In our Gospel reading today we hear Jesus describing the kingdom of heaven with four short parables. Then, he turns to his disciples and asks, “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”
Up to this point, the disciples have not done very well trying to understand Jesus. Jesus told the parable of the sower to the gathered crowds. Then, as soon as the disciples get him alone, they ask him to explain the parable to them. The next day, Jesus is again teaching the crowds and tells the parable of wheat and the weeds. Again, as soon as they get Jesus alone and away from the crowds, the disciples ask for an explanation.
So I’m a little skeptical of the disciple’s answer. I imagine them looking at him with a mixture of confusion and worry.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed? Mustard is a weed that grows on the edges of fields. How can the kingdom of heaven be like a weed?
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast? How can that be? Yeast is consistently used throughout scripture as a metaphor for evil. The yeast Jesus was talking about was not the Fleishmann’s dry yeast that comes in a nice, neat paper envelope. Yeast in Jesus’ time was a rotting mass of flour and oil that would be mixed with flour to make bread. A baker would keep a jar of yeast going all the time, adding more flour, water and oil to the jar to keep it growing and active, and pinching off a lump each time he or she wanted to make bread. Yeast is messy, sticky, smelly stuff. What does Jesus mean comparing the kingdom of heaven to yeast?
Jesus teaches with these short, jarring parables, surprising us and challenging us to hear something new and different. Then he ends the lesson with a final parable that is about the disciples, and about us.
And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)
The scribes of Jesus’ time were the people who dedicated themselves to reading and learning from the scriptures. If we want to understand the scriptures, we have to be willing to find something new along with what is old. If all we do is to learn the accepted interpretations, we are closing ourselves off to learning something new.
There is something about religion that can bring out the most conservative thinking in even the most liberal of people. We hunger for certainty. We want to know the answers. We want to know the rules. We want to know how to pray, how to worship, and how to experience God in our lives. As soon as we find one answer to one of these religious questions, we hold onto that answer like a drowning man holding a life ring. We will hold onto the life ring even when there is a lifeboat floating nearby.
Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of heaven with parables because he wants us to let go of the life ring and get into the boat. The life ring will keep you from sinking, but the lifeboat will keep you from sinking and let you get warm and dry.
The kingdom of heaven is a way of talking about a life lived in faithful relationship with God. The Jews listening to Jesus already knew how to relate to God. The Torah, the 10 commandments and the laws of Moses, the Temple in Jerusalem, these were the ways that they related to God.
Jesus comes offering something radically different. In order to be heard by these people Jesus has to startle them. He has to use the old and familiar images in new ways. Jesus is offering a very new way of understanding the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is offering a new way of knowing and relating to God. Jesus is telling us all these parables about the kingdom of heaven because he wants to teach us how to live in loving relationship with God and with one another.
The traditions and practices of the past are important to us, but Jesus also wants us to be open to learning something new. Jesus wants us to learn to be open to the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So he tells us that we should be like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. Embrace the beauty of our traditions, but be open to new inspiration.
I see this at work every time I participate in a Bible discussion group. We will read a passage and then someone will ask a question. Invariably, the first answer will be very much like what we learned in Sunday School. The first answer is often what someone else told us that the scripture meant.
Take the parable of the net in today’s reading. One obvious lesson from this is that in the kingdom of heaven, the good and the bad will be judged. The good will be kept and the bad will thrown out. That sounds like another lesson about judgment after we die and go to heaven. When you get to heaven, you will be judged. You had better be good or you will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
If we look at what the parable actually says, and let the metaphor of the net and the catch speak for themselves, we find something more in this parable. First off, there is nothing here to indicate that the kingdom of heaven is somewhere else. There is nothing here about being judged after death. There is nothing here about waiting until we die to be judged or even waiting until we die to experience heaven. No, what we have here is a description of a net that catches every kind of fish and creature in the sea. The kingdom of heaven catches up all the fish, good and bad. God is indiscriminate. Everyone is caught up in the net of heaven. You don’t have to believe the right thing or even belong to the right religion to be caught up in this net.
