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

Between a Rock and the Devil

Matthew 16:21-28

Once upon a time there was a jester.  His job, of course, was to amuse the king, to tell him jokes and funny stories or even to find some comedy in affairs of state within reason.  Unfortunately, this particular jester loved puns.  Simply couldn’t resist them. “What did the grape say when it got crushed? Nothing, it just let out a little wine.”  “You should see my collection of candy canes.  They’re all in mint condition.”  “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”  That sort of thing. 

The king, for his part, hated puns.  Hated them.  And one day when there had been one pun too many he told the jester, “If I hear even one more pun out of you you’re a dead man.  I’m serious.  I’ll have you hanged.  Do you understand me?”  The jester could see that the king was serious,  so he simply said, “Yes, majesty. No more puns.  I promise on my life.”  

Just then the smell of smoke came wafting into the throne room through the open widow.  The jester looked out into the town and cried, “Oh no!  The bakery is on fire!”  Then without thinking added, “The poor baker.  His business is toast.”

The next morning as the jester stood on the gallows and the hangman slipped the rope over his head, a messenger came galloping up frantically.  “The king has decided to be merciful,” he called out to the jester.  “If you will swear never to utter another pun for as long as you live, he will spare your life.”

The jester looked out at the crowd who had come to witness his hanging, then with a wry little smile said, “Well, no noose is good noose.”  And that was the end of him.

I love that story because even with all its silliness it illustrates an important point about human nature:  we find it hard to change.  Even when the stakes are high, life-and-death high, we don’t like to change.  The jester in the story couldn’t bring himself to make a simple change even though his life was on the line.

We don’t like to change the way we do things.  And we are especially resistant to changing the way we think.  The way we think about ourselves.  The way we think about others.  The way we think about the world.  The way we think about God.

In this week’s gospel lesson, Simon Peter is having trouble changing his understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah.  Jesus had asked him, “Who do you say that I am?”  In a flash of insight, Simon Peter had responded, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!”  That’s when Jesus in a play on words, a kind of pun, affirms that Simon is Petrus, a Rock, and that he will build his church on the petra, the bedrock of Peter’s confession.  

For a glowing moment, Peter is the star.  He had the right answer.  He’s A Rock.  But then things turn sideways for him. 

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

This absolutely does not fit with Peter’s idea of Messiah.  Messiah may go to Jerusalem, but it won’t be to suffer and die.  Messiah, in Peter’s understanding, in is a conqueror.  Messiah will ride in at the head of an army, kick out the Romans, and restore the Kingdom of Israel.  Messiah will lead a revolution!  That’s how Peter understands it.  So he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

I can sympathize with Peter.  I think we all can, at least to some extent.  He had this picture in his head of how he thought things should be and how he thought they should go.  But it wasn’t what Jesus had planned, what God had planned. 

Peter needed to change.  He needed to change his understanding of Messiah.  He needed to change his understanding of Jesus.  He needed to change his understanding of how God was working.  He needed to change his understanding of how the world works.  He needed to change his understanding of himself and his role in what was happening. 

We don’t like to change.  It’s not just that we don’t like it, we have all kinds of ways of resisting it, especially when it comes to changing our ideas, our understanding of things, the way we think.

We have all kinds of ways of resisting information we don’t want to hear.  Often we immerse ourselves in echo chambers so we only receive information that is consistent with our way of thinking.  We only watch certain news channels, only read certain papers and periodicals.  Surround ourselves with social media friends who think like us and screen out those who don’t.  Some simply close their minds and refuse to take in any new or different information. 

And then there’s what writer Julian Sanchez calls Epistemic Closure.  He describes it this way:

“An ‘echo chamber’ just means you never hear any contrary information. The idea of ‘epistemic closure’ was that you WOULD hear new and contrary information, but you have mechanisms in your belief system that reject anything that might force you to update your beliefs.[1]

Peter needed to update his beliefs.  But he resisted.  He pushed back.  “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

It must have cut Peter to the heart when Jesus turned to him and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.  You’re setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “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 will find it.  

