You Don't Know Heads from Tails
Jesus speaks of good seed and bad, sown together in a field by cosmic enemies. Jesus will preach this same lesson in half a dozen more parables – the point every time being that his followers don’t know heads from tails between judgment and redemption, so we’d best lay off pretending we do. Faithfulness itself – if not our eternal destiny! – depends on it, or so the parables go.
But why? ask the children of the Son – in every generation since. Why do you watch and do nothing? Why didn’t you stop it – the evil – before it took such root, got such a hold on what would have grown up good? or, Let us go do it!
That’s Jesus for you, though. Never answering the questions we DO ask, but rather the ones we don’t. We want to know why God is the way God is, and he tells us how to live. We’d settle just to KNOW something, and God pitches the chance to have a happy life. Here. Now. In this field of wheat and weeds, where the beautiful and disgraceful are all tangled up together. In our hearts and histories. Our own households even.
Let’s pray: Great is the temptation, o God, to spend our spiritual energy picking ourselves apart in judgment. Picking others apart with those same tweezers. Create in us, we pray, the hunger to be happy, the courage to trust you. Amen.
Matthew says Jesus said nothing without saying so in parables, to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah – a very Bible-y sounding reason. But I wonder, are people worried about that? About what Isaiah prophesied? I wonder if Jesus’ reason wasn’t a bit more practical than that? If he spoke in parables because, well, because the God of the universe doesn’t really have any other way of talking to human beings.
Seems to me that God trying to explain the kingdom of God to a human being would be like Albert Einstein explaining quantum theory to a Golden Retriever. God is absolutely going to have to use a tennis ball, or she’ll never get the hang of it. The parables are the tennis ball – simple human things we already know that God uses to help us try to grasp the enormous spiritual ones we don’t.
How can we possibly imagine being set free, not merely from death itself someday, but from the fear of death every day? In chapter 13, Jesus selects three ordinary household spaces containing three ordinary objects: seeds, plants, and bread. Real things people already know, to tell them something about the kingdom of God.
All three require similar treatment for them to do what they do:
In a word, we must do NOTHING. I don’t know the science of a seed, but I know that if I put certain seeds in the dirt in May and keep the chickens out of the garden in June, I’ll have flowers in July and tomatoes in August. I don’t know the science of gluten, but I feel like a magician every single time I mix sugar, yeast, and warm water in a bowl and smell it activate. When my kids were little and I fed them bread I’d made myself, I felt like a really, really good mother.
So when Jesus says the kingdom of God in this world works like seeds in the ground and yeast in the bread I can begin to imagine what that means – that God is working in ways my eyes cannot see to bring enormous change, using tiny little things like art, like ministry, like the church, like strangers, like you, like me.
I can imagine the kingdom of God as a kitchen table surrounded by healthy kids laid with bread and butter and jam and cheese by parents who feel rich and safe and never afraid for their children.
We are the kind of people who take a certain confidence in being smart, in believing it’s possible to be competent – experts, even. And it’s possible that we do that with faith too: that is, imagine being competent at faith to understand God. As if understanding God will change us in ways that make life better.
What if we come here reaching for some religious understanding of reality while God is here wanting to convince us that we are loved, that we are safe? Are we really too smart, too competent, to admit that we want to be loved? What if the whole truth of what God has done for us is, in fact, just too big and too mysterious for minds as small, for hearts as frail and fearful as ours?
What I know for sure is that the religious spaces I have ever been in which were deeply invested in judgment and redemption – specifically, who is in and who is out – are not the same spaces that made a convincing case for the unconditional, overwhelming love of God. That said, this text has a hitch: Jesus’ hellfire rant beginning in verse 41. I could do without it, honestly. Maybe his explanation of the parable is also a parable, seeds refer to children, children refer to something else? Blessings and curses, maybe. The causes of sin (as in verse 41).
Push parables to logic and they all fall apart. I can’t make heads or tails of these two verses, except where Jesus says again, it’ll be angels who sort it out. Not the slaves. Not the workers. Not you. Not us, since God knows we can’t. Not among ourselves, nor inside our own hearts. Leave it alone, remember? Stay out of the way. Be patient.
