Proper 12(A): Leaven for Our Hearts

Proper 12(A): Leaven for Our Hearts

Matthew 13:31-34; 44-52

By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

Chapter 13 is a hinge-point in the Gospel of Matthew, and our lectionary devotes three Sundays to working through this chapter. In today’s portion, we are treated to no fewer than five images to which Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven:  a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a searching merchant, and a dragnet. After offering these provocative, challenging and, at times, problematic images, Jesus asks if those listening “understood all this,” to which they respond “yes.” Really? Their confident “yes” seems comical given that scholars and faithful Christians alike struggle to articulate just what Jesus meant in his own context, much less how the Spirit might work with us today to draw forth the Living Word from these images.

It is very tempting to preach a sermon picking one of the major themes from these images. No doubt traditional interpretations can yield relevant and inspired sermons.

  • Yeast and mustard seeds are small things that, with time, can yield big consequences. The preacher might easily identify projects in the community or ministry initiatives in one’s parish that seem insignificant but have the potential to make a big impact. At my former parish, three lay people committed to offering Morning Prayer each day. Often only the prayer leader attended and spoke the words aloud, alone. I called their effort a “mustard seed ministry” and was curious as to how it would grow. Several years later, they’ve never attracted a crowd, despite the church’s location in an urban area with lots of street traffic. But there have been a handful of people without homes and those living with mental illness for whom attendance has added structure and beauty to their day. Sometimes kingdom work can be small in stature but big in meaning simultaneously.

 

  • The next two parables about hidden treasure and valuable pearls might lead the preacher to offer a traditional sermon about how the kingdom of heaven is of infinite worth, something which we must seek and for which we must sacrifice. I am reminded of an essay that recently appeared in the Christian Century in which The Rev. Sam Wells asks: “What’s the one thing that really matters?…So why aren’t you filling all your time with that?”[1] This line of questioning could be interesting to pose to the church’s governing board, and the preacher could reflect on that conversation from the pulpit. Or the preacher might guide parishioners on spiritual practices, like the daily examen, that reveal the disparity that often exists between what we might identify as the most important thing and the painful reality of how we actually spend our time and energy.

 

  • The drag net image may well be the least preached on in this selection among Mainline Protestants. Just a hunch. But I would challenge us to take this image seriously. For one thing, the drag net is inclusive – everything is pulled in: good, bad, and ugly. And we human beings aren’t the ones tasked with sorting things out—that job has been assigned to the angels. In an era where we are quick to self-identify as liberal or conservative, red or blue, progressive or traditional, perhaps we are being cautioned against this tendency to self-segregate into mutual admiration societies that function implicitly to reinforce our superiority to the “other.”

New Testament Scholar Amy-Jill Levine, however, cautions against relying on traditional interpretations that don’t yield an element of surprise. Her book Short Stories by Jesus is an excellent source for shaking up the parable interpretations you’ve heard since your Vacation Bible School days. She suggests, for example, that we consider how both yeast and mustard seeds are rather ordinary objects, found in domestic settings. The arrival of the kingdom of heaven, on her readings of these parables, isn’t a cataclysmic earth-shattering event. Rather it is “present when humanity and nature work together, and we do what we were put here to do – to go out on the limb and provide for others, and ourselves as well.”[2]

With the second set of paired images, perhaps the preacher might wonder just who is the agent of the seeking and finding. The hidden treasure is only revealed because someone is out there digging in the mud. We have no idea if the digger expected to find a hidden treasure or if she was even looking for one. But she was busy in the trenches, digging deeper and deeper. The merchant is searching for fine pearls, presumably to sell them, turn a profit and search for some more. But all of his selling and buying presumably ceases when he finds the pearl of grave value is discovered:  he has no more capital to invest. The merchant stops being a merchant. There is total identity shift.[3]

As a practitioner of Centering Prayer, these images of someone digging or searching are helpful. Often my 20-minute prayer periods just feel like digging in the mud:  thought after thought arises; feeling after feeling. But what if the one digging through my mud is the Holy Spirit yearning to make contact with my spirit? What if we are not the agents (the digger or the merchant) but are instead the recipients of Divine digging and searching? That sounds like grace to me.

