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Conflict Resolution: Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and Tax Collector.

Matthew 18:15-20

If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector… (Read the whole passage)

Human beings are not good at conflict. In fact most of the time, we are quite bad at dealing with conflict in our lives. From arguments in the home to disagreements between nations, we often fall back on the same bad behaviours.

Conflict awakens that part of our brains that takes us from being rational, reasonable people to defensive and irrational reptilian like creatures. Our reptilian brain, the part which governs our fight, flight or freeze responses can take over when we enter into conflict… and fighting, running or hiding are not the ways to solve conflict, they are ways to escape danger like T-Rexes and sabre-tooth tigers.

So to help us with conflict, we have this handy passage from Matthew, a simple yet effective process that allows us to deal with and get through disagreements and conflict in our communities of faith. It is one that Christians have been using for a long time, one enshrined in our church constitution. And as far as conflict management goes, it is on point.

If someone wrongs you, take your concern to them directly. Or in other words, don’t talk about your problem with everyone but the person who has wronged you. Simple yet difficult, as we almost always would much rather gossip than face those who have wronged us directly.

This first step is the hardest, it is the step that actives our reptilian brain. We feel that addressing a perceived wrong is not likely to end in an apology, but for the wrongdoer to tell us that we are actually the ones who are wrong. An argument with a family member or friend feels like the danger posed by a sabre-tooth tiger to our reptilian brain.

And so to mitigate our reptilian defensiveness when two people simply cannot come to an understanding, we are to take 1 or 2 trustworthy persons with us. A neutral third party, who will  be witness to the conflict and someone who might gently bring objectivity to conflict. Someone to remind us that our reptilian brain might be overblowing things.

But then, if conflict cannot be resolved will one or two neutral witness, we are to bring the issue before the community. Let the whole body of our brothers and sisters in faith address the conflict. And usually the idea of having a fight out in the open is good perspective giver, a motivator to come to resolution rather than show the world the worst parts of ourselves. And yet, if even this kind of radical transparency cannot solve conflict, than Jesus says is one solution:

“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.”

Over the years Christians have called this step by different names. Shunning, banishment, excommunication, being cut off. A drastic last step when relationships are broken by conflict.

A straightforward and clear process for conflict resolution.

And yet, this process demands more of us than we might think. It is simple, but not easy.

For the disciples hearing Jesus’ words today, this process was very different than the way their world worked. In their world, everyone knew their place. The authorities, those with power, those who were righteous… they knew that they controlled society. They knew that they were the judges of the world. They were ones who chose the winners and losers in any conflict.

And the ones on the bottom, the unclean, tax collectors, fishermen, gentiles, beggars, labourers, the sick and ill… they knew that they had no power, no one on their side. The outcomes of conflict was in the hands of those more powerful than they.

The disciples and others listening to Jesus, lived in a world so carefully categorized that you knew who you could talk to, who you could eat with, where you were allowed to sit in the synagogue, which door you could use when going to the temple and so on. This hierarchical world carefully laid out who had power and who didn’t. And Jesus’ followers didn’t. They were bottom dwellers, low on the social ladder.

And so this kind of process would have sounded great to Jesus’ followers. A process where they could be the ones with power, the ones who could judge the sins committed against them. It could turn their whole world upside down. Those in power could be thrown down to the bottom, those on the bottom could finally rise up and take control. The powerful are no longer the judges of all things. The authorities don’t get to decide who is right and who is wrong for everyone, rather those who have been sinned against, like those on the bottom… they can judge for themselves. They can judge sin directly.

Or at least, that is what is this iconic passage from Matthew 18 sounds like.

Until Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

For you see, there wasn’t a day that went by that the Pharisees and Scribes, the temple authorities and priests didn’t remind Jesus and his followers that they were spending time with the wrong crowd. Jesus liked to eat with tax collectors, unclean sinners who worked for the terrible Romans collecting their unclean money. Jesus liked to interact with Gentiles, unclean sinners who worshipped incorrectly, like the Canaanite woman who Jesus called a dog. Jesus like be around those on the bottom, people like fishermen, people like his disciples.

How easily has the church forgotten this. How quickly have we gone back to thinking that Gentiles and tax collectors are those we should shun and banish and excommunicate and cut off. How easy is it for us to think that when we cannot resolve conflicts we should just end the relationship and cut people out of our communities and our lives.

And if this passage from Matthew 18 were just a standalone piece of advice, it might sound like something from a self-help book. But it isn’t. It comes right after Jesus has been telling his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the one who is like a child, the least important of the world. That to be a stumbling block to the least of these little ones is to be avoided at all costs. That Jesus is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek out the one lost sheep.

And so when Jesus says let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector…

The Gentiles and tax collectors were the one that Jesus came to seek and find.

The ones like little children to whom the Kingdom belongs.

The little who believed in Christ and should not be caused to stumble.

The lost sheep whom the Shepherd searches out and rescues.

