Wednesday, August 23, 2017


Matthew 15:10-28
August 20, 2017

            How do we learn? I don’t have a specific answer in mind when I ask that question; I’m just putting it out there. How do we learn? Are you a visual learner? Do you understand more by seeing how something works rather than hearing about it or reading about it? Do you learn by doing? Or can you pick up an instruction manual, read through it, then go and repair a small engine? Some people can. I’m not sure how to classify my learning style; it may be a combination of all of the above, except for the repairing of the small engine, although you never know. But when I ask this question, it isn’t just about learning skills; I’m also asking how do we learn about the world, about life, about people?
            One of my favorite movies from the 1980’s was “War Games,” starring a very young Matthew Broderick. He played an underachieving, high school genius, computer geek before any of the rest of us realized what computers were going to mean for our lives. With the help of some other computer friends, he hacked into the military thinking he was going to play some cool new war simulation games.
            Well they were war simulation games, but the main computer thought they were real. The computer, known as Joshua, thought that attacks were being launched; and to make a long story short, it had to learn what the real outcome of nuclear war would be before it started an actual nuclear war.
            This movie came out in the latter days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. It spoke to the greatest fear of my childhood, and probably to the greatest fear of my older sister and brother’s generation as well: nuclear war. Two weeks ago, when the tension and rhetoric with North Korea was blisteringly high, I thought about this movie. Spoiler alert: Joshua the computer does indeed learn and stops the launch of a full-out nuclear war at the last, most dramatic, moment. The computer’s last words of the movie are:
            “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”
            So the computer, Joshua, learned. We know that we learn, or are at least capable of learning. So here is my fundamental question: did Jesus learn? Did Jesus learn something from the Canaanite woman?
            This is a hard question for many of us, because it smacks up against our understanding of who Jesus was. But we claim that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, so if Jesus was fully human, does that mean that there were things Jesus needed to learn?
           Our passage starts with an explanation from Jesus about what really defiles. All we hear are his words to the crowds, but they were spoken after a confrontation with some Pharisees and scribes. The religious folks were upset that Jesus’ disciples did not perform the ritual hand washing before they ate that purity laws demanded. We wash our hands before we eat for the sake of hygiene. Observant Jews, however, performed hand washing and other ritual cleansing for the sake of those purity laws. To not perform the ritual washing was to be unclean; to be unclean, or to be defiled was to be separated from God.
            Jesus turned their argument back on them. He called them hypocrites. He lifted up words from the prophet Isaiah,
            “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
            Now we catch up to our passage. Calling the crowds around him, Jesus told them about what really defiles. It is not what goes into your mouth. It is what comes out of your mouth. Because what comes out of your mouth comes from what is in your heart. That is where you find defilement or cleanliness. Is your heart defiled? Is it unclean? Or is it close to God?
All of this is great. I’m cheering Jesus on with every word. But then he left that crowd and that place, and he and the disciples traveled to the district of Tyre and Sidon. This was a Gentile region. There a Canaanite woman, a Gentile, approached him, shouting at him,
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
We expect people to come shouting after Jesus, calling after him, touching the hem of his robe. But we don’t expect what happened next – nothing. Nothing happened. Jesus ignored the woman. He said nothing to her, just continued on as though she had not spoken or approached him at all. The disciples could not ignore her. They urged him to send her away. She was a bothersome woman who kept shouting at them, and she was getting more annoying by the minute.
 Jesus spoke then, but his answer, although directed at the woman, was actually spoken to the disciples.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But this Canaanite woman, this mother of a sick child, was undeterred. She knelt before Jesus, which in the Greek context would have been seen as an act of worship, and said,
“Lord, help me.”
The Jesus we think we know would have relented at that moment. He would have shown her the same compassion he showed the crowds. He addressed her at last, but what he said hurts to hear. Jesus told the woman,
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
This woman, this Canaanite woman, this mother with a sick child, was undeterred. She did not slink away crushed and broken. If Jesus’ words hurt her, we do not glean that information from the text. Instead, what she did next was powerful. She turned Jesus’ words back on him.
