“Can We Be Taught?” Matthew 15:10-28

There is very little that prepares us for this Gospel story.   Not in Matthew’s Gospel leading up to it, not in any of the other Gospel accounts.  We have been reveling in a Jesus who includes, who heals, who forgives and who feeds.  Sure, Jesus can be enigmatic at times, sending Disciples off in a boat, challenging them to feed the crowds, and a bit scary walking on the water.

But nothing prepares us for a Jesus who turns out to be a racist.

Yes, we can use that term here, as powerful and as objectionable as it may feel.  Jesus is a racist in this story.   He takes one look at this woman who comes looking for help, and the first thing we are told about her is her ethnic derivation.

She is a Canaanite.

That moniker in the history of Israel carries with it a lot of baggage, just as much as any ethnic slur we might have today for a particular group of people.   Canaanites were the original inhabitants of this land.   They were the Ba’al worshipers that Israel attempted to drive out, subjugate, or get rid of, but who always managed to appear again.

The Canaanite woman begs Jesus for help, but instead of compassion and understanding and readiness to help, what she is met with is rejection. Jesus seems to go out of the way to insult her.

He does not even inquire of the child, or do what we would normally anticipate him doing, say “take me to her.”

No, instead He calls this woman a dog.   A demeaning slur on top of the other slur.

He tells her that it just wouldn’t be right for him to help her since he was sent only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Let me make that clear – Jesus is saying here that he was sent only to his own kind – his own kin and country.

What kind of a picture of Jesus is this?  This is a racist Jesus.   There is no avoiding that, or talking our way around it.

How could Jesus have turned his back on someone in need?

I believe Matthew and the other gospel writers preserve this story to give us a glimpse into just how fully human Jesus was.

We already know that he is susceptible to temptation.    He spends the 40 days in the wilderness, and comes out of that experience on top.  But temptation isn’t usually a “once and done” experience.   It comes at us again.   The “opportune time” mentioned in Luke’s Gospel will arise again.

Remember that the whole point of the incarnation was born was that God became as one of us, a human being.   God did that so that God would come to know what it is like for us to live in this world.

And, here is the ugly truth of being human and living in this world.  If you live in this world, you are always tempted to see division and difference.  You are tempted to think tribally, me—my own—not them—their kind.

If you live in this world, you are always tempted to put limits on what it is that you can do, and what it is that can be accomplished, and you are attuned to the differences between people.

If you live in this world, (and truly understand what it is to be human,) you will discover how deep the lines of prejudice, race, and privilege can be, and how susceptible you are to their influence.

We live in a world that is in many ways always “measured.”

We recognize that much of our time as human beings is spent either “measuring up,” or making judgments about who “doesn’t measure up,” or trying to figure out just “where to draw the line.”

Isn’t that ever the temptation before us?

In the wake of Charlottesville, we’re all trying to figure out where to draw lines, aren’t we?

When do you denounce actions, and when do you accept them or encourage them?

Were there “good people” in that crowd of torch bearing protesters?   Or does marching with a crowd shouting “Blood and Soil” pretty much make you of one cloth?

Were there “violent people on both sides?”   Or was this the kind of moment where opposing the manifestation of evil warranted meeting such force with opposing force?

You can look out over the events and conversations of this past week and see that we’ve all spent a great deal of energy in our conversations and in social media trying to figure out just where to “draw lines.”

That is the human tendency. One quickly discovers that there is no clear agreement of where any line ought to be, but still we are drawn to consider it.

So then, when we hear Jesus voice the hard line: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” — that at first sounds like a pretty good hard line to us.

We might even find a sense of comfort in that.   “See, Jesus isn’t afraid to draw it, call it like he sees it, you have to draw the line somewhere.”

And, indeed, part of us can relate to this moment in Jesus’ life.

Jesus had come up to Tyre and Sidon to get away from the crowds pressing him in Galilee.  This is supposed to be a “mini-vacation” of sorts.  But now this woman shows up begging him for help like a vagrant on the street corner asking for change.   It’s just too much!  You have to draw the line somewhere!

And so, Jesus does, and as soon as he does, — as soon as we hear the line coming out of his mouth….we instinctively know that there is something wrong about it.

That’s what bothers us about this story.

How could Jesus, of all people say no?

Well, as it turns out, saying “no” and drawing lines comes with the territory of living in this world and being human!

It comes with the kind of fear that is born of scarcity, that there might not be enough to go around, not enough for me, or that viewpoint that “you have to draw the line somewhere.”

Here Jesus is tempted in a not-so-subtle way, more powerfully even than he was in the wilderness, to be fully human.  Is God really only interested in the lost sheep close to home?  In Jesus’ own kin and countrymen?

Is there really a finite measure of God’s power to heal, forgive, love, and accept?  Only enough for the “Lost sheep of the house of Israel”… and after we attend to them, we’ll see?

There is another reason why this story ought to bother us.   Who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel?

In Jesus’ day that distinction was clear.  They were the people who believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They were the Jews, the people living in Palestine or in diaspora waiting and watching for Messiah.

Take a look here people, a good look at this Canaanite woman, this “Gentile” because she is arguing on your behalf.

None of us gathered here most likely have any Jewish background.

None of us here have been about the task of keeping the Torah, keeping the Sabbath and the commandments or observing the laws.

Most of us wouldn’t know a bar-mitzvah from a bar of soap.

So then, when Jesus says he was not sent for her,- “I have come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  – he is saying that he was not sent for us either… not in this moment, not in his own self-understanding of his mission at this moment in time.

That puts you and me out in the cold.

What Jesus would decide to do with this woman’s request, is what Jesus would have decided to do with all of our requests, as we come to him as Gentiles, foreigners, and outsiders.

So how would you have reacted to Jesus?  Would you have been insulted by his remarks?  Outraged?  Argued with him?  What would you have done?

The woman’s answer is most intriguing.

She agrees with Jesus.

Yes Jesus, perhaps I do have no right to ask this of you.  Maybe you did not come specifically for my benefit.  Yet, am I not able to receive some scraps, some crumbs that fall unintentionally, or purposely, from the master’s Table?

The scraps of God’s bountiful grace are enough, more than enough to help me.

That is an incredible statement of faith!

This woman’s vision of God is far greater than Jesus’ own vision of God or of himself at this moment, and It takes him back a bit.

The hazard of being human is that temptation to begin to think in limited ways, (as humans will) or to think as the world tempts us think, to be about drawing lines.

The scraps are more than enough to save her little girl.

