Sunday, March 12, 2023

Seeking: Who is invited?

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad, so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” --Matthew 22:1-14 (NRSV)

Wow. Just wow. Okay. So, who would like to interpret this parable this morning?

Before we dig into this text in earnest, there are a couple of things I’d like to mention. 

First, we have to be careful not to jump too quickly into the allegorical interpretation. An allegory is a story or picture or poem that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, usually a moral or political meaning. It’s important for us, especially with Jesus’ parables, that we first look closely at the story, before we jump to trying to figure out its allegorical meaning. We try to understand what is going on, first, because doing this can then help us draw out its meaning for us. 

The second caution is about hyperbole. 

In Matthew, in particular, Jesus’ parables contain a lot of hyperbole, of exaggeration. If you think about the community that Matthew is writing to, a community some 50 years after Jesus ascended that has been tossed out from their religious and social community, it might be easier to understand that, as Matthew captures Jesus’ parables, there is an edge to them. Whether it is anger or cynicism, Matthew’s Jesus exaggerates. For far too long, the church has used scripture, including this parable, against the Jewish people in a way that encourages anti-Semitism. Jesus’ parables contain a lot of hyperbole - exaggeration. Why? To catch the reader’s attention. To draw them into the story. Sometimes, to shock them. To drive home a point. Does that mean, then, that we should take Jesus’ parables literally? Probably not. But, we also should not miss the point. We should take it seriously.

So, what do we first see in this story? We have a king who is inviting guests to a banquet. But, even before this, we have this opening phrase: Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables…” So there are other parables that have been told before this one to “them.” If we back up into chapter 21, we see that Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem. We’ve skipped ahead because we will read this on Palm Sunday. 

The first thing Jesus does is to go into the temple and overturn the moneychanger tables. Then, Jesus curses the fig tree. This is an irritable Jesus we see in chapter 21. Soon, the religious leaders confront him and challenge his authority to teach in the temple. This is followed by two parables that are spoken directly to the chief priests and elders. And not in a good way. By the end of chapter 21, they want to arrest him. But, they are afraid because Jesus is so popular - thought by the crowds to be a prophet.

Then comes this parable in our text today, spoken to "them" - the chief priests and elders.

Now, something else you need to know is that in ancient times it was the custom to invite guests to a banquet in two phases. First, messengers would be sent to the guests, several days in advance, to invite them. And to tell them to be ready at an approximately time. The second invitation would be sent when the feast was ready. The guests were now to come. 

It appears that, in the story, we first learn about this second invitation. So, those invited have had fair warning to make sure they are available to attend. But, they violate the ancient rules of hospitality by refusing to come, something close to rebellion. Then, asked again, two of the invited guests walk away to go back to their business affairs. Others seize the servants, attack them and kill them. 

Is it any wonder that this king is furious? Wouldn’t, if something like this happened in our day - wouldn’t there be repercussions?

But, there is still a wedding feast waiting. So servants are once again sent by the monarch into the streets to invite everyone they can find. Good and bad. And they gather them into the wedding hall to begin this great feast. 

Maybe, up to this point, we kind of get this story. It’s about invitation and hospitality. About how God invites everyone, good and bad. And about some - particularly privileged - who simply ignore or even refuse God’s invitation. Or worse yet, seek to harm God’s servants.

But, then, we get to the last part of the story. 

Who can make sense of this? How could it be expected that someone gathered up off the streets into the great hall would need to wear a special garment, much less even own one?

What we need to understand is that traditionally the king would have had appropriate garments ready for his guests. The individual did not put on the garment provided - perhaps even refused to put on the garment,, thus, shaming the king. He is cast out not because of who he is, but because of what he chooses to do. Or not to do. In this, he dishonors the king.

So what does this mean for us? (Now, we get to the allegorical interpretation.). There are likely many meanings to this parable. But, perhaps one interpretation is that this is about “cheap grace.” We’ve talked about this before. This is a phrase first written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the years leading up to the second world war, as he and others tried to engage the broader church in stopping Hitler and his movement. Cheap grace, as he writes, is a grace without repentance. Or sacrifice. And, ultimately without a cross. It’s accepting God’s invitation, but refusing to “put on the garment of faith,” as Paul puts it. To truly live as one of God’s people. To do the work of discipleship - prayer, fasting, giving to the poor. Standing up to evil and power, especially when it is harming those whom society has pushed to the edges. It’s refusing to put in our time or energy or resources to serve God. It’s refusing to sacrifice. 

