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.

Two Letters

How are we to live our everyday lives in light of the Risen one? What difference does it make? What changes? What is new? Two letters. That’s it. In all the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples, its my favorite. It’s a small word, but it is everything

“Member-ing”

Membering one’s self back to the Body is needed in order to experience the fullness of what it means to function in the same manner that God intended for the Church. When done well, membering helps to foster the kind of culture or environment in which belonging can take place.

Grace in Galilee

The first ever encounter between Jesus and Peter happened on these same shores where Peter had grown up. Now, in this final chapter of the Gospel of John, the last encounter on earth between Jesus and Peter occurs once again at the same place…

Peace be with you

As if moved by this intuition, Thomas insists on a direct encounter with the risen Christ – one that will transform his own experience of pain. It’s not enough for Thomas to simply see the risen Christ. He must touch the wounds.

Easter

The Lords says: “I will create… I will rejoice… I will take delight… I will answer… I will hear.” There is no question who is making things happen here. Only God can make these kinds of declarations.

Holy Saturday

Is it just me or does Saturday seem like a low point in Holy Week? I find myself wondering why Holy Saturday is even in the story. Was it really necessary to wait for the Resurrection?

Good Friday

It’s Good Friday. Jesus is on the cross. In the synoptic Gospels, the witnesses stand at a distance. But in today’s text, I can’t help but notice the women “standing near” the foot of the cross.

Maundy Thursday

It’s Maundy Thursday, and today we read one of my favorite scenes in the Bible. It’s just hours before Jesus is betrayed, and I think it’s worth taking note of how he decides to spend this last evening with his disciples. He washes them, he feeds them, he gives them a new command: “Love one another.”

Ishmael, Isaac, and Palm Sunday

Between 1979 and 1981, twenty-nine young black people fell victim to a serial murderer in Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t know any of their names.I do have the name of JonBenét Ramsey indelibly sketched in my mind. Unlike the black children in Atlanta, JonBenét was a white American child of promise…

Discerning Death, Embracing Life

Mary approaches Jesus and smashes an alabaster jar of extravagant perfume, lavishly pouring the precious oil out upon his feet and wiping up the excess with her untied hair. What an arresting image of unbridled devotion and love. There is a time for counting the cost, and there is a time for extravagance.

Transforming Oikos

I have seen first-hand how eating together creates a community. We Filipinos like to eat together. Common meals are easily transformed into festive celebrations. In the Philippines,  a church that eats together is a vivid image of the church truly becoming a community of faith.

Repent or Parish?

Imagine that you are the innocent victim of violence. Now imagine a preacher telling you that you must repent, or you will perish. Just exactly what is the victim of violence and oppression supposed to repent of? And at whose hands will we perish? God’s?

The Fox and the Hen

This image conveys a different notion of sacrifice for me than the cross. Jesus on the cross, hanging alone, has always felt distant for me. I’m an “observer” to this act of love.When I consider the metaphor Jesus offers here, of himself as a mother hen, my imagination about God is peaked in new ways.

Transfixed or Transfigured?

The whole scene is an invitation to recount the experience of Moses on Mount Sinai; however, there is a notable difference. While glory came down from above unto Moses, here the glory is emanating directly from Jesus. While Moses exudes a reflected light, Jesus is the source of his own light.

The Womb of Mercy

My usually precise colleague aimlessly fiddled with his food, pondering the proper tone with which to broach a delicate matter. He was looking for words to express his concerns related to me openly talking about my poverty during times when I preached and taught. He’d rather me use other language than “I’m poor.”

A Well Kept Secret

My usually precise colleague aimlessly fiddled with his food, pondering the proper tone with which to broach a delicate matter. He was looking for words to express his concerns related to me openly talking about my poverty during times when I preached and taught. He’d rather me use other language than “I’m poor.”

Can Girls Fish?

All the images I saw on the walls of my Sunday school classrooms were pictures of white children and a white Jesus who looked like a surfer. And then there were stories like today’s Gospel in which boys were the lucky ones. They were on the shore that day to receive the amazing invitation from Jesus to follow him.

Are you in or out?

Taking a deep breath, Jesus knows his proclamation will transform the cheering multitude in front of him into a mob of murderers behind him. He points to two stories that his audience would have known well.

The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me

Yes, the whole world is a burning bush ablaze with God’s glory, if we can only see it, calling us to join the wildly liberating work of God among the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. If this isn’t cause for celebration, it’s probably because we don’t easily identify ourselves as poor, captive, blind or oppressed.

Baptized into One Body

“Will you renounce evil in all of its forms?” I’ve often wondered if I should ask those being baptized to list all the specific ways evil shows up in their lives, and how they plan to carry out their “renouncing.” (I don’t know if I’d actually use the word renounce…but I digress…).

