Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52 New Revised Standard Version
31 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it 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.’
33 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.’
44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 52And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’
Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52
As many of you know, the pandemic we are all experiencing is the result of an outbreak of a specific strain of coronavirus called the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2. As far as viruses go, COVID-19 is considered a large-sized virus, approximately 120 nanometers or 1/200th of an inch in diameter. The virus is thought to be natural and has an animal origin. At some point in 2019, the virus crossed over to humans for the first time, making it a novel, or new virus. The earliest recorded human infection happened in the Hubei province of China at the end of November 2019. Because of its novel nature, we humans do not have pre-existing defenses in our bodies to COVID-19 that help us identify and fend off the infection. This makes the virus more contagious and more dangerous than the common cold or seasonal flu.
At the end of July, there were over 16 million recorded cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and nearly 650,000 have died as the result of the disease. Meanwhile, our lives have changed dramatically, all because of a virus, 1/200th of an inch in size.
Today’s gospel lesson might ask us to consider what other things, more positive, transformative things, might have their origins in what seemed little, insignificant, novel, or new.
Today we are wrapping up an important section in Matthew where Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven through parables. In previous weeks we’ve explored the context of this section. Jesus is speaking to a gathered crowd of farmers, day laborers, fishermen, and domestic workers in a rural area. John the Baptist has been arrested, and his followers are in the crowd, possibly hoping that Jesus is some type of guerrilla leader that can help them break John out of prison. Meanwhile, Jesus is now gathering large crowds of disenfranchised people, so religious and political leaders are watching him.
Jesus must tread carefully, proclaiming a message of hope while disarming those in the crowd who are looking for a revolutionary leader. And he has to do this while showing those in power that he isn’t a threat, at least not yet.
So Jesus begins telling stories about the Kingdom of Heaven. I like how the Biblical Scholar F. Scott Spencer describes Matthew’s therm "Kingdom of Heaven":
“In Matthew, ‘heaven’ stands for ‘God’ (as in the English idiom, ‘heaven help us’), and ‘kingdom’ represents the orbit of God’s dynamic activity.
It’s fair to say then, that whenever Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew, he is describing the principles, work, and culture of God’s radical building plan for a better world.
The parables in today’s lesson give us additional insight into what’s being built.
The parable of the mustard seed speaks to the inconsequential beginnings of God’s activity, it’s incredible growth, and its ability to be inclusive, sheltering many different “birds of the air.” We might think about the real place Galilee and Jerusalem held at the time of Jesus in the broader world of the Roman Empire. It was a backwater, a place you didn’t go to visit. The originator of this movement was a peasant from Galilee with questionable paternity and a habit of sneaking away to be alone. This doesn’t sound like the origin of great things.
The parable of the yeast sounds similar and might even hit home. During the pandemic, with so many folks at home and with a little more time on their hands, many have taken to breadmaking, especially experimenting with sourdough. In fact, Vermont’s King Arthur Flour Company has seen sales skyrocket by 2,000 percent in 2020. I’ve been in the grocery store many times now when there is a limit on how much flour one can buy, or there’s no flour at all. There’s something really cool in being able to make bread out of a little flour and water and the natural yeast floating in the air.
We might even come to the same conclusion in this short parable as we did with the mustard seed, that something incredible can come out of something small and unassuming. But understanding the unit of measurement is vital in the story. Three measures of flour come out to about 110 pounds, making enough bread for 150 people. This parable does not describe the regular practice of making bread for one’s family. This parable describes God’s activity as providing for the wider community.
And there are other parables too, that describe the quirky and beneficial nature of God’s dynamic activity in the world. The parables of the hidden treasure and the valuable pearl describe the precious nature of God’s alternative way. Searching is necessary, but upon finding it, folks are willing to make sacrifices to hold on to the world God is bringing about.
In startling ways, it’s odd to read these parables, Jesus’ imaginative, subversive illustrations of God’s new way, against the backdrop of 2020. Along with the pandemic, we’ve seen aspects of humanity at its worst: the killing of unarmed people of color, the hoarding of resources, corruption, our government using violence against peaceful protestors, an escalating cold war with China, and the incredible, unequal ways this pandemic affects the world’s poorest.
And yet, there are stories of neighbors getting to know neighbors for the first time.
And other stories about communities banding together to organize volunteers, mutual support, and endeavors like our Little Free Pantry.
And we’ve seen positive changes as the result of protests that have led to the band of chokeholds in several major cities, the passing of a Hate Crime Law in Georgia, and the expansion of hate crime laws in the state of Virginia. Meanwhile, companies, institutions, and organizations are examining their own bias and reviewing their hiring processes, changing recruitment procedures, and making antiracism a part of leadership training.
The pandemic wasn’t put in this world by a god that wanted to teach us valuable life lessons at the expense of all this suffering and loss. But our God has a way of bringing about good things even in times like these, when all seems lost, twisted, gloomy, and confusing. Out of our present crisis, little conversations have created real change, little free pantries have provided lasting hunger relief in our communities, and the atrocity of an unjust death has brought about a better world.
I’m thankful that God has this pesky way of reminding us that good is still being done, even when the world seems pretty awful. God’s dynamic activity in this world is always at work to create an inclusive, non-violent society, and that work doesn’t stop because of some pandemic.
There is enough light and good in this world, even now. We may have to search for it. It may look tiny and inconsequential. Likely it will require some sacrifice. But we will find that that light and good is more precious than anything else in this world. And it will be enough to get us through these difficult times.
May God guide you in your search. May God grow goodness in this world. And may we all find comfort and solace in our God, who transforms death into life, violence into peace and hate into love for the goodness of all creation.
“Wheat Field with Cypresses” by Vincent Van Gogh. 1889. Public Domain.
Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
24 He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?'28 He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?'29 But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." 37 He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
As many of you know, my family and I moved last fall to a 10-acre homestead in Starksboro to live closer to the land, grower bigger gardens, and keep more animals. Because we moved in the fall, we missed most of the growing season at our place, so this spring, we’ve spent a lot of time deciphering the landscape and figuring out where previous owners might have planted plants. We were smart not to mow certain areas right away because lupine popped up in one place, and a small, forgotten bed of other perennials in another. But even now, Leah and I are still training our eyes. Some perennials that we might want to keep can look like weeds before they flower. Right now, our yard is spotted with the occasional bit of tall weeds that Leah insists is Phlox, to the point that it’s becoming a running joke. We call any bit of tall weeds we find on the land Phlox and joke about not cutting it down, just in case.
Overall, our gardens are doing well, and being attentive to the land has been a helpful reprieve from the anxiety of the pandemic. Others are also turning to their gardens during the pandemic, and spend a little extra time in the dirt. Some are even starting a garden for the first time this year. There are countless articles written these days about growing membership in community gardens, how garden supply stores are running short on inventory, and how many folks are expanding their gardens this year because of food insecurity brought about by the pandemic. Of course, one of the regular tasks of gardening is weeding.
Today’s gospel reading is the parable of the “Wheat and Tares” or “Wheat and Weeds.” And it falls in a really interesting part of the gospel of Matthew. In this section, which begins in the middle of chapter 11 and runs to the end of chapter 13, Jesus tells several parables to those that have gathered around to hear his message. We can imagine that Jesus is speaking in a rural setting because most of these parables are agrarian stories – stories about farming and gardening, planting and harvesting, fishing, and catching. Several of these stories are also told humorously, using irony, exaggeration, and unlikely scenarios to convey a message.
