Archive for October, 2017

Matthew 14:1-12

October 31, 2017

At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet.

But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother.

His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. Matthew 14:1-12

See the scene clearly as you listen to this text – Herod Antipas was the Roman-approved puppet governor of Galilee. John the Baptist was an itinerant mystic and preacher. Herod had all the power that government, military, and money could provide. John the Baptist had only the power of persuasion.

Herod had John arrested because John publicly criticized Herod for divorcing his wife in order to take his half-brother’s wife as his own. Herod, I guess, assumed that he could do anything he had the power to do because he had the power to do it. John, I guess, saw leadership, including political leadership, as a moral position and therefore subject to the same expectations of decency and justice as any other sphere of life.

John went from preachin’ to meddlin’ and it cost him his life.

We live in a very different world today. At least we want to believe we do. I live under the authority figures of the President of the United States, the Governor of the state of Texas, the County Judge of our local county commission, the Mayor and City Council of Houston, and the Mayor and City Council of Bellaire. I would like to believe that each of the people holding these positions do so because they were elected by a majority of the voters who cast ballots in their elections. That is a very different world than a foreign power installing a local leader who is obliged to do the bidding of that foreign power.

Yet our world isn’t as clear and clean as we would like to naively believe.

Our current President was not elected by a majority of voters. He was elected by a majority of voters in the Electoral College which was initially established because of the fear that a wider electorate might be manipulated more easily than a smaller group of trusted leaders and thereby bring a tyrant to power. And because the smaller states were afraid that their votes wouldn’t count as much. And because of the Southern fear that they would be overwhelmed by the greater numbers in the North and therefore could see slavery abolished. So a compromise was reached. The Electoral College was established. And Blacks in the South – who could not vote – would count as 3/5’s of a human being when it came to the numbers in the Electoral College.

Bottom line – the reason we have the Electoral College in our system reaches back to the 12th Amendment, passed in 1804, crafted in such a way as to preserve the horror of slavery. The result, for 32 of the next 36 years our President would be a slave owner from Virginia. And race remains a wedge issue in our politics today.

His election may, or may not, have been aided by the efforts of a hostile foreign government. The jury is still out on that one. Am I meddlin’?

Herod had John beheaded. Why? Because Herod got drunk and didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of his party guests. A thoughtless, impetuous, impulsive, arrogant abuse of power. That didn’t hurt Herod’s standing with the people at all.

We might remember also that Herod won the day. He removed the irritation of John the Baptist. Later Jesus himself, another preacher turned meddler, would likewise be removed. And the crowds would be pleased by both moves. The crowds thought it far better to cast their fortunes on the scraps from the table of a tyrant than the free gift of love and a new way of life preached by those meddlers.

Herod might have won the day. But the battle still rages and I’m pinning my hopes on Jesus.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, give us the courage to speak the truth in love. Give us the wisdom to see you at work, behind and beneath the shifting sands of public opinion and public policy. Bless those people chosen to lead us that they might come at their responsibilities from a place of justice and truth and commitment to the common good. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Matthew 13:51-58

October 27, 2017

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place. He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.”

And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief. Matthew 13:51-58

As we come to the conclusion of this chapter we are confronted with reactions to Jesus’ teaching. These reactions teach us something about ourselves.

First there is the wonderful naivete of the disciples. “YES, we understood everything you said!”

Receptivity matters in our spirituality. There truly is a sense where we can open ourselves up or close ourselves off. Often that comes down to doing something on our part. It may or may not be a difficult thing to do. We may or may not do it. But honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness are core to our spiritual growth. The eagerness of the disciples at this point, their awareness that they understand something, their lack of awareness of not knowing what they don’t know – all of that flows through us as well.

What is old and what is new? Jesus meets us where we are in the stories he tells and the deeds he does. He meets us in our imaginations, in our ideas, in how we see the world. In that we discover deep, enduring principles that are rooted in creation itself. Principles we might have forgotten long the way – old ideas that spring forth and seem new once pointed out to us. And we discover new ideas, some of which are subtle but dangerous, others are fresh and hopeful.

