How Far Will You Go?

Luke 14:26-33

When I was 19, my best friend, Mackay, and I decided that it would be all kinds of fun to ride our bicycles from Long Beach, California to Ensenada, Mexico.  And so one sunny morning in June, we set off pedaling down the Pacific Coast Highway with sleeping bags, a 2-person tent and a few other necessities strapped to our bikes. 

The hills of Laguna slowed us down a bit more than we had anticipated, but it was still too early for lunch when we reached San Clemente, so we decided to push on and have lunch in Oceanside.  But at the south end of San Clemente, we ran into a very big obstacle that we hadn’t planned on.  Camp Pendleton Marine Base.  

We knew we wouldn’t be able to ride through Pendleton on the freeway, but we thought we could ride through the base on the old highway, which, according to our maps, still ran alongside the freeway.  The very nice Marine guard at the entrance to the base told us that that was not going to happen–  because the old highway was long gone.  

After some begging and pleading and a few choruses of “Gosh, We’ve Ridden All This Way,” he got on the phone and managed to get permission for us to ride through the base.   He sketched out a map for us and gave us very strict instructions to stay on the route he had outlined for us,  making it clear that straying off that route could have grave consequences, including but not limited to death, dismemberment or being imprisoned.  

An hour and a half later, we were utterly lost on a winding dirt road when a very perturbed Marine in a jeep came roaring up to us and asked us what the H-E-DOUBLE-Q we thought we were doing.  He also told us that we were perilously close to a live-fire range, then threatened to throw us in the stockade or make us enlist or both before finally deciding to guide us down to the southern end of the base.  He sent us off with a warning that if we ever set foot or bicycle tire on the base again there would be dire consequences unless, of course, we were in a Marine uniform.  

We had lost a lot of time on the confusing roads of Pendleton, so we powered through Oceanside and into San Diego without stopping for lunch.  Then came the ordeal of getting through San Diego on surface streets which proved to be far more complicated and took much longer than we had planned.  And just so you know, not even the military had GPS yet in those days, so we were at the mercy of outdated gas station roadmaps.  

The sun was getting ready to call it a day by the time we crossed the border into Tijuana.  We grabbed a couple of tacos from a taco cart then raced the sun for the last 14 miles to Rosarito Beach where we camped for the night.

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful.  The ride from Rosarito to Ensenada on the old road up across the mountain—the only way bicycles were allowed to go—was a challenging but beautiful ride.  After a night in Ensenada, we turned around and headed for home.  

We spent the night at Rosarito Beach again, had a good breakfast at the cantina, then set out for the border.  We made good speed and got to Tijuana at about three in the afternoon which gave us plenty of time to make it to Silver Strand State Beach in San Diego where we planned to pitch our tent for the night.

And that’s when we ran into another obstacle we hadn’t planned on.  There were three long lines of cars waiting to cross the border into California.  We rode our bikes up between the lines of cars to the state line expecting that the border guard would just wave us through—after all, where would a couple of guys on bicycles hide anything?   But the guard at the border wasn’t having it.  He gave us a lecture about trying to cut the line then told us to go all the way back to the end of the line.  Two hours later after standing in the heat astride our bikes and breathing exhaust fumes from all the cars, we finally got back to the border where the same guard just waved us across without even asking for our I.D.   

At that point, we pulled over to the side of the road and took stock of where we were and what lay ahead of us.  We were exhausted, hot and sweaty.  Our legs were trembling and aching.  We didn’t even want to think about trying to get through Pendleton again.  What we wanted most was a good shower, a long, cold drink and a good meal. What we wanted was to be home.  

The bicycle ride that we had thought would be all kinds of fun had turned out to be all kinds of challenging.  Our stamina had evaporated in the exhaust fumes and unrelenting sunshine while we waited at the border.  We were fresh out of  possibility.  Our ride was over.  We made our way to the airport and, grateful for small miracles, managed to snag seats on a flight back to Long Beach.  

“Who would build a tower without first figuring out how much it’s going to cost?” asked Jesus.  “What king would go to war without first figuring out if he has a chance of winning?”  Who would ride a bicycle to Ensenada without making sure that they could actually get there and back?

Luke tells us that large crowds were traveling with Jesus as he made his way toward Jerusalem.  They had been watching him heal people.  They had been listening to him as he taught them about the kingdom of God and how radically different it is from the kingdom of Caesar.   The crowd was drawn to him.  They liked him.  They liked the different world he described, the better world that he told them is possible.  A lot of them were probably wondering what it might be like to be part of his inner circle—to be his disciple.

But there’s a big difference between being a fan and being a disciple.  

Jesus wants to make it clear to the crowd that becoming a disciple means putting him and the kingdom of God first.  Jesus wants them to understand that  becoming a disciple means you join him in making the kingdom of God a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  And Jesus wants us to understand that the other kingdoms of this world are going to resist you when you do that.  

The kingdom of family may be perfectly happy for you to be a fan of Jesus, even for you to embrace some of the things he teaches.  But they may not be so happy when you start giving away time and resources that they feel they have a claim to.  “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” said Jesus.  And no, he didn’t mean a disciple has to have some kind of intense animosity toward family, but he did mean that you, as a disciple, have to be willing to turn away from them, to let them go, when what they want is trying to pull you away from where Jesus is leading you.

The kingdoms, the empires of this world will resist you when you become a disciple of Jesus and set to work in earnest to make God’s reign a reality in your life and in the world.  

The kingdom of consumerism will sneer at you for not having the newest, shiniest, most fashionable, most advanced everything—clothes, gadgets, house, car or whatever when you, as a disciple of Jesus, learn to be satisfied with what you have and to give away what you don’t really need. 

The kingdom of capitalism will call you a socialist or maybe even a communist when you, as a disciple of Jesus, insist that those who have more should contribute to the well-being of those who have less.  When you remind them, as Jesus did, that God did not intend for the bountiful resources of the earth to enrich only a few, they will call you a radical and try to silence you.

The empire of power will oppose you when, as a disciple of Jesus, you call for liberating the oppressed and setting the captives free.  When you, as a disciple of Jesus, insist that all people are equal and beloved in God’s sight so the opportunities and benefits of life together in a civil society should be equal, too, regardless of race or gender or color or sexuality.  They will call you a trouble-maker and try to put a stop to you…one way or another.

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” said Jesus, and those people in the crowd, especially the wannabe disciples, knew he wasn’t just using hyperbole.  They knew that the cross he was talking about wasn’t a metaphor.  He was telling them there would be a real cross with real nails and real pain…because when you try to establish the kingdom of God in the midst of the empire of coercive power, coercive power will try to stop you.  Brutally.  

If you want to be my disciple, then stop and think about what that might cost you says Jesus.  There’s no shame if you can’t go that far.  There’s no shame if you just want to follow in the crowd and listen from a safer distance.  But you should know, eventually that won’t be enough.  

Eventually the Word of God will bring you to a place where either you will summon up the stamina and will to finish the ride… or call it quits.  Eventually either the vision of the kingdom of God will become all-consuming for you, or you will dismiss it as a nice but unobtainable ideal—or maybe some kind of prize in the afterlife if you are nice enough to qualify.

Traveling with Jesus sounds like all kinds of fun.  And it does have its rewards.  There are healings along the way.  He’s a marvelous teacher and the kingdom he envisions is beautiful.  He loves you and isn’t shy about making that known.   Jesus loves the crowd… but not everyone in the crowd is ready to go all the way to discipleship.  

Lots of people can ride a bicycle.  Comparatively few can ride it all the way to Ensenada and back.

How far will you go?

Teach Us to Pray – Part 1

Luke 11:1-13

A little boy was saying his bedtime prayers and finished by saying very loudly, “AND GOD, PLEASE GIVE ME A NEW BICYCLE!”  “Why did you say that so loudly?” his mother asked. “God’s not hard of hearing.”  “I know,” he said.  “But Grandma is.”

Whether he knew it or not, this little guy was onto something.  God often uses other people to answer our prayers, in fact, I would say that that’s how it works most of the time.  I’ll say more about that next week.

The Gospel text for this week contains Luke’s version of the prayer we know as The Lord’s Prayer.  This prayer that Jesus gave his disciples is not only one of the great treasures of our faith, it’s also, in its way, a radical call to a discipleship.  In this prayer we are asking God to empower us, guide us, and walk with us as we embrace a new way of life with new values and a new vision of what the world can be.  It really is, in six simple lines, a kind of manifesto for life as a follower of Jesus.

Because this prayer is so important, not just historically, but also for the life and future of the church, I’m going to take us through it in two parts.  This week we’ll go up through “Your kingdom come.”  Next week we’ll start with “our daily bread.”

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.”  Now why would the disciple be asking this?  The disciples almost surely already knew how to pray in general.  They had probably all learned the various traditional Jewish prayers, and they had watched Jesus pray many times.  So what, exactly is the disciple asking for?   Well, there’s a clue in the phrase “as John taught his disciples.”

John the Baptizer had apparently taught his disciples a special prayer for their community.  This prayer would have identified them as followers of John, and it would have contained key words or phrases that would have reminded them of John’s teachings.   Now this disciple of Jesus is asking for a similar prayer to be used by the community of his followers, and Jesus responds by giving them what we’ve come to know as The Lord’s Prayer.  