Baptism

Baptism is an initiation into our most sacred vocation—to become fully human and know ourselves loved by God. No moral system, no matter how good, can produce this vocation. We become human, not through morality, but by receiving and giving mercy.

The Magi and the Baptism

This week we celebrate Epiphany, and next week the baptism of Jesus. What do these events say to our souls? How is God’s love transforming us as we meditate on these events?

Jesus Loses his Family for his Father’s House

I have always thought this to be an awkward Gospel story. Mary and Joseph lose their child and don’t realize it for a whole day! My sister has seven kids and forgot one at the mall once. But, Mary and Joseph only have one child—and they lost him? Talk about free-range parenting!

The Waiting Rooms of Christmas

Her picture popped up on my computer screen this week after clicking on an email from a friend—a sweet, but seemingly exhausted, 5-year-old Honduran refugee. The email author: a Street Psalms’ friend and InnerCHANGE missionary, Nate Bacon. He had joined up with the caravan of Central American immigrants on their Northward trek to the U.S. When he finally caught up with them in Huixtla, Mexico he did not find a “band of marauding criminals” nor a “threatening throng of terrorists,” but “groups of family members of all ages set on pursuing life.”

The Waiting Rooms of Christmas: The Wilderness II

Advent gives us an excuse to consider again the nature of a God who comes to be with and in a people. If the Incarnation is anything, it is the God-in-flesh ONE who turns things upside down and inside out, simultaneously scandalizing and comforting us. This is the God we are waiting for and the God we will welcome—anew.

The Waiting Rooms of Christmas: The Wilderness

A smartly dressed, well-heeled crowd pressed their way through a cold December evening in 1851, seeking to find comfortable seats within the warm confines of New York’s Metropolitan Hall. The hype for this event was incredible. It would become part of an annual phenomenon, featuring big and plenteous voices, gathered to sing out the scriptures, as arranged by George Frideric Handel in his oratorio, “The Messiah.”

The Waiting Rooms of Christmas: Apocalypse and Holy Defiance

Welcome to the first week of Advent. If you are new to the liturgical calendar, Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas and it marks the beginning of the liturgical year.

Are You the King?

On the eve of a battle in the year 312, Constantine had a vision. He saw a cross in the sky and he heard God say, “By this, conquer!”

Not One Stone

The city where I serve is no different than any other city in this country. A litany of the same issues show up on the city council agenda every two weeks: violence, unemployment, immigration, disparity in the education system, community safety, homelessness, policing, economic development and housing issues, just to name a few.

A Lesson From Uncle Tim

Joyful thoughts come to mind whenever I see my niece Shaianne; none of them begin with the prefix “dis.” She uses a wheelchair, but I never think of her as disabled or disadvantaged.

Only Love

“Love God. Love People. Nothing Else Matters” became my mantra during my single, young-adult years; life seemed simple without the tether of expectation coming from academic degrees, job titles and the financial responsibilities of parenthood. Those words from the mantra of my youth are a paraphrase from Jesus in our Gospel text this week.

Blind Bartimaeus

Beautiful questions yield beautiful answers. They open space for the Spirit to work, and involve us in our own transformation. Ultimately, they free us to see in new ways and act creatively. On the other hand, small questions yield small answers. The Japanese word “mu” can be understood to mean “un-ask the question.” Mu is the appropriate response when the question is too small fortruth to emerge. Throughout the Gospels Jesus is, in effect, saying “mu.” He is helping us find larger more beautiful questions, and he uses questions of his own to get us there.

Under The Table

I currently spend my days assisting staff at a nearby elementary school. Our team gets the call when students have serious issues with behavior or cooperation. This week, I was summoned to a normally tranquil kindergarten class, where a five-year-old was out of his seat, hiding in plain sight behind a giant smart board.

Can Evil Drive Out Evil?

“I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

New Skin to Bear the World

“I am suffering, it really hurts. It has been unbelievably painful for me to be confronted with the enormous division that exists in Nicaragua between those of us who profess Christ. Supposedly we make up 41% of the population but we have not been able to find any unity of response in the face of the deep woundedness of our nation. Those who are reacting in an active manner in the middle of this crisis are judging negatively those who have chosen to remain in their churches praying and fasting and those who have chosen to pray are attacking those who are practicing active resistance. And then there are others who have simply decided not to express themselves nor respond in any way whatsoever.”

The Question

In the text we’re tackling this month, Jesus is accused of being “out of his mind”…and worse. The scribes accuse Jesus of being Beelzebul, a demon who casts out other demons. Jesus absorbs the deadly accusation and turns it into a teachable moment. That alone is worth a lifetime of reflection.

