Monday, July 31, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

When I was a little kid and I dreamed of heaven, I imagined it to be the place where I could safely do the things that I would never dare to do here on earth.

Take mountain climbing. I imagined that I would finally be able to try mountain climbing without fear of getting hurt when the inevitable fall would come.

Or take flying. I imagined that in heaven I would finally be able to fly and not fall to the ground like a heavy bag of meat.

I imagined heaven to be the place where I could try each of these things and more without getting into trouble. No more getting yelled at for standing on the top of the swing set; heaven is a place of peace after-all.

As fanciful as those daydreams were, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he is not talking about that. He is not talking about an eternal eternal place…where all of our dreams finally come true. Rather, Jesus is talking about a time when all that God desires will finally control the earth; “thy kingdom come.”

Though Jesus' idea of the kingdom of heaven is not as fanciful as mine, it is similar in that it is quite different from the way things are today. In fact, the kingdom of heaven is very different. But, how could we describe it?

What about a mustard seed? The kingdom of heaven is like the seed of that noxious weed, the mustard plant. When it finds a place to get rooted, it spreads quickly and grows everywhere, ruining the garden of vegetables that you had carefully planted.

Yes, it ruins all of your vivid culinary vegetable dreams, but it is not all bad. Mustard can grow tall into full bushes that give the birds a place to live and build their nests.

The kingdom of heaven is not the fanciful imaginings of all that your heart has ever desired, rather the kingdom of heaven changes the world as we know it, and gives it new life.

Do you understand? Well, let us try flat bread. The kingdom of heaven…or the time when God gets to be in charge…is like a woman who is expected to make flatbread, but instead decides to sneak in a measure of yeast while she kneads the dough. When she bakes her “flatbread,” everyone around is horrified to find that it is rising all over the place. It is expanding everywhere, ruining all that they had planned, but providing something new, and in abundance.

You may have your plans of what the world should be, but God has God’s plans. You expect flatbread for yourself, and God ruins it in order to make loafs that can feed a multitude.

Do you understand? The kingdom of heaven is so precious that it is like a treasure that you found in your neighbor’s yard, in the middle of the night using the metal detector that you bought recently at a garage sale. After discovering the treasure, you cover it back up, and the next day offer a million dollars for that small chunk of yard knowing that what you will get in return will be worth even more.

The kingdom of heaven may be disruptive to the ways the world runs now, but to those who are forgotten in the way our world runs now, the disruption is so precious and so worth it.

Do you understand? The kingdom of heaven…or the time when God gets God's way…is so precious to the poor in spirit, the meek, the forgotten, the mourning, and those who seek justice that they are like someone who finds a pearl of great value, and they sell their house, their car, and even their food, just so that the pearl can be theirs.

What would you give to finally have peace in the world?

What would you give so that your neighbor might no longer be exploited by those with wealth and power?

What would you give so that women and children might not simply be thrown away or misused and mistreated as objects?

What would you give for all people to have a change of heart that would force them to forget about prospering themselves and would rather entice them to prosper God and prosper all the neighbors that God cares about?

What would you give for God’s rule to finally come to disrupt business as usual in order to create a new way of life where God’s children are not forgotten or neglected or abused in any way?

It seems like a pipe-dream, right? A word in which love of God and love of neighbor is the driving force of everything seems as unlikely as being able to climb mountains without the fear of getting hurt, or as impossible as humans flying around with their thin little arms.

It all seems to be pipe-dreams, because we know the reality.

The powerful always seem to get their way.

Those who look and act a little different in society are always treated with suspicion and are always pushed into the shadows.

The poor and poor in spirit are always blamed for their own misfortune and are forgotten.

Women and children always seem to get the short end of the stick somehow.

Anger and retaliation is seen as strong and forgiveness is seen as weak.

Nothing is done to reconcile enemies. Instead, people cheer when their enemies are defeated.

And, those who appear to be wonderful in pubic (those who are dressed well, speak well, pray well, and pay up well) are lifted up as great, while those who truly are great and loving are labeled as weak pansies.

I am not making up any of these examples either. These examples of the harsh reality of life do not come from my own desires and political motivations. Instead, Jesus addresses each one in the Sermon of the Mount. This is the sermon where Jesus teaches us to abandon the ways of the world and then teaches us how to live together as a people in the kingdom of heaven.

