“Have you heard about Jesus?” I thought about leaving this cliché out. It’s almost too cliché! It’s the cliché of bad movies and TV shows. Sandlin’s blog response to it was not really helpful. He responded with a one word question, “Really?”
“Have you heard about Jesus?” Well, who hasn’t heard about Jesus? I suppose there are a few people on the planet who have never encountered Christianity and the “news about Jesus.” But they’re pretty rare. And, even in our diverse culture, people have heard about Jesus. So, the question doesn’t make sense.
Think about asking this question. If someone says, “Yes, I’ve heard about Jesus” is the conversation not done? If, by chance, someone says, “No,” what would you then say? We know that it is tempting to have a bumper sticker answers to convince people of Jesus’ importance. “Jesus saves” is one popular short statement. You see it on bumper stickers, billboards –even on tractor trailers. “Jesus saves.” That short statements always makes me want to ask, “What does he save? Green stamps? Bubble gum wrappers? Money?” “Jesus saves” assumes particular knowledge and a particular theological bent.
Our gospel lesson gives us a similar question, except, here Jesus is the one asking. “[Jesus] asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they responded, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’” People had heard about Jesus, but they weren’t sure what to think about him. Charles Hambrick-Stowe wrote, “People are saying various things about Jesus, trying to understand what is going on in their encounters with him, identifying him with one great prophet or another come back to life.” They defined him, they labeled him according to the rubrics of their faith and experience.
Jesus then pushed his disciple further. “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Peter had the answer. He knew exactly who Jesus was – the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Except…except…we learn very quickly that although Peter had the title right, he didn’t understand what the title meant. He could say that Jesus was the Messiah, but as Jesus began to explain what would happen to the Messiah, as his journey toward the cross continued, Peter and the rest of the disciples rejected Jesus’ teaching – and, ultimately, turned in fear and left him.
This morning’s passage ends oddly for all of us who want easy and quick answers. Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah. Yet, Jesus ordered his disciples, including Peter, “not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
“Have you heard about Jesus?” One of the problems with that question is that it seems to expect that the asker will have quick answers to define who Jesus is. Faith is reduced to having the right answers ready when we are challenged by someone – or when we ourselves might challenge someone else. A seminary classmate complained that she was constantly asked by others, “Have you been born again?” She, the daughter of a minister, would respond that she was always being born again, anew, from above. She saw it as a day to day, moment to moment, gift of God’s grace. She refused to look back to one moment because she saw the need to continue to be born from above, transformed by God’s grace and God’s love. She thought the question “have you been saved” was inadequate.
Jesus said not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. There would have been a danger in proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah with little or no comprehension of what that meant. The Israelites were hoping and looking for a conquering king. Even the disciples hoped for the one who would sit on the throne and let them share in his glory and power. They needed to journey to the cross and through the crucifixion to begin to understand more completely who the Messiah wasn’t and who he was.
• He was not the all-powerful political king who would, by their proximity, make them great. He was the servant.
• He was not the conqueror who would rid Israel of their hated occupier. He was the One willing to be faithful to God at even the cost of his own life.
The disciples believed, at that time, in the Messiah they wanted. It was difficult to accept and believe in the Messiah God sent them. Jesus cautioned them about rushing out to proclaim the truth that he was the Messiah because they didn’t fully understand what that meant.
Is it any different today? Our understanding of the Messiah is shaped by our own experiences, our own prejudices and biases, and our own hopes and fears – and years, if not centuries, of tradition. Sometimes we choose to believe and proclaim the easy answers, the quick answers that appear to satisfy our own needs and desires, yet may fall short of who the Messiah is. We might ask how our image of the Messiah has been shaped by centuries of the Western Christian Church being close to the powers of the day and, thereby, having the ability to shape societies, sometimes forcing Christian values on others. In many ways, the Messiah we proclaim is often very much like the Messiah for whom the disciples longed – the king of power and glory who will set all things right. The world hears the church speak of the great enforcer who punishes evil-doers. The world hears us speak of the angry king, ready to venture out and destroy enemies.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.” These declarations are central to our faith. But how often do we examine what we mean by them? My friend’s problem with the question “Have you been saved?” was that the desired answer would point to a particular time, a moment when she made a decision to “let Jesus into her life.” She said the looking back was not sufficient. Being a follower of Christ meant continually growing in understanding – and being continually reborn because human beings fall short of God’s call.