Yes, it matters what you do. There is judgment. There are consequences for what you do and how you live. The good fish and bad fish are sorted. But there is more to learn from the parable of the net. There is something new for us to learn.
The surprise of these parables is that God yearns for us as much and more than we yearn for God. God is willing to risk everything to find you and to have you. And so the kingdom of heaven is like a net that gathers and includes and welcomes everyone. God’s great net will gather you in because God loves you and wants to be in relationship with you. God’s love and desire for you is even greater than your love and desire for God.
These parables are an invitation to live in the kingdom of heaven now. Are you yearning to be loved? Jesus has good news for you. God already loves you. Jesus is inviting us to live in loving relationship with God now.
One of the most beautiful and hopeful of Jesus’ miracles was his feeding of the five thousand. Something like that miracle has happened again, right here.
Jesus replied, "You Feed Them."
The feeding of the five thousand took place at a time when Jesus’ fame and notoriety was growing. Having just learned that John the Baptist had been beheaded, Jesus slipped away to a deserted place in a boat, but the people followed him. Seeing their great need, he had compassion for them, healed their sick, and taught them all day long. As the day was ending, his disciples raised a practical concern:
When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ (Matthew 14:14-16)
Can you imagine how the disciples must have felt at that moment? There were five thousand people gathered to learn from and be healed by Jesus. That’s a big crowd! And Jesus simply tells his disciples, “You feed them.”
As Christians, we follow Jesus, learn from Jesus, and strive to do his work in the world. In short, we are his disciples. Jesus is still telling us to feed the crowds. And just like the original disciples, we wonder how that can be done.
They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ (Matthew 14:17)
How can we few feed so many? How? Jesus, please tell us. How are we to do this?
And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ (Matthew 14:18)
Bring them to Jesus. Jesus offers the abundant love of God. Jesus offers to the hungry, and to us, that beautiful quality of life that is joyous even in the midst of struggle, grief and loss. Jesus offers love that we can participate in, that we can know, that we can experience and enjoy, and, most importantly, that we can give to others. So the disciples called out to the crowd of hungry people and invited them to come to Jesus. They gathered around, pressing in close to see what Jesus would do next.
Then [Jesus] ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. (Matthew 14:19)
“You feed them,” Jesus says, and so a group of disciples from St. Dunstan’s Church collected donations, bought a few fresh ingredients, and cooked a meal for the people of Tent City 3. We took the five loaves and two fish, blessed them with a prayer to God, supplemented them with donations from two Safeway stores, and fed the 104 people at TC3.
And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. (Matthew 14:20)
And when we were done, we gathered up what was left over, and there were even more than 12 baskets full.
...and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
This is our food bank collection box, filled to overflowing with donations beyond what we used for that one meal. These bags of cereal, spaghetti noodles, canned vegetables, mashed potato mix, and more, added up to 164 pounds of food. We delivered it all to the Greenwood Food Bank so that even more hungry people will be fed.
God’s love is truly abundant. As Jesus’ disciples, we are privileged to know that abundance. Even the leftovers are a blessing when we obey Christ and feed the hungry ourselves.
A while back, I attended a free concert with a friend of mine. We were sitting on the grass, enjoying a picnic dinner and waiting for the music to start. There was an elderly couple sitting in old fashioned lawn chairs in front of us and just as the music was about to start another couple joined them. This was obviously not a planned meeting. They were thrilled to see one another and exclaiming how many years it had been since they saw one another. As this reunion was going on another couple came up and all six of them were thrilled to see one another. They hugged and laughed as they set up their chairs in a circle. This excitement had been going on for a while when I heard a swell in the music and realized that we were missing the concert. We could not hear the music over their conversation.
My friend Greg and I discussed (quietly) whether we should ask them to be quiet or move to another spot on the lawn. This was the moment when we were confronted with a conflict and we had to choose how we would react.
