When I was a child my father would end the evening’s meal blessing with the following:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk with your God. (Micah 6:8, NRSV).
This what I heard every night until my father died. There was never anything said about the verse. For a number of years, I didn’t even know it came from Micah. It was just what my father said at the end of the blessing and that was that. Yet those words, said almost in a whisper, bored their way into my consciousness. Over the years it became kind of a mantra. Three simple steps for what was required of me. In time it also became the basis for a great deal of doubt in the people I believed to be faithful leaders in my church.
My family are members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), commonly identified as Disciples. We have been part of this denomination long before it became a denomination in 1962. One of the tenets is it is every person’s responsibility to read the scripture ourselves and determine our own understandings. That meant we were to question, doubt, and discuss scripture in a respectful way and to give all with a different understand their space to believe. However, it didn’t mean we were not supposed to evolve in our understanding. We were also responsible for determining the truth, using all the tools available to us. And this is where I really blossomed.
As a young woman I had already begun to doubt some of the long-held beliefs I was told as a child. Fortunately, my father had encouraged me to question those that held inflexible beliefs. My father wasn’t an educated person, he never made it past 6th grade as he was a coal miners’ son and put to work in the mines by the age of 10. But the one book he did read was the Bible and he developed a healthy, by today’s standard, questioning attitude of what he read. He never questioned the message but how the message was presented and accepted by those around him. I inherited his questioning mind about scripture and wanted to know what was really said in the first century. I wanted to know what Jesus really said and did, and I didn’t want someone telling me such knowledge was unimportant to my belief. I was already beginning to leave behind the idea of Christianity and starting to believe more in the deeds and words of Jesus as a true belief system.
By the time I was 25 or 30 I was reading the Hebrew Scriptures and becoming more interested in the beliefs that Jesus and his earliest disciples held. I couldn’t read Hebrew, but I did find English translations. I read books on theology and spirituality that gave me new ideas about what Jesus might have done and said. But it wasn’t until I entered the Seattle School of Theology and Ministry and became an associate of the Weststar Institute (home of the Jesus Seminar) did I really begin to understand what it meant to follow Jesus, the Carpenter of Nazareth.
Reading theology that used original material and researched the true history of the life of Jesus was inspirational and mind blowing for me. I learned that Christianity was an imperial Faith created by Constantine and maintained by Bishops who wanted power and money. They mythologized the resurrection in-order to develop a doctrine that would allow a small group of leaders to control and exploit the people they ruled. Because rulers were not to be held accountable, they used this new ‘religion’ to use the Jews as scapegoats for their failures. They used misinterpretations to demonize anyone different from them, creating slaves of indigenous peoples and Africans. They used misinterpretations to demonize women, many of which were held in slave like positions in the family or burnt at the stake as witches. They created systemic racism, and systemic gender bias simply to keep themselves in power. None of this would have been taught by the Carpenter from Nazareth. None of this is in keeping with Micah 6:8.
I do not know if Jesus ever read Micah, it is not mentioned anywhere in scripture, but his life followed those three important requirements: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Jesus taught and acted to right injustice. Jesus was kind, merciful and compassionate to the people who needed his help the most, yet he was kind to those who were rich as well. Jesus walked humbly and obediently with the God he loved. He knew that fighting injustice and caring for those the political system and religious order despised would cost him his life, he did it anyway. That is what I believe.
I must admit I don’t always succeed, but at least I am trying. John and I have taken into our home those who need us, and we have supported the poor and the hungry. We have been called foolish and innocents. Most of those we have helped moved on to better lives and we are happy for them. Sometimes the help is ignored, or people are unable to sustain themselves for whatever reason, that is life and while the help wasn’t accepted or selfishly grabbed it is ok. Maybe, just maybe, somewhere down the road in their lives they will remember and make changes. All we can do is hope.
So, who am I as a follower of Jesus, the Carpenter? I am someone who is trying my hardest to do and say what Jesus did and said: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
Why do I say I am not a Christian? Why do I say I am a follower of Jesus, the Carpenter? Why is the distinction important?
After posting on social media that I was not a Christian but a follower of Jesus the Carpenter I received the above three questions from people who are curious about what I do believe, so this is an answer, sort of. I say sort of because all of this is still fermenting in my soul, so, there is still much for me to learn. However, I now, firmly, believe that I am no longer a Christian, I am becoming something new. Well not really new, but new to me and to many I know. See this is complicated, which means it’s hard to define, but allows for much emotion, and feelings. So here is my explanation.