“Have you heard about Jesus?” Yeah, most people have. But, what have they heard? I would guess that often the message proclaimed does not reflect the Biblical witness. We, like the disciples, want a Messiah who is on our side, who endorses our values and ways. We want the triumphant Christ, not the crucified one. We might accept the servant – who serves us. But what about the one who serves others – even our enemies? What has the world heard about Jesus?
For me, this gospel lesson is a cautionary tale. We, too easily, misinterpret and, therefore, poorly proclaim who Jesus is. It is no wonder that the question raises people’s hackles! As one of the “frozen chosen” I guess I’m pretty comfortable with Jesus’ command to tell no one. It sounds like a great scripture to quote if we want to stay off our soap boxes to yell “good news” to the people going by.
Yet, the disciples did eventually find their voice. They did tell others who Jesus was. Jesus didn’t send his disciples out with the good news that he was the Messiah because the disciples had yet to learn more fully what that meant. They needed to be “discipled”, disciplined, taught. They needed to grow as they continued their journey with Jesus. It was only after the resurrection that they began to more fully proclaim who Jesus was. And they didn’t do it in sound bites. They did it through deeds and words, through the example of new communities that were inclusive and welcoming. They did it as students of the tradition and students of the journey.
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Jesus asked his disciples. Isn’t it interesting that he asked. He asked – he invited their reflections. As I was thinking about this story I wondered if it might not teach us something about sharing the good news. Jesus asked! He didn’t declare. He didn’t proclaim truth and demand that others accept it. He invited them to reflect – on what they had heard, on what they had experienced. And even when Peter followed his declaration with another that showed a complete lack of understanding, Jesus did not turn him – or them – away. He taught. He challenged them. And he continued to welcome them as part of his community. He understood that it is no easy thing to comprehend who Jesus is, who the Messiah is. He understood that all human understanding is limited – and, oftentimes, inaccurate.
“Have you heard about Jesus?” I agree with Sandlin. It is a cliché that the Christian church needs to lose! It sets up division at the outset. The asker assumes possession of a superior knowledge to impart to the one asked. It assumes the possession of truth, without the awareness of that truth’s limitations, biases, prejudices, or inaccuracy. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves first, “What do people say about Jesus?” Maybe we ask others, “What do you say about Jesus?” We ask ourselves, “What do we say about Jesus?” We ask to learn. We ask to be challenged. We ask to be stretched. And we study – the Biblical witness, the witness of the tradition, the witness of the history of the Christian church with its successes and failures.
Then, we can witness. Through deeds that embody the life to which we are called through Christ. We can witness in and through sacred conversations that begin with listening and respect.
Matthew 15:21-28, Genesis 45:1-15
It’s been a week of news – news about hate and the violence it engenders. In our own country, we’re confronted by groups that have embraced hate – sometimes with a sickening coating of Christian justification. We have found that the ills of the past are not dead and gone. Anti-semitism and racial hatred have claimed our attention. Our leaders are, too often, tentative in their response, concerned about their political base more than the morality of the rhetoric. Not only the news from our own nation, but international events have reminded us of the power of hate as a van careened down a pedestrian mall.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” That Christian assertion has become prominent. It is used as a way of responding to the clash of lifestyles, opinions and cultures that always threaten to tear us asunder. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”
I suppose if we were perfect human beings this lofty advice might work. But we’re not. That word “hate” looms large. It’s full of emotion and anger. How can we be trusted to separate that hate from the person we see as culpable? We can’t! We can’t!
How many people are hurt or even destroyed by loved ones who claim they are hating the sin, but loving the person? “I’m doing this because I love you,” abusers often proclaim. Or, the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” is used as an excuse to have no relationship with the “sinner” at all. The hate of the “sin” is so extreme, that there can be no real relationship with the “sinner” at all. Does that not mean that the hate has come to include the person as well?
Sandlin wrote, “The problem I have with this one is the comma. It should be a period.” So, our cliché should be “love the sinner.” Except, Sandlin went on. “After further thought, I have a problem with the comma, everything that comes after it and ‘the sinner.’ Who am I (and who are you) to be deciding for someone else what is getting between them ad God? I’m all for doing it in regard to our own lives, but in someone else’s life? Hands off. Who do we think we are? God?”