But this section is also a little tricky because of the surrounding context dealing with John the Baptist. At the beginning of chapter 11, John the Baptist’s disciples visit Jesus to ask him a question. If you remember, John the Baptist was a cousin of Jesus. At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, John is living the vocal and ascetic life of a prophet, in the tradition of Israel’s great prophets, in the wilderness near the Jordan River. John had gathered a following, and people from all over the region ventured into the wilderness to hear his firebrand message. He openly condemned the corruption of the ruling political families in the country and blamed religious authorities for making life impossible for the people they were supposed to be shepherding. In a cleansing ritual, he baptized those who came to him, marking a return to God through corporate confession of sins. He even spoke about a coming messiah, a leader that would be just and holy.
John wasn’t very subtle, though. Calling leaders names, pointing out their corruption, and advocating for a different administration to an ever-growing group of followers got John in hot water. When his disciples come to ask Jesus a question, John is in prison.
With John in prison, many of his disciples began following Jesus, which added size and legitimacy to Jesus' cause. And we can see some continuity between Jesus and John. They both denounce corruption and abuses of power and work to give voice to the oppressed. Even John’s favorite insult, “You brood of vipers,” which he uses in chapter three, is adopted by Jesus in chapter twelve and twenty-three.
But Jesus has to be careful now. The forerunner of his message is in prison. This movement is growing, but it contains followers who are angry that their former leader has been arrested. And mixed in the crowds that come to hear him are religious authorities. To put it plainly, Jesus is under surveillance by powerful people. He has a message to tell, but if he is too confrontational, he could rouse a violent revolt, or end up like John, who immediately after this section, is executed.
So, Jesus spreads his message by telling stories. These are stories that his rural audience would have related to, and some would have understood the underlying message. But by spreading his message through parables, Jesus made it difficult for religious and political leaders to accuse him of treason or sedition.
Take today’s parable. A field of wheat is planted. But sometime during the night, the devil sneaks over the wall and sows the field with weeds. As the wheat grows, so do the weeds. The Greek word for weeds here, zizania, is the word for darnel or false wheat, a type of Eurasian rye grass. Ancient writers outside of the Bible have described it as looking like wheat before the ear appears, and it shares the same production zone as wheat.
The humor of the story lies in the devil’s actions. If you garden and go away for a week during the summer to return to a garden brimming with your plants and a new batch of knee-high weeds, you might jokingly remark, “who put all these weeds here!” Perhaps outside the devil, no one goes to the trouble to so weed seed in a neighbor’s field.
But we also notice that the devil isn’t the concern in our story. “What should be done with the field?” This is the question. Some want to cultivate the field. But doing so will only endanger the wheat by disrupting the root systems. We also know today something about darnel that our ancestors only observed. Wheatfields that also contained darnel had fewer insects. Darnel is often infected by an endophytic fungus that produces a natural insecticide. Having darnel present in a wheat field can actually protect the crop. The story ends with the landowner telling his workers to leave it be. The harvesters will sort it out when the time comes.
The explanation Matthew’s Jesus offers his disciples is interesting. Likely, Jesus’ movement is growing, and his followers, many of which think that he is a type of guerilla leader, want to make their move on the corrupt political leaders, their Roman occupiers, and heavy-handed religious leaders. An armed rebellion is on their mind. But Jesus is challenging their sense of method and timing. Moving right now with violence will cost a lot of good, innocent life. The good will be torn out with the bad, and then there will be nothing left to harvest, and thus, no celebration.
So, what do we have here? Jesus has just spoken to a mixed crowd. Present are some of Jesus’ original followers, John’s followers who are angry at his arrest, oppressed peasant farmers, and spies for religious and political leaders. The rebellion is growing, and some may want to move now, maybe even to break John out of prison. And Jesus looks out on the crowd, knowing he is being watched, and he communicates the strategic message, “Not yet.”
It would have been interesting to be there, to hear this humorous story in a crowd on edge. I wonder if we could watch the mood change as chuckles turned into the realization of what Jesus was really saying. “Don’t turn to violence. Innocent people will die too. Then we will lose the harvest we are fighting so hard for.” Did his words defuse the crowd? Did his humorous story disarm them, maybe literally? Did it change their understanding of violence, and the costs that come with it? Is this where Jesus’ followers began thinking of a different way, a nonviolent way of making lasting change?
There are so many ways we could think through this story and what it might mean for us. There’s something in this story about making premature judgments and being patient, not pulling those plants before we know what they are, or burning bridges with friends of family too early. Maybe we can consider this story as one about difference. The wheat and darnel and both given life under the sun and nurtured by the ground and rain. Michael Pasquarello writes this beautiful reflection, conceiving of a world where
The created goodness and dignity of all humankind is ultimately deeper and more enduring than our political, intellectual, cultural, and social differences. Rather than seeing the mission of the church as ‘fixing’ itself or ‘cleaning up’ the world according to our passionately held agendas, we are free to proclaim and live the good news of God’s reign for the sake of a messy world that appears for many to be a hopeless cause.
Or, we might just remark at the power of stories. Jesus calmed a crowd with this one. He managed to keep the authorities away a little longer too. What stories do you have, family stories, life experience stories whose sum is more than their parts? Is there a story the illustrates an inner kindness or strength? What about a story of resiliency or overcoming grief or a story that speaks to justice or equality? Would you even be willing to share one of those stories? We could undoubtedly draw on these stories now.
If you have a story to share, write it up, and send it to the united church of Hinesburg email, firstname.lastname@example.org, with the headline, “Parable.”
This week, may you reflect on the stories of your life, and what they’ve taught you about faith community, love, goodness, work, resilience, and justice. And may you hold onto these stories. They are more powerful than we can ever imagine.
“Saint Christopher and Saint John the Baptist” Jorg Glockendon, ca. 1480-1490. Wood cut and hand-colored. Public Domain.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 New Revised Standard Version
[Jesus continued speaking to the crowd, saying] 16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, 17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’
25 At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father 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. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’"
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Today’s gospel passage is a fascinating one that has something to do with criticism and confidence, doubt, and conviction. A little background helps us understand what’s happening here.
If you remember, there is a character in the gospels called John the Baptist or John the Baptizer. He was a cousin of Jesus, and at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, John is living a vocal and ascetic life in the wilderness near the Jordan River. In Matthew’s third chapter, John is described wearing clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. Modern analogies are awkward for a person like John. Still, we might imagine him as a vegan who actively campaigns for animal rights or an off the grid environmentalist who chains himself to bulldozers. John was thoroughly committed to his cause, which had something to do with a return to God through corporate repentance of sins, ritual washing, and pious living. People from the regions came to John in the wilderness to hear his message.
The image we get from our gospels is that John was not a very “subtle” orator. He was highly critical of religious and political leaders calling them names and pointing out areas of corruption. He is deeply concerned for the impoverished and marginalized in Israel because they suffer most under bad leaders. But John is not all doom and gloom. He imagines and proclaims a coming leader that will be just and compassionate, a leader that will shepherd the people of Israel and lift up the let-down.