That is what is reckoned as faith to this woman.  She sees the truth.  God is big enough to provide for everyone, and everyone is of God’s concern.  The least bits that God lets fall around are more than enough to bring healing and life and power to her and to her people.

In that moment, Jesus is taught by her.

Can we dare to believe that?

Can we dare to believe that the power of human pride and arrogance is so overwhelming that even Jesus is not immune from its most powerful temptations?

The whole world is looking for Messiah.  The whole world is looking to Jesus.

The lost sheep becomes all of us, — everyone caught in the web of sin in this world that ever tempts us to draw lines, and draw distinctions, and succumb to “this far and no more.”

All of us tempted to look at this world tribally, as “my people” as opposed to “your people.”

All of us are infected with a degree of racism simply because of our very humanity.

And so, in this moment, when confronted with this woman’s need, her faith and her persistence, Jesus is taught, or reminded, of God’s greatness.   He repents of the worldly viewpoint that even he is susceptible to at times, and grants what the woman requests.

“Let it be done for you as you wish.”

This is the good news of this Gospel.

This woman speaks for you and for me to Jesus.

This woman reminds Jesus of how big God’s table of grace truly is, something even Jesus needed to be reminded of, it appears.

And, if even Jesus needed a reminder of that, then we do too.

This is the good news of this Gospel.  Racism is something that even Jesus was tempted by, and something that he had to repent of, and if Jesus can both experience it and repent of it, so can we.

Jesus, it appears, could be taught when confronted.   The question remains, “Can we?”

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“Fear and Frantic Grabs” Matthew 14:22-33

To begin with, there is an awful lot for which we can be legitimately afraid.   Can we just acknowledge that right off the top?

As a flatlander from Nebraska, one of the scariest moments in my life was getting caught in a storm in deep water.

It was on a family vacation to a lake in Minnesota.  We didn’t own a boat, we rented one at the resort.   I still remember that it was a bright red open “Lund” fishing boat with a woefully underpowered small engine.  The wind came up suddenly, the skies clouded over and the motor struggled to push us back toward shore against the wind.  We went from “fun” gliding over the water to dipping and rising with the swells, almost losing sight of the shore between the waves.  There is something particularly disconcerting about water sloshing over the sides of the boat and gathering around your ankles.

I was pretty young at the time and so I don’t think I was actually contemplating drowning or dying, but I certainly felt very much out of control and could see the look of panic in the faces of the adults in the boat with us.

So, in this story, I totally get the terror of the disciples.

There was probably not a one of them in the boat who could actually swim,- even the fishermen.   Learning to swim in largely desert Palestine was probably not high on the list of things to do on your summer vacation like it was for me, and there were no life preservers.  The prospect of the wind being against them and struggling to make shore would have unnerved even the most seasoned of fishermen.

The fear and the danger in this Gospel story is real.

We can tend to forget that knowing how the story ends.

We even sometimes criticize old Peter for his “lack of faith.”  I’ve heard and probably delivered a number of sermons on the need to “get out of the boat” in faith.

You can deliver a sermon like that when you know that in the end the storm is stilled and things all turn out just fine.  Go ahead, step out in faith!

But, when you’re in the middle of it all, there is no such reassurance.

So, acknowledging that the fear and the danger is real in this story is the first step toward finding the good news in this story.

In similar fashion, the fear and danger that we have in this present “storm of life” is no less real.  There is much for which we can be legitimately afraid, and real harm is possible.

We can acknowledge that, right?

Did you ever think we’d be tap dancing around Nuclear exchanges again?  “Fire and Fury” meets “Enveloping fire” with escalating threats sounding every bit like bullies on the playground.

We have become keenly aware of how little check there is on leaders when they use the rhetoric of irrationality.

Or who would have thought that just a little cracking open of the door on nationalism, tapping into some good ol’ patriotic pride and playing to American exceptionalism would result in the White Nationalists rising again and hate speech mongers scurrying out like cockroaches?

We hear the angry rhetoric of hate, and see things that my grandfather and father would never have dreamed possible.  The Swastika flying in America, beside the Confederate flag and stars and stripes.

We fought a war, and have proclaimed the message, “never again” – and yet the seeds of anger, privilege and bigotry are as persistent as ragweed.  It springs up to irritate and choke out all too readily.

So, we’re afraid, and the danger is real, and we need to own up to that.

We’re afraid right now that cooler heads will not prevail in time of crisis.

We’re afraid that the evil released by inflammatory rhetoric cannot be contained, but instead will continue to spill out like the plagues of Pandora’s Box, doing damage, overrunning and overwhelming the good.

The fear in our own lives is real.

That’s the starting place for finding the good news in this Gospel story.   The fear that we feel is just as real as the fear the disciples felt in that boat.

The second thing we need to acknowledge in this story is that the picture of Jesus as he appears is of no real comfort.

This is a Jesus who seems detached and distant, and who confuses us.  Just last week the good news revolved around how Jesus would not dismiss the crowds.  Not until they had been fed.  Not until they had been satisfied with compassion.

But now with those things met, Jesus himself dismisses the crowds, and the disciples as well.  He sends them off and then goes off to the mountain to pray.

As the storm rises on the lake and the disciples begin to struggle, we are left to wonder if Jesus is paying any attention to the events at all.

How did the disciples get into their predicament in the first place???

It was at Jesus’ command that they set off on the perilous journey.  Jesus told them to get into the boat and go ahead of him.

Is that really the case, that Jesus sends us out to our own peril while he’s off doing something else?

Sometimes it seems that way.

Sometimes it is in the midst of doing what we thought Jesus told us to do that we find ourselves thrown into the midst of the storm.

There were clergy and lay people gathered for prayer on Friday night in preparation for the “Unite the Right” assembly in Charlottesville when a group of torch bearing people there for the assembled showed up at the University of Virginia chapel and surrounded the place.

Do you suppose those inside felt like the disciples bobbing in the boat?

And, hey let’s admit it.  If Jesus really wanted to be helpful to those disciples in their peril out in the boat, why didn’t he just calm the storm from where he was when he first noticed it?   Why let the disciples bob around like corks waiting for him to show up?

And speaking of that, you can’t read this story without thinking how absolutely unhelpful it was to have Jesus walking out over the waves toward them!

First of all, he turns out to be unrecognizable to his disciples from their storm-tossed position in the boat.  We are told he looks like a ghost, and no one finds a ghostly apparition walking toward them particularly comforting in the midst of danger or difficulty.