The key, the trick, is telling the difference.

For example, we often run into Jesus challenging our “tribal” thinking. The deeper reality is that all human beings spring forth from the same loving creator. The new idea is that some tribes are better than others. The sneaky and dangerous idea is that we have the capacity to accurately separate and judge between the tribes. The new idea is that ours is obviously the top tribe. The treasure that Jesus puts before us is imagining a world, not divided by tribe, but united in the common purpose of alleviating suffering, establishing justice, caring for the marginalized, sharing out of abundance, and enjoying life with God and others.

Is this a pipe dream or a potential reality?

The folks from Jesus’ hometown just can’t see it. Jesus is standing right there in front of them and they can’t see him. Their eyes are blinded. They see his physical family. It is inconceivable to them that Jesus is anything more than a kid from the neighborhood. But he HAS gotten under their skins. They “take offense” at him which implies a reaction much deeper than ignoring him or laughing him off. Thus their reaction tells us much more about them – their inability to adjust their eyes to the new and the old – than about Jesus. Jesus is going to keep doing his thing whether they climb on board or not. This truly is a matter of winning hearts and minds.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, how strange that we so often miss seeing what is right in front of our own eyes. We miss seeing you because we don’t expect to see you. We hold ideas so close that we come away closed off to new ideas which hold promise and hope for our lives. You tasted rejection but you persevered. May we do the same. Keep working in us and through us, that we might know life in your kingdom and align our lives to yours. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 13:44-50

October 26, 2017

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 13:44-50

These three little gems come to us rapid fire from Jesus so let’s listen to them all together this morning. But before we do…take a moment to think quickly back through your own faith journey.

Where did it begin for you? Are you a “cradle Christian”, born into a family that valued Christian community and the Christian faith? Baptized as a child, raised up in church, still hanging in there today? Or have you drifted away, lost a bit of your enthusiasm, tasted the disillusionment that causes us to stumble?

Are you more of a late bloomer? What happened along the way that pointed you back to God or brought you toward God? Do you see the faces of those who helped you, challenged you, cared about you?

Maybe you are one of the many who seldom think very deeply about such matters. You have been so busy so long with so many things that your arms are tired of juggling. Yet you hang in there with God and the church because you know, like the old joke says, “there is a pony in there somewhere!”

It is with our own stories in mind that we best hear these parables.

Of the person minding his own business, maybe taking a short cut home through the field, when he suddenly stubs his toe on what turns out to be a treasure chest. An unclaimed treasure chest that he could now claim to be his own. Maybe he tried to dig it up but it was too heavy to move. You can picture him now, breathing heavily, mind racing, as he covers it up and goes and scrambles to buy the whole field. Sometimes the faith comes to us as utter beautiful surprise. We didn’t see it coming. It is worth everything to us now.

Of the person who knew exactly what she was searching for. Like an expert who spends her life buying and selling. She buys what she loves at times but usually just buys what she knows will sell. You do have to keep the doors open. Until that day when in her search she comes across the perfect jewel. The jewel that she imagined she might find one day. The jewel that launched the passion that launched her career. Coming upon it changed everything. She had to have it. Sometimes the faith feels like finally coming home. Like finally discovering the only golden thread that can possibly explain the circuitous route that life has taken us to this point. Knowing the faith that makes sense of our lives is invaluable. We spend our lives seeking it only to discover that it was the seeking all along the way that was the point of the whole journey.

Of the fisherman. One more night on the water. One more long, hard, grueling night of doing the same thing you always do. Over and over again. Throw out the nets. Haul them in. Back to shore. Separate the catch if there is a catch to separate. Mindless. Numbing. Laborious. And as you sort the catch you find yourself reflecting on your life. Who am I? What am I? Am I a keeper like this fish or a piece of trash like that? Maybe I’ll never know until the Great Net comes for me and I find myself in the hands of the angels? And you realize that these are questions not easily answered. And certainly not answered by yourself. So then you remember what you are about.