 How often do we try to get Jesus to follow our plans instead of committing ourselves to him and his plans? 

I wonder sometimes if we—and by we I mean a large segment of white American Christianity—I wonder if we haven’t created an epistemic closure version of Christianity.  We call ourselves Christian because we believe certain things about Jesus—that he’s the son of God, that he died for our sins, that by his cross and resurrection he saves us.  And if someone challenges our claim to the Christian label because of the way we treat poor people or hungry people or immigrants, or people of color, or people of differing sexuality, or because of our infatuation with firearms, our because of our less than generous politics, or simply because we’re not really doing much to change the world into something that looks more like the kin-dom of heaven, we  crank up the defense mechanisms of our epistemic closure to shield us from any pointed new information or hard questions.  We point to the creed or our church attendance or our giving to certain things.  We point to particular passages in our Bibles.  We point to our baptism.  We point to our claim that we’re saved.

 We forget sometimes what Jesus said in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Jesus had to shock Peter into the fact that he needed a makeover of the mind, heart and spirit.  He had to call him Satan.  The cosmic opponent.  Lord, that must have hurt.  Going from Rock to Devil in nothing flat.  Jesus had to shock Peter to get him to simply stop believing certain things about him in his head and to get him, instead, to start following him with all his heart.

What would he have to say to you to get through your defenses?  What would he have to say to me?  What would he have to say to turn us from mere believers into followers who carry a cross?

“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 will find it.”

There is so much in life that fragments us.  Not just things that fragment our unity with each other, but things that fragment our individual souls.  We try to wear layers of identities that don’t always fit well with each other.  The patterns clash.  They chip and chafe our psyches if we ever give half a thought to them.  It’s hard to love when you’re trying to hold the pieces of your soul together.  Better to let your self—your selves—fall away into the love of Christ.

That’s exactly what Jesus is asking us to do.  Deny ourselves—let go of our false selves—put down the beliefs and personas that don’t really fit well with the identity of follower of Christ.  And quit trying to make Jesus wear a costume that fits our ideas of who we might prefer him to be.  

Lay it all down.  Pick up a cross.  And follow.  That’s where we will find our lives, our souls, and be saved.  That’s where we will be made whole.  In Christ’s healing work.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] Julian Sanchez@Normative

Questions in the Key of Rock

Matthew 16:13-20

What was it like for them I wonder?  What was it like for the disciples traveling from place to place with Jesus?  Did Simon the Zealot argue with Matthew the tax collector every step of the way?  Who assigned the chores when they camped somewhere?  Was Jesus responsible for all that or did he delegate that job to someone else?  How many of them were there?  Was it  just Jesus and the 12 when they were on the road or were there more?  At one point Jesus sends out 70 on a mission; were they all part of the touring company or did that larger group stay behind at Capernaum?  Luke’s gospel mentions a number of women; did they travel with Jesus, too?   

Have you ever been to a place that both frightened and fascinated you?  A place that filled you with both awe and maybe a little bit of dread?

About ten years ago I was backpacking in the Sierras above Sequoia when we came around the bend of the trail onto a broad, open space of bald granite like a great, slightly sloping observation platform.  The view was nothing short of stunning.  In front of us the cliff dropped away into a yawning canyon that opened into an expansive valley.  Off to the north we could see all the way to Half Dome in Yosemite.  It felt like we were standing quite literally on the edge of the world.

As I said, the view was stunning.  And part of me wanted to stay there as long as possible just to soak it all in and marvel at the beauty of it all.  But another part of me was mindful of the sloping granite beneath my feet, some of it loose and chipped and slippery beneath my boots.  I was a good safe distance from the edge where the granite curved over then plunged into the emptiness, but I couldn’t help noticing that there was nothing that one might be able to grab onto if one happened to find oneself sliding toward trouble,  because, you know, life is uncertain.  Teenagers horse around.  People stumble.  And even geology hiccups from time to time.  A slight fear of heights makes you think about these things. 