So how would you respond if Jesus asked you if you understood these parables? If he asked me surely I would want to say “yes,” but at best it would be an aspirational “yes.” But perhaps the aspiration is worth celebrating; the striving itself is a privilege:

“…what a wonderful thing it is to be made part of that striving. The parables of the kingdom of heaven make clear that the kingdom of heaven is not “up there,” but rather is a kingdom that creates time and constitutes space…Jesus teaches us through the parables so that we might be for the world the material reality of the kingdom of heaven, for in Jesus we see and hear what many prophets and righteous people had longed to see and hear.”[4]

As we prepare to preach this week, perhaps we can ask the Spirit to guide us to become like those scribes mentioned in verse 52, able to find treasure in both traditional interpretations as well as newer ones that might leaven our imaginations and our hearts.

[1] Wells, Samuel.  “The Refiner’s Fire,” The Christian Century. 17 May 2017: 35. Print.  Also accessible here:  https://www.christiancentury.org/article/chat-refiners-fire.

[2] Levine, Amy-Jill.  Short Stories by Jesus:  The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.  New York:  HarperOne, 2014. p. 182.

[3] Ibid., p. 152.

[4] Hauerwas, Stanley.  Matthew.  Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.  Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006.  p. 135.

 

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as the Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina. She completed a Master of Theology at the University of Edinburgh and a Master of Divinity at Episcopal Divinity School. She spends her “free” time chasing a toddler and shuffling a soccer-playing son to and from practice.

Proper 11A: The Wheat & The Weeds

Proper 11A: The Wheat & The Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

By: The Rev. David Henson

When my children were little, I would often have them help me pull weeds in our vegetable garden. Now, for me, I have been trained over three decades to know what’s a weed and what’s not. I can look at my tiny plot of dirt and I can see in a second what’s not supposed to be there. I know what belongs and what doesn’t.

My young children, on the other hand, weren’t so sure. Their little hands would grab along the base of a plant and then they’d ask, “Daddy is this a weed?”

Sometimes they had an errant weed that needed to be uprooted. Other times, they were gripping precious tomato saplings. They needed to learn which plants were valuable and which were expendable. They needed to learn what was good and what bad. They needed someone wiser to tell them what belonged and what was to be cast out into the compost bin. They had no innate knowledge that some plants were worthy of the garden and others were not.

So it is with us. By now, most of us have learned the rules of who belongs and who doesn’t. We know who belongs and who doesn’t belong — in this country, in our neighborhoods, in our churches, and in our jails.

We know who deserves life and who deserves to die.

We know who the weeds are that need to be uprooted and thrown into the fires of judgment.

In other words, we know where our borders are. And who is allowed to cross them. And it’s often the case that in the crossing of a border — into our territory — that a harmless plant suddenly becomes a weed to us. A patch of clover in the field across the street is a fun place to spend an idle afternoon searching for a four-leafed lucky charm. But put that patch of clover in my garden, and suddenly it is an enemy, soaking up the needed nutrients in the soil that rightfully belong to the vegetables I planted and it must be eradicated.

As a result, life becomes a game about insiders and outcasts. In fact, many of us believe we are doing the world and God a great service when we decide amongst ourselves who gets to belong and who doesn’t, when we decide what constitutes the weeds and the wheat.

We are very much like the Master’s servants in the parable who see weeds and hurry back to the person in charge. “Uproot them and throw them into the fire! They don’t belong in our gardens!”

Now, as someone who loves gardening, I have uprooted my fair share of weeds. I get the servants’ attitude. They are ready to blame someone. The field has gotten completely out of control, and the Master is powerless to do much (or refuses to do much!). As concerned for the field as the servants are in the parable, it seems almost equally important to them that they let the Master know the error of his way and that his beautiful field has gone terribly awry.

The Master’s response to his servants is understated, but quietly revolutionary.

“Let them grow together,” he says.

It’s not your business, or even my business, to go around pulling weeds.

Let them grow together.

This is a gentle rebuke to the servants who try to go around naming what represents a weed and what doesn’t, a rebuke to the servant who tries to tell the Master what belongs in the field and what doesn’t.

Imagine how different our world — even our churches would be — if every time we saw something that we didn’t think belonged, every time we perceived a weed among the wheat, we took the Master’s attitude rather than the servant’s.

Let those that don’t belong to each other grow together. Let those who don’t fit into each other’s neat fields of categories grow together. Let the wheat and the weeds grow together.

Let them grow together because the line between the weed and the wheat is much, much blurrier than we’d like to think.