From the very beginning I found my faith as a ‘Christian’ difficult. When I asked questions as a child the answers were inadequate and confusing. I was always told I would understand as I got older, that didn’t happen. Instead my questions got more complicated, and the answers more inadequate and more confusing.
One of the first things I struggled with was the idea of the virgin birth. I grew up a farm kid and I learned the story of the ‘birds and the bees’ by the time I was 5. I knew you had to have a male and a female to get a baby and I knew where those babies came from. Unfortunately, when I asked about Mary and Jesus, I was told God was the father. I remember being hushed up at church when I asked the minister if God had sperm during a children’s sermon. As an adult biologist I understood the concept of parthenogenesis, which is a form of procreation some invertebrates, and some plants, utilize. By the way it usually only produces female offspring. So, the struggle with the idea of Mary birthing Jesus is an old struggle.
Still I continued to ask questions. If Jesus’ was so important why don’t we follow what he taught? Why aren’t the parables more important than the resurrection? Why is Paul so important when it was Jesus we should be talking about? Did I get answers? No, I did not! I was told I wouldn’t understand. Yeah right.
It wasn’t until I started Theological School did I begin to get answers and found other Theologians who were asking the same questions and looking for all of the answers I wanted. It was in class discussions and discussions with professors that I finally began to discover what I had been looking for. I began to realize that for at least 1800 years we have been misled by people with an agenda that wasn’t Jesus’s and that made me angry. I learned that Christianity is an imperial religion created in the 2nd and 3rd century. It is based on a misinterpretation of Paul and the mythologizing of the Resurrection by Greek Gentiles whose vision of God was based on their own cultural understanding of gods.
When a professor, thank you so much Dr. Cunningham, introduced me to the Westar Institute home of the Jesus Seminar I discovered people who were like me, searching, but they were also finding the answers I wanted. They were having real discussions about the real Jesus and offering anyone who was curious the means to understand the human Jesus, the teacher Jesus who taught a way of life not dogma.
Jesus as a real human was an amazing teacher and he taught in real time. His story has been lost, let’s say misplaced, by those who were enthralled by the story of the resurrection and thereby created him as a God. Jesus’ story, his historical story, is what is important and it was the story told by his 1st century followers.
The story of the Resurrection was hijacked by Constantine who used it to create his own imperial state religion and therefore control his empire. That empire needed a scapegoat for many of its failings. Christianity, a religion based on the Resurrection not on Jesus’ teaching, filled that bill. The Christian religion was used to demonize the Jewish people.
Over the years I have studied both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and have found that it is the teaching of Jesus, and his scripture the Hebrew bible, where I have found my true faith. The dogmatic teaching that Jesus must be God has bothered me and I am now rejecting it. In the last 10 years I have been reading and studying more theologians from the Jesus Seminar who searched for the Historical Jesus and discovered an understanding of scripture I can sink my teeth into. It was in the material by Drs. Brandon Scott and John Dominic Crossan that I discovered the real Jesus who I can follow. Using first century material they delved into the parables and other teachings and, for me at least, have revealed the message that has been forgotten, or ignored.
Do I want to destroy Christianity? Well no, there is much that is good with it. I wouldn’t want to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water.” But I would take what is good, keep that and dump the rest. I want the real teaching of Jesus brought back into the forefront of our hearts and minds and lived as they should be.
Why is this distinction so important? Well the name ‘Christian’ has for too long been used to justify everything Jesus would have despised. People who have called, and still call, themselves Christian have used their membership in this imperial cult to justify slavery, keep women as chattel, overthrow governments, genocide, control populations, etc. For 1800 years people have bought a story that is only partly true, and it was used to keep them compliant for their rulers. Too many wars have been fought, too many people have died, been tortured, and kept in poverty because they followed a “Christian” ruler. So, yes understanding the difference between a ‘Christian’ and a follower of Jesus is important.
If the faith and teachings of Jesus are to survive then we must change our world vision of Jesus and his followers. We must, and I do mean must, dump the imperial, dogmatic belief that Jesus must be divine for us to believe in him. We need to hear his real story and teachings for what they are, a way of life that can change us as humans.
I don’t know if what I have said makes sense for you, but maybe it will open a pathway to discussions.
For the last couple of days I have been using a prayer book of a collection of Julian of Norwich’s writings as my meditation focus and I would like to share this morning’s prayer with you.
Now our Lord reminded me
of the desire for him I had earlier.
I saw that nothing stood in my way but sin,
and I realized that this is the same for all of us.
And I thought that if there were no sin,
we would all be pure and akin to our Lord
Just as we had been created sinless.
But in my vision, Jesus informed me
of everything necessary for me to know.