So I was fascinated, but also a bit uneasy.

I imagine that’s how the disciples felt when they came to Caesarea Philippi.  

Fascinated but uneasy.

They’re in foreign territory, a little more than twenty-five miles from the Galilee.  They’ve walked there, of course.  And now here they are, good Jews, every one of them, standing on the hill overlooking the city, and the most dominant buildings they see are the temple to the god Pan and the temple to the emperor.  The divine Caesar.  

The temple to Pan was built around the entrance to a natural cave called Pan’s grotto.  It was also called the Gate to Hades.  Pan was regarded as a fertility god.  The pagans believed that the fertility gods slept through the winter in Hades then reemerged in the spring to bring new life to the world.  They believed that this grotto was Pan’s passageway to and from Hades, the realm of the dead.  Inside the grotto there was also a gushing spring—it was gushing in ancient times but now it’s barely a trickle—that was one of the sources for the Jordan river. 

What did the disciples think as they were looking at this assortment of temples to these other gods, these gods who were not their God, even a temple to the emperor—and the administrative buildings of the tetrarchy?   What did the disciples feel as they stood in this place confronted by the structures of religion and politics, but not their religion or their politics?

Did the ground feel, maybe, a little slippery under their feet?   Did they wonder if their nervousness might be the influence of Pan?  After all fear is Pan’s weapon; the word panic comes from Pan’s name.

And it’s here, confronted by strange powers—strange religion and strange government—that Jesus asks his first important question:  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Why would he ask that here?  Why now?  Why not back in Galilee where he’s been doing most of his teaching and working wonders?  Why now in this foreign place?  Is he trying to distract them from feeling so out of place?  Is he showing them what they’ll be up against later when they take the message of the kin-dom out into the wider world?  

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples make it clear that people are impressed with Jesus.  They identify him with the pillars of righteousness and prophetic justice in their tradition:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the other prophets.  They understand that Jesus is someone who is somehow extraordinary.  But how, exactly?

Who do people say that Jesus is?  It’s still an important question for us.  

If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, a representative of Jesus, you need to know how the rest of the world sees and understands Jesus, how they describe him, because that’s where conversation begins.  Who do they say he is?  You need to know that before you can make a good case for who you say he is.  

I imagine that Jesus thought a moment about their answers to his first question before he asked the next question: “But who do you say that I am?”

“You,” said Simon Peter, “are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  

The Christ.  The Messiah.  The Anointed One.  I can’t help but wonder how Simon Peter understood his own words.

In his Commentary on Matthew my professor, the late Robert H. Smith wrote: “As the reality of the Son overwhelms mind and senses, people try to get a handle on him by fitting him into some convenient slot like prophet.  However, the Christ or Messiah is not a prophet but the goal of prophecy, not another promiser but the inaugurator of the promised time.  As Son of the living God his is the bearer of the presence of God and acts in the place of God, not as a renewer of old traditions, but as agent of God’s fresh creative work, bringer of new heavens and a new earth.”[1]

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Do you call him the Christ, the Messiah?  Do you understand him to be not merely a prophet but the goal of prophecy?  The one who was prophesied? 

Is he for you the Son of the living God?  Does he bear the presence of God in your life?  Do you see him not as the renewer of old traditions, but as the agent of God’s fresh creative work, the bringer of new heavens and a new earth?

Or has he become for you the centerpiece of old traditions?  Do the titles of Christ and Son of God simply echo memorized lines from the creeds that get repeated without much thought? 

Jesus is asking us the same question he asked Peter, James, John and the others as they stood overlooking the monuments built to idols and government:  “Who do you say that I am?”

We hear that question as we stare out into a world devoted to those same distractions and others even more powerful:  “Who do you say that I am?”