This morning’s gospel story follows a discussion that Jesus had with the Pharisees and scribes about honoring tradition. The Pharisees and scribes were upset because Jesus’ disciples ate without following the washing rituals. Jesus noted their desire to keep the tradition, the laws and rituals that gave structure to their lives. But, he also noted that sometimes those very traditions were used in ways that allowed them to mistreat others. The commandment to honor one’s father and mother was broken in order to adhere to a commandment to give offerings to God. He went on to speak of what defiles a person – and it was not the rule breaking that the Pharisees and scribes would generally note. “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”
“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” Are these not timely words for us? We have seen the destruction that is generated by the words of hate – words spoken on a large scale. Perhaps we can learn from the chaos and the pain how important our own speech is. What do people hear from us?
This discussion is followed by the encounter that was our lesson for this morning, Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman. It is, for our ears, a strange encounter. A woman came seeking help. At first, Jesus didn’t even interact with her. She was female – and she was an outsider. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” When she persisted he responded more harshly. (And his words are genuinely harsh.) “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
His words are close to hate speech. He is telling her – in front of his disciples – that she doesn’t matter. She doesn’t count. She isn’t worth anything – especially his time, attention, and help. We might cringe. Yet, how often does the church, how often do God’s people, see those outside as not worthy of our time, attention, and help?
Now, we could spend a lot of time asking why Jesus responded in such a way, so seemingly out of character. I think I will take it as an invitation to see ourselves in him, to acknowledge our willingness to “hate the sin” of others so much that we dismiss them or ignore them – even when we might declare, righteously, that we actually do love them!
The Canaanite woman challenged Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Picture her, desperate for help for her child. Perhaps she stood, finding within herself a dignity that her own culture and that Jesus’ culture did not extend. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She would be seen. She would be heard. She would be acknowledged.
And, he acknowledged her. ‘“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.’ Jesus, I’m sure, did not hate that woman. But, by his tradition he had been schooled to “hate her sin.” And that hate distanced Jesus from her.
Sandlin concluded his little reflection on this cliché saying, “Now that I think about it, the problem I have with this one is that there’s not a period after love. Love. Period.”
That’s a wonderful statement. But, as we know in Christian history and in modern times it’s easier to speak of love than to act loving. How do we face the hatred that erupts in our world? The debates are raging. We know, after the events in Charlottesville, that there is always a temptation to speak of love but react with violence. There are those who see the threat embodied in today’s hate groups and tell us that the only way that we can effectively counter their message is to take up our own arms. It is true that some of the pictures coming out of Charlottesville last week show us armed combatants on both sides. The armed resistance proclaimed that the only way to combat force was/is with force.
How do we love in the face of hate? How do we love those who hate?
In Charlottesville, there were those who came in silence – as a testimony against spewed hate. They came. They did not engage so as not to fuel the flames. Many see such a response as weak. It appears powerless in the face of hate. But, let us remember the one who set the example for us, Jesus the Christ.
For those caught up in the chaos that led to the cross, Jesus’ way appeared weak. He would not fight back. He would not endorse the sword or active resistance. He may not have been fully mute, but he also did not actively resist the hate and fear. The cross seems to be a symbol of violence’s power to silence those who resist. It seems to say that hate triumphs over love. Love appears to be weak when it refuses to join the violent battles that pit human beings against each other. Love appears weak when its primary proponent is crucified.
Love Wins is a book by Rob Bell that came out some years ago. He, a successful mega-church pastor, wrote about love being the central call to us as God’s people – without all those careful limitations we put on it, such as “love the sinner, hate the sin.” It was a well-received book. Yet, his church rejected him. He lost his job. Love wins as a philosophy seemed too weak.
Love wins when we recognize the cost and are willing to pay it. Part of the cost is our own willingness to risk the world’s violence and hatred – to risk being victims, to risk being labeled or derided or victimized. Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother, said her daughter recognized the risk in going to join the protesters last week. She added that Heather’s death is a reminder that we need to pay attention, we need to speak up and out in the face of hatred.
Again, lofty words. How do we love in the face of hate?
I read a wonderful story on Facebook this week. It was the story of how one black man is standing up to hate –especially the hate professed by members of the Klu Klux Klan. “In his spare time, he [Blues musician Daryl Davis] befriends white supremacists. Lots of them. Hundreds. He goes to where they live. Meets them at their rallies. Dines with them in their homes. He gets to know them because, in his words, ‘How can you hate me when you don't even know me? Look at me and tell me to my face why you should lynch me.’”
I hear echoes of the story of the Canaanite woman who stated her case before Jesus. The article goes on to say, “Davis, a Christian, has met with white supremacists for three decades. He never tries to convert the Klansmen. He simply becomes friends with them and they give up the KKK on their own. According to an interview with The Independent, Davis is ‘happy’ to be friends with former Klansmen:
It’s a wonderful thing when you see a light bulb pop on in their heads or they call you and tell you they are quitting. I never set out to convert anyone in the Klan. I just set out to get an answer to my question: ‘How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?’ I simply gave them a chance to get to know me and treat them the way I want to be treated.