In our Gospel lesson today Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The farmer finds out that someone has sown weeds among his wheat crop and he has to decide what to do. Now, in the NRSV translation the weeds are not named, but in other translations they are called “tares”. This is a variety of rye grass called the bearded darnel. Tares are indistinguishable from wheat until they are both ready to be harvested. Not only are the almost impossible to tell apart, the tares produce a toxic grain. To have wheat mixed with the seeds of the tares would make the harvest useless.
27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ (Mat 13:27-30)
The man chose to let the wheat and the tares grow together. He chose to live with the conflict, threat and uncertainty of the mixed harvest until he could be sure which was which.
Jesus is a powerful and wonderful teacher. That moment of decision when the man chose not to judge between the wheat and the weeds is rich with meaning. The moment of choice – the moment when we are aware of the weeds, the conflict, or our own fear – that is the moment in which we can learn the most if we are willing to stay there with the uncertainty rather than to rush to act or judge or fix. That moment is the turning point of this parable and the lessons and meaning of Jesus’ teaching emerge from that moment of choosing ambiguity over certainty.
I read a wonderful book by a Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, called, “When Things Fall Apart.” She refers to that same moment, that moment when the man chose to let the weeds and wheat grow together, as a great moment for learning.
Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.
To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path. (When Things Fall Apart, Pg 10)
There’s an old folk story that helps understand the value of living with our fears rather than rushing to judgment and resolution.
There was once a woodcutter who had a beautiful axe. His axe was a work of art with a beautiful gleaming head made from the best metals and a strong, elegant handle. He could cut more wood than other woodcutters in half the time with this axe and he was very proud. One day he went to his shed to get his cart and axe for a day of wood cutting and the axe was gone! He searched everywhere but there was no axe. He was forced to use an old, dull and ugly axe that day and the work took twice as long. That night, tired and angry, he sat in front of his house sharpening the ugly old axe when the neighbor’s boy passed by. The boy laughed at something and that made the woodcutter angry. “He is laughing at my misfortune!” he thought. The next night the woodcutter was making his dinner when he saw the boy pass by with his friends. The woodcutter thought to himself, that boy looks like a thief. He laughed at me. I’ll bet he stole my axe to sell in town and have fun with the money. I should talk to his father. But he didn’t do anything that night. He was too tired from using the dull old axe. This went on for days. Every time the woodcutter saw the boy, the more sure he became that he was a thief and had stolen the beautiful axe. The man convinced himself that he would confront the boy and his father that night about the axe, but first he had to cut more wood for his customers. He went out with the old axe to one of his favorite spots. As he entered the clearing to begin cutting wood he saw his beautiful axe stuck in a stump, right where he had left it the last time he came to this clearing. He was thrilled. The day went quickly and his spirits were high. That night he saw the boy passing by and his heart softened. The boy didn’t look like a thief at all. He just looked like a little boy.
At the concert Friday night, we decided to quietly move to another spot on the lawn rather than confront the noisy group. How can I know whether the 10% of the music that I missed because of their joyous greetings and conversation was more important than their little reunion? I might have ruined, or at least squelched, their enjoyment if I had interrupted them and asked them to be quiet. For all I know, I would have been the weeds in that situation and they the wheat.
We can’t tell the wheat from the weeds. We can’t even be sure we are the wheat and not the weeds much of the time. So Jesus teaches us to be patient, to be compassionate, and not to jump to judgment of others. The path of discipleship, of following Jesus, is a hard one; sometimes staying on that path means living with the weeds.
There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
On Sunday I lead our congregation in an exercise of reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness. We brought slips of paper on which we had written the burdens, disappointments, failures, embarrassments, things we wish we hadn’t done, and things we wish we had done forward, and threw them into a waste bin. Then I spoke the words of absolution from our rite for the Reconciliation of a Penitent (BCP 447). After the service I had the satisfaction of burning all those slips of paper to ash and watching the wind blow the ashes away.