And he told me: Sin is necessary,
but everything will turn out for the good,
and all will be well,
and everything will be well.
by the simple word, ”sin”
God reminded me of all that is not good
and of the suffering and grief of all creation,
and above all of the utter shame and sacrifice
he endured for our salvation.
We have all suffered woe and sorrow
as we follow our master Jesus,
and we shall do so until we are utterly purified,
I did not see sin itself,
for it has no real substance,
it is not real:
it can be known only by the suffering it causes,
and even that pain lasts but a while.
And during the woe
we might take consolation in our Lord’s suffering.
And out of his tender love, he consoles us, saying:
True, sin caused this pain, but all will be well.
In his voice I never hear a hint of blame,
and since we who are guilty are not blamed,
why should we in turn blame God?
Julian of Norwich
All will be well, that is a powerful statement of faith, of trust in G-d to always be there. Sometimes it is hard for me to hold onto those words. Sometimes they don’t seem true especially in these days when violence and disasters dominate our world. But Julian of Norwich says “but everything will turn out for the good, and all will be well, and everything will be well” and somehow in this morning’s meditation I find the space to believe that and to trust G-d knows what she is doing.
For this week’s spiritual practice to consider the sins of the world war, pollution, global warming and to hold the victims in your heart and offer prayers for their well being. As you sit with your prayers listen for a call to work in some way to right an injustice you see this week.
Matthew 14:25-33 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Nearly 40 years ago I went on a camping trip that included riding a horse 20 miles every day. The horse I rode was a rather smallish black mare with a lot of quarter horse in her background. She was gentle and quiet and when I learned she didn’t have a name I named her Sweet Pea.
One day we came to place where the trail all but disappeared and developed a tilt of maybe 30 to 40° as it extended across the lip of the canyon. The distance to the bottom of canyon was maybe 100 to 150 ft down. I needed to trust that my horse would safely carry me across the steep incline without falling to the bottom of the canyon. I took a deep breath and started across and promptly halted Sweet Pea and froze about ¼ of the way on the path. We were in very precarious position, on a steep incline and just inches from the edge of the canyon wall and a drop to the bottom would most likely have killed both of us. I held Sweet Pea in place until she pulled the reins loose in my hand, turned her head as if to say trust me we can do this and she walked the rest of the way across. As I look back over the years I have begun to learn this moment with Sweet Pea was a turning point for me. I now realize that it was here on a narrow trail in Mexico that I turned onto the path leading to this place in my life. For that first step to happen I had to let go of my fear and anxiety and trust someone else to take control of my life, it just happened to be that a small black horse was the one I put my trust in.
Peter too takes a step of trust when he steps out of the boat and starts to walk toward Jesus but something happened to him and he started to sink. Yes Jesus saved him and before they get into the boat tells him he needs faith. Ah, but what is faith and how does Peter or any of us get more of it? I can’t answer the “how” question because for each of us the way to faith will be different. But I can explore with you what it means to have faith.
The modern definition of faith is not the definition that was understood in the days of Jesus and Peter. Today we equate faith with religious belief; if you believe in specific religious doctrines you are said to have faith in it. But, Marcus Borg in Speaking Christian, says in the 1st century faith was expressed by the Latin words fidelitas, faithfulness, and fiducia, trust.
To have faithfulness meant you were committed to, loyal to, held allegiance to, and were attentive to a relationship, Such as our relationship with God. Faith as faithfulness does not just mean you are not going to follow other gods, but that you are committed and loyal to your relationship with God, and God known as Jesus, and that you attend to that relationship to keep it strong and healthy.
Faith as trust is more than a commitment; it is also a deep trust in God and Jesus. That trust is so deep that you are willing to get out of your nice safe boat and walk on water, or, ride your horse across a dangerous trail. The opposite of faith is not infidelity, but “mistrust”—that is anxiety, and that is what happened to Peter. One moment Peter was striding above the waves, just as Jesus was, and then his fears build into anxiety and he began to mistrust Jesus, so he started sinking. Jesus is not telling Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” No, what Jesus was really saying was “Peter, why didn’t you trust me to keep you on the surface of the water, why did you mistrust me?”
Isn’t that what we all do? Don’t we all mistrust God and Jesus to fulfill our needs? And, don’t our plans all too often sink, just as Peter did? I know it is true for me. My first steps out of the safety of my boat into the abyss of trust were with Sweet Pea and I froze. I wasn’t sure I could trust her to carry me across that narrow path to safety. But something in her eyes told me all would be well and you know what, 40 years later I’m still here. Since that horseback camping trip in Mexico I have had many moments when I let my mistrust of Jesus keep me from achieving goals I know I could have achieved if I had had faith, if I had trusted, in the one leading me and I know that there will be more of them in my future.
