Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for August, 2014

Who Are You Willing to Be?

Matthew 16:13-20

I’ve been reading Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, over the last few months. I’m taking my time. It is a book that I think people who identify as Christians should most certainly read. It took Ehrman, a NT scholar, eight years to research and write. The main purpose of his book [to quote Ehrman] is to explore how an apocalyptic prophet from the backwaters of rural Galilee crucified for crimes against the state came to be thought of as equal with the one God Almighty, Creator of all things.

EhrmanHowJesusThe book leads the reader through the history of thought about divine beings and humans who became divine beings—focusing of course on Israel and Palestine and the time periods relevant to the writings in the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] and the New Testament Scriptures. Jesus, according to Ehrman, was transformed from a human prophet to the Son of God exalted to divine status at his resurrection. But this transformation happened because of how other people defined Jesus over the centuries. The closest followers of Jesus did not recognize him as divine until well after his death. And if you read the Gospels closely, not even all the writers were sure about Jesus’ divinity.

This could be a discussion for an entire year…or for a lifetime.

I recommend that you give this book a chance. At the very least, it will open your mind to the possibility that most of what you have been taught or what you have learned about Jesus comes strictly from your particular church traditions, denomination, pastor, or some creed.

People in the Gospels tried to define Jesus—all of them had different ideas. People in the 2nd, and 3rd, and 4th Centuries tried to define Jesus. Creeds again.

And after that, more and more people defined Jesus’ identity. The Middle Ages. The Reformation. Liberation Theology. Missional Theology. It never ends!

And so, here is the thing I want you to do. Just ask yourself this question, and answer it honestly, okay? Don’t let someone else or a denomination or a church or a pastor answer for you.

Who is Jesus to you? And why?

Think about that.

Identity [and not just Jesus’ identity] is really at the heart of the Gospels of the NT. Matthew and company all tell stories about Jesus of Nazareth, but in different ways; they all paint a unique picture of this man of Galilee. This is what I like about the Gospels, actually. There is not “one” tried and true definition of who Jesus was and is. The Gospels are more interested in telling the story of how communities formed around the teachings and life of this Jesus, and how people’s identities were formed. Think less about doctrine and more about formation.

Who is Jesus is not about a creed or a doctrine that is “right.”
Who is Jesus relates to who am I and who are we and what shall we do in this world?

Specifically, in Matthew’s story, identity is not just about who you are but who is around you. There is collective identity that goes hand and in hand with your own identity. Jesus was clearly preaching such a message. If someone knew who his/her neighbor was, then he/she had a chance to know themselves better.

And for Matthew’s community, they formed identity in a certain time and environment. We can never forget that those who followed Jesus of Nazareth were living under the Roman Empire. The Roman occupation of Israel was on everyone’s minds.

Would Jesus be the political leader to overthrow the Romans?
Would he restore the Israelites to power over that land?

None of that actually happened, did it? Jesus died. The Romans still had power. The predictions of God coming back to save and restore a new kingdom did not happen. People’s definitions of Jesus as king did not come to fruition.

This should not sound unfamiliar to us.
In this place and in this age, do you notice how empires still rule over us? Ancient empires like Rome did indeed fade away, but new ones with different names are imbedded in society. Armies and political structures exist, things we ignore or accept blindly as reality. We are placed in social levels, given categories and boxes into demographic stereotypes. Empires can trick us; they can tell us that we are not worth much, and neither are certain others around us.

That’s how Empires oppress; they mess around with our identities.

They run in with SWAT teams and heavy armor and guns.

fergusonGas

They hurl tear gas at peaceful protestors.

ferguson_tear_gasWoman ferguson_tear_gasMan

They criminalize people based on skin color, nationality, or religion. They silence truthful voices. They push back justice-seekers. They favor the materially wealthy and powerful.

And empires use fear to cause apathy, to calm passion, and to push us to forget who we are capable of being.

In Ferguson, MO and all over this country some people call the “land of the free,” young Black men are killed. This is not about criticizing all women and men who are police. This is about telling the truth. Young Black men are targeted, arrested, and sometimes even dealt with violently or fatally. We cannot ignore this.

