Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘Jesus’

Still Seeking and Searching, Still Breathing

Acts 17:22-28

unknownGodBefore we start, a few things to keep in mind: the writer of Acts was the writer of Luke’s Gospel. Simply put, there are many purposes that the author of Luke and Acts could have had while writing. First, it was the 2nd century. Jesus was dead. The Roman Empire saw the followers of Jesus as a threat. Also, it was confusing. How was it that a Jewish Rabbi had attracted so many Gentile followers? Many see both Luke and Act as an apologetic writing—one that tries to make the case that Jesus’ message was for the Jews but was also accepted by the Gentiles. And there are even some who argue that these two NT books were trying to convince Roman authorities that followers of Jesus would not be a threat to their empire.

Wrap your mind around that.

Regardless, what we are looking at is a scene with the apostle Paul, one of the new followers of Jesus of Nazareth, addressing a crowd of people in Greece. Things to note about the people in Greece: apparently, they were “religious,” so says Paul. What does that mean to you? Also, they had objects of worship, altars, with an inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.

The author of Luke [via Paul’s words] then challenged those who listened. The challenge was to shift the Greek’s thinking that God was distant and lived in religious temples to a mindset that God was present and gave life to everything and everyone. The point of this speech, in this context, was to encourage the listeners to become seekers of God, expecting to find God near to them, realizing that God was not far away. And then the author of Luke throws in, for good measure, a quote from a Cretan philosopher called Epimenides: For in God we live and move and have our being. And a quote from Cilician Stoic Aratus: We are God’s children. It’s almost as if Luke and Act’s author is pulling out all the stops.

Rightly so. Fast forward from the 2nd century to this century and what has changed in terms of our view of the divine? The status-quo mindset of religious institutions and people still is that “God is so big, far away, so powerful, that God has no business being present in our day to day lives.” Why would God care about our problems, our suffering, our joys, our challenges? And God is stuck in history. This, in my opinion, is why people are still prejudice against LGBT people, those of other nationalities, cultures, and religions, because God is stuck in the past.

And while I appreciate amazing architecture [including religious structures], and also embrace the mysticism of religions that view God with awe, I argue that many times we project God onto those massive religious structures constructed with gold and other precious elements [often built by slaves]; and, many people who view God with awe as some distant force have a lot of trouble dealing with hardship and setbacks in their own lives, as they continually wait for the distant God to act or as they think that they have committed some sin and therefore are being punished.

So I wonder in this moment, if it is possible for you, can we put aside the grand structures of religion, the awe-inspiring histories, the belief systems that have lasted for centuries, and the idea that the divine is so far away and unknown?

Is it possible for you today, whatever your background, to refer to the divine not as lord but as friend?

What would it mean for you to look at God not as a Lord [with you as subject] but instead the divine friend, who relates to you out of love?

friendhandsAllow me to share the thoughts of Abu’l-Hasan Kharaqani, a Muslim mystic, a person one could call a mentor to the famous poet Rumi. Kharaqani was a Persian Muslim who experienced much hardship in his life before passing away in 1033. But for him, a relationship with God was a mutual seeking of friendship. In other words, God is seeking us just as we are seeking God.

Kharaqani wrote:

One night I saw God Almighty in a dream. I said to God: “It’s been sixty years that I have spent in the hope of being your friend, of desiring you.”

God Almighty answered me: “You’ve been seeking me for sixty years?
I’ve spent an eternity to eternity befriending you.”  

Also, for Kharaqani, being a friend of God meant being a friend to humanity, regardless of race, creed, background, etc.

See, this is where I’m at today. I have no interest in maintaining a religious institution [called church] that proclaims a big, powerful, distant God, and then uses that to control people and harbor material wealth and ignore the marginalized. What rings true for me is the idea that the Divine is seeking us, and we are seeking the Divine. When we search and seek, we find. We find and discover that we are still breathing—even when the world knocks us down and threatens to take our breath away. It is encouraging to me, and I hope to you, that the One who created and keeps creating doesn’t have to be Lord, doesn’t have to be distant, doesn’t have to live in a religious temple, doesn’t even have to live in a religion! Whoever seeks and searches for the divine, whoever loves the stranger and feeds them in whatever context—will find joy in being a friend of God, and wholeness in being a friend to anyone they encounter. May it be so.