You see I am human and to mistrust God is part of a being human because I have a strong sense of my own independence which wants to rule the day. And having independence isn’t bad, nor is saying “No” to God and Jesus. The choice of following or not following must always be mine. It is when my independent voice says “Yes” that my trust in God and Jesus is the strongest and deepest for then I know with certainty that I am not alone. I know then that nothing will shake by commitment to, my faithfulness in, the One All Surrounding Presence.
Have any of you ever read John Ortberg’s book If You Want To Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat? Well Ortberg is right, you do have to step out of the boat, or onto the narrow path, and trust that everything will be all right. I often wonder if we, if I, can sustain my trust in God long enough to get out of the boat on that raging sea called life and walk across the water? More often than not we will set ourselves up for failure by allowing our hearts to mistrust Jesus’ promise that He “is with us always.”
Life can be hard task master and the main reason we don’t succeed is often how we see failure and loss of trust. Losing our trust, our faith does not have to shape who we, you and me, are; it is the way we respond to that loss that shapes us. Jesus wasn’t ridiculing Peter when he asked why he failed. Rather he was asking a question of Peter, ‘why did you lose your trust.’ Peter may not have understood the question at the time but following the resurrection he did and he stepped out of his nice safe boat big time. For Peter, learning to walk on water and being rescued by Jesus was his turning point, his moment that began his trip to his own cross.
We too don’t understand the questions Jesus asks us and I am no different. Right now I am struggling with so many questions that I don’t know which ones I’m asking and which ones God is asking. All I know is the answers are not forthcoming.
One of the first lessons in trust happens to be learning to wait on God to guide us in the right direction. We have to wait for the power to be given to us to walk on water. We have to wait for Jesus to calm the seas for us. Only then will we make it across that treacherous path or across the water’s surface. The problem is all of us are impatient; we want results now, not tomorrow, but yesterday. We want to move forward in our lives and we don’t care how we do it. One of my favorite phrases is “Give me patience Lord, but hurry” and for many years that fit me to a “T.” Slowing down and opening my heart and mind, trusting that Jesus will come is extremely hard. It is putting myself, in utter vulnerability, into Jesus’ hands. It is letting go of what I want and trusting and having faith that Jesus will bring me what I need.
The idea that any of us are self made individuals is a myth. We all need others in order to survive and thrive in our world. We have always needed the other, not just in today’s world where we are globally connected, but in all of time we have been in need of the other in our lives. That other might be our brothers and sisters, it might be the food we hunt or grow but what and who ever it is we cannot survive alone. We have always needed to choose who to trust, who we would have faith in and be faithful to. We look for what will guide us in ways that will allow us to flourish and let our children flourish. We look to pass on our understanding of the world in a way that teaches our children to trust in something other than themselves or those who only think like them. We look to trust someone who will honor our independent yes as much as our independent no. We want to have faith in someone who will show us how to walk on water and skip across dangerous paths.
Peter lost his trust and began to sink but Jesus was there to lift him up and into the safety of the boat. I lost my trust for a moment but the Holy Spirit said trust in the guide I have given you and together Sweet Pea and I made it safely across. It has always amazed me as to the number of different ways the Holy Spirit makes herself known to me. Sometimes I simply have to go with the flow of energy and trust that what will be is what is supposed to happen. It is all about trust. That is what faith is all about.
1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake.2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow.4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.9Let anyone with ears – listen!’
18 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower.19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.23But 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.’
The word of the Lord
Please join me in prayer:
Source of Life may all that offer this today be acceptable in your sight, Amen.
Today’s scripture is a popular one among biblical storytellers and so all of us have heard this many times in many ways. We have heard many interpretations as well, so many in fact that in all likelihood we all think “Oh I know that one, it’s an old one and I like what it says.” I thought the same thing, at first, but then I began to look more closely at what was being said and what I thought I heard and what I was actually hearing. I was surprised to realize, I hadn’t heard it all.
Parables are multi-layered, like a Russian doll, you think there is only one doll until you start opening it up and discover many little dolls hiding within. Parables are like that, layers wrapped in layers. I didn’t read the middle portion of this scripture where Jesus tells his disciples one very important lesson, and that is those who want knowledge will open his parables up to discover the many layers, messages, hidden within, and those who don’t will simply hear a story about a really bad farmer. So I am going to try and open this story up bit, and, maybe we will find a layer within we didn’t expect.
