Harry

 

“Who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,
the Son of the living God.”

Matthew 16:15-16

The camp speaker joined us in our cabin and Harry was on the edge, struggling with Jesus again. Harry had been to camp many times and each time he’d said “yes” to Jesus. Each time he meant it. And each time he returned to his neighborhood where the peaceful clarity of summer camp gave way to the reality of violence that eventually swallowed him up.

The camp speaker, who had seen too many urban kids succumb to forces too big to deny, was pushing Harry hard. I sat silently, unsure what to do. Harry’s friend, named Junior, finally stepped in and said, “That’s enough!” Junior said that Harry had been to camp five times and each time he said “yes” to Jesus and each time he returned to the neighborhood where things got confusing. Each time he felt worse for having denied Jesus. Junior suggested that maybe Harry’s “denial” of Christ back home was harder on Harry than it was for Jesus.

Emboldened by Junior’s words, I asked the camp speaker to back off. The speaker left our cabin dismayed (mostly with me).

A year later Harry was dead, gunned down in the street by rival gang members, only a few blocks from my house.

In this week’s text, Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. It was the farthest away from Jerusalem Jesus ever travelled, (except as an infant, when his family fled to Egypt as refugees from state sponsored violence). Far away from the pressure cooker of Jerusalem, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am? Peter responds with clarity, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).

Not long afterwards, the clarity Peter found in Caesarea Philippi was swallowed up by the fear and violence of Jerusalem. Peter denied Jesus three times.

One way or another, we’re all headed for Jerusalem.

In retrospect, maybe I should have let the camp speaker push Harry further. Maybe I denied Harry the opportunity to name Jesus as the Christ one more time. Maybe I denied Harry again when we returned from camp and he came by my house one evening; he offered me his gun as a way to protect myself in a heated summer of violence. It was a generous and kind offer. I refused the gift. Maybe I denied Harry yet again when I stopped hosting our regular gatherings in order to reach out to younger kids. I denied Harry a lot more than three times and I am not alone.

Maybe I’m thinking about this because summer is coming to and end. I’ve enjoyed some underserved but much needed time away where I’ve experienced glimpses of clarity about Jesus, myself, and our mission. And yet there is a pit in my stomach. Jerusalem beckons. I’ve seen what happens when one sets their face toward Jerusalem. I know too well my own cowardice. A big part of me wants to stay in Caesarea Philippi and ponder what I’ve seen.

Harry was killed nearly 25 years ago. I don’t know if Harry is Peter or Jesus, or just a kid whose life has marked me forever. What I do know is that Harry keeps me honest about the Gospel and this crazy, beautiful, mixed up world. Harry bridges the gap between Caesarea Philippi and Jerusalem and beckons me to cross it. He insists that we proclaim a Gospel big enough to honor him as herald of Christ, denier of Christ and Christ himself, all the while being Harry, a kid from Portland who loved going to camp, and who is calling us back into the city where Christ is fully and finally revealed as the merciful one, not in spite our denials, but because of them.

 

Kris Rocke

Executive Director

Tacoma, Washington

The Canaanite Woman in Charlottesville?

 

 

11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

“Blood and soil!” “You will not replace us!” “Jews will not replace us!”

Some made monkey noises at the black counter protesters. Then they began chanting, “White lives matter!”

“F— you, f-gg–s!” “Go the f— back to Africa,” “F— you, ni–ers!” many also screamed. “Dylann Roof was a hero!” another yelled, referring to the white supremacist who killed nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. (As related in a recent Washington Post article).

These were some of the chants being screamed by marchers in the “Unite the Right” Rally in the state of Virginia (United States) last weekend. The marchers were making a statement, loud and clear…“We are human, and you are less than human. We are clean, and you are unclean. We are holy, and you are unholy.” Maybe they didn’t use those exact words…but that was at the heart of the message.