As if They Were Gods

I can imagine a mingling of terror, fire, and joy within Rev. Henry Highland Garnet as he hobbled to the podium on a chilly February Sunday in 1865. There was certainly a sense of terror during the last months of the Civil War and its steadily climbing death toll of 620,000 souls. Garnet’s fire came from his drive to abolish the institution of slavery and its horrors. Joy must have overtaken him, considering he had been born into slavery not far from the podium from where he spoke. And now he stood as the first African American to deliver a speech within the United States Capitol.

No Greater Love

The ancient Greeks had four ways of talking about love. The highest, most idealized form was “agape,” which is divine love. It is the gold standard of love. The other forms of love were assumed to be lower, human or natural loves: “Storge” is the love of a parent. “Eros” is sexual or erotic love. “Phileo” is the love of a friend.

Paradise in the Dust

If learning to read the Word from below is challenging and liberating to our faith in God, learning how to read the world from below is challenging and liberating to our faith in humanity.

God’s Language

It’s cliffhanger season on TV right now. One of my favorite shows, “Grey’s Anatomy,” has their season finale tonight. I’m expecting something from Shonda Rhimes that will be both spectacular and frustrating. That’s the beauty of cliffhangers. When told well, they keep viewers expecting a great return next season.

Union

To be one “as we are one.” Yes, this really is the heart of it! To become one. Union. Intimacy. The Gospel of Jesus opens us up to the possibility of becoming one in a way that seems utterly impossible – to enjoy unity without being in rivalry with anyone or anything. It is unity with and for everything – over and against nothing, not even death. This is the kind of unity that God enjoys and makes available to us. Impossible, but this is the promise of Jesus. This is Shalom.

The Crying Monk

We are approaching the 6th Sunday since Easter, and the circumstances of my life have seemingly all but erased the memory of the resurrection. I need a reminder of the Good News. At first glance, I’m not sure I get that from today’s text.

Waiting to Inhale

Martin Luther King Jr. was unsuitable for white teachers at my school, as he had not been thoroughly sanitized yet. And he was too theologically liberal to be mentioned in the pulpit of my church. The most I knew of him was that we shared a middle name.

Christ’s Dark Humor

On the eve of a battle in the year 312, Constantine had a vision. He saw a cross in the sky and he heard God say, “By this, conquer!”

The Good Shepherd

This week is Good Shepherd Sunday. Thank goodness, because I am feeling like a sheep in need of a good shepherd, and so are the communities we serve.
In this week’s text, Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd who, “lays down his life for the sheep.” I confess that my idea of a good shepherd is one who wipes out the whole pack of harassing wolves. I want Rambo, not a shepherd who suffers and dies.

Wounded Resurrection

Jesus shows his wounds. He doesn’t hide them. They were not miraculously healed nor did they disappear. He was not completely “made whole” again. He continues to bear the scars of his crucifixion.

Holy Saturday

It’s Christ The King Sunday in which we celebrate the reign of Christ dawning in this age and in the age to come. But, as we’ve seen throughout the Gospel of Matthew, it is an unusual, upside down kingdom that redefines power and relocates God at the bottom, not at the top.

Good Friday

After dinner we walked to the vigil at the Plaza de la Constitucion in Guatemala City. When we arrived, the square was empty except for four women who stood around a lonely little fire at the center of the park. They were there to honor the memory of the 41 girls who were burned alive at a government orphanage on March 8, 2017 (March 8 is also International Women’s Day).

Maundy Thursday

Joslynn, Nef, and Diane gazed thoughtfully during my clumsy response. They were confused about the many names Christians throw around. “What’s the difference between God, Lord, Jehovah, Jesus, Christ and all that?” was the question asked by some bright urban teens. Their continued attentiveness, a full ten minutes, was surprising. Even the most reticent-to-participate kid was listening carefully as clarity continued to elude me. So much for the notion that urban youth will only listen to Cardi B and The Migos.

The Dark Prayer of Palm Sunday

I have a confession. Palm Sunday is confusing. It functions more like a parable than a celebration and it leaves me conflicted. The crowd that shouts “Hosanna, Hosanna” this week shouts “Crucify Him, Crucify Him” next week.

When I am lifted up

I had a great conversation with a young man recently who was going to be baptized. I asked him what he thought about God and what he believes God thinks about him.

The Death of a Little Jewish Guy

Craig Sanders needed three surgeries to survive his injuries after awakening to a severe beating back in January 2013, while detained at Camden County Jail. Giving credence to inmate reports from the jail, accounts of such beatings no longer alarmed me. Those of us working at street-level knew the war stories coming from the overfilled facility…

What’s on Your Table?

The striking contrast of two completely distinct, but adjacent worlds, startled my senses and threw me into a state of disorientation. We were in Kolkata, India as part of a weeklong city consultation for doctoral students. One morning, without any particular instruction, we hopped off a bus in a neighborhood swarming with people. Drawn up in the movement of the crowd, we found ourselves in the midst of a high festival day for the Hindu goddess Kali; the crowd was flowing toward her temple.

