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Hint: It’s Not About Me! (Transfiguration Sunday)

2019-02-25

Full disclosure: I’m not preaching this Sunday at Plymouth Church. Stephen G. Ray Jr. is. He is the new President of Chicago Theological Seminary, where Valerie Miller-Coleman and I both earned our Doctor of Ministry degrees

He is new and they want to build relationships with key churches, so his office called me up and asked if he could come preach and I said “How about Transfiguration Sunday?”

Because friends, I hate preaching on Transfiguration Sunday. And I hate it for the same reason I hate playing basketball. I don’t really enjoy things I am not good at.

My track record speaks for itself. I started at The Community Church of Little Neck in August of 2002. So I preached my first ever Transfiguration sermon on March 2, 2003. It wasn’t very good.

In 2004 I skipped the story entirely, opting instead to preach about…stewardship. (Only my second at-bat, and I would rather preach about stewardship. Not a good sign).

In 2005, my Transfiguration sermon was entitled “Hard to Get.” And it was. (The sermon, I mean). Swing and a miss.

After 2005, the record becomes spottier. As an associate minister, I did not preach that much. I did, however, draw the short straw in February 2007. I re-read that sermon for this blog post and it…well, it wasn’t good. (I say this as an expert in preaching).

I have avoided preaching it ever since.

Why is this so hard? Take a look at the text:

Matthew 16:24–17:8

24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

The Narrative Lectionary gets this right, I think: the story of the transfiguration cannot be understood apart from Jesus predicting his own death and inviting his disciples to follow.

 

It is a new development –and, for the disciples, a disturbing one. About halfway through The Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus takes a morbid turn

 

One day they are discussing Jesus’ agenda, going over some talking points, working on their mission statement, when suddenly he starts telling them that he must soon suffer, be rejected by his own people, be put to death, and in three days rise again, whatever that means.  And if that is not disturbing enough, he seems determined to take his disciples along for ride.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow.” He says he is going to his death, and he expects his friends to tag along.

 

The disciples have had a lot to deal with, a lot to think about late at night.  Maybe even some doubts creeping in.  And it is only a week or so after all of this morose and morbid death talk that Jesus takes Peter and James and John up on a mountain where…something happens.  What, exactly, is kind of hard to say.  One minute it is plain old ordinary everyday Jesus; the next his appearance is transformed, his clothes are blindingly bright, he stands there talking to Moses and Elijah, two great figures from Israel’s past.  Confused, bewildered, Peter blurts out some sort of nonsense—something about pitching some tents and staying up on that mountain for a while—when suddenly a cloud overshadows them, and terror overwhelms them, and a voice speaks from the cloud: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

 

And then it is over.  The cloud disappears, the voice departs, and Jesus stands before them, back to normal, no more glowing in the dark.  They leave that mountain, go back to business as usual, and do not tell a soul what they have seen.

 

Why have my sermons on this subject been so uniformly awful? I’ll be the first to admit it: this is a weird story.  Even by the standards of the Bible, this is a weird story. But I suspect a deeper reason for my struggles with this story. I tend to begin with my own experience and there is nothing in my experience like this. Despite all the years I have put in at church, I have never seen a vision; I have never heard a voice, not even a single time.

 

The story seems so far from my experience; how can I talk about it?

 

But here is a reliable homiletical rule: IT’S NOT ABOUT ME.

 

This is not a story about me or about my experience. This is, first last and always, a story about Jesus. A story that tells us something important

 

What really happened on that mountain, after all?  Light, glory, cloud, a voice…anybody want to take a guess?  Anybody?  I’m pretty sure it was God.  Somehow Peter and James and John stood in the presence of Almighty God.  And what did they learn? What was the take-away?

 

That God is at least as crazy as Jesus.

 

In those strange and surreal days before they went up on the mountain, Peter and James and John probably told each other that Jesus must be kidding, or confused, or going through a phase; he couldn’t really be serious with all this talk about a journey to Jerusalem and suffering and death.  That couldn’t be right.  But now, up on the mountain, God shows up and God weighs in and God says Jesus is right.  God actually takes the trouble to appear: audibly, visibly, in a way that can neither be doubted nor denied, and God puts the divine seal of approval on Jesus’ determination to die. This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.

 

And Peter and James and John are thinking: What do we do now?

