Unresolved Melody

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

When I was seven years old, not long after we moved to California from Kansas City, a little black dog showed up at our door one night, whimpering on the front porch and scratching on the door to be let inside.  This adorable and pugnacious little Pekingese/Cocker mix of a dog didn’t have a collar or tags, and this was decades before microchips, so we had no idea where he came from or who his people might be.  We ran an ad in the paper and I went door-to-door for several blocks asking if anyone had lost their little black dog, but nobody claimed him. 

So we did.  We named him Barney. We got him his shots and tags, and he officially became our dog.

We loved Barney, and I’m pretty sure he loved us, too.  He would sleep curled up next to me in my bed.  He would snuggle up next to us on the couch when we were reading or watching TV.  He gave us lots of little dog kisses.  He loved to pull my sister and me up and down the sidewalk on our roller skates.  And he rode patiently in the car with us as we made the long car trip every summer back to Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas to see family.  He was in almost every way a perfect family dog.  But Barney had one bad habit.  An impulse, really.  If anyone left the back gate or the screen door open, he would be off like a shot, running as fast as his little legs would carry him, launching himself out into the world to have an adventure.  A few times he was gone for several days before some kind soul took him in and then called us to come pick him up.  

When Barney took off on one of his adventures, I’m sure it never crossed his little canine mind that we were heartbroken and worried sick about him.  And when he came home nothing was ever really resolved.  Dogs are very capable of showing regret, but Barney never did.  There was always a risk that he would take off and go exploring again.  It was just in his nature.  Some dogs are like that.  And so are some people.

We are all happier when people—and dogs—color within the lines.  We all secretly think that the world would be a better, happier place if everyone stayed in their lane and lived by the rules and boundaries as we know and understand them.  But the plain truth is that not everyone does.  Some people have different, looser ideas of what is acceptable and what is not.  Some dogs just want to see what else is out there.

Some Pharisees and scribes were grumbling because Jesus was hanging out with and sharing meals with “tax collectors and sinners.”  They didn’t think it was appropriate for Jesus to be making friends with people who were not socially acceptable by their standards, and they told him so.  But Jesus didn’t respond directly to their criticism.  Instead, he told them a story.

“There was a man,” he said, “who had two sons.”  We all know this story.  We call it The Prodigal Son, although a better title might be The Two Brothers, or even The Over-Indulgent Father.  Amy-Jill Levine suggests that it could be called The Parable of the Absent Mother.  That puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it?   And it fits, since this is really a story about family dynamics.

Whatever title we use, we know this story so well that I wonder if we really listen to it.  There is a lot going on in this parable that could, maybe should, make us uneasy.  We assume that it’s about sinning, repenting, and forgiving.  But is it?  Or are we imposing our traditional understanding and ideas on this story and ignoring the ancient culture that heard it first, a culture that saw things very differently?

Was it a great sin for the younger son to ask his father for his inheritance?  Jewish law did not prohibit asking for your inheritance, so while it might have been considered foolish, it wouldn’t have been seen as a sin—at least not by the first century Jews who were listening to Jesus as he told this story.

Does the father sin by giving away half of his estate to the younger son?  Deuteronomy 21 says that the oldest son should inherit a double portion, but by the first century it was considered perfectly allowable for a man to divide his estate any way he saw fit.  So while the father’s actions in this parable could also be seen as prodigious foolishness, no one would think he was sinning.  In some circumstances he might even have been seen as prudent.  In The Wisdom of Ben Sirach, Ben Sirach counseled, “When the days of your life reach their end, at the time of your death distribute your property.”  Is the father in this parable, perhaps, nearing the end of his days?  Would that explain why he so readily indulges his son’s unusual request?  The wording in the New Revised Standard Version says that the father “divided his property,” but the wording in the original Greek text says that he “divided his life.”  How should we hear that—not that he is giving half his money or property, but half his life to this younger son?

After asking for his inheritance, the prodigal son doesn’t leave immediately.  “A few days later” he gathers up his things and leaves.  Jesus doesn’t say what happened during those few days.  Did the father try to talk his son out of leaving?  Did the older brother step in and try to talk some sense into him?  The story doesn’t say.  We don’t even know if he said goodbye.  

What the story does tell us is that he went far away—to a far country—somewhere out beyond the boundaries of Jewish law, somewhere far beyond the boundaries and expectations of the home and community he grew up in.  In that far-away place, out beyond the familiar restrictions of home and community, he squandered his wealth with reckless living.  When his money was gone and famine hit the land, nobody helped him.  He managed to find a job feeding pigs, but it didn’t pay anything and he was so hungry that he thought about eating the seed pods that he was feeding to the pigs.  Amy-Jill Levine points out that there’s a proverb from the rabbinic commentary Leviticus Rabbahthat says, “When Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, they repent.”

This is the point in the story where this reckless young man decided that it was better to go home and eat crow than to starve to death in a pig stye.  Jesus, telling the story, says he came to himself.  He admitted to himself that he was not living the dream, having his best life.  He also seemed to realize that if he was going to go home, some sort of apology might be in order.  So as he walked the long way home, he rehearsed a little speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

Now this might sound like he’s repenting, but is it real repentance or is it conniving?  He already knows that his dad is inclined to be extravagantly generous.  And notice this:  he not going to ask to be restored to the full status of being a son, but he’s not volunteering to be a slave, either.  He’s planning to ask his dad to treat him like one of the hired laborers.  They get paid.  When you read his little speech carefully, he still sounds pretty self-absorbed.  There’s no remorse for how he has treated his dad or his brother.  His confession that he has sinned is generic at best.  Basically, as David Buttrick put it, what the prodigal is really saying to himself is, “I’ll go to Daddy and sound religious.”