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 
It was a bold statement for anyone to make, but it was especially bold for a Gentile woman, a Canaanite woman, to make to a Jewish rabbi. But this was a mother with a sick child, and she was undeterred. Jesus heard her. Not only did he hear her, he rewarded her persistence. Her faith, Jesus declared, was great! Her desire was granted. The woman’s daughter was healed instantly.
Sure it’s a happy ending. The woman got what she wanted. But why did Jesus respond the way he did? It seems especially ironic after his teaching about a person’s heart and what really defiles. If what is in our heart defiles us than is this what was in Jesus’ heart? Did Jesus’ heart hold racism? Sexism? The woman had to convince Jesus to help her daughter. What was in Jesus’ heart?
            There are many theories as to what Jesus was trying to do with his response to this woman. One is that the story would not have sounded as harsh to the original hearers as it does to our modern ears. Perhaps the saying about the children and the dogs was from an ancient proverb; one that would not have been offensive to the people living in the time of Jesus.  Maybe Jesus was using the word for dog affectionately, as if he were addressing a puppy.  The Greek word for dog used here does make the distinction between a household animal and the wild, stray dogs that roamed during that time. The problem with this theory is that the Aramaic Jesus spoke did not contain this particular distinction.
            There is the possibility that this was Jesus’ way of testing the woman’s faith. If she passed the test, then her request would be granted. He tested. She passed. But when did Jesus test people before he healed them or their loved ones? I can’t think of another example. He did not make the crowds pass a test before he fed them. He might have turned the tests that the religious scholars used to try and trap him on their heads, but he didn’t test the people who came to him for help.
            Another possibility is that this story must be taken just as it is; harshness and all.  Jesus was a Jewish man of his day. He lived in a particular context and that context included chauvinism toward women and suspicion of outsiders, others. One commentator I read, wrote, “His limited perspective is in part corrected by the clever retort of a desperately bold woman, who convinces him that Gentiles must also share in God’s bounty.”
            Does that mean that Jesus learned? Does that mean that this woman pushed him to see with a new perspective? Does that mean that her persistence, her undeterred pleading changed his mind, opened his mind and taught him something?
            Yes, I know that idea, that possibility makes us uncomfortable. Yes, I realize that pushes back against what we have been taught to believe and understand about Jesus. But Jesus was fully human. As one commentator put it, Jesus endured all of the tests and trials that all humans do, but he did not sin. Maybe not sinning does not mean that Jesus didn’t have something to learn. Maybe not sinning means that Jesus actually did learn. When confronted, he did not fall back on excuses or defensiveness to justify his position. Maybe he learned from this Canaanite woman, this Gentile, this other, saw that he was wrong and immediately corrected course. Maybe not sinning was that he learned, heard her and changed direction. He was open to her pleas, to what he could learn from her, and to what God was speaking through her.
            Did Jesus learn? It seems to me that if he did, then that is our good news. Because it means that we still have much to learn. It means that not only is God still speaking, but may be speaking to us through the most unlikely of people; people who are undeterred in making us listen, undeterred in calling us to see. Jesus learned, and if Jesus learned, then so can we. May we be undeterred in faithfulness. May we be undeterred in learning. May we be undeterred in being willing to change and correct our course when God sends us a new lesson. May we be undeterred.
            Thanks be to God!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

In My Skin

            My last name, Busse, is German. When telling people how to spell it, I say,
“It’s like a school bus with an extra ‘s’ and an ‘e.’” You pronounce it, “Bus-see.”
But people say, “Boo-see” or “Bus.” They try to add a ‘y’ at the end. It’s strange, but you get my point. For a short little last name, it seems to cause big problems in the realm of pronunciation and spelling. While I’ve never been ashamed of my last name, I have been ashamed of the heritage it represents.
