“Who eats? Who cares?” Sermon for 18th Ordinary A (Pentecost +7) July 31, 2011

Matthew 14:13-21

This story is set in a wilderness of scarcity, hunger, in which a lot has gone wrong.  It may be correct to describe our situation today as a wilderness of scarcity in which a lot has gone wrong.

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If that describes our national and global condition, perhaps it also describes your personal condition right now; a wilderness of scarcity; things having gone wrong, leaving you hungry.   We are going to look at this text together and find that it has a powerful message that we need to hear today.

This story is told in all four gospels, each with it’s own unique perspective.  We will look at how Matthew wove this story together, gathering strands from other stories to form a richly complex narrative, deeply profound

A Tale of Two Meals

The story begins “Now when Jesus heard this” – so really it doesn’t begin here – we are diving in, mid-stream.  What Jesus had just heard was that his cousin, his prophet, his friend, John the baptist, had just been killed by king Herod.  It happened at a banquet.  Matthew wants us to notice the contrast between Herod’s luxurious meal at the palace that culminated in death, and Jesus’ spartan meal in the wilderness that ended with these life-giving words:

20“And all ate and were filled.”

By ending with those words, Matthew has just woven in another, older story in which those words were famous.  Long ago the Israelites broke away from oppression from a brutal, tyrannical bricks-without-straw regime and found themselves out in the wilderness of scarcity and hunger.  But they were sustained by two things: manna from heaven, which was  their “daily bread” and a vision of a hopeful future, a promised land.  Moses himself held out that promised land vision:

7 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land…  8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees …9 a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, … 10 You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.  (Deut. 8)

What a vision: “you shall eat your fill” – it was a lot to promise, from the wilderness.

From Moses to Jesus – what happened?

But lots of water had passed under the bridge between the promises Moses made and the land that Jesus walked in.  How was it that those people ended up all those years later, following Jesus out in the wilderness, in scarcity, and hungry?

Why didn’t each one, each Israelite have their own inheritance of tribal territory in the Promised Land on which they could work and produce their own vines and figs and wheat for bread that Moses had spoken of?

If famine or disease or drought or death robbed them of their land, was it not, according to Moses, supposed to be restored in the year of Jubilee?

Why were there hungry people out there in the wilderness with Jesus?   Weren’t the widows, the orphans, the foreigners and the poor to be supported by the annual tithes which everyone contributed?

Perhaps, by the time we get to Jesus, that old vision Moses had, of the common good, was so far back in the distant past no one even remembered it anymore.  By the time of this story, it is a time of scarcity and hunger; a lot had gone wrong.

Compassion, not smugness, not guilt

So Jesus is out there in the wilderness with the hungry people, and Matthew tells us, he felt compassion for them.  How could he not?  They were humans, they were

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hungry; how could a person not feel compassion?

Easy.  If your theology is that “people get what they deserve,” then you may not feel compassionate; instead, you may feel smugness when you see scarcity.   You feel smug, unless the hunger is inside yourself; then you feel guilty; “I’m being punished by God; getting what I deserve.”

It is true that Israel had told their own story that way: Moses’ vision of a good land to live in had a lot of conditional “if” clauses – “if you obey, then you will eat your fill.”  Their story included a lot of chapters describing their disobedience, so maybe they were out there in the wilderness of scarcity feeling hungry because they were getting what they deserved?

Is that the assessment Jesus made?  Quite the opposite!  Jesus did not look at their hunger and feel smug.  He did not look at their scarcity and shame them. He looked at their condition and felt compassion.  The blame-game stopped with Jesus.  The question was not, and is not, “whose fault is it?”; the question is, “who is hungry?”

What do do

And then, if you feel compassion when you see hunger, the next question is, “what are you going to do about it?”

The way Matthew tells it, Jesus then makes a huge assumption: he assumes his disciples would automatically adopt his perspective of compassion for the hungry people in front of them.  Jesus says to them:

16 “…you give them something to eat”

Of course disciples of Jesus who had been with him, observed his life, absorbed his teachings would feel what he felt in the face of human need.   The whole point of being a disciple was to learn to follow and become like the master, after all!

