Proper 16(A): A Study in Leadership

Proper 16(A): A Study in Leadership

Matthew 16:13-20

By: The Rev. Cn. Manoj Zacharia

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” Matthew 16:18

Jesus asks a critical question at the beginning of this pericope: “Who do people say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13) This question is not necessarily meant confirm, affirm, nor deny Jesus’ identity. Rather, it is intended to elicit from the disciples their reasons for following Jesus. While the disciples blurted out answers like “some say you are John the Baptist, others Elijah,” Peter answers with the most basic yet theologically poignant answer of all of them: “You are the Messiah.” (Matthew 16:15-17) The handing of the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” to Peter is symbolic not because of debates about ecclesiastical primacy, but because Peter is an archetype of the church leader.

Jesus assures Peter that this statement is not solely an intellectual affirmation but one inspired by the Spirit. Such an affirmation runs parallel with Paul’s statement to the church in Rome. Paul writes, “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your hearts that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is gracious to all who call on him.” (Romans 10:9-12) Peter’s confession in Matthew 16 is quite important as it is not only uttered with the mouth but intended by the heart!

Certainly, Peter’s intent and proclamation are well intentioned. Yet, both his stated intention and feeling in his heart gave way to fear and trepidation amidst threatening situations. Peter is someone who usually wears his heart on his sleeve. Whether it be taking out his sword to cut off Malchus’s ear (John 18:1) or denying his association with Jesus, Peter’s brashness is a trait that runs too common in church leadership. In one way, Peter represents those of us who get too emotionally invested without praying and thinking through situations. In another way, like Peter, some of us tend to be reactive and move towards a default of defensiveness, aggression, or even denial.

Yet, the story of Peter does not end there. He is redeemed by following Jesus, and is entrusted with leadership in the early church. He “feeds the sheep” that Jesus gave him, presided over a potentially divisive meeting in the elevation of Matthias as an apostle, and was the first of the disciples to share the gospel with the gentiles in being a channel of Cornelius’ baptism. In fact, Peter was transformed by his interaction with the other (Cornelius.) The maturity of these actions, especially his receptivity to being transformed by his interaction with “the other” led by the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, is a testimony for the potential of Christian leadership.

Imagine if we as leaders of the body of Christ were not only feeding but being receptive to being fed through our interaction with those who are different from us culturally, economically, and even religiously? In a day and age when the Christian pastorate faces various dilemmas, we can choose to give into fear or move forward with the assurance of God’s presence through the resurrected Christ. Which model of Peter’s leadership will you follow?

 

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The Rev. Cn. Manoj Zacharia

The Rev. Canon Manoj Mathew Zacharia is Sub-Dean at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio. Canon Zacharia serves as the Ecumenical Officer of the Diocese of Southern Ohio. He is preparing for his oral defense of his dissertation on Pluralistic Inclusivism (Ph.D, University of Toronto) in the area of Philosophical Theology.

 

Proper 15(A): Living Faithfully

Proper 15(A): Living Faithfully

Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28

By: Colin Cushman

This week’s reading presents us with two quite different stories. While in reality they probably shouldn’t actually go together, when we read them side by side, interesting dynamics and character development emerge. Both stories address a big question: How do we faithfully live as people of God?

Our first story narrows down our question: What does it mean to be a Jew? The scene opens on Jesus incensing his foil, the Pharisees, about keeping ritually observant behaviors. Regarding the proper Jewish diet, Jesus claims that what goes in the mouth just winds up in the sewer, whereas what comes out of the mouth is what is truly unclean. The Pharisees clearly take the opposite position. Their whole project is to expand the domain of the ritual purity laws. They don’t want to just apply them when they go into the Temple, but to incorporate them into one’s entire life. They refuse to instrumentalize these ways of being, instead wanting to actually live out one’s religious convictions full-time.

Jesus and the Pharisees were not the only Jewish groups bickering. In the Second Temple Period, Judaism had splintered into many sects, each claiming to have “the right way” to be Jewish. The whole debate really argues about what it means to live faithfully as one who is following God. Matthew, of course being sympathetic to Jesus’ perspective, shows Jesus winning this debate. In Matthew’s portrait, as the teacher par excellence (the new Moses), Jesus regularly confounds his disciples with his profundity. Here, the disciples don’t understand his message, conveniently providing the explanation for the similarly confused reader.

