Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43
July 23, 2017
In the Fall of 2013 I took a class at Wake Forest Divinity School centered around Spirituality and Art. One of the requirements for this class was a field trip to the Reynolda House Museum of American Art. So on the appointed Saturday I woke up, traveled to Winston-Salem and along with my Professor and classmates, spent the majority of the day observing the artwork hanging on the walls of this mansion.
Now the average age for students entering Wake Forest University School of Divinity when I began was 23. So, here I was, a 40-something year old man walking around the inside of this Mansion with another man in his 60’s and 9 classmates in their 20’s. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love pretty things, but spending my Saturday looking at paintings in fancy frames in an attempt to gain some deeper insight into what some artist was thinking when he/she created this masterpiece, has never been on my bucket list. Yet, I did enjoy spending time with my classmates and my Professor, until a security guard grabbed me from behind and with his finger pointed in my face ordered me not to get that close to a painting again. In shock, I laughed one of those something feels odd and I’m upset but I’ll just blow it off kind of laughs and responded by saying “Excuse me?” Which only prompted him to point his finger closer to my nose and repeat the order that I was not to get that close to another painting or I would be escorted out. It ruined my day, and if I had any inclination to ever return to this larger than life statement of privilege and materialism called the Reynolda House, it was gone forever. The thing is, I had a sense it was coming as it had been building all day with this Security Guard. He saw me enter the premises and followed me from that point until he put his hands on me and talked to me like I was something less than him and subservient to his orders.
Now, in order to more fully understand why I think this happened, I believe I need to back up and give you a little more detail about how I looked that day. At that time Emma Grace was in 3rd grade and Elementary School Science project mania had come to town, and after thinking over a few possibilities she landed on a project to determine if the quality of fingernail polish was linked to the purchase price. Meaning the lower the purchase price the lower the quality and the higher the purchase price the higher the quality. Sounds simple enough, right?
Once she chose this project she needed people to volunteer so she could test her hypothesis and complete her project. And of course, when your baby girl needs volunteers, Daddy is always there. So, for about a month 9 of my 10 fingernails were painted with fingernail polish. Three were painted pink, three were painted lime green and three were painted dark purple. I never hesitated to volunteer for my baby girl, and I’m sure you Dads know what I’m talking about. I considered it an honor that she would even think to include me in this project, and I believe she saw nothing strange or out of bounds about asking her Daddy if she could paint his fingernails and then asking him to keep them painted for a while. For me, there is a certain beauty in believing this to be her view of this project.
Now, almost everyone I came in contact with during that month were friends or casual acquaintances which meant that I could easily explain if they asked. And for those who asked and found out what I was doing, their response was always the same… That is so sweet… Aren’t you a good Dad. Now I want you to know, I have no idea if my willingness to have my 8-year-old daughter paint my nails made me a good Dad at that time or not, but I graciously and a bit sheepishly accepted their compliments. But more than their compliments, I appreciated that each of them resisted the urge to judge me, or think something negative about me because 9 of my fingernails contained paint. This urge to judge, or think negative thoughts is so pervasive, even for those who are friendly, so knowing that they resisted that urge, and then complimented me was a wonderful gift to receive.
In addition to my painted nails, on this particular Saturday I wore some faded blue jeans, an Adidas coat and a pair of checkerboard Vans. Now, in case some of you aren’t familiar with Vans, they are skateboard shoes that were 1st made popular in the 80’s and have since made a bit of a comeback. The pair I wore that day had black and grey checkboard and were the low top slip-on variety. I really do love those shoes and they are very comfortable. In fact, I still wear them today.
Now, I didn’t think anything about my chosen attire as I left my house early that morning, but then I walked through the metal detector at the entrance to this mansion and the security guard eyed me like I was a filthy excuse for a human being. And then if that wasn’t bad enough, from the first moment he glared at me to the time he put his hands on me, he followed me everywhere I went. We are talking hours here. Everywhere I went, he followed and I knew it. It didn’t matter to him that I was part of a Divinity School group on a field trip. It didn’t matter to him that I was with my Professor and classmates the entire time. And worse than that, it didn’t matter to him that when I stepped closer to that painting that afternoon I was only doing what my Professor had instructed all of us students to do. He heard my Professor give these instructions. He even watched my other classmates get closer than I before watching me take that 1st step toward the painting. None of that mattered to him, because there was no doubt in his eyes I was trash and needed to be removed. In his eyes I was unworthy of being in that space and therefore I needed to be dealt with. In his eyes, my presence was like weeds in garden and he had one mission and one mission only, uproot the weed.
Sounds a bit drastic, doesn’t it? This story, about me a 40-something year old man being singled out and labeled so negatively by someone else who I had never met and who had never even spoken a word to me before barking his orders about my distance from someone else’s artwork. Unfortunately, I walked away from that experience knowing something I had not previously known in such a personal way… negative labeling… discrimination… knows no boundaries, and when you are on the receiving end it hurts and no matter what anyone says, no matter how others attempt to justify acts of discrimination, when you are subjected to them just by showing up and being in someone else’s presence, you have every reason to be angry about it.
In today’s parable, I believe it safe to say that Jesus is teaching everyone that that the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a place where judgment, discrimination and the urge to eradicate something deemed unworthy of living, is not practiced. As noted by former Chaplain at Yale, Harry Baker Adams, this teaching “saves us from having to make judgments that are beyond our competence.”
Instead, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a place where everything, including the good and the bad, is given time to grow. Everything, the things that look so good now, as well as the things that look so bad now, are given time to mature. This Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where no one rushes to judge another and no one gives in to the urge to segregate, ostracize, uproot, anything or anyone just because of the way they look early on in the journey of their life.
Unfortunately, overcoming these judgmental urges, is hard work, or so we think. I am the first to admit that we have certainly made it hard on ourselves. We love making lists that have only two options, like lists of good/bad, right/wrong, in/out. Those lists seem to make us feel better about where we stand. The thing is, each time we succumb to that list making desire, we judge. Each time we succumb to those urges, we discriminate, and while there might be rare occasions when we place ourselves in the negative side of that list along with the other outsider, we are still discriminating. We are still judging.
That desire, that urge is why I think we like to hear Matthew tell us about the final judgment, and the burning fire and gnashing teeth that come with it. The problem with making the judgment part of Matthews’s account of Jesus’ parable our focus, is that we may miss Jesus’ main point… the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a place where everything is allowed to grow, everything is allowed to mature. Oppression, discrimination, eradication, those might be ways to describe other kingdoms, or empires like the Roman Empire, but not the Kingdom Jesus is teaching the crowds about. That Kingdom is altogether different, because in that Kingdom people don’t get to make ultimate decisions about the worthiness of other people.
Maybe other kingdoms or empires believe they have the right to make decisions about what or who is worthless and who or what is worthwhile, but that is not the Kingdom Jesus is teaching about. Even though we may not always realize this about ourselves, it’s as though Jesus knows we just aren’t equipped to make these distinctions about someone or somethings worth. Today’s New Testament Scholars seem to agree that Jesus’ audience would have picked up on this when they heard this story because in it Jesus said the servants asked if they should uproot the weeds, and here’s the thing, even though most English translations use the word weed or weeds, in doing so it may just take this story out of its historical context. You see, the original word was darnel or tare and you want to know something, darnel/tare actually look just like wheat. As a result, servants would not have been able to distinguish these tares from the actual wheat and would have most likely ruined the good crop.
From all accounts, it seems safe to say that the servants in this parable really wanted to please the landowner. Their intentions were actually good. The problem though was in their passing of judgment on something they didn’t understand. Their desire to get rid of the weeds, might at first seem admirable, but there was no way for them to decide what was a weed and what was wheat.
It is widely believed that Jesus’ audience would have known that servants were not equipped to determine, not equipped to pass judgment on these things. That was not their job and Jesus points this out when later he says the Reapers, the Harvesters will be responsible for making this decision, but only after the harvest has grown and matured.
The thing is, even today we tend to act as though we get to make these same types of decisions about other people. I wonder why it seems so difficult for us to stay away from judging others? What it is that makes us think we are qualified to determine exactly who is right and who is wrong?
The danger for all of us when we act in such a way is outright dismissal of someone or something. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Turn us loose with our machetes and there is no telling what we will chop down and what we will spare.”
But wouldn’t it be better if we listened to the landowner who lets us know “that he does not share our appetite for a pure crop, a neat field, an efficient operation? Wouldn’t it be better if we listened to the landowner who is letting us know that growth interests him more than perfection and that he is willing to risk fat weeds for fat wheat? Maybe, if we listen then when we try to help him out a little, to improve on his plan, we will have ears to hear him say that our timing is off… we will have ears to hear him say judgment is not part of our role.
And maybe, just maybe, if we listen we will know that a man with 9 painted nails is simply a Daddy of a wonderful vibrant girl doing a science fair project for her 3rd grade class!
 Taylor, Barbara Brown, The Seeds of Heaven p. 148
 Id., p.36
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
I promise I didn’t plan this… after all this past Wednesday was two years in the making for me. That’s right, about this time two years ago I was introduced to food in a way that so captivated me that it continues to this day.
But I promise you I had no idea that we would be reading the Parable of the Sower a couple of days after the beginning of our newest Ministry, The Jamestown Community Farmer’s Market. In some ways I wish I was that good, but no matter what, I cannot stand before you today and claim to have known that this particular Parable would be read on the 1st Sunday after our 1st Jamestown Community Farmer’s Market. Now with that being said, I believe it would be a huge mistake if I didn’t begin our time together today discussing our Market. It was truly a wonderful evening for me, and from all that I have heard I believe it was for those of you there that night and for those vendors and members of the Jamestown community who aren’t a part of our Church community. That night we accomplished something that had never been accomplished before in this town… We held an authentic Farmer’s Market. A Famers' Market with multiple vendors (8 to be exact). A Farmer’s Market that satisfied a need (we had over 200 people come that night) in this community like never before.
We did it! This church community! This church family! For some of us, we overcame the biggest obstacle of all: Fear. Fear of the unknown to be exact. For others, like myself, all along the way we had this feeling we were heading toward something, as though we were being pulled, even though we had no practical idea about what we were doing. You see, for those like me, this whole agricultural life is new, but I have found incredible excitement in this new-ness so we showed up and contributed anyway we could. And while the excitement of that evening, and the days that followed, can cause us to lay claim to this Market, and want more than anything to be recognized for all that we did accomplish, I am certain God was involved from the start because you want to know something, the Jamestown Community Farmer’s Market is not just about us. It is about something much larger than First Baptist Church of Jamestown.