Because this is such a familiar story to all of us I am going to try something a little different this morning and hope that we all see this story in a new light. Because this is such a visual story I am going to lead you in a guided meditation. I am going to read only verses 1-17; so get comfortable, with both feet on the floor.
Now close your eyes and take a deep slow breath, let it out slowly, … take another deep slow breath, … let it out slowly.
You are one of the disciples of the teacher Jesus and after spending the night in the home of a friend Jesus goes out early in the morning to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. … Many people come to see and listen to this teacher of yours and to hear what he has to say, … so many in fact that there is no room for Jesus … to sit or stand on the beach. … Jesus asks one of your fellow disciples to get a boat and pull it up on the shore. … He gets in and asks everyone to sit. … You and the other disciples sit in the sand forming a half circle around the boat and the crowd finds their places behind you. … As you sit and wait for the crowd to become silent you are aware of your surroundings, … of the sound of the water lapping gently on the shore, shore birds calling, … a gentle breeze blows across the water, … and there is the pleasant smell of fresh fish coming from the boat. … The sun hasn’t yet climbed far into the sky but it is warm on your back and the sand is still comfortably cool.
Jesus begins to speak.
“‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. … 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, … and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, … where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But … when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, … they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. … 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, … some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. … 9Let anyone with ears – listen!’”
You and your fellow disciples are confused by the story … it seems simple yet you know there has to be more to it … or Jesus wouldn’t have told it. … So one of the disciples ask a question; … “Teacher, … ‘Why do you speak in parables? … We are confused but we know there is more to this than a simple story’”
Jesus smiles at you and says:
‘To you it has been given to know the secretsof the kingdom of heaven, … but to crowds … it has not been given. … 12For to those who have, will be given more, … and they will have an abundance; … but from those who have nothing, … even what they have will be taken away. … 13The reason I speak to them in parables is that … “seeing they do not perceive, … and hearing they do not listen, … nor do they understand.” … 14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.” 16But blessed are your eyes, … for they see, … and your ears, … for they hear. … 17Truly I tell you, … many prophets and righteous people … longed to see what you see, but did not see it, … and to hear what you hear, … but did not hear it.
[Pause for moment and then ring the chime]
Well did you hear a new message in the story? Did you hear the story open up in a new way and did you find a new layer that you hadn’t seen or heard before? I cannot speak for you I can only speak of my own heart. I can only speak of what I have heard. And, I would like to offer my budding new understanding of this parable, a new layer for me. Your new layer maybe different from mine and that’s ok, we learn from each other and my layer of this story may or may not resonate with yours but it might be a layer you hadn’t seen before and cause you to think. I hope you will tell me yours sometime so that you will cause me think.
So here is the new layer I discovered as I listened to Jesus. I didn’t feel like a disciple in the story, rather I felt like one of the crowd who was thinking about following Jesus. When I heard the story I thought Jesus was comparing me to the seed being sown and I wasn’t sure I liked what I heard. I was close enough to hear the question of the disciples and Jesus answer and my first thought is “How rude of Jesus not to make the message plain to all of us.” Then I thought again, “OK, if there is a hidden message, what is it? And, how do I tease it out?”
As you can see this internal conversation has caused me to almost miss the rest of the Jesus’ answer so I listen again and hear.
“18 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But 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.’”
Ah … the story isn’t about being a careful farmer and planting the seed in good, rich and well watered soil after all. Rather it’s about who will have the staying power to follow Jesus and spread more seeds. OK, I get. But I still have questions. You see I do some farming, and yes my harvest is best when the seed is grown in the right place, but like all good farmers I’ve learned that seed that falls in difficult soil has its good qualities as well, it is often more hardy and will survive when no other seed would. What would it look like if considered for a moment the seed in this story and thought about how what the seed does and how that helps the sower? If I am going to be a seed for the Kingdom don’t I need to be strong?
Don’t I really need to work hard and build up my strength because this won’t be an easy task? So maybe falling on dry hard ground where I have to quickly dig deep into soil, taking up as much water as I can and learn to make efficient use of nutrients when they are available in order to grow. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? I know seeds that do that and they do well in dry places.
Or, what about the seed that falls on thorny ground and to prevent being overrun by thorns adapts and develops protection that would keep the thorns from killing me. I’ve seen plants do that as well so I know it works and such plants thrive. Or, consider the seed that falls on rocky ground. Here I have to learn to extend my roots around obstacles, breaking down some of the rocks into new soil. With deep, strong roots, I will do quite well, I know that because I’ve seen plants that do. So while I’ve not landed in an ideal place, I learned to survive and I may have produced only 10% compared to the 30 or 60% of the seeds planted in good soil. But that’s still something and there will be seeds for the sower to spread around in the next year. And if there is a draught, or someone seeds the farmers field with weeds, or he has to sow his seed in a rocky field I know that the seed that has had to struggle will do very well and produce a crop, which could mean the difference for the farmer between eating and starving.