They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them.
I am often the impetus for coming to that conclusion and I’m very happy that some positivity has come out of my meetings and friendships with them.
Love. Period. Did Davis take risks? Yes. He takes risks in approaching those who have professed hatred. And his risk taking has been condemned by many in the Black community. So that, too, is a risk. Many Africa American leaders have critiqued him for being willing to reach out to those who have demeaned them.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” That cliché is too easy. It allows us to qualify our love. “Love. Period.” It sounds easier – but it demands our all. It asks us to be vulnerable to hate and its outcry. It asks us to take risks – the risk of rejection and, yes, even the risk of death. It is the way of the cross. Yet, the way of the cross holds promise – the promise that even the world’s worst violence cannot separate us from God.
Susan Bro said at her daughter’s funeral, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what, you just magnified her….Say to yourself, ‘What can I do to make a difference? and that’s how you’re going to make my child’s death worthwhile…. I’d rather have my child, but by golly, if I gotta give her up, we’re gonna make it count. This is just the beginning of Heather’s legacy.”
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Matthew 14:22-33
“Everything happens for a reason!” You’re probably familiar with that phrase. Maybe you’ve even said it. It is a familiar phrase in the Christian faith and tradition. “Everything happens for a reason!”
There might be Biblical justification for such a view. We have stories like the two that we heard this morning, the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, and the story of a stormy sea, calmed by Jesus who walked on water. Joseph’s story, as it unfolded through the following chapters, seems to endorse the view that “everything happens for a reason,” that is, God directs and controls all things. When he revealed himself to his brothers he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
“God sent me before you.” His brothers’ actions, therefore, were part of God’s plan. They were unknowing participants.
The storm in Matthew’s gospel must have been a violent one. After all, those in the boat were experienced fishermen. They would have been used to storms. But this one seemed to threaten them. So, we look back and see it as God’s plan. The storm was the means for God’s glory to be revealed through Jesus who could walk on the water, who invited Peter to walk on the water– and who could still the violent wind. Therefore, God sent the storm. There was a reason for it.
So, with this understanding that “everything happens for a reason” we look at the world, we experience its horrors and its pains, and declare that God is the author of all those things. There’s a reason for them.
That leads to simplistic theology. Natural disasters are proclaimed as God’s judgment. You’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. Particular people or groups of people are blamed for the terrors because of their sin, because of God’s displeasure. “Everything happens for a reason!” Of course, we might ask, “But, what of those who weren’t participants in the evil-doing? Why would God make bad things happen to them?” And there is no good answer.
But the “everything happens for a reason” assertion is applied to our own lives. The perennial question is, “Why did this happen to me/us?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “If everything happens for a reason, what could the reason possibly be?” We look at our world as a system of cause and effect. When we experience difficult – or evil—things, we assume a cause. And, if we think of God as the One who is in control of all things, we attribute the cause to God. “God did this.” “God is angry.” “God is judging me/you/the world.” “Everything happens for a reason!”
Sandlin wrote: “Implied in this is a very specific understanding of how God interacts with the world. Specifically, it says God directs all things. So, mass murders? God had a reason for that senseless act of violence. Stubbing your toe on the door frame? I guess God wanted to smite your toe.”
If we push that understanding of God, God seems at times to be capricious – and uncaring. If God, in some disaster, is responding to human sin and punishing the evil doers, why are the innocent included? Why do they suffer because of others’ misdoings? If we proclaim, “everything happens for a reason” as the answer to all human pain and suffering, it is no wonder that many in our world have no use for God!
Sandlin went on: This way of seeing God turns us all into puppets. God’s little play things who really have no freewill. Do you truly think a god needs toys? If so, do you really think we’re the best toys God could make to play with?"
If we are merely puppets, then we are excused from having any responsibility for the world’s ills. Why are the sea levels rising and the ice caps melting? It’s God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason. Why was that child beaten by his/her parents? It’s God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason. Why did my loved one get hurt, or die? It’s God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason. We live, then, as those who are powerless in this world, as those who have no control or say or impact. God has determined all.
“God sent me before you,” Joseph said to his brothers. The storm was a means by which the disciples glimpsed who Jesus was. Therefore, it must have been God-sent.