I’ve personally experienced something like this before, and in so many ways the lead up to this past Wednesday was like the lead up to the ARISE ministry I started in Greensboro some 7 years ago. No real advertising, in the commercial sense at least. No way for any of us to know what to expect when Wednesday rolled around. But unlike ARISE which had 5 people show up the day it was born, the Jamestown Community Farmer’s Market had over 200.
As I reflect on these two ministries, there is one aspect of both that speaks volumes about God’s involvement… the opening day of both were monumentally SUCCESSFUL in everyone’s eyes. As hard as it may be to comprehend how one ministry that reached 5 people on its opening day can be called successful in the same breath as another ministry that reached over 200… everyone can rest assured that the opening day for both of these ministries was a monumental success.
The opening day of both ministries saw:
People coming together to work as a team for the single goal of meeting the needs of a community;
New friendships being made; and
People coming together who had never met before.
And here’s the thing, both ministries began because new ideas were planted in the hearts and minds of people like us. Then some of those ideas actually began to take root. Not all of the ideas took root, and these two ideas didn’t necessarily take root in all of the people. But you want to know something, all of the seeds taking root at the same time is not necessary and never has been.
For me, the story of ARISE at Grace and The Jamestown Community Farmer’s Market at First Baptist Church of Jamestown closely parallel the Parable of the Sower, but only if we stop focusing on the conditions of the ground where the seed falls. I believe most church people know this Parable, but I’ve come to realize that most know it only from the perspective of the seeds and the conditions of the ground upon which they fall. This could be because we find it easier to identify with the conditions of the grounds. We hear this parable and we begin wondering about the conditions of the ground we find ourselves standing on. Is it thorny, rocky, sun-dried? And while these might be serious questions, I’m not so sure this Parable is wanting these to be our focus. If these were the questions needing our attention, then shouldn’t this Parable be called the Parable of the Seeds and the Ground Conditions? Doesn’t that fit better?
The thing is, the fact that our Bible names this the Parable of the Sower has me believing our attention is better placed elsewhere. I wonder, though, how many of us here today have ever thought much about the Sower. The reason I wonder so much about us is because this Church Family is impressively Bible literate which makes it a pretty good test case, if you will, for what other people are thinking. This means that in the event we haven’t spent much time thinking about the Sower, then I am pretty comfortable assuming most others haven’t either.
Fortunately, Barbara Brown Taylor helped me begin to look at this Parable differently and she did it by changing my focus to the Sower.
The parable of the Sower is one of seven parables in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, with each parable focusing on the Kingdom. Throughout these parables Jesus tells the crowd about the Kingdom. He says “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” and the Kingdom is “Like treasure lying buried in a field, like yeast, like a pearl of great price, like a net let down in the sea.”
This style of teaching, some say, confused his critics, while strengthening his followers’ resolve because they had ears to hear. He even says that he speaks in parables so that only certain types of listeners hear him like those who listen more with their hearts and less with their heads.
So for those who turned this into a story about all of the thorns and rocks in their own life, I wonder if there is a chance we should turn our focus elsewhere.
What if it is not about us at all but about the sower? What if it is not about our own successes and failures and birds and rocks and thorns but about the extravagance of a sower who does not seem to be fazed by such things. A Sower who flings seed everywhere. A Sower who scatters it with holy abandon. One who feeds the birds, whistles at the rocks, picks his way through the thorns, shouts hallelujah at the good soil and just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around. A Sower who knows that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes at last it will fill every barn in the neighborhood to the rafters?
If this is really the parable of the Sower and not the parable of the different kinds of ground, then we start to hear it anew because the focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of our maker. The Sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even very practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into the seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of Love and Grace and Community.
Now I know, we would not do it that way. We would plan better. Our operation would be more efficient, cleaner and more productive. We would not waste seed on birds and rocks and thorns. We would make sure we planted our seed in the good soil only, because we want to be the most productive. Right? But if this is the parable of the sower, then Jesus seems to be suggesting that there is another way to go about things, a way that is less concerned with productivity than with plenitude.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells a beautiful story about a Sower of seed that I want us to hear today. This story, I believe, can speak to us if we have ears to hear:
“Once upon a time a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came along and devoured them. So, he put his seed pouch down and spent the next hour or so stringing aluminum foil all around his field. He put up a fake owl he ordered from a garden catalog and, as an afterthought, he hung a couple of traps for the Japanese beetles.
Then he returned to his sowing, but he noticed some of the seeds were falling on rocky ground, so he put his seed pouch down again and went to fetch his wheelbarrow and shovel. A couple of hours later he had dug up the rocks and was trying to think of something useful he could do with them when he remembered his sowing and got back to it, but as soon as he did he ran right into a briar patch that was sure to strangle his little seedlings. So, he put his pouch down again and looked everywhere for the weed poison but finally decided just to pull the thorns up by hand, which meant that he had to go back inside and look everywhere for his gloves.
Now by the time he had the briars cleared it was getting dark, so the sower picked up his pouch and his tools and decided to call it a day. That night he fell asleep in his chair reading a seed catalog, and when he woke the next morning he walked out into his field and found a big crow sitting on his fake owl. He found rocks he had not found the day before and he found new little leaves on the roots of the briars that had broken off in his hands. The sower considered all of this, pushing his cap back on his head, and then he did a strange thing: He began to laugh, just a chuckle at first and then a full fledged guffaw that turned into a wheeze at the end when his wind ran out.
Still laughing and wheezing he went after his seed pouch and began flinging seeds everywhere: into the roots of trees, onto the roof of his house, across all his fences and into his neighbors’ fields. He shook seeds at his cows and offered a handful to the dog; he even tossed a fistful into the creek, thinking they might take root downstream somewhere. The more he sowed, the more he seemed to have. None of it made any sense to him, but for once that did not seem to matter, and he had to admit that he had never been happier in all his life.”
There is a beautiful promise in all of this. A Promise that should serve to free us from burdensome expectations and crippling fear. It is the promise of God’s involvement. Just like I experienced with ARISE and just like we experienced this past Wednesday with the Jamestown Community Farmer’s Market, God is present with us, beside us, behind us and in front of us. And when God is present amazing things happen and God’s presence is the very reason I know with full certainty that an opening day with 5 people and an opening day with over 200 people are both monumental successes.
Let those who have ears to hear, hear.
 Taylor, Barbara Brown, The Extravagant Sower
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
I didn’t get much rest this past week, and as the week wore on my restlessness only seemed to grow. It seemed everywhere I turned someone, or some group, had some expectation of what I was supposed to be doing, or where I should be dedicating my time. Here’s the thing, being wanted can be pretty intoxicating. It makes us feel important and needed. And as long as we keep playing by the rules and expectations of everyone else we get praised. It’s as though someone else gets to decide who we are and what role we will play in our own life and as long as we play our part within that system life is easy. Or so we are told.
What if the rules and expectations are oppressive and unjust? Do we just grin and bear it? Surely not. You see, every single one of us lives our lives within a system of rules and expectations, and it starts from the moment we are born.
Now for those of you who consider yourselves rule followers, living inside a system of rules may come effortlessly. As long as you know the rules then you know what is expected of you and then you live within that system. Sounds simple enough, right? You follow the rules, you get the praise.
But what about people who strive to do the right thing, but fall just short of other’s expectations? They know the rules, they know the expectations, but just can’t quite seem to meet them. Should their life be relegated to one without praise?
I think about my own life… I believe I’ve been a rule follower, and truth be told I like the praise that comes with it. The problem I’ve seen with each passing year has left me unsettled, even burdened and tired. I’ve come to realize that praises come as long as orders are being acted upon, rules are being followed, opinions are being agreed with, and pre-conceived expectations are being met. Anything less than that, I’ve learned leads to being talked about, sabotaged, oppressed and dismissed. Each and every time people manipulate others, or abuse others or just do anything to cause public ridicule or shame, it is really their way of saying “Be who I expect you to be if you want my support and praise, because anything other than that will just not work.”
There is a problem, though, when such a life is imposed on everyone, where praise is only for those who follow without asking. That problem is questions get silenced and curiosity gets extinguished. The end result for those curious types, like me, can be summed up in one word: Burdened! We are burdened by the sheer power and forcefulness of the external world’s desire for conformity. We are burdened by others never-ending need to be recognized as better or more important in every situation. We are burdened by others need to be seen as the rule makers. We are burdened by being blamed when the end result is less than hoped for by those same rule makers who now don’t seek recognition. We are burdened and sometimes the burden is so overwhelming that life begins to feel too hard. No matter where we turn it seems there are times we simply can’t find rest.
Many years ago I took on a case and one evening at a family dinner my decision came up. I remember my mom’s reaction like it was yesterday. She said, “oh son, why do you always have to choose the hard road.” Now, when I agreed to represent these people I didn’t see it as a hard road, I saw it as doing what I had dedicated my entire life to, pursuing justice.
I’ve thought a lot about her statement over the years, and I find it very interesting in light of today’s scripture where Jesus says, “29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Now maybe some of you are wondering where the connection is between a loving mother briefly stating her desire for her son to choose an easier road and Jesus’ statement here, and I believe there is good reason for that. You see, if all we know about words and their meaning comes from an American dictionary then the word Yoke will only have one meaning, and that one meaning would prevent you from ever seeing how a statement about doing what society expects of someone having certain characteristics could ever be related to Jesus’ statement about taking his Yoke upon yourself.
That dictionary definition for yoke is a wooden bar or frame that joins 2 animals like oxen together at the heads or necks so that they can work together. Who knows, some of you with farming backgrounds may have actual experience with that kind of Yoke. But what if I told you there is more than one meaning for Yoke, just not in English. What if I told you that other meaning had important significance for the people of Jesus’ day, especially the original audience of Matthew’s Gospel, and I believe it has important significance for us today.
That other meaning is about rules of life and how life should be lived. That other meaning begins with what I understand is a central principal for Judaism: the asking of questions. Asking questions was seen as especially important when reading the Torah (the Jewish name for the first 5 books of the Bible). For the ancient Jews, the verses found in the Torah were meant to be lived out, not just talked about. But here’s the thing, in order for words to be lived out, those words have to have meaning and meaning comes from someone somewhere making decisions about those words in that verse. Now within ancient Judaism, these Rabbi’s understood that decisions had to be made about the meaning of words and they took seriously their role as interpreters of the Torah within community.