He has rehearsed his little speech, but he never got to deliver all of it.  Before he even got all the way home, “while he was still far off” his father saw him and was filled with compassion.  His father ran to him, put his arms around him, kissed him, then started issuing orders.  “Get him some clean clothes!  Put a signet ring on his finger!  Get the barbeque going, and let’s celebrate!  My son was dead and is alive again!  He was lost and is found!”

And now the story shifts focus.  The older brother comes in from mowing hay all day in the hot sun and is surprised to find that there is a party going on because his younger brother has returned home.  This makes him mad, so angry that he refuses to go in the house.  His father comes out to plead with him, to beg him to come in and join the party.  And that’s when we learn that the relationship that is most damaged in this story is the connection between the father and the elder brother.  The older brother unleashes a tirade of pent-up resentment, and as he spews out his bitterness over years of being neglected and overlooked, the father realizes that it’s his older son who is truly “lost” to him.   For years the older brother has worked hard to be “the good son.”  For years he has been faithful to the family values.  For years he has faithfully contributed to the success and wealth of the family.  It’s clear from his outburst that he has a pretty low opinion of his younger brother, but it’s even more clear that his anger is directed primarily at his father.

In response to this flood of anger, all the father can do is try to reassure his eldest son that their bond endures.  “Child,” he says, “you are always with me.  All that I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice because your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  And that’s where Jesus ends the story.

As I said earlier, we have a long tradition of assuming that this parable is about sinning, repenting, and forgiving.  But is it?  As I read it again, I can’t help but notice that nothing in this story gets resolved.  It’s like a melody in the key of C that ends with a G7 chord.  Everything feels suspended.  The younger son never really expresses any remorse or sorrow, in fact no one in this family expresses any regret for the ways they’ve hurt each other.  The father gins up a party to celebrate the return of his younger son, but did you notice that he never actually speaks to him?  He does speak to his oldest son, but the story ends with the two of them still standing outside the house, outside the celebration.  

This parable leaves us with questions hanging in the air.  Will the two brothers reconcile?  Can the father repair his relationship with his oldest, neglected son?  Can he even persuade him to come into the house, to join the party?  Will the prodigal son stay and work for the good of the family, or will he be out the door again when someone leaves the gate or the screen door open?

When all is said and done, if it’s not about repentance and forgiveness, then what is Jesus trying to teach us with this parable?

In Short Stories by Jesus, her outstanding book on the parables, Amy-Jill Levine says that this parable actually guides us with straightforward advice: “Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household.  Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share their joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again.  Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one.  Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it.  Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.

“Instead, go have lunch.  Go celebrate and invite others to join you.  If the repenting and forgiving come later, so much the better.  And if not, you still will have done what is necessary.  You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation.  You will have opened a second chance for wholeness.”[1]


[1] Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, p.69

The Wine of Celebration

John 2:1-12

When Jesus’ mother comes to him during the wedding at Cana and tells him that the hosts have run out of wine,  Jesus says, “What concern is that to you and me?”  It’s really kind of funny to think of Jesus saying this to his mother.  “What does that have to do with us, Mom?”   I don’t know about you, but sometimes that’s how I feel when I read certain stories in the gospels, especially miracle stories.  My first thought at first glance is often, “Okay…but what does that have to do with you and me?”

Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana is often described as his first miracle.  But that’s not the word that the Gospel of John uses.  John’s gospel says it was the first of his signs.  Signs point to something.  Signs tell you that some kind of action is required or they alert you to something up ahead.  If you see a red octagonal sign, you put on the brakes.  If you see a sign that looks like a pointy-headed snake, a fat line that curves back and forth leading to a triangular arrowhead, you slow your roll because the sign has told you that you’re entering a stretch of road with tight curves. 

We refer to the sacraments as signs.  They are not symbols.  They don’t represent something else or invite us to think of something else.  The sacraments are signs of God’s presence and grace here and now.  They require action.  They require us to experience something.  Take and eat.  Drink this, all of you.  Put your head over the font or under the water and receive the Holy Spirit, then begin a whole new life in Christ and in the community of faith.  Right here.  Right now.   

When Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana, John’s gospel says it was the first of his signs.  The miracle itself, miraculous as it is, is not really what we’re supposed to looking at.  It’s pointing to something else.  So what are we supposed to see? What action is required in response?   What is being revealed about Jesus, and what deeper reality is Jesus revealing?  And is there maybe  something about us being revealed, too, in this miracle, this sign?

The word grace appears only four times in the gospels, all four times in the prologue to the gospel of John.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  (John 1.14)  “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (1:16-17).  Why does the word grace appear only in the prologue and not anywhere else in John’s gospel?  Professor Karoline Lewis suggests that if we take the Incarnation seriously, then once the Word becomes flesh, “the rest of John’s gospel shows you what grace tastes like, looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like.”  

Jesus’ signs don’t just tell us what abundant grace is.  They show us.  Turning water into wine is a revelation, a revealing, of grace.  

In Jesus’ time wedding celebrations usually lasted a week and were essentially drinking parties.  There would be lots of food and lots of wine.  Friends and family might contribute food, but the wine was provided by the families of the bride and groom.  Running out of wine would be a huge embarrassment. It would indicate poor planning or poor finances or both.  