Just as it’s the crossing of a border that turns a plant into a weed to many, so it is that simple cultivation — love — transforms a weed in our eyes into a valued plant.

When I was a child, I loved dandelions, the tiny pops of bright yellow erupting in our lawn, the clouds of seeds that I could blow into the air to watch drift away lazily on a summer day. But as I started to mow the lawn, those patches of childlike joy became onerous weeds that needed to be uprooted. Then, as a young adult, fresh out of college, imagine my surprise while eating at Chez Panisse in Berkeley to find that odious weed overpriced as a featured part of my meal!

A dandelion in a garden, when viewed differently, when cultivated, becomes a delicious salad green adorning plates at the fanciest restaurants in the world.

In the Master’s garden, the Master errs on the side of growth rather than punishment. Our tendency is to read a great deal of punishment in all this; the eventual burning of the weeds becomes for us a metaphor for the fires of hell and judgment. The introduction of flames in the last few sentences colors the entire parable.

But, to me, it’s not a promise of judgment. It’s a promise of harvest. Harvest is about feeding people. It’s about sustenance. It is about bounty and abundance. Our rapture-warped minds and end-times infected spirituality, however, have turned the theological idea of a harvest into something to be feared, a terrible separating of those who belong and those who don’t.

But that’s not what a harvest is about. Harvests bring together communities. Harvests are hard work, to be sure, but they are to be celebrated, not feared. In the end, by the time the harvest arrives, no one is concerned with the weeds anymore. They are concerned and thrilled at the bounty and abundance springing from the land. They are concerned about putting up food for the lean months. They are excited about a season’s work bringing forth fruit.

Weeds are a concern only for those who can’t see the joy of the harvest.

One day, the harvest celebration is coming, the Master says, and all this business about weeds and wheat will be settled. But it’s an afterthought, really. It’s a notion designed to help us let go of our desire to decide who is in and who is out. It functions to help us release our desire to uproot and to throw into the fire and bomb.

And, in doing so, it should refocus our attention on the command of the Master.

“Let them grow together,” the Master says.

My children will one day learn who is in and who is out. As much as I will try to rear them, the world will teach them to judge their neighbors, to draw borders between friends and foes, to create clear boundaries about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

One day they won’t need me to tell them which plant is a weed. They’ll know, because I taught them, not to let the weeds and the wheat grow side by side.

And our world will be poorer for it. It always is, whenever the children of God learn to see a difference between the wheat and the weeds.

 

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The Rev. David Henson

The Rev. David Henson is a priest in the Episcopal Church. The father of two boys and the husband of a medical resident, he lives in Western North Carolina and is perpetually behind on the laundry and lawn mowing. While he has a couple of degrees to his name, it is more important to know that he once chased his stolen Jeep Grand Cherokee at dangerous speeds down an Interstate in California. He didn’t catch it. Which is pretty accurate metaphor for his entire life.

Proper 10(A): Did You Hear Me?

Proper 10(A): Did You Hear Me?

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

Do you ever get the feeling you’re just not being heard? Where you express an idea, and your conversation partner repeats it back to you, and it’s clear that they didn’t fully hear you?

Although it’s true that women pastors, LGBTQ pastors, young pastors, and pastors of color may feel this way most often, I think all pastors and preachers sometimes get the feeling that they’ve been seriously misheard. For example, we may preach a fiery sermon on inclusion and love just to be met at coffee hour with, “Thank you, Reverend — I really hope those people heard you.”

And though you may smile and nod, if you’re like me, you at least inwardly sigh and respond, “It’s like you didn’t hear me at all.” 

If the Bible were a person, she’d feel this way a lot.

Too often, we hear what we want to hear rather than what’s on the page.

The Parable of the Sower is so well-worn that it’s difficult to find much that’s new to say about it that hasn’t been said already: good soil is a place where the Good News can grow and bear fruit in a person’s heart. Other factors can choke out the Gospel’s potential in our lives.

Some commentaries, however, in an attempt to say something new, contradict the text and misunderstand the parable. Some make a point of how great it is that the sower isn’t careful, sowing the seed in every place. These (mostly) liberal-leaning commentaries give us all of the warm fuzzies that we’re used to in progressive church: an inclusive God who does not discriminate, carelessly throwing grace all around.

Let me be clear: I do believe in a God who scatters grace everywhere. The problem is that, if we consider the images that Jesus uses in this particular parable, a God who carelessly scatters seed on the path or among thorns is cruel at best.