These ancient Rabbi’s knew they were responsible for helping people understand what God was saying to them through the text and then telling them how they could go and live out the meaning of the text. So, to accomplish this role of interpreter of scripture, a Rabbi would put things into 2 categories: things the Rabbi allowed and things the Rabbi forbade. And here’s the thing, different Rabbis had different lists of what they allowed and what they forbade. In other words, Rabbis had different sets of rules. And here’s the kicker, a Rabbi’s set of rules, a Rabbi’s list, which was actually that Rabbi’s interpretation of how someone should live out the verses of the Torah was called that Rabbi’s yoke. So, when someone was making their decision about which Rabbi to follow they were making it because they believed that particular Rabbi’s interpretation was the closest to what God actually meant. And when that choice was finally made you were taking that Rabbi’s rules, that Rabbi’s yoke upon yourself.
So back to my Mom’s statement about her desire that I choose an easier path. I know her statement was full of love. The reason I know is because I know what it is like to be a parent who desperately wants their child’s life to be joyful. I also know something else when it comes to why a parent would want this for their child, something often hidden, rarely if ever talked about, and that is choosing to stand with the lost, the enslaved, the oppressed oftentimes causes the rule makers to do everything they can to turn your life upside down. In their eyes you have decided not to play by their rules. And the thing is, my Mom knew it because she lived it too. She knew how difficult life could become because of my decision to take upon myself the Yoke of Justice instead of the Yoke of oppression. The Yoke of Love instead of the Yoke of evil. The Yoke of Equality instead of the Yoke of brutality.
She knew it, and just like any loving parent she wanted to save me from that pain even though she knew she couldn’t. And maybe, as a parent that is the hardest thing because to truly love a child is to let them know they have the freedom to choose their own path. To truly love anyone is to let them know how free they are to live their life without fear of not being loved… not your life or the life you want for them, but live their life. Imposing one’s rules, one’s lists of permitted activities or permitted decisions and forbidden activities or forbidden decision in exchange for the promise of praise… in exchange for the promise of inclusion and love, should never be seen as good news, and should never be called such. It is selfish and loveless and harmful to everyone involved.
It seems this is what Jesus was witnessing firsthand. The Yoke being imposed upon people during his day was said to come from God, but Jesus knew different. The yoke being imposed, the rules and expectations to which the people were being subjected, were not gentle. They were not humble. Jesus’s Yoke of Grace & welcome and love for all of creation, on the other hand was. Listen again, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
There are all kinds of yokes today. They are all around us all the time. Some may come in the form of formal rules, others might be harder to recognize, like expectations of others. But make no mistake, the placing of expectations on others are yokes too. All of those yokes place heavy burdens on us and leave us restless, even exhausted. The weight we are expected to carry from those yokes is too much.
There is Good News though, and it comes in the form of Rabbi Jesus’ Yoke. We can take that Rabbi’s Yoke upon us and learn from him and we can find rest from the power and forcefulness of the external word’s desire for conformity. We can find rest from others never-ending need to be recognized as better or more important in every situation. We can find rest from others need to be seen as the rule makers. We can find rest from being blamed when the end result is less than hoped for by those same rule makers who now don’t seek recognition. We can find rest from a life that begins to feel too hard.
Rest that comes by choosing to take Rabbi Jesus’ gentle and humble Yoke upon yourself. Learn from that yoke and let gentleness and humbleness lead you to rest.
In 2013 Amy & I heard about a family in pretty desperate need of help. They were new to the area and at the time were living with a friend in a 2-bedroom apartment onTower Road in Greensboro. The man had been unable to find work and at that time he and his wife had a 15-month-old daughter to care for, but their family was growing as the birth of their second child was only months away. Sadly though, they had hit pretty desperate times as they had no money, no food, no milk and no diapers for their 15-month-old daughter.
I’m not exactly sure what prompted Amy & me to see if there was any way we could help, but the next thing I know, we were in the parking lot of this apartment complex with our van full of necessities hoping to deliver them to this family we had never met. Maybe others would not so quickly respond the way we did, but meeting new people has never been something Amy & I have difficulty doing. But even this was new territory for us, because here we were, our van full of things we purchased for this family we didn’t know, knocking on a door hoping to be welcomed. You see, even though we were the ones bearing these gifts, we had no idea if we would be welcomed, and the truth of the matter is no matter if you are the gift bearer or gift receiver, being welcomed, being received well works the same. We were strangers to this family and they were strangers to us, and as nice & generous as we thought we were being when we decided to go purchase these items, it is a whole different situation when you are standing in front of a stranger’s door, wondering what would happen when you knocked. We felt so vulnerable in that moment, but I’ve often wondered how vulnerable our soon to be new friends felt in the moments before we arrived.
Luckily that first time meeting each other went well and a friendship formed between the Knight’s and Hamads. A friendship that continues to this very day, and were it not for our ability to welcome and receive each other into very different lives, that friendship never would have occurred. You see, in many ways, Amy, Jason, Joshua, Jacob & Emma Grace Knight are so very different than Adel, Shaima, Rayon, Reel & Rawaa Hamad.
The Knights had been raised inside a fairly privileged world in America. Adel and Shaima, on the other hand, had been born and raised in war torn Sudan. Adel, a good number of years older than Shaima, had been forced into prison twice for holding a sign in public stating his opposition to the Sudanese Government building a dam in his village. The second time, in the dead of night, he dug out and escaped from that prison and after running as far as he could, riding a donkey, and accepting a ride from a stranger, Adel ended up in Turkey. Upon arriving in Turkey, Adel went to the United Nations office and received the UN status of Political Refugee. Some 10 years later, now married and a father to 5-month-old Rayon, a UN official called Adel to tell him the U.S. has chosen him for residency and he has 48 hours to pack up everything he owns and get to the airport to move to his new home.
48 hours. That’s it. When I first heard all of this I couldn’t even wrap my brain around it. To that point in our lives, stories like the Hamads were the stuff of fictional movies at best, but all of that ended for Amy & me when we met them. What was once fiction had become real life right before our very eyes, and the more we saw about how un-welcomed the Hamads felt in their new “home” the more we didn’t like what we saw. After the 3 months of “assistance” from the U.S. Government who, by the way, had chosen this family for permanent lifelong residency, they had nothing. No work, no money, no food, no real place to live. And even though they didn’t know it at the time, Amy & I knew from that point on, each family would have each other. They welcomed us just as we were and we welcomed them just as they were.
Over the next few months, I discovered how inaccessible our public transportation system is and luckily found a car that Amy & I gave to the Hamads. Then we discovered that the house they were now renting a room in didn’t have electricity or running water, yet their landlord (a fellow Sudanese Man who had lived here a lot longer and in my opinion, had discovered how to prey on the Sudanese Refugee community by renting rooms inside a house that never had running water or electricity) was charging them $400.00 per month for that one room. So we began looking for new housing options immediately, as that current room was not fit for them and with the birth of their second child only a month away we didn’t want this living arrangement to continue any longer.
One evening as Amy & I were picking up their dirty laundry to bring to our house to wash, dry & return, Adel walked out to hand us the last bag of clothes and as he handed them to me tears fell down his cheek, but he was wanting to say something to us. So he gathered himself and through his broken English looked at me & Amy and said he didn’t understand why we were doing all of this for his family, and as tears started to fall harder he said, “No one, not even people in our own family, have ever treated us as nice and kind as you have.” We all hugged and Amy & I responded by saying this was the least we could do for them and we were honored to be able to do it. Now that was a powerful moment!
When it was time for Shaima to give birth to their second daughter Reel, Amy was at the hospital with them, and with the help of our children watched their now 18-month-old daughter Rayon until later that night. When we took Rayon back that night I asked if they had an infant car seat as they were set to leave the hospital the next day. I felt like I already knew the answer, and my gut was right; they didn’t. So I put out a call to friends from seminary and would you believe within an hour a friend purchased a top of the line infant car seat and personally delivered it to our house.
That next day as Amy & I helped pack everything into their car, Adel looked at Rayon and while pointing in my direction told Rayon that I was her Uncle. Now friends, this is a huge compliment in most families, but I have since come to learn that in South Sudan this is one of the biggest honors one can bestow upon another. By telling his daughter to call us family, Adel was welcoming and receiving us into his family. Powerful powerful stuff.
Two families, who only a few shorts months prior didn’t even know the other existed, had welcomed each other into their respective world… had received each other, just as we were and our families became bigger at the same time. Two completely different worlds, two completely different understandings of how the world works, found a way to welcome each other and accept the other just as they were, and communion happened. Stories like this, I believe, are only possible through God’s Love being poured out from each person toward every other person. That is the only way I know to explain how a Sudanese Muslim Refugee family and an American Baptist family became one family.
You know, there are two sides to this whole concept of welcome. On the one hand you have those in the position of welcoming others -- into your church, into your home, into your life. In those instances, the one welcoming has the power. They get to make the decisions as to whom they’ll invite and when. They can control the circumstances, the setting, and the surroundings. They are even able to determine when the welcoming will come to an end. 
There is another side entirely to this concept of welcoming, and that is when you find yourself as the one being welcomed. The one at the mercy of another.  Here’s the thing, no matter what side you find yourself on, welcoming others or being welcome, vulnerability dominates, and this brief statement Jesus is making in today’s scripture reading about welcoming and receiving is an indication that vulnerability is a crucial component of the Kingdom of Heaven, especially when vulnerability is understood as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”
Doesn’t it seem that Jesus thought of vulnerability in this way. Who better than Jesus to know that in the end, to be human is to be vulnerable. To be human is to experience uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Can’t we all agree that uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure are at the very heart of humanity and divinity becoming one in Christ? If we can, then it seems that vulnerability is really a sign of strength, not weakness. Right?
If we truly believe vulnerability is a sign of strength then I wonder what we see when we look at the church today… its structures, its institutions, its seminaries, its leaders. Do we see a church who believes this, or do we see a church terrified to be vulnerable because of its perceived weakness? If you are unsure, just take a little time to watch how a church welcomes and receives strangers. You can rest assured that you will know a church’s position on vulnerability when observing them welcome outsiders.
As New Testament Scholar Karoline Lewis says, “when vulnerability is misunderstood as weakness, the end result is a leadership foreign to Jesus… a self-absorbed, self-aggrandized sense of governance that does not inspire followers but requires an allegiance blind to empathy and hope.” Such a self-focused leader is terrified of being uncertain, at risk or emotionally exposed. This was not the leadership style Jesus modeled.
By misinterpreting vulnerability as weakness it seems the church works against the heart of the Good News that God stands in solidarity with humanity and that all of creation has a fundamental need for connection, belonging, intimacy, and love. This is the only place we can find our strength, but we must be vulnerable.
