But…. Jesus and the 5000

I don’t know if I would ever say the word “but” to Jesus.

In our reading from Matthew 14:13-21 today, Jesus is in a deserted place. He left the highways and byways after learning that John the Baptist was beheaded during a feast by King Herod. Instead of responding to this violence inflicted on his cousin, Jesus retreats. Jesus, however, isn’t left alone for long. Word spread that he is in the area so people go out to meet him. Jesus finds an immense crowd looking for him. When he sees them looking for him, he stops retreating. He enters the crowd and heals the ones who are sick. Jesus is compassionate and full of love. As the day turns into evening, people start to get hungry. Instead of waiting for the crowd to become hangry (hungry + angry), the disciples asked Jesus to send everyone home. The disciples saw Jesus heal the sick but their imagination does not see Jesus dealing with their hunger. So the disciples, thinking about the crowds, invite them to take care of themselves.

Jesus, however, will have none of that. Instead, he invites the disciples to be as compassionate as he is and take care of the crowd. This is when the disciples use the word “but.” They claim they have nothing but five loaves and two fish. Five loaves and two fish are not nothing. The disciples do not think they have enough food to share. They are focused on feeding just themselves. They are blessed to have food but they lack the imagination to share it. Jesus then takes what they have and feeds everyone.

One of the unspoken ideas Jesus continually struggles against is the idea that there is only “so much” in the world. There is only so much love, so much kindness, so much food, so much housing, so many rights, so many opportunities, and so many other kinds of blessings in the world. Opportunities and material things are viewed as limited. Once we are receiving this blessing, we struggle to extend it to someone else. We are afraid that if we give it away, we will somehow lose that blessing for ourselves.

But Jesus invites us to see this blessings as opportunities to share the limitless love that God has. The text doesn’t claim that Jesus somehow multiplied the loaves and the fishes. Instead, he blesses what the disciples have and the disciples are empowered to feed everyone. The meal the crowd has is shared by everyone. The disciples, Jesus, and even the women and children eat their fill. Jesus is showing all of us that following him means taking what we have and sharing it abundantly.

Understand: Saying Yes to Jesus’ Parables

What was the last question you said “yes” to? And did you really mean it? In today’s reading from Matthew 13:31-33,44-52, we read parable after parable describing the Kingdom of God. All of these parables are short, sweet, and inexact. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a searching merchant, a net, and a scribe. Many of these “likes” are a bit absurd. A person finds treasure and hides it in a field. They then buy the field and keep their treasure buried. A merchant is looking for pearls, finds one, and then stops being a merchant. The fisherman waits until the fish are on the shore before he sorts through his catch but he doesn’t toss the unwanted creatures back into the water. And then, after a chapter full of parables, Jesus asked his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And the disciples said, “Yes.”

This doesn’t feel like a honest yes. When we step back and look at everything in Matthew 13, this “yes” by the disciples reads like a “yes” trying to get Jesus to stop talking. Over and over and over again, Jesus teaches them with a parable. The disciples are overwhelmed by absurd stories and they are not given the time to process what they’re hearing. So when Jesus finally paused and asked them a question, they respond with just, “yes.” They don’t even try to explain what they understand. Jesus understands what they are doing so he responds with another parable about scribes.

According to Richard Lischer in his book Reading the Parables, scribes in Jesus day were not like a master of a household. Scribes were important. They knew how to read and write. They were employed to take notes, write contracts, and compose letters. Even the apostle Paul used scribes to write his letters down. Scribes are useful but they are not the head of the household. They are hired by the head of the household. Yet Jesus says the disciples “will preserve…all that is eternal in the law and the righteousness of God, and so doing will find the greatest treasure of all.” The absurdity of Jesus’ ministry is that his followers of tax collectors, fishermen, women, and sinners will know, find, and pass God’s holiness and goodness to those around them.

Parables are not simple stories we’re asked to only understand. They are stories we’re supposed to chew on, over and over again. When we struggle with Jesus’ words, we discover who God is and what God expects of us. Jesus’ journey with us isn’t about providing easy answers to the dilemmas we face. Instead, he prepares us to live in the world like he does. And that world can sometimes be absurd.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 8th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/30/2017.

