Explore and sign up for our series of weekly emailed reflections, which follow the Revised Common Lectionary liturgical calendar of readings from the Old and New Testaments. These reflections have been drawn from, and lend themselves to, sermons for preachers as well as private devotionals. All are rooted in perspectives “from below” that embrace abundance and peacemaking.

The Wheat And The Weeds

 
 
30“Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

There is a harvest of love happening in cities everywhere, if we can only see it. It’s an unusual harvest to be sure — one that sees good where we often see evil and reveals evil where we often see good. This harvest is the unveiling of reality. It is the work of the Spirit and God’s delight. When this liberating pattern is at work in our lives we not only suffer the humiliating shock of seeing things as they really are, we also discover the unspeakable joy of having gotten it all wrong.

This unveiling is at the heart of my own story. And yes, it is at once humiliating and freeing beyond measure. Like St. Paul, who presided over the persecution of the early church, I have been on the wrong side of many things, completely certain that I was right. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). I have joined the persecution of “evil” only to discover that I’m defending myself against God’s liberating good. The list is endless: the poor, women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, even the environment. And here’s the really dark part, now that I’m “enlightened,” I’m tempted do the same from the flip side. It’s a vicious cycle that always ends in “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42).

You would think something as obvious as good and evil would be easy for us to sort out, right? After all, how hard is it to judge between the two? If history teaches us anything, and if we are even the slightest bit honest with ourselves, it’s a lot harder than we admit. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the level of violence we have done (to ourselves and others) in our attempts to eliminate “evil,” all the while thinking ourselves “good.”

And so we come to the familiar parable of the Wheat and Weeds.

Jesus begins the parable by illustrating a wildly permissive God who lets the wheat and weeds grow together. Yes, suffering is sowed into the fabric of creation. Jesus invites us to accept this mystery. “Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”( Matt. 13:30).

I know we are tempted to rush to the judgment bit, but the key word in this parable is the word “let.” The Greek word is aphete. It means “permit,” or “suffer.” It is also translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “forgive.”

Can we see what Jesus is saying?

It’s only when we permit, suffer and forgive those we so desperately want to eliminate that we escape the damnation of our own blind judgment and avoid doing to those “evil ones” what we did to Jesus. Yes, Jesus is counted among the weeds of the world, which are ripped up and tossed aside with all the bloodthirsty enthusiasm that comes with self-righteous certainty. History is littered with this pattern of scapegoating much like my own: the poor, women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, Catholics and Protestants, liberal and conservative, anyone who does not neatly fit into our carefully crafted and self-affirming systems.

Jesus reminds us in this week’s text that unless we learn to suffer and forgive those who offend us, we will eliminate the very agent of God’s grace. When that happens, there is always weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The Gospels are clear; there is only one among us who has the wisdom necessary to discern wheat and weeds and that is the Crucified One. The Crucified One has what Rene Girard calls the “intelligence of the victim.” The Crucified One — the uprooted and cast out weed, judged to be evil by a system of self righteousness, is giving us the eyes of love and forgiveness necessary to recognize the harvest of love in our midst. There is more wheat out there than we realize. Isn’t that good news?

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

The Bad Sower

 
 
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, 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. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Matthew 13:3-7

I look for God’s activity in my life through the very mundane things that occur each day. Today was one of those days.

I looked down at my cell phone when it rang. It was a number that I was familiar with. Whenever this number pops up, I have to make a few quick decisions: Do I have time to talk? Do I have the energy? At the most, it’s a 10-minute phone call.

I’ve had my fair share of these calls from friends who are serving time in a correctional facility. Do people just want to catch up and talk? Or do they need money put on their books? Or do they want me to locate a family member? Do they want to talk about the NBA playoffs? Or do they want to talk about God?

I figured I had 10 minutes. I sat down. And I answered.

We greeted each other with our normal “Wassup? How you been doin’?” stuff. We talked about the latest happenings both “out here” and “in there.” And then out of the blue:

Him: Hey, you remember that story in the Bible about the Sower and the seeds?
Me: Yep. (side-note, this particular passage is not one of my favorites….)
Him: Lina, I have been every type of soil you can imagine. You know that. I’ve been so reckless with my life. I’ve been rocky, thorny, unproductive – just bad soil. But God keeps after me. God is still sowing. After all this time. I don’t know why. He is so good. Why hasn’t he quit on me?