Maybe in its need to claim relevance, the church chooses to avoid discomfort. Maybe this is why, for the most part, the church plays it safe rather than take risks like welcoming and receiving strangers just as they are. Call me crazy if you must, but I truly believe we need to re-imagine what it means to do church and what it means to be a disciple if we are going to claim to represent the Good News of the Bible. You see, that Good News calls us to welcome and receive everyone. That Good News calls us to stop shaming people and start loving people… all people. That Good News calls us to uncertainty, calls us to risk, calls us to emotional exposure because that Good News calls us to relationship.
Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of the fact that God becoming human was as much of a commitment to vulnerability as God’s death. “We have a vulnerable God and relationships, by definition, are vulnerable. By instigating a relationship with us, God decided and determined that vulnerability is at the heart of faith.
In the face of excuses and grumblings, disbelief and disobedience, refusal and rejection, God keeps coming back, adamant that reconciliation and renewal are possible, certain of love for us, willing to be seen over and over again even in the face of denial and betrayal. In the end, God had to trust in the welcome of the world to make a home here, to abide here, to make the Kingdom of Heaven be known here.
When we start to imagine what it must feel like to rely on the welcome of others, perhaps then we will have a sense of the kind of vulnerability Jesus knew and lived. ”  When we have to depend on another, perhaps for a meal and a place to sleep, trust must come first. When we allow ourselves to be welcomed then maybe we can begin to think that we are actually enough. And who knows what might happen, maybe an American Baptist family and a Sudanese Muslim Refugee family become one family.
Wouldn’t that be something! AMEN!
 Brown, Brene´. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012.
June 25, 2017
In 2011 a book was released about God and God’s love for all creation, at least that is what Rob Bell thought Love Wins was about when he wrote it. At the time Bell was the Pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan and known worldwide. He had written numerous books by this point and had release a series of videos called Nooma. Bell’s church was what we call today a Megachurch when he was there, but when Love Wins was released something unexpected happened, people turned against him, calling him a heretic among other things. There are some reports that the church lost 3,000 members because of the book and when asked about it Bell said the book put a lot of pressure on people in his church. He said congregants were telling him that family and friends were relentless in asking them why they were allowing themselves to be led by a false teacher. Ultimately, everything changed for Bell and his family as he resigned from the church and moved to southern California. Everything changed because he decided to share the good news of God’s never-ending love for all creation. And even though he may not have known this sharing God’s love for all creation would make him controversial, by writing this book and having it published, Bell had made the decision to stand up for his beliefs.
Now for a large percentage of people there are certain things in life that are to be avoided at all costs. Like disagreements, or facing someone we know is either frustrated with us or disappointed in something we have done. It seems all situations likes these feel hard to deal with.
It certainly doesn’t make it any easier when the disagreement, or the frustration or disappointment is with a family member, right? Adding this additional element only causes the difficulty we are facing to multiply leaving us paralyzed by the what ifs circling in our minds. Most of the time the end result is avoidance. Sometimes it is avoidance of the people themselves while other times it is avoidance of the topic that has caused the disagreement, frustration or disappointment. Not that avoidance ever makes any of it go away, its just that in that moment we believe it easier to avoid.
There are 2 topics that seem to be off-limits for almost everyone, unless of course you know beforehand whose side the other person is on: Religion and Politics! For reasons we don’t have time to explore today, these 2 topics are so divisive that even families aren’t immune to being torn apart because of them. When the tearing apart begins I want to scream WHAT IN THE WORLD IS GOING ON HERE because I’m not sure I really understand why relationships can be destroyed by such things. Yet I know it happens and it happens more often than I would like. In fact, history shows us it was happening from the start and our present day shows us it continues.
When it comes to religion, I’ve been wondering lately if there is something so inherent to the topic itself that just holding different opinions, different beliefs and/or different understandings could divide people who love one another? Now last week I asked some serious questions about discovering your passions in hopes that we begin to explore ways we can expand the ministry of this church beyond our physical space. Today I again am asking serious questions… What is it about the topic of religion that can lead to such divisiveness amongst people, even people of the same family? Questions like these deserve our attention just like the topic did when Jesus foreshadowed for his Disciples that their current relationships could be severed in the days ahead as they began to venture out and speak about this radical new understanding of religion. We must remember “[T]he Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus creating life with a whole variety of people and carrying out the mission of caring for the lost, the down-trodden, and the forgotten. Jesus was a border-crossing, taboo-breaking refugee who sought to break down barriers by creating companionship.”
You see, I believe Jesus was telling his Disciples that their relationships may suffer when he told them in verse 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” If taken literally those words seem pretty harsh, not to mention they seem to say the opposite of who he was and what we know about his ministry of grace and peace to all of creation. In fact, I initially resist associating these words with Christ. They just don’t seem to fit, and quite frankly they sound wrong. In my mind I have a difficult time connecting “Not peace but a sword,” with the Jesus I claim to know. I wonder though, just like so many of us who avoid discussing things like religion, if my resistance is for another reason entirely… like the fact that I KNOW IT’S TRUE! When people answer the call to speak about their truth and stand up for their beliefs, division may result. The thing is that possibility of division should never stop any of us from speaking the truth, doing what is right and standing up for our beliefs.
The question then becomes, why are doing right and speaking the truth about doing right the reason for arguments, hurt feelings or division? Is that really what doing right and speaking the truth are meant to cause? Surely, we would all respond “NO” to such questions. Sadly though, when the truth is calling people to a whole new way of life, a whole new way of understanding who they are in this life, argument, resistance, fighting and division most often result. That, it seems, is what Jesus is teaching when he tells his Disciples to anticipate some relationship problems, even from members of your own family when you begin publicly sharing the truth about God’s Kingdom.
You know, that Kingdom that disrupts oppression.
That Kingdom that unsettles.
That Kingdom that upends empires of oppression masquerading as champions of peace.
That Kingdom that calls into question the rulers and systems that promise peace but really swing a sword of terror and use weapons to force allegiance.
Expect strong resistance when telling people the Truth about God’s Kingdom that “comes with the demands on which true peace insists… love and acceptance of someone’s authentic self.” Expect strong resistance when telling people the Truth about God’s Kingdom that “never lets go of the kind of peace God has in mind.”  You know, that kind of peace that comes only from loving everything and everyone in creation the way we love ourselves.
I happen to believe this is rather remarkable advice for all of us, but I also know how difficult it is. Truth telling about an Expansive God reaching out to all of creation… truth telling about an Expansive God who always goes looking for the sheep, no matter what, is risky business. This is what Jesus was telling his Disciples and he was direct about it, maybe even a little intimidating, but at least he let them know what to expect. Maybe Jesus was wanting them to know that when you stand up and speak out for what you believe, people start falling away, and there was no easy comforting way to say it.
Jesus is letting them know that when you finally stand up and speak out about God’s love and acceptance of everyone, current relationships will change and some will even end altogether. In fact, there is a good chance nothing will be the same, and in this world of social media, people may start to unfriend or unfollow you, or troll and bully you. Jesus seems to be saying that these are just some of the consequences for standing up for what you believe… especially for those standing up and speaking the truth about their belief in God’s love for all of creation.
History has proven this in many different contexts, right? Think about the way women have worked tirelessly to speak the truth of being called into the workforce, or better yet being called into vocational ministry. Or how about people of color having to decide, not once, not twice but countless times, whether or not they speak the truth and name their fear of a country in which systemic racism continues to be validated.
I can’t help but wonder if the Church claiming to follow this Jesus is even ready to listen to his words. You see, to listen to these words of advice, means decisions have to be made. Decisions about who the Church really is and what message it is really trying to tell. Listening to these words will make “the church decide whether or not it will actually tell the truth of the Gospel -- the Gospel that brings true peace to those who suffer, to those in need of healing, to those marginalized, to those demonized, to those oppressed; God’s true peace, realized and known in gladness and joy, fulfillment and contentedness, happiness and blessedness.” In my opinion, a Church choosing this path is a Church free from fear. It is a Church who hears Jesus’ command that it not be afraid.
If we choose to listen and look for meaning behind our literal understanding of his words, Jesus is letting us know potential difficulties in speaking the truth of the Gospel. Yet, of all the commands in the entire Bible, there is one repeated more than any and it is found 3 times in today’s reading… “Don’t Be Afraid.” 3 small simple words if left by themselves, but when placed together and point to our need to stand and speak the truth of the Gospel message will lead to powerfully positive transformation.
The thing is if we want to influence anyone, even members of our family who disagree with us we can lead the way through our own actions. No one is going to change their worldview or religious view because of something posted to social media, but when they see us following through on these claims of love for everyone, they can’t help but notice.
The challenge we face, just like the challenge those first Disciples faced is being courageous in the face of opposition, especially opposition from those who love you. This is why, I believe, Jesus said he didn’t come for peace because Jesus knew better than anyone that having that kind of courage was no small task. All of us would much rather fight against evil, not against those we love and those that love us. Here is the thing, though, avoiding them or avoiding talking about certain things doesn’t honor you nor does it really honor them.
Don’t be afraid!
Do not fear!
Even if there is a period of time when you are thought of as strange, or an outsider…
Don’t be afraid!
Do not fear!
Because eventually you’ll earn your right to freedom and when you do so fear will no longer make your decisions for you. And then there will come a time when you might hear them say, “oh there goes _____ again. That’s just what she does. Or they’ll think, _____ has another crazy idea… but the last one worked out pretty well for him.”
And you want to know something, every once in a while a funny thing happens: those initial nay-sayers learn from the decisions you made, and how you stepped out and faced down your fears. And then maybe they will talk about you in a different way.
So for those of us being made to feel that cultural conformity is more important than anything else, where non-conformity is misunderstood as a threat to the establishment, or for anyone who feels pressured to be like those around them, it’s all up to you to lead by example. Who knows—maybe some will be transformed with you.
In the lead up to today, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about my Father. Now this is not a rare occurrence as I think about him a lot. Father’s Day though has become increasingly difficult for me over the years as I have watched my Dad’s illnesses reduced him to a shell of the man I call my Dad.
So just like last year at this time, and the year before that, and so on and so forth, this past week I reflected on our relationship and what it has meant for me to be the son of Tommy Frank Knight. As I reflected, many memories and teachings came to my mind, but it seemed this week one topic dominated the others: my Dad loved to picture his only son as a hard worker. The arena never seemed to matter as much as my effort. From the athletic fields and gyms to the floor of the service department at Black Cadillac in Greensboro, my Dad wanted to know that his son wasn’t sitting around watching like a spectator.