We can guess from little details that Jesus probably had some kind of family connection with the couple being married.  Jesus’ mother and brothers were there (2:12) and Mary seems to be comfortable giving orders to the servants, so maybe she was acting in some kind of semi-official capacity.  Maybe she was the wedding coordinator.  Whatever her relationship may have been, she was concerned for the reputation of the couple and the family.  For the couple, running out of wine would mean that their married life was off to a bad start.  The family would become the talk of the town, and not in a good way.  Jesus literally saved them all.  From embarrassment.

The guests were almost certainly poor people.  At least the majority would have been.  Most of the people Jesus knew were poor people, especially at this stage of his ministry.  These were people who worked in fields and vineyards, or fished, or tended livestock, or cut and hauled stones for Roman buildings.  These are folks whose lands have been plundered by ancient Palestine’s version of Big Agriculture—absentee landowners who did none of the work and kept most of the money.  Weddings were one of the few times these people could put all their troubles behind them and celebrate life.  A wedding was a time to drink, and sing and tell stories and dance.  But it would all be cut short if the wine ran out.  

The celebration was in full swing but it was all about to crash like a balloon being popped.  And then Jesus stepped in.  Grace stepped in.  Six stone jars full of water suddenly became wine.  One hundred twenty gallons of wine.  The best wine.  Exquisite wine.  Wine that would have cost them years of their wages.  Jesus turned water into wine so the celebration could continue.  

There was enough wine for everyone and then some.  There was abundance.  And everyone shared in it.  It wasn’t Pinot Noir for the better dressed and Rosé in a box for the rest.  Everyone, from the most prominent guest to the most humble  was served the best wine.  

This sign from Jesus doesn’t just tell us what abundant grace is, it shows us.  “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”  Abundant grace—it tastes like the best wine when you’re expecting the cheap stuff…or even just water.  Abundant grace feels like being suddenly rescued from the worst kind of embarrassment.  Abundant grace looks like all your favorite foods spread out at a banquet.  Abundant grace sounds like music that gets in your bones and moves you with its happy rhythm and makes you dance before you even realize your body is swaying and your feet are tapping.  Abundant grace smells like baking bread and cake and wonderful sauces and fresh strawberries spread out at the buffet.  

Abundant grace fills you so full of life and joy and relief that you want everyone to have it.  You just have to share it.  Taste and see the goodness!

“Grace,” said Robert Capon, “is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.” 

In the eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, St. Paul scolds the Corinthians because when they gather together for their Agape feast, some of the more well-off persons are treating it as if it’s their own private picnic.  They have plenty of food and drink for themselves but they’re not sharing it.  Paul tells them that if they think their gathering is just about eating and drinking, then they should eat and drink at home because they’ve missed the point.  Then Paul reminds them that Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, broke bread and passed it out to everyone, then did the same with the wine.  When he said, “This is my body,” he was indicating that everyone who was sharing that bread with him was united to him, that they now would be the Body of Christ.  It’s not just the eating and drinking.  It’s also the sharing.  It’s the connecting of your life to mine and our lives to his.  It’s the unity.  So chew on that for a bit.  

Jesus turned water into a copious abundance of wine.  Embarrassment was averted. Joy was refueled.  That is what grace looks like.

What do the signs of Jesus point to?  Resurrection.  Life in all its fullness.  Joy—Christ’s joy in us so that our joy may be complete.  Light.  And Love. Grace upon grace.

And what does that have to do with you and me?  Well… we are the ones who get to drink this all in.  We are the ones who are still at the wedding, drinking the wine of celebration.  The best wine.  From his fullness we have all received—and are still receiving—grace  upon grace… so much grace that it has to spill out of us and overflow to others.  We are the ones who get to invite others to the abundant feast where the table is always full and the wine never ends.  That’s what all the signs of Jesus point to.  

Pardon Our Disruption

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Such an interesting story in the Book of Numbers.  The people of Israel are on the road between Mt. Hor and the Gulf of Aqaba.  They’re complaining.  Again.  They’re not happy with the food.  It’s always something.  Anyway, the people grumbled, so the Lord sent poisonous snakes among them, and many Israelites were bitten and died.  That’s how the Israelites tell the story.

Nobody ever tells the story from the snakes’ point of view.  The way they see it, they were all just hanging about, minding their own snaky business in Snake Land when suddenly the whole nation of Israel showed up with all their noisy grumbling and complaints and pitched camp right on top of them, driving tent pegs down into their dens, breaking their eggs, chasing them with sticks, throwing rocks at them, hacking at them with swords… So yeah, they bit a few of them.  They were just trying to defend themselves.  They weren’t trying to kill anybody.  Why would they?  The Israelites were too big to eat…at least for those kinds of snakes.  

Moses prayed to the Lord to make the snakes go away.  Maybe the leader of the snakes asked the Lord to make the people go away.  Maybe the leader of the snakes suggested that the Lord could tell Moses to put a big bronze snake up on a pole to remind the people that they were in snake territory, and that the snakes were there first thank you very much, so they should be careful where they were poking around and pitching their tents.  

Well, that’s not the way we get the story in the Book of Numbers, but then snakes never were any good at public relations, and they don’t come off too well in the Bible as a rule.  Still, it’s interesting that in this particular instance, even in the Moses version of the story, God is using the snakes to accomplish God’s business and that includes healing cranky, ungrateful people from snakebite… which they wouldn’t have got bit in the first place if they hadn’t been cranky and ungrateful and gone poking about looking for something else to eat when there wasn’t anything kosher out there anyway.