 

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Identify Yourself

Matthew 16:13-20

partySo you’re at a party or social engagement of some sort. You don’t know everybody there. Whether introvert or extrovert, at some point in the evening you inevitably encounter someone you don’t know. You make eye contact.

Let the social awkwardness begin!

You: Hello. I’m _________

Person: Nice to meet you, I’m _______

You: Nice to meet you.

[Pause]

Cue more awkwardness. You wait for something distracting to happen. Quick! Someone spill a drink or break a plate. Where’s that random squirrel when you need it? No such luck.

You: So, how do you know _____?

Person: Ah, we used to work together.

And then it comes.

Person: So, how about you? Tell me about yourself.

Tell me about yourself.

And it begins. The conversation moves to “What do you do exactly?” and “Where are you from?” which really, is to ask “Who are you?” You’re coerced, so it seems, into revealing your true identity in a few seconds by stating what you do for your job and where you were born/grew up. If you were given a choice, would this really be how you would identify yourself? I mean, what if you are in between jobs or out of work, what if you’re not sure what you do for a living, and what if you don’t really call any particular place home?

Regardless of how that conversation goes, eventually you will leave the room. You’ll go home and so will everyone else. And the people who have met you [and even some who haven’t] will tell others a story about you. The question, then, shifts to

“Who do other people say I am?”

Inevitably, when we’re not in the room, people talk about us. And they make identity claims about us. Take me for example. Maybe people say, when I’m not there: Josh is a minister. Josh is an actor. Josh is from Iowa and Indiana. Josh is insane. Josh is weird. Josh is…

We do this all the time. We say who other people are. And sometimes, we don’t have any clue who they are. Sometimes we don’t realize how harmful our words can be—when we say who someone is without really knowing them.

In this Gospel story about Jesus of Nazareth, we are looking at identity, but in two ways. First, personal identity—how you see yourself and express yourself. Second, community identity—how others see you and how you express yourself within community.

Jesus, throughout the Gospel narrative, seems to be involved in an identity crisis—at least others make it appear so. Jesus spends a lot of time asking the same question of those who followed and those who he encountered: “Who do you say I am?” It wasn’t a literal question, i.e. to be answered: well, Jesus, you are the son of Joseph and Mary, you’re from Nazareth, you are a Rabbi, etc. Instead, it was a bigger question for those who sought to follow Jesus on the way of love and compassion and justice. Because the follow-up questions to “Who do you say I am” include:

What and who will you stand up for? What is important to you? When are you loud? When are you silent? Who do you choose to spend your time with? Who do you avoid?

See, those questions get to the heart of it, do they not? This question of who do you say Jesus is exposes you, puts you out there. There’s no hiding behind theology, religion, the church—if you answer this question honestly. You don’t have to be religious to answer it either. In fact, those who called themselves “religious” in the 1st and 2nd Century were the ones who struggled the most to answer it honestly. It’s a big question, to be sure, but it’s also a simple one that exposes us. For if we answer who do you say Jesus is with cookie cutter responses that we’ve memorized or simply regurgitate, we make it clear that we don’t have our own answer to the question. If we scoff at the question and say things like duh, obviously, I mean Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah, the Savior, duh, isn’t it obvious then we show our inability to grasp concepts beyond absolutism and we display our fear of uncertainty and nuance. In either of these cases, we open ourselves up to silence and hypocrisy—two things that Jesus of Nazareth clearly taught against.

The silence of Christians when Black and Brown people are targeted by racists and white supremacists. The inaction of Christians when transgender people are victimized and scapegoated. The non-commitment comments like “there is trouble on both sides” or “I don’t see color, I’m colorblind; why can’t everyone else be?” Or “I have nothing against LGBT people, but can’t they just use another bathroom and stop causing so much division?” or “shame on those NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem; can’t they just be quiet and do their job; they make so much money anyway…” The pardoning of those who oppress and the victimizing of those who are marginalized. And the silence…

Yes, it is true that our silence and inaction as they pertain to social justice are rooted in our identities. Who do we say we are? But also, if you are a Christian [again, identity!] who do you say Jesus is, because if you limit Jesus to a religious icon, figure, personal savior, then this Jesus won’t move you to stand with those who are on the margins. This Jesus won’t light a fire under you, make you uncomfortable, even tick you off and challenge your assumptions. Your Jesus will just be the nice god-figure that makes you feel comfortable and safe when the world around you is not. By no means am I against feeling comfortable and safe when everything around you is uncomfortable and scary, but we all know that those feelings of security are fleeting. Eventually, that kind of safe Jesus fades in reality and can even isolate us from others.