We chatted a little longer about that, and then we hung up. Without thinking too much about our conversation, I sat down at my computer to see what passage I would be writing about today. As I looked at the revised common lectionary passages for this week, here it was… my favorite: “The Sower and the Seeds.”

My friend’s question was the absolute right question. It was a beautiful question. Because it takes us to the heart of the story – which really isn’t about the SOIL so much but rather the intent of the Sower.

What Sower would sow seeds among thorns or a stony path? Who would knowingly sow where birds would swoop down and devour the seeds? Who would sow seeds in places where there was no chance of flourishing. And while there was seed that fell on good soil, the nagging question remains, what about those other seeds that were wasted?

Either the Sower was not very good at the job or they knew something about the soil that we do not.

Or perhaps the Sower has an abundance- an endless amount of seeds – to WASTE – to sow lavishly in hopes that somehow, some way, even the seeds that fell into bad places would have a chance to sprout even a little bit.

This parable isn’t first about seed or soil. It is first about the lavish, extravagant nature of God.

“Why is God wasting His grace on me?”

It was a profound, beautiful, deeply theological question that didn’t come from the halls of academia but from a state correctional facility. It came from an inmate, a friend, pondering the soil of His own life and the seeds of Grace that have fallen his way. Even he sees that those seeds are redeemed, regardless of the soil. Every. Last. One.

This is the Economy of God…where Grace is sown in such an abundant fashion – and is wasted on soil that isn’t even all that productive – or at least that’s what it looks like. That seems so wrong and offensive. And scandalous. And – well, it just seems like Grace.

Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms

Dance to the Music

 
 
64Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel 65and asked the servant, “Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?”
“He is my master,” the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself.
66Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. 67Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

Genesis 24:64-67

Poor Isaac, dying in a state of deception, betrayal, sorrow and loneliness. Yes, in our reading we encounter him comfortably ensconced within his mother’s tent, basking in the early hours of love at first sight, but things go very wrong by the time we get to chapter 27! There, the family of the patriarch is divided as rivals, Isaac and Esau on one side of the breach, and Rebekah and Jacob on the other. Can such soap-opera-caliber mess be the fruit of God’s plan for Isaac’s family: brothers at war over inheritance, Mom and Dad playing favorites among their children, lies, trickery, and deceit? In the end, fear leads Isaac to give his beloved Rebekah over to another man, an act that mimicked his father’s failures. Despite the moment of love and contentment we see in our reading, it seems this patriarch is destined to continue in family tragedy and community chaos, and to die in sadness and regret.

Unlike most central characters of today’s blockbuster movies or yesterday’s ancient literature, Biblical figures are not casted as heroes. They are otherwise unremarkable figures who accomplish mighty things only when attuned to God’s voice. They court absolute disaster when they tune out God’s gracious words. We see this with Noah, unquestioningly following God’s precise directions in building his humanity-saving watercraft. Soon after, he fails to seek any divine instruction but instead gets drunk on wine and cruelly curses his innocent grandson. Similar failure befalls Abraham in the disastrous aftermath of his exploitation of the sex slave Hagar, a probable gift received as payment for exploiting his own wife Sarah. Blessed outcomes when God’s voice is in the mix; disaster when biblical figures hit the mute button. These are the lives of the patriarchs, the kings, the prophets, and the judges of Israel.

We are incredible creatures who, when in harmony with God’s voice, accomplish transformative feats of love, kindness, goodness, and grace. I imagine God’s frustration when, like the patriarchs, we are so capable while heeding his voice and so flawed when allowing other voices to block, distort, and override the divine conversation. We should take note of the absence of divine conversation within the disasters of the patriarchal saga. It was Abraham’s prejudicial worldview, not any divine instruction, that led him to incestuously seek a wife for Isaac from within his own family rather than from the people God had sent him to live among and learn from. We see how that worked out. It was Isaac’s prejudicial worldview that led him to favor Esau over Jacob, as it was Rebekah’s prejudicial worldview that led her to prefer Jacob over Esau. And prejudiced worldviews continue until
this day to block, distort, and override the voice of God.