So, the moral of that story is be grateful for what you have, even if you’re a little tired of it.  And leave the snakes alone.  

Many, many, many, many, many years later, this story would come up again when Jesus sat down one night with a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus understand some very basic things about living in the love of God.  This was difficult for Nicodemus because he was a very smart and knowledgeable person, a teacher, in fact.  He knew the sacred writings of Israel backwards and forwards and upside down, but the things Jesus was saying mystified him.  He had a lot to unlearn.  The way he understood things got in the way of him comprehending things…if you grasp what I’m saying.  

Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus learn how to see and enter and experience the kingdom of God.  Nicodemus was trying to just get his head around it when he needed to put his whole heart into it.  

Nicodemus needed another pathway into the mystery.

It’s like this, said Jesus.  Remember when Moses lifted up that bronze snake in the wilderness?  It’s like that.  The Human One will also be lifted up.  And in the same way that people were healed when they looked to that bronze snake gleaming in the sun,  they’ll be healed when they look to the Human One, only they’ll be healed of something much more deadly than snake venom.

Have you ever wondered what kind of magic was at work in that bronze snake on that pole in the desert.  It was a powerful magic, stronger than any other.  When people looked at that snake on the pole, the light flashing off of it pierced their hearts and reminded them that they had complained against Moses and against God.  They had been in a desert, in a land of no food and no water, and God had provided for them.  But they were ungrateful.  There was poison in their hearts and it came out in their words.  The snakes biting them was a kind of metaphor for the way they had been treating each other.  And Moses.  And God.

When they looked at that bronze snake glinting in the desert sun, they could see a very unflattering image of themselves.  They could taste the bitterness of their ingratitude and the venom of their complaining.  So they repented.  And they were healed.  Because they also saw that God loved them enough to transform them.  They could stop being snakes, metaphorical or otherwise.  The magic, the power that emanated from that snake on the pole was God’s forgiveness and God’s love.  

And now the whole world is snakebit, Nicodemus.  People believe they are walking always and everywhere under the dark night of God’s judgment.  They don’t see that they have been always and everywhere in the bright light of God’s love.  They’re perishing.  Their souls are dying because they can’t let themselves believe they are loved.

Listen, Nicodemus.  God loves the world so much that God has given God’s only Son so that whoever believes him won’t perish, won’t fade into an everlasting death and nothingness, but will instead live forever in the light of God’s love.  

You think God is about judgment?   I’ll tell you about judgment.  God wants to bring everyone and everything, even the snakes, into the light of God’s love.  But some don’t want to come.  Some want to stay in the dark.  Some want to keep living in the deep shadows of hatred and fear, and us versus them.  Some have a greedy hunger in them that wouldn’t be satisfied if they swallowed the whole earth.  Some think they are the whole earth and don’t have room in their hearts for anyone or anything else.  They think they’re all that and a bag of chips.  Some, many really, want to keep judging others, because it’s the only way they can make themselves feel like they have any value, so they just keep living in the shadow of judgment…and the shadow of their own fears.

But the Son of God is not here to judge.  The Son came to heal.  To save.  To lead people out of the shadows.

The world has forgotten how lovely it is.  The Son of God has come to help the world remember, to relearn its beauty and its kindness.  

The world has forgotten that when God created everything God said it was good.  All of it.  Everyone.  Even the snakes.

The Son of God has come to help people remember Original Goodness.[1]

When they see the Human One lifted up, they will be reminded of all the ugly things that happen in a snakebit world, they will be reminded of how the venom in their own hearts and souls can wound and kill.  And then they will remember they weren’t made that way.  Then they will see the love of God.  They will see that the Son came out of love, not out of need.  And the love of God will transform them.  They will step back into the light of God’s love.

All of that is what Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to  understand.  And us.  It’s what he would like us to understand, too.

When you think about it, all of this is about disruption. 

The Israelites disrupt the generally sleepy life of the snakes when they pitch camp in their territory. The snakes disrupt the grumbly and quarrelsome life of the Israelites when they start biting them.  God and Moses disrupt the poisonous dynamics of fear and dissatisfaction when they set up the snake on a pole.  Nicodemus disrupts Jesus’ quiet evening when he drops by at night for a private interview.  In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus disrupts our understanding of theology and the scriptures, especially our understanding of how judgment works.  

God works through disruptions to transform things and people.

This week we observed the anniversary of two significant disruptions.  

Wednesday, March 10, was the 88th anniversary of the Long Beach earthquake of 1933.  Between 115 to 120 people were killed.  Damage was estimated at $40 million.  That would be more than $800 million today.  Two hundred thirty school buildings were either destroyed or declared unsafe for use.  Out of that disruption, though, came new standards for building safety, including specific codes for school buildings.  New methods of government assistance for disaster response and reconstruction were instituted, too, as people realized that these kinds of resources were needed when damage was too widespread or extensive to expect a city to be able to recover and rebuild on its own.  Essentially, we found new ways to take care of each other.  To love each other.

The other anniversary is one we’re all too aware of.  It’s been one year since we were all in church together, worshipping in our sanctuary.  Our building.  But we’ve never stopped being church.  The disruption of this pandemic has made being church more difficult in some ways, but it has also transformed us in some important ways, too.  Like all disruptions, it has taught us more about who we are and invited us to think about who we want to be, who we are called to be, as we move forward.

The Israelites weren’t the same people when they left the land of the snakes.  They complained less and were more grateful.  Life-as-usual had been disrupted.