In Gaza, children die because of bombs. These bombs are funded by the U.S. and other countries that have political and economic interests in Israel and Palestine. We cannot ignore this.

In Iraq, soldiers, drones, and heavy military presence of the U.S. and others continue. People are dying. And people of particular religious traditions or cultures are being pushed out of Iraq or even killed. We cannot ignore this.

Just like we cannot ignore the identity question.
Who are we?
Are we Christians?
If so, what part of the Jesus message moves us to identify with others who suffer?
Which part of that message helps us to be more human as we are?

Does our faith/spirituality inspire us to be love/mercy for others?

The I AM of Jesus and the I AM of all of us is about deciding who we are willing to be. Are we willing to stand up against injustice, no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular? Are we willing to tell the truth and lift it up, even when others do not want to hear it and seek to hide it? Are we willing to take a risk and befriend someone, even love someone who thinks differently or looks differently, because we simply value their humanity? Are we willing to be real about society’s evil empires, the prejudice embedded in them, and our sometimes apathetic response?

Are you willing to answer this vulnerable identity question with action?

Who do you say you are?
Who are you willing to be?

To close, if you haven’t seen this, watch it.

Orlando Jones’ take on the “ice bucket challenge” speaks loudly.

The challenge:

To listen without prejudice;
to love without limits;
and to reserve the hate.

Mercy and Compassion Come Out!

Matthew 15:10-28

This week I was taking with a guy I know who works in a store that I shop in frequently. He and I always have funny or interesting conversations. This time, we were joking about his nickname and his favorite superhero, and then, he told me an unexpected story that I will now paraphrase. He said:

When I worked in another store, I used to wear my stocking cap down over my hair. And, you know, since I am not as “black” as other African-Americans, this guy who worked with me kept staring at me and then finally he said to me:

What are you? Are you Puerto Rican or something?

I then took off my hat to reveal to him my hair, which I assumed would show that I was indeed black.

Oh…

He said.

You are one of those good-looking blacks…

My friend, as he finished the story, said that he didn’t curse out the other individual, but simply remarked about how shocked he was, and also how inappropriate the comment was.

Truthfully, it makes me sick to my stomach to think that we still do this to each other.

What are you?

Oh, you are one of those good-lookin’ blacks…

And yet, this is all too real.
Racism. Prejudice. Discrimination.

Words many Anglos avoid using.

But they are more than words to many, many people who are black or brown; very real to people who are discriminated against or mistreated simply because of the color of their skin, their cultural or national background, or their religious background.

Of course, after my friend told his story, we started talking about Ferguson, MO and Mike Brown and racism in the U.S. and white privilege. Many people choose not to talk about these things because they are too heavy or maybe because the topic makes them uncomfortable or maybe because they prefer to live in isolation from what is really happening in the world.

But the thing is, we have to talk about how we treat people.

We have to be aware of prejudice and stop denying its existence. And those who have privilege and never have to look over their shoulder in a store because someone might think they will steal something; or who never have to fear police officers in particular neighborhoods or immigration officers and the TSA in airports; or who never have to put up with ignorant, offensive comments about their skin color, nationality, or language—those with privilege need to accept that much of society is built upon prejudice systems that favor only a few and push down many others.

If we ignore that, we are compliant.

And all people—not just people of faith—should care about people in Ferguson, MO; in North Philly; in Central America; in Iraq; in Gaza. They are our neighbors and we must remember that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. So said Martin Luther King. And so hatred and violence against anyone due to the color of their skin, their nationality, or their religious background should matter to us.

Even if it does not happen directly to us.

And now to the Matthew story.

Jesus of Nazareth leads with this:
Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.

Apparently, this was an inflammatory thing to say, because the disciples were worried. Why?

The Pharisees were offended; this scared the disciples because they obviously cared more about appearance and pleasing people than they did about the truth of what was going on.

The “what was going on” part has to do with rules, once again. The Pharisees, the disciples, and others were more concerned with what people ate and drank, what they read and studied, what they put “into” the mouth [or mind], rather than what actually came “out” or in other words, how they behaved.

Jesus was getting impatient with his own disciples.
What goes into the mouth goes into the stomach and into the sewer.
What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.