Some of the Reformation tradition has emphasized this idea of God fully in control. Calvin’s theology was presented in such a way that its interpreters decided that God had foreordained all things – including who was and who wasn’t saved. An all powerful God must be directing all things. Therefore, everything happens for a reason. We are God’s puppets, living out what God had ordained for us. So, everything happens for a reason!
There might be, however, a different way to hear and interpret the story of Joseph who told his brothers that God had sent him, implying that their evil intent was part of God’s plan. We can – and should – name what the brothers did as human sin, that is, human action that denies God and God’s good intent for the world and all its inhabitants. If we say that God intended for the brothers to sin, how are they then responsible for their actions? They aren’t really. They are merely puppets in God’s plan. But, if we acknowledge their responsibility, then we see that the consequence of their sin was that Joseph was separated from his family and sold into slavery. He suffered because of their conduct.
An initial “sin” started the cracks that became a web of brokenness that affected Joseph, his brothers, and his father. The pain was far reaching. The suffering was great. The cause was human sin, not God’s anger.
Instead of seeing the brokenness, the pain and suffering as God’s plan, as God’s intent, we might begin to see God, instead, as the One who responds to our sin and offers redemption and healing. The brothers had done something unspeakable to Joseph. But God, in response, provided a way forward that would eventually bring healing and wholeness to those involved.
There was a great storm. Was the storm God’s doing? Or was the storm merely a part of this natural world – the consequence of air currents moving over a wide expanse of water? Today, science has taught us a lot about how the world works, about its intricacies. The butterfly in Africa can affect weather patterns in the United States. A volcano erupting in one part of the world affects the growing season in another. These are the intricacies of the natural world. And there are the new patterns that scientists can trace back to human choices – some good and some bad. It is not helpful if we see every natural event as God intended and something over which we have no power. It is also not helpful if natural disasters are perceived to be God’s judgment on the sins of some.
Yet, God acted in the midst of the storm to speak to the terror that had gripped those caught in its chaos and to reveal who Jesus was. God responded with grace, with possibility, with hope to the realities of a world that knows limits, brokenness and sin. God responded. Joseph saw that God had been with him. So, he offered the grace and healing that he had received to the very ones who had harmed him. Jesus invited Peter to step out in faith and trust that God could and would be with him even in the chaos of a violent storm.
I was working on this sermon yesterday as the violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia. Would it not be an insult to everyone to declare all that happened there to be God’s will? Is it God’s will that one group of people sets themselves above all others? Is it God’s will that we be so focused on the past we can’t move forward? Is it God’s will that anger feed violence, continuing enmity? Is it God’s will that people and groups of people continue to bear the burden of hate? How dare we, in the face of such violence, declare that everything happens for a reason? How dare we even consider that God would be the reason?
The choice is not either God is present or God is absent. That is, in some ways, the assumption of the statement “everything happens for a reason.” It seems to indicate that if God was not the author of events, then God wasn’t there. Beyond the either/or we could begin to embrace the God who sees our sin, who knows and acknowledges our pain, and says, “I will not leave you comfortless.” We embrace the God who answered the cross, that ultimate symbol of human sin, with hope, with life, with redemption. It is not the absent God, but the God who dwells with us in the midst of our brokenness and invites us to see, to seek, to follow another way – one that leads toward the healing of divisions and attitudes, the reconciliation of enemies and nations, and the restoration of the creation itself.
Let us be careful in our proclamations so that the world does not hear from us that God intentionally hurts, that God inflicts pain, that God severely punishes evil doers with no regard for those who might be caught up in that punishment. We need, instead, to speak of the God who knows our pain, who knows what it is like to be human, struggling with the limitations of our own humanity and the limitations of the creation. God responds – with hope, possibility and love. God responds with opportunity for us to work for reconciliation, for peace, and for healing. The violence in Charlottesville yesterday is not one of those occasions when we wring our hands and declare, “Everything happens for a reason.” Instead, it calls us to reach out to our God who is always reaching out to us. We reach out. We seek God’s promise of hope, of healing, of reconciliation. And, then, with God’s help, we work for it.
Matthew 7:1-5, 2 Corinthians 5:11-21
It was about a year ago that I came across Mark Sandlin’s article (blog) “10 Clichés Christians Should Stop Saying.” It stayed with me. When I hear some of those clichés he named being used, I think of that article. So, I thought maybe it would be worth spending some time looking at those clichés.