Everything you eat, Jesus claims, is transitory and just passes straight through you. (Which is wrong by both ancient and modern somatic conceptions.) Thus, food can’t be unclean. Rather, he says, tapping into the prophetic tradition, the heart is the source of real impurity. Unlike our modern understanding, in this culture, the heart is not primarily about emotions. Rather, it’s the center of rationality. Thus, Jesus is really saying, “What goes out of the mouth comes from one’s innermost being.” From one’s core self. Impurity is not about the food or the emotions or the individual ritual observances. Rather, impurity comes from you yourself. Your behavior is a reflection of your essence, who you are in your character. And the sins Jesus lists off are all sins against someone else. (In that culture, wives were seen as property, so sexual sin is defiling the other man’s property, and is thus a relational offense.) For Jesus, purity is not a question of emotions nor of doing the right symbolic actions, but of self and character, especially in relationship with others.

Our second story takes us somewhere quite different—both thematically and geographically. This famous story is set in Tyre or Sidon—Israel’s neighboring coastal regions, populated by the widely-influential empire of the Phoenecian sea-peoples. There, Jesus runs into an unnamed indigenous woman who pleads with him to exorcize her daughter. After initially refusing, Jesus commends her faith and performs the exorcism remotely.

However, Jesus’ response is quite insulting! He compares non-Jews to dogs and thus excludes them from his work (even though he willingly performed healings for Roman officials elsewhere.) In this culture, dogs weren’t beloved like today. They were the vultures of the land: mangy scavengers. Jesus discounts the woman’s request, citing that he had only been sent to the Israelites, rather than the Canaanite “dogs.” (Which begs the question: Then why was he in Tyre/Sidon?)

Yet here we have a woman caring for her daughter in a patriarchal world. And rather than being meek or demure, she grabs on and won’t let go until she wrestled a blessing out of Jesus. It’s a story of both a mother’s love for her daughter and of a woman exerting her agency in the face of obstinate men. Initially, Jesus ignores her, which doesn’t placate his disciples. They want him to more actively shut her up. When he finally does talk to her, Jesus refuses to do what, elsewhere in the Gospels, he performed indiscriminately.

But the woman refuses to give up. In a move of rhetorical jujitsu, she subverts Jesus’ analogy. Temporarily allowing the denigrating comparison to stand, she promptly undermines it by pushing the analogy beyond the boundaries that Jesus established for it. Her linguistic maneuver exemplifies the way that marginalized people work in subversive ways to try to gain victories where they are actually possible.

Interpreters are often deeply invested in helping Jesus to save face here. They often claim that he was just testing her. In reality, we only see these readings as plausible because of our insistence that Jesus be the good guy. Any straightforward reading of the text shows that Jesus was being a jerk who got his mind changed. Jesus understood himself called to serve the Israelites. He had a one-track mind, tunnel vision, a singular focus. He didn’t want to be side-tracked. But in doing that, he missed the human suffering that was happening right beside him, especially on the margins.

If you do want to give Jesus credit, though, he does allow himself to be convinced. Not only is he big enough to change his mind, he does so against the pull of his honor/shame culture. Being challenged and bested by a woman like that inherently brought shame on Jesus—unless it was promptly countered, perhaps through anger or physical violence. However, as elsewhere, Jesus shucks this expectation, rejects the honor/shame system, and allows himself to learn and grow. Thus in the end, the Canaanite woman enters into a rich pedigree of Biblical characters who argued with God—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Job, Hezekiah, Mary—many of whom won. Not to mention that she (a non-Jew!) was commended on her faith, even more so than many other Jews in the story.

Whereas in the first story, we saw Jews fighting other Jews about how to best be Jewish, the second story presents a cautionary tale, showing what happens when you get too focused on best being a Jew. Of course, we modern readers can fruitfully expand the scope of these same themes. How do we negotiate what it means to be faithful to God? But as we do so, how do we make sure we’re not missing the very real human suffering happening outside of our tunnel vision? In today’s world, these types of question have become very important, and these Biblical stories help us to reflect on them.

 

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Colin Cushman

Colin Cushman is the pastor of Seabold United Methodist Church on Bainbridge Island, Washington. His area of focus in his own research is on the intersection of Biblical Studies and oppression. He is happily married to his wife Madi who is an excellent mental health counselor working with children and youth.

 

 

Proper 14(A): The Miracle that Fails to Comfort

Proper 14(A): The Miracle that Fails to Comfort

Matthew 14:22-33

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the “miracle” stories of the New Testament. They seem to quickly turn into arenas for debate about literal and figurative truth, or how one can, in this “age of reason,” actually believe in fairytales simply because Jesus was the main character in some of them. I don’t know what the good Christian response is to those questions. I can’t even answer them for myself.

