asked, his eyes searching and his forehead furrowed in confusion.

I struggled for the words to comfort him.

By the next morning, when Jordan brought up the subject again, it became clear how distressed he was.

“He shouldn’t say that,” Jordan said. “My dad was a hero.”

Words – matter.

The vindictive flavor of so much of today’s so-called “discussion” generally includes some kind of “calling out” – what in antiquity meant calling your adversary out into the street so that you would settle the matter in public.  It rapidly descends into the wars of words that hurt and damage people and communities.

Confrontation is a necessary companion on the road of reconciliation. But when confrontation does occur it should be done in a way that invites reconciliation among the interested parties, all of whom stand condemned and forgiven at the cross.

I am told that one of the Good Friday rituals you all cherish is the nailing of your sins to the cross.  You write what you want to put to death in yourself on a card, and it is then nailed to a rough wooden cross.  Those words matter because you’ve committed them to paper.  You’ve laid bare your soul.

In the cross there is condemnation and there is forgiveness.  As the hymn says:

          Near the cross, a trembling soul, love and mercy found me;

          There the bright and morning star sheds its beams around me.

What if instead of “calling out”, we would “call in”?  Invite into a circle of reconciliation at the foot of the cross both the one wronged and the one who has caused the wrong.  This is how the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was structured.  It was not perfect, but it achieved things many thought could never be done.

Those internet problems I mentioned earlier: the polarizing nature of this year, over seemingly every subject on earth, adds to those problems. 

God invites us to look into the mirror that is our Scripture this week, and see what we find.

I would submit that we see conflict in these passages.  Struggle.  Polarization.  Oppression.  We live in a time where we see this all around us as well.  And as followers of Jesus, we are obligated (as Ezekiel and Matthew state) to confront sin in direct and clear terms.

But let us not do only half the work.

When the confrontation happens, is there also a clear invitation to repentance?  Do we recognize that this is hard to do in a time of pandemic?

Are our pronouncements of truth accompanied by invitations to reconciliation?  Real reconciliation, not simply a submitting to someone else’s demands?

Do our critical words—especially issued on social media—cast our neighbor in the best possible light, as Luther’s interpretation of the eighth commandment urges?

In other words, as we point the finger do we also open the door?

This is incredibly difficult, yet holy and needed work.  It is not for us to turn the heart; that is God’s work.  It is for us, though, to open the door.

Words matter. 

May we use them and hear them in love.

Amen.

The Heart of the Matter

One of my favorite theologians, the Rev. Susan Briehl, often uses the term “the heart of the matter” to name the core of the broader item being discussed. Jesus gets at the heart of the matter with the question “who do you say that I am?”

Matthew 16:13-20

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Romans 12:1-8

1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Dear friends, grace to you and peace this day from God who is love, through Christ our brother.  Amen.

Who do people say that I am?

Who do YOU say that I am?

If you’ve seen Jesus Christ Superstar, this might remind you of the song “What’s the Buzz”.  Tell me what’s happening, what’s the word on the street?

But Jesus is interested in more than just his current popular standing.

And Peter answers him with what is known as Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Peter is not answering out of a set of memorized answers.  Peter’s answer is one born of his time up ‘til now with Jesus:  Messiah/Son of the Living God is how Peter has experienced Jesus.  He’s seen things he never even imagined.

Keep in mind, Peter has also spent a good deal of time with his foot in his mouth.  He’s kind of a “speak first, then think” sort of guy.  Much to his chagrin on many occasions.

But this time, he speaks from the heart.

He speaks from the place that God has inhabited.

This is the beginning of Peter’s journey from being “conformed to this world” and “transformed by the renewing of your mind” as Paul describes in our Romans reading.  He still has a way to go – but his heart is being changed.

And as we consider the picture in front of us in this story, we look closer and see details such as the understanding that this place – Caesarea Philippi – is a place that is reserved for the area’s Roman rulers to both worship their gods and relax in the springs there.  Where Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, is also a place the occupying empire claims as its own.

By asking “who do people say that I am?” in this place, Jesus is making a subtle and subversive move.  This place is a context that would refute his claims as Son of God – because that was also the Roman emperor’s title of honor.

And for him to ask the disciples to likewise disclose who THEY say he is – pulls THEM out of any pretense to anonymity.  It’s one thing to admire Jesus.  It’s an entirely different thing to follow Jesus.

So what does this mean for us?

Well, it’s easy, really, to make our confession inside the church building.  To stand together and recite the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed in one voice as we gaze on the cross on the south wall of our sanctuary.

But what about now?

We’ve not had the creed as part of our order of service for a period of time.  It’s not a core part of the liturgy.  And really, if we were in our homes, reciting one of the creeds, that would be a pretty safe space too.

I wonder: what and where are our Caesarea Philippis?

Where are the places where something else claims superiority, where it would be at the very least disruptive to stand and recite the creed, which is in essence a long-form answer to the question “who do you say that I am?”

Jesus is the Son of the living God, claims Peter.  He makes that claim in front of a place used for the worship of dead idols.  The contrast is staggering.

How do we “represent” – make OUR confession – when we’re NOT in the church building?  That’ a core question for us in these times. 

What if we were to ask around our communities of Stevenson, Cascade Locks, and so on: who do you say that we are?

And how would we answer: who do WE say that we are?

How would those answers differ?  How might they be the same?  What does that tell us about whether we are following, or merely admiring, Jesus?

I think we would be pleasantly surprised in many instances.  We might also find places where there is room for growth.  And that’s good.  That’s where and when the Holy Spirit tends to show up.

There’s another angle to this.

How is our corporate (and individual) understanding of Jesus different from what other people might say about Jesus? How does that confession affect what we do as a group and how we relate to one another?