Alexamenos Worships a Donkey

It’s the second week of Lent and here we find Jesus teaching his disciples that, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

Into the Wilderness

One of my brothers was a college football All-American. He broke and set many conference and national records. He was a Heisman trophy candidate his senior year, and the third pick in the first NFL draft. This was in the late 1970’s—well before social media. But for what it was, there was quite a bit of media attention that surrounded him.

A Beautiful Cluelessness

I admit to a certain cluelessness regarding the transfiguration. After countless years of exposure to cleverly executed sermons, teachings, and writings by the best of our preachers, teachers, and scholars, I still don’t get what it was all about.

Gathering at the Door

In last week’s passage, we saw Jesus exorcising bad religion as he cast out the “impure spirit” of a man inside the synagogue. The reflection challenged the traditional reading of the text. What if the impure spirit didn’t so much reflect the possessed man? What if it was actually a reflection of the religious authorities?

Exorcising bad Religion

Jesus does not shy away from conflict in Mark’s Gospel. He turns and faces what most of us flee. In particular, he faces the religious leaders, who maintain the system that sorts people into clean and unclean. This makes the religious authorities nervous.

Right Time Moments

During the season of Epiphany, I’ve committed to be more aware of the ways that God is present and at work in and around me each day.

Da-n Straight That’s What I Am

I’ve rarely been called the n-word to my face, but I know what people are thinking. I’m a scary looking big dreadlocked 300-pound black guy who loves bench-presses and bicep curls. Racists tend to keep their biases to themselves or mask them in implicit language when I’m around.

A New Year’s Rest-olution

John the Baptist appears in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and we are told that the “whole” Judean countryside and “all” the people of Jerusalem went out to him. It seems John has become quite the successful, suburban mega-church pastor with a huge commuter congregation. But he is clear that his show is not the best in town.

Anna The Prophet

At age 84 my aunt helped lead her aging church through a very challenging process around a divisive issue. She did so with remarkable skill and grace. She’s always looking toward the future, even if it does not include her.

Make Room

When the nativity tale declares, “there was no room at the inn,” I usually picture a robed man with a lantern sadly shaking his head “If you’d only gotten here sooner,” I imagine him saying, “I could have fit you in, but now, there’s no room.” But is this true?

The Breath and the Glory

First it was an alarm, next came water and last week it was light. God uses each of these elements to wake us up. As we approach the eve of God’s arrival, are we still awake? Are we alert? Will we recognize the advent of our God?

Light

I tried to sleep in a few weeks ago but failed to inform my children of this plan. My daughter came into the room and flipped the light on. “Ahhhh!” Pain shot beneath my eyelids…

Awake in the Water

We would have called it the boonies or the sticks or perhaps BFE. Mark refers to it simply as the wilderness. Whatever the name, it was a place you didn’t so much go to as you went through.

Stay Woke!

It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Mark 13:24-37

 

I hate to wake up. Yes, it beats the alternative, but it is so painful. The mattress, pillow, sheets and comforter offer such warm friendship while the cold, hard, dusty floor promises only pain. Like a bully smacking his fist, the cold air waits knowing I have to pass by on my way home from school (or in this case to the bathroom). With all respect to Neil Sedaka, it is waking up, more than breaking up, that is hard to do.

Jesus must have known this. Why else would he say it not once, or twice, but three times, sounding like the parent of a slumbering teenager on a school morning. What event is important enough to warrant three exclamation points? The answer: “You do not know when the master of the house will come…”

So, we are to stay awake so the master won’t find us asleep when he returns? This sounds reasonable. Even if the boss doesn’t come back until tomorrow, it seems fair to ask us workers to stay awake. But what if the next day passes? And then the next and the next? Are we supposed to remain awake? After two weeks? After two months? After two years are we supposed to remain awake? And what, I ask, are we to do if the master delays his return for 2,000 years? Is it fair to expect us to remain alert, aware and awake? This is a bold request, especially in light of what happens in the next chapter.

I imagine the disciples were full of amens and assurances no matter how long Jesus delayed—just like pew mates on Sunday morning. Their zeal carried through the Passover meal, the hymn, and out onto the Mount of Olives where Jesus only asked of them two things: be present and stay awake. Simple enough until the wine…the lamb…and the non gluten free bread worked their magic, causing every disciple to fail Jesus’ second request. They fell asleep not once, or twice, but three times. The master hadn’t even gotten out of the driveway before the servants were snoring. If such was true of Jesus’ first disciples, how can we be expected to remain alert after 2,000 years? Having failed in Jesus’ second request, the disciples quickly failed at his first. When the soldiers arrived, “then” Mark writes, “everyone deserted him and fled.”