Secondly, what exactly was Peter thinking?   “If it is you Lord, bid me come to you?”   Here’s a great way to find out if you’re unsure, step out of the boat and see if you sink!

Just having Jesus “show up” while you’re in the midst of the storm turns out to be not very helpful.

The storm rages on.

The unsteady legs that try to step out in faith on their own will inevitably falter and sink.

The mind is too distracted by the events around you, the wind and waves to focus on clearly on Jesus.

It’s going to take a little more than Jesus “just showing up” to get us through our time of fear when the danger is real.

Which, as it turns out, is the point of the story, because the story isn’t just about Jesus “showing up.”

No, it’s about what Jesus does in response to Peter’s cry.

It turns out that this is a story about a display of the power of God.   It’s about a God who ignores the laws of physics he put in place and upends the natural order to get to us when called upon.

This is the source of hope and comfort in the Gospel here.

When Peter says, “Lord, save me!”   we witness a God in Christ Jesus who reaches out and grab him and pull him up out of the waters.

That’s the moment around which everything else revolves.

This is the action—Jesus reaching out at the right moment to catch hold when we falter.  That calms the storm in the story, and perhaps in our world.

The gospel presses us to see that Jesus is doing more than just “showing up.”

Jesus defies the normal rules, controls the wind and waves, all for this moment.  The moment when we cry out and when he can reach in to grab us.

This is a part of the biblical story that we see time and again, and yet it is hard to keep in focus.

The storm of life is so overwhelming sometimes, the bad news so persistent, the appearance that evil is winning so prevailing that we can lose sight of the God who strides into this world to save.

God strides in with the birth of Jesus in the first place.

God strides in where we don’t think anyone could ever go, and reaches into the midst of the maelstrom, pulling out and saving.

Where do we sense or see Jesus reaching out to grab us these days?

It might be in the actions of those around us.   Those who will speak and will not keep silent.

It might be in the words that remind us of God’s unfailing love and intention for this world, that no matter how bad things look at the moment God has not given up on us, or on this world, nor has God just stepped back to let happen what will happen.

No, the promise in this Gospel is that Jesus is not in the business of just casually “showing up.”

He comes with intention.

He come not as just some shadowy, ghostly figure, who we hope is who he says to be, who is barely perceptible amidst all other static and noise of the storm around us.

No, Jesus comes to make God’s presence known, and to confirm the power God has to save.

It is not with our faltering steps and actions that we find hope, as necessary as they may be, but it is ultimately with the firm grasp of God upon us at the moment that we need it that we trust and depend.

Jesus comes, and while we sometimes think faith is about our weak attempts to step out and act in faith, that is not what we put our hope and trust in at all.

It is instead about a firm hand that comes and says, “Gotcha!” at the right moment when we think we’re about to slip under.

That’s the good news today, to a people who have real things to fear, and for a time when there is real danger.

God is not done with us or with this world.

Even if we can only dimly perceive his presence amidst the storm, he is coming with intention, with an outstretched arm and mighty hand to those who call out.

That is the promise of God this day.

Jesus says with his actions and presence— “I’ve got you….”

“Now When Jesus Heard This..” Matthew 14:13-21

“Now when Jesus heard this….”   That’s the opening line of the Gospel today.   It is an opening which we mostly jump over to get to the “good stuff” of the feeding of the 5000.

But today I’d like us to slow down and reconsider this opening a bit.   This is, after all, the comment that drives the whole narrative!

“When Jesus heard this…”

Oh, and it’s not just the driver of the narrative for Jesus. The very next sentence in the story begins “But when the crowds heard it, they followed on foot..”

Whatever is being “heard” is both what prompts Jesus to get into a boat and withdraw, and the same thing that motivates the crowds to strike out on foot looking for Jesus.

And what was it that Jesus heard about?

He heard about the death of John the Baptizer.

This is the event that drives Jesus to withdraw in the boat and the crowds to pursue him.

Does that make a difference in the way we hear this story and what it is about?

As I said, we like to rush ahead to the feeding of the 5000.

When we do that we assume that the point of this story is Jesus coming out here in the wilderness to “do a miracle.”

We assume and that the point of the story is that everyone is looking for bread, and here’s a story of how Jesus commands his disciples to take on the power Jesus has to offer.

When you jump ahead to the feeding, we tend to mine the feeding event for all the details that it has to offer.

“Dismiss the crowds” the disciples say, so they can get something to eat.

“You give them something to eat…”  Jesus says.

Five loaves and two fish feed multitudes, and we debate whether the miracle is one of multiplication or of people able to share what they already have.

Jump ahead to the feeding, and you risk forgetting what is driving the narrative.  You get caught up in what the Disciples do, Jesus ends up doing, and what feeding might have to say to you, what you ought to do, what you could do, and whether or not Jesus wants everyone fed.

Jump ahead and ponder the feeding, and you naturally are consumed with the question of what you are supposed to do, since Jesus’ command is directed to his disciples.

“You give them something to eat” he says.

Since a disciple is what you are, off we go into the realm of thinking about how we are to do that work that is commanded by Jesus.

But slowing down a bit allows us to put that directive on the back burner.  As important as it is to think about what Jesus calls us to do, and as important as it is to feed people who are hungry, the call to action is not what drives the narrative.

Grief is driving what happens here.

It is grief upon hearing about John’s death that makes Jesus want to withdraw.  He slips off to a “lonely place” to consider what such a message, an event will mean for him and his own ministry.   Where does the message about the Kingdom of God go from here, when the one making ready for the Kingdom’s coming is gone?

It is grief that causes the crowds to seek out Jesus.

The “voice of one crying in the wilderness” has been silenced.   John had talked about God’s coming.   John had been the one who called for action.  “Bear fruit that befits repentance!”   There is extreme loss amongst the people.   There is no longer a voice telling them what they must do.   There is no longer a voice calling into question their own religious leaders, their actions.   The voice that critiqued and spoke truth to power, telling Herod that he could not take his brother’s wife for his own was silenced.   Who now would speak out against complacency and against corruption, and call into question the status quo?

Where are we to turn now, with John no longer preparing the way?   Will the Kingdom still come, and is Jesus the one to whom we are to look?

John himself had pointed to Jesus, but even John had his doubts.

John had sent his own disciples to inquire of Jesus, whether he was “the one” or whether another should be looked.

And so, the crowds decide to go and see for themselves what Jesus will have to say in the face of this event. The crowds are seeking out Jesus in the midst of their own grief and confusion.

Just dwell in that today for a while, and return to the question I started the service with today.  “What is it that grieves you today?”

We heard a number of answers.

