Jesus, the subversive

Note: At yesterday morning’s service, as I ended my sermon, an additional word about the appointed gospel (Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52) occurred to me, which I shared during announcements. It rarely surprises me when things other than what I intended to say come to mind, for I am a person of constant second (third, fourth, fifth, sixth…on and on) thoughts. I cannot recreate precisely what I said, but it was something like this…

Jesus launched a movement, going out into his first century world to share in word and deed the near presence of the kingdom of heaven, indeed, of God. The church, founded on Jesus’ life and labor, is an institution. Throughout human history, whatever the endeavor, in the transition from precipitating origin to permanent organization, something can be lost. At times, I wonder whether we, two millennia later, run the risk of domesticating Jesus, thus, losing any sense of his radical, revolutionary nature. Looking again at this morning’s series of five parables, I focus on the first three, for they reveal, expose Jesus’ subversive edginess.

Jesus, as a storyteller, as all good storytellers, employed familiar images and ideas, which his listeners readily recognized. Yet he frequently, outrageously turned those images and ideas on their proverbial heads, catching people unawares, arresting their attention. I picture Jesus leading us to a comfortable chair in which a long, sharp tack is embedded, inviting us to sit, all the while hoping we have not lost our sensitivity to new ways of thinking, of seeing our lives and world.

So, today…

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great tree where birds make their nests. No, it doesn’t! The mustard seed is small, but the mustard plant is no tree, but a weed (a shocking comparison when the fabled cedars of Lebanon would be a far better image!) that, spreading quickly, is difficult, impossible to uproot. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Leaven, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

The kingdom of heaven is like a woman (a shocking comparison in a first century patriarchal society!) mixing yeast (another shocking comparison, for yeast was an ancient symbol of unrighteousness!) in three measures of flour, which was a vast amount, yielding bread able to feed multitudes. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (c. 1630), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

The kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure in a field (so far, so good!) that a man finds, then hides (uh oh!), then sells all of his possessions and buys the field; all of which amounts to thievery! In Jesus day, a similar parable was in circulation. A man had a field with a buried treasure, but he did not know it. He died, bequeathing the field to his son, who later sold it. The buyer, plowing the field, discovered the treasure.[1] This version of the tale eliminates the immorality. Jesus, in his telling, retains it. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom! It is treasure, yet one, once found, that always calls, challenges, confronts us with choices between righteousness and unrighteousness.

Ah, Jesus, a storyteller with the soul of a subversive!

 

Illustrations:

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

The Parable of the Leaven, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (c. 1630), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

Footnote:

[1] Gospel of Thomas 109

the Sower sends sowers to sow

me preaching 1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23 and Psalm 119.105-112, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 16, 2017

Jesus tells a parable, an allegorical story, about the nature of his ministry, even more, the character of the kingdom of God.

Our gospel passage skips over several verses.[1] In the missing text the disciples ask Jesus, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” Doubtless, their inquiry is spurred by their own confusion and lack of understanding about the meaning of Jesus’ story. And his answer would seem to confirm their concern. For he says, in so many words, that parables are meant to fulfill a prophecy to blind the eyes and bewilder the minds of those who, perhaps haughtily, believe they already see and know all about God.[2]

Blessedly, for Jesus’ disciples and perhaps for us who, from time to time, may find his teachings mind-numbingly mystifying, he later explains or, as my daddy would say, “makes it plain.”

Jesus is the sower. The seeds are the proclamation, his proclamation in his words, his presentation in his deeds, that God’s kingdom – God’s realm, nature and character, being and life; all this and more! – is no longer away and apart, up there, out there, but has come near.[3] And, as in all things, the results vary. Sometimes the sowing, o’er two millennia and unto this day, is fruitful. Folk hear and receive the word of God, which, after the psalmist, “is a lantern to (their) feet and a light upon (their) path”, which takes root in their minds and hearts, souls and spirits and bears the fruit of faithful, gospel-living; their lives patterned after the one they follow, Jesus Lord and Savior. And sometimes or, perhaps more often, as three of the four types of soil Jesus mentions are unfertile, the sowing is unfruitful.

Given Jesus’ intense emphasis on the soils – despite ending in a good place, speaking of a harvest of thirty-to-a-hundredfold – this parable might be categorized as a rant. A fussy Jesus, adding to his other sayings about not casting pearls before swine[4] and shaking from the feet the dust of homes and towns where the word of God is not welcomed,[5] complains about the stubbornness, the obtuseness of the people.

However this story, again, is about the ministry of Jesus and the kingdom of God. Therefore the focus is on Jesus, the sower, who, far from prudent selectivity, profligately, extravagantly tosses the seed everywhere!

The Parable of the Sower, Harold Copping (1863-1932)

What, from a human point of view, is inefficiency at its wasteful worst is divine faithfulness at its best. For this, the word showered on everyone, everywhere, and whatever the state of receptivity, is a sign God’s unconditional love for all.

Therefore today’s parable is a summons to us, who, as good soil, have received the word, to follow Jesus into the world as sowers who go out to sow, proclaiming in our words and presenting in our deeds that the kingdom of God is near.