You fish to feed your family. You fish to feed other families. You fish because it is what you know how to do, what you were shaped to do, what you are best at doing. The world needs fresh fish and God has put you in position to provide it. Nets don’t ask questions, they just catch whatever they can snag. And in this we are reminded that the faith helps us see that we live in the hands and care of God, who uses our hands to care for the world. We’ll leave the sorting up to him.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, however you come to us, in whatever surprising fashion, we thank and praise you for those moments when the depth of your love and the truth of your being cuts through into our consciousness. Those clarity moments when you come out of hiding. Those precious moments when we know you are love and that your love has caught us up. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 33:36-43

October 25, 2017

Then 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.”

Jesus answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen! Matthew 33:36-43

“To every complicated question there is a simple answer and it’s always wrong.” I can’t remember where I first heard that but I have never forgotten it. Nor has it yet been proven wrong in my life. The question of evil comes to mind this morning.

I understand the impact and the simplicity of focusing the source of evil on an evil bad guy dressed in red with a pitchfork, living in the fiery caves of hell, a sneaky ability to morph into a slick con man, sending his evil henchmen demons out to trick and torture unsuspecting and gullible people. It fits right in with the idea of a Superman Jesus – sent to earth from a planet far, far, away to right all wrongs, to cast out demons, and to enlist his disciples in an all encompassing war to rid the world of evil, pain, sickness, and death.

I get it. When I’m in the room listening to the words of a preacher who is adept at naming the devil as the bogeyman in life, it is effective. Gives me the creeps and the chills.

There is a reason why sci-fi rockstar superhero movies are winning at the box office these days. People eat up the otherworldliness of it. Wonder Woman brings a whole lot more hope than Nikki Haley or Elizabeth Warren when it comes to ideas for improving the lives of people.

I also can appreciate how such embodied devil talk can so easily divide not only the spirit world but the human world into opposing teams. We just love this stuff. It comes so naturally to us. Us vs. them, my team vs. your team, the good guys vs. the bad guys, the wheat vs. the weeds, citizens vs. immigrants, rich vs. poor, white vs. black… There is no limit to our imaginations when we make these divisions – yet how strangely quick we are to always put ourselves in the “good guy”, “we mean well” category.

But I don’t believe it. And I don’t think it is a requirement that any Christian believe it. There is not a single mention of the devil or such a concept of an embodied evil bad guy in the Apostles’ Creed. The devil gets scant mention in the four gospels and then only at key points when the story takes us into the painful realities of temptation, the mystery of disability, mental illness, and suffering, and the treachery of disloyalty and betrayal. Precisely those places where we need words and mental images to connect powerfully within us.

And within us is the only place we need to look to see the reality of all that would deny and betray God. We bear the capacity for self-giving love and for selfish self-centeredness. We can twist others and be manipulated ourselves. We can reach for celery or cookies. We have the capacity to rush into a crowd to save the victims from a deranged shooter who wasn’t always a person capable of such a heinous and malicious act, until something truly broke inside of his brain. Even if our name is never in the papers, we also have the capacity to do great, if far more subtle, evil ourselves.

Simul ustus et peccator captures the reality of our lives far more than locating evil outside of ourselves or worrying about whether or not we are wheat or weeds. We can take great comfort in knowing that God loves all of us and that God is relentless in making us aware of the weeds within us, loving us into letting them go, loving us even when they continue to grow. We can find great hope in knowing that the day will come when, in the twinkling of an eye, the weeds within will be burned away, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Whatever that means, it will be good.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, we sense within us the tensions that pull us toward good and evil. We know our appetites for both good and evil, our capacities to be loving and hateful. Continue to do the work of sanctification within us. Protect us from fooling ourselves into thinking that we have arrived. You are the potter, we are the clay. As long as we are alive, conform us ever closer to Jesus, that we might be the people you have created us to be. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 13:33-35

October 24, 2017

Jesus 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.”