People’s hearts inspire them to do evil, hate, murder, steal, lie, etc.
But if someone doesn’t wash their hands, in other words, if he/she does not follow your specific rules, that doesn’t make him/her a sinner.

And then, the disciples are tested, and they fail the test miserably.
They are in Tyre and Sidon and a Cannanite woman starts shouting:

Have mercy on me! My daughter is tormented by a spirit.

The disciples get impatient.

Let’s go, Jesus. Send her away. She’s annoying us.

The woman [and her daughter] do not count. They are unimportant to the disciples.
Wasn’t Jesus supposed to help the people of Israel first?
Shouldn’t he give his teachings and his healing and his time to them?
The disciples thought so.

So nobody listened to the Canaanite woman.

But the woman was persistent and came to Jesus of Nazareth and knelt before him.

Help me.

She was called a dog and not worthy to eat at the table with everyone else.

But what came from her heart impressed Jesus.
The mere crumbs would be enough. She was not a dog, but a human asking for healing. She deserved to be heard, to be treated like everyone else; to be afforded the same opportunities.

And so the healing happened.

The story is relevant for today.

Many times, Christians are just like the disciples and just like the Pharisees. We argue and argue about religious rules, cultural norms, and who is clean or unclean. We crave attention for ourselves and wish none for others. It’s about me, me, me or us, us, us and we forget about her or him or them.

We focus too much on appearance; we focus too much on the outside.
We ignore what comes from the heart—real human behavior.

And in doing so, we ignore and disenfranchise others; we say they don’t count.
We don’t listen to them; we send them away.

Friends, the story cuts deep, does it not?

I wonder how much good we could do in the world if we focused less on the surface and more on the behavior that comes OUT of people. What words do we say? What actions do we perform? And…most importantly, how do we treat other people?

The Matthew story is a challenge to anyone who thinks that believing in Jesus or God or religion is enough. The disciples said they believed. But then they were still worried about appearance and wanted to push away a woman asking for healing.

Where was the mercy and compassion that was supposed to come out of their belief?

Where is our mercy and compassion that comes out of our belief?

In Ferguson, Missouri; in Gaza; in Iraq; in Syria; in West Africa; in Central America; in Philly and in Warminster.
Where is our mercy and compassion?

Perhaps this is a lament more than anything else.
I’m saddened and maddened by how poorly we treat each other in this world.
And how people are ignoring Michael Brown’s story, and the story of others who have been attacked because of their skin color.

Are we listening to their stories?
Or are we pushing them away?

It is sad that Twitter has to explode with #dontshoot for people to pay attention.

Howard University students shouldn’t have to do this to get people to listen to the cries of those who suffer discrimination every day in this country.

howardunivPrayers are fine but not enough when teenagers are shot out of fear.
This doesn’t need to happen.

The appearance that we live in an accepting and open country is a fallacy.
Prejudice is alive and well once you move past the surface.
There are imbedded systems that are built on prejudice and give advantage to a certain few while pushing down others.

So people of faith [and no faith], let’s stop being silent about it.

Stop justifying it.
Stop ignoring the real stories of those around you.
Listen to them.

And when you see or hear this kind of prejudice, don’t stand by and watch it happen. Don’t be a bystander.

Any of your friends, family, or neighbors who make prejudice comments—challenge them; call them out. Don’t put up with it, because you care more about the heart and aren’t fooled by the surface.

Be friends with people who are different than you. Stand up for anyone who is pushed down.

May the behavior that comes out of your heart be more important than any appearances you try to keep up.

Let mercy and compassion come out!

P.S. I have permission to share the following comments from one of the members of the church I serve:

We haven’t mentioned anything to our daughter–she’ll be 10 next month and probably at that age where we should talk to her about these things, but she is so naive and innocent still. We want her to stay that way for as long as possible. 🙂

We believe in setting a high bar for these girls to reach, because they will reach it. We believe in teaching them to be kind and thoughtful first and foremost. We believe in showing them how to set a good example for others to follow.

And in doing those things they will SHOW people that maybe their initial judgment of them, based on skin color, was incorrect and maybe teach someone something without even realizing they were doing so.

That is our hope.