Nicodemus wasn’t the same person when the sun rose the next morning as he was when he had sat down with Jesus in the dark of night before.  He had begun to understand both God’s love and God’s judgment differently.  Everything he knew, everything he understood had been disrupted. You might say he was being reborn.

We aren’t the same people we were a year ago.  All the patterns of our lives have been disrupted.  In a time when need and circumstances required us to stay physically apart you would think we would have made every effort to find ways to pull together, but all too often, as a nation at least, we let the polarity of our dysfunctional politics pull us farther apart.  We have seen the damage caused by the venom of our fears and anger.  But we have also heard the voice of Christ calling us together and helping us relearn our loveliness,  reminding us of our Original Goodness. 

We have seen the serpent lifted up in the desert.  But also the cross lifted at calvary.  Through earthquake or pandemic, polar vortex or politics…even snakes…  God’s love still flows to carry us through it all.  Together.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Genesis 1:31

The Royal Law

Matthew 25:41-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,  33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

I think it’s interesting to see how people react to this picture of Jesus as the king and judge of humanity.  Some people are all too ready for Jesus to return and get the judging underway.  Others—and I’m one of those—are content for him to take his own sweet time.  Yeah, there are a lot of things I would like to see repaired in this world, a lot of things where I would like to see the divine hand taking direct action, but then I remind myself that Christ is taking direct action through you and me and that, in fact, that is what this particular picture that Jesus is painting is really all about.

In one of our ELCA clergy Facebook groups this week, one pastor asked the question, “Where is the grace in this passage?”  That’s a really Lutheran question, and to their credit, a lot of our pastors did a pretty fair job of making a case for grace in this passage even though it is so clearly about judgment.  I was feeling a little bit contrarian, so I noted that the writer of Matthew was not a Lutheran and didn’t seem to be all that concerned about grace.  Righteousness, yes. Grace, not so much.  In fact, the word grace doesn’t appear even once in the entire Gospel of Matthew.

But that doesn’t mean grace isn’t in there.  Mercy is a kind of grace, and twice Jesus quotes Hosea and tells the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”[1]  In Matthew 18 he tells the parable of a slave who is forgiven a great debt, a story about mercy, grace and forgiveness and how we sometimes fail to pass that same grace along to others.  In chapter 23, Jesus again scolds the Pharisees for their lack of grace when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

In an odd way, there is even grace in this picture of the final judgment where the sheep are separated from the goats, even though the goats are sent away to eternal punishment.  To see that grace clearly, though, may take a bit of translating.

In Hebrew there are two words for “people.”  The word ‘am is used to designate people who are Jewish, the people of the covenant, our people.  Goy or goyim are people who are pagans or gentiles.  Those other people.  The same idea appears in the Greek of the New Testament.  Laoí is used for people inside the faith community or the church and éthne is used for people or peoples outside the faith community or church.  When this passage says “All the nations will be gathered before him,” the word that is translated as nations is éthne.  So this is a description of all those people who are outside the community of faith.  Those other people.  They’re the ones being judged.  At least that’s what’s implied in the language.

The implication of the language and the lesson for those within the community of believers, is that there are people who are righteous even among those who live by other beliefs and those who have never heard of Christ.  They are instinctively taking care of the persons in their communities who are in need, and in doing so, they are caring for Christ.  It’s specifically because they are not believers, not members of the community of faith, that they ask Jesus “When did we see you in these circumstances?”

So one way you might see grace in this passage about judgment, then, is that even though these “sheep” on the right hand were not people of the covenant or followers of Jesus, they inherit the kingdom because they lived lives of righteousness and compassion.  Christ, the king, surrounded by his angels, seated on the throne of his glory, brings in all these people who never knew him or knew about him because they simply acted out of compassion.

Having said that, it’s also a given that if you are part of the community of faith, a follower of Jesus, it is expected that you will also be feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger.  Those things are part of the way of life in the kingdom of heaven.  This kind of righteousness rooted in compassion—it’s who we are.  It’s what we do.  It’s how we, too, encounter Jesus.

Whether you read it as applying to insiders or outsiders or both, it’s tempting sometimes to read this passage as our Ticket to Heaven Punch Card.  Feed the hungry?  Check.  Clothing for the poor? Check.  Welcome a stranger?  Check.  Visit someone in prison?  Check.  If we do that, though, we’ll miss the point of everything Jesus had to say in Matthew’s gospel about the kingdom of heaven and about what constitutes real righteousness.  We would be like those scribes and Pharisees he rebuked in chapter 23, paying attention to the details but neglecting the justice, mercy, and faith at the heart of it all.  

Oh, and love. We would be missing the love.

In chapter 19 someone asks Jesus, “What good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus replies, “If you wish to enter eternal life, keep the commandments.”  “But which ones?” he is asked.  Jesus replies, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness;  Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Jesus repeats the commandment to love later in chapter 22 when he is asked what is the greatest commandment.  He replies, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

When Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself” he wasn’t inventing a new rule, he was quoting Leviticus.  Love your neighbor as yourself was an important ethic of the Jewish people.  Jesus broadened that ethic and applied it more widely by expanding the definition of neighbor.  Because “love your neighbor” was so central to the teaching of Jesus, it became the central ethic of his followers.

Saint Paul wrote in Galatians, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2]  Again, writing in Romans, he said, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[3]  James called it the royal law: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[4]

What the “sheep,” the righteous who are rewarded in Matthew 25 are doing when they feed the hungry and clothe the naked and welcome the stranger is simply this: they are loving their neighbor.