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This 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 13:33-35

Did you know that yeast is likely the earliest domesticated organisms in the world? I didn’t either. Over 1500 species of yeasts have been identified. They are tiny, and like mustard seeds, a “little dab’ll do ya.” But this parable is a bit different than the mustard seed parable.

The mustard seed itself grows into something much bigger. Here, the yeast is an invisible catalyst. Certainly, in Jesus’ day as well as ours, a very mysterious catalyst. You might not know how it worked but you knew what to do to allow it to work. Yeasts have been used in baking and fermenting alcohol for thousands of years.

The key here is the mysterious way that the yeast leavens a great deal of flour. You don’t see it actively working but you see the results overnight.

My Grandma Nelson raised a family of three big boys, a daughter, and a hungry husband. My Dad told me that she, night after night after night, made several loaves of bread. He woke each morning to the smell of fresh bread in the farmhouse. He wasn’t just eating bread for breakfast, he was eating love.

This parable reminds me of the story of the old man who complained to the pastor one day about his preaching. He said, “I’ve been coming to this church since I was a child and I can’t remember a single sermon that I’ve ever heard along the way.”

The quick witted (of course) pastor replied, “I’ve been eating dinner with my family every day for many years. I might not remember a single menu but I know that I was fed every time.”

Let’s think about that today. Sure there are times when it is frustrating that we continue to live with the questions that have plagued humankind since they first discovered the marvel of yeasts. We are aware that there is far more that we don’t know that we do – and the list keeps growing. We might wonder why Jesus doesn’t make things clearer for us.

But then again, even if I have a route planned for a long trip, I don’t ever ride there more than a few feet at a time. All I need to see is just the road right in front of me, aware of the dangers that lurk in every direction. I steer clear of the dangers and trust that I’ll eventually get where I’m heading.

Again today I’m reminded that the Christian faith is more about relationship than being right, more about conversation than certainty, and the bread we eat isn’t about yeast but about love.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, one day at a time, growing secretly, you lead us where you want us to go. Fits and starts, wrong turns, flat bread galore, but always you are at work in us. And will be until that day when we sit at table with you in the feast of love that never ends. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 13:31-32

October 23, 2017

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32

As we continue to walk through the parables in Matthew 13 we come to the mustard seed. This is among the shortest and simplest of all of Jesus’ parables yet it is one that always baffles me just a bit. I never know quite what to do with it.

First it trips me up because, where I grew up, mustard seeds weren’t good things. I remember earning money by walking through corn fields, pulling mustard weeds up from their roots and walking them to piles at the end of the rows. They were pesky weeds. Today I suppose farmers just blast their fields with herbicides that take care of the problem. It is still hard for a mustard seed to be good news to me.

Second, there is hyperbole and then there is hyperbole. In the natural world, the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds and the plant that it produces does not grow into a large tree. I realize that parables are not meant to be taken literally but I still get tripped up by this.

Obviously, the power of this parable – when I picture it in my mind and ignore my initial reactions – is an argument from the lesser to the greater. It contains a promise that what begins as something small and insignificant will grow to something much greater. And when it does, it will prove a blessing to the world.

There is encouragement in this parable. The kingdom of heaven – a qualitatively different and better way of existence rooted in an obedient relationship with God as Lord of our lives – starts small. God reaches out to us. God plants a small seed of faith in our lives. Over time that faith can grow and grow until it makes a significant difference in our lives and we, therefore, are able to make a significant difference in the world where we are planted. That is encouraging. It is promising. Especially when we face moments of doubt, despair, or discouragement.