Jesus actually says in the middle of our pericope (in the section left out of today’s reading), as if almost making fun of our attempts to explain the parable without actually hearing it: “You will indeed listen, but never understand… look, but never perceive” (Matthew 13:14 NRSV). It also ignores a reality of sowing: seeds do fall everywhere. It’s not meant to be some heartwarming detail that some seeds didn’t land in exactly the right place: it’s just part of throwing seed.

The problem with celebrating the sower’s indiscriminate sowing and leaving it there (in addition to betraying a lack of agrarian understanding) is that Jesus in this parable goes to great lengths to describe the ways that each poorly-sown seed dies. The image of the careless sower generously scattering seed that begins to grow only to get snatched away and die decidedly isn’t Good News, despite any initial warm fuzzies.

So how is a preacher to find Good News within this text?

Well, we can deduce one thing by the sower’s indiscriminate sowing: that the seed is plentiful. If there were a shortage, the sower would not have been so careless. The Gospel is indeed abundant and scattered everywhere.

Still, we cannot ignore that some of the seed that is scattered dies. This is a fact of farming. To praise an indiscriminate sower simply for being indiscriminate is to not hear what Jesus actually says about the results. It is to pay no mind to the end game. It is to not understand farming.

So what is the Good News?

Jesus is speaking to a large crowd by the sea, but he’s also speaking to his disciples, and they will intermittently have side conversations about these parables. After Jesus says “They will listen, but never understand,” Jesus also says, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:16, emphasis mine).

This doesn’t mean that the disciples are exclusively special or that they always understand; the reality is quite the contrary. What Jesus means to do, I believe, is to call them to awareness of where they have landed, through no virtue of their own: in a place where their hearts may grow and bloom. The disciples are meant to understand their community as good soil, not because it’s exclusive, but because they stay near to the source of life, Jesus, and to each other. They are the seeds that fall together where life and joy may grow and thrive. This little cohort of disciples is good soil, where seeds fall into the ground and spring up to new and abundant life. There is opportunity and love and joy in community.

And what about the seeds which fall on the path, on the rocky ground, and among the thorns?

I believe that the parable may be descriptive rather than prescriptive. Jesus isn’t damning some people to waste away forever, languishing from the lack of growth. The reality is that harmful forces in our lives can choke out Good News, consume our joy, and trample self-love and love for neighbor.

We’ve all done our time in poor soil.

The Good News is that community around Jesus gives us a chance to grow. I believe the parable implores us to plant ourselves in good soil, in loving community, where love for self, God, and neighbor may grow and bear fruit.

The sower does indeed scatter seed everywhere, and the conditions in which we find ourselves determine the level growth that is possible.

So let us create within ourselves and our communities good soil: encouraging questions, embracing change, yielding new life. And may God, the source of all life, continue to bring the joy of resurrection with each new leaf. Amen.

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

Proper 9A: The Right Yoke

Proper 9A: The Right Yoke

Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30

By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

As I walked into the church, the first thing I noticed was that there were no pews. Instead of those orderly (and immovable) wooden pews found in nearly every church, my new call had cushioned chairs—chairs that could be picked up and rearranged for different liturgies. As someone who likes to experiment with liturgy and blend the classical with the contemporary, having chairs we could move meant we could create new points of focus. We could rearrange the worship space to fit each liturgical season and (I thought) inspire fresh engagement with worship.

During my first few weeks I was told by dozens of people how my predecessor often rearranged the chairs. About half the congregation made a point of telling me how much they liked having the space rearranged and they hoped I would continue doing it. I also heard from the other half of the congregation who couldn’t stand it and wanted me to leave the chairs in one place.

While trying to decide what to do about the chairs and whether to move them or leave them alone, I finally realized that no matter what I did someone was going to be disappointed. The chairs could be moved or left alone but either way someone wouldn’t be happy. It doesn’t always matter how something is presented. If you’re in a position of leadership then at some point you are going to disappoint. There will be times when you will be judged and critiqued regardless of the action you do or don’t take. This is something Jesus knew and experienced, and something he had no patience for.