Life Carries On: A taste of prayer in Romans

Taking a Sunday off during a sermon series is a little problematic. But like the British band Big Audio Dynamite says, “Life carries on, even when I’m not there.” And that’s true. Life is happening to other people and in other places even as you read these worlds. As human beings, we are the centers of our own little universes. People and situations revolve, interact, and move through and around us. We sometimes act as if the possibilities of life are limited to our own experiences, senses, and imaginations. But other people lives, thoughts, and experiences that are not our own. We are all centers of our own little universes but we are not the center of the entire universe. Yet with God’s Spirit, we can see what a full, thriving, and loving life can possibly be.

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans 8:12-25 is amazing because Paul is making a bold claim here. He’s telling this small community of two dozen people that they are who the world is waiting for. These men and women, rich and poor, slaves and free, are everything. Now, there is a dangerous way to read this passage. If the Roman community took these words as an excuse to push others away or to act like they are the only people entitled to being with God, then Paul’s words create an us-vs-them view of the world that is problematic. The Roman community would seem themselves as “winners” and reject, forcefully, anyone who doesn’t fit in. Their relationship with God would be an entitlement that would be for them alone and no one else.

But Paul isn’t, I think, doing that here. We need to remember the context of Paul’s letter. He is writing to a small community located in the capital city of the Empire that killed Jesus. They are a community that celebrates and worships someone who was killed as a criminal in the worst way possible. They worship and celebrate what should be the epitome of weakness and smallness. And as a mixed community, they are filled with slaves who had no control over the violence inflicted on their bodies. This community is insignificant. Yet it’s this community that Paul says is worth everything. They, through the Spirit, will change the world.

And how will they do that? Paul doesn’t go into details here but will later in his letter. The how is rooted in the why because living with the Spirit makes a difference. We can see that in our prayers. When we pray, the Spirit is helping us to believe that our smallness can talk to the everlasting God. In our worship service, that’s why each Sunday has a specific prayer of the day. Before we read God’s story and share with Jesus a holy and special meal, we ask God to make that Spirit live within us. This Spirit doesn’t ask us to create a world of winners and losers. This Spirit asks us to live a life of love that is as complete as God’s love for each of us. Because it’s this kind of love, a love that even sacrifice itself for its enemies, that all our universes need.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 7th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/23/2017.

Side-By-Side

Parables “are fictional stories.”* They are the bread and butter of Jesus’ teaching ministry and filled with images from everyday life. Most of us are not farmers (but if you would like some eggs, there’s someone at CLC you should talk to) but we know what farmers do. Most of us do not plant seeds on acres of land but we do know the type of soil plants need to grow. This reading from the book of Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 is the first parable we will see in this season after Pentecost but it will not be the last. We read the stories Jesus told because Jesus is a storyteller.

As a storyteller, the stories Jesus tells can sometimes appear simplistic. Since these parables include images we know and understand, we trick ourselves into thinking any interpretation of a parable must be just as simple. If the parable confuses, challenges, or makes us uncomfortable, we seek out a simple answer to make ourselves feel better. We do a disservice to parables when we make them simple. Parables are confusing. They sometimes compare two things in striking and unpredictable ways. Parables sometimes do not make sense on the first (or 12th) reading of them and sometimes Jesus’ own explanation of these stories fails to clear up their meaning. Parables are important because they help expose “two equally deep mysteries: the mystery of God and the mystery of human life.”** The God who uses the phrase “I AM WHO I AM” as a name when Moses meets a burning bush is not a God who is neat, tidy, and containable. Anytime we limit God and Jesus inside a simple and safe definition, we miss experiencing who God really is. The God who created everything and who can never be fully comprehended by human beings is the same God who, through Jesus, entered into the mystery of human life. Parables do not try to explain away the mysteries of God and our lives. Instead, parables reveal these mysteries through stories that are challenging, familiar, odd, and comforting. Parables get the gears in our souls turning because engaging in all of life’s mysteries is one of the ways the Spirit transforms us into Godly people.

In today’s parable, a farmer is terrible at their job. The farmer doesn’t try to plant seed in only the places it will grow. Instead, the farmer throws seed around with abandon. In some places, the seed grows. In other places, it is eaten up. The farmer has a success rate of only 25% and yet the farmer keeps sowing. Where are you in the story today? Are you the farmer sowing seeds of love and life with abandon? Are you the rocky ground, the path, or the soil covered in thorns? Are you a seed waiting to sprout, not knowing what kind of soil you have landed in? Find your spot in the story – and discover what the Spirit wants you to hear today.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 6th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/16/2017.

* Richard Lischer’s Reading the Parables, page 3.
** Richard Lischer’s Reading the Parables, page 13.