It’s helpful to understand that the tense of the verb “say” that Jesus employs is very much the present tense.  It’s not past tense.  It’s not one-and-done.  Our saying who Jesus is, is an ongoing and always developing confession.

As the reformers said some 500 years ago, semper reformanda.  Always reforming.

That’s where Peter comes in.

Throughout the gospels, Peter always seems to be “under construction”.  He’s still learning to think first instead of speak first.  He’s learning the whole picture of what it means to be a disciple.  He messes up a lot.

And HE is the one whom Jesus names as the rock upon which he will build his church.

Yeah, PETER.  Not the one we might expect, right?

But this is the essence of the peaceable realm of God: it’s not about perfection.  What would the point of God even be then?

No, in God’s kingdom there is room for all kinds of growth.  All kinds of development.  I don’t want to use the word “improvement” because that implies a sort of upward mobility that would devalue the creation of God that each one of us is from our birth.

Peter has all kinds of room for growth and development.

Jesus sees in Peter the kind of resilience that will stand him well in times to come.  The resilience born of a line of work – fishing – that takes infinite patience and the strength to withstand trouble from all sides.

He also sees in Peter the early signs of strong speech and leadership.  Not that these would eclipse his earlier life – far from it.  Rather, Jesus see in Peter the potential to bring both experience and growth to the table for the good of the whole community.

It’s like Paul describes for us in the Romans reading: everyone comes to the table with the gifts that God has given them.  Not everyone can do everything.  You may have heard the old saying “jack of all trades, but master of none.”

If we are “conformed to the world” as Paul says, then we would want to do everything ourselves and take all the credit for ourselves.

But if we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, then we make room for everyone’s gifts.  And we celebrate the happy chaos that ensues.

If we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, we eagerly seek the answers to the question “who do people say that we (Shepherd of the Hills) are, and who do WE say that we are?”

If we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, we do not fear engaging the question of who do people say Jesus is, versus who do WE say Jesus is.

In the final analysis, if we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, then we do not fear what is now, or what is to come.  Such renewing allows us to see through new eyes into the future God prepares for us.

And such renewing opens the doors and windows so that we might see the places and circumstances where through our actions, we can be faithful witnesses to the God who saves us through Christ.  No words necessary.  Our actions will say all that anyone will need to hear.

When we join a protest for justice – we are proclaiming who we say Christ is.

When we join in caretaking of the church property – we are proclaiming who we say Christ is.

When we donate food to the food pantry, clothes to Neighbors in Need, or take any other action that benefits someone other than ourselves – we are proclaiming who we say Christ is.

When we share with someone the difference that Jesus has made in our life, then we are proclaiming who we say Christ is.

Dear friends: do not be conformed to THIS world, that claims your worth is measured by stuff and fame.

Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Renewing that comes from Jesus, the Son of the living God.  Renewing that redefines our lives, that challenges our comfort levels, and leads us to the places where God needs us to be.

Who do you say that I am?

That is Jesus’ deepest question for us, now and always.

May we faithfully wrestle with that question.

Amen.

Jesus Cleans Up His Act

This is one of my very favorite stories in all of Scripture. It’s a reminder that no matter how much we think we know, how much we think we have it together, we can still learn. And we might just receive that teaching from whom we least expect to receive it.

With appreciation for the Working Preacher commentary by Dr. Mitzi J. Smith of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA. from which this sermon borrows.

Matthew 15:10-28

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Dear people of God, grace to you and peace this day from our loving God through Christ Jesus, who is himself changed in this story.  Amen.

This story is the one I think shows us Jesus’ human side most truthfully.  After he says “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles” he slips back into his learned behavior in his attitude towards and treatment of the Canaanite woman.

So much for my picture of the perfect Jesus.  But stay with me – this story has something to teach us, and it’s something we need to hear in our time.

In verses 10 to 20, Jesus is making a very important point about where the Mosaic law fails to truly address what is unclean, and instead reminds the disciples and us that it’s about what’s in our hearts.  Jesus uses a pretty graphic example to make his point, and it works.

What you eat, Jesus is saying, doesn’t by its nature make you unclean.  (Obviously this is assuming there are no health risks in the food.)  But what is in your heart?  THAT is what makes you unclean.  Those thoughts and beliefs that you keep hidden in the shadows – those are what make you unclean.

In our world today, way too many of those shadowy thoughts and beliefs have been given legitimacy from a host of people and organizations.  Now it’s okay to say all the things your parents told you fell firmly in the category of “if you can’t say something nice about someone, then don’t say anything at all.”

Now it’s apparently okay to call someone names.

Apparently it’s okay to launch attacks on people via social media with no evidence whatsoever.

Somehow we are at the point where it’s just fine to scream racial and ethnic slurs at people because they don’t look, or sound, or act just like us.

This is what Jesus is condemning in this story.  When we don’t acknowledge the destructive and evil thoughts that try to stake a claim in our hearts and by extension, in our lives, then they will eventually make themselves known in our behavior and our speech.  If you don’t wash your hands before you eat, you might get sick – but it won’t erode the thoughts of your heart.  Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to remember which food is approved, says Jesus, if the deepest thoughts of your heart are unclean toward your neighbor.

Solid words.  Good advice.  Too bad Jesus doesn’t then IMMEDIATELY take that advice.

The Canaanite woman – notice she isn’t given the dignity of a name – is not of a tribe with whom Israelites will associate.  And so Jesus doesn’t even answer or acknowledge her when she first calls out.

This is the result of his upbringing, of his cultural roots.  His people don’t associate with her people, period.

Same with his disciples.  She doesn’t let up, and so they start complaining to Jesus.  She keeps following us, Jesus.  Do something.

And he utters the first statement that stings: I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.  In other words: all others need not apply.  We don’t serve your kind.