Economic Analysis: “nothing but…”

Their reply shows something revealing: they have analyzed the economics of the situation and have concluded that scarcity is the final word:

17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

If all you have are the things you can count, the things that can be numbered and entered into a spreadsheet, then the conclusion has to be scarcity, and the result, hunger.  “We have nothing but a bit of bread and a couple of fish, and it’s not enough.”  “Nothing but…

Matthew is intentionally invoking the memory of that older Israelite wilderness story as he tells this story of wilderness and scarcity.  If you are able to tell the story

near Sea of Galilee

in which the people in the wilderness were never for a moment without God, then the words “nothing but” are wrong!  All those years ago, did not God sustain them with the daily bread of manna and the hopeful vision of the promised land?  Did he ever abandon them in the wilderness?

Even when they rebelled, did punishment ever have the last word?  Did God ever abandon them?  Could they have ever said, “we have nothing but this manna and a promise”?  Was not God there?

Took bread, Blessed, Broke, Gave it

So Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples.  Taking, blessing, breaking and giving bread; now we see that Matthew has told this story to point both backwards to the Israelites in the wilderness, and forwards to the church gathered around the table of the Lord’s Supper.  Now the stories are connected: the bread of manna in the wilderness, the bread Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave, and the bread we break as we gather around the Lord’s table as his disciples.  This story has become our story.

After Jesus said those words he gave the job of distribution to the disciples:

19…he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  20 And all ate and were filled;

The Meaning of the Story

The solution to the experience of wilderness scarcity is first to understand that God is present, even in wilderness.  He has never abandoned his hungry people.  If you are in a wilderness period now, feeling hungry know this: you have not been abandoned.  God is present, and always has been.  Trust him.

But don’t stop there.  Wilderness is not just a psychological condition: hunger exists as a reality today.   While we Americans are myopically focused on our budget, millions of Somali’s are at risk of death by starvation.

We have learned from Moses’ vision of a community of mutual responsibility in which the ones who are blessed are obliged to contribute to the needs of the ones who are at risk.  Our goal is always that everyone will be able to sit under their own vine and fig, and make their own bread from the wheat they have grown on their own land.  We have inherited the tradition of a commitment to the common good.

As disciples of the master, Jesus, we are people who have learned to look at the hungry with compassion.  We cannot imagine looking at people in need with smug

took, blessed, broke, gave

content that God is giving them what they deserve, as if our luxury and prosperity are somehow what we deserved!

We are the people who gather around the Lord’s table, who hear the words about Jesus, taking the bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it, and we see Jesus, present in the breaking of the bread.

And from that table he tells us, his disciples, to go and take the bread and give it to the people.  When we do that, there is no longer scarcity, there is abundance, as Matthew tells us:

  20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.  21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

 

A shout out to Alyce M. McKenzie’s article “You Want Us To Do What?” for helpful insights and for connections to other stories that time didn’t permit mentioning here.

 

Making a Difference: Don’t! Sermon for July 17, 2011, 16th Ordinary, 5th after Pentecost A, Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43

Making a Difference: Don’t!  

Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43

They tell me that there is a weed that grows in Palestine that closely resembles wheat, until maturation.  If it grows up along with the wheat, it would be hard to make a difference between the two.  That’s the set-up for this parable.

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This odd story

This story line in this parable is quite odd.  Nothing should be more clear and easy to understand as the difference between evil and good, bad guys and good guys.  And yet the whole problem in the story is that they are hard to distinguish.  Weeds look like wheat, which means that wheat looks like weeds – at least for a long, long time.

The solution, in the near term, is to therefore do nothing about the evil weeds, let them grow up along side the wheat.

The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; 

If we are to leave the weeds alone, they must not be too bad to have around then, right?  Evil may be present, but it’s no threat; in fact don’t worry about it.  Is then the difference between good and evil trivial?

But then, at the end of the parable, we get the opposite perspective.

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

At the harvest, one is kept, the other is burned up in a fire – so it makes a huge difference which is good and which is evil.  There is nothing trivial at all about the difference.  This story that begins by seemingly minimizing the evilness of evil ends up emphasizing it.

Indistinguishable?  Not!

And there is another thing odd about this parable-story.  If the wheat and the weeds represent the people of God and the bad guys, it’s all mixed up.  God’s chosen people, the Jews, in Jesus’ day, were not at all hard to tell apart from the godless, pagan gentiles.  It’s not at all like a field with weeds that look like wheat and wheat that looks indistinguishable from weeds.

One of the most characteristic facts of being Jewish is how transparently obvious it was to distinguish a Jew from a non-Jew.  There were three primary signs of Jewishness that made them different from non-Jews: circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and kosher food laws.