So what if we seek to answer these identity questions honestly? I’ll do my best, though I’ll fail. To me, Jesus of Nazareth was and is a teacher and activist for the embracing of wholeness in all of humanity. Jesus wanted people to be their whole selves—whatever that meant—and then to take those whole selves out into the world to love people, to help them heal, to show compassion to those who were victimized, and well, to help others be their whole selves. And Jesus was the opposite of silent when it came to calling out injustice against the truly marginalized.

Because, friends, as with Jesus, people [and the world] will try to tell you who you are. If they hear you express your true identity, they may not like it. And so, they may try to pray it away, to fix you, so your identity fits into their categories and makes them less uncomfortable. Others will flat out reject your true self because you scare them—you expose their prejudice, you challenge so-called norms of society. So they may call you names.

Shame on them!

For however you identity yourself, that is your beauty, your uniqueness, your wholeness. They don’t know you. And they are afraid. And in God, in this Jesus, there is no fear of being yourself. There is encouragement to be yourself fully, to be known as a child of God, as you are.

And collectively, community-wise, we don’t have to agree on theology or the Bible or other religious stuff. But we do have to come clean about how we identify Jesus. It’s a lot easier to be neutral about controversial issues and to hide behind hymns and prayers when things are divisive and chaotic. But isn’t that exactly what Jesus taught and lived for those who followed, that this crap called evil and injustice and hate is real? That we are made to join together to work for justice and peace? So wherever you are today, embrace yourself as you are. Don’t let any false narratives that others tell you about your identity stick. You are unique and beautiful. And also, may that identity wholeness move you to embrace others as they are, and to stand up against anyone or anything that calls people names or strips away identity. May it be so.

 

Keep Your Love, Find Your Healing

Matthew 15:21-28

What do you think about miracles? As I mentioned before, when it comes to miracles, I think it is most helpful for us to avoid asking did the miracle really happen? Instead, we ought to ask: what does a miracle story mean? By asking that second question, we will be truer to the story and will also find various perspectives and meanings for ourselves. So let’s do that again now with another miracle story—this time involving a Canaanite mother and her ailing daughter, and of course, Jesus of Nazareth, in the Gospel of Matthew.

This part of Matthew’s story begins with Jesus in the Jewish territory of Galilee but then shifts to the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory, but even more than that, Matthew’s author tells us it’s Canaanite country. Why does that matter and who were the Canaanites you ask? The people called Canaanites were at first those who lived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The Hebrew scriptures [OT] [more specifically Genesis] tell us that Canaan extended from Lebanon toward the Brook of Egypt in the south and the Jordan River Valley in the east. Today that would be Lebanon, Israel, and some part of Jordan and Syria.

Back in ancient times, roughly 200 BCE, the Canaanites were pretty much an enemy of those who called themselves Israelites. Noah, you know, the guy whose ride was an ark—he had a son named Ham, who then had a son named Canaan, so goes the story. Ham did something bad to his dad Noah and that stayed with him; this was passed on to his son Canaan. Eventually, the name Canaanite, particularly in Joshua’s time, was a broader reference to a variety of nomadic, indigenous people, like for example, the Hivites, Jebusites, or Amorites.

That’s from the book of Judges, one of the books of the Bible that many people say they have read but are totally lying to you because most people only last about 5 minutes before they give up on that one.

TruthorLie
To sum this up, Abraham’s descendants, called the Israelites, believed they had a claim to the land of Canaan and so they needed to defeat the Canaanites, who of course wanted to stay in their lands. So there’s history here that’s important to keep in mind. Still with me?

Once last thing before we get back to the main character in the story, a Canaanite woman. Right before she arrives on the scene, Jesus says this in front of a crowd of people, including his followers: “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.”

This business of defilement is important to note. Many times the Gospel writers give us some insight into what is clean and unclean—who is considered outside of God’s kin-dom and who belongs. And then Jesus seems to not only cross those lines but to erase them. In this case, what goes into the mouth is symbolic of rules or purity laws. If someone does not follow certain societal or religious rules that person is defiled, i.e. separated from God. Of course, this idea of defilement allows for people to judge others and even to reject them, based on whether or not they follow certain rules. It may be tempting to assume that ancient Jewish purity laws are thing of the past and not relevant, but not so fast. We too have our own purity laws, agreed ways of behavior.