This does not deter her in any way.  Her daughter is in tremendous pain.  Her mama bear side comes out and she pleads with Jesus: Lord, help me.

We can understand where she’s coming from.  We’ll go to the ends of the earth to protect our kids, to help them when they’re sick.  There’s few things more heartbreaking than to realize you can’t help your child.

And this mom has heard about Jesus.  She’s heard that he can heal, that he has done amazing things in God’s name.

And when she approaches him, she names him “Son of David” which is her connection to him: Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth are all in Jesus’ lineage, and they were all Canaanite women.

Still, her pleas are met with silence.

How many folks today experience the same?  Maybe you’ve been in that position, maybe you’ve asked politely and been completely ignored.  And then when you ask again, you’re treated like dirt.

Our siblings of color are still treated like this in many places.  Women are still treated like this in more places than I care to admit.  And still it can be difficult for us to identify with this reality if we’ve never experienced it.  It becomes easier to dismiss it out of hand than try to understand it.

This woman has likely suffered this indignity on a regular basis.  She’s an old hand at persisting, and that’s what she does here.  “Master, help me,” she pleads.

We might hear under her words: Jesus, you and I, we share a common heritage.  A common humanity.  If that doesn’t move you, what will?  I will keep trying until I figure it out.

Jesus then hits what I would call the low point of his entire public ministry.  He basically calls her a dog, using the language of cultural difference and distance: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

From what we can gather, Gentile or Greek culture was more likely to include household pets than the average Jewish household.  In Jewish culture, the word used here for “dogs” implies a nearly wild animal that scavenges for food in the gutter.

But this woman’s culture sounds much to me like that of modern Europe, where folks bring their dogs to the restaurant and the dogs sit under the table.

This cultural difference might explain the woman’s response: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Where she comes from, folks allow their pets to be fed while the children eat. One can feed the children and feed the pets too!  My cat certainly has a lot to say if I sit down to dinner while her food bowl remains empty!

But the real power of what the woman says is not so much a clarification of a cultural difference, as it is a powerful word that inspires Jesus’ own metanoia.

I see her as looking him straight in the eye, unflinching, and calling him out on his lousy treatment of her.

And his heart – JESUS’ heart! – is changed.

In her determination to claim her identity as human and able to seek his help, Jesus sees her faith.  He sees her vulnerability in coming forward, but so does everyone else.  What Jesus really sees is her strength and her courage, manifest in her faith in his identity as the Son of David.  A relative.  The Son of God.

We never again hear Jesus say anything in Matthew’s gospel about only showing up for the lost sheep of Israel.  Indeed, in Matthew 25 we hear Jesus’ exhortation that “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  If you have not shown mercy to the one you call “other” then you haven’t shown mercy to me.

What I love about this story is that she whom even Jesus would call “other” brings the truth of the gospel to HIM.

Through her, he realizes the full expanse of “God so loved the world.”

And so he doesn’t need to go to her house to show her mercy.  He simply says, “Let it be done for you as you wish.”  He does not say “let it be done as you believed” but rather, as you will.  The woman’s will to power, manifested by her persistence identified as faith, led to her daughter’s healing.

Persistence and faith make a powerful pair.

This is the other half of what this story teaches us today, dear people.  Persistence and faith make a powerful pair.  The Canaanite woman rises up to stand and speak against her exclusion, against her situation, and make the claim that she is a human being, created by God, and her need has merit and value.

She stands her ground and does not waver.  Jesus sees in her the kind of faith that will withstand the worst humanity can unleash, and he realizes he’s been wrong.  And so he changed his mind, AND he changed his actions.

We are confronted in our time with so many things about which we’ve been wrong.

May we learn from Jesus’ example.  May we learn from this woman’s example!  May we have courage enough to stand for what is right.  May we have humility enough to make the changes God is urging us to make.  And may we have love enough to allow those changes to bear fruit in our lives.

The moral of THIS story is:  Never underestimate the power of a persistent woman and the God in whom she believes.

What will be the moral of our story?

Amen.

There is Enough

We always focus in this lesson on Jesus’ miracle – but I wanted to look at his compassion as well as his empowering others to join in the whole event. There IS enough in God’s peaceable realm.

Matthew 14:13-21

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

+++++++

Dear beloveds, people of God, gathered by the Holy Spirit to this time: grace to you and peace this day from the God who provides, through Jesus who is the healer of boundless compassion.  Amen.

This story of one of Jesus’ miracles is one of the best-known in the Bible.  And in that degree of fame, it can be so easy to miss the little details, the parts of the story where your curiosity can make you lean in a little more.  Because when we pay attention to these details, we see Jesus as more than a miracle worker.

Jesus is not only one who feeds, but also one who feels.

This passage begins where the story of the death of John the Baptist ends.  This is what Jesus has just heard – news of his cousin’s violent death.

And understandably, Jesus reacts with feeling.  He goes off to grieve and pray, by boat to a deserted place.  Interestingly, in times of drought islands will appear in the sea of Galilee; this happened in 2018.  Perhaps it was happening then.  At any rate, a quiet place was what Jesus was seeking, and alone on the water can be that place too.

Yet when he comes ashore, he is greeted by more crowds.  And rather than being annoyed, he is moved to compassion for them.  (A very Jesus thing.)

The Greek work translated here as “compassion” is really a word that means a deep, gut-wrenching feeling of emotion.  Our English “compassion” seems rather dry and detached by comparison.  What Jesus is showing here is that deep, within-oneself movement of boundless love of neighbor.

Maybe you’ve experienced this – a time when someone went the extra mile for you.  When someone revealed to you a level of caring that touched you very deeply.

In scripture, Jesus not only does this himself, he tells stories about people who show this kind of care themselves: the Good Samaritan, and the father of the prodigal son, to name just a couple.