Taking seriously each of these examples and doing something about them really just boil down to one simple phrase that guides all that happens in the kingdom of heaven: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.”

That is what Jesus did after-all. God desires our total love and devotion, so God showed us total love and devotion on the cross. The same care for all, the same love of enemy and the same forgiveness that Jesus expects from us, Jesus showed to us when he died for us.

Even while we were still sinners, even while we did not care about God or those that God loves, Jesus still loved us and died for us. Jesus shows us what it is to live in God’s kingdom: we do to others as we would have them do to us.

God’s desire is that all might be able to experience this love, this concern, this forgiveness, this lifting up of one another in the kingdom of heaven. And, if God needs to go separate the good fish within us from the bad fish within us to do it, God will. Something needs to change in this world, and as the song by No Other Name declares, “let it start with me.”

Let it start with me
Open up my eyes
Fill my heart with your compassion
Free my mind from all distractions
Use my hand, to set the captive free
Move my feet to follow after you
Or change the world and let it start with me

The kingdom of heaven may not be a place where we can climb safely without falling, but it is a place where all of us who fall will be lifted up. This is what we call living in grace.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The servants recognize the weeds.

Before we go any further in exploring this word of God for us, I just want us to stop right there and recognize a clear fact in the parable: the servants who care for the wheat fields recognize the weeds. They can clearly see the invaders that seek to choke out the good wheat planted in the good soil.

So, as the tenders of the wheat field, they ask, “What are we to do about it?”

People of God, you know wrongdoing, evil, and injustice when you see it. You can be heard talking with friends in the halls and at the tables of family events. The dismay in your voices can be heard each time you see children neglected, God’s creation destroyed senselessly, people suffering because of the stupidity of someone else, people struggling with the horrors of addiction, people struggling to put food on the table while others live high off of cheap labor, defamatory remarks toward women or minorities, and other forms of moral depravity that hurts the health of the community.

In other words, I do not need to hold a class on what the absence of loving your neighbor looks like. For the most part, as long as we have not allowed ourselves to be blinded, we know what wrongdoing and evil looks like.

Just to bring the point home, let us take a look at something. We have all heard the sentiment from Timothy 6:10 which says that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” It is very true. How many people are hurt because others are trying to make a fast buck? So, with that in mind, try to guess the top 10 consumer complaints from 2016 according to Forbes magazine. Do you have your guesses? Well, here they are:

1. Auto. Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes.

2. Home Improvement/Construction. Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job.

3. Utilities. Service problems or billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas service.

4. Credit/Debt. Billing and fee disputes, mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud, credit repair, debt relief services, predatory lending, illegal or abusive debt collection tactics.

5. Retail Sales. False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver.

6. Services. Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licenses, failure to perform.

7. Landlord/Tenant. Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, illegal eviction tactics.

8. Household Goods. Misrepresentations, failure to deliver, faulty repairs in connection with furniture or appliances.

9. Health Products/Services. Misleading claims; unlicensed practitioners.

10. (Tied with the next) Internet Sales. Misrepresentations or other deceptive practices, failure to deliver online purchases;

Fraud. Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams, imposter scams and other common frauds.

See, as the people of God, you know greed and selfishness when you see it. It is not as if the weeds are somehow disguised among the wheat. They are right there, ready to be plucked. So, as the tenders of God’s kingdom, what are we to do about the weeds? What are we to do with those who hate rather than love? What do we do with those who tear down rather than build up? What do we do with our neighbor who is clearly in the wrong?

In the parable, the servants tending the field ask this very question.

"Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, "No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.' "

Did you catch the significance of what was said?

Though we can clearly see those who commit evil and injustice out in the field of wheat, it is not our job to pluck them out. It is not our job to destroy them. For if we try, the wheat will probably also suffer casualties.

Just last week I heard of a brand new pastor who saw the evil within a young woman in his new congregation. He saw her actions as evil. He knew her actions were evil.

So, he decided that he was going to get up into the pulpit like a self-appointed prophet and blatantly point a finger at the evil. He decided that he was going to pluck out the evil before it grew and spread. His new church was not going to be infested. He preached his finger-pointing sermon, and the next day he received a letter from a husband and a wife, two of the congregation’s most devoted and loving members.