To be a disciple requires costly grace. Because it calls us to fully follow - to follow Jesus Christ. This kind of grace is costly. Because it cost Jesus his life.

So where are you in your Lenten journey? Have you, three weeks in given up on any fast or practice you decided to take on? Why is that? Or, perhaps, you have remained steadfast. How might this practice be more fully incorporated into your life as a disciple beyond Lent?

May we, this Lent, accept God’s invitation to the wedding banquet. But, may we also willingly put on the garment of costly grace. The garment of sacrifice. The garment worthy of the bridegroom himself - Jesus Christ, Son of God.


Preached Sunday, March 12, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Lent 3
Readings: Matthew 22:1-14; Psalm 45:6-7

Seeking: How are we to live?

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last." --Matthew 20:1-16 (NRSV)

On Thursday night, at Third’s council meeting, we dwelled in this story for a while. One of the first questions I asked was how they had heard this parable interpreted. Or what meaning they understood it to have? 

As I began my study of this text, I was once again reminded that this parable has been interpreted a myriad of ways throughout the past 2,000 years. I came across at least 8 different interpretations and several that were spin-offs of these eight.

So, I’m curious. And I’m going to ask the same question I asked the council on Thursday night to you. Here and now. How have you heard this parable interpreted? What do you understand it to mean? 

Yesterday, in our Saturday morning study, we talked about how who interprets Scripture has changed over the centuries. The interpretation of Scripture began as an oral tradition. Within communities. But, during certain times over the past 2,000 years, as people became more illiterate, the job of interpreting scripture was turned over to the “experts.”  Do you consider yourself an “expert?” I wonder, for many of us - myself included for a very long time - how many of us, because we don’t think we are experts, then rarely pick up our Bible to read it, much less understand it. Maybe that’s true for you. Maybe not.

Today, you and I - together - are going to exegete this text. To exegete means to draw out. You are I are going to try to draw out the meaning of this text. For us, for this community. We’re going to let go of any other interpretations we’ve read. We’re going to draw out the meaning of this text for this community. Right now. Together. In this place. 

But, first, to dispel some of your fear, we’re going to have a little fun. I need eight volunteers. 

Who wants to be our first storyteller? This person will start the story by saying one sentence that begins with the words, “Once upon a time…”. They must use the word that they received in their sentence. The next person in line will continue the story by adding one sentence that must contain the world they drew. This will continue until everyone has added to the story. The last person should end with the words, “The end.” Ready?

This story was certainly different from what we could have expected, wouldn’t you agree? There were twists and turns and things maybe felt a little unpredictable. As we study and learn parables, we realize that God’s kingdom often flips things around, catching us off guard. Jesus’ parables were meant to have twists that surprised the listeners, including us. Twists that highlighted the fact that God’s ways are often different from our own. Different from what we might expect. They’re also a little unpredictable. For example, the early workers in today’s story thought they knew what would happen, but they ended up surprised. And a little grumpy.

So, let’s work our way carefully through this text. What are some of the things you notice? Is there anything you wonder about this story? 

As we get near the end of the story, we hear from the workers who were first to arrive. It seems that they felt that the landowner was not being fair. 
  • Do you agree? Or disagree? Why or why not?
  • Think about a time when something happened that felt fair. How did you feel?
  • Now think about a time when someone was surprisingly generous, especially when they didn’t have to be. What did that feel like?
  • Do you think we focus more on generosity or fairness in our society?
  • What is Jesus trying to teach us about the kingdom of God in this story?
We live in a world that teaches us scarcity. That there is not enough, for us, for everyone. This teaches us a mindset of scarcity that leads us to believe that we have to get what we can for ourselves and for our families. That we never have enough. Or that we cannot produce or do enough. That we are just not enough. It is a vicious cycle that just grinds us into the ground and leads to jealousy, resentment, to coveting that which our neighbor has or is. 

Friends, you and I are enough. You and I have enough. 

Every Sunday we pray to God to “Give us this day our daily bread.” God promises to give us what we need each day. Just as God ensured that each one of these workers had a day’s wage. Not a year’s worth. Or a month’s worth. Or even a week’s worth. But a day’s worth. Because, that is what God promises to provide us. Because God is generous. Because, God promises to care for us. Because God has provided enough for us and for all people. Because God loves us. 

In turn, God invites us to be generous. To let go. To share with others. And to trust that we will have what we need. Always.

May God grant that we learn to trust in God's generosity and, in turn learn to be generous as well. Amen.

Preached Sunday, March 5, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Lent 2
Readings: Matthew 20:1-16; Psalm 16:5-8

Seeking: How are we to forgive and be forgiven?