I’m not doing them in any particular order. So, the cliché for today is “It’s OK to judge.” He wrote, “Recently, there has been a rash of Christian bloggers defending their right to judge. I guess it’s a thing. All the cool bloggers are doing it. I love being cool. And apparently it’s cool to judge others. So, let me judge them for trying to justify judging others. …Oh, give me just a minute though. It turns out I’ve got a log in my eye. I’ll need to take care of that first.”
“Do not judge so that you may not be judged.” I thought that I would look for the place where this passage appears in the Revised Common Lectionary because then I could find some helpful reflections on it, interpretations by scholars I respect. Much to my surprise, I found that this passage was completely omitted from the three year cycle exploring the scriptures. Now, to me, it is a familiar scripture passage. But, it’s not one that those who established the cycle thought worth including.
Why is that, I wonder? Is it too simplistic? Or, does its omission reflect our discomfort with a command that seems to strike at the very heart of who we think we are to be? Are we not supposed to look at this world and see the ways in which it falls short of God’s intent and plan? That agenda requires us to judge the world – and find its faults.
What if the church were to choose to be silent in the face of the world’s ills? “Live and let live” could become our creed. “We won’t judge. We won’t speak out against or about that which enslaves and hurts and destroys people, communities, societies, and the world.” We don’t want to be perceived as being judgmental. Is that what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged?”
The Interpreter’s Bible says that this command is new. Much of what Jesus taught had its roots in the Jewish tradition. But this does not. Yet the word “judge” is difficult. M. Eugene Boring noted that there is a broadness to the word in both Greek and English which makes it difficult to discern Jesus’ intent. Yet, Boring goes on to say, the context tells us that Jesus is extending a “call to live in the light of the dawning kingdom of God.” Right after Jesus commanded his hearers not to judge, he assumes that they will judge. “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” This verse seems to imply that living in the light of the kingdom of God means that judgments will have to be made.
Judgments will have to be made. We can’t stand back and wash our hands of the ills, the hurts, and the injustices we see all around us. “Do not judge” is not to be used as an excuse to be disengaged from God’s beloved world. Boring suggests that the warning is about how judgments are made. God’s disciples will be judged by the same standards that the disciples use to dispense judgment on others. Therefore, God’s disciples need to be careful about the way they judge others.
“You sure told them!” a parishioner was fond of telling me after church. “You sure told them!” He, of course, was never included in the “them” I was telling! And it is one of the easy faults for me as a preacher to think about “them”, those that I might feel the need to tell so that they can clean up their act! But, maybe part of Jesus’ warning in this passage is that we need to recognize our own fallenness and our own participation in the systems and institutions of this world that perpetuate the brokenness. It’s easy to point out the fault of others. It’s not nearly as easy to see our participation in the ways of the world that contribute to those faults. We see the speck in our neighbor’s eye and do not acknowledge the log in our own. My better sermons are ones that are preached to me.
As I was thinking about this theme, I remembered an observation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. So I went back to a few of his books to see if I could find the line I remembered. I didn’t find it exactly. But I found powerful statements on how we interact with others, and on the call of the church to look at the world and see its sin. Bonhoeffer participated in resistance to the Nazi regime. He critiqued the church for its silence in the face of that regime’s evils. Yet, he cautioned again and again that judgment of the other was not allowed. He said that others are to be viewed only through Christ who mediates our relationship. In The Cost of Discipleship he wrote, “If the disciples make judgments of their own, they set up standards of good and evil. But Jesus Christ is not a standard which I can apply to others. He is judge of myself, revealing my own virtues to me as something altogether evil….Judgment is the forbidden objectivization of the other person which destroys single-minded love. I am not forbidden to have my own thoughts about the other person, to realize [that person’s] shortcomings, but only to the extent that it offers to me an occasion for forgiveness and unconditional love, as Jesus proves to me….Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating.”
“Judgment is the forbidden objectivization of the other person which destroys single-minded love.” We might think of all the ways we are encouraged, in this society, to see others not as people, individuals, beloved children of God, but as objects. We judge appearances – weight, clothing. We judge lifestyles. We judge incomes. We judge education. We judge skin color. We judge backgrounds. We judge neighborhoods. We judge nationality. We judge age. We live in the “us” versus “them” world. Particularly, we live in the “us” versus “them” society.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way,” Paul wrote. These powerful words must have influenced Bonhoeffer. We are to see others only through or by way of Christ. First, we picture our very selves standing before the Christ who calls us. As we do so, we are to acknowledge our own failings – failings that are forgiven by Christ, yet failings we need to acknowledge in order to move into a new way of living, into the values of God’s realm.