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You might think that circumcision was not so obvious – but then if someone told you that there was a gymnasium right in Jerusalem where all the athletics were done in the Greek style (nude) you might see how apparent the difference was.

The other two differences were hugely obvious.  Only Jews had the Sabbath.  It was not a day off for Romans.  The kosher food issue was even more significant.  For Jews, it was not just a question of not eating bacon, ham or pork chops – it meant all kinds of foods were off limits, and all kinds of ways of serving the food were regulated.

This had the effect of making it nearly impossible for Jews and non-Jews to eat together.  If you didn’t share a table with people, you didn’t have any significant relationships with them.

In other words, if you were a Roman or a Greek person living around Jews, you might see them, but you wouldn’t know much about them.  You would never have had them over, you would never have been over to their place – you would be functionally strangers to each other.

The difference between Jews and non-Jews was about the most obvious fact in the city.  Being so different was one of the reasons Jews were so frequently despised: they were different!

So right away, Jesus’ parable makes no sense.  What could be more obvious than who the wheat is and who the weeds are!  They don’t look anything alike at all!  What sense does it make to tell a story about not being able to make a difference?  Every school boy knows the difference: it’s  obvious!

Defining Terms

Unless!  The difference between the people who are OK with God and those that are not is obvious unless something has radically changed.  Maybe the definition of “wheat” and “weeds” has changed?

I took a botany class in college in which I learned, from our professor, the technical definition of a weed.  “A weed is any plant in the wrong place.”  A rose bush, if it comes up in the middle of the golf green, is just a pesky weed that needs to be eliminated.   Beautifully healthy lawn grass is a weed when it’s growing in the rose bed.

If you define the “good guys” who are OK with God by things like circumcision, Sabbath keeping and kosher food observance, then difference between wheat and weeds, between good and evil is obvious to anybody.

But, what if those issues turn out not to be God’s main concern?  If you understand the the problem of evil is far deeper, far more profound, and far more dangerous, then perhaps the definition of good guys and bad guys has to change.  If the weeds and the wheat are indistinguishable, at first, something in the definition has changed.

Reversals: Jesus’ Specialty

This is not the first or last time Jesus does this sort of reversal of the obvious concerning the way people have traditionally identified the good guys and evil people, and the reason he does it is always the  same: for Jesus, evil is not a trivial matter about rituals or customs; it is not a failure to be in the right ethnic club.  Evil is far deeper, and more serious.

So Jesus told stories of dramatic reversals.  For example, everybody “knew” that if you were rich, it meant God had blessed you, so you would go to heaven for sure.  But Jesus told of the rich man who ended up in Hades because he ignored the poor man Lazarus at his gate.

Everybody in Jesus’ time “knew” that priests and the temple-worker Levites were the ones who knew what was right, and were righteous before God.  But Jesus

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told a story in which they didn’t hold a candle to the goodness of the Samaritan man (whom they despised) because, seeing a victim on the side of the road, they left him lying there, while the despised Samaritan cared for him as a “neighbor.”

Jesus told the story of the tax collector beating his breast in prayers of repentance going away forgiven, unlike the righteous man whose prayers were full of arrogant pride.

Surprises a-many

Surprise was one of Jesus’ big themes, especially the surprising judgment at the end of time, when the sheep and the goats are finally separated.  It surprises even the sheep themselves.  “Lord” they will say, “when did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?”  And he will say to them, “whenever you did it for one of the least of these, you did it for me.”  (Matthew 25)

Surprise, surprise; the criteria for making a difference turned out to be a bit different than we had expected.  It turns out that there is a huge difference between sheep and goats, between wheat and weeds, but it may not be externally obvious.  In fact, the externals may deceive you.

There may be people that are doing the work of the kingdom who don’t show up much in church.  Don’t be so fast to yank them up by the roots.  On the other hand, there may be people who look at home on a church pew with a  hymnbook in their hands who are going to go the way of the goats – there may be many surprises on the day of judgment.

Thank God it is God and God alone who gets to make the difference and sort it all out.  Judgement of that kind is not our job, and if we take it on ourselves, we will do more harm than good.

Weeping and Gnashing Teeth: Sadism?

One more thing needs to be said about this odd parable.  What are we to make of the judgement scene?

Jesus was a communicator who knew how to get people’s attention.  He loved exaggeration for effect.

  • He spoke of camels trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle.
  • He told people to take logs out of their eyes.
  • He could be graphic: harm a child will you?  then go tie a mill stone around your neck and take a swim.
  • Feel a little lusty?  Poke out your eye.
  • Feel stingy?  Cut your hand off.
  • What will God do to bad guys?  Throw them into the fire and watch them burn as they weep and gnash their teeth.