Be present and stay awake. Perhaps there is another kind of invitation in Jesus’ words. Had Jesus been speaking today, he may have said something like, “Stay woke, cause you don’t know when I’ll show up.”

Jesus showed up at our food and clothing bank a few weeks ago. She was pushing a shopping cart and arrived late, of course. I knew her to be a notoriously tardy shopper near impossible to get to leave, so I told her to come back next week. Her face, already hanging low, fell even further, “I just need some clothes.”

“We’ll fix you a bag of food.”

“Yes, but I still need a change of clothes,” she said a little louder.

“I’m sorry but we’re closing.”

Flakes of mascara became dark rivers as she cried even louder, “I’ve been wearing these clothes for four days and I can’t take it any longer.”

Like I said, it is hard for me to wake up. Sometimes it takes three alarms. “Of course, yes, what was I thinking. Come down and let’s get you some clothes.”

I used to question the sanity of the lectionary elves. In what world does it make sense to start the Christmas season with a passage about eclipses, falling stars and thunderous heavens? How could Santa find us in such extreme weather conditions? As time has passed, I’ve awakened to their genius. Advent is an opportunity to practice arrivals, not just of reindeer ornaments, Bing Crosby and tinseled presents, but of the God who shows up in unexpected ways, and unexpected places, through the features of human faces. Wake us up, O Lord, wake us up.

 

Ken Sikes
Senior Fellow | Street Psalms
Pastor | Manitou Park Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, Wa

Power and Authority Reframed

In one of my favorite Ted Talks, Educational Technology Specialist Sugata Mitra discusses his experiments with “Hole in the Wall” computers. These are computer kiosks left in Indian slums, among children with no prior contact with PCs.

Pain as Gateway of Transformation

In one of my favorite Ted Talks, Educational Technology Specialist Sugata Mitra discusses his experiments with “Hole in the Wall” computers. These are computer kiosks left in Indian slums, among children with no prior contact with PCs. Mitra found that children, by pooling their knowledge and resources, learned how to operate the computers.

Sheep or Goat?

God comes to us in what Mother Theresa called “the distressing disguise of the other,” in the face of the despised and rejected. That, in a nutshell, is the Gospel. It’s Word made flesh!

Wait… God Did What?

If we view this parable through the lens of an honor-based culture, not a wealth-based culture, then this parable unlocks beautiful truth about where the Kingdom of God is located.

Awake and Celebrate

Awake and celebrate! Is there a more elemental invitation of the Gospel of Jesus? In this week’s text Jesus tells the story of ten bridesmaids and a wedding party. Five of the bridesmaids remain awake and join the celebration.

Re-formation

This week marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther famously nailing his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. The action brought attention to the rampant abuse inherent in the ecclesiastical structures of his day. 

Nothing Else Matters

“Love God. Love People. Nothing Else Matters.” So reads a phrase on the many battered T-shirts stacked up in the back of my closet. I just don’t have the heart to discard them…

Images is Everything

In this week’s text the religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus with a question about whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar. But this isn’t really a question about taxes. It’s more sinister.

You’re Invited

Stephen Curry, basketball star of the Golden State Warriors, said he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to visit the White House. He was hesitant due to the President’s statements concerning NFL football players and their protests during the national anthem…

Should we have a Dream?

I’m told there is no utility in my delusions but yet I choose to imagine, envisioning a world of fellowship and joy. In this, my alternate global reality, wooden ships are ushered through placid seaways as steady breezes push against their ample sails, all adorned with the sacred symbol of the cross.

Authority Remixed

It’s Not Fair!

“No! No! No!” My two-year old son screamed as we drove down the interstate at seventy miles per hour. “I want the door open!”

Why so Judgey?

One of the disciples poses a question that is essentially asking, “How much do we really have to forgive each other?” Jesus’ response, as was his habit, came in the form of a parable.

An Absolutely Reckless Pedagogy!

 

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 18:15-20

 

In one of my favorite Ted Talks, Educational Technology Specialist Sugata Mitra discusses his experiments with “Hole in the Wall” computers. These are computer kiosks left in Indian slums, among children with no prior contact with PCs. Mitra found that children, by pooling their knowledge and resources, learned how to operate the computers.

More remarkably, he found that in nine months the children had computer expertise equivalent to that of a professionally trained Western secretary, and all this without any adult instruction or supervision. These impoverished children went far beyond any trivial computer operations, mastering understandings of character mapping and DNA replication. One group of children chided Mitra, telling him “You have given us a machine that only works in English, so we had to teach ourselves English to use it.” What Mitra sees as self-organized, self-promoting “Unstoppable Learning” can also be described as a mystically exciting feature of divine creation.