I know some day they are going to get awakened to racism and pre-judgment. But I hope when they are, they are strong enough to know who they are and don’t let it define them. 

The Great Life Adventure

Matthew 14:22-33

Hobbit_coverThe Hobbit, a book by JRR Tolkien, begins with this line: “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The author Tolkien lets us the reader know that this is not a nasty or unkempt hole, like the lair of a mouse, but rather a cozy place, filled with fine furniture, doilies, and a well-stocked kitchen. Bilbo Baggins is this particular hobbit, and it is from this comfortable space that he is called to a great adventure.

It is Gandalf, a wizard, who initially interrupts Bilbo’s comfortable life.

Let’s watch a scene from the movie version of the story: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

 

Obviously, Bilbo is not very enthusiastic about the idea.

And after meeting the large group of dwarves who will “contract” him for this adventure—Bilbo is even less enthusiastic. They are messy and rambunctious and not of his kind. Why would he choose to go on an adventure with them?

Of course.

Why leave a place of complete comfort and predictability to enter a life of challenge, risk, and uncertainty?

Why?

This is the theme presented to us in another story of adventure—the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples. We are looking at Matthew’s version.

It’s easy to get distracted in these stories by the seemingly “miraculous” things that Jesus does. Case in point—walking on water as if it’s nobody’s bizness.

But we shouldn’t let ourselves get too distracted by the “miracles” that we so often associate Jesus with. The push of Matthew’s story is not to dazzle us with Jesus’ magic tricks. Matthew’s author wants the reader to recognize the calling of Jesus of Nazareth—to that group of friends he called disciples—but also a calling to the wider community. It is up to you how you want to interpret the so-called miracles stories of the Bible. My point of view is that miracles do not require Divine intervention to be a miracle. I think that unexpected, extraordinary things happen each day when we participate in the world and when we are fully human.

And there’s another twist to this story, of course—one that I invite you to think about. Consider this scene of the disciples on a boat without Jesus. When they “see” him, they see a ghost. They hear familiar words [take heart, do not be afraid] and then Peter makes his attempt to scurry across the lake like one of those cool, green lizards in the rain forest. To me, this story looks just like the other resurrection appearance/vision stories after Jesus’ death. The disciples were alone, Jesus appears; they see a ghost or something else, Jesus assures them with peace and do not be afraid; then, someone in the disciples group says or does something that makes it a teaching moment. Then, the group as a whole finds renewed strength to continue their journey.

As I always say, it’s up to you. I choose to see this story in that way [and not literally at all], but you need to develop your own perspective.

Regardless, one of the clear themes of the story is getting rid of fear and then journeying out to the unknown. It’s about a great adventure that involves taking risks and facing doubts and fears.

I think Bilbo’s story is quite similar in the Hobbit.

Let’s watch another clip of The Hobbit, in which Bilbo’s cozy house is back to normal. The dwarves and Gandalf the Wizard have gone. His dishes, bowls, and plates are all in order. It seems like nothing ever happened. Perhaps Bilbo was able to rid himself of that adventure idea that he was so set against.

What made Bilbo decide to leave his cozy house and comfortable existence?

Why did he choose the adventure?

After all, the adventure would be scary at times. Hungry trolls who rather enjoy the taste of hobbits; nasty orcs; giant spiders; a fire-breathing dragon.

But Bilbo chose to go on this adventure anyway.

He chose to leave behind the comforts of his material things.
He chose to befriend and share life with creatures of different kinds and cultures.
He chose to journey into the unknown.
He chose to face the evils in the world—the scary things.

Bilbo faced his doubts, his fears, his complacency, and his attachments.

And on the adventure, Bilbo learned about gifts and talents he never knew he had; he learned how to love; how to give; how to be an adventurous hobbit.

And so it is, friends.

The world is indeed a scary place sometimes
There are winds that blow and we feel unstable.
There are times when we feel alone and useless.
Sometimes you may feel that you don’t have a purpose at all.

But the great adventure of life itself is a gift worth embracing.

Jesus of Nazareth called his friends and companions to greater things. They were asked to take risks and to leave their places of comfort.

Why?
Because on the journey of their adventure, they discovered, learned, grew, and transformed.