Before I go into what the letter stated, you have to understand that this husband and wife were those quiet servants who were at every event, setting up the tables, making the food, and hugging those forgotten in the corner.

They were the ones who ran the hunger walk every year which raised thousands of dollars for the most destitute in the world.

They were the ones who people called when they were struggling and needed a loving ear.

They were the ones who probably understood Jesus’ self-giving love on the cross the best.

They were also the parents of the “evil” young woman in the congregation.

These parents were not hoodwinked. They knew the trouble that their daughter had gotten into full well. But, they were also working on another task that Jesus had set out for his disciples: forgiveness.

As the pastor read the letter, he discovered that these two disciples of the congregation were not coming back. Nor, did they think they would go to another church, at least not right then. The hurt that was caused by his callous attempt at plucking weeds was too fresh and too great.

Jesus, are we to go and pluck out the weeds? “No,” Jesus says. “Let them grow with the wheat and they will be separated at harvest time because you may just destroy some of the wheat in the process of plucking.” In other words, it is not your job to pluck. “Vengeance is mine” says the Lord.

It is not your job to pluck.

So, what are the servants of God to do when we see the weeds in the wheat? What action are we to take? Well, actually, Jesus has given us an action that we can take. It is a clear action. There is nothing ambiguous about it. It is the same action that Jesus takes on the cross when he dies in order to save the entire world. The action is simply called “forgiveness.”

The parents knew what they were doing. They were the devoted disciples of the congregation after-all. They were showing forgiveness the seventy seventh time because that is what Jesus told them to do. Plucking is not our job; forgiveness is our job.

For some reason in our society, we think the strong, brave, Godly people are the ones who stand up and boldly pluck away. That thought is wrong. It is easy to pluck. The very hard, but Godly, task is the task of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the strong and brave action of a Christ-like person.

That is a good thing, because if we are honest with ourselves, every single one of us is a field with a little bit of wheat and weed mixed together. There are great things about each of us, and there are rotten things about each of us. But, thank you God, for not plucking us out whenever we fail. For, in plucking us out entirely because of the bad, the good will also be removed.

Plucking does not save us. Forgiveness does.

Lord, may your forgiveness work to make us a clean field that yields grain of love for your kingdom.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-33

Do you know what I truly want? I want Christ to really do something with my heart.

When I think back to the days before I became a pastor, I think about the reasons why I kept coming to church and sitting on those hard pews. The main reason that I kept coming to church was that I actually wanted Jesus to do something with my heart.

I actually wanted to have an encounter with Jesus that was so powerful that my heart would be changed and my life, therefore, might also be changed. I wanted to go into church as one person, and come out the other side a brand new version of me filled with the Holy Spirit.

Because of this thirst for a drastic change to my life, I loved the song by Handt Hanson, “Lord Let My Heart Be Good Soil.”

Lord, let my heart be good soil,
open to the seed of your word.
Lord, let my heart be good soil,
where love can grow and peace is understood.
When my heart is hard, break the stone away.
When my heart is cold, warm it with the day.
When my heart is lost, lead me on your way.
Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart,
Lord, let my heart be good soil.

Here is the thing. I never walked into church feeling like, “Oh yeah, I got this thing called life all figured out. I’ll just come to church to give others a little bit of moral support.” That never happened.

Rather, I would stumble into church feeling like God had thrown God’s word onto the pathway of my soul, and somehow I completely missed it. It was as if the word had been thrown onto a parking lot and it never even had a chance with all of the birds around and the obvious lack of fertile ground. Most days the word had been snatched away, and I did not even have a chance to grasp it.

Other times, I would sit through church and be moved by the word through either the preaching or the beauty of the music as it gracefully traveled through the air and penetrated my soul. I would walk out the doors of the church, ready to let that grace of God come through the Word to move me and shape my actions. I was ready to be who God had made me to be.

I was like some soil that allowed God’s word to grow up fast and tall, but as soon as my life took the slightest of unexpected turns, whether it be the unfairness of a boss, or the struggling health of a family member, or maybe even just the busyness of life…the busyness of every single hour that never allowed me to do the loving things for God that I desired…the inspiration soon withered and died.