Then I thought about the summer when I was 14 when for some reason, my Dad believed I needed to get a job… an idea I was not very keen on… yet there I was being woken up at 6:00 AM so that I could catch a ride to this factory in Burlington. My first day on the job was terrible. I was the youngest worker and my co-workers made my life pretty tough. When I returned home I told my Dad that I would not be going back the next day to which he replied, yes you will. And sure enough that next morning here he comes into my bedroom waking me up and sure enough I went back to work. That pretty much sums up that summer.
Then there was the time I came home from practice to find all of our groceries on the table in our kitchen with Dad sitting at the table. I asked him what was going on and he said, “Boy, I got you a job bagging groceries… Now I am your customer and these are my groceries and here are the bags. I want you to bag my groceries for me.” Telling this story today can sound a little funny, but I can assure you he was not joking. So I proceeded to bag my first customer’s groceries, even though I was in my home with my Dad. Each time I “messed up” he lovingly corrected me. You see, he knew I didn’t know how to bag groceries and he wanted to make sure I had a solid foundation before I ever showed up for my first day of work. It was important to him, and in turn has become important to me.
A few years back I learned that my Dad came by every job I had as a teenager, without me knowing, and met with my boss to talk about me. My Dad was only interested in knowing one thing though… is my Boy working hard for you or is he just standing around watching. Luckily each of my bosses responded by letting him know that I was a very hard worker and each time I was asked to do something I did it to the best of my ability. Today, I have this sense that hearing that from my bosses was gratifying to my Dad. He didn’t want me to stand around watching. He didn’t want me to be a spectator, especially not when there was work that needed to be done.
I know this has shaped and form the person I am today. Working hard, giving all that I have to give, is very important to me and it is something I want pass on to my own children. In every aspect of their lives, I want them to participate to the fullest extent possible. I want them to give their best effort and I want them to work when there is work to be done.
There is something though that I want them to avoid because it is not a healthy nor is it a joyful way of living, and you want to know something, I know this firsthand… I want them to avoid over-working. I don’t want them to place such a high importance on working hard that they miss out on other things life has to offer. I want them to find a community of people who are willing to share the workload because sharing the work within the community is critical. I want them to belong to a community of people committed to participating, not just spectating. I want them to belong to a community committed to sharing the workload because then I will know they have found a community committed to each other.
You want to know something else… I want this for us too. All of us deserve a community where the participants outnumber the spectators. This is especially so because today’s harvest is plentiful, just like yesterday’s harvest. While some spectators may be necessary, if a community wants to thrive, wants to reach its potential, it needs more participants than spectators, and not the other way around.
Jesus, I believe, recognized this and knew change was needed. I believe he knew this new kingdom movement would struggle if 1% of the people continued to do 99% of the work. So he set about to change things and he started with his Disciples. Up to that point in their journey together, Jesus participated and his Disciples spectated and while those roles are rooted in the Rabbinic teaching tradition, we will also find within that tradition, a point where the spectator becomes the participant. They had watched Jesus cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons, but now they were going to participate in this mission.
This is our tradition too, yet most of the time the masses seem more comfortable spectating. We think of the church as a refuge, a place of comfort and hope, and a place where we revel in our good fortune and celebrate God’s love and forgiveness. And as good as all that may be, when it happens, we are reduced to nothing more than consumers of God’s love…content to be spectators just following the action. The thing is spectating is not the life for which we were created or the life to which God is calling us.
The life modeled for us in Jesus moves us from spectators to participants, even and especially when the movement stretches us… gets us out of our self-created comfort zone. Jesus had been out there preaching, healing and helping, as only he could do. The Bible says he had compassion on the people ‘because they were harassed and helpless’. He seemed to think there were a bunch of folk like that. He said the harvest was plentiful. But the laborers were few.
So when he recognized this Jesus stopped, called the Twelve together, gave them an awesome task, blessed them and sent them out to find what he called the ‘lost sheep’. And get this. He told them not to worry if they had enough money or training or anything else! Just go! Just show up.
It was as if he was saying: ‘There are a bunch of people out there who need to hear a word of good news. Many of them are hurting and live without hope. Their lives are lost. Some of them will hear you and find hope. Others won’t, but that is not your problem. Don’t try to anticipate all the obstacles you may encounter. Just tell them the good news and live by faith.’
Maybe if it was up to them they would have remained his assistants, helping out, following along. They would have remained comfortable spectators, but Jesus would have none of that. Jesus did not ask them to help. He told them to do the very same things he had been called to do. He realized he could not do it all by himself. And he sent them with no further training and precious little advice. For Jesus, it would never be enough to take care of the sheep already in the fold. So, he sent his disciples into the uncomfortable places of life…where the thickets and briars rule…to find those who are lost and to share with them a word of hope.
That is how Jesus lived. So far as we know, he never gave public opinion a second thought. He never worried about how to pay for something. He offered no program, save the gospel. And virtually all the training was accomplished ‘on the job’. It was not like you had to take a class, learn the Bible or answer all the questions ahead of time. It was almost a call to improvise, once you figured out what the need was. It was a call to action. There are sheep not in the fold. That means there is work to be done.
This should not come as a surprise to us. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Preaching the kingdom without doing anything about it is just politics, and good works without good news is no more than a temporary reprieve, but to proclaim the kingdom while acting it out-that is powerful, and that is what Jesus sent his friends out to do.” (SW-201, p.153)
And he sent them with nothing…no money, no shoes, no bag…just power and belief. God’s sufficient power and Jesus’ belief in them. They relied, not on the overflow of their abundance to do ministry, not on their own resourcefulness, but on God’s power and Jesus’ belief that they could do it.
I believe it is time we collectively begin praying about the areas of harvest in the life of this church. What areas of ministry are ready for harvest and then who among you will step-up and participate in the work? These are serious questions which can lead to a revitalization if we respond.
There are numerous ministries we could do if we choose wisely, but no matter what we none of us can do the work of harvesting alone. Once we figure out what is needed, then we can put out a call to action. I want each of you to think hard about your passions. Is there some ministry rooted in helping and healing and building community that pulls at you? If there is lets talk about it and lets figure out a way to empower and help answer this call to action. There is work to be done and lets stop spectating and start participating.
There are days, sometimes weeks when I am dog tired. During those days and weeks the sabbath cannot come soon enough. The work needing to be done during those days and weeks was plentiful, especially when I was doing that work alone. While at times the volume of work frustrated me, there was always something deep in my bones calling me to work when there was work to be done. It is still calling me today and its pull feel ever stronger. Maybe it comes from being Tommy Frank Knight’s son. Maybe its who I was created to be. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
Even though Dad can’t really talk with me anymore, I like to think he is proud of the way I work when there is work to be done. It was important to him that he raise me that way and I believe his lessons stuck with me. Sitting idle and hoping that others pick up the slack just doesn’t sit well with the person I know I am.
There are times when spectating has its advantages. Being a spectator places certain limitations on us though… and while we might feel comfortable in that spectator role, we have been called to be participants in this life. Not all of the time, but some of the time we need to participate because I believe we honor God each and every time we stretch ourselves by participating in the ministries of helping and healing and building up our community as a whole.
Participants… that is who we were called to be because the harvest is plentiful. Let us move from spectators to participants for there is work to be done.
Do any of you remember the phrase “Can’t we all just get along” became popular? Do you remember who said it back in 1992? Well truth be told, these questions aren’t really fair because Rodney King didn’t actually say those exact words. Instead in that nationally televised interview he said “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?,” but most of us prefer to remember the somewhat famous quote as “Can’t we all just get along?”
Now King cried out for all to get along after he became the unwanted face of the 90’s race riots in Los Angeles. King was a taxi driver who gained international fame after being beaten by police officers following a high-speed chase in the early part of 1991. Then about a year later, in the middle of the 6 day race riots tearing LA apart, King was interviewed and during that interview he made this plea for everyone to get along. Although King’s plea happened some 25 years ago, it many ways the same plea happened before him and most definitely after. I suspect most of us would agree that it continues today. And with the rise of social media, and the ease that platform provides for negative communication, a plea for us to get along is a plea needing to be heard.
I wonder though what people mean when they say it. Do they want everyone to just agree all the time? Or, do they want to silence the ones who may not agree with them in order to appear that everyone is getting along? Certainly, we can agree that just appearing to get along, or silencing the voices of those with different ideas for the purpose of just getting along is never really productive. Nor does it lay the foundation needed for the building of strong relationships. Getting along at the expense of your own voice is never really getting along in the first place.
Some believe conflict is in our very nature, and while I’m not so sure about that, I do find it really easy to see conflict all around, all the time. In fact, I would say my legal career has made it pretty easy to see conflict every day. For me, our legal system is structured in a way that conflict ALWAYS happens. Now I’ve heard people try to justify this by saying that our system is adversarial, and while that may be the case, people who hold different opinions do not have to be seen only as our adversaries or our enemies whom we seek to destroy. Nevertheless, getting along with others operating within such a system is next to impossible.
Sadly, people in conflict is not limited to our legal system because make no mistake, conflict within the church is just as prevalent. And you want to know something, conflict within the church is not a new phenomenon and the Apostle Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth demonstrates that.
Now before we get into the actual passage for today it is important to know that Paul wrote to his churches for numerous purposes like:
Defend his gospel message against other competing messages; and
Promote harmony in congregations where class, ethnicity, and gender issues created conflicts
Now when we turn our attention to Corinth and to its First Church, what we find is a community torn by separation into groups. In fact, the Corinthians’ divisiveness has been front and center since Paul’s first letter. In 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul says “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Then in our scripture today where Paul is closing out his letters he expresses the same wish: “mend your ways,” “agree with one another,” and “live in peace” (13:11).
But lets take a step back because we need to make sure we understand that for Paul, agreeing with one another or, thinking the same way is not to be read as an appeal to uniformity. Paul doesn’t want them to just get along for the sake of getting along. In his first letter he makes sure he tells them how much he loves and celebrates the diversity of their congregation (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
His request is altogether different… he wants them to have the same mind as Christ when he voluntarily humbled himself and died for the sake of the world. He wants them to have that kind of love for one another because he knows that kind of love will facilitate living at peace and will bring together those separate groups that have only torn the congregation apart.
That kind of love, however, is not possible without the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Paul urges the Corinthians to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit working in them -- particularly joy and peace. In verse 11, what the NRSV translates as “farewell” is more literally “rejoice” and Paul knows that joy is a marker of God’s kingdom.