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Sower, Harold Copping (1863-1932)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 13.10-17

[2] The disciples asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”…The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will listen, but never understand, and you will look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes’” (Matthew 13.10, 13-15a; see Isaiah 6.9-10).

[3] According to Matthew’s gospel account, this was Jesus’ testimony at the inauguration of his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4.17b).

[4] Matthew 7.6

[5] Matthew 10.14

a call and a claim

a sermon, based on Matthew 9.35-10.23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Jesus called his disciples, before saying, “Follow me”,[1] declaring the purpose, the reason for the call, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is near.”[2]

Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

This same good news he sends them out on a missionary journey to proclaim. But his accompanying instructions are hardly as appealing. A declaration dripping with danger: “I send you as sheep among wolves.” Then a mystifying, difficult (impossible?) to operationalize message: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Then a terrifying statement: “Beware…you will be beaten…and dragged before rulers.” Then a consoling, but, given what has been said, confusing word: “Don’t worry.”

Jesus, the way you treat your friends it’s a wonder you have any followers!

Now, in Jesus’ time and in the historical context of Matthew’s gospel, a half-century after Jesus when the church was under persecution, these words of warning were necessary. To go into the world with his counter-cultural, contra-status quo message of unconditional love and justice inevitably would lead to trouble with secular and religious authorities. And Christian conversion could erupt in discord within one’s family.

Moreover, Jesus’ message of hardship was part of a prophetic tradition woven into the cultural and spiritual fabric of his people’s understanding of what happens when one stands up, stands out in the name of God.

Still, what sense do we make of these biblical insights into the hard texture of discipleship?

In our day and time, Jesus’ words seem, sound alien. Mainline American Christianity, in which the Episcopal Church is firmly rooted, generally knows little about bold prophetic proclamations that provoke persecution. Verily, there have been historical moments when Christian reticence to speak in the public square from the stance of faith to the raging cultural, political, and social issues of the day justifiably has led to the charge that the church is a non-prophet organization! However, our Christian sisters and brothers in some regions of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East can testify to the truth of Jesus’ words. To be his disciple can and does put them in direct, at times, violent confrontations with governments and the followers of other faith and secular traditions.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can attest to the vivid reality of Jesus’ warning that proclamation brings trouble, particularly in the recent past and current generations when the divisions between conservative and progressive Christians have been and are so pronounced; the right denouncing the left as so inclusive and relativistic that it stands for nothing and, indeed, is no Christianity at all and the left decrying the right as narrow and doctrinaire, far from Jesus’ all-embracing love.

Today, putting all this aside, I focus solely on Jesus’ message. For if we take it and him seriously, there is, in his instructions for the missionary journey, an unmistakable and immutable call and claim on any, every disciple, of any and every age, in any and every age. A call to us, a claim upon us to go forth into the world – and, in the concrete daily circumstances of our lives, through our profession in word and deed of God’s love and justice – proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near.

 

Illustration: Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.19

[2] Matthew 4.17a

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 15, Friday, March 17, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On Kingdom to “Kin_dom”: O Jesus, how I love You and Your Kingdom! Still, You know that for years I’ve prayed and preached using the word “kin_dom” (always begging Your pardon for my impertinence!).[1] Yet You know I’ve never meant any disrespect, but rather alway intend the highest act of honoring You and Your call to me to follow You, to see You more clearly. For You, as I have come and continue to come to know You, through Scripture and through the daily revelations of Your Spirit, are alway less monarchical and more relational; less One to lord Your superiority over us and, as You manifest Your supremacy in Self-sacrificial service, more One to share Your saving grace with us; less King and more Kin.

O Jesus, if You don’t mind, I’ll continue to pray to You saying, “kin_dom” (though, yes, when I read Your Word in public worship, I’ll stick to the text and say “kingdom”), for as I, through the strength of Your Spirit, continue to follow You, more and more, I see that You call me to be kin, too, to all people of whate’er race or clan, culture or creed, philosophical disposition or political determination, and at all times.

O Jesus, this is a hard calling; the sort of which that can get one killed, if not literally, surely metaphorically, though no less truly in self-denial, dying to one’s self in the face of difference, at times, dissent. But, then again, You already demonstrated the extent – unto death – to which Love goes in loving.

So, O Jesus, in Your Name and for Your Sake, kin I am to and for the whole world. Amen.

Footnote:

[1] The first time I used the word was in a sermon entitled Kin_dom on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2000. Based on the appointed gospel, Luke 3.1-6, recounting the ministry and message of John son of Zechariah, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” , I preached, in part: “John’s vision…is…about the coming kingdom of God  (although I prefer the word, “kin_dom”, being less monarchical and masculine, more relational and inclusive). A world of righteousness, right relating; justice, fair dealing; and compassion, shared living in suffering and joy…”

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 14, Thursday, March 16, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news” (and) “Follow me” ( Mark 1.14-15, 17a)

On the Kingdom of God: O Jesus, You came proclaiming that in You, Your life and Your ministry, God’s Kingdom had drawn nigh. Still, the Kingdom seems (at times, I fear, is) afar off. Kingdom-evidences in this strife-torn, sorrow-worn creation are sometimes hard to see, at least, for me.