16“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

Matthew 11:16-19

If you’ve seen grace at work, you may recognize that it dwells beyond words and rides along the rhythms of song. God has so richly blessed us with a melody for all seasons, be it joyous songs celebrating love, beauty, and wonder, or the restorative refrains for times of loss, pain, and longing. Imagine the sense of frustration and disappointment Jesus carried as he considered how those of his day had missed the opportunity to live within the heavenly lyrics of God’s song. Instead, they looked at John the Baptist, with his words of repentance, justice, and truth, and in allowing their prejudiced worldview to block out the music, mistook the divine for the demonic. Similarly, hearing the gracious and tender words of Jesus, they called reprobate that which was redemptive. Jesus reminds us, there is no winning with those whose prejudiced worldviews prevent them from dancing to the happy music and crying with the sad.

God’s song is wild, unpredictable, and ever evolving with greater and more vibrantly intricate rhythms. Prejudiced worldviews, attempts to selfishly bend rhythms to the tune of our cultural accommodations, or to limit it within strict notations of past arrangements, serve to distort, block, and override the empowering guidance and understanding of the divine melody. Really good music bids us come and dwell within its lyrical splendors, entangle ourselves within its transcendent basslines, and exuberantly dance at its direction and cry at its prompts.

May God bless all of us with ears to hear his voice clearly, and a desire to join in the divine conversation, or more appropriately, the divine song. It’s lyrics and rhythms produce movements that are truly free and joyful.

Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja

Missional Hospitality: Blessed by Grace

 
 
“And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Matthew 10:40-42

Our Gospel reading this week draws from just three little verses at the end of an incredibly dense Matthew 10. The chapter is full of missional directives, which are bookended by the topic of missional hospitality we find in verses 40-42.

There will always be a call for disciples of Christ to “go out” and “live into” the harvest, embracing an often harsh and not-so-inviting world through the artful dance of Gospel subversion. Those sent will need to depend on the hospitality of others. Jesus says of missional hospitality, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).

In the world of the New Testament, identity was intimately tied to family and community. The act of welcoming someone was more than embracing an individual; you were embracing the entire community who had done the sending as well as the family whom the “sent one” represents. Therefore, welcoming a disciple of Jesus meant (and still means) receiving the very presence of Jesus himself along with the one who sent him.

For the past 15 years, Street Psalms has experienced missional hospitality through the planning of and participation in vision trip experiences in partnership with colleagues around the world. (You can read more about how we see the distinction between vision and mission trips here.)

This past April, four fathers from Tacoma, WA traveled to Guatemala City with their sons to engage in a unique father/son vision trip. We spent significant time discussing the gift of blessing; our classroom was the dance of the Spirit within the hospitable soul of the Guatemalan people. As a part of our trip, the participants embarked on a journey to discover what it meant for fathers to bless their sons in the spirit of the Father’s blessing of Jesus: “I love you and I really, really like you.” (“This is my son whom I love, in him I am well pleased.”)

One afternoon, I had the privilege of accompanying the group to a large informal settlement (La Esperanza) on the outskirts of Guatemala City. A family from the ministry network of CMT Guatemala has chosen to live there. Ageo and Irma Perez, along with their sons Angel and Samuelito, open their humble home in the afternoons and weekends to the children of La Esperanza.

We arrived just as a Bible study was beginning. They asked me to come forward to bring the children greetings from the visiting group. I hadn’t planned anything ahead of time, so I was spitballing a little and decided to grab 14 year-old Mitchell, asking him to share with the children in Guatemala a little about his life in Tacoma. When he finished, I asked the children if any of them had questions for Mitchell. To my dismay, none of them responded. So, in a minor panic, I looked for the one little girl whose name I knew — 6 year-old Graciela.

“Graciela,” I asked, “do you have any questions for Mitchell?” A sheepish smile crept over her face…after a pregnant pause she proclaimed, “No tengo ninguna pregunta pero quiero que él sepa que Dios le quiere bendecir. Que Dios te bendiga Mitchell.” (I don’t have a question but I want him to know that God wants to bless him. May God bless you, Mitchell). It was a life-changing encounter with resplendent missional hospitality for the 14 year-old “missionary.” A cup of cold water (grace) had just been delivered to the “little” disciple on the vision trip, and it will take a lifetime for him to unpack the significance of the reward he received that day from Graciela’s blessing.