The questions of cleanliness, holiness, and ethnicity come up in both our Gospel stories for today. In the beginning of chapter 15, the Pharisees approach Jesus and ask, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” In all fairness to the Pharisees, they were defending an important ritual that had roots in the law. Regardless, Jesus counters, reminding them that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (15:11). There is an echo from Samuel in here, “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

In the second half of the Gospel reading, we hear the disconcerting story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. Interpretations abound as to the meaning of the story, but at face value it clearly wrestles with ethnicity, discrimination, and worth. By the end of the narrative, Jesus has declared the woman, an ancient ethnic enemy of his people, to be of “great faith.” A proclamation of the greatest honor in the New Testament, and one that is all the more surprising when we consider that Peter, one of his closest disciples, had just been declared “of little faith” a few verses earlier.

By the end of both stories, Jesus has come out on the side of those deemed “unclean.” God has joined with those who are scapegoated by society. And not just in a defensive manner. In a great reversal, the scapegoats are identified as the people who are actually closer to God…in other words, as the “Holy Ones.”

Jesus’ journey to the cross is filled with examples where he identifies with those from below…those who are considered less than human…who are scapegoated bc of their ethnicity, or their homeland, or their immigration status, or their gender, or their economic or physical condition. He stands with them. And his disciples, by nature of their “following” vocation, didn’t have much choice but to join him.

It was this way of life, of standing with the scapegoat, that led to Jesus’ death. He became the ultimate scapegoat. Do you see it? He died because his theology messes up the entire system—if God is not only on the side of the scapegoat—if God actually declares them the holy ones, then who do we have left to blame? What do we have left to do at that point but look in the mirror and face the hard truths of our own brokeness, either of commission or omission?

And so it’s done. Jesus hangs on the cross…bleeding, spat upon, mocked, dying…the inevitable conclusion of the scapegoating process lived out to its fullest. That feels dark and hopeless—because it is. And it will continue to feel dark for the days to come.

But there is a ray of light in the midst of it all. From the cross, Jesus undermines the very system that has brought us this far. He utters the most potent and least expected form of resistance to the scapegoating spiral threatening to consume us all. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34).

These words—unsolicited and unexpected forgiveness—tear apart the very curtain of the temple which separated the “clean” from the “unclean.” These words destroy the distinction—they unravel the scapegoating system at its core.

A new way is now possible. Difficult? Perilous? Costly? Yes. But it’s possible.

May Jesus’ words of forgiveness, of new creation, grant us all new hearts today—new hearts to follow him as he joins with the scapegoated, as he becomes one with their pain and plight, as he denounces the powers that be, and even as he whispers words of forgiveness when they feel least deserved…maybe even when he whispers words of forgiveness on our behalf…because we can’t fathom doing so ourselves. If we want a different world, that’s where it will need to start.

Justin Mootz
Friend of Street Psalms
Tacoma, United States

Even the Muscle Dudes

 

 

28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

Matthew 14:22-33

Even the Muscle Dudes’ Knees Were Shaking.

Muscly New York City dudes ascended the multitiered stairway, making their way to the “H-2 Oh No” Waterslide somewhere out among the beauty of New Jersey’s Kittatinny Mountains. Yes, New Jersey does have a little mountain grandeur and yes, these hard-accented tough guys did break out into knee-shaking fear as they reached the top of the platform and gazed down at 100 feet of pure vertical terror. Most who approach this slide quickly change their minds, fearing it a bit too suicidal. But not Edwaan, he was a young man of faith.

Edwaan was a constantly-smiling kid, always ready for fun and adventure. His given name was Edwin but he loved It when I substituted a prolonged “a” for the “i” in his name, often extending the “a” to comical lengths as the situation dictated — sometimes Edwaan and other times Edwaaaaaaaan. His life drastically shifted with the death of his grandfather, who was the mortar that held together a fragile family. After he passed, Edwaan’s mother fell into catastrophic relationships and the deeper catastrophe of drug abuse. Once pampered by an attentive and caring mother, Edwaan soon experienced neglect and new levels of vulnerability. Curiously, the dramatic changes in his life never seemed to affect his faith. He had Peter-like faith.