Seek: Jesus’s Yoke

I’ve never worn a physical yoke but I have carried intangible ones that were very real. When Jesus talks about yokes in this passage from Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, he uses an agricultural image people in his crowd knew. A yoke is a heavy piece of wood used to connect two oxen side-by-side at the shoulders. Yokes were used in specific circumstances. One of the oxen would be experienced and well trained. They knew how to pull a plow or a heavy load. The other oxen in the yoke would be inexperienced. They were young and new to plowing. They wouldn’t know what’s expected of them. By teaming up an experienced ox with one who needs help, the farmer could plow their field and train their oxen at the same time. The oxen would do the hard work to prepare the field for planting, together. The old soil and plants from the year before would be plowed over and turned up. The new soil, once fertilized and filled with seeds, would grow a delicious crop. Without a yoke, the inexperienced oxen could never create a crop that would feed others. The yoke made that ox a creature that gives life.

As a baptized Christian, you are yoked. You might not feel it, physically, but you are connected to Jesus right now. As Shelley Best writes, “Through faith, we are partnered with Jesus and taught how to balance and maneuver what is at hand, with the help of one who transforms our deepest desires into passion for God’s just and merciful reign in the world.*” The gift of faith connects us to the One who knows us better than we know ourselves. We are bound to a Jesus who helps us to live in sync with him. This work isn’t easy. This work challenges who we are and what we know. And this work can feel like our trust in God is growing or fading or both, at the same time. There will be times when the heavy load we’re pulling feels like it’s impossible to carry on our own. But we are not alone. We are connected with Jesus. And we need to “trust Jesus to help us carry our load and find rest.”

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 5th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/9/2017.

* Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew Volume 1. Page 299-301.

Grow in Faith

Do you want to grow closer to God? Today’s passage from Matthew 10:40-42 is an answer to that question.

For the last three weeks, Jesus has been giving instructions to his disciples. Jesus’ work needs workers and the disciples are his hands and feet in the world. What Jesus did during his life on earth will be the disciples’ mission as well. They will bring good news to the poor, which might not be good news to the rich. The disciples will eat meals with the people society says not to. The disciples will advocate for healing and wholeness in a world that fights hard to deny wholeness to everyone. The disciples will preach, teach, and do. The work will be hard but it’s necessary, vital, and life-giving to those who do it.

Jesus’ final words of instruction are these 3 verses from Matthew 10. They are words centered in hospitality. Hospitality is more than inviting someone into your home. Hospitality means we need to be willing to be a guest in someone else’s home too. Hospitality is as simple as offering a cup of cold water to a thirsty child and as complicated as going into the home of an enemy and showing them love and compassion. We want to control how we practice hospitality. We want to decide who we invite into our home and whose home we are invited into. But Jesus breaks control in this passage. When it comes to being God’s people, we don’t get to chose who we show hospitality to. We are called to invite all people into our spaces and to go into the spaces of every other person too. When we do this, we are doing more than just being kind or compassion. We are actively engaged with God. We are actively living with God. We are actively welcoming God. It’s through hospitality that we discover just what it’s like to follow a God who created our world and who lived in it as a guest to show us what God’s love actually looks like.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 4th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/2/2017.

A New Family

This is the second week in a row when the gospel reading (Matthew 10:24-39) mentioned families. Last week on Father’s Day, brothers, fathers, and children turned against each other. This week, daughters are turning against mothers and mother-in-laws. The two readings are from Jesus’ instruction to his disciples before he sends them to do his work. Jesus tells his followers that this journey will not be easy. Jesus’ followers will not always be welcomed and loved. The message they are bringing will challenge and confuse the wider Greco-Roman culture. There’s something about Jesus changes the bonds we have with each other. And sometimes, the bonds inside our own families will break.

This message doesn’t seem to jive with the message we also hear in Jesus’ words today. Jesus tells his followers that God cherishes them. God knows each of them in a real and authentic way. These words are filled with a theme of inclusion and welcome. Through their relationship with Jesus, the disciples are brought into a new family. This family is centered around a Jesus who will live and die for each of them. The people included in this Jesus-generated family are not perfect. Nor can each individual invite themselves into this group. Instead, Jesus calls them by name and loves them because that’s what God does. God is creating a new family while the bonds of other families fall apart.