To understand God’s mission, and how the church reflects that mission, we need to celebrate the cupbearers of cold water — the Gracielas of the world who proclaim the blessing of scandalous Grace. They, who hospitably receive those “sent by the Lord,” may actually embody the key to authentic Gospel expansion. They, in fact, are the one’s who are “sent.”

“Go” and “receive those who are sent” — waiting for you is the smile of Graciela’s resplendent blessing of scandalous grace.

Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

Whispers in the Dark

 
 
27“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

Matthew 10:24-39

“God who are you and who am I?” St. Francis once prayed this simple prayer all night. He set the world ablaze with what he heard in the dead of night.

Jesus whispers in the dark. As this week’s text suggests, it’s his preferred mode of communication. These covert conversations deal with the elemental essence of things; in that sense they are life-giving, world-changing and, yes, quite dangerous. The whispers are dangerous because they uncover secrets that have been “hidden since the foundations of the world” (Matt. 13:35). These secrets are killing us, which is why Jesus says, “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known”(v.26).

So what are the secrets Jesus is uncovering? Our moral failures? Our shameful acts? Our lustful thoughts? No, Jesus has bigger fish to fry. In my experience, St. Francis’ prayer can be trusted to attune our ears to the whispers in the dark and the secrets that Jesus uncovers there.

Who Are You?
The first whisper has to do with who God is. Jesus whispers the secret
name of God. It seems obvious enough to say that God is good and God is love. So, let me phrase it differently to try and recover something of the shock of this first whisper. God is non-violent. There is no violence whatsoever in God. God is not who we thought God was. Jesus whispers the delightful news that we got it wrong. He whispers, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13). Of course, if we’ve read much of the Old Testament or been raised in a theological tradition that insists that God can and does use violence, or even if we are just being honest about our view of God, we can see why this might be a little disorienting and hard to hear. It might even raise questions about which Spirit is whispering in the darkness. Can we really trust what we are hearing?

Who Am I?
The second whisper has to do with who we are. Jesus whispers our secret name. We too are good and loving in as much as we are created in God’s image. We are the embodiment of original blessing. Jesus whispers, “You are God’s beloved in whom God is well pleased (Mark 1:11). It may be the hardest of all the whispers to trust. But here is where things get tricky and a bit more complicated. Yes, we are beloved ones, whose belovedness is being revealed, but we are also violent ones whose violence is being revealed. It’s no secret that when pushed we are all capable of great violence.

What remains hidden to us are the ways we are constituted in violence and have projected that onto God. In fact, we are so blind to this pattern that it goes unnoticed. We are easily convinced that certain forms of violence are necessary acts of righteousness sanctioned by God himself. Jesus whispers our complicated full name in the dark, and it’s here that I pause to say thanks for the whisper, for when our belovedness meets face to face with our complicity in violence, the results are deafening, soul shaking, and hard to endure no matter how soft the tones. Some fall to their knees asking for mercy. Others rise in anger ready to defend.

Perhaps now we can understand why Jesus warns his disciples that proclaiming in the light what they heard whispered in the dark is not only the salvation of the world, but it is also quite dangerous. For example, Jesus is called Beelzebul. Jesus warns us that we can expect the same. There is simply no way to bear this cross unless we’ve heard Jesus whisper in the dark.

So here is my prayer. May we share in the light what we’ve heard in the dark. It’s the hope of the world.
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Breathing With The City

 
 
1The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)

 

I can’t take it y’all, I can feel the city breathing
Chest heaving, against the flesh of the evening
Sigh before we die like the last train leaving.
– Black Star, “Respiration”
 

Lenny leaned securely against the darkness of the night. His jet-black figure perfectly matched the evening’s moonless flesh. It was much too late for socializing but there he stood, on 6th Street, gazing toward Ferry Ave., as I made my way home after dropping guys off from midnight basketball. After three hours of ball with fit and speedy teens, my legs and back showed my age; I needed to get home quickly for rest and pain relievers…but there was Lenny, poised in the solitude of the dark empty street. My reputation could not survive the slight of passing without shouting out to him, but I feared being dragged into 6th & Ferry’s continuous drama. Risking a delay in my homeward journey, I lowered the window of the well-worn ministry van and yelled, “Yo Lenny! What up man?”