Calling leaders names, pointing out their corruption, and advocating for a different administration to an ever-growing group of followers go John in hot water. By chapter 11, John is in prison. At the beginning of our chapter, Jesus sends out his closest disciples to extend the reach of his ministry. They go about Judea and Galilee healing the ill, helping the troubled, and proclaiming an alternative way of life that stressed compassion, an end of oppression, and a closeness with God. While in prison, John hears about the work of Jesus, specifically that the movement is growing, so he sends some friends to find out more. In verse 2, they approach Jesus, asking, “Are you the Messiah, the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus’ answers,
“Tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
The answer is direct and tangible. Actual people are being transformed in physical, social, and spiritual ways because of Jesus and his followers. Change is really happening. This is the message that John’s friends take back.
As they leave, Jesus addresses a gathering crowd regarding John’s message and affirms a connection to his imprisoned cousin. After offering a commendation that feels a little like a preemptive eulogy, Jesus tells a strange little parable about children in the market place.
“This generation is like children who sit in the marketplace. They call out to one another, saying, “We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song for us, but you didn’t mourn.”
The parable imagines children musicians gathered in a market place playing songs for one another. We might think of a bustling city center where street performers play for crowds. Sometimes we’ve stopped and listened, even throwing a few dollars in the till, while other times, we’ve walked past, off on the next errand. But the street musicians in Jesus’ parable are doing something a little different. The joyful music they played was for a wedding. The sad music they sang was for a funeral. Weddings and funerals are taking place in the streets, but no one is stopping. These reverent markers of life and death, joy and sorrow, go unnoticed or unwanted by the crowds.
“You see,” Jesus continues, and I am paraphrasing a little here, “John lived a godly, Spartan, self-disciplined lifestyle and called others to do the same, and people called him a ‘demon.’ I settled into our culture, eating and drinking, and folks say, ‘look a glutton and a drunkard who keeps bad company.’ But the wisdom in all this will be proved right by our actions.”
Jesus understands his mission and John’s as one and the same, even though their styles were very different. John is the bug-eating wilderness prophet, while Jesus does much of his work over grand meals with shady company. John wears scratchy shirts on purpose, while Jesus wears expensive perfume. John addresses his audience as a “brood of vipers,” while Jesus opens his most famous speech with a blessing. And while the two are wildly different in style, the reception is the same. Rejection. John is too strict, pious, and demanding. Jesus is too inclusive, compassionate, and worldly. Whatever John and Jesus are, they are too much.
Today's passage is the first time that Jesus addresses mounting criticism in the gospel. And it’s helpful for us to see the way he handles it. First, he acknowledges that there will always be critics. This hasn’t changed, even after two-thousand years. Much of our media is built on criticism. One of the few remaining things I miss about living in Boston is sports talk radio and how the hosts could still find ways to pick apart the Red Sox even if they had just won by ten runs or spend two hours criticizing the New England Patriots play calling after a Super Bowl win. It was entertaining to listen to in a silly, obnoxious sort of way. Likewise, politicians in this country can actually do their jobs really well and still face rabid criticism from the other side.
Alluding to those that walk by as the wedding march or funeral dirge is performed, Jesus also points out that the sources of criticism are complex. The music wasn’t bad; people were preoccupied or not interested. I know that I am most critical of others after I’ve had a rough day. In those moments, my words or actions are really spreading around the misery and not about being analytical. I’ve also noticed that I become overly critical when I binged on too many news stories in the day. Last year the comedian Patton Oswalt described how a family member was experiencing “Fox News Poisoning.” When the family member had the news channel on all day in the background, steeping in awful stories of human nature, non-stop criticism, and vitriolic tribal language, he was a big jerk. Conversely, Oswalt could tell when the television had not been on that day because his family member was the person he remembered, kinder, and compassionate.
While Jesus acknowledges that there will always be critics, he doesn’t blow off criticism in total. “Wisdom is vindicated by her actions,” Jesus says. The actions and outcomes of his work matter. What he does and how he goes about it matter. And he is willing to make changes when his actions do not line up with his mission. In a few weeks, we get an interesting passage where Jesus talks about the importance of good speech and then calls a Canaanite woman and ethnic slur. The Canaanite woman calls him on it, and in doing so, changes Jesus.
Feedback is our friend if we can hear it and allow it to sit with us for a while without getting defensive. Sometimes, once the energy of receiving criticism disperses, there is something helpful.
There’s maybe one more insight that the Swiss theologian Ulrich Luz mentions when reviewing how this passage has been read and interpreted throughout the centuries. Many have written about having similar experiences as Jesus, being unjustly criticized or rejected. But Luz was unable to find a single sermon, devotion, or theological treatise where the writer related to “this generation.” For Jesus, “this generation” has become so callused to life that it critiques style at the expense of content, all the while passing by truly momentous life events like the start of a family or the death of a community member. There’s a heaviness to this insight, perhaps a historical blind spot in our reflections on faith.
I wonder where we would go if we pulled on this thread a little. Can we read a good news story without feeling cynical these days? Can we be inspired by the stories of people working for social justice, prison reform, or a better healthcare system if they are from a different political party, race, or ethnicity? What metaphorical and literal weddings and funerals have we missed because our criticisms of family members, friends, and neighbors, broke relationships? Finally, are the criticisms we levy against churches, communities, states, and nations thoughtful analysis spoken to make life and community better, or do they come from projecting our own inner sadness, loss, or hatred on others? The thoughtful follower of Jesus will be self-reflective enough to examine the sources of criticism when they well up and resist breaking others because of our own brokenness.
We are all pandemic-ing together, and after several months of anxiety, altered schedules, and constant change, work-life and family life can get a little strained. I pray that your people are gracious with you this week, and I pray that you can be gracious with your people, knowing that our God is always gracious and loving.
"The Sacrifice of Isaac" Carvaggio ca. 1603. Public Domain.
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together. 9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
I’m going to nerd out a bit. I am a huge fan of Zombies. There are classic movies like Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and 28 Days Later, and the still-running television series The Walking Dead on AMC. Recent entries in the genre have branched out. There are now zombie musicals like Anna and the Apocalypse, two Disney movies about zombies entitled Zombies and Zombies 2, the zombie action blockbuster World War Z, and zombie comedies like Zombieland.
While the genre expands, many zombie stories focus on a small group of survivors and the difficult, even impossible choices they must make to stay alive in an oppressively violent, zombified world. The genre is such a force that colleges across the US even offer classes on zombies where students get college credit for watching zombie movies and reading Zombie literature. These classes are not just for film students. Instead, today's zombie-themed courses can be found in philosophy, psychology, and business departments because underneath all the gore, zombie movies often address big human questions like morality, decision making, sacrifice, and what it means to be in community.
But sometimes the violence and doom of the zombie genre can become too much, at least for me. I’ve had to stop watching the Walking Dead series twice because the show is so effective at taking away every window of hope or element of humanity from each of the main characters. For me, the dread of zombie stories can reach a tipping point, where the few nuggets of love, redemption, or kindness aren’t enough to make it worth my time.
Is it sacrilegious that I think of some stories in our Scriptures like zombie stories? A handful, maybe even more than a handful, of our Biblical stories are downright awful. They depict scenes of violence and torture, seem to promote genocide, and represent God and humans at their absolute worst. I believe that, as people of faith, we should challenge ourselves to find the lesson in these stories, the “Word” in all the words. Sometimes, underneath all the gore and inhumanity, we can see Biblical authors probing big questions and searching for answers that address the same theme mentioned above; morality, decision making, sacrifice, and what it means to be in community. But there are times when the story is so difficult, offending and problematic, that like a zombie movie that’s become too much, I have to put it down.