“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.

“When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’

“Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.

“When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.

“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” --Matthew 18:15-35 (CEB)

I’d like you to think, for just a moment, about how stories help us to picture and imagine things differently than simply hearing someone state an explanation or a rule. As we heard last week, Jesus often uses stories - or parables - to teach. We’re going to have a little fun this morning. I invite you to turn to a neighbor or two and together brainstorm as many parables from the Bible as you can think of in three minutes. Select one person to write them down as you go. Hint: We heard three of them in last week’s reading. Ready? Set. Go. 

Why do you think Jesus chooses to use so many parables in his teaching? Many of Jesus’ parables begin with the words, “the kingdom of God is like…” Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples what life is like in God’s kingdom.

As we continue through the Sundays of Lent, we will be discovering many different glimpses of God’s kingdom. We’ll be asking a lot of questions about these to try to understand how we might learn to live these ways in our present time to help make this community and, then, our broader lives, a little more like God’s kingdom as we await its fulfillment. God will bring the kingdom fully, but we can make our spaces look a little more like it each day. 

Today, Jesus is talking about forgiveness in the kingdom of God. And, particularly, about forgiveness within community. When I use the word “community,” how do you understand that? What are some of your communities? Allow time for responses. 

Matthew, the gospel writer, was writing this for his specific community. It was a community that was under stress. Mostly Jewish, they had been cast out of the temple, out of an entire way of life. On top of that, they were experiencing the very real possibility of persecution. So, part of Matthew’s goal in narrating this parable from Jesus is to help his community learn how to be in relationship with one another, even in the midst of these major stressors.

It begins with civility. I’d like to read a paragraph from a book written by Gilbert Rendle. He is a church consultant who works with resolving church conflict. This is what he writes in the opening introduction to his book, entitled, Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences

My work as a senior consultant with the Alban Institute regularly puts me into working relationships with congregations that are experiencing conflict and in which members exhibit behaviors which stand in contrast to my understanding of the teachings of their faith. I have witnessed small groups in which some members demand that other members leave the room because they do not trust speaking in front of them. I have interviewed congregational members who have leveled accusations against others based not on what they themselves have experienced or witnessed but rather on hearsay information repeated and embellished by friends whose personal preferences were not being met. I have worked with a congregation in which very wealthy and powerful members of the governing board held a formal victory party in the home of one of the leaders to celebrate their success in forcing their rector not only out of the church but out of town as well. He was sufficiently hurt and damaged that he would tell no one, not even his bishop, where he had gone. I have counseled with clergy who have considered or chosen to take legal action against their governing boards, casting all blame on the board rather than accepting their part in a difficult relationship that would require change and the seeking of forgiveness in order to be productive in ministry.

Do any of you know any congregations or clergy like that? (It may be too scary to answer that.) And, now, a harder and, honestly for me, a scary question, do any of you experience any of that here? Or with me? (If your answer is yes to that question, I encourage you to speak to me.)

Rendle goes on to add this: 

Although my relationship as a consultant makes me privy to more extreme examples of uncivil behavior than others who live and work in congregations, all clergy and laity commonly encounter behaviors that fall short of faith standards. I suggest that such behaviors are rooted, in part, in an inheritance based in cultural and congregational assumptions that we are now beginning to understand. Chief among those assumptions is the current notion that as individuals we do not have to defer to the need of the larger group, be it family, congregation, or community.

This book was first written in 1989, then updated in 1999 - nearly 25 years ago. I’m wondering, if we look at our world today, has much changed? Do we demand that our individual rights, or individual beliefs, are more important than communal rights or beliefs? 

What is the goal of conflict? That may seem an odd question, because I don’t think we often consider that there is a goal to conflict. The goal of conflict is reconciliation. Reconciliation with one another so that the community may be whole. Always. That is God’s definition of justice. When there is conflict within community or between community members, the whole community is impacted.

So, what do we do when we experience hurt from another? Jesus gives us a clear cut path. In fact, Jesus orders this clear cut path. First, we go to that sibling to address it. In other words, we don’t go on social media. We don’t triangulate - meaning we don’t go complain about that person to anyone else. We don’t even go to the pastor. We go to that person who has hurt us. And we try to reconcile with them. Period. Notice that, in our text, when 2 or more are gathered, Jesus says he is present. So, if we believe that, how might it change how we approach the person who has hurt us, knowing that Jesus is standing beside us in that conversation? Or how does that change our response if we are the one who has caused the hurt?