Will you consider the adventure of life over the routine of comfort?

You have undiscovered gifts and talents to explore and try out.
You can discover how to love people in honest ways.
You can learn how to give freely without expecting something.
You can learn how to empty yourself of all the fears and anxieties that keep you locked behind closed doors.

On the adventure, you can learn to be free of attachments.

No matter what stage of life you are in, the adventure can begin again.

Today.

You are staring at the door; will you venture out into the open?

Participating in Miracles?

Matthew 14:13-21

 

MIRACLE.

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:

1: an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs

2: an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment

Not sure what you consider to be a miracle. Does it have to be something religious—something related to a god or gods? Does it have to be supernatural?

Or are miracles everyday occurrences that we cannot explain?

 

What’s a miracle to you?

Check out this Ted Talk given by Louie Schwartzberg.
Hidden Miracles of the Natural World.

Now allow me to admit something to you.

I love to see nature’s miracles.

But I’m not a big fan of the popular miracle stories we have in our religious traditions. Don’t get me wrong—I love mythology and magic and science fiction. I thoroughly enjoy the magical stories in the various religious books from around the world.
But we’ve come to a point in humanity’s existence when some of those miracle stories [particularly religious ones] have led us to apathy, lack of empathy, and even great misunderstandings that lead to violence.

I don’t think this is a stretch at all.

Consider what is happening in Gaza right now.

Both sides of this violent conflict claim to have some higher authority that gives them the right to claim a certain land. Now, whether or not most of the normal, everyday people of Israel and Palestine believe that—I don’t know. But that’s the view we often hear about and see.

Children, youth, and adults all die because someone believes in a supernatural right to a particular land.
It’s so tense right now that people are afraid to even talk about this issue.
No matter what someone says, it’s likely to offend someone.

So I probably just did.

And then there are other issues like the fact that thousands of children and youth from Central America are coming to the U.S. via la bestia, a train that travels through Mexico to the U.S. border. They are risking their lives because they believe that they will be reunited with their families in the U.S. if they can just get across that imaginary border we made up years ago.

They expect that they will be greeted with hospitality, food and water, a place to stay. They think that once they are in the U.S. their lives will be better.

There are also countless examples of prejudice, discrimination, racism–the pushing down of people just because of their skin color, or cultural background, the religion they practice [or don’t] or the language they speak.
Ferguson, Missouri. Black men [unarmed] and killed by police officers in the last few weeks:
Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or John Crawford.

Of course, These issues are only a few of many around the world.

So back to the issue of miracles.

I argue that our stringent belief in religious, supernatural miracles [especially those within books] have led us to apathy, a lack of empathy, and even violence.

We rely on some supernatural force to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict.
We wait for some god-miracle to deal with those Central American kids.
We stay silent about and don’t organize against racism or prejudice of any kind in our communities.

We pray and pray and pray, and light more candles.

And then what?

My question for you to consider today is simple:

Do we ourselves participate in miracles?

In other words, for one moment, try to put past ideas and conditioning aside. Think about miracles differently. Consider the possibility that miracles do in fact happen, but they don’t happen while we are passive.

Consider that miracles happen when we are agents of change.

Do we participate in miracles?

And with this in mind, let’s look at a really famous miracle story in the Christian sacred text of Matthew’s Gospel. The miracle story of the loaves and fishes is also told in the other three canonical Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John.

On the surface, this seems like the best Jesus hocus pocus magic show ever.

You go, Jesus Potter Harry Christ!

jesuspotterharrychrist.jpeg

People hungry. 5000+ people, actually.
Not enough food.

Did I mention hungry people, and a lot of them?
Enter Jesus, who waves his magic wand and…Abracadabra!
Bread and fish for everybody!
It’s a miracle!

The story begins with “when Jesus heard this.” What Jesus had heard was that John the Baptist, his cousin, had been killed by Herod Antipas, the ruler of a region called Galilee. Even though Jesus was obviously distraught over what had happened and wanted some alone time—when he saw the crowds of people he felt compassion for them and offered healing to those who needed it. But then, that evening, the disciples arrived. Now I don’t recall the people ever saying anything about being hungry. But the disciples were anticipating having to feed these people. They had only five loaves of bread and two fish—probably enough to feed themselves and Jesus. But it was their ration and certainly not something they would share with the others.