My mother is Swedish, and it was her Scandinavian heritage that was celebrated in my home growing up. Our Christmases were Swedish with Norwegian overtones. My parents avidly collected Danish Christmas plates for years. In second or third grade, we presented a Christmas Around the World extravaganza for our school Christmas play. Because of my Swedish DNA, I desperately wanted to be Santa Lucia – the saint of Swedish tradition. Little Swedish girls dress up as her on Christmas day, complete with her outfit of a white robe and a crown of candles. But I have dark hair, so I played the traditional Italian character – I don’t even remember who that character was – and my friend, who was very blonde, played Santa Lucia. (It turns out that the real Santa Lucia was, in fact, Italian and had dark hair. I could have played her! I still have some issues with this, but at almost age 52 I’m trying to finally let it go.)
            As a child, even as a teenager and young adult, I never really thought about the fact that my dad also wholeheartedly accepted the Scandinavian traditions we celebrated. Not once did we ever talk about anything German. He never shared what might have been a German tradition from his family. Both of my grandfathers were ministers, so I know that on holidays such as Christmas they went to church. But traditions from Germany were not a part of my family life; not at all. I never questioned this. I knew that I was ashamed of my German heritage because of Hitler and Nazism, the Holocaust, both World Wars, but I did not think about the fact that my father was ashamed as well.
            It was not until I was in seminary in my late 20’s, and I was reading the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer that I began to let go of some of that shame. I shared that with my dad, and that is when he told me that he felt the same way. He also felt shame for being German and for the terrible evils that had been done by Germans. He also started reading Bonhoeffer and it helped him too. It helped to know that there were some Germans who did not actively participate in the Nazi party; Germans who did not turn a blind eye as their Jewish neighbors were herded from their homes, but who resisted Hitler, who worked against Hitler, who willingly sacrificed their lives to stop Hitler and the evil, the complete and utter evil that Hitler and his Nazis unleashed on the world.  
I write about the shame I have felt over my German DNA because I also feel shame about the color of my skin, my whiteness. I cannot help that I was born white, anymore than anyone can help being born in their unique skin regardless of its particular amount of melanin. But I am ashamed of my whiteness, because it has given me privilege, and it has given me power, and so much evil has been done in its name.
            This past Sunday, after a weekend spent watching the terrible and tragic events unfold in Charlottesville, Virginia, I changed the course of my sermon to call out racism. I’ve gotten some good feedback and positive affirmation. But as I have read through the sermon again and again, I know that it is not enough. I wish I had said more, written it differently, better. I’m holding my sermon up to a blog I subscribe to called AfroSapiophile. It can be tough to read, or maybe it is just tough for me as a white person to read. But I read it anyway, because I have to. It serves as a relentlessly honest mirror into which I must look. Sometimes as I am reading the hard statements written about white people and whiteness in America, I think,
“No! No! That’s not me. I’m not that white person! I see the injustice in our society. I see it. I acknowledge it. I don’t defend it.”
Yes, Amy, all that may be true, but what am I doing about it? Racism is a cancer that needs to be excised out of our country, out of our systems, and out of our individual persons. I serve a church that is as diseased by racism as any other institution. Yes, a lot of us are woke, or trying to wake up. We are trying. But there is so much more to be done. So much more we must do. Maybe the first step as a white person is admitting our culpability in a society that rewards us for being white. As white people we have to talk about this. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable. We have to be willing to look at pictures that hurt and read stories that hurt and listen – this is a big one – to people of color. Somewhere, I don’t remember where, I read that many people of color wish that if they could have one super power, that power would not be invisibility or super strength, it would be that white people would believe them. White people would believe them when they say that they are treated differently by police, and that they are treated differently in stores, and differently just out in the world. I never realized that wishing for the ability to fly was a luxury. Some people just want to be believed.
I do not want to be ashamed of who I am, of who God created me to be. But in the name of my skin color, other people, who are different from me biologically only by the shade of their skin, have been made to feel less than human. Worse, far worse, those other people, those sisters and brothers, have been treated as less than human. This brutality didn’t just happen a long time ago, then it ended and people need to get over it already. This reality goes on and on and on. It will not stop until we make it stop. It will not stop until white people acknowledge that it is real and happening, and that we are culpable. It will not stop until we make it stop. We have to make it stop. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Drowning In Fear

Matthew 14:22-33
August 13, 2017

There is a framed poster on my dining room wall. Brent gave it to me for my birthday last year. It is a print from a photograph we saw when we toured the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis last year. The title of the photo is “Courage: Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.” The picture is of five young Black women and men with their backs to the camera, pushed up against a brick wall. They are pinned there, not by hands or chains, but by water. Off camera someone is holding a high-powered hose, and a terrible onslaught of water is aimed directly at them. Their arms and hands are flung over their faces and heads, trying to protect them from the painful bite of the water. The young women and men are not holding guns. They aren’t dressed as gang members. But the hoses were turned on them anyway. At the bottom of the print, the definition for courage is added.