Then, there were the times that the word just did nothing at all. It fell among the shopping lists and worries about family and friends that were at the forefront of my mind as I sat in church and failed to listen. It never had a chance to even be noticed among those little thorns that grow up and get in the way.

Sometimes those thorns of life were not so little though. Sometimes, the word fell among huge, thick thorns of self-righteousness that would not allow any compassion for anyone who had failed in life in any way.

I am not proud of the thoughts that caused me to look down at the neighbor and see trash, rather than looking at the neighbor and seeing possibilities.

More than once the words, “If only they just worked a little harder,” came from my lips; words that are hard, thorny, with no understanding or compassion. Somehow I thought that a nice thick thorn, with its sharp end and sharp tongue would somehow poke these low lives into greatness.

The truth is, thorns an only poke and slay.

God’s word of forgiveness, love, and new possibilities fell into deaf thorns on those days, and there was no soil of love to be found.

As I said, I am not proud of those thorny days. They still come too. I am not proud now when they come today either, but they always seem to come anyway. And, all I can do when I feel the guilt of such hardness of hard and sharpness of thorns is sing:

Lord, let my heart be good soil,
open to the seed of your word.
Lord, let my heart be good soil,
where love can grow and peace is understood.
When my heart is hard, break the stone away.
When my heart is cold, warm it with the day.
When my heart is lost, lead me on your way.
Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart,
Lord, let my heart be good soil.

As much as I sang about desiring to be good soil, I am not certain that I ever really was. I think, at best, I was sometimes sandy soil on a beach, which can grow certain things, but not others. I am not certain that God’s word, which seeks to draw us together into a garden of mutual care and support, fertilized and watered continually with the gift of forgiveness, ever really found its proper footing in my heart. The cares of the world and the hardness of my heart toward others kind of closed the gate to such a beautiful garden.

When Jesus said to me, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” I responded, “for they should try harder so that I don’t have to worry about them.” That is not the word taking hold. That is not the way of serving the neighbor. That is not the way of giving. That is not the way of Jesus.

So, what are people like me supposed to do? What are people like me, whose soil is distracted and only partially fertile supposed to do, because I have been trying to be good soil for a very long time now, but somehow it just does not seem to be happening for me in any permanent way?

What are normal, busy, sometimes loving, but sometimes hardhearted, sometimes too sad or too mad for God’s Word to take root sort of people supposed to do?

We listen to these words;

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

But, no matter where the seeds fell, the sower kept sowing.

Is your soul a lifeless parking lot? God still throws seed there. God has not forgotten you.

Is your soul full of rocks? God still throw seed there. God has not forgotten you.

Is your soul tangled up in a bunch of thorns; so trapped that it is unable to see the light of day? God still keeps throwing and throwing and throwing that seed of grace at you, and it tumbles and bounces around until it comes to rest on your soil because God has not forgotten you.

God never assumes that your soil is too hard or rocky or thorny to grow anything, because it is not.

Blessed are us with quite a bit less than perfect spirits, because we get the kingdom of heaven showered down on us. And, when you are showered with grace, over and over again, your soil tends to start to darken into that rich stuff that just might be able to sprout some of God's love and grace.

Lord, let my heart be good soil. Shower me again, and again with your Word.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

So, there was this guy who decided that his way to serve God was to literally get away from civilization and live off the land by eating grasshoppers and disturbing bee’s nests to find honey. He wore a loin cloth, kept far away from alcohol and the other traps of modern society, and then also invited other people away from civilization so that they too could let everything that trapped them in life be washed away in the wilderness waters of the Jordon river.

If this man, John the Baptist, walked into the grocery store today to grab an unexpected treat, like a “Snickers” bar, he most definitely would turn heads, but not in the “My that guy is handsome!” sort of way. He was un-kept, earthy, and skinny in that unhealthy looking sort of way. Quite frankly, people looked at him and said, “That guy is nuts.” But, that is the way he served God.

So, there was another guy who came along and decided to serve God in a completely different way. He did not shun society by becoming some sort of holy hermit.

Instead, he jumped head-first into the ways of modern life. He ate and drank with guys who hung out in bars. He sat and talked with those who had troubled pasts. He breathed the same air and drank out of the same cup of those who would betray and deny their own friend. He was in the middle of it all, just the opposite of John the Baptist, yet people looked down on him too and said, “There’s the town drunk. If you are looking to hang out with the lowest common denominator, go ahead and talk to Jesus.”