 

Homicide or suicide, 
Heads or Tails
Some think life is a living hell, Some live life just living well
I live life tryna tip the scale, My way, my way, My way, my way
-The Roots, “My Way”

 

I loved Lenny’s potential, his destiny derailed by dysfunction, terror, travail, and despair, but still evident in the brilliant points of character that involuntarily poked through his foreboding façade. Lenny bore an image molded by evils visited on Black men in America. Hell’s troubles accompanied his deep-dark skin — pure aesthetic beauty to an artistically conscious eye but pure dread for many Americans. Suspicious eyes were constantly upon him: on the streets, in the mall, the bank, and even church. He was the brother told to take a plea in court, not because of guilt but because the public defender advises, “The jury will take one look at you and you’re done.” His fate had been sealed as his ancestors stepped foot on the shores of Jamestown Virginia in 1619, or on shores just down the street where Camden’s ferry stations auctioned slaves during the 18th century. Be it from Virginia or just down Ferry Ave., somehow the homicide/suicide deed had been prefabricated centuries before and 6th & Ferry just happened to be the place on that night.
 

Through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand,
 and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. – Romans 5:2

 

I just wanted to bear hug Lenny and carry him off to a wholly different historical and personal narrative. But I couldn’t. I was left only with the power of a simple greeting. Lenny quickly responded, “Hey, Mr. Tim!” He hard-walked toward the van. Reaching the opened window, Lenny exhaled his words as if he had held his breath throughout the evening, “Glad you stopped. I don’t know why but I just feel like just killin’ somebody tonight, like just killin’ somebody.” He spoke with a deeply driven yet oddly rational passion, as if contemplating the deed within a homicide/suicide moment he had worked through on the corner. Ill prepared to address such a pronouncement, I could only look at him as a friend and calmly suggest he go home and sleep away his frustrations, promising him things would look different in the morning. With this, he again thanked me for stopping, turned homeward, and slowly made his way through the early summer heat — his life, my life, and an intended victim’s life all intact.

 

Desperate brothers hanging on dark street corners often seek for God to make his presence known. They may never experience the type of divine physical visitation we see with Abraham in our Genesis 18 reading, but the incarnation is rich and full of abundant surprises — surprises even placed within our small humble words.

 

A downwardly-mobile, street-level, incarnational witness calls out to those living within homicide/suicide propositions, connecting people to the living, moving grace of God; it shows up in the most unexpected places and at the most unpredictable times. The good news about this, the work we are all called to, is that no heroes, formulas, or superpowers are needed to apply. The incarnation simply inspires us to continue hanging around dark streets and dark moments, risking some drama on our way home, and stopping to say, “What Up!” as we breath with the city.

 

Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja

The Great Commission(s)

 
 
19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:16-20

The command to “go” and to “make” disciples has defined Christianity for centuries and has probably been one of the most formative parts of our Christian narrative. We are supposed to share our faith. We are supposed to lead people to Jesus. We are commanded to “go and make.” Period.

I wish I could hear how Jesus “sounded” when these words were spoken. I’d like to believe there was nuance in his voice — and that it didn’t sound as harsh as it reads…Or as harsh as it was taught to me by my bible study teacher; a white male encouraging us to “pray and consider Africa as a place to ‘do’ mission.”

Even back then, when I was a “new” believer, and a young leader, something didn’t feel right about this passage to me. It felt, and still feels…well…it feels violent.

Before everyone calls me a heretic, let me explain.

I am a Pacific Islander. My family comes from the islands of Samoa.
The London Missionary Society sent missionaries to the islands in the South Pacific in the early 1800’s.

In I832, the missionary John Williams landed in American Samoa, in the village of Leone. The First Christian Congregational Church in American Samoa was founded here. In front of the church, a monument was erected in honor of John Williams. HE was responsible for bringing Christianity to the Samoan Islands. I had mixed feelings about Viliamu (Williams). The Samoan Christian Congregational Church of Samoa was the denomination of my parents and grandparents. Several years ago, I visited Leone and the site where Christianity came to us through the missionary movement. I saw this monument erected in honor of Loane Viliamu (Missionary John Williams). I remember standing in front of this monument with a million questions, totally conflicted and with tears in my eyes. Not all of them were happy tears.