Jesus says, The kingdom of God is among you. And the most we may ever grasp of that is that he loves us and wants us to be happy – here, now, wheat and weeds all tangled up together. Believing as best we can that God is busy in this world in ways we cannot see – except for when we can, like when seeds become tomatoes. And we find ourselves both braver and more humble, joyful and more generous, rich in everything that matters.
Would you pray with me?
Every Habit Like a Beam
Every thought is like a timber,
Every habit like a beam,
Every imagination like a window
In this house which we are building
Called a life.
These lines pushed up like poetry from the pages of a heavy book of commentary – though, that I know of, George Buttrick was not a poet. Still, it works, poetically and exegetically from the Sermon on the Mount: thoughts, habits, and dreams as the girders and trusses of a life built either on stone or shifting sand; what we think and do and dream as the essential framework from which our plans and projects sally forth; what just one chapter back Jesus called our heart and that which he wants to be – our treasure, inasmuch as we are his.
Half of following Jesus through the Sermon on the Mount is shifting with his metaphors for faith, wishing he'd speak plainly, then getting sassy when he does. Chapter 7 is loaded – with metaphors, that is. I want to pick through them. But first, let's pray.
The word is aimed at us again, O God, loaded with invitation. An invitation to be made new, made free, made lighter than air. OR, to stay the same: heavy-burdened with judgment – ours of others, others’ of us. Trampled and mauled, but stubbornly sure of our position. Still the invitation stands from you, the poet, the author, and the authority of it all. May we have hearts to hear – and to respond. Amen.
The log in my own eye and the splinter in my neighbor's was always a favorite in Bible charades, back in my youth group days. The hypocrisy rampant in church has not been nearly so much fun since. The #churchtoo movement is gaining traction – #metoo, #churchtoo: so many progressive preachers, so publicly supportive of gender equality in the ministry, yet so privately predatory in their relationships with women colleagues. At least the fundamentalist preachers never pretended to respect us professionally at all.
The tension of course being that, in talking to me about sin, Jesus is talking to me about the beam inside my own eye – not the splinter in my neighbor's, however hateful my neighbor's splinter surely is. His discipleship (my neighbor's), much as I may wish it so, is not between Jesus and me. Not what Jesus wants to talk about with me. Grrr!
Do not judge, the verse does technically say. But “judge” is bothersome here. Judge in New Testament common Greek meant condemn, as in “condemn to hell.” Do not condemn to hell. In 21st-century English, “judge” means lots of things, The Great British Bake Off being one – where everything is judged, but not even the flattest scones of all are condemned to hell! Don't condemn to hell. By such measure you shall condemn yourself. See Jesus sketching out the framework of my house? Not divine retribution so much as explaining me to myself.
To condemn to hell is to build a reality wherein I control the forces of grace, of mercy. Really? I take upon myself powers that rest only with God? Grace as mine to distribute or withhold? Meaning I myself never have need of any, since it all belongs to me? Really? Never? Meaning I myself am therefore ever content, ever at ease, ever full of all hope and faith? Needing nothing from outside myself? I don't find Jesus so much harsh in this scenario, as curious. Like Dr. Phil: how's that working for ya? Being your own god?
For Valentine’s Day a zoo in El Paso, Texas will let you name a cockroach after your ex and then feed it to a meerkat. If Jesus were teaching this now, verse six might say “don't give what is holy to cockroaches” instead of dogs, which were considered mangy, garbage-eating beasts; unclean, like pigs and gentiles; incapable of appreciating the holy, the valuable. Jesus admonishes those who would be his disciples to use good judgment in offering what is holy and valuable.
I spent no small amount of time this week thinking on what Jesus is referring to here: the holy? the pearls? What is the “it” of verse 7? The thoughts, habits and dreams? The mysterious treasure from chapter 6? The good gifts of verse 11? What is God giving us, the way good fathers give bread to their children? The answer, I decided, is yes. Any of that. All of that. And more. Anything and everything in our lives that is useful, beautiful and good. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise. . . . [Philippians 4:8]
All that is within range of our judgment and contained in our care, Jesus gives us permission – more than permission, he admonishes us – to treat as valuable, as worthy of honor. It seems to me, therefore, there must be no end to the list of the holy, the pearls involved, nor to our need of this word, for I can find no end to the inclination among church people to treat ourselves, and others, as worth less than Jesus did. To treat with contempt what God has gone well out of God's way to redeem.