Peter is best known in the Gospels for cluelessness, unchanneled aggression, and his lack of faith, like we see in today’s Gospel reading. That makes “Peter-like faith” a problematic concept. Jesus himself casts doubt on Peter’s faith in verse 31, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

And while the issues of Peter’s faith and loyalty inspire frustration and angst, I find his actions in verse 28 to be fascinating, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” The request is curiously complex. He neither requests a calming of the winds and waves, nor to have Jesus come aboard and comfort the terrified crew. Instead, he requests an invitation to dwell with Jesus — out on an angry sea. This ridiculous request points to a longing in Peter’s heart to move beyond rhetoric and symbolism and straight to salvific action in the midst of real danger — in the midst of real life.

Like Peter, like Edwaan, and like so many of us, there is a longing for belief out on life’s “danger waters” — those places removed from the placid nature of peace and plenty. Persecution, pain, and tragedy inspire deep longings, often taking the shape of foolhardy propositions such as Peter’s, “Save me in these dangerous waters or watch me die.” Later, Jesus chides Peter for his lack of faith, but I’m sure I would have been similarly guilty. Imagine the disorientation of being uniquely alive after a desperate invitation that rationally assumes a watery death. Such faith is deep, daring, ridiculous, and powerful — an Edwaan-like faith.

Painful upheavals in Edwaan’s world heightened his longing to realize active salvation. This, our common longing, worked itself out between us as invitations into our respective danger waters. So, as I told Edwaan to just keep his eyes straight forward and let go, he did so, assured he would die. Edwaan’s friends, tough guys from tough neighborhoods, watched with amazement as the least heroic of them hydroplaned down the imposing slide, embracing the frightening adventure. They quickly lined up and entered this faith, taking the swift ride down the “H2 Oh No Waterslide.”

Peter was not at the cross to experience the strange disorientation that comes when salvation amid the danger waters seems to have failed — when it feels like you have actually drowned. I could not escape such alienation as I was called to join Edwaan out among his danger waters on a warm summer night in 2004. This time a storm of bullets had him laid out cruciform on the dark asphalt of Ferry Ave. As his life slipped away, the police prevented me from coming out to where he was, reaching out and catching him. Our faith is truly tested in such waters, as our focus fades and Jesus’ face becomes obscured within the blends of horrid screams, pain-driven rage, and blood-soaked streets. The reality of such tragedies calls us to live as communities that request invitation into each other’s danger waters. For we are certainly not called to dwell on such painful seas alone.

Within communities committed to living among both our common and extraordinary perils, we find the power to embrace frightening adventures, faith to understand that there is life after the cross and after blood stained asphalt, and healing for the wounds and scars inflicted as we lose those we love so dearly. We are called to the danger waters within our own lives and those of our community. And it is precisely in the midst of those danger waters, the places even the “muscle dudes” won’t go, that we often encounter the living God.

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

Eucharist and Abundance

 

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

Matthew 14:13-21

As we drew close to the church building, we noticed a structure in very ill repair. Windows were broken, doors unable to close properly, large stains adorned rugs and ceilings, and the arresting smell of strong body odor pierced our senses. We walked through the hallway toward the main worship space.

As we approached the entrance to a large sanctuary, we saw the stern, uninviting faces of some church ladies sporting Sunday uniforms. Their disapproving severity juxtaposed against the radiant smiles of poorly-clad children speaking in Shona (one of the official languages of Zimbabwe) as they ran up and down the church hallways playing some version of hide-and-seek.

My son and I found ourselves in this Johannesburg, South Africa, church hallway at the invitation of Dr. Stephan DeBeer, Director of the Centre for Contextual Ministry at the University of Pretoria, and Leadership Foundations Senior Associate for the African Continent. We were in country for the Biennial Consultation on Urban Ministry.

And, before the event started, Stephan showed us around Pretoria and then Johannesburg, the capitol city about an hour’s drive away. I never tire of spending time with people who engage in a perpetual love affair with the cities where they live and serve.

We spent hours driving around Johannesburg learning from our masterful guide. Then, Stephan pulled his car over to the side of the road. He said only that he wanted us to see something unique. We walked across the street toward the large three-story Central Methodist Church.

Not until we were standing in the church hallway with stained carpets, stern faces, and raucous Shona-speaking kids, did Stephan began to tell us the story of where we were. When xenophobic violence erupted in South Africa in May 2008, thousands of resident aliens trying to survive on the streets of Johannesburg had nowhere to turn. In the midst of spiraling controversy, the church rector, Bishop Paul Verryn, decided if the church in the city was anything, it needed to be an inviting refuge for people who had nowhere else to go.

So he opened up the church as home to thousands of migrants, most of whom had fled across the Zimbabwe border in search of a life beyond poverty and political oppression. They began to occupy every inch of the church building, turning classrooms into dorms and closets into changing rooms. When we visited, about 1,000 refugees lived and gathered at the church every night to worship and take communion. At one time, we were told the numbers had reached nearly 3,000 refugees seeking shelter there.

Several days after our visit, at the conclusion of the consultation on urban ministry, all attendees were invited to a communion service presided by none other than Bishop Paul Verryn. After singing African worship and praise music in four different languages, accompanied by plenty of dancing in the aisles, we shared Eucharist.

The elements had been served. The communion service was complete, but there still remained a feast on the table in front of us. As he was about to give a closing prayer, a smile exploded on Bishop Verryn’s face. He took a deep breath. “It seems as if there is an overabundance of God’s goodness lying before us this evening. The sacrament is complete but before us lies an invitation to a party. Can the ushers come back up please and distribute the rest of what lies on this table?”

As the ushers did just that, the praise band erupted into music of celebration and joy. Everyone took handfuls of bread and extra cups of juice. A party of feasting on God’s superabundant goodness was truly underway.

Many authors have debunked the myth of scarcity that Bishop Verryn confronted in Johannesburg and Jesus confronted in our text this week amidst 5,000 hungry men (“besides women and children”). Mary Jo Leddy writes:

“The economics of God’s love is not based on a law of scarcity but rather rooted in the mystery of superabundance. The personal or political decision to declare that THERE IS NOT ENOUGH is the beginning of social cruelty, war, and violence on a petty or vast scale. On the other hand, the choice to affirm that THERE IS ENOUGH FOR ALL is the beginning of social community, peace and justice. The option to assume that THERE IS ENOUGH frees the imagination to think of new political and  economic possibilities.”

In the shape of the verbs of Eucharist evidenced by what Jesus does with the 5 loaves and the two fish (Chose, Blessed, Broke and Gave), we see Jesus’s fidelity to the “mystery of superabundance” moving humanity from the bondage of fear-based scarcity to the freedom of God’s love-based abundance.

Whether standing in a stained church hallway while disapproving congregants watch immigrant children play in ragged clothes, or starving in a “desolate place” in a crowd of well over 5,000 others, in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus there is enough bread and fish for all, with plenty of left-over baskets. Can you see?

Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

Riddles of Grace: The Kingdom of God is Like….

 

 

35“I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The Jesuit Father, Anthony de Mello wrote that the shortest distance between a human and Truth is a story. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a variety of stories (parables) to describe the kingdom of heaven. We move from mustard seed (a weed) planted amidst a crop in a field to the image of yeast, to a treasure hidden in a field, to fine pearls and then, in perhaps the most striking of all, we are told that the kingdom of heaven is like a net (v. 47-48).