Take today’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible – called the “Binding of Isaac” from Genesis 22. This lesson comes up in our Sunday reading schedule once every three years. Sometimes when a difficult passage comes up, we opt to go with an alternative, but this one is unique. This story is like a zombie movie that reached the tipping point of awful, but we are still forced to watch. And it’s because this story is central to the development and practice of our faith and other world religions as well. Abraham is a foundational figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which some call the “Abrahamic Faiths.” This specific story is foundational in all three traditions. The story of the Aqedah or “Binding” is chanted during the observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The story was central to early Christian theological formation as thinkers developed ways to understand the crucifixion of Jesus and the story of the resurrection. In the Islamic calendar, the “Feast of Sacrifice” is one of the most important holy days for Muslims. It falls after the Hajj and celebrates Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram in place of his son.
But make no mistake, this story is awful. Here’s the context. In Genesis 12 God spoke to Abraham when he was known as Abram, saying,
Go from your country and your people and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those that bless you, and curse those you curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
And Abraham followed God’s invitation. He packed everything, and he and his entire household, including his spouse Sarah, other relatives, and servants, wandered out of the safety of their ancestral lands and their tribe and into a dangerous world. For several chapters in the book of Genesis, we follow Abraham and his group of wanderers around on their adventures. He rescues his nephew from bandits, pretends his wife is his sister and almost marries her away, eludes death, is blessed by a mysterious priest, and tries to intercede with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. And then his son Isaac is born, a miraculous birth foretold by God. Our story picks up from here.
One night, God speaks to Abraham in a dream or vision and offers him a test:
‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’
Human sacrifice occurred in the Ancient Near East when this story was written down, although scholars argue to what degree it happened. There is archaeological and written evidence that children would sometimes be sacrificed to a local deity when a tribe or people faced extreme hardship like famine, war, or plague to appease an angry god. In other situations, a prominent citizen would sacrifice one of their children as a sign of resolute faithfulness to a deity with the idea that there was nothing of greater importance to give up. Abraham was called out of a Chaldean culture that practiced both versions of child sacrifice and interacted with tribes and cultures that did the same.
In our story, God speaks directly to Abraham, and, interestingly, this is the first time in our scriptures where someone is described loving another person. Abraham loves his son Isaac. Likely we are to read that Isaac is the most important thing in Abraham’s life. And yet, the next day, Abraham packs everything up and heads out with Isaac to Moriah. Three days later, Isaac is lying bound on an altar, and Abraham has the knife in hand when an angel of the Lord stops the sacrifice and points out an alternative – a ram stuck in a nearby thicket. Isaac is replaced on the altar by the ram, which is sacrificed in the son’s place.
Traditionally, we might reflect on a handful of themes that fit within our Christian faith. Perhaps we could talk about the reality that there are trials in our lives. We all face difficult choices and long for God to provide when our backs are against the wall. We might remember that the Lord’s Prayer petitions God that we not be led into temptations and trials.
We might also reflect on how obedience or faithfulness to God can be costly. When Jesus talked about discipleship, he often highlighted the costs. In the gospels, Jesus talks about giving up the world, wealth, comfort, and your good name to follow him. In Luke, chapter 14, Jesus talks about the family divisions that can arise from being a follower of Jesus. Today, we donate money to houses of worship, volunteer our time, and make difficult lifestyle decisions because of our faith. When we adhere to the social teachings of Jesus, and his call for justice, inclusion, and reconciliation, we are asked to go well beyond our comfort zones and take stands against injustice in ways that can alienate our families and friends.
Finally, we might reflect on the ways that God provides. This, I think, is one of the central themes of this passage, regardless of its issues. Some writers have argued that this passage is less about Abraham’s faithfulness to God than it is about God meeting Abraham’s hope of provision. Abraham expresses hope that this awful situation will be remedied by God, providing an alternative sacrifice, and God does not let down in the end. Likely, we might gain strength from the reminder that God provides for us, even when the situation looks bleak.
Pulling on this thread a little more, we might consider how we forgo God’s provision and sacrifice our young. One of the leading poets of the First World War, Wilfred Owen retells this story in ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” but ends the story differently:
When lo! And angel called him out of heaven, Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, Neither do anything to him. Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. But the old man would not do so, but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Today when we make disastrous economic and environmental choices, we do much the same. What burdens will our children and grandchildren bear because of our continued use of fossil fuel, groundwater depletion, and deforestation? Because of our choices around development, health systems, income inequality, and education, how will our children find affordable housing, a stable job, pay for college, or make choices about their health? A passage like this might spur us on to think of future generations when we make social choices.
Despite these gracious avenues, however, we might still be stuck with this story. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, something that feels out of character with the God we proclaim. Abraham does not question God throughout the trial. God doesn’t even show up at the end but sends a messenger instead. And reading on, it seems that this event broke every relationship around Abraham. He and God never speak again. In the same manner, Abraham never speaks with Isaac or his wife, Sarah, again. The zombies – the awful backdrop of a trickster God, children sacrifice, and blind devotion become too much.
When scriptures do more harm than good, we should consider moving on. Sometimes the lessons simply cost too much to be helpful. Personally, I don’t know if I’ll ever prepare a reflection on this passage again, despite its importance.
What do you say? Can you find a message of faith in this story, or have you moved on?
Regardless, may God bless you today with enough faith to withstand challenging lessons like these and the courage to challenge our faith when it doesn’t work.
“Roses and Sparrow” Utagawa Hiroshige, ca. 1833. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. Public Domain.
[And Jesus continued instructing his disciples, saying] 24 ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a servant above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the servant like the master. If they have called the master of the house the devil, how much more will they malign those of his household!
26 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Last week’s reading began Jesus’ second long discourse in Matthew, what some scholars call the “Missionary Discourse” or “Disciples Discourse.” The setup is essential. Immediately after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus and his disciples traverse the Galilean countryside and beyond, proclaiming the good news, healing sick people, helping troubled people, and inviting people to join the cause.
At some point, Jesus looks out on another gathered crowd of folks in great need and realizes that he cannot do this work alone. He pulls together his twelve closest followers and tells them that they will be sent out to do more of the same work.
The instructions are pretty straightforward: “Go, do good where you are accepted.” Maybe at this point, the disciples expect a moving sendoff, something heartfelt and inspirational like Knute Rockne’s fabled “Win One for the Gipper” halftime speech, or JFK’s speech about going to the moon.
Instead, they get a dose of reality. “A servant is not above his master” was a common idiom during Jesus’ day. When I was little, I remember visiting my great-grandmother’s house in South Georgia and seeing a needlepoint hanging on her wall that said, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” It’s the same message. If the head of the household suffers, everyone suffers. Jesus lets the disciples know that they will be treated with the same mixed response as he has. Sometimes that will mean that they will face violent opposition.
At the end of this section, we also have some of the gospel’s most difficult words. Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword, and that his message and actions will cause divisions. His message will even split families.
Within this challenging message, however, there are words of encouragement. Jesus promises that God will be with them, watching over them. This doesn’t mean bad things will not happen; rather, that God will not abandon them when bad things take place.