When I think about it, I realize I have been both the holy and the dog. To myself and to others. Jesus offers the remedy – here, in fact. Jesus says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” Others had said the same before him – rabbis and philosophers. Except they’d nearly always put it in the negative: don't do unto others what you don't want them to do to you. Cumbersome, first of all. A life made of NOT doing. Jesus commends construction of the good. Still, the point in both cases: we choose. The point of the entire Sermon on the Mount. Jesus invites, we choose. Salvation is bestowed. Discipleship is a choice, a chosen way of life. Following Jesus is a choice. Choosing not to follow Jesus is a choice. We live inside the choices that we make. Our thoughts, habits, and dreams are made of the choices we choose or choose not to make.
Alongside is the terrible reality of how incredibly difficult choosing is – because everything around us begs us to stay the same. Homeostasis: the absence of tension or resistance, of the slightest conflict, mental, emotional, physical. Every effort toward change is met with greater energy against it, without moral consideration. We stay addicted. We stay all kinds of ways that are bad for us. Every good intention is met with resistance two, three, four, five, ten times as strong as the good intention. Or, said poetically, wide is the gate and easy the road to destruction. Narrow the gate and hard all the way is the road that leads to life.
We can kick our feet till the cows come home, and after that the choice will still be ours to make, the invitation of Jesus still there to answer: upon what shall we build these lives of ours? stone or shifting sands? on wisdom or on folly? The folks who first heard Jesus say this were astonished. May our own hearts be so finely tuned.
Would you pray with me?
So, again, the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew's gospel – Jesus poised like Moses on a hillside, teaching a crowd of Jews who have been following him around Judea for some time, listening to his teaching, watching him heal people. Chapter 5 says that here, Jesus is specifically teaching his disciples. Many more are listening, but the teaching is for the ones committed to the way of life he is offering.
Beware, Jesus says. Sounds serious – dangerous even. There is danger associated with following Jesus? There is the danger of death by state execution, of course; the danger of speaking truth to power, of turning the other cheek. Except Jesus isn't talking about any of that danger. He's talking about the danger of practicing one's piety before others in order to be seen by them. Do so, he says, and you'll have no reward from your Father in heaven. And he says it as though he thinks his disciples want it, like we want it most of all – that reward from our Father in heaven. Which, I've decided, is what makes this text so hard to preach.
Let's pray. To want what you want to give us, O God, may we always pray. To stop craving this world's praise. For the faith to know you love us now, completely. And empty as we may feel sometimes, being empty of everything false makes us most ready to receive you. Amen.
A relative of mine announces on Facebook every next book she reads. This might be news if she were in first grade. She has a master's degree. Because, no news is too small to post on social media. There was no social media in Jesus' time. But they did have trumpets. Can you imagine? Every time you wanted to announce your accomplishment? He might have been exaggerating, but I don't think he was wrong.
Humans do like to have their names on things. My husband used to work at the IU School of Business. Now he works at the Kelley School, Steak and Shake School of Business. Mike works at the Maurer School of Law. Luke Gillespie teaches at the Jacobs School of Music and plays the organ at the Andy Mohr baseball diamond. Men who are no longer mere humans – they are schools! Generous men who have done good in their community and received their earthly reward. We can't all buy a school though. Thus the beauty of our Facebook, whatever our Facebook forum is – the place we project our public self.
I post, therefore I am. I am published, therefore I am. I preach, therefore I am. Someone clicks on “like.” Therefore “I Am” even more than I was before. The more likes I get, the more “AM” I AM. It's become a psychotherapy gold-mine, did you know that? One person becomes two – the real-life version a person who never measures up to the one she is online. Her real-life children are less delightful than their Facebook selves. A whole market, an entire clientele of people whose emotional and mental well-being ride on social media validation.
Which got me to thinking that maybe Jesus is suggesting something like the same thing here in chapter six of Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount; that when the near entirety of our discipleship, our life in God, is lived on the outside in public view for public consumption, we are not in the relationship with God that God offers – a relation with the actual groceries to sustain us through the real-life experience of being human. We'll get what we asked for: public praise. But we will miss the reward, the treasure destined from God, to our hearts.