I’m thinking this morning that it might work the other way as well. “A little dab’ll do ya” sold lots of Brylcreem but, in plenty of areas of our lives, “a little dab’ll kill ya.” The alcoholic stays away from that first drink because he knows where it will take him. An investor shies away from a promise that looks too good to be true. A parent pays close attention to how computers are used in their homes. The EPA regulates chemicals because of their potential to cause great harm. Small seeds of bad things hold the potential to become large trees of bad things. We do well to remember that.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, we know you are present in the little things of life. We sense that the seeds of faith which you continue to plant within us will grow, even without our awareness, sometimes despite us. When we are discouraged today, remind us again of this story, this image of growth, that we might take the longer view, we might see the bigger picture, and we might be strengthened by the good news that you are not yet through with us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 13:24-30

October 19, 2017

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And 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?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’

The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” Matthew 13:24-30

I haven’t said much about this but this month does recognize the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, dating back to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses bombshell. Frankly, I have very mixed feelings about whether or not this is a celebration or an observance. I lean far closer to observance. It is hard for me to celebrate Christian tribalism when that so easily invites “my team is better than your team” thinking to pollute the heart of our spirituality.

Having said that, even though it was a very mixed bag, there were many good things that came out of that period. The Roman Catholic church did reassess and address many of its practices. The Lutheran movement did refocus the church on being more people-centered rather than clergy-centered, lifted up the centrality of the Bible, and reframed many key theological insights. One of the most important of this is the doctrine we always refer to as simul ustus et peccator – that we are simultaneously both saint and sinner. And this is how it will be for us until the end of our lives.

Where did that idea come from? I prefer to believe it first came from personal reflection on how we actually experience our lives. The cyclical movement from death to life to death to life seems much more in line with our Christian journey than a linear progression of sanctification where we get better and better, holier and holier, as we age and grow. This is the heart of our understanding of the baptized life as returning again and again to the promises and presence of God. And it is much more in line with the life dynamics that the Apostle Paul speaks about in Romans 7.

I know that simul ustus et peccator describes my own life experience far better than singing a hymn like “Every Day With Jesus is Sweeter Than The Day Before.” Nothing against the song, love the tune, by the lyrics don’t really describe how the faith works in my life. We will probably never sing “The Hokey Pokey” in worship but it actually would better speak the truth as I know it.

And it would better speak the truth as reflected in the reading today from Matthew. This really is life – a mixed bag, two sides to every coin, weeds and wheat so closely intertwined that it is tough to tell where one ends and the other begins. Alfred Nobel (who, by the way, was a Lutheran, born on October 21, 1833), invented dynamite, believing its destructive force would bring an end to war. Let’s just say it didn’t work out that way. His story is really all of our stories. There’s a little sinner in every saint and a little saint in every sinner.

So what do we do? The best we can to do is the next right thing. To refrain from judging ourselves or others as wheat or weeds. To exercise the humility that teaches us that we might not be as right as we think we are. To stay coachable and open to God’s guidance. To seek the truth which sets us free. To follow God one day at a time.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, it feels like such a defeat for us to admit our inner limitations, our complicity with the sins of the world, our lack of attentiveness to doing what is right rather than merely settling for what is easy. Yet it is all true. And yet you continue to love us, to hold us, to grace us, to shape us. In you alone do we find peace, purpose that matters, and hope that you will sustain us to the end. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 13:18-23

October 18, 2017

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When 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. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet 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. As 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. But 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.” Matthew 13:18-23

Now we hear the meaning of the parable of the sower. There are four reactions to the seeds which have been freely planted. A lack of understanding. A lack of commitment. A lack of focus and a surplus of misplaced priorities. The presence of understanding, willingness, and action.

As I shared on Monday, for the longest time I would hear this parable and judge myself, “Which soil am I?” “Which soil do I want to be?” The first question was hard to answer, the second was obvious. I want to be good soil. I want to be productive soil. Who wouldn’t want that? So that leaves me wondering what gets in the way of that…and that is the power of the parable.