We also get a problematic “Do not be afraid” statement from Jesus. “Do not fear those that can harm the body, but the one that can destroy the body and soul in hell.” This sounds a little heavy-handed. The language of this passage is pretty intimidating and alien to our 21st-century ears. But I think Jesus knows well the way people work. In our reading, we might say that he is making social commentary on how his message will be received, family dynamics, and the importance of living a principled life.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus enters a harsh and unrelenting world. After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, he and his family flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s murder of the region’s children. When they return, they settle in Galilee, a rural region away from Jerusalem, so that they can go unnoticed. The Roman empire occupies the land. There are periodic rebellions and violent suppressions during Jesus’ formative years. Corruption between religious leaders, local governors, tax-collectors, and the empire is common enough to be visible to all. Most of the population lives in subsistence poverty, and folks are so desperate that they are going out to the wilderness to listen to the rantings of a wild man named John, who openly criticizes government officials and calls on the nation to repent.
Jesus’ message -- an upending and subversive challenge to the status quo -- will not be received well everywhere. After all, some are benefiting under the current system, and they hold state power and can call on state force. Others, fearing another violent suppression by Rome, want nothing to do with radical change, but to suffer on, with the no hope or future. To acknowledge the presence of God in every person and place is radical. To work for peace for every living soul, and not just a select few, is confrontational. To heal people the system said were unhealable and dare to touch those society says are untouchable is offensive. Oscar Wilde writes that “No good deed goes unpunished,” a reality check for those working to make good social change.
Families, the place where acceptance, protection, and love should be held up as sacred, are not safe from Jesus’ message either. The most difficult and important place to have conversations about social ills is not the public square or cable news, but dinner tables. We’ve made this all the more difficult on ourselves after generations of keeping a false peace in our families by refusing to talk about religion or politics. The most cringeworthy and painful conversation I’ve ever had about racism was with a close family member. Many of us have an uncle or cousin posting racist images and statements on social media right now, their response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and protests over systemic racial violence and inequality in America. How are we supposed to love our family members while being principled about love, justice, and equality? Jesus’ answer was to remember the sparrows. Even sparrows, creatures deemed largely inconsequential by us humans, are on the mind of God. When we worry that we will break a false peace, God is with us. When things go really bad, we can remember that there is no place where God is not.
Finally, Jesus warns his disciples about what it might look like to give up the principled life when he talks about the thing that can destroy body and soul. “Sin makes its own hell, and goodness it own heaven,” writes Mary Baker Eddy. The Dalai Lama writes that “Sin contains its own judgment and punishment.” The early twentieth-century cartoonist Kin Hubbard might say it best, “We are not punished for our sins, but by them.” When we’ve come to terms with the importance of a belief, but fail to live out that belief because of some pressure, there is something, part of our very selves that becomes damaged. Jesus’ disciples have seen an alternative way of organizing life. This alternative way positioned all people and God’s glorious creation in a sacred light. There was no one too sick to save, too troubled to help, too hopeless to hear good news. Divine presence, real work, purpose and opportunity, the right to life and dignity; these are all part of what it means to be created by God. To fail to work toward that aim hurts ourselves as much as it does others.
In recent weeks a group of knuckleheads has gone from town to town, here in Vermont, sticking white supremacist stickers on town halls, rainbow flags, and businesses owned by African Americans and people of color. The rainbow flag at the United Church of Hinesburg was tagged too. These moments are important. They remind us that some stand against an open and free society where all are treated with dignity and acceptance in our communities. At some point, they were taught to hate, in which case, we can only have pity, and ask God that they find a better way. Perhaps we can also be reminded that if we genuinely believe in words like equality, love, and respect, and carry the better heritage of our Christian faith in our souls, we will not stop working until our last breath for a better world. This is what Jesus hopes from all his disciples.
May you remember your work as disciples of Jesus. May you have the courage to act during these difficult times. And may you do all things in love.
“Crouching Figure of Atlas” Balsassare Tommaso Peruzzi (1481-1535). Public Domain.
“Something Left Undone” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
Labor with what zeal we will, Something still remains undone, Something uncompleted still Waits the rising of the sun.
By the bedside, on the stair, At the threshold, near the gates, With its menace or its prayer, Like a mendicant it waits;
Waits, and will not go away; Waits, and will not be gainsaid; By the cares of yesterday Each to-day is heavier made;
Till at length the burden seems Greater than our strength can bear, Heavy as the weight of dreams, Pressing on us everywhere.
And we stand from day to day, Like the dwarfs of times gone by, Who, as Northern legends say, On their shoulders held the sky.
We’re at the beginning of the season after Pentecost – a time in the Christian year that focuses on the growth for the church and our personal growth as disciples of Jesus Christ. The gospel passages that have been selected for the next 20 something weeks will focus on what Jesus did and what Jesus taught. Occasionally we will run into a passage like we have today, one where many things are happening within the larger story, and we have to choose to focus our attention on only part of the passage; otherwise, this would be an exceptionally long episode.
Immediately after giving the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been active in Matthew’s gospel. He performs several healings, calms a storm, and heals two troubled men across the Sea of Galilee. He calls a tax collector named Matthew to join the cause, the person we traditionally attribute the writing of this gospel. We also get a possible resurrection story, which for this gospel is interesting. With all this action, it’s clear that Jesus was more than a traveling sage to Matthew, someone that traversed the countryside, expounding a philosophy by words only. Jesus’ words and actions were aligned.
We can imagine that his followers must have been pretty pumped about all of this. Jesus' public ministry was running on the high hard ground, a time when the early movement was moving swiftly and efficiently. Outcomes could be measured in the folks that were healed and people who were joining the cause. Everything at this point in the story is clicking.
We’ve all experienced times like these. We might call it being in the zone or the groove. These are the times in our lives when our work seemed effortless because it was exciting. Teachers have years that stand out when their classes were exceptional. Businesses have times when work seems essential and lively. Nurses and doctors are part of teams that gel and work seamlessly. The cows are milking well, and the weather conditions are perfect for crops. All the work seems worth it.
The disciples were on the ride of their lives. Verse 35 sums it up: “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in the local houses of worship and proclaiming the good news of God’s New Way. And he went about curing every disease and every sickness.” I imagine this as a movie montage, a set of clips set to some inspiring and uplifting music.
But in verse 36, the mood changes. “And when he (Jesus) looked upon the crowds, his heart was filled with compassion, because these people were harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.” It’s an interesting statement on several levels. Most scholars contend that the crowds Jesus often gathered were people on the margins of society. In Jesus’ day, there was no budding middle class. There was a tiny ruling class which consisted of political families and the families of religious authorities, and everyone else, so there were a lot of people on the margins in Jesus’s day. This class was made out of the people in previous chapters – lepers and servants, the families of fishermen, and people living among the tombs, paralytics, and the disabled. These people had no political power, and many of those folks were considered ritually unclean, thus alienating them from their very faith tradition. Who is helping these people?
The statement that the crowds were like sheep without a shepherd had been, at the time of Jesus, a common political statement. We remember that kings, prophets, and judges in Israel’s history were often referred to as shepherds. To say that they were without a shepherd meant that no one in power had their interests in mind.
We also know, from our Scriptures, that Jesus considered himself the good shepherd of these people. But Jesus’ statement about sheep without a shepherd makes me wonder if Jesus is getting a little fatigued at this point in his ministry. He’s been going non-stop, perhaps riding the adrenaline of good results. The compassion that he feels in verse 36 seems certain to be tinged with a bit of weariness and the realization that even he wasn’t going to be able to help everyone. Longfellow's poem in the previous section describes this feeling well.