Because Jesus gives this prayer to his disciples as a kind of gift to the community of his followers, I’ve often thought that calling it The Disciples’ Prayer would make more sense, but we’ve known it as The Lord’s Prayer for so long that trying to rename it is probably a lost cause.  Still, it’s worth remembering that this is a prayer that Jesus gave to his followers to be used as something that would identify and unite them, and at the same time remind them of what he had taught them. 

There are a few different versions of the Lord’s prayer.  That’s partly because it was originally transmitted and taught orally.  As such, it would naturally be remembered slightly differently from community to community.  This is probably why the version in the Gospel of Luke differs slightly from the version in the Gospel of Matthew, and both of them differ from the version in the Didache, the late first-century manual on how to do church.  The most common version used today is based on the wording that first appeared in The Book of Common Prayer in 1549.  That version, in turn, was based on William Tyndale’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew from 1526.  That’s the only translation, by the way, where you’ll find “forgive us our trespasses” in Matthew 6:12 instead of “forgive us our debts.”[1]

I could talk all day about difficulties and variations in translation and transmission of the prayer.  It has even been a centerpiece of controversy a time or two in church history, but for now let’s use Luke’s version to take a deeper look at the meaning of this amazing prayer that Jesus has given to us.

“When you pray,” said Jesus—and the “you” is plural here—“when all y’all pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Prayer is simply a conversation with God.  You start a conversation by getting the other person’s attention and you usually do that by saying their name or title.  For example, my grandsons call me Pono.  When I hear one of the say, “Pono,” I know they want to talk to me about something or ask me something or sometimes just come sit with me.  It’s the same when we begin the Lord’s Prayer saying, “Father…”  We’re letting God know we want to communicate something.  

The word Father also conveys a relationship.  “Father” acknowledges that we have a personal relationship with God.  It’s supposed to help us feel like we’re sharing our hearts with a warm, nurturing, loving parent.  

That’s the kind of relationship Jesus is encouraging us to have with God.  But the Father image, or for that matter the Mother image doesn’t work for everybody.  Some people have experienced abuse or conflict with their father or mother or both so parent imagery isn’t inviting for them.  When that’s the case, it’s perfectly okay to address God in some other way.

Devout Jews will often address God as Hashem in their prayers.  Hashem means “the name,” and addressing God as Hashem gives them a way to address God by name, sort of, without actually saying God’s name, which they believe is too holy to be spoken.  In effect, Hashem becomes a name they call God in much the same way that Pono is the name my grandsons call me.   

In her book Help. Thanks. Wow., Anne Lamott wrote, “Nothing could matter less than what we call [God].  I know some ironic believers who call God Howard, as in ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, Howard by thy name.’  I called God Phil for a long time, after a Mexican bracelet maker promised to write ‘Phil 4:4-7’ on my bracelet, Philippians 4:4-7 being my favorite passage of Scripture, but got only as far as ‘Phil’ before having to dismantle his booth.  Phil is a great name for God.

“Let’s not get bogged down on whom or what we pray to.  Let’s just say prayer is communication from our hearts to the great mystery, or Goodness, or Howard;  to the animating energy of love we are sometimes bold enough to believe in; to something unimaginably big, and not us.  We could call this force Not Me, and Not Preachers Onstage with a Choir of 800.  Or for convenience we could just say ‘God.’”

Anne Lamott’s advice to call on God with whatever name opens your heart and draws you closer to God might seem contradictory to what comes next in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be your name,” or to translate it directly from the Greek, “Let it be sacred, the name of you.”  So are we treating God’s name as sacred if we call on God as Howard or Phil or Hashem?  Well that depends entirely on your attitude when you use that name. 

The Jewish people have always avoided saying the actual name of God, the name God spoke to Moses from the burning bush.  One reason they avoid speaking God’s name is that it’s one way to ensure that they don’t break the commandment against taking the Lord’s name in vain.  Taking God’s name in vain means a lot more than just saying God’s name at the wrong time or in the wrong way or saying “Oh my God” as an expletive.  Taking God’s name in vain means using the name or authority of God in a way that draws ridicule.  It can mean taking the authority of God upon yourself for purposes that have nothing to do with God’s reign or God’s desires.  It can mean using God’s name or authority to further your own ideas or agenda, to buttress your own authority, orr simply using God’s name or authority for show.

Let it be sacred, Hashem.  Let it be sacred, the name of you.

When we pray this, we are asking God to help and guide us and everyone else who “calls upon the name of the Lord.”  It’s a way of saying, “Keep us honest, Hashem.”

The next petition in the prayer is maybe the most challenging if we really think about what we’re saying.

“Your kingdom come.”  Or again, translating directly from Luke’s Greek text, “Let it come, the reign of you.”   

I think sometimes that if we took this petition seriously our knees would buckle.  When we pray this, we are volunteering to do whatever we can to make God’s reign a reality here and now.  We are saying that we are not just in favor of radical changes in the way we do things—radical economic, political, religious and societal changes—we are saying that we will volunteer to make those changes as God guides us.  

This is where the Lord’s Prayer is no longer merely a nice religious artifact or litany of devotion. This petition is where the Lord’s Prayer becomes subversive in the best possible way.  And if anyone wants to suggest that Jesus is really praying about the establishment of God’s heavenly kingdom at the end of time, then I would suggest that they haven’t really read the gospels or understood the teaching of Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t crucified because he talked about heaven; he was executed for proclaiming that the kin-dom of God was within reach.  

“Your kingdom come” or “let your reign begin” also has to go hand-in-hand with “let your name be sacred.”  We are praying for God’s vision to become a reality, not our own vision.  

So… I’m leaving you with a lot to think about this week.  How do you speak to God?  How do you call upon God?  What name or practice opens your heart to deep communication with the heart of Life and Love?  How do you safeguard and respect the authority of God?  How do you avoid abusing that authority and power?  And most importantly, are you really ready and willing for God’s reign to begin here and now?  


[1] I’m very grateful to Brian Stoffregen for this bit of history and other insights in his weekly Exegetical Notes.

Water is Life

Two headlines grabbed my attention on Thursday morning.  The first one, in the LA Times said, “With less water, Southland will see browner landscape. Officials are imposing limits that could get even more strict.”  The second headline was from The Week and said, “Ocean animals face potential mass extinction from climate change, according to a new study in the journal Science.”  That headline was followed by a synopsis that said, “Rising temperatures and declining oxygen levels are cooking, starving and suffocating marine life.  Unless humanity takes swift action to curb fossil fuel use and other planet-warming activities, climate-fueled die-offs could rival the demise of the dinosaurs, research shows.”

It was an interesting juxtaposition.  Both stories were about water and climate change.  The first story emphasized how the drought is going to affect the aesthetic preferences of humans in Southern California.  With the new water use restrictions, our green lawns will be fading to brown.  People are not happy about that.  The second story was about how creatures that live in water are threatened with extinction because the emission of greenhouse gases from human industries and transportation has warmed their environment too much.  I would like to think that people aren’t happy about that, either.

Water is life.  That’s true for every living creature on earth.  Somewhere between 20% to 80% of all the earth’s creatures live in water.  The number is uncertain because no one really knows how many species live in the depths of the oceans.  Their need for water is obvious.  It’s their habitat.  But land creatures need water too.  Water is an essential element in all kinds of organic processes.  We have never found any living organism that can flourish in a completely dry environment.

71% of the earth’s surface is covered by water—332.5 million cubic miles of water—but that water only accounts for 0.02% of the planet’s total mass.  97% of the earth’s water is salt water in the oceans.  Only 3% is fresh water.

2.5% of the earth’s fresh water is unavailable because it’s locked up in glaciers, polar ice caps, the atmosphere, or soil.  Or it’s highly polluted.  Or it lies too far below the earth’s surface to be extracted at an affordable cost.  It the end, only 0.5%–one half of one percent—of the earth’s water is available fresh water, the water we drink, the water we use to water our lawns and gardens.  If the world’s total water supply was 100 liters (26 gallons), our usable supply of fresh water would be only about 3 ml (about half a teaspoon).

In ways you probably haven’t thought of, you are a water creature.  The human body—your body—is 60% water on average.[1]  Your brain and heart are 73% water and your lungs are about 83% water.  Your skin is 64% water, your muscles and kidneys are 79% water, your blood is 90% water, and your eyes are 95% water.  Even your bones are 31% water.  You can go a month or more without food, but the average person would die after only 2 to 4 days without water.  

Water is life.  Water is life because it has unique properties that make life possible.  It is the only natural substance where all three physical states—liquid, solid and gas—occur naturally on earth.  Water is the universal solvent. That means that it can carry other elements and compounds.  Your blood is 90% water but that water carries sodium, potassium, iron, and all the other minerals and nutrients your body needs.

Water is life.  And water is holy.   

Water is mentioned 478 times in the Bible:  

The primordial waters of Creation with the Spirit hovering above them.

The waters of the Flood.

The wells where relationships were formed, where Rebekah is brought to Isaac, where Jacob meets Leah and Rachel, where Moses meets Zipporah.

The waters of the Red Sea which Moses parted to reveal a pathway to freedom.

The waters of salvation which Isaiah speaks about and invites everyone to drink: “You will drink from the wells of salvation; Ho, all you who thirst, come to the water.”

The waters of justice that Amos calls us to produce: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!”

The waters of the Jordan where Jesus was baptized by John, where the Spirit descended upon him like a dove and the voice of God proclaimed “This is my son, the Beloved.”