In Matthew 11:16-19 Jesus addresses the crowd and describes the differences between himself and John. One is a bug-eating ascetic, the other enjoys celebrations and making wine at weddings. One lives in wild, isolating places, while the other surrounds himself with crowds of people and travels to the heart of cities. John and Jesus are dramatically different people; one rough and uncouth, the other accepting hospitality. Each implores their followers to repent and turn back to God. Yet for John and Jesus, their lifestyles were used as an excuse to reject the message. It might not matter if you’re an ascetic like John or outgoing like Jesus: if the crowd doesn’t like what you’re saying then they’ll come up with a reason not to listen. Jesus and John both faced Ad hominem attacks. Similarly, young or newly ordained clergy can be easy targets of such attacks. Especially if they preach on a controversial topic.

Powerful sermons about social justice can be ignored if the preacher is “young” (therefore “naive”). A message about gender equality can be ignored if it’s preached by a woman who “is just a man hater.” The more controversial a topic is the quicker the rejection will come. If a congregation doesn’t want to hear a difficult message, then they are going to push back. If they can’t deny the truth of the message then their criticism will focus on the messenger. And yet the responsibility of clergy is to proclaim the Gospel regardless of the rebukes they get for it. People may push back for any number of reasons, but the only response we have to concern ourselves with is God’s response. The prophets received anger and ridicule for proclaiming the message they were given; nevertheless, they persisted. Proclaiming the Good News to the world does not mean you will always be loved by others; more often than not it means taking heat and having confidence in what God has given us to do. In light of this, Jesus’s statement that his yoke is “easy” and his burden “light” can seem comical or cruel. But if the yoke we’re wearing feels too hard and the burden heavy then we need to wonder if we’ve been strapped to the right one. In ancient Palestine, the yoke was carefully adjusted to fit the ox. The load’s weight had to rest on the right part of the animal or it could risk getting injured and the work wouldn’t be done. A farmer had to adjust the yoke to match the height, weight and girth of each animal or the field wouldn’t get plowed.

If the burden feels too heavy, then you need to reassess what you’re carrying.  The biggest cause of clergy burn-out is being strapped to the wrong yoke. Clergy can spend years thinking they’ve picked up their cross and are wearing the right yoke, only to discover much later they were carrying someone else’s burden the whole time. It can be easy for clergy to become weighed down by expectations. Whether it’s our expectations of ourselves or the congregation’s expectation of what we can achieve.  Sometimes we struggle because we have been living under the wrong expectations. We can help someone pick up their load but we can’t carry it for them. Carrying too much is how we end up getting injured. God has given each of us our own work to do and at times we need to hand someone back their yoke so we can focus on our own.

The only standard we are called to live by is the one Christ set before each of us; the yoke which has been personally adjusted for our lives. That is the deed which vindicates wisdom; to follow God without playing to other people’s expectations. God may ask us to do something unpopular for the sake of the gospel but true wisdom is trusting in God despite how others react.

 

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The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff has served as Priest-In-Charge at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Madison County, Kentucky. This summer he and his wife–The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff– will be moving from Winchester, Kentucky to Wilmington, North Carolina, to continue following where God calls. He received his Master of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has served as a board member for the Clark County Homeless Coalition.

Proper 8(A): Welcome is the Reward

Proper 8(A): Welcome is the Reward

Matthew 10:40-42

By: The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

“None of these will lose their reward.”

The lectionary does neither essayists nor preachers any favors by plucking these three verses from Matthew 10 to be heard on their own, without any context except the culture and places in which they are proclaimed. These verses are particularly challenging to hear in the American context where some form of prosperity gospel has been at root since the arrival of English Puritans to a land yet unknown to Western Europeans.

In these three verses from Matthew’s Gospel, the American mindset my quickly jump to rewards: What does it take to get the reward? How might we earn “stars in our crowns” as was commonly said in the culture of my upbringing? The concept of stars in one’s crown is not biblical, and this passage certainly doesn’t support it. Neither Jesus nor the author(s) of Matthew’s Gospel spell out what the rewards are, but there is a clear direction for these verses — welcome those who come to you.

“Diversity” is a popular buzzword both in the Church and in the American political left (and the right, but usually with derision). Not only a buzzword, it is often a code word not for welcome, but for tolerance. Religious institutions seek to diversify their make ups by inviting younger people, people of color, or other outliers to be present in bodies of governance, but not to actually voice their unique narrative from being an outsider. This is not diversity or welcome, and it does not bring about the rewards Jesus encourages.