And I believe he tells these kinds of stories and illustrates by example to remind folks that they can do this too.  They have what it takes to love as Jesus does; what it usually requires first is that change of heart towards Jesus’ way.

In this passage and in his stories and parables, Jesus shows us and tells us how to love the neighbor.

And in this gospel story, Jesus then moves to feed the neighbor – the people gathered.  He sees that their hunger is for more than healing and compassion; physically, they are – well, hungry.

See how Jesus uses this miracle to empower others.  Certainly when the disciples told him of the late hour, he could have created an instant buffet, right?  No muss, no fuss.

But Jesus instead says to them, “YOU give them something to eat.”

You, come and join in the work of God’s peaceable realm.

But their answer is one with which we are unfortunately familiar in our day and age.  They basically say, “we don’t have enough.”

We only have this little amount; it’s not enough.

Jesus has the crowds sit down; he continues to show compassion.  They won’t be made to stand in lines.

He blesses the food and has his disciples distribute it to everyone.  And somehow, there is enough.

Not only enough, but enough leftovers to fill twelve baskets.

Now, how this happened is not really the point.

The point Jesus makes here is twofold: one, there is enough.  Two, we all share in the work of God’s kingdom as servants of all.

It is a microcosmic experience of the words we heard today from Isaiah:

Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 

All you who have come to hear Jesus, to be healed, to experience what it means to be loved and accepted for who you are: have a seat.  Fish sandwiches for everyone!

And can you imagine what the disciples must have felt, as they continued to serve a feast that seemed to have no end?  To see people eat until they are full, and then for there to be leftovers?  To hear “thank you” from so many?

What must it have felt like to be a part of that day?

This meal is one that theologian Eugene LaVerdiere[1] terms a “hospitality meal” – Jesus sits down and breaks bread with his guests.  In this meal, Jesus teaches his disciples – that includes us too – to practice the table fellowship of God’s heavenly banquet.  To make room for the poor and welcome the needy to one’s table.  Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, we are reminded not only of “do this in memory of me” but also “you give them something to eat.”

For this meal holds neither import nor impact if it is not shared with others.  The hospitality Jesus is both practicing and proclaiming involves more than arm’s length distribution.  In Luke 14, Jesus doesn’t advise his host to go distribute food to the needy, but to invite the needy into his banquet hall as guests.

And here, dear people of God is our challenge.  Because to invite anyone who has need into our building, together, during COVID-19 is anything but hospitable.

So what, then is our call?

I hold that the invitation is one for which we are now in training.

In these days when we cannot gather physically, we can answer the cries of the needy in so many ways.  We are already skilled at responding to need; let us continue to respond, maybe even stretching ourselves so that no one need go hungry.

So that no one need go without clothing, or shoes, or adequate shelter.

There are many agencies that have mobilized and continue to do so to serve the needy in our Gorge communities.  We are a regular part of that through Neighbors in Need, Good Spirit, and 3 Squares.

But there are other opportunities too.  There’s a disabled young mom in the community right now who will need some help with a new apartment; she had been living in the old hotel on Russell but with their remodel, she needed to find a new place.  Let me know if you can help with some furnishings, kitchen things, or other items.

On August 15th there will be a large-scale food box distribution at the fairgrounds, maybe you can help with that.

I see this as a time for us to really hone our skills of providing for the needy, and then when we are able to gather in our building again, we can work on our skills on inviting the needy to be our guests.

So many folks in our society have felt themselves excluded from church gatherings, for a host of reasons.

And in this time of pandemic, we are feeling this a little ourselves.  In a way, we are in solidarity with all who have ever been excluded.  What a powerful reminder that Jesus’ radical table fellowship welcomes everyone.

What if we think about this time of “missing” church as a way to begin to understand how it must feel for someone to be unwelcome at a church?  To think about how we welcome the stranger and the newcomer.  To give particular consideration to how we’ll show hospitality to everyone as an honored and welcome guest.

In this time, we are given opportunity to both feel compassion toward others, and give them something to eat.  We participate actively in Jesus’ work in the world through simple acts of hospitality, even when we can’t physically be together.

Just as we are gathered into one by the Holy Spirit to share a meal, even though we are physically apart.

God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

Amen.


[1] Paraphrased from “A Banqueter’s Guide to the All-Night Soup Kitchen of the Kingdom of God”, Patrick T. McCormick.  2004, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN.

Hoping forward

For today’s sermon I focused instead on Paul’s words in Romans, that conclude with observations about hope. These are words we need to hear.

Romans 8:12-25

12So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

  18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Dear friends, beloved of God: grace to you and peace this day from the God whom we call Abba, through Jesus, who calls us friend.  Amen.

I want to focus not on the gospel text, but rather on today’s part of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.

Because Paul is talking about things that I believe resonate for us – using words like fear, suffering, waiting. Words like futility, bondage, groaning, labor pains.

As I read this lesson, did those words hit you in new ways?  They sure did for me this week.

And in these days, when the infection rate of the coronavirus is soaring and just making a commitment to get up in the morning can take everything we’ve got – we hear these words and I think we are saying “lemme tell you something about FEAR.  About WAITING.  About FUTILITY and about all the other things.  I am living that stuff 24/7.”

Paul is speaking to the church in Rome in times much like ours.  Times of uncertainty, of persecution, of violence and unrest. And I want to be careful that we don’t simply see his words as advice to “don’t worry, be happy.”

Paul takes time to lay out the bigger picture. The CREATION waits with eager longing for the children of God:

…who will step into the place that advocates for clean air…..for clean water…..

…..for the preservation of wild lands, so that animals and plants and ecosystems might continue to thrive.

The creation waits.