In this picture of judgment in Matthew 25 we also see another portrait of love.  We see a king sitting on his throne of glory.  But this is a king who cares deeply for “the least of these” in the human family, a king who has compassion for those who struggle.  He cares so much about the struggling and suffering that how they are treated becomes the yardstick by which the others around them are judged.  We see a king who walks with them in their struggles and identifies with them.  With us.  We see a king who rewards those who show love and compassion through acts of mercy and assistance and kindness.  We see a king who defines “love your neighbor as yourself” as the heart and soul, the absolute bottom line of righteousness.

Love, real love, the kind that Jesus is talking about, the kind that comes from a decision and sticks around for the long haul, the kind that gives of itself… love is transformative.  It transforms the hungry into the well-fed.  It transforms the naked into the clothed.  It transforms the unemployed into workers.  It transforms the homeless into the housed.  It transforms the stranger into a friend. 

The other day I was listening to a TED talk by Andrew Solomon called Love, No Matter What.  His TED talk is about what life is like for families where one of the kids is different in some way, and in that talk he told about Clinton Brown.  

When Clinton was born he was diagnosed with diastrophic dwarfism, a very disabling condition.  The doctors at the hospital told his parents that Clinton would never walk or talk, that he wouldn’t have any intellectual capacity, that he probably wouldn’t even recognize them.  The doctors suggested that they should just leave Clinton at the hospital so he could die there quietly and not be a burden to them.

But his mother wasn’t having it.   She took him home.  And even though she didn’t have a lot in the way of education or financial assets, she managed to find the best doctor in the country for treating diastrophic dwarfism and convinced him to take Clinton as a patient.  

Over the course of his childhood, Clinton had 30 major surgical procedures.  Since he was stuck in the hospital during all that time, he had tutors.  It turns out he was not intellectually challenged at all.  He studied hard and became the first member of his family to go to college.  And because he could walk now, he even lived on campus and managed to customize a car so it would accommodate his unusual body.

One day his mother was driving home and she saw his car parked in the parking lot of a bar near the college that was popular with the students.  “I saw that car, which you can always recognize, in the parking lot of a bar,” she said.  “And I thought to myself, ‘They’re six feet tall, he’s three feet tall. Two beers for them is four beers for him.'” She said, “I knew I couldn’t go in there and interrupt him, but I went home, and I left him eight messages on his cell phone.  And then I thought, if someone had said to me, when he was born, that my future worry would be that he’d go drinking and driving with his college buddies …” 

Solomon asked her, “What do you think you did that helped him to emerge as this charming, accomplished, wonderful person?” And she said, “What did I do? I loved him, that’s all. Clinton just always had that light in him. And his father and I were lucky enough to be the first to see it there.”

She loved him.  She loved him enough to not leave him at the hospital to die quietly.  She loved him enough to find the best doctor.  She loved him enough to make sure he was educated.  She loved him enough to see him as a person and not as a condition or an anomaly.  Love transformed him.

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  

Christ is with us and among us, always, waiting to see how we love each other and love the world…how we love him.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Matthew 9:13, 12:7

[2] Galatians 5:14

[3] Romans 13.9

[4] James 2:8

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

On Being Squirrelly

My dear friend Pastor Brenda Bos filled in for me this morning. As she prepared to consecrate Holy Communion for us, she shared with us this poem from St. Francis:

THE SACRAMENTS

I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments –

he got so excited and ran into a hollow in his tree

and came back holding some acorns,

an owl feather,

and a ribbon he had found.

And I just smiled and said, “Yes, dear, you understand:

everything imparts His grace.”

Dandelions

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

When I was a teenager there was a lady at church who used to pay me to come dig dandelions out of her yard.  You can’t just pull  them or cut them; you have to dig them out because they’re perennials, and if the tap root is left intact they’ll simply grow back.  I don’t bother digging them out of our yard.  I know it’s a losing battle.  Besides, if you keep the yard mowed, the grass and the dandelions tend to strike a balance.

Did you know that dandelions are not native to the Americas?  They probably came here on the Mayflower.  European colonists brought them here.  On purpose.  They’re actually very useful plants.  Every part of the dandelion is edible.  The leaves can be used in salads or sautéed or boiled, like spinach.  The flower petals can be fermented along with other juices, usually citrus, to make dandelion wine.  The roots, when dried and ground into powder, can be used as a caffeine-free substitute for coffee and were an essential ingredient in the original recipe for root beer.  Raw dandelion greens are a moderate source of calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese and contain high amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, beta carotene and other anti-oxidants. 

Dandelions have been used in natural medicine for thousands of years.  The root is a diuretic.  The leaves are good for treating constipation.  Dandelions have been used in natural medicine to treat liver and stomach problems, diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure.  

And if all that isn’t enough to make you appreciate the lowly dandelion, when the pretty little yellow flower turns magically overnight to a silver puffball, you can pluck the stem and make a wish as you blow on it to scatter the seeds to the wind.

So what do you see when you see a dandelion?  A charming, tenacious, self-propagating, useful little plant that could actually be part of your dinner every night?  Or a weed?  

