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.

Will One Thing

Jesus and the disciples are on the move. They enter a village and receive life-giving hospitality from two sisters in the intimacy of their home. Martha prepares the meal while Mary sits listening at the feet of Jesus. It is a beautiful scene that lasts but for two verses before Martha barges into the living room from the kitchen, upset that her sister has left her to do all the work by herself.

Hostility and Hospitality

Filipino Muslims are our closest siblings, yet we are divided by our differences and a lack of trust. We were not prepared to address this lurking and lingering issue. We walked, as it were, down the road Jesus describes in his parable, asking whether we would continue to affirm the ossified lines of our identities, or transcend that which divides us?

Being Sent, Being Received

All of these refugees are our sisters and brothers, daughters and sons of our loving God just like we are. They, too, are a part of the Body of Christ. Most of them, if not all, have probably been baptized, and by virtue of their baptism, they are sent – sometimes by direction, other times by desperation.

Let the Dead Bury their Dead

True confession, the relationship with my brother was broken. It was a love and hate relationship that hurt both of us deeply. We wounded each other in ways that we may never realize. His sickness and death, however, just brought all of the wounds to the surface.

The Cost of Liberation

We see people in our cities struggling everyday with their own demons: mental health, substance abuse, homelessness and more. We know, however, that their healing and restoration will require some sort of sacrifice on the part of the community and of the individual.

The Right Word at the Right time

Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now.” That’s odd to me. Up to this point, Jesus has already unloaded many things on to the disciples – a lot of important things. In fact, we know from 15:15, that Jesus had made everything known to them that the Father had made known to Him.

Advocate or Accuser

Pastor William Quiñonez has spent the past 5-6 years in a weekly visit to a maximum security prison spending time with members of a notorious street gang who have been incarcerated for unimaginable acts of brutal violence. Pastor William’s “pulpit” has been a seat perched atop the cages where the gang members are held in groups of 10-15.

May they be One

Unity does not mean uniformity, but to remain in love, despite all tensions and all conflicts. It’s a love that creates a deep unity, like that which exists between Jesus and the Father. The unity in love revealed in the Trinity becomes the standard for our own relationships.

A Different Kind of Peace

At the meeting Ben asked the leaders if they still believed in the “tactic” of nonviolence. Before Ben could finish the question, Minnijean Brown interrupted energetically. She said to Ben, “Did you say tactic? If you think we used non-violence as a tactic, then you don’t understand our movement.

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