In the Diocese of California, where I was previously the communications officer, diversity is a vitality practice. When the diocese and congregations embraced — truly embraced — diversity there was thriving. Diversity and welcoming of new perspectives were the reward, and vital life followed. Diversity and welcome as a vitality practice insists on going beyond tokenism or structuring organizations to require “one person under the age of 18, one person between 18 and 35” for the sake of optics and optics only.

Optics and representation are important. However, God’s new reign of the Resurrection is not built on optics. It’s built on new life and the freedom of the Resurrected Christ, particularly freedom often yet unknown to those who benefit from and are caught up in systemic power structures. As I wrote for DioCal, “The church is strengthened when varieties of perspectives are shared and each person’s place in the body of Christ is celebrated. To be diverse, we must first wonder if we lack diversity and strive for ways to bring new, treasured people to our midst. A four-part video series on diversity as a vitality tool is available here.”[1]

Not only is the church strengthened, all of civil society is strengthened. Jesus suggests as much when he moves from telling the Twelve, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” to “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple.” Jesus assures his hearers that all those doing welcoming will be rewarded, but does not make offering the welcome conditional. His hearers are expected to offer the welcome, not told what their reward will be, and yet will be rewarded. The welcome — bringing in new voices, perspectives, and beloved people of God — is reward in itself.

As Jesus’ hearers today, Christians are expected to offer water — and shelter and visitation — to those in need and those in need of welcome. In mid-2017, there are refugee crises related to warfare and persecution globally. American Christians with voices and representation in their government are charged by Jesus to offer welcome and to direct their government to do the same.

Jesus’ expectation that water will be offered to the little ones is not conditional to fear of the little one’s motivations. Jesus doesn’t say, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — unless they’re scared of the little one — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Heval Mohamed Kelli arrived in the US as a Syrian refugee three weeks after 9/11, after spending six years in Germany. He arrived in Clarksville, Georgia, a city that welcomes 1,500 refugees per year. Kell is a cardiologist now who has moved away from Clarksville but describes his welcome by saying, “’Two days after we arrived in Clarkston, we were terrified. And then all these people arrived at our door with food, wanting to help us learn English … You know, we thought they were the CIA or something, all these white Americans knocking at our door.’ In fact, they were members of Clarkston’s All Saints Episcopal Church: ‘They didn’t look at all like us. But they changed our lives.’”[2]

The Mayor of Clarksville, Kelli, and other residents all describe the innumerable rewards they have all received by being a place of welcome, and place where ethnic restaurants and grocery stores are as vast and varied as the skin tones of humanity.

Clarksville, which offers this welcome, is located in the heart of the American South — where I am from originally ‘a place very vocally opposed to welcoming refugees, particularly from predominantly Muslim countries, regardless of if those countries are embroiled in civil war and those fleeing war need much more than a cup of water. The people — and Christians — of Clarksville are asking for more of their governments, and they will continue to receive their rewards.

In mid-May 2017 the United States denied visa requests from gay Chechen men seeking relief from what is essentially a purge of queer people from society. Lithuania began granting refugee visas just when the United States was rejecting them.[3] From the “Heart of the Bible Belt” to a loudly proclaimed “Christian Nation,” Jesus’ instruction on offering welcome in this passage could not be clearer: simply, it must be done. While Jesus mentions rewards and assures they will not be lost, he does not say what they are.

While human or American inclination may to be ask “What’s in it for me?” this is never the inclination or teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. If that question must be answered “Jesus says to” should be an acceptable answer for those who seek to follow him. When advising the Twelve on how they should be welcomed — and how those most in need should be cared for — he mentions reward, but those who have studied welcome or given or experienced it know how Jesus can be so confident that the reward will not be lost: Welcome is the reward.

[1] “The Beloved Community.” http://diocal.org/bishop/vision/beloved-community#building

[2] “This small town in America’s Deep South welcomes 1,500 refugees a year.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/24/clarkston-georgia-refugee-resettlement-program.

[3] “Lithuania Opens Door to Gay Chechens Fleeing Persecution, While U.S. Slams It Shut.” Financial Times. http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/18/lithuania-opens-door-to-gay-chechens-fleeing-persecution-while-u-s-slams-it-shut-lgbt-lgbti-rights-russia-persecution-asylum-refugee/.

 

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The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews currently lives in Seattle with his husband Brandon and their cats Stanton and Maggie. In his spare time — of which he currently has too much — Joseph plans and cooks food for the week, sews liturgical vestments, goes to the gym and is working on a pattern for a romper. His cats, food, progress photos, and sewing are all on his Instagram, @josephpmathews.