How do I compare that scenario to Jesus answer? Well being a seed on the dry, hard ground of kingdom means I have to work hard at understanding. Not giving up but keep digging for the treasure found within me and those around me even when it seems hopelessly dry. When, I land in an area where the temptations of the world try to tear me away from my path to follow Jesus, I have to work harder to keep the message of the kingdom in front of me while I work within the world. And, when I hear the kingdoms message and find it sweet like honey but the world lays obstacles in my path I have to remember to let my roots grow with study and contemplation in order to break down the rocks in my path so that I am able to spread my seed-children, the good news of the Kingdom, in new soil.
Why wouldn’t I want to be planted in nice rich soil, with plenty of nutrients, in other words, why would I not like the task of spreading the word of the kingdom to be easy? Well, from a farmer’s perspective, seed that is always grown in nice rich soil does produce a lot of seed; however, a lot of that seed will not have the ability to fight off disease, or draught. That means if there is any kind of environmental stress your crop will most likely fail. However, if you harvest seed from plants that have had to withstand stress the resulting plants will be strong and healthy even under stressful conditions and the farmer has a crop to sell and eat.
It’s the same with the seed of the kingdom. If receiving the word is easy and you don’t have to work for it then when something challenges you, you and your community will struggle and maybe not survive. It has been my experience that working hard for anything means I value it more and I learn to distinguish what is false and what is true because I need to do it to live into the message Jesus taught me.
Jesus told this story because he knew what his disciples, and anyone else who followed him, would need strength in order to stand against the world’s trials, temptations, and obstacles as they spread the word of the kingdom of God. He knew they were going to be tested with many trials and how they responded to those trials would test their resolve and determine whether or not the Good News was spread. So his disciples were going to have to dig deep into inner territory, sending down strong roots into their soul to anchor their faith and learn to protect themselves from thorny individuals by loving instead of hating them. So you see it wasn’t the easy road and productive communities that defined the movement called THE WAY, it was those who experienced suffering, struggle, trials, doubts, who loved their enemies despite persecution that defined the followers of Jesus.
That definition of struggle and hardship is what defines us today, or should be anyway. Maybe in years past some of us have had it so easy to be “Christian” that we have forgotten what it means to be a follower of THE WAY. Those who cannot bring themselves to dig deep within, to doubt, question and be willing to live into mystery and paradox may fall by the way side. But some will strike out into the wilderness and learn how to thrive and how to spread the Good News despite draught, thorns or obstacles.
So my question to each of you is what do you identify with in this parable? Mine was the seed on less than ideal ground. Are you the seed on good soil, but when disaster strikes you are unable to go on? Or, are you the seed that lands in dry, thorny, rocky land, are you the seed that fights and struggles bringing into fruition the best fruit you can? We all have choices; I’ve chosen what I will do. How do you choose?
Sermon, Queen Anne Christian Church
February 9, 2014
I was supposed to preach yesterday, but because of snow all of the streets to the church were closed. You see Queen Anne Christian Church is at the top of Queen Anne Hill and the wise DOT decided it was too dangerous for people to drive up either side of the hill, therefore church was cancelled. So instead I will offer my sermon here. Enjoy
Matthew 5:13-20 (NRSV)
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. (Isa. 49:6) A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, [a] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks[b] one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
In one of the early classes I took with Father Raschko at STM there was this long discussion about the differences between each of the 4 Gospels. You know, Mark was written first, then Matthew and Luke, who used Mark as a blue print, and John was last and totally different. Now Father Raschko is a Mark scholar and he loves Mark. The Gospel of Matthew is OK, but in the words of Father Raschko Matthew was out to correct all of the mistakes Mark had made. I, in my first or second year enthusiasm decided to sit down and compare them to see if he was right. Silly me
I have to admit after reading both of them I discovered I loved the Gospel of Mark. I mean there is that whole messianic message mystery thing he has going on. You get to the end, all the endings, and it says go back to the beginning, it’s a mystery and who doesn’t love a mystery. But I found I truly loved the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew doesn’t write about mystery, well not the way Mark does anyway. He writes about an itinerate Jewish Rabbi, he places Jesus within the historical and cultural landscape of God’s very own people. In Matthew’s Gospel he connects the Hebrew Scriptures and the peoples own history to what Jesus did to fulfill the scripture. He writes about doing: about being intentional as a follower of Jesus. In a lot of ways the Gospel Matthew is a Do-It-Yourself manual for how to become a follower of Jesus. Matthew connects the actions of Jesus to the law and the prophets. He expected his own community of first century Christians to do the same.