So the disciples wanted to send the people away.
Not enough to go around.

But Jesus said to them: “YOU give them something to eat.”

Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish from the disciples.
After a blessing, Jesus broke the bread. Then, the disciples gave the bread to the crowds.

Everyone was satisfied. There were even leftovers.

A LOT more than 5,000 people, because someone forgot to count the women and children.
It was a miracle!
Or something like that.

Look, I’m not here to be a Debbie Downer.

debbieDownerBut the author of Matthew’s Gospel story has Jesus only bless and break the bread. Then, he distributes it to the disciples.

Um, yeah. This is classic “Communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper.

#JesusBodyandBloodCeremony

Matthew’s agenda, however, is to include a great number of people in the Lord’s Supper– regardless of social status, wealth, being clean or unclean—they all ate together.
For one beautiful moment in a story, people of all shapes and sizes; beliefs and cultures; languages and traditions; social levels and genders and ages—were together.

They were humanity.

 And this was a miracle.

I asked you at the beginning to consider the possibility that miracles do indeed happen, but that they don’t happen when we are passive. I asked you to consider that miracles happen when we choose to be agents of change.

I am asking you to be willing to participate in miracles.

And like you saw in the beautiful nature videos, you will need to accept the fact that many [if not most] of the real miracles in the world and all around us are hidden miracles.
They are not featured on television news programs, tweeted to a million people, or shared on Facebook.
They are hidden to our conditioned and distracted eyes.

Hidden miracles—but real. VERY real.

I challenge you to participate in the miracles here on the ground where the people, animals, plants, and all living things are.
Don’t limit miracles to divine intervention.
Don’t wait for someone or something else to make positive changes happen.

Miracles have always been and will always be extremely outstanding and unusual events, things, and accomplishments in this world.

And real miracles are needed in Gaza; in Palestine; in Israel. In Western countries like the United States, that both fund and support Israel’s military actions; in Arab countries that both fund and support Hamas’ military actions.

The real miracle would be Palestinians and Israelis seeing each other as humans and not enemies. The real miracle would be if countries like the U.S. would stop fanning the flames of hateful rhetoric and start funding peacemaking instead of bombs.

Consider this recent article in the Chicago Tribune, written by Jill Jacobs:

This is what we need to hear instead: pro-Palestinian voices that empathize with the Israelis racing for shelter, that denounce terrorism and rocket attacks, and that refuse to tolerate any anti-Semitic tropes masquerading as criticism of Israeli policy. In one powerful and much-circulated op-ed, for instance, a Palestinian-American student calls for pro-Palestinian protesters to utterly reject anti-Semitism.

And we need to hear pro-Israel voices expressing authentic grief at the deaths of Palestinian children, calling for protection for civilian populations, acknowledging the damage inflicted by 47 years of occupation, and denouncing any language that dehumanizes Palestinians or Muslims.[1]

Likewise, as it pertains to the 50,000 + children and youth from Central America who are here in this country, will we participate in miracles?

A United Church of Christ ministry, Bethany Children’s Home, near Reading, PA, was asked by the federal government to be a temporary site for children who have been victims of abuse and human trafficking.

bethany.jpegThe program is called Helping Hands. It allows staff at Bethany to pick up children at one of the surrounding airports, give them food, clothing and a medical exam and reunite them with family in the United States while they await an immigration proceeding. Kevin Snyder, Bethany’s CEO, said this:

“They are very caring kids. They are very needy children. They are very appreciative.”

bethany2.jpegIn spite of recent protests against the Helping Hands program, Bethany’s staff and volunteer core remain committed to helping kids as long as there is a need. Says Snyder:

“These are children. They need help and we just cannot turn our backs on them.”[2]

The real miracle is in seeing these children and youth as human beings who deserve hospitality and fulfillment of their basic needs. The real miracle would be to stop seeing them as “undocumented” immigrants, criminals, or problems.

And as for all the senseless shootings in U.S. cities, and the prejudice that is alive and well, even though some people to cover it up–as people, as human beings, let’s stop being silent about it.

Stop justifying it. Stop criminalizing young men just because of their skin color or cultural or religious background.

Seriously, just stop.

And when you see or hear this kind of prejudice, don’t stand by and watch it happen. Don’t pray for a miracle.

Make a miracle.

Be friends with people who are different than you. Stand up for anyone who is pushed down.

So friends, I ask this same question—of myself and of you:

Will we participate in real miracles?

 

[1] “Move past hideous stereotypes of Israelis, Palestinians”, Jill Jacobs, Chicago Tribune, August 1st, 2014.

[2] http://www.wfmz.com/news/news-regional-berks/local-program-reuniting-kids-crossing-border-illegally-with-families-in-united-states/26987366

Strange, Subtle, Shocking, Stupendous!

Matthew 13:31-33

Mustard seeds are small and round—about 1 or 2 mm in diameter. They can be yellowish white or black. They can come from black mustard, brown Indian mustard, or white mustard plants.

seeds.jpegThese seeds are small. They seem insignificant. You could hold one in your hand and in then forget about it.

But something happens when you cook them. Put mustard seeds on a skillet, heat it to medium flame, and watch the drama unfold. The seeds start to pop and jump around almost. The fragrance hits your nose.

Or, you can grind the seeds. When you do that, the seemingly insignificant seeds make you aware of their presence. The smell is strong. And when you add them to a sauce or stir fry, the seeds add flavor depth. Depending on the mustard seeds you cook with, they can add acidity, spice, or nuttiness.

Mustard seeds have been around for a long time. White seeds have been traced to the eastern Mediterranean regions [Greece, Italy, etc.]; brown seeds from the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains [Nepal and India]; and black seeds from the Middle East.

Mustard seeds are good for you. They are an excellent source of selenium and a very good source of omega-3 fatty acids and manganese. They also contain phosphorus, magnesium, copper, and vitamin B1.[1]

These small seeds were mentioned in ancient Sanskrit writings in India dating back about 5,000 years ago.

The earliest “mustard” story we know of is also from India—the story of Gautama Buddha, dating back to the 5th Century CE. Buddha told a story about a grieving mother [Kisa Gotami] who had lost her only son. Kisa takes his body to the Buddha to find a cure. The Buddha asks her to bring a handful of mustard seeds from a family that has never lost a child, husband, parent, or friend. When the mother is unable to find such a house in her village, she realizes death is common to all and she is not alone.[2]

So this little seed is quite famous. Jesus of Nazareth talked about it, too.

But we must do something whenever we read a parable.

We must look for the twist.

What is the shocker in this parable about a mustard seed?
The shocker is that the tiny seed smells pungent.
The shocker is that when add a little bit to a dish, the flavor soars.
The shocker is that when you plant this little seed, it is subtle no more.
The mustard seed itself escaped cultivation around the world.

It now grows wild.

It is wild, subversive, rebellious, and sometimes annoying. Once a mustard plant takes root, it can take over fields and climb over and up hills.

mustardfield.jpegSo Jesus of Nazareth compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed.

This phrase kingdom of heaven was extremely important in Matthew’s Gospel. This same Jesus parable appears in Mark’s Gospel, but in that version, Jesus compares mustard seeds to the kingdom of God.

Does this subtle difference matter? Yes.

Matthew’s Gospel is directed to a Jewish audience. They thought about god or gods differently according to their culture and traditions. Those of the Jewish tradition did not pronounce or say the word or name for god [Elohim]. So heaven is a substitute for that. In Mark [and in Luke], you may see kingdom of God because their audiences were not exclusively Jewish.

Either way, kingdom may not be the best way for us to talk about the mustard seed. Context matters. Today most people in the world do not wish to be ruled by a king or queen. So consider the word reign of heaven rather than kingdom of heaven. The reign of heaven is like a mustard seed.

What is this reign?
It is the expression of the love and mercy of the Creator.

It is the subtle but shocking impact of someone showing compassion to another without any reward in mind or when he/she shows compassion to someone outside of his/her family, social circle, or tribe.

It is the spiciness of standing up for justice and ticking people off who want to maintain the status quo.

It is a kid at school refusing to go along with the crowd to bully someone.
It is an adult at work refusing go along with the crowd to bully someone.

It is people standing with people in times of tragedy, fear, and sadness.
It is refusing to stereotype; It is standing up against prejudice of any kind.

It is living freely and allowing others to germinate, grow, and flourish freely.
It’s the seed that scoffs at Monsanto and its GMO monocultures and grows wild without the chemicals, pesticides, or human help.

It’s hardy on its own.

It’s that kind of seed.

And then there’s yeast.
Like mustard seeds, yeast is inconspicuous and small.

True story—one time I was making bread.
I put the baker’s yeast in the warm water and went off to do something else. The minutes passed, and when I returned to the kitchen, I stared at that bowl of clear water and for the life of me, I could not remember if I put yeast in there or not. In the end, I decided that I had not. So I heated up the water again and put more yeast in it. All of this could have been solved if I simply would have smelled the water in the bowl. But I didn’t. So the yeast was not visible to me at all.

Yeast is a single-celled microorganism; that’s why it’s hard to see!

bacteria.jpegIt is part of the kingdom of Fungi. Yeast organisms exist all around us – in soil, on plants and even in the air.

The main purpose of yeast is to serve as a catalyst in the process of fermentation, which is essential in the making of bread.

The type of yeast most often used to make bread is Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

The ancient Egyptians were already making bread and though they may not have scientifically talked about the process in the way we do today, here is the idea:

Yeast feeds on the starches that are present in flour. This produces Co2.
The carbon dioxide expands the gluten proteins in the flour.
The gluten proteins cause the dough to expand and rise.
But for those who are celiac and cannot eat gluten, never fear.
The yeast can still produce Co2 if you use xanthan gum with gluten-free flour.

The end result, of course, is the incredible smell of baked bread.
And the taste, too!

Okay, so back to the parable [I’m getting hungry]…

Why is the reign of heaven compared to yeast?
Remember to look for the shocker in the parable….

Shocker #1: the Creator [G-d] is a woman.

parableoftheleavenjamesbjanknegt.jpegThat’s right. The Creator is the bread maker and she is a female.

Shouldn’t surprise us, though. There are many female images for the Creator—spanning many cultures and traditions. Sadly, though, we’ve silenced them in favor of narrow, patriarchal worldviews. This is why the Jesus parables are refreshing.

A baker woman god.

She lets the yeast do its thing, of course. The microorganisms eat the flour while the woman leaves them alone. No manipulation there. No additives or preservatives. Just the live bacteria doing its thing.

And like the mustard seed, it smells.

Then, when the yeast has had its time to produce the Co2, she starts kneading the dough. Push, pull, pound, stretch. It’s time and patience. It’s with her bare hands. It’s messy, sticky, and a bit risky. No one really knows what kind of bread that dough will turn into. It’s open-ended. But she continues to knead.

Eventually, she pulls the dough apart and makes two halves. She lets it rest again; she leaves it alone.

The yeast does its thing; the dough expands.

Then the fire of the oven surrounds the dough and it bakes.
Such a small, insignificant, invisible thing that yeast.
But now the bread balloons into something delicious and fulfilling.

And so it is.

Our baker god-mother leaves us to be who we are as we are.

We get the opportunity to mix and connect with all the other microorganisms on this planet, be they humans, animals or plants. If we choose to be our natural selves, we produce bubbles, ripples, waves of love and compassion and mercy that infiltrate hopeless and fearful situations. And the more we join with other yeast and other flour, the more we expand the life-bread wherever we are.

Friends, look for the shocker in the parables of your life.
Things are not as they seem most of the time.

What we’ve been conditioned to see, feel, hear, and think is often not true.

May our spiritual practice be like mustard seeds—humble, spicy, aromatic, unique, and free.

May our spiritual practice lead us to join with others, to connect, to cooperate, and to expand our love and compassion.

 

[1] Ensminger AH, Esminger M. K. J. e. al. Food for Health: A Nutrition Encyclopedia. Clovis, California: Pegus Press; 1986. 1986. PMID:15210.

[2] Buddhaghosa – Buddhist legends, Volume 28 (published 1921).

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