The waters of Galilee where fishermen were called to follow Jesus and became disciples of the Way, waters that Jesus sailed across and walked upon.

The waters of the well in Samaria where Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink, talked with her about worship and told her that he could give her living water.

The waters of the Mediterranean that Paul sailed across to carry the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles and diaspora Jews in far places. 

The waters of the River of Life in Revelation, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God where the Spirit echoes the words of Isaiah and says “Come, let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

Water is sacred.  

In his baptism, Christ was immersed in the waters of the world.  When we were baptized, the water we were submerged in or sprinkled with was a sign that we are immersed in the love and life of the triune God but also in the waters of Creation, the waters of the world.

What does it say about us when our way of life on this planet leads directly to the death and extinction of our fellow God-created creatures who live within the sacred life-giving waters of the earth?  

What does it say about us when our own trash pollutes the waters we rely on to such a degree that now our own bodies are tainted with microplastics?  

When we are claimed by the waters of baptism, we enter into a Covenant with certain declarations and promises.  We reject sin.  We renounce all the forces that defy God.  We renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God.  We renounce the ways of sin that draw us away from God.  We promise to “serve all people, following the example of Jesus,” and to “strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”  

In the waters of baptism we pledge our allegiance to the Kin-dom of God.  We volunteer to stand against evil and its power in the world and to live in the Way of Christ.  We vow to stand for justice, to be peacemakers working for God’s shalom.  We pledge to reject all types of violence, coercion, domination and oppression,  and to care for and protect all of Creation with fierce love. 

I’m pretty sure he would never claim to be speaking as a follower of Jesus in the Covenant of baptism, but Joaquin Phoenix, interestingly, captured much of what our baptismal covenant is all about in his Academy Award acceptance speech in 2020.  Here’s part of what he said:

“I think the greatest gift is the opportunity to use our voice for the voiceless… I think at times we feel or are made to feel that we champion different causes.  But for me, I see commonality.  I think, whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice.

“We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, one species, has the right to dominate, use and control another with impunity.

“I think we’ve become disconnected from the natural world.  Many of us are guilty of an egocentric world view, and we believe that we’re the center of the universe.  We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources…

“We fear the idea of personal change, because we think we need to sacrifice something; to give something up.  But human beings at our best are so creative and inventive, and we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and the environment… I think that’s when we’re at our best: when we support each other.  Not when we cancel each other out for our past mistakes, but when we help each other to grow.  When we educate each other; when we guide each other to redemption.

“When he was 17, my brother [River] wrote this lyric.  He said: “run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.”

In our covenant with God and the earth, we are called, as Joaquin Phoenix said, to be a voice for the voiceless.  Water has many voices—the thunder of a waterfall, the waves that lap against a boat or crash against the shore, the burbling of a stream, the splash of a puddle, the rushing flow from a tap or shower head.  Water has many voices, but the world has forgotten how to listen to them.  We need to speak for the waters.

We need to speak for the waters because the waters have spoken for us.  Every drink of water is a reminder of how God provides for us.  Every time we shower or bathe, Christ is in, with, and under the waters that cleanse us, singing about our baptism, giving us a sign to remind us that we are immersed in the life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  When we wade or swim, the waters that embrace us are a sign of our inclusion in this wet and wonderful God-made world.  Water is our intimate connection to the natural world. All the waters of our life tie us to the well-being of the earth and all its creatures.  The waters remind us that we are water creatures, too.  

In the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, St. Francis sang, “Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water who is so useful, humble, precious, and pure.”

May God teach us to love Sister Water.  May the Spirit that hovered over the waters of Creation, empower us to conserve and care for the water that sustains us and all life.  May Jesus, by the Living Water of his word keep us in harmony with the water that flows in our veins.  May the One who made us continually remind us that we have a kinship with water and all the creatures that live and move and have their being in water.  

We humans have brought distress to the waters of our world.  May we, as people of faith, be inspired to “run to the rescue with love,” trusting that peace will follow.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] The actual number varies from 45% to 75%.  Body composition varies according to gender and fitness level and amount of fatty tissue.

When God Sings

There’s a song I used to sing to our kids when they were younger.  Sometimes I would sing it to them simply because I would have one of those moments when I would look at them and just be filled with joy from the simple fact that they exist.  It just made me happy that they were there. So I would sing this silly song to them.  But sometimes, more often, really, I would sing the song because they were in a snit about something and being pouty and cranky and not their real, better selves.  So I would sing.

Look at that face, just look at it, look at that fabulous face of yours!

I knew first look I took at it this was a face that the world adores.

Look at those eyes as wise and as deep as the sea!

Look at that nose!  It shows what a nose should be.

As for your smile, it’s lyrical, friendly and warm as a summer’s day.

That smile is just a miracle, where would I ever find words to say

The way that it makes me happy, whatever the time or place.

I’ll find in no book what I find when I look at that face.[1]

Did anyone ever sing over you?  To you?  About you?  It’s hard to remain gloomy if someone is singing to you.  

Most of the Book of Zephaniah is full of doom and gloom.  For two long chapters, the prophet makes it abundantly clear that God is mightily upset with idolatry, the ways the rich are taking advantage of the poor, and the way justice is being perverted.  But then suddenly at the end of his long, angry poem, the prophet changes his tune.  Suddenly his song about the end of the world becomes a song of grace and forgiveness. 

Sing aloud, daughter of Zion; shout, all Israel!

Rejoice, daughter, and exult with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem!

The Judge of All Flesh has taken away the judgments against you…

The sovereign of Israel, Creator of the Heavens and Earth, 

is in your midst, daughter; no longer shall you fear evil.

The Ageless One, your God, is in your midst, daughter,

a warrior who will deliver salvation;

who will rejoice over you with gladness, daughter,

God will renew you in love, daughter,

God will exult over you, daughter, with loud singing.

Zephaniah had been telling the people that God was about to erase them from the face of the earth, but then he stops and says, “No, that’s not what God’s going to do at all.”  God forgives you.  God loves you.  God is with you, next to you.  God claims you as a daughter.  So let’s sing!”

It’s a kind of resurrection.  Zephaniah had declared them as good as dead.  But then… grace! Forgiveness!  Joy!

God will renew you with love. 

God will exult over you with singing. 

Loud singing.

Can you imagine God exulting over you?  

Can you imagine God singing about you?  

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus is the Word who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, but maybe we could also see Jesus as the Song that God sings to us, the embodiment of the music of all creation who was and is in our midst bringing grace, restoration, and resurrection.  

That’s what the gospels are about, you know.  They are songs of restoration and resurrection.  

At the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, right after Jesus has cast out an unclean spirit in the synagogue, he goes to the home of Peter and Andrew, accompanied by James and John.  There he discovers that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill with a fever.  Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up and the fever leaves her.

When Jesus has restored Peter’s mother-in-law, Mark tells us that she served them.  We tend to bristle at that.  Personally, I like Wilda Gafney’s translation here.  She says that Peter’s mother-in-law “ministered to them.”  The verb in question is diakoneo and it can mean both to serve and to minister to.  That’s the verb that’s used in Mark 10:45 when Jesus describes himself as one who came not to be served, but to serve.  He tells the twelve that “whoever wishes to be first must be last and servant of all”  and “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”  

Serving is the mark of faithful discipleship.  It’s what followers of Jesus are supposed to do, and at the end of Mark’s gospel, we see that it is the women who followed Jesus who really understood about serving.  They were the ones who remained faithful to the end.  It’s entirely possible that Peter’s mother-in-law was among those women.  She rose to serve.  And maybe she just kept on serving Jesus all the way to Jerusalem.

Jesus took her hand and lifted her up.  What it actually says in the Greek is that he raised her up.  It’s the same language that is used in Mark 16 when the startled women at the empty tomb are told that Jesus has been raised up. Mark wants to understand that resurrection wasn’t just the end of the story, it was part of the daily ongoing story of Jesus.  The verb egeiro, to raise up, is used repeatedly in Mark’s healing stories.  In Mark 2:9, it’s the verb Jesus uses when he tells the paralytic to rise up.  In Mark 3:3 he tells the man with a withered hand to rise up and come forward.  In Mark 5:41 it’s the word he uses when he takes Jairus’s daughter by the hand and tells her to rise up.  In Mark 9:27, when a boy who has had a seizure is lying on the ground “as if dead,” Jesus takes him by the hand and tells him to rise up.

So often we yearn for Jesus to take us by the hand and give us the strength to rise up.  When it feels like life has just knocked us flat—when we get some bad news, when our most important relationships seems to be high on tension and low on love, when we feel alone and beset by one dang thing after another, when life feels like a small death and a series of tragedies, we yearn for Jesus to take us by the hand and raise us back to life.  We yearn for a small, everyday resurrection.

We all know that need.  We all know that feeling, that yearning for the hand of Jesus.

Thomas A. Dorsey wrote a powerful song about it.  It was Martin Luther King’s favorite song and he asked Mahalia Jackson to sing it at civil rights rallies.  Leontyne Price sang it at the state funeral of President Lyndon Johnson.  Aretha Franklin sang it at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral.  It’s a song about our yearning for everyday resurrections.

Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:

Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

When my way grows drear,
Precious Lord, linger near,
When my life is almost gone,
Hear my cry, hear my call,
Hold my hand lest I fall:

Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

This is Jesus’s ministry of resurrection.  Everyday resurrections.  Time after time in the gospels, time after time in our own lives, he takes our hand, lifts us up and sings us back to life.