And it’s oh, so tempting for us to leap straight to the answer we memorized, the answer we have heard all our lives, without really thinking about the question or what our answer means. 

If you, like Peter, confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then you are also acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of his church, the ekklesia established on the bedrock of that confession.  You are acknowledging that you have been called to participate in Christ’s fresh, creative work of making the kin-dom of heaven a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  You are acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of the beloved community and to live by the ethic of grace and generosity that guides that community. 

In 1989, President George Bush was entering St. John’s Episcopal Church to attend Sunday worship when he was stopped by a homeless man, William Wallace Brown, Jr. who simply asked the president to pray for him.  President Bush  replied, “No. Come inside with us and pray for yourself.”  From that day on William Wallace Brown, Jr. attended church faithfully. He would sit in the pews in his street-dirty clothes alongside the rich and powerful and always put a dollar in the offering plate even when that dollar was all he had.

William Wallace Brown had been invited to come in to the beloved community, to encounter Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  And to him that meant everything.

This community, this church built on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, is, in Robert Smith’s words, “well founded, not by human authority or ingenuity only, but by the exalted Jesus, Son of the living God.  This Jesus is not a figure of the past alone.  He is still present in the midst of the community, not as unseen observer only but with his authority and teaching.”[2]  

I would add that Jesus is still present with his love and compassion, and that these keys of the kin-dom will unlock the power in us to change the world.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Robert H. Smith, The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, pp.198-199; Augsburg Publishing House, 1989

[2] Ibid, 202-203

Don’t Be Afraid

Matthew 10:24-39

[Jesus said,]   “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 

26  “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.  28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna) 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 

32  “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;  33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 

34   “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 

35       For I have come to set a man against his father,

         and a daughter against her mother

         and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 

36       and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;  38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Standing up for what you believe in, standing up for the right thing, can cost you. 

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter dash in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, they stood on the awards podium with their black-gloved fists raised in what the press called a Black Power salute to call attention to  the ongoing fight for civil rights in the United States.  Tommie Smith and John Carlos called it a Human Rights Salute.  Standing with them on the podium was the silver medalist, a white man, an Australian named Peter Norman.  Norman didn’t raise his fist but he did something else that brought down the whirlwind.   In solidarity with Smith and Carlos, he wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his uniform.  

After the race, Carlos and Smith had told Norman what they planned to do during the ceremony and Norman encouraged them.  They asked Norman if he believed in human rights.  He said he did.  Then Smith and Carlos asked Norman if he believed in God.  He said he believed strongly in God and that what they were about to do was more important than any athletic accomplishment.  And then he said, “I’ll stand with you.” On their way to the medals ceremony Norman saw the Human Rights badge being worn by Paul Hoffman, a white member of the US rowing team and asked if he could borrow it for the ceremony.  He didn’t feel it was appropriate to raise his fist because that particular symbol belonged to the people whose civil rights were being denied.  But he could wear the patch.

That moment of solidarity was costly for Peter Norman.  He never returned to the Olympics.  Back in Australia he became a figure of controversy and got somewhat lost in his own life.  “If we were getting beat up,” said John Carlos years later, “Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”

A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” says Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  In other words, if they’re going to call Jesus himself the devil, don’t be surprised if they call you worse.  

This comes near the end of a long  section where Jesus is sending his disciples out on their first mission to proclaim the Good News—remember the good news?  the Reign of God is arriving?—but  now he’s telling them that this Good News, this news that people have waited for for eons is going to be disruptive, and some people aren’t going to like that.  

People are funny.  We can pray week after week, day after day, year after year “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  But when it gets down to actually working to make that happen, people get cranky because then we actually have to change things—our politics, our religious practices, our structures and systems…even ourselves.  “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” makes a lovely needlepoint but it can turn everything upside down when you actually put it in practice, especially the do  justice part.