Just before this miracle story is the tale of the loaves and fishes, the feeding of the 5,000. And ah, what an easier story to deal with! I have always liked the interpretation that part (or the whole of) the miracle wasn’t Jesus’ role as a caterer who broke the time-space continuum, but that his inspiration brought these crowds to share what they had, however meager, and that all of those contributions together were more than sufficient. I like this interpretation as a consumerist American who needs assurance that “enough” truly exists and that it’s far less than what we think it is. I like this interpretation as a single member in a broken but holy Church that can sometimes turn the stuttering, weak efforts of myself and others into far more than they should logically be. I can skirt the question of miracle entirely in that story and still find richness in it. Of course, I only talk about it at length because I’m avoiding addressing how and why Jesus walked on water.

I’m struck in this story by how pointless this miracle is. Jesus isn’t undertaking the noble cause of feeding the hungry; he simply notices that the boat he wants to be on is far from shore and, apparently, decides to hoof it out there. It’s a strangely casual use of his God-ness. When Peter, terrified but emboldened, asks if he can do it too, Jesus lets him try and then helps him when he falls, gently reprimanding his faith. It evokes for me the image of a parent trying to help their child ride a bike without training wheels.

But…why? Why does Jesus show off for the disciples who he has been impressing day after day with other parables and miracles? Why does Peter feel the need to get involved in this uncanny occurrence? What point and purpose does all this serve? I imagine many Christians would say that it’s another demonstration of how Jesus was Divine, not only human, and it is remembered and told to us to help us believe more fully. I imagine many others would offer “magic trick” style explanations (he was walking on submerged rocks, or ice, or really buoyant stingrays) and classify this as another Bible story where the non-scientific worldview of the writer attributed a cool but explainable event to divinity, and that it’s a nice story that we in the modern world need not worry about too much. I don’t like either of these responses, but I don’t have a replacement for them either.

There are plenty of easier, more ancillary messages to take away, after all; the importance of faith as demonstrated by Peter, the calming of fear when we realize that God is in our midst, even the humanness of Jesus when he needs some time alone after dealing with crowds all day. But maybe there’s something to the pointlessness of this miracle, the fact that God sometimes enters our world abruptly and magnificently even when we’re not expecting it or thinking that we need it, and that those moments of encounter can be as intimidating or fearful as the moments when we feel quite alone. We can’t always anticipate the form that God will take in our world, and sometimes that’s upsetting in its own right. And yet, I’ve always liked the title “God of All Surprises,” and that might mean being open to surprises that are shocking more than joyous.

Perhaps we can embrace the “apparently pointless,” as we often do when we come to prayer or meditation that feels stale, or even our work for justice that so frequently feels like it’s going nowhere. We have faith that there’s importance in our practices and works even when we don’t know where our efforts will end up. In much the same way, I don’t know why Jesus walked on water, but I can trust that the meaning is there, and might show itself when I very least expect it.

 

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Dr. Emily Kahm

Emily Kahm, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Her research involves sexuality education in Christian churches and young adulthood religiosity. She resides in Davenport, Iowa with her spouse, Chris, their dog Bosco, and their rabbits, Exodus and Calliope.

Transfiguration: You Are Loved

Transfiguration: You Are Loved

Luke 9:28-36

By: The Rev. Jim Dahlin

I’m the youngest of three brothers. My oldest brother and I have always looked very similar. In fact, over ten years ago I met his wife’s sister and her kids and spent the day playing with them at the beach. The youngest was about 4 at the time and he kept calling me by my brother’s name. I would correct him, but he’d just look at me like I was dumb and repeat my brother’s name. His mom later apologized and just said, “Listen. Tomorrow he’ll talk about what a great day he had with your brother. Sorry, you guys look so much alike.” And it’s true. Despite being 5 years apart, we look very similar. It’s a little eerie.

All of that changed a few years ago when my brother had surgery to correct his jaw. We all have big jaws, but his was shaped in a way that when he bit down, his back teeth would hit and his front teeth would still be about 10 millimeters apart! Try eating pizza when your front teeth stay 10 millimeters apart!?!? So, they broke his jaw and rewired it and fixed his bite. Great for him. Except, now his smile is a little different and we don’t look as similar. I’m happy for my brother, because now he’s more whole than before, and he can function more as an adult. But I kind of miss his old look. I’ve grown used to the new smile by now, it’s just different.