 

I know what we do: We come down from the mountain. We wrestle with what it means to belong to this Jesus and to the people trying to follow.

 

Next up: Lent.

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Step Out! (Matthew 14:13-33)

2019-02-18

“We had the experience, but we missed the meaning.” –T.S. Elliot.

When it comes to this week’s text—two stories of seemingly miraculous occurrences—it would be so easy to miss the point; to get bogged down in fruitless conversation about the plausibility of these events.

But I ask you to suspend that kind of judgment. Together, let’s look at these stories through a different lens: What is the meaning of these events? And, once we see it, are willing to step out in faith?

The text falls in two parts: The Feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus Walking on Water.

The 5,000

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Here is the very first rule of biblical interpretation: ALWAYS attend to context. This text opens in the middle of a story. “Now when Jesus heard this…” Heard what? Heard about the death of John the Baptist. This news would have shaken Jesus to his core. Not only was John his cousin and friend; John was his forerunner and predecessor in the work of proclaiming the nearness of the reign of God. And if Herod had John beheaded, who is next?

Grief.  Fear. Jesus has a lot on his mind. It’s no wonder he withdraws –or, rather, tries to withdraw. (Fun fact: of the 14 occurrences of the word translated “withdrew” in verse 13, ten of them are in the Gospel According to Matthew. For Matthew, at least, Jesus is apparently a bit of an introvert). But the crowd comes looking for him and, in the face of their need, Jesus cannot withdraw. He “has compassion” –my very favorite Greek word, splagidzomai, is translated “have compassion.” It means a spontaneous, visceral reaction. (Thus the old King James says “moved with compassion”).

So he heals them. And they stay long. And the disciples start to worry about what they will eat. The plan to send them away sounds reasonable, but Jesus has other ideas: You give them something to eat. The sentence construction renders the “you” emphatic. And I imagine the disciples are taken aback. But they take stock of their meager resources.

And then the miracle happens.

It is tempting to get hung up on the “how” question. Can we accept a real supernatural occurrence? Is this a case of everybody spontaneously sharing what they have and discovering it is enough –sort of a forerunner of the old stone soup story?

These may be interesting questions to us. But not to Matthew. Matthew means to convey something else. These 5,000 men (plus women and children) reclining on the grass? This is church.

The tell is in verse 19. Note the sequence of verbs:

19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 

Now look at Matthew’s account of the Last Supper (26:26):

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’

Took. Blessed. Broke. Gave. Same verbs, same sequence.

This is communion. And communion is this: the meal of God’s abundance.

Why does this matter?

Christians have a habit of interpreting Holy Communion is rather grisly terms –the repetition of Jesus’ sacrifice, the sacred cannibalism of his body and blood, etc.

But for the earliest Christians, communion is not about blood sacrifice. It is about enough. It is about welcome. It is about sharing.

We have the experience; do we get the meaning?

Walking on Water

22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.

This story may seem even stranger. The disciples and Jesus go their separate ways for a while. (Introvert Jesus needs to recharge). The reunite when Jesus comes walking across the story sea toward their struggling boat. Peter steps out onto the water, but his faith fails. He begins to drown. Jesus saves him and chides him. It is hard to convey in English, but “You of little faith” is one word in Greek: oligoipistoi. And it reads like an (affectionate?) nickname.

For me, the whole second story hinges on the way I hear Jesus’ tone of voice in verse 31. Is he harsh? Or kind? Angry? Or amused?

The Jesus I know tends toward the latter. And so I imagine saying to me—gently, with a loving tone and laughing eyes—“You of little faith! When will you finally get it?”

You keep having the experience; isn’t time to get the meaning?

In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of this passage:

Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith…The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.”

(Thanks to Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV –Year A for bringing the Bonhoeffer quote to my attention).

Taken together, the stories seem to say something like this: When we inventory our seemingly scare resources in the presence of Jesus, we will discover that we have everything we need to do what God calls us to go. But we will never know this until we take the risk of stepping out of the boat. 

 

 

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Deliver Us From Us (Sermon for 2/17/19)

2019-02-18

I.

Have you seen it? It may be my favorite bumper sticker of all time. “Dear Jesus,” it says, “please deliver me from your followers.”

 

Good words to remember as we look at our text today. Because Jesus is pretty great. But some of his followers can be a big disappointment.

 

II.