Christ sings us back to life so we can rise up and serve each other and carry the song of resurrection, the song of new life, the song of God’s great love to the rest of the world.  Jesus takes us by the hand and raises us up out of our feverish troubles and pain so we can raise up others out of their feverish troubles with the outstretched hand of Christ and the promise of Zephaniah.  God is in your midst.  Christ is with you.  

Rise up.  God will renew you with love.  And God will exult over you with singing.  Loud singing.


[1] From The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newly

Welcome the Child (a lesson in arrogance)

Mark 9:30-37

There’s a wonderful short story by Leo Tolstoy called The Three Hermits.  He tells about a bishop who was sailing from Archangel to Solovotsk with a group of pilgrims when he overheard a fisherman telling them about three hermits who lived in an earthen hut on an island that was at that moment just barely visible at the horizon.  According to the fisherman, these three hermits were very holy men who spent their days praying for the salvation of their souls and for the needs of the world.  The fisherman had met them the previous year when his boat was damaged and he put in to their island to repair it.

‘One is a small man and his back is bent,” said the fisherman. “He wears a priest’s cassock and is very old; he must be more than a hundred, I should say. He is so old that the white of his beard is taking a greenish tinge, but he is always smiling, and his face is as bright as an angel’s from heaven. The second is taller, but he also is very old. He wears a tattered peasant coat. His beard is broad, and of a yellowish grey color. He is a strong man. Before I had time to help him, he turned my boat over as if it were only a pail. He too, is kindly and cheerful. The third is tall, and has a beard as white as snow and reaching to his knees. He is stern, with over-hanging eyebrows; and he wears nothing but a mat tied round his waist.”

The bishop was intrigued, and, because this small unnamed island fell within the territory of his authority, he convinced the ship’s captain to bring him to the island.  The captain brought the ship as close to the rocky shore of the island as he dared, and the bishop was able land on the island in the ship’s boat.  As he stepped ashore, the three hermits came to greet him.  The old men bowed to him and he made the sign of the cross and blessed them, at which they bowed even lower.

“I have heard,’ said the bishop, “that you, godly men, live here saving your own souls, and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God’s mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you, also.”

The old men looked at each other smiling, but remained silent.

“Tell me,’ said the Bishop, ‘what you are doing to save your souls, and how you serve God on this island.”

The second hermit sighed, and looked at the oldest, the very ancient one. The latter smiled, and said:  “We do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves, servant of God.”

“But how do you pray to God?” asked the Bishop.

“We pray in this way,” replied the hermit. “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.”  And when the old man said this, all three raised their eyes to heaven, and repeated: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us!”

The Bishop smiled as he told them they were praying incorrectly.  With that he launched into a brief lecture on theology and how God had been revealed in the world and in the scriptures.  And then, because it was the prayer Jesus had taught his disciples and because it is written in the scriptures, he began to teach them the Lord’s Prayer.  

The three hermits, who had spent years mostly in silence, struggled as they tried to learn the prayer the bishop was teaching them, but eventually, after several hours and much repetition, they seemed to have learned it.

It was getting dark and the moon was rising over the sea as the bishop returned to the boat.  As he bid them farewell, the old hermits bowed down to the ground.  The bishop raised them up and kissed them, then reminded them to keep praying in the way he had taught them.  As the ship made for the open water, the bishop could still see the three old men standing by the shore, their voices floating across the water as they practiced saying the Lord’s Prayer as he had taught them.  The bishop sat in the stern, contented, as the ship sailed on and the island disappeared below the horizon.

It was a pleasant night, so the bishop continued to sit in the stern, thinking and gazing out across the sea as the moonlight sparkled and danced across the waves.  Suddenly he saw something white and shining on the pathway the moon was casting upon the sea.  Was it a gull, or perhaps the sail of another ship?  The bishop realized that it was moving toward them very rapidly.

The bishop called to the helmsman, “What is that, my friend?  What is it?”  the 

Bishop repeated, though he could now see plainly what it was—the three hermits were running upon the water, all gleaming white, their grey beards shining.  They were approaching the ship as quickly as though it were not moving.  

The steersman looked and let go the helm in terror. “Oh Lord! The hermits are running after us on the water as though it were dry land!” 

The passengers hearing him, jumped up, and crowded to the stern. They saw the hermits coming along hand in hand, and the two outer ones beckoning the ship to stop. All three were gliding along upon the water without moving their feet. 

Before the ship could be stopped, the hermits had reached it, and raising their heads, all three as with one voice, began to say: “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.”

The Bishop crossed himself, and leaning over the ship’s side, said:

“Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.”

The Bishop bowed low before the old men, and they turned and went back across the sea. And a light shone until daybreak on the spot where they were lost to sight.[1]

Sometimes a lack of humility—or worse, our own arrogant assumptions—can keep us from seeing and hearing what’s right in front of us.  We can be blinded by our own agendas or preconceptions or sense of self-importance so that we fail to see that the people around us are children of God, created in the divine image and likeness of God.  We forget our common humanity.  It’s just part of human nature. 

One day, after a long day on the road, Jesus asked his disciples what they had been arguing about as they made their way back to Capernaum.  They didn’t answer his question because they were ashamed that they had been arguing about who was the greatest.  

After all this time travelling with Jesus as he taught about the equity and equality that were the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God, after listening to him talk about his own pending crucifixion and humiliation, it seems that they still had it in their heads that the kingdom Jesus was ushering in would be something like a conventional kingdom.  They were imagining themselves in some future positions of influence and power.  But Jesus had been trying to teach them that God’s kingdom wasn’t like that at all.  

Clifton Black, Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton, points out that here in chapter nine of Mark we see a pattern repeated from chapter eight.  The pattern goes like this: a) Jesus predicts his suffering, execution and resurrection;  b) the disciples either fail to grasp or refuse to accept what he’s teaching them;  then c) Jesus leads them through a teaching moment and expands the definition of discipleship.

“Why this repetition?” asks Dr. Black. “Two reasons. First: Discipleship in Mark is hard to accept. Second: In this gospel Jesus’ closest followers are so dense that light bends around them.”[2] 

It’s easy for us to feel a little smug about the disciples being so slow on the uptake, but then we would  be committing the same sin of arrogance that they were as they jockeyed for status.  We need to remember that we know how the story turns out, but they were living in the middle of it.

When Peter opposed Jesus’ destiny in chapter eight, Jesus responded by roundly chastising him. Here in chapter nine, though, Jesus very quietly teaches them about humility without humiliating them.  

“He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’  Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  

He doesn’t criticize them for wanting to be first, to have the highest ranking.  Instead, he tells them what it takes to accomplish that.  If you want to be first you have to be last.  If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least.  You have to be everyone’s servant.

To prove his point, Jesus takes a little child in his arms.  It’s easy for us to miss the point of what he’s doing here, and there’s a temptation to over-sentimentalize it.  But he’s giving them a very clear object lesson—at least it was clear to them in their culture.  

The word we translate as “little child,” paidion, was also another way to say “slave.”  Think in terms of, “tell the boy to get me a drink,” or “tell the girl to clear the table.”  The “boy” or the “girl” might be full-grown adults, but they’re not seen that way.  The double meaning worked because in the ancient world of the disciples, a child, like a slave, had the least status of anyone.  As Professor Black explains, “A child epitomizes the most subservient human in ancient society, one with slightest status. But in Jesus’ presence a little child literally has ‘standing’.” 

  “Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,”  said Jesus.  The disciples had almost certainly overlooked that child before Jesus picked her up and took her in his lap.  They probably couldn’t imagine that they might learn something from that child, any more than the bishop in Tolstoy’s story could imagine that he might learn something from three old hermits on a remote island.  In their pride, the disciples probably just saw a kid, maybe even one who was kind of in the way, a distraction from their lesson in spirituality.  Who would have thought that the child would be their lesson in spirituality?  

If you want to be first you have to be last.  If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least.  You have to be everyone’s servant.  If you want to embrace Christ, you need to embrace everyone, even people with no status whatsoever.  Even a child.  You might be surprised.  You might discover that they can run across the water and shine like the moon.


[1] The Three Hermits, Leo Tolstoy; The Literacy Network, http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/2896/

[2] Commentary on Mark 9:30-37, C. Clifton Black; WorkingPreacher.org, 9/19/21

A Clash of Symbols

Mark 8:27-38

When you’re listening to a symphony or some other orchestral music and you hear the cymbals, it’s a clue that a musical statement is being made.  Often the sound will start with a quiet roll of the mallets on a single cymbal, rising under the sound of the other instruments until it crescendos into an impressive clash of bright noise to punctuate the piece.  That clash of the cymbals is a musical way to say “pay attention.”  

A clash of symbols—S-Y-M-B-O-L-S—also gets our attention.  This weekend we observed a horrible anniversary.  It was twenty years ago when terrorists violently assaulted our religious, social, economic, and political structures by crashing three planes into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.  Analysts think that the fourth plane, which was heroically brought down by its passengers, was intended to crash into the US Capitol building or the White House.  The terrorists wanted to make a statement.  They wanted our attention.  So they chose to destroy targets that were symbolic, targets that represented our economic, military, and political might.  Their actions were not intended to be militarily strategic.  Their actions were violently symbolic.