Don’t be afraid, says Jesus. Do not be afraid of opposition.  You know it’s coming so just face it.  If you trust me, if you believe in what I’ve been teaching, then live by it.  Proclaim it.  Act on it.  Shout it from the rooftops. What’s the worst they can do to you?  Kill you?

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna)

Okay, two things here, and I’ll take the last one first.  Hell.  Hell isn’t hell. The actual word here is Gehenna which was a valley just outside Jerusalem where all the city trash was dumped and burned, including the carcasses of dead animals. It’s not the Hell of popular imagination.  Think city dump.  So, fear the One who can toss your whole self into the trash heap.

The second thing:  Soul.  The Greek word here is psyche.  Soul is one translation.  It can also mean life.  In this context, though, maybe think of it as your true self.  Jesus is saying don’t be afraid of those who can only kill your body.  Save your fear for God who can completely undo you.  Remember in Isaiah chapter 6 where Isaiah stands before the throne of God and says, “Woe is me for I am lost.”?  The Hebrew word there which we translate as lost is nidmeti.  It can mean lost or silenced.  It can also mean unmade. It’s the same idea here. 

Fear the One who can destroy both body and soul.  Fear the One who can destroy your true self.  God is one of only two entities in the universe who can unravel your true self.  And, spoiler, God won’t.  God will not.  God loves you with a passion.  God may work furiously to reshape you, to rid you of poisonous thoughts, ideas and attitudes, to smooth certain rough edges, but God will not destroy you.  

God may, however, let you destroy yourself.  God loves you enough to give you free will.  And you are the only other entity in the universe who can destroy your soul, you should be careful and thoughtful with that gift.  

One of the reasons, I think, that Christ gives us the high honor and calling of announcing and building the beloved community is to help steer us away from the numerous rabbit holes of self-destruction we could dive into, and also to give us trustworthy companions for the journey of life.  But, to take us back to where we started, Jesus knew that doing this, announcing that it’s time for a systemic do-over, would bring opposition and confrontation.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” 

There’s a similar passage in Luke 12 where Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled.”  I don’t think that Jesus is saying in these passages that he is intent on creating conflict.  I think he is simply acknowledging that conflict is inevitable when we proclaim the kingdom and work for it because the whole and healthy society that God envisions, the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God is very much at odds with business as usual in the earth of empires and economies.

There will be opposition.  There is opposition. And some of it is brutal.  That’s why Jesus said, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Scholar and theologian John Howard Yoder points out that the cross was “the standard punishment for insurrection for the refusal to confess Caesar’s lordship.”  The phrase ‘take up your cross’ was commonly used by Zealots when they were recruiting.  It was a call to stand in defiance and opposition to Rome and the systems of empire that perpetuated oppression.  

But there was another dimension to it.  Roman citizens could not be crucified.  If a citizen was guilty of a capital offence, even insurrection, they would be beheaded.  Crucifixion was reserved for those of lesser stature, the invisible non-persons of the empire who opposed it.  “Take up your cross” was not just a call to stand in defiance of Rome, it was also a call to identify with the people on the margins.  It was a way of saying “Stand with the poor, the downtrodden, the nobodies.” 

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  And here we find the word psyche again in the Greek text, this time translated as life.  Life. Soul.  Self.  This is such a cryptic saying from Jesus.  Here’s how I understand it:  If you go looking for yourself, you’ll lose yourself, but if you lose yourself in the life of Christ, you’ll find yourself.  

I think maybe Jesus is saying stop worrying about the meaning of your life or what, exactly your soul is, or even who you are deep down in your soul.  Let go of all those esoteric questions and lose yourself in the business of the reign of God.  Work for equality and equity.  Feed the hungry.  House the homeless. Take care of the sick.  Bring hope to the hopeless.  Stand with those who need you to stand with them.  Act on your faith.  It may cost you.  There will be opposition.  Don’t be afraid.  The reign of God, the kingdom of heaven is in reach.  In Jesus’ name.