“Courage. Noun. 1 mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear and difficulty”
I see this print all the time. My house isn’t very big, and the dining room is the first room you walk into. It’s the room where I work when I am working at home, and even when my back is to the picture, I am viscerally aware of its presence. I often wonder if I were to find myself in a moment or in a time when I have to choose, when I have to make a stand, will I have that kind of courage? Will I be able to do what those women and men did? Will I be willing to endure the pain of that water? Will I be willing to put my life on the line to stand up for what I believe to be true and right and just?
The etymology of the word “courage” comes partially from the Latin word for heart. Today, we may understand courage as being more about bravery, but the word courage has the connotation of living from the heart.
When Jesus walked on the sea toward the disciples, making them think they were seeing a ghost or a phantom, he told them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
            In other words, he told them, “Have courage, I am who I am; do not be afraid.”
            Then Peter, brash, impulsive Peter, told Jesus, maybe even challenged Jesus,
            “Okay, Jesus, if it’s really you, command me to get out of this boat and walk on the sea to you.”
            So Jesus said,
            Maybe somebody else would have faltered because Jesus called his bluff. But Peter did it. He stepped out of the boat. He started walking on the sea toward Jesus. But Jesus had not calmed the wild waves. Jesus had not calmed the storm. When Peter noticed the wind, he became frightened and started to sink beneath the waves. Drowning, he cried out to Jesus,
            “Lord, save me!”
            Jesus immediately reached out his hand to Peter and saved him. When they both reached the boat, he looked at his disciple and said,
            “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
            The question is whether Jesus was rebuking Peter. Was he mad at Peter? Was he sad for Peter? Whether or not Jesus was mad or sad, I think there is a connection here between courage, heart and faith. Peter lost his courage; he forgot to follow his heart. As one commentator put it, Peter knew in his heart who Jesus was, what Jesus was. But his courage failed him. The easy way out in this very familiar passage would be to say if Peter had just kept his eyes on Jesus, he would have kept right on walking, but let’s face it the storms are real. The winds are vicious. Peter became afraid. It was fear that almost made him drown.
            Fear is paralyzing. Fear changes you. Fear makes you do things, say things. Fear and hatred too often walk hand in hand. Originally this was going to be a nice, safe sermon about our fears as a congregation as to the next steps that we are taking. We are buying a building, taking risks, acting like Peter and putting our foot in the water, hoping, trusting that we’ll be okay. But then Charlottesville happened. Yesterday, in the midst of the bittersweet emotions of moving Phoebe into her college dorm, I kept watching what was happening there. I belong to several clergy groups on social media, and there were many, many clergy folks participating in the peaceful counter protest to the KKK and Nazi rally at the University of Virginia. So I read tweets and comments about the violence happening, and a church being surrounded by protesters with torches. I saw video of clergy people and other protesters standing, holding hands, singing, in the face of men who were armed – and they were not the National Guard or the police. And then a car drove into the crowd of counter protesters, and a young woman was killed and many others were injured. And I heard Jesus tell me, not something that happens very often, I will admit,
            “Amy, you need to get out of the boat.”
            So, here I am, out of the boat, trying not to let my fear make me sink. Because I know that many of you, maybe most of you, don’t want to hear me preach another sermon or give another talk about racism. I know where many of us stand politically. You certainly know where I stand. But this goes beyond political party. It goes beyond conservative or liberal. This goes to the very heart of our faith. Because you see, you did not call me to be shy. And even if you did, God did not call me to be quiet.