Proper 7(A): Jesus Doesn’t Believe in Family Values

Proper 7(A): Jesus Doesn’t Believe in Family Values

Matthew 10:24-39

By: The Rev. Laura Brekke

One of the notions that I have never understood as a convert to the Christian family is the idea that Jesus stands for “family values.” In the American context, family values are focused on the nuclear family—the mom, dad and gaggle of children version of family. This family is, according to American Christianity, the center of ethical and moral teaching, and thus what Jesus came to preserve, protect, and promote.

Um, what?

Jesus was an itinerant preacher, who left his family and said some unpleasant things to his mom (John 2). When he was rejected in Nazareth his list of siblings is called upon (Mark 6:3) to scold him for bad behavior. But Jesus shrugs off his family, and invites 12 male disciples to do the same. These men likely left behind wives and children. In fact, when one of these disciples asks to go home and bury his father—a sacred duty in Jewish tradition—Jesus says that in order to follow him, one cannot even tarry that long (Matthew 8). One must pick up their Cross and follow Jesus—right now.

And then we have this reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is clearly setting up a frame of reference in which families are divided. Jesus boldly proclaims: “do not think that I have come to bring peace to earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. I have come to set man against his father, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (Matthew 10: 34-36)

Jesus turns our expectations upside down. Jesus astutely foreshadows the kind of divisions that his followers would experience as they struggled within their Jewish (and Gentile) families. Moreover, those reading Jesus’ words in the context of the early Church (and perhaps even the 21st century Church) would have found the divisions about which Jesus speaks to be reflective of their present reality. In both cases, the message is the same: families are going to be divided, and if you don’t like it, get off the Jesus train.

Whoa man, wait a minute.

The dominant voice in American Christianity has been preaching to me the sanctity of marriage and the importance of the family unit! Kids need strong a father figure, and a mother who stays at home and cares for their emotional needs. Gays can’t have kids because it disrupts the traditional family unit! Single mothers should be ashamed for not providing their children with a solid Christian foundation at home. And those who dare to be child-free? They are selfish and not opening themselves to God’s plan!

You’re heard that rhetoric, right? Having growing up in the American South, I certainly did. I didn’t even grow up Christian, but these ideals of the happy single-family house full of smiling healthy kids and two well adjusted parents was sold to me as the American dream. And maybe it is the American dream. But it isn’t the Christian ideal.

In this reading, Jesus is challenging just what the Christian “family” is. Families built on bloodlines will betray one another. Households—which in the ancient world were large and extended—would betray one another. The tribal bonds granted to us because of blood would be made secondary to a new bond—the one to Jesus Christ.

In the first part of our reading, Jesus describes the relationship between students and teachers, and slaves and masters. It’s not that the student or slave should surpass the teacher or master; rather, they are called to “be like” or emulate the teacher or master. We are those students and slaves, and we are called to imitate Christ. We’re called to boldly proclaim the Good News before others. But Jesus knows that this news doesn’t always sound good, and will divide whole communities—right down to father and son.

As Christians, we recognize that our allegiance has shifted. No longer are we to pledge ourselves primarily to family. Indeed, we are called to pick up our Cross and leave our family. What this looks like today is holding all of our relationships loosely, keeping Jesus as the primary relationship in our lives.

It also means we radically redefine family. No longer are parents and children the primary form of family. Jesus created a “found family” with 12 disciples of different ages, skills, and backgrounds. He created family with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He created family in an Upper Room. Biological bonds are replaced by the bonds of kinship in the great family of Jesus Christ.

What Jesus illustrates with these bold statements is the high cost of discipleship, and the radical reorientation of God’s Kingdom compared with our own. We disciples are the students who are called to imitate the teacher. We are called to proclaim our faith publicly, before the world. We are also called to follow Jesus—to pick up the burden of the Cross—even as it divides our family. We are to find our life in Jesus, and not in the world.

Following Christ is radical. As a convert, I can tell you first hand that it is also divisive—although luckily there have been no sword fights in my family! Living for Christ means that supporting institutions which privilege the few and oppress the many must be called out. It means that we stand up for Jesus’ radical re-imagining of the world, even when it angers our parents, our siblings, our spouses, or our kids. It means that we find new family members in the body of Christ—and that we see other Christians as siblings, not as strangers. The things that are said in darkness must and will be brought to light. It’s a reminder that American values and God’s Kingdom values are not the same. And again, we disciples must choose who to follow.