The Gospel of Mark is thick with symbols and symbolic actions as Jesus nonviolently confronts the religious, social, economic, and political structures of his time in order to proclaim that the Reign of God is arriving.  Everything that happens in Mark’s gospel pivots around that opening announcement:  The Reign of God, the Kingdom of God, the Dominion of God is arriving.  

The announcement, itself, the very language of it, carries symbolic weight.  Jesus doesn’t announce that the Kingdom of God has arrived, but that it is within reach.  The message is that even though Jesus, the Christ has arrived to inaugurate the Dominion of God, it’s not a done deal.  And maybe it never will be.  The language Jesus uses tells us that the Kingdom may always be a work in progress.  The Reign of God is arriving.  Engikken is the word in the Greek text.  It means imminent.  Think of it as a train that’s just coming into the station, or a plane that is on approach but hasn’t landed yet.  The orchestra is swelling with the theme, but there is a lot of the piece still to come before the final clash of the cymbals.  The conductor has not yet put down his baton.  

There are a number of cymbal clashes and symbol clashes in Mark’s orchestration of the story of Jesus.  Nothing is superfluous in this first of all the gospels.  Mark even uses the literary structure of the story in a symbolic way to reinforce the impact of what Jesus is teaching about the Kingdom, and to reassert his invitation to us to be disciples—followers and participants in The Way.  Mark carefully orders the stories and episodes he describes not just for dramatic effect, but to clarify the challenges of discipleship.

Here in chapter 8 of Mark, smack in the middle of the gospel, the disciples come to a turning point—and Mark wants it to be our turning point, too.  

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  It’s an easy question.  What’s the buzz?  What’s the word out there in the crowd?  What do the polls say?

They told him that some thought of him as John the Baptist, who had recently been executed by Herod.  Others thought of him as Elijah.  Certainly they all agreed that he ranked among the prophets.  

It’s easy for the disciples to report on what all those other people are saying.  The crowd is not the inner circle.  They’re not as fully vested in Jesus and The Way as the disciples, who are in the inner circle.

But then Jesus puts the disciples on the spot.  He asks them point blank, “But who do you say that I am?” 

Mark frames this critical question with all kinds of important symbolism.   Mark wants us to understand that Jesus is posing the question to us, too.  He places it right in the middle of the gospel so we will understand that Jesus is asking us this question right in the middle of our own story, our own journey of discipleship, our own day-to-day life: “Who do you say that I am?”  

The geographic location where Jesus asks this question is powerfully symbolic, too. They are in Gentile territory just outside Caesarea Phillipi, a city famous as a center of pagan worship, most notably worship of the god Pan—a very sexy and earthy deity.  The city was reconstructed by and named for the Tetrarch Phillip, the sycophant son of the ruthless Herod the Great.  In an effort to curry favor with his Roman overlords, Phillip also named the city for Caesar, the Roman Emperor, a dictator who claimed to be divine.  On top of all that, Caesarea Phillipi was the place where the Roman legions took their R&R and staged their campaigns into Palestine to put down Jewish rebellion. 

Here, in a place that confronted the disciples with false gods and stared them down with the brute force of its political and military power, here is where Jesus asks them—and us—his pointed question:  “Who do you say that I am?”  In the face of the allure of religion and all the false gods that beckon to us, in the face of seductive political power, in the face of the addictive efficiency of brute force he asks “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter said, “You are the messiah.  The Christ.”  Is that your answer, too?  What does that title mean to you?  Messiah.  Christ.  How do you interpret that title, that role? 

Jesus, it seems, did not like the way Peter and the others interpreted that title.  Messiah.  He told them not to say it.  Not to talk about him in those terms.  He didn’t deny that he was the Messiah, but he was concerned that they were thinking of Messiah in terms of political power and military force.  So he told them to keep quiet.  

And then, without using the term, he began to teach them what it really meant to be the Messiah.  He called himself the Son of Man, the Human One, and told them that he would undergo great suffering, that he would be rejected by the religious establishment that had, ironically, been expecting him for centuries.  He told them that he would be killed and that then he would rise again.

Peter didn’t like what Jesus was saying.  Peter was expecting a righteous general to command a holy army and Jesus was telling him he wasn’t willing to play that role.  So Peter argued with Jesus right there in front of everybody.  How often do we argue with Jesus because he won’t play the role we want him to play?  How often are we looking for a Messiah who will kick tail and take names and step in and fix everything?  

Jesus made it crystal clear that those kinds of expectations, that kind of thinking, is in direct opposition to who he is and what he’s about.  “Get behind me, Satan!  You’re thinking about things in a typically human way instead of trying to understand what God is doing and how God is doing it.”

And then Jesus said what was maybe the hardest thing of all—for the disciples and for us.  “If you want to be my follower, you’re going to have to deny yourself, take up your cross, and fall in behind me.”  

When Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” it wasn’t just rhetoric.  He wasn’t speaking symbolically.  Those who heard him understood him quite clearly and so did the first readers of Mark’s gospel.  

Mark’s gospel was most likely written in Palestine during the time of the Jewish revolt against Rome from 63-70 CE, and those original readers were all too familiar with the cross.  Crucifixion, with all its horror, was a common sight for them.  Crucifixion was the Romans’ favorite way to execute those accused of rebellion or sedition.  The cross was an instrument of torture, but it was also a tool for ridicule.  Crucifixion was not only excruciatingly painful, it was also a publicly humiliating way to die—hung up naked and in agony before the world and helpless to do anything to cover yourself or ease your pain.  The Romans used it symbolically to make a statement about the futility of opposing them.

In Mark’s gospel, publicly displaying your faith, publicly acting as a follower of Jesus, means standing in opposition to both the religious and political systems that enrich and empower some while simultaneously creating a permanent class of the oppressed and disadvantaged.  The first readers of Mark understood that Jesus was asking for a total commitment to his nonviolent revolution, his transformation and restructuring of the world to bring it into conformity with God’s vision.  

Jesus is still asking that of us.  But he wants us to understand that there are consequences for taking on the powers.  He also, however, wants us to understand that there are consequences for not doing it, for continuing to play along with all the forces of business as usual. 

“What good will it be if you play the game and get everything you want, the whole world even, but lose your soul?  Your self?  What are you going to get in exchange for selling off your soul in little pieces?  What’s the going rate for that internal essence that makes you uniquely and creatively you?  What’s the market price for the image of God in you? What good will it be at the end of the day if you’re surrounded by every comfort but you’ve lost everything that makes you really you, everything in you that shines with the likeness of God? 

Those words should hit us like a clash of cymbals in the symphony of life.  They should wake us up to look at where we are in the melody of the Spirit and the orchestration of the God’s kingdom.  Those words should open our eyes and hearts and minds to the clash of symbols in our world and in our lives.  

On this day, twenty years after violent men assaulted our country by crashing into important symbols of American power, Mark’s gospel is asking us once again to pay attention to the clash of symbols in our own lives and the bright noise of the cymbals in the music of heaven.  On this day we are all standing a Caesarea Phillipi, caught between two questions:  Who do you say that Jesus is, and will you take up a cross to follow him?   The symphony pauses, waiting for us to answer.

Our Mothering God in a World On Fire

John 6:51-58; Luke 1:46-55; Proverbs 9:1-6

There’s a prayer I pray every Monday as I read the lectionary texts for the week:  “Lord, what is it that you want to say to these people in this time and this place through these texts?”  I hold that prayer in my mind and heart all week. And then I listen.

I listen to the life of the congregation.  I listen to the world.  I listen to theologians, commentators and scholars in the things I read.  I listen to my colleagues.  I listen to my own heart.  I listen for the Holy Spirit.  I learned a long time ago that God speaks to us in a multitude of ways as we walk through the world.  So I listen.

This week, we had a choice between two different sets of lectionary readings. In the texts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, the focus in the Gospel lesson was on Jesus saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”   But this Sunday is also a day set aside to remember and lift up Mary, the mother of Jesus.  As I bounced back and forth between the two different themes and the two different sets of texts I found things in both that tugged at me, things that opened doors to things we need to think about and talk about as a community and people of faith… and, frankly, as a nation and as a world.  But I didn’t feel a definite pull to go with one over the other.  

So I kept listening.

One of the problems that pastors face is that there is just so much going on in the world and in our churches that God has been calling us to address that it’s hard to know where to start.  As one of my colleagues said in a meeting this week, the world is on fire, and I don’t know where to start to put it out.  

The world is, quite literally, on fire.  And we, the human race, collectively, can’t seem to find the will to put out the fire that threatens to destroy us and all the rest of the earth along with us.  With droughts and fires and floods and hurricanes, the change in our climate has become so manifestly real that anyone who still denies it sounds like they’ve been living in an alternate reality.  We have the science.  We know what needs to be done.  But the changes we need to make are so substantial, pervasive and dramatic that we can’t find the will to make a meaningful start.  We know that we need to radically change the way we live, in ways that are going to involve each and every one of us.  No one can sit this one out.  The change that has to happen if our children and grandchildren are going to have half a chance of living in a habitable world are scary.  And expensive.  So we’ve been dragging our feet.  We’ve been rationalizing.  But we can’t afford to do that anymore.  The world is on fire.