 

This morning the narrative lectionary invites us to ponder some parables. These parables tell us a little about the kingdom of heaven. And, if we listen carefully, they may also tell us something about ourselves.

 

We are, still, in the Gospel according to Matthew. But we have jumped ahead a few chapters. Jesus has been preaching and teaching and it is going…OK. Not great. The early Jesus movement met with some success –some people heard the message, dropped everything and decided to follow. But most people did not. Most people listened politely and then turned away. Jesus and his followers have felt the sting of rejection. It is has been kind of rough.

 

So, now, in chapter 13, Matthew pauses to ponder all of this. Rejected, ignored -we have the experience, but what does it mean? Jesus tries to tell us, by sharing some parables about the kingdom of heaven.

 

But let’s make sure we know what we are talking about here. Let’s define some terms. What exactly do we mean by “kingdom of heaven”? And what is a parable anyway?

 

Remember, in Matthew’s Gospel, the “kingdom of heaven” does not mean the afterlife or where you go when you die; it means shalom. It means peace and justice and sharing. It means God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven –It means something different from the world we know now.

 

Jesus preaches the kingdom. He wants us to know what it is. And so, sometimes, Jesus tells parables about the kingdom.

 

The Gospels suggest that parable was Jesus’ most characteristic way of expressing himself. It says so right there in our text for today: without a parable he told them nothingLike he would launch into yet another parable and Mary Magdalene would turn to Peter and say, “That is so Jesus.”

 

“Parable” comes from a Greek word that means “to set side by side.” You illustrate the nature of something by comparing it to something else –like a metaphor or a simile. But behind the Greek word “parable” stands a Hebrew word: mashal. And mashal means “enigmatic speech.” It is not about defining something; it is about pointing us to mystery that defies definition.[i]

 

And that is what Jesus does in his parables –he points to realities that are bigger than us, things we cannot entirely understand.

 

Like the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat. We have had this story for 2,000 years and I’m pretty sure we don’t get it. And my proof that we don’t get is right here in Mathew 13.

 

It is a simple enough story: A farmer sows good seed in the field. But weeds come up as well. What happened here? An enemy has done this. That’s what the farmer says.  So…should we pull up the weeds? Oh, no. That would be dangerous. You might pull up the wheat as well. Let it all grow up together. All will be sorted out at the harvest.

 

The parable reminds me of Charlie Wilson’s War. Near the end of the movie, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character tells the story of a Zen master who observes the people of his village celebrating a young boy’s new horse as a wonderful gift. “We’ll see,” the Zen master says. When the boy falls off the horse and breaks a leg, everyone says the horse is a curse. “We’ll see,” says the master. Then war breaks out, the boy cannot be conscripted because of his injury, and everyone now says the horse was a fortunate gift. “We’ll see,” the master says again.[ii]

 

To me, this is the message of the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat: We don’t know. We want to know—we think we know—but we do not know. We want to sort the world into saints and sinners, unrighteous and righteous. We want to line everybody up and know which side everybody is on.

 

But we can’t. We can’t know that. And when we try to figure that out, well, all we do is tear up the wheat. When we judge others, we undermine the good we have done.

 

Perhaps the greatest spiritual discipline is the practice of withholding judgment, of leaving enough room for the grace of God. And the two hardest words to learn in the English language? “We’ll see.”

 

III.

 

But Dear Lord Jesus, deliver me from your followers. Because the people who follow Jesus took this story about without holding judgement and turned into a story celebrating judgement. And they did it right here in Matthew 13.  

 

See, I have a hunch about this passage. I can’t prove it, but verses 36-43 just don’t sound like Jesus to me. The allegorical interpretation where everything is symbol for something else…Jesus doesn’t talk that way. Jesus doesn’t think that way. No, this sounds like the church. I think Matthew 13:36-43 is a just a blatant instance of the church doing what the church so often does: missing the point.

 

Because this was a story about withholding judgement. But suddenly it becomes a story celebrating judgement: the fiery furnace, the weeping, the gnashing of teeth. In this version of the story, everybody knows exactly who is wheat and exactly who is a weed. In this story, the righteous get rewarded with smug satisfaction. The weeds go to hell and the wheat gets to watch.

 

It was a story about the spiritual practice of withholding judgement. But the church got it all twisted, turned it into a story celebrating judgement. And then we put it on the lips of Jesus.