            The truth is I am tired. I am tired and weary and exhausted to the depths of my soul with the hatred that has been emboldened in our country. It has been simmering underneath the surface for a long, long time. But in this last year, it has been given permission to run rampant; it has been given credibility and social status. I am disgusted, appalled and heartsick over what has happened in Charlottesville. But I am not surprised.
            Yet, what I find most offensive is that the people who carried those torches, the people who waved those Nazi flags and raised their arms in Seig Heil salutes, and wore those despicable hoods, well I would bet good money that they would claim Christianity as their faith. They not only would consider themselves good Americans, they consider themselves good Christians. That makes me literally sick to my stomach. How dare they hijack my faith in the name of their repulsive extremism, hatred and violence? I wonder how often our Muslim brothers and sisters say the very same thing?
            That’s what they have done. They have hijacked our faith. They have twisted the gospel. The God we worship became incarnate in a Middle Eastern Jew who I guarantee you did not have blue eyes and blonde hair. He was brutally executed by the occupying Roman government in a most hideous form of capital punishment. But not before he preached to the powers and principalities that the Law of God was based on active Love for God and for neighbor. He told the people that they would be judged for how they cared for the least of these. He showed preferential treatment for the poor, the outcast, the forgotten, the despised, the weak, and the excluded.
            So I’m tired of these alt right groups – what a sanitized description that is – using my faith as justification for their hatred and their racism. But I’m even more tired of the racism that has been a cancer in our country since its foundation. I’m even more tired that we won’t talk about it, that we won’t acknowledge it, that we won’t own it. Our country was built on the backs of slaves. Human beings were sold as chattel. I have black friends who have been told by strangers to “go back to Africa,” as if their ancestors came here by choice. We have to talk about it.
            Even after the Civil War and the end of slavery, with Jim Crow, there was no real emancipation. Between the end of the Civil War and well into the 1900’s it is estimated that at least 3,000 black people – men, women and children – were lynched. Think about that. The legacy of racism is a constant stain on this country. It is systemic, and if affects each and every one of us, even if we do everything we can not to be prejudiced. We have to talk about it.
            During World War II, Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. They lost everything – their homes, their businesses. You know what internment camps are by definition? Concentration camps; just no gas chambers. Asian Americans talk about how they and their family have lived in this country for generations, but when they meet someone for the first time, they are often asked, “Where are you from?”, as in what country are you here from. We have to talk about it.
            And my beloved home state of Tennessee is also the home state of Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans and the one who finally sent Native Americans on the Trail of Tears. So many tribes are here in Oklahoma because of what he did, because of his racist and flawed policies.
            I know. You’re tired of this. You don’t want to hear anymore about racism. I don’t want to preach about it anymore either. I shouldn’t have to. In 2017, I shouldn’t have to preach that groups of people carrying torches and shouting, “blood and soil,” and waving flags with swastikas are the antithesis of the gospel, but here we are. To remain silent in the face of injustice is to be complicit in that injustice. And white Christians, the other white Christians, have to start speaking up and out. Because you see, none of us are safe. None of us are immune from the violence that happened in Charlottesville. We can stay in the boat and we can mind our own business, but the boat is sinking and we will drown in our fear. So, I’m going to get out of the boat and I’m going walk toward Jesus, knowing that the storm is real, knowing that my fears are real, but trusting that the good news is more real than anything else. That good news is this, that God is God, and that I am called, we are called, to be faithful, to have courage, and to trust to the depths of our hearts that we are not alone. We are not alone, God is with us, and God is faithful, God is sure.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia.” Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

All Ate and Were Filled

Matthew 14:13-21
August 6, 2017

            Have you ever heard the joke about the person who gains weight so easily that all she has to do is look at a picture of something fattening and she’ll gain five pounds? I used to tell that joke all the time. As a person who has always been “weight conscious,” that joke rings true. I gain weight quickly and with very little effort. Then I read an article in some magazine that said there was some truth behind that joke. It had something to do with hormone production and subliminal thoughts and overeating; I don’t really remember the supposed science behind it. I just know that once I read that article, I stopped making that joke. Why tempt fate?
