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.

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. 

Walking With God is Exhausting

Walking With God is Exhausting

Day to day, my life can be pretty hectic. I generally have about 5 classes per semester, I work at Trinity Lutheran Church, Fairview Village anywhere between 20-40 hours a week and I work as a very part-time spiritual counselor at Martin Luther Silver Springs about 5-8 hours a week. Needless to say, I work a lot.

On top of my academic work, I also have my own personal requisites that need maintenance. I am an alcoholic and so I attend weekly 12-step meetings that help maintain sobriety. Along with this program comes other “work” as well. We believe in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous that the best way maintain sobriety is through a few things: a community that will hold each other accountable, through working the 12-step process (which is pathway to self-discovery in who you were, who you are, and who you can be through the guidance of a sponsor, prayer and meditation), and finally (and most importantly) by serving others in positive ways (especially those who share the same addictions we have and we can possibly help to find a new path). This is some of the most rewarding and spirit filled work that I know.

Then I have the many joys of my life. I have my relationships with loved ones near and far. I play board games or just spend time hanging out with the people I love. Occasionally I can just sit in front of the TV and watch a few episodes of Game of Thrones and just turn off my brain for a minute.

But it is amazing how through all of these relationships and varieties of work, I don’t often give space and time for just God. Now as a Lutheran with a fairly high spirituality, yes, I absolutely believe that God is with me 24/7 and is with everyone, all around us, constantly. But, how often am I actively listening? How often do I actually make “space” for God?

The truth is… never. I fill that space with everything else. I fill it with work, meetings, friends, movies, work, family, dinner, work, food, sleep, work… you get the point. There is space all around us but we fill it immediately before leaving it open for God.

Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God,” is often beat over the head so often that I think it has lost some of its meaning. And so, I have found comfort in a different passage that speaks to this “space.”

Isaiah 30:15 states, “By waiting and by calm shall you be saved; in quiet and in trust lies your strength.”

This weekend I went on a directed retreat up to the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA and I left space for God. I didn’t leave the space in the hustle and bustle all around me. I didn’t leave it in the kitchen where I know I’d be distracted by cooking. I didn’t leave it near all of my work that I had not yet done and would call my name as soon as I began to “seek” God.

I needed to actually get away and make deliberate time and space for God. I needed to get away from every distraction so that my heart and mind could truly be open to listening instead of trying to answer every other question.

The moment that I stepped out of the way and left space for God, God began leading me and speaking to me and guiding me in ways that I never thought possible. I walked 5 miles around a snow-covered property. I trampled through snow mounds and walked up and down hills, I looked out into the distance for hours. God led me through each path, showing me different things, showing me paths that had been paved and paths untrodden.

When I finally left space for God, God was there waiting to show me the way. But the way was not easy, it was often difficult to walk through and by the end, I was exhausted. I needed to kick off my boots, take a hot shower and breath. But, in that exhaustion, I had never felt more alive and I understand my calling more than ever.

“In waiting and by calm shall you be saved; in quiet and in trust lies your strength.”

Where to begin…

Disclaimer: I seek to be provocative. Therefore, it’s only fair that I can be challenged.

In a time, as the church, where there just seems to be so much that’s going on, so many unanswered questions, unknown paths and directions, and a constant state of worry and concern for the church’s future… Where do we even begin? How do we become unstuck and begin to move forward into the unknown that is the future of the church?

First, I’d like to say, thank you for reading. Second, I’d like to say that I do not intend for this blog to answer or fix any of those questions or to save the church. That being said… I would like to use this blog as a place to post my thoughts and perspectives on ideas that I’m hearing, on stories and scripture that capture my attention, and anything else that may call to me.

In my humble opinion, I believe the church will be going through a new “Re-formation” in the coming decade(s). To some this may come as no surprise. But, I believe now is the time for the entire church to be leveled and changed. I don’t mean that in a way to sound antagonistic or come across as an anarchist.

This state of the church reminds of Isaiah 5, when God speaks through Isaiah in a parable about a vineyard. In this parable, God plants a vineyard and does everything possible to make it grow. God chooses fertile land, digs and clears out all of the stones and brush, plants with the best vines and builds a watchtower to make sure that the vineyard is always looked after and cared for. God does everything necessary to make sure that it produces the best grapes. Nevertheless, the vineyard produces sour grapes. After all of that work… sour grapes.

God then explains that the only way to take care of this vineyard, is to level it completely… to destroy and burn it until nothing remains.

I think this thought and idea may come as a shock to many. How can we possibly level the entire church? Why would we level the entire church? I think the answer can be found in this parable in Isaiah. I believe we are doing amazing work in this church. I believe that there are such great things that come from parishioners, pastors, and bishops all around the world. But, despite all of our efforts, despite our hard work to clear the soil and plant the choicest vines, we are producing sour grapes. Our worship attendance is floundering, our programatic ministries are decreasing each day, we are closing churches left and right. Our vineyard is not producing the fruit that we expect. There is only one thing left to do with the vineyard…

If we hold on to too many of the old traditions, change will not work. God levels the vineyard because it is the only way to ensure that good grapes could come from the ashes. It has to be a new vineyard.

Now is the time to create this new vineyard. Now is the time to take our worship out of the buildings and to the streets and celebrate Eucharist (Communion) on the busiest avenues of our cities. Now is the time to lead worship services during protests and call for God’s spirit to enliven our souls so that we can make change for equal rights and privileges in this world. Now is the time leave Sunday morning behind us and bring the sabbath to our people on any day of the week, at all possible times and not force them to come to us.

Our backs are against the wall and if our trends continue, then we have nothing left to lose. Now is the time try something different. Now is the time to re-form the church for the future.

And so in this blog, I hope to keep writing about something different and trying new things. I hope to convey the radical Gospel of Jesus Christ in new or renewed ways. I hope to find a new beginning.