Our relationships are on fire, too.  In our purple church, our purple nation, our purple world, we keep trying to find the middle path between red and blue, but there’s been so much friction from the two sides rubbing each other the wrong way that the middle ground has become scorched and unstable.  So many bridges have been burned.  And if you try to discuss that simple fact, the finger-pointing starts all over again and plans and hopes for new bridges are set ablaze before foundations can even be laid.  

Red and blue, black and white—these are the binary patterns we know, and any suggestion of a world that’s broader and more colorful, a world that doesn’t fit the patterns we’re used to living in, raises our hackles.  There are whole states in our country right now where politicians are working to make sure that teachers are not allowed to address the historical fact that within our nation’s history one race of people held another race of people captive and brutally enslaved them.  That’s a wound that our nation will never recover from if we can’t open it up and cleanse it.  But it’s too hard to talk about.  There’s too much guilt festering in it.  So even though that wound is on fire with infection, we can’t seem to find the will to do what it takes to heal us.  We can’t seem to find the will to simply speak truth to each other with grace and humility.

Fear has such a hold on us that we stand frozen even as our world is on fire.  Fear—it gets expressed in denial, and greed, and in an aggressive assertion of individualism, an assertion of so-called “rights” at the expense of our mutual responsibility.  

We have bought into the lie of limitation.  We have bought into the idea of scarcity.  We have been taught to look out for number one first and let others take care of themselves if they can.  And all of this is a profound contradiction of what Jesus taught.  

In his book A Gospel of Hope, Walter Brueggemann wrote, “We baptized people are the ones who have signed on for the Jesus story of abundance.  We are the ones who decided that this story is the true story, and the four great verbs—he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave—constitute the true story of our lives.  As a result, we recognized that scarcity is a lie, a story repeated endlessly in order to justify injustice in the community.”  

Gandhi said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need.  But not for everyone’s greed.”

Jesus gives us a living example of how it can be different.  He calls us to take, to bless, to break and to give—to take responsibility and treasure the resources God has placed in our hands, to recognize the goodness that God has provided, to divide things fairly among those who need them, and to give, to share, in order to meet the needs of the world.  

When Jesus called himself the bread of life, he was inviting us to take his way of thinking, seeing, living and being in the world into ourselves.  To swallow him whole—all that he is and all that means—his way of doing life in all its fullness.  His language was graphic and shocking so we would pay attention.  “The bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life.”  For the life of the world.  He was telling us that he was all in, willing to pour out his life for the life of the world.  And he was inviting us all to be all in, too.

He didn’t talk about his “rights.”  He embraced a responsibility.  He didn’t complain about his discomfort.  He embraced the pain of a broken world and endured unspeakable torture in order to heal it.  He personally volunteered to show us in no uncertain terms that scarcity thinking—greed, fear and an insatiable hunger for control and power—lead inexorably to the innocent being crucified.  

When he called himself the bread of life, Jesus was also reminding us of the abundant generosity of God.  Jesus was reminding us of all the ways that God nurtures us and provides for us.  He was reminding us that everything that sustains us comes from God, that God is constantly mothering us.

On this day when we also remember Mary, the Mother of Jesus, it seems appropriate that we should stop and think about all the ways God has mothered us.  

Some people are uncomfortable thinking about God as our mother.  But the scriptures aren’t.  In Deuteronomy 32, God chides the people of Israel saying, “You forgot the God who gave your birth.”  In Isaiah 42, God compares Godself to a woman in labor.  In Isaiah 49 God is compared to a nursing mother.  In Isaiah 66, God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”  

The scriptures describe God as a mother bear and a mother eagle.  Jesus likened himself to a mother hen protecting her chicks and told a parable in which God was like a woman looking for a lost coin.  

Some of the saints of the early church returned repeatedly to the image of God as a nursing mother.  Saint Augustine wrote, “When all is well with me, what am I but an infant suckling your milk and feeding on you?”  Ephrem of Syria wrote, “He has given suck — life to the universe.”  Teresa of Avila exclaimed, “Oh Life of my life!  Sustenance that sustains me!  For from those divine breasts where it seems God is always sustaining the soul there flows streams of milk bringing comfort to all the people….”  Mary, herself, in her Magnificat sang out, “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

In the late 3rd or early 4th century, a collection of hymns called the Odes to Solomon had this verse in it:  

“A cup of milk was offered to me

And I drank with sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.

The Son is the cup,

And he who was milked is the Father,

And she who milked him is the Holy Spirit.”

The world is on fire.  And one of the flames we need to extinguish is the domineering inferno of patriarchy that has needlessly silenced and oppressed half of humanity for far too long.  God long ago gave us the imagery to go another way and the colors we need to paint outside the frame of male domination in the church and in the world.

In our first reading this morning from Proverbs, we heard this:

“Wisdom has built her house…

She has sent out her servant girls, she calls

                  from the highest places in the town,

         “You that are simple, turn in here!”

                  To those without sense she says,

         “Come, eat of my bread

                  and drink of the wine I have mixed.

         Lay aside immaturity, and live,

                  and walk in the way of insight.”  –Proverbs 9:1-6

The world is on fire.  But God, our mothering father, our fathering mother, has given us the everything we need to put out the fire, to live with cooler heads and warmer hearts.  We have Jesus, the bread of life, who gives his life for the life of the world.  We have God, our mothering father, our fathering mother who gives us all good things to take, to bless, to break and to share.  We have the Holy Spirit who guides us with the voice of Wisdom:  “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.  Lay aside immaturity, and live.  And walk in the way of insight…”  for the life of the world. 

We Would See Jesus

John 12:20-33

“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”  Some Greeks had come to the week-long festival of the Passover in Jerusalem and were hovering at the back of the crowd thronging around Jesus. This was just days after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and only one day after he had entered Jerusalem in the chaotic procession of Palm Sunday.  In John’s text, this was right after the Pharisees said to one another, “Look, the whole world has gone after him.”  That’s when, right on cue, these Greeks come to Philip and say, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”

It makes sense that they would come to Philip.  Philip is a Greek name.  They probably overheard him speaking to someone in Greek, which would come naturally to him since he was from Bethsaida, a Hellenized town on the northeastern side of the Sea of Galilee.  Philip consulted with Andrew, another Greek name, incidentally, also from Bethsaida, and the two of them went to tell Jesus.

Andrew and Philip are among the earliest disciples named in John’s gospel and they are the first two disciples who bring others to Jesus.  Andrew, having just met Jesus, himself, ran to find his brother, Simon Peter and blurted out, “We have found the Messiah!”  Jesus invited Philip to follow him, and Philip immediately went to find his friend Nathanael and bring him to meet Jesus, too.  And now, very nearly at the end of the gospel, Philip and Andrew are once again bringing people to see Jesus, but this time it’s because they have asked to meet him. 

So.  Philip and Andrew are good models for us.  They bring people to meet Jesus.  There’s a clue in there about effective evangelism, I think.  They didn’t invite people to join their discipleship group.  They brought them to meet Jesus.  

“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” We don’t know anything about the Greeks who make this request. Are they Greek-speaking diaspora Jews who have come to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to complete the obligations of Torah?  Are they Gentile proselytes preparing to convert to Judaism?  Are they Gentile tourists in town to see the temple, one of the wonders of the world during the time of one of its great festivals?  Have they heard about his miracles and are maybe hoping to see one for themselves?  Have they come to offer themselves as disciples?  We don’t really know anything about them or their motives.  But we surely can understand their request. 

We would like to see Jesus.  I would like to see Jesus. Wouldn’t you?  Oh, I know I see him all the time in a Matthew 25 way.  I see him in people in need.  I see him in people enduring injustice.  I see him in people pushed to the margins.  I see him.  I do.  And I see him in a 1 Corinthians 12, Body-of-Christ way.  I see him in the kindness of friends and strangers.  I see him in the ways we support each other and lift each other up and work together to dial up the love and grace and dial down the anger and fear and hate.  I see Jesus in you.  I see Jesus in you and that keeps me going.

But sometimes I would like to see Jesus the way Philip and Andrew got to see him, face to face. Debi Thomas put it this way:

 I know what it’s like to want Jesus in earnest — to want his presence, his guidance, his example, and his companionship.  I know what it’s like to want — not him, but things from him: safety, health, immunity, ease.  I know what it’s like to want a confrontation — a no-holds-barred opportunity to express my disappointment, my sorrow, my anger, and my bewilderment at who Jesus is compared to who I want him to be.[1]  

It stings to read that, but it’s so honest.  “I know what it’s like to want—not him, but things fromhim.”  It reminds me of that African American spiritual we sing sometimes, I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.  “I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”  “In my trials, Lord, walk with me; when my heart is almost breaking, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”  “When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

I want to see Jesus.  That, right there, is a pivot point of spiritual growth.  Why do I want to see Jesus?  How do I want to see Jesus?  Do I want to see Jesus because I want something from him?  Do I want to see Jesus because my faith is wavering?  Do I want to see Jesus because I want to surrender to him?  Do I want to see Jesus just to sit in his presence?

Those are the kinds of questions we need to ask ourselves when we feel that powerful yearning to see Jesus.  And let’s be clear.  There are no wrong answers here except dishonest answers.  

We don’t know why those Greeks at the Festival wanted to see Jesus.  What we do know is that as soon as Philip and Andrew came to Jesus with their request, Jesus began to talk about the cost of discipleship and about his own coming death.  We might be singing “I want Jesus to walk with me,” but Jesus responds with, “Fine.  This is where I’m going.  You might not like it.”