Gentiles and tax collectors are those that Jesus has come for.

Come for to show God’s love and mercy and grace.

Come for to eat with like beloved guests and equals.

Come for to heal and restore to wholeness.

Come for to bring God’s Kingdom near.

Gentiles and tax collectors are the lost and least that Jesus has come to minister to.

Jesus’ words on resolving conflict were not a way for his disciples to move from the bottom off their world to the top. And they are not a way for us to stand in judgment of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Rather, they are a reminder of whom God has come for, who God’s love and mercy and grace are given to. They are a reminder about how God sees us.

They are a reminder that for God, we are all Gentiles and tax collectors.

That in the confession and forgiveness we hear week after week, God seeks us out like the one lost sheep.

That in the Word of God spoken in our midst, God welcomes the little ones who stumble.

That in the bread and wine of Christ’s body, God makes us God’s children and gives us the Kingdom.

The word that Jesus gives us today is so much more than a simple process for conflict resolution. Jesus reminds the disciples and us just who we are. That even with the process for solving conflict we will not be able reconcile with our brothers and sisters on our own. But that we are all instead ones such as Gentiles and Tax collectors to God. And that when we would cut each other off from relationship, that Jesus has come instead to find and reconcile us.

Jesus has come to heal us and eat with us.

To show us God’s love and mercy and grace.

Amen.

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Peter wanted a private club – Jesus gave us the Church

Matthew 16:13-20

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…(Read the whole passage)

Last week, I had a brush with fame. If you happened to be listening to the local Christian music station on Thursday after around 5pm, you would have heard me do a brief two part interview. Yes, I know, I know… for anyone that is wondering I will sign autographs in addition to shaking hands on the way of out church… and no, this hasn’t gone to my head.

In all seriousness, the reason that I was interviewed was for an article that I had written and that was published by Christian Week magazine…a locally founded but national/ecumenical publication in Canada.

The article was about something that I mentioned in my sermon last week, Why White Supremacy is a Sin. After the events of Charlottesville two weeks ago, the article was my attempt at articulating why the ideology White Supremacy is sinful.

At its foundation, Christian White Supremacy takes the idea that faith and church confer a special status and power to us to extreme ends. That being a follower of Jesus or a Christian makes a special group, a special in-crowd, that the church is only about who is on the inside, rather than reaching those outside. For White Supremacists, only white skinned people are those special ones.

Now, what does that have to do with the Jesus and Peter today?… well in a way, Jesus is naming that same attitude among the disciples – the idea that being a follower of Jesus confers special status and special power.

Jesus and the disciples are out in gentile lands again. Last week they were in the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon, where Jesus encountered and eventually healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter… but only after she convinced him that she, a gentile and a woman, was worthy of his compassion.

Today, Jesus has travelled inland to the region of Caesarea Philippi where he takes the opportunity to ask the disciples a question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This gets a few different answers, mostly comparisons to the prophets of old. But Jesus isn’t satisfied and takes it a step further. “But who do you say that I am?”

When none of the other disciples have an answer, Simon offers a guess. “You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” Not a dead prophet but son of the living God.

And for that Jesus gives Simon a new name – Peter. Peter which means rock, the rock on which Jesus will build his church, giving the church the power loose and bind sins.

That is a quite the journey from “Who do you say that I am?”

This story of this encounter between Jesus and his disciples that we hear today, is a passage we tend to place a lot of meaning on.

The Roman Catholic church reads this story as Jesus’ choosing Peter to be the first among the disciples… the first Bishop of the church, the Bishop’s office whose has become the office of Popes through the centuries. The Pope, they say, is the successor to Peter. The Papal symbol is two keys.

Others find in this passage an important question, one that is more relevant today than ever. Who do we say that Jesus is? Many church leaders today would contend that this question is at the core of what it means to follow Jesus and how we answer this question in a world of suffering, violence, hatred, division, conflict, war and death determines the character of our faith.

And perhaps for us here at Good Shepherd, our answer to the question of who Jesus is would impact significantly how we minister to the community around us.

But perhaps neither of these concerns are truly what this passage is about.

As usual, there seems to be something else going on.

And getting at that involves asking the question why.

Why does Jesus ask his disciples, far from home and in gentile territory who people say that he is. And why does Jesus give Simon a new name with new responsibilities.

On regular occasion, the disciples get caught up in the perks of being disciples, rather than the reality. They want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands. They want power to heal and power over demons. They get jealous of others who do works of power in Jesus’ name. They get impatient with people who come to Jesus for healing, much like the Canaanite woman last week.

And so when Jesus asks the disciples, who they think he is… it isn’t because Jesus is wondering what people think of him. It is because he wants the disciples to connect with reality.

They are followers of Jesus. Jesus who is the Messiah. Jesus who is then son of the Living God. The Messiah who has come to save the whole world, sent by the Living God, the God of all creation. The forgiveness that they proclaim is not a power they hold over others, but a responsibility they now carry. The New Life that they preach is not privilege bestowed to a few, but a gift given to all.