The kingdom of heaven is like a dandelion.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field,” said Jesus.  “It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 

The people Jesus was talking to saw the mustard plant pretty much the way we see the dandelion.  Pliny the Elder wrote about its many medicinal and culinary uses, but he was quick to note, “Mustard grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”  In other words, it has its uses, but it’s basically a weed.  And yet, in Jesus’ story, someone actually plants it in his field.  On purpose.  Someone sees its inherent value.  They know that mustard oil can help ease pain from stiff or bruised muscles.  They know a mustard poultice can help ease asthma or relieve coughing and stuffy sinuses.  They know mustard can function as a diuretic and help cleanse the liver.  They know it can be used as a spice to flavor food and help preserve it.  

As Jesus tells the story, the man plants one seed in his field.  And if we’re a listener in Jesus’ audience we assume that soon the whole field will be transformed.  It will be a mustard field.   Jesus makes a point of also noting that other creatures also benefit from that mustard plant.  The birds of the air have a place to land and build their nests.  

The kingdom of heaven is like that.

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he’s not talking about the afterlife.  He’s talking about a life of mercy, grace and justice.  Now.  He’s talking about a life of generosity and abundance.  Now.  He’s talking about how that life of mercy, grace, justice, generosity and abundance reaches beyond us to benefit all of creation.  Now.  

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he’s talking about the things we fail to notice, common everyday life things, little things that are right there in front of us if we will only take a moment to really look at them and appreciate them, if have enough sense to grasp their importance.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Sounds simple enough, but there’s something we lose in the translation, so here are three things here to better understand this little parable.  

First, the yeast isn’t yeast.  It’s leaven.  They didn’t know about yeast, per se, in Jesus’ time. Think sourdough starter.  Making sourdough has been a fun trend during the pandemic.  One of my friends makes regular posts on Facebook about the state of her starter.  She even named it.  I remember years ago when a friend sent us some starter that she was particularly proud of so that we could make some sourdough bread of our own.  It was a thing to share it and pass it along.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.

Second, the woman in the parable doesn’t “mix” the leaven into the flour.  The Greek word there is enkrypto.  It says literally that she hides it in the flour.  The kingdom is something transformative that’s hidden in the midst of all the other ingredients—that little something that’s in, with, and under the other things that changes all of them.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.

Third, three measures of flour. We’re not talking about 3 cups here.  According to Amy-Jill Levine, in first century terms we’re looking at somewhere between 40 and 60 pounds of flour.[1]  This woman in Jesus’ parable is making enough bread to feed her whole village and she’s going to need all the women in the village to help her knead the dough.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.

Again, when Jesus talks about the reign of heaven, he is not talking about pearly gates and streets of gold in the life after life.  He is talking about living an alternative life with alternative values and higher allegiances here and now.  One of the times Jesus says this most plainly is in Luke 17:20-21.

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;  nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

The kingdom, the reign of heaven, is among us.  It’s in the midst of us. Present tense.  Now. That’s why Jesus uses such everyday pictures to describe it.  It is a domain in which we live and move and have our being if we know how to see it.   

The reign of heaven is learning to see each other as undiscovered treasures that we stumble across in a field that doesn’t belong to us, learning to see Christ in, with, and under each person we encounter.  

The reign of heaven is discovering a pearl, a life, so valuable and beautiful that we’re willing to go all in to have it, to live it in a world that God so loves that God went all in to save it.

The reign of heaven is a splash of cold water on your face in the morning reminding you that in the clear waters of your baptism you were promised that nothing can separate you from the love of God in whom you live and move and have your being, reminding you that Christ is present in, with, and under the water, reminding you that life itself is always and everywhere being renewed and transformed by little things seen and unseen.

The kingdom of heaven is every act of justice, of kindness and mercy, of grace and generosity, floating into the world like a dandelion seed blown by a child’s wish.  It plants itself in a crack in the sidewalk and brings color and new life out of the brokenness.  

The kingdom of heaven is like that.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,  Amy-Jill Levine, p.121; HarperCollins, 2014

Sowing Generosity

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Listen!  A sower went out to sow.

Karsten Lundring is an alum of California Lutheran University who really loves his alma mater.  Karsten attends every CLU football game and when the Kingsmen score he throws out handfuls of Jolly Rancher candies to the crowd in the stands.  Some of those candies fall through the bleachers and land on the ground.  Some are caught by people who are dieting or diabetic so they get passed along to someone else.  Sometimes people catch the orange ones but they just don’t like the orange ones, only the red ones so they give them away.  Some are caught by fans of the opposing team.  But a lot of the candies are caught by hungry children and CLU fans who are enjoying excitement of the touchdown and are delighted to celebrate with a taste of something sweet.[1]

A sower went out to sow.  

Jesus doesn’t usually explain his parables, but because his disciples pestered him about it he explained this one.  Well, partly.  He explained about the ground where the seeds landed.  The different places where the seeds end up serve as analogies for the different people who will hear the message that Jesus and his disciples are proclaiming, the announcement that the reign of God is about to begin.  Some will get it, some won’t.  Pick your reason.  Some are too shallow or too self-involved.  Some are too busy.  Some are too worried.  Some are misguided by their own misconceptions—these are all things that can keep the domain of God from really taking root in your life or, to put it another way, that can keep you from taking root in the domain of God.  

We have an natural habit when we read the parables of asking “What does this mean?” Please explain this.  We want to read them all as allegories—sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not.  We want to translate the analogies, to solve the riddle and walk away from the parable knowing The Point.  But Jesus tells parables not so that we can ask questions of them and arrive at some moral maxim like an Aesop’s fable, but so that the parable can ask questions of us.  Jesus tells parables to help us see the world, ourselves and God differently.  