This communal act of repentance frees us to be God’s beloved people, doing God’s work in the world. On Sunday we all wrote on a second slip of paper to answer the question, “What will you do now?” Now that you have experience God’s love and forgiveness, what will you do? Who can you now forgive? Who can you now reconnect with? What challenge can you now take on? What will you do now that you have experienced being the beloved adopted child of God?
I saw many answers to that question this week here at St. Dunstan’s Church. Each morning families have dropped off their children for our Vacation Bible Camp, filling the campus and building with the sounds of happy children. On Tuesday two staffers from the Christian radio station, Spirit 105.3, came and participated in the camp. Later that same day, ten volunteers, led by Josef, cooked our first meal for Tent City 3. 104 people were fed!
On Wednesday I walked the path of our new prayer labyrinth and enjoyed the beautiful stone bench that Ben and his troupe installed. What a beautiful addition to our campus! As I was enjoying the sun dappled bench, Bridget and her crew were starting work on the new landscaping around our Columbarium donated by Tom Keefer.
Later, on that same day I received an email informing me that the women of the St. Agnes Guild will be making a $500 contribution to the Camp Huston Campership fund to allow another child to go to camp this summer!
These are all such encouraging signs of what we are freed to do and be by God’s forgiveness and love. We are indeed creating a welcoming environment, both inside and out, where individuals can come together to walk in Christ’s love and forgiveness through worship, prayer, and service to the community.
Paul says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) And yet, we walk around carrying terrible burdens: Things we have done that we regret, things we have not done that we should have, failures we have suffered, embarrassments, doubts, and more. In this sermon I invite you to live in Christ and experience the freedom from condemnation that Paul promises. I began the sermon by placing a waste bin at the front of the aisle. I finished, after the service, with a fire in the parking lot.
I am very pleased to introduce you to a new member of our congregation, Brother John Ryan, OCP. John is a member of The Community of the Paraclete, an Episcopal Christian Community. He has been attending our services for the past month and after a couple of delightful meetings to get to know each other, he has accepted my invitation to join our congregation. John brings 20 years of experience as a hospital chaplain, a lifetime of experience as a religious, as well as experience preaching, and teaching.
John will be joining our healing prayers team to offer prayers and anointing for healing during the distribution of communion on Sunday mornings at our 10:00 AM service. He has also offered to teach a couple of adult education classes in the fall.
God is at work equipping St. Dunstan’s Church to be the heart and hands of Christ for the world. John’s gifts are a wonderful compliment to our own and I look forward to seeing what new ministries we will discover together.
You will also see a new addition in our narthex. John has given us a wood carved statue of the Angel Gabriel. We placed it on the small cabinet on the south wall of the Narthex for now. It is quite beautiful and should make a great addition to our Christmas decorations!
Be sure to introduce yourself to John and welcome him to St. Dunstan’s Church. He is a very friendly person with a great sense of humor. You can read more about him in his own introduction below. He will be attending both the 8:00 AM service and the 10:00 AM service this coming Sunday to introduce himself.
I began this sermon by placing a large, fancy, chocolate cupcake with whipped cream and a cherry on top onto the lectern next to my Bible. The notes below give an idea of what I did with the cupcake while while giving this sermon.
Sometimes we struggle to understand the stories or lessons in scripture. What does that mean? What does this have to do with my life? That is not a problem with today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:15-20)
Uncover the cupcake.
We can all relate to what Paul is saying. We have all eaten that extra dessert. We have all done things we wish we had not. We have all failed to keep promises or commitments to ourselves, or even to God. We do things that hurt others. We say things that maybe we shouldn’t have said. Who has not felt that little guilty thrill of telling one on a friend or acquaintance, or listening to someone else dishing?
I have put this cupcake here to illustrate Paul’s point. There is nothing sinful about a cupcake. But what happens when you decide to cut back on sweets, or you are dieting, or trying to eat a more healthy diet, and you come face to face with temptation like this?