Shocking?  It was meant to be.  Exaggerated?  Of course!

Yes, there will be a final reckoning; a judgment day.  Yes, it will be serious.  No, this imagery is  not to be taken literally.

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If Jesus, in this story, wants us to believe that God was the ultimate torture-sadist, then why did he waste so much of our time telling us to think of God as loving  Father or as Good shepherd?

Why did he spend time healing and feeding, welcoming sinners and outcasts if when push comes to shove God is their worst nightmare?

To Shake Us Up

No, this parable, like so many, is meant to shake us up in large, loud, bold even terrible images that make us think.  The point is that evil is horrible and destructive.  But it is even more destructive for us to be the judge and jury.

Our criteria are often so superficial and trivial – we like people like ourselves and we find it easy to write-off people who are different.  God is not like that, so leave the final judgment to him.

But in the mean time, pay attention to God’s criteria of good and evil. It’s not about external ritual observance.  Nobody gets let off the hook for being a priest or a Levite if he leaves the victim on the side of the road to die.

Nobody, no matter how respectable he looks, gets a pass if he has left poor Lazarus outside his gate for the dogs to lick his wounds.

Nobody gets excused if they have been willing to look at “the least of these” who are hungry, thirsty, naked and captives and turn the other way.

We, who know how to say by memory, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” are called to take with utmost seriousness what it means to pray for God’s will to be done on earth.  We are called to join Jesus in his mission to the world that God made and that he loves, and to the people he made in his image, and whom he loves.

Sermon for July 10, 2011 on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, 15th Ordinary, Fourth after Pentecost A

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

Caring Enough not to Care

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Jesus told a parable: “A sower went out to sow” – what are you picturing?

Picture this: not a flat field, but a hilly place.  The dirt is not rich, black, midwestern soil, but brown and thin, barely covering the bedrock which juts out in many places.  It’s hot, it’s sunny, it’s the middle east.

Here comes the man with the bag of seed slung over his shoulder.  He follows the path to the middle of this field, lowers his hand into the bag, feels the grains there waiting to be scooped up.  He grabs an overflowing hand-full,  pulls it out of the bag, and with an expert, practiced, skillful sweeping motion, sends the seeds flying in all directions.

Sowing as wasting

Everybody knows what’s going to happen: with any luck, some of it will actually land in a good place where it can germinate and produce a crop.  But a lot of it will have been wasted.

He doesn’t care.  The seeds that land on the hard-beaten path have no chance; they are bird-food.  The seeds that hit the thin-soil areas cannot root; they wither and die.  Some of the seeds that start to grow are choked out by competitive weeds.

If you are going to farm, in first century Palestine, you have to scatter seeds.  You cannot care about the low chances of success.  If you spent much time worrying about the seeds on the path and the shallow soil or the ones that get choked off before harvest, you wouldn’t get anything done.  If you want a harvest, you simply have to scatter seeds.

Metaphors Matter: explaining the parable

“Explain the parable” the disciples ask, so Jesus tells them:

18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.

It turns out that understanding the Kingdom makes a huge difference.  I think today Jesus might say, it’s crucial to “get it.”  There were lots of folks in Jesus’ day who didn’t get it at all.  Many mistook the kingdom of God for the kingdom of David.  It was about “us and them,” good guys and bad guys, God on our side, for our kind.

How did Jesus choose to correct the vision of the kingdom for people who didn’t get it?  Of all the stories he could have told, stories about kings or armies in action, heroism, or victories, he chose to tell a story about seeds, scattered in a difficult, challenging field.

To understand the kingdom is to think about things growing – seeds in the earth.  To think about the kingdom is to imagine, not a triumphant army, but rather, a harvest – a bountiful abundant harvest.  To think about the kingdom with understanding, to “get it” is to think about fruitfulness.

Creation and New Creation: echoes of abundance

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The kingdom of God, it turns out, is very much like the original Creation; there are echoes of that story in this parable.  Think about the two stories:  in the beginning, like a sower walking out onto an empty field scattering seed, the breath/wind/Spirit of God moved out over empty waters of chaos, and started making order, separating light from darkness, waters from land, making spaces in which life could emerge.