Those children of God who will stand up to be a voice for the voiceless, who will work towards that day when the creation will indeed, in Paul’s words, “be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

It’s a mind picture that makes you stop and think, and consider: from the moment when the world began to shut down and withdraw because of the pandemic, we have seen creation begin to rise. We’ve seen waters run clear, air that reveals unseen landscapes, and creatures free to make their migratory journeys without interference.

And honestly, there’s a part of me that wonders.  What does all this mean?

God did not send this virus to test us.  I feel secure enough in my Lutheran heritage of grace to make that claim. But I also feel secure enough in that grace to make the claim that God can make something new of this horrendous mess.

It’s been over ten years since theologian Phyllis Tickle, of blessed memory, published her groundbreaking book “The Great Emergence.” In it, she made the case for the pattern of the church’s history being one that roughly every 500 years, goes through a major upheaval.

Around the year 500, the early councils together with the church’s newly-forged alliance with empire were hammering out how that church would look and what it believed. Around 1000, the great East-West schism occurred over the question of how the Spirit proceeds, as stated in the Nicene Creed.

We know what happened in 1521, when Luther essentially mic-dropped at the Council of Worms saying “Here I stand, I can do no other.” And here we are.  Only a few years past the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, and the shifts continue.

Many of us who have been in church work for several decades have been saying for many years, church, y’all gotta rethink this.

This model of church that we inherited, that arose from pre-Reformation forms and moved through post-Reformation challenges, is no longer the only way the kingdom of God can be proclaimed TO and lived IN the world.

Make no mistake, we are a both/and people.  That which has lasting deep meaning and purpose is what we carry with us in our spiritual backpacks as we move into new times, new places, and uncharted territory.

And at the same time as we hoist those backpacks over our shoulders, we take stock of the rest of the picture. Because we are a church that is beginning to re-evaluate what it means to have a reciprocal relationship with the empire, at the same time as that empire is beginning to crumble – or at least be re-formed.

I’m reminded of the great saying of the Reformation: semper ecclesia reformanda est.  The church is always reforming.  But that holds true for society as well.

I truly believe we are living in times that are moving us to reconsider what is important.  What matters.  I’ve heard from so many of you how you are re-thinking the priorities in your lives.  I’ve also heard from many folks, both from Shepherd of the Hills and my friends far and wide, who when they realized they’d be stuck at home for the foreseeable future, began to sort through the things in their homes, garages, and storage units.  It began as a way to pass the time, but has evolved into a profound existential exercise about what really matters.

We wait with eager longing for the day when we can assemble together again.  For the revealing of a peer-reviewed and properly vetted vaccine.

But until that day, we wait.  And in our waiting, we take stock.  We examine and evaluate the things to which we’ve assigned value, and we find ourselves changed.

Perhaps we have a few of those “inward groanings” Paul mentioned when we are sorting through things and come across a box of stuff we thought we’d had the good sense to throw out years before.

Or maybe that groaning comes when we open a box to find the things we thought we’d lost long ago, along the way.

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait…..”

Dear people of God: we are groaning.  The earth is groaning.  God groans with us.  “Hear us, gracious God!” we cry. And all of creation cries out to its creator as well.

“For in hope we were saved,” says Paul. And he follows this up with the essential truth:

Hope that is seen is not hope – who hopes for what is seen?

But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.

This is where we all are, right now.  We hope for what we cannot see.  We hope for peace.  We hope for a cure, or at least a vaccine for the coronavirus.  We hope for a day when we’ll be able to gather safely again.

The truth of the matter is that you cannot hope in the past.  The past, is past.  You can’t hope in the past because you can SEE it, albeit in the rear view mirror.

It informs our journey today, but it does not completely define it.

Given the uncertainty of this virus, we don’t know what it will look like when we are able to safely gather again.  We don’t know what “safely” will mean.

But the whole point Paul is making here is that we hope for what we do not see.  We can’t see on the calendar the day when we will be able to gather.  But THAT DAY is what we hope for; what it looks like doesn’t even really MATTER, does it?

If we could all, in this moment, be transported to the day when we can safely gather to worship in any space, it’s the gathering together that would matter.  The space in which we’d gather, not so much.

If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience, says Paul.

On the one hand, I have to agree, because what other choice do we have?

But on the other hand – I wonder if patience might be a state of being that includes days or times when we acknowledge our frustration, and share a few tears over the phone.  Times and spaces where we can be honest with each other that this is a very hard road.

Because when we make the time and space to do that, we show up as Christ for each other.

And that is a critical element of patience.

One of the very best examples of patience we had as Americans died late Friday night.

John Lewis was one of the stalwarts of the Civil Rights Movement, and the last living speaker from the March on Washington in 1965.

He served the 5th Congressional District of Georgia in the House of Representatives for the last 34 years, and never stopped his commitment to justice for all peoples.  I could not possibly, even given hours and hours, pay sufficient tribute to this amazing man.  In 2018, he said, in words that sound like what Jesus might say:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

If someone asks you what Jesus would do, these words are it.  Don’t despair, be hopeful.  Take the long view.  Make some noise about what a new normal ought to look like.  We’re in good company; Jesus was no stranger to good and necessary trouble.

It’s gonna be tough, but God has got this.  And you are a beloved child of the same God, who is our refuge, our strength, and our hope.

Amen.

The Unforced Rhythms of Grace

This title is from Eugene Petersen’s excellent translation “The Message” and it has really stayed with me. What do you think it means?

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our loving God, through Christ in whom we find rest.  Amen.

Are you like me today?

Do you hear these last few verses, and feel a catch in your heart?

Maybe these are words that you’ve been waiting to hear.  Longing to hear.  Words that remind you that in Jesus, there is promised rest and renewal.

Or maybe these are words that remind you that rest is still a long way off .  Maybe these are words that come with a bitter aftertaste, when you consider the obligations and responsibilities you have as, say, a first responder or someone in health care.  Or when you consider the knife-sharp edge you’re walking because you’ve been without work for too long.