 

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The Rev. Laura Brekke

The Rev. Laura Brekke is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) currently serving as a Campus Minister and Director of Religious Diversity at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit Catholic university in California. Her research and programmatic work are focused on interfaith dialogue and intersectional identity. She studied History and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and earned her Master of Divinity from Emory University. When she’s not hurrying across campus, she is an avid reader, writer, and book reviewer.

Proper 6A: God’s Inmost Parts

Proper 6A: God’s Inmost Parts

Matthew 9:35-10:23

By: The Rev. Paul Carlson

In this selection of scripture, we read that Jesus calls his disciples, equips them with authority, and then commissions them. But first we read that Christ looks at the crowds, sees their lack of direction and great need for a shepherd (as Jesus often puts it), and has compassion. This, I believe, is extremely important to emphasize when preaching, over and above the more “eye catching” parts of this passage. If we humans, and especially we followers of Christ, do not keep the driving force of Jesus’ presence in our lives (God’s love for all the world—AKA compassion) we will quickly lose track of our Shepherd’s voice, right when we are being commissioned to share that voice with all those who are lost. That small, quick little description of Jesus’ compassion is far too often overlooked in scripture by the more provocative sayings and images that follow directly after his stated motive.

When thinking of a title on this selection of scripture, I was struck by the number of sermons, biblical passage headings, and other commentaries I came across that focused the theme on verses such as, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few” or “Shaking the dust” or “Sending the twelve” or “the coming persecutions.” Granted, I did not look in every single English translation, article, or commentary out there, but I went through enough to realize that God’s compassion is not at the forefront of the Western mind when it comes to this particular text. In fact, the only place I did see the word “Compassion” come into the title or theme or heading of this passage was in my 4th edition copy of the Greek New Testament. There, this passage was titled: “The Compassion of Jesus.”

Perhaps it’s because the emphasis gets lost in translation. Or perhaps not. But either way, in the Greek, the connection between this scene where Jesus has compassion on the crowds and the scene in Matthew 9:13, which comes just 20 verses before the start of this reading, is the clear theme to keep in mind. There, Jesus tells the Pharisees exactly what he is about.  He says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Mercy is what Christ shows throughout all of his ministry. It’s what Jesus reveals God to be both in the Incarnation and in his faithfulness on the cross. And in the Greek, the word for mercy is interchangeable with the word compassion. Furthermore, the compassion Jesus has for the crowds in 9:36 is not a noun like it is in 9:13, but a verb. Jesus is “moved in his inmost parts” with love for the crowds in such a way that the use of this word in the New Testament has messianic significance.  “…for it is only Jesus who shows compassion as in Mk. 1:42; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Mt. 14:14; 20:34. In each case what we have is not so much the description of a human emotion as a messianic characterization.”[1]

This text sets the framework for every commission given by our Lord. Jesus’ compassion must always be emphasized over acts of power, inevitable persecution, and knocking off the dust from one’s feet. As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:2 “…If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

When someone asks What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) There should be no hesitation. The answer is written throughout scripture. Jesus desires mercy. God is moved from deep within God’s inmost parts. And so Jesus shows compassion, because that is what He does.  Jesus is the revelation of God’s love for all the world.

Luke A. Powery says in his commentary from Feasting on the Word, “This is good news, because the movement of this passage reveals that when there is a need, Jesus shows compassion, and his compassion causes him to send out others on a mission to serve those in need… All Jesus desires is that the lost be found… It is insufficient just to see human need but not be sent out to do something about it.”

Jesus has seen the need. He has heard the cries of his people. He was and is faithful and compassionate, even upon the cross. The harvest is plentiful and we too have clearly been sent out to labor within it. It is impossible to not see the need. Have compassion, like Jesus did. Be moved toward mercy in your inmost parts just as God is moved in God’s inmost parts. And go into all the world, and share the good news.

[1] Geoffery W. Bromley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament p. 1068

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The Rev. Paul Carlson

The Rev. Paul Carlson is a Lutheran pastor, along with his wife The Rev. Lauren Carlson, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. Originally from the West Coast, he moved from San Diego to Dubuque, Iowa where he graduated from Wartburg Seminary. He has served calls in Wisconsin and Virginia and is now enjoying the opportunity he gets as a half-time pastor, raising two children in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.