Peter and Andrew told Jesus that the Greek visitors wanted to meet him.  “Jesus answered, ‘Time’s up. The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’”[2]  That’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message Bible.  Time’s up. 

The time for sightseeing is over.  The time for spectator discipleship is over.  Now the Human One will be glorified.  Glorified.  As in martyred.  

“Listen carefully,” he says. “Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.  In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”[3]   

Jesus is once again telling his disciples, then and now, a message that disciples are always reluctant to hear.  If you hold on to life just as it is, you will destroy it.  If you let go of it in reckless love, you’ll have it forever.  Reckless love of God, yourself, and others is eternal. 

“If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me,” said Jesus. “Then you’ll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. The Father will honor and reward anyone who serves me.”[4]

I want to see Jesus.  Yes.  But there’s that question again:  Do I want him—or do I want something  from him?  And have I given any thought to an even more important question: what does he want from me?

Do I want to see him so I can serve him?  Do I want to see him so I can learn to be a better follower?  Am I willing to be that seed that is buried?  

The language that Jesus uses here as he talks to the Greek visitors and his disciples and the crowd is all imagery and metaphor.  The time has come to be glorified. When a seed is planted.  When I am lifted up.  But all that poetic language is euphemism for a horrifying reality.

Beginning next Sunday we will observe again the events of Holy Week, a week that ends in the brutal torture and crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday.  Attendance at worship on Good Friday is always low.  We want to see Jesus…but we don’t want to see Jesus on the cross.  We don’t want to see Jesus die, especially not in such an ugly, helpless, brutal way.

We don’t want to see Jesus willingly take the hatred, the contempt, the violence, even the sheer indifference of this world into his own body.  We want to see Jesus, but we don’t want to see Jesus there.  Like that.  We want to see Jesus in a hundred other ways—muscular super-hero Jesus, miracle-worker Jesus, wisdom Jesus, justice radical Jesus, social worker Jesus.  But Jesus on the cross?

That’s where reckless love takes Jesus.  That’s what he is saying in all the poetic language.  The seed will be buried and dead to the world.

If I want to see Jesus, really see Jesus, I need to look to the cross… where, in reckless love, he opens his heart and his arms to you.  And me.  And the whole world.


[1] Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus, 14 March 2021

[2] The Message, John 12:23

[3] The Message, John 12:24-25

[4] The Message, John 12:26

Listen

Mark 9:2-9

Have you ever sung in a choir or played in an orchestra?  If you have, you’ve probably had a moment when you realized that you were, for all intents and purposes, part of one large instrument.  Your voice in the choir was like one pipe in an organ.  You were part of one large, organic instrument comprised of many voices, all being played by the director or conductor.  It’s a wonderful experience to be part of something like that, to know that you’re part of something large and beautiful and organic which, if it’s done right, can, in its magical way, completely transport people.  It’s a humbling feeling to know that you are helping to bring this powerful yet ephemeral thing into the world, a thing composed only of sound, a thing that was not in the world before the conductor raised his baton and will vanish when he cuts off the last note and its echoes die in the hall.  

It’s an amazing experience.  And it all works beautifully as long as everyone learns their part.  And they all follow the conductor.  And they all play or sing the same piece.  All it takes for things to start to unravel, though, is for someone to decide they’re not happy with the conductor.  Little rebellions lead to great ones.  It can start with something as minor as the woodwinds rushing the conductor’s beat.  It could end with the disgruntled first trumpet player playing Trumpet Voluntary in the middle of Mozart’s Requiem. 

That seems to be Peter’s problem here in the middle of Mark’s gospel.  He’s not happy with the conductor.  He has been traveling with Jesus for a while now.  He has watched him feed multitudes of people.  Twice.  He has seen him walk on the sea.  He has watched Jesus cast out demons and heal people.  So when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter naturally replies, “You are the Messiah!”  It seems like the obvious answer.  After all, who else could do all those things?  But Jesus is less than enthusiastic with Peter’s answer, at least in Mark’s version of the story.  He sternly orders his disciples not to talk about it.  “No Messiah talk.  Are we clear?”

That didn’t sit well with Peter.  And then Jesus starts to tell his disciples and everybody else that he’s going to go to Jerusalem to confront the power structure of the temple, they’re going to reject him, and abuse him, and then he’s going to be crucified and on the third day rise again.  

No one wants to hear that.  That’s crazy talk. Peter cannot bring himself to sing along with that chorus.  He will not.  He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  

Think about that a minute.  Peter rebukes Jesus.  And apparently the other disciples are kind of half-way behind Peter on this one.  Mark writes, “But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

Jesus has a few more things to say to his disciples and the crowd about what it takes to be a disciple—namely, a willingness to take up the cross.  But Peter and the disciples are silent.

Peter rebukes Jesus.  Then Jesus rebukes Peter.

And then silence.  Six days of silence.

It’s easy to miss that.  Things move fast in Mark’s gospel.  Jesus moves quickly from one thing to the next.  The phrase “and immediately” occurs frequently.  But not here.  

Six days later.  Six days of tension between Jesus and Peter?  Six days of anxiety for the disciples? Mark doesn’t say.  Mark is silent.  And maybe they were, too.

Finally, Jesus decides that Peter needs a “come to Jesus” meeting.  Or a come with Jesus moment.  So he asks Peter, James and John to come with him up the mountain.

And there on the mountain they see him transfigured—shining white and radiant, light within and light without,  they see who their teacher really is inside his humanity.  They see Moses and Elijah, the law-bringer and the great prophet, the two most important figures in the history of their people, appear with him and converse with him.  

Peter, whose default mode seems to be talk-first-think-later, babbles out, “Lord, it’s a good thing that we’re here!  Let’s make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…”  Mark tells us he didn’t know what he was saying because he was terrified.  Well you would be, wouldn’t you.  

And then all of a sudden there is a cloud throwing a shadow over them.  All the brightness is dimmed.  And a voice comes out of the cloud and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him.”

And as suddenly as it all started, it’s over.  There’s no one there but Jesus.  And as they head back down the mountain he tells them not to tell anyone about what they’ve seen until “after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”

It took a lot to get through to Peter.  It took six days of silence and a hike up the mountain.  It took seeing Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah as he was shining like the sun.  It took hearing the voice of God speaking to him from a cloud saying, “This is my Son.  The Beloved.  Listen to him!” 

That’s what it took to get Peter to play the same tune and follow the conductor.

Is that what it takes for us?

There have always been people who try to bend Jesus to their agenda instead of bending themselves to the way of Jesus.  There have always been people who call themselves Christian who don’t seem to listen much to Jesus.

For a long time now we have seen a strain of pseudo-Christianity in this country and around the world that has little to do with the teaching of Jesus as we encounter him in the gospels.  It is based on triumphalism and a theology of glory.  It worships and celebrates power and ignores the call to enter the into world’s trials and suffering as Christ entered into our trials and suffering.  It walks hand-in-hand with nationalism and, often, racism.  It sees baptism as a get out of hell free card and not as a way of life in the beloved community.  It has co-opted the name Christian and Christian language but has not learned to do justice, to love kindness or to walk humbly with God—to love the neighbor as oneself. 

So many, like Peter, want a militant messiah.  But that’s not the way God does things.  That’s not the way of Jesus.

Six days before their trip up the mountain, after Peter rebuked Jesus and Jesus rebuked him back, Jesus had this to say to the crowd that had been gathered around them:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for your life?”

Jesus was not giving a recruitment speech designed to conjure the rewards and glories of conquest and victory.  He was issuing a realist’s invitation to a subversive movement where participation could have deadly consequences.  He was calling them, and is calling us still, to confront the powers and systems that oppress and marginalize and antagonize and lie to people wherever we find those powers and systems.  Following Jesus can be dangerous.  Listening to him can put you at odds with family and friends.  It can complicate your life.  But your life will be meaningful. 

Jesus wanted to make it clear that he was not a white-horse-sword-in-hand messiah.  He wanted his disciples and everyone else to understand that his way of confronting injustice and oppression was to free people from its weight, heal their wounds, and then simply stand in front of the powers and speak the truth.  That was the music he was bringing.  That was the song he wanted the world to sing with him.  Peter didn’t like that song at all.  He wanted the White Horse and Sword Cantata.  

So six days later, Jesus took him up the mountain to show him who he was really arguing with.  And so he could hear the voice.

Sometimes we all need to be reminded that Jesus leads and we follow, that he’s the conductor and we’re the players in the orchestra and singers in the choir.  Sometimes we all need to go up the mountain to be reminded of who Jesus is inside his humanity.  Sometimes we all need to be reminded of those words from the cloud: “This is my Son.  The Beloved.  Listen to him.”  

Especially those last words. 

“Listen to him.”

The Guest at the Banquet

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:  2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.  Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’  5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,  6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.  7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.  8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’  10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 

11  “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,  12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.  13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Fredrich Wilhelm I, king of Prussia in the early 18th century, had a hot temper and a short fuse.  He often would walk unattended through the streets of Berlin and if people saw him coming they would do their best to make themselves scarce, because if anyone displeased him for even the slightest of reasons he wouldn’t hesitate to thrash them with his walking stick.  One day an unlucky man who didn’t see him coming in time attempted to slide into a doorway to avoid the cantankerous king but his efforts were in vain.

“You,” called Fredrich Wilhelm, “where are you going?”