            But I am ever more conscious that my weight consciousness is a first world problem. While I can become obsessive about having too much food at my disposal, the latest statistics state that right now six million people are at risk of starvation in Somalia. Another 14 million are at risk of starvation in Yemen, Nigeria and South Sudan.[1] “It is the gravest emergency since the Second World War, according to the United Nations.”[2]
            While I fight against the temptation of overeating, there are, literally, millions upon millions of people – men, women and children – starving to death.
            The scene that we turn to in our passage from the gospel this morning is not one of famine, although as we know from the Old Testament, the Near East was no stranger to its devastating effects. But though the people of Israel were not suffering starvation on the scale of what is happening in the Horn of Africa, it is highly likely that food insecurity was a daily reality. Jesus and the disciples were faced with a large crowd of hungry people.
This story is commonly known as the feeding of the 5,000. Although at the end of the story, we hear that number only includes the men present. Besides the men there were also women and children whose numbers we don’t know. So maybe we should know this story as Jesus Feeding the 5,000 Plus or Jesus Feeding the 5,000 and More.
            This is the only miracle story that is recorded in all four gospels; and Matthew includes another feeding story in the next chapter where 4,000 are fed. The fact that all four gospel writers chose to include this event, even though each telling is slightly different, indicates that this meal is essential in their understanding of Jesus: of what he did and who he was.
            The temptation with a story such as this one is to try and explain the miracle that happened. How did Jesus multiply those five loaves and two fish so that all those thousands of people would have enough? But is following that line of thinking just going down a rabbit hole, a distraction? Is the multiplication the real miracle of the story? Or is there something else at work in this story that is far more miraculous?
            The first sentence of the passage suggests that we are in the middle of something much larger.
“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
            “Now when Jesus heard this.” What did he hear? He heard about John the Baptist’s death by beheading. The irony of that is the decision to behead John was made at a banquet given to celebrate the ruler Herod’s birthday. It was a very different feast from the one that would soon be celebrated by Jesus, the disciples and the crowds of people. John was in the habit of speaking the truth to Herod about his relationship with Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. While Herod didn’t like hearing that truth, he was fascinated by John, and he was scared to put John to death because he feared the crowds who saw John as a prophet. Yet at this banquet, which I imagine to have been both a sumptuous feast and a decadent bacchanal, Herodias’ daughter danced for Herod. Her dancing pleased him so much he swore to her that he would give her whatever she asked for. Well she asked for John’s head on a platter. And that’s what she got. 
            This is the news that Jesus was given. That is what he heard. Because of that he withdrew. He took a boat and went alone to a deserted place. When Jesus withdrew in that way, he usually did so to pray, to be with God in quiet and peace. I think he wanted to grieve. 
            But his alone time was not to be, because the crowds followed him wherever he went. Jesus took a boat, and the crowds followed him on foot.  When Jesus went ashore, he saw the great crowd of people waiting for him, and whatever his own needs were, he had compassion for them. He healed their sick. He cured them of their illnesses. He had compassion for them.
            When evening fell, the crowds did not leave. The disciples saw that it was late, and they knew the people were hungry. They urged Jesus to send the folks away. I’m guessing that they knew the crowds would listen to Jesus’ instructions to do so without complaint.
“Look Jesus, it’s late. The people must be famished. This place is deserted. There’s nowhere to get food around here. Why don’t you send them off to the villages to find some food before it gets much later?”
However, Jesus didn’t bite on their suggestion – pun intended.     
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 
Yet what can the disciples give them? They only have five puny loaves of bread and two measly fish. It’s meager fare for even just two people, much less thousands. 
            But the disciples gave Jesus what they had. And in an action that foreshadowed the Eucharist, Jesus took the bread and the fish, he raised his eyes up to heaven, he blessed and broke the loaves, gave the food to the disciples, who then distributed it to the waiting crowds. It was enough. All were fed. The leftovers of the broken bread numbered twelve baskets. Perhaps it was not a rich banquet such as the one Herod celebrated, but all were fed.
            This was miraculous, but it was not magic. Jesus did not lift up his eyes and hold up the food to the heavens, and in an act of prestidigitation make more food appear.  He thanked God, he pronounced a blessing, and gave the disciples what they’ve given to him.  And all are fed.