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”
We are ambassadors for Christ. Ambassadors! Think of the role of ambassador. The ambassador has no coercive power. I do believe that the best ambassadors respect the people to whom they are sent. They make friends with them. They honor their traditions and their ways. They invite curiosity by being curious. They invite respect by being respectful. And, in the midst of those relationships, they bear witness to the values of their senders. The ambassador represents the sending entity.
I like the image of ambassador. It’s not one that we often lift up. I don’t think there’s a hymn that celebrates or honors this role. But, think about those who serve as ambassadors and about the places they’re sent. I would guess that effective ambassadors are those who are willing to value where they go. They don’t judge it and find it lacking. I knew someone years ago who travelled extensively. Every time she came back from a foreign country she would talk about how awful it was, how it didn’t live up to her standards. I always wondered why she bothered to go! Her judgment of those foreign places limited her ability to enjoy them.
“It’s okay to judge.” No. And, yes. But, no first. Too often judgment is outward looking. Judgment sees the fault of the other and ends there. Judgment when applied to other people or groups of people opens the door to making them objects. And when others are perceived as objects it is difficult to be in relationship with them. To use a modern example, recently it made the news that many men who are conservative Christians cannot imagine spending time with a woman other than their wives. Those women, in their eyes, are potential threats to the sanctity of their marriage relationships. It doesn’t matter who the woman is. They have been pre-judged. They are threats. There is no potential for friendship – or even for working relationships – with that attitude.
When we see the logs in our own eyes first, when we look at the world and acknowledge that we are enmeshed in its sin and brokenness, then we can begin to speak of God’s good intent for us and for all people. Paul said that Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation. That is a ministry not of division, but of bringing together, through Christ. It is the ministry of breaking down the walls of hostility. We can work toward that vision as we see, acknowledge, and work to overcome the walls that separate us from one another, from our neighbors, from particular groups of people, and, yes, from those we consider to be our enemies.
The Kingdom Is Like...
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-53
The other ministers in the town where I worked and I gathered for our monthly meeting. We began to talk about our practices related to celebrating communion. We weren’t really talking about theological differences, but the nuts and bolts issues. “How do you serve?” Eventually we got around to talking about the bread – and that led us to a theological battlefield. Several of us used everyday bread—specifically loaves of bread. Others used unleavened breads exclusively. One of the “unleavened bread” advocates said that using unleavened bread was the Biblical tradition, because that’s what Jesus would have used as he celebrated the Passover with his disciples. I commented that the second parable, the parable of the yeast leavening the dough, was a positive image that allowed for us to use the bread that is common and familiar to us.
The next time we gathered, one of the ministers started the meeting by handing out a seven page paper. He declared to us (and, maybe particularly to me,) that the parable I had cited was about the contamination of God’s kingdom. It was a negative parable warning people about something destructive entering God’s realm. “Anytime you have a story about yeast and a woman you know that something is wrong!”
I had never heard such an interpretation. It was, I am sure, partly a personal attack on me as a clergy woman. But, it was also a firmly held understanding of the Biblical text. Recent main stream Biblical interpreters agree – to an extent. Yeast was a symbol of impurity. (They are silent about a woman being involved!)
But, even if I accept such a statement, I still don’t understand what Jesus was saying in this parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” The other minister read this parable as a warning about all the evil doers who corrupt God’s realm – including women. Is it just bias that leads me to hear this as a positive parable? If Jesus was speaking about the influence of evil doers, who were they?
The parable of the yeast follows one of the beloved parables. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Theodore J. Wardlaw wrote that we focus on the “phenomenal growth from something small – [which] offers great encouragement for the church in every age, and can be appropriately gleaned from this text.” So, we have jewelry with little mustard seeds that remind us of the wonders that God can produce.
But, wait a minute, we hear that parable as a positive parable. Okay. The other minister said that the parable of the mustard seed was positive and the parable of the yeast was negative. But, maybe not. If we look back to Jesus’ day we need to wrestle with the fact that the mustard plant was considered to be a weed—a contaminate, just as yeast was a contaminate. The smallness of the seed meant that it was difficult, if not impossible, for someone to find it among all the other seeds. We have, in some ways, a re-telling of the parable we heard last week, the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Except, here, Jesus seems to present the “weed” in a positive light. J. David Waugh says that “the mustard seed and leaven parables utilize elements that either are not favored or are regarded as unclean to present lessons about transformation…Like the weeds of the previous parable, mustard is a plant that one is sorely tempted to weed out and burn. However, here Jesus emphasizes the surprising growth of something small and worthless into something that provides a place of shelter and nurture; he likens this to God’s activity.”