So, Moses climbed the mountaintop and communed with God. Moses descends the mountain with the tablets of the covenant. We tend to picture Charlton Heston stoically walking with Roman numeral clad, ten-commandment tablets. Instead, a more accurate picture is Moses walking to the people with physical evidence of God’s covenant with the people. In the Old Testament, one of the major themes is that God is revealed to one person and through one is revealed to the many. We see this with Noah, then Abraham, and eventually Moses becomes a central figure in this theme. Another theme before Moses is that the covenants God made with the people were one-sided. After the flood, God puts the rainbow in the sky as a covenant that God would never again destroy all humanity. This covenant depended on God’s action and did not depend on human action. Similarly, God chose Abraham to be the father of God’s chosen people. Abraham didn’t really have to do much to fulfill this covenant (perhaps a little procreation). All of this changes with Moses.

As Moses descends the mountain with the tablets, God has made a covenant with the people, but the people make a covenant with God to remember to be God’s people. Part of that includes re-reading the covenant every year and re-promising to be God’s people. Included in this covenant is a bit of an ‘or else’, whereby God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people as long as…” This is a significant moment in human history as God’s revelation is taken to a new level. God chooses an entire people and leads them from slavery and into the Promised Land. In this moment, this encounter with God to receive the covenant, this encounter changes Moses life and his appearance. After the encounter with God, Moses’ face is transformed and the people are afraid. Moses has experienced the Glory of God in a way no human had since Adam and Eve. If we think about it, a glowing face seems a fitting response after such a supernatural experience!

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus ascends another mountain. He brings along Peter and John and they pray. One reason for this mountaintop prayer time is to show that Jesus fulfills the covenant with Moses. Jesus is able to hear the reading of the covenant that Moses brought down the mountain and re-promise to keep the covenant, as generations had done before him. Yet, Jesus is capable of fulfilling that covenant. Jesus hears the reading of the covenant where God says, “I will be your God and you promise to be my people.” And Jesus says, “Yes!” and the covenant is forever fulfilled—not ignored (Marcionites!), but fulfilled! So it makes sense that Jesus’ appearance, like that of Moses, is transformed. Jesus shines like the face of Moses. They are speaking of Jesus’ departure. Perhaps Jesus is making the new covenant with humanity, represented by Moses and Elijah, as they discuss Jesus’ coming death and resurrection? This new covenant seems to have Jesus saying, “I will be your God and you will be my people. And you are loved. Go and Love one another.” So, what does an encounter look like for us today?

There’s an older woman in our church, Mary. She might be one of the toughest people I’ve ever known. Mary’s also one of the best bakers I’ve ever experienced. In her mid-eighties, she still makes communion bread for us every Sunday. I love the symbolism of giving her communion each week. Here, she’s brought her gift to the church and offered it to God. The people bring her bread and the wine to the altar. Through the Eucharistic prayer, I the priest offer these gifts to God. In this great mystery, God transforms the gifts of the people. The bread that Mary has given to the congregation and the congregation has offered it to God, is now given back to the very same people, blessed and broken. This bread has encountered God on the mountaintop (well, the altar) and it will forever be different. And it’s given back to the people so they can go out into the world and love God and their neighbors, having encountered God. The people are changed.  

What do you experience when you encounter God in the Eucharist each week? What would it be like if that encounter changed our appearance and people saw us and were afraid? I’d like to think that I’d feel loved by God and empowered to love the neighbors around me. This sounds like a simple thing. It sounds so basic and Sunday School-y to say that God loves me. Yet, if I truly knew and could embody the fact that God loves me, oh what a change! For now, I keep coming back each week, encountering God in the bread that has been to the mountaintop and broken for me.

 

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The Rev. Jim Dahlin

The Rev. Jim Dahlin is Rector of St. Mary’s & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in Morganton, North Carolina. Despite looking like the bad guy in every World War II movie, his racially diverse, loving congregation has embraced him as they seek to faithfully worship God and figure out what it means to confess the Christian faith. Jim loves a challenging hike, a good pint of beer, riding his motorcycle and laughing. He is new to ordained ministry, but has been educated at various seminaries.

Proper 13A: Jesus’ Grief

Proper 13A: Jesus’ Grief

Matthew 14:13-21

By: The Rev. Ann Dieterle

How many times does the lectionary pick up a gospel reading with some form of the phrase that begins the selection for this proper: “after he heard this…?”