And it’s at this moment in our story that Jesus concludes that some of this work must be delegated if it is to continue. So, Jesus summons his 12 closest followers, and he gives them instructions to preach the good news and help the sick. He also provides some demanding qualifications for the work. His disciples are not to ask for money for their work, and they should not take donations. They should also pack light, relying on goods in kind for their continued survival.
He also adds a word of caution. His disciples will meet resistance. Some will even experience violence and be taken to court. Jesus reminds them to stick to the cause and remember that the Spirit of God will be with them through any difficulties.
At least this was Jesus’ pitch. I can imagine Jesus talking with his disciples about this and there being a collective gulp. The original Greek text even allows us to imagine Jesus making this pitch to a big crowd, but only twelve offered to give it a go. Again, these disciples were on the rides of their lives, hanging out with this healer and sage and wondering if he was the one that would free the people from Roman occupation. Now, a portion of this enormous and ambitious endeavor was given to them.
For some folks that I’ve talked to recently, this extended time at home has been a valuable time for completing home projects. Others have taken up a new thing, like watercolors or sewing, or have restarted physical training or mediation.
I moved into a new home last fall, and time in the Hamilton household during the pandemic has been filled with many homesteading projects like cutting wood, digging gardens, and repairing a deck. I’ve noticed a sense of dread creep in recently, though. It seems that even as work gets done, the list of projects gets longer and more expensive. It’s so much easier to dwell on those things that are left undone at the end of each day than to check off those items that were completed. The walls still need to be scrubbed, the zipline still hasn’t been installed, the fence needs moved, again, the trail to the brook hasn’t been created, wood hasn’t been moved, and on and on. That feeling, the sense of being overwhelmed is real, and we all experience it in our lives.
We are all experiencing a different kind of overwhelm as well. The pandemic continues, and our usual support systems are upended. The nation continues to confront the realities of our racist history. We struggle to find effective ways to be allies in this confrontation and work to examine our own white privilege and place in systems that hurt people of color. We know that lasting change will require more than placing a Black Lives Matter sign in our yards or sharing a Facebook post, but we just don’t know how to go about it.
Today’s gospel lesson might help those of us that feel this way. For Jesus, the ever-busy savior, compassion was the guide. Maybe he thought he could bulldoze the problems of this world with a few extra hours here and there, another healing, or one more speech. Until he realized he couldn’t. Struggling people outnumbered the hours in the day. Problems continued to come. Systemic oppression could not be lanced with a single voice. Realizing his limitations (perhaps having some compassion on himself), he called on others to help. By doing so, he realized that others have a role to play in lasting change.
If you are feeling a little overwhelmed these days, have some compassion for yourself. When Jesus was confronted with the reality of hurting people, he complained about his society’s leaders, felt terrible, and tried to do too much. And then, he went about it a different way. He reevaluated his resources, his followers that until now had been along for the ride, would become disciples and thus extensions of his hands and feet. He continued to work hard, but he made this work all the more impactful by stopping to think.
There is a lot of good we could be doing these days if we didn’t allow ourselves to get overwhelmed. Perhaps we need to reevaluate our resources, include others or be willing to step out of the spotlight.
May you do good work this week and remember that you are part of God’s plan to make this world a better place.
A Psalm of thanksgiving. 1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. 2 Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
3 Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5 For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
Living with a sense of gratitude is a real challenge these days. We are stuck in a pandemic, watching racial tensions escalate around the world, and feeling anxious about what to do. There is a collective sense that whatever comes next, the “new-new-new-normal” will look very different than the lives we inhabited just a few months ago. What an anxious time!
It seems that we can be grateful when everything is going well for us. But it would help us all to remember that gratitude and thankfulness are essential survival tools for times like these.
Our scriptures were written during times of trauma and upheaval, even those passages that beam with a sense of gratitude like today’s lesson from the Psalms. War, famine, systematic oppression, high infant mortality rates, poverty, and disability are just some of the issues the writers of our sacred texts confronted daily. Far from seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, these lessons of gratitude served as reminders that people are resilient.
We can all think back on difficult times like the loss of a job, relationship, or serious health challenge, and how awful that time was. But we got through it with the help of time, strong relationships, prayer, and healing. Sometimes there were lessons learned. Other times we merely survived. But we are still standing. Even survival is something that can provoke a sense of gratitude.
We cannot gloss over the troubles our world is facing with positive thinking. But we can draw on the fact that we’ve faced difficult times before and have come out on the other side, time after time. We do well to remember those times of resilience and the many people and places that helped us along the way.
Even now, we have many reasons to be grateful. Take a few minutes today or tomorrow and make a list of those things. "For the Lord is good. Our God’s steadfast love endures forever."
“The Boyhood of Raleigh” by Sir John Everett Millais (1870). Here a sailor tells a young Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother a big fish story.
Matthew 28:16-20* New King James Version
16 Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. 17 When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.
18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
Statistics play an important part in many sports. My brother and I collected baseball cards growing up, and I can remember spending hours going through decks of cards and looking at their backs, where lines of numbers represented the quality of player and season. When I was little, Kirby Puckett was my favorite player, and I remember that there was a lot of bold font used for the numbers on his cards, showing all the times he led the league in hits, runs batted in or batting average. From the numbers, my brother and I could learn to tell whether a player was good, bad, or average.
But statistics in baseball rarely have the final say. Kirk Gibson’s numbers from the 1988 season were terrific. In his first year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he managed to hit .290 with 25 home runs, and 76 Runs batted in on his way to a Most Valuable Player Award. But during the playoffs, his body had broken down. By the time the Dodgers made it to the World Series, Gibson had a torn hamstring tendon in his left leg and a strained MCL in his right. Before Game 1 against the Oakland Athletics, he received injections in both legs, and he spent most of the game in the clubhouse icing and watching the game on the television.
The game looked to be in the bag for the Athletics by the ninth inning. Jose Canseco had crushed a grand slam in the second inning, and pitcher Dave Stewart had held the Dodger’s hitters in check. Pitcher Dennis Eckersley, arguably the best closing pitcher at the time, entered the game with a 4-3 lead. With two outs and a runner on first, Kirk Gibson was called on to pinch-hit. Gibson limped up to the plate. A lengthy at-bat with several awful looking swings got Gibson to the moment every baseball and softball player can recite: bottom of the ninth, full count, two outs, runner on and down by one. Eckersley delivered a backdoor slider low and away. Gibson swung, and the ball sailed high into the air and over the right-field wall. Kirk Gibson had done it! A game-winning pinch-hit home run to win the first game of the 1988 World Series. Gibson hobbled around the bases, pumping his fist while the crowd at Dodger Stadium went crazy. The Dodgers would go on to win the 1988 world series over the Oakland Athletics, 4 games to 1, and Gibson’s home run would become, perhaps, the most iconic hit in baseball history.
The stories we tell do more for us than statistics. When we remember the people who are no longer in our lives, we recount our stories with them, not the year they graduated or the number of jobs or list of achievements. The stories we carry with us keep the memory of them alive, and when we get to tell those stories to others, a part of him continues on.
In many churches, this Sunday is Trinity Sunday, a time that we acknowledge and explore the mysteries of our Triune God. Matthew 28:16-20 is today’s gospel lesson because it’s the clearest Scriptural reference to the Trinity, God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Espousing a trinitarian theology, however, is not the primary or even secondary concern of this passage. Often labeled the Great Commission, Matthew 28:16-20 contains Jesus’ last words to his disciple in this gospel. His message is twofold: go make disciples, and I will always be with you.