Yet, blessedly, O Jesus, guided by Your gospel-light, with the spiritual sight of imagination, Kingdom-visions are not hard for me to seek. With the eyes of faith, I behold banquets where none hunger and all are welcome; festivals where none are poor, all attired in silken robes of equality’s wealth; where shackles lay shattered and prisons uninhabited, for liberty’s economy hath bankrupted all criminality and made charity the universal coin of the realm; where hospitals stand shuttered and dark and graveyards empty, for sickness and death are no more.

Ah, O Jesus, hearing again, hearing alway Your call, “Follow Me,” I see anew that I, in the strength of Your Spirit, in my daily being and doing, am to help usher in Your Kingdom-day; in the hungry and naked, the imprisoned and the stranger, the sick and dying, feeding and clothing, visiting and welcoming You.[1] Amen.

Footnote:

[1] See Matthew 25.31-40: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

my Lord, what a morning!

thinking

a personal reflection on inauguration ceremonies and the Women’s March on Washington…

This morning, I watched the live television broadcast of the inaugural prayer service. In commemoration of Donald John Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States and America’s praised and prized peaceful transfer of power, a few thousand folk gathered under the towering pointed arches, flying buttresses, and ceiling vaulting of the Washington National Cathedral. There, for an hour, they listened to numerous voices praying and singing in varied traditions of faith and hymnody, all celebrating the glories (and summoning all people to recommit to the promotion of the causes) of peace and justice.

This morning, I also watched and through this day continue to watch live news coverage of the Women’s March on Washington (and around the globe!) as hundreds of thousands (millions?) of women and men gather to proclaim that “women’s rights are human rights”, to protect the dignity of women and girls of all ages, anywhere and at any time, and to protest any infringement on the sanctity and security of women’s rights. And, as is true of all marches to (and all marchers who) proclaim, protest, and protect, numerous are the causes, varied are the interests that call people forth. Hence, under the towering, flying, vaulted banner of women’s rights, many peoples and concerns gather in blessed solidarity; among them, Native Americans and colored folk, immigrants of whatever legal status, those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexual, and asexual (acronymically rendered as LGBTQIA) – in a word, any and all who historically have been and unto this day are marginalized, thrust to the widening circumference of our society far from the centers of power and influence and, thus, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, disenfranchised, divested of their Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In the words of that grand Negro spiritual:

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning

When the stars begin to fall.

You’ll hear the trumpet sound,

To wake the nations underground,

Looking to my God’s right hand,

When the stars begin to fall.

This song is a commemoration of God’s deliverance; a celebration of the coming of that eschatological end-time when sin and death, hate and war, discrimination and oppression finally are defeated. Still, in this day and time, when all is not right, when sin and death, hate and war, discrimination and oppression are ruefully alive and unrepentantly unwell, I think, feel that “morning” can be supplanted by “mourning.”

On this day, in prayer and song, by watching and marching, I commit anew to live and labor so that, even in this world, before God’s Kingdom come in its glorious fullness, mourning’s veil is lifted, however slightly, by the morning’s dawn.

O God, Thy kingdom come?

O’er these past few days – provoked, perhaps in equal parts, by my slower-than-I’d-like recovery from surgery, the seasonally mood-affecting, melancholia-inducing dreary winter skies, and my quintessential and abiding inner psycho-shadow world of pessimism – I’ve been dwelling a lot on the pain and sorrow of this world.

Early this morning, I had a dream or perhaps a semi-conscious alternate-vision that, upon fully awakening, continued to speak to me in the following meditation on Luke 14.12-14.

I turn away from the world;

my eyes tired,

my vision teared

by the avarice,

malice

and all-too consequent sadness

I see.

 

Adrift on the rhythmic pulsing of my yet hopeful heart,

I fantasize,

visualize

a far off place…

 

There!

 

Where

the poor & bloated-bellied hungry,

who e’er are the last and least,

at banquet tables feast;

and this world’s finest and first

make haste

to offer service,

treating them

as royalty,

at their feet, genuflecting, calling them,

“Your majesties!”;

who, though alway too humble by half,

unwilling to suffer the obeisance of eternal equals,

bid their servants join them at table…

 

Where

the broken-bodied gambol through verdurous fields;

their disabilities

yielding to everlasting energies…

 

Where

the blind stare unblinking

admiring

their reflections

sans all imperfection;

their mirrored smiles confirmation

of their long-harbored, secret conviction

that they’d like the way they looked

if e’er they, as now without end, could see.

 

But here

in this world, there –

save for bright-hued visions

of imagination,

the hopeful phantasms of my soul’s desperation –

remains a far off (inaccessible?) destination;

perhaps no terminus at all, for one can’t get there

from here.

 

Then I think, no, I was, I am blessedly wrong,

for there

is ne’er

far off, but alway near,

and truly appears,

however partially,

here

whene’er

I or anyone acts,

however imperfectly,

on faith

in God that Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done

on earth.