Dear people of God, I see you.  I hear you.  I’ve felt these same things.  And in this particular gospel story we see that Jesus has felt them too.

Our gospel picks up after John’s disciples have come to Jesus, asking if he is the Messiah, and Jesus replies “tell John what you see:

The blind see,
The lame walk,
Lepers are cleansed,
The deaf hear,
The dead are raised,
The wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side.”

Jesus then remarks that John arrived on the scene proclaiming in one way, then Jesus proclaimed in another way – and they BOTH were criticized.

This is actually a variation of gaslighting.  A person is told they’re expected to do something a particular way, and they do; but then they’re told that was wrong and they need to do it another way.  They do the thing the new way, which brings more criticism.  It’s basically a way of driving people crazy.

This is not Jesus’ first rodeo; he calls the crowds out on this two-faced approach.  There’s a part of the text that is skipped for the purposes of worship where Jesus recounts some of his recent history to the crowd – places and times where he had done mighty things and yet the people there Did. Not. Get. It.

If we take what Jesus says at face value, the folks in those towns were so self-absorbed they couldn’t hear his message and the urgency it carried, inviting them to turn and go a new way, a way leading to life abundant.

This self-absorption is a thing that Martin Luther terms “curvatus in se” or curved in on the self.

And Luther named it as sin – because it survives on ignoring the basic call of a Christian to love the neighbor.

Do you feel pain around this today?  I sure do.

I see “curvatus in se” far more than I would like to admit.  I see it in our world as people refuse to follow the advice of medical professionals and continue to carry on as if there were no pandemic.

I see it in myself as I am offended by things far too small to hold any importance.

And so I wonder if Jesus offers these last few verses as a way for us to apply the brakes to our situations.

Instead of endlessly haranguing us for not getting it together, Jesus instead moves to different words:

“Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Now, if you are familiar with a yoke, this might not make a lot of sense.  A yoke is the bar, generally of wood, that sits across the shoulders of oxen for the purpose of hard work.

How can that be easy?  How can THAT burden be light?

Matthew’s hearers would also have viewed a yoke as a symbol of obedience to God’s law and wisdom. Generally, our instinct is to resist yokes and laws, or at least not immediately connect them with the idea of freedom. Through the image of the yoke, however, Jesus invites us to think of God’s law and wisdom as a means to surrender, give way, and accept something graceful and positive—rest, ease, lightness. Jesus reframes the idea of a yoke by telling us that a yoke will help us grow as disciples. The gospel links humility to freedom.

But there’s two other details that are important, although not stated.

First: Yokes – are for teams of two oxen.  If only one ox is working, then it’s a harness that’s used, not a yoke.

So when Jesus urges us to take his yoke upon us, that urging is made with the understanding that he is carrying at least half the weight.  That’s where the graceful and positive comes in.

Second, we can’t possibly take up the yoke of discipleship if we are carrying other burdens.  Burdens that have somehow become attached to us.  Burdens that we think we must continue to bear.

But Jesus extends an invitation to lay down those burdens.  To come to the place where we can hit the reset button and go a new way.  As Eugene Peterson says so well in his translation The Message:

“Are you tired? Worn out? …Come to me. Get away with me and …. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”

Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

That is the sum total of the syllabus of the course entitled “Following Jesus.”

Learning to lay down the things that needlessly burden us.  Taking up the yoke of Jesus, WITH Jesus bearing it right alongside you.  Learning to lean into the spaces of discomfort and pain, so that we might both offer and receive comfort and presence.  Learning to step into the places of injustice so that we can find solid footing and make space for those whose voices have gone unheard for too long.

And learning to step back regularly, to take that real rest with Jesus.

For without that rest, we cannot be faithful disciples.

We cannot offer the world an alternative to the soul-draining, life-shortening madness if we do not take time to find that alternative ourselves.

Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  How might we do this?

I submit in this time of COVID-19, we are being given the opportunity to discover how.  We’ve begun Bible and book studies that will help in this discovery.

Still, it’s important for us all to remember that if we don’t take time to rest, then the learning will come all the slower.

The unforced rhythms of grace are the ways of being in the world that are learned over time through joy and sorrow, success and failure, ups and downs.  And ultimately, in the unfolding of life in all its unpredictability.

We each have a part to play in one another’s learning these rhythms.  We are part of the expression of Christ that is holding up the other half of the yoke.  Part of those unforced rhythms are the ways that we circle in to our times of prayer and worship, and then circle out into the world, bearing words and actions of love and hope.

The unforced rhythms of grace.

That is what the world needs now.  Let us find our rest and renewal, and then let us spread those rhythms to the world.

Amen.

Difficult Orders

When Jesus says “I came not to bring peace, but a sword” we might have a tendency to skip ahead to the nice part.  But particularly in these days of new awareness of and action against racial injustice, his words in this lesson are for us.

I am deeply grateful to the Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary for her article on the Working Preacher website that inspired me (the link is at the end of this post).  I’ve utilized some of her writing throughout this sermon.

Matthew 10:24-39

24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from the God who loves us beyond our understanding and challenges our assumptions.  Amen.

Once again we find ourselves in Jesus’ presence as he says things that might make us profoundly uncomfortable.

He’s talking to the disciples, a continuation of our story from last week where he sends them out.  And he’s getting honest about the job risks.

And I think to read these words literally is to miss the tremendous amount of meaning they carry for us in our day.

In order to receive these difficult words in a way that holds and makes meaning for us, we need to step away from the literal reading that would have us asking “so Jesus, what do you have against the family?”

That’s a question that detracts from the core of Jesus’ words.  Words that must be looked at in their entirety to begin to understand the broad spectrum encompassed by those words.