Hold the cupcake up. Admire it. Describe it. Smell it. Hmmm…Chocolate. Put it down. Lick the frosting from your fingers.
Last week we talked about the purpose God has for each of our lives. As baptized Christians, we are the adopted children of God. We belong to God now. We are subject to God; obedient to God rather than to sin and lustful desires; or at least that is the idea.
I illustrated the freedom that comes from accepting our God given purpose by trying to turn a brick into a paper airplane. When we continue to live as though we are not the beloved children of God we are trying to make a paper airplane out of a brick. The brick has a purpose that does not involve flying, and our lives have a purpose that is about loving and being loved by God.
God’s purpose is what we learn from Jesus. Jesus shows us that what God wants is for each and every one of us to know that we are beloved of God. And God wants us further to know that we are to give that love away; through compassion, generosity, justice, service, prayer, and worship.
There is no point pretending that God does not love us. We are called to be God’s beloved children and to spread God’s love and compassion. And then someone says something you don’t like, or does something that irritates you, or simply cuts you off in traffic, and all that loving is out the window in a one-fingered salute!
The temptation, or simply the opportunity to sin, can be very subtle. You may be enjoying a chat with a friend, and you start talking about someone you both know, and one comment leads to another, and you are gossiping. You find yourself saying things you would never say to that person’s face. As long as you both agree, it feels all right. There is even a guilty pleasure in talking so freely about someone else.
When we are aware of our calling to be God’s children, and to do God’s work in the world, we want to – we want to be loving, generous, compassionate people – for the most part – but that desire is not enough.
That is the struggle that Paul is talking about. We want to do the right thing, but it is hard.
Casually, without making a big deal about it, pick up the cupcake.
I heard a great story that illustrates the struggle and shows how very normal our struggles can be. This story comes from Professor Rolf Jacobson. Rolf is a professor of Biblical Studies at Luther Theological Seminary and he has two children, a daughter and a son.
Begin to eat bits of the cupcake.
One night his family was having a talk about the Ten Commandments and his son, who was about five, was struggling to understand the concept of “coveting”. So Rolf’s daughter decided to explain. She said, “ Coventing is wanting something that is not yours. It’s like when you wanted our friend Michael’s Lego Battleship.”
“Oh, right. Now I understand,” said the son. Then he turned to his mother, who was keeping his Christmas wish list, and said, “Mom, would you put the Lego Battleship onto my Christmas list?”
In the same moment, Rolf’s son learned what coveting is and immediately coveted his friend’s toy. Coveting and lusting for things we don’t need or shouldn’t have is an easy example of what Paul is saying. Sometimes the things we should do are even more difficult than the things we should not do. In January and February the Gym is full of people keeping their New Year’s resolution to get in shape. By March, the crowds have thinned considerably.
This life that Jesus calls us to is not easy. If we cannot resist a cupcake, how are we supposed to devote ourselves to following Jesus: to worship, pray, study the Bible, and to serve and love others?
That is where today’s Gospel reading comes in:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-30)
We don’t have to do this alone. Jesus will share the burdens with us and help us. A yoke is meant to allow a horse or oxen to pull a heavy load without chafing or pinching. The yoke spreads the weight evenly across the shoulders. The yoke that Jesus offers, to take on the burdens of his way of life, is well fitted, and the burdens themselves are not great. Not only that, Jesus is right there beside us, sharing the burdens, wearing the other half of a double yoke, helping us with our struggles and burdens.
You are sitting in a room full of people trying to deal with these same challenges. All around you are people who are striving and struggling to follow Jesus, to learn from him, and to grow to be more like him each day.
That is what we are here for. We are all choosing, struggling, failing, and trying again, to follow Jesus. Offer your struggles and burdens to Jesus in prayer and ask him to help. Turn to the people around you here and share your struggles. We are all in this together and we can help each other.
Living the purpose that God has given us as his adopted children is not easy. But we are not alone. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!