He explains the yeast as something “created by setting aside a portion of leftover bread to spoil, in order to create leaven used in future baking…Leaven can be fatal. Only a small portion – like a mustard seed—is needed to leaven flour.” We are told that the woman mixed the leaven with three measures of flour – which would have fed those at a wedding banquet.
Jesus took two negative images and spun them in a positive way. A weed becomes a sheltering bush (or tree) and leaven spreads through the flour so that there’s enough bread for a feast. (So, I disagree strongly with my colleague’s interpretation!) Wardlaw noted a similar theme in these two parables and the ones that follow, the parable of the treasure, the parable of the pearl and the parable of the net full of fish where the good fish are hidden among the bad. We are presented with a picture of God who refuses to be easily defined or contained by human expectations and traditions. Wardlaw says, “Maybe those disciples were shocked to hear Jesus say, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,’ because maybe they would assume that the planting and cultivation of such a kingdom is more orderly and predictable, laid out in neat rows. The kingdom of heaven is like soybeans, or like beautiful rows of lavender or cotton or grapes. What goes in is what is planned, and is altogether what grows up.”
“However, when the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, maybe that suggests that nicely bounded rows of expected crops are forever being invaded and overturned by an inbreaking that is fully unexpected.” Perhaps the carefully defined community of believers was being “invaded” by God’s grace.
He notes that the church likes to have clear boundaries. I remember hoping that those of us whose theology on bread and other issues differed could work together in mission. But, it wasn’t so. We like to know that co-workers fit into our understanding of what God’s realm is all about.
Do we see, do we recognize, do we celebrate God working outside of where we think God ought to be? Jesus’ message was that the kingdom of heaven was breaking into the world in a new way – a way that often upset and challenged the expectations of God’s people. He invited people to join him – and those who accepted his invitation, those who saw God at work in and through him, those who joined him in his work were, more often than not, from the edges of his society: fishermen, a tax-collector, and even women who helped provide for him and his ministry. They were the mustard seeds, the yeast, the treasure, the pearls, and the good fish.
So, where do we see God’s realm breaking into our world?
• The kingdom of heaven is like a homeless single mother who established a Girl Scout troop in the shelter.
• The kingdom of God is like a young boy who established a feeding program for the homeless in his city.
• The kingdom of heaven is like the friendship between two young women in Indonesia – a Christian young woman paralyzed in a natural disaster and her Muslim caretaker.
• The kingdom of heaven is like a young girl who saw the need to combat bullying on her playground and offered a friendship bench.
• The kingdom of heaven is like a group of beer drinking friends who responded to the earthquake in Honduras by going down to do construction work. The first trip started an ongoing commitment. They continue to build earthquake resistant structures. They connected with a foundation that provides hearing aids.
God’s realm breaks into our world in many ways, through many people, in many places. And, oftentimes, we don’t notice. We don’t expect God’s presence to be made manifest in the poor and homeless who might point the way. We don’t expect God’s presence in those of other faiths. We don’t expect God’s presence in the young. We don’t expect God’s presence in those who eschew the church, but reach out to serve and help the world’s vulnerable.
Wardlaw wrote of meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the early 1980s. “When the white people arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible. And we got the better of the deal.” Wardlaw reflected, “Hidden within what we think we see so clearly, it is the subversive that grows up in unexpected ways until what we thought we knew is transformed and redeemed by our surprising, invasive God.”
How often do we try to tame God? How do we strive to contain God by our theologies and constructs that tell us – and through us, the world—what God can be expected to do and how God thinks? The church becomes that place that normalizes faith, that lays out the framework for God and for God’s people. C.S. Lewis wrote of his God character the lion Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia that “he is not a tame God.” Aslan was good – but not tame. So God’s presence emerges in unexpected ways that disturb our orderliness and through unexpected people and groups that challenge our assumptions.
Perhaps one of the worst assumptions we have is that we are too small, too powerless to make a difference in this world – to work for change, to work for justice, to work for peace, to participate in transformation that brings the world closer to the in-breaking realm of God. But the mustard seed and the yeast tell us that even what seems small and insignificant can be part of God’s redeeming presence. The world is in need of the weeds that disrupt systems and attitudes that perpetuate brokenness. The world is in need of yeast that invades with justice, compassion, inclusiveness and mercy.