Now greeting one another with a holy kiss is a tangible way to show love and fellowship, especially in a community like this who continue to struggle to love one another and who still are learning how to be the body of Christ. But those who are seized by this love, who have the grace of Jesus in their bloodstreams, are joined together in a family which the world has never seen before… a family not based on physical or ethnic descent or relation… a family where anyone and everyone is welcome. It is a family called to share a common life, and the word Paul uses here, koinonia, (can be translated ‘partnership’,’ association’, sharing’, ‘communion’, as well as the familiar ‘fellowship’) has been under enormous strain as Paul and the Corinthians have struggled to work out their relationship through visits, letters, reports, rumors, despair and hope. It is because Paul believes passionately that God’s own spirit is at work in both his life and that of the Corinthians that he cannot let them go.
Likewise, Paul’s desire for peace is also a marker of God’s Kingdom and the Spirit’s work. For him, the mind that is set on the Spirit is a mind that knows peace and living peaceably should be a sign of the church. God calls the saints to peace and God is a God of peace.
In short, the presence of joy and peace are the indicators of the Spirit’s transformative work to reveal God’s kingdom… a kingdom of righteousness and peace and joy. In closing his letter this way Paul is not calling on them to just simply get along, he is urging them to be the new creation that the Spirit is equipping them to be.
The final remarks include one last reminder of the theological bedrock that makes the church’s existence possible: the Trinity, and even though the Trinity is a doctrine that did not exist during Paul’s day, he is very much aware of all three when he says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
The mention of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit in one breath, however, should not be surprising to any reader of Paul’s letters. He has already claimed them all in various parts of these two letters. This final appeal for the presence of Christ’s grace, God’s love, and the Spirit’s fellowship bears witness to the divine power that has created and sustained both the Corinthian church and the church today. God is the very source of our life in Christ Jesus, and in Christ we are a new creation.
Taken together the 2 letters we have from Paul to the Corinthians are a roller coaster ride of controversies, raw emotions, and quite frankly a whole lot of irrelevant junk that goes on inside a Christian congregation.
But then comes the end of this exhausting correspondence in which Paul offers this blessing upon them. At this point he’s been through the wringer a few dozen times and has surely shed his share of pastor’s tears over the Corinthians themselves. Yet in this benediction he blesses them by saying “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
And what more is there to say really? When we take our rightful place inside the Trinity, and live into its fullness we come to find everything we need to exist as believers. This benediction was calling them to break down walls and to build bridges with gifts of grace, love and fellowship. This benediction is calling us to do the same.
The Trinity means an end to conflict and isolation and separation. We are invited to reflect on how God’s grace, love and fellowship interplay in our own lives, and the way we choose to live them inside and outside our Church walls.
We need grace and we need to extend grace to others. Just as Paul returned to this gift of grace again and again in trying to straighten out all of the conflicts in Corinth, we need to be reminded too. We need to be reminded of that gift of grace so that we will keep forgiving and re-forgiving all the ways we manage to wound each other. We need Jesus to be gracious with us and we need to extend that same grace to one another.
We need the love of God, and we need to embrace it. God’s love is always present and always available for each of us no matter what. God loves because God must love. God loves because Love is God’s very essence and there is nothing any of us could ever do to stop God from loving us and we need to be reminded of that.
And there is one more thing we need… Koinonia. It is that abiding fellowship of the Holy Spirit who took up residence in our hearts after Pentecost. We need that community and God needs it too. If the Trinity only shows us one thing, it should be that God loves community and God wants community for everyone. No one is to be alone. Isolation is not who we were created to be and isolation is not an aspect of God. Thankfully with the Holy Spirit we have the glue that can hold us together no matter what. Sometimes the Holy Spirit may be the only thing holding people together, and that’s OK.
When it is all said and done, we need to be reminded of this Trinitarian blessing of grace, love and fellowship. We need to be reminded that grace, love and fellowship are for all people no matter what problems those people have created or are creating. We need to be reminded because only though this Trinitarian blessing of love, grace and fellowship can we find that crazy peace that passes all understanding. We need to be reminded that these gifts rain down on God’s people no matter what.
KISER MIDDLE SCHOOL 8TH GRADE PROMOTION
Student named Chris who was hit by a car and has been in the hospital ever since.
Kiser community came together through cash donations and Go Fund Me to provide Chris’ mom some financial help.
Citizenship Award named in Chris’ Honor.
Recipient overcome with emotion
Received a standing ovation.
That part of the promotion ceremony was very emotional, as it should have been. In addition to the emotional aspect I saw something else… I saw grace, love and fellowship on full display. In that moment, I saw the fullness of this Trinitarian blessing being poured out in 8th grade middle school children. And you want to know something, it made me want it even more for us.
Grace, Love and Fellowship need to be our focus always. They have been promised to us and poured out on us. This is the path to peace and joy and it is the path we must take.
 Carter, Warren & Levine, Amy-Jill, The New Testament Methods and Meanings
 NT For Everyone Commentary
Do you find forgiveness difficult to give but easy to receive? If you and I are like most people, forgiving is a tall order. The very act feels like it requires so much of us, doesn’t it? We may find ourselves wondering things like what are we supposed to do with all of our pain? Does forgiving feel like being asked to move on with life, like you are just supposed to forget? On that issue, it seems to me at least, the act of forgiveness is completely separate from forgetting, as I am not sure we can ever really forget much of anything. As some say, once you know you can’t unknow.
Yet there is something quite powerful about forgiveness. It’s why stories of forgiveness make such an incredible impact on us. I have found this to be especially so when the story is about those who have experienced unspeakable trauma finding the spiritual fortitude to forgive those who caused that trauma. Take the story of the Amish School shooting in Lancaster Pennsylvania in October of 2006. A man named Charlie Roberts walked into an Amish school and began shooting students, ultimately causing the death of 5 and then killing himself. The brutality of that event is unspeakable and it is something that will never be forgotten for those who experienced it. There is something else, though, that will never be forgotten by Charlie Roberts’ mother Terri, the immediate forgiveness of the parents who lost their children that day.
All Terri wanted to do was move away from Lancaster and do it immediately. That all changed quickly when parents who lost their children showed up at Terri’s house the very same night and sat with her and told her they wanted her to stay. Then, some of the victims’ families came to Charlie’s funeral. In an interview with CBS News, Terri said, “For the mother and father who had lost not just one but two daughters at the hand of our son, to come up and be the first ones to greet us -- wow. Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?”
In an amazing sign of the ways in which forgiveness can bring new life, every Thursday since that tragic event, Terri cares for the most seriously wounded survivor of that shooting. A spokesperson for that Amish community sums it up best when he said “You have this mother who raised a son who did this horrific damage to this young woman and the mother has the courage and spiritual fortitude to come back and care for this young woman, and the parents of the young woman welcome her into their home. It's a powerful, powerful story.”
Now, this is only one example of the transformative power of forgiveness, and I am certain you could think of others. I am also certain that all of them are powerful, powerful stories of life only made possible by and through forgiveness. That seems to be what forgiveness does for us… give us NEW LIFE!
On the other hand, there are stories about those who could not forgive and as a result their life became bound by some past experience… a life that looked stuck in the past. Worse than a life stuck in the past though is a life overtaken and dominated by stress, and that is exactly what happens to those who don’t forgive. Did you know that scientists have shown that the inability to forgive causes our bodies to release all of the chemicals associated with the response to stress? In other words, when we don’t forgive, when we retain the harmful things done, we live in a constant state of stress, and I have never met anyone who would intentionally choose to live that way… but even knowing this doesn’t make forgiving any easier I suspect.
I have to believe the disciples were full of stress when Jesus came to them behind those locked doors. Don’t you?
Do you wonder now if this is what Jesus saw when he appeared before his disciples? People so fearful, people so full of stress about what others had done to someone they loved, that he knew their inability to forgive would haunt them the rest of their days. Maybe the entire concept was foreign to them, after all they had mostly lived oppressed lives and were mostly subject to the rule of someone else who never really appeared to care about their wellbeing. Surely the very concept of forgiveness in those circumstances was unknown.
Now here they were… a fearful group, most likely a stressed out group, meeting together, behind locked doors for reasons we can only speculate about because the text doesn’t actually tell us, when Jesus appears greeting them is a most interesting way. At first he says, Peace be with you, then as though knowing what was needed he shows his wounds then says again Peace be with you again. Powerful imagery, isn’t it?
The imagery doesn’t stop there though because with his next sentence, Jesus breathes on them and calls on them to “RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT!”
Recently we have been talking a good bit about the Holy Spirit. We’ve been asking hard questions like:
What does it mean to be led by the Holy Spirit? and
What are people really saying when they claim to be led by the Holy Spirit? We have been searching for concrete examples instead of typical Sunday School programed type answers.
No doubt these are difficult questions, but they are real, and their difficulty should never cause us to turn away from them. In fact, their difficulty should be seen as an invitation to further exploration. Facing the difficult questions head-on is in fact the only doorway leading to better understanding. Facing difficulties head-on is how we get out of our huddled, fearful, stressed out state behind those locked doors, and discover our new life God intended all along.
In freely displaying his wounds, or better yet, in greeting his disciples by displaying his wounds, Jesus lets everyone know he has faced life’s difficulties head-on and we should too. He is letting them know he cannot be held back by his wounds and while his wounds are part of his life’s story, they aren’t the whole story. By freely showing his wounds he is transforming them into his glory because maybe Jesus knows that facing the difficulties of life head-on leads to new resurrected life. This new resurrected life also required forgiveness of others and even though throughout his life he modeled the importance of forgiving others, maybe he knew help was still needed.
Surely, it seems, he knew the disciples felt this way, and as always, he finds them, right where they are, and brings peace. This time, though, he brought something else, he brought his breath and in so doing brought the Holy Spirit.
Maybe he knew this task of forgiveness felt too big to do alone.
Maybe this gift of breath, this gift of the Holy Spirit was to be seen as another aspect of the communal nature of life.
Maybe it was all of these things and more, but no matter what, Jesus knew his disciples, and that includes us, need to receive the Holy Spirit in order to forgive. Maybe he knew his disciples, and that includes us, need the Holy Spirit so that we don’t retain the hurt.
Maybe he knew his disciples, and that includes us, need the Holy Spirit to empower us to face the difficulties of life so that we may truly live.
Maybe Jesus knew the Holy Spirit was the way to New Life for all followers of The Way!
No matter what, Jesus seemed to know that we always need the help of others. This gift of breath, this gift of the Holy Spirit is a gift of togetherness. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise to always be with you.