Especially in instances where the lectionary does not treat the text sequentially, as is the case here, it’s important to explore exactly what it was that Jesus heard. In this instance, he heard about the death of John the Baptist in a gruesome affair involving his head being delivered to Herod’s wife, Herodias, on a silver platter. It seems that John had gotten on Herodias’ bad side. Beware the thin skin of politicians. This had to have been on Jesus’ mind as he withdrew. To a deserted place. By himself. In case you missed any of the clues that Jesus went to be alone, Matthew drives the point home in a redundant manner.

The place that I connect with Jesus in this text is not in the Eucharistic metaphor but in his grief. One imagines that he is mourning the death of his cousin and forerunner. My father died rather unexpectedly about 2 months ago at the point that I am writing this entry, and so it is inevitably the lens with which I view Scripture right now. We don’t know how long Jesus stays in the deserted place by himself but it reads as a brief interlude. He doesn’t get a lot of time and space because the crowd follows him on foot along the shore.

You know, with 2000 years of Christian history and living in a Judeo-Christian society, we might take these stories and the divinity of Jesus for granted, forgetting that he was also human. He must have felt the emotional, spiritual, and physical fatigue of his grief- compounded by the fact that this foreshadowed his own execution. Yet in the midst of it all he sees the crowd and has compassion for them.  And he resumes his work of curing the sick.

I had to do a funeral very shortly after I returned from burying my dad, and on the 2-month anniversary of his death I was in the cardiovascular ICU with someone who was in critical condition—this was the same kind of unit in which my dad spent the last 24 hours of his life. It takes extra emotional energy now to be present and the recovery time for me after these moments is significant. And so I wonder what was the cost to Jesus to do this? To show up in this moment and be present to the crowd and to his disciples? Have you had an experience like this? And more to the point—what members of your congregation have had experiences like this? “The show must go on,” right? Do we ever afford ourselves the quiet and the space to do life’s essential work? Whether that’s grief? Joy? Or something else? I did withdraw to a deserted place by myself and that is following Jesus’ example as much as anything else in the Gospels.

Maybe when the disciples asked Jesus to send the crowd away into the villages, they’re not dismissing them so much as trying to build in some space and rest for Jesus. We don’t know of course, but surely they are surprised at Jesus’ response: “You give them something to eat.” Can you just see the expression on their faces change from concern to shock? And then maybe the shock turns into incredulity.  The translation from Greek to English ‘we have five loaves and two fish’ is pretty straightforward but I think the translation from thought to words was something more like “are you freaking kidding me?”

One of the challenges of preaching on this proper is that this is such a familiar story.  In an entry in the periodical Christian Century, Lauren Winner recommends reading Scripture in a location different from what you’re used to. I did this and I found myself wondering—were there really 5000 men plus the women and children? Or did the disciples overestimate the size of the crowd because they underestimated their ability?

And what about that crowd? What did it feel like to be fed from this abundance?  Were they even in on the miracle or was that simply between the disciples and Jesus?

One other aspect of the text that we miss if we go by the lectionary rather than read the Gospel all at once is that an almost identical situation comes up shortly after this takes place.

Fast-forward to a few paragraphs later in Matthew’s gospel. It’s hard to tell how much time has passed though Jesus has been in several other towns before finding himself back along the Sea of Galilee, and this is what happens:

“He went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.’ (Matthew 15:32-39)

And the disciples just did this a few paragraphs back, so naturally their response is:

“We’re on it, Lord! We’ll see how many loaves of bread that we can find and maybe someone has a few fish that they’ll share. We’ll bring that to you so you can bless it and we know we’ll end up with a feast and plenty of leftovers…”

Yeah right. You’ve done the reading so you know that’s not what happened at all.  Instead, the disciples said:

“But Jesus, Panera is closed now and the grocery store’s too far and you know the restaurants won’t do separate checks…”

Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing.

Jesus must have a bottomless well of patience, because goodness knows the disciples. Just. Don’t. Get it.

But there is good news in that for us. No matter how many times we have to relearn the same lesson. No matter how many times we make the same mistake. No matter how many times we miss an opportunity. 

Jesus has patience with us—and we always get another chance to gather the loaves and fishes, and to share in the feast.

Picture1The Rev. Ann Dieterle is the Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. She enjoys walking with her goldendoodle, Gordon, throwing culinary theme parties for her friends, and is a proud Star Wars nerd. Ann graduated from Sewanee and Florida State University, and hopes to add Australia to the list of continents she’s visited before 2020.

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.