What did they see? How did they view my people? Did they see us as uncivilized? Savage? Did they did they discern the indigenous ways of knowing God that were there long before they arrived — put in us by the God they were sent to proclaim? Did they know of our values of aiga (family), tautua (service), tausiga o va (love of neighbor) and could they recognize this as God’s grace already present with us, to us, among us? In reading journal entries from missionaries sent to the South Pacific islands, I found the following entry from John Williams:

“The more hideous their depravity, the more urgent was the need to lose no moment in bringing to them the means of salvation. Not merely was it to be a message to save the soul, but the missionary was also to teach useful arts and crafts and all the blessings of civilization, from arithmetic to plastering houses.”

That’s how they viewed my ancestors.

I’m sure these missionaries came as a faithful response to the Great Commission. By the way, Jesus never called it that. It was a branding idea that came about in the late 1700’s to get people interested in foreign mission. It worked. Thousands of missionaries were sent out to all corners of the world. I suppose I should be grateful for them coming. It resulted in my family — great-grandparents, grandparents and parents, becoming Christian — along with the rest of the islands.

It is difficult to reconcile feelings of being “acted upon,” which is how I read Williams’s journal entry, AND how I read Matthew 28. Perhaps the writer of Matthew is assuming that after 27 chapters of seeing, hearing, and being with Jesus, the disciples will know the “way” in which mission should happen. Their “mission” should’ve been informed by beautiful parables of the Kingdom of God where Jesus is constantly turning expectations upside down — where those in power are called to sacrificial service. Where the first are last, and the last are first. Where prostitutes, lepers, religious outsiders, INCLUDING women, are elevated by Jesus as examples to religious people of what it means to truly know and worship God.

For many years, I avoided this passage altogether. I wasn’t motivated to share the Gospel in this way — by going to them, making them into disciples, baptizing them, teaching them, etc….it all felt too…”colonizing.”

Imagine how relieved I was when a colleague shared with me a different commission from John 21: “As the Father has sent me, so I send You.”

It turns out that the most important, instructive missional word in all of scripture is a tiny: AS.

It’s an incarnational word, like another small incarnational word: WITH.

To run out the door with good intent and fervor, armed only with a Matthew 28 charge and zeal does damage. It diminishes people. It creates a power dynamic between “us” and “them” — those who have the Good News and those who “need” it. Matthew 28 needs John 21 in order to give us, not just the “what” of mission, but also the “how.” If we don’t hold those together, we risk bearing witness, often through our deeds, of a disincarnated God. And that couldn’t be further away from the truth of Jesus that we are commissioned to share.

Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms

Commencement

 
 
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you…. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

John 20:19-23

For many in the United States, the end of May is full of graduation parties for aspiring high school seniors — a transition into a new life as adults. While exciting, for student and parent alike, the season can also be filled with fear and doubt.

We are six weeks removed from the narrative journey of Holy Week that led us through the crucifixion, the disorientation of Holy Saturday silence and the unbridled joy of an empty tomb. “The resurrection is God’s Amen to Jesus’ statement, ‘It is finished,'” writes S. Lewis Johnson.

While the tomb that had held Jesus is now empty, our lectionary text introduces us to disciples who are staring at a very different world than the one they were comfortable with. There has been a “graduation” of sorts, and now they feel paralyzed, incapable of moving forward, self-entombed behind walls of fear, doubt and disillusionment. They have not yet experienced the truth of the resurrection; they cower in fear behind locked doors and covered windows.

Here, in the midst of that darkness, Jesus shows up to his group of graduating seniors and delivers a commencement address — life’s great forward-looking ceremony. He slips into the room as the forgiving victim and vividly creates the experience of Easter. His delivery may be more important than the message because the resurrection cannot be explained; rather, it must be experienced. When it comes to life’s deepest mysteries, experience trumps explanation every time! When it comes to the resurrection, the Gospels offer no explanation as to how it happened. Instead, we are given a series of personal encounters with the risen Christ delivering mini commencement addresses that forever change the world.

The first word from the resurrected God, in a locked room of “graduating” disciples drowning in doubt and shaking in fear, is “Peace be with you.” He then lovingly shows them his wounds, and commissions them to be ambassadors of forgiveness for the world — the very forgiveness they are now experiencing. And then, the risen/wounded one performs a stunning act of intimacy. He “breathes” on them.