The fishing technique of Jesus’ day incorporated the use of a dragnet. These are quite removed from modern day sport fishing with its variety of tailored lures and exact test-line — all used to land specific fish during specific seasons. The fishing culture in Jesus’ day was markedly different. The dragnet was tied to a weight that would go down to the bottom and scrape up everything from bottom feeders to the fish on the surface and all that came in between. It’s the least strategic way you can fish.

If Jesus’ real subject here is the spreading of the good news (euangelion) of the kingdom of God then the dragnet seems a wasteful (un-strategic) way to do the mission of evangelism. For the selective and economical evangelism today, the stated goal is to be very specific about the kind of “prize fish” strategically reached for Christ, carefully using particular evangelistic lures (techniques). In contrast, using a dragnet is a messy way to fish, and when applied to fishing for souls, it sure makes for complicated evangelism.

Why are we tempted to engage in what we think are better ways to “fish” than what Jesus taught? Aspiring evangelists (anglers) try to get really good at “winning souls for Jesus” using a host of freshly painted, pristine, specifically designed lures (programs, events, strategies and media). After all, we reason, in our modern world we certainly have better tools and techniques than Jesus’ disciples ever had.

It is difficult to argue for a dragnet ministry today, and even more difficult to fund, but if we are going to cross over vast dividing lines of separation and rejection, we must pursue it.

While the dragnet approach may sound like the opposite of what some theologians have described as the “scandal of particularity,” it is rather the other side of the same coin. Jesus was at once particular in his approach to individuals and scandalously indiscriminate about whom he loved.

The dragnet of God’s love reminds us that we must be careful about being too caught up in our evangelistic tricks and techniques that tempt us to selectively pursue “trophy fish.” With the dragnet approach, we’ll likely catch something we do not expect or even want and thus will be tempted to throw it back. However, the key is learning to live with and rest within the tension of a net that scoops up everything.

Last week our lectionary text invited us into the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24-30). Tares and wheat look so similar to one another that even the experienced farmer finds it very hard to tell the difference. Thus, Jesus instructs the workers to let the two grow together lest they attempt to remove the tares and inadvertently uproot some of the wheat in the process.

To have a dragnet ministry, we need to cultivate a wheat and tare discipline — one that humbly recognizes our limitations to often successfully discern the difference between good and evil. This is crucial because when we cast a dragnet among the least, last, and lost, we scoop up some strange specimens indeed, and the temptation is then to protect our ministry from the “bottom feeders” by separation — “I can’t have that gang member in my youth group. He will mess up everything.” Or “that girl with tight jeans from a non-Christian family is going to be a bad influence on the impressionable church kids. We must keep her away from our kids.”

This is why so many ministries are designed for only a particular kind of fish. If we cannot accommodate the “bottom feeders,” we end up prioritizing programs over people and adjusting our message to fit our program. Dragnet ministry in hard places is chaotic and messy. It sometimes only works as it did with Jesus, a dozen people at a time.

Looking at what our big net scooped up, we are tempted to take the job of separating wheat and tares into our own hands. However, boundary-breaking ministry demands that we humbly admit we should leave the separating for the harvest time. What might it mean to run a dragnet ministry with wheat and tare inclusiveness?

And if that’s not enough, it’s important to remember that an irony hidden in plain sight within this metaphor is that bottom feeders are some of the oceans most sought after delicacies (e.g. oysters, lobster, etc.). Not only that, but modern science has helped us learn they are also some of the most nutrient-dense of all their compatriots. The fisher who throws them back is the real loser in this metaphor.

Are we sport-fishing for the fish we think we desire, or laying a dragnet that brings in all kinds? Are we trying to sort our crops before the harvest or trusting the sower to do the harvesting? If we dare, a dragnet ministry with a wheat and tares discipline radically broadens access to the one whose cross welcomes all.

 

Joel Van Dyke

Director, Urban Training Collaborative

Guatemala City, Guatemala

 

*Adapted from Chapter 11 of Geography of Grace.

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