Like the disciples, the church, including us, has fallen into the same trap again and again. And while it isn’t usually as extreme or destructive as White Supremacy… it is something we struggle with.

For many churches and communities of faith in North America these days it has been the norm to see ourselves firstly as centres of community. Faith families who love and care for each other. Groups who exist for the benefit of our members. Clubs with special privileges.

And yes, in some ways those definitions do apply to us. But they do not define us. They are not the why. They are not our first and primary purpose for existing. The Church is not a community of the privileged, but a community of the burdened. A community given responsibility. A body tasked to preach and proclaim the story of the one whose name we bear – to tell the world about Christ.

When Jesus gives Simon a new name today… it is first a reminder of who Jesus is. In the Old Testament the only person who ever changed someone’s name was God.

When Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock on whom he will build his church, it is a reminder that this community of faith is the Messiah’s. It is a community rooted in the forgiveness of sins for sinners, mercy for the suffering, and resurrection of the dead.

When Jesus tells Peter that he will be given the keys to kingdom and that what he binds on earth is bound in heaven, and what he looses on earth is loosed in heaven… it is a re-orientation of the privileged and self centred attitudes of the disciples.

The power to forgive, the power to grant mercy, the power of resurrection and new life… these are powers NOT to be used as Peter, the disciples and the church desires. But rather responsibilities and tasks to be undertaken. Forgiveness is not to withheld, but given. Mercy is not to be given with discretion but with wild abandon. And new life… well God’s answer to all death is resurrection and new life.

When Jesus re-names Simon, and makes him the rock of the church, and gives him the keys to the Kingdom… it is not a moment of granting privilege or benefits… It is a moment of reminding Peter, the disciples and us of the responsibility we bear.

That we are firstly a community of faith. Faith is not a by-product of our community, but rather community and our love and care for one another is a by-product of our faith. Forgiveness is not a power the church wields over people, but rather something we are not to withhold. We are to forgive sinners. Period. And new life… well resurrection and new life is the story that we tell… or rather that Jesus tells through us, week after week, year after year.

Through Peter, through the disciples, through us, Christ proclaims again and again that death does not have the final word. Christ proclaims through us New Life given for all and for us.

Today, Jesus asks a pretty simple question to the disciples and to us. But the result is a reminder, again, of just how Christ is re-naming and transforming Peter and us, into the his body. Into the Body of Christ giving forgiveness, mercy and new life to the world.

The scary thing isn’t sinking, but walking on water.

Matthew 14:22-33

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him… (Read the whole passage)

What a quick turnaround from last week. As we go with the disciples into the stormy waters, we have and they have just been feeding the masses with Jesus. With five loaves and two small fish, Jesus fed the 5000 and there was enough for all.

Yet, within moments of enjoying a feast with the great crowd, Jesus sends the disciples  in a boat to the other side of the lake, while goes by himself to pray. And then follows one of the most famous stories in the bible, where Jesus while walking on the water, invites Peter to walk on water with him.

As the disciples are out on the water in a storm, it is not the first time these experienced fisherman have found themselves in bad weather. The first time in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was with them in the boat. With but a few divine words he calmed the storm and the fears of the disciples.

So this time, as the storm comes upon the hapless group of Jesus’ followers, they are not afraid of the wind and the waves. Instead, it is the apparition of Jesus on the water that brings out their fears. They are not certain of what or who they see. Some think it is a ghost.

Jesus approaches the boat and calms the disciples fears. “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”. Jesus calms the disciples, who are storming within, by speaking words that alleviate their fears. But Jesus’ words to the disciples are reminiscent of words spoken to another disciple. As Moses approached the burning bush, the Lord God told him to not be afraid. And Jesus echoes the name that God gave himself. When Moses asked the burning bush by what name should he call the one who was sending him to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God said, “Tell them, I AM who I AM sent you”.

Jesus invokes the same divine name. Jesus words to the disciples from the side of the boat could have been translated, “Take heart. I AM. Do not be afraid”.

The disciples realize, this is no ghost. This is God at the side of the boat, walking on the water. But Peter still has some questions… is it Jesus? And I can walk with him?

Now I don’t know about you, but getting out to walk on the water does not seem like the obvious thing to do in this situation. The disciples are sailing in the middle of storm, and this is the moment that Peter decides to see if he can also do what Jesus is doing. Maybe Peter would have been smarter to start with multiplying some bread and fish into enough food for thousands…disappointed dinner guests, and not drowning, would be the worst possible outcome.

Yet, Peter steps out. In the hopes of meeting Jesus on top of the water, the hopes of having the power over creation too.

Most of us are probably not as daring or foolish as Peter… but at the same time, there are moments in our lives and in our faith where we are compelled to step out of the boat. To take a risk, to chance losing everything. Whether it is a individuals or as a community of faith, there are moments when we have to stop worrying about the worst possible outcomes and see what happens on the waters, outside the safety of the boat.  We are faced with trying something new, venturing into the unknown, exploring places we wouldn’t have dared go before.

