Faking Demonic Possession is Like a Mustard Seed (Commentary on Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52)

Although it is very sacrilegious and there’s quite a bit of profanity, one of my favorite books is Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. As you can gather from the title, it is a fictional account of Jesus’ life told from the perspective of Jesus’ best friend, Biff. It tells the story of Jesus as a boy and goes until the death and resurrection. Jesus and Biff go on many adventures to give background to how Jesus of Nazareth, preaches, teaches, like the Jesus of Nazareth that we come to know. The dialogue and banter of all the characters is amazing. But there is one interaction between Jesus and Biff that really connected me to this week’s Gospel.

Jesus and Biff are trying to sneak Mary Magdalene away from some Pharisees and so Biff concocts a plan to have Mary fake demonic possession so that she is seen as unclean and they can usher her away. After the plan works, Jesus (referred to as Joshua throughout the book) turns to Biff:

“I’ve got to think that that was unethical,” Joshua said.
“Josh, faking demonic possession is like a mustard seed.”
“How is it like a mustard seed?”
“You don’t know, do you? Doesn’t seem at all like a mustard seed, does it? Now you see how we all feel when you liken things unto a mustard seed? Huh?” (358-359)

Well, just like in Lamb, in this week’s Gospel text Jesus also tells a lot of parables that liken things to the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. And a hidden treasure in a field. And a great pearl. And a net that catches fish of every kind.

My favorite part about this text is the disciples’ response to these many Parables. Jesus goes on this list of parables (which also includes the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the weeds) and he asks them, “Have you understood all this?” and they answer… “Yes.”

YES! Really? You understand all of that? No extra questions or further advice? They answer: Yes.

Um, I’m going have to call B.S. on that one.

As disciples and seekers, ourselves, we too read and hear these parables and we desperately try to understand what they mean. In the parable of the weeds, are we good or bad? Are we going to be thrown into a furnace? In the net, are we good fish or bad fish? What does it mean that the kingdom is like pearl or a hidden treasure? Does is mean that it’s hard to find? Am I not looking hard enough?

And like the disciples, we just pray and hope that our interpretation is right, and we can just answer: Yep! We got it! Totally understand.

But, I don’t think that’s what it’s about. Earlier in Chapter 13, the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables and he says, “The reason that I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand (13:13).’”

When we hear these parables, it sounds as if there should be direct meaning with each one. ‘The bad and good will be sorted’ or ‘the kingdom is hard to find’ or ‘difficult to get into’. But, what if we’re really supposed to take a step back and embrace the simplicity and the multitude.

Each of these parables of Jesus describe such a different possibility of the kingdom. Each of these parables give us access to a different quality of God. Each of the parables point us, not towards looking at the heavens, but towards looking at the world around us. Appreciating the kingdom that has come but is not fully here.

I do not think these parables should call us to look beyond this time and place. Instead, they call us to look at the kingdom that is already around us. We are not in the 13th Chapter of Matthew. We live knowing the outcome of the story. We live knowing that the kingdom can be seen through the open arms of Christ on the cross.

It is through that lens that we can see this broken world anew and work to mend and repair this kingdom. Can we take root in this world and become the tree that gives rest and sanctuary to those who need shelter from hate, discrimination, and intolerance? Can we find those who are seeking and searching and invest in their lives to help them in every way that we can? Can we open our arms to all people, no matter where they come from, what their background is, or how they identify themselves?

If asked, do I understand everything that I’ve heard, I would have to answer with a huge resounding “NO!” And I think that is more than okay. But because of Christ’s death and resurrection out of unconditional love for all people we know that we are called to live into that kingdom of love and inclusion here and now.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, that started out as one person but grew to be a church that loves and supports everyone.

This isn’t the Mountain Top (Commentary on Matthew 17: 1-9)

This moment should’ve changed everything.

Peter, James, and John see Moses and Elijah.

Peter wants to build three tents for Moses, who delivered the Israelites from Egypt, for Elijah, the great Prophet of Israel, and Jesus, the Son of God.