When I’ve preached or taught on this Parable of the Sower in the past, I’ve always focused on the soil since that’s the part that Jesus explains.  My sermons were usually some version of “What Kind of Soil Are You?” with sometimes a side order of “What Are You Going To Do To Become More Productive Soil?” 

If you ever heard me preach one of those sermons, I apologize.  I messed the point.  I also missed the point.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s always a good thing to be looking at what we can do to let the love and life of God take deeper root in our lives.  It’s always good to pay attention to how our faith or lack of it is manifested in the lives we lead.  But that’s not the point of this parable.  There are other parables for that.  The fig tree in the vineyard comes to mind.

Parables ask us questions, and as I sat with this parable and listened to it again, the question it was asking me was “What do you see here that you haven’t seen before?”  Jesus is giving his disciples some answers, but not all the answers.  There’s more to see here.  And then I saw two things that made it a whole new story for me.

The first was this:  the soil can’t change itself.  It is what it is.  The pathway is going to be the pathway as long as people are walking on it.  The rocks are going to be the rocks.  Thorn bushes don’t uproot themselves.  

Jesus is telling his disciples and “anyone with ears” who will listen to not make themselves crazy trying to talk people into signing up for the reign of heaven if they’re just not ready to do that.  Just sow the seed.  Go out and announce it: the Domain of God is within reach.  Live it.  Be it.  Those who are ready will get it, and it will surprise you how many of them there are.  As for the rest, let the Holy Spirit work on them.  Rocks can be moved or worn down.  Pathways can be rerouted or tilled and fertilized.  Thorn bushes can be removed in any number of ways.  But right now that’s not your job.  Leave the Holy Spirit and the circumstances of life to soften them up.  You sow the seed.

The second thing I saw that absolutely turned this into a new story for me is this: this is a story of unbridled abundance and generosity.  There is no shortage of seed.  The sower throws it everywhere with no regard whatsoever about where it’s landing.  The word of the kingdom, as Jesus calls it in his explanation to the disciples, is an endless resource and when it lands with someone who hears and understands it, it reproduces itself even more abundantly. 

God has created this world to be a world of abundance and generosity.  As Gandhi said, this world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.  The earth itself participates in the generosity of God. The generosity of God was spoken in the word of creation.  The word of the kingdom is a word of perpetual regeneration.  Genesis.  Generation.  Regeneration.  The creative love of God is grounded in Generosity.  

“God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars,”  wrote Martin Luther, and surely God’s message of generosity and abundance is written in every harvest and planting.  

I remember being on our family wheat farm in Kansas once in the spring when the new wheat was standing bright green and knee-high in the fields.  I looked out and saw a family of deer grazing on the new shoots down by the creek.  I asked my mother’s cousin, Frank, if we shouldn’t maybe do something to shoo them away.  He just smiled and said, “Oh there’s plenty for them and us.  We’ll share it.”  

There was good soil there in Kansas where my family grew wheat.  The harvest was plentiful.  There’s good soil for the word of the kingdom, the domain of God, in many, many hearts out in the world.  Many people are already living in the heart of the kingdom whether they know it or not, living lives of generosity that produce more generosity in others.

When Michelle Brenner was furloughed from her job at a menswear store in Gig Harbor, Washington, because of the Corona virus, she was, naturally, upset, so she went home and made herself a big pan of lasagna using her grandmother’s recipe.  Nothing works like comfort food to soothe the soul.  Michelle realized that if her grandmother’s lasagna was making her feel better, it might lift other people’s spirits, too, so she posted on Facebook, “Hello favorite friends… if any of you want some fresh, homemade, no calorie-counting lasagna, let me know and I will gladly prepare it.”

A few requests trickled in—a retired neighbor, an out of work friend… Then Michelle took it on herself to deliver a few pans of lasagna to hospital workers and first responders, a few struggling single parents and others she knew of who were just scraping by. Word began to spread.  Soon she had so many requests that making homemade lasagna for others had become her full-time job.  When the president of the Gig Harbor Sportsman’s Club got wind of Michelle’s mission, he offered to let her use their commercial kitchen which had been closed because of Covid-19.  Three months later she’s still at it.  So far she has given away more than 1200 pans of homemade lasagna, although she’s lost track of the exact number.

Michelle initially used her $1200 stimulus check to pay for lasagna ingredients but that money was soon gone.  Fortunately, without being asked, people began to contribute what they could.  Some would give a dollar.  One person gave $100.  Somebody set up a Facebook fundraiser for her that raised $10,000.  All in all, people have given about $22,000 to the woman who is now known affectionately as The Lasagna Lady.  Every penny goes into lasagna while Michelle, herself, gets by on unemployment insurance. 

“It’s a pan of love,” says Michelle. “A lot of the people I make lasagna for have lost their jobs, and this is my way of saying, ‘I understand and I’m here for you.’ ”

When Jesus explained the Parable of the Sower to his disciples he said, “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”  Or 1200 pans of lasagna. 

I don’t know where Michelle Brenner heard the good news of the kingdom of heaven, the good news of God’s abundance and generosity.  I don’t know if she ever attended any church or is part of any faith.  Maybe she learned it from the earth itself.  Maybe it was layered between the noodles and the meat and the sauce and the cheese in her grandmother’s lasagna recipe.  I don’t know where or how she learned it, but she learned it.  And she’s passing along.

And a sower goes out to sow.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] Thanks to Pastor Kirsten Moore, Calvaray Lutheran Church, Rio Linda, California for this story.