Peter’s question is the question that we all must ask before stepping out of the boat. It is the question of identity. Who will meet me on the other side of this great risk? Who am I to take this risk?

So many of the sermons preached on this text tell us that if we want to know the answer to that question, if we keep our eyes on the one walking on the water, than we will not drown or sink. Just have enough faith, and everything will be alright. Just take the risk with faith, and walking on water should not be a problem.

But the difficult part of stepping out of the boat and stepping into the unknown is that we do not know where we will end up. We do not know what is on the other side.

Peter steps out of the boat… and in a way, he shows us what indeed almost always happens to us in those moments of risking it all.

We sink.

Stepping out of the boat is to sink.

Stepping out of the boat means is to get wet.

Stepping out of the boat means we will need to be saved.

The drama of the story is that when Peter steps out onto the water and he begins to sink. His risky choice seemed like it had potential, and it seemed to be going well at first. But Peter does what we so often do. He self-sabotages. He becomes afraid of the unimportant things, not the water, not sinking, not the lack of a boat under his feet. He is frightened by the wind, by something that should have no impact on his ability to walk on water.

And how often is this what we do too. When trying something new begins to work, we become not afraid of failure but of success. We stop wondering whether we will sink, but what it means to discover that Jesus did actually invite us into something new and different. Something that means we will be forever changed…  Like Peter, we let the inconsequential sink us. The wind, the thing that is a sign that we are on top of the water is what makes us sink.

Yet, just as Peter begins to sink, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter.”

You see, this is part of the story where we finally find out who we are. Where we finally find out who it is that is calling to us from the other side of boat. Jesus knows very well that Peter will sink, but Jesus still says, “Come”. Before Peter steps out of the boat, he wants to know if it really is Jesus walking on the water. But once he begins to sink, Peter knows exactly who he is calling to, “Lord, Save me”.

Inside the boat, we forget who we are and who Jesus is. But on the outside, with the water rising quickly around us, we know that we need to be saved, we know that only Jesus is the one – the ONLY one – who can do the saving.

Hopping over that edge and onto or into the water is a part of life. As human beings, as communities of faith, as sinners in need of saving, we need to hop over the edge every so often. We need to discover what it is like to be on the outside of the boat, to experience the unknown and to find out where we are going.

But in the end we will always sink. In the end there is always the wind, the thing of little importance that we can blame for our fear of succeeding, our fear of change and newness.

But even as we sink, Jesus is there. Right there, immediately grabbing us by the hand and pulling us from the stormy waters.

Jesus is right there knowing that our problem is not wind, nor the water, not the missing boat. Jesus knows that we are our own problem… but Jesus also knows that we will never save ourselves. And so Jesus pulls us out. He doesn’t make the wind go away, or throw us backwards into the boat, or even tell is to stop waling on the water… Jesus brings us through. Jesus pulls us out of sinking death, into unexpected new life on top of the water. New Life on the other side of risk, on the other side of the safety of the boat. New life on the other side of change and new ways of being.

That is the promise of Jesus walking on the water. That is the promise of God who says, “Tell them I AM who I AM sent you”. That is the promise of our Lord and Saviour. No matter where we are. In the boat, on dry land, or sinking like a stone. Jesus is there, reaching out to us, pulling us from the waters, saving us from ourselves, saving us no matter where we go or where we end up.

Reaching out and pulling us into new Life.

There is life in the Wheat and Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let 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.’” (read the whole passage)

Most of us know the annoyance that weeds cause in gardens and lawns and even fields. Weeds steal energy, water and resources from the plants that we placed purposefully in our gardens. Weeding is probably one of the more joyless parts of maintaining our plants and gardens. Pulling those prickly, finicky nuisances that seem to do anything they can to stay in the ground is not fun.

And so when we hear Jesus tell the parable of the Wheat and Tares or wheat and the weeds, we can identify with the experience of the servant who wants to get the weeding done.

Yet, as anyone who regularly walks down neighbourhood streets knows keeping and maintaining gardens, in particular the weeds, is an individual approach as anything. On the street that we live on, the gardens, flower beds and lawns of our neighbours vary wildly. There are some lawns and flower beds kept impeccably. Hardly a blade of grass out of place, not a weed to be seen. And then there are others where the weeds and grass seem to be growing in harmony… and growing tall. The contrast is noticeable when there are next door neighbours with these two extremes of garden and lawn styles. A golf green lawn next to a patch of wild grass and weeds.

This tension sits at the heart of the parable of the wheat and weeds. The crops have been planted, the wheat is growing… but so are the weeds. And the servant and the master have very different approaches to deal with this tension. The slaves of the household wants to get down to weeding. They want to purify the fields, get ride of bad and unwanted weeds right away, resolve the tension that they are experiencing… but the master wants to wait. Let the wheat and weeds grow together, for in pulling up one you will destroy the other.

Now of course, when we slow to think about it, this parable is not about wheat and weeds. Jesus isn’t discussing gardening philosophies.

But nor is this parable about the explanation that Matthew puts in Jesus’ mouth either. This isn’t about the weeds being like the evil ones of the world who will be thrown into the fire, or about the good wheat being gathered into heavenly grain bins.

In fact, the explanation to the parable about what the wheat and weeds are seems to have missed the point.

The point just might be the tension.

We are not good at living with tension.

The master says to leave the weeds be, but we are most often more like the slaves who want to get down to weeding. We don’t do well with tension because we would rather get to resolution. Its why most TV shows tell a complete story each episode, and why cliffhangers frustrate us so much. It is why most music is careful to end with resolving notes, a song that ends without sounding finished feels wrong. It is why we want to get the weeding done, instead of letting the weeds grow with the garden… the tension bothers us.

But the tension extends far beyond gardens and into our lives and work, into our relationships and even into our faith. We don’t like it when things we perceive as good and bad, right and wrong, exist at the same time in the same place. We don’t like weedy things infecting our wheat.

As Matthew attempts to unpack this parable by telling us what it means, he puts it in terms of faith, or more specifically faith communities. As faith communities, we know that we need to welcome new people, to try new ways of doing things, to open ourselves up to new life and the places it could grow among us… yet, new people can feel weedy to us, new ideas and new ways of being can feel like they are taking our limited energy and resources… new life can feel like it is choking our life out.

How often do we turn down new ideas because they are too weedy… they seem like they will just take energy and life from us like weeds?

How often are we concerned only about whether we will get a fruitful return, a wheat crop as reward for our efforts? How often do we weed out potential new members to our community because we expect them to be wheat instead of weeds?

How often does new life in our midst need to be a bit weedy… need us to sacrifice some of our own resources, our soil, our water, our energy in order to let the new life take root among us?

We really do struggle with with letting the wheat and the weeds co-exist, especially as people of faith. We struggle with the tension, of living in the grey areas, and not being able to define our world in the terms of good and bad, right and wrong.

And yet the tension, the place in between good and bad, right and wrong, even life and death, is where so much of our faith rests. It is the grey ares where God seems to show up, in the places where wheat and weeds are growing together.

God comes to us a king of creation, yet born as a nobody peasant in the backwater town of Bethlehem.

God comes preaching good news, but to the lost, least and forgotten of the world.

God comes to save us, by dying on a cross.

And so we are sinners yet forgiven and righteous.

And so we find our lives by losing them.

And so we are made alive by dying in Christ.

And so God chooses to love us, even though we should be unloveable.

The master tells his servants to leave the weeds be, leave weeds because pulling them out will uproot the wheat.

The master tells the servants to live in the tension, because that is where life can grow. The weeds will steal from the wheat… but both will grow. The tension is the place where life grows.

It is the same message that God gives to us, that God proclaims in and through God’s church.

Come you who are sinners, to this community of people made righteous. Here your sins are forgiven.

Come you who are suffering, to this community of healing. Here you will be made whole.

Come you who are hungry, to this community of bread and wine. Here you will be fed.

Come you are dirty and unclean, to this community of the washed. Here you will be cleansed.

Come you are who are dead, to this community of life. Here you will be raised.

The tension is the place where life grows.

Here is the thing… just as wheat fields without wheat doesn’t exist in reality, there is no community of people without sinners, without suffering, without hunger, without being unclean, without death.

The Master knows that the weeds are always part of the growing, all part of the fruit producing. The Master knows that the weeds are a part of life.

And God knows that it is in the grey areas that life is found.

God knows sinner meets righteousness in the grey area of forgiveness.

God knows that suffering meetings healing the grey area of mercy.

God knows that death meets life in the grey area of resurrection.

And so the Master says to us, let the weeds be. Let the bad grow with the good because it is in the grey areas that life is found.

The parable of the sower – The soil is not the point

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. (Read the whole passage)

This is one of my favourite readings. For my installation service in my second call, I chose this parable as the gospel lesson. I just love the idea of a sower or farmer planting seed with wild abandon, willing to imagine and see if seeds will grow – even in the unexpected places. The excitement of potential, the willingness to see possibilities seems so hopeful.

And yet, anyone who knows anything about modern farming, knows that this kind of hap hazard seeding is not how things are done. These days GPS plows make for the maximum use of soil, air seeders measure density and plant at the optimum places. Good soil maximized for productivity, seed isn’t wasted and poor soil avoided.

But ancient farming, while a little more low tech, wouldn’t have been much different. In fact, isn’t that the point Jesus is making. A good sower knows where to seed and where to avoid just wasting valuable seeds on soil that won’t produce.