What does it mean to make disciples? The word “disciples” can be a little confusing and even loaded. But when we look at the Book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul, it seems that the primary action of disciple-making was to tell the stories of Jesus. In Acts 2, Peter stands in front of a large crowd for the first time and tells stories of miraculous works, teaching, oppression and injustice, death and resurrection, and situates the story of Jesus in the broader context of human suffering and liberation. Later, Peter and John retell the story to the local religious council. In fact, the story is told over and over in the Book of Acts. In the letters of the New Testament, Paul does the same, mixing advice and ethical sayings with stories Jesus’s life and ministry. Becoming a disciple then involved responding to the stories of Jesus.
I am a fan of St. Francis of Assisi’s most famous quote, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” It, I think, points to the ways we are to live out the teachings of Jesus, to embody the practices of healing, generosity, and peacemaking. But telling the story of Jesus is important too. Telling the gospel stories remind us that the principles of good and justice are bigger than us and that we participate in a rich heritage of those that have worked to make the world better for centuries. Telling the stories of Jesus also keep Jesus with us, perhaps something he perceived when he promised to be with his disciples all their days.
Stories are vital for human existence and shape the way we understand the world around us. Recently, we’ve been confronted with the story of George Floyd, who was killed on May 25, 2020, while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Video has helped to tell the story of a black man who was held on the ground by police officers. One officer pressed his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe. Throughout the ordeal, Mr. Floyd tells the officer that he cannot breathe, and the video shows him crying out for this mother before he slips into unconsciousness. Mr. Floyd would later die on his way to the hospital.
Would we consider a similar retelling of Jesus’ last day, perhaps an obituary from the gospel of Mark?
Jesus of Nazareth (December 25, 0 – April 3, 33) was killed while in the custody of Roman imperial soldiers last Friday. He was arrested at Gethsemane, a garden overlooking the city the previous night. Before his arrest, onlookers said he did not look well and overheard him say, “Daddy (Abba), Father, remove this cup from me.” He did not resist arrest. Later that evening, he was brought to a religious tribunal where he was beaten. Without being tried, Jesus was beaten again when he was remanded into the custody of the Roman imperial guard. Pilate, the official in charge, decided to kill Jesus by crucifixion. Because of the severity of his beatings, Jesus was unable to carry his cross all the way to Golgotha. Simon of Cyrene, a black man from western Africa, was forced to carry the cross the rest of the way. Once they arrived, Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the cross, and he was hung up as onlookers gathered. The soldiers mocked him while he hung there, dying. So did some that watched. Jesus breathed his last breath around 3pm.
Some of those familiar with Jesus said that he was a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors, and other sinners. Others, those close to him, said he was kind and compassionate, a healer and teacher. For fear of reprisal, none of his family or friends could be reached at this time. A brief vigil will be held Sunday morning at the tomb by Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome. The Empire has promised to violently crackdown on any protests.
At some point every year, churches across the US are confronted with yet another death of a black or brown person at the hands of authorities, or white supremacists. The killing of unarmed people of color has become part of the Christian Liturgical year, a time, or season where we observe our racist history and the ongoing outcomes of failing to address it. Many churches fail to observe the season, either feeling too much pressure from the white base our lacking the courage needed to move from faith to action. Churches that do keep the season will serve as resources to their community, no matter how imperfect, and will march, retrain, confess and speak out against police brutality, racism, and the systems that perpetuate ongoing oppression. It goes without saying that this liturgical observance is a penitential one where churches offer more opportunities for truth-telling, confession, repentance, and direct action.
This penitential season is different than other seasons under the same category, however. The penitential season of Advent ends in the good news of the Christmas announcement that Jesus has been born, God is with us. The penitential season of Lent culminates in the good news of the Easter declaration that Christ is risen. As of yet, the penitential season that marks the death of people of color by the hands of white people lacks good news or divine presence. We are still waiting. Until then, there can be no redemption, only the shame of this grievous sin.
We know the stories of racism and white supremacy in the United States. Those stories should be enough to inspire action to change our laws, weed out bad guys from places of authority, and educate our children properly. These stories should be enough for us to stop using excuses like, “but this was how I was raised,” or “this doesn’t really affect me.” I wonder why it’s so easy for us to forget that our Lord and Savior died in much the same way, or how we can confess Christ and still hate our human siblings of color in violent and oppressive ways.
It would be helpful for us to read the stories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others like Philando Castile, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice from the people that loved them. The podcast show notes have links to their obituaries, which, in many cases, were written by those closest to them. I pray that, when we hear their stories in the broader context of oppression and the fight for life, equality, and dignity, we respond, becoming disciples of a better way. We will be deeply troubled and divided people until we do. Amen.
“How to be a Poet” (to remind myself) - Wendell Berry Given
i Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. You must depend upon affection, reading, knowledge, skill—more of each than you have—inspiration work, growing older, patience, for patience joins time to eternity…
ii Breathe with unconditional breath the unconditioned air. Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensional life; stay away from screens. Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in. There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.
iii Accept what comes from silence. Make the best you can of it. Of the little words that come out of the silence, like prayers prayed back to the one who prays, make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.”
Psalm 104:24-24, 35b
Breath plays a vital role in our Scriptures. The word is mentioned nearly 100 times in its original Hebrew and Greek. In the beginning, Adam was made out of dirt but did not have life until God breathed life into him. The Psalmist exhorts “everything that has breath” to praise God. The author 2 Timothy describes Scriptures as “God-breathed,” and in the gospel of John, Jesus breathed on his disciples, and they received the Holy Spirit, a precursor to Pentecost.
Psalm 104 is, for my money, as good as Scripture gets. It places human beings in the proper context of a vast and wonderful cosmos. There, humans are neither inconsequential nor dominators of their surroundings. Instead, humans are creaturely, part of a web of creation that God loves and sustains through wisdom, power, and love.
For the writer of this Psalm, breath is part of God’s provision, a type of short-hand for life itself. It is God’s to give and take away, a way to describe the mystery of human existence and its many natural variations and durations. The point, though, is that the breath is God’s, and when creatures are given life, they carry part of God’s very presence with them.
When the last breath left George Floyd’s body on May 25th, it was stolen by people and a system that had no right to take it. The videos of his encounter with Minneapolis police are horrific (Here is the New York Times video that provides valuable context, but understand, this is graphic: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html). At this moment, we are reminded once again, that our nation’s unconfronted racism has real-life consequences in the lives and death of black and brown people.
My faith tells me that George Floyd was sacred. He was given breath by God and carried with him part of God’s very presence. But violence desecrates what God has made sacred. It takes control over something that was not meant to be ours to control. Through force, coercion, abuse, and manipulation, we have robbed black and brown people of their lives and livelihoods in this country. We are not right with one another, and we are not right with our God.
Maybe words of hope will come another day. I’m afraid I don’t have them now. I feel sad and ashamed and angry. I know that I am complicit in racism and white supremacy, what Jim Wallis calls “America’s Original Sin,” and that there are no more excuses for this. It no longer matters how I was raised or to what degree it affects me tucked away in rural Vermont. None of us can carry our excuses with us anymore.
Please consider what’s taking place right now and keep those in danger close in prayer. Pray also that our leaders will do better and making lasting change and stop issuing threats. But don’t consider it for too long. We probably already know what we need to do. The question our faith poses is, “will we finally have the courage to act?”