He begins by telling the disciples that whatever names HE, Jesus, is being called, will likely fall on them as well.  Deal with it, guys.  That’s part of the gig.

The rest of this passage can be summed up as: Jesus tells the disciples that following him will break open truths they never realized, and likely make other people angry.  But don’t be afraid.  Tell that truth.  Let the chips fall where they may.

“For nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known,” Jesus says in verse 26.  Here’s the thing: before the Gospel was good news–as in, good news for the poor in spirit, good news for the marginalized, good news for those overlooked, beaten down, good news for the vulnerable and the discriminated, good news for those who mourn, for the meek, for those persecuted for standing up for righteousness and justice–before it was GOOD news for them, it was, and continues to be very bad news for those whose power banks on chokeholds; whose power takes advantage of anyone it can; whose power is hellbent on keeping power any way it can–and will threaten with force and charge with death to do so.*

This is a front-and-center reality of Jesus’ time, in the form of the Roman occupation.  And it’s made all the worse by the Vichy-like collaboration of the Judean authorities.

What does that look like today?

Actor Will Smith said in 2016, “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.”.

Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  Cell phone cameras for the win – in more ways than one.

Who could have imagined that Will Smith’s words would become prophetic?

Things ARE getting uncovered – and filmed, and posted, and archived for the foreseeable future.  Cover-ups and secrets are running out of places to hide.  The systemic racism that insipidly poisons our collective experience has for too long been denied by every sector of our society.

I am not likely telling you something you don’t already know.  But Jesus knows that human nature has a tendency to remain comfortable in our denial so as to avoid exposure, because exposure isn’t comfortable.  What is getting exposed, of course, is not just racism, but our complicity – and that’s where the deepest discomfort is. Not just how deeply systemic racism is, but how I have participated in it, either knowingly or by virtue of the color of my skin.  Not just the presence of racism in secular society, but in the church as an institution as well.  The church has not only relied on white privilege, but has kept largely silent in preaching the truth of the Gospel.*

All it takes is a single reading of today’s gospel to remind ourselves that the Gospel is jarringly and sometimes profoundly uncomfortable at times.  But that doesn’t mean that because I’m uncomfortable, I get to change the lesson or ignore the world around me.

Dear friends, if I am to remain true to the gospel – if I am to take seriously this calling – I must force myself to confront the reality that preaching about racism as a sin is a mandate from God, not a choice I get to make.

If I reduce it to merely a choice among many, then I have reduced the cross to nothing more than a symbol of forgiveness of my personal sins – when it is at the same time an indictment of empire and our systemic sin.  The cross IS the means of salvation, but it is ALSO an unconditional rebuke of tyrannical power.

Because tyrannical power is anathema to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The cross exposed the truth that autocracy kills anything that threatens to topple it; the truth that totalitarianism silences that which rises up against it; the truth that dictatorships sit on the neck of those whose suffering is inconvenient, whose voice for the powerless might elicit riot and resistance; these tyrannical powers sit expressionlessly, without empathy and without any will for the good of the whole, watching the laboring of breath and the slow ebbing of life.*

This is the scene at the foot of the cross.  But we cannot forget that this also is the good news of the cross: we become aware of the truth, and aware that God is with us in the darkest of times.

Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How To Be An Anti-Racist” argues that the heartbeat of racism is denial; the heartbeat of antiracism is confession.  Being an antiracist, says Kendi, requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination. Will the church and its subsidiaries engage in this kind of confession, of self-exposure consisting of self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination?*

Surely if the church cannot be the model for confession, then we have no right to claim that we are living out the great commission.  And yet, we have this model.  It is how we began our service this morning.  The whole point of our Order of Confession and Forgiveness is to do precisely this work: self-awareness – self-criticism – and self-examination.  Even as we are assured of God’s grace and forgiveness, we still do this work.

We have the tools, dear friends.  God calls us to use them, not only on Sunday mornings but throughout the week as we confront the dark places in ourselves and in our world.  God calls us TODAY to hear Jesus’ words and do them:  “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” No wonder three times in this passage we hear Jesus’ injunction, “do not be afraid.”

My friends, there is much of which we could be afraid in these days.

But far greater a threat than COVID-19 is apathy.

Apathy in places where truth NEEDS to be spoken to the powers that operate outside the boundaries of love.

Apathy in painful situations that beg for us to show up.

Apathy in moral dilemmas that cry out for voices of reason to be a part of the debate.

My friends, the Holy Spirit is the enemy of apathy.  Because the Holy Spirit has been sent to us so that we might be about the work of God in Christ in this world – which is being a part of building the beloved community.

None of this is easy.  But Jesus never said it would be.

But he DID say that he would be with us always, even to the end of the age.  And that’s all we really need to hear to be moved to act in love.

Amen.

 

*Paraphrased from “Do Not Be Afraid” by Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5439

 

Tell Me Something Good

[Side note: Whenever this lesson comes up in the lectionary, I always wonder if I’m the only one hearing Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” in my head!]

In our intergenerational time this morning, one question was “what is some good news Jesus gives us to share?”  Folks from our congregation shared lots of interesting ideas outside the usual answer of “God loves you.”  What would your answer be?

Matthew 9:35 – 10:15

35Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
10:1Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

Dear beloved of God, grace to you and peace from our good and gracious God, through Jesus who sends us into the world.  Amen.

The questions we’ve just pondered are a great starting point today.  And I’d like to focus on one of them in particular:

What is some good news Jesus gives us to share?

Notice that it’s not phrased as “THE” good news, but SOME good news.

It’s a great question because it makes us think beyond the routine answer, something like “God loves you” – which when you think about it, might hold very little to no meaning for someone who either has no church connection or has escaped from a bad one.

What is some good news Jesus gives us, gives YOU to share?