I found this an interesting choice for today’s Lectionary Gospel lesson, after all today is Pentacost. Truth be told, maybe it would have been easier if I had just chosen this week’s reading from Acts because Acts chapter 2:1-21 is the detailed account of the day of Pentacost. That day, 50 days after Easter when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Followers of The Way. In fact, at my Tuesday meeting last week, I was the only preacher using John’s Gospel as the scripture for their sermon.
For me though, John’s telling of Jesus appearing to those scared, stressed out Disciples, huddled behind locked doors, and breathing the gift of the Holy Spirit for them, is of equal importance. Could it be that Jesus appearing and breathing this gift of the Holy Spirit was exactly what the Disciples needed to give them the strength to get Pentacost? Needing the help of others is universal. Acknowledging this need actually helps connect us to those who have come before, like the Disciples.
Sometimes we need the help of others to reboot our lives so that we can take that first step toward the next destination on the journey of life. This is most certainly the case when we are asked to forgive. It feels like such a monumental task that I suspect Jesus knew we couldn’t do it alone and that is at least one reason he talked about forgiving or retaining immediately after breathing on them. That fearful stressed out group behind locked doors needed someone, or at least something, to help them come out and begin life again. But to truly begin anew they would need the power to forgive others so Jesus Breathed on them and said RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT! And the fact that we are here today, talking about all of this, claiming and re-claiming when necessary this Faith, is amazing evidence of the Disciples reception of the holy Spirit and the new life that resulted.
That new life was only possible through this gift of the Holy Spirit and the resulting power to forgive.
If left to our own devices, we might retain all of the wrongs of others and our lives may just become stuck.
If left to our own devices we might think that running away from the pain caused by others is our best option.
That is certainly what Terri Roberts said she was going to do because of the horrendous acts of her son, and who knows what would have happened to her and her life if she actually acted on that impulse. Luckily though for her and for all who have heard her story, being forgiven by the parents of those victims, who by the way were victims themselves, and being asked to continue living in community with them transformed everything.
Forgiveness became the launching pad for a new life dedicated to helping. True and thorough forgiveness, the kind that comes with the Holy Spirit, is the reason this mother has the courage and spiritual fortitude to come back and care for a young woman who was permanently harmed by the son she raised. True and thorough forgiveness, the kind that comes with the Holy Spirit is the reason you have the parents of the young woman welcoming Terri Roberts into their home.
Lives transformed… Lives made anew… All made possible because forgiveness paved the way for a hopeful future.
Maybe there is someone, or something you need to forgive and if that is the case then my prayer is that you do it. That you trust in the power of this gift of the Holy Spirit for it has been breathed into you too. New life is possible as long as we start forgiving and stop retaining.
For many, our scripture today has been the go to passage in times of death. If you knew my schedule this past week you may think this would be the perfect time for me to talk about that very subject. It seems death and funerals found their way to our FBCJ family this past week. On Tuesday evening and again on Wednesday I traveled to Archdale, NC to be exactly where I believe I needed to be: standing in the presence of Malinda Dillon and her family as they grieved and celebrated the life of her sister Mrs. Doris Hamilton. Then on Thursday, I traveled to Burlington, NC so that I could be present (that is all I knew to do) for Lawrence and Becky Straughn who, along with their daughter Heather and grand-daughters Hadley and Kylee were grieving the untimely death of Nick Carnes, Heather’s husband and Hadley and Kylee’s dad. I strongly believe it is our duty, if we are to call ourselves a church family, to be present when any one of us experiences the loss of a loved one, and it is scripture like this that proves valuable in such times. In it we find absolute assurances that God always has room. In this text Jesus leaves no room to doubt that our dwelling place with God is secure. We need not worry another second about it, and all of us at one time or another can find comfort in such assurances.
Yet, like I am apt to do, today I want us to spend this time together exploring some of the other ideas Jesus was inviting his Disciples then, and us today, to think about and discuss. Now I want to make clear, my desire to explore other ideas in this text should never be interpreted as discounting the positive power of Jesus’ assurances of our place in God’s eternal house. Those assurances are invaluable to each and every one of God’s children, and those assurances provide powerful support to those grieving the loss of a loved one. I believe wholeheartedly in those assurances, both for myself and for all of God’s creation. The thing is, it seems clear to me that in addition to these assurances, Jesus is extending another invitation to all who followed then and continue to be followers of THE WAY. I believe Jesus was extending an invitation to expand our understanding of God and God’s continual longing for deeper and deeper connection and relationship with each and every part of God’s creation. No matter how scared we may become when faced with a choice of expanding understanding and acceptance; no matter how much those voices of fear scream for us to remain in the comfortable box we have created, I believe Jesus is inviting followers of THE WAY to grab hold of the life in front of them, which can only happen by expansion.
I love movies. Especially those from my childhood that connect me to my past in only the ways those type movies can. I trust we all have movies like that in our life. One such movie for me came out in 1985 and is called The Goonies, and I love it. I love it so much that I couldn’t wait to sit with my own kids and watch it with them, and truth be told I rushed the experience for both of us. As I sat beside my then 10-year-old son Joshua, wanting him to connect with The Goonies in the same way I did years earlier, I discovered a PG rating in 1985 was a lot more lenient than a PG rating is today.
Even as I squirmed (after all I was now on the Parent side of The Goonies whether I liked it or not) I found that I was much more interested in Joshua discovering the power, the liberation and the beauty in The Goonies finally answering the never-ending call to journey beyond themselves and their surroundings. Maybe I wanted my 10-year-old Joshua to see what I saw and feel the way I felt because The Goonies “had everything you could want, thrills, spills, pirates, treasure, adventure, freaks and bad guys. For most of us growing up when the movie came out, we just wanted to be a Goonie or go on a Goonie style adventure” and I suspect I wanted my son to feel the same way.
For those of you who may not know, The Goonies storyline goes like this:
“Mikey and Brandon Walsh are brothers whose family is preparing to move because developers want to demolish their home and the surrounding neighborhood and build a golf course in its place. ” The developers’ desires will happen unless enough money is raised to stop their construction of the golf course, but there is little chance of that actually happening. All seems lost and while an attitude of DOOM & GLOOM starts to dominate, Mikey stumbles upon a treasure map of the hidden fortune of the famed Pirate ‘One-Eyed’ Willy. Convinced this is their best chance to save their home and the life they love, Mikey convinces his older brother Brand, and their friends "Chunk", "Mouth", "Andy", "Stef", and "Data", to follow him on the way to recover the treasure.
Right from the start The Goonies find trouble as the starting point on the treasure map is a cavern underneath the restaurant of the Fratelli crime family. With little more than this ancient treasure map and the un-ending desire to face his fears and journey beyond the limitations imposed on him, Mikey convinces The Goonies time and again that he knows the way to the treasure. At times fearing for their lives, the rest of The Goonies choose to trust Mikey and follow him. Each and every time it looks like their pathway will close in on itself, it expands and ultimately leads to One-Eyed Willie’s hidden treasure.
Can any of you describe what it feels like to be called? Not on the phone, or not like my mom when I was growing up (JASON TIME TO COME HOME), but knowing that something is calling you to expand yourself and your life beyond what you already know? Do any of us know what it’s like to be called in such a way?
The fact of the matter is that we have all been called like this, but being called doesn’t necessarily mean we answer and when we don’t answer we might not even realize we are being called. For some reason this seems to be the preferred response when we are called to expand our mind, expand our understanding, expand our world. Answering that call to expand feels hard and more often than not, we avoid working through hard things. We may not see it this way but each time we avoid working through barriers, each time we stay put instead of journeying beyond, our world contracts and we miss out on the opportunity to live life to its fullest. We might just miss the chance to do great things.
Fear can so easily take hold in the moment and when it does a blindness of sorts can overtake us. This blindness would have us believe that life is better by keeping the status quo. We tell ourselves that life is better when we stay within the boundaries of our self-created world. We tell ourselves that we know THE WAY and we don’t like our knowing to be challenged.
So today we find ourselves listening to Jesus say I am the Way, I am the Truth, and I believe most of us have a firmly held belief about what all of that means. As my father-in-law says, “Most of my life has been spent trying to be a follower of a first century middle-eastern peasant Jew, known as Jesus. The religion that grew up around his memory and after his death has come to be called Christianity. We Baptists are one of 33,000 different denominations world-wide who say we are Christians.
Across the ages we Christians have developed our different rituals and styles to worship this Jesus, whom we say is the Son of God…and in point of fact, is God himself. At the same time, several other religions have developed, too. And this single verse from John’s account of the gospel [that says Jesus is the way to God] has fostered a view of Christian ‘exclusivity’ that has resulted in wars and heartache and division unlike any other force in our world. It says we Christians are right and everyone else is wrong.
For those who cling tightly to such exclusivity, any attempt to expand understanding is seen as an attack. It is as though attempts to expand the understanding of Jesus’ claim of being the way, the truth and the life is blasphemous and must be squashed. Yet, for those willing to face that fear head-on, for those willing to expand their own understanding of themselves, their faith and the created world in general, fear vanishes and love takes over. Jesus’ claim of being the way and the truth should never been seen as a narrow road, it should be viewed as the wide, ever expanding road it actually is.
As Professor of Jewish Studies and New Testament at Vanderbilt, and a Jew herself, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine says, “Far too often for Christians, Jesus is seen as the ticket to heaven. You believe in him and you get to heaven, and the most important thing he did is defeat sin and defeat death.
So Christianity becomes a matter of belief.
But recognizing Jesus within his Jewish context means recognizing his enormous concern for how people relate to each other on a day today basis. The issue for him is not, “Here’s what you need to believe in order to get into heaven.” The issue is, “Here’s what you need to do in order to have one foot in the kingdom of heaven. Here’s what you need to do because here’s what God wants you to do, and here’s what your tradition calls you to do.”
It is his Judaism that associates love of God with love of neighbor; his Judaism emphasizes what
we call the golden rule, also found in a number of different religious traditions. That’s why he talks to people about reconciliation and says that human interaction is more important than ritual. Saving a life always trumps any law of the Torah for Jews.
Jesus teaches people how to live, how to act. That’s the Jewish Jesus, and that too often drops out. If you go straight from Jesus being born to being crucified, you’re missing a whole lot.”