Some were personal, the loss of loved ones, the loss of jobs or friends or way of life.

Some were more universal.  The loss of innocence.  The loss of the way things used to be, a longing for the past, or for the remembered past which can be quite different from the way things “really” were.   We tend to idolize and idealize things.

The ice cream of our youth was so much better than the guar gum and Xanthan stuff you get in the store now.

The church was so much more friendly, homogenized, powerful, central to people’s lives, enjoyed privilege in society — whatever we remember it being at the time when classrooms seemed full, sanctuaries packed and extended families were intact and living close to one another.

What would it be like to come to church today and not rush on to what we need to do, to feed people, or gather baskets full of stuff, but just to be seeking Jesus in the midst of our own grief, — personal, national, or corporate?

What would we hope for, finding him sitting in his own grief in the bobbing boat?

Would we, perhaps for the first time, see in Jesus the compassion we would hope for?

This is what comes to us as the first gift of Jesus.

It’s not his furious activity.

It’s not his words, teachings, parables or witty repartee with the Pharisees.

It’s not the even the activity of healing, feeding or listening.

No, the first gift we receive from Jesus is his compassion.

And, guess what?  Compassion turns out to be a gift that can be shared and given even in the midst of one’s own grief!

In fact, your compassion becomes immeasurably more powerful when it comes from a place where you are grieving yourself.

Giving compassion from the midst of your own grief is close.

Giving compassion from the midst of your own grief is empathetic, heart-felt and heart breaking.   It is to know and recognize the disappointment of the other and to speak into it as well as speaking out of it.

This why this story, and this moment is so powerful for Jesus, and for us.

We recognize that what Jesus does here, he does out of his own broken heart.   He begins to heal their sick out of a sense of compassion for them.

He inhabits this space.   This “lonely place” with those who are also grieving and in the midst of that clarity of vision about the Kingdom begins to take shape.

John had pointed toward it.

Jesus had proclaimed it in their midst.

And now, with broken hearts that need mending and the healing of accompaniment, the disciples are pointing out the obvious.

We don’t enough food to feed these folks.

Maybe it is time to “dismiss” them.

And… it is that comment about dismissing that pushes Jesus to the next statement.   “They need not go… you give them something.”

This is what Jesus will not do to the grieving and the broken hearted, no matter how logical it may be or how necessary.  It’s what he won’t let his disciples do either.

Jesus will not dismiss them.

So today, just for a moment, let that sink in.

This is perhaps the seminal moment for how the Kingdom of God will come.

We thought it came in with feeding, and taking care of people’s physical hunger.  We were so eager to understand how to do that.  So eager to “do” that.

But what drives the story instead is grief and the showing of compassion.

So then, maybe…. Just maybe, that should be our cue as well.

Maybe instead of trying to figure out what to do next, as a nation, a church, a people and getting wrapped up in “doing,” we ought to just bring our broken hearts to Jesus and to one another.

Maybe we should pause from expecting Jesus to DO something just long enough to recognize this — his heart is broken as well.

Jesus grieves, with us.  He grieves the loss of the things that we had put great stock and hope in….whatever that may be for you.

Maybe before we get all excited about what Jesus can do with bread and fish, we ought to slow down and see what Jesus does with the broken hearted, and learn the first lesson from him.. that it is compassion that leads the way into the Kingdom of God.

Where is your heart hard today?

Where would you rather go gather bread than just sit and be?

Where would you find yourself speaking words of dismissal?

“They don’t deserve…”

“They shouldn’t have….”

“I never would have…”

This day, may the words of dismissal be particularly bitter on our tongue, for these are the words that Jesus will not speak, and they are certainly the words we would never want to hear from him.

It is alright to dwell in grief a bit, for it opens the way to the next step we must take.

It is perfectly fine to step away to a lonely place yourself, and let your own disappointments accompany you there.

It is good to find others who share your grief, and to find ways to minister in the midst of it together.

In such a holy moment, the Kingdom comes near, and what looks like too little becomes abundance.

What grieves you this day?   Find the compassion of Jesus waiting for you, and healing you.

That’s what we find when we slow down and don’t rush so quickly to what we must do.

“Infestation” Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52

 

Complete this sentence for me.  “You aren’t a real ________ until ________.”

Experience truly is the grand teacher, isn’t it?   You may think you understand something, or know what something is about, or have studied something enough that you believe you understand everything about it, and then BAM!   You have some experience and you get a whole new level of appreciation!

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells a series of parables about the Kingdom, and we kind of think of them as somehow all relating to one another.  We often approach Matthew 13 as if it is a cumulative teaching experience.  By that I mean by unpacking each and every one of these parables we somehow get a deeper, better understanding of the Kingdom of God.

This approach however also makes us scratch our head a bit.  Which is true, that the Kingdom is like a Pearl, or like a Mustard seed?   Is it valuable beyond measure, or a weed?   What are you trying to say to us Jesus?

A better way to approach Matthew 13 might be to see it as a collection of impressions or sayings that are meant to impact people who know that experience.

Parables that describe the Kingdom of God it in terms of agriculture are meant for those accustomed to working with the soil, and so they will be readily understood by farmers, but perhaps not so much by bakers or fishermen, and so Jesus tells a parable from their particular world.

Bakers know about leavening.

Fishermen know about nets and fish.

Shepherds know about “setting the table” – the nature of invasive plants like mustard that must be cleared out of fields.

Jesus is therefore telling a succession of parables that are all designed to hit a particular audience, much the same way your own sharing this morning may have “hit” some of with a similar experience that was familiar to you, and experience you have had, while others not so much.

And, above all of that, there is one particular experience that all of these parables speak to of which we are just now becoming aware.

They are spoken into an age of Empire.

We may not have been able to hear these parables correctly before, but it is becoming increasingly easier to understand them in the post 9/11 world, as we undeniably live into our own “age of empire.”

The United States is an Empire, make no mistake about that.

Previously we were able to deceive ourselves with the narrative of being a “scrappy young country,” or one powerful nation among many in the world.

But all of that faded away with the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11.

For good or for ill we are now perceived as an Empire by various parts of the world and being considered an Empire is always a mixed bag of experience.

On the one hand, Empire brings stability and a certain level of peace and prosperity.  Trade flows freely, conflict is minimized, and the one with the biggest military, holds sway over any lesser adversaries.

But Empire also brings with it the imposition of an outside will upon others, influence and the preference of a privileged culture over the indigenous culture.

Empire sets what will be the standards and norms by which others will be required to live, and that (no matter how benevolent) often ends up feeling oppressive and offensive.