In today’s scripture Jesus gives an introduction to what the mission of his disciples and followers will be. With the words “you are salt, and you are light” He identifies the ground rules for someone who wishes to become one of his followers. Jesus doesn’t say you should be salt, or you might be light, no, he is telling his disciples, the crowd and us, we are salt and we are light for the communities we live in. It was the disciples and now it is you and I that is to add the goodness into the lives of those we meet, provide balance and savoriness in our communities, just as salt does for the foods we eat. It is us, you and me, who are to intentionally disrupt the status quo and care for the dispossessed, and those who are hungry and ill. We are to work for justice and show mercy, and be peacemakers, other words we are to stand up for what we believe with no expectations of ever being rewarded. Just as salt does its job without announcing its presence in the food we eat we are to do all these things not to bring ourselves recognition but because that is just what we are supposed to do. Just as salt is hidden within our food bringing brightness and goodness to the final product, Jesus wants us as his followers to hide within the community and bring brightness and goodness to the world around us. To do otherwise means we have lost our saltiness and not helpful to the work needed by the Kingdom of God.
Jesus then recalls the prophet Isaiah who says:
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (49:6b)
Jesus tells his disciples “you are the light of the world, to both Jew and Gentile, and you can’t hide the light. We too are to let the light shine. This means we are not just salt and supposed to care for others, fight for justice, extend mercy and be peacemakers without an expectation of a reward we are to be the mirror that reflects God’s light into the darkness we humans so frequently to gather within and around us. We are to reflect the graciously given gift of God’s light within ourselves to illuminate the darkness in our own souls. To recognize and open the dark spaces within our souls so that we are better able to reflect God’s light outward to those around us so they too may live in Gods loving light.
We are to let the light shine without focusing the light on ourselves. We are to care for those around us and to carefully walk with God, not in front, but alongside. We have to take all the good acts we see being done in the world and go one step farther. And that means it is not in what we say we do, it is in what we DO that is important. Jesus wants us to be intentionally active in whatever way we are called to be, not sitting on the couch or watching others. We are to be the advocate for the voiceless, the homeless, and the dispossessed. It also means just like a mirror we are only the glass that reflects the glory of God and the Kingdom of God. We are to be behind the light being the lens that focus’ the beam on who those needing the light.
We are to be advocates for social justice, advocates for the hungry, the homeless, the incarcerated, and advocates for peace but we are to say “we have done nothing; it is God working through us that has done these things.” This is where those Matthew called “scribes and Pharisees” got it wrong. Yes they did good works but they made sure everyone knew it. God’s command is we are to do good acts because it’s the right thing to do, not inflate our own ego’s
Today we have modern “scribes and Pharisees” who do the same thing and sometimes I’m one of them. The hardest thing for me to do is setting aside my own ego and let God stand in front of me, you see I don’t always like taking a back seat. I must admit that I am all too often a card carrying member of the Pharisee club and I am not proud of that. I am sure I am not alone in being a member we are, after all, humans, who make choices sometimes there are good ones and sometimes not so good. It is a good day when I intentionally start it with the words “today I am the mirror, I am the salt.
Sermon – Epiphany Sunday
January 5, 2014
Queen Anne Christian Church Seattle, WA
Matthew 2:1-12 (Common English Bible [CEB])
Coming of the magi
1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” 9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
Greek derivation of Magi, (Strongs Hebrew, Chaldee, and Greek Dictionary)
3097.magos mag’-os (of foreign origin (7248); a Magian, i.e. Oriental scientist; by implication, a magician:–sorcerer, wise man, [interpreter of dreams, prophet]. (plural, could refer to a male or female wise person)
The story of the Magi is such a familiar story. We have heard this story so many times before and I am sure all of us are able to repeat it without difficulty, at least the surface story. I was confronted with this simple story, which is anything but simple, when I chose to meditate on it for Epiphany Sunday’s Sermon. Sitting in silence, letting the words of Matthew settle into my subconscious I realized there is so much more to this tale than I first believed. There are also way too many questions to address in a single sermon. If you ever wanted to experience an abundance of graces just read this story carefully. I could go into the fact that the gender and number of the Magi is never mentioned in the scripture and that the Magi were gentiles; or the Magi don’t visit the stable, they come to the home of Joseph and Mary; and because the story of the killing of the Bethlehem’s children that follows the Magi’s visit lead scholars to believe Jesus could have been as old as 2. And, that’s just few of the questions I found in these 12 verses of Matthew Chapter 2. What did intrigue me, and what I will discuss, was never addressed by all of the learned theologians I perused. What I wanted to know was the reason these learned gentiles come in search of a child, a child born to a carpenter and his wife. And, what unknown gifts still hides in this story for me, and all of us, beyond the pretty tale of rich strangers visiting a destitute baby?