 

IV.

 

Dear Jesus, deliver me from your followers. Because Jesus is pretty great. But a lot of his followers are a big disappointment.

 

I mean: look at me.

 

When I left evangelical Christianity and came into the United Church of Christ—when I first found a church like Plymouth—I thought my judging days were behind me.

 

But I was wrong. The judgement habit is hard to break.

 

I think it must be religion. Religion makes people judge-y. Religion motivates us to distinguish and divide, to separate and sort: the righteous and the unrighteous, the sheep and the goats, the Cyclone and the Hawkeyes.

 

We like to say we don’t do that here at Plymouth Church. And maybe you don’t. But I know I do. I do it all the time. Mostly because I am lazy. Feeling smug, feeling superior is so much easier than actually working for the kingdom of heaven. Standing up for immigrants and migrants and the stranger at our border? That is hard. Feeling superior to government officials is easy. Casting a critical eye on my white privilege? Examining my own complicity in racist systems and structures? That is so hard. But tut-tutting about the latest stupid racist thing said by some member of Congress? Super easy. Truly welcoming GLBTQ folk into the life of our church is incredibly hard work -25 years and we are still trying to get it right. But hating the churches that drove them out? I can do that in my sleep.

 

When I get all self-righteousness, it feels like I did something. It feels good.  But I am reminded of the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber.  She says “Self-righteousness feels good. For a moment. But only in the way that peeing your pants feels warm for a moment.”[iii] 

 

I may have made my way into the United Church of Christ but I am still a religious person. In my experience most religious people would rather indulge in the cheap pleasure of self-righteousness than engage in the hard work of love.   

 

But thank God, Jesus seems to have a soft spot for religious people. Even though we are judge-y. Even when we put words in his mouth. Even though we can be insufferably self-righteous. Jesus just keeps inviting us to lay off  the judgement, to make room for God grace, to get over ourselves and get on with the business of love.

Religious people can be such a drag. But God loves us enough to deliver us from us.

 

 

 


[i] Douglas R A Hare. Matthew. Interpretation: A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993), pp.146-147.

[ii] This account of the Zen Master’s story is lifted from a New York Times editorial:  https://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/21/opinion/21iht-edmovie.1.9374975.html

[iii] https://www.newyorker.com/news/on-religion/the-lutheran-pastor-calling-for-a-sexual-reformation

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Blogging the Parables of Jesus

2019-02-11

 

Matt 13:24-43

Blogging about a parable is a lot like explaining a joke: it sort of defeats the purpose.

But here we are, so here we go:

24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let 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.’”

 31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it 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.” 

33He told them another parable: “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.”

 34Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

 36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

This week we have moved on in Matthew’s Gospel –no longer in the Sermon on the Mount but Jesus is still in teaching mode. And in this stretch of teaching, he falls back on what may have been his most characteristic form of speech: the parable.

To get oriented to parables, I am going to lean heavily on the work of Douglas R. A. Hare. He reminds us that “parable” comes from a Greek word meaning “to set side by side.” Parables teach by comparing one thing to another. But Hare also reaches back to the Hebrew word mashal, which often designates “enigmatic speech” –“language that both conceals and reveals.”

Why?

Well, things aren’t going so great for Jesus. The previous two chapters of Matthew recount his rejection at the hands of “this generation.” The parables mean to set up a “compare and contrast” between those who are with Jesus and those who are not. All of the parables in this passage take as their subject the nature of the kingdom of heaven and the way it impinges on our here and now. Remember the “kingdom of heaven” does not mean “the afterlife”; rather it designates that state of affairs in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus proclaims the nearness of the kingdom; Jesus teaches his followers to pray for the coming of the kingdom and in these parables Jesus shares some specifics about the nature of the kingdom.

We can outline the passage as follows:

  • Parable of the Weeds in the Field
  • Parable of the Mustard Seed
  • Parable of the Yeast
  • Summary Statement on Parables
  • The Parable of the Weeds in the Field Explained

This is an enormously complex passage. But in the spirit of trying to let the parables speak for themselves, I will try to keep my comments on these subsections brief.

 

Parable of the Weeds in the Field

 

24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let 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.’”

 

Remember the context: Jesus and his movement are experiencing some success, but a lot of rejection as well. When we are working for the kingdom of God, the results are often ambiguous. The parable serves as a reminder to withhold judgement. Or, as a 20th century prophet once put it:  “Don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin.”