Our heart: not the blood-pumping organ, but the seat of the self and the will, where our personality is born and rooted; where our most fundamental decisions are made, such as who or what shall rule us, what shall be regarded as truth. The heart is our most closely guarded self. No one enters without permission. And anyone allowed in has great power over us. That is the “me” God is most interested in. Not the one I work so hard to make you think I am. The one God knows I am. God wants to sit there, rule there, live there. But God will neither come nor stay uninvited, and we cannot invite God to a place we will not go ourselves.
My new favorite Netflix binge is “Blue Planet.” Do you know more life lives under the deep sea than above? There are fish miles under the sea only just discovered in the last ten years when technology enabled cameras to go so deep.
However generous, prayerful, or sacrificial they appear on the outside, Jesus' disciples are those hearers willing to go to deep – deep below the surface, below the known tides of our public lives – into our hearts, our minds, our memories, and show God around in there. Talk to God about what is there. How it got there. Whether it ought to stay or be put out. To cry over it. Tell the truth about it. Deal with it. Allow those hearts to be re-formed, re-made. Such reformation cannot be confined, naturally. It will spill over into every part of life.
We can pretend – and we all do – that our locked-up, broken hearts don't affect us. But of course, they absolutely do. They stay in the way of grace. They keep us stalled in places God is fine to let us stay – and so glad to move us to healed and happy hearts too. Healed hearts make us brave. Healed hearts make us joyful. Healed hearts make us truly generous and free – generous and free in ways that pretending and trying to be generous and free never, ever, ever will.
In chapter 6, Jesus speaks of three religious habits he assumes his disciples already practice: almsgiving (money), praying, and fasting. Jesus does not say “if”; he says “when.” When you give. When you pray. When you fast. We may have to catch up to Jesus' starting place, if we aren't already giving, praying, fasting. But for those who are, Jesus says, It’s not enough just to go through the motions.
He doesn’t say, STOP! No way. Keep it all up! Raise your tithe, even. But the real discipleship work is the inside job. What do you think and feel? What are you trying hard NOT to think and feel? Whom are you most trying to impress? And why? What losses will you suffer if others never see?
And what is this reward we are after, by giving, praying, consuming, living, from healed and happy hearts? It surely must be something only God can give: True Peace. True peace because it looks and smells and tastes like peace we have never known. Peace that is the complete and total absence of anxiety and fear, or any hint of loneliness. Or maybe freedom is the better word. Being completely, entirely unbound by anything including, if you can imagine, doubt. I even wonder, if this reward for which I cannot find words is what Jesus means by treasure in verse 21.
Where your treasure is, so is your heart. Treasure heart. As if, by our faithfulness to Christ the two wind up as one, in the mystery of it all.
Would you pray with me?
There Is a Path
Suffering exists. Suffering has causes. Happiness is possible. There is a path to happiness. These are the Four Noble Truths of one Eastern religion — and the distillation of Jesus' Beatitudes.
He is sitting on the side of the hill, a crowd of Israelites below him. Matthew has composed a remake of Moses on Mt. Sinai, the ancient Law remade for modern Jews in the modern era of Pax Romana, the era of world peace maintained by military might.
Suffering exists. Suffering has causes. Happiness is possible. There is a path to happiness. “There Is a Path” is Jesus' first sermon we are given to hear.
Let's pray: How to hear you, O God, through the babble of voices in our minds, in our memory, in our world, on our screens? We pray to want to hear you. We pray to learn to listen. Amen.
Sermons on sermons are tricky, the trick being to stay out of the way so that the primary preacher is primarily heard. Jesus is preaching — which in Matthew's gospel is nearly always called teaching. Here, in chapters 5, 6, and 7, he is teaching his disciples in such a way that bigger crowds overhear him. The distinction matters. Anyone may listen, but the teaching is NOT for everyone. It is for people interested in following Jesus beyond the free-food phase of his mission. This teaching is for people who, given the choice between feeding their own bellies and feeding their own spirits, choose spirit.