But, the direct approach may not always work. So then, Jesus tells us to take one or two community members with us to speak with that person. To try to find reconciliation. 

And that may not work. It is then to be reported to the entire community. And, if that doesn’t work then, as Jesus says, you should treat them as you would a tax collector or Gentile. But not so fast. Anyone remember how Jesus treated tax collectors and Gentles? That’s right. He took them to lunch. He didn’t cut them off. He took them to lunch. What does that say?

Our relationships matter. Here in this community and outside this place in your other communities. They matter to God, so they should matter to us. 

There’s a flip side to this conflict resolution that we also have to notice - the entire point of the parable Jesus tells. It’s about forgiveness. When we go to someone who has hurt us. And when (notice I said when) - when they acknowledge that they have hurt us and they repent and seek forgiveness from us, we are to forgive them. It doesn’t mean that, depending on the deepness of the hurt, it will happen immediately. In cases of abuse, it may take a lifetime. But, we, if we have been the victim of harm, are also called to do the work of forgiving. Not just within ourselves, but with the perpetrator of harm. As difficult as that may be. To not forgive is to keep ourselves trapped in the effects of the harm. Or as Marjorie Thompson writes, “Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.” 

Because, ultimately, what is at stake here isn’t just a matter of debt and repayment, or sin and forgiveness, but the balance and integrity - the authenticity - of the community. Because this is the example we have from our Creator. Mercy. Or grace. Which is the thread that holds the kingdom together. 

One final note: In Hebrew there are something like five different words for sin. All different types of sin. But, one of those words defines the sin of not believing you are forgiven. I dare say that some of us - perhaps, many of us - have difficulty believing that we are forgiven by one another. And, even more so that we are forgiven by God.

May we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, live into forgiveness and into being authentic followers of Jesus as we build these authentic communities of faith. Amen.

Preached Sunday, February 26, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Lent 1
Readings: Matthew 18:15-35; Psalm 32:1-2

Seeking - Hard Questions for a Deeper Faith: Is This the Fast I Choose?

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Then he called a little child over to sit among the disciples, and said, “I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

“As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and be drowned in the bottom of the lake. How terrible it is for the world because of the things that cause people to trip and fall into sin! Such things have to happen, but how terrible it is for the person who causes those things to happen! If your hand or your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life crippled or lame than to be thrown into the eternal fire with two hands or two feet. If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life with one eye than to be cast into a burning hell with two eyes. --Matthew 18:1-9 (CEB) 

When my son, Michael, was little, we often had our best conversations before and after I went to work, as I would drive him back and forth to preschool. At one point - about the time he was 3 years old - he began to ask questions. A lot of questions. Endless questions. (Perhaps you have had or are currently having that same experience. Or perhaps you are the one asking those questions.) 

Why is the sun in the sky? He might ask. Because, God placed it there to give us warmth and light during the day. Where does it go when it’s cloudy? It doesn’t go anywhere. The clouds are just covering it up. Where do clouds come from? You get the idea. Questions. A lot of questions. Endless questions.

Today, we begin the season of Lent. We are leaning this year into a theme, entitled Seeking: Hard Questions for a Deeper Faith. I will be asking you a lot of questions. They may, as with my son, feel endless. Yet, asking questions is important. More on that in a little bit. 

So, of course, our text tonight opens with a question. Not a question asked by a child, but by adults. By Jesus’ disciples. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? I’m not sure there was any ill intent underneath this question. Unlike in the other gospels, there are no disciples that seem to be jostling for power. It is a question asked out of a very cultural framework. An expected way of being that has been learned as part of becoming an adult. That having different status in the world or in a community or among the disciples is just the way it is. 

Notice that, instead of answering them right away, Jesus first calls a little child over to sit among them.

For you and I, while this may see a little unusual, for the disciples it was likely a little scandalous. In the ancient world, righteousness was typically centered on an adult, male worldview. Children were not considered part of the social, religious, or economic world. They were considered insignificant. Especially vulnerable to disease. And hunger. And marginalization. They were seen as being incapable of rational thought. Often viewed with suspicion and seen as being prone to violence and unpredictable outbursts. (Think toddler tantrums.) This behavior strongly contrasted with the preferred norm of an orderly adult. Because of this had no status in this world. None. 

So, for Jesus to call forward a child to use as an illustration for this teaching moment - well, the disciples must have been a little upset by this, especially after asking what, for them in their culture, seemed like a perfectly reasonable question. Because, if one has been inculturated to believe that status is everything (sound familiar?), it might feel a little insulting to be given a show and tell moment that uses a child to teach it. 

Jesus tells them they must be more childlike. Not to be children, but childlike. 

What is it about children that Jesus wants the disciples to see? Is it that naivete - the way in which they look at the world through eyes of wonder? Or perhaps it's, as with my son and his questions, a sense of curiosity about how the world works? Or maybe it’s because of the way children seem to be so teachable, so open to new things and new ways and new people? Or perhaps it’s all of the above?

These verses are part of the fourth of five discourses of Jesus in Matthew - what is known as the community discourse for its instruction on communal living. This discourse was likely written to instruct the early churches on how to build community and to deal with conflicts within the community and between one another.  The childlike nature that Matthew is trying to teach his community through Jesus’ response to the disciples question is that of curiosity. And wonder. And openness. It is a way of life Jesus is inviting them into - a way that is counter-cultural, opposite to what we learn as adults. That is not at all concerned about status, but about ensuring that everyone in the community is lifted up, particularly those who are naive in the faith. Those viewed as insignificant. Those who are the most vulnerable in our faith communities. 

It’s a direct contrast to those whom God, through the prophet, calls out in our first text. These are the ones Isaiah is so frustrated with because their priorities are so skewed. People who appear to be deeply religious. Who appear to seek God. Who appear to delight God. Who appear to draw near to God. Their actions, however, are completely disconnected from what they say they believe. In keeping the fast, they think they are seeking God’s ways. But, Isaiah calls out their hypocrisy - as Jesus does with the disciples in a somewhat gentler way. 

The reason that God has not heard their cries or noticed them in their fasting, Isaiah tells them, is because it is entirely self-serving. They observe the fasting rituals, while at the same time they are guilty of oppressing their workers and living in discord with their neighbors. But worse, they neglect those with real need in their communities - the hungry, the homeless, and those without adequate clothing. As theologian Sally McFague so famously said, “If God is absent from this world, it is because we are.” 

Their fast is not God’s fast.

The fast God desires in Isaiah is the same way of living Christ calls the disciples - and us - to in Matthew. To fast from isolationism and stigmatizing and and lean into a way of curiosity and reaching out. To fast from identifying people with status and, rather, focusing on hospitality and welcome. To fast from cynicism and doubt and, instead, marveling with wonder at the ways of God, who seeks to build, to restore, to feed, to cloth, to care, and to repair individuals and communities. A God who seeks to mend the world.

Friends, on this night, as we have put on the metaphorical sackcloth of repentance and have received the ashes that remind us of our own mortality, may we be reminded that there is resurrection after death. And may we live into it with a new way of fasting this season - the fast that we are called to this Lent: to be repairers of the breach and restorers of the street. What a beautiful image of healing and restoration for ourselves, our faith communities, our world! 

And so, here is the first of many questions. Of a lot of questions to come.

Which fast will you choose?

Preached Wednesday, February 22, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Ash Wednesday
Readings: Matthew 18:1-9, Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 146:7c-10

God's Power: Transfiguration and Oobleck

Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. --Matthew 16:24-17:8 (CEB)

Transfiguration. Our story today feels kind of magical, doesn’t it? This story of Jesus transfigured on a mountaintop and talking to Moses and Elijah.

Anyone here a Harry Potter fan? If so, you know all about transfiguration. It was a mandatory subject required for all freshmen students at Hogwart's. Transfiguration in the Harry Potter series was a branch of magic that focuses on changing the form or appearance of something by altering its molecular structure. In other words, it was not just about changing one small part of something into something else, but about changing the entire essence of a thing or a being into something completely different. Transfiguration in Harry Potter was regarded as very hard work and more scientific than any other form of magic because the practicing witch or wizard had to get it exactly right for the Transfiguration to be successful. To be a successful witch or wizard required that one had to master the magical art of transfiguration. 

Now, I’m not saying that the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop was a magic trick. Perhaps it seemed magical. But, for Peter and James and John, the change in Jesus’ appearance and, particularly, the voice from heaven that declared Jesus to be the Son of God - well, it was terrifying. So much so that they fell on their faces and were filled with fear. The end of this mountaintop experience was not at all as glorious as its beginning. 

But, wasn’t that really the point Jesus was trying to make to them in the words he spoke before they went onto the mountaintop. About what it really meant to be a follower of Christ? That, while there may be mountaintop experiences, we are really called to be down in the valley. In the heart of things. Where it sometimes can be hard.

“If any want to follow me, they must say “no” to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. We don’t really understand what it meant to “take up one’s cross.” In Jesus’ time and later among the believers to whom Matthew was writing, to “take up one’s cross” meant literally to pick up and carry the cross one was about to be crucified upon. Crucifixion in this time was not a one-off with Jesus’ death on the cross. Thousands and thousands of people were crucified, perhaps even hundreds of thousands. For being enemies of the state, especially rebelling slaves and revolutionaries. Crucifixion was a very real possibility for Jesus and his followers and for Matthew’s community, too. 

This mountaintop experience, at least for Jesus, revealed fully his divine nature. But, it was a precursor to another mountain top experience where Jesus would take up his cross and be crucified upon it.  

For the disciples, though, their transfiguration was more like oobleck. 

Oobleck. Ever heard of oobleck? Ever made oobleck? It’s a type of material that is named after a Dr. Seuss story, Bartholomew and the Oobleck. I figured if I tapped into Harry Potter, I’d also touch on a story that older generations might know. This book tells the story of Bartholomew Cubbins, a page in the Kingdom of Didd. Bartholomew’s boss, King Derwin, is described as being temperamental at the weather because he wants something new. So he sends Bartholomew to get the magicians of the kingdom to make a new kind of weather, known as oobleck.

They do. And it’s a mess. Because although oobleck is a liquid that falls from the sky, when it hits the earth it solidifies into a gelatinous and adhesive mess. It gums everything up. The royal trumpeter (Jon, maybe you’ll appreciate this) tries to sound the alarm, but oobleck gets into the trumpet and he gets his hand stuck in his trumpet when he tries to remove it. And on and on. Eventually, Bartholomew reprimands the king for making such a foolish wish and tells him to apologize. Although reluctant at first, finally, the king says two simple words. I’m sorry. And the oobleck storm stops and the sun comes out to melt away all the green slime.

Oobleck, named after this Dr. Seuss' story, is a real substance that pours like liquid. But, if pressure is applied, it is transfigured. Transformed. It becomes a solid. It’s kind of like Peter and James and John. And you and I. 

If we think this journey of discipleship is about us, then we fail to understand what it means to be Jesus’ followers. To follow Jesus requires us to lose our lives. To be willing to take up our cross. To give up the very essence of being human. To be formed and shaped under pressure so that we, like oobleck, become transfigured. Solidified. And find new life as followers of Christ. 

This week we begin the season of Lent. May this be an opportunity for you to become more solid. May this be a time of transformation and transfiguration for you and me. As we, together, lean into the disciplines of Lent. And as we are shaped and formed more deeply in our discipleship. 

So that we might follow Jesus to the second mountaintop, to his cross.  And together look forward to that third mountaintop experience. And life together. 


In the very presence of God. Amen.

Preached on Sunday, February 19, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, and Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Transfiguration Sunday
Readings: Matthew 16:24-17:8; Psalm 41:7-10

God's Power: The Power and Possibility of God's Reign

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared.

“The servants of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Master, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Then how is it that it has weeds?’

“‘An enemy has done this,’ he answered.

“The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them?’

“But the landowner said, ‘No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. Let both grow side by side until the harvest. And at harvesttime I’ll say to the harvesters, “First gather the weeds and tie them together in bundles to be burned. But bring the wheat into my barn.”’”

He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”

Jesus said all these things to the crowds in parables, and he spoke to them only in parables. This was to fulfill what the prophet spoke:

I’ll speak in parables;
        I’ll declare what has been hidden since the beginning of the world.

Jesus left the crowds and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

Jesus replied, “The one who plants the good seed is the Human One. The field is the world. And the good seeds are the followers of the kingdom. But the weeds are the followers of the evil one. The enemy who planted them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the present age. The harvesters are the angels. Just as people gather weeds and burn them in the fire, so it will be at the end of the present age. The Human One will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that cause people to fall away and all people who sin. He will throw them into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. Those who have ears should hear.” --Matthew 13:24-43 (CEB)

I’d like to begin this morning by considering how we hear things. Specifically, depending on who we are or where we are, how we hear things may change. Context. Everything is about context.

Here’s an example. “Throw the book at someone.” Now, if I were a schoolteacher and I heard one of my students say that they were going to throw the book at someone, how might I hear this? How might I respond?

On the other hand, if I were in a courtroom, sitting at a defense table, and I heard the judge talk about throwing the book at someone, how might I hear that? How might I respond?

Today, we have these three parables about the reign of God. The basic meaning of the root of the word, parable, is hidden. Often, the message Jesus is trying to tell is hidden. Mysterious. He even says that in our text when he quotes Isaiah: I speak in parables. I’ll declare what has been hidden since the beginning of the world. Some consider parables to be subversive speech. That Jesus used scenes from everyday life to expose the contradiction between the actual situation of his hearers and the teachings of God’s justice. When I was in Sunday School, I was taught that a parable was an “earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” (Whatever that means!) However you want to consider them, parables are complicated. And, today, we have three of them: the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The parable of the mustard seed. The parable of the yeast. We don’t often hear them read altogether, yet that is exactly how they are placed in this thirteenth chapter of Matthew. One right after the other. Jesus moves from one parable to the next and, immediately, to the third. So, what does this mean? And what is he, through these parables, trying to say?

Again, I would suggest to you that context matters.

For example, if you were one of Jesus’ actual followers, you were likely a member of the bottom tier of society. By Jesus’ day, Israel had become part of the Roman Empire with the top tier of society, the elite of his day - including the ruler, the ruling class, those who did the empire’s bidding, priests, and, perhaps a few merchants - the elite whose primary focus was to maintain the status quo and plunder the wealth of the bottom tier of society, which included the peasants and farmers. So, from the viewpoint of the bottom tier of society, you would immediately get that something wasn’t quite right about these parables. What farmer, after all, would allow the weeds to remain beside the wheat? Or who would even want the mustard seed to grow - because it was considered an invasive plant that could do damage to good crops? Or who would mix yeast into the amount of flour identified in our text - an amount that, once baked into bread, would be the equivalent of 150 loves? Enough to feed an entire village. 

If you were one of Jesus’ listeners, you would begin to understand the upside-down nature of God’s reign. And, then, perhaps you would begin to question the nature of your world. Parables as subversive texts? Perhaps so.

Or consider if you were part of the audience to whom Matthew was writing in this gospel. The first parable might have been understood by your community as the reign of God in the world. That the separation from Israel is now complete and that you are part of the church beginning the Gentile mission. The world is now your field of endeavor, an opportunity for you, as part of Matthew’s community, to begin to bear fruit. 

Or consider if you were a follower of Origen, a third century early church father, who wrote that the parable of the wheat and the weeds was really about what was inside us. Or, to put it in a Lutheran framework - the wheat being the saint in us and that weeds being the sinner in us. 

Context matters. Where you are and who you are as you are reading these parables change their meaning. Which may be a little unsettling. Perhaps so.

But there are a few key understandings that, no matter who you are, where you are, or what time frame in which you are reading these parables, there are a few things we can notice universally about them. 

First. Notice in the parable of the wheat and the weeds who sows the seeds and who controls the reaping process. It’s neither you nor I.  But God.

Second. Notice in the parable of the mustard seed, the subversive nature of God’s reign. Notice, again, who plants the seed so small that it’s almost invisible, but that, through nurturing and care, grows into something large and beautiful that serves others, whether it's the birds of the air or the least among us. It all begins, once, again with God. 

Third. Notice that the parable of the yeast is really not about the yeast at all. It’s about the amount of flour that, along with such a small cake of yeast, can make so. Much. Bread. Such abundance that it can only be shared. An abundance that comes from God. And God alone.

This is what the reign of God looks like. Planted by God and leading to such great abundance, yet with a reminder that it is, once again, God and God alone who will create and grow and, ultimately, be the final arbiter of God’s justice. It is a reign initiated by Jesus, who affirms that it is both a present reality and a future hope. A now, but not yet. A reign that, like pregnancy, is mysterious, miraculous, comes with pain and urgency, and gives new life. A reign that pervades and transforms everything it encounters. A reign that, though we cannot see it fully now, has as its hallmarks, hospitality, generosity, and abundance.

So, whether you are part of Grace & Glory considering what the future may bring. Or whether you are a member of Third on the cusp of something bread new, may we all remember and hold fast to the truth that the reign of God is one of power and possibilities. And that we are called to come alongside and share. 

May we have ears to hear. Amen.

Preached Sunday, February 12, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Matthew 13:24-43; Psalm 84:1-7

Learning to Follow: Who Will You Be?

Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”

After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”

Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”

Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”

Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written,You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said:

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
        alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles,
    the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light,
        and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death.

From that time Jesus began to announce, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” --Matthew 3:1-17, 4:1-17 (CEB)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls? If so, what do you know about them? (Sidenote: Did you know that one of the fragments left behind includes language that suggests that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married?) 

It is believed that these scrolls belonged to the Essenes. The Essenes were a Jewish sect that arose around during the time we call the Second Temple period in Judaism - that time between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. During this time, there was a growing belief that a Messiah would come to overthrow Israel’s foreign occupation and install a period of peace. The Essenes held this belief. They lived an ascetic lifestyle in a remote wilderness area. They believed the apocalypse was imminent and that, when it came, it would begin a new time. A new Messianic age. This age was to be characterized by repentance for Israel. A call to turn back. To turn back to God so that this new time might be ushered in. 

John the Baptizer, it is believed, was an Essene. As he preached this repentance - this call for Israel to turn back to God - as he preached this on the margins of the centers of power - on the outskirts of Jerusalem, he picked up a large following, many of them coming from Jerusalem and surrounding regions. That the Pharisees and Sadducees show up in the story, in this liminal space near the Jordan where John is preaching, says something. And, from their perspective, it is not something good. But from the perspective of John the Baptizer - his place at the margins sets the stage for Jesus to enter into this same liminal space. 

You may wonder why we today have juxtaposed this story of Jesus’ baptism with that of his wilderness temptation. Too often in our reading of scripture and, especially in our lectionary texts, we treat each story as unique and set apart. But, the truth is that they are all connected. As John is baptizing Jesus the heavens open. This same word is used in Isaiah and Ezekiel to suggest that the heavens open to reveal God’s purpose. That purpose is to be found in Jesus. God’s Son. The Beloved One. The visible manifestation of God in the world. In human flesh and blood. 

But, then. And “then” is exactly the word that is used to begin our second story from Matthew. But, then, that same Spirit that descended and gently rested on Jesus - that same Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus, like John, moves into that liminal space. For 40 days. Like Israel wandering for 40 years. For a purpose. To inaugurate - or birth - a new age of God. 

It is there, in the wilderness, where Jesus meets Satan. 

In the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not really an evil figure, more like a prosecutor on the heavenly council. But, once again in the Second Temple period, the concept of Satan - like that of Messiah - develops further. Satan became a more powerful figure. An adversarial one. The personification of evil. The leader of demons acting in direct opposition to the kingdom of God. Yet, even in this dichotomy of good and evil, God was still seen as being fully in charge of history. 

We see this in the story of Jesus’ temptation. Satan is a wily character, using scripture in a way to deceive. Offering Jesus authority over all the kingdoms of the world - as if Satan actually has ownership and control over all the kingdoms of the world. 

But, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness for one reason. One primary reason. It is to show that One and One only has dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. That One is God, visibly manifested in Jesus. This is who Jesus is - the kind of ruler Jesus is. 
But, Matthew also wants us to know what kind of ruler Jesus isn’t. When given the “opportunity” to prove his special status, Jesus demonstrates restraint. He doesn’t use his power to satisfy his own appetite or to prove his invincibility. Neither does he seize on the opportunity to acquire all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor by worshiping Satan. Why? Because Jesus is faithful to God. And because this ruler - this Messianic One who will fulfill Israel’s hopes, perhaps not in the way they anticipate - does not rule with unbridled appetites, arrogance, or tyranny.

You and I. We, like Jesus, are also called to be the visible manifestation of God in this place and time, called and baptized as Jesus was. God looks at us through him and says, “You. You are my beloved.” And when we turn away, when we stray, when we get lost, God calls us into repentance, that turning back to God. Where once again, we are reminded of whose we are and how we are to live.

And then. Because even as God’s called people, we are not immune from times in the wilderness. Then, when we find ourselves in the midst of the wilderness, tempted by pride. Desiring power over others. Wishing for more and more - for all the possessions of the world. It is there, in those wilderness times, that we are faced with our own questions of identity. Who are we? What does it mean to be a baptized child of God? And how will we live into this identity? When life is hard, it is when our baptismal identity is the most challenged. How will we respond when we are stressed, overtired, anxious, angry, despondent, hurt? Or when our communities face threats - whether internal, or external? Who will we be? Really?

We look to Jesus for that example of how we are to be the visible manifestations of God in the world. Jesus shows us that it is when our lives are most difficult that we choose who we will be. Like Jesus, we will be hungry. We will have times when we are tempted to doubt God’s faithfulness. We will be tempted to reach for power, rather than to live the life of a servant. It is in the wilderness where we will be tested. And transformed.

To live into our baptismal identity - to live as a child of God in the world - we must serve God, even when things are hard. This is when we choose just what it means to be a child of God.

If you are the Son of God,” Satan challenges Jesus. And us. 

If you are a child of God, who will you be?  

Preached Sunday, January 15, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Second Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Matthew 3:1-17, Matthew 4:1-17