“Into the house, Your Majesty,” replied the nervous man.

“Into the house?  Your house?” asked the king.

“No,” replied the poor man.

“Why are you entering it, then?” asked Fredrich Wilhelm.

The unfortunate man, afraid he might be accused of burglary, decided to tell the truth.  “In order to avoid you, Your Majesty.”

Fredrich Wilhelm scowled. “To avoid me?  Why would you want to avoid me?”

“Because I fear you, Your Majesty.”

King Fredrich turned purple with rage and began to beat the poor man’s shoulders with his walking stick as he shouted, “You’re not supposed to fear me!  You’re supposed to love me!  Love me, you scum!  Love me!”

Do we sometimes see God as being like Fredrich Wilhelm—hot tempered with a short fuse, ready to punish for infractions large and small?

I thought about that as I read the parable in this week’s gospel lesson and how we have traditionally interpreted it.

I need to say before I go any further that this parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew is one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging for preachers and scholars.  Just about any way you approach it you will find problems and loose ends—pieces that just don’t fit.  No less a scholar than David Lose said, “This parable seems just plain nasty. Not so much because it’s difficult to interpret – it is to some degree – though mostly, I think, because we don’t like what it says—but rather because of the indiscriminate violence in the passage.  What are we to make of it?”[1]

As with so many of Jesus’ parables, we have traditionally interpreted this story of the wedding banquet as an allegory and assigned identities to the characters. 

In most of these interpretations, the king who gives the banquet represents God and the bridegroom/son represents Jesus.  

In one traditional interpretation, the original invited guests who turn down the invitation represent the people of Israel, and the people brought in off the streets represent the gentiles who are brought into the feast when Israel turns down the invitation.  

In one historical interpretation, the invited guests who refuse to come represent the Pharisees and the street people who take their place represent the new Christian community, those people first hearing and reading Matthew’s gospel.

There is another interpretation, David Lose calls it the “Lutheran” interpretation, which doesn’t dwell on those who decline the invitation or the street people who take their place at the table.  This interpretation focuses, instead, on the gracious generosity of the king who issues the invitation in the first place, first to the chosen, then in opening it up to “everyone they found.” 

In all these interpretations, the wedding robe is understood to be God’s grace which clothes us in imputed righteousness.  The guest who is thrown out into the outer darkness for failing to wear a wedding robe is understood to represent someone who refuses to accept God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

That’s pretty much how I’ve always heard this parable preached or taught.  These interpretations works well enough up to a point, but they’re not without their problems.  So let’s look at some of those problems, the things we gloss over if we keep hearing this story the same way we’ve always heard it.

Let’s start with the son, the guest of honor at the banquet.  If this is Jesus, in this story being told by Jesus, he is oddly passive in this story.  The son does nothing.  He does not deliver the invitation or announcement of the feast.  He does not supply the wedding robes which, in traditional interpretations represent being clothed in grace.  He does not intervene on behalf of the guest being ejected into the outer darkness.  He is utterly and completely passive.  Would Jesus have described himself that way?  Is that how you understand Christ?

What about the idea that those who first receive the invitation represent the people of Israel, the Jews, and the street people who take their place at the banquet are the Gentiles who would later dominate the church?  The people of Israel reject the king’s, God’s, invitation, so God destroys them. On one level, it’s easy to see how this fits. You can interpret the slaves delivering the invitation as the prophets.  You could argue that the destruction of the city is an allusion to the Romans having destroyed Jerusalem.  But remember, the first people reading this account in Matthew were Jewish Christians, probably living in Syria.  There is good evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.[2]  Even the people hearing this story in the Jewish Christian community of Matthew’s gospel still thought of themselves as Jews, as the people of Israel, but Jews who had received Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah.  Would they be likely to hear this as a story about God’s rejection of Jews and acceptance of Gentiles in their place?  Also, this interpretation leads all too readily to antisemitism—and has historically been used for that purpose.  Would Jesus, a Jew, be likely to tell a story with such a theme even if it wasn’t the main theme?

If we choose an interpretation that focuses primarily on God’s grace, then what do we make of the king’s violence?  If grace is our theme, how do we understand the king ordering one of the guests to be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth simply because he didn’t wear a wedding robe, especially since we are given no reason for why he’s not doing so?  And what do we make of that last line—many are called but few are chosen—when it seems like the many are staying at the banquet and the few, the one, really is being chosen for a rough exit?

If we take any of these approaches, we miss something else going on in this parable in Matthew.  There is a very similar story in Luke 14, a story of a great banquet, but it is a much milder story.  The host is a merely a man, not a king.  The invited guests make excuses, but no one is punished for not coming, except that they don’t get to taste the delicacies at the banquet.  No violence.  No wedding robes.  No outer darkness.  But in this story in Matthew those are the things Jesus is using to make a point.  But what, exactly, is the point he is trying to make?

If we look closely we’ll see that there is a lot going on politically in this story.  The host is not just a man, he’s a king.  That means that the invitation to the banquet carries a certain weight.  It is, in fact, a genteel form of command appearance.  The noted English Biblical scholar, Richard Baukham, put it this way:

The attendance of the great men of the kingdom at the wedding feast of the king’s son would be expected not only as a necessary expression of the honor they owe the king but also as an expression of their loyalty to the legitimate succession to his throne. Political allegiance is at stake. Excuses would hardly be acceptable, and the invitees (unlike those in the Lukan parable) offer none. To refuse the invitation is tantamount to rebellion. In refusing it, the invitees are deliberately treating the king’s authority with contempt. They know full well that their behavior will be understood as insurrection. This is what they intend, and those who kill the king’s messengers only make this intention known more emphatically. The king responds as kings do to insurrection (v. 7).[3] 

So… we have a king whose kingdom is in open rebellion.  Why?  In response to his envoys being killed he launches an all-out attack and destroys the rebellious city.  But the feast is all prepared and must go ahead.  He has to save face.  He has to show his political strength and force.  The aristocrats who were invited are out, so he turns populist.  He brings in people off the street.  It’s right out of the Roman playbook–bread and circuses, just like Julius Caesar.  Just like Augustus.  But when he sees one poor schmo who isn’t in formal wear he has him booted.

And now we’re back to Fredrich Wilhelm I.  Capricious.  Thin-skinned. Hot tempered.  Short fused. 

Is that how we see God?  

More importantly, since Jesus is the one telling this story, is that how Jesus saw God?

I don’t think so.

Quoting Jesus from just this Gospel of Matthew, we hear him say, “Your Father in heaven makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (5:9).  “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (6:8)  “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (6:26)  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” (10:29)

Does that sound like the king in this parable?  Or is Jesus trying to tell us something else here?   

Is there a way to hear this parable where we hear Good News?  Is there a way to hear this short story by Jesus where we Gentile Christians don’t get a version Good News that’s just cheap grace at someone else’s expense?  As Debi Thomas put it, “— not the mingy Good News that secures my salvation and my comfort at the expense of other people’s bodies and souls — but rather, the Good News of the Gospel that is inclusive, disruptive, radical, and earth-shattering. The Good News that centers on the Jesus I trust and love.  What would it be like to look for Jesus and his Good News in this story?”[4]

What happens if we reassign the roles in our allegory?  

Credit where credit is due.  I am indebted to Debi Thomas for what comes next, an idea which has completely changed the way I see this parable.  In her weekly lectionary essay in Journey with Jesus she wrestled with all the difficulties in this parable and then arrived at a solution unlike any I’ve ever seen or read before.  I’ve shared her essay with several colleagues and we all think she’s on to something.

What if the king represents all the powers that be in this world, the powers that insist we conform to their norms—religion, politics, the boundaries of society—the powers that rise up to crush anything or anyone that steps too far out of line, that rejects and ejects those who don’t wear the garment of conformity?

What if all the people in this parable are just that?  People in their stratified layers.  The aristocrats and wealthy who get the embossed invitations to all that’s good in life and then everybody else—regular people who go about their lives making do but who sometimes get a fabulous break because the original guests are no-shows.

What if Jesus is describing the system as it was, and as it is—the way the world works, with its hierarchies of wealth and levers of power, with its struggles for control and its pressures to create and maintain business as usual?

And then, what if the “God” figure in this parable is the guest without a wedding robe?   What if Jesus is the one who refuses to wear the wedding robe, the garment of conformity?  What if Jesus is making a statement and saying, “I refuse to play along.”

When the king asked “Friend how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” the guest was speechless.  When Jesus stood before Pilate, he was speechless, too.[5]

What if the way to the real celebration was to opt out of the coerced party hosted by the powers that be,  to refuse to wear the clothes of conformity, to let yourself be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, just as the way to Christ’s resurrection was through the cross and the tomb, just as the way to eternal life is through death?

What if Jesus is the guest being forcefully ushered out of the party?  What would that mean for us as followers of Jesus?

Would you be willing to take off your robes of privilege, position, power and wealth to follow him into the outer darkness?   Would I?

Many are called.  Few are chosen.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] In the Meantime, Pentecost 19, A Limited Vision, David Lose.net

[2] Was the Gospel of Matthew Originally Written in Hebrew?,  George Howard, Bible Review 2:4, Winter 1986

[3] Parable of the Royal Wedding Feast, Richard Baukham; Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall, 1996, p.484

[4] The God Who Isn’t, Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus, October 11, 2020

[5] Matthew 27:12-14