I’m sure Sugata Mitra’s friends, peers, and colleagues thought it an absolutely reckless idea to waste a valuable resource, such as a computer, by leaving it among the poor, ignorant children of India’s slums. What Mitra seems to have understood, and what his critics would have missed, is that all humanity has a blessed yearning and ability to figure things out. The little children of India’s slums have demonstrated that, by pooling knowledge and resources, the mysteries and conundrums of both heaven and earth can be unraveled, decoded, and resolved.

Jesus is no less reckless in instructing and entrusting us to pool knowledge and resources to figure out and resolve the mysteries and conundrums among us. He radically moves further to suggest that whatever we resolve here on earth will be honored and instituted in heaven. What an overly generous power we have been given. But why so underused? Perhaps it is a matter of pedagogy.

In the case of the children in Indian slums, they were left with no pedagogical resources, except for their community of peers, with whom they figured out the big questions placed before them. No doubt the process of mastering the use of the computers was wrought with disagreements, doubts, and conflicts. But it was the children’s ultimate points of agreement and affirmation that yielded the fruits of progress among them. Is it an over-reliance on a pedagogy based on hierarchies, traditions, and institutional processes that has robbed us of the childlike courage of these Indian slum kids, who embraced mysterious keyboards and curious screens with excitement, joy, and wonder?

Matthew speaks earlier about Jesus teaching the people, as in Chapter 5:2, “And he opened his mouth, and taught them…” The word “taught” here is rendered in a grammatical form know as a causative, which indicates that, unlike our typical top-down pedagogical approaches, Christ presents a new argument to the conversation, one that sparks or causes a new process of learning.

This is kind of like placing a computer before the slum kids and watching the thrill of a new process of learning as it quickly emerges. Like Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall,” Jesus plants us in an unexpected environment of extreme grace, liberty, and fellowship, where we are to work through disagreements, doubts, and conflicts and emerge with extraordinary community affirmations, harmonious fruit suitable to nourish both the heavenly host and the earthly masses.

As Mitra’s experiments have evolved, he has employed the services of an international collection of grandmas, who have the sole job of encouraging the children as they tackle the tough questions packaged within the computers. I trust the Holy Spirit plays the role of grandma in our quest to work through the big messy questions confronting our faith, making a big fuss over the smallest of our accomplishments, filling us with confidence and courage as we struggle together through our most difficult issues, and daily filling our hearts with joy. Jesus downloads powerful gifts into the slums of our brokenness, sharing with us the binding of things in heaven and on earth. To some this may sensibly point to an absolutely reckless pedagogy “but to us who are being saved, it is truly the power of God.”

Tim Merrill
Founder and Director | Watu Moja
Camden, USA

P.S. You can view Sugata’s entire TED Talk Here!

The Scandal of Misplaced Desire

 

 

“Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me, you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” “

Matthew 16:21-28

In today’s world of instant news, we experience one story of scandal after another. Our news feed constantly tempts us with the tantalizing details of the latest political or Hollywood scandal. The details of this Gospel story seem so comparatively mild. Peter has become a “scandal” to Jesus for insisting that Jesus should live and not die: “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

I can only imagine what else might have come out of Peter’s loose lips, “You cannot go back to Jerusalem Jesus. Why would you want to go back to a place where your own people are lying in wait to kill you? You are the long-awaited Messiah who has come to violently overthrow the Romans and to finally liberate us from their oppressive rule! That is my desire and the desire of all of us who have given our lives to follow you. You will destroy our movement and crush our hopes and dreams!”

“Peter, you are a stumbling block to me,” Jesus tells him. The Greek word that we translate as “stumbling block” is scandalon, the root word of “scandal”

What confusion, disappointment, and disillusionment, Peter must have felt. The problem, of course, was that Peter had in mind a definition of “Messiah” that was rooted in the misplaced desires of Peter’s community.

I imagine Jesus explaining his words to Peter: “You have adopted the dreams and desires of those around you and now you are trying to lure me into the same. If I allow myself to go down that path, we are toast. I will not allow the desires of your humanity to direct my path. Get behind me. You are a scandalous stumbling block.

“Your way of thinking is based on misplaced desire, false, disordered loves. They are deceitful and will lead to destruction. No, Peter, my Father has shown me a different path, a path that leads to life and freedom. I will not follow your desire. You must choose to follow mine.”

Following Jesus often means letting go of that which we think we cannot live without.

Peter’s misguided understanding of Jesus’ role as Messiah is crushed. In the place of those shattered dreams, Jesus lovingly reveals a new path forward, a path of unbridled freedom and all-encompassing peace. “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The exchange between Peter and Jesus in our text this week reveals the striking truth that desire is always fanned into flame – flames that either burn or illuminate. Oh, that our red hot coals of senseless violence and rivalry would be fanned into illuminating flames of love and sacrifice!