Strangely, I find comfort in all of this moaning and gossiping about John the Baptist and Jesus. For, if God can choose to use both an earthy smelling vegan and a social butterfly who does not have any friendship boundaries, maybe God can use someone like me too. What I mean is that, maybe I do not have to change myself to be someone I am not in order to for God to use me to love God and love my neighbor.

Maybe, God liked the fact that John was a social hermit in the wilderness so that people would have the chance to get away from the things that distract, yet still hear that God forgives their sinful ways.

Maybe, God liked the fact that God’s son did not discriminate between the desirables and the undesirables when choosing his friends. Maybe, in that way, all people might be able to feel loved, and all people might be saved through the forgiveness found in the cross of Christ.

Maybe, God knew what God was doing when God made you I in the strange configurations that we are.

Maybe, God thinks it is OK that you are not like your neighbor.

Maybe God likes that you are a little bit weird. Admit it, you are.

Maybe, God only cares that you love your neighbor as a disciple of Christ, no matter who you do or do not hang out with.

There is a lady who does not act like a lady. Her skin is filled with tattoos, her words are anything but lady-like, and she hangs out with the crowd that fills formerly smoke laden comedy clubs. Smoking laws have cleaned up the air, but not the people.

But, no matter, God’s got it covered.

Using the language that those people understand, with holy body art that only that crowd can appreciate (her body is like a moving stained glass church window), this unconventional preacher lets them all know that they are loved by God and that there is salvation, and a place for them in the kingdom. Yes, even them.

Here is the thing. Since God uses all kinds of different, and completely opposite sort of people to work in the kingdom (even people we would never expect…people who are completely unconventional), maybe God too is unconventional.

Perhaps, God actually is not who we personally expect God to be. Maybe, God does not like and hate the same things and people that we do. Maybe, God is not formed in our image, but rather we are formed in God’s image. Maybe, God’s actual image does not look the same we would paint God’s image.

Our painted images of God tend to comfort us and conform to everything we have already believed to be true. But, as theologian David Lose puts it, our images of God "don’t threaten us, don’t expect change from us, don’t ask us to do all that much, and don’t do much more than affirm us. And affirmation is great, even necessary at times. But it doesn’t save."

He is right. The real image of God who walked and breathed and taught was called a drunkard, was given the gift of a crown of thorns, and was put to death. But, he also died for every single one of those who sought to destroy him on the cross. When God came to earth, humanity did not like him. He did not conform to our image of him. We thought he was too radical, too loving, and too accepting.

Yet, he refused to throw that back at us and see us in the same way. He did not think we were too unlovable, or too far beyond redemption. When God came to earth, he just saw us as children who needed love, and he showed just how far he would love us. He loved us to the end on the cross.

So, when Jesus says, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” he isn’t saying “Come and take a holy vacation, you need it badly.” It may be true that you need a vacation badly, but that is not what he is saying.

He is saying that it is harder to live up to the world’s expectations of you than to live up to God’s. It is hard to make yourself into the image of the perfect, universally accepted person. It is impossible to conform to the desires of the world. But, God does not desire you to do that in the first place.

What God desires you to do as a disciple is much simpler: love as Jesus loved.

Carry Jesus’ burden of loving others rather than carrying anything else. It is the light way to live. It allows you to go live in the wilderness if you like. It also allows you to be a social butterfly if you are already one. It allows everything in between because loving God and neighbor does not look like just one thing. It looks like many things. It looks like you being who you were created to be, but just in a loving way.

It is a simple way to live. It is an easy task to undertake. It does not require you to conform to the standards of this world in any way. And, it does not require you to start judging others and trying to get them to conform to the world either. It is a way of life that is gentle, and humble, and in it there is no burden.

Will it be acceptable to those around you? Probably not. Do not expect any less than the reaction that John the Baptist and Jesus got. But, even so, it is the light way of life. Loving is easier than contorting yourself to be as the world desires.

You are who God created you to be. So as a disciple of Jesus be that. Be who you were created to be, only in a loving way and you will certainly find the rest for your soul that Jesus has already poured upon you.