Then, just as the crop which the sower sows will one day fill the empty field, the Spirit of God filled the spaces with life – the waters with fish, the air with birds, the land with creatures of all kinds, and at last, with men and women, made in the image of God.  And God blessed his entire creation: “be fruitful” God said.  Creation was all about fruitfulness and abundance; blessing.

The sower walks out into an empty field with seed.  His plan is for fruitfulness and abundance, for a harvest of 30, 60, or 100 fold – a harvest of plenty; plenty enough for everyone, plenty enough to share.  The kingdom of God is about God’s new creation already happening, already bearing fruit, even in the midst of the old creation.

Waste happens

Evil is still at work, the birds will go for every grain they can.  Evil wants to keep people from understanding the kingdom.  Some people have already made up their minds about what they want and how to get it.  They are as impenetrable and hard-headed as a solid foot-path.  They prefer the narrative of violent conquest over the narrative of fruitfulness and blessing.

Jesus names that perspective the work of the seed-snatching evil one.  Evil convinces people to believe the lie that ends justify means.  Where evil has won the argument, there is no harvest coming, only another  barren field of blood.  The seed that fell on the path was wasted seed.

Other seeds will be wasted on soil that cannot support life.  Jesus explained:

20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.

Rocky ground is shallow.  Shallowness is another way of not “getting it.”  Shallowness is all about what is happening on the surface.  Shallowness is all about asking “Who is blessing me?” instead of asking a question that comes from deeper roots like, “Who is hurting, and needs me to be a blessing?”  and “How can I be a blessing?”

The kingdom of God is about new Creation blessings flowing out of people who have “gotten it” that God loves the world he has made, even in its present condition.  The Kingdom is about sowing.  Getting it means “getting” that it won’t be easy; there will be obstacles and set-backs.  That’s okay; the coming harvest will make it worth all the trouble.  Some won’t wait for it – this parable of fruitful abundance, as it is turning out, has tragic elements in it as well.

Growing and choking

The chances for a successful harvest continue to be threatened as the parable continues.  The new creation of the kingdom is planted while the old creation is still alive, and making trouble.  Jesus continues:

 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields

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nothing.

Here is the problem; there will be a banquet table, after the harvest is in, but it will not be a private table.  The “cares of the world and the lure of wealth” without fail, end up producing people who need protective barriers to keep it all safe.  They want to dine in polite company with people who know which hand should hold the fork.

There will be no table set, no meal in the room they imagine.  The banquet will be in the hall of the commoners.  They are welcome, but will they come?  It is sadly possible to choke on expensive food.  The very signs of success that we feel so proud of can become the thorns that choke the life out of the plant.

“Getting it” means losing it 

Finally, after all this bad news, the parable turns around.  When a person “gets it” then the abundant harvest of the new creation can start blessing people now, even as the old creation lingers.

23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

What is it that the good soil people understand?  We are not here for ourselves.  We have been blessed to have tasted the goodness of the New Creation.  We have been blessed with abundance. We are the ones with the seeds of the kingdom.  Our mandate is to scatter them; to fling them as far and as widely as we are able.  Our mission is to grow a harvest of plenty that will bless Gulf Shores, and Baldwin County, and beyond.

For us, mission is at the heart of who we are and why we exist.  Mission cannot be something we do after everything else is done, what we fund after other needs are met, what we do in our spare time.  Rather, mission is why we are standing out there in the field with the bag of seeds.  We are here, on this earth, to be sowers!

To understand the kingdom is to know that no harvest comes from hoarded seed.  Seed preserved in the bag blesses no one.  The kingdom is about caring enough about producing a harvest that it scatters and scatters, not caring about wasted effort.  There is enough – and when it is sown, there will be even more.

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From Harvest to Table

What is the conclusion of this parable?  The abundant harvest of grain is where the story ends, but that’s not where it stops for the sower.  Nobody makes a meal of grain.  Rather, the grain is ground into meal, kneaded into dough, and baked into bread.  It ends up on a table with people gathered around for supper.

We will set out to fling the seed as far and as widely as we can, not caring what kind of place it lands.  And we will go back home to prepare a table with bread enough for everyone, without caring what kind of people show up hungry.  We will not care if everyone around us has bought into the shallow, rootless ideology of scarcity.  We will be sowers.  We will not be choked off by the worries of the world, by obsessing about wealth, and security.

We will be sowers of the Kingdom. Sowers of hope.  Sowers of love.  Sowers of reckless acceptance.  Sowers of God’s abundant grace that we, who have broken bread at table with Jesus, know is so satisfying.