First of my questions was what did the Magi expect to find when they arrived in Jerusalem. Since they came to the city of the kings of Judea they must have expected to find the child born there, and to parents with more than a lineage to David. My guess is they had expected to find a somewhat wealthy family, or at least fairly well off. After all they were looking for a King and you normally don’t find one living in the home of working class people. They must also have been confused and terribly disappointed that no one knew what they were talking about. I mean, the birth of a King is big news isn’t. Doesn’t everyone celebrate the birth of a King? It isn’t until King Herod calls them for an audience do they learn that the prophets foretell the birth of “the anointed one,” “the Christ,” was to happen in Bethlehem. I have no doubt they left somewhat confused. But, eventually they find the baby living in the home with his mother and father. They even bring gifts, and while Mary might have preferred diapers, the gifts they gave were costly and fit for a King. (By the way Bethlehem and the gifts are never mentioned again, why? Another question to confound me.)
They were seeking a child, an infant King, someone who would turn the Roman world upside down and I can only imagine their surprise at finding the child in such humble circumstances. They brought gifts Herod would have drooled over, gold, frankincense, myrrh. Wonderful gifts but not really practical for the family they found, well the gold was probably most welcome. But frankincense and myrrh those aren’t baby gifts. Frankincense and myrrh were used to perfume oils and ointments for the purification of worship spaces and the anointing of the dead.
Now I know what Matthew was implying by the gifts: Gold was the symbol of Jesus’ kingship, frankincense the symbol for the priestly role Jesus would be called to live, and myrrh a foretaste of what he would endure at the end of his life. But I think these gentile scholars brought something else and it has been bequeathed to us today and our children. The Magi brought the gift of “seeking God’s face.”
God has always welcomed us and longed for our inquisitive search for the face of the Divine, and She encourages us to reach for her Holy arms. One of David’s Psalms says it well:
30 I will praise God’s name with song;
I will magnify him with thanks 31 because that is more pleasing to the Lord than an ox,
more pleasing than a young bull with full horns and hooves. 32 Let the afflicted see it and be glad!
You who seek God—
let your hearts beat strong again
— Psalm 69:30-32 (CEB)
And in the Book of Acts Paul tells the Athenians “27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.” (Acts 17:27) No God is never far away, we are. And, seeking the face of God is one of the joys of creation we should do more often.
The Magi were the first to seek God’s face in its incarnated form, the face of a child. For Matthew the Magi represent the mission Jesus gives his disciples to reach out to all peoples but especially gentiles, and those born within the great humble mass of humanity, in all its lovely diversity; poor and rich, young and old, all genders, all races, and all people.
For me the Magi represent the longing to see God in the face of my beloved, my grandchildren, best friend, and all creation. I too want to see the incarnated God, I too long to see the ever present being in the first light of dawn, and I do see it in the face of my beloved when he first opens eyes in the morning. The Magi have passed this longing down to us and I am grateful for the gift and grateful to pass it on to the next generation.
The Magi’s gift of presence to a child in a humble home was passed on to us through Jesus’ presence in his life, death and resurrection. Now it is our mission to be present to the incarnated child born to humble parents. To recognize and honor the incarnation born in each of us, through our gifts to the world whatever they may be; caring for each other, the environment, our nation, and our world. It is up to us to be the Magi of today and visit the child in a humble home, to offer the gold of our love, to purify our mistakes with the frankincense of compassion; and to anoint those who pass on to the next world with the myrrh of God’s blessings and praise. In a Judean desert David writes:
God! My God! It’s you—
I search for you!
My whole beingthirsts for you!
My body desires you
in a dry and tired land,
no water anywhere. 2 Yes, I’ve seen you in the sanctuary;
I’ve seen your power and glory. 3 My lips praise you
because your faithful love
is better than life itself! 4 So I will bless you as long as I’m alive;
I will lift up my hands in your name.
— Psalm 63:1-4 (CEB)
So too are we called to offer our praises to God, honor the child that lives today, in each one of us, and in all of creation. Seek the face of God in all you meet, child, adult, male or female, and all of God’s marvelous creation. Look in the eyes of your loved ones, your companion animals, see the face of God looking back. Amen