            Perhaps another change of title is due: The Disciples Feed 5,000 Plus! Jesus told them to do it. Jesus encouraged them, and showed them that they had the resources at their disposal. Jesus blessed the food, but it was the disciples who distributed the food. It was the disciples who did the feeding. Jesus took what the disciples thought was a meager offering of food on their part and turned it into a feast of plenty. What they saw as scarcity, Jesus saw as abundance.
            We’ve spent the last weeks reading about parables that compare the kingdom of heaven as something small that not only grows but is pervasive; that seems unlikely and meager, but in fact is abundant. Why would it surprise us or anyone that out of this small portion of food Jesus could feed thousands? As I said earlier, I’m not convinced that this is the true miracle of the story. What is most miraculous to me is not that Jesus made a feast out of nothing, but that Jesus made a feast. Who would have blamed him had he sent the people into villages to find food for themselves? In clergy circles, it would have been called setting boundaries. But it seems to me that what this story is about is not the miracle but what it reveals about God through Jesus. What we really know about God, we know through Jesus. Jesus, God’s incarnation, revealed the character and nature of God. Although Jesus went to find a quiet alone place, when he saw the crowds he had compassion for them. He healed them. He made sure that they were fed. In the face of overwhelming need, he empowered the disciples to take what they had and care for the people. The miracle is that instead of seeing scarcity – which is where I lead from most of the time – Jesus saw abundance.
            How different would my life be, how different would our ministry be, if we looked at our resources, at our abilities, at our time and talents and saw abundance instead of scarcity? How many miracles would happen? How many lives would be changed? How many hungry people could be fed? How many people would eat and have their fill?
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] “A Fierce Famine Stalks Africa,” Nadifa Mohamed, NY Times Opinion Pages, June 12, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Kingdom of Heaven?

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 30, 2017

            The story goes that he was just the crazy old man of the village. Every day at dawn he would go into the hills with his shovel, and he would not come back until sunset. He never told anyone why he went up there or what he did. He just went day after day, year after year. One day the crazy old man did not wake up. He died in his sleep. After he was buried, the villagers decided to go up to the hills and see if they could find what he had been doing all those years.
            This village that the old man lived in was in a remote location on one side of a steep hill. In order to get to the nearest larger city with a hospital, you had to take the road which wound its way around the hill. It took hours, and someone could die en route. That is what happened to the old man’s wife. She was sick, and he was trying to get her to the hospital for treatment. But the road around the hill was too long. She died before they could reach help.
            What had the crazy old man been doing all those years? He was digging a road through the hill. He was digging a road through the hill. It was wide and smooth and it shortened the journey from the village to the city from hours to one, from many kilometers to four. The crazy old man was not so crazy after all. He did not want anyone else to suffer what his wife had suffered. He did not want anyone else to go through what they had gone through. He took his shovel and dug a road through the hill.
            No one knew what he was doing. They assumed he was just crazy and went off by himself to do crazy things. Apparently no one apparently asked him what he was doing, or if they did he did not answer. But he took a small thing and made it large. He did something in secret that became a visible blessing. The kingdom of heaven just might be like that crazy old man.
            I will confess that I have started and deleted this sermon about five times. The last time was at 8:00 this morning. I realize that verges on the ridiculous. Just write something already and be done with it. But I knew that what I had on paper was not what I was supposed to have. I’m not sure that I’m any closer, but time will tell. So look for these parables as the basis of a sermon series or a Bible study down the road. It’s not that our passage didn’t give me enough to work; it’s that there is so much!