The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore captures this beautifully:

“Let Your love play upon my voice and rest on my silence,
Let it pass through my heart into all my movements.
Let your love, like stars, shine in the darkness of my sleep and dawn in my awakening.
Let it burn in the flame of my desires and flow in all currents of my own love.
Let me carry Your love in my life as a harp does its music, and give it back to You at last with my life.”

Joel Van Dyke
Director | Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

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

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 Promise of Presence

 

4“But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”  

Since my father passed away some years ago, I’ve had a fascination with the last words and days of a person’s life.

My father struggled with lung cancer–breathing was a chore. Every breath he took was measured, had meaning, and was intentional.

His final words to each of my siblings were very thoughtful. On his last day, I was next to him on his bed. He motioned me to move closer to him so that I could better hear him. He said, in almost a whisper, “Promise me one thing.”

“Sure dad, anything,” I said. And I waited for some important, life-changing words to come from his mouth.

He drew a long breath, as deep as he could.

Then he said, “Please promise me that you are going to take better care of your car from now on. I’m not going to be here to do that for you anymore.”

I thought to myself, “Really? That’s it?” So, for lack of better response, I said, “Ok Dad. I promise.”

I’ve thought about that conversation thousands of times since. His last words to me mattered a great deal to him.

Here we are, nearly 6 weeks past Easter. The gospel lectionary passage will not let us forget the days before Jesus’ death…and the words…the last words he spoke to his disciples. Jesus is measured and intentional with what he wants them to know and remember…and here it is…

“The Spirit will be with you and is in you.”

In other words, you will not be alone in this world.

This promise of solidarity seems to be the tone of Jesus’ last conversations with his disciples.

That’s quite a promise, Jesus… we will never be alone. You will be with us? How does that actually play out anyway?

How does the Spirit work and move in our personal lives? How about in the lives of people and communities where everything would suggest exactly the opposite? Sometimes it feels like God is not present, or at the very least, very hard to find.

Here’s what I continue to discover. The Spirit needs a Body. The Spirit of God needs to be embodied–in a person, in a people.

God’s presence, Jesus’ promise to be with us, is embodied now through the very imperfect, very conflicted, very frail Body of those who are called CHURCH. He is with us and in us. Ironically, it’s the presence of God at work in the church that frees us to see God’s presence outside the church as well: especially in the marginalized, outcast, and forgotten corners of the world.

There is plenty in the Gospels that suggests this “presence” within God’s people will be messy. The Incarnation was anything but neat and tidy. It was unpredictable. It crossed boundaries. It created tension. It was counter-cultural. It was scandalous.

It was beautiful.

The deeper we move into our communities’ stories, the further we move away from the things that give us privilege and control. The further we go, the more awkwardly beautiful the whole notion of presence becomes. I don’t understand how that works. But, it seems to be the way God prefers to be in the world. He became fully present to us only when he died. That’s a mystery I’m not sure words will ever explain.

But, we know it when it happens through us and we know when it happens to us. Perhaps the best we can do is quietly and humbly acknowledge that God is keeping His promises.
 
 
Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms

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

Shadowlands or Pastureland

 

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and will find pasture.”

John 10:1-10

Street Psalms leads a collaboration of 13 training hubs (UTC) in cities around the world; together, we seek to develop incarnational leaders who love their cities and seek their peace. We have a strong sense of what UTC Hubs are called to do on a communal level. But, we can sometimes lose sight of where we, as individual leaders, are guiding people to on a personal level.

This short poem arrived in my inbox the other day. It has haunted me ever since:

“I lost my identity trying to fit into your shadows,
until I realized you reek of an emptiness no one can fill.”
Tasneem Kagalwalla

While the poet here wrote as one deeply disappointed in the emptiness of the other (likely a failed romance), it left me considering my legacy of leadership as a spouse, father, pastor and ministry leader. How many people do I erroneously lead down a path into the emptiness of shadow? While our UTC Hubs are successfully calling forth incarnational leaders for their cities, what is the destination for those close to us who follow the trajectory of our lives on a personal level?

Richard Rohr wrote a very compelling book exploring a spirituality for the two halves of life entitled, “Falling Upward.” He writes, “your shadow is what you refuse to see about yourself, and what you do not want others to see….We never get to the second half of life without major shadowboxing and I am sorry to report that it continues until the end of life.” When I live my life out of an alignment to misplaced desires (what Ignatius referred to as “inordinate attachments” or “disordered loves”), I lead others to a destination filled with shadows — the fake news of my own invention.

A key for authentic leadership is the ability to confront your shadows. Failing to do so leads others to a destination of falsehood and emptiness. Authentic leaders, often rising out of personal suffering and failure, learn to embrace the necessary courage to shadowbox with an acknowledged foe.