Peter, James, and John hear the voice of God. They bow and cower in fear as God’s presence encompasses them in a cloud with a booming voice all around them. “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

They see Jesus, shining like the sun around them, reminiscent of Moses coming down from Sinai.

This is the moment that should have changed everything. This should have been the moment where Peter, James, and John, fully get it.

They should know forever that Jesus is the Son of God, the Beloved, the Holy One. They should know that he is the Messiah, the one that all of Israel has been waiting for. He is the one that will deliver Israel, deliver the world, because he is the Chosen one of God.

This is the moment when they should be changed and transformed forever!

But, they aren’t. The disciples see it all before them but in just a few chapters, they will forget what they have seen. They will turn Jesus over to the Roman soldiers, watch him stand trial, and watch him die. The disciples will hide in fear. Peter will deny that he even knows Jesus three times, even after all he has seen and heard.

The mountain top experience.

At my seminary, we call it our “call story.” In some traditions, it’s called the “come to Jesus moment” or the day that a person is “saved.”

The mountain top experience. It is the moment, or series of events in which it is so clear that God is present in your life. It is as though God’s light is shining all around you, and you are so sure that nothing will ever separate you from this awareness of God. Nothing will shake your faith. Nothing will ever make you doubt.

From that moment forward, you pledge to be the greatest Christian there has ever been and that you have been transformed and nothing can ever change that. Like Peter, you may see the beauty of the moment and you want to take a picture of it, build shrine for it, capture the magic of that moment forever.

And then someone cuts you off in traffic and you forget everything that you just said.

Like the disciples, some of us have climbed the mountain and we have seen the light, we have seen God in that one incredible moment in our life (or multiple moments), clear as the sun in the sky. But, like the disciples, we try to hold onto that moment and we can never quite get that feeling back.

And so, we may not come down off the mountain easily but instead we fall… hard. And we quickly end up worrying about ourselves or the things around us and Jesus moves to the back of our minds.

Some of us, may have never even had a mountain top experience at all and it feels like we were left down at the bottom with the other disciples, having no idea what other people are talking about with visions and seeing God or being changed or transformed.

For many Christians, the mountain top experience, the call story, seems so critical to who we are. Without it, where is God in our lives? It seems that we must have this transformational moment in our lives in order to say that we are truly Christian and that we truly know who Jesus is.

During my candidacy process, I had an advisor who would always give me the same advice after every meeting that I had with him. He would say, “The more time that passes, the harder it will be to see God in our call stories. Those stories cannot sustain us. It is only experiencing the death and resurrection of Christ every day that will sustain us and carry us through.”

It has taken me a very long time to ponder those words and think about what they really mean. But, I think that I have finally come to understand them just a little more… after all this time.

The transfiguration is not the mountain top. My call story is not the mountain top. These moments are not the mountain top that saves us or makes us into the perfect Christian.

The mountain top that really matters is Golgotha. It is the place that they called the Skull. The mountain top that really matters is on top of a hill outside of Jerusalem. The mountain top that will sustain us isn’t as beautiful as shining white light or filled with prophets of old.

The mountain top that saves us, that sustains us, is the lonely, dark hill of Good Friday.

It is Christ, the beloved, with arms extended, hanging from the cross, pierced in the side. The mountain top experience isn’t the one that looks the prettiest and makes us feel good. The true mountain top experience, is the one that shows us the unrelenting love of God.

It is in the moment of the cross where we see God, who loves us so much, despite how we fall and forget, suffer and die on a cross in order that we are transformed.

In Christ’s death and resurrection, we are transformed and changed, freed to feel the love of God. To not be burdened by our failures and mistakes but to give them to God so that we let God’s light shine on us and free us to be the people of God.

This is the mountain top of our faith. This is the real transfiguration. It is Christ’s open arms on the cross. It is the open tomb and the stone rolled away.

That is where we are transfigured and transformed.