The breath of God is the kiss of God that remakes the world. In this divine kiss Jesus is modeling the very core of mission, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” In kissing us into existence Jesus empowers us to do the same — to forgive as God forgives, in a courageous act of union and communion. This is the meaning of the kiss. This is how creation and re-creation unfolds. The disciples have been “commenced.” They are kissed into the world anew, addressed to be a blessing to the waiting world around them.

Sadly, many of us have yet to experience the kiss of the risen Christ. We have perhaps heard the “words” of commencement but have avoided the terrifying, life-giving experience of encounter with the commencer. As a result, we “retain” (bind up) the sins of others and spend precious time and energy justifying our self-destructive behaviors of rivalry, bitterness and resentment. Jesus addresses us all with these forward-minded words and actions of this commencement address.

Mercifully, the risen Christ continues to deliver his commencement address even today by entering the locked rooms where we, like the disciples before us, self-entomb. He gently and gracefully (with a kiss) enters the doubt, fear and disillusionment of our lives. All he asks is that we allow ourselves to be breathed upon, knowing full well that the person kissed by the risen Christ will naturally and eagerly participate in the ongoing act of Creation itself.

This is the glorious truth of what it means to be “commenced.” We have been addressed with the kiss of the resurrected Jesus and are invited to leave the rooms of self-locked doors that have previously held us captive. The world awaits the touch of graduates who have been kissed into life by the resurrected Lord.

“Oh God, hear our prayer!! Easter yourself within, around and between us that we might receive your kiss and thus, as bright-eyed graduates, experience you as the dayspring that dissipates our dimness.”

Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

The Crime Scene

 
 
“…’Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’… While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy…” (Luke 24:49-52)

Luke 24:44-53

Imagine the victim of a violent crime asks you to return to the scene of the crime-a crime that you were (in part) responsible for. Now imagine that this experience becomes the animating center of your life, which, despite your dread, fills you with great joy, and clothes you with a power that transforms you and the world. This is the miracle we celebrate in the final week of the Easter season as Jesus ascends into heaven.

After the crucifixion, the disciples fled Jerusalem in fear. The crucified risen Christ appears to them in the resurrection and instructs them to return to Jerusalem. A rag tag band of frightened and confused disciples return to the scene of the crime (the fingerprints of guilt are everywhere). They “stay in the city” and become a joy-filled community of courageous leaders “clothed in power.” It’s from this new center of existence that the world is transformed.

Joseph Campbell writes, “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for. The damned thing in the cave, that was so dreaded, has become the center.”

Campbell beautifully describes the counterintuitive journey of our faith! The dreaded thing that has us fleeing in fear is the very center of our existence, if we can only turn and face it.

The bestselling novel, The Shack, by William P. Young, is a great illustration of this. A man is invited to return to the scene of a horrific tragedy that involves the brutal murder of his daughter (it was not his fault, but he feels responsible); there, he is given a new center. His view of God, himself, the world, and the tragedy itself is transformed. He discovers a joy that is big enough to hold and honor all the pain that he’s endured. His wound becomes a womb of new creation, bearing seeds of new life.

Is there a greater, more beautiful mystery than this?

One more thing. The text has this odd line, “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them.” How does one bless while withdrawing?

Three years ago, while my father was on his deathbed, he blessed me. His blessing was wordless. He couldn’t speak. He simply laid his hand on my head and blessed me. His body was withdrawing from this world, but without a doubt, his spirit had never been more present to me. This is true even today. Perhaps this gets at what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, “It is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7). Yes, the risen Christ is available to us in way that the bodily existence of Jesus doesn’t allow. The absence of Jesus makes room for the presence of Christ, who “is all and in all” (Col. 3:11).

It’s true; the presence of the crucified risen Christ is in all things, calling forth life. It’s with this blessing, which fills our hearts with love’s confusing joy, that we return to the scene of the crime again and again to discover the very center of our existence. It’s from this place that our cities and our world are transformed.
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms
 
P.S. Whether you’re the victim or the perpetrator, it’s only wise for us to return to the scene of the crime (whatever that is in our life) when we have some sense of being led there by blessing. While the “dreaded thing” is the center of our existence, it will only be a life-giving center when we are ready to receive it. Until then, even the best gifts are experienced as curse. Go as you are blessed…

I bless you in the name of the Father who is for you, the Son who is with you and the Spirit who unites us all in the never-ending dance of love.