Jesus told these parables in rapid-fire succession. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that grows from its infinitesimal size to a large and flowering bush that welcomes birds of every kind. The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who hides yeast – that is the literal translation; she is not “mixing in” yeast, she is hiding it – into three measures of flour. That is an enormous amount of flour. It’s estimated to be about fifty pounds?! That would make enough bread to feed an entire community. Then Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that was hidden in a field. When a person finds that treasure, he joyfully goes and sells everything he has to buy that field and obtain that treasure. The kingdom of heaven is like a pearl of great value. A merchant, when he finds that one magnificent pearl, sells off all his other merchandise just to own that pearl. And the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that brings in fish of every kind. When the dragnet was full, it was hauled to shore and the fish were sorted. The good fish were kept and put into baskets. The bad fish were thrown out. That will be what happens at the end of the age. The good will be kept. The bad will be thrown into the fire, and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
            When he finished telling these parables, Jesus asked the disciples,
            “Have you understood all this?”
            They answered,
            And I want to shout,
            No, they don’t, and no I don’t either, because these are some crazy sounding parables. I am not saying that lightly either. If these parables are glimpses of the kingdom, then the kingdom of heaven sounds a little bit nuts.
            The kingdom of heaven is an invasive weed. The kingdom of heaven is subversive. The term “subversive” is one used by several scholars in their description of the woman’s actions and the mustard seed. In thinking about that woman, why did she hide the yeast? I know that yeast has negative connotations in scripture – beware the yeast of the Pharisees. It can be seen as a corrupting influence. But for bread to rise, yeast is necessary. Unless that bread was supposed to be matzo, then having yeast hidden in it would have been quite the surprise.
            The kingdom of heaven sounds kind of dubious as well. Of course it is a treasure, but hidden in a field? It makes me uncomfortable to think of the person who found the treasure buying that field from the owner and not telling the owner about the treasure. All I can think of are the indigenous people living on land that had some value to it: coal, diamonds, gold, etc., and the people who bought the land from them for pennies when it worth millions.
            The kingdom of heaven sounds like it caused someone to make a bad business decision. The merchant sold everything he had in order to own that one pearl. That pearl was splendid, but if you sell off all your merchandise, you are no longer a merchant.
            The dragnet is probably the only one of these parables that I would expect, and I still don’t like it because it hearkens back to my childhood days of God being the God of fire and brimstone. Be good or watch out!
            The kingdom of heaven as Jesus described it sounds strange and unlike anything I would ever expect. Where are the angels and the perfect people wandering around in robes with harps and halos? Where are the endless blue skies and the affirmation that I will be able to fly, or at least float, my way through eternity? Isn’t the kingdom of heaven supposed to be about perfection? If so, then what Jesus described seems far from perfect.
            But Jesus was not describing a geographical location that we reach after we die. Nor was he describing a Utopia. The kingdom of heaven was in their midst, right then. That’s what Jesus brought to fulfillment. The kingdom of heaven was already there. And although it might have started small, it would grow and flourish and spread with abandon.
            The kingdom of heaven might seem hidden from view, hidden to the eye, but it was there doing its work, reaching every corner like yeast leavening dough. Although subversion might seem like a radical word; considering the work of the kingdom as subverting the work of the world with the work of God is a comfort. When the world these days seems most particularly opposite to the will and work of God, knowing that the kingdom of heaven is here, even though it’s hidden from my sight gives me great hope.
            The kingdom of heaven is a treasure that we will do anything to have, anything to own. Of course it looks like a bad or dubious business decision. When did following a call or doing something for the gospel or living empowered by the Holy Spirit not look weird or dubious or just plain bad according to the world’s sensibilities?
            And as far as that dragnet goes, well what do we know of God? What do we know of God’s intentions for the world, especially in light of Jesus, his incarnation of Love and Life? If God just wants to save some and damn others than why bother with grace? Why offer us mercy? I’m a good Presbyterian, and I hold to the predestination that we read about in Romans, but I think that God predestines us for good. I think God is always at our shoulder calling us to follow, to go the way of love and life.
            So the kingdom of heaven? The kingdom of heaven is weird and wild and unexpected. I love our denomination, but the kingdom of heaven is definitely not decent and in good order. The kingdom of heaven looks nothing like we think it should. It looks nothing like we would design it to look like. It looks nothing like we would create. It looks nothing like we would build. The kingdom of heaven is like that man who took a shovel to dig a road out of a hill. The kingdom of heaven is just a bit nuts. The kingdom of heaven is just a bit nuts. Thanks be to God.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.