So it was that the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day imposed its peace upon Judea. It was true, there were no conquering armies, no longer contested territories, or petty squabbles with the neighboring nations.

Rome kept the peace, and it kept order.

The only “cost” of that was subversion of the local culture.  Roman currency replaced the local coinage, weights and measures.  Roman ideas influenced daily life.   Roman laws demanded attention and took precedent over existing local customs, traditions of dealing with things, and courts.

All this was done as you watched your country being mined of its own natural and economic resources.  Wealth was extracted to support the Empire, and preserve the stature of leaders within the larger Empire.

If you are living in the Empire and enjoying its benefits, (among those to whom the wealth is flowing,) all you can see is how much of a benefit this is.  “Why are people ungrateful?   See what we provide for them?”

If, however you are a part of the Empire from which the wealth is being extracted and whose culture is being altered, all you can see is how oppressive and intolerable things are becoming for you.

You begin to look for ways to resist, and really there are only two options open to you.

You can resist Empire by force.

Indeed you find that in the scriptures.  There were many who ignited hopes, looking for a new king, or general, or a messiah like King David of old, arising from the Galilee, and from the fringes… zealots and insurrectionist and would-be messiahs who would be able to throw off the Roman oppression.

You see that in the Gospels, and Empire knows what do with such threats.   It crushes them by force.  Empire deals swiftly and harshly with insurrectionists.

It crucifies them.

But there is another way to subvert Empire, and this is what we see Jesus speak of in these parables, and what is revealed in Jesus’ ministry.

You can infest Empire with ideas that subvert it.

You can change Empire from within, undo it without raising a sword or firing a shot.

It’s important that as you hear these parables, you begin to hear them from the context of living under Empire, and what you can do in the midst of that reality.

“The Kingdom of God is like Mustard seed that someone sowed in his field….”

Mustard is an invasive plant, and no one “sows: it.   One usually spends one’s whole life trying to get rid of it.

It takes over.

It grows without cultivation.

It takes over fields so that birds begin nesting, finding shelter in the tangled mess where once crops were being harvested for Caesar.  The vulnerable find a place of safety hiding in it.

Look again at what Jesus does with his teaching.

You can infect an Empire that runs on profit and return with a message of not worrying about tomorrow.  “Consider the lilies…”

You can infect an Empire that depends upon fear and intimidation with messages of love and confidence.   “Do not be afraid… Do not worry… Do not be anxious…”

You can infect an Empire that is bent on meting out retributive justice by proclaiming a message of turning the other cheek, and letting God do the sorting of the righteous and the unrighteous in God’s time.

You can infest the thoughts of an Empire that is obsessed with station in life, position and privilege by proclaiming the concepts of all being welcome, and equal.  You can bring into question who is of value, and who is worthy of concern and attention by healing the outcast, and showing regard for the lame, the widow, the child.  You can tell stories about caring for the neighbor like the Good Samaritan.

Who is proving to be “neighbor?”   Go and do likewise!

You can infect a world that likes its order with ideas of the first being last, and the last being first, and those who lose their life gain it, and those who try desperately to cling to their own comfort and life ending up losing it.

This is what these parables of the Kingdom reveal to us.  They are about how the Kingdom works in the midst of an Empire that you cannot oppose outright but that you can transform from within, and it looks very much like an infestation that Empire can’t weed out.

Is that how it works still?   Yes!  And this is the good news in all of this.

I find a lot of people feeling pretty powerless these days.

We watch the machinations of the government, hear about executive orders signed, watch as our Senators and Congressional representatives debate things that seem to leave out concerns for the individual in favor of what would be good for the “bottom line,” – pass or attempt to pass legislation that seems to favor the people who pull the strings of Empire and forget about the citizen.

We write our legislators, send our words of displeasure, or encouragement, or calls for change, and it all quite frankly seems like a hopeless or worthless effort.

Who listens to me?

I cannot impose or demand of the rich or the powerful.

I cannot catch the ear of the president or the eye of the Governor.

What can I do?

I can do the work of the Kingdom.

I can cling to this promise Jesus makes that Empires can be undone by infestation, and people can be transformed from within, and that the Holy Spirit is moving amongst all those gathered in the big net of this world which will one day be sorted out.

You and I, we can sow seeds and hide yeast and lock away resources in ways that frustrate the rich and powerful, and call into question the very values that Empire assumes until the Kingdom of God slowly infiltrates and changes everything.

This is slow work, to be sure, but this is our calling.

This is the good news.

Empires fall.

Injustices do not last.

Rulers hold sway for but a brief time.

The Kingdom that God brings finds its way into everything, and will transform the places where it gets a foothold.

This is a word of hope to those who find themselves living in the shadow of Empire.

Judgment When? Matthew 13:24-30

Jesus tells the parable of the Wheat and the weeds as a way of describing how God is working in God’s creation to bring about the Kingdom.  It is a bit of a frustrating picture.

The “weeds” that Jesus describes in this parable is most likely Darnel, a plant that looks just like wheat when it is young and as it grows, but which only shows its ugly head – literally– when the wheat is already tall and begins to head out.   Then you in can see it for which stalks are wheat plants, and which are the offending weed.

But by now there is a problem.  Darnel has a gangly root system that intertwines with the surrounding plants.  If you try to take it out when you can finally recognize it, you will take out the good with the bad.

There is no doubt that the offending weed, (just like evil) must be dealt with.

The questions raised in the parable, and in life, are numerous.

Jesus therefore tries to answer a number of questions with this parable.  The first question that we don’t often even think about, is the question of where evil comes from.

“Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?”  The servants ask.

That turns out to be a loaded question, one that find ourselves we bringing to God from time to time under our breath.

If God is good, and God creates everything, then where does this evil we see in the world come from?  Where do these “weeds” come from that pop up and that we can seemingly do nothing about?

Well evil, like weeds, is often just a good part of creation misplaced.

“An enemy has done this.”  The Master proclaims.  Someone has put something where it shouldn’t be!

A quick garden tour or walk outside will reveal the similar dilemma.

Do you have a Barberry bush like the ones in front of the church?  They are a beautiful ornamental plant, native to Japan and China brought here as an ornamental shrub, and you can still buy them for that purpose, but they are also fast becoming an invasive species.  Nothing here naturally uses them for food, and so they grow wild unchecked in woodland areas, choking out native species.   We also recently discovered that they are contributing to the tick population as mice nest beneath the thorns evading their predators, which contributes to the Lyme disease outbreaks, which….