Yet this parable that Jesus tells, describes a sower who is not so efficient and careful with his seeds and soil and planting techniques. This farming style seems crazy to us and to the crowds listening in Jesus time. This haphazard sower who scatters seed anywhere, draws our attention to the different kinds of soil. To the hard packed soil of the paths, not unlike gravel roads or waking paths. We hear about rocky soil with no depth to it. Soil that is in amongst the thorns and thistles. But perhaps the most interesting soil of them all is the soil that gives 30 or 60 or 100 fold return. These kind of returns from good soil are almost unimaginable. In fact, anything that gives even a 30% return is almost unheard of in life. Anyone with a savings account knows that a 30% interest rate is crazy.

And so as soon as we hear Jesus talking about these incredible returns, we want to jump right to part where we figure out how to be good soil. We want to separate those who are bad, hard, inhospitable soils from those who are good soil. We want to see ourselves as the good soil, we like the ability to categorize and label, to judge and condemn. This lens of productivity is one we know well. It is one that all 3 gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, give with their telling of this story. If we want to be productive, we need to be good soil. If we want to be righteous, we need to be good and faithful.

Yet, we know that this kind of productivity just isn’t realistic, we know that this really isn’t the way the world is. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know that life is full of unpredictable, unexplainable, and unknowable outcomes. We know that sometimes the people with strongest faith, those who are gentle and kind, those who are most vulnerable sometimes receive the hardest lot in life. We know that suffering and sin doesn’t really seem to follow a pattern but rather happens to us at random. We know that there are those out there who seem to have an easy and blessed time with life, who get all the legs up without really trying or even when they don’t seem to deserve it.

And when it comes to hearing the word as Jesus says, we know that much of the time we are much more like the hard, or rocky or thorny soil than the good soil. We we all wish we could pray more and pray better. We all wish that we gave more to the church, more time and money. We all wish we could share our faith more easily, that we could tell our friends and neighbours just why this place means so much to us, that is when we ourselves find the time to come.

But we don’t feel like good soil… we can see and feel in ourselves what we know to be failure. We can see and feel the rocks, the thorns and the hardness within us.

In the parable, we get caught up in the business of the seeds and the soil. We like to imagine the details of where we fit. And we are struck by the reality of what it means to be soil, good or otherwise.

But the parable isn’t about seeds or soil. Jesus gives us the clue right at the beginning.

Jesus says, “Hear then the parable of the sower”. This parable is not about soil, it is about the sower.

Not about us.

But about God.

About this sowing God who seems radical, haphazard, and all over the place. God whose seeds end up everywhere.

When Jesus explains this parable, he never encourages or exhorts anyone to be good soil or good seed. He says that the parable is about the sower. It is about the one who owns and works the fields, the one who owns and plants the seeds. This parable is about a God who is willing to see that there is possibility even in the rocky, hard, shallow and thorny soil. Even knowing that the seeds may not grow in poor conditions, God scatters and plants anyways.

This parable is about God who declares that the hard packed soil, the rocky soil, the thorny soil and that dark, nutrient soil… God declares that all these soils are acceptable. All these soils are good enough to sow. Good enough for the Word to be scattered on.

The sower seems to be scattering seed, knowing that it probably will not grow, but seeing the possibility that it might. So are we the soil or the seeds in this parable? That part isn’t clear. And maybe it doesn’t matter if we know where we fit exactly. What this parable does show is a God who has decided to scatter grace, mercy and love in all directions. This parable shows a God who has decided to scatter on the rocky, the shallow, the thorny soil and the good soil. It is a God who is wants the Word of the Kingdom to be heard everywhere and anywhere. It shows a God who is determined to let this creation, these seeds and this soil, to let us know, that we are cherished and loved, imperfections and all.

This sowing God is showing us that the lenses of good and bad soil that we see the world through are not how the sower sees. The productivity of the soil does not determine the whether the sower sows. Whether we are good and holy, whether we are hard, rocky or thorny… these things do not determine whether God loves.

The sower sows because the sower has decided to scatter the seed. God gives God’s word of grace to us because God has decided that we are God’s beloved. And there is no amount of fruit that we can bear or fail to bear, no good works that we can do to earn or sins that we separate us from God’s love and mercy.

“Listen!” Jesus says, “a sower went to sow…” and with those first few words gives us the good news. The good news that God has decided to love us, no matter whether we feel good enough or not. Because God’s love is given because God has declared it is given – for us.

Unrealized Hopes – The Road to Emmaus

While I am late in posting, thanks to a guest preacher Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker, and her sermon from the 3rd Sunday in Easter. You can find her on twitter: @ReedmanParker

Gospel: Luke 24:13-35

13Now on that same day [when Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene,] two [disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. …34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Three weeks into the season of Easter and we continue to hear the stories of that first day. We continue to be placed back with the disciples. In their grief. In their sadness. In their un-belief of what has transpired.

Three weeks into the season of Easter and we continue to hear the story of resurrection. New life. Changed life – because the way it was is not the way it is. And everyone knows it.

Except for those who don’t. For those who stand in fear at the empty tomb, for those who wait to see Jesus for themselves, for those who are on the road between the death of Good Friday and new life discovered on Easter Sunday.

Three weeks into the season of Easter and we continue to hear stories of the disciples encountering the risen Christ.

This first day, Easter day, is important. Three weeks in and we are still hearing about its impact. Today we encounter two disciples on the road to Emmaus when Jesus shows up along side them.

Only Cleopas and the other disciple don’t know that it’s Jesus – they don’t recognize him.

This detail is significant. But they aren’t special. Last week the disciples do not believe that Jesus is amongst them until they hear him speak words of peace and see and touch his wounds. The women, too, do not immediately recognize Jesus for who he is – instead thinking he is a gardener.

In their minds, Jesus has died. It’s done.

And this reality is heartbreaking.

This first day when the disciples are between Jesus’ death and knowing and believing that the resurrection has taken place reveals how difficult is for the human condition to move from the way it was to the way it is.

And it is when Cleopas is talking to Jesus – not knowing it is Jesus – that this becomes so clear. Jesus asks the two men what they are talking about, and Cleopas, surprised “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place?”

Somewhat ironically he’s asking him, have you been living behind a rock these last few days? …. Well, yes, yes I have.

“What things?” Jesus asks very simply.

So the disciples tell Jesus about who he was to them, and how he had been handed over to death. We hear about who they had hoped Jesus would be – that he had come to redeem Israel – but instead he was put to death.

The way they thought the future would unfold did not turn out as they had hoped.

The person they thought Jesus was, the one they expected him to be, did not turn out as they had hoped.

The stories they are now hearing about Jesus being raised from the dead is not how they expected life would unfold next. It’s not how they anticipated God would act.

The disciples find themselves on a long road between what they had hoped for and exclaiming “he is risen indeed”. It is an uncomfortable place to be.

Perhaps we know a little something about what happens when the things we hope for don’t unfold the way we anticipate.

  • When our relationships are complicated or breakdown or break up
  • When our health or our bodies fail us
  • When our work takes a sudden turn
  • When our ministry doesn’t grow or take root in the way we thought
  • When God doesn’t act, look, or respond the way we had hoped for

Perhaps we know something about the discomfort of the in-between-ness between what has been and what will be. Even if things “will be ok” eventually, death of any kind stings. Death is still death. Our emotions are the same. Our grief is still the same.

It is hard to see Jesus when we are expecting one thing and another happens.

The disciples arrive where they think they are going, only to have their eyes opened in the retelling of the sacred stories – Jesus’ story… God’s story – and in the breaking of the bread. It’s then that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him”.

Like the disciples, it is hard to see Jesus walking alongside us when our expectations – our hopes of who Jesus will be, of how God will act or intervene or call us into relationship – blinds us to the real Jesus, who was there the whole time.

It is hard to see Jesus when we are preoccupied with life’s struggles. Hard even when Jesus is walking with us, telling us what’s what.

The good news is that God in Jesus walks the road with us. In doing so, God helps us let go and reframe our issues, and once they have been reframed, the fact that Jesus was there the whole time becomes apparent.

And, like the disciples, Jesus will walk with us down the wrong road, even while calling us in a different direction.

Three weeks into the season of Easter and we too are experiencing an in-betweeness as a congregation. We know that life will not be as it was, but we aren’t yet sure of the way it is or will be.

What we do know is that God promises to be with us.

God in Jesus walks with us down all the roads of life.

God in Jesus walks with us in the in-between places.

God in Jesus walks with us when we are in the midst of dead ends.

God in Jesus leads us down new paths.

Three weeks into the season of Easter and we are still hearing stories of that first day, still with the unbelieving disciples, and when all we think we see is death, Jesus is still walking out of tombs in order to show us new life. AMEN.

Only the Blind Man Could See

John 9:1-41

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (Read the whole passage)

Out of the sun and into the mud.

We have been on journey this lent through various familiar places of Jesus ministry. The wilderness of the desert of temptation. The darkness of Nicodemus’s questions by night. The bright noon day heat of the woman at the well and her isolation. Jesus continues on his journey through the lives of unsuspecting people, moving towards their questions, breaking their walls, and today helping them to see.

This Lenten season has shown us the movement of God towards creation. We have seen that God is beginning a new thing in the identity of Christ, despite the tempter’s wondering if Jesus is the Son of God. We have seen Jesus adjust course and move towards Nicodemus, who needs his deep questions of faith answered. And we saw last week, the persistence of Jesus whose living water broke down the well walls of the Samaritan woman’s dead water.

john-9-healing-blind-man-mosaicThe next instalment in the Lenten journey is the story of the blind man. It is a familiar story, yet, it is hardly just about helping a person without normal sight to see the world around him. As Jesus and his disciples come a cross a blind man in the streets, presumably begging in his community, the disciples want Jesus to help them identify the punishments of God. Disability was considered a divine curse, and the disciples were most likely trying to be sure that they would avoid such a fate. Yet Jesus stops, and spits in the mud, covers the man’s eyes with the mud. Then Jesus tells the man to go and wash in pool of Siloam. Jesus says this man’s blindness has nothing to do with God’s curse.