I have sat with this week’s lectionary text from John 10 on many occasions. What struck me this week, in light of the piece of poetry above, was verse 9, where Jesus says that the sheep he leads will find pasture.

Much has been written about the Biblical imagery of shepherd and sheep. Sheep, as has been well documented, are dumb animals that can only live under the care and protection of a shepherd. There are no “wild” sheep. They have no sense of direction, cannot feed themselves, have no way of protecting themselves and cannot get up if they fall over. Thus, the image of sheep portraying humans living in shadows is an ample picture indeed.

The Good Shepherd, in comparison, leads his sheep in a very different way and to a very different destination. He enters with his sheep, calls them each by name, leads them out (as opposed to driving them with a whip), goes on ahead of them to protect them from any danger, and all the while creates the perfect scenario for sheep to follow. What is the destination of all this leadership (shepherding) activity exemplified by the Good Shepherd? Where are the sheep invited to follow the shepherd to?

Pastureland.

The pastureland represents the sustenance of life, where one can eat to his/her heart’s content. It is the place representing the abundance of God’s love, provision and protection — the only place where sheep can thrive.

Pastureland, as a destination, is the antithesis of the destructive whims of the shadowland. In pastureland, one is able to embrace life as a liturgy of abundance. Shadowland, as destination, is the blind allegiance to the myth of scarcity. From the destination of pastureland, I can be fed and I can feed. I can release instead of hoard. I am free to proclaim peace as opposed to living incarcerated behind the bars of rivalry and fear.

In the conclusion to C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, there is a striking conversation ushering in the “farewell to Shadowlands.” Lewis writes,

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is over: this is the morning.”

The leadership of the Good Shepherd invites us out from under the darkness of shadows and into the new morning of abundant pastureland. As his sheep, we are invited to follow; what an incredible privilege it is to encourage others to do the same.

Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

Open Our Eyes to the Stranger

“Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

Luke 24:13-35

Here at Street Psalms, our most transformative experiences have happened while walking the streets with urban leaders (“on the road”) and fellowship around a meal (“breaking of the bread”). This week’s lectionary text highlights both the road and the table as gateways to Gospel sight.

The road to Emmaus in Luke 24 begins in confusion and ends in communion. Along the way, there are a series of twists, turns and holy reversals that are the normative pattern of life inside the Resurrection.

Theologian James Alison points out that scholars have not been able to pinpoint the village of Emmaus. Perhaps, Luke is artfully suggesting that Emmaus is the metaphor for all the places in our lives that exist at the edge of Jerusalem. And perhaps, Cleopas’s unnamed companion is Luke’s way of inviting us to insert ourselves in the story alongside Cleopas as if to say, we are all on the road to Emmaus.

It’s also striking that Jesus appears to Cleopas and his companion as a stranger, or as Mother Teresa would say, “the distressing disguise of the other.” God has come, is coming, and will continue to come as the stranger among us. He reveals himself most brightly in the face of the forgotten and those who are least likely to be seen as Godbearers. This is the relentless truth of the Gospel.

Equally striking is that Jesus joins the journey to Emmaus as a student. He listens to the disciples “discussing” the events of the crucifixion. The word “discussing” in vs. 17 is the Greek word “antiballo.” Quite literally they were going “ballistic,” arguing intensely with each other.

It’s not long before the student becomes the teacher. Jesus re-narrates the entire law and prophets. Re-interpreting sacred texts is risky business, but this strange rabbi with a strange hermeneutic makes their “hearts burn within” (vs. 32). After a mind-blowing Bible study, Cleopas and his friend insist that the stranger be their guest for dinner. Then, true to Gospel form, the strange guest turns out to be a familiar host. Wow!

As host, Jesus uses precisely the same language that he used in the feeding of the 5,000 and the last supper.

“He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (vs. 30-31). Yes, all of life is being taken, blessed, broken, and given in love. This is the Eucharistic shape of life.

In liturgical traditions, the word “host” (as in the “host” offered at communion) comes from the Latin word “hostia,” which means victim. This is the interpretive key that unlocks Gospel sight and allows Cleopas and his friend to recognize Jesus. It is the victim who comes to us in the resurrection, forgiving us. It is the victim who walks with us on the road to Emmaus and becomes our teacher. It is the victim who hosts the meal of our salvation. It is the victim
who reveals the Eucharistic shape of life by which we see Jesus and all the other strangers among us.

Jesus, like the disciples who were blind to your presence until they dined with you in the Resurrection, we too are blind to your presence until you dine with us. You are the stranger among us, revealed as the loving host of the meal of our salvation. Open our eyes, Lord, to the stranger among us. We want to see and celebrate you at work in the world–creating, sustaining, and uniting all of creation in the meal of our salvation.*

 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

*This Word From Below was originally posted on 5/2/2014.