We too exclude people from society and community, claiming that our way is God’s way, that we are right.

This has led to specific examples of exclusion and marginalization, including but not limited to shaming of and violence against people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender. Hateful rhetoric and sadly more violence against our beautiful friends and family who are black or brown. What we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia is not a one-time event. We may not use names like Canaanite, but we certainly say things like “illegal immigrant,” “alien,” “those people,” the C word for women, and of course all those subtle ways we separate a person or a group form ourselves, referring to them only by their race or nationality, rather than just their name, or calling them friend or colleague. I could go on, but you get the idea. This idea of defilement and excluding people is still happening in this country, in our cities, towns, and suburbs. This defilement happens when we assume something about a person before actually having an experience with that person. Oh, she’s Canaanite? Send her away.

But Jesus turns this idea around, teaching that these rules [and our following them obsessively] is actually defiling us. Instead, we ought to focus on how we behave towards other people. Do we treat others with compassion and love, regardless of who they are or where they come from or what they look like? Or do we reject and expel them so we can feel better about ourselves?

Enter the shouting Canaanite woman. That’s right—she was yelling at Jesus. In the original Greek, the word for her shouting is the same word for the disciples’ shouting when they were stuck in a boat in the stormy Sea of Galilee. Her shouting is exposing her to the crowds; how will they react? She’s also putting pressure on Jesus; how will he react? At first, Jesus ignores her. That’s not a typo. And of course, Jesus’ own followers, just like they did in two other miracles stories [the feeding of 5000+ people and the feeding of the 4000], tell Jesus to send people away. Send the Canaanite woman away., Jesus. Expel her, exclude her.

But the Canaanite woman is relentless. She comes and kneels before Jesus. She is the clear model of what is pure—her love for her daughter and her desire for mercy and healing. No defilement here. One might expect that Jesus’ disciples felt pretty defiled themselves at this point. Then the story takes a bit of an uncomfortable turn. Jesus, up to this point, had ignored this woman hoping for her daughter to be healed. Now, kneeling at his feet, she asks again. And Jesus tells her that he is only sent to the lost of Israel, i.e. NOT her, a Canaanite. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?

Pause for a moment.

She asks for help once again and Jesus tells her that it wouldn’t be fair for him to give her the blessing [food] of Israel’s children and then compares her to a dog. Are you shifting in your seat now?

But she is smart. Even dogs eat crumbs from their master’s table. She wasn’t fazed, being solely motivated by the love she had for her daughter. This moved Jesus to praise her, a Canaanite woman, the one whom others told him to send away. Let it be done. Let the healing come.

What does this miracle story mean?

For me, I’m hearing loud and clear [especially as I consider our context today], that Jesus exposed the societal prejudice and injustice of our religious and societal rules, in the public square; Jesus didn’t ignore it or try to explain it away. Jesus called out the privilege we hold over each other and then gave up his own privilege, choosing to include rather than to exclude. Jesus chose to focus on the way of compassion and love.

This is the kind of way we should follow; this is the kind of behavior we should exhibit. In a world full of privilege, prejudice, defilement, and exclusion—we can choose to give up our privilege out of compassion and love for another, we can choose to include, we can choose to keep our love in an age of hate. And then healing can come.

A Hand Reaches Out in The Storm

Matthew 14:22-33

walkingonwaterLet’s talk about miracles and metaphors and how the two can actually be friends or coexist–let’s talk about miracles. All religious traditions have miracles stories—things that happen and cannot be explained by science, biology, or empirical evidence. People turn into animals and vice versa, an entire sea parts in the middle and then closes up, someone blinds an entire army with a handful of dust, someone lifts a mountain and saves an entire village, someone rises in the air and divides his body into pieces and then rejoins them, someone walks on water. Those are just a few examples of miracles in folk religions, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.

For the sake of our exploration, I choose to use the definition of miracles presented in Kenneth L. Woodward’s book, The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam.

Woodward defines miracles as:

…an unusual or extraordinary event that is in principle perceivable by others, that finds no reasonable explanation in ordinary human abilities or in other known forces that operate in the world of time and space, and that is the result of a special act of God or the gods or of human beings transformed by efforts of their own through asceticism and meditation.