The list goes on.    Is Barberry an “evil” plant?   You might think so if you have to trim it or get tangled up in its thorns, but it’s not evil in and of itself, just “misplaced” from where natural checks and balances would keep it from spreading.

Begin therefore to see God’s frustration, God’s dilemma if you will.  The whole of creation was made good.  Barberry has its place, but it’s not North American forests.

Darnel has its place.   But Darnel’s place is not in the middle of the wheat field.

So also there are things that we have or that we do that sometimes get

misplaced.

It is good to have care and concern for your neighbor, to “check-up on them” from time to time.  (especially in these hot summer days!)

But, too much checking up on the neighbor becomes snooping.

Sharing with others about a need you see that the neighbor needs help with is care for them.

Talking about what you saw or discovered can however go from sharing concern to simply gossiping.

Gossip begins to breed resentment and resentment distrust and then that activity of “checking up” on the neighbor ends up destroying the very community for which checking up on your neighbor was intended to care.

Is it bad, evil to care about your neighbor?  No, but such care can become misplaced!

In the same way, it can be evil not to care, to let your neighbor, your neighborhood, your community deteriorate because you don’t want to be seen as a nuisance, or a busybody.

Something happens in the house next to you, noise and shouts and sounds of violence.  Do you call the police?   Do you risk your family, your neighborhood, the label it might bring to you?

Which is worse, to be known as someone who does not care, or to be known as someone who is a nosy neighbor?

When does calling the authorities move from being an action that upbuilds the neighborhood to one that erodes trust between neighbors?

You see the problem?

How is God to deal with evil when it is not so easy to identify and when it is so often simply something good that is misplaced?

The answer, Jesus says, lies in this matter of the Kingdom.  God will wait until the time of harvest to distinguish, to judge, and then to separate.

Now at first that does not sound like much comfort at all.  It means that you are most likely going to have to contend with evil, with ambiguity in your life.

Know that God does not like the thought of that any better than you do!

God would just as soon not have to deal with the activity of “the enemy” at all, who is in the habit of putting things where they simply do not belong.

We also have to acknowledge that more often than not, such things are our activity!

We are the ones who often put things where they should not be!

We are the ones who do things that should never have been done.

We are the ones who have said things better left not voicing in that place.

We are the ones who have caused no end of messes in this world simply because we acted too rashly, or did not act in time, or did not act when we should have.

The world is a messy place, and most of the messes are ones for which we have sown the seeds in one way or another.

God has two choices in dealing with the messes of this world.

God could come in hacking, pulling, and uprooting without much regard for the circumstances of the individual or “collateral damage” to those nearby.   It is certainly with God’s right, power, and ability to do that.

Or God could choose the timing of judgment, and let things grow together for a time.

God chooses, it appears, (according to Jesus) to deal patiently with us, and with God’s creation.

Here is what God chooses to do.

God cares enough for you that God does not want to accidentally destroy you in any quest to rid the world of evil.

The judgment part of this parable, (which we normally recoil from) is actually a part of the good news, because it asserts that things will get sorted out.  Not by us, (which is too often our mistake!)

We start to think that WE are part of judgment, making decisions about who is wheat, who are weeds, —  who should stay, who should go.  It is our “judgment” action in this world that so often results in some of the very evil of which we would seek to rid the world.

The parable reminds us that sorting things out is God’s task, and one better left to the time of judgment.

You will live with evil in your midst, not because God desires it, but rather because God loves this creation so much.  Evil will intertwine itself around your very roots from time to time, not because God sows it in your midst, but rather because much of what turns out to be evil is just misplaced good.

But God has made you, and God trusts and believes that you are stronger than whatever threatens you.

God provides the sustaining power of the Gospel with a promise that a time of harvest and of sorting things out will be coming.

Until that time, God will continue to send the gentle rains, on the just and the unjust.

God will continue to give the life-giving warmth of his Son, to sustain those who find themselves surrounded and intertwined by evil.

What at first does not sound very comforting, is in reality the ultimate in care.

God cares enough for you that God will not allow you to be forgotten, lost in the shuffle, forsaken or accidentally cut down in any vendetta to rid the world of evil.

You will be saved from whatever evil you are caught up in, or whatever misplaced endeavors you have found yourself entangled in when the time is right and safest for you.

That is God’s promise in this parable.

Beloved children of God, I want you to know this today.

No matter where you are.

No matter what chaos or evil seems to surround you right now.

No matter what you may have done to make yourself look like a weed.

God knows where you are, and what you, and you are in God’s care and keeping.

Our God is a loving God who cares for all of creation, and who can see when things are misplaced.

God can identify the enemy, and knows what to do about it, and more importantly, when to do it.

The harvest is coming, and in that time the things that are misplaced will be gathered up and put in their proper place again.

For the Moments Matthew 13

Someone probably should have told Matthew that parables are very much like jokes.  It never really works to “explain” one.

You either “get it” or you don’t.

So, Matthew’s account of the “parable of the sower” as told by Jesus is not my favorite.  The explanation that Matthew includes here tends to make us want to rush headlong into understanding the parable and parsing it all out.  We try to figure out who is what kind of soil, and immediately want to embark on some kind of a “soil improvement program” or perhaps “sower training” to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

After all, isn’t the point to get better results?  Isn’t that the goal in life, to take the guesswork out things and to get consistent results?

So, we hear the parable and rush into trying to figure out how to fertilize to guarantee a consistent harvest.

Where do we need to work in a little mulch to loosen up that rocky soil, and what would we use for that?  How would we go about it?

Maybe we’d be better off not scattering the seed quite so liberally.  Now that we know what it takes to be a disciple, can’t we be a bit more selective about where we focus our resources?

By introducing the explanation of the parable, Matthew shifts our focus away from what appears to be the main point all along, which is this:

Nobody knows exactly how this “Kingdom of God” thing is all going to play out in the end – not even Jesus.

We find that unsettling, maybe even unacceptable.

But just look at the situation into which this parable is told.  Jesus is gathering crowds, big ones!   He’s pushed by those crowds who want to hear him so much that today they’ve got him backed up to the water’s edge.

One more step back and he’s wading.

Surely this is a picture of the kind of “success” Jesus is having in his ministry.   He’s packing them in!

So, Jesus hops in a nearby boat, pushes off from shore so his words will carry over the water and begins to teach.