A lack of understanding. Life is complicated and full of mystery. The more we learn, the more we realize we need to learn. We associate understanding with “mastery” and the end zone keeps backing up. It’s like having an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, each trying to convince us to follow. Then Mark Twain reminds us, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” I think we all understand enough to figure out what the next right thing to do is.

A lack of commitment. Initial eagerness followed up with running away from resistance. As I write these words, early in the morning, I am wrestling with whether or not to go walking when I’m done writing. I know how helpful walking is. I know that it isn’t so bad once I get going. I know it always marks the beginning of a good day. But my resistance to doing what is good for me is fierce. There is a reason why we refer to the easy way out as the “easy” way. But life isn’t easy. It isn’t supposed to be easy. Persistence and commitment is much more difficult than faltering and fickleness but it is always worth it if seeking a meaningful end.

A lack of focus and a surplus of misplaced priorities. The specific distractions are the “cares of the world” and the “lure of wealth.” We certainly have plenty of both of these cooking in our lives. Certainly, at an emotional level, they go hand in hand.

The newspaper this morning listed the eleven Houstonians who made the Forbes list of the richest Americans. John Rockefeller was the first recorded billionaire in the United States. When asked “How much money is enough?” He famously responded, “Just a little bit more.” My sense is that everyone on that list might say the same thing. But don’t think that any of us are immune from seeking security in an insecure world by identifying ourselves by what we earn or what we have accumulated. If we let it, “more” will always be more captivating than “enough”.

Which then leaves us with the good soil to which we aspire. On a daily basis, from momentous decisions to momentary impulses, Jesus invites us to learn, to commit, to focus, and to act. We might find it tough to stay there forever and always but we can certainly be there right now. So it is time that I go for a walk this morning.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, the worries and cares of life distract us so easily. We are bothered by things far beyond our control or capacity. We so easily lose focus, we quit too early, we work too hard at the wrong things. We need your help. Don’t give up on us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 13:10-17

October 17, 2017

Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’

With 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. 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.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly 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. Matthew 13:10-17

Gnosticism describes a system of philosophical/theological thought that was both popular and powerful in the time right before and after the writing of the New Testament. Gnostic ideas – that creation is an extension of a lesser god, that human beings carry the divine spark of this creation, that salvation consists of gaining the insider knowledge (the gnosis) which frees us from the material world and reunites us with the divine – became a piece of the litmus test of spiritual writings. Gnostic ideas were rejected as false teachings, as heresy. New Testament era writings, such as the Gospel of Mary, were ultimately rejected because of those influences.

I was reminded of this because of the answer Jesus gives to his disciples’ question about why he teaches in parables. This is always confusing to us. It doesn’t make sense to us that Jesus would intentionally obscure what he is trying to convey to the world. We would think he would make everything as simple and as obvious as possible. Jesus’s answer, with his quote from Isaiah, only deepens the mystery rather than clearing things up.

But what if we hear what Jesus says as descriptive rather than prescriptive? That is, rather than thinking that Jesus carefully doles out insight only to those who can handle the truth, keeping everyone else in the dark (the prescriptive idea), Jesus simply observes how it is that two different people, existing in the identical time and space, can see two completely different realities at the same time (the descriptive idea.) Isn’t Jesus on to something here? Isn’t that how it always works?

I look out at the congregation I serve every Sunday morning and I am very aware of the many differences in the lives of our people. Men and women see the world differently. We have people who are very wealthy and those just squeaking by. We have people of different races and ethnic histories. Some are very politically liberal and some are very politically conservative. Clearly, this means that we see things differently from one another, even though we are mostly baptized Christians all seeking to follow Jesus in and through a common Christian community.

As the years have gone by I know that I see things differently than I used to. The heart of baptism used to mean how easily God makes it for us to identify with Jesus – a splash of water, the Trinitarian formula, and we are joined to Christian community. Today I see it much more as a sign of humility – whether we understand it or not, baptism includes our willingness to do what God tells us to do.