Woodward also argues that miracles are best understood through stories and should not be seen within the framework of the laws of nature or “proving” something.

Each specific religious tradition defines what a miracle is according to the context of the religion. As Woodward states, when it comes to miracles, we shouldn’t ask: did it really happen? but instead what does it mean?

So let’s do that.

Let’s look at this specific so-called miracle of Jesus, walking on water, not asking whether it happened or not, but what it means.

Jesus’ followers were in a boat in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had gone up to a mountain to be by himself. When evening came, a storm started to rage the waters and the boat was tossed about violently. Morning came, and Jesus came walking towards the boat, seemingly on top of the water. The people in the boat were terrified and thought he might be a ghost. But Jesus reassured them and told them to not be afraid. Peter then got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus, on the water. But he noticed that a strong wind was blowing and he got scared again and started to sink. He cried out for help. Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter.

So what does this mean?

In many ancient cultures and religions, including Christianity, it was normal to compare the difficult times of life with a stormy sea or some sort of choppy waters. So the people on the boat are us. They are life, and then the stormy sea represents the trials and tribulations of our lives. Jesus of Nazareth, walking on this stormy sea, represents the ability to rise above the difficulties of life, internally transcending the external. Jesus offered this ability to the people in the boat. Peter took Jesus up on his offer and was initially able to rise above the stormy sea. Eventually though, the wind distracted him and he was afraid. Fear then, was the thing that sunk Peter.

So by asking: what does this miracle story mean, I hope that you can glean some meaning for yourself. What stands out to me is that the story does not paint this life as an easy, pleasant experience. There is acknowledgement of the difficulty and suffering in life. We all face stormy seas; we all have moments when we feel that we are stranded in a boat in the middle of stormy waters, with not land in sight. This is human. This is real.

What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia recently was real. White supremacists caused violence and spread hatred. One of those white supremacists drove a car into people–into people. Heather Heyer was killed. Two state police troopers were killed in a helicopter crash. Others were injured. “Unite the Right” organized the hateful rally. I cannot imagine what Heather’s and the two officer’s family and friends feel. I cannot imagine what African-Americans feel when these things keep happening. This is not new. This is consistently awful. Makes me think that those affected by racism and white supremacist violence and hate crimes feel like they are in a boat in the middle of a raging sea, but their boat has capsized and there is no end in sight. Where is the shore? When will this end?

resistHateCharlottesvilleThe rallies, gatherings, and protests since Charlottesville tell a different story, don’t they? People are together, standing up against hate, against prejudice of any kind. You see, it’s one thing to retweet things and post on Facebook, but it’s another thing to walk side by side with people and to stand in solidarity with those who feel targeted and marginalized. This is rising above.

Whatever you faith background [or lack thereof] I think it’s clear that Jesus stands with those who are oppressed, targeted, and on the margins. And Jesus points all of us to the possibility of being at peace even when life is full of storms. Being at peace does not mean ignoring the problems or suffering of life [and certainly not ignoring white supremacism or hatred of any kind], but rather, not letting those stormy seas take over our lives or keep us from being our whole selves.

In short, if we realize that it is human to go through these storms and we couple that with the thought that we are capable of rising above, of walking on water, then the storms aren’t the end of our stories.

There is shore somewhere.

And lastly, it is important to note that Jesus, in all of the miracle stories of the Gospels, is not supposed to be presented as a supernatural force performing magic tricks, but rather, a person who broke down societal norms and worked towards bringing more balance to the injustices of the world. He sought to change the narratives of those who were marginalized, teaching them and leading by example, that they too could rise above stormy waters and find wholeness.

Whom am I to say any of this? I’m no one. I’m someone with way too much privilege. But this will not keep me from helping others rise above the storms, extending a hand when needed, hoisting a sign in protest, speaking out against racism and prejudice, and stepping back when other voices need to be heard. This will not keep me from believing that being widening my circle of friends and colleagues to include more and more people who don’t think or look like me. I keep thinking, praying, meditating, hoping–that there is shore somewhere. But we will have to face these storms together.

P.S. Dear friends, family, colleagues, whomever who is experiencing racism, prejudice, discrimination, targeting–it’s evil and terrible. It’s inhuman. It’s the opposite of what the world is supposed to be. We won’t be complicit. We won’t be silent. We love you. You are us and we are you.