We have many examples in our lives of broken families. Entire communities know what it’s like to be abandoned. Too many friends of mine have been kicked out of their families for coming out as LGBT. Others have watched as broken promises, abuse, and addiction have destroyed the trust and love we believe all families should practice. When Matthew wrote down these words from Jesus around the year 75 C.E. (A.D.), the Christian community was very small. New converts to the faith were sometimes disowned by their families and friends. The experience Jesus described here is an experience the author of Matthew knew well. It’s also an experience that is still too common today. Yet Jesus’ word promises a new family that has, at its center, someone who will never break a promise of fidelity, love, and trust. This family is centered around someone who doesn’t call the perfect to be his friends. He doesn’t leave space at the table for only those who act and think and look like he does. Jesus points to a bond and love from God that transcends the bonds of human family. And this bond, even when threatened with the Cross, will not be broken.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 3rd Sunday After Pentecost, 6/25/2017.

Work

Jesus’ ministry and the church takes work and workers. This is one of the take aways from our reading in Matthew 9:35-10:23 today. At this point in Jesus’ career, Jesus is doing what Jesus does. He preaches, teaches, and heals. He shares a vision of God’s kingdom that includes tax collectors and others typically kicked out of holy places. He eats meals with people he shouldn’t. Jesus is being Jesus. And Jesus, in our verses today, compels his followers to do the same.

The apostles’ mission is an outgrowth of Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus visits new places and tells his followers to do the same. Jesus tells his followers to share God’s message of love and hope using the same words he uses. Jesus’ followers are called to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. And Jesus’ followers are told to provide this physical and spiritual care for free. A follower of Jesus doesn’t act only to benefit themselves. They are told to give freely and abundantly because that’s what Jesus does too. In the words of Colin Yuckman of Duke Divinity School, “To be sent by Jesus is, in some sense, to be sent as Jesus.” Jesus is training his followers on how they can be his disciples. When people encounter us, they are encountering and experiencing Jesus Christ and we need to act accordingly.

This encounter with Jesus Christ is an unexpected mission God invites us to share. It’s also a mission that is not easy to do. An invitation to follow Jesus is an invitation to live a different way. An invitation to live in God’s kingdom means we need to realize the hard truths about the brokenness of the world around us. An invitation to live as Jesus is an invitation to recognize the ways we push ourselves and others away from God. Jesus decides that people like us can, through the help of the Holy Spirit, show others Jesus Christ. This seems like a daunting task. It can make us feel afraid. But, like we heard last week, we don’t do this job alone because Jesus is with us to the end of the age.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 2nd Sunday After Pentecost, 6/18/2017.

Rest: Take a Break

Imagine, after a super busy week, being confident enough to take a break. And if God rests, why can’t we?

Our first reading today (Genesis 1:1-2:4) is the opening to our Bible. These verses share with us the first creation story in our scriptures and how God created in seven days. The universe began as a formless void. God, in this story, doesn’t create out of nothing. Instead, God brings order to a chaotic soup of randomness. For six days, God creates. Animals, birds, plants, and people are formed. I love how the giant sea monsters are named specifically in this story and how humankind begins their lives as vegetarians. The opening words of the bible are not meant to be a timeline detailing the history of the universe. Rather, these verse show God’s relationship with everything. Unlike other creation stories floating around during the time of ancient Israel, the world isn’t created through a violent act. There is no war between various gods that caused the earth to come into being. The world, instead, is created by a God who declares that creation is good. Everything within creation matters because God says it does. The sea monsters and the blades of grass are connected to a God who loves them.

So after creating everything, God took a break. God, for a brief period of time, stops working. In our modern context, we are used to the idea of weekends. We live in a society shaped by over a century of people, systems of thoughts, organizations, and labor unions that created the weekend. In a sense, the weekend is an ideal. We take a break from a normal workweek to instead, rest. This is an ideal because not everyone’s work week begins on Monday and ends on Friday. And our lives are so dedicated to busy, we stop working on Fridays only to start again with other projects, sports games, homework, and more on Saturday. We work because we have to. We keep working because, if we don’t, we imagine what we’re doing will never get done. We’ve built lives where we need to be busy because we don’t receive the help we need to take a break. We are, in the words of some, a society addicted to being busy.

But God, who doesn’t need to take a break, actually stops working. God rests. God, who has a relationship with every blade of grass, every sea monster, and every person, has created a world where taking a break matters. God invites us to live in a world where everyone has the time and resources they need to stop doing everything. Instead, we can sit, enjoy, and bless each other and the world. When we take a break and help the people around us take a break, we’re not encouraging laziness. We’re encouraging people to connect with creation and the God who created it. And when we can connect with God, we discover how we can bless what God has blessed. And we discover the blessing God wants us to be.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Trinity, 6/11/2017.