“He told them many things.”    Matthew records, but the topper, the memorable one seems to be this parable about a sower who scatters without regard to where the seeds end up, and who gets unpredictable results.  Even if the seeds fall on the “good soil,” we still don’t get a predictable result!  “Some a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

You just don’t know what you’re going to get, scatter it anyway, let it fall where it may.  That’s the Kingdom of God.

Drop everything else you think this parable might or ought to be about for a moment and just let that sink in.   What you are called to do, you do, with no preconceived notion of what the results will be.

Why would you do it?

Why be a sower if you can’t guarantee a harvest?   That’s folly, after all!   You wouldn’t last long in farming if you couldn’t feed yourself or grow a decent crop consistently.

I was having a conversation recently with someone who asked me how many weddings and funerals I had done over the 30+ odd years of being a Pastor.   I had to confess that I really didn’t know.   I received a register book when I graduated from Seminary for just such a purpose, to record all my official clergy actions through the years so that I would be able to look back upon them all someday.

But I had to keep records for the particular parish I served anyway, so it seemed to me like an unnecessary duplication of things.   Besides, when you’re young you think you’ll always remember important events.

“I’m NEVER going to forget THAT wedding!” or “THAT person.”

But 30 some years takes the edge off memory.  Experience changes what one counts as “memorable” over time.  I didn’t keep the register up.

I have no idea how many babies and adults I’ve baptized.

I can’t give you a precise number of funerals I’ve done.

I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve counseled or for whom I’ve done wedding ceremonies.

It all becomes kind of a blur after a while, it truly does.

I never really goaled toward numbers.

I didn’t become a pastor to pay that much attention to the “bottom line” of measured effectiveness.  I’ve always been more of a sower and scatter-er.

That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes get caught up in the numbers game as much as anyone else.  The world wears at us after all, with its economic insistence of “return on investment” and “sustainability” and “proof of effectiveness.”

That’s one of the primary reasons for the funk in the church right now I think.   We have our eyes focused upon the results column more than usual these days, tallying how many congregations are growing, how many are shrinking, how many are in decline, and how many are vibrant or viable.

We are as much attracted to the explanations for that floating out there, (or the attempts at them,) as anyone else; as if by “figuring out” the right trend and formula we could reverse decline or multiply positive ministry gains.

But that’s not the image I get from Jesus as he tells this parable… minus the explanation.

Looking out over the biggest crowd he has gathered to date, Jesus tells a parable about how you don’t know how it’s all going to turn out.

You do it anyway.

“Let anyone with ears, listen.”

So then, why does Jesus do this teaching, this healing, this parable telling?   He does it just to push it out there and see what catches in the moment.

It’s about the moment more than anything else.

In fact, that is much of the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels.   It is a “ministry of moments,” one thing leading to another, leading to a reaction, which leads to an isolated result, a difference made for that person.

Taken all together, we get a broader picture of God’s work of bringing in the Kingdom, but to watch Jesus in action is just to snatch at moments as they unfold.

Which pushes us back then to try to figure out the point of this parable.  If it’s not about improving results, getting consistent returns, just what is it about?   What am I supposed to “hear?”

Results are unpredictable.  But moments of wonder, now that’s something that makes the effort worthwhile!   I wonder if we aren’t supposed to get that, instead of pondering over an explanation and figuring things out.

You let a seed fall where it may.   You let it sit, come back a while later, and then you marvel at what has happened in the wake of the scattering.  It grows virtually everywhere, will sprout and take a shot at life in the harshest of places and under the most extreme of conditions.  Just marvel at that for a moment, — that’s what the Kingdom of God is like.

The kingdom of this world is all about results.   How do we improve the bottom line?        But this sower, this “word of God” stuff is all about moments of wonder where you see the start of something, the end of which you can’t predict, and still you marvel at how it starts.

“Let anyone with ears, listen.”

The kingdom of this world, Empire if you will, is preoccupied with how things will turn out, and how outcomes can be controlled, manipulated, economized and systematized for results.

The kingdom of God appears to be preoccupied with where and how things get their start, and watching something start out is good enough.  It is good enough for Jesus.  Good enough for the sower.

Is that good enough for you?

I was reminded of this at Camp this past week.   I’d like to be able to say that we take kids to Bible Camp so they will become life-long Christians engaged in their local congregations forever, a perpetual sustaining machine to keep the church going.

I’d like to say that, but I can’t.

I’ve taken kids to camp that ended up on the streets, or falling away from faith, or moved on to other expressions.

I can tell you that going to camp might help establish a good foundation for faith, but I can’t guarantee results.   Some will be hundredfold, but some sixty, and some thirty, and a bunch choked out by the cares of this world as well.

I can’t guarantee results, any more than Jesus could with the crowd assembled before him at the lakeshore.

In the end, Jesus will be abandoned by this multitude and left to die on a cross alone.

But did he get to see the start something with his sowing of the Word?  You bet!

People sometimes ask me if the kids had a good week at camp.   I usually say “yes,” but that’s not really true.  Weeks at camp have ups and downs, just like the rest of life.

You get the exhilaration of doing something, and the tears of homesickness.  You get bit by bugs and suffer though a not-so-favorite meal along with laughing harder than you ever have before, singing, making new friends and catching a glimpse of God’s splendor in creation.

In other words, you get these “moments.”

You glimpse beginnings, where something sprouts, or something takes root, or something falls just right that the potential is there for a beginning.

That’s camp.  That’s also the Kingdom of God.

So as unnerving as it may be to think of Jesus looking out over the biggest crowd of his career to that point and telling a parable about how you don’t know how it’s all going to turn out… that ends up being really good news.

You proclaim the Kingdom to watch the start of something and you let God worry about the harvest and return stuff.

You scatter the word, not to get a ledger book full of accomplishments, but a glimpse of a moment when something takes root.  You see some possibility spark in a person’s eye, or a witness a lump of emotion at the beauty of God’s love catch in their throat as they are overwhelmed by a sunset.  You glimpse a persistence to go out and do justice that takes root in someone’s life and actions.  You watch two people pledge lifelong love and faithfulness knowing that disappointment is just as possible.   You see a parent lift a child to God making promises, and for all the joy of that moment know there will be heartbreaks as well ahead.

This is what you do it for, this scattering of the Word of God, this “faith” thing.

You do it for the moments you get.  “Let anyone with ears, listen.

“Finding Your Place” Matthew 10:24-39

What is your place in life?   That’s a question that we all struggle with from time to time.   “What is my place in this world?   How do I fit in?”

We get a lot of help with answering that question of course, from competing sources.  There are many who would like to tell us what our place in life should be.