Hold that thought as we work through this text.  Because while I think we may have thought of this story as one that stands as a blueprint for the hard-sell style of evangelism – what can be distilled down to a numbers game – I’m wondering if maybe it goes a lot bigger than that.

So, as a Scout mom – my son is an Eagle Scout – the Scout motto BE PREPARED was a very present reality in our household.

We printed out the Ten Essentials and taped them not only to the refrigerator door, but on the wall above each of our workbenches in the garage.

And there is NOTHING WRONG AT ALL with the Ten Essentials.  If you’ve ever been stranded or stuck out in the wilderness without the Ten Essentials, you know what I mean.

In fact, you may have heard about my escapades getting stuck in the snow in the pass between Carson and Goose Lake.  That wouldn’t have been such a big deal if I had been prepared.  But I lacked not only warmth and food for the possibility of a night spent in the car, BUT I LACKED A SHOVEL.

My late husband was surely face-palming up in heaven.

I was saved by a nice couple who drove up behind me after a day of kayaking on Goose Lake.  The other lady and I used the kayak paddles to scoop the snow out from the undercarriage of the car while the husband rigged up a tandem tow rope system to drag me out of my high-centered place of shame.

And the whole time, that Scout motto “BE PREPARED” was ringing in my ears.

But that time of being UN-prepared, I now realize, was a way of helping me remember that we depend on each other.

Let’s look at our story.

Jesus sees the reality in front of him, of masses of people without a shepherd.  In the symbolism of the time, that meant they were without a king or a leader.  These crowds were the non-elite.  The peasants.  Nobody cared about their needs; they were there to support the elite class.  If one of them died, substitute in another one.

But Jesus sees them as beloved children of God.  It’s how Jesus sees everyone, even the Pharisees who challenge him constantly.  He challenges them back, trying to help them see how a shift in their lives could be deeply transformative.

Jesus uses these farming images, these agrarian images with his audience because those are the images that speak to them.

And I found an image that might fit where we are, here in the Columbia River Gorge.

The shepherd guides the sheep.  The laborers bring in the harvest.  For us, perhaps the image is the river captain who guides the ship safely up or down-river, avoiding the worst of the rapids and the ever-lurking sandbars.

If a captain hasn’t piloted these waters, he or she could be in serious danger.  And so you bring a captain aboard who knows these waters like they know themselves.

In the place where there is chaos and uncertainty, Jesus brings calm and reassurance.

And he does that by empowering others.

This is the particularly interesting part of the story.  Jesus has been doing this sort of thing all along, and now he sends his disciples out too.  It’s a prequel to the Great Commission, where Jesus tells them after his resurrection to go tell the world.

The detail here that stands out to me is that Jesus makes sure that from almost the beginning, this is a story passed from one person to another, made real by peoples’ experiences.  It’s not a doctrine that’s taught, memorized, and then utilized to maintain control over people.

This is an experience of being set free that is so transformative that folks just HAVE to tell others about it.

Proclaiming this transformation has the force of creating a new social order – the same as when a king of the time would declare a new law.

Think about that for a moment.

Jesus isn’t just re-tweeting or sharing a Facebook post about something that’s caught his eye.

No, proclaiming “the kingdom of God has come near” is the equivalent of saying “here’s the way things are going to be from now on, and it’s not the way of oppression that you’ve all suffered under.  No, you are FREE.”

But look at where Jesus goes from here.

How would the empire embody such a proclamation?  Likely through the powers of oppression or, in a legal sense, eminent domain.

But Jesus teaches his disciples instead how to live as itinerants.  What they might expect on this path.  How to handle it when things get a little dicey.

And here’s why this is important.  These guys would have only been familiar with interdependent village life – relying on family and kin for sustenance.  They had no idea what it meant to travel into a town as an outsider, and rely on the kindness of strangers.

But Jesus knows that the best way to spread this gospel of inclusivity and love is to start by forming relationships.  So he capitalizes on the time-honored format of relationship that occurred in ancient Israel when you offered hospitality to a stranger.

In this he gives us the model for how we are to be certain that people are seen, and heard, and cherished.  It’s a model that builds trust and ultimately broadens horizons.  The whole premise of AirBnB is built on this idea that we make our world a better place by forming relationships through sharing.

Which brings me back to my being stuck in the snow.

This friendly young couple worked the better part of an hour to help me get my car unstuck.  They lived in Kelso; they still had a couple of hours’ drive in front of them, now that we’d all determined that shortcutting over the pass was not an option.

They refused my offer to replace the ratchet tiedown that had snapped on the first pull.  And it took a lot of coaxing on my part to get them to accept a bottle of wine from what I had in the car after picking up an order from Jacob Williams winery.

In the mountain passes of the southern Washington Cascades, the kingdom of God came near me that day.

Where has that happened for you?

Where has the kingdom of God come near, in ways you might never have expected?

The harvest is indeed plentiful, my friends.  We see it all around us every day.  Are we the laborers God has called to this harvest?  To this world that desperately needs not just to hear, but to SEE through concrete action that they are loved and cherished?

Jesus calls us into this work from where we stand.  Jesus does not look for extensive experience, or even the Ten Essentials.

Jesus simply asks us to walk alongside folks, and get to know them.  To build bridges, not walls.  To make peace, not division.  To hear the pain of our sibling, not center our own discomfort.

It’s a tall order.  But Jesus calls us into this work because it is how Jesus brings us into the work of building the kingdom, the peaceable realm, of God.

And in the last statement of this story: “you received without payment, give without payment” – we are drawn into God’s circle of grace.

We become agents of that grace.

Dear friends, God in Christ calls us because God in Christ equips us.

How shall we live this out?  The possibilities are limitless.

What is some good news Jesus gives you to share?

The possibilities there are endless too.

Amen.