Remember, Jesus is just out of seminary – 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness. And the language Jesus uses for this feeding of the spirit is happiness. Yet, his followers, on the western side of the world at least, felt the need to adjust his language. Make it more religious sounding, as though poverty is God-given rather than disciple-chosen. Blessed, we say, instead of happy -- or better yet, happier. Happier are the poor in spirit. Happier than whom? Happier than the rich is spirit?
Happier are those who mourn. Happier are the meek. Happier are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Happier are the merciful. Happier are the pure in heart. Happier are the peacemakers. Say it just right and Jesus sounds positively frivolous.
Still, I wonder how I'd be different now, if I'd grown up as convinced that Jesus wanted me to be happy as I grew up convinced that Jesus wanted me to be good? If you had asked me when I was ten years old what I understood the central message of the gospel to be, and if I'd had the nerve to tell the truth, I'd have said, “Jesus loves us so much. Therefore, we should be very, very afraid.” The Christianity that I ate and drank and breathed told me that Jesus wanted to save me. And to be saved, I had to be good.
I have always been very good at being good. Not perfect. Nevertheless, obnoxiously good. Nellie Oleson good. Mary Poppins good. Hermione Granger good. Was I happy? I'd have said yes. But I think that was because I assumed being good and being happy were the same thing.
What is more true, however, is that I was always just a little bit afraid. Afraid of disappointing God; my parents; the church. And the thing about fear is, it paralyzes. And if fear drives every decision, I am left to wonder “What does it mean to live fearlessly?” Is that the path Jesus is offering here?
Happy are those who aren't afraid to be poor:
the entire kingdom of God is your home.
Happy are those who aren't afraid to be sad:
you can lose every friend you have and never be lonely because God is still with you.
Happy are the meek, the ones who expect nothing:
Then every day will be a gift.
Happy are those whose greatest desire is to be good:
they will discover more good than they ever imagined.
And so on.
It's not rocket science why all those people followed Jesus around Judea in Matthew chapter 4. They were aching for decent healthcare and he healed them. They were hungry and he fed them. They weren't being selfish. They were being human. But for those ready to imagine there might be even more to life than food and clothes and a salary plus benefits, Jesus offered an entirely new way of life that he called happiness! Matthew 5:1-12 is the core teaching, comparable to Moses' Ten Words at Mount Sinai. The remainder of chapter 5, and chapters 6 and 7 are the exposition of the core. The Law remade, useful for modern believers of any era.
Heaven is crammed into earth, Jesus will go on to say. Eternity into time. The kingdom of God crammed into the here and now. My love for you crammed into this package of skin and bone called human-ness. And it is possible for you to live and feed and drink and breathe from that reality, if you are willing to lift yourself from the fear that drives life in this modern era called the world.
Imagine the possibility that Jesus means for you to be happy. Not to neglect the suffering and misery of this world, but to put all truth together. Suffering exists. Suffering has causes. Suffering around us is caused by human sin — greed and prejudice mainly. Greed is the engine; religion’s foot is on the gas pedal. Jesus invites us to step out of that vicious, violent, hateful cycle.
This side of heaven, happiness consists of living truthfully in the world, aware of the suffering around us, causing none that we can help, relieving as much as we can.
An Eastern religious monk I love to read says it really very simply. “Every time you choose to say or do or buy something, take a moment to ask yourself, ‘Will this word, act, purchase cause anything to suffer: a human, animal, plant or mineral?’ If the answer is yes, simply don't say it; don't do it; don't buy it.” To our ears, the animal, plant and mineral part may sound a little extreme. But his thinking is right, it seems to me. We humans depend on animals, plants and minerals for our very lives. So if they suffer, eventually we will too.
These are very hard teachings. And if it is too stressful hearing them from a Buddhist perspective, consider the 18th-century Quaker John Woolman, who wrote much the same thing from his study of Jesus and chose a life in which he would buy or use nothing the production of which profited slavery, or war, or the abuse of workers.
Of course, finally, we don't need a Buddhist monk or a Christian Quaker to tell us these things. We have Jesus' masterpiece: the Sermon on the Mount, his Path to Happiness — for those brave enough to imagine that God wants something as sweet as happiness for our lives and our life together.
Would you pray with me?