I flip on my public radio station and am greeted as being a “listener”.  Dear listener, this is what you should be doing, how you should be supporting KCUR, how much you depend upon us as your news station.  I am to be a listener, that’s my “place.”

“This is MY place on the radio dial.”

I flip on my Television and there I am a “viewer”.   I am reminded of the importance of the station and am invited to become a part of the “family.”

This is my “place.”   “We are your place for news, sports and weather.” The announcer assures me.

I go to a sporting event, and am invited to be a part of the “home” team.  I am a JayHawk, or a Wildcat, or a Tiger, or a Husker.  My place is defined by which side of the field I sit on, and what colors I wear.

In my work place I may be identified as a “valued employee” or a “member of the team” or a “leader.”  Each comes with its own set of understandings about place and position, about what I should do and should not do for the sake of the company, business or firm.

Even in the church, we engage in assigning a place.   “You are a disciple.”  We say.  “You are to be a follower of Jesus,” “You are a child of God,” and depending upon what that label conjures in your imagination, you sense the weight are responsibility of that “place.”

The church asks you to give from your abundance to support the ministry.  Stewardship, we call it, but it is a place.  It is a place of considering what you have and what you can and should share with others, and what the God who has given all things to you asks of you in thankful return.

The church asks you to serve, on this committee or this task force, to teach in Sunday School or usher or to set up for communion or any number of other “places.”  We want to put you in a place of service.   We tell you it will be a blessing.   We remind you that you will grow and find fulfillment in that place.

But, like all these “places” we are invited or assigned, there are questions that arise from time to time.

Is this really the place I want to be, or am supposed to be?

The Gospel today is a collection of Jesus’ thoughts on the matter of place and finding it.   They are three loosely connected sayings, maybe even delivered at different times and places, but Matthew has brought them all together, seeing them as saying something important as a unit.

So it is that we should look at them as a whole, and try to figure out what they can tell us about our “place.”

A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

Point number one about finding your place appears to be “Know who you are in relationship to others.”  

“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”

We may puzzle over what Jesus means by this, but it’s not that difficult to see if you think about it.   Don’t be surprised if those who don’t have anything good to say about Jesus, won’t have anything good to say about those who follow him either!

In fact, we watch this observation play itself out in the political arena nearly every day.  So many disparaging things get spoken by one party against the other for what they profess to stand for or believe.

People in authority are belittled or labeled, and name calling is engaged.

Snide comments are made about this candidate, or that person in authority. It is often done from an implied perspective of the speaker of the comments being “above” or superior to “those other folks.”

Your place is not above, and so be careful when you malign others or those in authority, for that has a way of reflecting back upon you and undermining the very qualities you most desire.  Name calling and labeling to assign people a place has a way of opening things for the darker side of life to enter in and take control.

Point number one:  Know who you are in relationship with others and choose to speak well of others.  Place is something you discover, not something you are assigned by the other.

Then there is this matter of acknowledgement, of recognizing.   Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

If point number one was knowing your place, (who you are in relationship to others) then point number two is this: Know how the relationship works.

There is nothing hidden that won’t come out.

There is nothing that goes on that God doesn’t notice, including falling sparrows and thinning hair.

Here is how relationship works.  It appears that God is intimately interested in your day to day life.

God wants to be there with you.

God gives words for you to speak into the circumstances of this world.

God guides and protects your life.  There is nothing worth worrying about in all that physical stuff.  What is worth worrying about is being attentive to the relationship.

God wants to be there with you, be seen with and in you!

That’s the gracious gift we have to share with a world full of falling sparrows and thinning hair.   The gracious gift you have as a disciple is that you can share God’s love and care with a world that is often terrified and wondering if God is even around anymore.

This is how the relationship works, for you to speak that gracious word, you’ve got to be willing to be seen as one connected to and in relationship with God.

God wants to be seen through you and your actions, but the question back in response is, “Do you want to be seen with God?”

If one denies God’s presence or involvement in their life in a public fashion with their words or actions, it’s very difficult to even imagine someone like Jesus mounting a defense of them to his Father.

How is Jesus supposed to argue on your behalf to the Father that you won’t even recognize as real, or refuse to believe has any influence or power over you in this world?

When you want to be seen with God, God has a way of showing up for others through you!

If you don’t want to be seen with God……what can Jesus do?   How can he point to you in pride to his Father?

It’s therefore not so much that Jesus will not speak up on your behalf, it’s more of a matter of not really having anything to say.

This is how the relationship works, it is mutual, give and take, connected in all things, not a “part” of your life, a “segment” of your time.

And what about all this “sword” stuff, this language of division even with families?   What has that got to do with knowing your place?  Well that would be point number three.

Jesus is simply pointing out that the sword of division in this life is real.

If you follow Jesus when you find your place in this world, there will likely be divisions that will spring up.  None perhaps will be more difficult or more poignant than those that take place within families.

In Matthew’s time, this very scene was being played out in earnest as those who follow Jesus are now being put out of the Synagogue.  Following Jesus was literally breaking up families in a culture where extended family was really everything, and it was incredibly painful to watch and to experience.

In our day, that doesn’t happen in exactly the same way, but the potential for following Jesus to impact families is there within each generation.

This relationship with God stuff is a source of division in families as children exert their independence, as parents try to control or impose their expectations.

It becomes a source of division as parents and grandparents try to influence the belief systems of children who may for a time go their own way, or may be trying to figure out how to forge a life with a beloved of a different faith or faith expression.

The sword is real.  We do get cut down, and divided, and separated.

Choices will be made, to follow Jesus in our own path, or to leave long standing traditions, or to abandon old ways that no longer work, or to adhere to the past.  In each choice made the relationships of extended family end up being tested and redefined.

Know who you are in relationship to others, know how the relationship works, (that it is mutual) and realize that the sword is real and divisions will happen.  That’s the general sense of these sayings of Jesus.  They all point to how it is that we come to understand our place in relationship to God, to one another, and to those closest to us.

The Good news in all of this is found in that assurance that God pays close attention to us.

Relationship work is indeed hard.

It causes us to question just where we are, what our place is, how we relate, and what we are called upon to do and to be.

Can we ever truly find out place, amongst all the competing pulls and tugs?

Yes, because God accompanies us into every place, and God tells us we are of incomparable value to God, or at least worth more than “many sparrows.”

Maybe that feels like small comfort.

Or maybe that’s all the comfort we really need.

In a world of falling sparrows and thinning hair, we are assured that nothing escapes God’s notice.  That is a promise worth holding on to as we find ourselves searching for our place in all things.