Forming Community

Matthew 14:13-21

rainbowgathering1What does the word/concept of “community” mean to you? It can seem a broad term, community, right? If you move into a suburban neighborhood, does that mean you are in a community? If you to the Community Center Shopping Mall does that mean you are in a community? What if we get more specific and say, as intentional community organizers do, that a community is a network of social and economic relationships and the places where those relationships interact. This means that just living near each other doesn’t mean you’re in community. There’s no economic exchange, and, for most, little social engagement. Community must be tangible and cohesive; it should bring people together in ways that allow them to do things they could not have done on their own. And then, there is such a thing as an “intentional community,” one in which there is a shared purpose and set of values, the people in that IC are entwined to some degree both economically and socially; and that being part of that IC means something.

I don’t think it’s surprising to say that many people in the United States want more community in their lives, because they often feel isolated and dissatisfied with everyday life that tends to be focused on work, consumption, and entertainment. If our interpersonal relationships within a community give us joy, meaning, or satisfaction, we can expect less of a focus on material and superficial things that leave us feeling empty.

Congregations, churches, communities of faith, are at their core, supposed to be intentional communities in which people find meaningful relationships, interact socially, share resources, and accomplish things they could have otherwise. Of course, just because someone puts up a steeple with a cross and places a sign that says “church” does not mean that it will be a community. I’ve spent significant time in my career visiting various churches, synagogues, temples, and other religious communities. Not all of them were communities. Some were merely buildings with signs; others were institutions. Forming and nurturing an intentional community takes time, cooperation, and the acceptance of the commitment community requires—active listening and sharing.

The type of community Jesus of Nazareth was intending to form and build was focused on gathering those who were marginalized in society and left out of communities. It is easy for us to forget that Jesus did not create nor establish a religion or even a church. Jesus was building community. And in Matthew’s Gospel there are various stories that illustrate what Jesus meant by community. In this particular story Jesus and his small community of followers came upon large crowds of people who were in need. After some healing and caring for them, Jesus’ followers were ready to leave. After all, there was not enough food for these people to eat. So they suggested to Jesus that he send the crowds away into the villages to get their own food. In other words, go to the market and leave us alone. But Jesus refused. Instead, Jesus told his followers to give the crowds something to eat.

But the followers of Jesus only had food rations—bread and fish that would most likely feed only 13 people. Jesus took those rations and gathered the crowds in a field of green grass, though it was a wilderness, far off, isolated. The fish then seem to disappear. Only the bread is divided among everyone. This is Matthew’s storyteller changing the story a bit from the original version in Mark, to make a point. The bread, offered to the crowds, was the sign of Jesus’ presence and the sign of the new community—one which would continue long after Jesus’ death. Because this feast was egalitarian. It was for all. It was a feast started because of compassion. It was a feast that created community intentionally. And in that community all were filled—people were made whole.

And let’s briefly mention the number 5000. Is it important? I think it is, because if we skip ahead a chapter in Matthew’s Gospel to chapter 15, we find another story about a feast where there is not enough food but suddenly there is. But this time, only 4000 are fed; Mark’s Gospel contains the 4000 story as well. This is the clue. The story about 4000 being fed takes place on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, Gentile country. But the feeding of the 5000 occurs near the Jewish villages of Galilee. So the 4000 feeding story is about non-Jews. The 5000 feeding story is about Jews. And it’s clear by the 5 loaves and the 5000 fed that the number 5 is important. That number happens to be the number of books in the Torah, called the Pentateuch. And the 12 baskets left over signify the 12 tribes of Israel. The feeding stories are inclusive.

One last detail to mention. In the culture and time of the people of this area, being unclean or touching unclean things was bad news. So people tried to avoid eating or touching anything that might render them unclean according to the law, food included. How were the 5000 to know that the food would be clean? They couldn’t really know. They couldn’t guess if Jesus and his followers kept up with the dietary restrictions. They couldn’t really prove that Jesus and co were clean because they had certainly touched and been with lepers and others who were unclean.

But they still ate anyway. And they were made whole.

They decided to eat together.

They decided to form this inclusive, intentional community. They made a choice. So we have this choice before us. Will we intentionally form and build an inclusive community where anyone can eat and be safe and belong and participate? This doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen on its own. We must make that choice. We must make that commitment. May it be so.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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?

 

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