Perfection (Commentary on Matthew 5:43-48)

“We will be perfect in every aspect of the game. You drop a pass, you run a mile. You miss a blocking assignment, you run a mile. You fumble the football, and I will break my foot off in your John Brown hind parts and then you will run a mile. Perfection. Let’s go to work.”

What a great scene. Coach Herman Boone is meeting his players in the gym as they are beginning training for their High School Football team in Remember the Titans. Coach Boone (played by Denzel Washington) demands perfection from these players from the outset of the season. Perfection.

Perfection is a word that many of us get caught up on. To some, it is paralyzing. To be perfect is impossible and yet we so eagerly feel as though we need to achieve it.

Perfect (as defined by Merriam-Webster) is being entirely without fault or defect or satisfying all requirements.

There may have been some of us that were then caught off guard by this week’s Gospel lesson. Jesus continues his Sermon in Matthew (5:43-48) and is speaking to love of not only our neighbors but our enemies, giving to everyone who asks to borrow something, turning the other cheek when we are struck. And to finish it all off Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Be perfect. Perfection.

This word perfect is translated from the Greek word τέλειοι which can allude to being mature and in this case, would speak to maturity of faith as an individual. Be mature in our faith and our understanding so that we show love rather than hate for our enemies and those that ask things of us. However, this word can also be translated as more of a sense of completion (to be complete) and that is where we can find immense grace in this passage.

Since we break the Sermon on the Mount into multiple weeks, I feel as though we lose track of to whom this sermon is given. As we preach, teach, and think about this text, it is so easy for us to hear this as individuals and get caught up in what we should and should not be doing, what we need to strive for and a need to be perfect and not to fail. When we hear this Sermon and take it in as individuals, it is just like the law of the Old Testament. A list of rules and regulations and that bar us from hearing the grace in God’s commands.

But, this passage is not given to individuals. He is speaking to his disciples, a community of people, a body of people.

What if this Sermon is not, “You as an individual, need to be perfect,” but it is, “You people, this group, this body, you all need to be perfect.” It is still daunting, but it changes the meaning.

It brings me back to the movie. The Titans are in the Championship Game. It has been a long hard fought season. The desegregation of the two schools resulted in the merger of one school where black and white students would learn together, play sports together, interact with each other. This led to a season of racial tension, fighting, scandals, cheating, and more conversations than either body had ever had before. And now, in the Championship, the Titans are losing to the legendary Coach Ed Henry and his all-white team (who have had none of those same problems) and it seems improbable that they will mount a come-back to win this game.

And so, Coach Boone talks to them at half-time, “It’s all right. We’re in a fight. You boys are doing all that you can do. Anybody can see that. Win or lose… We gonna walk out of this stadium tonight with our heads held high. Do your best. That’s all anybody can ask for.”

But Julius, one of the leaders of the team, responds: “No, it ain’t Coach. With all due respect, uh, you demanded more of us. You demanded perfection. Now, I ain’t saying that I’m perfect, ’cause I’m not. And I ain’t gonna never be. None of us are. But we have won every single game we have played till now. So this team is perfect. We stepped out on that field that way tonight. And, uh, if it’s all the same to you, Coach Boone, that’s how we want to leave it.”

Each of these students and coaches have slipped up, fallen, made mistakes, and failed, but together, as a team, they were perfect.

That is the beauty of Jesus’ statement to this group of disciples. As a group, they are perfect.

As a Church, a group of people, we can be perfect. At our best, a group can hold each individual accountable, can comfort them and lift them up when they fall. As a body of people, the church can love our enemies, give away what we have to those who need it, turn the other cheek and take the pain that results from speaking the Gospel in a world that has so much trouble hearing it.

The church is a body of people, the body of Christ. When we work as the Body of Christ to hold each other accountable, to lift each other up when we are down, to call out poverty, injustice, oppression, racism, sexism, heterosexism, both out in the nation and world but also within our own walls and in our own body, then we as a group, are perfect.

As individuals, we’re going to fail. As individuals, we are prone to sin and will fall. We have been told that, and we know that from life experiences. And I will not belabor that point further.

But, as a group, as a body of people that gathers together in the name of Jesus Christ, we are called to something greater. As a body, the body of Christ, we are called to be perfect. We are called to give our time, talents, and treasures, to the service of God. We are called to love our enemy. We are called to turn the other cheek. We are called to work against poverty, injustice, oppression, and voices that seek to destroy the humanity of others. We are called to hold each other accountable, call each other out, be there for one another, and see Christ in every living thing in this world.

People of God, be perfect and don’t try for anything less.

Do You Have the Courage to Take the Heat? (Commentary on Matthew 5:21-26)

These last few months have been difficult to grasp as they have flown by. This nation and this world have been turned upside down, flipped, and shaken. And through it all, Donald Trump is still the President, the division in the nation has not lessened, and there seems to be a rumbling underneath the surface of life that has everyone on the edge of their seat in anticipation of what will come next (good, bad, or tragic).

As I have been looking around and entering into conversation with different people from different sides, I have had incredible and terrifying conversations with people with varying political ideologies. But, this does not shock me. I am not shocked by my Facebook feed blowing up with political arguments. I am not shocked by the name calling and mud-slinging. I am not shocked by the division of this country and of this world.

What I am surprised by is the shocked comments and expressions that Lutheran pastors and seminarians around the US are giving when they write a political rant on their Facebook and they get lambasted for it. Instead of converting all of their Facebook friends to the same political stance, they are receiving harsh criticisms, debates, name calling, and mud-slinging with a side of, “Don’t shove your political ideologies down my throat, Pastor.”

Who told us that being a pastor was going to be easy? Who told us that people listened to the prophets of Israel? Because if you have heard those things, then I need to tell you, they are not true. Being a pastor is hard. Being a prophet is a death sentence (or at least a path to getting fired). There are plenty of Bible verses that are used to explain this, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown,” (Luke 4:24). But, I believe it is this past week’s Gospel that is a Word our Pastors need to hear and understand in this time and place.

Jesus says, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” (Matthew 5:22).

There are many commentators and critics of the Gospel of Matthew that struggle because so much of this section (The Sermon on the Mount) comes across as law and as intensification of the law that leads us to feel judged or enact judgement. But, these words (5:22) of Jesus are not a law or intensification, but a warning. A warning of the consequences of confronting those who disagree with you.

If you act in anger, for good or bad reasons, you will be liable to judgement. If you insult a brother or sister (or Pharisee) for good or bad reasons, you will be tried before the council (the Sanhedrin). If you call someone a “fool” or “idiot”, you will be liable to the fires of hell.

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is teaching and preaching to towns and cities about who God is and how community and love of neighbor is so important. But, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes cannot hear his words because all they see is Jesus breaking rules and regulations of the Jewish law. The Religious leaders are more concerned about the rules of Israel than about the people of Israel.

And so, In Matthew 23:17, Jesus calls the Pharisees and Scribes “blind fools.” And in a few chapters Jesus is being tried in front of the Sanhedrin. And within a few verses, this person who warned us about using these words is sentenced to die.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the author is speaking to a Jewish audience (probably in a land of Gentiles) and Jesus, a Rabbi, preaches this Sermon that is trying to calm their worries and tell them that the Law and Prophets are still very much important: “I do not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

But, when you look at this text then, Jesus is using this proverb on anger in order to tell a community to make peace when peace can be made; to reconcile differences when they can be reconciled; to restore relationships when they can be restored. But, sometimes, peace and truth cannot be heard by those that are causing the greatest harm and are using words of God to keep people out of the community, to enable corruption, to oppress those who are not in positions of privilege and power.

And so, 18 chapters later, Jesus realizes that he must speak the truth because the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, have all lost their ability to listen and see, and feel with their heart, and he calls them fools. Fools who cannot see the harm that they are doing and the pain that they are causing. Fools that cannot see their incredible misinterpretation of the love that God has for all people. Fools that are blind, deaf, and hardened of heart. And Jesus calls them fools, knowing that in saying this as a prophet and priest, he will be tried unfairly, and will be killed for speaking the truth.

In times of anger, can we make peace when peace can be made? Can we set aside our anger and our ego in order to reconcile with those we disagree with?

In times of conflict, do we have the courage to speak the truth and to call out those that cause harm in the name of God? And if we speak out, then have the courage to stand before those that will yell and call us names and hate us for the words that we have spoken?

And do we have the patience to recognize the difference?

As people of the church, our conversations, lesson plans, and sermons are going to have to be even more intentional in trying to reach each other and break through each other’s defenses. One prophetic sermon (or Facebook post) will not convert everyone to our understanding of the Gospel but more than one may send us packing.

Do we have the courage to take the heat?

The Church Doesn’t Need Change Leaders, It Needs Entrepreneurs

The church is dying. At least that is what many leaders of the church are saying today and statistics tend to agree with them. According to Pew Research, almost every Christian denomination in the United States has declined in population in the last decade and those trends are only going to continue to go down (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/). For a while, there was a state of panic in the church. Every magazine and blog post that was posted cried out at the dire situation— “What ever will we do?” “Is this the end of the church?”

Since those initial feelings and articles, there is still a lot of anxiety. However, now there is a different voice that is rising above all others—the voice of change. There are leaders of the church today that are calling out loudly for change, for something new. These voices say, “If we can change the church, then there is a chance to survive.” And of course that is true. If a business, industry, or system is not working then it either phases into nothingness or must change to become something different. However, how you go about that change is what will dictate survival and success.

Some of the voices are calling for the education of seminarians and current pastors to become “change leaders.” A change leader is someone that can energize groups to move toward change even if they may be hesitant to do so. In many ways, this sounds exactly like what churches need, right? A person that can motivate the older members of the congregations, council members, community members to change, to do something different and to do it now. However, here’s my question… A change to what?

A change leader is trained to be called into a church and immediately work to make changes as soon as they are in the door. But, that implies that there is a model that the leader is heading toward. Change leadership implies that there is a model of success. A model that will work to correct all the old congregations that have been losing members left and right over the last three decades.

But, there is no model. There is no one vision that solves all of the problems or a model that a change leader can immediately start working towards. If we are calling change leaders into parishes before there is a vision and model, then all we will see are congregations that hemorrhage any remaining members and any remaining finances that are left until the congregation is forced to close because they cannot keep the doors open. And ultimately we will sell the only assets that church has left—our property (and much of that has already been sold).

The church does not need change leaders (at least not yet). The church needs entrepreneurs. The difference is subtle but in the end, it makes every difference. An entrepreneur is hired not to immediately create change, but to re-envision. An entrepreneur is called to imagine new possibilities with what is in front of them. An entrepreneur is not looking to demolish the old or to change everything, but instead is taking inventory of everything that is possible with the resources that are provided. What are the possibilities with this congregation, with this worship style, with this building?

Instead of dismantling the people, the space, and the spirit of a congregation, an entrepreneur can re-envision that space to use every resource that is available. An entrepreneur can walk into an old building in an urban setting and see the possibility of a minute clinic or providing health services for underprivileged communities. They can walk into a large building of a suburban parish and see the possibility for a nursery school and kindergarten for suburban families looking for affordable childcare. An entrepreneur can walk into a church building in a hipster neighborhood and not see it as a dying worship hall but could see a basis for the beginning of a new bicycle worship community.

The church is not yet in need of change leaders. The church is in need of the new visions and creative spirits of transformative entrepreneurs.

Choosing Crossfit Over Church

Dr. David Lose (President of LTSP) has a very interesting presentation that he’s been giving about the nature of our church in relation to story. The idea is that the church as a whole is not well versed in the stories of scripture, and even further, individuals have not been able to articulate why church matters to them and why they have faith. I think it is a tremendous study and really has helped me to frame questions in a new way. However, one thing that struck me about his presentation is that Dr. Lose talks about how we are surrounded by stories. Books, Movies, TV Shows, Advertisements… Each is a narrative that takes us to a new place. The one thing Dr. Lose did not talk about, though, is the narrative and story of other communities. 

I think the church has gotten into a really bad habit of thinking that we’re above other communities. I have had many conversations about the struggles of getting the younger generations to attend church, and the concern is that, “if they don’t have church, they won’t be in community. You can’t just have a life on social media.” Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is this false idea that millennials only sit around on their phones hoping that someone will like their picture on Facebook.  Millennials have found communities… They just aren’t church.

In Dr. Lose’s presentation he puts up a powerpoint slide with a picture of two wine glasses. As he describes it, these wine glasses have different prices and tell a different story. The cheaper wine glass is $2-3 glass from Target. In it’s picture it is set in a very nice feng shui room. The glass tells a story: anyone can drink from this glass and be in a beautiful home surrounded with beautiful things. It’s the glass for everyone. The next wine glass that Dr. Lose shares looks a little nicer but then the price flashes up… It’s almost $70. This glass shares a very different story. The company that produces it has a slogan, “If the wine matters, so does the glass; it’s that simple.” This glass appeals to a very different crowd. It appeals to the wine connoisseurs who will look for the amazing elegant wine. And if the wine matters, the glass does too. This is for the exclusive crowd. This is for the exclusive elite. It’s that simple.

When I heard Dr. Lose say this, I thought I knew where he was going to go next but then he didn’t ask it… He didn’t ask the questions that was burning in my mind. Which glass is the church? Which glass are we? Are we the glass that is open to everyone? Or are we exclusive? 

We know the answer. We are exclusive. We are the most exclusive club in the world. We tell everyone that they are welcome but then we only offer worship for 1 hour a week, on the most sought after time in America (Sunday mornings), and expect everyone to fit us into their schedule. We expect them to come to us, to schedule around us. We somehow think we are this exclusive wine glass that will draw intrigue and attention from everyone around us… But instead, we’re declining, and rapidly. 

We are the most exclusive club in the world. And so that concern creeps up from us, “But how will those heathens have community? If they don’t come to church, they will be lost.” The truth is, they have a community and a far more welcoming one at that.

One of the fastest growing communities in the US is Crossfit. Crossfit is an intense workout regimen that is drawing in younger generations like crazy. The reason: Community. A Crossfit gym will offer a training session almost every hour of the day from 6am-8pm, 7 days a week. They are accessible. But as soon as you sign-up for a session and go, you are immediately paired with a trainer whose entire purpose is to focus on you to keep you safe and get you into great shape. It is an intimate community. Soon, the more you go, the more people you know, the more trainers you know. They ask you about how you’re doing. They learn about your family, cat, dog, spouse, neighborhood. Soon is an intimate community that actively cares about each other physically, personally, emotionally. When you can get that community on a Sunday morning… How does the church match up?

There are communities like Crossfit that are all around us: Whole Foods, Target, coffee shops, farmer’s markets, cooking kitchens, sports. They offer services that help the person to live healthier, live happier and to have a good time with others while doing it. (To see more in detail see Angie Thurston’s and Casper ter Kuile’s research “How We Gather,” (https://caspertk.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/how-we-gather.pdf )

When push comes to shove… The church does not make the cut against those communities. Although we say we are a welcoming place for all, we don’t offer an intimate community of healthy living at numerous times. We offer an exclusive gathering that thinks we can just draw others in through mystery and intrigue. Instead we’re just finding ourselves alone at our own party. 

So, how do we begin to see church in a new way? How do we remove the exclusive tag from our church signs but instead really embrace our common slogan of, “All Are Welcome!”? I think we need to find new ideas where we can offer healthful offerings, physical opportunities but most importantly, worship and programs at other times and days of the week that will suit the needs of others. We don’t need to be attached to this 1 hour on Sunday. We can reach people in a new way, at a new time, but with the same Spirit.