“Folio 2v, The Pentecost” – The Four Gospels in Armenian, Armenian (1434-35). Tempera on gold and paper.
John 7:37-39 New Revised Standard Version
37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ 39Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Acts 2:1-21 New Revised Standard Version
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
I took the better part of last week off to get the garden in at our new home. My wife and I have kept a garden every year of our lives together with a few rare exceptions.
I see the planting of the garden as an essential marker in the year, a ritual of sorts that announces the arrival of our warm season here in Vermont, when we spend more hours outside, made happier by the warm sun. Where we live now, in the mountains, spring comes a little later, but when it happens, it seems like everything turns green overnight.
This year with new land, more space, and more wildlife, we’ve spent a great deal of time together clearing, digging, putting in fencing, planting, chasing away chipmunks, and watering. I find all of this exciting and hopeful, a reminder that even during these strange times of pandemic, there is a cadence to the natural world that goes mostly uninterrupted.
Throughout human history, the planting and harvesting of crops have been celebrated with festivals and religious rituals, acknowledging the deep connections we have to the land. A festival celebrating the harvest is the context for our Pentecost story.
It is the first century CE, and you live in the Judean countryside. You have been busy these last seven weeks. You have gone up to Jerusalem recently for the Passover feast. And this year there was a lot of commotion. Jesus, a prophet from the sticks of Galilee, has caused a ruckus in the temple and emboldened a crowd. He was arrested and crucified. You heard rumors about his body disappearing from the tomb he was laid in, and some even said they saw him, that he was resurrected.
But you didn’t have time for your own investigation of events. The barley you had planted last autumn was ready for harvest. So, you rush home and for the next three weeks, its barley, barley and more barley. Cutting and gathering, threshing, winnowing and sifting, and putting away for the year, a good harvest for sure. And after the barley is finally done, around the middle of May, you look on your other fields, and the wheat that you also planted last autumn is ready. It’s a stressful time because most of your year’s earnings come from the work done during these seven weeks. So, you go out again and cut and gather, thresh and winnow and sift. And you put away the grain. And you are tired, but you are thankful for a good year.
And out of gratitude and because of your religious tradition, you load your donkey or maybe a cart with some barley and some wheat, and you go up to Jerusalem again. When you get to Jerusalem, you make arrangements to stay with a friend, and you take some of your grain to a baker – who mills the grain and makes two loaves of bread. And in the early, early morning on the day of Pentecost, called Shavuot, you join the procession and festivities.
People from all over the known world are waking up in the city. Parthians and Medes, Elamites, and people from what was once Babylon are there. Folks from Cappadocia and Pontus and from the far east and from places in Modern day Turkey and from Egypt and further south in Africa and from Western Africa make the journey as well. And people from the Mediterranean islands and even people from the capital of the empire, Rome are there to celebrate the harvest.
It’s loud, and people are talking in different languages, and it’s such a busy place. Farmers like you take baskets woven with gold and silver and fill them with wheat and barley, grapes and figs, pomegranates, olives and dates, all symbols of the bounty of the land. This is the start of the festivities. They load the baskets on oxen whose horns were gilded and laced with garlands of flowers, and who are led in a grand procession through the streets toward the temple. There is music and laughter everywhere – a time for merrymaking. When the procession gets to the temple, the baskets are taken in, and everyone follows with their two loaves of bread as an offering of the first fruits of the harvest. In the temple, there is preaching and readings of the Holy Scriptures. And the community sings the Psalms and other hymns together, and people go out of the temple and enjoy the festivities.
After the ceremony, you are sitting down for a late breakfast, enjoying the company of friends, when you hear something, a loud wind like a tornado, and in Jerusalem! You run out of the house and see a great commotion just down the street. People are gathering to see what has happened. Among the gathered crowds, some are talking about the deeds of God and the work of Jesus, the prophet that was killed a few months ago. They say that he has risen and that the spirit of God has fallen on them. And one of them speaks, and the others translate and the speaker who calls himself “Peter” a weird name you think meaning “Rock,” but not like Dwayne Johnson, more like “little rock” or “pebble” talks about a faith that is available to all people, one where everyone has the spirit of God in them. Someone says that these guys are drunk – but Peter says that that’s not the case. It’s too early in the day for that. That makes the crowd chuckle.
“What about it?” you think, “Imagine a God that is always with me, and not just here in the temple. Imagine a God that is with me in my fields and in my home, in my travels and in my planning. In my community and in the world.”
I love the story of the day of Pentecost because the Holy Spirit is described as the full presence of God that meets people where they are. The charismatic gift described here allows Jesus’ disciples to speak to people in their own language. They didn’t need to learn Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, or Latin to have access to God. And the Spirit of God, described here by Peter, is for everyone – children, and the elderly, free men and women and those in slavery.
Religion, true religious faith, is to be lived out every day in a wide variety of expressions and experiences. And this day, Pentecost Sunday is celebrated in Christianity as the birth of the church. It serves as a reminder of the diversity and inclusiveness of God’s Holy Spirit. When we gather, we are made better by each person’s talents, gifts, perspectives and understandings, drives, and causes. We are better because God is in our lives in a variety of different ways, and when we gather, we get to share our lives with one another.
I also think that it is vital for us to understand the context of Pentecost and it’s roots in an agrarian festival that celebrates God’s provision at the harvest. The COVID-19 pandemic has gotten many people thinking about our food system and how we interact with our environment. This year, people in the US are planting more vegetable gardens than in previous years. Seed companies are seeing a spike in sales, and some garden centers around here are running out of starts.
During World War II, governments in the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Germany encouraged people to plant vegetable gardens to supplement rations and boost morale. These “victory gardens” or “war gardens” were used to help relieve some of the pressure a long and drawn out war placed on the country’s food systems. The government posters from this era are worth googling and have catchy phrases like “Dig on For Victory” and “Your Victory Garden Counts More than Ever!” It is often assumed that planting vegetable gardens is done only by people with land, but little gardens popped up all over cities during World War II. There are images of Londoner's growing vegetables in bomb craters, turning a scare into new life. Today, with the growth of community gardens and the rise of guerilla gardening, many folks can plant a few vegetables.
The pandemic has also helped people get out in nature. I know my family and I have spent a lot of time outside exploring woods, taking walks, and visiting trails. We often see others, too, making sure to keep our distance, which is easy to do when you’re outside. The outdoors have been a reprieve for all of us who have had to stay at home, a way of breaking out of our four walls without endangering ourselves of others.
During the crisis of the Great Depression, The WPA, or Works Projects Administration, hired unemployed artists to make paintings, murals, and other graphic art to promote everything from museums to public health. Perhaps the most iconic posters, though, are the National Parks posters. Chances are, you’ve seen at least one of them before. These wonderfully crafted prints encouraged folks to explore the National Parks and advertised the free services provided by the Department of the Interior.
During times of human crisis, upheaval, and uncertainty, it can be difficult to find gratitude, or be thankful. It can be tricky to see God as always with us, providing and supporting us along the way when we are isolated, jobless, or hungry. These feelings are not new to humanity, but are, perhaps feelings we are experiencing these days to some degree. Yet, on this day, when God’s presence in everyone is announced, and in the context of harvest and nature, we might do well to remember the long game. Seasons change. The earth produces what we need for nourishment and beauty. And there is still a bright future.
May God bless you and keep you close to the land this week.