It takes courage to embrace such an expanded view of Jesus’ statement about being the way, the truth and the life, yet when placed in its proper historical context, it becomes fairly impossible to claim otherwise. When Jesus says I am the way it seems he is calling us to reflect on who he is and what he cares about and then model ourselves in that same way. Love all of God’s creation. Care for all of God’s creation. Love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself. Make every effort to care for the oppressed, those who are left out. Break bread with them, not because you are told to do so or not to do so… not because you think doing so is going to get you into heaven… Do it because you recognize his enormous concern for how people relate to each other on a day to day basis. Do it because you are willing to face your fears and uncertainties head-on, just like The Goonies did each and every time they trusted and followed Mikey. Do it in order to have one foot in the kingdom of heaven now, not at some later unknown time. Do it because seeking justice and loving mercy is THE WAY of Jesus.
Close with Keith Cokely
This morning something told me to stop by the Burger King on Wendover at the Palladium. IK had never been there before but had seen it while driving by on other occasions. So I walk up to the counter and place my order and after handing the gentleman (who happened to be the manager) my money I read his name on his name tag, Keith Cokely.
I had never met him, but I had heard the name numerous times because there was a Keith Cokely who played basketball for my grandfather at Oak Ridge Military Academy (ORMA).
You have no idea how hard it was to be an African-American boy at ORMA during those time. We would go to places to eat as a team and they wouldn’t serve blacks. Each and every time we went to places like that your grandfather would say follow me son and I will always take care of you.
With tears in his eyes, Keith said to me, your grandfather cared more about me as a person than he ever did about me as a ball player.
Your grandfather was willing to face discrimination and oppression head-on because he recognized the value in my humanity.
Your grandfather may be the greatest man I have ever known and I want you to know I am who I am because of him.
This is the best example I could ever have hoped for when thinking about what it is like to follow Jesus along THE WAY! Jesus’ way is a way of expansion. Jesus’ way expands to reach all of God’s creation. This is the way for us to follow.
Do it because you are willing to face your fears and uncertainties head-on, just like The Goonies did each and every time they trusted and followed Mikey. Do it in order to have one foot in the kingdom of heaven now, not at some later unknown time. Do it because seeking justice and loving mercy is THE WAY of Jesus.
Who here has ever herded sheep? Alright, even if you haven’t herded sheep yourself, which of you understands the basic concept? As best I can tell sheep typically:
Now for those of you who didn’t have a clue about any of this, if it makes you feel any better, you are not alone. I really knew nothing about any of this until the past couple of months when the concept of Shepherding began to intrigue me.
Now this initial intrigue of mine did not start because of some Bible story, or some far off heady metaphor about a Shepherd and his/her sheep. It actually began on a Sunday evening in our Youth Room. It was there that I discovered we have the daughter of a real-life Shepherd right here in our FBCJ family. Maybe you all already knew, but a couple of months ago I learned that Fiona Chicosky’s Dad, Hamish (“Hay-Mish”) was a Shepherd back in her native Scotland. I was talking with Fiona about growing up on farms when she said her farm life centered around her Dad being a Shepherd.
I hope I never forget that moment, because it was another example of how easily my world can expand if I simply pay attention. I want desperately to broaden my understanding of this vast world. I want desperately to broaden my understanding of everything that inhabits this world. I see it as the best possible way I can know more about God. You see, I hold tight to my belief that all of creation was created in God’s image and while this includes the world which I live in, I am reminded daily that the world is so much bigger than the part I inhabit daily.
Now my initial reaction to her sharing this might have looked like shock, and maybe I was, but not in some negative kind of way. I was shocked because I had never met a Shepherd and to that point in my life I don’t think I had ever met a child of a Shepherd. My initial shock quickly turned to excitement and intrigue because I recognized the possibility that my world could be expanded a little more… I was now being exposed to another aspect of life previously unknown and even though I was profoundly intrigued, I thought it best not to pepper Fiona with too many questions in that moment.
So, fast forward to this past week and two (2) things stirred this pot even more. First, today’s Gospel lesson begins with Jesus’ Parable about a Shepherd and his/her sheep. Second, another child of a Shepherd became a part of our church community exactly one (1) week ago. Would you believe Daniel Godfrey, our new Director of Youth, Children and Families grew up on a farm where his Mother, Trecia (“Teresa”) raised and Shepherded sheep? Even Daniel himself had a role because as some of you now know, he went around our State showing sheep at County Fairs.
The inter-connectedness of all of these seemingly independent things fascinates me. I believe this is the first Church I have ever been a part that can claim two (2) people so closely connected to the world of Shepherds and their sheep. While there are some who might say these things are not connected at all, they just happened by chance, I happen to think that these separate things coming together in this way indicates this might be something I need to spend time getting to know a little better. I have more to learn.
I knew Daniel grew up on a farm in Monroe, North Carolina, but this past Tuesday at my Lectionary Reading Group I found out that sheep and Shepherding were also part of his life. Now earlier this year I was invited to join this small group of Ministers every Tuesday to share thoughts and ideas about the scripture we will be using for our upcoming Sermon. This group has been wonderful for me in many ways and I thought Daniel might enjoy becoming part of this group.
So off we went to Sedgefield Presbyterian Church on Tuesday to discuss John 10:1-10. About half-way through our meeting my friend the Reverend Dr. Darryl Aaron, Senior Pastor of The Providence Baptist Church on Tuscaloosa Street in Greensboro and former Preaching Professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, looked at Daniel and in that powerful southern soulful voice said, “well young Reverend, you have been sitting there mighty quiet and I was just wondering what your thoughts were about these ideas of a Shepherd and his/her sheep?”
Now I don’t know if Daniel was nervous about being called on, after all it did just kind of come out of the blue, but he sure didn’t seem so because he quickly started sharing that his mother raised sheep and that he and his sister showed sheep at county fairs. He said that even though he and his sister showed the sheep at these Fairs, his mother was clearly the Shepherd. Daniel went on to say that anytime his mother called the sheep, they followed her and even though the sheep were familiar with Daniel they didn’t react the same way to him, or anyone else for that matter. Daniel’s lived experience was unique to our group, and his ability to share this lived experience opened everyone’s eyes to a deeper appreciation of the words found in this Gospel lesson.
2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Until Dr. Aaron prompted Daniel, and he responded by sharing part of his life’s story, the four (4) ministers around the table had been talking about the words of John’s story as though its purpose was only as a metaphor. Daniel’s lived experience showed all of us that metaphor is not the only thing going on in this story. His lived experience grounded this parable about the Shepherd and sheep in today’s reality.
When Daniel said, “oh this is exactly the way my mom’s sheep responded to her… you know, she called them by name and they followed her lead” this Gospel story became more than just a teaching about an un-named Shepherd and his sheep.
This Gospel story become real.
It became a story about us too.
Did you know that even today, in the Middle East, a Shepherd will go into a crowded sheepfold and call out his own sheep one by one, naming them? The sheep will then recognize the Shepherd’s voice and come.
In fact, I just recently read a story about a Ph.D. student named Judith who spent several months each year in Israel as part of her studies. One day while walking on a road near Bethlehem, she watched as three (3) Shepherds converged with their separate flocks of sheep. The three (3) men hailed each other and then stopped to talk. While they were conversing, their sheep intermingled, melting into one big flock.
Wondering how the three (3) Shepherds would ever be able to identify their own sheep, Judith waited until the men were ready to say their goodbyes. She watched, fascinated, as each of the Shepherds called out to his sheep. At the sound of their Shepherd’s voice, like magic, the sheep separated again into three flocks. Apparently, some things in Israel haven’t changed for thousands of years.
Just like these sheep, what distinguishes us is not so much the “pen” we inhabit, but who we follow. Some come running as soon as their Shepherd calls, but some struggle and can be led astray whenever tempted by others.
The Shepherd, though, is totally different than those would-be tempters masquerading as “shepherd’s.” After all, the Shepherd spends most hours of most days in their company. The Shepherd knows their individual characters, markings, likes and dislikes, and they know their Shepherd. They know his/her voice. Someone else can come to the sheepfold and they won’t go near them, even if they call the names. They are listening for the one voice that matters, the voice they trust. This is exactly the way Daniel described his Mother and her sheep.
Now this story comes as the start of what we call Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, but when the book was written there weren’t any divisions of the story into chapters and verses. By keeping this in mind we may discover that it might be important to find out what was happening right before. In this instance, a handful of questions dominated Chapter 9, like:
Is Jesus from God or not?
Is he a prophet or not?
Is he the Messiah or not?
You may be wondering what these questions have to do with this Parable about a Shepherd and his sheep and luckily what we find is that our Bible uses the Shepherd/sheep image to refer to a King and the people of the Kingdom. Even though in our modern world we may not think about a King and the people in this way, in the Bible the ideal King is pictured as a Shepherd (Ezekiel 34). In a world that understood the necessity of intimate contact and trust between a Shepherd and sheep, the ideal Kingdom required the same between King and people. Anyone can call followers. Even Thieves and Bandits call on people to follow, but their only reason for calling on people to further their own self-interests.
The thing is, the sign of the real King is seen in the response of those who hear and follow out of mutual love and respect. Each trusts the other and each is willing to lay down their life for the other. This is when a King becomes a Shepherd because a Shepherd’s priority is never self-interest. Prioritizing self over others, protecting self over and above protecting others goes against the very nature of Shepherding.
Looking out for one’s own interests is what Thieves and Bandits do. They tell lies and deceive the sheep. They steal for their own gain and leave their followers for dead. They manipulate those around them for the purpose of continued glorification of themselves.
Sheep instinctively understand when self-gratifying Thieves and Bandits are among them and they run. Their running away is justified, and so is their instinct to turn and run toward their Shepherd upon hearing his/her voice. They have come to trust and love their Shepherd and their Shepherd trusts and loves them.
So, as I stand here today I wonder if we are choosing to turn toward the Thief, the Bandit or the Shepherd. Are we even able to distinguish their voices? I certainly pray that we can because when we turn toward the Thief and Bandit we can so easily become them, but the Good News is that God is always calling us to turn and follow the Shepherd, and thus become Shepherds ourselves.
Maybe our lives are so far removed from Shepherds and sheep that it is hard for us to locate ourselves in this parable. If that is the case, then I believe we at FBCJ are very lucky because walking among us are two (2) children of Shepherds who just might be willing to share some of their lived experiences. And just like Fiona’s sharing prompted me to learn more and just like Daniel’s sharing last Tuesday open our eyes to deeper meaning, lived experiences like theirs make Gospel stories like these real. Their lived experiences help me realize the parable about the Shepherd and the sheep includes me and it includes you, and most importantly, it includes all of creation and that is Good News!
 NT For Everyone – John Ch. 10