I used to see Holy Communion as a mystical moment where Jesus helps us see God’s presence in everything even as we focus on Jesus coming to us in bread and wine. It was, back then, an insider meal for those who are baptized and believe. Today I see God’s wisdom in calling us to an experience which requires that we show up for one another in the same room, like being home for dinner by 6:00 PM if we expect to eat that night.

I used to see Christianity as a set of conclusions, the goal of life was to convince everyone to accept the same conclusions. Today I see the faith as a conversation, the goal of which is to truly hear the other. Not that I believe that all truth is relative or that absolute truth doesn’t exist. It’s just that I think absolute truth is the person of Jesus and that Jesus’ goal is to bring people together, even when, or maybe especially when, they disagree, not to drive them apart.

Let us pray:  Dear Lord, we don’t like to admit to our limitations or our short-comings. We are blind to our own blindness. We seek a kind of certainty that promises to quiet our anxiety and remove our doubts. We tilt at windmills and hit one another in our quest. Open our hearts and minds, not only to the working of your Holy Spirit, but also to one another. Guide us to attend to one another rather than attacking those who see life so differently. Help us see what you would have us see. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 13:1-9

October 16, 2017

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.

And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Matthew 13:1-9

How shall we listen to Jesus teaching us in parables? I’m not expert on this. All I can do is share with you how it works for me.

A parable is a word picture. It is a simple story, often a comparison or an allegory. While there will always be a huge gap in time and culture between us and the original readers and writers of the gospel stories, the simplicity of the parables helps them work. Work on us. Work in us.

I read the words and let my imagination take over. I try to ignore the explanations that sometimes follow a few verses later. I pay attention to the memories that the parable evokes in me. I remember other times and places where I heard that same parable speaking. Where a parable raises a question in my mind, I might look for more information – but even that is part of the experience of listening to the parable for me.

All of this seems horribly subjective. And it clearly is. This flies in the face of what I was seeking when I went to study at a seminary. I wanted to know the RIGHT ANSWERS. I wanted to discover the TRUTH. Over those years, and in the years since then, I’ve come to realize that open-mindedness and humility are closer to Jesus than certainty and pride. I’ve come to appreciate conversations more than conclusions. And in that, I’ve grown in my appreciation for letting my imagination play when reading the Bible.

I say all of that because we are now entering a section of Matthew where Jesus teaches us in parables. I look forward to where the stories will take us….even though I have no idea right now what we’ll see each day in our reading.

This first parable of the sower and the seeds always reminds me of Sunday afternoon drives to look at the crops with my mom’s boyfriend, Denny. Denny loved to take us by the fields farmed by an old friend of his. This old friend got drunk as soon as possible every day and his row crops proved it. In a farming culture that prided itself on straight rows and clean fields, Howard’s fields were a wavy serpentine mess. He wasn’t a terribly careful or efficient planter of seeds. He just scattered them wherever.

So I read this parable and wonder if God isn’t equally as careless as Howard? If God is the sower and the seed is the good news, what does it say about a God who just willy nilly scatters seed even to those places where it has no chance whatsoever to take root and grow?

I often read this parable with the temptation to judge myself or others based on the quality of the soil or the size of the harvest. Why does the harvest vary so much? Yet even as my mind goes there, I try to remember that I am rightfully the judged, not the judge.

Parables invite us to enter them. To “climb into” this little story changes it. We hear it differently if we are sower, or the seed, or the soils, or the rocks, or the birds, or the harvest. In fact, we are all of those.

By their very nature there is mystery at the heart of every parable. The mystery here is why we can sometimes be so open and receptive to God’s presence in our lives and other times be so closed down and disinterested.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, today we begin a new week sitting among the crowds on the shore as you intrigue us with your story of the sower and the seeds. Help us hear this story well – and help us trust you in the face of the mysteries of life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.