The Queen of 8th Street

 

 

57“But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.”

Acts 7:55-60

With a quick glance at Taina’s bushy hair, one knew they had entered a wholly unique experience. As other students sat awkwardly on secondhand office chairs, Taina perched herself high against the opposition, sitting like an 8th Street Queen, atop one of the secondhand computer desks. The African, the Arawak, and the Taino all met at the center of Taina’s cute, baby-like face. But one should be warned that her charm and her bushy ponytail belied her true nature as a warrior queen. Taina was determined to stay one step ahead of a system determined to vanquish all within her realm and to hold them under the grip of common ghetto oppression.

My first encounter with Taina was on a North Camden street corner as I waited to pick up some young people for a field trip. I saw her, bushy ponytail in full display, running all activity going on at the corner. I thought, “Look at this cute little brat, out here bossing all the thugs around.” The brilliance I suspected that day was confirmed when she joined our alternative education program. Taina possessed the distinct qualities of Camden’s warrior class: a piercing street apologetic, an anger born of the crisis state within the immediate environment, a determination to hustle into survival, and a fervent longing for something real. These street soldiers are known for their keen intuition, smartly tuned BS detection skills, and their insistence on justice. With them, one had better come with the correct story or risk accusations of fakeness. Sitting atop the secondhand desk, Taina was about to unleash the real story on the local Libertines gathered in opposition to her.

Libertines were one group identified as having seized Stephen, the central character in our reading today from Acts chapter seven. The Libertines have only one biblical mention: a sect comprised of Jews carried away as prisoners of war who had been emancipated. They resettled in Jerusalem and built a synagogue there. Though still clutched within the tortures of Roman imperial domination, the Libertines embraced an illusion of being “Freedmen,” as their name indicates.

Such illusions of freedom, surviving within systems of oppression, are established upon carefully fabricated stories that seek to obscure and misemploy details of an authentic narrative. An authentic narrative threatens the comforts earned within sacredly held illusions. False notions of reconciliation, inclusion, acceptance, fairness, and fraternity are all put at risk as the true story spills out from boldly inspired lips. This was the Libertines problem with the Stephen and his detailed retelling of God’s redemptive history with Israel and its culmination in the person of Jesus the Christ. Stephen’s reliance on God as the only refuge for Israel, and Jesus as the path to redemption, certainly threatened those reliant on systems of power, domination, and empty religion. They seem to echo the call of those in the Prophet Isaiah’s time who urged him

“Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions.”
– Isaiah 30:10

But Stephen, like the truth-tellers throughout history, would not speak of inauthentic pleasantries. He spoke of God’s work from below, through Jesus.

“When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord”
– Acts 7:54-57

Taina sought neither pleasantries nor illusions as she listened to Camden’s Libertines. These were the officials who had gathered, attempting to sooth tensions after an incident between the police and a fellow student. The student was pencil thin and no more dangerous than an average canary. Yet, he had been harassed, abused, and arrested by burly police officers for the mere crime of waiting outside the corner store as his cheesesteak sandwich was being prepared. The police brass and police chaplains gathered there to proclaim a narrative of good policing and neighborly relations in a city known for rampant police corruption and abuse.

Taina would have none of this and, rising from her secondhand throne, she challenged Camden’s Libertines, first recounting the many incidents of police abuse in her neighborhood and then declaring, “Some of your policemen run the drugs in our neighborhood. You want to know their names?” With this, the police chaplains’ faces turned red and their teeth gnashed. Some of the brass ran to quiet her while others yelled “Woooo, Woooo, Heyyy, Heyyy,” in attempts to drown out the authentic narrative. If Libertine eyes had the striking force of stones, Taina would have met the same fate as the martyred Stephen. In some ways, her continued isolation, alienation, and targeting cloak her in daily-lived martyrdom.

“In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.”
– Psalms 31:1

The witness of the martyrs should move us to respond within the systems we live among. In a world where social climbing, compromise, and adoption of false notions of peace and righteousness seem the safest route to success and abundance, I find special beauty in those spaces where God is working to provide refuge for the challenge of an authentic and life-changing narrative. Would that we worked with God to create such spaces within oppressive systems where the voices of the martyrs and the street queens can speak the truth to the powers on behalf of the powerless and survive the stones.

Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja