Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for July, 2017

Hidden Histories: What’s Cookin’

Matthew 13:31-35
He put before them another parable: ‘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.’
He told them another 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.’
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:*
‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’*

A common remark I hear a lot these days goes something like this:

I can’t watch the news or stay informed with what’s going on the world, because it’s just so negative and divisive. I’m tired and I don’t know what to do with what I’m feeling. How can I make a difference?  

I feel/have felt this too. Life in this world can wear us down and even seem to defeat us. Particularly those of us who are going through deep depression, anxiety, or who are consistently mistreated. This can lead to feeling that pretty much all things are out of our control and so what’s the point

I hope that in this message [and in two symbols] anyone feeling this way can find even a small bit of encouragement to keep living. I certainly don’t have all the answers and neither does any religious writing including the Bible, but in my experience [and in the experience of many others as well] there is a healthy balance of life we can live, even in a world so heavy and difficult.

Before we look at two symbols that will lead us there, allow me to mention briefly a philosophy that you may have heard of. Stoicism was a prominent school of thought in the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century. Stoics looked first to the natural world and found that there was one overall force balancing it all. They called this many names, including the Divine, or logos. Now if that sounds familiar, it should, be throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters these concepts resurface. Christianity, many historians believe, was influenced by Stoicism. The main aspect I want to focus on is that the Stoics thought that for human beings, the path to happiness was in accepting that which they had already been given [i.e. the life-logos], and then not allowing themselves to be controlled by desire for pleasure or fear of pain. This is an understanding that the overall logos balancing all the world is also in us and then compels us to work together with others and to treat them fairly and justly.

And now the two symbols: the mustard seed and yeast.

seeds.jpegNow the mustard seed is a tiny little thing. You may not notice it. It’s hidden. The mustard seed comes from the mustard greens plant. You can eat the greens and also, if you allow the plant to flower, you can harvest the seeds and use them as spices, in sauces and other delicious sides and condiments. So Jesus makes good use of hyperbole by mentioning the tiniest of seeds that will eventually grow like crazy and add spice to whatever it touches. Matthew’s author was clearly writing from a Jewish perspective and to a mostly-Jewish audience. So these references to trees and plants would have been familiar. And this naturalistic focus is akin to the Stoic view of nature-humanity.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the prophetic books, seeds, plants, and trees play a prominent role. Listen to this section of the book of Daniel, chapter 4:
11The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. 12Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed.

About-The-Tree-of-LifeIn this case, the tree is God’s domain of provision, rest, and safety. So essentially, if you recognize that God is in a tree of life and in the tiniest of seemingly insignificant seeds, then you get it. God is big and balancing it all, but even the smallest of creatures participate in this.

We cannot control everything, but we can still be part of everything.

Any of us who have ever felt [or still feel] that our lives don’t matter or that we are so small, we are reminded that yes, we are small, but we are still important, still loved, still valued.

Then there’s the symbol of yeast.

parableoftheleavenjamesbjanknegt.jpegThis time, we find ourselves in a kitchen, and God is the chef, and God is a female. The divine baker is making bread and she uses a large amount of flour as if she is baking bread for hundreds of people. Then comes the yeast or leaven, which you may recognize as a common image in 1st Century Jewish life, but typically a negative symbol. Leaven was often a symbol of corruption. One rotten strawberry can spoil a whole basketful. But not this time. Now yeast is a positive force of growth and something that causes the hidden to be seen. The baker hides the yeast in the dough. After much kneading, she has made it so that the yeast is not visible or detectable. It’s now a part of the dough completely.

The yeast gives life to the dough. It’s creating something.

Left alone and covered, the dough starts to rise—it doubles in size. And then, in the heat of an oven, more rising, golden brown crust on the outside, and light and airy on the inside. You hungry yet?

So here’s my take. We are not meant to gloss over the heaviness of this life. We are meant to express what we feel as being part of our existence. And yet, if we can recognize the logos, the nature inside us, we can make progress towards love, towards wholeness, towards healing. A lot of us feel like mustard seeds. We may feel unnoticed, very small, and sometimes even without value. The heaviness and hatred in the world can make us feel that way. But mustard seeds can grow into something beautiful, delicious, nutritious, and spicy. They can bear flowers and eventually produce seeds. Even when you feel small and unnoticed, you are still capable of life. And your unique personality and gifts can add needed flavor to the community and to the world.

And yeast. It’s hidden growth and life. What and who you are on the inside is often not visible to others. You are made with the divine inside you. Life has already been breathed into you [like the CO2 air produced by yeast]. Sometimes you may not always notice that life, but it’s still there. Eventually, that life emerges from you and becomes visible on the outside. It grows and can even encourage others. Any small step when you embrace yourself, any small movement towards being more kind to yourself and to others, and the growth is accelerated. May it be so.

 

 

 

 

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The Seeds We Scatter & Grow

Matthew 13:1-9      
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” 

seedsThe story of the sower of seeds is pretty well-known. You don’t have to be religious to understand the metaphor either. A sower, a planter, goes out and throws some seeds on a path where some birds eventually eat them. Then, the sower drops some seeds on rocky ground; the seeds spring up right away but when the sun comes out they get burned and wither away. The sower also tosses some seeds where there are hardy thorns, which eventually grow too big and thus the seeds cannot grow. And yet, despite all this seemingly bad luck, the sower also manages to put some seeds where there is good soil, and eventually they grow and become food and abundance.

Some Christian theologians or preachers stick with the status quo interpretation of this parable, which is more or less a paraphrase of words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth [that follow the parable] in Matthew, Luke, and Mark, i.e. an explanation like this:

The soil is people’s hearts. The seeds are the Word of God, sometimes called the Gospel, or really, the heart of Christianity itself. Some people hear this word, receive this seed, but immediately harden their hearts and reject it. Others are like rocky soil, immediately accept the seeds but when life gets difficult, they fall away. Still others are like thorny soil and care more about material things and so the seeds don’t grow. And finally, some are like fertile soil and hear the Gospel and receive it joyfully and eventually bear fruit.

So kids, you should be the fertile soil, that is ready to receive Jesus and will bear fruit. Don’t be the rocky ground, or the thorns, or the birds. Believe in Jesus. The end.

jesusanswer

Of course, this interpretation [like all] is limited. I mean, I get why so many people interpret the parable this way, but I also must call attention to the harm that absolute or so-called “right” interpretations can cause others. For example, it is very easy [and it happens a lot] for people to start calling others rocky soil, or thorns, or the birds. It’s tempting to say that you are the fertile soil because you believe in Jesus or God or whatever. Isn’t it? Taken to its extreme, that is where this interpretation will carry you.

And yet, I think if we choose to look deeper into the parable [after all, that’s what Jesus taught people to do], we will discover that any of us who have felt/do feel like the rocky ground, the infertile soil, the thorns or the birds—that there is good news for us too, and that we don’t have to believing in a certain way to bear fruit in this life. So as briefly as I can, let me explain. Jesus of Nazareth was telling these stories to people in a particular context, right? In this case, Jesus was speaking to those who were seeking to follow him, his students. These students were eventually going to visit villages and towns where they would encounter people who were of various belief systems and the majority of them were poor or marginalized. Notice that they were not going to the big temples in the major hubs with this movement. And one last contextual thing: please, please remember that all of these Gospel books were written well after Jesus’ death. So all [and I mean all] of the stories about Jesus include commentary and contextual interpretations by the writers, reflecting on how Jesus died and the whole hindsight is 20/20 thing. You know what I mean?

Imagine you are writing a memoir of your best friend’s life. Your friend passed away 50 years ago. You look back on your friend’s life, you talk to people who share experiences with that friend, you gather 2nd and even third hand recollections and tales. And then, you combine all of those stories with your own memories and also your feelings since your friend passed away. That memoir would be just like the Gospels. I don’t say this to belittle the Gospels or to lessen their value, but I must say this because Western Christians tend to have an attitude about the Bible, as if every single word in the Gospels was actually said by Jesus and this makes Christianity the best religion ever. Okay, moving on…

Looking deeper into the parable, here’s what I see. The sower is careless and doesn’t care where the seeds fall.

Otherwise, why not just throw the seeds on the good soil? Nope. The sower keeps tossing seeds this way and that, no matter what. That, my friends, is what God does. God doesn’t say to you: Oh, you’re not good enough, or you don’t believe enough, so no seeds for you! Doesn’t work that way. I also am considering the context of Jesus’ words and what was happening all around. The religious and political powers were real threats to love and acceptance and real bullies too. They had no trouble stealing good things from the poor, marginalizing people who were different or who didn’t fit into society’s tiny little boxes. They also didn’t hesitate to choke out anyone who tried to counter their stringent systems that always favored the rich and the status quo.

So I’m hearing this story beg us to ask this question today, no matter where you are on your journey:

What kinds of seeds are we scattering, and will we be like the generous sower?

What kinds of seeds are we scattering wherever we go, when we interact with others, as we live this life? Are we choosing to scatter seeds of love and acceptance, of peacemaking and friendship, seeds of hope and seeds of grace? If so, will we only scatter them in comfort zones and with those we know? Or, will we choose to scatter our beautiful and kind seeds with reckless abandon, in all places and without hope of reward or ulterior motivation, other than to simply scatter love wherever we go?

Because yes, sometimes when we scatter seeds of love and acceptance all over the place, they will fall on rocky, thorny, or infertile soil. That’s true. But what if we keep scattering them anyway?  

For if we choose to be extravagant and reckless like the sower in the story, the seeds will hit the air like glitter and be carried by wind and breath and sheer luck and randomness, and they will fall where the fall and they will land on people’s faces and arms and feet, and because they are seeds of love and acceptance, they will sparkle as glitter does, and they will be light and not heavy, and they will add color and sparkle to the world and to people’s lives. And isn’t that worth the effort?

 

Finding Rest Rhythms

Matthew 11:25-30
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Abba, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Abba, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by God; and no one knows the Son except God, and no one knows God except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In this section of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus addresses both the crowds who oppose him and those who follow him. Once again we find Jesus breaking away from the norm, asserting that the ways of God are known to those on the margins and not known to the authorities, the rich, the powerful, etc. Those who know God are the ones who know Jesus and the way of love. Everyone who knows and follows this way is connected—both to God and to each other.

The last part of this Matthew story is only found in Matthew’s Gospel and in the Gospel of Timothy, verse 90. What does this oft-quoted Jesus saying mean to you? For the most part, I have heard people interpret this as something spiritual, i.e. come to Jesus those of you who are heavy and tired because of life, and Jesus will ease your suffering and give you peace. Similar to how some interpret prayer as something that can ease someone’s suffering or bring a sense of calmness. But what if we don’t over-spiritualize this? What if this is simply about rest, even physical, mental rest? Consider that Jesus was talking to people who actually were over-worked, tired, carrying actual heavy loads on their backs. 1st century Israel and Palestine was full of so-called poor people who carried these burdens, the burdens of oppression.

yokeThen we get the word “yoke” as Jesus encouraged those listening to take up his yoke. In Jewish tradition, yoke was an image for the Torah, the Law of Moses. Jesus was encouraging those with heavy burdens to take up his yoke and to learn from him. Taking on this yoke and learning goes back to following the way of love. It was a way that stood in contrast to the ways of powerful political and religious elites. This way of Jesus brings rest to people’s lives. In the Greek, the words for “rest” and “soul” are much more nuanced than our English language interpretations. Rest for the soul is not some sort of religious certainty or promise of heaven. It is a rest, a wholeness for the entirety of life, one’s whole being. It is a rest that can set you on the right path to move towards healing and recovery. And the yoke is more than light and easy. It’s not eggs. The yoke is loving, kind, refreshing.

Friends, it is an invitation [and a call] to live “lighter, less heavy” lives, to stop judging others, to be free ourselves and to let others be free. It is a restful state of being active in our pursuit of justice and dignity for all people. It is a way that leads us to stand with the marginalized, love them, call them family. And this is not a burden; it is the way to refreshment, healing, and wholeness.

Valued

Matthew 10:27-31

mylifematters1Our stories are valuable—absolutely valuable. Our stories most often define us. So when we share our authentic stories with each other, I think that we participate in a divine act.

I also think that Jesus of Nazareth understood this. Jesus was careful to take time to hear people’s stories—even the stories of people who had been pushed to the margins of society, told they were worthless, untouchable, or unclean. And in doing so, those stories became life—for those who heard them and for those who shared them.

In many ways, the community of people in the Gospel of Matthew were people whose stories were not being heard. Remember that Matthew was written well after Jesus’ death. The temple of Jerusalem had been destroyed. As Matthew was written mostly for Jewish people, this was a devastating time. They had little hope of their community and way of life being restored. They were persecuted. They were afraid. This is why Jesus tells them to not be afraid three times in only three verses of scripture. It’s urgent. They are hanging by a thread. The message that Jesus and the followers were speaking and living was dangerous, because they were trying to promote the idea that all people had access to God and were valued by God, even those whom the religious authorities and the Roman empire deemed worthless.

But they still were a community that whispered to each other in the dark because they were afraid. The threat of violence was real. The threat of their stories being trampled on was real. But Jesus told them that their stories needed to be told in the light, in the public square. Jesus told them not to fear the bullies but to fear instead the Evil One. Keep in mind that the “American” understanding of the “devil” is much different than what was uttered in Matthew’s Gospel. For the Jesus of Matthew, this devil had power to destroy both body and soul. This was far worse than any threats of the Romans or Sanhedrin/Religious authorities. This is not Jesus separating the real world from the spiritual—this is a connection. The very real Romans and religious authorities were oppressing people, and this was the work of the evil one.

Then Jesus closes with a more positive spin. Birds. Sparrows, to be more precise.

Sparrows were cheap and edible in the 1st and 2nd century. You could buy two sparrows for 1/16 of a denarius. Real cheap. But not even one of these cheap sparrows will fall to the ground apart from God. This means that the Divine cares for all the creation, including those whose stories had been trampled on, who had been pushed to the margins.

For all of you who still whisper in the dark because you are scared to be yourselves, have courage.

You are not alone.

You have value.

Your stories deserve to be told in the light.

For those of you who consistently live with fear and anxiety because of what people will do or say to you, find courage. You are loved. You are not alone. You have value. Your stories deserve to be told in the light.

Beloved, Weird, Called Outsiders

Matthew 9:35 – 38
 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” 

Matthew’s Gospel is very Jewish in its literary structure, following the format of the teachings of the Torah, or the first five books of the OT. In Matthew, there are five sections, each one having Jesus introduce the theme. This first section [or book], began with Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount and closes with this bit about sheep and shepherd and harvest. The next section begins in Matthew chapter 10.

Jesus, in this passage, is teaching in the synagogues, telling people about the good news of God, and curing diseases and illnesses. But along the way, Jesus notices the people in the crowds who are harassed, helpless, pushed to the side. The phrase “sheep without a shepherd” is ancient. You can find it in the OT in Number 27: 17. In this case, sheep without a shepherd calls attention to Jesus’ emotional reaction to the condition of the people. Jesus is moved with the deepest compassion.

The word for the “deepest compassion” in the original Greek, believe it or not, is related to the bowels. In other words, Jesus is moved to the depths of his being because of the terrible condition of the people who are being “thrown down.”

These are strong words of oppression.

Next, Jesus says that the harvest is plentiful. How is that connected to the oppression and Jesus’ compassion for the people? Again, the original language helps. The word for “harvest” means “gathering in” but is also a word associated with healing.  So, this harvest will be therapeutic. To drive the point home, those who participate in the harvest are in fact, doing the healing and being healed.  

And this is what Jesus calls people to follow him to do. I think this is significant to consider today, especially keeping mind what is happening all around us. Sadly and unfortunately, many religions, including Christianity, have interpreted the “making disciples” and “the harvest” as seeking out people who they think are doing things wrong or who are “sinful” and then rounding them up to convert them to a “better” existence, to correct their path. Ask any LGBTQIA family, colleagues or friends about conversion therapy.

And yet, what Jesus did and encouraged his followers to do was to notice those who were marginalized, hurting, oppressed, pushed down—the sheep without a shepherd. They needed healing. This was the push, the movement, the motivation. Some of those were Jesus’ own disciples, for sure. But others were those who society [and religions] deemed unclean, unworthy, sinners for sure. And don’t misinterpret this. I’m not saying that “we are all sinners” and “we all fall short of God” in this case. No, this is not a general call. Jesus was moved with compassion and Jesus was hurt physically, mentally, and spiritually by seeing all those who were being pushed down.

So what does this mean for you, for me, for all of us? A lot. In a politically-charged and sometimes overwhelming society in which we have trouble discerning what is true, what is not, etc—what if we just looked for those who were mistreated? I don’t mean rich politicians or business people or celebrities or star athletes who are claiming to be marginalized. I mean, really, the people who are pushed down. For their gender identification or expression. Really? They are just living their lives, hurting no one. And yet, they are oppressed. I mean Black & Brown people, Asian people, friends of ours, and colleagues, and family, who are judged simply because of how they look. Really? They are just living their lives as anyone else. We are only a human race. I mean our friends and family members, our colleagues, who love the same gender or who are still working that out, or who love both genders. Really? They are just loving people and connecting. I mean people who are torn from their homes because of war, violence, or political leanings. Really? They are just trying to survive. And, I mean those who struggle just to make ends meet and cannot find enough funds to put food on the table, even with three jobs. Really? They are working harder than I ever will.

You see, the disciples Jesus called were not called to make a church, an institution with great walls and spires and beautiful architecture and religious piety. They were called to be moved with compassion to their very core by the injustices in the world. To sit and stand and walk and hold hands with those who were pushed down and oppressed. And in fact, these folks were the ones called to be with Jesus. And they were with Jesus. And they still are.

And there we should be.

 

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