Parable of the Mustard Seed

 

 31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it 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.” 

 

I actually think Bruce Springsteen said all there is to say about this one.

 

 

Parable of the Yeast

 

33He told them another parable: “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.”

 

The kingdom of God is sneaky and subversive!

 

Summary Statement on Parables

 

34Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

 

Matthew regards Jesus’ parables as his most characteristic speech and a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

 

Parable of the Weeds in the Field Explained

 

 36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

 

And this may be where the passage gets a little more complicated.

 

In seminary (well, in my seminary, anyway) they teach you that a parable means one and only one thing. But in v.36-43, Matthew has Jesus serve up a kind of allegorical interpretation that feels less like Jesus and more like the early church.

 

(Allegory is a story with a hidden meaning in which each element stands for something else. Think Pilgrim’s Progress or Animal Farm by George Orwell). And the focus seems to shift from the nature of the kingdom to thoughts on the final (eschatological) judgement.

 

At this early point in the week, as I wrestle with the question of what to preach, I am stuck on the insiders/outsiders dynamic to which these parables respond but which they also perpetuate. And for me they sit uneasily alongside one of Jim Gilliom’s favorite poems:

 

“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!”

― Edwin Markham

 

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Scattered Thoughts on The Sermon on the Mount

2019-02-04

 

OPENING DISCLAIMER: This weekend, as part of our Climate Revival, Plymouth Church welcomes the Rev. Jim Antal into the pulpit. He will not be preaching on the Narrative Lectionary texts.

But the passage is still very much worth our while.

Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29

 

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 6“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

 

7“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

 

12“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. 13“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. 

 

24“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” 28Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

 

Last week’s blog post dealt extensively with the Gospel according to Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount. If you haven’t already, I invite you to start there.

 

This will be our last week in The Sermon on the Mount. It falls into at least four distinct sections:

  • Dealing with hypocrisy (v.1-6)
  • Asking (v.7-11)
  • The narrow gate (v.12-14)
  • Parable of the Builders

Let’s walk through these one by one.

 

Hypocrisy

 

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 6“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

 

Jesus is well-known for taking a dim view of hypocrisy. As every 1st year New Testament Greek student likes to point out, “hypocrite” is an English transliteration of the Greek hupokrites, which originally meant “an actor in a play.” A hypocrite is someone playing a part, pretending to be someone or something that they are not.

 

Jesus did not know about Freud, but it is hard for me not to think about the ego when I read these words. According to my teacher, the late James Loder, the human ego is little more than an elaborate defense mechanism, built by the self to fend off our fears of abandonment. There is a deep irony here: our culture tends to prize ego strength, and considers it a desirable characteristic, particularly in professional people. But if God means to free us from hypocrisy, the ego must somehow be subverted or short-circuited.

 

And I think this explains the otherwise obscure concluding verse. The church can be the place where we unlearn our hypocrisy, lower our ego defenses and discover ourselves in authentic community. But beware! That kind of vulnerability carries a lot of risk. Don’t enter into it casually. Find people who deserve it.

 

Don’t cast your pearls before swine.

 

Asking

 

7“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

 

In some ways, this passage reaches back to last week’s advice about prayer. And what Jesus says here is so critical: God is a loving parent. So we don’t have to worry about carefully composing our words or flattering God sufficiently or manipulating God into getting what we want. God already wills and wants what is best for each one of us. Prayer that arises from this faith will be confident, intimate and easy.

The Narrow Gate

12“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. 13“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. 

 

In verse 12 we get the Golden Rule –a principle that has been articulated in many different religious and wisdom traditions. We may sometimes suppose that living an ethical life is as easy as following the Golden Rule. But verses 13-14 put the Golden Rule in a crucial bit of context. It may be easy to understand but it is hard to follow.

I like to read this passage in conjunction with the material that came before it about hypocrisy. Put them together and the message is something like this: we should expect a great deal of ourselves—narrow is the gate!—and extend a great deal of grace to everyone else.

24“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” 28Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

 

The Wise and Foolish Builders

I grew up singing this in Sunday School. (With great gusto!). And it serves as such a fitting coda for the Sermon on the Mount. You have heard and maybe even admired what Jesus has to say.

Now: will you do it?