And then Jesus disappears.

But we stay with the blind man and hear his story. Now, I am pretty sure, if this story was really about a blind person gaining sight were to happen among us, we would be amazed by this person who was blind and now could see. Yet, that is not what happens to the blind man. Once this man can see, and Jesus is long gone, the man’s community reacts badly. They just cannot see the miracle or the transformation. They doubt the identity of the man, they doubt that he is actually healed, they doubt that the miracle is from God.

Instead of rejoicing and celebrating, the community puts the healed man on trial. He is called before the religious leaders to explain what happened. To explain how someone healed him on the sabbath. The Pharisees declare that the blind man has not been healed by God, and instead they summon his parents to see if there has been some kind of trickery. But his parents have no answers, so the formerly blind man is summoned again in front of the pharisees. So incredulous are the Pharisees that they declare no only has the formerly blind man not been given a miracle, but that he is sinner being punished by God. So they drive him away, out of the community and on his own.

And throughout the course of the story, the blind man comes to realize something. We can see it too… it isn’t that the blind man can see, it is that he is the only who can now see. The whole community is blind to the transformation that has taken place. Only the man can see what Jesus has done for him. And no matter how many times, how many ways he tells the story of his own healing, the community around him just cannot understand or accept this new reality.

They remain blind.

Blindness to the effects of Jesus in our world is something we know about. Perhaps we are like the blindman, seemingly alone in the world surrounded by unbelievers. Maybe we now feel like most people simply do not see what we see, or know what we know about Jesus. Maybe we are the only ones who feel as though our eyes have been opened to by Jesus passing through our lives and giving us healing, renewal and life. Friends and neighbours just cannot see the good news, they simply don’t are or won’t accept this story of faith and healing that we share. No matter how we tell it, or no matter how the transformation that we now know is apparent to us… people around us just seem blind to God in the world.

Or perhaps we feel more like the blind community. We know the faith, we know what God is up to, and so the zealous believers who claim that God is doing a new thing in their lives are just too much. We cannot see how God is doing something so unexpected in the world, according to suspicious and obviously self-involved people.

Regardless of who we may identify with, the blind man or his community, identifying the gospel, knowing God’s work in the world is not always straight forward. The community cannot believe that this man would be healed by God. The man himself only has a vague sense of just what his experience with Jesus means. And isn’t this our experience too? Jesus passes in and out of out community, causing just as much confusion about faith and church and God, as helping us figure out what is happening.

As we already know, the blindness of the man is not just about physical blindness, but John’s gospel is hinting at the spiritual blindness of the community that Jesus encounters today. But blindness is not the only metaphor that John is playing with. As Jesus reaches down in the mud today, we cannot help but think all the way back to Genesis and God in creation. As God reached down into the mud of the earth to create Adam, breathing life into him, so we see God breathing life into this blind man. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Let there be light” and the blind man sees, not just with his eyes, but with his whole being.

And, still not quite. The blind man doesn’t see Jesus first, but rather only has an experience of Christ before he sees.

But just when it seems that the man has been left to carry on in faith alone, that he has been left to sort out his new place in the world where he knows that the Messiah has healed his blindness, but the rest of his community doesn’t see what he sees… Just as the man is driven away… Jesus shows up again. And we learn something important about what Jesus has done in healing the man of his blindness.

Just as Jesus told the tempter in the wilderness that God is about to do something new in creation…

Just as Jesus changed course and moved towards Nicodemus so that Nicodemus could hear the gospel that he needed to hear in the safety of darkness…

Just as Jesus kept lapping at the well walls of the samaritan woman until she was broken open by living water…

Jesus comes back to the blindman.

And finally, finally the man who was born blind, whose sight was restored, whose story was not enough for his community to see… the blind man sees the One who has given him this new faith.

The One whom meets us in the wilderness, finds us in the dark, who makes us alive with Living Water…. this One comes back and restores and fills us up with faith.

Like the blindman, we can only last for so long in a world of blindness. We can only tell the story so many times for unseeing eyes before we run out of persistence. And so Jesus comes to us and meets us again, fills us with a word of light and hope.

The blind man’s story is our story. We experience new life and renewal in Jesus who comes to us, creating something new and incredible inside us. And then we go out in the world and into our community with this gospel of life, only to find blindness. Yet, still we are called to tell the story.

And then when we cannot tell it anymore, Jesus shows up again. And Jesus keeps coming back and coming back. Jesus keeps giving words of mercy and forgiveness, the light of God’s word, the renewal of our faith in the Body of Christ.

Our story of faith is one where Jesus keeps coming back to us. Week after week, year after year. And all of sudden, when we all we knew was wilderness, darkness, and isolation… Jesus makes us see for the first-time.

Jesus opens our eyes to faith.